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Annotated Query Letter: The Phoenix Keeper


Background of packed books on a shelf. A teal band across the middle with white text "Query Guide." Below that is a scrap of white paper with black text "Annotated Query Letter: THE PHOENIX KEEPER"

What makes a successful query?


There’s no such thing as a perfect query letter, 100% guaranteed to get agent requests. However, working within a tried-and-true formula will improve your chances of success. Agents are wading through dozens, if not hundreds of query submissions. A strong query letter formula ensures you hit all the information you need, in the most efficient and impactful way possible.


In this post, I’m breaking down my successful query letter for THE PHOENIX KEEPER, picking apart every line to see what made this query tick! I’ll also include some notes of how the pitch has changed from querying, to submission, to pre-publication.


Finally, to offer an extra bit of industry insight, my agent John Baker has kindly offered to weigh in on how my query caught his attention! You'll find his comments in blue.


John: Hello, agent whose attention it caught coming in here! The supremely talented Sarah has asked me to jump on and talk about what it was about her query letter that grabbed me and made me make that all important decision to dive in and fall insta-love into her writing and story.


 

Query Letter: The Phoenix Keeper


Let’s jump right in! Here’s my query letter for THE PHOENIX KEEPER, the exact version that landed me an agent offer:


THE PHOENIX KEEPER (100k words) is a standalone adult fantasy with contemporary romcom elements, packed with magical animal antics and f/f rivals-to-lovers romance. The quirky, lighthearted fantasy of House in the Cerulean Sea meets the sassy sapphics of Payback’s a Witch, plus a dose of Parks and Rec humor.
Aila is a little obsessed with phoenixes.
As head phoenix keeper at a world-renowned zoo for magical creatures, her childhood dream of conserving critically endangered firebirds seems closer than ever. There’s just one glaring caveat: her zoo’s breeding program hasn’t functioned for a decade. When a tragic phoenix-nabbing cripples the flagship program at a neighboring zoo, Aila must prove her derelict facilities are fit to take the reins.
But saving a species takes more than stellar animal handling skills. Carnivorous water horses, tempestuous thunderhawks — Aila has no problem wrangling beasts. Inspiring zoo patrons? That’s another story. Finding courage to ask for help from the hot dragon keeper at a neighboring exhibit? Virtually impossible. And don’t get Aila started on her archrival from college: the glamorous leader of the zoo’s wildly popular griffin show, who’s determined Aila’s beloved phoenix would serve better as a performer than a conservation exhibit. To restore her breeding program, Aila must conquer her social anxiety, enlisting help from friends and enemies. With the world watching and the threat of poachers looming, Aila’s success isn’t only a matter of keeping her job: the future of a species depends on her.
I’m an ecology professor by day, writer by night, in love with lush fantasy worlds that bust ribs and pull heartstrings. My magical zoo is inspired by ten years in real-life science outreach and animal handling (ask me about my seagull scars). I’ve written two popular science articles for BirdScope magazine, covering the woes of thwarting squirrels at birdfeeders and my travels to Abu Dhabi as a finalist in a falconry festival art contest.
Thank you for your time and consideration.

 

Query Letter Breakdown


In your query letter, you’re fighting to make the most of limited space: one metadata paragraph, a book summary of 150-250 words, and a short bio.


Every. Single. Word. Counts!


Every sentence, every word in a query is chosen for maximum impact. Let’s break it down!

 

Metadata


I’m opening with the metadata paragraph, where I give all the vital stats for the book (title, genre, age, word count, comps, and any other quickfire descriptors/tropes). I’ve seen some agents say they like to see the metadata paragraph first! I’ve seen some say they want it after the book summary! I don’t know if placement even matters! But regardless of where this paragraph goes, it needs some key info.


THE PHOENIX KEEPER (100k words) is a standalone adult fantasy with contemporary romcom elements, packed with magical animal antics and f/f rivals-to-lovers romance.

No need to be wordy or roundabout. I’m laying out the key info so an agent can swiftly get a feel for the project. Title, word count, standalone, age, genre.


The rest of the sentence is fluffy (but streamlined) embellishment. This is the spot for tropes and big market hooks. I want the agent to know this isn’t a high fantasy, it’s got relatable contemporary elements. Magical animals, sapphics, and rivals-to-lovers are key selling points.


