Jun 28, 2010

Query for Beauty for Ashes

(note: this is a from-scratch version of a query I've been working on for weeks.)

Dear [Agent],

Jonathan Douglas wants to die. After wasting years of his life serving God, he is betrayed by Him when his wife and child are killed. On a rampage against the Almighty and his old moral code, John is pouring his insurance money into the alcohol that deadens his pain, never mind the incessant Voice that won’t quit calling to him. But now the booze just isn’t enough to stave off the torment of his existence. Plans on how to get it done are beginning to take shape when he meets April, a dead ringer for his deceased wife. When she propositions him, he throws himself into the fantasy. He wakes up in bed with the prostitute, and the proverbial scales fall from his eyes. Ashamed, he falls to his knees before God in the vomit-ridden bathroom of a Vegas hotel room where the Lord comforts and restores him.

Second chances are seldom deserved, and John is astounded when he finds love again with church-going Jenni. Their future together promises to be a happily-ever-after, until April makes her way to John’s doorstep claiming he is the father of her unborn child. Now John wrestles with his shameful past, Jenni faces insecurity and bitterness, and April doesn’t know what to make of all the “God talk” going on. For John and Jenni, it will take incredible faith to follow God through what is quickly becoming their darkest valley, but a willingness to surrender all could save a soul in the process.

Weaving the stories of three distinct characters together, BEAUTY FOR ASHES places the reader directly into the minds of its characters through first person narratives, allowing them to listen to their heart-cries and personal prayer lives.

This contemporary novel, standing at approximately 93,000 words, fits within the General Christian Fiction genre.

Key Selling Points
• The complicated connections between John, April, and Jenni set this story apart from most other books in the genre- it’s a triangle dominated by a different kind of Love.
• The first-person narratives, from each of the three main characters, allow the reader to identify with all sides of the unfolding story.
• The story does not end with John’s repentance and everything tied up in a pretty bow. It asks the question: “What happens after the prodigal returns home and the celebration has ended?” John must still deal with the profound consequences of his sin, and its effect on those around him. This is a powerful truth for the Christian which is sometimes ignored in our fiction.

This is a simultaneous query. Per your submission guidelines I have included the full synopsis and three sample chapters below. The full manuscript is available upon request. Thank you for your time, I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,
Michelle

23 comments:

Anonymous Author said...

I think the "key selling points" section is unnecessary. Let the story speak for itself-- especially since you're including a sample and synopsis. (It also smacks of teaching the agent her job.)

If you're querying agents rather than editors, you don't need to say it's a simultaneous query. They assume that it is.

The query looks fairly tight, as does the story (granted that I wouldn't know the Christian fiction market if it bit me). It's a little unclear to me that April is a prostitute, so that kinda threw me: perhaps you could say that the first time you mention her. It's also unclear what exactly the test is that they're facing-- did they invite April to move in with them, or what? Perhaps you could be more specific there.

In general you should probably talk more about the actual story and leave out the parts about what it shows and how it shows it.

RCWriterGirl said...

It sounds like a compelling story, but this reads more like a great synopsis than a query. I would try to cut back on the details.

I think your query will read a lot better if you cut down on the details. I'll give some specific suggestions in a second. But, first, I think if you're pitching toward a Christian audience, you should really temper the second sentence. As now, it's presented as fact that Jon has spent years "wasting...his life serving God" and that God has "betrayed" John. I doubt any Christian audience would believe that. Jon FEELS God has betrayed him. God has not betrayed Jon. Jon feels he has wasted his life serving God. Jon has not wasted his life.


As to the specifics, I'm going to streamline the query you just wrote, eliminating unnecessary details.

Jonathan Douglas wants to die. He feels betrayed by God after his wife and child are killed. So filled with despair, Jonathan goes on an alcoholic binge and eventually spends the night with a prostitute who is the spitting image of his dead wife.

Disgusted with his behavior, Jonathan repents and finds a second chance with church-going Jenni. Their future together promises to be a happily-ever-after, until prostitute April makes her way to Jon’s doorstep claiming he is the father of her unborn child.

For John and Jenni, it will take incredible faith to follow God through what is quickly becoming their darkest valley, but a willingness to surrender all could save a soul in the process.

--shorter and coveys the same spirit, I think.

Anywyay, really interesting story. Be clear this is how John feels, not the facts in that second sentence.

good luck.

Dan Ritchie said...

I didn't know what "get it done" referred to.

RCWriterGirl said...

p.s. I also thought the key selling points was unnecessary at this stage The query either sells it or it doesn't. I think if you actually get a book deal, they like to know these kinds of things for marketing meetings. But, it's not necessary at the query stage.

