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Query Series: Melissa Landers and Nicole Resciniti

In our Query Series, writers share the query letters that helped land an agent--and why the letter worked, from the agent's point of view. Today we hear from author Melissa Landers and her agent, Nicole Resciniti of the Seymour Agency. Melissa's young adult debut, ALIENATED, is slated to release in 2013 from Disney-Hyperion as the first book in her humorous, light sci-fi series. Nicole is a hands-on editorial agent whose memberships include AAR, ACFW, RWA, and Mensa.

From Melissa:

I wrote ALIENATED during NaNoWriMo 2009, and as you can imagine, that first draft was hella rough. As was the second. And the third. In total, I rewrote the manuscript five times before I was ready to seek representation.

After many rounds of query critiques by my online writing group, I began researching agents and sending queries in March of 2011. I stumbled across an interview with Nicole on the Mother.Write.Repeat blog, and her agenting philosophy resonated with me so strongly that I dropped everything and emailed her on the spot. She requested the full with an hour, and a couple weeks later, I also queried her with my first adult contemporary romance. She requested that manuscript, too, and offered representation within a few days. Six months later, she’d sold both of those books!

The query:

Dear Nicole,

I understand you're looking for fast-paced science fiction, and I hope you'll consider ALIENATED, my 80,000 word, light sci-fi YA set on Earth in the not-too-distant future.

Broke-as-a-joke valedictorian Cara Sweeny just scored Uncle Sam's newest scholarship, but to get the money, she has to spend her senior year hosting a foreign exchange student. Seriously foreign—extraterrestrial to be precise.

Cara's knocked completely out of orbit when she meets eighteen-year-old Aelyx from planet L'eihr. He captivates her with stories from home and uses "Silent Speech" to fill her mind with emotions and sensations she never knew existed. Cara's never felt such an easy connection before, and despite her suspicions about Aelyx's real mission on Earth, their unlikely friendship deepens by the day.

But not everyone rolls out the welcome mat for Aelyx. Hundreds of Cara's classmates join the Patriots of Earth—zealots hell-bent on severing human-alien relations—in staging daily protests for the newcomer's expulsion. One of Cara's friends is pushed down the stairs for supporting Aelyx, and even though Cara knows she's next on the hit list, she can't bring herself to let him go. As the months pass, the Patriots stir up public paranoia and infiltrate the police force, landing Cara on the wrong end of a frenzied manhunt. Worse yet, Aelyx confesses the ominous truth behind the exchange program, and Cara's faced with an impossible choice: protect the outworlder she's grown to love but no longer trusts, or warn her own people, who've already branded her a traitor to her race.

Though ALIENATED is planned as the first book in a trilogy, it stands alone, and I believe it has strong crossover potential. I earned a Bachelor of Arts in English from Texas State University, and I'm an active participant in the Ohio Valley chapter of the RWA. Thank you for your time and consideration. Per your submission guidelines, I have pasted the first five pages of my manuscript below.

Melissa Landers
From Nicole:

The query Melissa sent me was pretty much perfect—and no, I’m not just saying that because she’s my author. This query conveyed an instant sense of who this author is and how her mind works. Glimpses of humor and a wry tone implied the manuscript would be sharp and witty (and it is!) and the concise manner in which she conveyed the facts along with her credentials told me she did her homework. By ‘did her homework’ I mean that Melissa articulated the genre, word count, premise of the story, and followed the submission guidelines. Plus she spelled my name right, and that always helps. <g>

If you scroll back up to the query, you’ll see I highlighted the lines that intrigued me. They effectively captured the essence of the story and showcased a hint of Melissa’s oh-so-amazing voice. The other great thing Melissa does is to establish a what-happens-next moment. She presents the characters, the potential conflicts, and concludes on a hook. That hook left me wanting to read more.

It can be easier to learn by example, so I would say to look at Melissa’s query for inspiration. Note the concise delivery of the vital plot information, the way she weaves in signature descriptions to convey her style, and how she utilizes a strong hook.

