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Author! Author!

Writing the real — and some delightful news about a longtime member of the Author! Author! community

January 13th, 2013

Before I launch into today’s festivities, please join me in applauding a longtime member of the Author! Author! community, J. A. Turley — better known around here as John — for publishing his gripping narrative nonfiction account of the Gulf oil spill, The Simple Truth: BP’s Macondo Blowout. Congratulations, John!

It’s also, you may be interested to know, available as an e-book. Here’s the blurb:

THE SIMPLE TRUTH: BP’s Macondo Blowout dramatizes through narrative nonfiction the drilling of the 3-1/2-mile-deep exploration well and the evolving decisions and events that led to the disaster. The story is structured around drilling data, federal and corporate investigations, and deposed evidence. Fictional characters are surrogates for surviving offshore personnel and the eleven who died. Readers — regardless of location or vocation — are along for the ride, their learning curves gentle but high. The extensively-referenced nonfiction epilogue documents the human, operating, and engineering causes of the disaster, unique among published books.

If this storyline sounds a bit familiar to those of you who have been hanging out here for a while, well, it should: an excerpt from an earlier draft of John’s book won top honors in the Freestyle Fiction category of Author! Author!’s 2011 Rings True literary competition, then titled MACONDO 20/20. If memory serves, page 1 of his winning entry read something like this:

If you’re having trouble reading that, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image. I would suggest doing the same with his contest synopsis:

As the prize for winning the non-easily categorized-fiction category of the Rings True contest, I both posted feedback on these two pages and sat down with the talented and generous Heidi Durrow, author of my favorite literary fiction debut of the last decade, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, to talk about what might happen next with this book. At the time, John was presenting the story as fiction; here’s what Heidi and I had to say about that.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, there was an even better reason to consider marketing this story as nonfiction: John happens to be a genuine expert on his subject matter. Take a gander at this truly impressive platform:

J.A. (John) Turley writes fun mysteries (winner, Colorado Gold, 2008). But in 2010, he turned to solving the serious mystery of the cause of the BP blowout. His writing platform is fueled by engineering degrees, Harvard Business School, a three-year petroleum-engineering professorship, and 25 years of applicable oil-and-gas-industry experience. His assessment of the blowout — documented in THE SIMPLE TRUTH — is therefore from multiple perspectives: academic, on-the-rig, petroleum engineering, drilling management, executive, and as a writer. Turley is a professional speaker on the topic.

See my point? While John’s direct personal and professional experience would — and I’m sure did — inform his earlier treatment of this story as fiction, he could — and does — also write about it as nonfiction. Choosing to revise the book into narrative nonfiction, then, made abundant sense.

I’m in the process of blandishing John into sharing the practicalities behind that shift in narrative voice and worldview in a future guest blog, so for now, I shall content myself with celebrating his achievement in pulling of that difficult writing trick. In the meantime, though, I would like to spend the rest of today’s post talking about the challenges of writing the real — and of marketing it to both agents and potential readers.

As we discussed last time, writing about reality can take quite a few forms — in descending order of popularity with aspiring writers, as everyday life interpreted on the pages of a novel, as memoir, and as narrative nonfiction. In any book category, it’s hard to pull off well.

You’d never know that, though, from how little we writers talk amongst ourselves about the often rather nebulous line between writing a truthful account of something that actually happened for inclusion in a fiction manuscript and writing about the same occurrence — or story, or characters — in memoir or narrative nonfiction. And that’s interesting because, let’s face it, most writers start out writing something at least tangentially based upon their own experiences.

In fact, until fairly recently, it was simply accepted that a first novel that was not explicitly aimed at an established genre audience must necessarily be autobiographical — if not in its entirety, than at least in inspiration. The reading public frequently had good reason to leap to that assumption, of course: for well over a century, publishers have promoted books, and authors have spoken about them in interviews, as based on the writers’ personal experiences.

If we hear anything to the contrary, it’s usually because the factual accuracy of such claims have been called into question: when specific scenes in James Frey’s memoir, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, were alleged to have been fictionalized, for instance, or some of the real-life inspirations for a few of David Sedaris’ personal essays (variously categorized as narrative nonfiction and humor) claim that things didn’t really shake out so hilariously in the moment.

Behind the scenes, of course, literary types often rolled their eyes over these often very literal-minded allegations. What did people think, that authors simply stood around and created transcripts of real life for publication? Was the possibility of an individual perspective’s creating a different narrative than what someone else might remember honestly that far-fetched? And if readers found, say, Jerzy Kosinski’s harrowing debut novel, THE PAINTED BIRD, more compelling if they thought every syllable was based upon a specific actual event, could you really say that they were harmed by that belief?

All excellent rhetorical questions, of course. That does not mean, however, that writers would not benefit from some serious discussion amongst ourselves of the genuinely knotty writing problem of how much literal truth belongs on the fiction page vs. the nonfiction page.

So where do our chats tend to focus instead? Precisely where the prevailing social expectations about truth in writing would lead us to predict they would. Memoirists and narrative nonfiction writers frequently worry that readers will not believe they are telling the truth on the page — or that others who also lived through the experiences in question will challenge their perspectives. Perfectly reasonable fears, of course: especially in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES environment, nonfiction writers — and publishers — have been lighting rods for lawsuit threats on both counts. The fact that few such cases ever seem to make it to court, or even to the suit-filing stage, though, might help set a few hearts at rest.

Novelists, on the other hand, often spend sleepless nights fretting that someone might think their fictional protagonists are — gasp! — themselves. Again, it’s not an unreasonable fear; fiction authors’ kith and kin are notorious for scanning first novels, searching for cameos. In my experience, those kith and kin tend to be rather more likely to become disgruntled if their beloved friend/relative/vague acquaintance doesn’t write about them than if she does, but still, the fear of being accused of holding a real person up to public ridicule — or, as the charge more commonly runs, of depicting an event on the fiction page in a manner contrary to the actual facts — is pervasive.

Interestingly, aspiring writers frequently don’t think at all about the other possibility: because readers often presume that first novels are autobiographical at some level, genuinely creative writing won’t receive the credit it deserves. Historically, female authors have been particularly susceptible to this charge — and to this marketing strategy. PEYTON PLACE author Grace Metalious shot to fame on the presumption that everything in her book was true, as did LITTLE WOMEN‘s Louisa May Alcott. Both spent the rest of their lives impatiently answering questions from people unclear on the concept of fiction based upon fact: to the literal-minded, apparently, a story is either 100% true or it isn’t.

But try telling that to Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, who spent the rest of her long life as a prolific novelist, short story writer, and encyclopedist dodging questions from eager readers and journalists demanding to know whether her husband or Lord Byron had actually brought a corpse back from the dead. FRANKENSTEIN was her first novel; it must have been fact-based, right?

And quick: name one of her other novels — or any of her genre-defining short stories, for that matter. Even those devoted to FRANKENSTEIN have often never heard of them. Makes one wonder whether the page space devoted to speculating about her kith and kin’s truck with the dead might have been more productively used, doesn’t it?

Heck, I’ve found myself on the receiving end of this presumption. I once spent a fruitless hour listening to an editor interested in a novel of mine tiptoe around asking me to revise a particularly painful scene in which my protagonist found her mother passed out in a hotel room next to a barely-clothed baritone and a plethora of prescription bottles. She did not want to hurt my feelings, she eventually admitted, in requesting I alter the facts of what obviously had been an extremely painful event for me to have lived.

Except, of course, I hadn’t lived through anything remotely like it. I like to think that it’s a compliment to my writing that the editor so firmly believed I had wrested a painful memory from the depths of my reluctant soul to share with the fiction-reading public, but on a practical level, it proved problematic that no amount of explanation could possibly convince her that I didn’t regularly cart passed-out relatives to the emergency room to have their respective stomachs pumped. The scene felt real, the editor reasoned, so it must really have happened to me.

My agent knew otherwise, of course, but all she did was giggle on her end of the three-way call. She’d seen this happen to too many of her novel-writing clients.

Which, frankly, tends to puzzle writers. To a fiction writer, the truth of a story runs on any number of levels, right? And, as we discussed last time, good memoir and narrative nonfiction alike must necessarily be selective in what aspects of real life they include in their narratives. In fiction and nonfiction alike, an indiscriminate collection of facts does not a compelling or readable storyline make. Part of the art of storytelling lies in deciding what to leave out — and what to leave fuzzy.

Nor, contrary to popular opinion, does a story’s being based upon real events necessarily render it more interesting to readers. Sometimes, it does, of course, particularly if the happenings and characters in question are public figures, or if the book exposes a fundamental misconception about a well-respected institution or practice.

Most first novels, however, aim for neither. In depicting the writer’s real life, these manuscripts are typically shooting for the depiction of subjective reality, not a blistering exposé of sociocultural norms. And while it is fact possible — indeed, likely — that writing about the people you know and/or the things that you did will irk at least one person already acquainted with you and/or those events, your garden-variety fiction reader will simply be reading it as a story.

Why, then, do so many aspiring writers talk about their work — and, more importantly for our ongoing conversation here at Author! Author!, present their work to agents — as though the most important thing to know about a novel is whether it is based on actual events? Or that a memoir is about a memoirist’s life? Or that in either case, the names of real people have been changed?

Seriously, agents see writers label their books this way all the time. Millicent the agency screener’s inbox is constantly barraged with queries containing assertions like this:

Although this novel is fiction, it is taken from something that actually happened to me in real life…

Or this:

Some might say that this could never happen, but THINLY-DISGUISED AUTOBIOGRAPHY is based on a true story, with the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Or this:

Ripped from the headlines, JUMPING ON THE BANDWAGON is a fictionalized account of a story that dominated the media for a month. Based upon accurate facts, this novel speculates upon what really happened.

Or, believe it or not, this:

This is a true memoir, depicting events as I lived them.

A pop quiz for those of you who recall last year’s Querypalooza: why might any of these statements lead to Millicent’s rolling her submission-reddened eyes — and possibly not reading the rest of the query?

Award yourself a gold star for the day if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “All novels are fiction, so that first statement is conceptually redundant!” You’re quite right, yellers: it’s quite unnecessary to inform an agent who handles fiction for a living that, by definition, a novel is fiction. Millicent may be trusted to be fully aware of this.

Even in the outrageously unlikely event that she were unfamiliar with the concept of a novel, though, what about learning that Example #1’s manuscript is taken from something that actually happened to {the writer} in real life would cause Millicent to regard the story with more favorable eyes? Is this a marketing suggestion, and if so, what group of established readers does this novelist will respond to the facts of the story?

That last is not a frivolous question, you know. If John had chosen to bring out THE SIMPLE TRUTH as fiction, he could legitimately have made the case that the high level of public and media interest (not the same thing, by the way, although the terms are often used interchangeably) would have piqued readers’ interest. Because the BP oil spill was a major news story for so long and remains a serious issue for a large portion of the country, it may well be why many readers first pick up the book.

That instant oh, I’ve heard about that! response won’t necessarily be evoked by a personal story, though, will it? I can easily imagine a well thought-out marketing campaign to reach potential readers who have lived through similar events, but in a slice-of-life novel, isn’t part of the point that the narrative focus is not on widely-advertised, society-wide phenomena, but upon the small, closely-observed details of actual life?

See the problem? If you’re writing a slice-of-life novel, anyone familiar with that kind of writing will expect it to involve those closely-observed details — and will not be astonished to learn that some or even all of them cropped up in your everyday life. So how precisely could informing Millicent of that overall definition of that type of writing cause your query to stand out from every other query for a slice-of-life narrative?

Hadn’t thought about it in those terms, had you, slice-o’-lifers? While you’re pondering the questions of original perspective and voice, let’s take another peek at our second example.

Some might say that this could never happen, but THINLY-DISGUISED AUTOBIOGRAPHY is based on a true story, with the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

Help yourself to a second gold star if you exclaimed, “Is there a particular reason that this querier feels the need to explain to our Millie what fictionalizing an account means? And how could it be remotely relevant to her decision to request manuscript pages that the writer changed the names?” At the querying stage, neither of these pieces of information will help a screener make a decision.

Do I sense some raised hands out there in the ether? “But Anne,” writers of autobiographical fiction everywhere cry, “in true-to-life fiction, the accuracy with which reality comes to life on the page has to be relevant! If I feel that my laser eye for exposing life’s seamy underbelly constitutes one of my book’s strengths, why shouldn’t I mention it in my query?”

An excellent question from the writer’s point of view, but less so from Millie’s. Plenty of perfectly wonderful fiction has exactly the quality you describe — including, I suspect, works by some of your favorite authors. That tends to be how literary fiction writers become drawn to writing literary fiction, right?

But isn’t your skill in this respect something best demonstrated by your manuscript, rather than through simply asserting it? As we have discussed before, screeners prefer to be shown writing quality — and are suspicious of being told about it. Why? Well, a Millicent toiling away at any established agency will see dozens of queries per day in which aspiring writers claim that their books are the best-written tomes since Madame de Sta?l first put pen to paper. In any given instance, that may well be true, but on the whole, the fine folks in agencies prefer to make up their own minds about that sort of thing.

Or, to put it as Millie would, don’t review your own book; you’re not the most credible reviewer. And if she’s not going to be impressed by self-review, why include it? Queries are, according to most writers compelled to compose them, maddeningly short on available page space, after all.

How might a savvy querier use that space instead? How about through a vividly-drawn description of the book’s premise? Or an intriguing introduction of its protagonist and central conflict?

I can hear some creative brains whirring out there. While they’re generating fresh ideas, let’s revisit Example #3.

Ripped from the headlines, JUMPING ON THE BANDWAGON is a fictionalized account of a story that dominated the media for a month. Based upon accurate facts, this novel speculates upon what really happened.

Again, I hope some of the conceptual problems leapt out at you — and if so, grab another gold star from petty cash. Since our eager querier mentions that the book is a novel, isn’t it redundant to explain that it’s fictionalized, or that there’s speculation involved? Aren’t facts by definition accurate? While we’re nit-picking, even if ripped from the headlines were not a clich? (but it is), if the story in question honestly did dominate the aforementioned headlines for so long, wouldn’t Millicent recognize it without the prompt?

Something else might well occur to a screener: if a story lingered in the headlines long enough ago for the querier to have written a novel about it, does its memory linger in the national consciousness enough to engender a reaction in the target reader? If that’s the case today, will it still provoke recognition a couple of years hence, when the book might realistically hit the shelves?

Think about it: assuming that Millicent asks for the manuscript today, the querier sends it tomorrow, and the novel rushes through the agency’s approval process with unusual haste, signing with the agent is going to take some time. So will the agent’s selling the book to the right editor. Even ruling out time to make any changes to the manuscript either the agent or acquiring editor might request, publishing houses’ print queues are often a year or two long.

So I ask again, headline-rippers: will the fact that your novel is based upon a well-known real-life incident from last year be the book’s strongest selling point in, say, 2016?

I’m not saying that it won’t, of course. But more often than not, first-time novelists’ expectations of how rapidly a book based upon current events are gleaned from how quickly nonfiction books reach the reading public — and nonfiction books by journalists to boot. Again, though, think about it: nonfiction books are sold on proposals, not full manuscripts, so a writer already an expert on the topic (like, say, our friend John happened to be about oil drilling) can leap on a news event, crank out a sample chapter and marketing material, and have the proposal in an agent or editor’s hands within a matter of weeks. A publisher already geared for the fast-paced current events market could reasonable expect a writer used to writing on tight deadlines to churn out the proposed manuscript within a matter of just a few months, and voil? ! The book appears on shelves while the headlines are still within recent memory. With e-books, the turn-around time would be even shorter.

Fiction simply does not move that fast through the production process, typically. Think years, not months.

That’s a realistic timeline for most personal memoir, too, by the way. Celebrity memoir frequently pops onto the shelves more rapidly, for the exceedingly simple reason that publishers are savvy enough to know that celebrity can be a fleeting thing. A intensely-described personal memoir written by a good writer who happens not to be famous yet, however, will not necessarily hit the shelves any faster than a fictional account of the same events.

And yes, I did put it that way on purpose. As an editor and writing teacher, I meet memoirists all the time who tell me that they were drawn to memoir because they would have to write less of the book before they could begin approaching agents. They have a story to tell, darn it, and want it in readers’ hands as soon as possible.

In real life, though, it does not always work out that way. I would urge you to consider, then: what else about writing your story as memoir appeals to you, other than the fact that you are writing about actual events? What about that type of narrative’s tightly-focused worldview will draw the reader into your story better than a fictional treatment?

I’m not trying to dissuade you; figuring out the answers to those questions will make it quite a bit easier to construct an engaging book proposal. Not to mention helping you sidestep one of the more common querying missteps for memoir:

This is a true memoir, depicting events as I lived them.

If you did not fall off your chair, moaning, “But all memoirs are true! And all memoirs deal with the life their authors lived,” well, I can only advise you to scroll up to the top of this post and reread it more carefully. True memoir, real-life memoir, and memoir based upon a true story are all notorious Millicent-irritants, because they are redundant phrases. Why waste precious page space telling her what she already knows?

Besides, if every memoir is both true and about its writer’s life, how could asserting either self-evident attribute help convince Millicent that your book is different and/or better than any other memoir she sees queried? Wouldn’t it make more sense to show her in a beautifully-written book description?

All of which brings me back to the burning question I posed earlier: why do so many writers of the real describe their books as though being based on actual events were not only their single most central attribute, but far and away their most vital selling point? My guess would be that for the writer, the truth of the story is its most important trait.

And that, my friends, is perfectly natural: from the writer’s perspective, nailing the truth of a scene could not possibly be more important, right? As I said, it’s awfully hard to write well about the real in a manner that will convey precisely what the writer sees, feels, touches, and otherwise experiences to the reader. It requires an intensity of reliving that few non-writers can even imagine — and a depth of personal honesty that few other endeavors in life require.

But if you don’t mind my saying so, what renders a piece of writing important, vital, or even good to the writer will not necessarily be what grabs a reader about it. Nowhere is that more true than in writing about the real. The truth, as they say, is not always simple.

I’m not suggesting any hard-and-fast solutions here; I’m merely bringing up some questions. Please give them some thought, reality-wranglers. Trust me, the better you know why you have chosen to tell your true story in a particular way, the easier time you will have discussing your manuscript with your future agent and editor.

And please let me know how these challenges have cropped up in your writing. I’m always interested in the real-life experiences of actual writers, after all. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXVIII: not so sorry I could not travel both

March 8th, 2012

Since I have been sneaking discussions of memoir craft and marketing — matters discussed thoughtfully online with astonishing rarity, for some reason — into our last few posts on querying, I would like to begin today with a commendation for reader Marc, who goes by the moniker Marc in MD on the Daily Kos. He’s been running a genuinely interesting and helpful series of posts there on the often frustrating and abstruse process of pulling together a nonfiction book proposal and sending it out to agents. In particular, I would strongly recommend his really good post on the process of figuring out what one’s book’s competition actually is to anyone even considering writing a proposal. Well done, Marc!

Speaking of memoir (again), I didn’t feel that I could close Queryfest’s examination of memoir querying without talking about a travel memoir. Travel memoir querying presents its own special joys challenges, does it not? On the bright side, it usually has a pretty well-defined story arc: the memoirist generally begins in an environment not too dissimilar from his target audience’s, travels to an environment quite dissimilar, then returns. Or doesn’t, as the mood and world events strike; there have been quite a few perfectly wonderful travel memoirs by writers who only returned to their native lands in book form. In any case, there’s a trajectory defined by Here, There, and how the protagonist was changed by the experience of moving between them.

That level of clarity about where to begin and end the book might well strike some non-travel memoirists as enviable. Not being sure what to include and what to glide past as summary is, after all, one of the fundamental dilemmas of the memoir trade. Few of us have been lucky enough to live lives featuring a self-evident story arc — or, thank goodness, unlucky enough to live ones in which every waking moment was stuffed to the gills with dramatic tension.

Let’s face it, just chronicling every event, meaningless and not, would be stultifying on the page. The art of memoir lies largely in selection, picking and choosing amongst the detritus of a life well lived to produce one heck of a story.

The travel memoirist must be selective as well, of course; the time she checked her luggage at J.F.K. is going to thrill readers considerably less, in all likelihood, than the incident in which she rescued that troupe of traveling acrobats from an angry mob of marauding squid. But the very fact of picking up and moving from one part of the globe to another automatically provides at least the rudiments of a dramatic structure.

Two roads may well have diverged in a yellow wood, but dag nab it, you didn’t travel both. You’re going to write about the one less traveled.

Yet at the querying stage, presenting that particular road’s appeal to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, can be awfully difficult. And all too often, your garden-variety travel memoirist does not even realize that he needs to make the case that a reader will want to follow him — as opposed to any other traveler — through that yellow wood at all.

Those of you who just felt a wave of nausea washing over you are not in fact seasick. You’re merely savvy enough about memoir marketing to realize that I’m about to bring up the dreaded matter of platform.

Platform, for those of you new to the term, is the array of experience, credentials, research, and/or celebrity status (however defined) that makes a writer uniquely qualified to write a particular nonfiction book — and, equally important, will make potential readers believe s/he is the best person in the known universe to write it. In nonfiction circles, great writing generally is not enough to sell a book to a publisher; a great platform is usually necessary as well.

Why bring this unpleasant concept up now, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to all of you memoirists (but if I don’t, who will?), but at querying time, what’s going to convince Millicent that her boss, the agent of your dreams, absolutely needs to take a gander at your book proposal is not merely how beautifully you describe the story arc of your memoir, but your platform for writing it.

I sense many of you clutching at your hearts, gasping for breath, but honestly, saying that a nonfiction writer requires a platform is not as limiting as you may think. Platforms come in all shapes and sizes. Someone who has actually climbed K2, for instance, would be inherently more credible writing about the ascent experience than someone who had not, but then, a professor who had devoted the last 15 years to the study of mountaineering could also write authoritatively about it, merely from a different perspective. Then, too, a baby born halfway up might have some interesting things to say about the mother who bore her in transit, as would the journalist whose beat included interviewing everyone who made the ascent. And there’s just no denying that the movie star clambering a third of the way up in order to research a role might well be able to sell a few books about crampons.

My point, should you care to know it, is that contrary to perennial rumors endemic to the writers’ conference circuit, one does not have to be a celebrity in the appearing-on-a-sitcom sense in order to have a convincing platform for writing a particular story. Although even the most cursory glance at the memoirs currently gracing the shelves of a well-stocked bookstore will tell you that having appeared on TV certainly helps.

