Fearless Querying

I fell in love with The Beatles when I was a boy. I loved every song on every album, except one song—Paperback Writer. Mind you, it was driven by a great guitar riff and was toe-tappingly catchy, but the lyrics were too painful for my eight-year-old heart to bear. If you’re unfamiliar, the entire song is a letter to a publishing house asking—no begging—a “Sir or Madame” to read this aspiring author’s book. Though I did not yet know I would pursue a book-writing career as an adult, I could already feel my loathing for the strange form of communication that is the query letter.

Read the rest at the Writer’s Digest blog . . .

If you like the ideas and perspectives expressed here, feel free to contact me about individual and group coaching.

 

Fearless Writing: How to Create Boldly and Write With Confidence.
You can find William at: williamkenower.com

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How to Happily Write a Query Letter

If you’ve written a book, and you’d like to publish it traditionally, then you will probably want to find an agent. The best way to find an agent is by recommendations from writers who already have representation. Chances are, you don’t know a writer, and so your next best option is to attend writers’ conferences where you can pitch your book to an agent in person. But if conferences aren’t an option, or are an option you have already exhausted, you will have to write a query you can send to prospective agents – and if you are like ninety percent of the writers I know, you will dislike this experience profoundly.

I was one such writer. I loved writing books; I loved talking to people about the books I’d written, but I found the query letter an awkward and unnatural form of communication. How can I possibly condense the rich tapestry of my novel into two paragraphs that could excite a complete stranger? I griped about the query letters I had to write, I doubted their efficacy, and was never surprised when sample chapters were not requested. What was most frustrating was that when I met agents at conferences and shared my enthusiasm for my book like a human being, rather than some ad in a catalogue, they always requested sample chapters. The problem, I told myself, was the letters. They were just too short.

The problem was not the letters. The problem was that I believed my job was to know what other people liked. That was the whole point of the letters, wasn’t it – to excite enthusiasm in an agent? Yet I had no idea what anyone else liked. I never have. I know what I like; I know what excites me and what holds my attention. Everyone else’s desires and curiosities, my friends and family included, remain necessarily mysterious to me. What other people like, ultimately, is none of my business.

Eventually I decided to write my query letters exactly the way I wrote my stories. I would write the letters to please me. I would write two paragraphs about why I loved my book, about why I spent two or three years of my creative life working on it. To do so, I would have to forget the agents and remember why the book had been so interesting to me. When I wrote from this place, I found confidence I had only previously believed was possible while writing stories.

The results were immediate – by which I mean I immediately enjoyed writing the letters. In fact, I enjoyed writing the letters enough that I had to remind myself why I had written them. By and by I sent them out and got those other results. But by then I understood the order of things and so was as unsurprised when the agents asked for chapters as I had once been when they had not.

We writers like to be alone for good reasons. To do this work we must turn our attention toward what we know best: ourselves. As much as we love to share our work with other people, those other people can become debilitating distractions if we let them. It’s not their fault, of course; it’s ours. To believe we must know more than what it is we love makes us lose sight of the story life delivered us here to tell.

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Write Within Yourself: An Author’s Companion.

A book to keep nearby whenever your writer’s spirit needs feeding.” Deb Caletti.

You can find Bill at: williamkenower.com

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A Little Trickery

Here is the epiphany that finally cracked the query letter code for me. At a certain point I took a look at my query letter and asked myself honestly, “Do you think this would entice anyone into reading your book?” The answer was, No. The problem was, I took the query letter very, very seriously. I hated them, but I took them seriously. Without a good query letter, it seemed to me, I would never find an agent and without an agent I would never publish my novel. The query letter, unfortunately, had become too important.

There’s a great story about a Zen master watching an archery contest. The master sees the archer, who is very skilled and expected to win, and comments, “His need to win is interfering with his ability to win.”

So it was with the query letter. There was too much pressure on the query letter.  It had to be too good. So I tricked myself.  I said, “What if this were an assignment for school? How would you write it then?” I never took school particularly seriously. I wanted to do well and get decent grades and so on, but I never felt that my entire future hung in the balance. This, it seems to me, is a healthy approach. My imagination does not function well with a gun at its head.

I imagined myself being given the assignment of a query letter for a class, and I wrote the best query letter I’d ever written. So take the pressure off. Remember that you are smart, you have a good imagination, and that you care deeply about the book you have written. That will help you write a good query letter. The tips I outlined last week are useful guides, but that is all. The real guide is your own desire to share your work, and you don’t need how-to book to understand that.

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The Query

My father told me that great mathematicians make the worst math teachers.  Better to have someone who struggled slightly in math class to guide a student through the challenges of logarithms. By this logic, I consider myself an ideal candidate to discuss the query letter. Until very recently I loathed writing them. Why, after spending two years on every detail of a novel, would I want to boil the story down to one paragraph? It was an impossible, odious but necessary evil, so I gritted my teeth, threw fits, dashed off something as intriguing as a technical manual, and then begged my wife for assistance.

That was before The Epiphany, the specifics of which I will get to a bit later. Though I am hopefully at a point in my career where I no longer need to query literary agents, I now consider the query letter a friend, and over the next week, I hope I can convince you to view this odd correspondence similarly.

First, for those of you new to the business of finding a literary agent—a query letter primer. A query letter is a ONE PAGE (never more) summary of you and your project. The letter should be three or four paragraphs long.

  • First paragraph: Polite salutation, name of project, genre of project, length of project, why project is right for particular agent.
  • Second and maybe third paragraphs: Summary of project.
  • Last Paragraph: Your credentials, if you have any.

That’s it. This should be the length of your submission whether you are querying through snail or email. In many ways, one of the objectives of the query letter is to demonstrate to the agent that you are serious about your writing. If your query is neat and professional, then you will have achieved at least that. In general, don’t be fancy. Use a basic business letter format and the most straight-forward language you can. A lot of agents feel busy and overwhelmed—let them know you respect their time.

So that is where we begin. I will deal with the paragraphs one by one and in greater detail throughout the week.  Stay tuned . . .

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