Looking back, I could have leaned even stronger into the romantasy elements of the book, rather than pitching as a fantasy first, with romance elements (I'll muse more on this point a bit father down). I’m also staring at this sentence and wondering why on earth the word “cozy" doesn't show up anywhere. Past Sarah wasn’t perfect! (Shit, present Sarah still isn’t perfect…)


John: Starting at the top of the email, and BOOM, perfect meta-data, clear comps and positions. As Sarah said, I agree that she could have leaned even further into the romantic angles. But the romantasy boom hadn’t completely kicked off, so a broad "this is fantasy with some romance" worked. Plus with the comps, I knew the angles we were aiming for. Agents love clear meta-data! Tell me you understand your place in the market and tell me quickly.


The quirky, lighthearted fantasy of House in the Cerulean Sea meets the sassy sapphics of Payback’s a Witch, plus a dose of Parks and Rec humor.

Next up are the comp titles! I’ve got my two book comps published within the last three years, plus a non-book comp added as a cherry on top. For each, I’m also briefly describing what component I’m comping to (every book has many many facets to it, so narrow it down!).


John: My standard rule for comps, and apologies if this is obvious, is make sure at least one of the titles is a recognizable name in recent history who has been successful in the area of the market you are trying to publish in (avoid the behemoths, you aren’t the next HP), and the other can be something classic and older, or another recent one. They can be two similar plots or they can highlight the combination you are making.


Other agents differ on this, especially at the more literary end of the spectrum, but SFF and pop-culture are pretty entwined, so I am always open to a comp being a TV or Film especially if it does as well as Parks and Rec did for fleshing out the tone and grounding what could be quite a sparkly premise. “A magical zoo, you say? Fantastical creatures? How adorable! And yes, true, but this is also someone’s day job, with feeding schedules and a gift shop and annoying visitors."


Worth noting: these weren’t my only possible comps! Sometimes, I’d make small tweaks to the tropes/comps in the metadata paragraph, depending on what the agent was looking for in their MSWL. Keeping a side list of details to swap in can be helpful!

 

Book Summary


Next, it’s on to the book summary.


Aila is a little obsessed with phoenixes.

I start with an introduction to the character. This isn’t a vital component to the summary. But my goal here is to establish tone. We’re lighthearted. We aren’t overly serious. It can be hard to convey voice in such a short summary, but small embellishments help!


John: “Aila is a little obsessed with phoenixes." Seven words and Sarah had my attention. I remember that was the first line I read when I clicked through into the email. It’s funny, it’s irreverent, it says yes, this book has serious high-fantasy creatures like the mighty phoenix, but the tone is not going to be taking them that seriously. Also, it shows a deft control and degree of restraint. A lesser author might have said, “Aila is completely obsessed with phoenixes,” which is of course completely true, but it’s obvious. Whereas “a little obsessed,” you can instantly connect with the voice and style, the light sarcasm or the sense of denial of our soon to be beloved main character.


As head phoenix keeper at a world-renowned zoo for magical creatures, her childhood dream of conserving critically endangered firebirds seems closer than ever.

In the formula I use for a query letter, the job of the first paragraph is to introduce the character motivation, status quo, and the inciting incident that kicks the whole story off. In this first sentence, we see Aila’s status quo. This is her world at ground zero (working as head phoenix keeper), and we see she has goals she wants to achieve (her childhood dream).


I also have some carefully-curated worldbuilding details woven in here without taking up too much space. We learn that in this world, magical creatures exist, zoos exist, conservation designations exist. My goal in these details was to make this feel familiar like our real world, but with some intriguing magic sprinkled in.


Also notice: zero proper nouns! Query letters are short, and readers have limited context. Relatable descriptions work better than unfamiliar proper nouns. I don’t name the San Tamculo Zoo, I tell you it’s a world-renowned zoo for magical creatures. I don’t tell you Aila works with Silimalo Phoenixes, I give more context by calling them critically endangered firebirds.


(I just used three whole paragraphs to break down one sentence. Isn’t query writing a blast?)


There’s just one glaring caveat: her zoo’s breeding program hasn’t functioned for a decade.

Uh-oh! There’s a problem! A specific hurdle Aila has to overcome to achieve her dream! Here, I’m showing you that the status quo is not ok. Something needs to change.


When a tragic phoenix-nabbing cripples the flagship program at a neighboring zoo, Aila must prove her derelict facilities are fit to take the reins.

And bam! Something does change! Here’s my inciting incident, the reason we’re starting this story at this moment, the launching point for the rest of the plot. We see that an interesting event has shaken things up (while building more world intrigue with the idea of a phoenix-nabbing).


