Monday, July 20, 2009

Query Letter Workshop

Joni Sensel

I went to a fabulous workshop on Saturday called "Hooks, Lines, & Stinkers". It was a query letter workshop that was taught by Joni Sensel at Hugo House in Seattle. Joni is not only one of SCBWI-WWA's fearless leaders (she and Laurie Thompson are our Co-Regional Advisors and Conference Directors), but she's also a children's book author who knows a ton about query letters. Her latest book, THE FARWALKER'S QUEST, is now available from Bloomsbury.

I already knew quite a bit about query letters, but I wanted to take this class because I wanted a fresh set of eyes--ideally, a fresh set of eyes that are attached to a children's book author who is an expert on query letters--to peek at my letter and give me feedback. And that's what I got!

Joni has the same belief that I do: the first draft of the query should be written as soon as you finish the first draft of the book. (I mentioned this in
Query Tips. Don't you love having your own theories confirmed? Hee!) As we all know, time can bring clarity.

The biggest thing I learned was how to make the synopsis section (of the query letter--I'm not talking about
the synopsis) more exciting. Since my book is a humorous YA novel, I'd already inserted a bit of humor into the synopsis paragraph so it would match the tone of my book. What Joni did for me was identify areas where I could give specifics to make the letter more interesting. My new and improved query letter synopsis touches on more events from the story, allowing me to show instead of tell. I liked my query synopsis before, but when I took home what I learned and worked on my query letter last night, I saw it transform before my eyes. The key is to boil our books down to a paragraph or two without overcooking and diluting the flavor.

Joni brought up how some people hire others to write their query letters since the skills to write a query letter are so different from the ones to write a novel. She discourages hiring out, and so do I. We
need to be able to do both. I've heard agents and authors say if you can write a good novel, you're capable of writing a good query. I agree. There is nothing wrong with getting help--I encourage it--but both skill sets need to be worked on and mastered. We are writers, aren't we?

Joni also helped me improve my bio. As an
aspiring author, my bio isn't lengthy. Still, Joni pointed out that my qualifications were listed in reverse order. When I later told my friend Elsa Watson (who already knew this--she's the author of MAID MARIAN, a novel I love) about my order reversal, she added that query letter bios are when we can't think like novelists, starting with the smaller stuff and ending with a bang. That cracked me up because it was exactly what I was doing. It seems so obvious now: the bio paragraph should not arc like a novel (insert eye roll). Start big, with awards. Next, name publications, if you have any. I don't know if this order holds true if you've had books published, but in my case, where I've had two poems published in magazines, this is what Joni suggests. I do know that if you have a book published, Nathan Bransford says to be sure to include the publisher and the year. Then list your memberships in writers' organizations.

I recommend a class like this to any aspiring author, whether you'll be querying soon or not, because querying
is definitely in your future. If you're in the Seattle area and have the opportunity to take a query workshop with Joni Sensel, do it! There were about ten of us there--two YA writers, one women's fiction writer (that's you, Martha Schoemaker), a thriller writer, a picture book writer, someone with an art book, and people submitting to magazines and newspapers--and she had the ability to advise all of us.

Way to be, Joni. And thanks.

No comments: