Each day this week, I’m sharing a query letter that resulted in a request for more material, or a sale.
In some cases — like today — I’ll share multiple queries.
Today’s queries are for my first novel, Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors (HCWWPD). While HCWWPD didn’t sell, the queries I’m sharing did work, and I’ll discuss why.
The following query is my initial pitch to agents:
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[Note: My contact information is flushed right on my query]
City, State & Zip
City, State & Zip
Dear [Agent Name],
Every summer, millions of Americans pack into cars and take part in that annual tradition: the family road trip. Hell Comes With Wood Paneled Doors (based on an original screenplay I wrote, which advanced in the comedy category in the Austin Film Fest’s “Heart of the Screenplay Competition”), is about the O’Brien family’s cross-country trek to the Grand Canyon, in 1984. Like many families, there are stops along the way, battles with siblings, and threats of “If you kids don’t behave, I’ll pull this car over right now!” What sets the O’Brien’s trip apart from all others is they are traveling cross-country in a possessed station wagon!
Your agency is one of three agencies I’m querying at this time. My work has appeared in several literary journals, numerous independent comic book publications, and in the travel section of the Dallas Morning News. Please let me know if you’d like to see the first three chapters and the outline of this completed 65,000 word humorous family travel adventure.
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How it Worked
This query letter resulted in requests for the first three chapters from some agents I queried, and the entire manuscript from others.
Why it Worked
Agents and editors can see thousands of queries a month. I value people’s time.
I discuss what the novel is about, I tell a little bit about who I am, and leave it at that.
I was told by one agent (at a very known agency), that she appreciated that I wasn’t sending a blanket query to 50 agents. I sent out queries in batches of 3-5 at a time, and let agents know that I wasn’t throwing a ton of queries out there and hoping some hit.
I researched, made a large list of agencies I felt were the best match for what I was doing, and took my time sending queries in small batches.
I don’t hurry when I write, and I don’t hurry when I try selling my writing.
The agents I spoke to respected that I took my time and valued their time.
Also, I was told that my travel writing credits were more impressive than my fiction credits, which is why I think anybody writing fiction should at least consider selling articles of some sort.
I had numerous requests to see the proposal, and several requests to read the manuscript.
While agents passed on HCWWPD (most said they loved the book, but didn’t know how they would market it…a story for another post), several agents said they would like to see more of my writing.
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After pitching HCWWPD to literary agents and having no luck beyond requests to see more of my writing, I came up with a goofy idea: pitch it as a serialized novel to alternative weekly newspapers.
Here’s that query letter:
THE TYPICAL HEADER INFORMATION, HERE
Dear [Editor Name],
American serialization of fiction in newspapers started in the 1720s when a Philadelphia newspaper published installments of Religious Courtship, by Daniel Defoe. In the years that followed, fiction reached Americans in bits and pieces—regularly published in newspapers—but that tradition has recently died. I’d like to bring newspaper serialization back to life in your weekly.
Beginning the first week of July, I’m offering chapters of my completed novel, Hell Comes With Wood Paneled Doors, to alternative weeklies for serial publication. Each chapter of this completed twenty-one chapter novel is available for only $5.
“Okay, so what is Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors about?”
Every summer, millions of Americans pack into cars and take part in that annual tradition: the family road trip. Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors (based on an original screenplay I wrote which advanced in the comedy category in the Austin Film Fest’s “Heart of the Screenplay Competition”), is about the O’Brien family’s cross-country trek to the Grand Canyon in 1984. Like many families, there are stops along the way, battles with siblings, and threats that “If you kids don’t behave, I’ll pull this car over right now!” What sets the O’Brien’s trip apart from all others is they are traveling cross-country in a possessed station wagon!
Told from the point of view of thirteen-year-old Michael O’Brien, Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors is a humorous coming of age story we can all relate to (think Stephen King’s Christine meets National Lampoon’s Vacation crossed with TV’s The Wonder Years). While the hell Michael experiences on his trip is literal, we’ve all experienced the hell that comes with being packed into a backseat with siblings on long road trips, and just like Michael, when we look back on those memories, they aren’t nearly as bad as they once seemed.
My work has appeared in several literary journals, numerous independent comic book publications, and in the travel section of the Dallas Morning News. Please let me know if you’d like to see the first three chapters and the outline of this completed humorous travel adventure, or view it online at: [Old URL].
(Hell Comes With Wood Paneled Doors)
SCHEDULE: Weekly (21 weeks)
COST: $5/Chapter ($10/Chapter with related spot illustrations)
LENGTH: Chapters average roughly 3,000 words
PURPOSE: To provide alternative weeklies with recurring content, hooking readers with a humorous, nostalgic story they can all relate to.
TARGET AUDIENCE: 16-40 years
DELIVERY: Fax, E-Mail, or Disk w/ hard copy
RIGHTS: First print rights in your primary circulation area
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How it Worked
I received more feedback from excited editors than I received from agents with my query.
Also — again — it showed me the importance of non-fiction credits. Editors liked seeing that I’d written travel articles for a large paper. (I’ll share the queries that landed those assignments later this week.)
Why it Worked
The letter is still one page, showing that I valued the time of the editors.
Also, I know from the replies I received that it got the attention of editors because it was something different.
I received a flood of, “This is so cool!” replies from editors that ended with, “But…we don’t have room to run this. I wish we did…”
While all but one editor had to pass (and that editor moved on from the paper before things got rolling), I received a lot of positive feedback and some offers to pitch articles to their papers.
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Ultimately, the fate of Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors is the fate of many first novels: no sale.
But the queries worked because, in most cases, the agents who did read part of the story or all of it loved what they read, and they invited me to send more of my writing in the future. With the alternative weekly papers, I realized the editors were willing to take chances, but that they only have 500 – 1,000 words to take those chances…not the 2,000 – 3,000 words I was proposing.
A query letter is successful to me if it does one of the following things:
- Sells my story or article.
- Begins a relationship with an agent or editor.
Writing can be a slow process. It’s in a writer’s best interests to be patient. After spending so much time on a story, it’s natural to want to throw it out there to anybody who will listen, and hope for a quick sale.
I wonder, though, how many writers have ruined their chances to begin corresponding with an agent or editor because they obviously sent out a blanket query?
We all want queries to end up selling our work, but if they open the door to a slowly growing, professional relationship with an agent or editor, they’ve also done their job and worked.
Tomorrow is another query that didn’t result in a sale, but — again — shows how important it is to begin forming relationships with the right people.
This is fantastic. I love the fact that you didn’t HAVE to sell the novel to find success out of this; so many people have this all-or-nothing viewpoint and don’t realize that relationships can be great for us as well.
The story does sound cool… 🙂
Christopher Gronlund says
As far as some overall goals, there have been times that I’ve been all or nothing, but when it came to making contacts, I was never in a hurry.
While publishing was and still is an industry where you can still get the big break from a query that leads to a sale, so many times I’ve heard people say, “It’s who you know.”
Realizing that each tiny step of correspondence with agents and editors is another step toward knowing somebody, it’s in a writer’s best interests to not take rejection personally, and slowly work at forming relationships with people.
As far as the story, I hope to eventually dust Hell Comes with Wood Paneled Doors off and offer it on my Web site. It’s run its course, but it is a fun story and something I’m proud of. It would be a shame to let it just sit.