June 24, 2009

A really disastrous query letter

Filed under: Backstory — jenny @ 6:17 am
This bit is part of Technorati registration:

People say, “Don’t tell [the powers that be] your plans; They/He/She will only laugh at them.” Oh, how that power must’ve been chuckling at me. My goal is to write my second novel fulltime?

Let’s just see, They/He/She must’ve chortled. Let’s give her, oh, ten years or so of not earning one thin dime. By then she will be good and humbled.

Believe me, I am humbled now by this thing called writing as well as the business it exists in. And so I humbly present…

November 17,  1998

Ms. Anna Cottle
Cine/Lit Representation
7415 181st Place, Southwest
Edmonds, WA 98026

Dear Anna Cottle:

Today, maybe more than ever, children kill.

This pressing, yet timeless, societal problem propels my suspense novel, Arugula’s Mother.  The novel recalls Stephen King’s Firestarter and Misery, and Jonathan Kellerman’s When the Bough Breaks.  Because the characters explore the theme that children are sometimes better off without their mothers, Arugula’s Mother is also serious mainstream fiction, with echoes of Rosellen Brown’s Before and After, Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres and William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice.

When four year old Lucy Benson begins to kill small animals and attack people, her strange, fragile mother seeks help at Wedeskyull Community Hospital in their Adirondack town overshadowed by mountains.  The case is assigned to Dara Davies, a young psychologist-in-training with a love of children, a weak left hand, and reasons for backing away from danger.  Dara’s race to find the causes of Lucy’s problems entangles her with a family in desperate trouble, and forces her to expose the secrets of a rural community that is cruelly split.  As Dara gets closer to the truth, someone begins stalking her.  Dara’s need to save Lucy – despite danger – bears down on her career and marriage until both start to crack.  She struggles to stay close to her husband John, but his own tormented past draws him away just when Dara needs him most.  Finally Dara’s life is threatened, and only a feat of unexpected bravery can free Lucy and Dara herself from the horror she uncovers.  It is an act that brings Dara face to face with the fact that love between mothers and children is stunning in its depth, and those depths can be fatally murky.

Arugula’s Mother has a gunshot pace and will appeal to the huge audience that reads suspense rapaciously – the more plot twists and falls the better.  Its keep-you-guessing plot, realistic dialogue, and menacing sense of place also make the novel highly adaptable to film.

As a clinical psychology student six months from my doctorate, I have spoken about violent children to hospitals, schools and community centers.  Childhood violence would be an important topic on national talk shows such as Oprah, and I can discuss it from both fictional and psychological perspectives. I am in a position to promote my novel to specific target audiences – children’s advocacy and crime prevention groups, mental health associations – in addition to everyone enthralled by the world of child psychology.

I wrote and revised Arugula’s Mother in seven months, including fact-checking with a child custody expert, a journalist, an architect and a veterinary pathologist.  I did this while completing an internship working with violent children.  I am currently at work on my second suspense novel, An Absence of Wind, and my goal is to write it full time.

I decided to contact you because Elizabeth Lyon quoted you and Mary Alice Kier as saying, “If it entertains, it enlightens; if it enlightens, then it empowers.”  This belief struck me as a wonderful mirror of my primary goal for Arugula’s Mother.

I would be thrilled to send you the completed manuscript if this query intrigues you.  I look forward to your prompt response and thank you very much for your time.

Most Sincerely,

Jenny Milchman


  1. I am really enjoying your query story. We all seem to have a good one, don’t we? Does anyone who reads here have one that goes something like this — I queried twenty agents, I was offered representation, the end? I highly doubt it. :)

    Comment by Judy — June 24, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  2. The gods laughing at someone for a decade….wow. I identify!

    Anyway, good query! I was a little surprised you put comparisons to other novels first, instead of after, describing your plot, but it sounded very informed and professional!

    Comment by Savvy — June 24, 2009 @ 10:58 am

  3. Jenny,

    The query could have used some tweaking, sure, but after the build-up you gave it yesterday (and today’s post title), I was expecting something really, really bad.

    This isn’t even close to being “a really disastrous query letter.”

    It is interesting to see what one wrote ten years ago, though.

    Comment by Alan Orloff — June 24, 2009 @ 12:05 pm

  4. Thanks for reading, guys, and I’ve enjoyed reading your comments. I have yet to meet that person, Judy–maybe it’s like Bigfoot ;)

    Savvy, I have no idea what made me put those comparisons first!

    And Alan, I appreciate your optimistic take very much. I am still shocked to see how overblown were my hopes and plans, especially at that early stage!

    Please stay tuned, for I plan to write about who received it…and how they responded! Also, if you’d like to guest post your own query story, please just let me know–I am endlessly fascinated by this process…

    Comment by jenny — June 24, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

  5. My query story is way too sad right now to post but if it ever has a happy ending — I’m there. :)

    Comment by Judy — June 24, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

  6. [...] letter morphed over the years. As you know from this blog, it began as a big, boastful, bloated document that I’m still shocked got any offers. But I grew more realistic and humble as time [...]

    Pingback by How to Query a Literary Agent. OK, One Way to Query a Literary Agent. » Suspense Your Disbelief — October 25, 2009 @ 9:14 am

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