Query Letter: Going Beyond the Pitch – Knowing About Who You Are

Betsy Thorpe

Betsy Thorpe

I’ve read thousands of query letters. Thousands and thousands.

At the beginning of my career, the queries came from agents. They were polished. They were short. They were resting on the laurels of that agent’s reputation. If a high-powered agent sent a submission to me or my boss, I knew I had to put whatever I was doing on hold, because if I didn’t, I would miss out on acquiring what could be a major book for our publishing house. That book would have an offer by the end of the week, probably within twenty-four hours. Her taste, her reputation, her client roster, was that good.

A dozen years later, I had opened up my own editorial business after the birth of my first child, wanting the kind of flexibility that, unfortunately, was not negotiable back then. I was editing and ghostwriting, and I had sold a wonderful book by a friend’s sister to Tarcher/Penguin. I thought, hmm, Maybe I’ll be an agent. So, I hung my shingle out and the query floodgates opened. I quickly saw how uneducated people were about constructing an effective query. Many were simply lists: “I’ve written three adult novels, four children’s books, and two screenplays. Which would you like to see?” Others, (mostly men) thought that if they compared themselves to God, all bestsellers ever written, and Henry Ford, that I would surely want to see their manuscripts and, by golly, would be a fool not to. (I refer you to Slush Pile Hell for great examples of really awful queries.)

I soon found that agenting was not the right business model for me, took down my shingle, and returned to my editorial services business. But for years afterward I continued to receive thousands of unsolicited query letters, which goes to show: people don’t do their research. Since then, as online resources have educated people, I’ve seen queries improve. But there’s still a long way to go.

Which leads me to what I want to help you with today: that tiny fourth paragraph in your query letter, which is the one about you. Many people don’t include any information about themselves. They just pitch their book, maybe include some comps if we’re lucky, and then walk away. But wait! I say, who even are you? Where do you come from? What brings you to our querying shores?

In this third paragraph, tell us what profession you are in now, or have been. It helps to know, because you could be bringing an important skill set to your work as an author. Teachers, professors, lawyers, salespeople make wonderful presenters and are not shy getting up in front of groups. Those in advertising and marketing and social media know myriad ways to get their book in front of potential readers.

Then there’s participation in writers’ groups, conferences, classes. Why do agents and editors want to know this? We want to see that you’re networking with other writers—those are the folks who are going to be there for you. You’ll need blurbs from faculty you’ve studied with or from fellow writers who have also gotten book deals. Your fellow writer friends will come out to your book signings and help sponsor or throw events for you. “It takes a village” doesn’t just apply to raising children, it relates to building up a writer as well. From your writers’ group to beta readers, from taking classes to getting a professional edit to getting a final proofread, from gaining support on Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, there are numerous steps along the road to getting your book ready for “prime time.” Don’t think that it’s a solitary pursuit––just you and your laptop in a coffee shop. Editors and agents like to see that you’re aware of how important it is to network. Just by adding a few key words to your bio, like “member of the NC Writers’ Network and Charlotte Lit” can be huge.

Finally, where do you live? Think it doesn’t matter? What if an agent grew up in Raleigh, feels alone in New York, and would love to connect with Southern writers? By writing, “graduate of NC State, and living in Charlotte, NC,” you add that little twist, that personal connection, that says to agent, hmm, interesting!

But don’t go crazy beefing up your bio—the personal should not be more than 3 lines of your query letter. It’s not a resume. Choose wisely what you put in. Make it interesting. Make it memorable.

Betsy Thorpe started in book publishing as an assistant at Atheneum, eventually becoming an acquiring and developmental editor while working at HarperCollins, Broadway Books (Random House), Macmillan, and John Wiley & Sons. She then started Betsy Thorpe Literary Services, which helps authors deliver their best work to the public, either through publishers or self-publishing. She is the co-author of numerous non-fiction books, including three featured in the New York Times, and is at work on her second novel, The Writer’s Cottage.

What’s a Sensitivity Reader…and Do I Need One?

The fairly new term “sensitivity reader” might make warning bells go off for authors, who need to have artistic freedom and be free from fear of censorship. No fiction writer or memoirist wants to have their portrayal of characters from a different race, class, gender, or culture than their own stamped with a big “WRONG.”

Sensitivity readers, however, don’t function as censors or thought police; their job isn’t to make a writer toe a party line. Simply put, a sensitivity reader is a professional who reviews a manuscript with an eye to its representations of marginalized people. This is especially helpful if the author is writing about an identity or culture they don’t share with their characters.