So does winning an Oscar. Or a presidential election. I’m guessing, though, that those fortunate enough already to be household names (or unfortunate enough, depending upon one’s perspective) are not much given to trawling the Internet for querying advice.

Legions of travel memoirists have had their hands raised patiently since I first brought up platform, I notice. “But Anne,” you intrepid souls protest, and who could blame you? “I have the best conceivable platform for my story: I actually lived it. I took the trip in question, and I happen to be talented enough to write about it exceedingly well. Since that’s self-evident — I could hardly have written about the experience, at least as nonfiction, had I not experienced it — I don’t need to worry about presenting a platform in my query, right?”

Oh, how many memoirists fall into that trap! And with good reason: it’s hard to argue that dear self is not the world’s leading authority on one’s own life.

But that’s true of any memoirist, right? If simply being a true story written by the person who lived it were sufficient to assure Millicent’s attention, all a memoir querier would have to do would be to say, “Hey, this is my story.”

And, indeed, that is more or less what most memoir queriers do. The result tends to look a bit like this — and, as always, if you’re having trouble reading this or any query example, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

“Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who haven’t been working your way through Queryfest scoff. “The average memoir query isn’t that bad.”

Okay, you caught me: it isn’t. The spelling is usually far worse.

Seriously, you’d be astounded at how often Millicent sees memoir queries with no sign of any platform at all. It’s not precisely that these memoirists are expecting her to guess why a reader predisposed to pick up a true story might grab the book being queried, as opposed to any other, off the bookstore shelf — but honestly, they might as well. Because, as you can see, poor Millie is left to speculate. Can you really blame her for assuming — correctly or not — that if the query doesn’t mention a platform, the writer doesn’t have one?

I hear you gulp, memoirists, but lest we forget, just because something really happened does not necessarily mean it will make gripping reading. Let’s go ahead and coin an aphorism: For a memoir query to be successful, it must make evident not only the premise of the story being told, but also why the storyteller is credible — and why a reader would want to read her tale.

That should not come as a tremendous surprise, I hope, to the Queryfest faithful. As we already know, a nonfiction query needs to contain all of the following elements:

1. The book’s title.

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms. If the category does not make it apparent that the book is nonfiction, the query should say so.

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent.

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative’s.

5. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book.

6. (Optional, but still a good idea.) A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.

7. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

8. The writer’s contact information in all cases, and a SASE if querying by mail.

Poor IB’s query above, as you may see, does not deliver on a number of these points. The letter is devoid of a platform paragraph, as well as any indication of the target readership. Millicent is left equally in the dark about why IB chose to query her boss at all. Instead, IB throws away valuable query space in informing her — repeatedly — of something that she already knows: that a memoir is, by definition, the true story of something that happened to the writer.

Travel memoirists fall into this particular trap quite often, and for precisely the same reason IB did: they don’t think about the necessity of establishing a platform. Why bother? Just as it is tempting to believe that being the person who actually lived through the described experiences is a sufficient platform for any memoir, with a travel memoir, the justification tends to be I came, I saw, I wrote about it.

To Millicent’s eye, however, that’s only the beginning. She also wants to know what makes this travel experience worthy of an entire book, rather than, say, an article or two? And if a particular traveling experience can indeed carry a 300-page memoir — and many can — what renders this traveler more qualified to write about it than another?

Well might you shift uncomfortably, travel memoirists. These are pretty pointed questions, ones that many memoirists would prefer not to address. “Why, it was an interesting experience!” these fine souls cry indignantly. “And I’m a good writer. Why shouldn’t I write about it?”

Calm down, indignant travelers: no one is saying that you shouldn’t delve in to the highly competitive (especially since EAT, PRAY, LOVE) travel memoir market. But at the risk of repeating myself, the mere fact that a talented writer happened to take a specific trip does not necessarily a strong memoir make. Yes, it all depends on the writing, but as with any nonfiction book, quality of the writing is not the only factor an agent would have to consider in weighing whether she can sell a proposal. She also has to consider platform, the array of credentials, name recognition, and experience that renders an author a credible author for that particular book — and that the publishing house can legitimately use to make that case to potential readers.

Yes, for a travel memoir, the writer does in fact need to have the trip in question and write about it well. Those are necessary qualifications, but not sufficient — and that comes as a great surprise to most first-time memoirists, whether or not they are writing about travel. Even though they produce book proposals, like any other aspiring nonfiction writer, they tend not to think of themselves as what they are in the publishing industry’s eyes: writers applying for the job of writing a particular book.

For that reason, a platform paragraph is as indispensable in a memoir query as in any other nonfiction query. Unless Millicent knows what your platform is, how can she assess whether you are the best conceivable author for this particular story?

Still, I sense some skepticism floating around out there in the ether. “Okay, Anne,” a travel memoirist pipes up, “I can see where that makes sense for your run-of-the-mill memoir, or even one for a relatively mundane trip. But I traveled to an exotic place! I saw amazing things! And, fortunately for my memoir’s story arc, I also did some darned interesting things! Surely, in my case, the story’s appeal would be self-evident to Millicent.”

I wouldn’t bet on that, traveling man; in order to request your book proposal, she’s still going to have to make the case to your boss that she might be able to sell your story. That’s true, I’m afraid, no matter how inherently fascinating a first-person travel account may be.

But some of you are not going to believe that, I see, until I give you a concrete example. And why should you?

Please join me, then, in considering a query submitted by brave, intrepid, and resourceful Author! Author! reader Dorothy Gale. (Not her real name, of course.) Clearly, Dorothy has many of the most laudable characteristics of the successful travel memoirists: not only did she take a wildly interesting trip to a far-off land, do many interesting things when she got there, and write about it, she also was courageous enough to volunteer her query for our scrutiny. That’s an author that I’d follow anywhere.

She has even written what the overwhelming majority of travel memoirists would consider a superlative query. It’s well-written, makes the trip sound legitimately fascinating, and seems to be targeted to the right agent. Take a gander:

I could quibble a bit about formatting — the date and closing are pretty far from the actual center of the page, and there is only one space after the colon in the title, rather than the requisite two — but you must admit, this sounds like one heck of a trip. Good job, Dorothy!

But is that going to be enough to wow Millicent? To answer that question, let’s whip out our list of query requisites again.

1. The book’s title: check.

2. The book’s category: check.

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent: technically, yes, but the vagueness of because of your successful representation of books like… seems a trifle hesitant.

Also, does the repetitive structure of those first two sentences encourage Millicent to read on? Those of us who teach querying like to call this kind of phrasing a checklist opening: yes, all of the necessary elements are present, but they are introduced flatly, as if the writing style in a query didn’t matter.

It does matter, however, very much. Chant it with me, Queryfesters: every syllable of a query is a writing sample, just as much as every word of a submission is. Since agents can only judge writing talent by what’s in front of them, it’s reasonable to expect them to evaluate the query, as well as the synopsis and author bio, for writing quality.

Here, the checklist opening does not do justice to the writing in the rest of the query, let alone the book proposal or manuscript. Look how much stronger the query is if we vary the phrasing and remove the vagueness in that first paragraph — and, while we’re at it, correct those minor formatting quibbles.

More confident-sounding, isn’t it? I shan’t pretend, however, that reworking the wording didn’t require tightening the signature space considerably. Never fear; we shall address that down the line. In the meantime, let’s continue with our list of desirata.

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative’s: this is the query’s strength, and what a strength it is! This description is stuffed to the gills with one-of-a-kind details. I’m delighted to see that Dorothy has done such a bang-up job on the single most important section of her query. Good job, Dot!

Again, we have the necessary element in spades, but does this presentation make the most of the story? To someone who reads as quickly as Millicent, cramming the entire story into a single paragraph is likely to result in some details getting lost. And to what does that line about research refer?

See what a difference it makes to break it up a little. And, because I can’t resist, to punch up the punctuation and tighten the phrasing a bit.

The story jumps off the page now, doesn’t it? Yet still I sense you are not entirely satisfied, you picky folks.

“But Anne!” the sharp-eyed among you cry, and rightly so. “It’s longer than a page now!”

Yes, I know. Didn’t I tell you we would be attending to that once we’d made sure Dorothy’s query included all of the requisite elements? Speaking of which, let’s move on.

5. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book : not a sign of one, other than the obvious, the fact that Dorothy did the things she describes so well.

Again, is that enough? Possibly, but probably not. The case being made here should seem familiar by now: she came, she saw, she wrote about it. Or, as she puts it, because I lived in Nepal and speak fluent Nepali, I am able to bring this world alive from the inside out.

The reference to linguistic skills works well, but Millicent already knows that Dorothy lived in Nepal, doesn’t she? So is repeating it the best means of establishing her platform?

The thing is: I have no idea; it may be. As much as I would love to be able to whip up a convincing list of credentials for our Dorothy, I regret to say that I cannot: I don’t know what her platform is for this book. Her query did not tell me.

Sorry about that. I’m also sorry about the high probability that since Dorothy mentions no credentials, previous publications, or other platform elements, Millicent will simply assume that she doesn’t have any. Which I’m guessing isn’t actually the case here.

Again, though, I don’t know; the query does not provide the information I would need to make that assessment. While I could, for the sake of example, engage in some wildly irresponsible hypothesizing, that wouldn’t really help Dorothy improve her query, would it? Let’s proceed.

6. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does: Dorothy did quite a nice job of this, I think. She makes an excellent case that quite a few potential readers travel to Nepal — and, by implication, might conceivably want to read about it before they go. It is a trifle strange, though, that the statistic she uses is two years old; a more recent statistic would have served the query better.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that this was simply the most recent statistic available when Dorothy wrote her query; it’s not unusual for tourism statistics to take a year or two to come out. What do you think, though, of her contention that only people who have made similar trips will be interested in her story? Do you think that’s the case?

Personally, I would be astounded if that were true; in my professional opinion, she’s limiting her target audience unnecessarily. In my experience, world travelers are not the only people who read travel memoirs. Indeed, the armchair traveler tends to read about many places she never visits in the flesh.

Who else might read this book? Well, for starters, presumably, for every person in the English-speaking world who actually makes it to Nepal, there are five, fifty, or a thousand individuals that want to go but lack the resources, time, and/or gumption, right? And would it be trite of me to suggest that some fraction of the already-established readership for books like the aforementioned EAT, PRAY, LOVE might have some interest in picking up a memoir like this?

I leave that one to your good judgment. But if you’ll permit my nudging your thought processes a little, may I remind you that people in the publishing industry tend to think of target audience in terms of who has a history of buying what kind of book?

7. A brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project: again, the required information is here, but I have to say, the wording feels a trifle abrupt to me.

Why? Well, that bit about the proposal is stating something that Millicent actually will find self-evident. Naturally, Dorothy will send a proposal, if Hawkeye asks for it; Millicent would simply assume that she would not be querying unless she had a completed proposal in hand. So why take up valuable query page space mentioning it?

Especially when, as the eagle-eyed have already pointed out, space is at a premium now. Let’s see if considering our final necessity will show us a way out of that predicament.

8. The writer’s contact information: yes, it’s here, in all of its glory. If only we could fit it on the page!

Happily, there’s a trick to this. Look at how much page space is freed up by the simple expedient of moving the querier’s contact information into the header.

More than enough, as you may see, to tinker with the last couple of paragraphs. The overall effect is pretty compelling, isn’t it?

“Ah,” you will say, “but you have not freed up enough room to add a platform paragraph. What do you plan to do about that, Anne?”

Me? Not a thing: as I said before, I just don’t know enough about Dorothy’s background to whip up a convincing platform paragraph. It’s possible — although, again, I suspect it’s unlikely — that the single best plank in that platform is precisely what she thought it was: that she had lived there.

If so, I would be reluctant to tinker further with this query; Millicent may well be willing to wait until she reads the proposal to learn the ins and outs of Dorothy’s platform. But see how a relatively small number of changes maximizes the argumentative impact of the case she was already making?

If she did decide to add a platform paragraph — and I’m hoping you do, Dot — she could free up the requisite lines in a couple of ways. In a pinch, she could get away with only three skipped lines, rather than four, for the signature (although a classically-trained Millicent would prefer that she didn’t). She could also lose a line of empty space between the date and Hawkeye’s address; there’s some extra space here.

There’s a final expedient that would free up even more room. Any guesses?

I’ll do better than tell you the answer to that question; I shall show you. Heck, I’ll even make up a platform paragraph from whole cloth, just to show you it’s possible to shoehorn one into this letter. Watch me:

Oodles of room, isn’t there? I could even add a reference to EAT, PRAY, LOVE, if I so chose.

Notice, please, that only two of the credentials in the faux platform paragraph are publications — and those are online. They also happen to be credits that Dorothy could self-induce, if you catch my drift.

Hey, if anything is stopping her from starting a blog to begin to attract an audience for her memoir, I certainly don’t know about it. Ditto for any insurmountable impediment to her contacting bloggers and webmasters of sites devoted to travel and asking them if they would be willing to host a charmingly-written guest post.

In case I’m being too subtle here: not having a boatload of previous publications in one’s dock does not mean a writer is platform-free. Be creative, and remember, these days, many writers don’t get paid for their first publication. The goal is to get people to read your writing — and to let Millicent know that they have.

But maybe a list of publications isn’t the best platform for your book, anyway. There’s more than one way to storm a castle, right?

Please join me in thanking Dorothy for her generosity in sharing her query, and in wishing her the best of luck in both her querying and continued travels. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXVII: the ring of truth that helps Millicent separate the compelling factual storytelling from the bull (with apologies to Ernest Hemingway, but not to Mark Twain)

February 29th, 2012


We all know, because Mark Twain was kind enough to tell us, that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” It always comes as a shock to writers, however, that an anecdote can become someone else’s property before the person who lived it has had a chance to turn it into one heck of a story.

You would think that I would be used to it by now, wouldn’t you? Actually, blogging makes story-migration much more annoying. Since my usual excuse for not posting here as often as I would like — which is to say: as often as I did in the bad old days, when I occasionally posted as often as twice a day, as self-editing and marketing advice struck me; hey, there’s a reason that this site contains thousands of pages of posts — is not particularly exciting, I sometimes find myself longing for more thrilling justifications. It’s not that I actively yearn to be kidnapped by pirates, or drafted by the State Department to write a constitution for an emerging nation, or see my studio overrun by blue wildebeests intent upon retarding the forward course of American literature, of course; as a memoirist, I simply like to work with better material than hey, an editing client’s publishing house just asked for a last-minute revision.

And yet in the last week and a half, when life has kindly provided me with the stuff of gripping narrative nonfiction, I’ve been too bushed to take full literary advantage of it. When my chiropractor asked incredulously, “How precisely did you dislocate a rib while lying flat on your back by yourself?” the answer made him choke with laughter. He’s been dining out on the story for a week, and I still don’t have the requisite energy to do it justice in print.

As Uncle Mark also had the foresight to inform us, “the trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.”

Speaking of misplaced anecdotes, my friend Belinda has led a fascinating life, stuffed to the gills with the raw material of memoir. She’s climbed mountains (yes, because they were there, now that you mention it), run with the bulls in Pamplona disguised as a man (because they usually aren’t there), outrun riots in Southeast Asia (because the timing of her arrival was bad), observed meteor showers from the top of a tall tree in Canada (because the timing of her arrival was good), embraced lion cubs (because she knew the right keeper to be welcome), backed away from an angry grizzly (because she knew how to tell when she wasn’t welcome), cooked with M.F.K. Fisher (because she knew a thing or two about fresh truffles) and mistakenly ordered a mushroom omelette in the late 1960s in Thailand that made her hallucinate that the restaurant owner’s goat had grown to the size of Godzilla (okay, I haven’t the faintest idea what she was thinking here).

I’ve been trying for years to cajole her into writing a travel memoir, but every time we sit down to talk about it, I can’t help but notice that her anecdotes occasionally suffer from a rather serious narrative problem: it’s not always clear at first what they are about. Or even about whom.

It’s not that Belinda’s memories have become confused over the last ninety-one years. Far from it: her tales of going door to door on election days during the Great Depression, cajoling the lonely and the shut-in to visit local polling places to vote for her candidate of choice with vague promises of hitting the town afterward, are so vividly rendered that they border on the illustrated. (Hey, she was a big fan of F.D.R., even at 15.) Nor does she sketch the background or secondary characters too lightly, a standard autobiographical pitfall: all too often, memoirs fail to provide either enough of a sense of place for the reader to picture where the narrator is, or enough character development for anyone but the narrator.

As Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, there are an awful lot of memoirs out there apparently by authors wandering around uninhabited planets with no scenery to speak of. Or so she must surmise, from how little those memoirists seem to comment on anything or anyone around them.

That’s not necessarily a drawback in spoken storytelling, of course; many a good cocktail party yarn contains no character development or sense of place at all, but it’s often death to a memoir submission. Why? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers of this blog: what works in a verbal anecdote will not necessarily fly in a written memoir. Telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

Nor does Belinda over-rely upon pronouns, another common bugbear of anecdotalists. We’ve all found ourselves in the clutches of a storyteller who doesn’t specify, right? In a story with a lot of hes running around — say, on a street in Pamplona — it’s helpful if the hearer knows which one is which: They chased him down the street as he ran alongside, screaming, and they cheered from the windows above is not, let’s face it, particularly clear narration.

Yet as any Millicent screening memoir submissions on a regular basis can attest, that particular species of verbal confusion turns up on the memoir page all the time. Chant it along with me now, veteran readers: what doesn’t work in a verbal anecdote often will not work in a memoir, either. And why? Shout it out: because telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

Sensing a pattern here, or do I need to trot out another Mark Twain quote? Okay, if you insist: ““It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

So you would think that Belinda would have it made as a memoirist, wouldn’t you? Even better, perhaps because her storytelling style has been developed over decades of chatting with relative strangers, often in languages with which she was not altogether familiar, she steers clear of the ubiquitous tendency to assume that anyone who might be interested in her stories would necessarily side with her in a tale of conflict. Her villains are well drawn enough that her hearers do not need to be told whom to hate, and her heroes’ exploits speak for themselves.

Why might that be unusual in a memoir submission, you ask? Because, alas for literary achievement, most would-be memoirists are used to telling their life stories to their kith, kin, and folks they might happen to meet at a party — in other words, to folk predisposed to think well of them. (Oh, you’re hostile to fellow partygoers who tell anecdotes well?) As listeners, most of us lean on the kind side: if a storyteller entertains us, we will root for him as we listen.

Quoth Twain: “in all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.”

That’s why, I’m told, world-famous raconteur John Steinbeck used to change which character he was each time he told an anecdote: no matter who he said he was, that person was the hero of the current version. You might want to try it as a narrative exercise: not only is it good practice in perspective-shifting, but a canny way to suss out what story elements create more or less sympathy for a protagonist.

It also, rumor has it, allowed Uncle John to glean valuable feedback about which character he should pretend to be when he next told the story in front of a pretty woman. I’m sure ol’ Mark said a thing or two about that, but I prefer Anita Owen’s 1894 poem as a retort: “O dreamy eyes/they tell sweet lies of Paradise;/and in those eyes the love-light lies/and lies — and lies– and lies!”

Credibility, you see, is largely in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. We’ve all been swayed by a persuasive speaker. An audience’s tendency to side with the narrator does not necessarily manifest on the printed page, though, where the memoirist is conveying her story to total strangers — and not face to face. Readers are significantly less likely to give a memoir’s narrator the benefit of the doubt than hearers are, possibly because it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to roll one’s eyes and mutter, “Yeah, right,” while one’s boss is telling a story in a bar after work than over a book in one’s lap.

That’s vital to recognize, if one wants to write memoir well. In fact, let’s go ahead and add it to the day’s list of aphorisms: on the page, readers expect a narrator to win their empathy, not assume it. Which, again, is another way in which telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

I hate to depress you further, but truth compels me to say that Millicent is even less likely to jump on the narrator’s bandwagon. She is paid not to cut a memoir query or submission any slack.

Why bring that up in a series on querying — or, for that matter, within the context of the discussion of memoir voice and story structure I seem to have been sneaking into the last half-dozen posts? Because so few memoir queries’ book description paragraphs convey the impression that the querier is a particularly talented storyteller.

A shame, really, as plenty of extremely talented storytellers’ queries get rejected on this basis. There’s a reason for that: the overwhelming majority of memoirists tell their tales on the page — both query and manuscript — as though the reader already knows them personally, and thus is predisposed to like them and their stories. On the manuscript page, that’s just not true. So from Millicent’s perspective, memoir openings that neither grab the reader from line 1 nor convince the reader to start liking the narrator and his writing style enough to root for him by the bottom of page 1 to want to follow him through three or four hundred pages are ample reason to reject most of the submissions she sees.

Unfortunately, that’s not how memoirists tend to think of their stories. You know the tune by now: because telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

Because Belinda’s storytelling style steers clear of all of these common memoir shortcomings, I think her life story would translate well to the page. My one qualm about what she might import from conversation: her anecdotes frequently suffer from the assumption that the hearer will have begun following the story at some point prior to when the words began coming out of her mouth. Presumably via some sort of telepathy.

It’s not that her stories are unclear; she merely does not always begin them at the beginning. Quite frequently, she will start somewhere in the middle, as the first part of the tale had already to been going strong in her own mind. Or even somewhere near the end: “And so I said to Henry Miller,” she suddenly said the other day, “if he wanted to write about what had just happened, he would have to arm-wrestle me for it.”

Admittedly, that’s a pretty great teaser, but aren’t you just the least bit curious to what this intriguing conclusion refers? Millicent would be, but being forced to judge a memoir only by what’s on the page in front of her, she would have no way of finding out. Memoirists are all too prone to forget, unfortunately, that the reader cannot tug upon the author’s sleeve and pipe, “Hey, Ambrose, what were you talking about here?”

“Get your facts first,” Uncle Mark tells us, “then you can distort them as you please.”

As I was actually in the room with Belinda, I enjoyed a luxury Millicent does not: the ability to ask follow-up questions. If only my rib permitted my conveying the rest of the anecdote — or if I shared my chiropractor’s willingness to abscond with other people’s stories — you’d be rolling in the proverbial aisles.

