Tuesday, 18 September 2007

The Anatomy of a Query Letter

Let me say first of all that I'm no expert on query letters. I'm only telling you what worked for me.

Waaaaayyyyy back in the spring of 2006, I sent my first query letter to Evil Editor for an online critique. I was prepared for a detailed deconstruction, but I didn't expect the hilarity. Some aren't ready for such a blunt evaluation for all to see, but I saw the logic squeezed between the gasps of laughter.

Here's a repost. The stuff in yellow are Mr. Evil's comments:
Dear Agent:

Please allow me to introduce my novel, entitled Bad Ice. [Pleased to meet you. And may I introduce my reaction, Bad Title.]

After a bullet narrowly misses professional hockey player Jason Peterson during a game, [Evil Editor knew all that fighting in hockey games was going to escalate, eventually.] he finds himself torn between Christina, the beautiful young widow who saves his life, and his ex-girlfriend Sheila, who will use any means to reclaim him, including attempted murder. [I can see his dilemma. It's sort of like when the waiter brings you the dessert menu, and the only two items on it are chocolate mousse cake and arsenic custard.]

Jason is at the crest of his stellar career when Ian Pollard smuggles a gun into the arena and attempts to shoot Jason. Christina Mackey is a bystander who inadvertently thwarts Ian's attempt, [She accidentally spills her nachos in his lap while he's aiming his rifle.] becoming injured in the process. Stricken with guilt, Ian turns the gun on himself. [Guilt because he missed? Guilt because he injured Christina? What kind of injury are we talking about? Did she get shot?] [The ravishingly beautiful widow thinks, I've been in mourning long enough, I gotta get out and start living again. So she goes to a hockey game, and before the first period's over, she's lying in the aisle between sections 102 and 103, in a pool of her own blood, with the corpse of the guy who shot her sprawled on top of her. It'll probably be three years of therapy before she goes out in public again.] [Wait a minute, Ian goes to a hockey game to commit murder? Couldn't he shoot Jason outside his house, instead of in front of 20,000 people and ESPN, with the Jumbotron camera trained on him?] [Ian has no qualms about committing murder, but injuring someone is enough to make him kill himself?]

After Jason discovers that he was the original target, [Ian being dead, how did he discover this?] he visits his rescuer in order to thank her. They strike up a friendship which quickly develops into attraction. He is also enchanted by Christina's daughter Mishayla, six years old and already a budding hockey star. [She plays left wing for the Boston Bruins.]

Sheila Duffy is making life a living hell for Jason. [That should be the topic sentence of the next paragraph, not this one.] Their tumultuous relationship had come to a dramatic close when she confessed that Ian had been her lover. Jason assumes that Ian had tried to kill him out of jealousy, but eventually discovers that the dead man's motives were twofold. A secret that Jason had kept hidden for many years was the actual reason for Ian's rage. [Apparently Jason isn't the only one keeping this secret. What is the secret?!!]

Sheila uses lies, threats and manipulation [All the things men find attractive in a woman.] in an attempt to recapture Jason, but with no success. In a fit of jealous anger, she causes his demotion to a minor league in a distant city through a malicious fabrication. [At the crest of his stellar career he gets sent down? How is this explained to the fans and sportswriters?] [That must have been some fabrication. My guess: Sheila announced that Jason was sleeping with the owner's wife.] Aware that he is seeing someone else, Sheila is determined to drive herself between Jason and his unknown saviour, using his secret as a weapon. [At least someone knows the secret.]

Christina insists on obtaining proof that Sheila is behind Jason's demotion, but Jason tries to keep them apart, fearful that Christina will discover his secret and ultimately reject him. [If only Evil Editor could discover his secret. Can I have three guesses? Is he a serial killer who wears a goalie mask? Does he have a pink butterfly tattoo on his thigh? Wait, I have it! He's a hockey player; he has no teeth!] His selfish omission puts Christina and her daughter in peril. [What did he omit? Who are they in peril from? Christina? Has Jason moved to his new city? If so, how is he trying to keep Christina and Sheila apart?] [Your omission of what the secret is, in case you haven't noticed, is bugging Evil Editor.]