-Again, good luck.

Michelle Massaro said...

Thanks ya'll! Very much!! The "key selling points" was something I did for a specific agent's submission guidelines (weird how they all want something different), and I kinda liked it but it can certainly go. Let me try this (sorry I haven't incorporated every suggestion, but is this better?):

After wasting years of his life serving God, Jonathan Douglas is betrayed by Him when his wife and child are killed in a fire. On a rampage against the Almighty and his old moral code, John is pouring his insurance money into alcohol to deaden his pain, never mind the incessant Voice that won’t quit calling to him. But now the booze can't stave off his torment. Plans on how to end his life are beginning to take shape when he meets April, a dead ringer for his deceased wife. When she names her price, he throws himself into the fantasy. He wakes up in bed with the prostitute, and the proverbial scales fall from his eyes. Ashamed, he falls to his knees before God in the vomit-ridden bathroom of a Vegas hotel room where the Lord comforts and restores him.

John is astounded when he finds love again with church-going Jenni. Their future together promises to be a happily-ever-after, until April shows up claiming he is the father of her unborn child. Now John wrestles with his shameful past, Jenni faces insecurity and bitterness, and April doesn’t know what to make of all the “God talk” going on. For John and Jenni, it will take incredible faith to follow God through what is quickly becoming their darkest valley, but a willingness to surrender all could save a soul in the process.
***

Anonymous Author said...

RCWriterGirl-- certainly no one from marketing has ever asked me about selling points or indeed, anything. They market, we write.

Rick Daley said...

The agent asking you for selling points is atypical. I recommend you check Writer Beware:
http://www.sfwa.org/for-authors/writer-beware/

Also, predators and editors:
http://pred-ed.com/

And last but not least, see if the agent is a member of the AAR:
http://aaronline.org/

If the agent tries to collect money for you in any way (e.g. reading fees, copies, postage for submissions) before your book is published and a commission of ~15% is deducted from your earnings, run away. Fast.

Some agencies will charge for copies and postage, but those fees can be deducted from your advance and/or royalties, rather than you paying up front. A good agent will earn income off of book sales, not from nickle-and-dime fees from clients.

Michelle Massaro said...

It might be different among Christian agents?? I've seen so many different submission instructions and many of them have to do with marketing- having a platform, analyzing your competition, selling points, promo sentence, sales handle, back cover copy, even scriptural basis of your work. Not all from the same agent of course. And these are mostly established agents with successful clients- some NYT best sellers, etc. Granted, the agent asking for the key selling points has a new agency as of Jan 2010 but he's been involved in the industry for awhile before that. I think they want to see how well you know the market. At least that's my impression. I would never pay money, I do know that part already. I found most of my agents on Michael Hyatt's list of agents representing Chrisian authors or on AgentQuery.com. I hope they're all on the up and up because there are a few that seem to be smaller/less well known. I've run out of big names to submit to (well, almost- there are a few I'm still too afraid to query!)

Thanks for all the help and input, I sure am grateful for the online community of writers all looking out for each other! Can you feel the love? =) If something still sounds fishy please let me know! Maybe I should put the actual agency site here?

Rick Daley said...

Michelle,

I don't think there would be an issue if you left a comment to see if anyone is familiar with the agency in question. As moderator, I just request that comments are professional in nature.

Michelle Massaro said...

Well here ya go then.

http://www.wheelhouseliterarygroup.com/submissions.htm

What do you think?

Rick Daley said...

They have a nice website, and you're following their submission guidelines. Removing the selling points when you query a different agency would be easy enough.

Here's a discussion about this agency in from the AbsoluteWrite water cooler. Read through to the bottom, at first is seems negative, but some people join in and clarify some points. They look credible to me.

http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=166209

Anonymous Author said...

Rick, looking at that thread on AbsoluteWrite, I see a pattern that's pretty common on that site. Writers raise questions about a new agency or publisher, and someone shows up to defend it. Notice that the defenders' join-dates match their comment dates, and one of them has been banned.

One gentleman who says he's a client seems to have a considerable inside knowledge of the agency and its workings and history.

I don't know the wrongs or rights of the situation, but there do seem to be some uncertainties. I'd proceed with extreme caution... Well, no. I wouldn't proceed at all.

Preditors and Editors has no warning out on that agent; nor do they record any sales (there's no "$" on their listing).

The (extremely limited) data seems to indicate they're legit, but not very successful.