But the inherent humor of the story simply wouldn’t matter if Belinda made the same mistake in telling it on the page as she did out loud — which Millicent sees all the time, incidentally. Steam-of-consciousness reasoning abounds in memoir submissions, synopses, and even, believe it or not, queries. Yet no matter how amusing, instructive, or entertaining a story might be in the teller’s mind, if its facts are not clear on the page, it’s not good memoir storytelling.

Or at any rate, not a narrative style that’s ready for publication. Clarity is, after all, the minimum requirement for professional prose, not an optional extra.

Do my finely-tuned antennae pick up some ambient disgruntlement? “I get why Millie might regard hard-to-follow storytelling as a red flag in a submission,” memoirists everywhere concede, “but I don’t get how she could reasonably use it as a criterion in judging a query. As you have pointed out several times in the course of this series, the book description paragraph in a query should not tell the entire story of the book, merely introduce Millicent to its premise. So as long as my memoir query presents me as an interesting person in an interesting situation…”

Pardon my interrupting, disgruntled disembodied voices, but an astoundingly high percentage of memoirists who are in fact interesting people faced with interesting conflicts do not present themselves that way in their queries. All too often, talented autobiographers talk about their stories, rather than using their perhaps formidable storytelling skills to spin their legitimately fascinating yarns. The result, alas, tends to read something like this:

Pardon Millicent’s asking, but what the heck is this book about? It sounds exciting, whatever it is, but why not give some general indication of the story’s central conflict, where it takes place, and who the narrator is? Hey, while you’re at it, Montecristo, why make a secret of the book’s title? And why oh why is it printed on such funky-sized paper?

While we’re asking rhetorical questions, forgive my bringing it up, but is this story fiction or nonfiction?

Oh, you laugh, but you would not believe how often memoir- and fiction-representing agents alike receive queries that leave them guessing on that last point. They even more frequently see queries that make them guess who the narrator is, what her story is about, and/or why memoir readers would be interested in learning about it.

None of these things are foregone conclusions for a memoir — but that’s not what a writer of the real tends to think about when sitting down to write, is it? Implicitly, almost all of us (yes, I started here, too) conceive of our memoir narratives with an eye to how those who already know us — and, by extension, at least the bare bones of our stories — will react to our telling the truth about it.

Often, there’s a good reason for that: if Aunt Madge ordered you at age 8 not to tell anyone about the exploding peach preserve debacle, it’s safe to assume that she might become slightly irritated when you reveal it to an admiring public when you are 47. It’s not safe to assume, however, that Millicent, her boss, or the editor to whom your future agent will be shopping your memoir proposal will be just fine with your being vague about what happened because you don’t want to offend good ol’ Madge.

Nor, alas, should a savvy querier presume that the fact a story really happened will render it inherently interesting to total strangers. If you want to provoke eye-rolling and moaning in a Millicent that works at a nonfiction agency, by all means, include one of the following phrases in your memoir query: true story, really happened, real-life tale, my own story.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (but better you hear it from me than not know why your query got rejected, right?), but in a memoir query, all of these phrases are redundant. Of course, a memoir is a true story, based upon something that really happened to the author: that’s the definition of memoir, is it not?

Trust the Millicent opening your query to be aware of that. But — I feel an aphorism coming on — don’t presume that the fact you lived your own life story will be enough to interest agents and editors in your book.

At least not all by itself. As anyone who works with memoirs for a living could tell you, just because something really happened does not necessarily mean it will make a good book. As the agents who represent memoir like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

I sense the agent-seeking memoirists out there shifting uncomfortably in their desk chairs. “But Anne!” you protest, and with what excellent justification! “I would love to toss my manuscript, or even just the sample chapter from my book proposal, at Millicent, so she could judge my book by, well, my book. But the agent of my dreams’ submission guidelines specify that I should query without any supporting materials. That means, horrifyingly, that I have only that 1-page query letter to convince her that I’ve got a great story on my hands and that I can write it well. Help!”

I appreciate your panic, chair-shifters. Happily for us all, it is indeed possible for a good storyteller to convey enough of a memoir’s story arc in a paragraph (or, at most, two) to grab our Millicent. The trick lies in conveying the premise vividly enough to make it apparent what is happening, who the memoirist is in the story, and what is at stake in the conflict.

Does the clang of a thousand jaws hitting a thousand desktops mean that some of you wish you’d known that was the goal before you first wrote a query for your memoir? If so, you’re not alone; as Twain tells us, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

Fortunately, today’s brave reader-exemplar did see the opportunity to present Millicent with one heck of a premise — and make it clear why readers will find it both original and compelling. And I, for one, could not be more tickled to see her pull off this difficult challenge, as I (and regular readers of this blog) already know from past exposure to this writer’s work that the memoirist in question can write.

So join me please, in appreciating long-time Author! Author! community member and generous volunteer Betsy Ross’ (not her real name, of course, nor her real contact info) missive to Millicent. As always, if you find you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

Doesn’t leave much doubt as to what the book is about, does it? That descriptive paragraph makes it abundantly clear what happened, who the author was in the story, and what was at stake for her. Even more unusual, she has, unlike most memoirists, taken the time to figure out what her platform for telling this story is over and above having lived it! Beautifully done, Betsy!

But are that genuine grabber of a description and the platform as presented enough to wow Millicent? Possibly — yet I think we can improve the odds a bit. First, let’s make a few cosmetic changes, to polish away a few eye-distracters. Compare the touched-up version with the original: can you spot the subtle differences?

Comes across as a trifle more professional already, does it not? Yet the changes I made were quite minor: I moved Betsy’s contact information into the header (it had been on the first line of text), added a necessary comma in paragraph 2, line 1, made paragraph 2, line 4 conform with a grammatical expectation, and added a hyphen to e-mail in paragraph 4, line 2. All tiny stuff, but the result is closer to what Millicent will expect.

For the same reason, I changed trial to case in paragraph 2, line 5. I haven’t read the memoir, so I don’t know if the trial lasted 17 years, but as a matter of storytelling, the original word choice raised that question.

Is it me, though, or is the transition between the descriptive paragraph and the platform paragraph a bit more abrupt than it needs to be? And are those thoughtfully-constructed credentials presented in the most effective manner?

Again, I think we can make some improvements. Although I’m flattered that Betsy would present her abundantly justified win in an Author! Author! competition as her primary credential, for this story, it’s not.

How do I know that? Because she has buried a humdinger of a credential later in that paragraph. She’s also cast unnecessary doubt upon her delightfully apt professional credential by saying that she is trained to do her job. Isn’t that assumed? And isn’t the assertion that she can be reached via her listed contact information self-evident?

Doesn’t, in short, something about the wording and presentation of these perfectly fine credentials imply that Betsy is not as sure of her platform as she should be?

Look how much more persuasive this query can be if we alter the running order of the platform paragraph and phrase her credentials a bit more assertively. In order to heighten Millicent’s sense of Betsy’s professionalism, I’ve also changed the rather confusing second magazine name to the way it would turn up in a Google search and removed that logically unnecessary sentence in the last paragraph. I also seem to have tightened the wording in the descriptive paragraph a little; I’ve never been able to resist adding the Oxford comma.

Her platform seems better-grounded this way, doesn’t it? Yet it’s all the same facts; they are merely set forth in a manner that aligns more closely with how Millicent is accustomed to seeing such good credentials show up in a query. They’re also, to be blunt about it, harder for a skimming eye to miss.

If I were most querying teachers, I would leave it at that: this query is likely to fly with many Millicents now. Yet to an experienced Millicent or her boss, Betsy’s query still might raise eyebrows in two respects. Any guesses why?

No? Would it help if I quoted Twain again? “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”

Okay, so that clue was a trifle opaque. I’m going to go ahead and remove the first of the red flags. Compare this version with the last, and we’ll meet again on the other side to discuss why Millicent will like it better.

Did you catch it? This is one of those secret-handshake things, I’m afraid: to a professional reader, statements like my book will not only answer the initial question, but will also detail… would seem a trifle heavy-handed in a book description. They distance the reader from the tale, decreasing its impact. It’s also, let’s face it, perfectly obvious in a query that the description is talking about what’s in the book.

Instead, why not just tell the story directly? It provides a much better opportunity for Betsy to show off what a talented storyteller she is — in a query that, frankly, has enough space left on the page to add a few more specifics. I just mention.

There’s another red flag here, though, that might actually discourage some Millicents from reading as far as that compelling descriptive paragraph. Want a hint? We turn again to Twain: ““All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Giving up so soon? I can’t say as I blame you; this one is purely a matter of how the publishing industry thinks of books. Take a gander at a more Millicent-friendly target audience statement.

Goosebump-inducing this time around, isn’t it? That’s true for a couple of reasons. First, the appeal of the book is shown this time around, rather than told: by immediately leaping into the ultra-personal perspective appropriate for a memoir, that opening paragraph makes the stakes absolutely clear — and startling.

Let’s face it, it would be hard to be that surprising in the distant, analytical voice of the original target audience description. Betsy’s probably right about to whom this book is likely to appeal, but leaping straight to the conflict is just better storytelling. Especially since it allows both the first and second paragraphs to shout at Millicent: “This is a story you’re not going to hear anywhere else!”

Better than just telling the old girl that Betsy’s uniquely qualified to share this story, isn’t it? Not to mention more emotionally powerful.

For Millicent, though, there’s another reason this last version would be more convincing: true crime and memoir are quite different book categories, appealing to overlapping yet not overall very similar readerships. Again, Betsy is probably correct that her book would draw upon both of those audiences, but by stating it so baldly — and so early in the query — she’s inviting Millicent to leap to the conclusion that this is a writer that doesn’t understand how book categories work. At minimum, that’s going to water down the impact of Betsy’s MBA, from a publishing perspective.

As, you guessed it, Mark Twain observed, “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.” That’s also true of memoir. What makes a story unique, in the proper sense of being one of a kind, is the memoirist’s perspective.

In Betsy’s case, that perspective is genuinely jaw-dropping. So why shouldn’t she make Millicent’s jaw drop as soon as she possibly can? And why shouldn’t she bring all of her storytelling talents to the task, drawing her future agent right away into that 13-year-old’s fragmented world?

Life is crammed to the gills with the unexpected, my friends: ribs don’t just leap out of their natural habitats by themselves. But as the agents like to say, it all depends on the writing. The miracle of talent, not just the content of the story, provides the difference between a second-hand anecdote about it and a memoir so vivid that the reader feels the she is the one whose rib has been displaced.

I have a feeling that readers are going to be reaping the benefits of that particular miracle in Betsy’s case. Many thanks to her for volunteering this quite strong query, so we could experiment with making its strengths shine still brighter. Best of luck finding the right agent for this startling story, Ms. Ross, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXII: if it be the winter of Millicent’s discontent, can spring be far behind?

January 15th, 2012

Before I fling all of us headlong into yet another examination of what strategies do and do not work well on the query page — that’s why you tuned in tonight, right? — I’d like to take a moment to reiterate some advice I gave all of you eager New Year’s resolution queriers a couple of weeks back. Or, at least that hefty chunk of the January querying community that either lives in the United States, is planning to approach literary agents based in the United States, or both: no matter how tempting it may be to send out a query via e-mail over this long Martin Luther King, Jr., Day weekend, please, I implore you, resist the temptation.

“And why should I even consider taking that advice?” those of you joining us mid-Queryfest demand. “At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I have more spare time in the course of a three-day weekend than during the normal two-day kind. Why shouldn’t I hit SEND while I have the leisure to do it?”

Already, a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. I love how closely my readers pay attention. Go ahead and help me fill ‘em in, Queryfest faithful: just as our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, is predictably greeted by many, many more queries on any given day in January, as opposed to any other month of the year, she also finds her inbox stuffed with more e-queries than usual on Mondays than any other weekday, for precisely the reason the newcomers just cited — aspiring writers tend to have more time to send them over the weekend. As a direct result, not only does she typically have more work on Mondays. And as she, like so many people bent upon enjoying their weekends, is often a mite grumpier that day as well.

With what result? Chant it with me, Queryfesters: the rejection rate tends to be higher on Monday mornings than, say, Thursday afternoons. Our Millie simply has a taller stack of queries to work through, without any extra time in which to do it. Fortunately for her sanity, while it’s pretty difficult to compress the amount of time it takes her to process a paper query — about 30 seconds, on average, or less if the querier is helpful enough to insult her intelligence with a hard-selling statement like you’ll be sorry if you pass this one up! or this is the next DA VINCI CODE! — it is spectacularly easy to render the consideration and rejection of an e-mailed query a matter of just a few seconds. Especially now that so many agencies have adopted the to-a-writer’s-eye appallingly rude practice of simply not responding to a query if the answer is no.

Not sure how to speed up the consideration process? Okay, I ask you: how much time would it take you to twitch the finger nearest the DELETE key in its general direction? And how much more likely would you be to do it on a morning when your bleary eyes fell upon 722 queries in your inbox than the happy day when it contained only 314?

So, at the risk of repeating myself, I ask you: do you honestly want your query to land on her computer screen on a Monday morning?

Sad to say, though, it could arrive at a worse time: the Tuesday following a three-day weekend. Due to the aforementioned tension between aspiring writers’ free time and the rhythm of her work week, we may also confidently predict that she will be inundated with still more e-queries then than she would on an ordinary Monday, right? Just after Labor Day, for instance, or Memorial Day, it requires very little imagination to picture just how itchy her fingertips are going to be for that DELETE key.

It thus follows as night the day, then, that when a three-day weekend happens to fall in January, the dreaded month when a good half of the aspiring writers in North America who intend to query this year will be hitting the SEND key if they are going to take the plunge at all, Millicent’s e-mail coffers and mail bag will be as full as she is ever likely to see them. Need I devote more screen space to the predictable effect upon the rejection rate the following Tuesday?

I’m guessing not, with a group as savvy as this. Hint, hint, wink, wink, say no more, as the immortal Eric Idle used to say.

Speaking of Millicent’s a.m. stress levels, mine hit a peak this morning, triggered by the gentle snowfall pictured above. Not that I am anti-snow in general; indeed, I typically find the first — and sometimes only — snow of the year quite exciting. It snowed a grand total of thrice in the Napa Valley in the course of my childhood; it was something of an event. I didn’t actually see large quantities wafting down from a grumpy sky until my junior year of high school, in the course of an ill-fated let’s-show-the-kids-how-Congress-works field trip during which I got pushed sideways over a chair because I was the only student participant who believed Social Security was worth saving. (Hey, it was the 80s. And my sprained ankle is fine now, thanks.)

So I was darned excited to look up from my desk this morning to see great, big white flakes hurtling at my window. I can only plead the fact that I happened to be editing a manuscript at the time as an excuse for what happened next.

My SO came tripping into my studio, bearing a hot cup of tea. “Have you looked outside? It’s a winter wonderland!”

“I should think it would be obvious,” I said, gratefully accepting the mug, “from the fact that I am sitting right next to a window that I might have observed the snow. And couldn’t you manage to come up with a less hackneyed way to describe it than winter wonderland?”

And that, dear friends, is what reading even quite good manuscripts for a living will do to an otherwise charming person’s manners: I am certainly not the only professional reader who automatically revises everyday speech in an attempt to raise its literary value. Imagine how much touchier I would be if I had Millicent’s job on a Monday morning.

Had I mentioned that you might want to think twice about hitting that SEND button this weekend? Wouldn’t your time be better spent building a snowman?

To be fair to both Millicent and myself, stock phrases, clichés, and stereotypes do abound in your garden-variety query, synopsis, and manuscript submission. So common are they that one might well conclude that there’s an exceptionally industrious writing teacher out there, working day and night to inculcate the pernicious notion that the highest goal of literary endeavor consists in stuffing narrative prose to the gills with the most repetitive, prosaic elements of everyday speech.

In a sense, that is sometimes the case: as many, many writers can attest, the continental U.S. has not suffered in the past half-century from a shortage of English teachers bent upon convincing their students that good writing should flow as easily as natural speech. The most visible results of this endeavor have been, as we have discussed before, a superabundance of chatty first-person narrators given to telling, rather than showing, the stories through which they lead their readers, a general disregard of subject/object agreement (presumably because the proper everyone and his Uncle George contracted rabies strikes the ear less gracefully than the pervasive but incorrect everyone and their Uncle George contracted rabies), and, most irritating of all to the professional reader corps, texts peppered with the kind of catchphrases and polite phrases that show up in conversation.

Why is that last one problematic? Well, think about it: by definition, the stock responses to common stimuli (pleased to meet you, have a nice day, I’m so sorry for your loss), standard phrases exchanged in mundane interactions (sign right here, have a nice day, may I help you?), and mere polite murmurings (after you, excuse me, you’re welcome) are generic; their strength — and their social safety — lies in the very fact that people spout these statements all the time. As such, they do not have personal content: although Madge may genuinely mean it when she tells Bernice to have a nice day, chances are that when she said precisely the same thing to Herbert, Bruce, Ambrose, and Melchior over the course of the following two hours, she did not utter it with the same intent. It’s just something people say.

We’re all aware of that conversationally, right? So why does it frequently come as a surprise to aspiring writers that because such phrases are so very common, they lack the power either to convey characterization, illuminate relationships, or add complexity to an interaction?

Not sure why? Okay, let’s assume that Madge’s co-worker, the otherwise estimable Ima, decides to immortalize their workplace’s everyday speech on the novel or memoir page. Eager to depict darling Madge as the courteous, considerate lady that she is, conscientious Ima makes darned sure to include each and every stranger-charming statement. Unfortunately, the result is not particularly likely to charm a reader, much less one as page-weary as Millicent. Take a gander at a not-atypical opening scene:

“Excuse me.” The tall, handsome stranger handed her his paperwork almost apologetically. “I was told to fill out these forms and bring them to this window.”

“Hello.” Deliberately, Madge finished reorganizing the paper clips in their magnetic holder before glancing at the stack. “How are you this fine Monday morning?”

“Oh, fine. Is this the right window for these?”

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

He covered his watch with his sleeve. “Oh, yes. We’ve been swamped.”

“Well, it’s always like that after a holiday.” She stamped the top three forms. “We’ve been swamped, too. Did you have a nice long weekend?”

“Yes. You?”

“It was fine. Didn’t they give you a B/49-J form?”

“Oh, yes, it’s right here. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“I’m doing my best, sir. May I see some I.D., please?”

“Okay.” Clearly, the man was accustomed to his smile’s having greater effect on functionaries. He could have posed for a toothpaste ad. “Here it is.”

“Thanks. Just a moment.” She tapped on her computer, frowning. “We don’t seem to have any record of your existence, Mr. Swain.”

“What do you mean?”

She caught just a glimpse of the tentacle wiping the perspiration from his brow. “I’m sure there’s just been a mix-up in the database. You just hang on for a moment, and I’m sure we can get this cleared up in a jiffy.”

Pretty stultifying until that last bit, wasn’t it? Even less excusable from Millicent’s perspective, the narrative didn’t give the slightest indication until that last paragraph that this is the opening for a fantasy. While this sort of bait-and-switch between the ordinary and the unexpected is a classic short story plotting strategy — not to mention the dominant storytelling technique of the old Twilight Zone series, which continues to influence fantasy writers to this day — the speed with which the sheer volume of submissions forces Millicent to read renders the mundanity of this dialogue dangerous. She would have to read all the way to the end of this exchange to see that it’s not just the 274th exchange echoing everyday speech that she’s read this week.

Lest anyone be tempted to dismiss her tendency to lump this interaction with all the others (including issuing the same cry of, “Next!”), note, please, just how little those polite, ordinary speeches reveal about either of the characters shown or the situation. This dialogue could take place in any customer service environment: in a bank, at the DMV, at the teleport terminal between Earth and the planet Targ. Because these statements are generic, they can’t possibly tell the reader anything specific. And while the writer and his writing group might well find that keep-‘em-guessing ambiguity hilarious, Millicent’s simply seen it too often to play along for very many lines.

Does the chorus of martyred sighs out there indicate that some of you Queryfesters are tiring of playing along as well? “Okay, I get it, Anne,” those of you impatient to get queries out the door moan, “dialogue on the page needs to be something better than just a transcript of everyday speech. Lesson learned. But why in the name of the seven purple moons of Targ did you decide to stop dead in the middle of a series on querying to tell us about this Millicent-irritant now?”

An excellent question, impatient moaners, and one that richly deserves a direct answer. Try this one on for size: since Millicent, like most professional readers, has an extremely low cliché tolerance, it’s poor strategy to include even one stock phrase in a query letter.

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed (the mind acoustics are phenomenal here on Targ), she sees cliché-filled queries all the time. See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having difficulties reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + several times to enlarge the image.

Oh, you thought I was going to use a real reader’s query to illustrate this particular faux pas? That would have been a bit on the cruel side, wouldn’t it? Besides, given a readership as savvy, fascinating, and creative-minded as this one, where could I possibly have found a query as cliché-ridden as this one?

Actually, although it pains me to say it, about a quarter of the volunteer queriers submitted letters containing one or more of Ima’s hackneyed phrases; although our fictional exemplar here is inordinately fond of them, you’d be astonished at how many real queries contain roughly this ratio of stock phrase to original writing. Odd, isn’t it, considering that as every syllable an aspiring writer sends an agency is a writing sample (you hadn’t been thinking of your query in those terms, had you?), that so many queriers would rush to make themselves sound exactly like everyone else?

Incidentally, about one in six of the queries I received from would-be volunteers also replicated a particular phrase in Ima’s letter — and that surprised me, because this all-too-common statement contains two elements that I frequently and vehemently urge Author! Author! readers not to include in their queries at all. Did you catch it?

No? Would it help if I mentioned that at most agencies, one of the deadly elements would render this query self-rejecting?

If your hand shot into the air at that last hint because you wanted to shout, “I know! I know! It’s because Ima said in the first paragraph that every reader currently walking the planet Earth — if not the planet Targ — would be interested in this book! From Millicent’s perspective, that’s a completely absurd claim, as no book appeals to every reader,” give yourself a pat on the back, but not a gold star. Yes, this particular (and mysteriously popular) assertion does tend to irritate most Millicents (especially on the Tuesday after a long weekend, when she will see many iterations of it), but it’s not always an instant-rejection offense.

No, were that boast the only faux pas here, Millicent probably would have kept reading until after the third or fourth unoriginal phrase. I seriously doubt, though, whether she would have made it past Ima’s first sentence. Any guesses why?

