I had meant to wrap up the last few reader-generated queries over the weekend, campers, but disaster befell. Okay, perhaps not disaster of a magnitude to make the national news, but a hideous disruption nonetheless: my new doctor decided that when I handed her a list of allergies headed by a skull and crossbones, I didn’t really mean that I should not be ingesting any of the substances on the list. Or so I surmise from the fact that filling her prescription and meticulously following both her directions and the pharmacist’s rather different dictates resulted in my face instantly swelling up until I resembled the unholy love child of Frankenstein’s monster and Ernest Borgnine, not a pretty pair. By the following morning, I looked as though I had been burned at the stake by amateurs who couldn’t manage to turn me regularly enough to ensure proper browning. Evidently, my would-be roasters became enraged by their failure, enough so to punch me repeatedly in the eyes.
I’m much better now, though. Small children only scream and hide behind their mothers should I happen to smile. I’m beginning to understand why the Phantom of the Opera did not get out much.
Resembling an escapee from the much-ballyhooed Bodies exhibit has its perks, of course. Why, only yesterday, my doorbell rang. It being Igor’s day off, I lightly tripped down the front stairs to greet what I quite reasonably assumed would be a mob of villagers armed with pitchforks and flaming torches. No such luck: it was only the U.P.S. man, dragging a crumbling plywood coffin onto my doorstep. Apparently, the sender had ripped a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf from his home, stuffed it full of cement blocks, hammered a sheet of plywood on each open side, and sent it on its merry way.
The panting gentleman from U.P.S. wanted me to sign for it. “My God,” he stammered, “what happened to you?”
What effrontery, eh? You wouldn’t believe how often those of us who work from home offices are called upon to receive the neighbors’ deliverables.
Once the deliveryman had drunk in his fill of doctor horror stories (and added a few of his own), he got down to work. A second, smaller bookshelf emerged from the van, accompanied by what looked suspiciously like a table whose legs had been boxed in to form a container for table linens, a hatbox barely containing what appeared to be a lifetime supply of socks within a Gordian knot of clear strapping tape, and a floor lamp voluminously wrapped first in a crazy quilt, then several layers of Visqueen. Passersby must have thought that a freighter had run aground upon my front steps, scattering flotsam and jetsam into my rose bushes.
Feeling that the social situation called for some lightening, I asked the U.P.S. guy what he thought was in those odd-shaped containers. “Pardon my asking, but I’m an editor, and occasionally, I work on mysteries. How much information does the sender actually have to give about what’s inside? That box that looks like it could easily hold a dead body, for instance — how do you know it doesn’t contain a dead body?”
The deliveryman must not have seen his fair share of horror movies, for his response to the lady with the flayed face inquiring how best to ship a murder victim did not elicit much more than a shrug. “We just ask what’s inside.”
I gave him my best child-frightening grin. “Under the assumption that a mass murder bent upon sending his victims cross-country couldn’t bring himself to tell a little white lie?”
That seemed to stump him. “Well, if they lied about shipping a dead body,” he observed after a while, “they’d get in trouble if the box burst open, I can tell you that.” He thereupon launched into a surprisingly well thought-out lecture upon how to pack a corpse for ground transport. Dry ice featured prominently in his explanation, as did, chillingly, Visqueen. And evidently there are no moral depths to which duct tape will not plunge.
It just goes to show you, my friends: most people will give out an astonishing amount of information about their jobs if they believe the result will end up in a book. So for goodness’ sake, someone out there in the mystery, thriller, or horror communities please take advantage of my deliveryman’s garrulousness; as the person signing for those suspiciously human-sized boxes, I’m here to tell you that having one appear suddenly would make quite the plot twist.
Seriously, it was a bad afternoon to be blessed with imagination. Having been raised on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, it was all I could do to stop myself from taking a crowbar to ‘em before the new neighbor came home, to see what horror lay within. There are some boxes man was not to open, however.
The bookcase contained only books, I’m sorry to report: disappointingly prosaic, unhappily predictable. But I’m sure some enterprising writer out there could come up with something much, much creepier in the fictional version.
