Monday, September 01, 2008

Query Letters and the Extrovert

This past April, Folio Literary Management launched a blog with this post on query letters. It’s really interesting, and something I’ve been thinking about on and off ever since.

Writing a novel takes a certain set of skills, and writing a query letter takes a completely different set. Every writer who has written a query knows this. And it’s hard. Really hard. So hard that we can go through a zillion drafts and still not be happy with the end result.

Folio’s blog post basically states that a good query letter is the natural evolution of the writing process, unless the author is too daunted by this process. He goes on to say that his favorite queries are the ones with the writer’s individuality and flair, with unique voice. I stared at this sentence for a long, long time, saying “hmm” to myself.

And then it hit me: Good queries are written with extroverted tendencies. It’s not all professionalism and business-like politeness. There needs to be something extra, a spark, a tiny piece of you, the writer. This is something that extroverts can do easier than introverts, simply because of the nature of their interactions with people.

Except there’s a problem (you probably see where I’m going with this). In order to be a writer, you need to be able to handle long hours by yourself. Introverts handle that better than extroverts, and most of the writers I’ve met are introverts – an occupational hazard, I guess. And, that probably means that most of the query letters floating around are more to-the-point-business-like and less personal-touch-business-like.

I’m an introvert. I’m also shy. To be clear, introvert does not equal shy. It’s simply the method you use to recharge your batteries. If you need time alone to do it, you’re an introvert. If you need time around people to do it, you’re an extrovert. Anyway, I’m an introvert and I’m also shy. This makes me difficult to get to know right away. Really difficult. People have commented on how much of myself I hold back. And, even when I decide to let go, I inch myself out there. It takes forever. Can you guess what my queries looked like? Yep, all dry and boring-ness.

That said, and even after reading Folio’s blog post, I still couldn’t sit down and put Me on the page. So, I chose an alternative: I put my main character on the page. Yeah, okay. Technically, you could say that I’m still putting myself on the page because all my characters come from different aspects of me. But, in my brain, it wasn’t me. So I could do it. That may freakish and stupid, but it worked.

So, the next time you sit down to write a query letter, make sure you add that little extra something to spark an agent’s or editor’s interest. If you can’t do it yourself, then make your characters do it for you. :)

EDIT: As Beth requested, here's a copy of my altered query. I took out anything that might identify where I sent this (including whether it went to an editor or agent), because I don't like advertising my submissions info. I focused on putting in that "spark" in the story summary, though I tried to put a little in the first paragraph as well.

Dear Agent/Editor,

Many of my favorite books have crossed your desk. Title#1, Title#2, Title#3, and Title#4 to name a few. In all of these books, the main characters are determined and strong, yet have a softer – sometimes na├»ve – side to their personalities. The main character in my YA novel, ROYAL ROSE, has the same qualities. Her story deals with something most teen girls struggle with: weight and image. She must deal with this on a greater level, however, since her family has been famous for their beauty for the past one hundred years.

Fifteen year old Rose Connolly has been groomed since birth to become the spokes-model for the most successful cosmetics company in America. She will be the fifth girl in her family to inherit this position, and is ready. Well, almost ready. Somehow, she has gained fifty pounds in the past three months – but it’s temporary! All she has to do is work hard, exercising and eating right, and she will get her weight back to normal. Why can’t her parents, the press, and her classmates accept this by leaving her alone? ROYAL ROSE is a story about making the best of the cards that life has dealt. Even if it means drawing a few from the deck.

I believe this book will appeal to fans of Sara Zarr, Simone Elkeles, and Dana Reinhardt, as well as those with thyroid conditions.

In 2002, I received an Honorable Mention in the Children’s Fiction area of the Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition. I have graduated from two writing courses at the Institute of Children’s Literature. I am also a member of SCBWI, and write the “News Roundup” column for the SCBWI-IL newsletter, The Prairie Wind.

I would be happy to send the entire manuscript, which contains approximately 49,000 words. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.



Marcia said...

Isn't it interesting how that post uses "cover" and "query" letter interchangeably? (Actually, so do I; the only usual difference in mine is that the query asks to send it while the cover accompanies pages already in the envelope.)We're told, though, that these are business letters and s/he seems to disagree.

But I do think the tone has to be in the letter. For example, a funny book's query should show that humor. It follows that this shouldn't be the case for funny books only.

One thing that has helped me extrovert in queries is practice extroverting at speaking engagements. (Yeah, the query that sells the first book has to come before your first speaking gig, but one keeps learning. :)) When I "got" that speaking engagements are acting -- deliberately calling forth a more extroverted personality than I have -- the more extroverted parts of a writing career became more manageable for me. Great post! :)

Tabitha said...

It's so wonderful to hear this insight from a published author. Thanks for sharing!! :)

All you other published authors reading this blog, I hope you'll share your stories too!! :)

PJ Hoover said...

I noticed when I actually "got it" on the queries was when I started getting way more positive responses. And the thing was at that point, I loved loved loved my query letter almost as much as my novel. I wanted to frame it.
Voice definitely is a part of it, and you're right on about putting something special in there that breaks the professional boundary.

Unknown said...

I have been *struggling* to figure out how to inject voice into my query. I like the introvert/extrovert analogy.

