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Author! Author!

Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?

January 29th, 2013

As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while are, I hope, already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits all querying advice. Or generic writing rules allegedly applicable to all writing everywhere, for that matter. While there are indeed some standard expectations hovering above the querying process — keep it to a single page; be polite; include your contact information; tell the nice agent what kind of book it is, and so forth — I have for seven years now been a tireless advocate of the notion that there’s no such thing as a query that will appeal to every agent, every time.

Certainly not one that will withstand mass mass-mailing to every agent in Christendom with no more fine-tuning between strikings of the SEND key than a change in the salutation from Dear Mr. Representativeson to Dear Ms. Choosemenow. Yet as someone who regularly blogs about querying, teaches classes on it, and offers one-on-one consultation to writers trying to improve their querying chances, I regularly encounter would-be queriers absolutely outraged at the mere suggestion that learning enough about an agent’s sales record and client list to be able to personalize the missive might conceivably be more effective than simply sending the same thing to everyone.

The personalized route is demonstrably more effective, incidentally, but try telling that to an eager would-be author determined to send out 200 queries within the next week and a half. There’s no one so sure of what he is doing than someone that’s learned only the bare minimum requirements for a query and thinks that any old agent will do.

Also not true, by the way: agents specialize by fiction vs. nonfiction, book category, and often by writing style or narrative worldview as well. Narrowing their sales focus enables them to pitch their existing clients’ work more effectively to their already-established network of editorial connections.

But try explaining that to a determined writer who’s promised herself, her kith and kin, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy that she’s going to land an agent for her novel, darn it, before Easter or perish of exhaustion in the attempt. No matter how gently those of us who handle manuscripts for a living break the news that in practice, there’s no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for even the best-written book in a category her boss simply does not represent, she’ll cling to the belief that while there’s a stone left unturned, she hasn’t yet given it her best shot.

I have also not been particular quiet about my belief that, contrary to online popular opinion, it does not make either creative or strategic sense to approach people looking for original writing and innovative ideas by lifting a prefab query template, plugging your book’s information into it as if it were a Mad Lib, and merrily send the result to the agent of your dreams. Usually, all that achieves is causing Millicent the agency screener’s eyes to glaze over, because, let’s face it, the 712th reading of a stock phrase like my novel is complete at XX,XXX words is no more likely to strike anyone as startlingly beautiful writing than the 12,453rd.

But try explaining that to someone cranking out Query No. 84 out of a projected 217. “But I saw it in an example online!” these well-intentioned souls will shout, wiping the sweat from their eyes as they lick the next envelope — or, even more often, pound the SEND key yet again. “If it didn’t work, why would it be posted to help people like me?”

Oh, where do I even start with that one? Perhaps by keeping it simple: despite the apparently astonishingly pervasive belief that all of the writing/querying/submission advice online is equally credible, it isn’t. Furthermore, there’s no Ambrosia, the Good Agent or Euphemia, the Good Editor floating over the ether, whacking incorrect or, even more common, insufficiently explained online guidance with their magic wands, transforming misguided self-described words of wisdom into something actually useful.

Believe it or not, the ideas put forth in that last paragraph reliably generate controversy in querying classes, in the comment section of post on querying, and, indeed, in pretty much any writers’ conference in North America. Which is funny, because often, the very aspiring writers most vehement about a particular theory on querying success tend to be those most irritated by the diversity of opinion they’ve turned up online. It’s hard to blame them, really: if you want to hear fifteen different views on querying, each presenting itself as the authoritative last word, all you have to do is traipse into a class, conference, or online forum and ask to be told what to do.

I accept all that, after all these years. That’s why I always provide such extensive explanations for any querying — or submission, or writing, or editing — strategy I urge you to embrace: as an established blogger, I’ve learned from experience that savvy writers new to the game are often juggling conflicting advice from multiple sources. I would never dream of asking smart people to take my advice just because I say so.

It may come as a surprise, then, that today, I’m going to give you some querying advice that I do in fact expect everyone within the sound of my fingertips tapping on my keyboard to take as much to heart as if Ambrosia, Euphemia, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy all appeared above your writing desk, chanting it in three-part harmony: never, under any circumstances, send out a query letter without having both spell-checked and proofread it.

I hear some of you chuckling, thinking it would never occur to you to hit SEND or pop a query in the mail without double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that it was free of typos and grammatical errors. Would you still think it was safe to shrug off this rule if I added and you should do this every time, even if you’re sending out essentially the same query letter ?

