Queryfest, part XXI: all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up, or, that pesky credentials paragraph revisitedJanuary 9th, 2012
Before I launch into today’s foray into all things query-related, a quick announcement about a long-time member of the Author! Author! community: lawyer, novelist, and musical comedy author extraordinaire Mary Hutchings Reed‘s daring novel about what goes on behind the beautifully-veneered doors of a high-powered law firm, Courting Kathleen Hannigan, has just become available as a 99 cent download for electronic readers. Congratulations, Mary!
As those of you who were excited by Mary’s guest post about writing on verboten topics may recall, COURTING KATHLEEN HANNIGAN is a book that flies in the face of prevailing notions of what goes on in law firms — including those behind-the-scenes thrillers written by authors who, like this one, have spent years in the trenches. Unlike some of those glossier works, this reads like the real thing because it is. Here’s the blurb:
Courting Kathleen Hannigan tells the story of an ambitious woman lawyer, one of the first to join a male-dominated national law firm in the late seventies, whose rise to the top is threatened by a sex discrimination suit brought against the firm by a junior woman lawyer who is passed over for partnership because she doesn’t wear make-up or jewelry. When Kathleen Hannigan is called to testify, she is faced with a choice between her feminist principles and her own career success. Courting Kathleen Hannigan is a story for women and minorities everywhere who are curious about the social history of women in law, business and the professions, institutional firm cultures, and the sexual politics of businesses and law firms.
If I know myself — and I like to think that I do — I suspect I shall be blandishing our friend Mary into writing a guest post on making the authorial transition from traditional bound book to the electronic version; it’s certainly a topic that’s being much discussed in publishing circles these days. Although in private settings (like, say, in that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America), publishing types tend to decry the industry’s not having anticipated how close the costs of producing an e-book would be to putting the same book out in trade paper — oh, you thought the editing and promotional costs would be less? — the undoubted successes of some inexpensive downloadable books have raised quite a few professional eyebrows. Obviously, the low cost (99 cents!) is very nice for readers, but it’s a gamble for both publishing house and author: let’s face it, for this to be a money-making proposition, they are going to have to move a heck of a lot of copies.
Which, as is so often the case, renders the challenge a lot more, well, challenging for first-time authors than for the established. I know from conversations with aspiring writers (often in the aforementioned bar) that e-publishing strikes many as an intriguing option, but I’m curious to know what you think: how do you feel about the current trend toward super-inexpensive e-books? Or about electronic books in general, for that matter? Have the benefits to readers and writers outweighed the costs?
Just wondering. Aspiring writers so often have different views of marketing issues than traditionally-published authors that I would love to do a compare-and-contrast. I’m also eager to know what those of you brave enough to have self-published — or to be seriously contemplating self-publishing — think of price-setting for e-books.
Tell me, Goldilocks: too high? Too low? Or just right?
While all of you are clearing your throats, sharpening your quills, and warming up your typing fingers in preparation for a vigorous debate on the subject, allow me to segue back to matters query-related. Specifically, to that most hated bugbear of the querying process, the optional credentials paragraph.
And already, your neck and shoulders have tensed up, have they not? The fact that I specifically identified it as optional didn’t make a particle of difference to your visceral response, did it?
If the very notion of discussing your writing credentials — or lack thereof — made you cringe, believe me, you are certainly not alone. As we have discussed earlier in this series, many, if not most, previously unpublished writers believe, wrongly, that the only acceptable writing credential to mention in a query letter is a publication. And not just any publication, mind you: a traditionally-published book.
An interesting set of presumptions, isn’t it? In order for this axiom to be true, all agents would have to harbor a secret yen to represent only previously-published writers of books. So take that, journalists of thirty years experience: in this context, you might as well never have placed pen to paper. Too bad for you, short story authors: if only that beautiful piece you published in The New Yorker counted for anything in a query. And who are you kidding, Nobel laureate?
Sounds kind of silly when it’s put that way, doesn’t it? The fact is, the overwhelming majority of first-time authors (of novels, anyway) cannot boast any previous publications at all. Since we all know that the major U.S. publishing houses will not, as a matter of policy, consider unagented adult fiction manuscripts, somebody must have represented these folks. So how could it possibly be true that the only way to catch an agent’s eye is to have published a book before?
Besides, agents (and agencies) that will consider only previously-published writers are hardly secretive about it: they pretty much always state that preference loud and clear, to limit the number of queries their screeners (like our old pal, Millicent) need to process. The quickest of peeks into any of the standard agency guides will tell you that, as will even a cursory gander at those agencies’ websites. If they are not open to representing someone new to the game, believe me, they will tell you.
