Livia Blackburne is a recovering neuroscientist turned writer who found great success with this query letter: a contract with Jim McCarthy from Dystel & Goderich Literary Management and Disney Hyperion for MIDNIGHT THIEF. Read below to see what her agent has to say about the query.
Dear Mr. McCarthy
I noticed on your Publishers Marketplace page that you represent quite a few young adult books with magical elements. Because of this, I am submitting for your consideration Midnight Thief, a 74,000-word YA fantasy that will appeal to fans of Kristin Cashore’s Graceling and Tamora Pierce’s Tortall series.
To Kyra, high walls and locked doors are not obstacles, but invitations. She specializes in nighttime raids, using her sharp senses and extraordinary agility to break into Forge’s most well-guarded homes. Then she meets James, the deadly but intriguing Head of the Assassin’s Guild. He has a job for Kyra: infiltrate the supposedly impenetrable Palace compound. The pay is good, and the challenge appealing. It’s the perfect job for someone of her talents.
But as Kyra establishes herself in the Guild, her “perfect job” starts to unravel. Her assignments become increasingly violent, demanding more than Kyra is willing to give. Then Forge is attacked by Demon Riders — barbarians riding bloodthirsty wildcats — and Kyra suspects the Guild is to blame. When a failed mission lands Kyra in the Palace dungeons, she faces an impossible decision. If she cooperates with the authorities against the Guild, James will kill her family, but if Kyra does nothing, she’ll see Forge overrun by Demon Riders. As the city falls into chaos, Kyra uncovers a secret from her past – a forgotten link to the barbarian invaders that will test Kyra’s loyalties and ultimately challenge the limits of her humanity.
I am a doctoral candidate at MIT doing my dissertation research on the neural basis of reading in children. I also write a blog on the brain science of creative writing, which has been featured by several industry websites, including Science Magazine, Nathan Bransford’s blog, and The Book Deal. My essay “From Words to Brain” was published by 40k books in English and Italian.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
Jim’s thoughts on Livia’s query letter:
One of my favorite things about Livia is how incredibly thorough and thoughtful her approach is to every aspect of her writing and the business. So it’s no surprise to look back at her original query and see that it’s pretty much flawless.
She starts by doing two things that I love: indicating that she chose to query me specifically for a reason that makes sense (I do represent a lot of YA books with magical elements, and that is what she has written) and then giving comp titles that make sense and are presented in a way that doesn’t feel braggy. So in paragraph one I already know she’s serious and this is a query I will take very seriously.
Then she launches into a description that is concise, clear, and…exciting. That “To Kyra…” line tells us so much about Kyra—that she’s an adventurer, she may have a criminal side, and she’s probably pretty feisty. I was probably already ready to request this. Then the rest of the description deepens that feeling and does something even more impressive: it captures an epic fantasy novel’s story and world in 193 words without being vague OR confusing. MIDNIGHT THIEF is a great novel, and it plays out in an incredibly well-realized alternate world. Here, though, Livia isn’t precious about trying to relay everything her novel does. She strips it down to its core and presents us with a bare bones synopsis that still manages to capture the feeling of the book and the attitude of the main character. I’m all in.
But she still has a couple tricks up her sleeve. This bio fascinated me. A doctoral candidate at MIT? A blog on the brain science of creative writing? Let’s see what this smarty can pull off! I continue to be dazzled and surprised not only by Livia’s creativity and writing but her dedication, analytical mind, and commitment to learning about the business of publishing in addition to sharpening her craft. Her query was just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s a gleaming point that gives great hints to what lies beneath.
(Agent breakdown was originally published on Writers Digest and has been republished here with Jim’s permission.)