Queries…Or, I May Be Talking Through My Hat

I’m posting about queries as part of a project set up by Joshua Palmatier to help newer writers deal with some of the scarier parts of trying to sell a novel. There are three parts, each with a master page linking out to all the participating writers.

The elevator pitch project.

The query project.

The synopsis project.

I’ve never written directly about queries before because I’ve never actually written one myself* so take everything I say after this with a grain of salt. That said, the query is basically a combination of the cover letter and the single page pitch both of which I’ve done about a zillion times at this point in my career, often successfully.

So, first, the cover letter part. Keep it as short and simple as possible. My cover letters go something like this:


I’m Kelly McCullough, author of (three most relevant publications here**).***

(Insert personal connection if appropriate here)****

I am looking to place the (novel title here) or, I am looking for representation, my latest novel is (novel title here).

One page or shorter novel pitch goes here (more on that below the break).

Thank you,

Kelly McCullough

____Arbitrary break to provide someplace for cover letter footnotes_________

*I got my agent through a truly bizarre process, but he’s done very well for me.

**If you’ve you’ve got them.

***Which three of my publications or series are most relevant depends in what I’m pitching and who I’m pitching it to. Basically, my novel resume is not the same as my fiction for science education resume, and it’s important to remember audience.

****”I met you at ArghCON, we discussed my work, and you suggested I send you something” and the like is appropriate. Most other things probably aren’t.


Now for the short pitch segment, I’m going to play to my strengths, laziness and organization and pull from previous things I’ve written on pitch sheets and only update the bits I feel need it. So, stealing from myself:

I’ve already covered some of what a pitch needs to do and how to do in the post on elevator pitches and I’ll go into it further in my post on synopses, so I’m just going  to post a diverse set of examples here. Below you will find a pitch for a novel I’ve never written, one for a novel I’ve written and haven’t yet sold (though I’ve had it almost sell three times), and one for the first novel I sold, WebMage. All of these are exactly as they went out to editors. After each pitch I’ll include a brief note. Oh, and there will obviously be major spoilers.

The rest of this post is beyond the cut to hide the spoilers and because it’s enormous.

The Nightmare Academy pitch:

The story begins with this: “You can die in your dreams. I did. It was a nightmare, and now, so am I. You can live in dreams too. This is how I learned how.”

Brandon is 14 and dead, sort of. He had a nightmare and flatlined in his sleep. His mother heard him stop breathing and called 911. When the paramedics arrived they couldn’t detect a heartbeat, but a few seconds later, before they could take any serious measures, Brandon sat bolt upright, and let out a bloodcurdling scream. His vital signs immediately returned to normal and the paramedics, and later a doctor, could detect no evidence that Brandon had died. When asked if he remembered anything, Brandon could only say that he’d died in his dream and then something had frightened him back to life.

A few months later, an official from the Highbridge school in Morpheus, MA calls Brandon’s parents to tell them that he has won an all-expenses paid scholarship to Highbridge, one of the country’s most prestigious prep schools. They are somewhat dubious at first, but after doing a little research they decide this is too good an opportunity to pass up.

When Brandon arrives at the school he finds a beautiful rural campus with excellent rooms and every effort made to make students feel at home. The daytime school is one hundred percent what it seems, a rigorous academic experience that will play a small and diminishing role throughout the course of the book. That’s because the real work at Highbridge happens at night in the dreams of its students.

Highbridge is an academy for nightmares, or at least that’s what they tell Brandon, who has become a nightmare himself by dying in his dream. While he sleeps he learns how to terrify people in their sleep. The experience should be mystical, frightening, illuminating, but Brandon feels like there’s something missing, that nightmare classes are hiding things from him. There are classes on standard anxiety dreams and how to optimize them and the whole thing treats dreams as cogs; “everyone dreams the same dreams, most them just won’t admit it.” Falling and chasing dreams don’t feel quite right to Brandon.

He starts seeing things out of the corners of his eyes during the day. Graffiti that’s only there as long as he doesn’t look at it. It says things like: “Real dreams. True dreams. Wild dreams.” And, “We are the stuff dreams are made of.” Or, more worrying, “It’s not a school, it’s a prison for dreams. Dreams have no limits.” He also sees cheshire cat type images and other things that are surreal and creepy but fun and joyous at the same time.

