Welcome to story and chai’s “Ask an Author.” Here, Aisha, Mohammed, and I will respond to questions we’ve received about the writing and publication process, as well as new questions, which you can ask us on twitter, Facebook, or through email (jazobair AT comcast DOT net). Sometimes we’ll ask other authors to “guest answer” your questions as well. We hope this is a helpful feature for writers at all stages of the process. The first question is one I’ve heard A LOT in the past two years, so we’ll start with that! ~ Jennifer
Question: I’m having a really hard time with my query letter! Can you tell me how you wrote yours, or better yet, can I see it?
Jennifer: The dreaded query letter! Authors tend to hate them; agents so often swear by them. Below is the letter I used to query my novel, Painted Hands, with some notes from me following it.
Dear [agent’s name–always personalized!],
I was thrilled to learn that you are actively seeking multicultural fiction, and I hope you’ll consider representing my 94,000-word women’s fiction novel, PAINTED HANDS.
The war on terror is raging, conservatives are gaining ground even in liberal Massachusetts, and Muslim bad girl Zainab Mir has just landed a job working for a post-feminist, Republican Senate candidate. Her best friend, Amra Abbas, is about to make partner at a top Boston law firm. They’ve thwarted proposal-slinging aunties, cultural expectations, and the occasional bigot to succeed in their careers.
What they didn’t count on? Unlikely men and geopolitical firestorms.
When a handsome childhood friend reappears, Amra makes choices that Zainab considers so 1950—choices that involve the perfect Banarasi silk dress and a four-bedroom house in the suburbs. After hiding her long work hours during their courtship, Amra struggles to balance her demanding job and her unexpectedly traditional new husband.
Zainab has her own problems. She generates controversy in the Muslim community with her strapless Vanity Fair spread and friendship with a gay reporter. Her rising profile also inflames neocons like Chase Holland, the talk radio host who attacks her religion publicly but privately falls for her hard. Good-looking “for a white boy” and with career-threatening secrets of his own, Chase is frustratingly difficult for Zainab to dismiss.
The complicated relationships with these two men fracture the lifelong bond between Zainab and Amra. When the political fallout from a terrorist attempt threatens Zainab’s job, and protests surrounding a woman-led Muslim prayer lead to violence, Amra and Zainab must decide what they’re willing to risk for their principles, their friendship, and love.
I’m a graduate of Smith College and Georgetown Law School and, like Zainab, have probably been called a Muslim bad girl. If you’re interested, I’d love to send you the full manuscript.
Jennifer A. Zobair
1. I tailored the first paragraph of my query letter depending on what a particular agent was looking for. (Also, note that “women’s fiction” is a genre, so this is not a case of the redundant “fiction novel.”) My novel has been described as book club fiction, women’s fiction, upmarket fiction, multicultural fiction, fiction with strong female protagonists, etc. I only queried agents who were looking for those kinds of books and used whichever description applied. If I’d read a relevant interview with an agent, or loved a book she’d represented, I often mentioned that in the first paragraph, too.
2. You cannot tell from this query letter, but my novel has four POV characters. It was impossible to work all of their story arcs into a one-page query letter, and I didn’t try. Instead, I focused on the two characters who I think of as the “main” characters, and, because I thought Zainab was the character with the most “hook,” I led with her.
3. I did not have any writing credits to speak of when I queried Painted Hands. I did feel that it was important for an agent to know that I was writing this particular novel as a Muslim American woman, which might not have been apparent from my name or the picture on my website (ah—stereotypes!). My approach was to find a short, colorful way to convey my “street cred,” if you will, in an interesting enough way to take the focus off of my lack of publishing history. (You can read more about what I meant by “Muslim bad girl” here.)
4. I worked hard on this query letter. I even took a short webinar on query writing. This is the first and often only chance you have with a particular agent, and it’s worth all the effort you put into it. Take your time, seek out “how to” advice, be thoughtful, and best of luck!
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Jennifer Zobair is the creator of story and chai. She is also the author of the debut novel, PAINTED HANDS, which was published by St. Martin’s Press on June 11, 2013. She is represented by Kent D. Wolf of Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. Her essays have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Rumpus, The Lascaux Review, and on websites like Love InshAllah and Feminism and Religion. Jennifer is currently at work on her second novel. She lives with her husband and three children outside of Boston.