Successful Queries: Agent Bernadette Baker-Baughman and ‘War is Boring’

I‘ve meant to start this new series on the blog for a while now, but am just now getting around to it.  It’s called “Successful Queries” and I’m posting actual query letters that succeeded in getting writers signed with agents.  In addition to posting the actual query letter, we will also get to hear thoughts from the agent as to why the letter worked. 

The fourth installment in this series is with agent Bernadette Baker-Baughman (Baker’s Mark Literary Agency, LLC) and her author David Axe, for his graphic novel, War is Boring.


TO: info@bakersmark.com
CC:
SUBJECT: Query from graphic novelist David Axe

Dear Ms. Baker,

Street battles with spears and arrows in sweltering Dili, East Timor. Bone-jarring artillery duels between the Dutch and Taliban in the mountains of Afghanistan. Long, tedious patrols with British troops on the sandy wastes of southern Iraq. For three years war was my life. For three years I was alternately bored out of my mind … and completely terrified. It was strangely addictive.

As a military technology writer, and later a freelance correspondent for The Washington Times, C-SPAN and BBC Radio, I jetted from conflict to conflict, with only short pauses in between. While I reveled in death, danger and destruction in Lebanon, East Timor, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq, back in Washington, D.C. my apartment gathered dust, my plants died and my relationships with friends, family and lovers withered. I had set out to cover war believing that my reporting would make me wiser, sexier and happier. But I was blind to the violence my work was inflicting on my loved ones … and on myself.

War correspondence was expensive; physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting; and disillusioning. In late 2007 I returned from Somalia and Iraq a broken person; and, taking stock of the remains of my former life, I began the long process of rebuilding. In the summer of 2008 I returned to war, this time to Chad, where half a millions survivors of the Darfur genocide struggled to survive amid some of the most brutal conditions in the world. I had begun my sojourn as a sort of “war tourist” – politics weren’t an issue. But I ended up a deeply political man: over time my work became less about me, and more about the true victims of the world’s conflicts.

WAR IS BORING, a black and white graphic novel of around 120 pages, is about the journey through the world’s most dangerous places, en route from naïvete to contrition by way of maxed-out credit cards, broken relationships, near-death experiences and the mind-numbing boredom of waiting – and, perversely, hoping – for the next battle. It’s also about the reasons people and nations go to war, and the absurd, often comic, situations that result.

The book begins in Lebanon, continues through Okinawa, East Timor, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iraq – with layovers in Washington, D.C., at various arms bazaars across the U.S and in Detroit as I try to reconnect with my family – and ends in Chad, as I attempt to help bring some attention to the victims of the Darfur genocide.

My name is David Axe. I am the author of the graphic novel WAR FIX (NBM, 2006) and the nonfiction book ARMY 101 (USC Press, 2007). WAR FIX made Amazon’s and the ALA’s end-of-year lists for 2006, won first place for graphic novels in Foreword Magazine’s 2007 book contest and will be excerpted in Houghton-Mifflin’s America’s Best Comics for 2008. The sequel, LOVE & TERROR, will be published this year. I get a thousand unique hits a day at my blog www.warisboring.com, where some of the pages in WAR IS BORING first appeared as comic strips. I also blog for Wired and have contributed to Popular Science, The Village Voice, Salon, Good, Vice, Columbia Journalism Review and many others. I am a frequent TV and radio guest.

Artist Matt Bors’ editorial cartoons are distributed by United Feature Syndicate three times a week and appear in The Village Voice and other newspapers across the country. He draws a bi-weekly comic for the ACLU’s website.

Matt and I would like to interest you in representing WAR IS BORING. We can provide a synopsis and a full illustrated chapter on request.

Cheers,

David Axe

Commentary From Bernadette

As an author, first impressions are not just important; they are critical. Since I associate being an agent to being a matchmaker for creators and publishers, I might say that a query letter is your one chance to get a first date. It is your first (and possibly only) chance to make a good impression. In the course of one letter, you can influence how someone looks at you: Are you funny, compelling, interesting? More importantly, can you write? And that impression will set the course of a possible working relationship. Before I delve into the reasons why the enclosed query was so compelling, I’d like to explain the results of this one excellent query.  

On July 28, 2008 at 4:45 p.m., this query came into my general agency inbox, where I request all queries be sent. That same day, I requested that the materials be sent via e-mail, and David Axe sent along the materials the same evening. Within 48 hours, our editorial director and I had reviewed the material and were offering to represent the author and illustrator. We spent about a month working with the authors to create a proposal and polish the materials, and a month after we began shopping the book around to publishers, we had a deal with Penguin. Wow, that was easy.

Here are the nuts and bolts of what makes this a great query: You can see in the subject line that the author, David Axe, mentions that this is a graphic novel. Since I have a specialization in this area, the subject jumped out at me immediately. I wouldn’t have recognized the title of the work, and though I didn’t recognize his name, he at least had two touchstones in his subject line. Now, this particular subject line is really important because if I had opened the query without knowing that this was a graphic novel, I would have thought it as a war memoir, which is most likely not something our agency would represent. But, since Axe did mention that this is a graphic novel in the subject line, he had me at hello, so to speak.

The first paragraph was interesting but the last line of the first paragraph really clenched it for me. “For three years war was my life. For three years I was alternately bored out of my mind … and completely terrified. It was strangely addictive.”

Who is this person that finds war alternately boring and terrifying? What is his experience? What is he addicted to? This is something I really want to know more about. Now he has me, and then he immediately displays that, not only does he have credentials, but that he also has experience in media and a platform, and he is savvy enough to appear on television. Things are really looking up. As Axe spends the next two paragraph’s explaining the highlights of the story (perfect), he doesn’t forget to mention the crux, or the real tension that is driving this intimate story along:

“I had begun my sojourn as a sort of ‘war tourist’—politics weren’t an issue. But I ended up a deeply political man: over time my work became less about me, and more about the true victims of the world’s conflicts.”

This is an incredibly poignant thought and an important part of this query. In addition to sharing insight on his own personality, this sentence also shows that the author has a message to share with the reader, and his message happens to be something that resonates with me (yes, agents are humans too). But more importantly, Axe is intimately familiar with the crux of his own story. This is what will keep the readers turning pages.

In paragraph four, the author tells me what I need to know logistically: This is a black and white graphic novel of approx. 120 pages. This, in some way, provides an anchor for the query. The vision for the final book allows the agent to envision what, up to this point, is just an idea. Immediately following, Axe gives the rundown of his impressive credentials, and then instantly lets me know that he also has an illustrator (with some chops of his own) on board to draw the book. This is all shaping up to be one impressive query.

Finally, at the end of the q
uery, the author let’s me know precisely what material he can provide me with (a synopsis and sample chapter) and gives me the details I need to contact him.

When I think about it closely, the fact that this query has not a single spare word is a real pleasure. It doesn’t begin with the line “I am an author who…” or “I am writing because…” The query speaks for the book the whole way through. If I can be this intrigued with a query, then I figure the book must be a great read.

Editor’s note:
War is Boring will be published by New American Library in 2010.  For more information, visit warisboring.com or the Baker’s Mark agency page.

 

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