…Of Query Letters and Other Foreign Phrases

by Debra Chappell

Since my road to publishing took a U-turn before I could even reach the on-ramp, I decided some research was necessary before venturing further.  I reasoned that if I was to gain entry into the literary world, I’d better get my bearings and learn the language of the natives.  To familiarize myself, I sought out the internet and discovered a whole new vocabulary: “Query letters”, “Synopsis”, “Submission Guidelines”, “Structure”, “Pacing”, something called “POV” and more.

I found a website devoted entirely to the construction of a decent query letter. (This is the initial contact sent to an agent to attract their attention and hopefully elicit a request for more…either sample chapters, and/or synopsis, and eventually the entire book.)  “The query letter’s impact should not be underestimated,” the website said.  Hmmm, perhaps my simple howdy-doody note wasn’t going to cut it?  Agents receive hundreds of queries every day and many are discarded based solely on the first sentence or two.  If you’re really lucky, they’ll ask for sample chapters.  If you’re luckier still, they may then request the entire manuscript.  Apparently it’s not all that unusual for the process to take weeks and sometimes months. (No worries, I’ve got those baby pictures to organize in the meantime!)  So…I went about creating my query using the tips I found on line.

When I was satisfied with it, I zipped it off to Gail for her opinion and expert comma eradication (mine seem to multiply like rabbits on the page.)  She returned the edited version with a slight hesitancy in her normal enthusiasm.  After much prodding on my part, she finally admitted that she thought the first sentence “was a little flat” and wondered if I might spice it up a bit.  “No problemo…” I promised,  “just give me an hour.”

So…thanks to Gail, instead of it beginning with “They’ve been friends for over thirty years…  I wrote: Far from the candy-coated Sex and the City garden variety, theirs is a sticky, complex, complicated and enduring friendship that has outlasted leg warmers, husbands, cocker spaniels and, in some cases, lifetime warranties on king size mattresses.”  *(AgentQuery.com Pg. 1 – Re: The Hook…follow the instructions, seriously!)

Just for the helluvit, I chose 15 New York literary agents to start with.  What the heck I figured, it would not only be good practice but by the time I actually worked my way out to the west coast, I’d have a query letter polished to a high sheen for better chances with a small-town agency.  On a Thursday afternoon about 5:00 pacific time, I e-mailed the first batch, poured myself a beer, and headed to the back bedroom to dig out the scrapbooking supplies.

I awoke about 7:00 the next morning and brewed a big pot of coffee.  I sat down at my computer (at the kitchen counter of course) and settled in to read about the Kardashian’s, Kirstie Alley’s weight-loss and how to improve my colon health before finally opening up my e-mail.  OMG!  There…in my inbox was the very first e-mail of the day!  It was a response to my query from the previous day from one of the New York agents: “I’d be happy to take a look. Kindly send the manuscript along for my prompt review.”  HOLY S***!  Not sample chapters, not a synopsis – he wanted the whole enchilada!!  I let out a blood-curdling scream and called my husband.  I shrieked the news into the phone and hopped around the kitchen like a maniac, not being able to stay in one spot.  When he was able to calm me down long enough to finally decipher what I was telling him, I heard the ping on my computer signaling another incoming message.  Steve was both stunned and concerned by my sudden silence – I think he thought I’d had a heart attack.  The pause on the line was short lived however, I quickly let loose with another assault on his eardrums.  “IT’S ANOTHER ONE – ANOTHER RESPONSE FROM A DIFFERENT AGENT!!”  I simply couldn’t believe it!  This one wanted the entire manuscript as well!  I danced from the kitchen to the living room and back, resuming my hysteria.  By 10 o’clock, I had received yet a third response (this time requesting sample chapters) and was pretty much on overload, running circles around the house and scaring the dog half to death.  I was so ecstatic that I couldn’t calm down long enough to actually “reply” and send along the requested attachments. (A detail that would become significant.)

I must have called Steve a half-dozen times during the morning, trying to keep the shrillness in my voice to a tolerable decibel.   “What should I do, should I send them off now, should I wait? Which one should I respond to first?”  He advised me to lay off the coffee, breathe deep, and gather myself (which was preferable to the “GET A GRIP, FOR GOD’S SAKE” that he could have employed.) We decided it was best to let the day unfold and see what, if anything, else came in.  In the meantime I could check out each literary agency online to get an idea of the authors and material they represent.  As he was calmly talking me down from the rafters, my cell phone rang.  Bloody hell, who could that be?  I didn’t recognize the area code, I assumed it was another bogus solicitation for the Fireman’s Fund. Steve said, “Go ahead and take that, I can call you back in a little while.”

I almost didn’t answer it.  “Hullo?” I finally mumbled distractedly into the phone while scrolling through the emails yet again.  “Is this Debra Chappell?” the woman said on the other end of the line.  I thought, you tell me – what number did you call – but responded with a curt little “yes.”

“This is [So-and-So] with [La-Dee-Dah Media Group], have you got a minute to talk?”

It didn’t register with me at first – I still had one eye and most of my concentration on the e-mails.  It wasn’t until she mentioned something about a query letter that I snapped to full attention and detected her very New York accent.  I struggled to stay composed – surely this wasn’t an agent calling me? For a brief moment I thought I’d finally gone over the edge.  Though I vaguely recognized her name from the previous day’s list, I was struggling with the likelihood of someone actually calling me at home. Just to confirm I hadn’t lost my mind entirely I asked,  “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”   I got the distinct impression she wasn’t accustomed to being asked to repeat it.