My Slush-Pile Query Letter

Random excerpt from novel-in-progress: There are few places creepier than a deserted computer lab in the middle of the night. And believe me, I know creepy.

In February 2008, I decided to send a query to my top-choice urban fantasy publisher, Ace/Roc. A month earlier, a small press had bought my mystery, and I was feeling successful and optimistic. Ace/Roc publishes some of my very favorite authors. I’d recently finished an urban fantasy that had been fun to write and that I was hoping to sell. When I saw that Ace/Roc accepts submissions directly from authors, I thought, “Why not?”

So I whipped up a query letter. I went through that and the novel’s first ten pages about a gazillion times, polishing and polishing and polishing some more. I pasted them into an email and clicked Send.

Five months later, I received a request for the next 50 pages. Two hours after that, for the whole manuscript. A couple more weeks, and I had a two-book offer. And Deadtown comes out in December.

Query letters have a difficult job to do. They need to have an up-front hook. They need to show a plot that has momentum. They need to convey a sense of the book’s tone while introducing the central conflict and main characters. For fantasy, they need to open a door into the world the characters inhabit. Say the words “query letter” in a room full of writers, and you’ll hear a chorus of groans. Maybe some gnashing of teeth and weeping, as well.

So I thought it would be helpful to share the query letter that got my book noticed in the slush pile. (Back when I sent this, the novel’s working title was Zombie Town.) I think it does a pretty good job of doing all those things a query letter is supposed to do. Of course, if you’re sending sample pages with the query, make sure those are in the best shape you can get them.

My name is Victory Vaughn, and I live by two simple rules: Never tell a human you’re a shapeshifter on a first, second, or third date. And never, ever bring along a zombie apprentice wannabe on a demon kill.

When Vicky broke Rule #2, she almost got trapped in dream limbo–in someone else’s dreamscape. And now, thanks to sexy human cop Daniel Costello, who needs her help to solve a murder, she’s seriously tempted to break Rule #1. That is, if Daniel ever asks her on a date.

Vicky kills demons for a living–other people’s demons. Her job keeps her busy at night, which is one reason why her on-again, off-again relationship with workaholic werewolf lawyer Alexander Kane never seems to go anywhere. That and the fact that he’s pressuring her to go with him–as a wolf–on his monthly full-moon retreat. But Vicky isn’t a werewolf; she’s Cerddorion, part of a long line of shapeshifting demon-slayers who trace their lineage back to the goddess Ceridwen. Besides, she’s got bigger things to worry about right now, like being stalked by the Hellion who killed her father ten years ago. And this time, that demon-from-Hell has bigger plans than one little murder.

Single-handedly saving Boston from utter annihilation wont be easy. Kane is obsessed with defeating the anti-Monsterchusetts candidate for governor. Vicky’s vampire roommate Juliet (yes, that Juliet-as in “Romeo and”) is more amused than alarmed at the prospect of a widespread massacre. The demon-plagued client who’s Vicky’s best hope for confronting the Hellion keeps firing her. And Daniel may have betrayed her to her second-worst enemy.

On the night her father died, Vicky was burned by the Hellion, marked forever with its essence. Now, her demon-marked arm–her fighting arm–won’t raise itself against the thing. As Vicky struggles to avenge her father and save the city, she wonders: How can you fight something that’s inside you?

Zombie Town is a 100,000-word urban fantasy. Although this is the first book of a projected series, it can also stand alone. I’m submitting the manuscript to Ace/Roc because I enjoy many of the authors you publish, particularly Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, Charlaine Harris, and Rachel Caine. I’d be proud to see Zombie Town sit on a bookshelf next to these authors’ novels, and I believe it would appeal to their readers. Per your submission guidelines, I’ve enclosed the first ten pages in this email.

I’m a published author of technical books, including several books in O’Reilly’s popular Missing Manual series. My first novel, a mystery, will be published by Five Star Mysteries in the summer of 2009.

Thank you for your consideration.


About nancyholzner

11 responses to “My Slush-Pile Query Letter

  • Marianne

    The first paragraph was perfect!! And, good grief: Got Conflict? Sounds like a fabulous book and it’s no wonder the grabbed it.

    Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Miriam Pia

    I’m proud of you and hope that I can abandon all tendencies towards failure whether caused by fear of success or sheer lassitude in order to have the same type of success with my own novels…

    “When IMPD Sheriff Master Johnson gets frustrated and fed up, he turns to his Priest, Father Zach O’Malley. His staff is upset because they once again know who’s guilty but do not have enough evidence to bring people in. Officially, Johnson feels a stymied. His Priest, a younger white man with a shockingly pure face encourages him to call Indy’s new young Mayor – Jason Boggs.

    What Jason doesn’t know, he soon finds out. There are people working in his office from well before he was elected and when he brings up the Sheriff’s complaint they know what to do. ….

    • nancyholzner

      Miriam, if this is an excerpt from a query letter, I’d recommend two things: Let the reader know as soon as possible who’s the main character (it’s not clear from what you’ve written which of these three men we should focus on) and highlight the book’s central conflict. When a writer sits down to write a query letter, it’s tempting to start at the beginning of the story and retell it in summary. But that’s not what a query aims for–a query aims to interest the reader in the story enough that the reader wants to know what happens. That’s the “hook,” and it’s what you’ll find in the back cover copy of a published book or even in a movie trailer. A main character, a conflict, and high stakes–these are the essential ingredients.

      • Miriam Pia

        Thank you Nancy. I can’t believe it took me until today to read this, and it can be ‘tough’ as it is ‘constructive criticism’ but thank you. I hadn’t even thought about it quite like that.

        I re-read your post. That was incredible. Funny that you’ve heard of Ceridwen.

        Thanks again.

        Miriam Pia
        aka Pia Okrongli
        aka Larrison
        aka “Names I never heard them call me, because they were talking about me behind my back at the time”

  • ravenlaw

    Thanks Nancy!

    I love it when an author shares like this. Much success to you!

    You deserve it!


  • Scott

    Nancy, you’ve inspired me even more to get my novel out there. Most authors that I’ve talked to won’t share these things. It’s wonderful that you decided to share this with all of us! I can’t wait to read Deadtown and the sequels!!!

  • opheliarising

    Thank you! I was given this link by your sister Paula, with whom I went to college.

    I’m in the process of writing a query to agents for my YA novel, and appreciate the advice. I really like your tip on making the query a hook, rather than a sequence of events. That’s been hanging me up, and as I lay in bed last night thinking about it, I sort of came to this realization myself. But you’ve just solidified it for me. So, thank you, again! 🙂

    I also like what you’ve written about it being a projected series, as this is the same for my book, although for some strange reason I hadn’t thought of including this fact in the letter. Now, I certainly will.

  • Dolly

    I clicked this link from AW hoping to learn something about query letter, but by the time I finished, I was looking at it as a reader – I so want to read your book 🙂

    Thank you for the sharing the letter, and I look forward to reading your stories.

  • donnamareehanson

    Thanks for being so generous. I’m working on a query letter to Ace Roc now.

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