Writing Advice #3: The Time-Sucking Query Letter (or The Importance of Speaking Portuguese)

Okay, let me begin (as I often do) by saying that these are just my opinions. Feel free to disagree, argue, or toss my thoughts out the window like twice-used bacon grease.

I can only speak from personal experience. And my personal experience is this: I once spent a great deal of time—a disturbingly immense amount of time—perfecting a trio of query letters for agents. Now I guess I should utter the obligatory agent platitudes: a) not everyone needs an agent and b) no agent is better than a bad agent. But I always had the feeling that I, personally, would benefit from an agent, and in the eighteen months since I got one, that feeling has proven very correct.

But prior to that, I spent a great deal of time (we’re talking several years here) agonizing over query letters. I lost sleep over every verb. I fretted about my greeting. I brooded over the number of names and places I included my letters. I read seemingly thousands of websites and books that talked about how to write a killer query letter; I changed my approach probably fifty times in my neverending quest to knock my dream agents dead with a tantalizing synopsis.

And you know what?

I should have spent at least ninety-five percent of that time working on my writing.

The Pain of Wasted Time
The Pain of Wasted Time

Imagine you’re applying for a job at the United Nations as a Portuguese translator. You go over every conceivable question you might be asked during the interview. Your portfolio looks amazing. You get your hair styled, your clothes pressed, and you generally look like something on the cover of GQ or Cosmo. You’re ready. You show up for the interview feeling confident, excited, and sure you have paid your dues. However, there’s just one tiny problem.

You don’t speak Portuguese.

Folks, my writing was, is, and will always be in a state of growth. I’m not a finished product now, and I can point to a thousand writers (off the top of my head) who write far better than I do. I will always need to improve. But whatever I do well now, whatever novels I have sold or will sell, any iota of success I’ve experienced or will experience…it’s all come about because I’ve worked my tail off to learn my craft. Not because of a snappy query letter.

So get off the query letter forums a bit. Stop agonizing about agent response times. I’m very happy about where I am as a writer and a person, but if I could go back and change one thing, it would be prioritizing the things that really matter in my writing life in a more sensible way. Five years ago I had learned how to write a killer query letter; I could boil my novel down to an intriguing and sexy one-page synopsis. But five years ago I couldn’t get an agent. The reason? My writing wasn’t good enough.

Like I said, others—even agents—might disagree with me, but I can tell you this. If you have an awesome query letter and crappy writing, your chances of snagging a good agent are nil. If you have a good query letter and mediocre writing, you still won’t get an agent worth his or her salt. Ah, but if you write a decent query letter and an amazing novel, do your odds increase?

Exponentially, my friends. Exponentially.

Yes, you still might not get the agent you want right away, but you will certainly have a far better shot than you did when you were staring at the same four-paragraph letter for weeks on end rather than, you know, writing.

The next time you get the urge to obsess about your query letter, pick up a Stephen King book and pay attention to how he builds a paragraph. Look at his sentence structure. Listen to his word choice. See if you can pick something up and adapt it to your own style. And after you’ve done that, write some more and see if you can structure a sentence similarly or use one of the words you found in King’s writing in your own unique way. If you can do that, you’ll have accomplished more in one hour than you would in a  hundred hours of slaving over a query letter. Or checking your inbox to see if an agent requested a partial that’ll be rejected anyway because the writing isn’t strong enough.

A Great Teacher
A Great Teacher

That’s all for today. And, as always, these are just my opinions.

Just remember—if you’re applying for a job as a Portuguese translator, it’s always helpful to speak Portuguese.

I just wish someone had told me that five years ago.

9 thoughts on “Writing Advice #3: The Time-Sucking Query Letter (or The Importance of Speaking Portuguese)

  1. There are so many books and “pros” out there who get aspiring writers to fixate on query letters and writing the perfect synopsis that people forget to concentrate on what’s important. In my case, I got my first book deal on my own and sent a 3 line email to my top 3 agencies. All replied within a day. Good thing I decided to get an agent despite my having gotten that initial offer because my agent has opened up many other doors I wouldn’t have on my own.

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    1. Well said, Hunter. I agree that many well-intentioned books and blogs do divert attention from what should matter most. In your case, the writing carried the day, which is as it should be. Not all agents are good, but yours is, and like you said, she opens doors that you might not think of or be able to on your own.

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