If your eye immediately pounced upon the phrase complete at 137,000 words, feel free to ransack the gold star cabinet. Why is this phrase — lifted directly from some maddeningly pervasive template floating around out there on the Internet, I gather — a rejection-trigger? It’s not, believe it or not, the fact that so many aspiring writers have been shoehorning it into their queries in recent years that it has effectively become a cliché, as far as Millicent is concerned. The real problem with it that it effectively bellows at Millicent, “Hey, lady — this querier does not know thing one about how books are sold in the U.S.”

An unfairly sweeping conclusion? Perhaps, but let’s don Millicent’s glasses and whip out her text-dissecting scalpel to figure out why she might leap at it. In the first place, this statement includes unnecessary information. If the book being queried is fiction, people in agencies will assume that the manuscript is complete, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible for a first-time, non-celebrity writer to sell an incomplete first novel. Fiction is sold on a completed manuscript, period.

Nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a full manuscript, so were Ima’s book a memoir, including the information mentioning that the manuscript is complete would not necessarily be a selling point, either. The only exception: the relatively rare nonfiction-representing agency that states point-blank in its submission requirements that it will consider a first memoir only if the writer has already completed a draft of it.

Why might they harbor that preference? Ask any memoirist: writing truthfully and insightfully about one’s own life is hard, doubly so if the life in question has been at all traumatic. The brain and the body often doesn’t make a huge distinction between living through something difficult and reliving it vividly enough to write about it explicitly and well. It’s not at all unusual for even an exceptionally talented writer to become heavily depressed, or even physically ill, in the course of fulfilling a contract for a memoir.

Since most of pulling together a proposal involves writing about the book’s subject matter, rather than writing the story from within — telling what happened, as opposed to showing it clearly enough that the reader feels as though she’s walking around in the narrator’s skin — many first-time memoirists worry, and rightly, that they might not have the emotional fortitude to finish the book. Others are stunned to discover that after months or years of effort aimed at landing an agent and selling the book concept to a publisher, they simply cannot bring themselves to complete it. Or, if they do, they balk at exposing their innermost secrets to the world.

There’s absolutely no shame in any of that — second thoughts are natural in this instance. However, an agent who has seen a pet project cancelled at the last minute because a client could not finish the book he was contracted to deliver might well become wary about running into the same problem in future. So while agencies that handle a lot of memoir tend to get inured to this sort of disappointment, it’s not at all unheard-of for a newly-burned agent or agency to establish a full manuscript-only policy.

Most of the time, though, that’s not the expectation; publishers buy memoirs all the time based solely upon a proposal packet and a single chapter. But they don’t, as a rule, buy incomplete fiction.

So when Ima makes a point of saying in her query — and right off the bat, too — that her manuscript is complete, probably merely because she saw an example online that used that phrase, she is effectively making a virtue of having lived up to the publishing industry’s minimum expectation of fiction writers. To Millicent’s mind, that’s just not something anyone familiar with how fiction is actually sold in this country would do.

But as much as most agents prefer to take on new clients who have done their homework about how publishing does and does not work, professional naïveté all by itself is seldom considered an instant-rejection offense. That unusually high word count, however, often is. In fact, many Millicents are explicitly trained to reject a query that mentions the manuscript it is promoting exceeds 100,000 words.

Why draw the line there? Cost, mostly. Although the average manuscript shrinks in length by about 2/3rds in the transition to print, it’s just far more expensive to print a long book than a shorter one. Since the publication costs rise astronomically at about 125,000 words — different binding is necessary, and trade paper binding is more problematic — and it’s so common for first-time authors to be asked to revise their books and add pages prior to publication, they like to leave themselves some wiggle room.

So pervasive is the prejudice against first books over 100,000 words (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman) that it’s not unheard-of for agents to tell clients with books pushing the upper limit simply to leave the word count off the title page. (If you were not aware that the word count is typically included on a professional title page, or that a title page is necessary for a manuscript, run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right.)

Did some of you do a double-take at the 100,000 words = 400 pages equation? “But Anne,” Ima cries, justifiably upset, “my manuscript is nowhere near 400 pages. But it is about 137,000 words. What gives?”

I’m guessing that you have been using actual word count, Ima, not estimated. For short stories and articles, it’s appropriate to report what Word says your word count is, but for books, that’s not historically how it has been figured. And unfortunately for your query, Millicent will just assume that any word count that ends in a zero is an estimate.

Actually, she’s likely to leap to that conclusion, anyway, because that’s how word count for books has historically been figured: 250 x # of pages for Times New Roman, 200 x # of pages for Courier. Yes, yes, I know, Ima: the resultant figure will bear almost no resemblance to the actual word count. That’s fine — expected, even.

But that expectation does carry some pretty heavy implications for using the stock phrase complete at X words, necessarily. Specifically, when Millicent spots your query’s assertion that your manuscript is 137,000 words, she — and a potential acquiring editor — will just assume that your novel is 548 pages long. (137,000 divided by 250.) And that, as we discussed above, would place it well beyond what her boss, the agent of your dreams, could hope to sell as a first book in the current fiction market.

“But Anne,” Ima protests, tears in her eyes, “I see plenty of fantasy novels that long in the bookstore. Because, yes, I am one of those great-hearted and sensible aspiring writers who realizes that if I expect bookstores to help promote my novel when it comes out, I should be supporting them now by buying books from them.”

While I approve of your philosophy, Ima — and would even upgrade it by pointing out that an aspiring writer who does not regularly buy recently-released first books in her own book category is shooting her own long-term best interests in the metaphorical foot — what you probably have in mind are novels by established authors. What a writer with an already-identified readership demonstrably willing to buy his books can get away with often differs radically from what a first-time author can hope to sneak past Millicent. And because market conditions change, it’s certainly different from what a first-time author might have been able to sell five years ago.

It’s a truism, to be sure, but people in the industry repeat it for a reason: in order to get discovered, a new writer’s work doesn’t merely have to be as good as what is already on the shelves; typically, it needs to be better.

Now, an aspiring writer can find that truth discouraging — apparently I’ve depressed poor Ima into too deep a stupor to keep formulating questions — or she can choose to find it empowering. Yes, that stock phrase gleaned from an online query template led Ima down the path of certain rejection, but honestly, can you blame Millicent and her ilk for wanting to reject queries crammed with prefab, one-size-fits-all phrasing?

Be honest, now: if you were an agency screener, wouldn’t you prefer to reward queriers who made the effort to sound like themselves?

Of course, it’s quite a bit more work to come up with original phrasing for what most aspiring writers regard, let’s face it, as merely an annoying hoop through which they have to jump in order to get agents to read their manuscripts. It’s more than that, though — to Millicent, it’s your first opportunity to wow her with the originality of your voice, the startling uniqueness of your story or argument, and, yes, your professional grasp of the realities of publishing.

Listen: every piece of writing you send to an agency is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that you can write. Millicent wants to see your literary voice on the page, not other people’s phrasing, and certainly not a pale echo of what anybody random person on the street might say. (I’m looking at you, Madge.) Read your query carefully to make sure that you sound like you and nobody else — and that the story you are telling or the argument you are making doesn’t read like anybody else’s, either.

A tall order? Most assuredly. But isn’t this what a good writer wants, people in the publishing industry taking her writing seriously enough to pay close attention to how she chooses to arrange words on the page?

Ponder that, please, until next time, when I shall once again be analyzing a reader’s actual query. Have the confidence to eschew those templates, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Details that tell it all: a post-Boxing Day story about excess baggage

December 27th, 2011

Before I launch into today’s post, I am delighted to bring you some fabulous news about a member of the Author! Author! community, long-time reader and incisive commenter Kate Evangelista. Kate’s first novel, TASTE, will be published by Crescent Moon Press! Please join me in congratulating her on this wonderful leap forward in her writing career — and in looking forward eagerly to the day when I can let all of you know that the book is available for sale.

It sounds like a great read, too. Take a gander at the blurb:

At Barinkoff Academy, there’s only one rule: no students on campus after curfew. Phoenix McKay soon finds out why after she finds herself on school grounds at sunset. A group calling themselves night students threatens to taste her flesh until she is saved by a mysterious, alluring boy. With his pale skin, dark eyes, and mesmerizing voice, Demitri is both irresistible and impenetrable.

Unfortunately, the gorgeous and playful Yuri has other plans. He pulls Phoenix into the dangerous world of flesh eaters. When her life is turned upside down, she becomes the keeper of a deadly secret that will rock the foundations of the ancient civilization living beneath Barinkoff Academy. She doesn’t realize until it is too late that the closer she gets to both Demitri and Yuri, the more she is plunging them all into a centuries-old coup d’état.

Sounds exciting, eh? It also, if you’ll forgive my lapsing into the practical in mid-kudo, an awfully darned good role model for anyone on currently in the process of trying to write a descriptive paragraph for a query or a synopsis, by the way should anyone be interested. Kate’s charming author photo, too, is instructive: she comes across as friendly, interesting, and certainly literate, with all of those shelves in the background. Not to mention the playful gleam in her eye that promises adventure to come.

So well done on several fronts, Kate. It’s a genuine pleasure to see a writer who has worked as hard as you have receive recognition, and I, for one, want to read that book.

It just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Keep persevering, everybody — and keep that good news rolling in!

Back to the business at hand — or rather, back to the hiatus between the last theory-minded Queryfest posts and the rest of this week’s reader-generated practical examples. (Look for the latter to begin on Wednesday and continue through the end of the year!) After having devoted Sunday’s post to a Christmas-themed parable about the importance of vivid, original details to impressing every querier’s beloved nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, I fully intended to run this companion piece, another anecdote-based lecture on specifics, on Boxing Day. Then the lights went out (again!) but the oven remained operational (post-Christmas cookies!), and I never managed to post this yesterday.

I suppose I could just have skipped it and moved on to pragmatic query consideration today, but in case I was too subtle in my last post: just as the threshold between an opening page of a manuscript or book proposal that leaps off the page at a weary-eyed Millicent and one that doesn’t is frequently a turn of phrase, image, or specific that surprises her, the difference between a query that makes a weary-eyed Millicent jerk bolt upright, exclaiming, “Wow! This story/argument/memoir story arc has potential!” and one that leaves her unmoved is sometimes as little as a single, creative detail that she’s never seen before. And that’s harder than it sounds to pull off: as I pointed out on Sunday, Millicent — like her boss the agent, the editors to whom the agent pitches clients’ books, the members of the editorial committees to which those editors suggest manuscripts they would like to acquire, and any experienced contest judge — reads a heck of a lot. Not only in general, but in the book category that her boss represents.

And aspiring writers, unfortunately for their queries and submissions, often do not have the time, inclination, or the access to what others are writing to be anywhere near that familiar with what Millicent would and would not consider a cliché. Even writers who, bless their warm and literature-loving hearts, routinely improve their professional knowledge by not only keeping up with the new releases in their categories, but also seeking out works by first-time authors of books like theirs in order to see what has pleased the agents and editors who handle them recently, will often remain blissfully unaware that a pet plot twist, character trait, or turn of phrase is not original. To them, it just sounds good.

How could they know, poor benighted souls, those particular plot twists, character traits, and turn of phrase have turned up in a good quarter of what crossed Millicent’s desk within the last six months? Admittedly, if any of those things appeared in a recent bestseller in that book category, it’s a safe bet that our Millie will be inundated with them for the next two years — more if a movie version appears. And because so many writers define good writing in a particular category by what sells well — not the only criterion, I think, nor the best — a submitter is often genuinely unaware that his nifty description on page 14 echoes the same nifty description on page 247 of a bestseller, a fact that almost certainly will not be lost upon a well-read Millicent.

At least, not after she’s cast her eyes over the 53rd similar submission. Of the week.

Of course, not all popular elements are derived from established authors’ works. By some mysterious means known only to the Muses alone, the zeitgeist seems to whisper the same suggestions in thousands of writerly ears simultaneously. So often does this occur, and so lengthy is the lag time between submission to an agency and eventual publication for most first books, that even an extremely conscientious trawler of the latest releases would have a hard time predicting what types of details or story arcs to avoid this year, as opposed to next.

What does all of that mean in practice? Well, it’s pretty easy to bore Millicent, for one thing: see the same plot, plot twist, memoir story arc, or descriptive detail 1,700 times in any given year, and you might become a trifle inured to its charms, too. In order for a detail, image, or argument to impress her as original, she genuinely has never to have seen it before — or, more realistically, never have seen it done in that particular way before.

Or anywhere near as well. And even then, she has to like it.

That doesn’t mean, though, that going completely wacky or waxing surrealistic is necessarily the way to win her literary heart, either. As we have discussed before, publishing pros make a pretty strong distinction between the fresh, an original concept, twist, or voice that’s likely to appeal to an already-established book-buying audience, and the weird, an original concept, twist, or voice that doesn’t really fit comfortably into either the expectations of the book category for which the author is ostensibly writing or the current literary market. A fresh plot, story arc, or phrasing is the polar opposite of one that’s been done (see earlier point about the fate of original twists from bestsellers), or, even worse, is dated.

Confused? You’re certainly not alone: due to the market-orientated slant of freshness, a book idea that’s fresh today might well have been done by tomorrow — and will be downright dated a year from now. Complicating things still further, agents and editors will sometimes talk about a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

“Okay, Anne,” originality-lovers everywhere cry, scratching their heads. “I’ll bite: is that good, or is that bad?

Well, it’s a good question, for starters — but yes, a fresh take is a positive thing. Consider, for the sake of example, the story of the Ugly Duckling. That’s certainly been done a million times, right? Since most YA readers and virtually all literate adults currently buying books on U.S. soil may already be presumed to be familiar with the basic story, it would be hard to surprise any reader, much less one as genre-savvy as Millicent, with the essential plot twist there. But if, for instance, a writer felt that the UD’s turning out to be something completely different and pretty watered down the message of the early part of the tale — what, it would have been perfectly okay for the other poultry to have made fun of an ugly duck who actually was a duck? — and presented essentially the same premise, but had UD possess the ability to foresee that the duck pond was shrinking and lead her waddling brethren and sistern to swampy safety elsewhere, thus winning their respect, that would be a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

Oh, you may laugh, but a clever author did in fact create a similar variation on this story that was very successful, both artistically and commercially: it was a little number called THE COLOR PURPLE. Very fresh — in 1982. But do I even need to tell you how many Ugly Duckling variations the Millicents of the mid-eighties saw tumble into their inboxes? As anyone who perused women’s fiction bookshelves regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s could no down tell you to her sorrow, it was done. Over and over again. And since that essential plotline has been done so many times since, can you imagine how dated the same manuscript would appear if it showed up on Millicent’s desk today?

So get your thinking caps on, campers. We’re going to devote the rest of today’s post to learning to walk the fine line between the Scylla of what’s been done and the Charybdis of the weird. But before I launch into the how-to part of our program, allow me to tell you a little story.

To set it up for those of you who have not boarded a commercial airliner lately, since the airlines have started charging to check bags, many passengers have simply begun wheeling their bulky suitcases down the center aisle, fighting with one another to find space for them in the overhead bins. During the holidays, this battle royale necessarily entails jostling some passengers’ shopping bags full of presents too delicate or valuable to pack in checked luggage. In the midst of this ongoing conflict between the crammers and the fearful, we join our intrepid memoirist.

After my companion and I were seated — he in 18B, your humble narrator in 18C — I felt my chest tighten: the gentleman behind me had evidently bathed that morning in some pepper-based cologne. That, or he was a secret agent for the airline transit authority, testing the viability of toxic scents in knocking nearby passengers senseless.

A sympathetic flight attendant told me I could move if I could find an empty seat away from the source of the nerve agent. Having first gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack, I wiggled my way into the center aisle to begin scouting.

Up by row six, a tall woman in cashmere with faux fur cuffs knocked me sideways — right into in the lap of the man in 6C. I repeatedly apologized for treating him like Santa Claus (he didn’t seem to mind much), but I could not budge: the imperious woman was blocking the aisle too thoroughly while searching for a place to stow her immense roll-on luggage in the already crammed overhead bins.

A time-conscious flight attendant murmured in her wake, tactfully replacing the shopping bags the passenger was blithely flinging to the floor. “Could you please hurry, ma’am? We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Clearly, though, that baggage had to be placed just so. As my assailant made her noisy way down the aisle, I was able to free myself of my human seat cushion and follow, clambering over the flotsam and jetsam the flight attendant could not manage to scoop up. I felt like the caboose in a slow-moving train.

By the time I could smell where I was supposed to be parked, the picky passenger had managed to free enough space in the bin above row nineteen to shove her suitcase inside. The flight attendant and I pushed from behind.

As I slipped, choking, into my assigned seat, the woman turned to the flight attendant. “Well, that’s a relief. Now you need to switch my seat assignment.”

The exhausted flight attendant looked at her blankly. “You’re in 6E.”

“Yes,” the woman said testily, “but my bag is back here. I’ll have to wait until everyone else gets off the plane before I can grab it. I need to sit next to it.”

Feeling both revolutionary levels of resentment rising off the rest of the passengers and my throat constricting from the cologne fumes, I knew my time had come. I leapt to my feet. “She can have my seat! I don’t mind coming back for my carry-on.”

The woman had plopped herself into my seat before the flight attendant could even nod. She thanked no one.

The flight attendant propelled me forward to row six before the irritating passenger could change her mind. I gave the five extra bags of pretzels she slipped me to the man who had let me share his lap.

Amusing, I hope? Good, but as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while had probably already begun suspecting by the end of the first paragraph, I didn’t share that anecdote with you purely for entertainment value, or even to vent. (I thought the other passengers were going to attack the rude lady. She must have delayed our departure by 15 minutes.)

No, I’ve included this story here because it has an editing problem — several, actually. Any guesses?

Hands up if you think it is too long. Is the action/narrative ratio off? Do you think a swifter telling would have allowed the comedy inherent in the situation to come out more clearly, or would you have liked to see more internal reaction from the narrator?

Which is right? Well, it depends upon what kind of narrative the author is creating — and where the scene is going. In a memoir, the reader expects the narrator’s character to be revealed through her reactions to the events around her, so I might well want to ramp that up. Getting out of the narrator’s head and into her body might be a good place to start: I felt my chest tighten is a strong detail in that respect; it makes the same point as I began to worry, but does so by showing how the emotion manifested, rather than just naming it.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned lately that most of the memoir Millicent has been seeing lately seldom mentions a reaction occurring below the narrator’s neck? I guess one has to read an awful lot of memoir manuscripts to know about that.

While showing, rather than the dreaded telling, is good strategy in many kinds of writing, there honestly isn’t a one-size-fits-all revision strategy for fiction. How a savvy writer might go about showing what’s going on in the scene above and what kind of details might make the piece sing would vary. In a romance, for instance, the reader would probably want a slightly different focus, perhaps showing my companion’s dismay at being first left alone, then saddled with another seatmate, or more complex interactions with the gentleman with the lap. So the smart specifics to add here would illustrate the relationship between the narrator and her companion: he could make an ineffectual grab after her as she flees the cologne, for instance, or try to convince Santa to switch seats with him, so the pair could travel together.

If, by contrast, this is a scene intended for a thriller, and the reader has some reason to suspect that one of the passengers on the plane is carrying something lethal, this semi-amusing bit of business might merely be a means of prolonging the suspense, right? In that instance, I would want to edit to speed up this scene, so Millicent would not become impatient at a too-lengthy digression. Or I would have the protagonist spy another character doing something odd out of a corner of her eye, allowing the reader the fun of speculating whether the obnoxious woman was some sort of decoy, creating an intentional distraction from the real threat. If I really wanted to ratchet up the danger, our heroine could feel something cold and hard beneath her after she tumbled into Santa’s lap: a gun?

Or, to surprise Millicent more, how about a titanium leg that can receive radio signals?

The possibilities are legion, right? Many self-editors, though, as well as a hefty percentage of writers’ group critiquers, would not take intended book category into account when making decisions crucial to revising this scene. All too often, short and terse is deemed appropriate for any type of book.

But it doesn’t always work, because — wait, I’m going to let you see why for yourself. Here’s that scene again, winnowed down to a just-the-facts-ma’am telling. This, too, is a style Millie sees quite often in memoir submissions.

After my companion and I reached our seats, I felt my chest tighten: the guy behind me reeked of cologne. I waved down a flight attendant to ask if I could change seats, and she said yes, but she was too busy to find one for me. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack and began scouting.

A woman shoved me into some guy’s lap in row six. She was trying to find an overhead bin to stow her luggage, but the ones near her seat were already crammed. The flight attendant kept urging her to hurry, since the plane couldn’t start taxiing until everyone was seated. I remained trapped in the guy’s lap until the woman had exhausted all of the possibilities near her seat and moved up the aisle, with the flight attendant replacing the items she had displaced.

The woman finally found enough space for her bag above row nineteen, just behind me. But before I could buckle myself in, the woman demanded to sit near her bag, rather than in her assigned seat.

The passenger and flight attendant had a small argument about it, causing the other fliers to express resentment. I offered to switch seats with her, in order to solve both of our problems. The flight attendant gave me extra pretzels; I shared them with the guy whose lap I had previously occupied.

Not a very effective editing job, is it? It’s precisely the same story, true, but most of its charm has evaporated. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “The humorous voice is gone!” lower that hand 18 inches and pat yourself on the back with it. Very, very frequently, insecure self-editors will sacrifice narrative voice to pace, resulting in the kind of tale you see above.

But one of the main selling points a writer has for an agent or editor is freshness of voice! If it’s largely edited out, how is Millicent to know that this is a writer with an interesting and unique worldview?

If, on the other hand, you cried out, “In this version, the reader doesn’t really learn much about who these characters are or why this incident is important. It’s just a flat description of events,” you also deserve a pat on the back, because that’s also true. Characterization is a very frequent casualty of the revision process, because, well, it takes up room on the page.

I’m reserving today’s gold star, though, for those of you who noticed both of these problems, yet pointed out, “Hey, Anne, both of these examples share a flaw I’d like to see fixed: what are any of these people like? Admittedly, the second example exhibits much weaker characterization than the first, but most of these characters are one-note: the pushy passenger is rude, the flight attendant harried, and the guy with the lap — well, let’s just say that I couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup, based upon this account. I’d find this story both more enjoyable and more plausible if the narrative showed them more. In fact, isn’t this a show, don’t tell problem?”

Wow, that’s one well-earned gold star. Both versions are indeed light in the characterization department.