I’m also showing a specific hurdle. Aila’s “derelict facilities” are not ready for this challenge. She needs to do something in response to this inciting incident. From here, we can very clearly see how the larger plot is going to proceed, at least for the first part of the book.


But saving a species takes more than stellar animal handling skills.

In my formula, paragraph two is where we see how the larger plot starts to unravel, including what specific hurdles the protagonist will have to overcome to achieve this new goal set up by the inciting incident. We should also see some hints of how those hurdles start to get bigger and scarier as the story unfolds!


At the end of the previous paragraph, I showed us that Aila’s facilities aren’t up to this new task. Now in paragraph two, I’m telling you Aila herself is not currently up to the task (hello, character arc!).


Carnivorous water horses, tempestuous thunderhawks — Aila has no problem wrangling beasts.

This sentence (as many sentences in the query letter must strive to do) pulls double duty. We see where Aila’s current strength is: dealing with animals. This is part of setting up her character arc.


There’s also a bit more worldbuilding fluff! In the metadata paragraph, I pitched this as a book about magical creatures. Plural. Not just phoenixes. Here, I’m backing up that claim, giving teasers of some other magical creatures in the cast.


If you’ve got tropes in your pitch, try to make sure those tropes pop up in your story summary as well!


Inspiring zoo patrons? That’s another story.

Hello, social anxiety. Hello, central character arc. Aila is good with animals. She’s not good with people. I’m demonstrating the clear, specific hurdles Aila is going to have to tackle to achieve her goal.


The sentence structure here also reinforces the informal voice of the novel!


Finding courage to ask for help from the hot dragon keeper at a neighboring exhibit? Virtually impossible.

Continuing the process of showing specific hurdles for Aila to overcome, and now we have a hot dragon keeper in the mix. This sentence introduces us to another key character in the story, gives us a tease of romantic angst, and shows off yet another magical creature in the cast (multiple dragons, actually, this is a dragon keeper after all).


And don’t get Aila started on her archrival from college: the glamorous leader of the zoo’s wildly popular griffin show, who’s determined Aila’s beloved phoenix would serve better as a performer than a conservation exhibit.

One more specific hurdle, one more key character intro, one more magical creature feature (our gorgeous peacock griffins). This character has even more angst. Aila has history with this character (her archrival from college). The descriptors here are deliberately chosen: glamorous, wildly popular (jealous much, Aila?).


There’s also heightened danger brewing. If Aila doesn’t succeed, could her phoenix be lost to her, stolen by the more popular griffin show? This amps up her personal stakes!


Interestingly, this is the section of the summary that’s been altered the most as the novel moves toward publication. In the most current summary on Goodreads and the like, Luciana (the love interest) gets named here, and gets a more detailed description of her enemies-to-lovers arc with Aila:


“Mustering the courage to ask for help from the hotshot griffin keeper at the zoo's most popular exhibit? Virtually impossible. Especially when that hotshot griffin keeper happens to be her arch-rival from college: Luciana, an annoyingly brooding and insufferable know-it-all with the grace of a basilisk and the face of a goddess, who's convinced that Aila's beloved phoenix would serve their cause better as an active performer rather than as a passive conservation exhibit.”


And I love this change! To me, the new summary is more the formula of a romance (first introduce the MC goals and stakes, then introduce the LI and how they make everything more complicated), which works well for this book. Looking back, my original query followed more of a typical fantasy format, focusing on a wider net of hurdles rather than placing the love interest centerstage.


Obviously, both formulas have their advantages! It’s worth thinking about how the format of your book summary fits the genre/vibes you are most wanting to highlight. As John commented above, the romantasy genre was just starting to hit its boom when I queried (the same with cozy!), so I was playing my cards a little safe.


To restore her breeding program, Aila must conquer her social anxiety, enlisting help from friends and enemies.

This is, even now, my least favorite sentence in the entire query. It’s establishing crucial info about Aila’s social anxiety and the larger plot of having to build a team to help achieve her goal. But it's kind of boring and generic. I think I could have structured this in a more interesting way, incorporating more details unique to my story (though the latest summary takes this sentence out entirely, so maybe I didn’t even need it?).


With the world watching and the threat of poachers looming, Aila’s success isn’t only a matter of keeping her job: the future of a species depends on her.

The end of the story summary needs to hit big. It needs to establish the big danger (poachers!). It needs to hook a reader so they have to read more to find out what happens (the world watching!). It needs to establish stakes, tell us exactly what Aila stands to lose if she fails (keeping her job! the future of a species!).


