A Successful Romance Query

I haven’t given birth but I’m pretty sure it can’t be as painful as writing a query for literary agents.

Trying to condense 100,000 words into 250 is hard enough, but you know what doesn’t help? The pressure. The well-meaning advice articles kindly explaining that agents don’t buy toilet paper because they print and use the 10,000 awful queries they get a week–but not before they’ve posted them on their Secret Agent Groups and laughed at you and your pathetic dreams of being a writer.

Agentreject.jpg

The worst thing of all? The pressure is completely unnecessary. Queries don’t have to be perfect. They have one job: to make the agent want to read your pages. A typo isn’t going to spoil that (psst, here’s a secret; agents make typos too). Not perfectly explaining all of your sub-plots is not going to spoil that. Sending it just after the agent realises she’s bought a decaff coffee instead of a regular isn’t… actually, it might. Agents really do take coffee seriously.

But, really, QUERIES DO NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT.

To prove it, I’m sharing my less-than-perfect query; the one that landed me my fabulous agents, Amanda and Michelle, with Amanda’s comments on why it did its job. (Psst: If you want to query Amanda, check out that link.)

Here is the fateful query. Believe me, I was tempted to edit out some of the crap bits (mostly the last paragraph) that, with hindsight, I wouldn’t have included. But nope, here it is warts and all to prove THAT QUERIES DO NOT HAVE TO BE PERFECT!

Dear Michelle and Amanda

I’m seeking representation for UNTOUCHABLE, a 97,000-word contemporary romance. I hope you will enjoy the humour and the smart exchanges between hero and heroine. As requested I have included a short description, bio, the first 10 pages and a one-page summary below.

Rachel Shaw is destined to be a spinster cat lady, even though she’s only twenty-three and only has one cat – so far. She’s crippled by contact phobia, and intimacy is out of the question when a caress feels like a vigorous rub with sandpaper.

Her one shot at love is Alex Graham, the only man she’s ever trusted enough to touch. He respects her boundaries without question, lets her get snot on his expensive shirts when she cries at sad movies, and gives her the courage to stand up to her bullying boss.

Alex is as protective of his heart as she is of her body. He insists he can’t be close to anybody because of his dangerous secrets and a devastating choice he made in his youth. Rachel doesn’t care about his past, only his future, until she finds out that everything he’s ever told her was a lie – perhaps even when he claimed he wasn’t falling in love with her.

I’m a professional bid writer and editor for a consultancy firm in London, where UNTOUCHABLE is set. I hope this setting will appeal to US as well as UK readers. This is my first novel, although I have a draft of a second (resting before being edited) and 37,000 words of my third. All are contemporary romances, and I’m looking for an agent to form a long-term relationship with for a long-term career writing romances that she feels passionate about selling.

Thank you for your time and consideration,

Anna Kaling

A few notes from me:

  • Michelle’s profile said she enjoys “dark, smart humour”, which is why I queried her and why I reflected those words in my opening paragraph. I personalised each query according to the agent’s profile and wishlist.
  • There is a debate in the writing community over whether the ‘housekeeping’ information (genre, word count, title) should go at the beginning or end of the query. For me, it makes no sense to put it at the end: I want it upfront to put the rest of the query in context. I stuck to this despite being told (very strongly!) by other writers to move it to the end. As Amanda’s feedback below shows, it worked in my favour.
  • I stated up front that I had included what the submission guidelines asked for, because I knew how many queries failed that small hurdle. Again, as Amanda’s comments show, this had the desired effect.
  • In hindsight the final paragraph is clunky as hell, but the rationale was showing that I’m not a ‘one book wonder’ and I want a long-term career in writing. I also wanted an agent I could work closely with, not just email for a check in every couple of months. And it worked!

Amanda’s breakdown:

I’m seeking representation for UNTOUCHABLE, a 97,000-word contemporary romance. I hope you will enjoy the humour and the smart exchanges between hero and heroine. As requested I have included a short description, bio, the first 10 pages and a one-page summary below.

Amanda: First off, your opening paragraph is clear and concise and tells me SO MUCH that I want to know. By the end, I know the title, the word count, the genre, and what you’ve included in your submission package. So, right away, I know I should have everything in front of me that I will need to decide whether or not to request the full. But, there’s also that little something extra in that you’ve told me I can expect some humor and great dialogue. These are things that I, personally, love in contemporary romance, so now my interest is piqued.

Rachel Shaw is destined to be a spinster cat lady, even though she’s only twenty-three and only has one cat – so far. She’s crippled by contact phobia, and intimacy is out of the question when a caress feels like a vigorous rub with sandpaper.

Her one shot at love is Alex Graham, the only man she’s ever trusted enough to touch. He respects her boundaries without question, lets her get snot on his expensive shirts when she cries at sad movies, and gives her the courage to stand up to her bullying boss.

Alex is as protective of his heart as she is of her body. He insists he can’t be close to anybody because of his dangerous secrets and a devastating choice he made in his youth. Rachel doesn’t care about his past, only his future, until she finds out that everything he’s ever told her was a lie – perhaps even when he claimed he wasn’t falling in love with her.

Amanda: Then, in the next 3 paragraphs, I thought you did a great job of laying out your premise, introducing me to your main characters, and delineating the conflict and stakes. I get a sense that the main obstacle to their love story is this tension between the physical and emotional barriers to love. One has physical walls, one has put up emotional walls, so I was interested to see how this would play out and how the two would overcome those obstacles. 
Overall, I loved that you didn’t try to do too much in your query. It was concise but still managed to give me everything I was looking for. Most importantly, it made me go on to read the pages. I think, with the benefit of having read the book now, the only thing that might have been missing from your query was a greater sense of just how dangerous it is for Rachel to stay with Alex.
A final note from me: I’m indebted to the wonderful contemporary romance author Kate Sherwood / Cate Cameron for her help and advice when writing my query. Probably my favourite thing about writing is the internet community of authors and aspiring authors who give their time so selflessly to help each other.
Actually, a final-final note:
Queries don’t have to be perfect.
Featured image from Quinn Dombrowski on Flickr.
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One thought on “A Successful Romance Query

  1. buggybite says:

    Yours was pretty near perfect, though. And very helpful to read. Thanks for sharing it, and your agent’s response as well.

    I was struck by how this query actually contains your story’s voice as well. There is a hint of humour in the query that ties in with what your book itself contains. Rub with sandpaper, snot on shirt, etc. I’m not surprised the query was so successful.

    Liked by 1 person

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