Some lovers of terseness out there find that diagnosis a bit dismaying, I sense. “But Anne,” they protest, struggling manfully to keep their commentary brief, “isn’t the usual goal of editing to cut out what doesn’t work? You admitted above that the original anecdote was a little long — won’t adding characterization just make it longer?”

Not necessarily — if the characterization is achieved not through analysis or lengthy descriptions, but through the inclusion of vivid, unexpected details and interesting phrasing. Such as:

The lanky woman seemed barely muscular enough to drag her leopard-print suitcase behind her, yet she surged up the aisle, flinging open every single overhead compartment on both sides as she passed. A small child bashed in the head by a pink umbrella moaned in her wake. The flight attendant leapt to keep the morass of holiday gifts, rolled-up winter coats, and overpacked suitcases from tumbling onto the passengers who had arranged their carry-ons so carefully just minutes before, but to no avail. Within moments, rows seven through twelve resembled a picked-over bargain bin at a thrift store.

“Could you please hurry, ma’am?” she kept murmuring after every slam and between bites on her regulation pink-frosted lips. The first-class flight attendant was wearing the same color. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Thirteen sets of hanging doors later, the woman shoved aside a red shopping bag to make room for her carry-on. I helped the flight attendant wrestle the last three compartments shut before both of us provided the necessary muscle to inter the leopard. She did not thank us.

Obviously, these three paragraphs are not an adequate substitute for the entire story, but see what I have done here? The details provide characterization that neither the first version’s narrative reactions nor the second’s series of events showed the reader.

In this third version, however, the reader is neither left to fill in the specifics — something a time-strapped Millicent is unlikely to do — nor expected to guess what conclusions the author wants her to draw from these actions. The details make it perfectly plain that the lanky woman could not care less about anybody else’s comfort, feelings, or even rights: leaving those bin doors open behind her for the flight attendant and another passenger to close shows the reader what kind of person she is, just as the specifics about the volume of the luggage and the uniform lipstick, contrasted with the flight attendant’s consistent politeness, illustrate her dilemma, and the narrator’s automatically pitching in to help demonstrates her approach to the world.

Vivid details are the gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little tidbits that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which such details appear in a manuscript is often one of the primary factors professional readers use in determining whether to keep reading — and if such unusual specifics are incorporated skillfully into a query’s book description, they often prompt a request for pages.

Why? Well, more than almost any other device, they give the reader insight into the author’s worldview.

Sound like too amorphous a concept to be useful at revision time — or query-writing time, for that matter? It isn’t. A good writer sees the world around her with unique eyes, and — ideally, at least — powers of observation heightened to an extent that many non-writers would actually find painful.

This requires pretty sensitive nervous tissue, as H.G. Wells pointed out. He liked to call writers Aeolian harps (that’s a fancy way of saying wind chime, in case you were wondering), responding to our perceptions of the world through our art and, he hoped, making it better in the process.

Wells is now best-known for his science fiction, of course, but in his lifetime, many of his most popular novels were about social interactions. As I mentioned back on Veterans’ Day, his Mr. Britling Sees It Through was considered at the time THE definitive work on the British home front during the First World War. My favorite of his social novels is The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, a comedy about marriage and the establishment of decent, affordable apartment buildings for young working women.

Okay, so his political beliefs were not particularly well-hidden in his social novels. Neither was his evident belief that the primary purpose of female intellectual development was for those pesky women with brains to make themselves more attractive to men with brains. But his eye for social nuance — and social comedy — was exceptionally good.

The tiny little details that our sensitive nervous tissue lead us to notice — the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, as the song says — are a large part of what makes great writing seem almost miraculous to readers. Not everyone notices the worn-down heel of the left shoe of the man in his interview suit, after all, or the way the eyes of the president of the local charitable organization occasionally glaze with hatred while her mouth is loading the members with drippingly complimentary gushings.

Feeling special yet? You should: being aware of these details is a gift, after all, a sharpness of eye with which not very many human beings are endowed. Yet most writers don’t rely upon it nearly heavily enough in constructing their narratives — and still less in their queries.

And to someone whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, every day, seeing that gift wasted can start to get pretty annoying. “Where are those delightfully unexpected little insights?” the Millicents of the world think, running their fingertips impatiently down page 1. “Where is the evidence that this writer sees the world in a way that will change the way I see it myself?”

A tall order, yes, but — wait, do I hear some cries of distress out there? “Did you just say,” a strangled voice asks, “page ONE? As in my manuscript should produce evidence of my unique worldview and uncanny eye for telling little details that early in my book? Can’t I, you know, warm up a little?”

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s a series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1, a pretty sobering group of posts.) And to anticipate your next cri de coeur, yes, you should make an effort to provide such evidence in the book description section of your query, for the exceedingly simple reason that at most agencies, that’s all the page space you have to convince Millicent that her boss needs to read your manuscript.

Some of you submitters may find the necessity for cajoling reading more than a few paragraphs from people who, after all, asked you to send a chapter or 50 pages or your entire book. If you’re a novelist, it can be especially galling: presumably, if your forté as a writer were brilliant single-page stories, you would be entering short-short competitions, not writing 400-page books, right?

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to this view. If I ran the universe, agents and editors would be granted an entire extra day or two per week over and above the seven allocated to ordinary mortals, so they could read at least 10 pages into every submission they request. Writers would get an extra day, too, and lots of paid vacation time, so we could polish our work to our entire satisfaction before we sent it out.

And Santa Claus would tumble down my chimney to shower me with presents every day of the year, instead of just one.

Unfortunately, I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe. If we writers want to be successful, it behooves us to recognize that queries and submissions are often read very, very quickly, and adapt our first few pages — and our queries — to that reality.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But before you condemn the rigors of the industry too vigorously, take a moment to consider the conditions that might lead to someone at an agency or publishing house to conclude that it would be desirable, or even necessary, to give a requested manuscript only a page — in a manuscript or in a query — to establish the author’s brilliance.

Lest we forget, Millicent can sometimes be the world’s most impatient reader. While some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millie is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

It is now 12:10, she’s just noticed a run in her tights, and your manuscript is the next in the pile. How easy do you think it is going to be for it to impress her into reading past page 1?

I bring up Millicent’s foul mood not to scare you — but since a writer has absolutely no control over the mood of the person deciding whether to accept or reject his manuscript, it is worth preparing your submission so that it would impress EVEN Millicent at her most frustrated. That’s just good submission strategy.

It’s also good querying strategy. Assume a bored Millicent longing to be startled out of her malaise by an exciting detail, and you’re halfway to perking up your query.

I hear some of you huffing, but pause to spare some sympathy for the Millicents of the agenting world, as well as Maury, the editorial assistant who is her equivalent in publishing houses. They are expected to read reams and reams of paper very, very fast — and for this Herculean effort, they are not necessarily always paid. Often, in this harsh economy, this work is assigned to interns. If it’s the summertime, Millicent is probably on break from a good Northeastern college, someplace like Barnard, and since her parents can afford to support her while she takes an unpaid but résumé-building job, she’s probably from an upper-middle class background.

If it’s the rest of the year, or she has already graduated, she is probably paid — poorly — and lives in an apartment the size of a postage stamp with four other young people with similar jobs. Millie would not have gone into this line of work had she not liked reading — in fact, she may have writing aspirations herself, or she may want to become an agent or editor, so taking a job screening queries and submissions seemed like dandy on-the-job training at the time.

But now, after weeks on end of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of rather similar storylines, her capacity for appreciating literature has markedly dimmed. Sometimes, when she is especially cranky, a single line of awkward dialogue or two lines free of conflict can make her feel downright oppressed.

And your manuscript will have to get past Millie, and often also a senior assistant who has been screening manuscripts for even longer and has an even shorter boredom fuse, before it lands on the agent’s desk.

Still think it’s a good idea bore her, as long as your writing is strong enough?

What if, as occasionally happens, your manuscript is the next on her list to read immediately after she has broken up with her loutish boyfriend, she twisted her ankle clambering up from the subway, or she’s wondering how she’s going to pay the rent? And if poor Millie has just burned her lip on her non-fat double-shot tall latte…well, let’s just say that the first few pages of your manuscript had best be tight. And your query had better be fascinating.

And either should feature at least a few delightful little details that will make Millicent sit up, forgetting her bright magenta lip, and cry, “Eureka! This writer showed me something I’ve never seen before, presented in magnificent, clear prose! Forget my lunch date — I have something to READ!”

The miracle of talent, as Mme. de Staël tells us, is the ability to knock the reader out of his own egoism. Let the first example an agent sees of your writing be living proof of that.

I think you have it in you; that gift of insight is what made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Don’t let the difficulties of the querying and submission processed dim that mission. Millicent, and readers everywhere, will be the better for the originality of your insight.

Oh, and do make an effort to share those overhead bins; you never know when the guy upon whom cast-off luggage tumbles will turn out to be Millicent’s brother. Although that’s an ending to an Ugly Duckling story she’ll never see coming. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XVII: please don’t skip this one if you’re not querying memoir, or, the Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife

December 11th, 2011

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As those of you intrepid souls who followed Pitchingpalooza may recall, last summer, I stumbled upon perhaps the worst salesman it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, a carpet and linoleum purveyor subsequently known chez Mini as Duh, Obviously the Owner’s Ne’er-do-well Nephew. DOONN for short. I believe he thought we were calling him Don.

Don wasn’t bad at his job in any of the usual senses: he was not ignorant of the theory or practice of floor covering, nor did he appear to be unconversant with the means by which a consumer might conceivably purchase same in an ideal world. His particular gift lay in the direction of implying that it would be a monumental, epoch-shattering mistake for me — or anyone else, for that matter — to buy Marmoleum from his shop. Or from another emporium.

Or, indeed, at all. It wasn’t his place to tell me what to do, his every facial expression and gesture proclaimed, but surely, my mother could not be aware that I hung out in places like this.

Be it carpeting, laminate, vinyl, or tile, he was equally determined to let slip nothing positive. The Spanish Inquisition had more upbeat overall messaging. Should blackening his click-together cork tiles’ good name prove insufficiently repellent to customers, he would move swiftly on to actively smothering the decision-making process with a cunning combination of dissuasive patter about how difficult flooring was to replace and a smiling resistance to providing specifics about the products he sold.

Like, say, the colors in which it might be available, should anyone be foolish enough to tempt the fates by purchasing it.

If there was one thing he hated, it was customers walking through the door. He managed to convey, not once but perpetually, that while he might have been an affable guy had we met him at, say, a picnic, he was rapidly reaching the end of his rope with all of us pests traipsing into his store and expecting him to evince some interest in getting our floors covered. If only he were left alone, he might just get some work done.

Yet I had it on pretty good authority that the shop did in fact sell floor coverings; indeed, judging from the storeroom, it sold nothing else. Not wishing to draw any untoward conclusions from this, I sought out a second opinion. Sure enough, at the store’s other branch, Don’s presumptive uncle’s hard-sell techniques strongly implied that the company wasn’t just a front for some illicit, non-flooring-related activity, nor did shooing customers out the door appear to be company-wide policy. Indeed, Unc proved only too eager to brew up a pot of coffee, pull up a few chairs, and commiserate for an hour on how a shrinking economy has caused the range of non-carpet flooring options out there to dwindle to a mostly unremarkable few — but would we like to see a few samples?

Seriously, what happened to the funky linoleums of yesteryear? Is some unholy conspiracy determined to limit our citizenry to walking upon floor surfaces in hues ranging only from sand to dirt to mud? And why in heaven’s name is such a high percentage of commercially-available carpeting some shade of taupe?

When Unc sent me back to Don, over my rather vehement objections, to peruse a sample book concealed for some reason best known to themselves in a locked drawer in the latter’s desk, these questions seemed only to strain our already tenuous détente. “Maybe it’s not the right time to replace your floors,” he suggested.

There was a touch of genius to his sales avoidance. He didn’t just try to talk me out of considering Tarkett tiles, for instance; he generously invested five full minutes in explaining precisely how arduous they would be to order, how unsure he was that the samples he had were representative of what the company had to offer these days, and how only a color-blind idiot would find what he had in stock neither ugly nor uninteresting. (He had a point there.) On the off chance I might still be harboring some residual desire to purchase, he told a highly unsavory anecdote about how his former Tarkett representative had been summarily fired so, he claimed, her employers would not have to pay her back commissions.

A lesser man might not have shared the actual disputed dollar amount or the gripping details of the subsequent court case, but Don was made of sterner stuff — unlike, apparently, any floor covering he could recommend. (“You’ll only have to replace it eventually,” he warned.) By the end of his tirade, he not only had impressed upon me that he didn’t particularly wish to sell any Tarkett on moral grounds; he made me feel that I was a sorry excuse for a human being for ever having considered buying it.

I’m ashamed to say that I would have, too. If only they still made the pattern I liked.

He was well into a searing indictment of bamboo hardwoods and the madmen who hawk them before he noticed it was almost closing time. His passion for explaining that he didn’t like to start an invoice within half an hour of the end of the day so absorbed him that he barely put any energy at all into brushing off the poor soul who rushed into the store on a fool’s errand seeking some carpeting for his daughter’s bedroom.

Don sent the guy scurrying into a dimly-lit corner of the warehouse without a flashlight. “Don’t panic if you see anything crawling around over there,” Don shouted after him. He settled onto his stool again. “Not that he’ll find anything the kid will like; girls have weird tastes. Now, what were we talking about?”

Midway through his blistering exposé of vinyl laminate and all of its disreputable relatives, I waved a few samples of Marmoleum in front of his face. “Would you think too badly of me,” I inquired meekly, “if I took these home to see how they might look next to the kitchen cabinets?”

He snorted. “If you don’t mind giving business to foreigners.” Then, evidently suspecting that he might have gone a trifle too far, he added, “I do have one of the best installers in the Pacific Northwest for that, though. I think he’s still on work release…”

Why bring up good ol’ Don at this juncture in Queryfest, you ask? Because even after I had written up my own sales slip, forced a deposit upon him, and made my way past the stacks and rolls of flooring that for reasons best known to the Almighty had not yet been snapped up by an eager consumer, I had not left behind his peculiar style of promoting what he had to sell. I see this type of salesmanship all the time in query letters.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true — and I’d like to devote today’s post to examining why.

The answer’s not as simple as many queriers not understanding how to present their books well, or even, as we discussed last time, their not having a firm grasp upon what the essential elements of a query are or why each is necessary to include. As often as not, it’s a matter of attitude.

How so? Well, take a gander at virtually any online forum where aspiring writers discuss the vagaries of querying: a lot of queriers are darned annoyed that they have to do it at all. Or at the very least, that the primary purpose of agencies is not to ferret out exciting new stories and voices.

You’ll wrench your neck if you keep doing double-takes like that. Is it really all that surprising that agencies are not non-profits devoted to the advancement of American literature, but businesses engaged mostly in the profit-seeking endeavor of trying to sell their already-established client lists’ manuscripts? It’s not as though going through those thousands of queries per year actually makes any money for the agency, after all: reputable agencies’ income comes only from commissions on their clients’ books.

But you’d never know that from listening to most aspiring writers talk about the querying process. As an inveterate teacher of the fine but widely-misunderstood arts of querying, pitching, and book proposal-writing, I often find myself confronted by those who, to put it mildly, are not pleased to learn that in the current literary market, catching an agent’s eye is not particularly simple or fun.

“What do you mean, I have to figure out before I approach an agent who will want to read my book and why?” they fume, generally in tones that invite me to say that I was just kidding about all of the hoops through which they were going to have to jump. “I’m a writer, not a marketer; my publisher will have a department to handle all of that. Besides, if the industry were really set up to find the best new writing, none of this marketing stuff would matter. I would be judged by my writing, and that would be that.”

Intuitively, I can see how this kind of logic would make sense to a writer new to the game: once you write the book, the hard part should be over, right? But in practice, writing a good manuscript is only the first step on the long, twisty road to publication.

Oh, stop groaning: it could hardly be otherwise, as the publishing world now operates. Major U.S. publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals for adult books from unagented writers — you were already aware of that, right, if you have been reading up on querying strategies? — and as a direct result, reputable agencies are approached by far too many aspiring writers for reading unsolicited manuscripts to be feasible. In order to sift through the hundreds of thousands of book ideas tossed at them yearly, agencies have had to establish ground rules like before we will read so much as a syllable of your manuscript or proposal, you must ask permission to send it, queries must not exceed one page, and yes, we mean that last one that even if your plot is so complex that Noah Webster himself would despair of describing it in less than 17 pages.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers resent the necessity of following such directives — as well as any specific instructions listed on the agency’s website, of course — is not precisely news to the fine folks who read queries for a living. Queriers may not think they are being obvious about it, but you would be astonished how often contempt of the querying process fairly drips from the page. Take, for instance, a missive like this:

Don’t see what’s wrong with this as a persuasive document? If so, you’re certainly not alone: to many queriers, this artless missive might well appear to be a cry for help. Indeed, it was probably intended that way: poor Dee is probably not so much hostile as worn out from appealing time after time to agents that don’t seem to want to hear about her book.

To Millicent the agency screener, however, who sees queries like this literally every day — every weekday, at least, and especially on Monday mornings, if her agency accepts e-mail queries — Dee’s possibly well-justified lament would appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How so? Well, I could dwell on all of the technical reasons this query would be depressingly easy for Millicent to reject on sight. It’s not at all clear why Dee has chosen to approach this agent, for instance, as opposed to every other currently milling about the greater New York metropolitan area. It’s not at all clear who the target audience is for this book, or why they would be drawn to this story. And while we’re at it, what is this book about?

Oh, and 248,000 words is about two and a half times the norm for first memoir. 75,000 -100,000 would be much more in the expected ballpark, but since the overwhelming majority of memoirs are sold via book proposals, rather than as full manuscripts, why is our pal Dee mentioning the length of the current draft at all?

Honestly, though, most of this is a moot point, as our Millie is unlikely to make it past that first paragraph — and can you blame her? Within three short lines of text, Dee manages to hit # standard screeners’ pet peeves: she reviews her own writing, implies that the reason she has not yet been successful is that there is something wrong with the publishing industry, and questions the agent’s intelligence. Perhaps most jaw-dropping to someone whose job it is to thin the competition to the scant few her boss has time to read, Dee tells Millicent that many other agents have already rejected similar queries.

“Gee,” Millicent mutters, reaching for that stack of form-letter rejections that’s never far from her elbow, “I can’t imagine why. Most of us just love being berated for not wanting to read more than a page of this kind of passive-aggression. Clearly, if we allowed ten-page queries, this writer would complain about that, too.”

Fair? Perhaps not, from Dee’s point of view: she was, after all, merely expressing some frustration. But she did it at the wrong person, and in the wrong venue, to do herself or her book any practical good.

She was, in short, talking Millicent out of taking a serious look at that Marmoleum. A pity, really, because for all we know, that particular type of flooring was precisely what Millie’s boss, the agent of Dee’s dreams, was looking to snap up.

By contrast, let’s take a gander at a solid query for an interesting-sounding memoir — and while the photos above have already gotten those of you old experienced TV-savvy enough to be familiar with the old Andy Griffith show to contemplate the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife, let’s go ahead and reincarnate him as an agent who represents spiritual growth memoirs. (Hey, it’s been a long, long series — colorful fantasies are very helpful to keeping myself alert.)

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements — book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off. It even includes a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis, so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query. (If the agency’s submission guidelines asked for a query and she doesn’t see it, she’s likely to reject the whole packet on general principle. Remember, one of the purposes of posting those guidelines on the agency website is to see if prospective clients can follow directions.)

Ataraxia’s query also — and it’s astonishing how few queriers think to try something along these lines — told the agent what she was hoping he could do for her: I am seeking an agent both spiritually-aware and market-savvy. While establishing standards on the writer’s side may seem at first blush a trifle pushy, Ataraxia is merely alerting Barney to the fact that she has actually given some thought to what she does and doesn’t want in an agent.

Why is this a sign of professionalism in a query? Long-time readers, chant it along with me now: a savvy writer does not want to land just any agent; she knows her work will be best off in the hands of the right agent, someone who loves her writing, is genuinely interested in her subject matter, and already has the connections to get her books under the right editorial noses to get it published.

That’s a far cry from the usual I just want to land an agent, any agent, so you’ll do — I’m desperate! tone of Dee’s query, isn’t it Ataraxia is approaching Barney as a serious writer with an interesting book project — why shouldn’t she be as selective as he is?

She also did something rather clever here, to compensate for including extra information. Anybody notice what it was?

If you immediately shouted, “She eliminated the lines previous examples had skipped between paragraphs, as well as some lines at the top that were not strictly necessary to correspondence format!” take a gold star out of petty cash. While that extra space is aesthetically pleasing, it’s not strictly required.

Snag two more stars for yourself if you also sang out, “She omitted mention of the SASE!” While it’s a good idea to mention the SASE tucked inside the envelope — hey, Millicent’s in a hurry; she has a lot of queries to scan in any given morning — it’s not indispensable. Wisely, Ataraxia decided that it was more important to include an extra line or two about her story than to make it plain to our Millie that she had followed the rules.

She did, however, make room to mention the synopsis — an excellent idea, even if the agency’s submission guidelines specifically insisted that queriers include one. It underscores that the writer has taken the time to learn the individual agent’s preferences and is trying her level best to meet expectations.

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Again, part of the point of this exercise is to show that you can follow directions. Another means of showing off your virtues in that direction: use the old-fashioned enclosures notation.

good memoir query 2

As you may have noticed, this variant takes up more room on the page than mentioning the same information in a single-line sentence; Ataraxia has had to trim down the body of the letter accordingly. But it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Most importantly, both versions of this query make the memoir sound like a heck of a good story, as well as an unexpected one. Although the book description is a trifle on the lengthy side, it’s worth the page space — this memoir sounds both very marketable and like a hoot to read, doesn’t it?

Yes, it took up more room to describe the book, establish that there is a market for it, and talk about her credentials, but for a memoir, that’s a smart move: remember, no one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because it’s a true story; that’s the case, at least in theory, for every memoir ever written. It’s the memoirist’s job in the query to convince Millicent that the book has other selling points.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, is not in and of itself likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy the book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing and/or e-mailing list as well.

Why wouldn’t that platform grab Millicent? Past publications would be nice, of course, but what is here is quite sufficient for the intended audience of this book.

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book. That’s why, in case any of you dedicated writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

Can you really blame them for wanting to know what the Marmoleum looks like before ordering some?

