The process of trying to get a book published has been very educational. After I had finished (or thought I had finished) writing Dragontamer’s Daughters in August 2010, I set out trying to get it published the traditional way. Once upon a time, that might have meant mailing the entire manuscript, unrequested, to a publisher and then waiting several months for them to respond—usually by rejecting it—before sending it out again to another publisher. While one can certainly do that, it’s usually faster and more effective to find and secure the services of a literary agent—an industry insider—to handle that.
Literary Agents and Query Letters
Accordingly, I bought a copy of a guide listing agents, their interests, and their contact information. As I went through the book, I drew up a list of well over a dozen whom I thought, based on the entries in the book, would be a good fit for me and DTD. Next, I e-mailed those agents query letters and sample chapters, as per their specifications. A query letter tells a little bit about the book and why it would interest readers, and asks if the agent would like to learn more. Here’s the query letter I used for DTD:
[my name, address, phone number, e-mail]
[agent’s name, address]
Dear [name of agent]
Dragontamer’s Daughters, intended primarily for girls, is set in the Old West of an alternate Earth. Isabella and Alijandra, 12 and 7 years old, live with their parents in a shack deep in the lands of the Diheneh, the native people, far from their former home. Their mother, aided by the old native woman who raised her, struggles to grow food, earn money, and keep her children safe in the unforgiving desert. Their father, who used to catch, tame, and train dragons for war before being declared an outlaw, spends many weeks away on futile attempts at prospecting.
Into their lives comes a small, wingless dragon from far away. Finding the dragon severely injured after a fight, the girls take it home, begin tending it back to health, and call it “Pearl,” after its tiny white eyes. While Pearl heals, the family begins to learn where the dragon came from, what powers it has, and what exactly it is. As the family ponders what to do with Pearl, they learn that others want the dragon for their own reasons, and that the hunt for the former dragontamer has intensified. At the same time, Pearl grows more and more compelled to complete the mysterious journey that brought her to these lands.
Dragontamer’s Daughters is a fantasy story and a Western that avoids tired trappings of either genre. Its characters—many of them female, many of them drawn from Hispanic or Navajo culture—are complex and well-defined. The novel’s themes are that people and situations are almost always more than what they first appear to be; that the people we love can be terribly flawed and yet capable of great good; that change is inevitable, but love and friendship can be eternal.
Dragontamer’s Daughters is my first young adult novel. I took much of my inspiration for it from my childhood in Arizona and my studies of the Navajo people. I have been a technical writer/editor with the U.S. government for almost 10 years. I earned a B.A. in English Literature at the University of Maryland College Park, where I studied creative writing under J.R. Salamanca, author of Lilith. I also earned an M.A. in English Literature at Washington College in Chestertown, MD.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
[my name, e-mail]
Most of the time, an agent would send back a short e-mail saying some version of, “No thanks,” and that’s fine. There’s a lot of rejection to be had when attempting to publish a work, not all of which is based on what someone might think of your abilities. Your work might be rejected because the agent just sold something similar to your book, because your book is too long for the market (and thus, will be too expensive to produce), because the agent doesn’t think it will sell, etc.
Conversely, if an agent likes what’s in the query letter, they’ll ask for the whole manuscript and maybe a synopsis as well, so that they can see where the story is going before diving in. The synopsis is usually only a few pages, lists the major characters in capitals, has a word count, and includes the ending. Here’s the one I did for my book (SPOILERS).
Synopsis of Dragontamer’s Daughters
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy
Word Count: 146,000
by Kenton Kilgore
Life is hard for ISABELLA, 12 years old, and her sister ALIJANDRA, 7. Their family lives in a small house on the high desert, miles from the nearest town, during the Old West—but it is an Old West of an alternate Earth, where the native people, the Diheneh, use dragons to protect their lands. With their father, THAD, away attempting to earn money, the girls help their mother JUANITA and TO-HO-NE, the old Diheneh woman who stays with them, to grow food, herd sheep, and scrape by.