Ah, you’ve stopped laughing now, haven’t you? At some point in his checkered career, virtually every aspiring writer has just churned out two or more query letters that closely resembled each other. With the entirely predictable result that the Millicent working for agent Sharpeye McNitpicker at Literary Giants Literary Management has frequently opened an envelope to find an opening like this:

Selectivity Exclusiveberg
Seldompicksupanewclient & Jones Literary Agency
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg:

Well might you gasp, but honestly, when you’re mailing off a lot of queries all at once, it’s pretty easy to shove one into the wrong envelope. And, lest those of you planning to query via e-mail be feeling smug, it’s even easier to copy an earlier query and forget to change the salutation. Imagine Sharpeye’s Millicent’s facial expression upon finding this in her inbox:

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg,

Since you so ably represented Rookie T. Neophyte’s MY FIRST NOVEL, I am hoping you will be interested in my mainstream novel…

It wouldn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out what happened here — clearly, our querier had just sent off a query to the excellent Mr. Exclusiveberg. Millicent would realize that, of course. Think about it, though: if you were Sharpeye’s loyal screener, wouldn’t you be just a trifle annoyed at this querier’s lack of attention to detail? Wouldn’t you be inclined to leap to the conclusion that a writer this overwhelmed by the querying process, however understandably, would also feel flummoxed by the often-intimidating submission process? Or the sales process, or the publication process? Wouldn’t you be likely to suspect that this querier might be just a trifle more time-consuming for your boss to represent than someone who took the time to make sure the right query went to the right agent?

And while I’m asking rhetorical questions about your feelings about a job you don’t currently have, wouldn’t you also feel the urge to hit DELETE the 926th time you saw a query addressed to your nice female boss like this:

Dear Mr. McNitpicker:

Congratulations on your continued success in representing Bigwig Z. Bestseller’s thrillers. My thriller, DERIVATIVE? YOU BET! is very much in the same tradition.

Here, our querier has correctly identified one of Sharpeye’s clients, but has obviously not bothered to read her bio — which, as any true admirer of Ms. McNitpicker would happily tell you, repeatedly and correctly refers to her agenting triumphs via the feminine pronoun. Because her name might conceivably refer to someone either male or female, her Millicent has also rolled her eyes over many an otherwise well-crafted query that has tried to hedge by using both names:

Dear Sharpeye McNitpicker,

Or by embracing a too-familiar tone in the query overall, presumably to justify dispensing with the honorific altogether in favor of the first name:

Dear Sharpeye,

I love your blog! And while we’re talking about great writing, why not take a look at my memoir, REMINISCENCES OF A NARCISSIST? It’s so fantastic, it’ll blow your mind.

Now that you’ve been toddling along in Millicent’s moccasins for a few examples, it may not completely astonish you to learn that all of these are usually instant-rejection offenses. If a screener saw any of them only once in the proverbial blue moon, she might be amused enough to let it pass, but if she toils at a large agency or screens for an agent that represents a bestselling author, she might well see each of these several faux pas crop up several times per week.

If not per day. But try telling that to a querier who thinks he’s cleverly avoided the Scylla of gender misidentification by steering straight for the Charybdis of unprofessionalism.

Oh, you thought I chose today’s opening illustration at random? Would that be in keeping with my notoriously close attention to detail?

The strong likelihood of misaddressing the agent of your dreams, or at any rate, his hardworking Millicent. is not the only reason that I would urge you to read your queries — feel free to sing along with me here, long-time readers — EACH TIME IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, however, even though we all know that’s the best way to catch any mistakes. Beautifully-addressed queries frequently run afoul of yet another beastie haunting agency waterways.

Instead of just warning you of the monster’s existence, let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat. To give it a sporting chance of escaping, I’ve allowed it to swim freely around a hard-copy query. If you’re experiencing trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Not the world’s easiest missive to read, is it? But just try explaining that to the lover of fonts who is absolutely convinced that choosing an off-the-wall typeface will make her query stand out from the crowd. And she’s right: it will — for the font and nothing else.

Remember, part of what a writer demonstrates in a query is a reasonable willingness to conform to the expectations of the publishing industry. In that spirit, here’s that query again in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard. Notice how much more room Wacky has to make her case with a smaller font.

How gratifying to see so many hands flung skyward. Yes, eagle-eyed readers? “But Anne,” those of you conversant with my HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER FROM SCRATCH series bellow triumphantly, “there are quite a few things wrong with this letter! It doesn’t contain a date, for one thing, and Wacky’s e-mail address appears in blue, a Word AutoFormat correction that’s notoriously annoying to screeners. Nor does it include Wacky’s phone number. Shouldn’t a savvy querier be making it easier, not harder, for an agent to contact him? Her? What kind of a name is Wacky, anyway?”

You’re quite right, bellowers: I had asked you a trick question — this query does contain several red flags, even with the more legible font. Any of you bright people want to tell me why not including a date on a regular mail query might trigger rejection?

Help yourself to a gold star from petty cash if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because an undated letter might have been sent anytime! That makes it seem as though — sacre bleu! — Wacky has been reusing the same query for every agent she’s approached, changing only the address, salutation, and work to be praised!” This is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, dating from the pre-personal computer days when aspiring writers would write what were known as Dear Agent letters, photocopy a hundred of them, and mail them to every agency in New York.

