When I have a crisis of confidence, folks, I don't do it halfway. I turn into a quivering mass of protoplasm. That's what I do. And then I turn to Twitter and Facebook, where I posted the following:
If second-guessing myself was an Olympic sport, I'd be Bruce Frakking Jenner. #WhyInGodsNameDoIHaveToWantToBeAWriter
So I set about fixing the letter, and had some decent notions about it when the replies started pouring in. Here's a sampling of the resulting thread (edited a bit for clarity):
SCOTT: Because you're good at it and you like doing it?
[That one really gets to the heart of it, doesn't it?]
JASON: Fretting about your query letter?
ME: All of it. Every time I read the thing I get irritated with it.
ME AGAIN: The query letter is EVERYTHING. If I don't get that right, it doesn't matter at all how good the manuscript is, because nobody will read it.
JASON: True, but is there really a problem with it, or are you just psyching yourself out?
[The answer, of course, was 'both'. Sometimes when confronted by a problem, especially if it's a problem of my own making, I have to lose my shit first before I get down to the work of fixing it. Not my favorite part of my personal makeup, and I've made decent strides against it, but there are times when that part of me rears its ugly head.]
ME: I'm confident of my ability to tell a story. I have zero confidence in my ability to sell one. And the query letter is literally a sales letter. It's marketing, which is not a strength of mine in any way.
[This is true. I know that I wrote a good book, and tell me I didn't, I'll just tell you what to go do with yourself. Tell me I wrote a crappy query letter, though, and I'll fall to pieces.]
KERRY: If you were Bruce Frakking Jenner, you'd also be involved with all those Kardashians, so count your blessings, man.
[I had no idea that Jenner had fallen in with that particular clan. Sucks to be him...but yay me, for not knowing anything about it!]
ME: Well, if an agent or two at least requests the full manuscript, then I guess I'm OK. If not, then...there's that. I really hate this part of the process...writing a query letter and writing a novel are related skills only in that both involve a form of writing. But I keep thinking, just because there is some overlap between the tools a mechanic uses and those a carpenter uses, doesn't mean I want the guy who fixes my car to build me a house.
ME: All that said, I think I've got the letter about as good as I'm going to get it. It better be, because it's going out to more agents later!
[Here I'm trying to dial back the panic a bit. Not very successfully, but my cooler head is at least suiting for a fight against Inner Panic Guy.]
BETH: Also- bad plastic surgery would have been involved.
[I have no idea what this means, in all honesty. Hold on a second while I Google it...
(cue theme from The Dating Game as I Google "Bruce Jenner plastic surgery")
Oh. Oh no...no no no. AGGHHH! Moving on....]
JASON: I wonder if perhaps there's anyone you could show it to for some feedback or pointers? (I'm not volunteering -- although I'd be happy to give you my thoughts, for whatever they're worth -- because I'm not so good at the "selling myself" concept either. But if you're really that nervous about it, maybe someone could help...)
[Sage advice, that....]
ME: I've read a lot of online resources for query letters, so I have a decent of idea of what to do. Of course, there also tends to be a TON of contradictory advice. I see some agents saying "Do this!" and others saying "Don't do this!", when "this!" is the exact same thing. I've seen "Use conversational, marketing language!", and I've seen "Write the query in the same tone as the novel itself!" It's mostly a crapshoot...whatever works is what works.
[I should have chosen my words more carefully here, because it's not totally a crapshoot. There are a lot of good guidelines to be found as to how to write a query letter than won't be tossed in the trash on sight. The problem is in going from "The agent won't throw it out" to "The agent will be intrigued enough to request the manuscript". That's where the extra advice can be problematic and contradictory, given that agents are people, and therefore subject to preferences and tastes. And now someone new chimed in, and this particular person's entry into the thread couldn't have been more timely....]
SHEILA O'MALLEY: Keep it simple. Keep it short. And then cast a wide wide net. You can't please everyone. So please yourself - and then throw that sh** at EVERYONE - up your odds, basically, that someone out there will be the one to read it and think, "Huh. Want to hear more." But you can second-guess yourself to death. Just remember: you cannot please everyone. it's the same thing with getting actor headshots. The advice you get is overwhelming. You show people the contact sheet. Everyone tells you to pick a different shot, and give you a thesis paper as to why. In the end, you have to pick the one you can live with - that you think represents you best. Anyway: that's just more UNASKED FOR ADVICE. sorry!! and BEST OF LUCK!
JASON: I see your frustration... I agree with Sheila, though... you can't please everyone, and you can make yourself crazy with the second-guessing. Trust me, I'm an expert on that. Deep breath, do the best you can, and have a nice rum beverage after you get back from the post office.
SHEILA: Oh, and one last piece of unasked-for advice: show it to a couple of targeted people who understand your work, but also understand the business - other writer friends, if you have them. Just to get another eye on it.
KERRY: Anyone know how I can back out of a thread? I thought this was about Bruce Jenner.
[Somehow I think that Sheila and Kerry would get along very, very well.]