And even if they are not, they usually don’t limit themselves to previously-published authors of books. Check their client lists: usually, such agencies’ are crammed with journalists, short story writers, and/or bloggers, not all of whom will ever have published a book before.
So why would such an agency be especially interested in such writers, if they don’t have experience working with a publishing house? Two reasons, typically: those writers have demonstrated an ability to meet deadlines (yes, even the bloggers, if they post regularly) and they already have name recognition with readers. Heck, they arguably already have established audiences.
Don’t believe me? Is this your first time visiting Author! Author!? Think my agent is unaware of how many of you sterling people drop by on a regular basis — or that he doesn’t mention those numbers when discussing my manuscripts with acquiring editors?
Some of you are still shaking your heads, I fear. “But Anne,” you point out, and who could blame you? “All of this is very nice for those who can establish a platform via previous publication of petite pieces or paeans of praise for persistent posting of poetic or perspicacious prose. (Try saying that four times fast!) But I have no writing credentials at all. Zero. Zilch. So I should just leave the credentials paragraph out of my query altogether, right?”
Well, you could — as indicated by the use of the word optional above, although your limbic system chose to ignore it whilst formulating your twitching response — but that’s not necessarily going to be in your best interest. You may well have credentials that Millicent and her boss will find intriguing that — sacre bleu! – do not stem from the printed word.
And eyes roll across the English-speaking world. (If that’s not a disturbing image, I should like to know what is. Quick, somebody lasso those stampeding eyeballs!) “You’ve mentioned that kind of platform-construction earlier in Queryfest,” eye-rollers everywhere chortle, “and I can imagine non-publication credentials making up a nonfiction platform, but I have yet to see a concrete example of it for fiction. Or for memoir, although I could not possibly have a better platform for writing my own story than having lived it. But that’s a topic for another day.”
Yes, I did discuss non-publication platform construction earlier in this series (specifically, here and here), and the other day for memoir is coming soon. For the nonce, however, I would like to show you a very good concrete example of the effective use of non-publication credentials in a platform paragraph in a fiction query.
Once again, I turn to a stalwart reader for a positive example. As some of you may recall from our last Queryfest post, a few brave souls answered my call for real, actually-being-circulated query letters to dissect for everybody’s benefit here at Author! Author! Most, as you will notice in the examples I will post later in the week, have elected to volunteer under pseudonyms.
Today’s courageous volunteer, however, was kind enough to allow me to use his real name (although not his real address — I’m not about to post personal information about my readers online). And, even better for our purposes today, his real credentials.
So join me, please, in thanking by self-publishing author, blogger, and all-around fab guy D. Andrew McChesney, better known around Author! Author! as inveterate commenter Dave, for being kind enough to share his query with us. As those of you whose memory of his guest post last September on self-publishing remains evergreen can attest, Dave is not longer circulating this query; he has, as the topic of his guest blog may well have tipped you off, elected to pursue the self-publishing route for Beyond the Ocean’s Edge.
That does not mean, however, that his query wasn’t awfully darned good. It does mean, however, that I feel justified in — nay, compelled to — share the blurb for his naval fantasy with you. It will provide us with a unique opportunity to compare the descriptive paragraph of the query with what the author would want to see on the back of the published book. Here goes.
â€œSee what, Isaac, my old friend?â€ Pierce recognized his comradeâ€™s state of mind and did not correct his lapse of quarterdeck etiquette. Clearly, a more personal and comfortable approach was needed.
â€œThe stars! The stars, sir! We werenâ€™t just looking up at â€˜em. We were amongst them. There was the sea, and then there wasnâ€™t. Anâ€™ the stars were below us as well! And we were there, right among them, like we were the stars themselves, or the moon, or. . .â€
â€œIâ€™m sure you saw what youâ€™ve described. Unfortunately, I chanced not to see it, although I have had a strange feeling of timelessness.â€
Is it possible to sail beyond the oceanâ€™s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.
Throws us right into the middle of the action, doesn’t it? Yet obviously, as it stands, this blurb would not be appropriate to toss wholesale into a query.
Oh, it’s not so obvious why? Okay, let’s take a gander at what that might look like. Step gingerly into Millicent’s well-worn moccasins, please, and compare that plot description transplanted to the query page. As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.
Now let’s have a look at Dave’s actual query:
No contest, is there? As desirable as plunging the reader directly into the book’s central conflict might be on the dust jacket (or in a prologue), it’s just confusing in a query. While the more active sentences in the blurb are nice (in the query’s book description, the sentence structure frequently implies that our hero is acted upon, rather than directing the action), Dave’s actual query makes a better — and quicker — case for Millicent to ask to see the manuscript.
