So, about that Susan Boyle…

You didn’t think you’d avoid reading about the famous Miss Boyle on my blog, did you? It’s pop culture! How could I avoid writing about the media’s latest darling?

The question I’ve been asking myself is: What can writers learn from The Susan Boyle Phenomenon? Amazingly enough, I came up with a couple of things.

Remember how Susan walked out on stage and started answering Simon’s questions, and everyone—audience and judges alike—rolled their eyes and shook their heads? “As if” is what they’re thinking. Riiiight. Dream on, lady.

Its a good reminder: We all judge books by their covers. And by books, I mean, “books.” But I also mean it in the metaphorical sense: Everything about you that is presented as part of your “image” will be taken into account. Your first impression, whether it’s a query or a face-to-face meeting at a conference, says something about you and will affect how you’re perceived.

Now, that impression can be misleading, as Susan Boyle’s was. But I’d advise trying to make your first impression as positive as possible, just to be on the safe side. You want it to be an accurate representation of who you are as a writer. This means make your query shine and avoid all those dumb mistakes we’re forever talking about on the Internet. In a meeting, look professional, be friendly, and show your personality. (Don’t worry about being nervous—that’s normal.) First impressions aren’t everything, of course (as Susan Boyle’s experience confirms). But be aware that they do have an impact.

Once Miss Boyle started singing, do you know how long it took for the audience to be blown away and in love with her? Approximately five seconds. The entire demeanor of the audience changed that quickly; they were drawn in; they were hers. She had them immediately and didn’t let them go until the song was over.

It’s the same with a book or a query. A few seconds in… a few sentences maybe… and the reader is either yours, or they’re not. I know writers get frustrated that agents and editors seem to make decisions so quickly, based on so little of their work. But your skill as a writer comes through very quickly to an experienced eye. Just as a singer has to draw the listener in and make them want to keep listening, the writer has to do the same. You have to earn that page-turn.

Finally, Susan’s experience shows us that the work is what matters most. For Susan, what happened when she opened her mouth was what mattered, and suddenly all the other elements—how she looked, for example—were trivial. It’s the same for you. What matters most is what’s on the page. Yes, your query is a factor, and your platform (for non-fiction) might make a difference, but those are side issues just like Susan Boyle’s recent makeover. Her improved looks would not matter without the amazing voice; your terrific query and stellar platform will be useless without a great book.

See? Lessons in publishing are everywhere, if only we look. Now, not only will my blog stats rise when I start coming up on Google searches of “Susan Boyle,” but you can also be smugly satisfied that all those times you watched that YouTube video were not in vain. You were actually working on the craft of writing. (Wink wink.)
Rachelle Gardner, Christian literary agent, WordServe Literary Group, Colorado.

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  4. La Fleur says:

    >Funny… I thought the same thing when I saw her performance on the internet. Her appearance was so… different, I said to myself, “Either she is extremely talent or a joke.” But somehow, her self confidence indicated to the former to me.

    Once I heard her, I cried. Not so much so because of her magnificient voice, but because of my own efforts to shine as well. Like every other author out there, I labor to come up with a good query (good luck), but it is the underlying cry, ‘if someone would only read the first few pages, they would love it,’ that came across in Susan’s performance. Finally, someone had looked past her ‘query’ and read her first pages, so to speak.

    Congratulations, Susan!

    Claudia Helena Ross

  5. Gwen says:


    I don’t feel Rachelle was rude or judmental in the least. I know she would not degrade or judge a person based on their looks, body shape, weight, etc, etc.

    Susan Boyle IS lovely. However, she appeared on stage in a flesh-colored dress, which is unflattering under bright lights. Susan now dresses in more colorful clothing and styles her hair differently. This does not make her a more worthy person, nor does it make her lovelier. It just means she’s putting her best foot forward–something many Christians acknowledge is important. Indeed, the Bible cites instances of faithful men and women dressing as circumstances warranted. We’re not to put appearance ahead of more important matters, but it seems short-sighted to dismiss the impact of first impressions for the sake of being “nonjudgmental”.

  6. Anonymous says:

    >These two statements surprised and saddened me:
    “…and suddenly all the other elements—how she looked, for example—were trivial.” and “Her improved looks would not matter without the amazing voice…”

    There is nothing wrong with Susan or how she looks. I would have thought you would see the beauty in all of God’s creations, whether they conform to some invisible standard that is set by the media or not. Susan is a lovely, humble lady who does not deserve these sort of comments.

