A Tale of Two Queries

Long ago, in a cinema not too far, far away, I saw the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. To this day I remember the collective gasp in the theater as the Lucasfilm logo flickered onto the screen. Oh, that familiar, haunting music. Oh, the ravishing images. Spring 1999 couldn’t come fast enough.

I attended the motion picture event of the decade the day after its opening, late at night, with a pumped, overflowing crowd all hoping for the same thing: magic. We clapped and hollered at the start of the movie, as the lovely crawl scrolled into infinity. Alas, the applause at the end was scarce and half-hearted.

The query letter for Heart of Blade is like that trailer, full of enticing promises of a rollicking good tale that would make you forget for a few hours that the fridge is breeding new life forms and the grass in the backyard is taller than the kids. Every agent who received only the query letter asked for a partial.

Heart of Blade itself, unfortunately, is more like The Phantom Menace. There is a really good story in there somewhere, but it got lost in the telling. In hindsight, my manuscript opened six chapters from the real beginning, didn’t go anywhere deep enough with the characterization, and for all its dangling of geopolitical intrigue, was less than breathtaking in scope.

The query letter for Schemes of Love, on the other hand, was written with an entirely different mindset. The failure of five manuscripts in seven years finally beat into me the lessons I’d been too arrogant to learn earlier. Begin in the thick of things. Excise everything unnecessary. Put your characters in situations that rip them apart. And rip them apart some more. You know, those fundamental rules of good writing that I barely paid attention to anymore because everyone and her critique partner were always yammering on about them.

By the time I decided to find presentation for Schemes of Love, I knew I had a really good story. I didn’t need to compose the Wonder Query. I just needed to not mess up. And let the manuscript take care of the rest, which it did, ably.

The moral of the tale—tales always have morals, right?—is that a query letter doesn’t have to shock and awe, though that certainly won’t hurt. Aim for clarity and competence. And remember to back it up with a mind-blowing work, in which every scene has been worked and reworked at least as many times as the query. Trust me, it hurts a lot worse to have requested partial rejected, because then you can’t just say, “Dang, guess I needed a better query letter.”

Next Tuesday, The Great Divide, yeah that one, between writers who have publishing contracts and writers who don’t, yet.

Post Script

To answer your questions, Heart of Blade took 16 months to write, Schemes of Love 10 months. I’m currently a grad student. And about Bridget Jones’s age.

Two Queries

I’ve said in various places that my first blog entry would be my query letter. Well, I’m going to exceed your expectation. Yes, I’m going to give you two query letters.

Query # 1

May 2005

Dear Ms. Agent,

Catherine Blade is a woman of uncommon beauty, great intelligence, and deadly martial arts skills. She is also the illegitimate child of an English adventurer and a Chinese courtesan, the disgraced mother of an illegitimate child of her own, and a servant in perpetual bondage. And now she has been given the one chance to serve her country, earn her freedom, and redeem herself.

She travels to England to recover stolen relics, clues to a legendary treasure. But standing in her way are three men: a new enemy bent on arresting her for espionage, an old foe out for blood, and the lover she thought she had killed long ago.

Heart of Blade is a quest, a book of thrilling martial arts action, and a perilous love story. But above all, it is the tale of an extraordinary woman, set in the waning days of the Qing Dynasty, the glitter and glamour of fin de siècle Victorian England, and the deserts and mountains of Eastern Turkestan, at the height of the Great Game. It is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Forsyte Saga, a book unlike anything available in the marketplace at this moment.

The manuscript is complete. If this query piques your interest, I should be delighted to provide a partial. Thank you for your generous time. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


Sherry Thomas

Query #2

April 2006

Dear Ms. Nelson,

I’m a faithful reader of your blog. I admire your enthusiasm, your humor, and your candor. Since you represent all subgenres of romance, I’d like you to consider Schemes of Love, my historical romance set in late Victorian England. The manuscript is complete at 100,000 words.

Gigi’s marriage is doomed from the moment she decides that she must have Camden, by fair means or foul. Camden, who has come to adore Gigi, discovers her deceit on the eve of their wedding. Shattered, he responds in kind, gives her a tender, unforgettable wedding night, then coldly leaves her in the morning, devastating her.

As the story opens, it is ten years later. Gigi has petitioned for divorce in order to remarry. Camden returns to England and sets the condition for her freedom: an heir. Despite the years and the sea of bad blood, the physical attraction between them remains as ferocious as ever. Though they each vow to make the act of procreation a cold, clinical one, the overwhelming pleasure of their marriage bed soon makes it apparent that the enterprise is fraught with emotional peril, for both of them.

In an atmosphere thick with mistrust, desire, and incipient hope, they are torn between the need to safeguard their hearts and the yearning to reach out across the chasm of ancient mistakes. As they rediscover the easy rapport they’d once shared, they must decide whether to let the bygones rule the future, or to love despite their painful past and forge a new life together.

Schemes of Love recently placed first in its category at the Merritt Contest, organized by San Antonio Romance Authors. Chris Keeslar at Dorchester has requested the full. Another one of my manuscripts has won the Romantic Elements category of the 2005 On the Far Side contest, hosted by the Fantasy, Futuristic, and Paranormal Chapter of the RWA.

Thank you for your time. I hope very much to work with you and look forward to hearing from you.

Sherry Thomas

The query for SCHEMES OF LOVE is superior in its clarity, with the genre, the sub-genre, the setting, and the word count all up front in the first paragraph, where as Query #1 doesn’t mention the setting until the third paragraph. Discerning readers will also have noticed that there is no word count in Query #1. An deliberate omission in this particular instance–the book was quite long.

But if you are thinking, well, in spite of its shortcomings, Query #1 isn’t half so bad, then you, my insightful friend, share my opinion. Furthermore, Query #1 succeeded every bit as well as Query #2 in its chosen function, and generated several requests for more material.

Then how come I am not happily announcing my fabulous historical fiction with the half-English, half-Chinese kickass heroine coming soon to a bookstore near you the way I’m happily announcing my fabulous historical romance SCHEMES OF LOVE’s debut from Bantam (thank you, Ms. Nelson!), in fall 2007?

The answer next week, in The Tale of Two Queries.