This article is part of a series called Successful Queries. It features actual query letter examples to literary agents that were successful for authors. In addition to the successful query letter, you’ll also see the thoughts from the writer’s literary agent about why the letter worked.
This edition includes author Gia Cribbs’ successful query letter for The Disappearance of Sloane Sullivan, submitted to Steven Salpeter, an Associate Literary Agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd.
Dear Steven Salpeter,
Seventeen-year-old Sloane Sullivan has survived witness protection by learning three important lessons: blend in, don’t let anyone get too close, and follow the rules.
After nearly six years and countless identities, blending in is easy. And now that someone confessed to the murder she witnessed, Sloane’s been given her final identity. All she has to do is turn eighteen, coast through the last two months of her senior year without any complications, and she’ll be the first person ever officially released from WITSEC. Piece of cake.
Until her first day as Sloane, when she runs into Jason Thomas—literally the boy next door from her childhood. She knows she shouldn’t have contact with him, but she doesn’t expect the feelings that come with seeing Jason again. Feelings of finally belonging somewhere, of remembering who she really is, of suspicion that there’s more to the crime she witnessed than she ever knew.
Sloane knows the rule for this situation. But telling the Marshals about Jason would mean getting whisked away to yet another new identity, leaving both Jason and the future she’s painstakingly planned behind. And Sloane isn’t willing to stay in WITSEC a second longer than she has to. If she can keep Jason a secret, she has a chance to take back her life. But doing so might put both their lives at risk. Because the closer she gets to Jason, the more she remembers. And the clearer it becomes that someone is still after her.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN is a young adult contemporary novel complete at 86,000 words. It is written as a stand-alone novel but has the potential for a sequel. The first chapter is attached to the submittal form below. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Agent Commentary: How to Write A Query Letter for a YA Novel
Every agent will have different pet peeves, different priorities, and different interests, but most likely every single agent who received this query was compelled to move on to at least read Gia Cribbs’s first chapters, which, by the way you can do right now in any book store or online to see why Gia had so much immediate interest from me and other agents.
This is a brilliant query.
When you sit down to write your query, you first want to think about what kind of book you have written. Where does fit in the tradition of other recent books? Who are your readers? What is the tone of the story? What are the elements you think readers will relate to most? What leads to the most memorable moments in the story? What is at stake for your main characters? Why will readers want to spend the span of an entire book with your characters?
You should answer these questions for yourself, and then show the answers to an agent in the query. This is difficult and a different skill set from being a talented storyteller. Being an author is hard work.
Gia wrote an unputdownable YA thriller that is perfect for YA Contemporary readers or fans of adult mysteries and thrillers. You can see she’s planning to reach a wide audience with her first sentence. She has a clear hook. In a thriller, typically the main character is up against another person or an organization, but as a YA Contemporary novel, the emotional stakes in THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN are equally important. You can see this in the way Gia reveals that Sloane “survived” in WITSEC. This has a dual meaning. She is surviving both in the sense that she hasn’t been caught by people who are after her, but also in the sense that she is surviving the emotional pressures of constantly pretending to be someone she’s not and moderating her behavior.
Gia has taken a classic problem a lot of teens today face about how to be true to themselves and fit in and then she has increased the stakes several fold. Sloane not only needs to fit in, she needs to “blend in.” It’s hard enough to make connections for any high schooler going to a new place or trying something new or just trying to make new friends, but imagine those feelings in social settings compounded by not being allowed to get to close to anyone in order to survive. On top of this we learn right in that first paragraph that Sloane has to follow other major procedures every minute of every day.
What an incredible first sentence of a query! It reveals so much if you read into it, but it’s written in a fast, clean style.
After Gia gives agents a taste of what is at stake at the beginning of the book, hints a bit at the subgenre, and reveals in a very elegant way what the tone of the novel will be, she moves into a paragraph that sets up more about her main character. It’s obvious here why you want to read a book narrated by Sloane.
