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Telling a Good Joke…Badly

I’ve talked before on the subject of querying—whether it be to land an agent or pitch your book to a publisher—and just how difficult writing the perfect query letter is. The irony is if you read all of the guidelines posted on literary agencies websites, or the publishing houses, there is no such thing as a perfect query letter because although there are similarities, they can’t agree on what constitutes one.  So basically every query letter you send out needs to be customized for that particular recipient wants and needs, all the while maintaining your own unique style and voice in the process. Not an easy task, to put it mildly. And it’s a big deal because you only get one shot with this letter, and a rejection effectively poisons that literary agency or publishing house to you (for that piece of work). There are no do-overs.

I’ve always said that writing query letters (and synopsis – but that’s another story) requires a different skill-set that most writers lack in their toolbag. That’s why most of us struggle—mightily—writing them. You could have the next best-seller sitting on your desk, collecting dust, all because your query letter doesn’t generate enough interest. I liken it to being someone who is terrible at telling jokes. I can’t tell you how many jokes, some really hilarious ones, I’ve butchered while attempting to pass them along to my friends. I just suck at it, so I come off looking silly. And the joke…well, it suffers as well because of my stumbling and bumbling. Unfortunately, I’m the same way about query letters.  
So, what’s a guy to do? What should you do?

One approach (although not a very practical one) is to ditch the query letter altogether and make your pitch in-person, at a writers conference for example. It can be a rather expensive alternative and you could argue that making a live pitch requires a third, entirely different skill-set, but the format does provide something that a letter can not—a back and forth exploration of the material between two parties. Sitting down in front of an agent or editor allows them the opportunity to ask key questions that wouldn’t normally be asked if they were just reading a letter. I landed my agent this way and I can speak to its benefits, but it's not a realistic approach for most writers. Where does that leave us?  

Well…if I’m with a bunch of friends and we’re telling jokes, and I know there is somebody else there who knows the joke I want to express, and he/she tell’s jokes well…then I let them tell it. In other words, get help. I have my critique group review all of my letters and it makes a big difference. Don’t have a critique group? 1) Why not? Join one ASAP. 2) There are numerous forums such as Absolute Write or Query Tracker that freely offer assistance to writers needing help with their letters. Find a forum that suits you and pick the brains of people who know how to tell jokes.

To give you an update on my own querying process, I’m about a month in and I’m two for three. That means I’ve received three responses so far, two asked for the full manuscript and one passed.  So far…so good.


  1. The query letter is never fun.
    I know what you mean about not being able to deliver a joke. I'm good at it, but I have a friend that butchers one every time.
    Good luck - you're off to good start.

    1. It's almost funnier watching me trying to tell a joke. :)

  2. Hi Don - what you say makes sense ... especially the joke scenario ... thanks for the advice - cheers Hilary

  3. Pitching in person or even through a chat gives you more time to get your point across.

    If someone can at least send what I ask for and keep it short, then that's a fairly decent query letter to me. Sadly I don't get those as often as I'd like.

    I'm not good at telling jokes either.

    1. Pitching in person personalizes the whole thing and I believe helps the agent/editor become more invested, which is a huge step forward. :)




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