ME: Sheila, seems to me that when I lose my shit spectacularly on FB, I am tacitly asking for advice. So thank you and keep it coming, even if it's to slap me upside the head and say, 'Snap out of it!'
SHEILA: All righty then! Keep it short - a couple of snappy paragraphs (edit out any self-deprecating language - you can be humble "thank you so much for your time" without being "I am so not worthy" about it). Be yourself. It's your only shot, really. Because, to get all new Age-y, you're the only you there is. Some people may be like, "Ew. Can't stand this guy." Okay,then - NEXT. Because the next person may be like, "Wow, I'm intrigued." so keep the second-guessing to a minimum. and keep it short. did I mention keep it short??
ME: It's short -- only one page, 12pt, and the focus is completely on the book. I tried to write what I wish the back cover would say (other than 'JK Rowling thinks this is the best book EVER!!!' ). I say nothing about myself, other than my contact info. I have no publishing credits at all, so it seems to me the book has to do the heavy lifting. I feel better about the current draft of the letter, though! (I don't know about being myself, though...I'm not sure a lot of the weird shit on my blog would help! I can see an agent saying, 'Interesting book premise...but what's with the overalls and the obsession with STAR WARS and the pie throwing and the man-crush on Nathan Fillion?' Heh!)
SHEILA: But see that's the whole thing: some agent is gonna be like, "OMG I love overalls, and I love Star Wars too, and I love Buffalo, NY, and WHO IS THIS GUY?? HE IS MY SOULMATE." Be articulate, don't be an ass, but let your Freak Flag fly. Because people respond to those who are confident about themselves. sorry, Elvis dovetail: he wore bright pink suits in high school before he was famous. He was being himself. He looked like a lunatic compared to his peers. But that was what he wanted to do, and he did it, and 2 years later, every boy wanted to wear pink pants because Elvis was wearing them. I say don't worry about seeming "too weird". as long as you are articulate, polite, and don't waste their time.
ME: Oh, I don't worry about seeming too weird -- I just don't know how to fly my Freak Flag (and there's a phrase that is going into my personal lexicon, and I mean, RIGHT NOW) in the context of a query letter. I really don't want to call any attention whatsoever to my lack of publishing credits, but should I mention my eleven years of blogging? I put all the personal stuff way down at the bottom of the letter, on the thesis that the story of the book has to be the major focus. I want to avoid stuff like "It's been my lifelong dream to write and publish a novel!", because all the agents are unanimous, so far as I can see, that you shouldnt' do that...and frankly, it's pretty obvious why. Should it just be a "For more about me, please check out my personal blog at [url]?"
ME: (to KERRY) Sorry, I missed that comment. You go right ahead and Jenner it up! (And I just used 'Jenner' as a verb. Oy....)
SHEILA: Just be confident. Don't be self-deprecating. This is my first novel. End-stop. I write about diverse topics on my personal site (link included) and have been doing so for years. End-stop. Or whatever. Most writers have some kind of home-base where they put personal stuff, so it will be helpful to any agent to check you out - especially if you have no other published work. I wouldn't say "I've been blogging for 11 years." Just mention the existence of your site, and that you cover a wide array of topics (list a few - it will make you seem interesting, quirky, and will be part of your fluttering Freak Flag). And be totally unembarrassed about your lack of publishing experience. You can FEEL embarrassed on the inside, but don't let it seep into your language. No shame in not being published. The only shame is in not being published, wanting to be published, and not having the balls to do what you are currently now doing - trying like hell to get published. I just went through all of this with my play, Kelly...So, as you know, everything depends on the quality of the thing you have written. and you're right on: avoid any language that seems "hopeful" or "dreamy" - "I dream of this book being turned into a mini-series" "I hope you like the book" "I have wanted to be a writer since I was a wee lad." etc. None of that. You already ARE a writer. You just haven't had anything published yet.
KERRY: Maybe consider this: "Finding the Champion Within: A Step-by-Step Plan for Reaching Your Full Potential." By.... Bruce Frakking Jenner.
[Kerry seems oddly fixated on Bruce Jenner.]
ME: (to SHEILA) I already didn't have any self-deprecating language in there, so I'm good! I do think I need to rework my closing, which is the short bit where I talk about me. I think that my APPROACH is on the right track; I just worry a lot about the specific wording. I'm confident as hell about the book itself, though, which helps. I *know* I wrote something good. So when I get home, it's time to power up the laptop and get this thing honed!
And thank you for taking time out of your day for all this comment. It's been a huge help, and not just from the "Snap out of it!" standpoint, either. I'm at a point where specific advice helps most! (I hope it won't bother you that in the inevitable movie to be made from my book, there's no obvious part for Dean Stockwell.)
At least the bad news on that last score isn't limited to Sheila and her favorite actor. There's no real part for Nathan Fillion, either. But Princesses II: Electric Boogaloo is in the offing....
As for the concept of the Freak Flag, I do like that a lot. Part of what I've been trying to do here in recent weeks, what with eliminating my snarkiness and trying to warmly embrace my weirdness, is to do just that: planting my Freak Flag. I wonder what that flag would look like?
Likely something like that.
And a very public thanks to everyone who helped on that thread!