The Right Tone in Your Query Letter: Finding Your Balance

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A few days ago, I wrote a guest post for Helium about how to improve your chances of making it out of the slush pile. One of the tips was to adopt a tone of “modest confidence.” But what exactly does that sound like? I thought it might be a good topic to expand ontightrope here.

So, in a query letter there’s a balance to strike between arrogance and excessive humility. On one end of the spectrum are the queries that tell an agent he or she is going to feel like quite the fool for rejecting The Next Hunger Games. We see way more of those than we’d like! But even more common are the writers on the other end, who downplay themselves with statements like, “I’m very new to this process and I’ve never published before, so I hope you’ll be willing to consider me despite my lack of experience.” Ouch. Not likely, with a sales pitch like that! While we can’t fault the honesty, it’s just no way to inspire confidence in your work.

Finally, somewhere in the middle is the author who neither brags nor belittles herself, and whose quiet confidence shines through in the voice of the query. The sweet spot! Here is an example from our NLA author Lisa Shearin. It’s the query for THIEF OF SOULS, which was later retitled MAGIC LOST, TROUBLE FOUND and became the first in her bestselling Raine Benares series. For now, let’s just focus on her introduction and conclusion; between them (in the body of the query), she talks about the story itself and tone is less of an issue.

Dear Ms. Nelson:

I read on Publishers Marketplace that you’re interested in female-oriented fantasy. I think that Thief of Souls, the first novel in my fantasy detective series, might interest you. [Great intro. She shows that she knows the agent’s tastes without, well, sucking up. Saying “I think” it “might interest you” sounds confident but not pushy.]

What if you suddenly have a largely unknown, potentially unlimited power? What if that power just might eat your soul for breakfast, lunch and dinner? What if every magical mobster and sicko sorcerer in town wants that power? And what if you can’t get rid of it?

That’s Raine Benares’ problem. She’s a Seeker—a finder of things lost and people missing. . . [What a fabulous hook! But that’s for another day. I’m removing the rest of the body for the sake of space, but don’t panic—I’ll give you a link to it in a second.]

Thief of Souls is my first novel. I’m an editor at an advertising agency, with prior experience in corporate communications and marketing. [She’s honest, and with such a good query that only made her more likeable. But there’s really no need to mention if it’s your first or your fifth (unpublished) novel—that can be a slippery slope. Here, it works fine because she doesn’t go on about it or put herself down for not having published before.]

I’d be glad to send you my complete manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. [Again, there’s nothing overbearing in her tone, but neither does she feign indifference. And she shows her appreciation graciously at the end, which never hurts.]

Regards,
Lisa Shearin

Like I said, I left out the best part—the story! You can read the entire query, along with her future agent’s comments, on Kristin’s blog.

Want another of my favorite examples? Read Jamie Ford’s query for HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET.  It leaves the impression of an author who is self-assured and talented, but also a genuinely nice guy. (That’s 100% true, by the way.)

Not sure if you’ve found the right tone? Try reading your query aloud to a mirror and pretend the person staring back at you is a complete stranger. How would you come across? Then read it to a couple of friends you trust to give an honest opinion.

Best of luck!

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