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Writing Advice

Query Letters: Getting Over the Transom

by Dave King

(Click the links to view Paul Ferris's original or my rewrite)

Dear Paul,

No matter how good your book, you can't sell it if you can't get an agent to read it. But unless you've got a personal contact, getting an agent to read it depends entirely on your query letter. That single page may be the most important piece of writing you'll ever do.

Note: "single page." Brevity is the heart of a good query letter. Agents (everything I say applies to acquisitions editors, as well) have to plow through thousands of queries a year, so yours will probably get skipped if it runs on for more than a page. Within that page, you have to accomplish a lot. Because many agents specialize (medical memoirs, historical novels with a female protagonist, dragon fantasy fiction …) you need first to tell them what your book is about. This means you need to boil your rich, complex characters and multi-layered story down to, say, two or three paragraphs. That's why the query letter is often harder to write than the book itself.

You also have to establish that you're talented enough to deliver the book you describe. If you have some specialized knowledge or unique experience (as you do), say so. If you have publishing credits, mention them. And because an agent's time is limited, offer to send either a sample chapter/synopsis or the full manuscript. Do not send sample chapters with the query. Most agents will consider it presumptuous. Also, be careful not to raise expectations higher than your manuscript can deliver. A slick sales pitch can get you read, but a disappointed agent is not likely to sign you up.

Finally, if you have space, establish that there are people who will buy your book once it's written. The best approach is to compare and contrast your book to a publishing success, and the more successful the better. It's important to contrast as well as compare. Your book needs to be close enough to the successful book to appeal to the same audience ("It's just like Patrick O'Brian —") but distinct enough not to compete directly with an established product ("— but with an American protagonist.").

You're on your way to fulfilling these criteria. Your first paragraph establishes the greatest strength of your story — showing everyday life in mysterious and exotic Burma/Myanmar. Then, over the next two paragraphs, you hint at some of the intriguing details your book will reveal. You compare your book with Gordon Spifler Seagrave's books but draw the distinction that yours is more recent. You offer the agent a convenient way to read your sample chapters and mention your writing credits. The broad outline is there.

The devil is in the details, starting with your description of your story. You maintain that you're solving the mystery of what Burma/Myanmar is like, but actually you're revealing what it was like four decades ago. This is now far enough into the past to be considered historic, and you need to take this historic aspect into consideration. Perhaps the story of your time there could illuminate some of the background to what was happening in the neighborhood at the time — i.e. the beginning of our involvement in the Viet Nam War or the turmoil in Tibet. Perhaps Burma/Myanmar, because of its isolation, hasn't changed in the last four decades. (I've chosen the latter in my rewrite, for the sake of illustration.) But either way, you're stuck with a historic memoir. Make it work for you.

You could also set up your unique access to the mystery of Burmese everyday life more effectively. For instance, you mention in your opening that few books have been written about it since WWII, then later mention that few Americans have lived there since 1962. Surely these two concepts are related and belong together. I'd also add the superficial guide books to the first paragraph. This stretches out the mystery enough to give your readers' curiosity time to build. Then I'd hit your readers with the solution to the mystery — i.e., your book — at the head of the second paragraph. Placing your solution in separate paragraph highlights it a bit more, especially when you move immediately to those intriguing details like the DC-3 landing.

I'd also recommend that you choose a more successful author to compare yourself to. You may have been impressed (and justly) by Dr. Seagrave's books, but a quick check of the internet shows that they're currently out of print. Clearly they're not reaching a wide readership today. And few people will remember U Thant. You might do better to focus on the popularity of those travel guides, which seem to be selling well, especially in an era of adventure vacations. I would also move your writing credits into the main body of the letter. Placing them in a postscript downplays them.

You also need to tease your readers with more concrete details. I added the lizards to the birth of your son because the birth alone would have been an exhilarating experience to watch, even if it happened in Teaneck, New Jersey. I've added a couple of details gleaned from some time I spent in Thailand for the sake of illustration. You need to substitute similar, Burmese details. Try to keep your language sharp and exciting, without slipping over the line into a hard sell. You'll notice I substituted "adventures" for "experiences," for instance.

