Monday, June 6, 2011

Help me sell my novel...

Update 7/19/2011: I decided I didn't love this query and have tried again. Please take a look at my updated query instead of this one.

As many of you know, I recently finished a strong draft of a 263-page book, meaning that I'm ready to start trying to sell it to someone.

The first step in selling a novel is to find an agent who might like your work. The most common advice I've seen for finding an agent is to find books that are like--but not TOO much like--yours and then send a short letter describing your book to the agents that sold those books.

Problem: I'm struggling to think of books that are good matches.

After reading the query letter below, are you interested in reading my book? If so, would you mind telling me in the comments what other books you like?

Query Letter, last modified 6/6 at 10:15 pm:

Dear [insert agent name here],

You’ve heard the story before. At the edge of an empire, an occupied people seeks answers in their faith. Some search for purity in strict ritual observance, others by separating themselves from the symbols of a brutally civilized world. Some emphasize peace and love to transcend (and undermine) bitter political realities, while others insist that God will bring miraculous victory only if they first fight violence with violence.

You’ve heard of this world before: but does it produce Osama Bin Laden or Jesus?

My 75,000 word novel In Search of Vanished Blood tells the story of Jesus from the perspectives of those around him at a time when unsettling cultural imperialism has produced religious turmoil. The pressures of the time shape the way the story is told: because speech can be deadly, Jesus uses parables to at once conceal and reveal unorthodox ideas; his followers repurpose sacred stories into veiled outcries. Religious audiences will feel closer to familiar Biblical figures who navigate unexpected tensions in my book. Literary audiences will be drawn to the prose style, which mixes the meditative folklore tone of Elie Wiesel’s Souls on Fire with the charged imagery of classical Urdu poetry. Academic audiences will explore the subtle, intricate shaping of the narrative around Old Testament structures.

My telling of Jesus’ story is unique partly because of my background: not many part-Sikh, part-Jewish writers also hold MFAs from Brigham Young University. I understand contexts of repression: I’m related to the murdered activist poet Avtar Singh Pash and studied South Asian political writing with Indian screenwriter Abhijat Joshi. I honor my Jewish roots and have had work published in Shofar and Drash. I know about how religions emerge and spread: I spent two years as a missionary and later worked for the scholarly Joseph Smith Papers Project.

And how many writers’ looks have made passing strangers call them both “Osama” and “Jesus”?


James Goldberg


  1. Wish I were your agent, James. I'd grab your book immediately! Your letter is bright and witty and... and... and... (your choice!)
    I did love the chapters I read.
    I hope you'll sell your brilliant book very quickly.
    If you ever need a translator... :)

  2. Xenocide dealt with OCD and religion in a sci-fye context, and that's honestly the closest thing that comes to mind? Best of luck.

  3. I think the bookends are compelling, but the middle needs some work. In particular, you tell us the context and the style, but you don't tell us what the novel is actually about other than: "My 75,000 word novel In Search of Vanished Blood relates Jesus’ baptism, ministry in Galilee, death, and resurrection at one of many times when unsettling cultural imperialism has produced religious turmoil."

    Relates isn't the strongest verb. We're left unsure of who the main POV character is. And we don't get any sense of what the "vanished blood" refers to. Nor what the search is.

    Since I don't know exactly what the novel is or how it is structured, I can't give you precise advice. But you need to hook on plot and then all the other stuff -- your writing style, your personal biography (which is very important to a pitch a like this) -- really sells the book.

  4. It depends on the audience you are trying to target, but The Kingdom and the Crown series was one that I really enjoyed and follows along similar lines. That was targeted more towards an LDS audience than the general public.

    (this is from Tyrel Long)

  5. Does Osama figure into the book? I think readers of the query letter might be disappointed if he doesn't. I am impressed that you came out to such a round number of words.

  6. Wm,

    I've made a minor adjustment to address the POV issue. Still thinking about whether I can shed light on the title, or come up with a better pitch title (I'm sure it will get changed before printing anyway).

    A little better?

  7. Olivia,

    Does the slight change in the second line help decrease your hope of seeing Bin Laden actually, literally appear in the book?

  8. Good luck with the book, James!

  9. I’m surprised you’re going the agent route … that you’re not self-publishing. I’m half-way through with my own novel, which I’ll be self-publishing this fall. I can’t imagine sharing 15% of the royalties with someone to do what I can do myself — not to mention the crazy cut the publisher gets.

  10. I'm more averse to doing agent-like work than to giving agents money. ;)
    Seriously: I'm a better writer than marketer or negotiator or any of that. So I don't mind sharing the work and proceeds of actually delivering my work to the public with others.

  11. And I’m a marketing professional … so that stuff doesn’t bother me.

    But it’s not difficult … come over to the light side of the Force!

  12. Marketing is the light side of the force?

    Why was I raised by Darth Vader?

  13. Two comments:
    a) I would market directly to a publisher, not an agent. (My fifth book due out next year.) I strongly discourage self publishing - you will spend your life marketing instead of writing.
    b) Writing a book and then trying to sell it is like cutting a key and then looking for a lock for it to fit into. Choose your target publisher and audience first, and tailor the book to them. And yes, it means re-tweaking for another publisher if the first rejects it. If this is more novel than history, try whoever published My Father's Paradise or The Kite Runner.
    Good luck! Let us know when/where it will be available! Your cousin Kristen

  14. I am interested in knowing what your work is about, but I didn't feel like your letter informed me about your book so much as it did about your credentials and background. Your background is fascinating and somewhat reminiscent of my own (only member of the church, direct descendent of Muhammad, etc).

    A friend of mine recommended your blogs written regarding the beard card portion of the Honor Code; I read it and enjoyed your story telling voice as well as your asides to the reader.

    I would be interested in reading your book, but not based on that letter. My reasoning is based on your background, specific personal experiences, and your previous blog posts. I enjoy reading most every genre- specifically religious studies, historical fiction, classics, and fantasy/fairy tales. I hope I've been able to help somewhat.

  15. Thanks, Mena!

    I've actually put up another try because of the problems you mention. Would you mind taking a look at


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