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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Query Critique #4: Memoir Pitch for an Agent

Hi, readers! It's day four of Query Critique Week, and I hope you're finding it helpful. Today's query is from a writer looking for an agent for her memoir. As usual, my comments are in blue.

Dear Ms. Alspaugh,

I read about you in Writer’s Digest, and then wandered through a delightful interview with you on Novelists, Inc Blog by BlogMistress. I liked how you identified as an agent that would be approachable to your clients and that you were looking for writers “who love to write and who can’t not write. Writers who look forward to the promotion process and who have lots of great ideas about how to promote themselves and their work, writers who think about not just writing books, but articles, short stories, blogs, and more.” [I like that the writer has shown that she's done some research on the agent, but it's not necessary to quote so much from the interview. I'd prefer she include a line about books similar to hers (i.e. memoirs) that the agent has repped; this shows an additional level of research, and that the agent is more likely to be interested in this particular book. Personally, I don't like the word "wandered" in the first sentence, either, but that's just me.]

I’d enjoy working with you on my memoir, Grief Shadows: Young, Pregnant and Widowed. [Unnecessary...I'd strike this line.]

Three state troopers came to my front door at five o’clock in the morning and told me my husband was dead. He had fallen asleep driving on his way back to the National Guard base on Cape Cod.

I had just seen him four hours before. Smelled him. Kissed him. And told him we were pregnant. And now, all at once, I was a widow.

I was twenty-six years old. [Great opening, great lead. I'm intrigued.]

But how could I be a widow? Widows were old, with white hair and sensible shoes that cushioned their bunions and who waited for people to visit them in assisted living homes. Or maybe they were fifty-five and had lost a spouse to cancer. Someone with grown children. Not pregnant, like I was. Not with a toddler who’d never heard the word death. [Nice writing, and already we're getting a feel for her voice.]

Grief Shadows: Young, Pregnant and Widowed is more than a legacy of memories; it’s a way to reach out and connect to other grieving souls – to let them know they aren’t alone. Though Grief Shadows isn’t a “how-to” book, as a memoir it is a great practical guide for working through one’s grief. It shows those faced with grief what to expect, what is normal in the grief process – which is everything – and how to emerge from the darkness, stronger, wiser, and more whole. [Because I suggested we cut the line about the book being a memoir, I'd refer to it as a memoir here. I like that she's pointing out that it's more than just a memoir, but that may throw some agents. If she's pitching a book that's a blend, she should include some well-known memoirs that have taken a similar approach so the agent will have an idea of what she means. Reading through this paragraph a second time, I think the writer may be overstating her book's promise--I'm not sure it can deliver as a practical guide for working through grief. Typically what makes a great memoir is a great story and great writing...we don't expect a "how-to" takeaway. The writer may want to think about this more.]

I now live in Eugene, OR with my husband and two children. I’m a writer, an urban-homesteader, a book glutton and a dabbler in theater. In recent times I’ve been a massage therapist, a grief counselor, a home-schooler, and a potter. I’ve been published in my local city newspaper, write in two blogs, do monthly readings at a local theater group, and utilize social networking and marketing. [The writer has an interesting life, but the agent isn't likely to care. What she is likely to care about is her platform--how often does she blog? How many followers does she have? Has she been active in grief support groups? Does she speak to groups? Has she been interviewed, and when and were? How *exactly* does she utilize social media and marketing? Any agent is going to want to know how her client is going to SELL the book once it comes out because the publisher will want to know the same thing. She needs to pump up this paragraph...playing up her connections both online and IRL (in real life).]

Thank you for your time, Ms. Alspaugh. I certainly appreciate it and would be happy to send you my completed proposal. I’d enjoy any comments you have for me. [Typically with a memoir, as with fiction, you'll send the completed manuscript because the writing is what sells it. Unless this agent wants a proposal for a memoir, I'd ask if she's interested in seeing the first couple of chapters or the entire ms. And if it's the entire ms, she should mention the word count of the book. I also want to know what time span it covers--she's remarried now, so is this is the first year after her husband's death? The first five years? I feel like I don't know enough about what the book is about to decide whether I want to read it...more detail about the book would be helpful in this query.]

Respectfully yours,

Readers, what do you think? Do you agree? Disagree?


  1. Kelly,
    I just discovered your blog and I've really enjoyed reading your query critiques .

    I have not yet written a book but I wondered about the order of this query. Would it not be better to start

    I was twenty six years old when three state troopers came to my front door .........

    Then after all the part about the book to mention why she chose this particular agent.
    In other words the hook first.
    That's how I write article queries but is it different when you're pitching an agent about a book?

  2. Hi, Ann--
    Welcome to the blog, and do you have a good point. Typically I'd start with the lead, but i feel like whenever a writer has an "in" or a reason to pitch this particular agent, she should open with that.

    For example, normally my magazine queries start with an attention-getting lead. But if I just saw the editor speak at a conference, or I got her name from another writer, or had an in (in this case, the writer had just read an interview with her), I'd open with that. (Another option would be to put the "in" in the subject line, and then open the query with the lead.

    I do agree it could work other way--thanks for your comments!

  3. Thanks for critiquing this, Kelly.
    It really helps a lot.

    And the reason I didn't state any facts about my platform is I don't have one. And I've read that if you don't have any publishing clips, you shouldn't say that but instead just not mention that you're not published. In the same vein, if I only have 16 followers, say, that's not worth putting in the query letter. And could be detrimental! :)

  4. My pleasure, Valerie. I understand what you're saying about no platform, but I'd suggest you start building one...I know from attending conferences and speaking with agents and editors that that's what they're looking for, not just a great story. Christina Katz has a great book called "Get Known Before the Book Deal" that's all about platform-building; you may find that helpful. Thanks for sharing your query and good luck! Check out:

  5. Excellent query. I've been snooping around trying to find out how to write a 'memoir query' since I'm writing a memoir about the years my son was a drug addict (from age 14 to 20) This is extremely helpful. Thanks

  6. Glad you found it so helpful, Beverly! :)

  7. Thanks for your post. I'm getting ready to post my memoir next week and found this helpful. Thank you!

  8. My pleasure, James. Thanks for commenting! :)