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.
This guest post by William Kenower . Kenower is the editor in chief of Author magazine, a sought-after speaker and teacher, and the author of FEARLESS WRITING. He’s been published in The New York Times and Edible Seattle, and was a featured blogger on the Huffington Post. His video interviews with hundreds of writers, from Nora Ephron to Amy Tan to William Gibson, are widely considered the best of their kind on the Internet. He also hosts the online radio program Author2Author, where every week he and a different guest discuss the books we write and the lives we lead.
Twenty years later, after finishing my first novel and realizing I needed a literary agent, I discovered my feelings about the query letter hadn’t changed one bit. I didn’t like anything about the experience of writing one. I didn’t like not knowing the person to whom I was writing, I didn’t like summarizing my big, delicious novel in two paragraphs, and I especially didn’t like needing this person to like my book. This is selling, and I am not a salesperson; I am a writer. So I held my nose and wrote the query, and the results were predictably disappointing.
I used to think I was more or less the only one who felt the way I did about the query letter, but I have since learned that I was far, far from alone. I also used to think the problem with query letters was their form: It seemed inherently dishonest and manipulative. I was taking this thing I loved and turning it into an advertisement—and I didn’t like advertisement. I ignored them if I could. However, I have since learned that my distaste for queries had nothing to do with the form or the intent of the letter, but the actual, butt-in-the-seat experience of writing one.
You see, it doesn’t matter whether I’m writing a poem, an essay, a novel, or a query letter, the moment I begin trying to get into my reader’s head I feel lost and confused. I have absolutely no idea what other people like. For instance, I am still a little surprised every time I learn that someone else loves The Beatles, even though for a time about half the planet seemed to love The Beatles. Other people’s likes and dislikes remain that mysterious to me, and can certainly provide no guidance for the unmarked path along the blank page. Regardless of the form, I must trust my own curiosity and imagination to guide me through anything I write, even a query letter.
So the only way to enjoy writing a query letter, and indeed to write the best query letter possible, is to forget completely about the agents to whom I am writing. I must forget about selling my book, forget about the market and what I have or haven’t published prior. Instead, I must remember the book I wrote. I must remember how much I love it.
And while I may not know you, and I may not know what you like to read or write, I know that if you wrote a book, you love it. You may be shy about admitting it, but it’s still true. You love it because you spent six months or six years writing it, and you never would have finished that book if you hadn’t thought it was cool, funny, sexy, profound, or exciting. To write a query letter, we must all first remember why we wanted to finish our book, why we first thought the world needed a book like this.
Most importantly, I must go back to that place from which the book came. It’s the same place your book came from. It’s a place you can’t describe to anyone else, a place you can’t name and are perhaps embarrassed to talk about; but you know this place well, this trustworthy, creative garden. It has been a friend to you as long as you have known it, and it is meant to serve you in anything you create. Go back there, and as you sit down to write a query letter, remember why you loved your book and why you wrote it, and let the query letter be another opportunity to share what you shared in the book.
The discomfort I used to feel crafting a query was just insecurity. But insecurity is not weakness; it is not a personal flaw. Rather, it is the very instructive experience of looking for my confidence where it isn’t. It is instructive because it is uncomfortable. If it were comfortable, I might keep doing it. Fortunately, the moment I look to anyone to tell me the value of me work, I feel miserable. It’s as if I wouldn’t allow myself to love The Beatles if my friend didn’t love them just as much as I did. The moment I decide my love for what I’ve written is enough, that I need not read other people’s mind to share my work with them, I am resting in my inherent confidence.
That’s all creative confidence is: deciding your curiosity and imagination are enough. Query letters can seem like an invitation to believe otherwise, but they aren’t. After all, agents want to represent cool, funny, sexy, profound, exciting books. They want to love your book. But they won’t love it unless you remember why you love it while you write you query. That’s your job. That’s always your job. Find something you love, and share it, share it, share it. You know how to do that. You’ve always known how to do that, and once you believe that’s enough, you’ll be able to write absolutely anything, even query letters.
(Note: Query letters do follow a bit of a formula. If you’re not sure what that formula is, I recommend this article.)
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