In Which I Show You My Query Letter (With Bonus Commentary)

When I was querying agents, I’d read reams of advice from every blog and forum you could think of, desperate for all the tips I could get.

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But the truth is, nothing was so helpful as seeing other people’s query letters, or seeing people critique other people’s query letters. So if you’re querying and haven’t done so already, you may want to bookmark these sites:

  • QueryShark: Super Agent Janet Reid is the Query Shark, and she happily rips your query to pieces critiques queries sent to her so you can learn by example. I dove into the archives and tried to read as many of the YA queries as I could. Or if you’re feeling particularly brave, you could try sending in your own.
  • The Absolute Write Forums: On the subject of bravery, the AW forums have a Share Your Work board where you can post your query and crowdsource critiques.
  • Zen Cho’s Publishing Journey: Fellow Malaysian Zen is the author of the absolutely delightful Sorcerer to the Crown, and before querying I devoured her blog posts capturing her publishing journey, from writing the novel all the way to publication over and over again.
  • The Writer’s Digest Successful Queries series: These are great because you get to see both the successful query AND the agent’s take on what made it work!

—–

But alright, alright, on to the meat of this post. Here’s my own query letter for THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY; I’ll add additional bonus DVD commentary in blue.

Dear [NAME OF AGENT],

In case you were wondering, I’m not a Ms-or-Mr kind of person — I addressed everyone by their first name. Maybe this is rude? I don’t know. Calling people Mr So-and-So felt weird and very un-me, so I didn’t do it.

I am sending you my query for THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY, a young adult novel complete at about 60,000 words and set against the backdrop of an actual black mark in Malaysian history.

I wondered for a bit if this sounded too weird and stiff, but I wanted to make sure they knew that the racial riots that feature in the book so prominently actually happened.

This is also where I would include personalisation if I was able to, like “I read on your website that you were interested in historical fiction featuring lesser-known eras or incidents, and that you’re particularly looking to add diverse voices to your list. For those reasons, I thought you might be interested in…”

Don’t sweat this part if you can’t figure out what to say here though; I sent out lots of queries exactly like the above and it was fine.

By the time school ends on Tuesday, Melati Ahmad’s mother has died 17 times.

On the way to school, she is run over by a runaway lorry. During English, she is caught in a crossfire and hit by a stray bullet straight through the chest. At recess, she accidentally ingests some sort of dire poison. And as they peruse their geography textbooks, Melati’s mother is stabbed repeatedly by robbers.

Melati knows she isn’t to blame. It’s the Djinn, scratching at her mind with his wicked, clawed fingers, squeezing the air out of her lungs and pounding urgent tattoos on her heart. It’s only through an intricate web of counting and tapping rituals that she’s able to tame the beast within her and keep her mother safe. That’s the sacrifice the Djinn demands, and one she’s happy to pay.

But it’s 1969, and on May 13th, the already percolating melting pot that is Kuala Lumpur boils over. As the Chinese and Malays wage war, Mel and her mother find themselves separated by a city in flames. And with a 24-hour curfew in place and all lines of communication down, it will take all of the courage, grit and Beatles songs in Melati’s arsenal to overcome the violence on the streets, her own prejudices, and the Djinn’s surging power to make it back to the one person she can’t risk losing.

I wrung my hands a long time about finding that perfect, memorable first line. In the end, the first line and paragraph are basically condensed versions of the first line and paragraph in the book itself. I also had to figure out how to imply OCD and anxiety, and Mel’s cultural and spiritual beliefs, without getting too caught up in description.

You’ll notice a glaring lack of comps. That’s because I couldn’t figure out any good ones. Better to omit them, I thought, than end up getting it totally wrong.

Since graduating from Northwestern University in 2007, I’ve put my journalism degree to good use with stints in copywriting, magazines and non-profit communications. My first book, GILA (published locally), is narrative non-fiction that explores the landscape of mental illness in my country, Malaysia – a topic that’s still sadly fraught with stigma. It’s because of my experience in writing GILA that I was inspired to write Melati’s story. As I don’t live with mental illness myself, I was careful to have both neurotypical and neuroatypical beta readers go over this manuscript, and it has been edited to reflect their feedback. The first three chapters are pasted below, as per your submission guidelines.

This bio though! I agonised over this bit. How much to reveal? How little? It felt a little long to me, but in the end everything seemed important. I mentioned my university because it’s fairly well-known and I was querying mostly American agents; my degree and work experience all point to being very familiar with deadlines and knowing my way around words. I have some fiction writing credits, but opted to focus on my nonfiction book because it shows I have experience writing about mental illness. And I really wanted to make sure I mentioned my betas, because I know how risky it can be to write something you haven’t experienced yourself.

Thank you for your consideration.

And that was it! As with most things I write, the actual drafting of this query didn’t take me too long, once I’d done weeks of research and felt confident I knew what I was doing. It also went through a couple of critiques (through contests and the like) with an agent and some book doctors, so when I sent it off, it was in the best shape I could have gotten it in.

I hope this helps!

****OH AND ONE LAST THING.

tenor

If you are a Malaysian or Southeast Asian writer looking for a query critique, please contact me! I’m not an expert by any means, but I’m an additional pair of eyes, I do my best to give decent feedback, I won’t charge you anything, and I’m passionate about giving local and regional voices a leg-up. Get in touch!

 

3 thoughts on “In Which I Show You My Query Letter (With Bonus Commentary)

  1. John Davis Frain says:

    Hanna,

    Big, giant congrats for making it to the top of the mountain. Of course, there’s a bigger mountain next door you have to climb now, but c’mon, what a view you have now, right! Good luck with all the next steps, and thank you so much for sharing your query.

    It’s easy to understand how you got picked up after reading this. Keep up updated on THE WEIGHT OF OUR SKY.

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