The moral, should anyone be searching for it: what might work as promotional copy will not necessarily be effective in the book description paragraph of a query. In fact, it usually will not.
We can see here why, can’t we? Over and above being too abrupt a transition into the storyline, lifting lines from the manuscript and plunking them down in a query does not create text that adequately fulfills the function of the descriptive paragraph in a fiction query: to present the book’s premise and central conflict in a compelling manner that depicts the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.
Ah, but you will say, the final paragraph of the first version’s description does that — in, as the observant will have noted, in practically the same language as the descriptive paragraph in Dave’s actual query. Anyone see a problem with waiting that long to present the premise?
If your hand flew into the air, endangering the coffee cup on your desk (you really should consider elevating your computer, for that very reason), as you shouted, “Yes! Yes! Millicent has to read queries very, very quickly indeed,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. Chant it with me now, Queryfesters: because agency screeners deal with such a high volume of queries (particularly in January), it is not prudent for a querier to assume that Millicent will read his entire letter before making up her mind. Many, many queries get rejected within the first paragraph or two.
This is not likely to be the fate of Dave’s actual query, though, is it? In that second example, he gets right to the point: eschewing excess verbiage, he immediately informs Agent Hawkeye why he is querying her, what kind of book he is offering (in this case, one in a hybrid category), and what the book is about. After establishing the novel’s unusual premise, he goes on to demonstrate that his writing is based on relevant life experience (22 years in the Navy renders Dave’s views on seafaring pretty darn authoritative in my book), presenting it side by side with references to comparable books. Nor does he stop there. In his platform paragraph, he shows that he has made efforts to professionalize his publication efforts — and, not entirely coincidentally, to build his support system for promoting his book after publication — through participation in various writers’ organizations and literary contests. Oh, and he has some published pieces, too.
“I see your ‘Oh,’” the eye-rollers cry, “and raise you a ‘Yeah?’ I grant that his associations and contest placings do make him come across as better-prepared to navigate the publishing world than many writers, but what about that first publication credential. Why would Millicent be impressed by his having written for and edited a monthly newsletter?”
I might not have placed that information first in the credentials paragraph, personally, but Dave did have a pretty solid reason for including it here. Any guesses?
If you immediately exclaimed, “Why, it demonstrates that he has experience meeting deadlines — and possibly rather tight ones, too,” congratulations: you’ve been paying attention to today’s post. This credential does indeed show that; it also hints at an already-established means of informing potential book-buyers already in the habit of reading Dave’s work when he has a book coming out.
I sense that some of you remain unconvinced of this kind of credential’s efficacy — or, indeed, of the desirability of including this paragraph at all. To gain a sense of what it adds, let’s examine exactly the same query letter with that paragraph removed. Heck, while we’re at it, let’s take out Dave’s unquestionably relevant naval background as well.
Not nearly so professional-looking, is it? As far as Millicent knows, this Dave person has no publication experience at all. Nor does he have any literary contest credentials. Nor — and this really saps the query’s originality — does the author apparently have any practical knowledge of what it might take to sail a ship.
See the problem? Dave actually has this platform, but unless he mentions it in the query, Millicent cannot possibly begin to form the faintest idea of the wealth of naval experience he’s brought to this story.
“Wait just a Millicent-confusing second, Anne!” those of you doing double-takes exclaim. “I see how Dave’s untraditional credentials add to his credibility here, but something changed besides the content of the query. In the earlier versions, there was no skipped line between the paragraphs; in that last example, there was. What gives?”
Good question, double-takers. Care to speculate why I might have chosen to add the extra spaces?
If you waved a languid finger while pointing out, “Well, since both ways are acceptable to Millicent, this might have simply been a means of rendering the letter a trifle more eye-friendly to a skimmer,” rack up another gold star. In a mailed query, either skipping a line between paragraphs or not is fine, just so long as the first line of each paragraph is indented the proper half-inch. (In an e-mailed query, where it’s harder to make sure that indenting will be reproduced correctly on the receiver’s end, skipping a line between paragraphs would be the better plan.) Then, too, with the sheer volume of text in the query reduced, not skipping those lines is no longer necessary in order to fit the whole letter onto a single page.
Oh, you hadn’t noticed that in the original? Dave didn’t indulge in any of the font- or margin-shrinking Millicent so justly deplores; he merely — and quite rightly — did not add the extra space when it was not required. If he had, his query would have been uncomfortably cramped on the page. Like so:
Not as pretty, is it? Nor does it appear as professional: in this version, Dave would have to sign his name in the bottom margin. And before anyone tries to shrug that off as a purely cosmetic problem, allow me to point out that since the contact information at the top of the page does not include Dave’s name, it does not appear in print anywhere on the page.