Today, the personal computer renders the same tactic much easier to disguise, but still, why advertise it? While writing a basic query letter and personalizing parts of it for each agent is in fact quite a clever strategy, it defeats the purpose if the letter’s lack of a date indicates that it’s a multi-purpose document. Maintain the illusion; even though Millicent knows perfectly well that with the current practice of not answering queries if an agent does not want to request a manuscript, she’ll appreciate the courtesy.

Did you happen to notice, though, the dead giveaway that Wacky had not proofread this query — and thus, Millicent might be within her rights to extrapolate, might not have proofread his manuscript, either? If you didn’t catch the repeated problem, try going back and reading the query out loud.

Did you spot the multiple dropped words that time? Whenever text is composed quickly, there’s a danger of the head’s moving faster than the fingers, resulting in skipped words, punctuation, and even sentences. And perhaps I’ve been misinformed, but when writers are composing something they don’t really want to write — like, say, a query letter or synopsis — they do tend to rush the job.

That’s not the only reason this problem has become ubiquitous in queries in the home computer age, however. As you may perhaps have heard, savvy queriers often compose a basic query letter, then personalize it for each recipient. With every cut, paste, and added word, the chances of cutting a necessary element without noticing it rise.

I sense a few more raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne, even with the missing elements, it’s perfectly clear what Wacky wanted to say here. His story sounds like an interesting one, although like many readers, I may well be thinking of it rather differently now that I know it to have been written by a man than a woman. That’s a topic for another day, however. At the moment, what I really want to know is if Millicent is reading Wacky’s query very quickly, anyway, isn’t it possible that she might, you know, overlook the missing words?”

It’s possible, I suppose, remotely so. It’s also remotely possible that by the time we wake up tomorrow, the literary world will have decided that sentence fragments are much, much cooler to read than complete sentences.

And then. We’ll all. Be writing. Like this.

Even if the world changes so much that cats develop opposable thumbs and begin turning up as dealers at poker tables, though, the possibility that dropped words, repeated phrases, misspelled words, clich? use, and other line-level red flags will fall off Millicent’s to-scan-for list within our lifetimes remains so remote that we should probably stop speculating about it and start worrying about those kitties.

The publishing world appreciates good writing, and that means preferring clean, polished prose to, well, the other kind. But just try explaining that to a writer that believes, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, that agency denizens will be willing to look past problematic writing in a query. It’s only fair to judge a writer on the writing in the manuscript, right?

I can see why a writer might feel that way: a query, like a synopsis or a book proposal, calls for a different kind of writing than a novel or nonfiction manuscript. But just try explaining that to Millicent, whose job is predicated, at least in part upon the assumption that it is not only possible but probable that someone who can write a book well can also produce a graceful letter. Or synopsis. Or book proposal.

Oh, dear — should I have told you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Writers trying to break into the biz seldom think about it this way, but at the querying stage, the only basis Millicent has to judge writing quality and talent is, you guessed it, the query letter. If that doesn’t strike her as well-written — or if, as we saw in that last example, it doesn’t seem to have been either proofread or put together with the level of care her agency expects from its writing clients — she will reject it.

And no, in response to what many of you just thought very loudly, she’s not allowed to treat a query like our last example as her own Mad Lib, filling in the spaces with words of her own. That would be judging her writing, not yours.

To be fair, though, she might not have noticed all of the dropped words here, for the exceedingly simple reason that she might not have kept reading after the first or second gap. Once she’s noticed a red flag or two, she’ll generally stop reading and move on to the next query. That’s often the case, incidentally, even if the agency in question’s submission requirements allow queriers to include a synopsis, book proposal, or the first few pages of the book in the query packet. Since the query will be the first thing Millicent reads in it– remember how easy it is for her to reject a type of book her boss does not habitually represent? — if its not well-written, she’s unlikely to peruse anything else. Next!

Which comes as almost as great a surprise to most first-time queriers as the majority of manuscripts’ being rejected on page 1 comes to most first-time submitters, I’ve noticed. Why ask for pages, both parties wonder, unless someone’s going to read them?

Good question, and one with a good answer: so they will be handy. If the screener likes the query, why, she can turn immediately to those opening pages; if she finds the first few pages of the manuscript gripping, she doesn’t have to e-mail the writer to get to read the rest of the book.

While that’s sinking in, let me call on the disgruntled souls that have had their hands in the air since I first broached the subject of Millicent’s eye for sentence-level detail. “But Anne,” they mutter, and can we really blame them? “I get why Millie might have taken umbrage at that last example — she would have had to fill in the missing words herself, and that’s not really her job. As you say, she can only judge the writing by what’s in front of her. But you mentioned typos. Surely, we all see enough of those even in published writing these days that she’s going to see them for what they are, slips of fingers in a hurry, not as deliberate mistakes.”

