MFA Sunday School (Two: Your Writerly Self and Query Letters)
Welcome to MFA Sunday School, a once-a-week, free, online writing workshop. MFA Sunday School posts are uploaded on Sunday mornings, though you can read them or participate any time — the comment section is always open for people to post a link to their work or ask a question. You can subscribe to blog posts via the RSS feed, or look for them under the category heading “MFA Sunday School.” If this is your first time in “class,” you may want to jump back to the first post in the series in order to understand how things work.
Query letters may seem like an odd place to start an MFA program. In actuality, they’re something you cover much later in the game, when you have possibly publishable pieces of writing under your belt, but I think waiting to learn how to write one is a mistake. Which is why for my MFA program, I’m starting with them.
Close your eyes… no wait… keep your eyes open because you need to read this paragraph… Okay, sit with this thought for a moment: query letters are a verbal map. They are a verbal map to a project, giving the receiver an understanding of how they should approach the work, but more than that, they’re a map to YOU. They tell the editor or agent about your writerly self; what you’re like as a writer and as a person. Which is why a query letter is just as important as your project itself. It’s mood music. It’s an overture. It’s a prologue. It’s the notes that set the scene.
But it’s not just that: it’s the window through which the agent or editor can get a glimpse of YOU. During my four years on staff at a literary magazine, I learned that you can tell a lot about a person based on their query letter. It didn’t take long before I gave more attention to the short stories that came with a succinct cover letter that followed proper format. I may have missed out on some terrific writing by doing that, but when you’re sifting through 500 stories and can only use 5 for the issue, you’re going to look for ways to reduce your workload. And people who wrote a good query were usually people who were good to work with — prompt, hardworking, communicative, eager.
This is why I want to begin with query letters: until you know who you are and what you want to do, you can’t explain yourself to anyone else. Part of storytelling and poetry is conveying how you see the world or what thoughts excite you. Writers who know themselves well start knowing their characters well. They start noticing personality traits in other people, and see how these traits can be used to construct the motivations of the character. People who know themselves see the small details, the sorts of details that can make a scene or verbal image pop off the page. Writing is exploration of the self; of how you see the world, what you think is important, what interests you.
And a query letter is the map that gives the reader directions for exploring you and your project.
So let’s map you out; make you plot-able.
Back in the “get published” series, we touched on query letter format. This format works best for querying an agent; a query letter to a literary magazine is usually even more succinct, dropping a few elements of the agent query. So let’s start with making a fictional query letter to an agent asking them to consider you for representation based on whatever project you’re leaning towards working on (a blog post, a chapbook, a short story, a novel, etc). Do you query agents in real life to ask for representation for your blog posts? No. But this is an exercise to help you ground yourself as a writer.
Oh… because you write, therefore, you are a writer. So start internally calling yourself writer because I’m going to call you a writer.
I’d like you to do this letter out of order. Start with the third paragraph and in a few sentences, give the reader a glimpse into your writing life. Do not focus on any details about yourself that do not pertain to writing or the project at hand. (If you’re writing a novel about canaries, it’s fine to tell the agent that you’re an ornithologist. But if you’re writing a novel about canaries, you don’t need to tell the agent that you’re a father of triplets.) Since this letter will never actually be sent to an agent, feel free to admit why you write; what drew you to words. Though you’d never tell an agent about how you fell in love with short stories when you wrote your first one in Mrs. Quacklemeier’s first grade class, this is a fine time to put it down on the page and look at those words, think about how long you’ve loved writing.
Now move to the first paragraph. Forget about the hook line: focus instead on what type of projects you foresee yourself working on in the next two years. It may be blog posts. It may be a poetry collection of 300 villanelles about your cat. It may be the most kick-ass love letters for your partner. It may be the novel that has been sitting in your heart for the last three years. Name it. Caress it. Honour it. You have an idea in you that can only be painted with words: if you didn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this post. So own it. No one is going to see this piece of writing unless you post it, so go to town putting down all your hopes.
And then move to the second paragraph where you give the meat of the projects. Why these projects as opposed to other ones? What is it about this novel idea that has a hold of you? Why does it need to be villanelles instead of terzanelles when you write about your cat? Why do you want to work on this love letter project as opposed to sending your partner sexy text messages? There are reasons for why these projects over all others. Write it down.
And then pin this letter by your workspace.
This is important. You’re going to get lost from time to time and forget why you write. You’re going to get rejection letters and need to remember that this is really important to you. You are going to get stuck and feel like giving up.
So this query letter is also a map for YOU. For you to get back to your writerly self when you’ve lost your way.
Think of it this way: though you’re writing it, you are also the agent in this exercise. You need to convince yourself that you’re worth investing writing time in. That you have some good ideas jiggling around in there. That if the chance arose and the tables were turned, you’d certainly take yourself for representation. Because until YOU believe in you, you can’t get others to believe in you.
If you are moved to publish your sample query letter on your blog, please leave a link to the post in the comment section below so your classmates can find it. Or simply jump into the comment section to give your thoughts, express any roadblocks you hit during this exercise, or ask questions.
P.S. You will never use this letter to send to an actual agent or editor, but you’ll be able to cannibalize from it in the future so it’s still worth doing even if you have all the confidence in the world. In a few weeks, we’ll write an actual, usable query letter and hold a critique where people can get feedback on their query letter before they use it.