How I Got My Agent: The Query Letter

Back when I was querying agents in 2016, one of the most helpful things I did was read successful query letters by other authors. I’d look at how they introduced their characters, how they raised the stakes, and how they presented themselves as authors. There are a ton of good ones out there, but I thought I’d share mine too. It’s been a few years, and I’ve matured a lot since then (I was nineteen. NINETEEN) but hey–it worked, so I’m proud of it.

For timeframe reference, I started querying in January 2016, and I had an agent by early February. My agent search went very smoothly and quickly, and I attribute that to a) sliding into peoples’ inboxes at a lucky post-holiday time and b) having a decent query letter!

I’ve posted the letter first in its original, unedited text. This is the actual thing that I pitched to Hannah Bowman, the amazing agent I’m with now. (Yes, THE POPPY WAR was called SPEER’S VENGEANCE at the time. Terrible title. I know. And yes, it was only 137,000 words back then. It grew about 18,000 words during six rounds of edits.) I used a nearly identical letter for most of the other agents I queried to–I only tailored a few words to cater to what I’d seen in agents’ wish lists. I ended up getting a ton of partial requests, a lot of full requests, and three final offers. So while I’d change a few things about the letter if I were writing it today, it was still pretty successful.

I’m also including a version with my annotations on which parts I think worked, and why. I’m not an agent or a mind reader so my advice may not apply to everyone. Take it all with a grain of salt, and reject what doesn’t work for you. But I hope this helps a little!

Here’s the original:

Dear Hannah,

How about a female Asian protagonist kicking ass in a world where shamans summon gods by dropping acid? I am seeking representation for SPEER’S VENGEANCE, a completed fantasy novel of 137,000 words. 

Twelve-year-old war orphan Runin Fang has zero prospects. Her foster parents, two opium dealers, would like to marry her off to an imports official. But Runin has other plans. Through a series of thefts and bribes, she manages to test into the academy at Sinegard, where martial artists are trained to lead the Nikan Imperial Militia. There, Runin discovers an aptitude for shamanism: the ancient art of calling upon the gods in battle through ingesting psychedelics. 

(Read: get high, breathe fire.) 

But as Runin grows from clueless orphan to a formidable martial artist, her country readies itself for war. When the Federation of Mugen invades her motherland Nikan, Runin is thrust into the heart of a conflict that has spanned generations. As her shamanic powers grow, she will be forced to make a choice between saving her people and retaining her humanity. 

My background: I study international relations theory and modern Chinese history. To study these things is to study suffering. I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuses to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade. 

This novel is my attempt to answer those questions. It is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a study in collective trauma, genocide denial, military strategy, and the psychology of dictators. I read that you’re looking for military SF, and this might be right up your alley. 

Also, because it is about shamans, this book deals extensively with psychotropic drug use. Researching this was fun. 

I really appreciate your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response.

Best,
Rebecca Kuang

Fancy, no? I was such an obnoxious nineteen-year-old. I was an undergraduate presenting myself like I was a university researcher (and people still get confused about that today, but that’s entirely their own fault) ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (For the record, I am still an undergraduate, but graduating next month and starting grad school at Cambridge in September.)
Here’s a version with my comments in bold:

Dear Hannah, [People give mixed advice on whether to use agents’ first names or last names. Some agents I’ve talked to say they prefer first names because otherwise things sound horribly formal. They aren’t your schoolteacher. And you are, after all, looking for a business partner. But I don’t think there’s one right way to do this. No one’s going to reject a query based on how you addressed them.]

How about a female Asian protagonist kicking ass in a world where shamans summon gods by dropping acid?[I’m really proud of this first sentence. I think it packs a ton of specific details about the story into a very short lead, and makes it clear it’s a story about marginalized perspectives without spelling it out.] I am seeking representation for SPEER’S VENGEANCE, a completed fantasy novel of 137,000 words. [I’ve read a lot of advice about necessary information to put in the first paragraph, and I think it’s standard. Include title, genre, and word count. Some people do comp titles here too; I didn’t because I’d read a warning about comparing yourself to overly-ambitious comps and I got scared.]