Here are some additional query suggestions:

1.  Don’t say anything that suggests you are inexperienced. Treat your query like a resume. Just as an employer might shy away from someone with no previous experience, so too might an agent/editor upon hearing, “this is my first book,” and/or “my parents/wife/bff said this is the best book they ever read” and/or “it took me ___ years to complete this and you need to buy it” and/or “I have no formal writing experience…” While each of these may be true, this information isn’t necessary to your query. Focus on your positive attributes.

2.  Know your genre. If you can’t decide where to shelve your book, an agent will have a very hard time selling your book. Also, be aware of word count. On average, 80-100k words is optimal. There are exceptions (category, MG/YA, sci-fi/fantasy, etc.) but if you’re trying to pitch a book that has 130k words, chances are that book could use a little trimming, and you should try to trim it before submitting.

3.  Make sure the work is as polished as possible. Don’t submit prematurely. You finished a book and you’re excited—as you should be. Congratulations! But don’t make the mistake of rushing to submit. Proofread the book. Look for logic flaws and weak character motivations. 

4.  Make sure each and every scene advances the plot. If you don’t belong to a writing group or have a critique partner—you should. If you send it everywhere and get rejections, you will exhaust the avenues available to you. This goes double for the query itself. Send ‘em out in batches of ten. If you don’t get any hits, you need to revise your query. If you make it past that stage to the partial, and get no requests for the full, then, again, reevaluate the opening chapters.

5.  Keep it to the point. The emphasis is on the book. The best query includes that ‘back cover blurb.’ You know that short, engaging little summary found on the back cover of a paperback novel? Melissa included one in her query (which is why her query was sooo good). When I see one of those within the body of a query—especially when it sounds like a book I would want to buy—I’m instantly hooked. Extraneous information about your hobbies, where you live, your favorite authors…not really necessary information. If your query is longer than a page, you’ve said too much.

6.  Make your voice stand out. Sure, agents/editors talk about voice all the time, but what is it really? It’s that signature style of saying something. It is an author’s calling card. When you think of the bestselling authors, you can recognize their writing instantly. Why? Because there is a style to their sentence structures, similes/metaphors, and a rhythm to their writing. There is also a tone that is effortlessly conveyed. Look at Melissa’s sample below. Tight sentences. Deep POV. Humor, intelligence. How does your voice compare? Tightening prose and going deeper with POV are easy ways to seriously enhance your voice. Use terms unique to your characters and speech that fits the genre/circumstances.

Now, I know this blog is about queries, and I’m only going to briefly digress about voice because it is so important. For starters, many agents require a few sample pages included with your query. I do. It’s a backup plan in case the query isn’t so hot, but the writing actually sizzles. Bear in mind, however, not every agent will ask for more than the query, so the query really needs to be effective on its own. But since I ask for five sample pages, and what I’m looking for in those sample pages is VOICE, I thought it was only fair to show an example of a great voice.

Melissa’s query letter already had me typing back a response and requesting the full, but I’ll let you in on a little secret, when I read the first five pages, I knew I would make an offer for this book. That’s how compelling Melissa’s voice is. She had me at “Hanes down.” For every author I’ve signed, I knew within the first few pages.

I’m taking the liberty of showing exactly which paragraph hooked me, and I would strongly recommend that every author open their book at a scene/paragraph/dialog that effectively hooks the reader as strongly as Melissa did in her initial query and opening pages.

Think about it: it only takes a minute to form a first impression. Your query is that opportunity. When you get past the query stage, it’s all about the first pages. How many times have you picked up a book, read a bit, and decided to pass? Editors and agents make flash decisions like this all the time—and so do readers. You only have one shot to make a ‘selling’ impression.

Yeesh, am I always this long-winded? I hope not. J Getting back to Melissa, here’s that sample I promised (and I’ll hit on all the reasons why this works so well, at the end): 

Winning. Cara Sweeny had made it her business, and business was good. Honor Society president? Check. Young leader award? Check. Debate champion, two years running? Double check. And when the much-coveted title of valedictorian had eluded her, she’d found a way to snag that, too.

