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Hawkes
07-10-2007, 04:12 AM
Well, I finally did it; I finished my first book! It's a memoir about my recent life since being diagnosed with Crohn's disease. I'd like to get some critical feedback on the query I've drafted before I start sending it out to agents. I'm looking for honest opinions here, so don't go easy. Have at you!



Dear [Agent],
Of the more than two million people affected by inflammatory bowel disease in the United States alone, the majority is diagnosed in their late teens or early twenties. Catch-Twentysomething, now completed at 80,000 words, is a memoir that recounts the turbulent years following my own diagnosis with Crohn’s disease.

To speak openly about a condition that affects your digestive tract in unpredictable ways is an act that takes guts. Early adulthood is already a tangled mass of expectations about education, careers, houses, cars, marriage, and children; add to that the idea that at any given moment your body might suddenly be racked with intense shooting pain, and you’ve entered a day in the life of a young adult with IBD. My story begins here.


Please let me know if you would be interested in reading a few sample chapters or the completed manuscript. A return envelope has been included for your response.

Sincerely,

xxx xxxxxxxx

johnrobison
07-10-2007, 04:25 AM
With all due respect, I see some issues . . .

First, there are some bits of grammatical roughness. For example, you say, "majority is diagnosed." "Majority are diagnosed" would sound better.

Second, there is little meat to the letter, little to draw me in. Why, for example, are the years after being diagnosed turbulent? In what way does diegnosis cause turbulence?

In the next paragraph, your story does not "begin here." It "begins there."

Your query letter must demonstrate a compelling writing style.

It must deliver enough content to catch the reader's attention, and make him want more.

And you need to show the reader why he should care about the book's topic.

Hawkes
07-10-2007, 04:55 AM
Hi John,

Thanks for your comments.

I believe 'the majority is' is grammatically correct; MS Word gave me the squiggly green line when I used the phrase 'the majority are,' though I agree that it does sound better that way.

You're right, I think I'm afraid of being too verbose in my query because I don't want to lose the reader's attention, but in doing so I am not providing enough depth to make it grab one's attention in the first place. I've been looking around for query letter examples, but in the memoir department there are an unfortunate few.

johnrobison
07-10-2007, 05:35 AM
It's not good, as a rule, to write things that are grammatically correct and yet sound wrong.

Look at all sorts of query letters - not just memoir. There's nothing special about a query for a memoir. Look at my friend Pat Wood's query letter for Lottery. She posts here as Orion. I personally have never written a query because my agent seems adept at that and I never needed to try. I'm very lucky because I had a personal introduction to my agent, and he did such a good job of talking up my book that I was able to go to New York and interview publishers in person. I never tried to sell something by writing alone, except the book itself.

But I shudder at the thought of queries. It's hard. If I had to boil my book down into 400 words, could I do it and get a nibble? I don't know.

Hawkes
07-10-2007, 05:35 AM
Here is a second attempt:



Dear [Agent],
Every mouthful of food seems to transform into a heap of broken glass on its way to my stomach. Over the next eighteen to thirty hours, I’ll feel every shard. More than two million people are affected by inflammatory bowel disease in the United States alone, and the majority are diagnosed in their late teens and early twenties. Catch-Twentysomething, now completed at 80,000 words, is a memoir that recounts the turbulent years following my own diagnosis with Crohn’s disease.

Most people don’t even have to think about where the closest restroom is when they leave the house, but I do. I have a disease, and there is no cure; it is an embarrassing malady that is easier to keep quiet about than it is to confront openly. Early adulthood is already a tangled mass of expectations about education, careers, houses, cars, marriage, and children. Add to that the idea that at any given moment your body might suddenly be racked with intense shooting pain; that even the simple act of eating is as frightening as strapping on an infantry rifle and going into combat, and you’ve entered a day in the life of a young adult with IBD. My story begins there.

Please let me know if you would be interested in reading a few sample chapters or the completed manuscript. A return envelope has been included for your response.
Sincerely,


xxx xxxxxxx

Ziljon
07-10-2007, 05:46 AM
I think this sound like an interesting book. I'm just going to move some sentences around from what you've done:


Here is a second attempt:



Dear [Agent],
More than two million people are affected by inflammatory bowel disease in the United States alone, and the majority are diagnosed in their late teens and early twenties. Catch-Twentysomething, now completed at 80,000 words, is a memoir that recounts the turbulent years following my own diagnosis with Crohn’s disease.

