Recently, I spent a Saturday afternoon with my ex-girlfriend, Rebekah. We talked about a lot of things, but mostly we talked about books. I’m a writer, she’s a bookseller. We met while working together at Watermark Books a few years before I sold The Evolution of Shadows. She helped me with the final revisions by reading the novel out loud to me several times. Sadly, it took us eight years to figure out that in pretty much every relationship category we were incompatible.
During our long conversation, I realized that during the eight years we struggled to make our incompatibilities work, we’d lost touch with the one thing that brought us together and that did work: her ability to catch my literary weaknesses and blind spots. Any decently self-critical writer will know how valuable it is to have a good reader who can spot the flaws in a story we’ve overlooked out of familiarity or fatigue. It’s the same quality a writer looks for in an agent.
One of the many literary things Rebekah and I agree on is that I’m terrible at self-marketing, especially the query letter. It’s one of the reasons it took me so long to get Shadows published, and probably why it’s taking me so long to get The Palace of Winds placed. My lack of skill at self-promotion is one of the core reason I’ll never self-publish. It’s probably a part of the reason why my podcast is languishing with such small ratings. It’s a weird psychological predicament: being a writer who wants to be read and loved for that writing, while at the same time being embarrassed by self-promotion because I’m hyper aware of my flaws, both as a human and a writer, and also because I don’t want to be seen bragging about myself, only to fail to live up to my own boasts (If I could master a Thomas Pynchon-like personae I’d be in heaven).
The best piece of authorial public relations advice I ever got was from Bobbie Louise Hawkins, who noticed me deflecting praise in one of her workshops. She pointed out that people find it off-putting when they tell you they like something and you shrug it off (they also dislike arrogance, which is something else I try to avoid, but, according to Rebekah, I also fail at). Bobbie knew that if it’s someone’s natural inclination to deflect praise, telling them to simply knock it off won’t work. So, Bobbie gave me a phrase that acknowledges the praise and assuages my urge to be self-critical. Whenever someone praises my writing, I reply with “Thank you, but I’m not half as good as I want to be.” Mastering that line in grad school helped me get to a point where I can simply say “Thank you” and leave it at that.
Of course, what I’ve not yet been able to find is a trick for the query letter, which is frustrating because if I had an agent, I’d probably be relieved of writing the query letter (I think – I hope); however, in order to get an agent I have to write a good query letter (fuck it all). Consequently, I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to write a good query letter – the perfect query letter for the agent I’m courting, in fact that I end up putting it off or giving up because it’s too painful and fraught with anxiety. All the advice I’ve read or heard about writing query letters never seems to help. It’s either specific to certain genres, like mystery or suspense, which have a plot hook that can be spun into some thrilling opening paragraph. The more general advice is way too prescriptive – tell the agent how you learned about him or her, provide a synopsis and a bio, say goodbye; write a letter that shows the agent or editor a little of who you are, but don’t be so casual or familiar that you come off as unprofessional or timid or desperate.
Here’s the basic query I’m using, minus the opening paragraph, which I try to personalize to each agent.
The Palace of Winds is a loose retelling of Jason and the Golden Fleece that borrows some biographical elements of my late grandfather’s life on the road during the Great Depression. In 1930, Carl “Bud” Malott leaves Kansas for California with a group of friends with the hope of rebuilding his family’s fortune, which his uncle squandered in reckless stock and land deals that were wiped out in the 1929 stock market crash. After making the journey across the American southwest and encountering Klansmen on the hunt, jealous boyfriends, incestuous preachers, and a possible gunslinging legend beset by harpies, Bud lands in Los Angeles determined to win his fortune and return home a king. However, while working for a boxing promoter, Bud falls in love with a wealthy young woman named Madeline, the daughter of a rival promoter with mafia ties whom Bud reluctantly agreed to spy on. After Madeline kills her mobster brother to protect Bud, the two flee Los Angeles for Montana. There, during a desolate winter hiding out and tending sheep in the foothills above Helena Montana, Madeline makes a tragic decision that finally forces Bud to return home alone and poor, but much wiser.