With the help of a wild dream that is living in the school and trying to help the students, Brandon comes to understand that the school is a prison for dreams, a way to harness and contain them. Its students and graduates are sent out to become killing dreams, like the one that got Brandon. His instructors are trapped dreams working for the thing that eats/harnesses dreams. Brandon is assigned to become the dream of a young painter named Linea. The instructors want him to scare her to death, but he falls in love with her instead.

The book ends with Brandon physically escaping into Linea’s dreams and he wakes up beside her in her bed. He had become a wild dream himself, half nightmare, half inspiration, a dream figment bringing wild but wonderful nightmare/dreams of the sort that inspire artists. Real dreams, true dreams, wild dreams.

The book has a circular arc that begins and ends with a killing dream. One makes him a harnessed nightmare, the other frees him from the dream prison and makes him the muse of the girl he loves. The story also ends with a beginning as Brandon has become one the immortals, the wild dreams, and what he can do is only limited by his imagination. His physical body still exists, and he’ll live out a mortal span as Brandon, but when he dies he’ll become like the wild dream at the school.

This is a pretty loose proposal written last summer when I first started into discussions with a YA publisher about possible projects. It’s for a short darkish novel for teens with a single first person point of view.

Winter of Discontent pitch:

Derek was a soldier once, a damn good one. Then a piece of shrapnel took away his life’s work. Now, with nothing to live for, he’s become an emotional cripple who only feels alive when he’s being someone else, a fact he discovered when he auditioned for a play. He’d liked theater once, and hoped he might get something out of it. He did, a chance to lose himself in the role. Now he’s majoring in theater in hopes of losing himself forever.

William Shakespeare was the greatest sorcerer who ever lived. People still believe in the characters he created 400 years ago. For example, Shakespeare’s Richard III is as real today as he was on the stage of the Globe in the 1590s. Shakespeare made Richard immortal. He also made him into a lie. The real Richard had little in common with Shakespeare’s. There are people in the modern era who want nothing more than to separate the real Richard from the fake. One of them is Richard himself, now pretending to be a Royal Shakespeare director.

Theater generates belief. Belief generates reality. Richard lives and wants out. In Derek, he thinks he’s found his ticket. Derek is an almost perfect analog of Richard as he was in life. By casting Derek in Richard III he thinks he can shift the curse onto Derek. Derek doesn’t want to be Derek, though he doesn’t know about the magic that could make this work. Richard wants Derek to become Richard. Everybody ends up happy, right? Wrong.

Richard was once a good man in an impossible situation. Shakespeare made him a monster. If he shifts his curse onto Derek, he will become that monster in truth, because what Derek really needs is to learn how to be human again. So does Richard. If they’re both very lucky, they might be able to help each other get there. If not, they’re both damned forever. Unfortunately, they aren’t alone in the game.

Shakespeare wrote Prospero in The Tempest as a role to embody himself. Tragically, it worked. As one of his own immortal creations, Shakespeare has a stake in preserving his works, both magical and theatrical, and Richard is one of his best. Lady MacBeth is perhaps the most famous murderess in all of history. Now, an immortal with OCD that makes her wash her hands sixty times a day, she has a mad agenda all her own, one that doesn’t include Richard’s redemption, though she would like to know if the trick could work. MacBeth the King doesn’t know what he wants, but he’s willing to kill for it. Matt and Riana are friends of Derek’s. They are also novices in the theatrical magic tradition that created Shakespeare. Both love Derek and want to save him. Both are sworn not to reveal what they know to non-initiates like Derek. Can they help him stay alive and stay true to their oaths at the same time?

This is as close to literary as anything I’m ever likely to write—I think of it literate fantasy rather literary, which is a fine but important distinction. It’s a sprawling complex book written in third person with three main points of view and a half dozen minor ones. It’s been nearly bought a couple of times, and hopefully is with the editor who will give it a home right now.