Isabella dimly remembers a better time, years before, in the country of Ysparria. There, her family was rich and respected because Thad caught, tamed, and trained dragons for the army. That ended when one of Thad’s charges, the KAIBABI DRAGON, broke its training and killed thousands of civilians, forcing the family to flee. Now they live under false names, protected by the natives who had, years earlier, taught Thad how to tame dragons. Thad is an outlaw, hunted by soldiers of the recently-appointed Ysparrian GOVERNOR GUZMARR, and by the “DRAGON KILLER,” a man with uncanny powers.
After a thunderstorm, Isabella and Alijandra find and take in a small dragon, injured in a fight while on a journey from her island home far away. Initially hostile, the dragon, whom the girls name “PEARL” after her tiny white eyes, slowly heals and becomes friendlier. Eventually, the family learns that Pearl can make rain, even in the desert; can fly by summoning wind to carry her; and can call lightning from the sky or generate electrical shocks from her body. They also become convinced that Pearl is intelligent and can understand what they say.
As the family ponders what to do with Pearl, she recovers enough to escape the house, compelled to continue her journey. Alijandra and Isabella follow and find Pearl, but are attacked by a cougar, which Pearl kills with a massive blast of electricity. Aggravating her injuries, she collapses, and Isabella and Alijandra take her back to their house.
To-Ho-Ne calls upon the native warrior AHIGA and his father NAALNISH, a medicine man, to perform a sand-painting ceremony to heal Pearl. Pearl again recovers, but now others know of her. The priest DAON RAUL, a friend of the family, comes to believe that Pearl is the “Typhoon Dragon” of history, destroyer of an ancient civilization. Fearing that Pearl is too dangerous to remain among people, he attempts to purchase Pearl to set her free, but Juanita is reluctant to do so. At the same time, Ahiga and Naalnish discuss Pearl with their people’s elders, who realize that Pearl is the “Stormcaller” of legend, bringer of rain to the desert.
Able to make a small amount of money, Thad returns home. Intrigued by Pearl, he attempts to train her, but she is resistant, learning and taking commands only from Alijandra. Ahiga, Naalnish, and the elders ask the family to trade Pearl to them so that she can make the desert fertile, ending starvation and thirst for their people. Ahiga grows angry with Juanita’s resistance and threatens to come back in a few days to take Pearl, using, if necessary, the other dragons his people have tamed.
Rather than give in, Thad decides to move the family. While buying supplies in town, he and Juanita are arrested by soldiers of Governor Guzmarr. Isabella, Alijandra, Pearl, and Daon Raul set out for the Governor’s palace, in the city of Esmargga, to convince Governor Guzmarr to let Thad and Juanita go. Along the way, Alijandra says that Pearl has learned to “speak” to her inside her head; Isabella believes that Alijandra is only pretending.
Arriving in Esmargga, they reunite with Juanita, who is kept under guard at the temple as an act of mercy by Governor Guzmarr, a religious woman. Isabella and Alijandra ask to meet with the Governor, and Pearl makes heavy snow fall on the city, the first time that has ever happened, to persuade her to agree. Daon Raul and the girls are taken to the Governor’s palace, and Thad is brought to them.
Isabella demands that Governor Guzmarr release Thad, warning her of Pearl’s power, but the Governor counter-offers: she will pardon Thad and restore the family’s fortunes if he serves as her dragontamer, using Pearl to take over Ysparria when the ailing Emperor finally dies. As Pearl and the family consider this, the “Dragon Killer” walks into Governor Guzmarr’s office. He drops the illusion that he was using to appear human and reveals himself to be the Kaibabi Dragon who, years before, had escaped from Thad’s control and killed thousands. Ready to resume his malevolent “playing” with Thad, the Kaibabi Dragon has tracked him here.
Pearl defends Thad and the girls, though the Kaibabi Dragon kills Governor Guzmarr. The dragons engage in furious battle, destroying much of the city. Thad and his daughters go to the temple to get Juanita and Pearl creates a tornado that rips apart the Kaibabi Dragon. In the chaos, the family flees the burning city, with Daon Raul staying behind to help the injured and spread the story that Thad was killed in the battle between the dragons.
