This post 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 query letter, you’ll also see the thoughts from the writer’s literary agent as to why the letter worked. Today’s features debut author Jennieke Cohen and her agent Jennifer Unter (The Unter Agency).
Jennieke Cohen (JEN-ih-kah CO-en) (left) is used to people mispronouncing her name and tries to spare her fictional characters the same problem. Jennieke writes historical fiction for young adults inspired by real people and events because life is often stranger than fiction. She studied English history at Cambridge University and has a master’s degree in professional writing from USC. Jennieke loves exploring new locales but always returns home to Northern California where the summers are hot, the winters are mild, and life is casual. Read more on Jennieke’s website www.JenniekeCohen.com or find her on Twitter @JennikaCohen.
Jennifer Unter (right) is a literary agent and founder of The Unter Agency, LLC. She began her book publishing career in the editorial department at Henry Holt & Co. She later worked at the Karpfinger Agency while she attended law school. She then became an Associate at the entertainment firm of Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard LLP where she practiced primarily in the areas of publishing and copyright law. In 2000 she joined RLR as Vice President of Literary, and in 2008 she started her own agency where she represents quality fiction and general nonfiction, as well as all types of children’s literature. She is actively looking for new clients and you can read more at www.theunteragency.com. Follow her on Twitter @JenniferUnter.
The Query Letter, from Jennieke Cohen:
Dear Ms. Unter:
Since you represent Anne O’Brien and are looking for YA literature, I hope this query will interest you in DANGEROUS ALLIANCE, a dual point of view YA DOWNTON ABBEY with the intrigue of THE LUXE series and a protofeminist bent. Your (absolutely wonderful!) client Tobie Easton chose DANGEROUS ALLIANCE to mentor in Pitch Wars 2016, and the manuscript has undergone significant revisions under her guidance and expertise. At 99,000 words, DANGEROUS ALLIANCE is a stand-alone novel with series potential.
Seventeen-year-old Lady Victoria Aston wants nothing more than to live a pastoral existence on her family estate in Hampshire. But when her sister escapes an abusive husband, the family starts divorce proceedings—a difficult, scandalous process in 1817. As her sister may never win her freedom, Vicky has no choice but to find a husband of her own who will keep her brother-in-law from laying claim to their lands. Amidst the glittering ballrooms of Georgian London’s high society, Vicky must choose between the boy who broke her heart and the man who loves her now, all while wielding courage and a pistol to protect her family from the masked assassins who begin attacking them when news of the divorce circulates.
Tom Sherborne returns to England after four years in Napoleon’s dysfunctional Europe to a title he doesn’t want, an estate deeply in debt, and memories of a violent father he’s striven to forget. Tom’s only chance to keep his now fractured family afloat is to open London’s first luxury hotel. But as strange accidents start befalling his former best friend, Vicky, her suitors drag Tom into an insidious plot that could ruin everything he’s worked for, and worse, turn him into a replica of his father—something he swore he’d never become. To vanquish the forces allied against them, Tom and Vicky must work together to save themselves and the lives of everyone they hold dear.
DANGEROUS ALLIANCE’s premise is based on actual spousal cruelty divorce cases that occurred in Georgian England, and I have attempted to be factually accurate to this little-known corner of British social history. As a life-long history and literature lover, I studied English history at Cambridge University before receiving my bachelor’s from the University of California, Davis. I also have a master’s degree in professional writing from the University of Southern California. I have worked as an assistant to a literary agent, as an editorial intern for Prima Games (an imprint of Penguin Random House), and as a writing consultant for Google. I am a member of SCBWI, a PRO member of Romance Writers of America, and a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.
Thank you so much for your time and consideration. I look forward to hearing from you.
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Commentary by Agent Jennifer Unter:
The initial paragraph of this query immediately caught my attention because the author clearly did her homework and was not only aware of my clients, but also knew what kind of projects I look for. The log line also grabbed me, comparing a successful television series with a book series and adding protofeminism! Hard to say no to that!
All that aside, the real reason I wanted to take a look was the subject matter. Most women stayed in abusive marriages during the time this novel takes place, but in DANGEROUS ALLIANCE, a family has to deal with the unusual situation in which the wife flees. As I read the query, I started thinking about the immediate and detrimental fallout of such an act, and I was enticed to ask for the novel. I love young adult books that deal with real life problems. Abuse and divorce, both scandalous at the time, are still high on the list of current life traumas.
The pitch then brings in a romantic triangle and masked assassins and I was swept along with the excitement apparent in the writing. The synopsis of this novel is somewhat complicated and potentially difficult to summarize, but Ms. Cohen writes in a concise yet lyrical way and I wanted to read more of it.
I also pay attention to bios to make sure the writer is serious about their craft. Given the large amount of research Ms. Cohen had already done to write this book and her professional work, all signs pointed to me asking to take a look!
Jennieke’s Query Process:
I wrote more versions of this query than I care to count—and it would probably sadden me if I did—so I’ll leave that particular Pandora’s box unopened. The version before this had focused completely on my protagonist Vicky’s journey. While revising the manuscript for Pitch Wars 2016, it occurred to me that since the book was also half about my male protagonist, Tom, it might make more sense (and be far more gender-equitable) for the query to reflect that.
Really, despite querying in many waves since finishing my master’s, it took my Pitch Wars experience to teach me that self-rejecting is no way to make anything happen. I entered Pitch Wars not expecting anything, just thinking I should give myself a shot at a new opportunity. Thanks to my interactions with my mentor and the other mentees during the course of the contest, I realized I had to start looking at querying the same way. I couldn’t assume I knew what an agent would like just by reading an interview or their wish list (although those interviews and lists are extremely helpful when personalizing your query). Ultimately, only the person evaluating your materials can decide if they’re interested or not. Some agents do say this, but it’s so easy to get into the habit of reading wish lists and saying, “Well, if they like such and such they won’t like mine.” Nearly every time I sent a query after Pitch Wars ended, I had to force myself to drown out that insidious voice, personalize the query, and click send.
Despite working with Tobie Easton during Pitch Wars, neither Tobie nor I had any idea whether Jennifer would be interested in my manuscript. Tobie writes a delightful speculative YA series about a descendant of the little mermaid—which couldn’t be further in subject matter from my book—and at the time, neither of us knew Jennifer had another client writing historical YA. Still, following my new strategy for not rejecting my own work, I decided I had nothing to lose by querying Jennifer. I couldn’t be happier I made that decision!
Personally, I’m very glad those dark days of self-rejection are behind me. That self-doubting voice still lingers, but maybe if I quash it frequently enough, one day it will disappear into the mist along with those potential opportunities I missed by not taking chances. It’s so simple to let rejections take their toll, but we have to keep dusting ourselves off. After all, if you keep your work to yourself, your chance of anyone liking it is nil, whereas submitting could lead to something great. I’ll take slim odds over none any day of the week. And if you are professional and send your materials to enough people, hopefully you’ll be lucky enough to find the person who loves your work as much as you do!