Queryfest, part IX: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open tonight’s Queryfest post with an image of an un-stormed one. I like to yank this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? It may have felt like that back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerned feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — I guess I can end Queryfest here and now.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are.

Stop rolling your eyes; it’s true. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what species of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

That’s a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between, due to problems that the writers who sent them could have fixed fairly easily. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question in the current market, or even the quality of the writing.

Yes, yes, I know — the form-letter rejection you got implies otherwise. But form letters rejections are, by definition, sent to everyone an agency is rejecting, regardless of the reason. Because a good agency genuinely does not want to discourage writers on the way to perfecting their craft and professionalizing their presentation, their prefab rejections are usually geared toward the best of the rejected manuscripts, the near-misses for whom it’s actually true that the book sounds intriguing, but publishing houses just are not buying that sort of manuscript right now.

That is not, however, your garden-variety rejected query. A hefty percentage of them all contain the same 10 or 15 stripes of mistake. And that repetition has serious implications for even otherwise good queries that happen to stumble into the same pitfalls.

A forest of hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” conscientious queriers everywhere moan, “that’s absurd! How could anyone else’s querying habits, or even the querying habits of every single other aspiring writer in the nation, possibly have any effect upon my query’s reception at an agency? They’re all judged individually, aren’t they?”

Well, yes and no, moaners. Because agents and their screeners read so many of the darned things, they inevitably develop pet peeves and start identifying common red flags. And because our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, often spends hours on end scanning queries, even if only 20 of them share the same basic error — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. That’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

In response to that giant collective huff of indignation I just out there: you’re probably thinking that Millicent is hypersensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people on crutches across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car. What’s she going to do, honk like a goose?

True, she rejects writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting queries — yes, they’re really called that — means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejecter is not the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question would be not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, please, to assess how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordIf there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing, rather than assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

To put it more simply, offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy — it’s her job to reject 98% of what she sees, recall — but any writer willing to put in the time and effort can learn how to avoid provoking her.

I know — it’s tempting just to assume it’s her problem and press on. It’s a pain to revise a query letter, after all, or indeed, to write one in the first place. But it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of frustrated queriers radically underestimate the amount of energy they habitually put into resenting the necessity to query at all. Is that honestly the best use of a writer’s time?

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what he can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors out of his control. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where most rejected queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s one-size-fits-all rejection note. Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply.

I just saw some of your faces fall: hands up, everyone who has ever wasted hours — or days — in trying to read some specific feedback into a rejection platitude like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, just because it appeared in a letter with a personalized salutation or in an e-mail. While Millicents and their bosses do occasionally break their rejection pattern to add a personal note to a rejection, it’s rare enough these days that you should be flattered if you receive one.

But that’s far from the norm; the advent of the copy-and-paste function has been a positive boon to agencies, much as photocopy machines were a couple of decades before. It’s not hard to see why: honestly, if you were Millicent, would you be willing to type I’m sorry, but this manuscript just doesn’t fit our needs at this time hundreds of times per week if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

In the spirit of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of such stock let-‘em-down-easy phrasing, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one. At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far — believe me, Millicents everywhere will applaud you for it. As a reward for virtue, I begin tonight with a few exceptionally simple problems to fix.

(18) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the third person and the present tense?
Regardless of the narrative perspective of the manuscript itself, descriptive paragraphs in queries are always written in the third person. So if your description of your first-person fantasy begins I had just landed my dream job when the aliens landed on the roof, change it right away: to Millicent’s eyes, it will read like a description for a memoir. Ditto for pitches and synopses, by the way.

Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before you sent out your first query?

The proper tense choice, too, may strike some writers as counter-intuitive: one-paragraph book descriptions, like pitches and synopses, are always written in the present tense. Yes, even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know both of these things because the Query Fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so. Or so I surmise from the fact that this particular piece of advice isn’t given much these days.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE IN THE THIRD PERSON AND THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir. Which leads me to:

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. It simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say:

Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I chose to bury it in the back yard instead.

You must admit, this is more than a little at odds with a sane person’s sense of time. (But then, so is the turn-around time for queries and submissions, frequently.)

Please note, though, that other than this shift in tense and person, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir: your goal here is make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness. For example:

Back in my days as a silent movie star of the 1920s, women ruled the silver screen. I was paid more than my male counterparts; I had my pick of projects (and extras for my private pleasures); my dressing room’s cushions were trimmed in mink. But once the talkies came, I was faced with an impossible choice: take a massive pay cut or allow my public to be told that my beautifully resonant opera-trained voice was too squeaky for the new technology. If I was going to make the films that I wanted, I realized I would have to start writing and directing for myself.

See? By describing herself as the protagonist in a story, rather than just a person talking about herself, our starlet has made a compelling case that both she and the challenges she confronted would make for fascinating reading.