Throughout all of your query letter, and especially here, vagueness is the enemy. When I do query critiques, I so often see this last sentence of the summary wrap up with big but vague statements that could apply to any book: the MC must figure out who to trust, they stand to lose everything they love, they must decide what is worth fighting for, etc.


Be specific! What are your character’s unique stakes? What makes your story stand out from every other one in the agent’s inbox?


John: Onto the mini-blurb or book summary, reading Sarah’s breakdown of her approach made me feel a bit like how I felt watching the behind-the-scenes documentary on the LOTR extended editions. Basically, “Wow, is that how they did that, I didn’t spot that at all, still loved it though.” That’s not meant to cheapen Sarah’s efforts. She crafted a perfect summary. To stretch to another LOTR metaphor, just because I couldn’t hear the individual instruments, doesn’t mean Howard Shore didn’t do a marvelous job with the score. With reflection, the summary does tell me pretty much everything you need to know about the story. We get the stakes, we get the baseline, we get the obstacles. We get that, "yes, we’ve already been told there are big romantic elements, but this book isn’t about who Aila ends up with" (To a certain extent, that is already telegraphed in the summary and the metadata but who cares. “What? The rival keeper is beautiful and her nemesis? What could this mean??”). But most importantly, it’s tight, it’s breezy, it doesn’t bog me down in world building or extraneous details. All you want in a summary.

 

Author Bio


Last but not least, we have the bio paragraph.


I’m an ecology professor by day, writer by night, in love with lush fantasy worlds that bust ribs and pull heartstrings. My magical zoo is inspired by ten years in real-life science outreach and animal handling (ask me about my seagull scars). I’ve written two popular science articles for BirdScope magazine, covering the woes of thwarting squirrels at birdfeeders and my travels to Abu Dhabi as a finalist in a falconry festival art contest.

Short and sweet! The bio gives a picture of who I am as a person, and some of my (brief) motivation for writing this book. I could have done without the last sentence I think, since these are publications not in the fiction world, but I felt they were worth including as an interesting tidbit since I’m pitching a novel inspired by real-world conservation.


I think I also could have (should have?) included that I identify as bisexual! Which lends credibility to the rep I’m pitching in this book.


John: Finally, the bio. The big thing about bios is that at this stage, agents don’t care about you as a person, they care about you as a writer. Sarah's bio tells me in brief detail that she’s a specialist in her field that feeds into her writing. She has been paid for her writing before and she’s a bit of a nerd and an artist. Ideally, I can already tell we’d likely vibe and she’s an interesting person. A bio is there to tell me what I would tell the editors, and then their publicist, what are Sarah’s extra USPs that she brings to the table with this book.


 

Conclusion


And that’s a wrap!


Interesting to note: the book summary didn’t change much when we went on submission (but has been changed by our editors a bit more for the pre-publication summary, though that isn’t finalized). For sub, the metadata paragraph did get jazzed up:


“THE PHOENIX KEEPER is an adult queer romantasy set in a magical zoo, perfect for fans of recent NYT bestseller, Travis Baldree’s Legends and Lattes. It’s a completely delicious read, packed with magical animal antics and f/f rivals-to-lovers romance. The quirky, light-hearted fantasy of TJ Klunes’s The House in the Cerulean Sea meets the sassy sapphics of Payback’s a Witch, with the hyperrealism of a Parks and Rec episode. The standalone novel is complete at 110,000 words.


The pitch expanded with a newer comp, Legends and Lattes, plus a few more marketing buzzwords (get yourself an agent who comes up with shit like “adult queer romantasy set in a magical zoo,” that rolls off the tongue way better than whatever I had).


John: FYI, I kept all these elements when I was pitching TPK to editors and you could see on their faces how well they worked. The key to why I had so much fun pitching this book, why I picked it from the slush pile, is all right there in the cover letter. Sarah told me what her book is like and then told me why it’s different, which is just what I tweaked then repeated again and again. And then her editors did the same to their acquisitions meetings, and soon her publicist’s and her sales reps and everyone else will be doing. Sing us an effective song in the first instance and we’ll happily play it again and again.


In summary: no query letter is perfect. Even looking back at a successful query letter, I’ve pointed out places that could have been tweaked or improved.


But by following a basic formula, by making sure every word counts, and by working in specific details to show how your story is unique, you stand the best chance of capturing agent attention!




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