Personality in the query letter

Loyal reader MooCrazy posted an excellent question a while back, one that I thought deserved treatment at length. It’s been a hectic week, though, so it’s taken me a bit to get back to it. Here is her question, slightly abridged:

“I think of a query letter as very brief and business-like, not a place for my natural irreverence to burst forth. But I would be wrong about that, I bet. Please suggest how to convince an agent or editor that one’s work appeals to readers’ sense of humor without coming across as unprofessional or downright silly. The voice that comes naturally to me when writing narrative deserts me when composing business letters or even these questions to you. Any pointers on what sort of self-talk I should engage in to overcome this inhibition?”

Moo, I love this question, because it cuts right to the heart of the conflict between making your submission materials ultra-professional vs. conveying enough of your personality (and your book’s) to attract an agent with a worldview similar enough to yours that you can work together happily for a decade or three. And I’m going to be honest with you here: 99% of the selling-your-writing guides will tell you flatly that your query letters should be NOTHING but professional, mere variations on a very distant, business-like theme.

In short, 99% of the guidance out there will tell you to make your query letter exactly like every other writer’s who pays attention to them. I think that this is a serious mistake, when you are trying to stand out in the crowd.

Let me show you why. I go to a lot of conferences all over the country, so I meet many, many agents trolling for clients. A few years ago, I heard a relatively new agent give a demonstration of what it is like to go through an hour’s worth of query letters — not the dozens of hours a week an agency screener actually spends upon them, mind you, but just long enough to give us a sense of what did and did not work. She read us real query letters aloud (sans names, of course), asking after each one: “Would you ask to see the first 50 pages?”

Most illuminating. As you might expect, about 80% of them were not professional enough to be seriously considered, because they did not meet the minimum standard for a successful business letter: they either did not say what they wanted (you’d be amazed how few query letters mention that the author is seeking representation), why they were soliciting that particular agent (a pet peeve at agencies everywhere), what the book was about, what the book’s category was, or why anyone might conceivably might want to read it. Boasts abounded (a recurring favorite: “This is the next (insert name of bestseller here)!”), as did, surprisingly enough, not-so-veiled threats (“You’ll be sorry if you pass up this opportunity.”) Too many people mistake pushiness, wild enthusiasm, and exaggeration for sales technique.

And all of these were the ones who remembered to include a SASE. Next!

Now, perhaps I place too much faith in my readers in general (and you in particular, Moo), but I’ve gone over the art of query-writing enough here that I like to think that none of you would make these particular stripes of mistakes. (If you’re new to this blog, check out the QUERYING category to the right.) As you say, Moo, those of us who realize that writing is a business know better.

However, businesslike need not mean cold or boring — or that you need to utilize the turgid clichés of the standard business letter. The query-reading agent made this point beautifully: after 45 minutes of hearing, “enclosed please find…” and “thank you for your prompt attention to this matter,” believe me, everyone in the room was starting to feel quite resentful that people gifted enough to write an entire book couldn’t come up with more original ways to convey these necessary business sentiments. We wanted to slap them into being more colorful.

Obviously, you will want to stick to some business norms: keep the letter to a single page; list the full name and address of the agent above the greeting; greet the agent as “Dear Ms. X” or “Dear Mr. Y”, rather than by the first name (if you have any doubt whatsoever about the sex of your intended recipient, call the agency and ask the receptionist.); include your contact information either in the header or below the signature; add an “enclosed” notation at the bottom, noting what materials are in the package. If you are concerned about goading an agent into rage by the fact that you’re sending out many queries simultaneously (which most agents will automatically assume you are, incidentally), add “simultaneous submissions” under the “enclosed” notation.

You should not, however, use business format to the extent that you do not indent your paragraphs. This is a literate business, so many agency screeners draw unkind inferences about writers who do not indent, the nasty thoughts generally reserved for those who cannot spell. Nor should you be so formal that you don’t sound like an interesting person.

The presenting agent illustrated this last point very effectively, too. After about 55 minutes of mostly rejectable examples, she read us a query that was at first blush absolutely perfect. It did positively everything that the guides tell writers to do: it told the agent why he had picked her, what his book was about, the target market, and a little about the writer’s publication record. It ended with a polite thank-you for taking her time, and included a SASE.

She held this sterling document high in the air. “Who can tell me why I rejected this?”

Since I had a lot of experience reading queries, my hand shot in the air, but everyone else in the room looked at one another, puzzled. If we had been in a cartoon or a comic book, a huge thought bubble would have been hanging over the audience, reading, “But I know I’ve sent out queries identical to that! My God, what did I do wrong?”

By this time, I was practically jumping up and down in my seat, dying to put them out of their collective misery. Smiling, the agent pointed at me, and I said, “It’s a man without a face. It could have been written by positively anybody – or copied practically word for word from half the writers’ marketing guides on the bookshelf.”

“Bingo,” the agent said.

From the writer’s point of view, this seems like a mean trick, doesn’t it? You can do everything right — and STILL be rejected! It’s not just a matter of boring the agent — although, since advice-giving books have made good writers’ query letters so VERY similar, that’s a big part of it. Do you really want your missive to sound exactly like 20 others the agent’s seen that week?

But if you think about the kind of a relationship the query letter is intended to solicit, it quickly becomes clear why an infusion of personality is necessary: yes, you and your agent will be doing business together, but this is also the person you will be trusting to handle your baby. This is the person who is going to be giving you some of the best and worst news of your life; this is the person with whom you will be sharing the joys and sorrows of the rest of your career. Your successes will be his successes.

This is not just any business relationship: it’s a personal one, too.

So tell me: if you were in the agent’s shoes, would you prefer to anticipate spending the next 30 years communicating with a man without a face, a perfectly businesslike automaton, or an interesting, funny, complex person?

Moo, if you are lucky enough to be funny, and can convey that in writing, believe me, your chosen agent is going to want to know about it as soon as possible. And it’s in your interest, too: would you really want to end up with an agent without a sense of humor? Or someone who doesn’t want to accept you the way you are?

I know that I’ve been comparing the querying process to dating quite a bit over the last month, but honestly, the last thing I would advise an interesting writer to do is to suppress her personality in her query letter, any more than I would encourage someone I liked to misrepresent herself on a date. And that goes double for the author bio. If you’ve been brave enough to lead an offbeat life, celebrate it!

It can only make you more memorable, if you’ve presented your work in a businesslike manner. Generally speaking, the more of the flavor of your book you can convey in the cover letter, the better.

So YES, Moo, I would HIGHLY encourage you to make your query letter as funny as your book! Wouldn’t you like your letter to be the one in the last three hundred that puts a smile on your dream agent’s face? Genuine comic talent is rare. And if you were an agent looking for comedy, wouldn’t you be THRILLED to receive a query letter that was genuinely amusing, for a change?

And that concludes my pep talk du jour, dearly beloved. Keep up the good work!

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