When coming in second feels like winning.
Updated: Apr 26
Two things agents want to know when you query them: have you been published before and have you won any awards?
My fingers are poised, ready to type.
But I fear this might come off as flippant or, worse, sarcastic.
Basically, you get one page to snag the interest of a literary agent. Your goal is for the agent to ask to read your work. In that one page you need to give the basics of your book (title, genre, word count), a concise summary with an intriguing “hook” and a pertinent writing bio.
No joke, writing the query letter can be as challenging as writing the book. To be completely honest, the first stab I took at it, I got stuck just trying to identify my book’s genre. Then I ran into another, much larger, problem when I realized that my word count was 205,000 and that no agent wants to hear from a debut novelist with a book over about 100,000 words.
Return to editing. Do not pass go. Do not collect your publishing contract.
Then comes the section where you captivate the agent with a gorgeously written book summary. I’m sure I’m not the first writer who was left breathless just trying to figure out what her book was really about. But even when you have a solid handle on that, what angle do you take? Do you focus on plot or character arcs? Do you talk about the dark past or the simmering present? How much do you give away?
Think of the last movie you watched. Now summarize it in three sentences (but don’t say too much!) so someone just HAS to watch it. Now you get it.
Next is the bio. This is where your M.F.A. from Harvard belongs or the article you had published in The Atlantic should be mentioned.
I’ve racked my brain for accolades I could include in my query letter. Do they want to hear about my first-place state-wide win in an essay contest about drunk driving when I was in 4th grade and how I got to meet the Governor and was interviewed, permed hair poofing out of a banana clip, on the news?
Or maybe I could brag on how the article I wrote about petitioning to remove chocolate milk from my daughter’s elementary school (cinching my popularity forevermore) was featured on Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution website ten years ago.
But desperation has a way of leaping off the page, doesn’t it?
Here’s another (seemingly trick) question to answer in your query letter: what qualifies you to write this book?
Because it woke me up at night demanding to be told. Because it’s a book about mothers and daughters and I’m a card-carrying member of both groups. Because there is nothing beyond my marriage and my children that I have ever given this much of myself to.
Because I’ve seen myself as an author since I was eight. Because I could ace any essay test even if I didn’t know the answer because I could write myself out of a box.
Because writing is as much a part of who I am as my femur, the lobe of my left lung and the vertebrae stacked along my back.
Again, these don’t seem like the answers they want. The advice is consistent; above all, be succinct and professional. Stand out, but not too much.
So I’ve done what is suggested. If you have nothing nice (or true) to say, don’t say anything. I don’t mention my professional qualifications (a B.A in psychology, a license to practice massage therapy and 16 years of parenting that have made me, if not an expert, then at least a master problem solver) or my as-yet-to-be-won accolades.
Last fall, at the encouragement of a writer friend of mine, I submitted my manuscript, The Silver Loop, to the Irish Writer’s Centre 2021 Novel Fair. The prize for the 12 winners is the opportunity to pitch their novel directly to a publisher (rather than first acquiring an agent). I wasn’t even sure I wanted to win – launching my career in the U.K. seemed fun but also a little illogical – but I was excited by idea of entering such a reputable competition and interacting with the literary world as a “real” author.
I didn’t win. But guess who, out of the 300 international submissions, was listed as one of the 12 runners-up?
That’s right. Shove over 4th grade essay winner and chocolate milk thief. We’ve got something legit to claim.
To be honest, sometimes when I think of this I am truly amazed I made the top 24 novels. Other times, I feel like the father in A Christmas Story whose excitement at winning a “major award” is so intoxicating, he can’t see that his leg lamp is a disreputable eye sore.
But no matter. I’m going to own it either way. It’s already in my query letter!
I had all I could do not to put it in a bold calligraphy font with four-leaf clovers all around it.