The confusing world of query letters

As I write this I’m confined to the guesthouse in which I live in Southern Kordofan, Sudan. I can only go from the guesthouse to the office and back. In case you aren’t award Sudan is preparing to become two countries, North and South with most of the oil in the South, Southern Kordofan has large populations that identify with North and large populations that identify with the South, it was one of the areas that saw some of the fiercest fighting during the civil war. For more information on the situation here you can read: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/06/world/africa/06juba.html?ref=sudan.

 So query letters one of the most important things you will ever write and they differ depending on whether or not you are pitching fiction or non-fiction. The reason I’m writing this is because it is difficult to find examples on the web and I wanted to provide the information that I did find all in one place, (this is my excuse as to why it is so long) it’s difficult to remember on which website you saw what and then links change, content gets replaced and then you waste a ton of time that you would spend writing looking for that one article that will help you write the perfect query letter. How annoying.  

 My first pitch was to five agents at the Willamette Writer’s Conference, a verbal pitch is a little bit different, if you live in Oregon or even if you don’t I highly recommend the Willamette Writer’s Conference you can find more information at www.willamettewriters.com. I hope this link works it didn’t work for me in Sudan, but a lot of websites are inaccessible in Sudan due to the sanctions. Also right before the Willamette Writer’s Conference I went to Cynthia Snow’s Pitch Conference. I pitched my story in front of about forty people and it was great practice and I got great feedback. All five of the agents I pitched to at the conference asked for my book proposal.

Here was another mistake I made, I was ready to pitch my book, but I hadn’t written a book proposal. If I had it do to over again I would have had my book proposal, perfected and copies of it, ready to hand it over. As it was I sent the book proposal out almost six months later, before you start pitching have all the documentation you need prepared, book proposal and synopsis. Now as you are reading agent guidelines some of them will ask for different things so you can’t prepare for everything, but if you are writing a memoir you will need a book proposal and a synopsis. After Cynthia’s pitch conference these were the notes that I used to make my pitch:

 My name is TianaTozer. I was a member of the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team for 6 years. I helped my team bring home the silver from Barcelona and the Bronze from Atlanta.

 I was always an athlete, but I didn’t realize my full potential until I became a wheelchair athlete.

 On May 14, 1988 an intoxicated driver broadsided the car I was riding in and I was thrown out and run over. It took me three weeks to realize how badly I was injured. It took me almost two years to realize that by virtue of my disability I was a second-class citizen.

“I’m Still Waiting for the Elevator” is a story of loss, desperation, acceptance and laughter.

          It starts at the darkest moment after my crash in June 1988

          Takes the reader to the unfamiliar area of war and Bosnia and wheelchair athletics

  • Traveled to Bosnia to teach veterans of the war wheelchair basketball.

          Provides an intimate look into hospitals, rehabilitation and the journey of recovering from a life-changing event. 

          It took 34 reconstructive surgeries and four years to learn to walk again.

My story also underscores the fact that, people with disabilities are still one of the most disenfranchised minorities in society, although some of that is self-inflicted. It’s an introduction to a world most people don’t even know exists.

After completing my book proposal I purchased Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents, great resource, but we aren’t talking now about where to find agents, we are talking about query letters. Once I decided to query agents by e-mail or letter I revised my verbal query into a letter:

I was always an athlete, but I didn’t realize my full potential until I became a wheelchair athlete.  As a member of the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team for six years, I helped my team bring home the silver from Barcelona and the bronze from Atlanta.

On May 14, 1988 an intoxicated driver broadsided the car I was riding in and I was thrown out and run over. “I’m Still Waiting for the Elevator” is an 80,000 word memoir describing the events after the crash; the loss, redemption and laughter that happen when fate tosses a person upside down. The story begins at the darkest moment when I first grapple with the extent of my injuries while in an ICU ward and then transports the reader to the unfamiliar territory of war, Bosnia and wheelchair athletics. It highlights an idyllic childhood shattered by a single event that forever shaped my view of the world.  

Disability memoir most often focuses on celebration or triumph of the human spirit, “Elevator” diverges from this genre in that it is a straight-forward account of a life-changing event and a woman’s struggle to find her place in a world that seems to devalue the less than perfect.  The memoir provides an intimate look into hospitals, rehabilitation, including learning to walk again and the journey of rebuilding a life. It also takes the reader into the little known world of people with disabilities unlocking the gallows humor, political incorrectness and the language of people who affectionately call each other gimps. Through stories of wheelchair athletic competitions in unlikely places, readers come to understand that having a disability is not a fate worse than death.  

“Elevator” was written to open a dialogue between the able-bodied world and people with disabilities; to shed light on the myths and misconceptions that surround this minority and create understanding to further integration of people with disabilities into society.  It answers the unaskable questions.  

I was first published nationally in 2006 on Starbucks cup #83.  My short story “Satan’s Performance Review” was published in the October 2007 issue of The Wittenburg Door.  I’m also the author of numerous brilliant, but as of yet undiscovered essays; however my annual Christmas letter has a decent following.  As a humanitarian aid worker in Iraq, in 2008, my efforts on behalf of people with disabilities garnered much media attention resulting in 1.8 million dollars worth of free publicity for the organization which employs me.   