    I understand the point you are trying to make, but I also feel you have been rude and judgmental without any real need.

  7. Sharon A. Lavy says:

    >Well said.

  8. Lenore Buth at says:

    >Rachelle, you’re on-target about those first impressions. I think Susan Boyle counted on that soaring voice to counterract the visual–and it did. Even with that glorious voice, she obviously had burnished it to professional quality. I wish her great success. She seems to have the good sense to be able to handle it.

    It was good to have you say the quality of our writing and what we have to say matters most. I believed from the time I started writing. But I’ve read so much about the primacy of platform, presentation and catching the wave I began to wonder if that amounts to wishful thinking in 2009. (What else accounts for the schlocky stuff that makes it?) Thanks for the fresh breeze of encouragement.

  9. Anonymous says:

    >Thanks, but not all agents act fast. How do you explain agents who still want to consider your ms. after almost 6 months? Is it better to have love at first sight (I got an immediate request but then it drug out…) or let a ms. “grow” on you, esp after seeing a new, improved version?

  10. Genny says:

    >This was great, Rachelle. I first heard about Susan Boyle over at Nathan Bransford’s blog and, after clicking over and watching her sing, I was reminded of a few things. First, to never give up on your dreams. Second, like you said, to not judge a book by its cover. And, third, when success is a long time coming, it’s that much sweeter when it happens. 🙂

  11. PurpleClover says:

    >Love it!

  12. Alexandra says:

    >Haha! I must be even more dedicated to the craft then I thought, judging by all the times I watched the clip. (It didn’t help that “I Dreamed a Dream” is one of my favorite songs…*wink*)

    Such a good analogy. Thanks!!!

  13. Anita says:

    >I’ve been thinking about this, too, and the thing is, I still wouldn’t buy a Susan Boyle album. I mean, I KNOW she has a beautiful voice, but what she’d sing simply wouldn’t interest me, whereas some other, less-gifted singers may very well interest me. Putting this back towards writing, I have friends who do not like Cormac McCarthy (really, I don’t know WHY their my friends :)), but they love Janet Evanovich. It just depends on what you like, you know? And you don’t have to be a Susan Boyle-like (meaning, VERY gifted) writer in order to write an entertaining, well-loved book.

  14. Katie says:

    >One thing that leaps out at me here is how much Susan had to overcome. She made a negative first impression, which she was able to obliterate because she had the opportunity to sing.

    By being part of that particular forum, the invite to sing was a given.

    What if she had to earn it, with her introduction / query? Would she have gotten the audition? The “read”?

    My take away here is yes – I’ve gotta blow them out of the water with my craft, but not blow the chance to do so with my presentation.

  15. Jill says:

    >Great analogy. Story is king, but it just makes sense to have the most polished presentation possible, both in person and on paper, so that there’s a better chance of someone actually looking at your story.
    The reason Susan Boyle is such a phenomenon (apart from her talent) is because the package wasn’t great, and yet she excelled. That’s the exception, not the norm.

  16. Loren Christie says:

    >This is a great post and I actually was making that same connection in my thoughts when I heard her sing. As a writer, I’m always hoping to be that “diamond in the rough” who gets noticed.

  17. Eric says:

    >I’m sure I’m the only person in the world who still has not watched Susan Boyle’s performance. But the analogy is dead on. Nicely written post.

  18. Teri D. Smith says:

    >Great post, as always. And first impressions go a long way with both our professional presence and our writing.

    Noah Lukeman even wrote a book called “The First Five Pages”. But really, if you don’t get the first paragraph right with the first impression of your writing, you may not get a chance to “sing the second line”.

    But Susan Boyle was a wake-up call for all of us in ever so many ways.

  19. Chatty Kelly says:

    >You cracked me up on the blog stats rising! Great analogy as always. What a good excuse to get a manicure, pedicure, and facial. 🙂 Business expense, right?

  20. Jason Crawford says:

    >You have to earn that page turn.I keep a running list of writing maxims…I’m definitely adding this one.

  21. Marla Taviano says:

    >”You have to earn that page-turn.” Love it.

  22. Sara J. Henry says:

    >Here’s the other reason that watching the Susan Boyle video counts as “research” – it tells you that no matter what, don’t give up on your dream.

  23. Pam Halter says:

    >We talk about first impressions all the time in my writer’s group. SO important!! Especially since many of us do not have the stellar “voice” of Susan Boyle.