Most people don’t even have to think about where the closest restroom is when they leave the house, but I do. I have this disease, and there is no cure; it is an embarrassing malady that is easier to keep quiet about than it is to confront openly. Early adulthood is already a tangled mass of expectations about education, careers, houses, cars, marriage, and children. Add to that the fact that every mouthful of food seems to transform itself into a heap of broken glass on its way to my stomach, . Over the next eighteen to thirty hours, I’ll feel every shard. at any given moment your body might suddenly be racked with intense shooting pain; that even the simple act of eating is as frightening as strapping on an infantry rifle and going into combat, and you’ve entered a day in the life of a young adult with IBD. My story begins there.

Please let me know if you would be are interested in reading a few sample chapters or the completed manuscript. A return envelope has been included for your response.
Sincerely,


xxx xxxxxxx

jordijoy
07-10-2007, 06:22 AM
I think this sound like an interesting book. I'm just going to move some sentences around from what you've done:

Well done; good job!

RLB
07-10-2007, 06:36 AM
Hawkes,

The other queries for memoirs I've read tend to read more like queries for novels. You say in your letter "my story begins there..." but you don't actually tell us any specifics about your story. What happens? I think it'd be a lot stronger if you gave concrete examples of what you've done and overcome, rather than speaking in generalizations about everyone affected by IBD. As it is, I'm not really drawn in. Give me more info on yourself (the protagonist) and what you do and why I'm rooting for you.

rubarbb
07-10-2007, 06:44 AM
Hawkes;1461540]Here is a second attempt:
Please let me know if you would be interested in reading a few sample chapters or the completed manuscript. A return envelope has been included for your response.
Sincerely,


How about thanking him/her for their time, and I look forward to hearing from you...or something...

Sakamonda
07-10-2007, 08:03 PM
I agree with most of the above comments. Right now you aren't doing enough to compel me to read further into your narrative. You not only need to work hard to draw the reader into your narrative and want to read it, with memoir you must also establish a marketing platform. In addition to writing a compelling narrative (and right now, your query isn't very compelling), in memoir you also have to appeal to a broad audience. Spend a bit more time showing how large the potential audience is for a book about Crohn's. In addition to people with Crohn's, you can also highlight the high number of people who live with a Crohn's sufferer and how the disease may affect friends/family members of sufferers. Oftentimes when writing a memoir about a disease experience it is the friends and family members of the disease sufferers who will become your book's biggest potential audience. I know that's likely the case with John Robison's book, and it is also likely the case with the memoir I just sold, WACKO, which deals with family-based mental illness.

Queries are hard. But being able to write a good query is essential to any author's career. The way things worked for John Robison is not the norm---most authors must be able to write an airtight query in order to land an agent and/or publisher.

Good luck.

Sakamonda
07-10-2007, 08:11 PM
One more thing----what are your writing credentials? Where have you published in the past? (magazines, newspapers, other books, etc.) What else qualifies you to write a book about Crohn's besides being a Crohn's sufferer----i.e., are you a journalist, a health professional, etc.? Agents will want to know this.

FWIW, I didn't have to write an agent query for my recently sold memoir WACKO, because I already had agent representation (via other books I'd written) when I wrote it. But I did have to write a book proposal for my agent to use to shop the book to publishers, and the first page of a book proposal (what agents use to propose potential nonfiction books to publishing house editors) is quite similar to an agent query. I've reposted that here as an example of what works for memoir:




Book Proposal: WACKO: A Memoir of Family Mental Illness.



By Jill Elaine Hughes

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------



“I am sleeping in a flophouse. An actual flophouse. Single. Room. Occupancy. The kind of joint where heroin addicts and transient alcoholic men sleep. The kind of joint twenty-eight-year-old women with master’s degrees from the University of Chicago should only encounter on the pages of a fifty-year-old pulp fiction paperback procured from the rare book store on the corner of Belmont and Sheffield. I am sleeping in a flophouse. Well, not sleeping, really. Crying, shaking, shuddering with disbelief at how this could possibly have happened to me, yes. Sleeping, no.”



So begins WACKO: A Memoir of Family Mental Illness. The author, Jill Elaine Hughes, is a Chicago-area playwright, journalist, and health-policy analyst who grew up in a working-class family riddled with severe mental illness----clinical depression, paranoid schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline psychoses, multiple personality disorder, you name it. Mental illness pervaded Ms. Hughes’ formative years at all levels, from her parents and siblings to her grandparents a long line of lunatic, suicidal ancestors. And that long line of lunatic, suicidal ancestors would find its latest, youngest addition in Jill Elaine Hughes herself.