But that’s not how most writers hear references to platform, is it? The aspiring tend to react to it as a value judgment: why in the world would anyone be interested in YOUR book, nonentity? Not entirely coincidentally, their next thought tends to be well, the deck is stacked against me. Obviously, the only people who can get memoirs published these days are celebrities. I might as well give up.

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year.

How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does — and by making that case clearly in their query letters.

So please, don’t let yourself be discouraged by the common wisdom. Naturally, a celebrity’s platform is going to be more obvious at first glance than other people’s; equally naturally, a first-time book proposer with three master’s degrees in various aspects of the book’s subject matter will have an easier time convincing Millicent that she’s an expert than someone with fewer academic wall decorations.

But does that mean that these are the only types of memoirists with a platform? No, of course not. In order to produce a successful query, a memoirist needs to figure out who his target audience is, what his book offers them that similar books do not, and how he is going to inform them of that fact.

Note to those of you who just groaned, “But Anne, that’s precisely what I would have to do to write a book proposal!”: darned tootin’. For a nonfiction book, the query letter, synopsis, and proposal all share the same goal: to convince people in the publishing industry that you are uniquely qualified to tell an interesting story or make an important argument that readers already buying similar books are demonstrably eager to hear.

You just have more page space to prove those points in a synopsis or proposal. But to write any of them well, you need to ask yourself first: what is original about my book? Who needs to read it, and why?

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

I hope so, because the vast majority of memoir queries — and nonfiction queries in general — read as though the writer has never thought about these issues vis-à-vis his own book project. Or, if he has, he’s decided that if he even attempts to address them truthfully, no Millicent in her right mind would even consider reading his book proposal.

Often, the result is downright apologetic, even if the story is very compelling indeed. Let’s take a gander at how Ataraxia might have expressed herself had she been born Panicky, but grew up with precisely the same story and essentially the same credentials. Heck, let’s even retain the same descriptive paragraph:

memoir query panicky

Amazing what a difference just a slight shift in tone and confidence can make, isn’t it? Panicky enjoys exactly the same platform as Ataraxia — but because she has presented it so timorously, without the specific marketing details that made our earlier examples such grabbers, she comes across as substantially less qualified to write this book.

Yes, that’s completely unfair. But can you honestly blame Millicent for drawing such different conclusions about these two writers?

Incidentally, did you happen to notice the Freudian slip that just shouts how nervous Panicky is? In case you missed it:

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Panicky wants Millicent to read it, presumably, but she apparently can’t bring herself to make that request. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily, she’s heard; she doesn’t want to tread on any toes.

Just as the border between confident and arrogant can be murky at times, the line between polite and self-deprecating can be a narrow one. I’m quite positive that if asked, Panicky would insist that she was merely being courteous: she is grateful that an agent as well-established as Barney would even consider her book project; she has done her homework well enough to be aware of how busy he is likely to be.

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. The relevant statistics speak for themselves:

Thank yous: two direct (I’m sorry to take up your valuable time; ), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Apologies: two direct (Thank you so very much for taking the time even to consider my book; Thanks again), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Equivocations: one confidence wobble perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), four unsubstantiated marketing claims (food tourism one of the fastest-growing travel trends in the United States; Millions of Americans engage in food-related travel; Many of them are undoubtedly women traveling alone; I believe that my students would be very interested in my memoir.)

Suggestions that this would be a difficult book to sell and/or promote: two expressed authorial fears about appearing in public (While I fully realize that my current size may prove problematic for promoting this book on television; many cultures (including ours) regard a big woman as inherently flawed)

Implications that the agent wouldn’t — or even shouldn’t — be interested in the book: one prompt to disregard (perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), one implication that he couldn’t understand it (This might not occur to someone of so-called normal size, but it is actually…), one implication that it doesn’t matter very much whether he likes it or not (Whichever you decide, please have a nice day — and eat some yummy food!)

Quite a lot of dissuasion for a one-page letter ostensibly intended to convince ol’ Barney that this worthwhile book project, isn’t it? Don would be so pleased. The sad part is that most of it is totally unnecessary: as we saw in Ataraxia’s version, there’s no necessary trade-off between politeness and confident presentation.

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner. Even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

So, you are probably wondering, would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether the screener made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it?

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is — wait for it — to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work. A great way to kick off that brainstorming: familiarizing yourself with your target market. Not just who is in it, but what books have been aimed successfully at those readers within the past five years. Once you understand why readers are already buying books like yours, it should be easier to see which of those appealing characteristics your book shares.

Once you have come up with at least a couple of believable selling points, you can center your query on them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

Don’t tell me your book doesn’t have any selling points; I don’t believe it. Any book worth a good writer’s time to compose has strengths. So does everyone’s life history. It’s just a matter of matching the one or the other to your target audience’s needs in a manner that will make Millicent exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before! I really want to read this!”

Or, alternatively, “Wow, this is a book by {fill in celebrity here}; I wouldn’t have thought he could read, much less write. Well, I guess we should take a look at it, because he has a lot of fans.” That generally works pretty well, too.

Millie is not going to shout any of those things over your query, however, if your query leaves her in the dark about precisely how your book is unique. Not only will she probably not have the time or inclination to guess; she will wonder, and rightly, whether a writer apparently reluctant to market his own book to an agent will be equally resistant to helping promote the book once it is published.

Yes, that will be the publisher’s marketing department’s job, when the time comes. But if you do a bit of that book category research I suggested above, you may notice something about successful first books published within the last few years: their authors tend to have invested quite a bit of effort in promoting them.

Imagine how pleased their Barneys must be about that — and how, in turn, they might instruct their Millicents to keep their weary eyes peeled for new writers who might be equally energetic in selling their books.

This is no time to be hiding your Marmoleum samples under a bushel, people. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XIV: I’m back, and in celebration of that, shall we all agree to strike the phrase worthless credential from the language, please?

November 17th, 2011

Before I launch into either an explanation of my recent unanticipated hiatus from posting or the much-anticipated next installment in Queryfest, a brief announcement for Seattle-area members of the Author! Author! community: this coming Sunday, November 20th, I and fellow editors Kyra Freestar and Sarah Martinez shall be answering writers’ questions on matters editorial from 2 -3 p.m. (and longer, if the questions run hot and heavy) at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle — and it’s free, free, free, folks. How did this delightful event come about? In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, my very own Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild is sponsoring a panel straightforwardly entitled, Okay, I’ve Written a Novel — What Do I Do Now?

So if you have some stored-up questions or just would like to learn a bit more about what happens to manuscripts after writers type THE END, come on down. Although we will be concentrating on NaNoWriMo participants’ concerns, all writers are welcome, and I always like to meet my readers. After the panel, I would be happy to help you wrangle with any query-related concerns you might have.

Heck, I’ll even sweeten the deal: I’ll give query feedback to the first 15 Author! Author! readers who come up and introduce themselves to me at this editing extravaganza. (I’ll be the one wielding the sign-up list.) So come early, stay late, and don’t forget to print out a draft of your query!

Now, then, back to business — or rather, back to why I haven’t been open for business for the past couple of weeks. Remember last year, when my vehicle was the meat in a car pile-up sandwich? Well, every couple of months, a new symptom emerges, just to keep things interesting. The latest and perhaps the most irritating, although there’s certainly some competition for the latter honor: extended perusal of a back-lit screen made me feel as though I’d been doing loop-de-loops in a World War I-era biplane.

Curse you, Red Baron!

Not the optimal state for blogging, as you might imagine — and did I just hear some ambient tittering? Yes, long-time readers, I thought of that one, too: there is a certain dramatic fitness to your humble correspondent, a writing guru famed for urging aspiring writers to read their manuscripts — and their queries — IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD before sending them out to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, suddenly being forced to read everything in hard copy. Once again, the Muses prove they have a sense of humor.

Are those of you who didn’t titter scratching your heads? Since clean queries and submissions — i.e., pages free of typos, misspellings, grammatical difficulties, and the type of gaps in logic common to multiply-revised prose — are the minimum expectation of the publishing world, not an optional extra, it would behoove you to proof your query and any accompanying materials very, very carefully before sending ‘em off. Many Millicents are specifically instructed to stop reading after the second misspelled word — and are you positive that when you moved the eighth sentence from the first paragraph to the third, you didn’t accidentally lop off a word? Or repeat one?

It’s much, much easier to catch typos, logic gaps, and other professional reader-annoyers on the printed page than on my recent nemesis, the back-lit computer screen. Why? Well, most people read about 70% faster on a computer screen; it’s easier for the eye to gloss over punctuation, words, or even entire lines. On a printed page, you’re simply more likely to catch a typo — and if you take the time to read your missive out loud as well, you’re substantially more likely to notice a skipped or repeated word or concept.

Yes, pretty much everyone makes this kind of typo in e-mails these days. And no, Millicent is not going to cut your query any slack for reflecting that trend.

And if you are scratching your head afresh over how I managed to transform an explanation of my disappearance for a couple of weeks into an admonition to pay attention to the little things in your query, well, I’m a professional advice-giver. Don’t try this at home.

Last time, if you can remember that far back, I embarked upon a list of suggestions for plumping up that perennial plaguer of the previously unpublished, the credentials or platform paragraph of the query. All too often, those new to the game assume — wrongly — that the only relevant credential in an agent’s eyes would be a previous publication, preferably a book appealing to more or less the same target audience as the one being queried. But since it’s been true for a long time that having an agent is a prerequisite to getting published by a major U.S. house (or, indeed, even having one’s work considered for publication there), that kind of logic would result in a vicious circle: only the previously-agented and the darlings of literary magazines could possibly catch Millicent’s eye.

Simple observation of first-time authors’ jacket bios will tell you that’s not the case. Most first-time novelists and memoirists do not have previous publication credentials — and you’d be surprised by how often even platform-conscious nonfiction agents will take on book proposals from writers without so much as a book review in a college paper to their credit. As agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Which is not to say that a well-crafted platform paragraph cannot substantially increase your query’s chances of wowing Millicent. It can — but constructing the right array of credentials to boost your credibility as the writer of your particular book may well require thinking in broader terms.

And I can already see some of you rolling your eyes — and based upon the ever-churning query rumor mill, I can’t say I am surprised. The writers’ conference circuit and the Internet are stuffed to the gills with blistering admonitions against breathing so much as a word about one’s less-than-National-Book-Award-winning literary efforts in a query; the usual argument is that if the credential in question didn’t involve national exposure, or at the very least hard cash in exchange for having typed out the relevant poem, article, or short story, Millicent will simply laugh her head off and reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

In practice, that’s often not true — so why it this rumor so pervasive? Heck, the very last time I posted on this topic, incisive reader Elizabeth brought up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:

My sister is in marketing, and was a recruiter and hires writers all the time and told me the story credit in my resume from my school literary mag is worthless. “I would see that and assume you are still in school and trash your resume,” she said cruelly.

I left it out of the last query. In fact, I left out my two college degrees, one of which is in criminology (crime novel) also. Ironically, it contains the BEST descriptive stuff I’ve ever written for this book.

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)

As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, on writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in many aspiring writers’ psyches. Practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction.

When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.

“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know all of that is only filler, a desperate attempt to slap a Band-Aid over the fact that I’ve not published a book before. I’d best not mention any of it.”

That would be a serious mistake: you, my well-rounded friend, are a previously-published author, and it’s very much in your interests to let Millicent know about it. (What are those articles, chopped liver?) And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.

Heck, if she knows her business, she’ll know that you might have a potentially gripping memoir in you. (When did you write all of those theses? While you were in mid-air?)

In the face of the barrage of advice about querying (and marketing, for that matter), it’s so easy for aspiring writers to lose sight of the fact that the platform paragraph is about you. It’s a conceptual container for information that might make Millicent say either, “Wow, this writer knows whereat she speaks,” or, “Wow, this writer knows her way around the writing process.”

Or even, “Wow, this writer sounds like someone my boss, Picky McAgentsdottir, would absolutely love to work with on a long-term, mutually-beneficial basis.” You would argue with that?

Unfortunately, many queriers do. Take the talented Elizabeth above: in excising her two best credentials, she fell into the all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. So did her probably well-meaning sister, apparently: like so many queriers, they were thinking of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.

Basically, this conception turns the platform into a Who’s Who entry: if you happen to have garnered one of the small handful of achievements for which there are boxes on the form, you have a listing. If you don’t, you don’t. Which means, in practice, that if all the available boxes are publications — or, in most first-time queriers’ minds, book publications with major houses — virtually no aspiring writer would have any credentials worth mentioning in a query letter.

Anybody see a logical problem with this? Like, for instance, the fact that if Millicent actually did take umbrage at non-literary (or even non-book literary) credentials, she would have to reject 99.99% of what crosses her desk?

That’s ridiculous, of course. It’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk. And it’s your job to convince her in your query letter that you and your book project are in the top 2%.

Following the common wisdom — that old saw that tells us that if you don’t have any of the narrowly-defined credentials, you should leave the platform paragraph out of your query altogether — may not be the best strategy. And it would be a suicidal strategy for writers of nonfiction, including memoir: just as part of what a nonfiction book proposer is marketing is her expertise in the subject matter of her book, part of what a memoirist is marketing is her personality.

So why on earth would a savvy querier want to pretend that she doesn’t have one? Or a background?

To a lesser extent, the same holds true for fiction: remember, any sensible agent seeking new clients is going to be looking for a career writer, not the proverbial author with only a single book in him. If you have traveled extensively, she might want to know that: you may have a travel memoir in you, or she may have a memoirist with a great story who could use a co-writer. And let’s not forget the fact that interesting people tend to do better at book readings, giving interviews, and other necessary promotional events in a successful author’s life.

She’s also going to want to know what you do for a living, not only because it will tell her more about you, but because your ability to take time off work will have a direct effect upon your ability to drop everything and make revisions. (Sorry to break that to you, ER-doctors-who-write.) On the flip side, if you travel for work, you’ll already be in a position to do book signings in multiple cities without your future publishing house’s having to cough up any dosh for traveling expenses.

Again, the down side to alerting Millicent to any of these selling points is?

Please don’t let yourself get talked out of — or talk yourself out of — including this kind of information in your query. If you find yourself tempted, think of Elizabeth’s example: what did she gain by cutting her two best credentials, ones that are absolutely germane to her current project? My police procedural is informed by my degree in criminology is, after all, precisely the kind of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC) Millicent deliberately scans those platform paragraphs to find.

Let’s get down to brainstorming sources for your ECQLC. Last time, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

Today, we move on to less obvious stuff. You know, the things in your background that render you such a fascinating person. Stop hiding that medal under a bushel.

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coal-mining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Have you noticed in your book category research that virtually every other book that has dealt even glancingly with life in a traveling carnival seems to be based upon conjecture about what goes on behind the Tilt-a-Whirl, while you know?

Mention it. There’s a reason that agents and editors habitually ask aspiring nonfiction writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

And don’t discount how much more credible your life experience might make you if you write fiction about it, either. Which author do you think would be easier for a publisher’s marketing department to convince a magazine writer to interview, one who has written a book whose protagonist is a day trader, or a great new author who’s just distilled her six years as a day trader into a behind-the-scenes novel?

Quite different, isn’t it? The amazing thing is that both of these statements could quite easily refer to the same book.

Make sure, by the way, that if your life experience is your most important credential, it appears first in your platform paragraph. If you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, Millicent needs to know that right away. Don’t be coy — the connection with your book may seem self-evident to you, but remember, Millie will not be able to guess whether you have a perfect platform for writing your book unless you tell her about it.

What you should not do under any circumstances, however, is say that your novel is sort of autobiographical. To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed; I simply wasn’t brave enough to write it as nonfiction. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications. Oh, and someone I know may later come along and try to sue my future publisher. Please read my manuscript anyway.”

No wonder, then, that the words autobiographical and fiction appearing within the same sentence so often prompt Millicent to shout, “Next!”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly: basically, I’m urging you to say FALLING CINDERS draws upon my twenty years as a working firefighter instead of FALLING CINDERS is semi-autobiographical or — sacre bleu!This novel is partially based on my life.

To a well-trained Millicent, the first statement is completely different from the second two. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. Nor is it particularly surprising as a credential: industry professionals tend to assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.

Possibly because so many queries include phrases like, this story is semi-autobiographical.

But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not automatically make it more appealing; in practice, it may merely mean potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco — and they have not yet, by a long shot — it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your query. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the sentiment, Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here: these people are already demonstrably into what you’re writing about, right? If it’s a large organization, go ahead and mention its size. (Left to her own devices, Millicent’s guesstimate would probably be low.) Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, you might want to bring that up — although you might want to clear make sure first that your group is in the habit of such promotion. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter; I have already contacted them about speaking at their national and regional conferences about my book, HEY! SPEAK UP, HARPO!

My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease. Although roughly 200 Americans are diagnosed each week, relatively few recent novels have addressed the diagnosis and treatment process.

Oh, and before I forget, I should reiterate my admonition from last time: I pulled the examples on this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em in your queries, therefore.

Speaking of statistics yanked from the ether, do make absolutely certain than any statistics you cite are true. Long-time readers, chant along with me now: just because an assertion appears on the Internet does not necessarily mean that it is true; there is no Fact-Checking Fairy wafting from website to website, correcting exaggerated claims or false assertions. Remember, “But I read it online someplace!” is not going to strike people who produce books for a living as unassailable research.

Because so many queriers do include wild claims — if Millicent had a dime for every time she’s seen this book will interest every woman in America!, she would have started her own publishing house years ago — it’s an excellent idea to proof your query for anything that might conceivably be mistaken for such an unsubstantiated assertion. Generally speaking, you’re better off avoiding superlatives altogether: presenting your book as the best, the most original, or the only is pretty easy for our Millie to dismiss.

Not sure why? Okay, here is a rather popular query assertion. If you were Millicent, would you be swayed by it?

My book is the only novel ever written on the subject of competitive bowling. Although many left-handed women bowl, I am the first ever to put pen to paper about it.

Even if Millicent is entirely unfamiliar with the history of the bowling novel, the claim that this author is the only one to write about it is not particularly plausible. Not only do agents and editors tend not to find this kind of argument convincing — they’re far more likely to assume that the writer has just not bothered to do much literary market research.

And no, they would not consider a quick Amazon search exhaustive. Besides, manuscripts often spend a couple of years in press prior to publication: how does this writer know that fifteen such books have not been acquired by major houses within the last six months?

Dialing back the superlatives is safer. Better yet, back your assertions with concrete numbers.

Although over a hundred million people currently bowl for pleasure or profit, and bowling organizations have more dues-paying members than any sport other than football, novels set against a bowling backdrop are relatively rare.

Okay, why is this stronger ECQLC than our earlier example? It makes the point about how few novels there are about bowlers, but it does so by establishing the size of a group already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. It also, cleverly, shows that many of these people are already spending money in pursuit of this interest. Even if only a fraction of that 100,000,000 read, that’s a pretty hefty target market — and that’s not even considering all of the people who know and love bowlers and thus might conceivably be looking for books to give them as birthday and holiday presents.

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. (Don’t mentally shake off that last sentence. Not everything on your brainstorming list is going to end up in your query letter; give yourself some creative leeway.) If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it.

Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years, by the way. JAWS was indeed one of the biggest sellers of the 20th century, but what was selling in 1974 will not necessarily sell today.

I hate to break it to writers of long experience, but Millicent probably had not been born by 1974 — or 1984, for that matter. Agency screening tends to be a young person’s game; select your pop culture references accordingly.

Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: while TV stars’ memoirs tend to sell well, due to their wide name recognition, not everyone who watches Mad Men would necessarily knock over another bookstore browser to grab a novel about people who work in advertising. Then, too, even the least experienced Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace for a book about something other than current events. )

Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Remember, Millicent’s not a demographer: leaving her to guess how big your target audience is may not help your query’s credibility.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

As the recent Occupy Wall Street protests have demonstrated, many Americans are suspicious of the influence of money in politics. HEY! I WANNA RUN FOR CONGRESS! provides a step-by-step guide for those wishing to build a grass-roots political campaign.

(8) Proof that you are writing about a topic that already interests a bunch of living, breathing potential readers
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences; heck, our constitution actually requires that we count everybody every ten years.

Take advantage of that affection for the concrete number. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.

Formby the Ferret may be an unusual protagonist for a cozy mystery, but popular interest in ferrets has been on the rise. Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, the condition afflicting this book’s protagonist.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market potential for MASSAGE YOUR WAY BACK TO BUSHINESS.

(Had I mentioned that the statistics cited here are not to be relied upon — or quoted as fact?)

(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned last time, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered. If you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it.

So far in 2010, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

See how impressive that last one was? And that’s not easy to pull off, considering that by virtually everyone’s admission, the Harding Administration was one of the least interesting, ever; Silent Cal was no Rudolf Valentino, after all.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening then. Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your query to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

And, let’s face it, unless you happen to be able to convince Millicent that you are the reincarnation of the Amazing Kreskin, arguing that your book will serve the immediate factual needs of readers a couple of years hence is typically a pretty hard case to make. It’s easy to stray into the kinds of hard-to-verify claims (Ten years hence, we will all get around by hovercraft — and readers of my fantasy trilogy, UP IN THE AIR, will be well prepared to glide into the future.) or black-and-white superlative abuse we discussed above (Everyone who will fill out a birth certificate in years to come will want to read WHAT YOUR BABY’S NAME SAYS ABOUT YOU AS A PARENT.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward.

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2011, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2015, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in the last two decades to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone who has been suffering from kneecap dysplasia over the last year, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist.

I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny: when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were consistently pointing in the right direction.

Ask yourself: what is my book’s primary distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: if you engage in a direct comparison with an already-published book, avoid cutting it down. Try to stick to pointing out how your book is good, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the Millicent or her boss didn’t go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or, in the agent’s case, represented the book himself.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently.

While Andre the Giant’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care for the non-wrestler.

Lest those of you who write literary fiction think that this one does not apply to you: have you given any serious thought lately to how many queries claim that a book will interest readers simply because it is well-written?

Which you should avoid saying, by the way: few things turn agents, editors, and the Millicents who screen for them faster than a query in which a writer reviews his own book. Let your fine writing speak for itself; your job in the query is to make the case that the subject matter of the book and/or something in your background, either as a writer or in the rest of your life, will make readers want to grab your book off the shelf, as opposed to any other.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter This is the best book in the Western literary canon! must necessarily be a bad writer — and one whose literary intake is probably fairly meager at that.