    And because people are people, our impression may color what an editor or agent reads. Maybe, just maybe, if they don’t like the way we look, they really won’t SEE our beautiful words.

    I am not a beauty queen, but I try to dress and act professional when I meet people at conferences. It shows respect for both the editor and myself.

  24. Jeanette Levellie says:

    >Rachelle: Thanks for the encouragement and perspective.
    I noticed a link to another clip from a 1999 audition that Susan Boyle did, singing “Cry Me A River.” It is stunning as well.
    She’s been working on her “first impressions” for many years…

  25. Kristen says:

    >This analogy is really helpful! Thank you! Usually I don’t learn about many “pop culture” things while I’m overseas (I’m in India right now; that’s right, Rachelle, your blog is definitely international!), but even I heard about Susan Boyle on the other side of the world! She really is incredible and I’m so glad she was given a chance.

    Now if only “American Idol” and LOST could make it over here, I’d be set!

  26. Katy McKenna says:

    >Richard asks a critical question at this juncture. Can American Idol be far behind? I will NOT mention anything that happened on the results show last night, because I know you haven’t seen it yet, but….

    I would LOVE to know your reaction to what happened. And I TOTALLY am an American Idol viewer because of its parallels to the world of writing/publishing. I learned something during last night’s show (and the night before) and am wondering if you picked up on the same thing…..

    And as for my Scottish buddy Susan Boyle—love at first sound!

  27. Rachel says:

    >Boyle, I mean. 😛

  28. Rachel says:

    >Man…I’ve been working hard on my publishing journey, as it turns out. I’ve googled Susan Boyd multiple times…

    Good application. 🙂

  29. Richard Mabry says:

    >Thanks for reminding us of the importance of making a good first impression on agents, editors, and readers. I struggle constantly against the temptation to call something finished when it should be polished again…and again…and yet again–especially the first chapter.
    Now that you’ve touched on the Susan Boyle story, can American Idol be far behind?

  30. jdcoughlin says:

    >Yes! We all recognize it that fast. We enjoy it in others. We fall in love and leave our seat, our minds, even for only a few minutes. These fleeting moments have some magic in them, some sparkle that makes the moment all the more enjoyable because WE are there, together.
    Now, back to writing…

  31. Jessica says:

    How did you know I’d been watching it so much?

    What I’d also wonder is how long she spent honing her voice (craft)?
    I think it’s important for us to understand that she probably didn’t just decide that day to sing. I think she’s been working on it.
    Hard work pays off. It was awesome to hear her sing and to see her success. I hope all her dreams are realized.

  32. Beth Kephart says:

    >I’d been thinking about some of these things. You state them beautifully, precisely.

  33. Karen says:

    >Great analogy!


    >If you want to see the truth about Susan Boyle, have a look at the video on this blog:


  35. Gwen says:

    >Great post, Rachelle. Love that Susan Boyle video. Who doesn’t?

    I noticed that her performance, especially late in the video, was not perfection. There were parts that faltered a bit in pitch and support. But at that point it didn’t matter. She’d already stolen our heart with an unexpected talent and awed us with a gifted voice. When your heart is gripped by a singer, the faltering parts add to the humanity, in my opinion.

    I think that must go for writers too. You have mentioned many times that decisions are subjective. I would think an excellent query, great presentation, and awesome first pages will go a long way toward smoothing over glitches later in the manuscript (not that I’m advocating faltering manuscripts).

    Art with heart, it would seem, trumps dispassionate craft any day. I had to learn this the hard way when I learned to sing; I struggled with placing each note and lost the forest for the trees. Susan takes you into the forest by the hand. You forget about the trees for the cool air and the pine scent…and your eyes are closed anyway.

    I find so much to learn about writing from singing, and vice versa. Thanks for a great post!

  36. Katie says:

    >Susan and Paul! Britain really does have talent! I loved watching that video on youtube! I always root for the underdog. Thanks for the analogy and the advice, Rachelle. 🙂

  37. Ruth says:

    >Hmm, so what you’re *really* trying to do is get more hits on your website from Susan Boyle fans, while *pretending* to just give us yet more helpful advice? 😉

    Thanks for the analogy, Rachelle. You *are* full of great advice!

    And now I’m off to post about Susan Boyle (and possibly Twilight and swine flu) on my blog….

  38. Ann Victor says:

    >Very good analogy.

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