Despite all her best efforts to break the cycle of catastrophic, destructive patterns of mental illness so many in her family had suffered before her, in the spring of 2002, Jill Elaine Hughes found herself at the end of her rope----unemployed, penniless, homeless and in the throes of a psychotic episode that threatened to destroy her life.



WACKO begins as Jill Elaine Hughes hits psychological rock-bottom. Then, in a blend of personal narrative, family history, and hard-hitting investigative journalism, WACKO methodically weaves together all the strands of life, family, personal shortcomings, genetic predisposition---and most of all, society’s fundamental misunderstanding of mental illness---that all combined into the near-lethal cataclysm that brought Hughes to her knees.



This powerful memoir chronicles Ms. Hughes’ life as both a casualty and survivor of family mental illness, from her point of rock-bottom to her own recovery, as well as her efforts to help her still-afflicted mother, father, brother, and grandparents find hope and healing.



About The Author: JILL ELAINE HUGHES is a Chicago-area freelance writer, playwright, and health policy analyst. She has contributed to the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, New Art Examiner, Missouri Review, Cat Fancy magazine, and numerous other publications, and her stage plays have received productions in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston, Off-Broadway, and in the United Kingdom. She is currently employed as a health policy analyst for a major medical association, and is knowledgeable of current government health legislation, health insurance reimbursement regulations, mental health statistics, and organized medicine activities. Ms. Hughes is willing and able to do local, regional and (with publisher support) national media promotion of WACKO.

Shwebb
07-10-2007, 08:15 PM
In general, a great resource for writing query letters (IMO) has been Miss Snark's crapometer. She has just retired her blog, but it's still up and she has great advice for how she, as an agent, responds when she reads a query. Might be worth a look. I confess that I've read her blog enough that it has shaped my writing into something a bit more dynamic than it was in the past. Here's a link to the archives. (http://www.misssnark.blogspot.com)

BTW, your second try was great at grabbing my attention!

Hidden Helper
07-13-2007, 04:39 AM
I like the second version. It captures my attention more.

Right before the last paragraph, I would mention your platform. What do you do for a living? Is this your first book? Have you ever spoken to groups about Crohn's? Do you have a family? (If that is significant in the book). What would make the agent/publisher more interested in you?

I write query letters for clients occasionally, and it's hard to imagine a document that's a page or less can take so long to write! :)

Lauren

Hawkes
07-14-2007, 07:30 AM
Haha, I know what you mean Lauren. As the first impression an agent is getting of your writing style it seems like no matter what I write I still don't have half a chance in hell. Maybe that's true, but I think the story I've told in my book is honest and well-written.

As a writer, however, I don't have any publishing credentials. I read somewhere that if that's the case you should just kind of leave that part out instead of saying 'oh, and by the way, I don't officially know what I'm talking about.' In reality I'm just a Crohn's sufferer who's had an interesting time of it and I decided to write about what I've gone through.

One of the major veins throughout the book is the fact that I put off having surgery for over a year - a YEAR - after my doctor told me I needed it. I came close to death as a result, but I wanted to leave the sob story out of my query. I feel like too many people that write memoirs concentrate on how all this bad stuff happened to them but they kept going and got through it and yay for me, I rose above insurmountable odds and came out the other end a better person. Of course, that is part of my story but I thought it better not to highlight it that way. Should I have?

Ziljon, I like the edits you made. Definitely kicked it up a notch, thanks.

Shwebb - Ms. Snark is great; her site is a wonderful source of information for writers. For the life of me though I can't find all these sample query letters. I've looked through tons of her posts but there is no search function on her page. Am I missing something?

Sakamonda, thanks for your example. I've been thinking of using the third person to refer to myself, but might that sound too pretentious for a query?

Sakamonda
07-14-2007, 05:07 PM
You should not leave out the part of how Crohn's almost killed you. If anything, you should highlight it. That's dramatic, and good memoirs always contain real-life drama. Without real-life drama, memoirs just become glorified versions of "what I did on my summer vacation."