I have completed a 78-page book proposal, which includes competing and complementary titles, market evaluation, promotional opportunities and sample chapters.  My book proposal is available for review.  I look forward to hearing from you.  

It is important to address the word length and your platform, why are you the one who should write this book and what do you have going on that will help sales. My biggest mistake in this query was not telling them that I’m a public speaker, I’ve spoken to hundreds of audiences, but with this query they will never learn that unless they request my book proposal. I did get some requests, but it was slow going and it was this lack of response that led me to change my query letter completely. Pay attention now, this was a HUGE mistake.

I was getting some responses from the above query letter, but not enough to suit me so I went on line and did some research about query letters. I found an example from Ms. Snark that she just loved:  

I can see the future. Great, right?

Not really.

Five minutes. That’s what I get. Five minutes of the future.

Five minutes of fog so thick I can barely see, and, most often, vomit-inducing nausea to greet me when I come back to the present.

It’s okay though. It’s taken half my life for me to get a grip on this thing I call the Vision, but I’ve gotten used to it. Got a buddy to clean up after me. Got a girl. Well, she’s a hooker, so I suppose I bought a girl. Even scraped out a decent little life finding the occasional winning slot machine.

At least, it was okay. Until I started seeing the murders.

FIVE MINUTES is complete at just under 56,000 words. I’d be happy to provide a partial or complete manuscript for further review.

Thanks in advance for your consideration,

 So I redid my query to read like this:  

One careless decision, one life altered.

The crushing weight of a 3,000-pound vehicle, one month in ICU, 35 reconstructive surgeries, the loss of childhood dreams.

One mediocre basketball player, one Paralympic athlete, two Paralympic medals, a humanitarian mission to Bosnia. 

The question is why me?  The question is why not me?  It’s the fight to belong, the pain of being different, the struggle to stand out.

Everything you assumed about people with disabilities is about to be challenged.  Hollywood never gets it right.

Here have a seat.  No sit here.  Yes, I know it’s my chair, my wheelchair.  I want you to sit there.  I want you to walk . . . err roll a mile in my wheels.  I know what you think my life is like, I see it your eyes, the pity, the relief that it’s me and not you.  It’s really not like that at all.

Who am I?  I’m the author of Starbucks cup #83.  The survivor of a violent crime.  A public speaker.  The author of a short story “Satan’s Performance Review” published in the October 2007 issue of The Wittenburg Door.  The subject of a documentary film.  University of Oregon’s 2010 Outstanding Young Alumni.  I’m a humanitarian aid worker stationed in Sudan, Africa.  An advocate whose efforts on behalf of people with disabilities in Iraq garnered 1.8 million dollars worth of free publicity for the organization that employs me.  I’m not a hero or courageous by virtue of my disability, I’m very much a normal person.  We have more in common than you think.

What do I want?  I want you to see me, not my wheelchair or my scars, but me.  Don’t be afraid.  I’m not contagious.

“I’m Still Waiting for the Elevator” is a memoir complete at 125,121 words.  I’d be happy to provide a book proposal for further review.  I look forward to hearing from you.

Not one single request for the book proposal why? Because although this style is fine for fiction, it’s not how a memoir query should look. I think I sent this one out for four months before I finally asked for help. Here’s where you benefit from more advice that I paid for. I paid to have someone look at my query, and she suggested I rewrite it more like my first query, the result:  

I understand that you are interested in representing non-fiction books about personal growth by authors who are not terminally insecure. That would be me. In addition, I’m also a person who doesn’t mince words which some people appreciate and some people find offensive.

I was always an athlete, but I didn’t realize my full potential until I became a wheelchair athlete. As a member of the USA Women’s Wheelchair Basketball Team for six years, I helped my team bring home the silver from Barcelona and the bronze from Atlanta.

On May 14, 1988 an intoxicated driver broadsided the car in which I was a passenger. I was thrown out and run over. I’m Still Waiting for the Elevator is a 99,000 word memoir describing the events after the crash; the loss, redemption and laughter that happen when fate tosses a person upside down—more than once. The story begins at the darkest moment when I first grapple with the extent of my injuries while in an ICU ward. Then the story transports the reader to my unorthodox but idyllic childhood shattered by a single event that forever shaped my view of the world.

Disability memoir most often focuses on celebration or triumph of the human spirit. it’s enough to make you want to puke. Elevator diverges from this genre in that it is a straightforward account of a life-changing event and a woman’s struggle to find her place in a world that seems to devalue the less than perfect. It is about rebuilding dreams and coming to terms. It takes the reader into the little known world of people with disabilities unlocking the gallows humor, political incorrectness and the language of people who affectionately call each other gimp. Through stories of everyday life events experienced from a wheelchair and wheelchair athletic competitions readers come to understand that having a disability is not a fate worse than death.

