Monday, August 14, 2006

Queries—An Inside Scoop (Jennifer O’Connell’s Query)

STATUS: Can I just say this day sucked? From the moment I hit the office, one of the first emails in my inbox was the news that Harlequin was disbanding their Bombshell line. Well, rumors have been flying for weeks (since RWA) about the fate of this line but alas, the confirm came this morning. And yes, I have a very unhappy Bombshell author at the moment. And that was only the start of the bad news… Thank goodness tomorrow is Tuesday because I don’t think I could handle another Monday like today—well, I can but just not two days in a row.

What song is playing on the iPod right now? OPEN ARMS by Journey (okay, the evil secret is out. I am a closet Journey fan. Don’t tell anyone.)

I like to think of this query as the one that started it all.

Technically that’s not true because I opened my agency in 2002 and I certainly had read a bunch of queries in the four months before this one arrived in December 2002. I had even taken on two nonfiction writers (what was I thinking? Big smile here.) but this was the first query that translated into my first sale as an agent on my own and dare I say it, the rest was history?

This project, BACHELORETTE #1, sold to NAL (New American Library) in February 2003 via a pre-empt and this work has the honor (is that the right word?) of being the first novel to incorporate the reality TV angle. It also was a crash production (which means moving at lightning speed) because the book sold in February and then published in August 2003. In six months. It was featured at Book Expo before we had even finished the contract. It was a heady and crazy time.

And I’m so proud of this book—and not only because it’s my first sale—but also because it’s a great book.

Most folks just see the chick lit angle. Ah, this is a story of a woman going undercover on a dating reality TV show.

Well, if you haven’t read this book, it’s SO much more than that. This novel is about a thirty-four year old woman who is questioning the woman she has become in her marriage, the woman she become as a mother and then truly discovers what a real marriage, her marriage, is all about.

Heady stuff and not remotely like what is defined as “typical” chick lit. There’s no 20-something. No shopping. No search for shoes or the right job. And Mr. Right is already in the picture.

But what does it really mean to be a wife, a mommy, and your own person all at the same time?

I don’t call that chick lit. I call that smart fiction.

So here is Jennifer O’Connell’s original query to me.

Dear Ms. Nelson
I read on Publishers Marketplace that you are interested in women's fiction. I thought that you may be interested in my novel Bachelorette Number One. Great title! I would like to invite you to review the manuscript for my novel and consider representing me. This was in the early days of PM and being the smart gal she is, Jennifer was already savvy about this medium and that impressed me. She has done some research.

Bachelorette Number One is about Sarah Holmes, a freelance writer assigned to infiltrate and expose television's most popular show, 'The Stag.' This was a fresh angle in 2003. Thanks to Femme Magazine's staff of hair stylists, make-up artists and designers, the thirty-four-year-old married mother of one is transformed into a hip, blonde, fashionable single girl ready to compete head-to-head with twenty-three other husband hungry women. Aha! Here’s a great hook. We have an “older” married mother of one who plans to go undercover and pretend to be single. I can see all kinds of conflicts that can erupt out of this. I’m so interested. Besides, I had never even heard of a story similar to this one. But while the magazine expects Sarah to show what goes on behind the scenes - the cattiness, the desperation, and the ruthless competition between the women - she finds that life with the Stag is not what she expected. Ah, not what she expected. Life rarely is. It’s a little hint of what’s to unfold.

Originally disgusted by the women's mission to land a husband, and their desire to let the entire country watch the events unfold on prime time TV, Sarah finds herself befriending some of the hens (the show's horrific nickname for the women). Women liking other women! Love that. Stories of women bashing each other not as much for me (unless done just right) but Sarah goes in with one expectation and gets confronted with a different reality. And I like the tidbit on the “hens.” Even more unexpected, she finds herself becoming a formidable competitor as the women work their feminine wiles to make it through the weekly candle ceremonies. Oops. Sarah is getting caught up in the game. That’s going to cause problems! When her time with the Stag starts to become more intimate, the line between work and real life becomes blurred, and Femme Magazine might get more than it bargained for. Everyone is going to get more then they bargained for! Here she’s giving me more details to flesh out the story but she still keeps it brief.

Bachelorette Number One shows us a woman who, by all accounts, has exactly what the women on 'The Stag' are seeking - a good looking successful husband, a happy suburban marriage, and a beautiful little girl. But as she's swept up in the race to romance the Stag, Sarah learns that she has more in common with the women than she'd like to admit. This paragraph is a little bit of a repeat of the above and the two could probably have been combined but hey, a query doesn’t have to be perfect. The novel shows with both intelligence and wit, the differences that make all women unique and the similarities that make all women human. I love this bit though because it shows a little hint of the depth and complexity the story will encompass—even if she plans to tackle it in a fun, chick lit way because let’s be honest, this isn’t serious, serious women’s fiction.

Although Bachelorette Number One is my first novel, my writing experience ranges from corporate communications to the publication I founded while at Smith College. Short and sweet because she doesn’t have any prior publications. My exposure to publishing includes attending the Radcliffe Publishing Procedures program after graduation from Smith. This detail is strong because it tells me she knows something about the business of publishing and that’s always a bonus.

I'd be happy to send you a complete copy of the manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you. It never hurts to thank an agent for his or her time. We have so little of it. Thanks for taking the query business seriously!

Jennifer L. O'Connell

Rereading this just gives me a warm fuzzy all over again. Jennifer has written three adult novels besides this one: DRESS REHEARSAL and OFF THE RECORD. Her fourth, INSIDER DATING, will be out in May 2007.

Because she is a consummate professional interested in expanding the Jennifer O’Connell brand, she has branched out into YA with a very successful MTV/Pocket title called PLAN B. Her next YA, THE BOOK OF LUKE will be out next year as well.

I’m convinced she never sleeps because she works a full-time job, is married, and raises two kids but she also had time to put together and edit a terrific anthology entitled EVERYTHING I EVER NEEDED TO KNOW ABOUT BEING A GIRL I LEARNED FROM JUDY BLUME.

And along with fiction, she’s currently co-writing a chick lit nonfic divorce book that has a title currently up for grabs but we’ve been calling it YOU’RE BETTER OFF WITHOUT HIM.

And this incredible career started with one great query letter.