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book, unless it’s a memoir. But just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only aim here: you’re also trying to demonstrate that you are aware of the types of voices considered stylish in your chosen book category — and that you can in fact write in a voice that the already-established readers of that category will like.

Stop laughing. Query letters do so have narrative voices. It’s just that most of the boilerplates we see are so businesslike in tone and generic in content that you’d never notice.

It’s definitely possible, though, to construct a query that gives Millicent a foretaste of your manuscript. If your book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the descriptive paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that only the descriptive paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your letter were written primarily for laughs. Let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a chucklefest. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Aspen Institute for Gut-Busting, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

Although I just did, didn’t I? In a query, though, that would have been a risk: jokes that fall flat are a common screeners’ pet peeve. So unless you’re positive that your joke is (a) original — almost impossible, if it’s related to some standard query element like SASE inclusion — (b) doesn’t detract from the clarity of your letter, and (c) is funny enough that a Millicent bleary-eyed after seven hours of straight screening will chuckle, save the one-liners for your stand-up act.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your narrative voice is unique?

(21) Am I telling a compelling story in my descriptive paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
All too often, aspiring writers will construct their descriptive paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers. There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents.

But collective nostalgia for one’s happy days in Intro to American Literature doesn’t mean that a descriptive paragraph demonstrating that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Analysis-based descriptions distance the reader from the story being told.

How so, you ask? They tend to rely upon generalities, in a context that cries out for one-of-a-kind specifics. Take a gander at a representative sample:

MIXED MESSAGES is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of turbulent social change. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description could be applied equally well to hundreds of thousands of wildly different plot and voice.

As a result of trying to sound analytical, this description presents the protagonist as a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? Who is this troubled man? Where does he live? What kind of work does he do? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. Faced with a description like this one, though, she is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why apply that particular epithet? Because this kind of description talks about the novel, rather than telling its story as a story.

Because Millicent’s job is to spot great storytellers, not great textual analysts, she would have preferred it if the querier simply presented the story directly. Then, too, the writer’s choice to concentrate upon the themes and construction of the novel, rather than who the protagonist is and what conflicts he wants or needs to battle in order to fulfill his dreams decreases the reader’s incentive to care about what’s going on.

Indeed, we’re left wondering what is going on. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner Millicent is far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spy some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose, A students; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Cue the music department.

broken-record Neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane at the query stage: the goal of the descriptive paragraph is to show what the book is about, not how it is written. Let the narrative choices come as a delightful surprise.

Remember, your goal here is not to provide a substitute for reading your manuscript, but to describe the book’s premise and central conflict or argument intriguingly enough to prompt someone at the agency to ask you to send pages. At the submission stage, you can let your narrative choices speak for themselves.

Which is, of course, as it should be. As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

(22) Does my descriptive paragraph emphasize the specific points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

I said demonstrate, mind you, not just assert. If the answer is no, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. Remember, no matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript — and if your query does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, as well as nicely written, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript.

That’s likely to be the case, incidentally, even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly common agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries: just because the agency’s guidelines say that a querier can include other materials doesn’t mean that everything in the packet is going to be read thoroughly before acceptance or rejection. Millicent simply doesn’t have time for that, if she’s going to get through hundreds of queries before lunchtime.

Translation: the query is going to determine whether she reads anything else.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point sufficiently. If it’s any consolation, contemplating your book’s selling points is great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them fresh book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(23) Even if Millicent skipped my opening paragraph, would the descriptive paragraph that followed prompt her to exclaim, “Oh, that story is perfect for {fill in my target audience here}? Or have I forestalled that spontaneous cry by describing my book in back-jacket terms?
This is a corollary of the last one, obviously, but still worth considering as a separate question. One of the most common mistakes in descriptive paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave redolent of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know nowwhere this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

As you may have already gathered, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

By contrast, the second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests and perhaps a grizzly.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, you thought that she wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance, too?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they might well regard the first version as inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so those last two examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women — or to indoorsy women who like to fantasize about adventurous encounters with outdoorsy men and/or bears?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the story, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the projected reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(23) If my descriptive paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This question often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript? Most query letters elect to adopt one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has. If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the description as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not embrace the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic can be applied to any category of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph, actually. If you have written a steamy romance, choose the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail, and so forth.

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my full and enthusiastic permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(24) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most queries include no reference whatsoever to the target audience. It’s as though their writers believe it’s in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that attitude is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If Millicent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it or not, is there really time for her to murmur, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident, therefore, to Millicent.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty darned close to self-evident.

Structure your query to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to recognize your book’s worth. Write it well, yes, but also show why readers in your chosen book category will find it appealing. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript,” don’t you?

To that end, it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true. Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind anytime, this seems like an excellent place to stop our list for the evening. Keep up the good work!

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