Successful Queries: Agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe and ‘Sway’

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 19th installment in this series is with agent Joanna Stampfel Volpe (Nancy Coffey Literary) and her author, Amber McRee Turner, for her book, Sway, which was just recently sold to Hyperion/Disney.


In lieu of the book cover (forthcoming),
how about this photo of Amber Turner (right)
and her mom, Pat. Credit: Skirt! Memphis.


Dear Ms. Volpe,

Eleven-year-old Cass Nordenhauer had always been bundled in the admiration she felt for her mother’s storm clean-up work with the Southern Mobile Aid Response Team. Her pride rises near flood level when Mom announces her enrollment in meteorology school, where Toodi Bleu Nordenhauer plans to become “Toodi Bleu Skies.” Not so honorable, it turns out, is a soon-to-be-famous mother whose dream will be financed by a new man. Or better yet, a news man.

Reeling emotionally from the storm caused by her mom’s betrayal, Cass is sentenced to a summer ride-along with her seemingly lackluster dad, Douglas Nordenhauer, seller of frozen meats. When Cass reluctantly boards her new world-on-wheels, an old RV nicknamed “The Roast,” she’s increasingly captivated by the mysterious objects she finds – a freshly-glittered wagon, a trunk full of smelly shoes, a tambourine dripping with ribbons, and a unique method of navigation, Ye Olde Sneaker Reacher. It’s when Cass is introduced to her dad’s alter ego, “Make Believe McClean, Traveling Soap Sliver Salesman,” that she realizes she’s in for no run-of-the-mill beef jerky road trip. M.B. McClean wears a snug lime-striped suit. He sings Gordon Lightfoot. He’s got a suitcase full of magical soap slivers, and a whole lot of sway. And in one summer, M.B. McClean will escort his daughter from wonder to disgust and back home again, where Cass’ own special sway can take root.

Sway, a contemporary middle grade novel, is the story of a season with Cass and Make Believe McClean and the wounded-but-wise characters they meet along the way.  It’s an adventure sudsy with southern gothic appeal, filled with arm-wrestling ghosts, sunken bumper boats, tumped port-o-potties, and fruity-chewy wax lips. It’s about the power of old soaps and lost shoes and how just the right combination of the two allow Cass to wash her hands of the past and look toward a future foaming with magic … with a new appreciation for “1 big can of lye.”

In 1993, I received a degree in Fiction Writing from Rhodes College, where I won both the Jane Donaldson Kepple writing prize and the Memphis Magazine fiction contest student award. I’ve had soap sliver sway oozing out my ears since that year. Thank you, Ms. Volpe, for your consideration of this query. At your request, I will be happy to send along part of the story, which is complete at 32,900 words.


Amber McRee Turner

Commentary from Joanna

Every time I read it, I’m reminded that I love, love this query just so darn much. Here’s why: the voice. Every sentence of this query is just oozing with eleven-year-old Cass Nordenhauer’s voice. The play on words and witty but child-like descriptions caught me immediately. So I just had to request the manuscript to see if it delivered, and it did.

Not every query has to convey your protagonist’s voice to be successful. But this story isn’t high concept, it isn’t super commercial and it isn’t about vampires—so it’s not exactly easy to pitch the plot and sound interesting. It’s about a girl whose mom leaves. She goes on a forced-summer road trip with her least favorite parent—Dad. She learns a lesson. Their relationship grows. Sounds real interesting, right?  Well, no.  No it doesn’t.

But what makes this story stand out is the honest voice, the beautiful prose, the real-to-life but still unbelievable twists and turns that Cass and her dad take along the way.  Amber had to show this in her letter to make it stand out, and she certainly did. Now, typically I don’t love a third paragraph that tells me why this story is wonderful.  I usually like the summary to just speak for itself.  But in this query Amber did something else that worked.  She wrote that paragraph in Cass’ voice too.

So for those of you out there telling a coming-of-age type story (sans vampires or zombies), one way to make your query stand out is by letting that voice really shine in your query. Introduce us to your main character right away.  Let him or her make us stand up and take note. I think Amber proves that it can work!


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3 thoughts on “Successful Queries: Agent Joanna Stampfel-Volpe and ‘Sway’

  1. Sue Pinto

    I find this so helpful. I appreciate the author allowing the query to be posted and Joanna’s comments of what worked. It is so valuable to someone like myself who is new to the whole process. Thank you for offering this guidance. From the other posted queries/comments it also goes to show that sometimes, along w/ a well-written query, it is timing and luck.

  2. Matt

    Seems like this query violates rule #1: have your manuscript finished before querying… or maybe I read it wrong. Was the novel completed at just 33,000 words, and she was offering to send part of that 33,000?


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