My first novel, The Evolution of Shadows, was published by Unbridled Books in 2009. It was a November 2009 Indie Next Pick and a 2010 Kansas Notable Book. I have a BA in Creative Writing from Kansas State University and an MFA in Writing & Poetics from Naropa University. For the last year, I’ve hosted The Outrider Podcast, where I’ve had the privilege of interviewing a number of very talented writers, including Rachel Weaver, Pauls Toutonghi, Timothy Schaffert, Peter Geye, Andrea Portes, Laird Hunt, and National Book Award finalist, Emily St. John Mandel.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my query, may I send the complete manuscript for review?
Jason Quinn Malott
The other thing I agonize over is summarizing the story because I have a hard time teasing out the one sentence summary, which some well-intentioned asshole put in my head as being important. “You should be able to summarize your story in one sentence,” is something I’ve read and heard ever since picking up my first copy of Writer’s Digest back in high school. Well, fuck. Okay. Here it is:
The Palace of Winds is a loose retelling of Jason and the Golden Fleece set during the Great Depression.
Do I trust that whoever reads the letter knows that particular myth? I thought everyone did, but I’ve popped off that line to people I assumed were mythologically literate and they didn’t know it. I gave someone a portion of the manuscript to read and they thought I was redoing The Odyssey and O’ Brother Where Art Thou. But what if I over explain in the letter and the agent does know the Jason myth? Well, then I’m a condescending asshole, right? It’s also kind of important to me that the story happens to borrow some biographical elements from my grandfather’s life because I’m trying to say something about family, mythology, manhood, masculinity, and paternity, but my grandfather wasn’t anyone famous and, of course, no one wants to hear my theory of everything in a query letter, right (so says Rebekah).
So, let’s try this:
The Palace of Winds is the story of a Carl Malott who sets out for Los Angeles to win back his family’s fortune but ends up falling in love with the daughter of mobster who kills her brother to protect Carl.
Meh. Right? Or maybe not. To me, it undersells the story and neglects that it’s set during the Depression, and that the mobster’s daughter plot line doesn’t develop until almost 200 pages in to a 300 page book.
The other thing I’m not very good at is asking for help, especially from friends who I know are busy with their own things. I don’t want to ask unless it’s desperately important, which means, for me, the ask should only be made if it’s for a manuscript. A query letter isn’t desperately important, plus I have a feeling query letters are equally mysterious for them, even my agented writer friends.
So, here I am, struggling with a query letter that I hope will win over an agent enough that he or she will read my full manuscript instead of firing back a rejection note so that I can – at the very least – be partially relived of ever having to write a query letter again, which would allow me to concentrate on writing and revising the next book, which I’m much better at than asking for attention. Seriously, if I could write a story, give it to someone I trust who would then get it out to the world. there would be so much less anxiety in my life.
Looking for an agent, for me anyway, is like asking the prettiest girl in school to the prom. Or, I suppose, to be more age appropriate, it’s like online dating. For someone like me, who is painfully self-conscious and acutely aware of his own flaws as a writer and a person, it doesn’t matter how well I’ve washed up and dressed, or worked and revised and polished, the two warring halves of me – the hyper critical editor and the preening egotist – are impervious to any rational thought. I desperately want someone to see me, to love my writing, to ooh and aaah over the little (flawed) gem I’ve created, but I’m absolutely paralyzed by the thought of the person I want to notice me seeing the flaws that I see in myself and seeing them as large as I think they are.
Yeah, yeah, fear of success vs. fear of failure – I get the whole drill. I grew up with a wanna-be therapist for a father. I understood “projection,” “denial,” “shame spiral,” and “fear of success” long before I had pubic hair. So, you see, it’s this self-induced paralysis created by my conflicting desires that almost demands that I find an agent.
The only problem is, I have to first get past my self-induced paralysis.