Example of a query that worked

I love practical advice. What do I love even more? Practical advice with examples.

So today I’m sharing the query I sent to literary agents with the hopes that it will help you create your own pitch letter. I’m no expert on this, and my query isn’t perfect. But it’s the result of a lot of research into how to write a good query, and several people who know what they’re talking about helped me mold it into its current form. Despite its flaws — which I hope you’ll point out in the comments — it passed the real test: it yielded a decent number of bites from literary agents who asked to see my partial or full manuscript and/or proposal. I don’t know why each of them expressed interest. But that’s gotta mean the query has a few good elements, right?

E-mail Subject: Query: Title Here (travel memoir)

Dear [Agent],

I’m seeking representation for my travel memoir, [Withholding Title to Surprise You Later]. I’m querying you because [personalize here for agent. I hand-picked the agents I queried for specific reasons that I’ll explain in another post.]

You’d think shadowing a bull-riding cowboy would be enough. Or covering an execution at a Texas prison. As a journalist at the Houston Chronicle, I had plenty of adventure, but it wasn’t the kind I wanted. I longed to travel. Not to Europe or the Caribbean like other single twenty-seven-year-olds. I wanted to go to Africa. And I wanted to go alone.

Africa?” My friends and family spit the word back at me as though it were a euphemism for bottomless pit. “By yourself? Why would you want to do that?”

[Title] is my story of leaving my job to follow a dream, backpacking through an undeveloped continent. I don’t want to be the woman who talks about her dreams. I want to be the woman who lives them. And by the time readers are done with this travel memoir, they’ll want to take leaps in their lives, too.

Unlike the narrator in most women’s travel books, I’m not looking for love or running from a relationship. My journey takes me to the mountains of Cameroon, where I help a grieving polygamous family heal; to the sandstorm-plagued desert of the infamous Timbuktu; and to a near-empty zoo in Burkina Faso, where I watch an AIDS-infected boy bond with a chimp. It’s not until I find myself alone in a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight that I admit that traveling alone in a place so different from home is scarier than I expected. But this is what dreams look like up close: dirty, frustrating and uncomfortable. And facing obstacles helps me learn that leaning on others isn’t a weakness – it makes me stronger.

I’m a professional journalist, a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle who has also contributed to The Christian Science Monitor, the Albany Times Union and the Colby Magazine. I tested the salability of much of this manuscript through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months. I also have a following on my writing blog, The Traveling Writer, where I’ve chronicled my experience writing this story.

Please let me know if you’d like to look over the completed 84,000-word manuscript or my proposal.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant
[My cell number]
My blog: The Traveling Writer
Twitter: @alexisgrant

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Querying your memoir: manuscript or proposal?

So you’re writing a memoir. Should you complete your manuscript before approaching agents? Or query with only a proposal?

I’ve touched on this topic here and here and here, but it comes up so often in the memoir-writing community — and there’s so little advice available online — that it’s time I addressed it outright.

Here’s why this is even an issue:

Writers working on nonfiction projects often query literary agents before they’ve written the entire manuscript. That’s because agents sometimes sell nonfiction based on a proposal, a summary document that includes an overview of the book and author, a promotion plan and sample chapters.

Fiction works differently. Because the saleability of a novel depends heavily on the quality of the writing in addition to the idea, most agents prefer new fiction writers complete the manuscript before querying.

Memoir — that lawless genre that refuses to be put in a box — falls somewhere in between. It’s nonfiction, of course, a true story. But whether it sells depends on how the story is told, which makes it similar to fiction.

For that reason, most literary agents recommend completing the manuscript before querying, like you’d do for fiction. Even then you sometimes need a proposal, too.

But in practice, a good number of agents seem to take on memoir clients based only on their proposal. How do I know this? Because I talk with a lot of memoirists, and most of the ones I know who are represented by an agent established that relationship before they’d written their entire manuscript. In some cases the agent found them through their blog or magazine article. Other writers successfully queried with only a proposal, and their agent picked them out of the slush pile.

What’s the lesson here? There’s no right answer. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.

Me? I decided long ago to write my entire manuscript before querying, partly so I could pitch my best product rather than one that was still evolving, and also because I thought more agents might consider me that way. To cover all my bases, I also wrote a kick-ass proposal (in first person, since my manuscript is in first person). I want to give agents every possible reason to represent me.