Bad Ice, a novel of approximately 58,900 words, is a romance laced with intrigue that revolves around ice - the fast paced world of hockey, the tranquility of a frozen pond, and the danger that lies beneath the surface. [Sharks. That's what this book needs. Sharks devouring a Zamboni driver. Seriously, think about putting in some sharks devouring a Zamboni driver.]
According to your submission guidelines, I have enclosed with this letter a synopsis, the first three chapters and a self-addressed stamped envelope. You may recycle the material. Thank you for taking the time to read this material. I look forward to further correspondence. This is a multiple submission.

Best Regards,

Revised Version

Dear Agent:

Jason Peterson is at the crest of his stellar hockey career when someone smuggles a gun into an arena and attempts to shoot him during a game. Luckily for Jason, a bystander inadvertently thwarts the murder attempt--though becoming injured in the process.

When Jason discovers that he was the gunman's target, he visits his rescuer, Christina Mackey, to thank her. They strike up a friendship which quickly develops into attraction. Jason is also enchanted by Christina's six-year-old daughter, Mishayla.

Sheila Duffy, Jason's ex-girlfriend, is making life hell for Jason. Their tumultuous relationship had come to a dramatic close when she'd confessed her adultery--she'd cheated on Jason with the gunman who later tried to kill him! Sheila uses lies, threats and manipulation in attempting to win Jason back, but with no success. Aware that Jason is seeing Christina, Sheila determines to drive herself between them--even if it means putting Christina and her daughter in peril.

Bad Ice is a novel of approximately 60,000 words. In accordance with your submission guidelines, I have enclosed a synopsis, the first three chapters and a self-addressed, stamped envelope. You may recycle the material. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Hilarity aside, he had some valid points. I used many of his suggestions for a while, even changing the title, then back again. In the end, I still used a great deal of his ideas plus what I learned from agents, editors and my critique partners. Can you spot the differences? Here's my final version:

Christina Mackey loves everything about hockey. Except the players. Left alone and pregnant by an aspiring pro, she vows it'll take more than a few muscles to change her view on jocks and their exploits.

During a rare visit to a game, she inadvertently foils a murder attempt by a man who smuggles a gun into the arena. When star winger Jason Peterson discovers that he was the target, he visits her to thank her. They strike up a friendship that quickly develops into attraction.

Christina's six-year-old daughter Mishayla immediately accepts him, prompting Christina to let her heart take the lead, albeit with caution. She figures he'll soon come to his senses and move on. Surprisingly, he doesn't. Maybe he's normal after all.

Jason is tired of the dating scene. He'd entertained a succession of beautiful women since his rookie year, but none were a substitute for his first relationship, which had ended in tragedy. Christina's gentle spirit reawakens him, and Mishayla reminds him of the child he could have had.

Shiela Duffy, Jason's ex-girlfriend, refuses to let him go. He had ended their tumultuous relationship when she admitted she was involved with the man who later tried to shoot him.

Her devotion to drugs and alcohol are second only to her obsession with Jason and his lifestyle. She uses lies, threats and manipulation in trying to get him back, but with no success. Aware that he is seeing someone else, she drives herself between them, recklessly putting
Christina and her daughter in peril.

BAD ICE is a contemporary romance set against a hockey background. Using MS Word count, the manuscript is 75,000 words.


Heidi the Hick said...

Wow! I'm not the only one who rewrites that darn query letter so many times!!

That is really good news about Bad Ice. I like the title. I'm not a hockey fan (I know, I'm a terrible excuse for a Canadian) but I do think there's a market for that book!

Bernita said...

The difference I noticed is character focus.
Your winning query focuses first on your heroine.

Stephe said...

This is a JEWEL of a post. Just what I need to help me with my own mind-numbing attempts at query writing. bernita makes a good point, too. Isn't it amazing how changing character focus (and elimination of secondary ones) completely changes the feel of a query?

Thanks for sharing your personal efforts and helping the rest of us. (Chumplet = courage)

Andrew said...

I agree with Stephe, all of us wannabe writers can learn from your lessons here! You're a sport! Thanks for sharing this. It was hilarious, but also bang on, and you took the advice and made a wonderful revision.

Josephine Damian said...

I'm still laughing over the Zamboni driver and the shark.

Thanks for posting the different versions.It's always interesting to witness the revision process.

One of these days, I'm going to send my WIP's synopsis to EE and take my (no doubt much needed) lumps.

BTW, love your paintings.

sexy said...


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing! How do i get my own query critiqued?