Pearl flies off to complete her journey, finally arriving at a place sacred to the native people, where YELLOW FOX, a helpful spirit, waits for her. He explains to Pearl that she is the Typhoon Dragon and the Stormcaller, and that her compulsion to come here is part of a cycle of her “Becoming,” growing like a storm, assuming a new appearance and taking on the task, appointed to her in ancient times, of bringing life-giving rain to the desert. He tells her that, also like a storm, she will eventually diminish, reverting back to her present form, losing her memory and returning to her island home. Decades from now, he tells her, she will return to this place, to “Become” again and bring back the heavy rains.
Pearl is fearful that if she changes, Alijandra will no longer love her, but Yellow Fox convinces her that she must carry out her role. Pearl agrees, and with Yellow Fox’s help, transforms. A slow, steady rain, lasting for days, comes to the desert. The family prepares to leave their home, intent on starting a new life. Pearl reappears to Alijandra and Isabella and speaks telepathically to them, explaining that she has “Become” and what that means. Alijandra tells Pearl that many years from now, when she is an old woman, she will come back to this spot and wait for Pearl so they can resume their friendship. Pearl promises to try to remember her, and flies off. Alijandra realizes that “Pearl is in the rain,” and this thought comforts her.
Getting (or Not) to “Yes”
Agents will only request the whole manuscript if they think the story has the potential to be sold to a publisher and the writing is decent. I had a few agents request all of DTD, but ultimately none of them committed to it. One of them was very nice and offered constructive criticism on what didn’t work for them; this person also said they’d like to see anything else I’ve written, and I’ll follow up on that.
One agency asked for three months to review DTD, during which time I honored their exclusivity request and didn’t submit it anywhere else. After the three months were up, they didn’t answer my follow-up e-mails, which I found rude as hell.
After interacting with several agents and getting a glimpse of the publishing world, I realized that DTD was not going to sell through traditional means. Among the reasons were:
- At 146,000 words (over 600 pages), it was far too long for a debut novel: in contrast, the first Harry Potter book was 90,000 words, and several publishers thought that was too long, too.
- It doesn’t neatly fit into a certain age range. Publishers like demographics: they want to know if a book is for 8-10 year olds, 9-11 year olds, 10-13 year olds, 14+, 15+, whatever. Usually, the ages of the protagonists of these books will tip you off for whom they’re meant. My protagonists are a 12-year old and a 7-year old, but it deals with “older” themes.
- It was told in the third person (“He went to the door”) and shifted perspectives: most scenes are related through what Isabella sees, but many are done through Alijandra, or the dragontamer, or Pearl. Almost all young adult novels these days are in first person (“I went to the door”) or if they are in third person, they stick with what one character sees and anything that happens out of their sight has to somehow be related to the reader by another character talking to the main character (almost every scene of the Harry Potter books are written like this).
- It’s slow-paced. That’s largely because I believe in “showing” rather than “telling.” What do I mean by that? Well, when relating a story, you can either flat out say of a character, “Alijandra likes animals,” or you can demonstrate that Alijandra likes animals by portraying how she interacts with Jack the dog, and the family’s sheep, and Pearl the dragon, and Pretty Boy the horse. If I’ve done my job as a writer, somewhere along the line, the reader infers that Alijandra likes animals, and thus her immediate attachment to, and fierce defense of, Pearl makes sense. As a writer, you can also “show” rather than “tell” the relationships among characters, as well as depict the world and circumstances that the characters live in. But doing so takes time and pages, and a lot of books—especially young adult books—these days eschew that for speed. I guess they figure that most readers in their age range don’t have the patience or attention span to have things “shown” to them.
I could go on, but I think you get the point. Do I think DTD is good? Yes. Could I have done a better job writing it? Of course. Do I think it’s a mass-market book? Definitely not. To be honest, I didn’t know how to write a “commercial” book when I worked on DTD: it was very much a labor of love, a story I wanted to tell as best I could for my wife and children to enjoy. Selling it was always an afterthought, which was a grievous mistake I made.
But having spent years writing DTD, I wasn’t content to just leave it as a file on my computer, even though the traditional publishing market didn’t want it. I had to find another way to publish DTD. More about that later.