I'd love to see what your query looks like with your character's voice. Would you consider sharing?

Shari Green said...

Putting your character on the page sounds perfect -- definitely easier for us introverted writers, and a great way to convey the voice/tone of the story.

Great post - thanks!

Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

Marketing ideas and overall moral support for introvert writers can be found at

--Jenn Hubbard

Tabitha said...

Sorry for being so late in replying. Yesterday was Labor Day, and I had some quality time with my family. :)

PJ - I think it often happens the way it happened to you. We just keep trying new things until something begins to work, then we pay attention to what we'd just done. :) Kind of like writing a novel, actually. :)

Beth - absolutely, I'll share! I'll append my query to the original post, and add a few comments about what I'd changed.

Shari - glad you enjoyed it! :) I find it so much easier to use my character than myself. Probably because I'm pretty boring, and my characters aren't. :)

Jenn - thanks! That's a fantastic site. :)

Gottawrite Girl said...

An agent at my last SCBWI conference encouraged "sparks" in queries, but warned against crossing the line into un-professional-ness!

Extrovert-ness is also critical for networking at writing conferences. It sure isn't natural for me, either, but how else can we befriend each other?

Tabitha said...

GWG - great point. :) We writers need to learn how to put ourselves out there or we'll be huddled in a corner with our laptops for the rest of our lives. :)

Tabitha said...

Beth, I put my query up for you! Hope you find it useful. :)

Carrie Harris said...

I've never thought of it this way, but I completely agree. I fought hard with my critique group to keep that voice in my letter, even if it meant using language that was casual and unprofessional in my letter. I did, however, limit the slang to the description of the book and made sure that when I addressed the agent, I was professional. I figured (hoped) she'd get the idea that I can write but am not a complete flake! Anyway, that's my take on it. Interesting discussion here!

Anonymous said...

Great analysis of why queries are so hard for most writers. I, too, fall into the introverted-and-shy category, so all of this makes sense to me.

Angela Ackerman said...

I think you hit the nail on the head with the extroverted thing. It is an extroverted process, because to have a successful query, you have to exude confidence. Now, some writers take it too far and start explaining why they are the next JK, how the agent would be lucky to have them, etc, etc. I can see why agents hit the auto reject.

What I mean by confidence is a striaght-forwardness in the query that shows that This is my product, I feel excited about it and I believe you will too--let me show you why. No writer's fear, neediness, butt kissing or fake enthusiasm. Just like a novel must convey a tight plot, authentic characters and an unique voice, its imperative that the query also come across as completely genuine.

Tabitha said...

Carrie - good for you for sticking with your query, even if others didn't care for it. And look what it got you? A super cool agent!! :)

Becca - I think so many writers fall in to the introverted/shy category. I had forgotten about the Shrinking Violet's site, so I'm really glad Jenn brought it up. :)

Angela - you are so right about the confidence, and about not tipping over into arrogance. And finding that balance can be really difficult. Heck, finding any kind of balance is difficult. :) I still don't think I've found the right balance in my query, but I do think that I'm heading in the right direction. :)

Angie Frazier said...

Tabitha, I love your query, and the idea of putting your character's voice in the query letter if your own voice is too shy. It really does need to reflect the tone of the story and the person telling it.

I'm not an extrovert at all, but what marcia said resonated with me: I absolutely DO whip up an extroverted personality when in group settings. It's automatic for me, and exhausting!

Tabitha said...

We crossed posts!

Yes, Marcia has wise words. :) And it is extremely exhausting, isn't it? I need a full day to recover from something like that. :)

I hope agents and editors like my query too...thanks! :)

PJ Hoover said...

Popped back to say - it's a great query, Tabitha!
I'd read it for sure!

Anne Spollen said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne Spollen said...

Whoops - accidentally deleted my comment by rushing.
What I said was -- yes, extroverted qualities necessary for queries, and you need extroverted qualities even more when it comes time to promote your book. Another yin/yang thing in writing.
Nice analogy!

Tabitha said...

PJ - Thanks! Hope agents and editors feel the same way! :)

Anne - Thanks! It's funny how this profession requires so much balance. Balance within the writing itself, balance within the query, and balance within your life in that you need to be able to spend zillions of hours alone to write, but also be able to mingle appropriately when the time comes. Such a complicated profession we've chosen! :)

Anne Spollen said...

Exactly! Sometimes I envy people who don't feel compelled to write. They can actually watch 15 minutes of tv without thinking, "I really should be working on that scene."

There are moments when the writing bug almost seems like a disorder of some sort...

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary Witzl said...

I'm a weird hybrid of introvert and extrovert, but when it comes to writing query letters, the introvert wins hands down. All my queries were namby-pamby and full of dopey qualifications. The one comment people kept making about it was that I needed to be more forceful and use fewer hedges and qualifications, but doing this was pure agony for me.

I like your query letter. I'll try to remember to put more of my characters in mine when I start my 25th rewriting. Or maybe it's the 26th? I've lost count...

Tabitha said...

Yes, I can see how you'd be a mix of both. For someone to be able to live in other countries for as long as you have, you'd have to have some extroverted tendencies. I've visited lots of countries, but I would have difficulties living in them. :)

Using my characters in queries was a liberating experience for me. I highly recommend it for others having trouble spicing up their queries.