Hawkes
07-15-2007, 05:59 PM
This is basically taking into account Ziljon's helpful edits and adding some extra information about why someone reading the book might want to 'root for' me:

Dear [Agent],
More than two million people are affected by inflammatory bowel disease in the United States alone, and the majority are diagnosed in their late teens and early twenties. Catch-Twentysomething, now completed at 80,000 words, is a memoir that recounts the turbulent years following my own diagnosis with Crohn’s disease.

Most people don’t even have to think about where the closest restroom is when they leave the house, but I do. I have this disease, and there is no cure; it is an embarrassing malady that is easier to keep quiet about than it is to confront openly. Early adulthood is already a tangled mass of expectations about education, careers, houses, cars, marriage, and children. Add to that the fact that every mouthful of food seems to transform itself into a heap of broken glass on its way to my stomach - that the simple act of eating is as frightening as strapping on an infantry rifle and going into combat - and you’ve entered a day in the life of a young adult with IBD. Determined to avoid surgery, I spent a grueling fourteen months trying to find ways to heal my body without medicines or other medical treatment - and it almost cost me my life.

Please let me know if you are interested in reading a few sample chapters or the completed manuscript. Thank you for your time; a return envelope has been included for your response.

Sincerely,

xxx xxxxxxx

johnrobison
07-16-2007, 03:38 AM
Hawkes, that proposal stll does not work for me. Look at Jill's, then yours, and then consider how long she spent trying to sell hers. There's just not enough meat to yours.

I understand you've got the condition, but what qualifies you to write about it? What's the edge? Why you?

That's the "platform" issue people talk about in non-fiction. What's going to make someone pick up your book, among all the books in a bookstore? Without that answer, you're not ready to sell it.

Hawkes
07-16-2007, 06:29 AM
Remember John, this is a query - not a proposal. Jill has provided a very helpful example of part of her book proposal. I'm sending out a query, which is similar, but not the same. Its main goal is to get the attention of a busy agent and spark just enough interest to make them want to read more. I'm hoping to accomplish that, but too long a query letter just increases the chances of giving that agent a reason to say 'no.'

I believe that what's going to make people want to read my book is the fact that it would be the first of its kind to breach the subject matter in a narrative context. IBD is a prevalent disease that affects a lot of people, yet it's one of the most humiliating things I can think of to talk about - which may be the reason why there are no other memoirs dealing with it. Why me? Because I'm a writer, and I can write about what I know and what I've experienced with 100% certainty that others will identify with it.

Does it make a difference that (besides having the condition) I've spent hours researching it, studying the theories of its origin, looking at how it affects the human body on a cellular level, reading about every treatment that exists? I don't have a degree in Crohns-ology, but I'll bet you I know ten times more than the lay-person. What other credentials should I feel like I have to go out and get if the writing speaks for itself, as it should?

Hidden Helper
07-16-2007, 06:32 AM
Hawkes, One big difference I notice between yours and Jill's is that hers is written in the third person while yours is in the first. When I read yours, I get the idea of what you go through, but not necessarily what the book is about. It may be exactly the same, but the reader of the query won't know that. I would talk about the book. At what age were you diagnosed with Crohn's Disease? How many years following does the memoir cover? Even though this is a memoir, you are a "character" in the book. What's interesting about you? Add some of the dramatic points along the way in your synopsis--including delaying surgery and the result of it.

Why is someone else with the disease going to want to read your book? What can they learn from you? You don't necessarily want to come right out and say all this, but you should be thinking about what you can convey in the query that will tell an agent 1) This book sounds like something I'd like to read and 2) There is a market for this book and I guess 3) This book is unique because...

And don't sell yourself short. You are an expert because you are living sufferer of Crohn's Disease and this is a memoir about your experience. Stay positive!

Good luck!

Susan B
07-16-2007, 09:58 PM
Well, if there have been no first person accounts this is an important part of your platform. I'd mention this in your query letter.

Some other things about Crohn's worth mentioning, maybe:

--The seriousness of the illness can be misunderstood, because some of the overt symptoms, G.I. problems, are common in their milder forms. (And also embarassing, as you note.)

--Adapting to Crohn's involves body image and physical intimacy, and in the young adult age group that's especially vulnerable. I'd make this more explicit.

--You might want to personalize this a little more. Were you in college, starting your first job, single, newly coupled when you were diagnosed? This would make the struggle more vivid.

--I agree about highlighting the issue of avoiding treatment and risking death.

I think this book has promise. Good luck!

Susan