As any query-screener at an agency that caters to the macabre could tell you, though, horror queries that make the books they are pitching sound horrifying are as rare as thrillers whose plots as presented seem thrilling. On any given day, Millicent is inundated by comedy queries that do not tempt her to crack a smile, romance queries that leave her cockles unwarmed, and whodunits so straightforward that she can guess from the one-paragraph description who the murder is. And, heaven help us, query after query that don’t tell her much about the book at all, just that it’s great, fabulous, and the agent for whom she works will deeply regret saying no to it.
You’ll forgive me if in my current Vincent Price frame of mind, that last boast — quite a common one in queries, incidentally — comes across as a threat. That’s probably not the way the thousands upon thousands of queriers who phrase their appeals in this manner mean it, of course, but you must admit, you’ll be sorry if you don’t give my book a chance! at least borders on the creepy.
“Why will my boss, the agent, be sorry?” Millicent mutters, reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections never far from her elbow. “If the manuscript is anything like the query, it’s a cliché fest. Next!”
Was that resonant thump I just heard the sound of some of your jaws hitting the floor at that last sentiment, or has some Edgar Allen Poe fan mailed me a beating heart? Yes, campers, it’s true: just as a query laden with unsubstantiated claims of excellence (This is the best book you’ll read all year!), hard sell terminology (You won’t want to miss your chance to get in on the ground floor of this bestseller!), or insult (I know that agents aren’t really looking for anything original, but can I convince you to take a chance this time?), a cliché-laden query tends to be self-rejecting. And for reasons that I hope are self-evident: stock phrases may sound good, but by definition, they don’t convey anything about the writer’s style to Millicent.
Oh, you thought Enclosed please find SASE, complete at 78,000 words, or only by following her heart can she find true happiness was going to wow Millicent with its literary originality? What could a hackneyed phrase possibly convey to an agent, editor, or contest judge, other than the fact that the writer has heard the same clichés that everyone else has?
“But Anne,” the masses fond of the language as she is spoke cry out in dismay, “you’re not saying that using those phrases will make me look bad to Millicent, are you? I thought that phrasing was just how people in literary circles talked about books. I thought some of those phrases were required; I’ve seen them in enough query templates. I thought (muffled sob) that using them would (sniffle) make my query seem more professional.”
Here, take my handkerchief, those of you who fell into that exceedingly common new querier’s trap, and don’t be so hard on yourselves. You had no way of knowing how often Millicent sees those phrases you admired, after all; unless an aspiring writer stops to think about the sheer number of queries any reasonably well-established agent must receive in a week, it’s difficult to grasp just how annoying the sight of a phrase used in a third of them — my story is about…, anyone? — . Indeed, since so much of the querying advice out there implies that agents are simply looking for a marketable concept presented in rigid, formulaic terms, many queriers derive the opposite impression: an aspiring writer might well read up on the topic and still believe, wrongly, that originality of phrasing does not count at querying time. Or that it might actually be a liability.
News flash: writing style does count in a query, and more than one might think. Especially if the query in question includes any self-review of the writing in the manuscript.
And half my readership bridles at the very idea. “Oh, come on, Anne!” the conscientious many shout, and who could blame them? “I know better that to review my own book in my query; I’ve done my homework well enough to know that Millicent, like most professional readers, prefers to make up her own mind about writing quality. She would rather be shown that I can write than told as much. So do we really need to discuss this any further?”
Unfortunately, we do, at least if the average query crossing Millicent’s desk is any indication. Having taught many, many querying classes to many, many aspiring writers who thought they had been following the rules, it’s my considered opinion that queriers are not always aware of when they have crossed the line between factual description and qualitative review. Surprisingly often, even those who have overshot that line by a mile and landed smack dab in the realm of boasting do not notice.
How is that possible, you ask? Cast your critical eye over the following missive, a query I have carefully constructed to tumble headlong into as many common pitfalls as possible. See how many you can spot. (And, as always, if you are having trouble making out the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)
Not a lot to like from Millicent’s perspective, is there? Yet actually, despite the unprofessional presentation, obvious instant-rejection triggers, and perhaps less-obvious subtle red flags, this bizarre purple query does in some ways make the case for the book rather well. Millicent is unlikely to notice that, though, for the exceedingly simple reason that this query features several elements that would cause her to reject it unread.
