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Query Series: Kristin Halbrook & Suzie Townsend

In this Saturday series, YA Highway writers share the query letters that landed their agents -- and why the queries worked, from the agents themselves. Next up...

Author Kristin Halbrook
Agent Suzie Townsend of Fine Print Literary Management

from Kristin:

I actually really enjoy writing queries. Looking for taglines, finding ways to insert voice, boiling down a 60k ms into a couple hundred words. It's very deconstructionist - and I love that. This particular query was fun because I'd had the high concept movies running through my head as I wrote. I wanted to capture the fluff of Cher (Clueless), the mystery of Veronica Mars, and the dark upscale lifestyle of Heathers. So when I went to write the query, those concepts were the perfect jumping off point/hook, I thought.

This query got a good number of requests and I was excited to get one from Joanna Stampfel-Volpe, who repped my dear friend Kody Keplinger. I'd only heard good things about Joanna. Joanna did eventually pass - with a super nice, thoughtful and complimentary rejection. But she recommended I query Suzie Townsend at FinePrint Literary, who was just beginning to take on clients of her own. I honestly hadn't heard of Suzie (sorry Suz!), but if Joanna was recommending her, I was listening.

I'm so glad I listened. Suzie bowled me over with her enthusiasm for LOVELY, DROWNING and her insight into how I could make the project better. Although I was waiting to hear back from other agents with the full, I couldn't deny how impressed I was with Suzie. We signed a week after she offered and I've been in golden hands ever since.

the query, with Suzie's comments:
Joanna Stampfel-Volpe recommended I query you with my project, LOVELY, DROWNING. I would love for you to take a look. Here's the query:
This was of course, a huge point for me. Because Joanna's an agent I respect and a friend. She also knows my tastes. And she'd mentioned to me a few days before the query came that she'd just finished reading something she really liked but she knew was a project meant for me. I had been breathlessly anticipating the arrival of the query ever since that mention.

And that's something important to note. Because I've since received several queries which name drop - either naming another agent or a client of mine (or even a client of Joanna's) - and they only really work in the writer's favor when the person they're mentioning has also mentioned the project to me.
It’s Clueless meets Veronica Mars meets Heathers when the drowned body of high school senior Katie Sawyer’s best friend, Chelsea Mathis, tumbles out of the microscope closet during second period Chem. class.
Kristin really had me at Veronica Mars since I'm a crazy VM fan, but what I loved about this query is how succinct and to the point it is. In one sentence, I know have a high concept (Clueless meets VM) YA novel (high school senior) with a mystery (a dead best friend).
SoCal rich girl Katie has spent the past three and a half years cultivating the perfect teenage experience. But the death of her best friend sends Katie reeling and brings to the surface every bad experience she has compartmentalized over the years, especially her mom taking off and her toddler brother’s lost battle with cancer. If she wants to maintain her fairy-tale façade, Katie has to pull herself together and leave the past alone. It’s more important to search out the identity of Chelsea’s killer, even if it means enlisting the help of the next door neighbor who knows more about her than she wants him to.
This gives me a little backstory and explains the connection with Clueless - the tone and the character - someone who seems frivolous but is actually hiding some painful memories. It also gives me more information about the plot. The character is going to try to find out who murdered her best friend - and there's a potential love story with this neighbor (maybe?). I love romance, so I'm intrigued about that.
Then Katie learns that Chelsea was pregnant at the time of her murder. Now she must come to terms not only with the secrets her best friend was keeping from her, but also the secrets she, herself, has hidden from the world, all while looking fabulous and maintaining her Chi.
Here's the twist! And of course, there's also information here (coming to terms with her own secrets) which let me know there are multiple layers to the story.
LOVELY, DROWNING is a Young Adult novel, complete at 60,000 words. I am pasting sample pages in the body of this e-mail. I would love to be able to send you the manuscript for consideration.
The query as a whole works very well. It tells me what I need to know. I know the character, the plot, and also the voice (details like "SoCal rich girl" "perfect teenage experience" "fairy-tale facade" and "maintaining her Chi" are very true to Katie's voice). Every word has a purpose here - every word counts.

But the different/intriguing aspect when I compare this query with other clients is the referral. Would I have requested the full without Joanna's referral? Absolutely. Again - I LOVEVeronica Mars so that alone would have had me clamoring to read LOVELY, DROWNING.

But Kristin queried me on 8/21/2009 (This was a Friday). I requested and received the full the same day. I started reading it over the weekend and finished Monday night. Tuesday I went around my office and got second reads and talked to my boss. And I sent notes and offered representation on Wednesday 8/26/2009. The reason I moved so quickly is partly because I was a new agent, and I didn't have many current client projects I was working on. I could pay more attention to my queries and request materials. But the fact that Joanna had read and recommended LOVELY, DROWNING to me was also a big factor. I knew at the very least, even if I didn't end up offering, I would enjoy the read because I trust Joanna. This meant that Friday as soon as I got the manuscript I printed it out (I didn't have a Kindle yet) and planned to start reading as soon as I could.

Want to query Suzie Townsend? Guidelines can be found at her agency's website.
Other installments in our query series:

Kirsten Hubbard

Kirsten is the author of Like Mandarin, Wanderlove, and the middle grade novel Watch the Sky.

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  1. Sweet, first comment!

    Thanks for posting all these queries. It's cool to get an idea of how different YA authors get published. I really loved that Kristin Nelson (the agent I'm hoping to get, hahaha) did the same thing, only she mentioned just one or two of her YA books. And most of the other sites that do this are for adult genres, so it's hard to connect.

    I really like how Kristin used an anology to various TV shows. As long as one makes it work, why not? :) Good luck to both Kristin and Suzie!

  2. Great Query. I love these agent. commentaries.

    My fingers are crossed I'll see this book in the bookstore one day. :D

  3. Great post. It's always helpful to get input from an agent's perspective before diving into the query game.

  4. This really was a great query!

    Glad to be of service, ladies ;-)

  5. This query was so good! I need more practice with queries - it's so hard for me to be so concise. That's probably something I need to work on in my writing, though, as well.

    Thanks for posting this! :)

  6. Slight concern though - Suzie sounds like a fabulous agent, but when you click the link at the bottom of this post, she actually isn't one of the listed agents in FinePrint's "About the Agents" section. Is there a different site/blog with info about what she's looking for?

  7. Anon: Another FinePrint agent mentioned on Absolute Write that they are in the middle of updating their site, but in the meantime, you can find Suzie and her preferences here.

  8. Thanks for the nice comments, everyone. :)

    Anon, if you go to the FinePrint home page, you'll see a red "Contact Us" tab in the upper right corner. Click on that link. Her e-mail's listed there.

  9. That is a fabulous query!

    (And Kris, that book sounds amazing!)


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Item Reviewed: Query Series: Kristin Halbrook & Suzie Townsend Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Kirsten Hubbard