“What on earth must this writer think is currently on the market,” Millicent says under her breath, reaching swiftly for the form-letter rejection stack, “if he thinks he can make a claim like this. I’d bet a wooden nickel that he hasn’t read any literary fiction that’s come out within the last seven years. Next!”

Cast your selling points as marketing realities, though, and she’ll be pleasantly surprised — as long as what you say is true. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features a sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old, and thus will speak to the parents of the 4-7% of children who are dyslexic, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Yes, yes, I know: many of you have written perfectly lovely literary novels difficult whose audiences are difficult to pin down in this manner, but to Millicent, a statement like my protagonist’s challenges will appeal to college-educated women is practically tautological: college-educated women form the overwhelming majority of literary fiction readers. How, then, would such an assertion make your book sound any different — or any more appealing to literary fiction readers — than all of the other books seeking to capture that group of readers?

If you genuinely cannot come up with any subject-matter-related way to set your book apart, well, your topic must be pretty abstract. But even then, you could still come up with some selling points by asking yourself: how does my book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach my novel in an English literature class?

Remember, that you need to express these traits in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary — that’s industry-speak — but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is. That’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform.

Ricky Martin has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Tiger Woods interviewed over 6000 women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE PERFECT.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Why? Well, first-time authors are increasingly expected to do most, if not all, of their own book promotion.

Oh, should I have warned those of you new to the biz to sit down before I said that? Any dry cracker should help clear that nausea right up.

Seriously, think about it: a writer already poised to promote her book would be a boon to an agent or editor. Nor need you be the principal idea-monger of a marketing firm to be able to make a pretty good case that you’re already getting your promotional machine warmed up. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.

(Note to the 11% of you who just cried out in anguish, “But my local library doesn’t have such a program!”: has it occurred you to start one yourself? Speaking as both someone who grew up surrounded by working authors, half the librarians in the country, community and school alike, and fully two-thirds of the authors would line up to kiss you on the lips if you would volunteer to coordinate such a program in your town. And can you think of a better way to meet your favorite authors?)

Don’t engage in wishful thinking here, though; the point is not to speculate about what you might do in future, as nonfiction writers must in the marketing plan portion of their book proposals, but to talk about what you could do if your book dropped, say, now-ish. For platform paragraph purposes (try saying that three times fast), only include promotion that does indeed already exist. Or that you are positive that you can make exist by the time you are having your first honest-to-goodness conversation with an agent who wants to represent your book.

Establishing a website for your writing is a good start — and it’s something practically any aspiring writer with Internet access can do, even with the most minimal resources. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry, because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

A word to the wise, though: don’t even consider listing your website in your query along with a suggestion that Millicent take a gander at your work there. I can tell you now that she won’t; she simply doesn’t have time.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
I like to see every brainstormed list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what is already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

So what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category? Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (This is the best book on sail boarding since MOBY DICK!), but content-filled comparisons (Currently, there is a sad dearth of how-to guides on the market for the reader interested in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard. HERE, FISHIE, FISHIE! will bring the most up-to-date technology to bear on this difficult challenge.)

Finished brainstorming? Terrific. Now you can write your platform paragraph.

After you do, though, don’t throw out your list of selling points — that’s going to come in handy down the line. Even more so if you take the time now to put it in a format you can use again and again.

How? Start by going through your list and figuring out what are the best points, from a marketing point of view. Cull the less impressive stuff. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10 selling points, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or hand to your agent when she’s ready to start pitching to editors. Or pull it out when you are practicing answering the question, “So what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to use it as a study guide before you give interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points is a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

It’s great to be back, campers. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XII: you want me to talk about my writing credentials? The horror! The horror!

November 1st, 2011


I had intended to broach the subject of writing credentials yesterday, campers, as a Halloween treat. But honestly, I was afraid that even a lighthearted treatment might scare some of you to death.

Oh, you thought you were alone in feeling this way when an agency’s submission guidelines or querying form ask for your credentials? Far from it. To your garden-variety aspiring writer, the mere notion of having to come up with writing credentials, much less including an entire platform paragraph in a query, induces a level of spontaneous terror that would have made the late, great Vincent Price groan with envy — and a level of anxiety over what does or does not count as a credential that would have caused suspense-monger Alfred Hitchcock to say, “No kidding? All of that, just from a set of query guidelines?”

Even now, I can hear previously unpublished writers everywhere moaning and casting their gazes wildly about for the nearest fainting couch. “What do you mean, credentials paragraph?” they demand, clutching at their tightening gullets. “All that bone-chilling set of query guidelines asked for was a mention of whether I’d published anything before. And I thought only nonfiction writers had to worry about coming up with a platform!”

At the risk of causing your windpipes to close entirely, I shall show you an example. Don’t be scared: it’s something you’ve undoubtedly seen before, at least if you have been following Queryfest. As always, if you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

mars query

Just in case anyone had trouble finding it, it’s the entire third paragraph, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to… As Aspiring’s query demonstrates, the credentials paragraph need not contain only publishing credits; it can contain an array of relevant experience.

In fact, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, a platform need not be made up of previous publications and/or television appearances. What renders a writer qualified to write any given book is — wait for it — specific to that book.

Ah, there’s nothing like dropping one’s jaw onto the floorboards for restoring normal breathing patterns.

Before we proceed, let’s define our terms. A platform is the collection of credentials, life experience, and specific expertise that forms the basis of a writer’s claim to be the best person on earth — or, at any rate, one of the best persons currently inhabiting the earth — to write the particular book she is pitching, querying, or proposing. Until fairly recently, the term applied only to nonfiction: platform was industry-speak for the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book, but now, it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to speak about a novelist’s platform as well.

And a forest of hands sprouts up in the ether. Go ahead and ask the question on your minds, frantic wavers. “It’s all very well to say that what will work to make that case varies from book to book and writer to writer,” writers everywhere point out, “but that doesn’t necessarily help me figure out what to put in my platform paragraph. I know what I bring to this book, but what kinds of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform? Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what can I dredge up from my past that’s guaranteed to impress Millicent the agency screener?

Good question, hand-raisers, but 85% of you just tensed up again, didn’t you? Not too surprising: most aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with the prospect of having to justify having had the audacity to sit down to write her book in the first place.

But let’s stop the self-defeating interior monologue right there: the purpose of the credentials paragraph is not to justify daring to be a writer. You’re a writer because you’re a writer; everyone in the publishing industry understands that, so you don’t need to explain it to Millicent. And, frankly, if your book description hasn’t already caught her interest, it’s unlikely that even a pretty stellar platform will make up for it.

What the platform paragraph gives you an opportunity to do is bolster the case you have already made to have your writing taken seriously by demonstrating that you have a background that renders you an expert in the book’s subject matter. Or that others have noticed you for your writing, in the case of publications or awards. Or even, in the case of academic degrees, that you are a person who finishes what you start.

All of these are desirable traits in an author. But you hadn’t been thinking of your credentials in these terms, had you?

To be fair, this is seldom the way agency websites and speakers at writers’ conferences tend to talk about platform; their definitions are often pretty cut-and-dried. It’s not unusual for a fledgling writer to walk away with the impression that he cannot possibly land an agent unless he happens already to have (a) published several books with major publishing houses, yet somehow managed to avoid picking up an agent along the way, (b) won a major literary contest, (c) published a plethora of short stories in The New Yorker, or (d) had the foresight to have become a celebrity in his spare time. While none of these are actually prerequisites, no one in the industry would deny that they are mighty decorative in a query.

And what is the hapless writer who cannot legitimately claim (a) – (d)? I’m afraid the classic professional answer is a trifle on the callous side: if you don’t have writing credentials, get some.

Most aspiring writers are turned off by this advice, because they assume it could only be referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possibility here. Admittedly, people who have never tried to write for publication sometimes do think it’s easier for a good writer to break into print than it actually is — you’d be astonished at how many agents and editors can still be heard urging literary conference attendees to start their careers by trying to get short stories and poetry published in small journals, as if the number of publication slots (and, indeed, of small literary journals) had not dropped precipitously in recent years. There’s even a fairly substantial school of thought that the rise of the Internet has rendered getting one’s writing in front of others so much easier than it used to be that a print-ready writer’s not having some sort of previous publication is actually surprising.

Oh, you didn’t know that writing posted online is technically published? Sort of changes how you think of your blog’s value as a writing credential, doesn’t it?

Does that widespread snorting out there mean that some of you have heard different? “Yeah, right, Anne,” some of you scoff. “I’ve heard agents say at conferences that Internet publications are completely worthless as writing credentials.”

Actually, it would be a trifle surprising if you had heard those very words. As so frequently happens with brief snippets of querying advice that fly around the writers’ conference circuit, this often-heard truism is a radical oversimplification of a much more complex concept. What the pros actually tend to say when cornered on the subject is that online publications are not the same as print publications. As credentials go, they are usually taken less seriously. But that’s not the same thing as a credential’s being worthless, or even irrelevant, is it?

Stop nodding; it isn’t. By that logic, a dollar is worthless because it isn’t a hundred-dollar bill.

At query time, a writer has to work with the background he actually has, not what he would like to have in order to impress Millicent. (Assuming, of course, that he has not had the leisure to follow that advice about going out and getting some publication credits.) If a web-based award, featured article in an online publication, or regularly-maintained blog is the writing credential you have, it probably will not wow Millicent as much as a short story published someplace like the aforementioned New Yorker, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t help establish that your writing is already being read by somebody.

Oh, you hadn’t thought of your writing credentials in terms of an already-existing audience? You should: the goal of including publishing credentials in your query is not merely to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on your writing, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.

Why is that important? Well, people in agencies, like inhabitants of publishing houses, harbor a well-documented prejudice in favor of writers whose books might conceivably sell to an admiring public. They enjoy seeing evidence that an otherwise unknown writer’s name might ring a bell with some readers down the road, when the book being queried is released.

Why do you think they regard celebrities as having inherently strong platforms? It’s not just that those people are household names; they have names readers would recognize on a bookshelf.

Millicents also frequently appreciate credentials that imply some experience writing under a deadline. Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even — dare I say it? — maintaining a blog that posts on a regular basis.

(Unlike, say, mine in recent weeks; sorry about that. This car crash recovery thing honestly is very energy-sapping. I shall try to plow through the rest of this series with more regularity.)

“This makes sense,” my former scoffers observe, “and frankly, this logic isn’t all that complicated. So why don’t agency guidelines and speakers at conferences just tell us to list what’s relevant to the book, and leave the credentials at that, instead of running down online publications?”

That’s an excellent question, ex-scoffers. Would you like the cynical answer, or the non-cynical one?

Let’s begin with the latter. To folks who deal with queries all day, every day, what is and isn’t a useful credential is pretty self-evident: a solid platform consists of facts about the author that will render the book easier to market, first to editors, then to the reading public. It just wouldn’t occur to them that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more than that.

If you happen to be querying a book in a genre with a well-established, vigorous online readership, darned right that your fourteen juried submissions to that respected online ‘zine would be worth including in your platform paragraph. So would a blog that caters to readers in your chosen book category, as well as your third-place ribbon from that highly competitive online literary contest.

But a vague reference to posting a short story on a website of which Millicent has never heard? Unlikely to help your case much.

The cynical answer, I warn you, carries a bit of a sting: like so much of the professional advice for would-be queriers floating around out there, complaints about queries that include online publications are not, generally speaking, uttered with the expectation of being treated with the force of law. Surprisingly often, the frustrated souls who produce them are thinking of a specific query offender. Or at any rate, a class of them whose queries tend to read a little something like this; see if you can spot the subtle agent-irritants throughout.

See why a query like this might stick in the mind, if not the craw? Even if Millicent could bring herself to overlook the peculiar typeface and the oddly-colored paper (“I want it to stand out in the stack!” — Casual), she’s unlikely to read beyond the hard-selling, boast-laden, practically information-free opening paragraph. While the book description does apparently lay out at least part of the book’s central conflict, who is the target reader here? Young people, after all, is a trifle non-specific. And while you may think I made up the bit about the six-figure advance and how much the writer wants to get published, screeners see these sort of assertions all the time in queries.

Don’t believe me? I lifted those two sentences directly from the last conversation I had with a screener; I had just asked her what a querier could say to put her off the book immediately.

Did you notice, though, how thoroughly unimpressive the online publication looks on this page of purple prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) That’s not necessarily any reflection of the publications themselves — Casual has simply not told Millicent enough about them to judge their worth as credentials. It’s simply a vague assertion, leaving her to wonder: published what online? Published where online?

Starting to make more sense that her boss might complain about online publishing credentials the next time she’s asked about it at a writers’ conference?

Some of you remain unconvinced that any non-publishing credential will do, though, don’t you? I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised; I have long suspected that part of many writer fear stems from that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers. That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can.

“What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would prefers to represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp and a month or two of chagrin by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it, in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor. They are saving the previously-unpublished some wasted time.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are literally hundreds of wonderful agents out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of squandering your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again. “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I haven’t won any online awards lately.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it?

What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

That got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t it?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game.

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies. (10,000 sales is the usual threshold for impressive for the latter, by the way.) A previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query. The previously published also tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline, a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their respective jobs significantly harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of any sort silently signal that you approach your work like a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is immensely complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as actual readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories than if you wrote periodic columns on boosting homeowners’ recycling acumen for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query. Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying.

Oh, you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem, if you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the downside is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate that — wait for it — the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers labor under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at the very concept of a deadline, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them. But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you wouldn’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query? She may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness as some others, but that doesn’t mean she will ignore it altogether. Besides, having something publishing-related to put in the platform paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there.

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…

Need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in more than one book category. But think about it: if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is indeed what some of them mean. But most of them are just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right? Keep humming it in the key of G.

A few of that forest of raised hands seem to have regrown. “Back up a minute, Anne. What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well. Even established novelists often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. Book reviews. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with the book you are querying. Or even your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might well be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. (See, I told you to keep humming.)

Or this: you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference in theory, but occasionally, it does in practice. Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Have you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, can-booter: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may easily be described very tersely. Not an insignificant advantage, in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

Don’t believe me? Okay, how many lines of text would it take you to tell Millicent that you used to be a Monkee?

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality, not a literary assessment. Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct a platform. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet. So why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

You’re dubious, are you not? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel they pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness in a criminal trial: my Ph.D. would might not render me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being whose perceptions of reality could be trusted. (Perhaps because they don’t count as many academics among their acquaintance as I do.)

A personal platform is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book. Whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform also demonstrates why people in the media might be interested in interviewing the author.

While your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you have written the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for book sales, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of this NF sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA-aimed book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

If memory serves, however, Amy Carter, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirably pleasure-seeking in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

I may be going out on a limb here, but how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to your book’s subject matter?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not; any experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading. That summer you spent following the caribou herd, documenting its — ahem — dating patterns.

Seeing where I’m going with this? At the risk of sounding like, well, pretty much anybody else who gives advice on platform, if you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can always go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as publication-based ones. So why not spend the next few months making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, which is a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Oh, you wouldn’t?

If your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by. You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. (Where have I heard that before?) Do be aware, though, that unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner a significant number of hits on a regular basis (thanks, readers!), Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se. If it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? Or those comments that in the electronic age, publication credentials are easier to come by than ever? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out one individualized query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

That being said, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question — in boldface, no less.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

Again, this is old hat to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident. The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: that beautifully-written descriptive paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query itself is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

“Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform planks might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, AND an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph (or even two, if they’re short) pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

Is your brain buzzing like a beehive, awash in the multiplicity of options? If not, don’t panic — in my next post, I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest XI: who, me? Inconspicuous? When I’m tap-dancing and waving sparklers?

October 27th, 2011

Yet another unplanned hiatus, campers: my server went down like a glass-jawed boxer, taking my blog access and e-mail with it. If you were picturing me taking advantage of my suddenly net-bereft existence by curling up on the nearest chaise longue with a stack of new releases, you underestimate the shrillness of my telephone. How on earth did so many curious people — and I mean that in both senses — find out that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the 1934 San Francisco General Strike? Is there some sort of database for academic work the author never tried to get published? Or are there merely very few people who have written on the subject, since, say, Franklin Roosevelt was president? I’m not complaining — I’ve gotten some awfully interesting conversations out of it, enough to prompt me to dig out my long-buried notes on a novel set in the 1930s — but if anyone’s gearing up to come knocking on my studio door to ask questions about my fifth-grade history paper on the Bonus March, the professor’s out for the weekend. I want to get back to that stack of new releases.

My literature-minded parents, you will be either amused or appalled to hear, made me type that history paper in standard format, because professional presentation of a book manuscript was not the kind of thing they wanted their little girl to traipse into middle school not being able to do. I had to explain to my teacher what a slug line was.

Speaking of documents that must adhere to the rigors of standard format, I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission: after so many days away from you fine people, I’m longing to kick Queryfest into overdrive. In celebration of my newfound vim and the ostensible cooperation of my server (hang in there, baby!), I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist this very evening. I’m going to be tackling readers’ burning questions on the subject in the days to come, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t devoted a midnight or two to worrying about your querying prowess. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at manufacturing huge, complex structures entirely out of angst.

I’m also going to be taking my infamously sharp editing pencils to a randomly-selected few readers’ queries as illustrative examples. If you would like to toss yours into the mix, submit it exactly as you would to the agent of your dreams — but send it as a Word attachment, please, so I may take a peek at your formatting — to contest@annemini(dot)com. (You thought I would set up a separate address for non-contests?) Naturally, I shall change contact information if I use it as an example; please give some indication in your e-mail whether you would prefer that I use your actual name or a pseudonym. Oh, and do include a positive statement that I have your permission to use your query as an example.

To our muttons. As those of you with unusually good memories may perhaps recall, before the connectivity imps dragged me temporarily from your presence, I had asked — nay, demanded — that those of you who had already drafted queries print them up, plant them firmly by your doubtless attractive elbows, and ask yourselves an array of trenchant questions about them.

Time again to whip ‘em out. Our last batch of questions will focus upon means of conveying that your book is interesting, in addition to being marketable under current literary conditions. Contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for even the most fascinating book how or why it is likely to pique readers’ interest. Or whether it is exciting. Or even vaguely original.

Blessed are the Millicents, for they shall be plowing through it all.

Of course, some of the queries passing under her weary eyes must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely, gob-smackingly compelling books fail to make them sound even remotely so. It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination — and sufficient reason for total strangers to mob bookstores, clamoring to read their books.

I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who have spent the last few years polishing the latest iteration of the Great American Novel, but that’s just not how it works. Few readers march into the corner bookstore and announce to the nice person manning the cash register, “I want to buy a book. Not on any particular subject matter, mind you, and I have no strong literary preferences of my own. No, I want to purchase some volume of prose simply because someone was enterprising enough to write it. Lead me instantly to such a tome, my good man.”

“That’s going to present a bit of a problem,” the clerk would be forced to say. “By definition, every book in here was written by someone enterprising enough to write a book. Unless, of course, it’s a celebrity memoir, in which case it was written by someone enterprising enough to get paid for writing in someone else’s voice.”

Doesn’t happen much, I’m afraid. And that’s why, in case anyone had been wondering, agents and the Millicents who screen queries for them seldom cast their eyes over a query that makes a book sound mundane and exclaim, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that this story doesn’t sound very exciting, or that I think it will not appeal to any currently-established group of readers. The author clearly worked very hard on it, and that’s good enough for me. Let’s request the full manuscript!” Not being in the business of seeking out the best in new literature on a not-for-profit basis, they harbor a prejudice for books they believe they can sell.

Then, too, the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Literally everyone who sends off a fiction query has done as much — or should, if she is playing by the rules. (You did know that agents assume that any novel being queried or pitched will be not only completely drafted already, but fully polished, right?) And every nonfiction book proposer is at least planning to sit down and write a book.

So in order to catch Millicent’s eye, your query is going to need to make the book sound like it has more going for it. An original and thrilling plot, for instance. An intriguing narrative voice. A set of facts not presented in that particular way before, or an argument the nation would be better for having heard. That sort of stuff.

It may seem strange that I feel compelled to point that out, but you would be astonished at how many queries don’t make a good case for any of these. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the book being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter in question.

Yes, outraged masses banging on the door of my studio? “But Anne,” purists everywhere shut, “I’m a novelist/memoirist/narrative fiction writer/political essayist looking for the skinny on the Bonus March, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely, Millicent must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it is not particularly likely to interest readers in a specific target demographic, rather than leaping to that conclusion based on the query alone?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to get through on any given day. Since her boss, the agent of your dreams, could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to leap to that conclusion as speedily as possible for the overwhelming majority queries. She was specifically hired to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits for the agency, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, Virginia, the ones that just don’t make the book sound especially interesting.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Stop seething and think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), that letter is going to have to make her believe that the book is fascinating.

Why, yes, that is a pretty tall order, now that you mention it — and virtually impossible to pull off when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:

broken-record Realistically, every English sentence a writer places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a manuscript’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many templates out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that screener forget that you are listing the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — but your job is to make it look easy. A good writer, the theory runs, should be able to make even relatively ho-hum matters read well. If you are talented enough to make a paragraph about your writing credentials sound like a gripping saga (or, at the very least, as though all of human history up to yesterday had been specifically arranged to render you the best possible writer for the book you are proposing), imagine how stirring a descriptive paragraph you could construct about your plot or argument.

You must have found them fascinating, mustn’t you, to devote all of that time to writing a book about them?

Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on our query checklist are intended to help you sound like the good writer you are — and your book like the great read it is. Who could have seen that coming?

(31) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be. The goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios. There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, the doctor who can’t heal himself, the protagonist in a high-risk job who cannot commit romantically, the man whose family is slaughtered within the first scene so he has an excuse to embark upon a festival of revenge, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make Millie exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” Or at least, “Wow, that’s a magnificent turn of phrase about a fairly predictable plot point.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about how much Millicent likes amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept. News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction. This is the place to air your ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like this:

Ambrosia (a not-so-sweet 16) is a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport.

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

Ambrosia (16) is a ditsy cheerleader — or is she? She has spent her first three years of high school carefully cultivating a reputation as a nitwit, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader

Does that chorus of groans mean you’re getting the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the — wait for the cliché — plague. Excise anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a stereotype.

(32) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — a notoriously common tactic in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. Few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if she does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing adolescent ear. He was also prone to shouting, “TWAIN!” at students who failed to spell proper nouns correctly, presumably in reference to Mark Twain’s assertion that he didn’t care what was printed about him, as long as they spelled his name right. (Several public figures have disputed his claim to have said that first; Dorothy Parker certainly said it most often.)