Over the summer, she’d staged an academic ambush of such epic proportions, Midtown High’s geek-elite were still chewing their pencils in shock. Sneaky as a senator, she’d retaken Honors Calculus, raised her grade from 92 to 100, and usurped Marcus Toole as valedictorian. Her stealth attack had caught him with his Hanes down, and unless her grades tanked this year—which was so not going to happen—the sulking loser had no chance of reclaiming his title.

But she had a feeling Marcus would laugh his lacrosse pads off if he could see her now: slumped in the principal’s wingback guest chair, mouth agape as she tried to form a coherent response to the “awesome news” Mr. Ferguson had just tossed into her lap like a live grenade.


Within the next two pages, Melissa conveys the premise, the potential pitfalls and the conflict. She introduces the reader to our protagonist, Cara, in such a way that I’m immediately immersed in her plight. The story opens in the right place and the reader understands the stakes. There isn’t any backstory or lengthy setting description. We jump right in, kinda like the heroine. When you read this, don’t you form an instant impression of Cara and her personality? I sure did.

I, for one, can’t wait to see ALIENATED on the shelves. Seriously, between this book and Melissa’s “Sultry with a Twist” (Sourcebooks, October 2012, w/a Macy Beckett)—I don’t know which series I love more. And no, this isn’t just some shameless promotion, these books rock. Melissa Landers/Macy Beckett is going to be HUGE. I’m blessed to be able to work with her.

I want to emphasize that anyone can be as successful as Melissa. Yes, you really can. It just takes hard work. Keep writing. Do NOT give up. Be flexible and prolific and open to suggestions. With every page, your craft will improve. The road to publication may not be easy, but nothing worth having ever is. Know in your heart that you can do it, and you will.

By reading this blog, you’re already taking the first steps…

As a parting comment, I would say only this: BELIEVE. Believe in yourself, in your writing, and in your dream. You CAN do this.

Happy querying. :)

Thank you, Melissa and Nicole, for taking the time to share so much with us!

Stephanie Kuehn

Stephanie is the William C. Morris award-winning author of Charm & Strange, Complicit, Delicate Monsters, and The Smaller Evil.

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  1. Thanks so much for having me, Stephanie. I hope this was helpful. Querying can be exhilarating, but at the same time, all those rejections can really chip away at a gal's writing mojo.

    To all those boarding the Query Coaster, good luck, and don't give up--that's the only way to guarantee failure.

  2. Melissa, wow! I loved the premise of ALIENATED when I first read it, but reading your sample excerpt put me over the edge. I can't wait to read this book!

    Is there anything that has surprised you in your journey so far -- something that happened that you just didn't expect?


    1. Thanks, Jenn! Honestly, I didn't expect both of my manuscripts (the YA and the romance) to sell, so that was the biggest surprise. I feel like I've won the cosmic lottery.

  3. What a fantastic blog post! So proud of you, Mel!! ALIENATED sounds so awesome. I can't wait to get my hands on it. Nicole Resciniti is amazing and she knows what she's talking about. She's said it wonderfully here. You really can do this, just keep going for that dream. Great read, guys! Thanks.

  4. Wow! This is such a helpful post--thank you so much for sharing it! ALIENATED sounds very interesting and I loved the voice in the sample. I can see why Nicole snatched up your manuscript. :)

  5. This was great - actually seeing a real query letter and the response was worth gold to me. Very helpful and thank you all!

  6. Mel, that query and first page are amazing! I can't wait to read the novel. 2013 is too far away! Nicole is wonderful person and agent. All of her clients love her.

  7. Yay Melissa! Congratulation's on all the excitement in your literary life. That was a GREAT query!

    And for the record, Nicole Resciniti is like E.F. Hutton (remember those commercials 70's babies?) When She Talks, People Listen! (or should!!)

  8. Mel,
    Reading your query was a blast from the past. I remember thinking if that blurb didn't get an agent's attention, nothing will! Now look how far you've come! I'm so proud and excited for you.
    Nicole is amazing and I feel fortunate to be your agency sister. =)

  9. Thanks, everyone! I'm glad this was helpful, and a big 'thank you' to Nicole for the time she spent compiling this advice. She's an amazing agent. I'm so lucky to have found her.

