Successful Queries: Agent Dan Lazar and “The Bells”

This series is 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 42nd installment in this series is with agent Dan Lazar (Writers House) and his author, Richard Harvell, for his historical novel, The Bells, which came out this week (Sept. 14, 2010) from Crown. Booklist said this of the book: “Harvell has fashioned an engrossing first novel ringing with sounds; a musical and literary treat.”


Dear Mr. Lazar,

I have recently completed a historical novel, and read in several interviews that you enjoy historical fiction and distinct characters. I am hoping that you would find all this and more in my novel, THE BELLS.

“God gave me everything I ever needed, except for that which He took away,” Il Svizzero—the last great castrato—writes this in 1806, when he is finally ready to tell the secrets of his life. From his birth in a belfry high in the Alps to his appearance on Europe’s greatest stages., THE BELLS is the confession of a killer, a kidnapper, and a lover who had no right to love. It is the recollection of the boy with a supernatural sense of hearing—with ears that heard a deaf mother’s cries, the hateful gurgle of a father’s throat, and the beating of a lover’s heart.

History mixes with fantasy in the story of Il Svizzero’s life: from Uri, Switzerland to the Abbey of St. Gall and finally to Vienna, where, in 1762, he hides beneath the greatest stage in Europe for the premiere of Willibald Gluck’s “Orfeo ed Euridice”—the opera that would change him and music forever.

Born and raised in New Hampshire, I live in Switzerland now, where I teach and write. In the past two years, I’ve published half a dozen stories in American literary journals, most recently in The Massachusetts Review (Fall 2007) and in artisan, a journal of craft (Winter 2007). I’m twenty-nine.

As you request on your PublishersMarketplace bio, the first five pages of THE BELLS appear below. The completed novel is 100,000 words and is ready to be sent at your request.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. I look forward to hearing from you.


Richard Harvell
Commentary from Dan:

As the agent reading this letter, I was instantly drawn to Richard’s novel simply because his letter was bursting with specific and evocative details. One of the most important elements of great historical fiction is the author’s ability to transport the reader into the sights, smells, sounds and atmosphere of a different time and world. And already in this letter, I could see—and especially, hear!—little bits of Richard’s novel popping off the page. My gut told me if I could already sense—in just a few lines of his letter—the drama of an opera stage, the sense of mystery and secrets long kept, the tension of a broken family, and the grief and love of his main character’s life, then the pages of the manuscript would transport me even further. Plus, I found it interesting that Richard had set his novel in the Swiss Alps—a setting I had never encountered before—and that he was an American living abroad there, so he clearly was mixing his imagination of history with a real, rich sense of place. That’s a very tempting offer in a novel. And true to form, the manuscript I sensed in the letter lived up to all this promise, and offered untold more. I was not disappointed!

When I was ready to pitch Richard’s novel, I used his letter as a springboard (I feel my best pitch letters are often inspired by the author’s query letter)—but I did adjust a few elements that I thought made a stronger case. I felt Richard’s original letter was a bit heavy on the opera details. They’re an important part of the novel, but I’m not an opera junkie, and yet I loved this book. The heart of THE BELLS is Richard’s main character—a boy who will break your heart, and who grows into a man both deeply passionate and, despite his challenges in life, unapologetically heroic. So I tried to emphasize those aspects of Richard’s story, as well as making some comparisons to other successful novels I felt were great touchstones to THE BELLS, so editors would be excited to start reading, and also start to envision , as I did, the widest possible audience for this book. So in the end, my description of Richard’s novel looked like this:

“A cross between Perfume and Cry to Heaven, THE BELLS is the confession of a thief, kidnapper and lover who had no right to love. ‘God gave me everything I ever needed, except for that which He took away,’ Moses writes, the boy with a most exquisite sense of hearing that becomes his life’s greatest blessing and darkest curse. Recounting his birth in the 1700s in a belfry high in the Alps, to his appearance on Europe’s greatest stages, this epic novel is the story of the greatest ears on earth—from a deaf mother’s cries, to the beating of a forbidden lover’s heart, to the arias of Vienna’s greatest opera house, and the deadly booming of the world’s loudest, most glorious bells.”

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One thought on “Successful Queries: Agent Dan Lazar and “The Bells”

  1. Perri

    This is an intriguing query– especially as it doesn’t quite follow the rules. Both versions don’t give much in the way of plot details but are thoroughly interesting and evocative. Perhaps this works because the subject matter is so unique?

    I’m also surprised that Daniel’s version leaves out mention of the MC being "the last great castrato".


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