Here’s an analogy. You write a murder mystery with a police detective as the main character. You do a lot of research, but unless you’ve worked as a detective yourself or have a close relationship with someone on the police force, you’ll probably consult a professional about the details you want to get right. In the “Acknowledgments” pages of novels, authors gush their thanks to police officers, doctors, pharmacists, firearms specialists, and other professionals who caught glaring mistakes and helped make their books more authentic.

A sensitivity read functions much the same way. It gives you a chance to address inaccuracies in your book before you send it out to agents and editors. In this day of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, more and more publishers look for stories about marginalized communities. But say you’re a cisgender author, and your detective is transgender. Or you’re a neurotypical author, and your detective is neurodivergent. Or you’re a Christian who has created a Muslim detective. You might nail the detective part, and you may have done extensive research about the cultural identity of your detective. But getting a sensitivity read could catch assumptions and biases you didn’t even know you had. Although you never intended them to, your mistakes could hurt readers—and ultimately damage your credibility as an author.

Some agencies and individual editors offer sensitivity reading as a paid service. The issues they read for vary—everything from race, religion, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to physical and mental ability. A sensitivity reader is not your unsuspecting South Asian neighbor or your autistic co-worker whom you casually ask to read your manuscript without telling them why.

Our job as authors is to create fleshed-out characters who pop off the page—people readers can recognize and relate to on some level. That includes characters who are aren’t like us but reflect the larger world.

(For more on the importance of sensitivity reading to the publishing industry in general, see this article in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Paula’s upcoming workshop at Charlotte Lit, “Beyond Stereotypes: Creating Diverse Characters with Dimension,” you’ll look at steps you can take while you’re planning, drafting, or revising your manuscript to avoid inducing stereotypes into your work inadvertently. In effect, you can learn to be your own first sensitivity reader.

Writing for the Love of Discovery: On Research and Ekphrasis

Editor’s Note: In this entry, Helen Fowler reflects on attending Charlotte Lit’s Poetry Workshopping feedback group with Danny Romine Powell last fall.

Helen Fowler

Helen Fowler

Knowing I have to write to meet a deadline can send me on a frantic search for a good prompt, that holy grail that leads to something worth writing about. Before I signed up for Dannye Romine Powell’s poetry workshop, which requires at least five poems to bring for review, I sized up the risk that I might come up short. I trusted that setting out on this journey would give me what I needed as I went along, and that my fellow writers would energize me in meeting this challenge. And that is just what happened.

One week I got a windfall. I found a picture that turned out to be a gold mine for inspiring a poem. It began with a notification of a post about a photo: Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, and a wind gauge.” In her post to the Teaching with the Library of Congress” blog, Cheryl Lederle wrote an exploration of one of the photographs in a set of three that Dr. Bell had pasted into his journal on Sept. 2, 1901. The images document the scene of their kite flying event five days earlier at his residence in Nova Scotia, with his handwritten notation under photograph—Helen Keller examining the operation of the wind gauge”—and his superimposed dotted lines to identify each figure, his own,AGB,” mostly hidden as he stood behind Helen at the wind gauge.

I started out composing an ekphrastic poem to be present to the sensations of wind and the calculations the two friends were making as they launched their kites.  But that’s not where it ended up.  As I kept exploring primary sources, the imaginary landscape of the poem expanded with the opportunity to explore the relationship between the inventor and the deaf-blind woman who did not allow herself to be held back by her disabilities.

At first glance, they may have seemed to have little in common, but as I kept researching, I was struck by how deep their friendship ran. By the age of 29, Dr. Bell had already invented the telephone and was ready to invent more. The digital collections of the Library of Congress included Dr. Bell’s meticulously kept journals as well as correspondence Helen Keller had with Dr. Bell. I found Keller’s full autobiography in the public domain, along with a web page detailing Dr. Bell’s aspirations for designing an airship prior to the Wright Brothers’ successful flight in 1903.

I learned much I never knew: that Keller was a protege of Dr. Bell. That his father ran a school for the deaf in Washington DC. That Dr. Bell trained to take his father’s place. That both Bell’s mother and his wife were deaf. That when Helen was six years old, Dr. Bell introduced her to Anne Sullivan. That several days prior to the kite flying event, Keller gave an inspirational speech to a women’s club on the premises of Dr. Bell’s Nova Scotia residence. That they had gone on several kite flying expeditions and exchanged letters through 1907 as Dr. Bell pursued his designs for the airship.

As I delved into source materials that reflected their ongoing discussions about kites and his ideas for designing an airship, it became apparent that Bell valued Keller’s ideas. This produced two images that shape the last stanza:  Keller’s envisioning of a skyey port” long before airports became a household name, and Dr. Bell’s fascination with the motions of a bird’s tail in flight.