Let’s tote up those reject-on-sight triggers, shall we? Two strike the eye right off the bat: the non-standard page size and the color of the paper. Dee may have thought offbeat stationary would make his query stand out from the crowd, and he’d be right. But not in a good way; this color choice just makes him look as though he’s unaware that the overwhelming majority of books are printed in black type on white paper. Or — brace yourself; this isn’t going to be particularly charitable — as though Dee believed his book’s premise were too boring to catch an agent’s attention without a wild presentation.
Hey, I warned you that it wasn’t going to be pretty. The routine, matter-of-fact harshness with which Millicent is trained to cull queries would make the most jaded horror reader turn pale. Her judgments have to be that cut-and-dried, though, if she’s going to get through the hundreds of queries that arrive every week.
Be honest, now: if you have written one of the few upon which she wants to lavish more than 30 seconds or so, isn’t it to your benefit that she can reject a clearly unprofessional query like Dee’s at first glance?
I sense that some of you aren’t buying it. “But Anne, there’s no necessary correlation between the presentation of the query, or even the polish of its writing, and the manuscript. Plenty of very talented aspiring writers don’t have a clue what a professional query looks like, after all. So doesn’t Millicent run the risk of turning down the next Great American Novel by judging the book solely on the cosmetic aspects of the query?”
Yes, but the prospect doesn’t keep her up at night. It’s her job to make this particular rush to judgment, after all. And while polished and professionally presented manuscripts are occasionally introduced by unpolished and misformatted queries, it’s something of a rarity. Writers unaware or inattentive to the industry’s presentation standards in a query frequently are equally in the dark or careless in their manuscripts.
Besides, if Millicent actually read this query, she would find additional reason to believe that Dee’s manuscript would not be in standard format. She also has proof in front of her that Dee is not especially attentive to applying standards consistently. Did you catch the telltale signs?
If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! The last sentence of the first paragraph does not have a space between the end of the dash and the beginning of the next word, as would be proper in a manuscript, but the dash in the fourth paragraph is formatted properly,” you deserve a gold star for the day. A writer accustomed to standard format for book manuscripts would tend to double his dashes and place a space at each end. Millicent may well be trained to regard not embracing that professional habit as a sign that a querier is unfamiliar with that rule, and thus with the rigors of standard format. The fact that Dee does use the dash correctly once, though, indicates that he is familiar with the rule, but just didn’t bother to apply it consistently.
Can you really blame Millicent for drawing some conclusions about his probable attention to detail in his manuscript from that?
Speaking of conclusions she could catch the instant she claps eyes upon this letter, did you notice that it was undated? That often means that what follows is going to be boilerplate, the same message sent to half the agents in North America. A bad sign, usually: since agents specialize, a savvy querier targets only those who represent books similar to hers not just in book category, but in writing style and/or appeal to similar readers.
A mass-mailed query, by contrast, is predicated upon the assumption that any agent would be able to represent the book equally well. Not exactly flattering to the recipient, is it?
The suspicion that this query is being sent indiscriminately to every agent whose name popped up in a search engine would only be confirmed by Dee’s having used both the agent’s first and last name in the salutation. To Millicent, that’s the sure sign of a mail merge. Next!
I have a different theory about why queriers sometimes address an agent by both names, however: they’re not sure whether Ms. or Mr. is appropriate. In the case of a name like Orang O’Tang, that confusion would be understandable. But if the agency has a website, Millicent’s not going to be all that sympathetic; since it’s quite rare for an agency not to include bios for its staff, and for those bios to contain the odd pronoun or two, a query that opts for neither Ms. or Mr. shouts from the rooftops that the querier didn’t bother to learn anything about the agent before deciding to query him. Or her.
There are quite a few instant-rejection triggers in the body of the letter, too, but for this pass, let’s just stick to the stuff that would discourage Millie from reading past the salutation. How about the too-familiar sign-off, for instance, just above the too-familiar signature? This is a letter to a stranger, for heaven’s sake; this type of sign-off would be inappropriate in even an informal note, unless it was too a very close friend, right? And speaking of signatures, where is Dee’s going to go, since he has left no room for it?
