My publishing journey: My query letter for SORCERER TO THE CROWN

One thing I haven’t yet mentioned in my posts about querying agents and signing with one is that my method of identifying agents to query meant I ended up with a list of agents who were almost exclusively American. I don’t really know why this happened. (I mean … apart from the American cultural hegemony … but it’s not like the British are wilting flowers either when it comes to cultural hegemony. I ought to know! Plus I actually live in Britain.) Anyway, it’s a bit odd in retrospect. If you live in Britain you should consider querying British agents because I know a couple and they are great and I wish I’d given them the chance to reject me!

I mention this because US and UK queries have a slightly different format. You should pay attention to the specific agent/agency’s submission guidelines anyway, as they will all differ a little bit, but generally speaking, in the US agents just want to see a query letter plus synopsis, and they will decide whether they want to read a sample of the actual book based on that. In the UK you’re usually asked to send in an excerpt of the book with your query, so the agent gets a look at your fiction upfront.

My query to my agent was US-style, so I just sent the following email to her address on the agency website.

(Aw yeah I’m going to get to do a DVD COMMENTARY! I love doing DVD commentaries of my own things.)

Dear Ms Blasdell,

We switched to first names after the first email exchange. But safest to be polite ma.

In Regency London, Zacharias Wythe is England’s first black Sorcerer Royal … and that’s only the first of his problems.

The first line gives you the setting; it tells you that it’s fantasy (a Sorcerer Royal is not a real thing); and it explains who the book is about. It was quite easy to think it up, because Zacharias and his many, many problems are the beginning and end of the book.

I didn’t realise, but “black Sorcerer Royal” can apparently lead to confusion because people think it’s black magic being spoken of, not, you know, a black dude who’s a magician. It works OK in text, though. Now I sometimes refer to Zacharias as England’s first African Sorcerer Royal, but I don’t like that as much because Zacharias grew up in Britain. Even his parents probably came from the West Indies.

For Zacharias has not only to juggle the conflicting demands of a wayward Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, outraged at having an African set above it; a Fairy Court refusing to concede the magical resources Britain needs; and a British Government avid to deploy magic in its war with France. He must also contend with rumours that he murdered his predecessor and guardian, Sir Stephen Wythe — a task which might be easier if Sir Stephen’s ghost would stop following him around. And now he has to deal with something even more outrageous than any of these things: a female magical prodigy.

Zacharias’s dad being a ghost is inspired by due South. There, I said it. Everything I write is stolen from the things I loved as a kid!

As I mentioned in passing in my last Publishing Journey post, reading Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 was the single most helpful thing I did when drafting my query, and it helped me figure out what the book should be about when I was overhauling the first draft. I don’t have the book any longer, as I got it out of the library (LIBRARIES ARE SO GREAT), but this is how Colley describes the prevailing themes of the British nation at the time in which Sorcerer to the Crown is set:

  • Commercial energy
  • Imperial dominion
  • A taste for liberty
  • Stable rule by an exclusive elite

That gave me all my conflicts and all my worldbuilding, neatly summarised. Commercial energy drives the British Government in its relentless expansion of empire. Britain’s attempts at imperial dominion has pissed off the Fairy Court, not to mention a couple of other significant players in the book. The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers is hanging on to stable rule by an exclusive elite with a death-grip, and of course Zacharias and Prunella have a taste for liberty.

Super nerdy! But what I did with the draft novel and the query was line up all my fulcrums — the Society, the Government and the Fairy Court — and pile a taste for liberty on top of them.

You may also notice that I used a slightly archaic style in the query. I thought it was good to hint at the voice the book was written in, but also I had just spent nine months in Regency-voice — I’m not sure I could’ve got out of it even if I wanted to. (A problem that continues now I am working on the second book …)

Ambitious orphan Prunella Gentleman is desperate to escape the school where she has drudged all her life, and a visit by the Sorcerer Royal seems the perfect opportunity. For Prunella has just stumbled upon English magic’s greatest discovery in centuries — and she intends to make the most of it.

This has nothing to do with the query, but for anyone who objects to Prunella’s name, I should note that Gentleman is a respectable old Scottish surname and there were plenty of people with the name in the 1881 census.

Prunella I have no excuse for. I just like it.

A historical fantasy of manners inspired by Georgette Heyer, Susanna Clarke and Ignatius Sancho, SORCERER TO THE CROWN is complete at around 99,000 words.

I can’t remember where I heard “fantasy of manners” and nobody really seems to know what it means except serious fantasy geeks, so I don’t use it anymore. But it is such a neat term!

I switched this part up in my queries, I think — I didn’t mention Ignatius Sancho in every letter. The reasons for the comparisons are: Heyer for Regency romance, Clarke for fantasy, and Sancho for being from the POV of a black man in pre-20th century London. He’s not a novelist, obviously, so he’s the odd one out for various reasons. But I like to talk about the people who came before.

Coming up with comps was easy for me because I get my story ideas by remixing other stories, so the initial spark for Sorcerer was “What would it be like if you took a Georgette Heyer book and put magic and thoughts about colonialism in it?” If you are shy about comparing yourself to really good/really famous authors, just say you are “inspired” by them. You’re not saying you’re as good as them, but it tells people what you’re aiming for.

I live in London, and am a 2013 finalist (and the first Malaysian ever nominated) for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. My short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in various US, UK, Australian, Malaysian and Singaporean publications, including Strange Horizons, Esquire Malaysia, and two Prime Books anthologies.

I picked the three or so short fiction venues that I thought would have the most name recognition for SFF agents. I thought the “first Malaysian ever nominated” thing was interesting, hopefully the sort of detail that would jump out of a query letter. Living in London seemed a relevant biographical detail given the novel is set in London.

I would be happy to supply a partial or full manuscript if you were interested in reading more.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Yours sincerely,
Zen Cho

Link to website to save ’em googling. Simples!

I actually didn’t think this was that good a query when I was sending it out, because it seemed quite static to me — I hardly talked about the plot at all. But I guess you don’t need to talk about the plot so long as it’s clear you’ve set your dominoes up and there’s lots of potential for them to fall about and make a mess.

When my agent submitted the novel to publishers, her cover email was very similar to my query, so it must have been OK. The novel itself, on the other hand … ! But I’ll tell you about that in the next post.


Previous Publishing Journey posts

Mission statement: Ten things I believe about writing
Breaking through writer’s block, or, how I started writing and publishing short stories
How I published a short story collection
Writing with a day job, part 1: Why I don’t write full-time
Writing with a day job, part 2: Work/work balance
Networking, part 1: Social media and connection
Networking, part 2: Thoughts on conventions
How I wrote three novels and binned two of them
Querying agents
Signing with a literary agent

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