A Knock-Out Query Letter & Some Advice for Young Writers

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Here’s a question I received by email from a young writer:you-must-be-this-tall-to-enjoy-this-ride_design

Is possible for an 18- year-old to make a successful leap into the publishing world of the YA genre or just the publishing world period? I’ve read boat loads of really good YA books growing up and I have always expected the writer to be younger. I came across books written by [young authors], but there are just a few. . . Is it possible for a teenage writer to obtain the mentality to enter the publishing world? It’s called Young Adult for a reason, right?  –Gia

I get this question fairly often, but I especially love the way it’s worded here. This young writer has managed to infuse a simple question with a voice and that leads me to my answer: yes, it is definitely possible for teen authors to reach a level where there work is ready to break out.

I’ll give you an example of such an author that I know: Stefan Bachmann. Here’s his query letter, which gave me thrills and chills when I read it in our slush pile about a year and a half ago:

Dear Ms. Megibow:

I would like you to consider my gothic steampunk fantasy for middle grade readers, The Peculiar. 67,000 words in length, it takes place in a Victorian England that has enslaved the population of Faerie, an England where magic and industry are at war, spells do half the chores, and clockwork birds carry secret messages across the sky.

2012-05 final THE PECULIAR front cover with quoteBartholomew Kettle won’t live long. Changelings never do. The child of a human mother and a faery father, he is an outcast in society, an abomination despised by both his races. If the Englishmen don’t hang him for witchcraft, the faerys will do something worse. So his mother keeps him locked away, cut off from the world in the faery slums of Bath. But one day Bartholomew witnesses a beautiful lady kidnap another changeling through a magical portal, and suddenly he finds himself in greater danger than ever before. Dark schemes are underway that threaten to shatter the fragile peace between man and faery. Changelings are surfacing in the Thames hundreds of miles away, their bodies empty of blood and bone, and their skin covered with an unreadable language. In the houses of parliament, a powerful figure sits in the shadows, pushing the pieces in place for some terrible victory. When a sinister faery in a top-hat begins to stalk Bartholomew’s every step, he knows he is the next pawn in the game. Something is coming for him. Something needs him. But when you’re a changeling there’s nowhere to run. 

I am eighteen years old and a student of classical music at the Zürich Conservatory. My short stories have appeared in issues of Mirror Dance and Every Day Fiction.

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely,

Stefan Bachmann

* Note: Stefan was sixteen when he started writing the novel. His agent, Sara Megibow, helped him sell it to HarperCollins in a two book deal, and it has since become an international bestseller and been named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2012. You can read more about The Peculiar here.

Now, this is a fabulous query letter. But it was when I read Stefan’s manuscript that my jaw really dropped. It had a lyrical voice,  an original style, and the writing was practically flawless. I’m sure Stefan can’t wait to get a little older so people will stop calling him a prodigy and just focus on his books. (Sorry, Stefan, here I am joining that crowd!) But my point is this: age doesn’t matter. And this applies to authors at the other end of the spectrum as well, if you’re worried that an agent might turn you down because you’re retired, etc.

What matters is the maturity level of your talent. At what point a writer reaches that stage depends on many factors. Innate talent is one of them. So is constant, relentless practice. The Peculiar was not Stefan’s first attempt at a novel, and as you saw, he had published short stories before. Whether you need Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice is open to debate, but it takes a heck of a lot of hard work.

The next question is this: should a young writer mention his or her age in a query letter? You saw that Stefan did, but frankly, after such a stellar pitch he could have said he was an axe murderer and we still would have been interested. : ) In general, it’s better not to mention your age in a query (again, regardless of which end of the spectrum you fall). In a perfect world, that information would make no difference to agents, but the reality is that there can be unconscious biases. If an agent reads that an author is fifteen years old, she may ask herself if that author could possibly have “gotten there” yet, just as Gia did in her question. Let your writing speak for itself and if it is strong enough, your age won’t matter.

Stefan wrote an upper middle grade story because he knew he could nail that tricky voice—perhaps it didn’t hurt that he was not far from the target audience. In that sense, Gia may feel a natural advantage for writing YA. Go for it, young writers! And if you should receive a “no, thank you” from an agent, don’t lose heart. It happens to writers of every age. Believe in your talent and work on perfecting your craft. Ask for feedback from readers you trust and keep trying. There’s no age limit for making your dream come true.

2 responses »

  1. What a great query letter and a great post! I really like that you’re encouraging while being realistic about the up-hill battle for many young writers. Best of luck to Gia.

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