Let’s rid the query of all of those eye-distracting features, therefore, so it stands a chance of getting read. While I’m at it, I’m going to indent the paragraphs, to make Dee come across as a touch more literate to folks who handle manuscripts for a living.
The writing in body of the letter is identical to the first version, but admit it: if you were Millicent, you would be infinitely more likely to regard this letter as coming from a writer who knew what he was doing, would you not? You would, if nothing else, pick up this missive with a more open mind.
At least until you read that first sentence; 99% of Millicents would not make it all the way through to the period. Indeed, the entire first paragraph is made up of classic screeners’ pet peeves: the opening that implies that this query is inherently more important than any of the others the agency might receive that day, without offering any tangible proof that is the case; the clichéd phrasing that’s probably intended to be funny but isn’t; the wild speculation about how well it will sell; the comparisons to bestsellers unaccompanied by any explanation of how this book is even remotely similar to them; the two claims at the end that everyone who likes to read at all and anyone who enjoys laughing will want to read this book.
To someone who deals with the business side of publishing, all of these assertions are ridiculous — and, from the querier’s point of view, they’re counterproductive. Ordering an agent to pay attention is far less likely to work than giving her some reason to pay attention, right? If six of the first twelve words in the letter are stock phrases, why shouldn’t Millicent conclude that the manuscript being offered is stuffed to the gills with clichés as well? (Actually, from a screener’s perspective, this is the next bestseller is the most pernicious cliché of them all.) And since no one familiar with the book market would seriously contend that there has ever existed a book that would appeal to every single conceivable reader, isn’t it fair for Millie to assume that Dee just doesn’t know much about how books are marketed?
Oh, you think that’s an interpretive stretch? Then how would you explain Dee’s having compared his book’s prospects to four bestsellers in four different and unrelated book categories, released over the course of four decades? From the publishing world’s perspective, beyond all having been written in English and having sold well, The Da Vinci Code, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Jaws, and the Harry Potter series could hardly have less in common.
Queriers do this all the time: they believe, wrongly, that simply mentioning a bestseller will make the book being queried more market-friendly. Often, this tactic is predicated upon an assumption that agents are only seeking the next bestseller, rather than strong new voices in the book categories they already represent. But bestsellers are rare; contrary to popular opinion, it’s the books that sell less spectacularly but consistently year after year that form the financial backbone of publishing. And certainly what provide the bread and butter of most agencies.
So all Dee has accomplished by rattling off these titles is to demonstrate that he has quite a bit to learn about how the publishing industry works. Not the best way to impress the denizens of agencies, as a general rule.
Nor is the hard-sell tactic he embraces at the end of the query: So don’t pass this one up: this is one book in a million. It will make your career! Given the lack of publishing knowledge Dee has already demonstrated, is there a reason an agent would take career advice from him? To Millicent, this is just empty boasting. Next!
Sadly, Dee almost certainly would not see these passages that way: in all probability, he just thinks he is being upbeat, projecting confidence. But in a context in which it’s considered presumptuous for writers to tell agents that their own writing is good, a querier is much better off projecting confidence through presenting his book concept professionally than indulging in generic cheerleading.
Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at how much better the book description comes across if the first and last paragraphs align more closely to what Millicent would expect to see there. Like, say, the title of the book.
Oh, hadn’t you noticed that Dee had omitted it in the two earlier versions? Heck, Millicent would have had to read into the second paragraph in order to find out it was fiction.
The actual story comes across as the most important part of the query now, doesn’t it? That’s not a coincidence: since professional queries all contain more or less the same elements, extraneous discussion merely distracts from the story being pitched. In practical terms, it doesn’t matter to an agency how well Dee thinks his book will sell; for Millicent to be able to make the case to ask to see the manuscript, it’s far more important that she know the title, the book category, and why the writer thinks her boss will be a good fit for the book.
Why? Well, if the book is not in a category her boss represents, and it is not immediately apparent why her boss would be drawn to this story, why shouldn’t she reject it?
That doesn’t mean that Dee’s out of the woods yet, though. Although he’s framed his query much more professionally this time, he’s run afoul of one of Millicent’s pet peeves: talking about his story in English term paper language, rather than just telling the story.