In the second paragraph, we learn Sloane’s goal: to be released from WITSEC. We also learn about Sloane’s sense of self. She’s going to be the first person to accomplish this difficult feat that is crucial to her survival and it’s a “piece of a cake.” That’s a wry nod to Sloane’s voice. Gia is clearly able to write a pitch in Sloane’s voice. You can see this by checking out the exceptional flap copy on the book right now on any online bookstore. For agents, Gia decided to focus on setting up the story but she includes nods to who Sloane is at heart and the way Sloane thinks. It’s subtle and impressive. If you’re writing a query, this is one way to integrate more of the character or narrator’s voice. You’ve probably seen other advice about potentially starting with quotes from your characters. To some people that can feel forced. Gia presents a great option for YA novelists here. Then again, character quotes can work, too. You have many options!
If you’re writing a YA novel that is geared to a large audience, you might include nods to popular tropes like Gia does in her next paragraph. Jason Thomas is the epitome of the “boy next door.” This works even if you plan to turn popular tropes on their heads in the book itself.
Gia focuses next on showing how the stakes are raised for Sloane in the novel. She reveals something Sloane might want even more than getting her life back and getting out of WITSEC, and then reveals why that’s a problem: “But doing so might put both their lives at risk.” WOW! (Here’s a spoiler that you’ve probably already guessed about: “might” might be an understatement.)
If you sent me a query with something even close to the qualities of Gia’s first sentence, I would immediately decide to read the sample regardless of what came next. But I know many other agents who are less editorial. They would need to see the story elements in paragraphs two and three to be intrigued, and then they would need to see the really clear landing Gia sticks in her fourth paragraph to decide to read her manuscript. They’re looking for an impressive, even, polished quality like Gia presents in the entire query and in her entire novel.
You can tell from the fourth paragraph that this story heads to an unforgettable the climax.
If you’re worried about “spoilers” in queries, I highly recommend you go pick up THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN to see how Gia balances revealing enough in her query while holding back key moments. She very subtly teases what is to come in the book but then completely surprises her readers with twists.
One of the secrets to writing a great and popular book is that you need to help readers see themselves in the story but also surprise them. Here you can tell Gia is going to deliver YA Contemporary gold. You have elements of a great coming of age and a YA love story, but a ton of room for surprise and tension.
We’ve moved Gia’s author bio to elsewhere in this article, but you can see even that shows heart.
If you’re struggling with your query, I recommend you find new critique partners who have not read your book. Ask them to read your query first and tell you what they think your book is about. Ask them to guess the answers to the question at the top of this article. If their answers feel off from what you think is at the heart of you book or your characters then you can identify opportunities to make your query stronger.
You also want to think about finding readers who love your style of writing. There are different query styles that work well for novels with literary voices than to those with commercial styles. Agents should be able to tell who your audience is from the tone in a query, and workshopping the tone is the easiest way to learn about if it is landing the way you intend.
For those of you out there who have written and polished your novels and have put in the time to write a good query but are still are not 100% positive if you have written best query you can, my final piece of advice to you is to query me. If you have written something nearly as compelling as Gia, I promise to let you know.
I would also advise you not to let your query destroy your sense of your writing. I know sometimes great novelists are not the best at pitching their books, and every season great authors make it into the marketplace from queries that are not quite as great. The right query can give you an edge in landing your ideal agent, but it’s not as important as your story itself.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF SLOANE SULLIVAN had a pitch-perfect query. Gia makes agents many impressive promises with this query, and her writing delivers. I can’t recommend enough that you go read her debut to see for yourself how it measures up.
Gia Cribbs is an author and lawyer who lives in Maryland with her husband and daughters. When she isn’t writing, she can usually be found reading, eating too much chocolate, or fantasizing about her next vacation.
Steven Salpeter is an Associate Literary Agent at Curtis Brown, Ltd. He is actively building a list of new authors who write literary fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, historical fiction, horror, thrillers, young adult, middle grade, narrative nonfiction, gift books, history, humor, popular science.