  10. What awesome advice! Thanks for taking so much time to share your tips, Nicole!

  11. Melissa - Wow. I've been excited to read your work since we first met! After reading your query and sensational opening lines, I'm slack-jawed with awe. I think Nicole nailed it - you are going to be HUGE!

  12. This was an eye-opening post. Very helpful. Melissa, can't wait to read this book! The "query" hooked me. :)

  13. <3

    Melissa, I can't tell you how excited I am for both your books! You're such an awesome writer and person and I'm so happy that I'll soon be able to tell people "go pick up Melissa/Macy's book NOW" because you know I totally will :-D

  14. Aw, now, you guys are making me blush. You're the best. Thanks for all your support!

  15. Great interview. Great ladies. Melissa and Nicole rock!!! - Cecy Robson

  16. YAY MELISSA! You are so awesome, and Nicole is right, you are going to be HUGE. I can't wait to see it happen. :-D

  17. Melissa!I can't wait to get Alienated! Just like Nicole said, you had me at the query! Your voice shines through and I can't wait!

  18. This is a great, instructive post. It's so much better to learn from an outstanding example then just read abstract, nebulous advice about "voice." Melissa's voice stands out and is as unique, funny and smart as her real life persona. And yes, Nic is really this awesome, too! Not only does she give you great advice, but she's so super supportive. You CAN do it!!!!

  19. Congrats Melissa and thank you Nicole! Wonderfully informative post, and I always love seeing a sample of what stood out in the crowd.

  20. Ditto Lea. I couldn't ask for a more dedicated agent.

    Thanks for all the love, everyone. You make me smile. X/O

  21. Just fantastic. Melissa sounds wonderful, and Nicole very special. The dynamic duo!

  22. Melissa!!! WOW, after reading this, I am drooling for the book to hit shelves!!! I am sooooo jealous that Nic and your crit partners already read this! Can't wait! Please, please... I get a signed copy, right? :D

  23. LOL, Risa! Maybe I'll have an ARC at Nationals next year. Wouldn't that be cool?

  24. This is a really useful post for writers who are at the query stage. You can really see just from the query what would grab an agent, but the section of text really highlights what would make that agent ask for the full. Thanks to Melissa for sharing her query and to Nic for some absolutely fantastic pointers. What a team! :)

    The book sounds terrific; can't wait for it to hit the shelves!

  25. I'm currently on the third draft of my novel and FINALLY getting near the point of writing query letters. I am terrified at the thought of it. You've given me some confidence back! This gives me the confidence that I CAN write a good query letter and hopefully get published some day. =)

    It's also awesome that your novel is a NaNoWriMo novel - so is mine, just a year behind yours. =)

    1. Good luck, Rachel, and don't give up! :-)

  26. Wow this was so BEAUTIFUL! First super congrats (again) to you Melissa! I totally see you as a best selling author and how exciting to see this unfold for you. CONGRATS!

    And I wouldn't doubt it if this will be on the big screen. Mark my words.

    Thank you, Nicole for breaking down your thoughts (you're always so good at that :). This was a really awesome post! And I loved your closing statement. Your encouragement. Your tips. Your words of wisdom. Both of you are lucky to have each other:)

    This post really touched my heart. I love seeing others succeed and it was broken down in such an awesome way.

    Thank you! Can't wait to read your work!!

  27. Fab piece! Incredibly helpful AND interesting to read. And Alienated sounds AMAZING, just that extract has got me hooked already.

  28. @Martha: From your lips to God's ears. :-)

    @Jim: thanks so much!

  29. I can't wait for Alienated to hit bookshelves! It is already on my "must read" list! The cover is absolutely gorgeous! I would buy the book for that alone if I didn't already have the brief synopsis of what the book is about, and now I am anxiously awaiting to read the captivating book! Melissa, I am so very proud of you and all of your accomplishments! Congratulations!


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Item Reviewed: Query Series: Melissa Landers and Nicole Resciniti Rating: 5 Reviewed By: stephanie kuehn