WebMage pitch:

Don’t Mess With Fate:

Ravirn is a child of the Fates, literally. His grandmother is Lachesis, the Greek weaver of destiny, and like Hercules, Ravirn lives in the middle country between the mortal and the divine.  He’s also a hacker whose divine talent is find the fatal flaw in just about any program. Since magic in the 21st century has gone digital to keep up with the times, this makes him a better than average sorcerer. His best friend and familiar is both a goblin and a laptop, changing shape from one to the other to suit the needs of the moment.

Ravirn’s a bit of a shape changer too, demi-divine hacker one minute, harried college student the next. His grandmother has enrolled him in C-Sci at the University of Minnesota, in hopes of turning his talents toward the good of the family. She started him at MIT, but after a little incident with the grades computer he had to relocate. His great aunt Atropos has uses for him too. She thinks free will has gotten to be too much of a good thing and wants to assert the absolute control of Fate by inserting a program called Puppeteer into the Fate Core, the server that rules destiny. Unfortunately it doesn’t work properly and only Ravirn’s gift can fix it.

But as a hacker, Ravirn has a thing about free will. When he not only refuses to help, but begins to actively oppose her, all hell breaks loose. Not one to be thwarted, Atropos sends a hit team after him. Only a timely warning from his distant cousin Cerice and a virus/spell that crashes the entire magical web that runs the world allow him to escape. But it’s only a temporary reprieve. Crashing the system gives Atropos the excuse she needs to have him outlawed. Ravirn decides that the only way to clear his name and thwart Atropos’ designs on free will is to hack into the Fate Core. It’s a life-thread cutting offense, but it just might work. Unfortunately, once he’s inside things only get worse. Eris, Goddess of Discord has beaten him into the system, with a virus that is erasing Fate from life strands one at a time. Ravirn has to decide which is more important, the integrity of destiny, or his own skin.

Ravirn chooses Fate, and destroys the virus, but it comes at the cost of exposure. With the free will of every living being hanging in the balance, Ravirn’s caught between Fate and its ancient enemy Discord with both sides out to get him. Now Ravirn and Melchior have to find a way to stop Atropos, clear the charges against Ravirn, and get him off Discord’s hit list. Even with the help of his sorceress cousin Cerice, a friendly troll, and the webgoblin underground it’s going to be a very close call.

This is the pitch sheet as written when WebMage sold to Anne Sowards at Ace. The book is first person action adventure fantasy with a heavy side of snark.


Direct links to the other query posts

Harry Connolly: http://harryjconnolly.com/i-should-have-done-this-a-while-ago/ (Added 9/20/2017)
Chris Dolley: http://chrisdolley.livejournal.com/97929.html (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
Simon Haynes: http://halspacejock.blogspot.com/2008/09/query-project.html (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
Elaine Isaac/E.C. Ambrose: https://ecambrose.wordpress.com/2017/09/20/the-query-quandary-pitching-your-novel/ (Added 9/20/2017)
Jackie Kessler: http://www.jackiekessler.com/blog/2008/09/12/the-query-project/ (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
Glenda Larke: http://glendalarke.blogspot.com/2008/09/on-writing-query-letter.html (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
John Levitt: http://johnlevitt.livejournal.com/9407.html (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
L.E. Modesitt, Jr.: http://www.lemodesittjr.com/2017/09/18/literary-pitches-and-timing/ (Added 9/20/2017)
Joshua Palmatier: http://jpskewedthrone.dreamwidth.org/492803.html (Added 9/20/2017)
Phyllis Irene Radford: http://www.radfordeditorial.com/?p=99 (Added 9/21/2017)
Janni Lee Simner: http://janni.livejournal.com/499198.html (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
Jennifer Stevenson: http://smokingpigeon.livejournal.com/30055.html (Originally posted 9/12/2008)
David J. Williams: http://autumnrain2110.com/blog/2008/09/12/query-letter-time/ (Originally posted 9/12/2008)

And check out the Elevator Pitch Project here: http://jpskewedthrone.dreamwidth.org/492684.html, and the Plot Synopsis Project here: http://jpskewedthrone.dreamwidth.org/493782.html.