Letters spelled in

the hand, letters written

and sent. A deaf-blind seer envisions

a “skyey port.”  Dr. Bell sketches

the motion of a bird’s tail in flight.

As two of history’s giants came to life for me in composing my own piece of writing, their histories fused with my own love of discovery. The act of writing is full of uncertainties. To find a prompt that can lever a search for understanding, something we hadn’t even realized we wanted to understand, means we had to be hungry enough to search in the first place. The takeaway for me in writing this piece was how they managed to nurture the sparks in each other’s journey. Their shared love of aviation made them inventive communicators with each other.  I was amazed by how they found ways to envision possibilities together.

Helen Fowler is a retired school librarian and English instructor, immersed in the study of the literary arts for the value they bring to our lives, and in exploring digital and print library collections to curate good finds for idiosyncratic projects.  

Flash Fiction

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

If a novel is a vast, tumultuous summer sky, and a short story a fast, feverish storm, then flash fiction is a cloud-splitting fork of lightning that electrifies the air.

Flash stories (aka short-shorts, smoke-longs, or sudden, quick, nano, micro, or hint fiction—Yasunari Kawabata called them “palm-of-the-hand” stories) are tiny, contortionist shapeshifters that slip between the realms of short fiction, poetry, and the lyric essay. Like a poem, a flash amps up language and imagery but retains the hallmarks of narrative: characters, voice, plot, setting, emotional turn and resolution. Flash’s distinctive trait is its restrictive word count—generally from 500 to 1,000 words; micros whittle further, from 25 to 500. But as with a formal poem or a prompt, constraint can be liberating. By restricting our space, counterintuitively we can open up something wild and unexpected. We don’t lop off a longer story to get there; from a story’s blurry birth, we harness compression and reduction, hard-wire our words, supercharge our endings. Writing in miniature is difficult and takes discipline. Flash demands you pay attention—and in our distraction-filled world, that’s a gift.

We can quibble about story definitions and length and parameters (how short can you go? when is a flash fiction a prose poem?), but the answers often are elusive—and perhaps they should be. Part of the joy of short stories and flash fiction is their unruliness, their willingness to stray and defy. To Poe, stories have a “unique or single effect”; to Grace Paley a story “can be just telling a little tale, or writing a complicated philosophical story. It can be a song, almost”; and to Edith Wharton they are “a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience.” I’m with Steven Millhauser, who says, “The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar.”

LEARN WITH BRYN: A few spaces remain for Bryn Chancellor’s workshop “Flash Fiction: Write, Edit, Polish, Submit” on Thursday, January 23 and 30, from 6 pm to 8:30 pm. Learn more and register here.

Lingering in the Language of the Soul

Jaime Pollard-Smith

Jaime Pollard-Smith

In a couple of weeks, I will begin a new semester with a fresh group of unsuspecting students. After reviewing the syllabus, I will open the course by suggesting a shift in perspective and proposing a revision to their role as writers. Writing to think becomes our motto, and I explain that we rarely know what we are trying to say until we have said it. I will encourage them to read as writers and write as readers, as well as push them to always show before they tell. We will work to cultivate an intuitive process of waking up and listening to our own voice, which is a tall order in our present media-crazed culture. Yet, much to their dismay, the first assignment in my freshman composition class is to examine and create a piece of personal poetry.

Joy Harjo, our U.S. Poet Laureate, once defined poetry as soul language or soul talk. Poetry is often considered “high-brow” or reserved for an exclusive club, yet Harjo’s perspective appeals to the universal humanizing role it plays. It appears in our songs and oral traditions; we hear it in our laughter and through our tears. Expanding our definition of poetry can liberate us to explore our inner selves. Robert Frost solidifies this noble endeavor by explaining that “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

When we truly read as writers and write as readers, we learn to listen in a specific way. We can tap into the feelings and hear the whisper behind the story. As Dorothy Allison explains, don’t tell me the grass is green; tell me how the green grass makes you feel. There are emotions attached to places, events, smells, sights, sounds, everything, and a poetic lens reminds us to pause and pay attention.

Learning to incorporate poetry into our prose can be one pathway to allowing our soul to speak through our written word. Poetry need not contain rhyme or rigid patterns, but it can come in a concentrated, more fluid form infusing our storytelling with the feelings we hope to convey. This process nudges us in the direction of the ultimate embodiment of show, not tell.

A new decade offers us the perfect chance to reflect upon our own creative process. Can we provide more space for playful, poetic, non-structured exploration in our writing? Is it possible to deepen our prose by tuning our ear to poetry? When we create spaces for “soul talk” we foster authentic kinships with our readers and tap into feelings lingering beneath the surface of our words.