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 YA librarian and debut author Mindy McGinnis and her agent, Adriann Ranta, of Wolf Literary Services. Mindy’s dystopian novel, NOT A DROP TO DRINK, will be published by Katherine Tegen/Harper Collins in 2013.
At what point in the process did you write your query letter?
I didn’t write the query until I was finished with the book, which is my usual process. I was incredibly fortunate, though, in that the first line of the novel was an incredible hook that I could use for the query as well. So the hardest part was already done!
Can you describe any research that you did or resources that you used in order to learn how to write a strong query?
By the time I was querying NOT A DROP TO DRINK I was a pro at writing queries, but unfortunately, I was even better at getting form rejections. I used the excellent forum over at AgentQueryConnect, where I also moderate, to help streamline the query. I also used QueryTracker to keep track of what I’d sent to who in regards to queries, partials and fulls.
What was your querying strategy? What was the process like for you on an emotional level?
I typically send out a round of ten queries at a time, pulling from my lists of A and B agents simultaneously so I don’t burn through all the A-listers with a sub-par query on the first round. I was lucky in that the query for DRINK was strong enough to garner four full requests on the first round, so I knew I had a winner.
I was cautiously optimistic though. At one point, on an earlier YA ms, I had 8 fulls out at the same time, none of which ever amounted to anything. The four full requests off the bat for DRINK had me excited, but reality had punched me in the trachea a few too many times at that point, so I knew better than to celebrate.
How did you find Adriann and what made you decide to query her?
I purposely went after newer agents who repped YA. I knew that the newer agents are usually more open to previously unpubbed writers, and are building their client lists. I always try to find candid interviews with agents if possible, to see if our personalities would be a good fit beforehand. Adriann seemed like we would click, so I sent it off.
How did she respond and offer representation?
Adriann had the first 50 (pages) along with the query, then upgraded to a full over email. I let her know that I had other fulls out and she said to keep her in the loop if I got any offers. She read the full in two days and came back requesting a phone call. It was my first agent call, so I was a nervous wreck. Sweaty palms, the whole deal. We ended up talking for an hour and really clicking. At the end of the conversation she offered rep, but as I had other fulls out I told her I needed to let the other agents know before I could accept. I ended up having another offer of representation, but after our personality-meld on the phone, I knew Adriann was the one for me.
And here's the query:
Lynn was nine the first time she killed to defend the pond. Seven years later, violence is her native tongue in a time when an ounce of fresh water is worth more than gold and firewood equals life during bitter rural winters. Death wanders the countryside in many forms: thirst, cholera, coyotes, and the guns of strangers.
Mother and Lynn survive in a lawless land, where their once comfortable home serves as stronghold and lookout. Their basement is a lonely fortress; Father disappeared fighting the Canadians for possession of Lake Erie, the last clean body of water in an overpopulated land. The roof offers a sniper’s view of their precious water source – the pond. Ever vigilant, they defend against those who stream from the sprawling cities once they can no longer pay the steep prices for water. Mother’s strenuous code of self-sufficiency and survival leaves no room for trust or friendships; those wishing for water from the pond are delivered from their thirst not by a drink, but a bullet. Even their closest neighbor is a stranger who Lynn has only seen through her crosshairs.
Smoke rises from the east, where a starving group of city refugees are encamped by the stream. A matching spire of smoke can be seen in the south, where a band of outlaws are building a dam to manipulate what little water is left.
When Mother dies in a horrific accident, Lynn faces a choice - defend her pond alone or band together with her crippled neighbor, a pregnant woman, a filthy orphan, and a teenage boy who awakens feelings she can't figure out.
NOT A DROP TO DRINK (69,000 words) is dystopian YA. I have been a YA librarian in the public school system for seven years, allowing me to spend forty hours a week with my target audience.
On the query: I love the punchy first sentence, which hooked me immediately. Otherwise, I think this is the perfect query. Succinct, visceral and spare--all characteristics that capture the sense of the novel perfectly. The scene is set, the world the novel occurs in is clear, the main protagonist is obvious, and presents the main conflicts of the novel simply: the innate tension of protecting their water source, Mother's death, a love interest, and antagonists manipulating a main water source.
She also included a short bio paragraph, and I liked that Mindy mentioned that as a YA librarian, she spends 40 hours a week with her target audience. She must know what she's talking about! I'd request this novel all over again!
After reading the first 50 pages that were included with the query, as per our submission guidelines, I requested the full, and read it in something like two days. Once I got Mindy on the phone, I offered representation after gushing rather profusely. We worked on several rounds of revisions before I sent this out on submission, so I'm sure we discussed some of my editorial suggestions, which Mindy was a champ about. She's been a pleasure to work with, and proof that amazing projects are discovered in the slush pile!
Thank you, Mindy and Adriann, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!