“Not again!” would-be queriers all over the globe protest, rending their garments. “I just thought using terms like protagonist and dramatic arc made me sound more serious about my writing. Are you telling me now that’s not the case?”
That’s precisely what I’m telling you, I’m afraid, but again, this isn’t an arbitrary distinction. For fiction and memoir, part of what the writer is selling is her ability as a storyteller, right? Talking indirectly about a story seldom shows off those talents as well as just, well, telling the story.
Fortunately, Dee’s query suffers from only a minor case of Term Paper Syndrome. In its more virulent form, TPS distances the reader even more from the action:
My story is about a veterinarian who teaches himself to talk animal language. He faces as his antagonist a free thinking rooster, Ivar, a strutting fool willing to blow up the world rather than allow himself to be misquoted. As this conflict deepens, a subplot involving a twist upon the Cyrano de Bergerac theme, a romantic triangle in which the human beloved of a noble tortoise falls in love with Dr. Doomuch, the translator of the tortoise’s impassioned sonnets.
Not the most evocative way to introduce this plot to the reader, is it? And honestly, those ostensibly professional-sounding terms don’t add much here. Millicent’s not going to be writing an analytical essay on Dee’s query, after all.
So here’s that query again, with distancing language removed. See for yourself if you don’t find the story more engaging this time around.
You don’t miss the academic language, do you? I assure you, Millicent wouldn’t.
Unless those of you with your hands in the air have an alternate opinion you’d like to share? “But Anne,” the eagle-eyed point out, “I notice that you left one of the TPS terms, dramatic climax, in the query. May I ask why?”
Of course you may: it was all part of my evil teaching plan, a nudge to get your eyes trained upon another notorious screeners’ pet peeve. As it happens, the one that we were discussing just before I introduced you to Dee and his querying habits.
Was that too long ago? Allow me to refresh your memory with a provocative question: is Dee reviewing his own writing here? If so, does it harm his query?
To anticipate what the masses jumping up and down, flinging their hands into the air repeatedly in a vain attempt to get me to call upon them, would probably bellow if I let them, yes — and yes. If you were intending to bellow anything else, I invite you to consider this sentence:
Hilarious high jinx ensue, and the dramatic climax will surprise and delight you.
Dee probably didn’t think of it this way, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s (a) announcing his opinion that the high jinx are hilarious and (b) declaring that the climax is both surprising and delightful. In what sense are any of those statements not self-reviews? And as such, why should Millicent believe that they are true?
Even if Millicents and the agents for whom they work were much given to taking a writer’s word for it that he’s more talented than other people, Dee’s phrasing here might also raise some hackles. He’s not just claiming that his climax is surprising and delightful — he’s insisting that an agent whom he has never met will find it so. A trifle presumptuous, no?
Trust me on this one: professional readers like to make up their own minds about what is surprising and/or delightful on the manuscript page. Ditto with hilarity: they don’t like to be told when to laugh. So leave it to others to review your work; it’s inherently more credible.
In order to allow that vitally important last point to sink in fully, I’m going to resist the urge rework Dee’s letter again; no, not even the provocation of that unattributed song quote will tempt me. Let it stand as is, as a negative example of how good writers often shoot their queries in their metaphorical feet without noticing the injury. Sometimes repeatedly.
What’s noteworthy here is that none of the rejection reasons we have discussed today had anything whatsoever to do with the marketability of the story, the quality of Dee’s writing, or even whether Millicent got a kick out of the premise. All of these red flags arose from how Dee chose to present that story to the agent of his dreams. Yet by the standards applied by most aspiring writers, Dee’s original query would have seemed just fine.
As much as writers everywhere might prefer it not to be the case, this is an industry that does rely very much on first impressions, at least at the query and submission stages. While that can be frustrating for those trying to break into the biz, agents don’t get more hours in the day than anyone else: the more queries they receive, the faster they must decide which to reject. That’s just simple math.
It’s also simple reason. As the U.P.S. guy so astutely observed, if the dead body falls out of the inadequate shipping container en route, someone’s going to be in big trouble: the person who packed that box.
I was going to try to work in a parallel with my multi-day allergic reaction here, but frankly, I don’t think I’m going to come up with a more distasteful image than the one in the last paragraph. I shall quit while I am ahead, therefore. Keep up the good work!