The Path to Publication, Part Four: Perfecting Your Query Letter

(Photo Courtesy of Sean MacEntee)

Last week, I recounted writing my first query letter. I also recounted receiving my first rejection letter--which occurred a scant 24 hours later. What I didn't recount was the content of that original query letter. Looking back on it now, I can absolutely understand why I received that first rejection letter, because my first query wasn't ready. It had some good bones, but the meat was fatty, and it was difficult to sort the important bits from the unimportant ones. The essence of it got lost in the seasoning, and...

Okay, enough dinner analogies. You get what I'm trying to say here.

More than eight months of querying passed before I received my first offer of representation for my novel THE MERMAID GENE. During that time, my query letter underwent several transformations. Here's my "Before" and "After" so you can see the evolution:

THE MERMAID GENE

Original Query Letter (January 9, 2011)

Dear Agent:

When seventeen year-old Kai Murphy joins a beluga whale identification team in Alaska, the last thing she expects to find in Cook Inlet is a mermaid. She’s an aspiring researcher, after all, the daughter of a prominent dolphin scientist and the type of girl who “alphabetizes her DVDs and orders the same thing for lunch every single day.”

Anchorage’s mermaid folklore is legendary, but Kai remains a skeptic until she spots a trailing, translucent tail after work one evening. Finally forced to ponder the possibility, she teams up with her roommate Sophie Kensington and flirtatious twin deckhands Noah and Aidan Fischer to investigate.

Turns out mermaids aren’t the research team’s only mysteries. There’s also that warehouse closet crammed with hunting rifles, the blood-filled plastic bins and those shadowy figures that seem to be haunting the Port of Anchorage.

As Kai searches for answers and begins falling for Noah, she realizes even he isn’t above suspicion. The fate of Cook Inlet’s struggling beluga whale population just may be resting in her hands.

THE MERMAID GENE is complete at 98,000 words. It is the first in a series of young adult, urban fantasy novels I am developing surrounding Kai Murphy and her experiences in the wild and unforgiving seas of Alaska. The book’s premise draws upon the expertise and first-hand knowledge I have gained working as a zookeeper and educator at facilities like the Alaska Zoo of Anchorage, Gulf World Marine Park of Florida and the Marine Mammal Center of California.

I graduated with honors from the University of Central Florida with a minor in magazine journalism, and I have received many awards for my writing. These include first place for a short story in the Tertiary Art Contest awarded by Griffith University of Queensland, Australia, and a $1,000 academic scholarship for a personal essay I submitted in UCF’s Honors College Provost Essay Contest. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums published my article “The Dangers of Human Interactions With Marine Mammals” in its 2007 Ocean Literacy and Marine Mammals: An Easy Reference Guide, and my promotional blurbs and articles have appeared many times in my facilities’ brochures, calendars, websites and advertisements.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this query. With your interest in urban fantasies, unique paranormals and young adult novels, I hope THE MERMAID GENE will be a perfect fit for you. My full manuscript is available upon request, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely, 

Lisa Ann

I mean... WOW, THAT'S A LONG QUERY LETTER! Am I right?? I don't hate the content, but... seriously? 412 words? Did that DVD thing really deserve inclusion into the first paragraph? And how many characters could I name in one query letter? How about that bit at the end where I tried to sound like I was more qualified as a writer than I actually was? Who in the world would actually care that I won a short story contest during the semester I studied abroad in Australia?

These are all common rookie mistakes, unfortunately. We feel like we have SO MUCH GOOD STUFF TO SAY that we can't sort out what's important and what's not. We also feel like we need to compensate for our noviceness by including every relevant and not-relevant thing we have ever experienced in our lives. 

But guess what? Literary agents are pros at spotting this. And in the case of query letters, less is often (much) more. Here's my final query letter:

THE MERMAID GENE

Final Query Letter (September 19, 2011)

Dear Agent:

When seventeen year-old aspiring marine researcher Kai Murphy is invited to join a beluga whale study in Alaska, she expects freezing salt spray, cramped Zodiac vessels and elusive white whales to be the extent of her first real research project.

According to an ancient arctic legend, a mysterious creature also inhabits Cook Inlet’s icy waters. Kai remains a skeptic—until her late-night sighting of a silvery, speckled tail. Teamed up with flirtatious twin deckhands Noah and Aidan Fischer, she decides to investigate.

My YA paranormal mystery, THE MERMAID GENE, combines the romance and fantasy of Aimee Friedman’s SEA CHANGE with the science, suspense and descriptive settings of Nevada Barr’s “Anna Pigeon” mysteries. I was inspired to write THE MERMAID GENE by the time I spent working as a zookeeper and environmental educator at facilities like Gulf World Marine Park of Florida and the Alaska Zoo of Anchorage.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

Sincerely,

Lisa Ann

This new version still isn't perfect, but it's much closer than my first attempt. It's also 162 words, which means I managed to shave 250 words off my original query letter. (250 words?? That's like an entire extra query letter!)

If anything, I feel like this second version is a little *too* short, but you still get my drift. Amazing how the meat of a story can be so condensed while leaving the bones pretty much untouched. You have a pretty good idea about what THE MERMAID GENE is about after reading both versions; it's just the little things that have changed.

I also keyed in on the mystery in the second query letter, and I left many of the details to the agents' imaginations. My hope was to pique their interest... and it worked! The last agent who received this letter offered me a contract three days later. (!!!)

Of course, this wouldn't be a good story if it was a simple one, so please turn in next Monday to learn exactly how my offer(s) of representation played out. Things got a little weird for awhile there--and they would only get weirder when I signed my contract!