My (patient and supportive) followers know: if I’m neglecting this blog, it’s because I’m letting my other writing take center stage. Still I wanted to update my home page because I have some exciting entries coming up, including a guest blog and hopefully an author interview. Several of my fellow bloggers, Louella Dizon San Juan and Robyn Oyeniyi have recently self-pubbed and I have to say I am so proud of them and very much in awe. I’m also in the process of writing reviews for Amazon, which is a daunting task in itself! For my part, I’ve decided to hold out for now and go the traditional route, which means all (well, much) is riding on one teeny weeny little document that can make or break me. I mean, of course, my query letter. A query letter is your calling card to agents (one of whom will hopefully rep your book one day, and go on to find you a deal with a publisher). The most important part of your query is the plot summary, which you write to entice–just as the blurb on the back of your book will do for readers. It should be grabby–not gimicky–intriguing enough for an agent to ask for pages, and–according to various sources at the many, many query letter writing, and pitch prep seminars I’ve attended-NO MORE THAN TEN SENTENCES LONG.
Of course, your query letter is meaningless if your book isn’t done–really done. I have learned this the hard way. When I first wrote Birch Wood Doll, I struggled so much with the query letter; I just could not find a catchy way to summarize the plot in ten sentences. I revised my letter over and over, never satisfied that I had correctly portrayed my book while making it sound interesting. This, I have to say, was a red flag. The reason I struggled with my query letter, the reason it sounded like a different book each time ai rewrote it, was that Birch Wood Doll, though I had gotten to the end, was not finished. What was it even about? It didn’t know. I didn’t know. Sure, it was a biracial jewish girl with an eating disorder, torn between two men, struggling with dual identity, unresolved about her career in ballet versus her academic life at University. And her father is dead. And her grandmother threatens to disown her. And her friend falls off a building high on cocaine. And there’s this guy who whittles her a doll made of birch and … Yikes.
So I took the book back, whittled away myself, figured out what I was trying to say and finally … no I didn’t get it published, but I was able to come up with a heck of a pitch. No fewer than five agents asked for partial or full manuscripts when I attended the Pitch Slam at the 2012 Writer’s Digest Conference.
Just for fun, here’s my “Before” pitch for Birch Wood, followed by the “after” letter that worked for agents.
Birch Wood Doll (mainstream fiction, complete at 85,600 words), is the story of a biracial, bulimic ballerina’s search for self and true love.
Navigating two cultures, two divergent career paths, and two lovers, Amy, a biracial (black/white/Jewish) dancer, uses sex, cigarettes and starvation diets to cope with stress. Forced by her wealthy grandmother to give up a ballet contract and attend Princeton University, Amy meets and falls for two men: smooth, sexy Jack, also biracial, quick with a love song and access to cocaine—and sweet, noble Kole, a white, rural-bred, wood-whittling, football player who wears his heart on his sleeve. Over the next fourteen years, as her identity unfolds in the context of the love triangle, Amy learns—with the help of a symbolic doll made of birch—to let go of the past, trust her instincts, and find her own way to self-respect, wholeness and love.
Set in the 1980s and 1990s, Amy’s story is inspired by my own experiences as a Jewish, biracial dancer who took a leave from Princeton to join the Cincinnati Ballet, as well as by my own eating disorder struggle and recovery. Like Amy, I stopped dancing to become a clinical social worker and later hung out a shingle as a psychotherapist.
This wasn’t my first attempt at a pitch by any means (I’d be too embarrassed to share that) but, I think any agent who made it to the part about “over the next fourteen years …” probably checked out then. Now here’s my after-pitch, the one that more or less worked.
Birch Wood Doll, set in the 1980s and 1990s, is the story of a young, biracial ballet dancer’s search for self and true love. Amy loses half her racial identity at 10: she’s mixed but looks “any race,” her black father dies and her white mother’s family tries to erase his memory. Amy grows up searching for ways to define herself. At first it’s ballet; she’s a gifted dancer with a knack for self-starvation and a cool stone-face to rival Morticia Addams. Then—convinced she can only find herself when she finds love—Amy turns to men. When she’s forced to give up a ballet contract to attend Princeton, Amy falls for two male classmates who satisfy opposite needs. Jack is biracial too; he helps Amy rediscover her “lost black childhood.” Kole is a linebacker, generously proportioned, which gives Amy a nice break from her eating disordered mindset. Through college and beyond, Amy holds her position at the center of the love triangle, certain that either man could be the soul-mate who resolves her conflicts and heals her pain. The devastating, unexpected result of her choice will break Amy’s heart but ultimately teach her who she is and open the door to real adult love.
It turned out that none of the agents who went for my pitch wanted to represent Birch Wood Doll, but the book did wind up being a Nilsen Literary Prize finalist. Based on feedback the Nilsen people gave me, I now believe that Birch Wood is one last sweeping revision away from being really, truly done. I’ll get to it, but for now, I’m focused on my YA book, Second Company (formerly known as Twice the Dazzle) …
…which is, I now believe, really, truly done itself. Of course, a few months ago, I believed it was done, though I had not in fact heard back from all my beta readers. And because I couldn’t resist, because I just couldn’t wait—even though my query letter wasn’t perfect yet either–I queried a few agents. No big deal, querying before you’re ready, except that you may be wasting an agent’s limited time, as well as wasting opportunities for yourself. Those agents I queried before I was ready are agents that might be great for my book, but agents I can’t query again. Nor can I get away with querying other agents in their agencies. That’s considered bad form too. But you live and learn, sometimes the same lesson a few times over before you get it.
The good news is that my beta readers liked Second Company a lot (some said Love!) AND were really great about giving me fine-tuning suggestions. One more revision, another month of well-worth-it hard work. (Another tightening of the query, too.)
Now my query letter is good; my book is the best it can be (I believe). I have changed the title (on the advice of a well-published friend) as well as reordered my chapters, so it begins in the middle of the action, rather than with an emotionally introspective scene. You can read my new, improved first chapter here. So I am really ready. I’m also strong enough to say, bring on the rejections, because they’re not personal, because everyone gets them, and all you really need is one solid, enthusiastic “Yes!”
Wish me luck.