Successful Queries: Agent Janet Reid and “Numb”

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 43rd installment in this series is with agent Janet Reid (New Leaf Literary, formerly with FinePrint Literary Management) and her author, Sean Ferrell, for his novel, Numb, which was released in August 2010 from Harper Perennial. Kirkus Reviews called Numb an “eye-catching debut … Artfully barbed entertainment.”


Dear Ms. Reid:

I am seeking representation for my literary novel, Numb. I found your submission guidelines online and have included below a one-page synopsis.

I live and work in New York City, I have had short stories published in Uber, WORDS and Bossa Nova Ink, and one of my recent short stories was a finalist in the Italo Calvino writing competition at the University of Louisville. I received my MFA in creative writing from Emerson College.

Numb is approximately sixty-thousand words in length.

In summary: Numb is a man who cannot feel physical pain.

When he wanders into a dying circus, he doesn’t know who he is or how he got there. Despite feeling like an outcast the circus adopts him. When it is clear that his “talent” (if you can call being shot with nail guns and staplers a talent) will make him the star freak of the show, he becomes the circus’ best chance for survival. After nearly sacrificing himself for the circus’ sake, he decides to run away from the circus and make his way to New York City to discover himself and his past.

Accompanied by his fire-eating best friend, Mal, Numb discovers a world outside the circus that is all too ready to reward and punish him for his self-destructive talents; and it’s a world that forces all his relationships to shatter. Numb finds women to comfort him, yet he won’t allow himself to trust them. He looks for love but won’t accept it, and he looks for safety in self-destruction. After undermining or losing friends and lovers, Numb is forced to figure out how to find a place for himself instead of just taking up space.

This novel is in the spirit of Fight Club or Battle Royale; it is an antiheroic tale of finding a way to survive in a world so filled with noise that simple conversation and compassion are often drowned out.

I look forward to your thoughts.


Sean Ferrell

Commentary from Janet:

I instantly wanted to know more about this guy. Frankly, I wanted to bite him and see if he really didn’t feel pain. This is the very definition of a good hook.

The premise is so unusual, and the prose so lean that I must read more. One of the things I see a lot in queries is character soup (too many names) and too many events (rather than important plot points). It helps that the sentence in the parentheses is funny, and I go for that kind of humor.

“Fire-eating best friend”—who doesn’t want one of those? These deft turns of phrase drew me in.

Since I loved Fight Club, Sean lucked out. Comparisons can be very tricky. But, even if he’d compared Numb to a book I hadn’t liked, I still would have read it. For me, the question is always, “Do I want to know more?” And in this case the answer was, “You bet I do.”

This is a textbook example of the query finding the right agent. I signed him and sold his book to Harper. It was published in 2010.


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9 thoughts on “Successful Queries: Agent Janet Reid and “Numb”

  1. Chuck

    @Jennifer I think that’s because agents don’t usually read pic book queries. After all, the picture books are only about 500-700 words, so what they think What is the point of reading a 250-word query? I’ve tried to hunt down some successful examples, to no avail.

  2. jennifer

    I love reading all the queries and comments from the authors’ actual agents, however, where are the picture book queries?

    Would love to see picture book queries from authors and author/illustrators.

  3. JK Willis

    I’m thrilled for Sean, and I need to check this book out. I agree with some pojnts made by Andrew in his post above. According to the query style rules of Query Shark (Janet Reid), this query breaks a lot of the rules that Reid argues should exist in query. I think the query works partly for that reason. It is fresh. It’s not a cookie cutter. I really like Sean’s ability to lead the substance of his query with a nine-word summary of his story. If someone can do that, and if the nine words are appealing, then there is potential there. I think this also speaks well of Janet’s ability to find a gem in the slush pile despite some possibly broken rules of query writing.

  4. Andrew

    I understand you liked the hook, but any comment on opening the letter with finding guidelines online, followed by college, etc. in paragraph two and the word count in graf 3? After the one line graf 4, the story starts in paragraph 5. Seems like something you’d normally criticize, even if you loved the rest.

  5. Kristan

    Nice, straightforward query. Love it! And after Twitter-chatting with Sean a few times, I can tell you that he’s hilarious. I’m not surprised his approach was so strong and clean, and that his book is getting such great reviews on Amazon.


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