Do you remember how you felt when you first started describing yourself as a writer? If you’re like me, your
excitement was tempered by a real sense of pressure.
I’m not talking about the proverbial starving artist kind of pressure where you have to ask if pursuing your dream is worth eating ramen six nights a week for the rest of your life. No, I mean the pressure you feel when your new job requires e-mail openers like: "My name is Ted Fox, and I’m the writer/editor in the college’s communications office." Loosely translated, this of course meant: "Please mock me openly when I spell ‘occasion’ with two s’s three sentences from now." That’s how I interpreted it, anyway...
Guest column by Ted Fox, who serves up opinions
about who isn’t so awesome daily on Twitter
(@KnowWhosAwesome) and writes the humor
blog “The View From the Dining Room Office.”
He is (newly) represented by Marissa Walsh
of FinePrint Literary Management.
Paranoia aside, though, the fact is that once we start calling ourselves writers, our stray typos and grammatical lapses can’t come and go in relative anonymity no matter where they occur—but particularly in the unflinching light of a query letter. The stakes are high, as a little piece of our heart and soul can get dismissed because we put two periods at the end of the last paragraph.
OK, I might be exaggerating, although by how much is open to debate and likely depends on the agent, her/his mood that day, and whether she/he would describe Ke$ha’s spelling as “innovative” or “a blight on humanity.”
I’m a humor writer; exaggeration is what I do. That, and try to find the balance between insanely funny and just insane. Such a mandate brings a different, additional pressure to bear on the query process—namely, figuring out how to be funny without being too much.
I initially thought about a query in much the same vein I do a cover letter for a regular job. Sporting the requisite “My name is” introduction, an early version continued like this (names removed to protect the innocent)
After This One Lady, editorial director of the book division at A Publisher You’ve Heard Of, reviewed a summary and sample of my humor-based memoir, Her Boss recommended I seek an agent.
Sure, I went on to sprinkle in a one-liner here and there, but my main objective was to describe my book and “be professional.” I suspect in many genres, this would have been the right tack.
But something felt off in those early letters. I realized that rather than showing an agent my sense of humor, I was standing there saying the equivalent of “I’m funny.”
That’s not funny.
My solution? Approach my query letter as a piece of creative writing itself, one that reflected my style while still giving the reader all the pertinent details about my project. This wasn’t an easy proposition, as I could end up coming across as a jackass who didn’t take his work seriously if I went too far the other way.
When it came to potential typos, at least I’d have some help from spell check and its flighty cousin, grammar check. With the humor, I would have to fly solo.
My strategy was to be me, toned down a bit. I love stupid humor, and I knew I could work some stupidity into my letter; I just didn’t have to be at my stupidest. For instance, the new sentences two through four read:
I know what you’re thinking: “Why am I the lucky recipient of this unsolicited query from an unpublished, unrepresented author?” Wait, no. You probably wouldn’t use three polysyllabic “un-” words in one sentence.
Accepting that my letter could and surely would bomb with certain readers, I was confident it would make the right agents want to read more. This instinct seemed to be on target when I started getting follow-up requests from some of those I was querying. True, I wasn’t landing representation, but all signs of why pointed to my lack of platform, not my letter. I received an e-mail literally while writing this column that confirmed that.
It was from an agent who had passed after reading my partial but had kindly given me some advice and asked me to keep her posted on my progress. So I did. And now she was asking if I was open to other book ideas besides the one I had pitched.
Somehow, responding “yes” didn’t sound nearly emphatic enough, just as it wouldn’t three days later when she offered to represent me on a new project.
She said I had been open to suggestions and persistent without being creepy and that I just seemed like a nice guy (I’m really going to hate letting her down there). All those things had made her want to take me on as a client. But it was that unsolicited e-mail that first opened the door.
“Your query was awesome,” she said. I guess pressure doesn’t have to be a bad thing.