The Dreaded Query Letter

In the background of today’s writing session is a thunderstorm. There’s nothing quite like thunder, and rain has always been my favorite weather despite its tendency to ruin plans. Perhaps that’s exactly why I like it, because then I have an excuse to stay in bed and read, and as of late, obsessively watch The Great British Baking Show.

Last month, I somehow managed to read six books, which for me, is a lot. I never read that many, because after being a literature major/philosophy minor in undergrad, I read slowly because I tend to write comments in the margins and highlight the crap out of passages/books I love. Yes, I’m one of those readers who loves her books so much she breaks the spine, dogears the pages, writes in ink. I love when I can tell books are loved.

Anyway, my point is that lately, I haven’t been reading much, and that has to do with the topic of today’s post: the dreaded query letter. I have finally achieved a draft that feels right. I have plans to try one more structural tweak before I send off the first few pages to my list of agents, but my beta-readers have been incredibly helpful. Honestly, I just feel really loved, and their comments and insights have been incredibly helpful these past few months getting this manuscript into great shape.

It might be a little risky, given just last week I was talking about not rushing things. But, this will be Draft Six, and though there are probably some things I’ve missed, I’m hoping to work with an editorial agent who is willing help me with this difficult novel.

Thus begins the process of writing a query letter. Two things I’ve noticed since the last time I wrote one: a) I forgot how to do so, and b) writing a query letter for a contemporary versus a fantasy is insanely different. When I was writing the one for my first novel, it came so easy because I knew exactly what was at stake, I knew which books I could comp it with, and I knew the structure was linear and easy to follow.

This time around, not so much. I think it’s because I’m so much more attached to this novel, and that when I let myself run around daydreams of the publishing world, it’s this novel that’s my debut. Which is a scary freaking thing. But I think that’s why the query is so hard to nail. It’s the thing that stands between your writing getting into the hands of an agent.

Honestly, I feel like it’s an antiquated bit of the publishing world, but I do understand its function and necessity. It’s the first (now, often virtual) impression you’re making on someone you may eventually begin to build a professional relationship with. If you can’t summarize your own book, that often means you don’t understand the heart of it just yet. Also, just a bit of advice, almost all agencies have guidelines on querying. Read through and follow them, or risk your query getting deleted without being read.

One of my professors during Thesis Seminar once told us that writers wear a lot of hats. At that point, some were just beginning to write their thesis and others were editing. She pointed that out, that you’re using different parts of your brain for each task. When I’m writing, I try not to think about mistakes. I just write. When I’m editing, I’m thinking about structure, the function of scenes, the necessity of scenes and characters.

So, writing queries also falls into the collection of hats we wear. It’s a frustrating one, to be honest. The kind that itches, the kind that falls down over our eyes whenever we duck our heads, the one that make it hard to hear the outside world. I also feel kind of stuffy when I wear this hat, because I’m trying to be businesslike, but also not lose the heart of my novel.

There are just so many ideas and opinions on the query letter these days, that you have to go in it just knowing that what you absolutely have to have is a great hook. Make the agent want to read more, make them wonder what will happen in the book. Some agents may pay more attention to the query than others, mostly because they’re trying to see if a) you can summarize your book, b) you listen to instruction, and, most importantly, c) you know how to sell your book.

Some of my fellow writers who are querying are relying on their pages to make up for their query letter. I’ve seen manuscripts picked up regardless of how garbage their query actually is, but I personally am too scared to take that risk. I want to show that I can do both, that I can wear all of the hats–not at once, of course, because then I would look ridiculous (Dobby from Harry Potter comes to mind)–even if this is all metaphorical.

Knowing that you’re about to make a first impression on someone is intimidating. Especially when you feel like you’re packing up all of your hard work and dreams into a little package and sending it for judgment. The whole process is subjective, something that was once included in a rejection email I received last time around. It was probably the most helpful piece of advice I had received, because it was a good reminder that even though no one offered to sign me, it didn’t mean I wasn’t talented or didn’t have any chance at getting published. It just meant that that project wasn’t the right one for this particular agent. I guess, really, that’s what you have to remember through this process.

Gosh, I know this post is insanely long, so thanks for reading. I guess I just had way more feelings–i.e. dread–about the query letter than I initially thought. But it is important to have faith in yourself. Writing and publishing really is about the journey, and someday, you’ll look back and be thankful you took your time, you wrote the best manuscript you could. So, to all of you querying, I wish you luck.

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