What is it about query letters that terrifies author's so much? The same issues that plague people when they have to put together a resume! Most of us know how to put together a resume. As author's, you have probably already done all the research on how to write a query letter. You probably already read Agent Query's straightforward explanation on how to do it. You know the format thanks to them.
The niggling fear of writing the query led you to continue your research and read every other article out there (Some good ones are: Writing a Query Letter by Charlotte Dillon, The Complete Nobody's Guide to Query Letters by Lynn Flewelling, and How to Write a Successful Query by Moira Allen)
Armed with all the dos and don'ts, you sit down to write your query.... and your mind goes blank. You begin with Hi, my name is..., even though you know (because it said so in the research) that you are not supposed to start it this way. You freeze up. How to begin.... you can take it from the professionals and just copy and paste their lines and change just what you need, but then you feel like a cheat.
You skip the introduction and write up your synopsis of your book. It is only one paragraph and this should be easy, because you wrote the darn book you know what is important. When you finish, you look back and your synopsis is actually four paragraphs and still feels like you left things out.
Not ready to give up, you move to the closer. You can talk about your writing accomplishments to date. That is a really easy short paragraph. You worked for your school paper, had a poem published in an anthology, maybe even have an article in a magazine... It is not even a paragraph and you are beginning to feel really lame.
You look at it and think, "Why would anyone publish my book? This sucks!!" You berate the industry for asking you to pitch your work in only one page. You scowl at all the professional authors who have it so easy because they can point to their ten top sellers. Then you go drown yourself in coffee and start working on your next book. Waiting for inspiration to strike, so that you can get that stupid query done and make some money.
What is the problem? Why are queries so hard? When you understand what is preventing you from writing the query letter, you can get back on track. So let's break it down. The first issue that makes the whole query letter so difficult is the same issue that makes it hard for people to write a resume. It is awkward to try and sell yourself without sounding like an arrogant, egotistical prat. We are taught to be humble, and writing a query letter demands that we not be humble. No one has taught us how to display our best qualities without sounding cocky. It is something that must be learned.
The second big issue is that you are insecure, especially if this is your first book and first query letter. You are treading in new territory and you have these doubts that keep plaguing you. Is it good enough? How will I be received? Can I do this? What have I gotten myself into? New is scary. We have all felt these feelings when starting a new job, a new school, joining a new organization. It is perfectly natural to feel this way, but you have to get past it. If you don't, that uncertainty will show up in your query and it will not make the impact you want.
The third issue is that you are a book author. You are used to writing big. It is hard to say everything you want in one page. You are feeling the pressure that this simple little page is the culmination of hours and hours of writing, hundreds of pages, a life-time of love, passion, sweat, tears and sometimes even blood! How can you put all of that into one page? How can this one little page convey to the agent everything that matters?
It is hard. This simple one page is probably the hardest thing any author ever has to write and so much hangs on doing it right. There are no do-overs. The pressure for perfection nibbles at you and tears you apart. There is a reason that creative people have a much higher rate of depression and addictions. This is one example of why!
So how do you get past these issues? How do you get your mind in the right place to do this, and do it right?
Step one: Breathe
Yup, that simple. Take a deep breath and start again. When you get going and all of a sudden you are feeling the fear take over. Stop... BREATHE!
Step Two: It isn't About You
This is about your book. Yeah, you have to write about your accomplishments as an author, but you aren't selling you, you are selling your book. You believed in it enough to write it. You believed in it enough to edit it over and over and over. You do believe in this story. Remind yourself of that when you start feeling you are not worthy. When you do get to the last paragraph where you have to pitch yourself, do not feel that being published in your school paper is lame. How many kids went to your school? How many wrote for the paper. And if you have never even been published before? Well, what have we been building our platform for? Yup, mention your platform statistics here. Let's be honest, which is more appealing: the fact that Jenny wrote for her high school newspaper 15 years ago; or that John has 13,000 followers on twitter, 2,000 friends on Facebook, has a blog that gets 10,000 hits a week.... and you are starting to get my point!
Step Three: Do Your Research
But I did, you exclaim indignantly! Are you having a hard time writing your hook? Are you feeling like you don't know how your book would compete in the market? Look at the sales in that genre, look at other work that has come out within the last year. Look at what inspired your idea in the first place. The more research you do on the market and on the publishing industry, the more you familiarize yourself with the process, the more confidence you will have in your pitch. I know you want to get it out there. There is so much research and you just want to write. Unfortunately, if you want writing to be your business, then you need to take a step back from your creative self and treat this letter like a business.
Step Four: Edit
Treat your query like a short story. Get one draft out there that conveys everything you need, then edit it, edit it, and edit it again. When you first write everything down, don't worry about length. Carve it up the way you did your book. Whittle it down to what you need to say. If you start with too many words, you can trim. If you don't have enough, it is hard to fluff.
Step Five: Remember, You Aren't the Only One
All authors do it this way. We all have the same problems. No one wants to admit it. If you've done your research, you must see that if it wasn't such a pervasive fear, then there would not be so many posts about it. Every famous author had to pitch their book. Even people who have been published a dozen times still have to pitch each book. Yeah, it gets easier the more you do it, just like anything new. I guarantee you that every author labors over the query. You are not alone!
After you spent all that time and energy putting together your query letter do not forget that, just as you need to make little changes here and there to your resume to ensure that it fits the job, you will need to make little changes here and there with each submission to ensure that your query letter meets the standards of the agent to whom you are submitting.
So stop stressing and get working on that query letter. Refresh yourself on the great advice about structure from the links in this article and remember that your book is worth it! When you start feeling overwhelmed, read this article again. Follow the five steps and hit your query letter running!
Do you have any specific concerns or questions about query writing? Ask in the comments below.
Until next time,