Successful Queries: Agent Ellen Pepus and ‘The Belly Dancer’

This new 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 13th installment in this series is with agent Ellen Pepus (Signature Literary) and her author, DeAnna Cameron, for her s book, The Belly Dancer.

Dear Ms. Pepus:

In America, belly dancers evoke fascination and condemnation in equal measure, and it has been that way their debut in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair.  My recently completed novel, The Belly Dancer, centers on the real-life scandal that followed their arrival, set against the backdrop of a city enchanted by the possibilities of the modern age, yet gripped by the Victorian sensibilities of the past.

In The Belly Dancer, Dora Chambers is a young bride from New Orleans who is plotting her way to a life of wealth and privilege in Chicago.  When Dora arrives in her new city, her first priority is to be accepted by the inner sanctum of high society—the Fair’s Board of Lady Managers—but that’s challenged when she makes a friend among the Egyptian belly dancers during the course of her Lady Manager duties.  Dora is captivated by the unexpected freedom she finds among the gypsy dancers, and it leads her to question her ambitions.  She manages an uneasy balance between her allegiance to the Lady Managers and her clandestine friendship with the dancer, until a rival Lady Manager snoops into Dora’s past and discovers a family secret even Dora does not know: The father she never knew was half black.  Dora knows the revelation will ruin her chances of ever being socially accepted, yet she draws strength from what she has learned about defying social expectations from the dancers and acknowledges the truth openly, though it means scarifying her good name, safe marriage and hard-won place in society.

Ultimately, she reinvents herself as a belly dancer.

The Belly Dancer explores the power of friendship, the importance of questioning assumptions and the need to define ourselves on our own terms. 

I have been a journalist for many years, most recently as the editor of regional lifestyle magazine.  I have studied fiction writing through numerous writing workshops, including UCLA and UC Irvine extension courses, and with novelist Lynette Brasfield (Nature Lessons, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2004), who has encouraged me to seek representation.  Also, belly dancing (and its history) has been a passion of mine for more than 15 years. 

Below I have pasted the opening chapters for your review.  May I send you a partial or whole manuscript as well?  I look forward to your response. Many thanks for your time and consideration

DeAnna Cameron

Commentary From Ellen

I think this letter works well for a few reasons, most notably the first paragraph.  The author immediately grabbed my attention with the first line.  The cool idea behind the book (the hook) is there, and the second line tells me what the book is about (and the title, which is fabulous). 

Because now I’m intrigued, I want to know what the story is about and the author tells me.  This pitch covers all the important points about the story without going into too much detail. 

Now I’m curious about the author, and a paragraph offers that information. The author wisely focuses on just the things I want to know—her professional background, writing experience, and the fact that the subject of the book is something she is involved with in her life.

The last paragraph tells me she’s taken the trouble to visit my website, because she’s following my guidelines (to paste the first few pages into the e-mail).  All in all, a perfect query letter.

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