Michelle, I think you should query elsewhere. Btw, since most writers now know not to fork over any money, there're an increasing number of scams where money is never mentioned-- at first. One I've heard of lately involves agencies that have "relationships" with a vanity press. The vanity press doesn't ask you for money either... nor say it's a vanity press, natch. Only there's a clause in the contract that you have to pay big if you sell less than 5000 copies.

I also read about a publisher who billed the writer even though there was nothing in the contract about him paying money at all, anywhere.

Bottom line? Stick with the firmly established agents and publishers. If they all reject your manuscript, put it aside and write something else.

Rick Daley said...

Anon- Good catch on the join/comment dates.

It's tough to tell what is a qualified comment, and what's an off-hand opinion. That goes for the positive advice as well as the negative.

Proceed with caution is good advice for any agent not a member of the AAR. Keep in mind that new agents must sell several books before that can join, and there are reputable agents who are not AAR members.

Should the agent offer representation, get a list of the books that agent has sold. That's what it all comes down to...an agent's ability to sell books, particularly yours. If the agent won't tell you, find a different agent who will.

Michelle Massaro said...

Hey, thanks so much for the info and taking the time to check them out for me! I admit I was hesitant to query a new agency because, let's face it, who wouldn't prefer to land a big name? But I'd already been turned down by Rachelle Gardner and a couple others and figured maybe I should send one to this guy- sounded like a fun guy to work with. I haven't heard back yet but if I do I will be very cautious.

He's not the first nor the last agent I've queried of course. Just the first to ask for selling points- and the practice of doing so helped clarify for myself what makes my story unique. That's such a hard thing for the writer to pinpoint sometimes.

*Anyways, I'm gonna check out the site you were on and bookmark it; probably add it to my blog links too. Thanks again!

*I know there's no such word as "anyways" but I don't care. I like it anyways. :P

Anonymous Author said...

Michelle, when I was querying for the first time (editors, not agents) I queried a lot of small presses thinking they'd be easier to sell to than the famous publishers. I was wrong-- they were getting no fewer submissions than were the major houses. I assume the same is true of agents. (I ended up being rejected by the small presses and accepted by Random House. Lesson learned.)

It can seem like you're competing against the other people submitting to the same agent or editor you're submitting to, and so smaller is better, but that's not true. The competition, the stuff you've got to outdo, is the stuff that is already published. So go ahead and submit to the big name agencies.

In re your earlier comment: no, I really doubt submission procedures would be different for Christian agents than for Jewish or Muslim agents! The platform stuff, etc., that you mentioned generally applies only to those trying to sell nonfiction.

Something else to watch out for: agents may claim as sales books that aren't really theirs, by authors they don't represent. I've seen this happen. So while it's quite likely that an agent really sold the New York Times bestseller she's claiming on her website, it's also possible she didn't.

The way to avoid any kind of skullduggery is to query agencies that have good reputations and, as Rick said, to research them assiduously. Research them no matter what their reputations are, no matter how long they've been around, no matter what their religion and no matter who recommended them to you. Good luck.

Michelle Massaro said...

Thanks Anon,

I didn't mean to imply that it was their religion resulting in different proceedures. I was simply looking for an explanation for the discrepancy in what I am finding in submission guidelines and the fact that many writers have commented they'd never heard of those requests.

I've queried both bigger names as well as a couple lesser-knowns. All told it's only 9 agents I've sent to. But I already feel like I am running out of agents. I know that's crazy but so many are not accepting unsolicited queries, or CBA is not on their list, or it is but they also rep erotica and I have a problem with that. I'm beginning to think I don't have any choice left but to attend a conference as that seems to be a great way to get "in" with the agents and editors you want to work with.

I'm also, of course, reworking my query. I feel it is much stronger now and I wish I could have a "redo" for the agents I've already been rejected by. I'm holding off on Nathan Bransford until the consensus on my query is that it is stellar! I posted a revision the other day but haven't had any comments on it yet. What do you think of the changes? They might be too minor.

Thanks!

Anonymous Author said...

I hadn't seen your revision. I'll take a look at it.

Nathan Bransford rejected me twice :). Honestly, this is discouraging and I'm sorry, but: with five books already published, I ended up getting an agent through a friend. This was after maybe 35 rejections from agents. Getting a publisher had been easier, though not easy, and if I were a new writer I might skip the agent search and try directly submitting to publishers.

You're in a fairly limited genre and that limits your market, naturally.

So yeah, go to a conference by all means, make friends, make connections. Any association you find that you can join will help too.

Anonymous Author said...

Michelle, I looked on the main page and didn't see your revision-- are you looking for a response to the one you posted in the comments above?

