I think there’s an idea floating around out there that you have to “know someone” to get an agent, or meet one at a conference, or somehow be connected. But the truth is that about 50% of my clients have come to me completely cold–via an unsolicited query letter. And I am often competing with really top agents for projects that have come in unsolicited, so I know that they are getting clients this way as well.
To inspire you, I wanted to show you guys a few great query letters that not only hooked me but garnered multiple offers of representation and then sold in the US and also abroad. The one I’m featuring today is for a book that we ended up calling THE GHOST BRIDE. It sold at auction in the US to Morrow and in the UK to Hot Key Books, a new division of Bonnier. The author was choosing among a number of really good agents, all of whom requested her manuscript based on this unsolicited query:
Dear Ms. Bent,
Li Lan, a young Chinese woman in lush, 1890s colonial Malaya, hopes for a favorable marriage. But the proposal she receives from the wealthy Lim family is for their dead son, who begins to shadow her dreams.
By day Li Lan visits the opulent Lim mansion under the aegis of the matriarch, Madam Lim, and is hopelessly drawn to the charismatic new heir. By night, however, she haunts the vast halls of the other Lim ancestral home, a ghostly reflection constructed of burned paper funeral offerings, where she must endure the courtship of the dead man. But when her attempts to break free prove almost fatal, Li Lan herself becomes a wandering spirit in the streets of Malacca. Doomed to wither away, Li Lan must uncover her dead suitor’s secrets in the elaborate world of the Chinese afterlife, with its parallel ghost cities, paper servants, and monstrous bureaucracy, before she is permanently severed from her body.
TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE, a literary ghost story, is based on a peculiar historic custom amongst the Chinese in Malaysia called a spirit marriage. I’ve followed your blog and interviews with interest, and hope this novel will appeal to you, given your enthusiasm for literary and historical fiction. Book club fans of Lisa See’s “Peony in Love”, or Susan Waters’ “The Little Stranger” may also be intrigued by this richly colorful world of Southeast Asian superstition.
I am a Malaysian who came to America to study at Harvard. TALES OF A MALAYAN GHOST BRIDE is my debut novel, complete at 120,000 words. Per your submission guidelines, I’m pasting the first ten pages below.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
Yours, Yangsze Choo
Now, why is this letter so good? It has all the elements I encourage people to include in their queries: a great logline, a terrific summary, a fabulous hook, comp titles of other books that I love, a compelling reason for querying me in particular, and intriguing biographical information that is relevant to the book she has written.
She starts with her terrific logline, which delivers the plot but also the emotional core of the story. You want always to include the emotional hook as part of your logline. It’s two sentences, not one, which is fine.
Then she has a one paragraph summary. When an author can boil the plot of their book down into one concise paragraph like this, and make it lively and interesting, I know this an author who has a real handle on her plot. She gets what’s essential about her story and she knows how to present it.
Then she has the great hook that the book is based on a real custom. She explains why she’s querying me in particular, which I love to see in a query. Her comp titles are terrific and books I like. And finally, her biographical info ties into the plot of her novel in a really intriguing way. You’ll see that she doesn’t have traditional literary credentials like an MFA or publication credits, and that’s okay. She did the exact right thing to do in that scenario and by telling me that she is Malaysian, explains how her personal story influences the story she has written. For agents and publishers, this is as valuable, if not more valuable, than an MFA, because it’s an interesting tidbit to use when pitching the media about the book.
So there you have it. Yangsze didn’t have connections, all she had was a great query and an email account. She did her homework and pitched agents who represent this kind of book (and of course she wrote a great book, but that’s the subject of a different blog). Hope everyone out there querying will take notice, and take heart, that sometimes talent really is all that you need to get ahead.