Finally, referring agents to a web site can be an effective way to convey your sample chapters, but I'd recommend you also offer to mail hardcopy. Many agents still prefer paper — it's easier on the eyes and handy to take to the beach. You should at least give them the option. And you won't forget to enclose a Self Addressed Stamped Envelope, will you?

Original

Paul Ferris
1601 38th Ave.
Menominee, MI, 49858
(906) 863-3863

Date
Agent
Town

Dear Agent,

The country of Burma — now called Myanmar — is still a mystery. Few books have been written about it since World War II. I lived there with my family for three years — from 1962 to 1965.

My book is called Burma Journal and is based on the 70,000 word journal I kept while working as the communications officer at the American Embassy in Rangoon. It concentrates on the humor, frustrations and joys of living in a country where men wear skirts and women smoke cigars. It also covers my two trips to the fabled city of Mandalay.

Watching my fourth son as he was born in a local hospital was a joy. Not so joyous was a cobra snake in our yard. Or the one-engine landing in a DC-3 on a remote dirt airstrip or having to boil all our drinking water for 20 minutes. Those were just a few of the tribulations that plagued us, not to mention the actual requirement to have current bubonic plague shots for everyone in the family.

Aside from the people who enjoy reading about remote countries and parents who have trouble coping with grass snakes, let alone cobras, there are many who'll recall Dr. Gordon Spifler Seagrave's two books, Burma Surgeon and Return of the Burma Surgeon. Others will recall the gentle Burmese statesman, U Thant, who was Secretary General of the United Nations from 1961 to 1971.

Recent books about Burma are either travel guides or about the current political situation. Few Americans have lived in Burma since the current government came to power in march of 1962. No one has written about daily life for an American family living there.

Would you like to see a sample chapter? You can read the first 2500 words by going to: www.writersgalore.com. Click on BOOK GENRE, then on TRAVEL, then on BURMA JOURNAL.

Cordially,
Paul Ferris

PS: I have published short, nonfiction in GRIT, Growing Child, Milwaukee Journal, American Statesman, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Selling Power, Lutheran Journal and other magazines.

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Rewrite

Paul Ferris
1601 38th Ave.
Menominee, MI, 49858
(906) 863-3863

Date
Agent
Town

Dear Agent,

Despite a host of available travel guides, the country of Burma — now called Myanmar — is still largely a mystery. The travel guides describe routine attractions, but tourists after adventure don't just want a list of landmarks. They're hungry for what Burmese life is really like — how long to boil the water before you drink it, where to get your bubonic plague booster shot, what to do with the cobra in the garden. The truth about the country is hard to come by, because few Americans have lived there since the Communists came to power in 1962.

I am one of the few. Burma Journal is based on my adventures while working as the communications officer at the American Embassy in Rangoon from 1962-1965. It chronicles the sights, sounds and smells of everyday family life — the raucous all-night party when the next-door neighbor's son entered a Buddhist monastery, watching my own son born in a hospital while lizards crawled the walls, a one-engine landing in a DC-3 on a remote dirt airstrip, the monkeys stealing our lunch during a picnic in the park.

During the decades of Communist and military rule, the country itself changed only its name. My Burmese story is still a tale of modern Myanmar. My visits to the fabled city of Mandalay will intrigue the adventurous travelers who are currently buying Lonely Planet: Myanmar (Burma) by Michael Clark and Joe Cummings. Burma Journal will also attract the armchair travelers who are reading Myanmar (Burma) by Caroline Courtauld and Martin Morland.

I have been publishing nonfiction for fifteen years in periodicals such as GRIT, Growing Child, Milwaukee Journal, American Statesman, Tropical Fish Hobbyist, Selling Power, and Lutheran Journal. I can send either a sample chapter/synopsis or complete manuscript. Or you can view a sample chapter at www.writersgalore.com. Click on BOOK GENRE, then on TRAVEL, then on BURMA JOURNAL.

Yours,
Paul Ferris

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