It looks pretty tight to me, but then it did before. A few things I'd change:

There are a few cliches in there... "deaden his pain", "dead ringer" (which confused me, because it contained the word "dead" and the wife is dead), "scales fall from his eyes". The word "booze" feels out of place, and "vomit-ridden" just made me go Ew. I think you get the point across without that. These are minor issues and I doubt anyone would reject for them... except just possibly the last.

I hadn't really thought about your story line before, but now that I have... How would a prostitute *know* who had impregnated her? (You don't have to tell me how. But a reader is likely to wonder... and your manuscript had better have an answer!)

It seems like this story is pretty firmly set in the genre that you've selected; it wouldn't work outside of it, really, and that does limit your sales possibilities. On top of that, the market is as tight now as it's ever been. Your query seems pretty good to me. When you've queried everyone legit that you can find, put it aside, work on something else...

Michelle Massaro said...

Anon,

Thank you! Yes, I had meant the one I'd posted in the comments but then I went and put it back up for review (not there yet).

I hadn't thought about the dead-ringer line- I guess that's a bit tasteless now that I consider it. Thank you for pointing that out. The others as well- I'm still mulling those over.

I don't mind sharing the prostitute issue here. April is a main character and her story is told more thoroughly in the book. Her night with John was an act of desperation. But John wouldn't know this so in this query I can't explain that without complicating the whole thing. I have another version of the query in which I do that, but I think this approach here is better.

Precious few publishers will accept unagented submissions. Where did you find them? I might have pie in the sky dreams, but I'd really rather not aim for little-known publishers or vanity press or anything like that. I want to try for big names. I still have dreams of Tyndale or Zondervan (yes, I'm really clinging to hope here!) So how would I find an editor to submit to directly, who isn't a small fry?

I still have a lot to learn!

Rick Daley said...

Anonymous Author (and anyone else interested)...

Michelle submitted a revision that is scheduled to post later today. I have three queries in queue, and I usually stagger them by 2-3 hours so each gets some time at the top of the page.

Anonymous Author said...

Hm. Then she's not really a prostitute so much as a person who, like John, came to the end of her rope.

If you remove the label, you also remove the natural "but, um" question that I raised.

Labels and cliches: I see that your writing is good, enough that you're probably better than most the writers you know, and that's a tough place to be in when you want to get even better. But on your rewrites you might want to do a lot of asking yourself about your word choices. Excuse my mentioning this, but I do think you're good and we all want to be better.

I found an editor who was reading through a writing organization. You need to join a regional or national group, if there is one for your genre. The newsletters will tell you who's reading. You need to attend conferences. There you'll probably go to sessions where, at the end, the presenter says "I don't read unsolicited submissions except from people who have attended these sessions."

I know nothing at all about those publishers you mentioned, but I assume that like all publishers, they are drowning in slush. So when an editor *is* reading, and she wants to get the word out, she'll do it cautiously, amongst people who have already shown a commitment to writing by being involved in writers' organizations and conferences.

It took me two years of contacting editors met in this fashion-- it's very slow, and one editor who requested the manuscript with great enthusiasm never responded at all. It's frustrating. But my thinking was that so is looking for an agent, and agents don't buy manuscripts or publish books.

One thing you do not want to do, however, is query agents and publishers at the same time, simply because agents won't be interested in your book if the available publishers have already rejected it.

Michelle Massaro said...

Rick-
No problem waiting for the post. I'd rather everyone get more time up at top. You can even wait till tomorrow if you'd like. =)

Anon-
Again, thanks! You're right about the writing level (and I don't mean to sound self-indulgent). I don't think I suck,lol. And many in my sphere of influence don't have the extra measure of talent to help me improve.

I'm gonna break out my Writer's Market and look for agents I may have missed or dismissed previously. Gotta keep going.

As for the label of prostitute. Well, again, John wouldn't know that. He only knows, come morning, that he paid for sex with his wife's lookalike. This haunts him as he moves on and it does make the whole thing sound ickier when he breaks the news to his new fiance six months later. I've gone back and forth with using the label or not and finally decided to keep it that way for the stronger impact. As it marinates in my brain and on the web, I may change my mind again.

Thanks soooo much. I cannot sing the praises of online writing pals enough! Where would I be without people like you? I seriously feel teary-eyed sometimes, because I know how invaluable this kind of input is. (Don't laugh!) And nobody is paying anybody for it! Thanks to you all!

~ Michelle

Anonymous said...

Michelle,

You're welcome-- hope you found something of use in all my blathering.

Good luck. And don't forget to start on your next manuscript.