Sure, my teacher’s DTs occasionally caused him to see Edgar Allen Poe peering at him menacingly from dark corners, but the man knew his way around a sentence. Like him, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to complain, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

(33) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects. How better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor who will acquire the book. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, professors (or ex-professors, like yours truly), or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible — quoth they: “But these people really sound that way!” — but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.) And honestly, if a writer can’t make it through a paragraph-long plot description without resorting to jargon, why shouldn’t she assume that the manuscript will be peppered with the stuff?

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write. Since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions, not an integral part of them.

Wow Millicent with your expertise in your book’s subject matter, by all means — but in the query, be sure to cast them in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(34) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context, but remember, Millicent is reading a whole lot of these missives in a row. The fact that your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences — or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in each — is bound to make those queries start to blur together after a while. Take a peek at this fairly typical gem:

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope it will interest you. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet. They catch a fish. It gets away. Life is strange.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA, and thus probably not reflective of the narrative voice in this particular narrative. Despite the current popularity and burgeoning innovation of the YA market, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — poor grammar and/or spelling are far more common prompts. (Chant it with me now, campers: reread that query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you pop it in the mail or hit SEND.) However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea in a pea-green boat. They find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem? As I have argued about narrative writing, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line.

Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning. After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to impress Millicent with your writing acumen.

(35) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Eschewing the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because, not to put too fine a point on it…

broken-record Pretty much every professional reader in the U.S. has been specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing. At minimum, it’s less vibrant than more direct and active sentences. If you want to impress a pro with the quality of your writing, you should avoid the passive voice as much as possible.

Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your querying coach to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end, just going on and on without ever seeming to reach any point or satisfactory conceptual conclusion, perhaps because due to lemmings a lack of proofreading by them in order to free their text from incursions by older draft remnants. Or maybe they are just being glowered at by E. Allen Poe. In any case, there are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.

Had enough of that reader-abusing structure? Millicent has — and frankly, so have I. After years of yanking such sentences out of query letters, synopses, and manuscripts, I actually found it mentally painful to construct that last paragraph.

Because the literary world’s disdain for the passive voice is so close to universal, most of you probably already take active steps to avoid using it in your manuscripts. Surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well, though. In a way, that’s understandable: when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim had descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions. Everybody knows that seraphim are the ones that wield rulers.

Just between us, there’s another reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses. On an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(36) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot. They receive even more queries that imply that their protagonists are not active.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen — and what do you know? The villain spontaneously confesses. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement. Even then, those lips don’t actually make contact until flooding wafts the rocking horse across the room to push him into her.

As I’ve explained at length in the past about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right), I shan’t belabor the point on the manuscript level. In the course of trying to summarize a complex premise in a query, though, many writers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.

So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so? Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of her job description.

Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine. And no, just having her name be the only one that appears in the descriptive paragraph isn’t necessarily sufficient to pull that off.

(37) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes in the book’s central conflict seem high enough for my protagonist that readers will care about the outcome? Does the conflict come across as both plausible and compelling? For other nonfiction, have I made the problem or issue I’m addressing appear important?
There’s a truism in editing: if a dialogue scene is dragging, raise the stakes for one of the speakers. The more the characters care about the outcome of a conflict, the easier it will be for the reader to care, too. By the same token, a fine revision tactic for keeping the reader turning nonfiction pages is to make a strong and continual case for why the subject matter of the book is vital — to the individual reader, to the society, to the world.

The same principle holds true for queries: if Millicent understands what a protagonist stands to gain or lose from confronting a clearly-defined problem, she’s more likely to find the story compelling. Similarly, if the query makes it pellucidly clear why she should care about its central question — and, more importantly, why readers in the target audience will care deeply about it — the argument is more likely to grab her.

Or, to cast it in #36’s terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.

Memoir queries are especially prone to underselling the importance of what’s at stake for the protagonist. After all, from the memoirist’s perspective (and frequently for writers of autobiographical fiction as well), the primary significance of the story may well be that (a) it’s a true story and (b) it happened to the writer. Shouldn’t the very truth of the story, combined with the single person most able to give an inside perspective, be enough to captivate readers?

That’s certainly an understandable point of view, from a writerly perspective, but from a professional viewpoint, the answer is usually no. No one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because the events described in it happened to the author; there are far, far too many truthful memoirs out there for that to be the sole criterion for book buyers.

Don’t believe me? Okay, plunk yourself down in front of the memoir section of any well-stocked bookstore. Remain motionless until you overhear a browser in that section murmur, “You know what I’m looking for? A true story. Preferably one that really happened, if possible in real life. It would be nice if the author were the person to whom it happened, and I would be absolutely in heaven if that character never stirred so much as a fingertip to alter her ambient conditions. Yep, that’s the book for me.”

When you’ve stood still so long that bookstore patrons have begun to use you as a coat rack, perhaps you will admit I have a point here.

Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of a memoir. So does Millicent in evaluating a query to decide whether she should request pages. Just as it’s the writer’s job to construct a manuscript or book proposal’s narrative to render the story compelling not just for herself, it’s incumbent upon the querying memoirist to give a screener plenty of reason to say, “Wow, this sounds not only like the narrator is an interesting person in an interesting situation — the conflict he faces comes across as one that will fascinate many readers in the already well-saturated memoir market.”

Yes, her thoughts honestly are that prolix. Our Millie is a complex reasoner.

Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard in making your case for your story or argument’s importance: implying that resolving the burning issue of leaf droppage on your lawn is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter. The line between conveying importance and self-importance can be distressingly thin.

That’s the beauty of raising the stakes: ideally, you won’t have to make positive statements about the importance of your subject matter at all, at least for fiction. (For nonfiction, go ahead and explain why the world should care. Or at least a niche audience of readers.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw her own conclusion. You are just leading her toward the conclusion you wish her to draw.

You’re also, I would like to remind you, leading her away from drawing unflattering conclusions about you and your book. Which is why you should ask yourself…

(38) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder. Ahem:

broken-record For a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

(39) Does my query letter read it is talking about a book in my chosen book category?
Well might your jaw drop. It is unbelievably common for queries in general, and book description paragraphs in particular, not to sound like what they are, promotion for a specific type of book aimed at a specific target audience who will look for it on a specific bookshelf in any old bookstore. Thrillers often aren’t described as remotely thrilling; mysteries fail to mystify, and heartwarming tales of romance and personal fulfillment leave Millicent’s cockles downright icy.

Can you really blame her, then, for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that the manuscripts in question will not provide the experience readers of thrillers, mysteries, or heartwarming tales have come to expect?

Even if the plot comes across as genre-appropriate or the argument is presented well, the language used in queries frequently leaves Millicent wondering if their authors have even read widely in their chosen book categories. Queries for YA dotted with three-syllable words, like descriptions of books purporting to explain the mysteries of particle physics in which no word exceeds four letters, imply a manuscript that does not, to put it mildly, take its target readership’s vocabulary levels into account.

Remember, Millicent is trained to think in terms of book categories — and to make her mind up fast. Just as it would be poor strategy for the first page of your novel or book proposal to leave her in doubt about your ability to write well for your target audience, your query’s word choices, particularly in the book description paragraph, should reflect the book category in which you hope to publish.

(40) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book, isn’t it?”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last time: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and, to employ an often misused term, unique. Your book actually isn’t like anybody else’s — so why should your query read like 57 of the last 72 that crossed Millicent’s desk? You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

Of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, you might want to bring that up in your query, too. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of Queryfest, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading rise exponentially.

Next time, I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in your platform paragraph. Or, as we like to say here at Author! Author!, we’re going to be celebrating Halloween by handing out some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest X: all of these questions aren’t burning you out on querying, are they?

October 22nd, 2011

How are you faring, Queryfest participants? (I was on the cusp of dubbing you Queryfesters, but the image the word evoked was a trifle distasteful. An editor never stops thinking about how words will scan on a page, as well as what they mean and how they might sound spoken aloud.) Are your queries looking bright, shiny, and relatively free of the straightforward errors and omissions that dog the garden-variety letter to agents?

Or — and please be honest with me; I can take it — is your original query concept now hanging in tatters, wafting in the wind, mournfully longing for the day when it felt ready to stride out the door and into Millicent the agency’s screener’s overflowing inbox, blithely unaware of just how stiff the competition is there?

Oh, those of you who felt this way thought you were alone? Actually, it’s a pretty common response to realizing for the first time that in the publishing world, every syllable of everything a writer submits is a writing sample. There’s no such thing, then, as a successful query that’s just kinda close to what Millicent has been trained to seek, nor is just hitting every point on an agency’s posted querying guidelines generally sufficient.

I feel an aphorism coming on: while those new to querying often presume that the query is just a formality, composed of a series of hoops through which an aspiring writer must jump, and that their writing will not be judged until an agent requests and receives manuscript pages, that is simply not how the system works. For the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there, the query letter is literally the only sample of their writing anyone at the agency will read.

To put it another way, in order to get an agent (or editor, at a small publisher) to read any of your manuscript at all, you will first have to convince her to do so. Querying and pitching are your only options to do that politely — and frankly, most writers’ conferences that allow pitching are quite expensive. As querying is the lower-cost option, a good agent’s inbox, either tangible or virtual, constantly overflows with missives from aspiring writers.

A good half of those communications will be so unprofessionally put together, poorly written, and/or missing crucial pieces of information — the type of book it is, for instance — that Millicent the agency screener will be able to tell at a glance that her boss, the agent, will not be interested. Another third will be better written and contain most or all of the necessary elements, but will arrive at agencies that just don’t represent that kind of book. (Yes, really — you’d be astonished at how few queriers seem to research agents before hitting SEND.)

Then there’s that top 17% or so, the conscientious writers that have taken the time to learn something about how agencies actually work. Their queries tend to be aimed at agents who represent books like theirs, at least, but they often undersell their own stories by trying to make them sound too much like a recent bestseller. Or mystify Millicent by not indicating a book category at all. Or even — sacre bleu! — inadvertently make themselves look unprofessional by adopting an inappropriately informal tone (Hi, George. Looking for solid memoirs by self-made businesspeople — well, have I got a book for you!), engaging in a generic hard sell instead of demonstrating the book’s market appeal (This is the next Great American novel, and you’d be a fool to pass up your chance to get in on the ground floor of what’s sure to be a blockbuster series!, or making claims that reveal they’ve just not bothered to do very much research about what books like theirs are gracing bookstore shelves these days (This is the only novel ever written about a woodcarver’s deep love of his craft, a devotion so profound that his pieces seem alive to him.)

“Yeah, right!” Millicent chortles, reaching for the omnipresent stack of form-letter rejections. “Hey, Geppetto, ever heard of an obscure book called PINOCCHIO?”

I sensed at least 5% of you shifting in your seats. “Gracious, Anne,” the time-strapped cry, clutching their suddenly pale cheeks. “I get that it’s in my best interest to pick a book category and target only agents who represent it, but what makes you think I have TIME to keep up with all of the latest publications in my chosen genre? It took me years to carve out the requisite hours to write my manuscript/draft my book proposal, and having to query at all, much less construct a synopsis, is eating great big holes into my revision time. Isn’t it more important to write a good book than to figure out how to sell it to an agent?”

Well, yes and no, pale clock-watchers. Yes, your chances of getting published are substantially higher if you have written a good book, but that alone is not sufficient endeavor to land an equally good agent for it — a fact which, unfortunately, most first-time writers of good books don’t figure out until they have been querying for a while.

Often not even then. Hands up, everyone who has heard a rejected fellow writer complain that the publishing world just isn’t ready for his book — that it’s too revolutionary, uses language too well, presents an entirely new spin on human relationships, exposes a secret unlike any that has been seen on the printed page before, etc. Keep those hands in the air if, upon subsequent questioning, you discovered that this paragon of literature got rejected at the query stage, rather than as a submission. And wave those hands mightily if you said, either to yourself or to the huffy writer, “Excuse me, Ambrose, but if all the agent saw was your query, how could your startling insights, blistering prose, and/or trenchant analysis of the human condition have been the reason she rejected it? Mightn’t the problem have been, you know, the query?”

Because I love you people, I’m not going to ask those of you who have been the Ambrose in this situation to raise your hands. You know who you are.

I am, however, going to ask Ambrose and those who happen to be personally fond of him to take a moment to ponder the possibilities here. Far too many talented aspiring writers assume that the only reasons their queries could have been rejected is some problem with the book: the story’s not marketable enough, publishers stopped buying chick lit two years ago, the protagonist sounds like a downer, etc. Accordingly, they become discouraged — what would be the point of continuing to query a rejected book? — and just give up.

I get why giving up on querying might be tempting — honestly, I do. However, there’s no denying that the book that isn’t particularly marketable today may well be next year, or even next month; keeping a weather eye on recent releases could help you there. It’s also undoubtedly true that agents’ tastes often change over time, as do agencies’ plans for where they want to place their focus, so the agency that rejected your last book flat might well be interested in your next. And let’s face it, where one agent (or, more likely, his Millicent) does not see market potential, another will, but you’re not going to find that out unless you persevere.

Then, too, if your query lands on the wrong desk, no matter how great the book in question is, or even how beautifully the query is written, it doesn’t stand a chance, right? The same principle applies if you approach the wrong agent within an agency; since the standard etiquette dictates that a writer may query only one, it honestly is worth doing your homework first. You can also kiss that agent goodbye– and you wouldn’t believe how common this is — if you queried the perfect agent too soon after you finished writing the book, before you’ve had an opportunity to go back over it with the proverbial fine-toothed revision comb.

You were aware, right, that you’re only supposed to query any given agent once with any given writing project? Oh, Millicent turnover is so rapid these days that it’s unlikely that the same human being will screen your query two years apart, but if you realize three months hence that Chapter 2 contains a huge continuity problem, sending a repeat query isn’t likely to revivify your prospects at that agency.

As frequently as Millicent sees all of these faux pas — especially the one about beginning to query too soon: now that many agencies allow queriers to include the first few pages in their query packets, it’s apparent far earlier in the process who has and has not taken the time to re-read or even proofread her work — there’s one that crosses her desk even more. I am referring, of course. to the query that reads exactly like 30 others she has read that day, for the exceedingly simple reason that there’s a template out there that 31 of the day’s queriers heard somewhere was sure-fire.

Trust me on this one: a personalized query will stand out in that crowd — and one that sounds remotely like you’ve done some reading of recent releases in your chosen book category will practically bring tears of relief to Millicent’s weary eyes. Returning to our query troubleshooting list…

(25) Is it clear from my query that I’m familiar with recent releases like mine? Even better, do I sound as though I have picked this agent based upon that familiarity?
This may seem like a subtle one from the writer’s side of the querying relationship, but on the query page, it’s often painfully obvious if the querier is thinking of both his book and his query list in generic terms: he has a book to sell, and agents sell books for writers, so any agent who sells remotely similar books will do, right?

Wrong. No agent represents every kind of fiction — and certainly not every conceivable kind of memoir. Actually, although it may be hard to tell this from a brief blurb in an agency guide, it’s relatively rare for agents not to specialize within a particular book category. And I’m not just talking about an agent’s preference for Highland romance over romances set in Ancient Rome, either: these people often like to see particular types of sentence describing those lads and lassies. As will soon be apparent if you take the time to go to a bookstore, pull recent books by three or four of the agent’s clients of the shelves, and read a few opening pages.

Research, my dears, research; there’s just no substitute for it — and the more specifically you can show the fruits of that research, the better. Why, you ask? In the interest of inculcating good writing habits, instead of telling you, I shall show you.

Let’s say, for the sake of example, that Desperate Togetpublishedson has written a YA novel set against the backdrop of the highly competitive junior show jumping circuit, a sterling piece of literature entitled NEVER SAY NEIGH. Let’s further assume that Desperate wants to query Literate McSalesperson, an agent with a long-established track record of selling books about horses and the preteens who love them.

That’s a great choice, probably based upon some solid research on who’s selling books like Desperate’s these days. But Literate’s Millicent would never know it from a query that opened like this:

Because you represent YA aimed at young girls, I hope you will be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

That’s not bad, but Desperate’s honest-to-goodness market research doesn’t really shine here, does it? The bit about Literate’s representing YA for young girls could have been gleaned by the most cursory glance at one of the standard agency guides — or even a simple web search. (And news flash: most YA is aimed at young girls; they tend to read more than young boys.)

Let’s take a peek at what happens if our Desperate decides to be a trifle more specific.

I read in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents that you were “looking for YA with strong female protagonists.” My novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, definitely fits the bill: it’s about a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Better, isn’t it? If a trifle literal-minded: does the direct quote of what anyone in the industry would consider a fairly generic preference honestly help the case here? And does it really matter where Desperate picked up this information? A less pedantic presentation of the same information would make the same point without — please forgive my putting it this way, but it is how Millicent would think of it — sounding as though Desperate had read somewhere that he should include a reason for approaching Literate, but couldn’t come up with anything specific?

Calm down, Desperate, and try it again. Literate isn’t really looking for citations here.

Since you represent YA with strong female protagonists, you may be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Ah, that’s nice — but if Desperate actually did go to the trouble of tracking down some other books Literate represented, that professional-level effort is not apparent here. Citing a specific book would leave no doubt on the matter. It’s an especially nice touch to bring up a first-time author’s title, underscoring that Desperate has done the requisite research to realize that Literate does take a chance on a new voice from time to time. (Not a foregone conclusion in the agenting world, by the way; it’s worth your while to check.)

Since you so ably represented Debuty de Firsttimer’s HOW AM I EVER GOING TO CLIMB INTO THAT SADDLE? I hope you will be interested in my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

“But Anne!” the literal-minded cry, and who can blame you? “That nifty bit about the strong protagonists fell out of this version! Since Literate feels strongly enough about that preference to have mentioned it in her guide listing, shouldn’t Desperate bring it up?”

Ah, but Desperate did bring it up — by depicting his protagonist as strong, rather than just saying she was. Nifty trick, eh?

Do be certain, though, that any book you cite actually is comparable to yours. Don’t stray outside your book’s category, or you’ll defeat the purpose here. I hate to show a bad example, just in case blog-skimmer out there decides to copy it under the assumption that I meant it as a guide (oh, you’d be astonished at some of the comments I get from people who don’t read carefully), but as Desperate has been generous to make this mistake first, I’d like you to benefit from his sad experience.

Since you handled science fiction writer Outta Myleague’s extraordinary debut, THIS STORY HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUNG GIRLS OR HORSES, I am writing you in the hope that you will be willing to represent my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

“Excuse me?” Millicent cries. “Do you not understand the term science fiction? Why on earth would an agent interested in one book want to read the other?”

Good question, Millie. Unfortunately, you’ve already rejected Desperate’s query, so I doubt you’re going to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him anytime soon.

Do all of those glazed eyes out there indicate that some of you are frantically searching through your memories, trying to recall tidbits you have read about various agents and the books they have represented? Excellent. I have a bit more to say about how you might turn that information to your advantage, but in order to give you all some processing time, I’m going to veer our discussion back toward matters more technical.

(26) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or U.K. spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
Hey, I told you the next one was going to be technical. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border. And while your spell-checker may not find fault with either version, a New York-based Millicent is going to take one look at the former and say, “Great. Now some poor soul is going to have to comb through this manuscript, changing everything to U.S. spellings.”

I hate to burst any bubbles currently floating outside U.S. borders, but the publishing world’s opinion is united about who that poor soul should be: the writer. Who, let’s face it, might not be all that happy about the prospect. So in practice, when a query turns up here with U.K. or Canadian spellings, it says to Millicent, “Hi! If you ask to see this manuscript, not only will your finely-tuned editorial sense have you longing to correct the spelling every other page, but if your boss falls in love with the writing, she will have to have a rather unpleasant conversation with the writer.”

Yes, I am saying what you think I am, far-flung writers: if you’re planning to write for the American market, Millicent will expect you to use U.S. spellings in your query. Her boss is going to insist that you alter every single instance in your manuscript, anyway, so why not beat the Christmas rush and do it now?

You’re quite right — it’s annoying, but honestly, Millicent and her ilk have a point here. While books that have already hit the big time in the U.K. or Canada are routinely available in their original forms here, the original publication site dictates what is considered proper. Since a previously-unpublished manuscript with U.K. spellings would have to be altered before it could be released in the U.S. market, can you blame an agent for considering such a manuscript not ready for circulation to domestic agents?

At the query stage, though, the presumption of further revision’s being needed is not the only danger. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

The same principle applies in reverse, of course: tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience, the agent, based upon where he resides. If you’re a Yank approaching a U.K.-based agent, you’ll be better off conforming to his view of the English language. (Unless, of course, you happen to be an American celebrity — then, your oddball spellings will be part of your complicated charm.)

Ready to start talking about books like yours again? Dandy.

(27) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance with a Futuristic Feel to It or Time-Travel Thriller with Magical Realist Elements.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such descriptors are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that she’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that she’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put my book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a — wait for it — conceptual box, after all, a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. (Starting to read like a word problem in a math class, isn’t it?) After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Oh, as though long-time readers of this blog didn’t see that coming.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her? More to the point, is it really in your best interest to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Vampire Romance-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(28) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query.

Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it. A publication is a publication is a publication.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting critique group, feel free to mention that as well, although this one is less effective than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. (The Internet has spawned some pretty wacky writers’ groups, and Millicent knows it.) Anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include, though.

If you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth; writers who do this almost invariably get caught in the long run. (The same holds true for queriers who include recommendations from people who didn’t actually recommend them, by the way.) Just leave out this paragraph. Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(29) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means, in practice, that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected. And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(30) Have I made any of the standard faux pas, the ones about which agents complain early and often?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it. If you thought Millicent was in a bad mood after she burned her tongue, trust me, you don’t want to see how she reacts to that memoir based on something that really happened to me.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular Millicent-irritant, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Delphine Margason says this is the most moving book about figure skating she’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on a show hosted by someone like Oprah. Or Jon Stewart. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Charlie Rose.

Or…well, you get the picture.

Violating any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread. Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones that fell onto her desk within the last month.

Believe it or not, we still haven’t run through all of the common Millicent-irritants out there — and we have barely begun taking a serious gander at examples of what does and doesn’t work on the query page. Join me next time for more on these exciting topics, and, of course, to keep up the good work!

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