That’s going to be something of a drawback, should anyone at the agency want to, say, pick up a phone and call this writer to ask a follow-up question. Or send him an e-mail to request pages. In either instance, we’d all better hope that his signature is unusually legible.
If Dave had felt strongly about including those skipped lines between paragraphs, or had he had been concerned about length — as, again, he didn’t really need to be in this instance — there would have been an easier way to buy a little more page space here. Not placing quite so much in all-caps format would buy some room (and be more proper: contest names don’t really make sense in that format). So would simply being less specific about some of those credentials would have made him come across as equally accomplished, in Millicent’s eyes; to her, learning the title of the essay, for instance, is not going to add much credibility.
She doesn’t have the time to double-check the veracity of his claims before requesting pages, after all. Trust me, she doesn’t have the time to spare. (Which is why it’s always a mistake to include an URL in a query: it implies an expectation that she will drop everything in order to check out your website.) And honestly, omitting some of these specifics doesn’t compromise the sense of the solidity of Dave’s background much at all. Lookee:
Speaking of cosmetic problems with practical implications, did you notice the tiny Millicent-goaders cleverly inserted into the original, to render it a subtler and therefore more useful example for Queryfest purposes? (How like you to test our collective eye like this, Dave! Thanks for saving me the trouble.) I left them intact in that last version, but corrected them in the one that follows. To render this a greater challenge for your revising eye — oh, you thought I hadn’t been ramping up the difficulty as we went along here? — I’ve also rearranged the running order and tweaked the descriptive paragraph to make the protagonist come across as more active.
See if you can spot the purely technical differences; Millicent would in the proverbial heartbeat. I think you’ll be surprised at what a difference they — and the more active role our dashing captain plays in this version of the description — make to the overall impact of the query.
Well, how did you do? Despite the revised text, I hope four minor changes leapt out at you: moving the date, closing compliment, and signature from the far right-hand side of the page to closer to the middle; reformatting the contact information at the top so it was not considerably smaller than the text of the letter; recoloring same so the contact information is printed in the same ink as the rest of the letter, and correcting a few minor punctuation mistakes.
While the first two would probably have bugged Millicent at a subconscious level (“This letter seems slightly off,” she might mutter, but read on regardless), the third could conceivably have triggered rejection in a mailed query, and the fourth might have in either a paper or e-mailed letter. As Dave so slyly reminds us (I’m onto you, buddy!), there is no substitute for spell- and grammar-checking; Millicent, we must bear in mind, has been trained to regard typos as red flags. Don’t tempt her.
Placing all of the contact information in blue is, admittedly, not all that common, but allowing one’s e-mail address to print that way is ubiquitous. Word has a nasty habit of changing e-dresses and URLs into blue dress when we’re not looking, after all. Change it back.
Why? It’s yet another of Millicent’s pet peeves, and not merely because she sees it so often. No, more meets her eye here: to a professional reader, someone who deals with manuscripts for a living, the only conceivable reason that anything on a printed page would have been printed in blue is that the writer didn’t notice. In other words, the writer didn’t proofread it before sending it out.
Speaking of assumptions about how agency denizens are likely to spend their time, eh? Chant it with me now, long-term readers: a writer who doesn’t habitually proofread is a more time-consuming client for an agency than one that does. Not to mention a less trustworthy one at deadline time, someone whose last-minute revisions are going to require a once-over before the agent can feel confident about forwarding it to an interested editor.
But you wouldn’t be that much trouble to represent, would you? No, you’ve done your homework; you know that part of presenting your work professionally at the query stage involves making sure the details are right. And that spelling counts.
Thanks for the subtle test of our revising abilities, Dave, as well as the fruitful example of a non-traditional platform paragraph — two, even. And, of course, we’re all looking forward to seeing Capt. Pierce’s adventures in print!
A final note to everyone else: astonishing how helpful it is to see how other writers query, isn’t it? If it makes you wonder why you haven’t been comparing queries with the other aspiring writers of your acquaintance, well, it should. For some reason that defies understanding, even writers happy to thrust every syllable of their manuscripts at any human being who murmurs half-heartedly, “Oh, I’ll have to read some of your writing sometime,” are frequently too shy to show their queries or synopses to another sentient being before packing them off to Millicent.
That’s understandable, of course — it’s rare that one’s query or synopsis represents the height of one’s creative capacities, after all — but is it really a good idea to have someone in a position to reject you be the first person to read them? Or, even more potentially dangerous to your book’s chances, to proofread them?
I leave you to ponder those cosmic questions until our next exemplar bravely steps up to the starting block. Keep fine-tuning those details, everyone, and keep up the good work!