Twelve-year-old war orphan Runin Fang has zero prospects.[Introduce the main character and give us a reason to care about them!] Her foster parents, two opium dealers, would like to marry her off to an imports official. But Runin has other plans. Through a series of thefts and bribes, she manages to test into the academy at Sinegard, where martial artists are trained to lead the Nikan Imperial Militia. There, Runin discovers an aptitude for shamanism: the ancient art of calling upon the gods in battle through ingesting psychedelics. [Look at all that world building! I’m going to use the word “specificity” a lot, but I think it’s wildly important to highlight the details that set your MS apart from others in the genre.]

(Read: get high, breathe fire.) [I like this sentence because it shows my writing voice and sense of humor. It’s a nice, curt summary of the world’s magic system. And it’s forking funny!] 

But as Runin grows from clueless orphan to a formidable martial artist, her country readies itself for war.[Once I introduced a character for us to care about, I panned outward and outlined the stakes.] When the Federation of Mugen invades her motherland Nikan, Runin is thrust into the heart of a conflict that has spanned generations. As her shamanic powers grow, she will be forced to make a choice between saving her people and retaining her humanity. [I think this last sentence was meh, but it does the job. It outlines the central conflict and makes the reader intrigued in how things play out, without spelling out the ending. The important thing is that we have someone to care about, a goal they are trying to achieve, and the impediments to that goal.]

[I think this next paragraph is optional. Some people include information about their writing background and previous publications. I didn’t have any, so I didn’t. But I did have academic background relevant to the story, so I used this space to describe a) why I wrote this story and b) why I was the best person to write the story.]

My background: I study international relations theory and modern Chinese history. To study these things is to study suffering. I have long asked myself how the world could have looked away when millions of Chinese perished under horrific conditions of warfare and famine. I have asked how Japan could to this day refuses to acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre, the rapes of tens of thousands of women, and the grotesque experiments conducted by Unit 731. Most of all, I have asked how Mao, the same man revered by millions as a god of liberation, could have become a genocidal dictator in the span of a decade. [More hints at what will be in the book without spelling out the plot. Also, specific details and historical allusions make it clear I know what I’m talking about!]

This novel is my attempt to answer those questions. It is a fantasy novel, but it’s also a study in collective trauma, genocide denial, military strategy, and the psychology of dictators.[I like to just laundry list a bunch of themes my book touches on. I think it’s a quick and easy way to describe what you’r about.] I read that you’re looking for military SF, and this might be right up your alley. [Make it clear that you’re querying this particular agent for a reason! Some people do this part in the first paragraph. I don’t think it matters where you do it, as long as you do.]

Also, because it is about shamans, this book deals extensively with psychotropic drug use. Researching this was fun. [Again, voice and humor. Long paragraphs become a slog to read, so I tend to break them up with short punchy sentences to give the reader a break.]

I really appreciate your time and consideration, and I look forward to your response. [Common courtesy!]

Best,
Rebecca Kuang

 

Obviously, there are some cringe-worthy moments in there. The more you grow as a writer, the more often you become ashamed of your younger self. But this query letter worked–and I don’t think it’s a bad one. Take what is helpful and laugh at what isn’t. And good luck on your agent search!

3 thoughts on “How I Got My Agent: The Query Letter”

  1. Just stopping by to say thank you for posting this!
    I’ve not yet read the Poppy War, but I’ve heard so many positive comments lately that it has moved into my top 5 to-be-read. I’m a little nervous because of your disclaimer / content advisory. But more than that, I’m excited because “traditional” fantasy, magic, and medieval pseudo-Europes are all pretty damn tired.

    Like

  2. Personally, I feel that your query letter kicked ass! I’m reading your book and I must say, while you’re so young (chronologically), you’re an old soul and gifted writer with so much to give to this world. I hope that your book shines a light on the Sino Japanese war—and the cruel nature of war in general. Congrats! You deserve it

    Like

  3. I was wondering how you found your literary agent, and five minutes letter I get to read your query letter. Thank you for sharing it.

    I’m currently wrapping up Chapter 9 of The Poppy War. I found your book last week while on a lunch break strolling thru a book chain. The sleeve notes sounded appealing so I purchased it, and I’m completely enjoying the world you’ve crafted.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s