Elevator was written to open a dialogue between the able-bodied world and people with disabilities; to challenge societal assumptions about the value of people with disabilities and create understanding to further integration of people with disabilities into society. It answers the unaskable questions.

I was first published nationally in 2006 on Starbucks cup #83. My short story “Satan’s Performance Review” was published in the October 2007 issue of The Wittenburg Door. The subject of a documentary “The Tiana Tozer Story,” my story was also made available to all Oregon schools in a short video. A member of Fisher’s Speakers Bureau since 1998, I have spoken to hundreds of groups nationwide including the Society of Human Resource Professionals, and most recently to attendees of the Securian sales conference and the Special Olympics Oregon State Games. As a humanitarian aid worker in Iraq, in 2008, my efforts on behalf of people with disabilities garnered media attention resulting in 1.8 million dollars worth of free publicity.

I have completed a 76-page book proposal, which includes competing and complementary titles, market evaluation, promotional opportunities and sample chapters. My book proposal is available for review. I look forward to hearing from you.

I have received three requests for my book proposal. What’s different, I’ve started personalizing my letters; this indicates to the agent I’ve done some research so the first paragraph of this letter is always different. I clearly state my platform, I’m a member of a speaker’s agency and I’ve been published. I based this query letter off of the only example of a non-fiction query letter I was able to find on the web that an agent gave as an example of an excellent query letter:  

I am a psychiatrist, published author, and expert for the national media seeking representation for my memoir titled, Queen of the Road: The True Tale of 47 States, 22,000 Miles, 200 Shoes, 2 Cats, 1 Poodle, a Husband, and a Bus with a Will of Its Own. Because you are interested in unique voices, I thought we might be a good match.

When Tim first announced he wanted to “chuck it all” and travel around the country in a converted bus for a year, I gave this profound and potentially life-altering notion all the thoughtful consideration it deserved. “Why can’t you be like a normal husband with a midlife crisis and have an affair or buy a Corvette?” I asked, adding, “I will never, ever, EVER live on a bus.”

What do you get when you cram married shrinks—one in a midlife crisis, the other his materialistic, wise-cracking wife—two cats who hate each other and a Standard Poodle who loves licking them all, into a bus for a year? Queen of the Road is a memoir of my dysfunctional, multi-species family’s travels to and travails in the 49 continental states. (Tim insisted on seeing them all, despite my assurances that there were a few we could skip.)

As a psychiatrist, award-winning author (I Know You Really Love Me, Macmillan/Dell) and frequent media expert on psychiatric topics, (including Larry King, GMA, 48 Hours, The New York Times and People Magazine), my life has centered on introspection, analysis and storytelling. Yet, I count among my greatest accomplishments that last year, our bus was featured as the centerfold of Bus Conversions Magazine, thus fulfilling my life-long ambition of becoming a Miss September.

The story of our year-long adventure is already garnering interest in the media and has been mentioned in AMA News (circulation 250,000, and this journal of the American Medical Association has already agreed to review the book with an author interview when it comes out), Woman’s Day, Quick and Simple, Match.com and Best Life Magazine. An upcoming Parade Magazine article on the growing phenomenon of mid-life career breaks (who knew I was a trend setter?) will include a photo of Tim and me, along with our story. My blog of our trip has also been mentioned in Andy Serwer’s Street Life ecolumn (Fortune Magazine).

I hope you are interested in seeing the proposal and if so, would be most happy to send it to you via e-mail or snail mail.

Now of course, this woman has an excellent platform and her story has already generated a ton of media interest, but don’t be discouraged, just keep plugging along. After all I’m seven years into my project. But don’t be afraid to revise your query and don’t be afraid to pay for help.

After thirty-six queries between August 2007 and June 2009 I received twenty-one rejections NO! Two requests for my book proposal or sample chapters, which ended in one rejection later and thirteen agents must have broken wrists because they didn’t bother to respond at all. One agent after reading my book proposal asked for my manuscript, but that’s a different story.

Don’t give up! In trying to get published tenacity is your best attribute along with a great sense of humor.

 In 2010, after revising my manuscript I started querying again between November 2010 and March 2010 I sent out another fifty-six queries with the following results, thirteen actual nos, two that said if I don’t hear back within three weeks it’s a no, so two more rejections, five requests for books proposals of which I heard back from two, which were no, that leaves thirty-three agents who are having computer problems or are suffering from broken wrists. I’ll talk about agents later.  

That’s ninety-one queries and a heck of a lot of rejections. But getting rejected by an agent isn’t the worst thing that’s happened to me after all I do play wheelchair basketball. And the most successful people are also the ones who have experienced the most failure. Don’t let the process get you down.

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One Response to The confusing world of query letters

  1. Tammy Trayer says:

    Tiana thanks for your post. It was informative and helpful. I am a freelance writer and I am currently working on several books. You have an amazing story and how great to share it!! Good luck to you in all you do. God bless! Tammy Trayer (if you are looking for some reading material I blog at http://givenagift.com)

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