If, however, your idea is particularly timely or you’ve got a great platform or there’s some other reason your story will stand out, you might consider querying with only a proposal. Whether or not that’s acceptable depends largely on the agent you’re querying, so check out their submission guidelines, as well as what other writers have written about them online.

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What do y’all think? If you’ve already been through the query process, which approach did you take — an did it work? If you’ve yet to query, will you wait until you’ve completed your manuscript or have a go with your proposal?

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No e-mails, please

As I research literary agents, deciding which to query when the time comes, I’ve noticed that some don’t accept e-mail queries.

Any idea why they do this?

My first reaction is that an agent who doesn’t accept e-mail queries isn’t Web-savvy, hasn’t reached the level of comfort with the Internet that I’d want in an agent. Why do I want an agent who’s Web-savvy? It’s not just that I hope to communicate with my agent via e-mail once she’s agreed to take me on as a client. So much of book promotion is now online. When my travel memoir is published, I plan to market it using my Web site, social networking, Skype (with book clubs), an online book trailer, a book blog tour, etc. I’ll expect my agent to advise me — or at least know and understand what I’m up to — during that process. Is it possible that she knows about all these online promotion avenues if she doesn’t accept e-mail queries?

On the other hand, I’m sure plenty of these snail-mail-only agents are perfectly capable of doing their jobs.

So why don’t they accept e-mail queries? Is it because that helps them weed out wannabe authors who aren’t serious enough about their work to send a letter via snail mail? Or they worry that a great query will end up in the spam box? Or are they really not Web-savvy enough to manage e-mail queries?

Can anybody shed light on this? Would you query an agent who only accepts snail mail?

Question on querying agents

Now that y’all have seen my query, as well as a description of how I picked literary agents to query, here’s a question to authors who have been through this already:

Should I query all 12 agents at once? Or would it be smarter to query the first half and wait for feedback?

Here’s the advantage of going the latter route: If I don’t get any bites, I can change the query and proposal according to their feedback and then approach the second half of the group.


How’s the book coming?

More than three months have passed since I returned home from Africa, determined to write a travel memoir.

As I hole myself up in my home office and coffee-shop hop with my laptop, friends and family ask, “How’s the book coming?”

I know what they’re really thinking: What has she been doing all this time?

So, here’s what I’ve been doing. I’ll expound on each of these tasks in the next dozen or so posts:

1. Figuring out how to write a book proposal — and writing it.

This ain’t no small job — It has taken the bulk of my time. A nonfiction book proposal includes an overview of the book, promotion plan and detailed summary of each chapter. Basically an outline of the book, which means I actually had to figure out what I’m going to write, then give it structure and theme. Not to mention a working title, a challenge in itself.

2. Learning how to write a query letter — and writing it.

To attract an agent, I need a beautifully crafted query letter that explains who I am, what my book is about and why they should represent me — all in one page.

3. Researching literary agents.

I’m constantly reading about agents to figure out who might be interested in representing my type of book. I’ve come up with a list of a dozen for my first round of queries — let’s hope I won’t need a second round.

4. Reading about book marketing and picking strategies.

Why now? Because a large chunk of my book proposal must be dedicated to book promotion. To convince a publisher to buy my book, I need a plan for how I’m going to sell copies before it’s even written. (A publisher helps with promotion, but much of marketing is still up to the author.)

5. Networking.

I’ve joined all the popular social networking sites — and then some. I’m building contacts now so when my book is published, I’ll have a wide net willing to catch my promotion.

6. Picking the brain of anyone who will indulge me.

I’ve tracked down friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who work in publishing to ask for advice about this process. Same with authors and other writers.

7. Creating a personal Web site.

I’m going to need a site once my book is published, so why not build it now? Agents and publishers interested in my work will visit the page to learn more about me.

8. Applying to writers’ colonies.

Rather than write alone at home, I’m hoping to escape to several residency programs for writers. The catch: they have to want me. I’ve got to earn an acceptance, and these applications are time-consuming.

9. Writing.

I’ve spent only about a quarter of my time so far actually writing the book. For now, I’m channeling my writing energy into two sample chapters that will become part of my proposal.

10. Crossing my fingers.

This has slowed my progress considerably, since keeping my fingers crossed makes it nearly impossible to type, a skill required for steps 1 through 9.