By Sanna Levine

Helen DePrima had a couple of manuscripts under the bed and a year’s worth of rejections for her current book when she hooked up with her agent, Stephany Evans, of FinePrint Literary Management, at the November 2009 Backspace Writer’s Conference in New York.

“I’d been at it a long, long time,” Helen says. Like many aspiring writers, she queried agents from A to Z. “I kept a log of who I queried, when, what I sent, and the rejection date.”

Finally, in November 2009, all the pieces fell into place. At the first of the Backspace Conference’s two query letter workshops, Stephany Evans told her “don’t change a thing” in her query letter for The High Road Home, a women’s novel about second chances.

“Helen’s letter had a quality of craftsmanship,” Stephany recalls. “She conveyed the essence of her protagonist in one tight paragraph.” She also gave realistic comp titles and named known authors whose fans she felt might also like her book. Stephany was so impressed with the letter that she approached Helen later at the conference and asked her to send sample chapters immediately.

So did two other agents at the conference. Now agents were competing for the same book that had languished during a year of cold querying. “It was daunting to adjust from ‘Dear Author’ letters to having to choose among agents,” Helen says.

Stephany read the early chapters and immediately asked for a full manuscript. Within a few days, she called Helen to ask about her status with other agents. By this time, three other agents were reading the full manuscript. “I guess Stephany was pleased when I said she was my first choice. We seemed to click.”

In a business where compatibility and shared sensibility are essential, the personalities seemed propitious. “I had the sense right away that I’d enjoy working with Helen,” Stephany says. “She struck me as someone with gravitas but also real warmth, very professional, but also both grounded and approachable.”

Then, of course, there was the book itself. “Helen’s story resonated with me, and I also felt it was commercial.”

What Changed?

Between the “Dear Author” letters and multiple offers of representation, Helen discovered Noah Lukeman’s free online book,How to Write a Great Query Letter. “I burned it into my brain,” Helen says. “His advice was specific and orderly. Then I worked over my query letter.”

Still, the new letter wasn’t to every agent’s taste. Whereas both agents conducting the first query letter workshop told Helen not to change a word, the agents in the second workshop said she included too much biographical information. “That sort of criticism was more what I expected. It’s a matter of taste.”

This expectation was consistent with Helen’s previous experience with the “Dear Author” letters. She got rejection letters saying said the pace was wrong. Or there was too much backstory. Or not enough backstory.

That feedback was helpful. “Agents aren’t in the business of educating writers, but I paid attention to any personal response.”

The helpful, cordial agents included a few Helen had met at a 2006 Backspace conference, which she attended to pitch one of the books now under the bed. She came out of that conference with a better, but still incomplete understanding of how to query.

“There are people who can toss a manuscript over the transom and have it picked up immediately,” Helen says. “Good for them, but if you’re serious about it, be prepared for a long haul.”

Making a Marketable Product

Many revisions later, The High Road Home is in the hands of several editors. Helen is preparing synopses of two more books for a new series so Stephany can go to editors with more projects in the works.

“From the start, Helen had a good idea where in the literary firmament she belonged,” Stephany says. “I borrowed heavily from her original letter when I crafted my own pitch to editors.”

The edited manuscript and the marketing collateral are the products of deep collaboration. “The more we got into editing, the more confident I got about our working relationship,” Helen says. “Stephany doesn’t mind telling me that something I wrote or proposed isn’t right, and I feel the same liberty. It’s called respect.”

Helen counts herself extremely lucky for finding the right agent. “If any of the agents at the conference had offered me representation, I would have taken it. It’s not as if new writers have agents banging down their doors.”

The Query

Ms. Evans:

Thank you for your kind words regarding my query letter during the recent Backspace conference. To refresh your memory, my 100,000-word novel THE HIGH ROAD HOME shares elements with Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees with a touch of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer; it should also appeal to readers who enjoy books by Billie Letts, Fannie Flagg, and Earlene Fowler.

My protagonist, unmarried and facing her fourth decade, has spent half her life putting her kin first. Now with Mama gone, she can finally strike out for a little adventure. Even her long-ago lover who shows up at her mother’s funeral can’t talk her out of a solo road trip from Kentucky to Seattle. Her journey stalls in northern Colorado, however, when she meets an enigmatic rancher, to-die-for in his faded Wranglers. She’s instantly smitten, but passion ignites only when they face danger together. When he confesses the secret haunting his life, the revelation calls on all her grit and compassion, teaching her about hard choices and sacrifice, about loving and letting go. And where her true home lies.

Like my protagonist, I grew up in Kentucky and spent ten years in Colorado including summers on a cattle ranch. I am a member of the New Hampshire Writers’ Project and have participated in numerous NHWP workshops. I have also studied news writing and have attended writers’ conferences including Harriette Austin in Georgia and the 2006 Backspace Conference.

I have enclosed the first thirty pages of THE HIGH ROAD HOME; the completed manuscript is available. Thank you for considering my work.

Sincerely,

Helen DePrima

About the Author

Sanna Levine is a freelance writer for not-for-profit organizations dedicated to environmental and health care causes. She has 25 years experience writing and editing corporate and trade publications about finance and healthcare.