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Successful Queries: Agent Julia Kenny and "Sure Signs of Crazy"

The best way to learn how to write a successful query is to read one. In this installment of Successful Queries, agent Julia Kenny (Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary) breaks down the query for Karen Harrington’s debut middle-grade novel, Sure Signs of Crazy (Little Brown Books for Young Readers) which received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist and School Library Journal.

This series is called “Successful Queries” and I’m posting actual query letter examples that succeeded in getting writers signed with agents. In addition to posting these query letter samples, we will also get to hear thoughts from the writer's literary agent as to why the letter worked.

(20 literary agents actively seeking writers and their writing.)

The 64th installment in this series is with agent Julia Kenny (Dunow, Carlson and Lerner Literary) for Karen Harrington’s debut middle-grade novel, Sure Signs of Crazy (August 2013, Little Brown Books for Young Readers) which received starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Learn more at karenharringtonbooks.com or through Karen’s Twitter.

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*****

Successful Queries: Sure Signs of Crazy, by Karen Harrington

Dear Ms. Thoma:

I'm seeking representation for SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY, the follow-up to my first published novel Janeology, which received excellent reviews from such publications as Booklist who called it, "fascinating." I think this story might appeal to you because it explores themes about the lifelong repercussions of parents' actions like Kim Edwards' The Memory Keeper's Daughter - only this story asks what would happen if you lost your mother and had to grow up without her?

SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY opens on the day Sarah Nelson receives a marriage proposal. At first, she sparks with happiness. But when the proposal not only begs her to be his wife, but also "the mother of his children," Sarah's spirit quickly plummets. As the child of an institutionalized, mentally ill mother, Sarah's always had an uneasy relationship with the concept of motherhood.

While weighing her answer to his proposal, she recalls the house where she turned 12, the house where she found herself waiting: waiting to be kissed by a boy, waiting to look grown up, waiting for her father to stop drinking away his sorrow, and perhaps most fearfully, waiting to go crazy like her mother.

Complete at 69,000 words, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY tells the story of one pivotal summer during Sarah's life as she struggles to come-of-age in the shadow of her mother's illness and her father's secrecy. This novel will appeal to readers of strong upmarket women's fiction like Elizabeth Flock's Me and Emma, Kaye Gibbons' Ellen Foster and Jayne Pupek's Tomato Girl.

Per your submission preferences, please find the first pages attached.

Sincerely,

Karen Harrington

COMMENTARY FROM AGENT JULIA KENNY OF DUNOW, CARLSON AND LERNER LITERARY

Karen came to me through Geri Thoma, with whom I worked for many years at Markson Thoma. Karen originally queried Geri with her project, which was pitched as an adult novel. Geri took a look and thought that there was something really special there, but she felt quite sure the voice was for a younger audience, so she passed it along to me knowing I’m very keen on middle grade and young adult.

(114 Fiction Sub-Genre Descriptions for Writers.)

Karen’s query letter was concise, included some strong comp titles, and her “elevator pitch” was spot on: Complete at 69,000 words, SURE SIGNS OF CRAZY tells the story of one pivotal summer during Sarah's life as she struggles to come-of-age in the shadow of her mother's illness and her father's secrecy. I knew I had to take a look.

Incidentally, though the query pitched the novel as women's fiction, it didn't have that "looking back on my childhood" point of view and mature voice throughout that you find in adult fiction. Strong middle-grade voices, by comparison, are generally told in the present, as was the bulk of Karen's book. Sarah is so delightful and insightful in the way that children often are, and my gut told me that – while adults will also fall in love with her – we had to ensure that a younger audience got to meet her, too.

*****

Ready to send out your query? Get a critique!

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Are you done writing and revising your manuscript or nonfiction book proposal? Then you’re ready to write a query letter. In order to ensure you make the best impression on literary agents and acquisitions editors, we recommend getting a 2nd Draft Query Letter Critique.

Whether you are an experienced writer looking to improve the elements within your query letter or a new writer looking for pointers on how to write a query letter, our 2nd Draft Query Letter Critique Service provides the advice and feedback you need to improve your query.

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