I’d urge you to try to make that case to someone who reads hundreds of queries per day, but frankly, I don’t think you’d have a chance of convincing a professional reader. Agents, editors, contest judges, and Millicents are specifically charged with noticing the small stuff, after all; it’s part of their job not to look past textual errors. And realistically, given only a page of writing, how on earth could a screener tell whether the writer used the wrong form of there, their, and they’re because he was in a hurry, or because hadn’t learned the rules governing their use?

Or, almost as serious from a publishing perspective, if simply thought it didn’t matter, because someone else would be proofreading his work down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that if the agency signed that writer, they could not ever send out so much as a page of his writing without reading it first? Wouldn’t that prove problematic if an editor asked for a quick revision?

Then, too, it doesn’t pay to underestimate how distracting those of us that read for a living find small gaffes. How distracting, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: since I’m fond of you fine people, I’m not willing to run the risk that even a single one of you might not be aware of how to decide when to use some of the more commonly mixed-up words. Just for the record, then:

There = in that place
Their = belonging to them
They’re = they are

It’s = it is
Its = belonging to it

Mom = the name one might conceivably call one’s mother
her mom = the lady in question’s mother
her Mom = an improper use of capitalization. Generally speaking, only proper names should be capitalized — and if you mention a city, country, or named institution in your query, make sure it is spelled correctly.

Speaking of institutions, person graduates from a school, not graduates college.

Whew, I feel better for having gotten all of that off my chest. Oh, what a relief it is. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and all’s well that end’s well. While we’re at it, where’s the beef?

Sick of it yet? Millicent is — and to be completely honest, she’s puzzled. Why, she finds herself wondering over query after query, would a talented writer waste perfectly good page space by including even a single stock phrase, rather than original phrasing? Isn’t the point of any writing sample — and make no mistake, every syllable a writer sends to an agency is indeed a writing sample — to show how you would phrase things, not how any random person on the street might?

I’m sensing some nervous shifting in chairs, am I not? “Gee, Anne,” those of you gearing up to send out a few queries murmur under your respective breaths, “all of this is making me self-conscious. I feel as though my query is going to be examined under a microscope.”

Not the most original of concepts, murmurers, but I understand the feeling. I have to say, I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re getting antsy — it means you have an accurate understanding of just how important the writing in your query letter is to your chances of interesting an agent in your work.

Had I mentioned that you might want to invest a little time in proofreading?

To give you some practice, and to help convince the few of you out there who I can feel trying to shrug off this advice, here is Wacky’s query again, with the problems we have been discussing cleaned up.

Not a bad little query, is it? Now here it is again, after having come down with a severe case of the typos. Do you find the addition of the gaffes distracting? If you were Millicent, would you read it all the way to the end? (My apologies about the spacing at the bottom; there actually is a margin there, but my pesky finger slipped while I was capturing the image. And yes, I know that excuse wouldn’t fly with a screener.)

Ooh, that was painful to produce. I could have sworn that my fingertips were about to burst into flame when I typed their instead of there. I had meant to use — ow! — an apostrophe + s form a — it burns! It burns! — plural, but my weak frame wasn’t up to it.

Be honest, though: you had only seen that last version, wouldn’t you have assumed that Wacky wasn’t the world’s best writer? And if you’d been sitting in Millicent’s chair, wouldn’t you have been tempted to call, “Next!” even though the book sounded like it might be fun to read?

Or didn’t you notice that the story seemed like a hoot, because your eye kept flying to those typos? And if so, would you like to try explaining that to Wacky, or shall I?

Proofread, people. In your query’s entirety, preferably in hard copy and out loud. And, as always, keep up the good work!

4 Responses to “Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?”

  1. comment number 1 by: Dave McChesney

    I forgot to change the salutation for new query letters a few times when I was sending them off. What a disheartening moment it was to discover having done so, usually after having dropped it in the mail or having hit “send!”

    The part about conflicting internet advice reminds me of the insurance company commercial. She says she heard the company doesn’t offer certain services, as she heard so on the internet. It has to be true because they can’t but any false information on the web.

    The young lady soon departs with her date, a French model she met…via the internet.
    Dave

  2. comment number 2 by: Anne

    I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve seen writers realize with a sickening feeling that they’ve done just that, Dave. It’s so incredibly easy to do.

    The commercial sounds hilarious. It’s amazing how many people believe that truth-in-advertising rules extend to basically everything they see in print. Even the suggestion that a savvy surfer might want to consider the source of any given statement often elicits gasps of disbelief.

  3. comment number 3 by: Jeff

    I just wanted to give you an idea for future blogs on the writing craft. Specifically, stylistic suggestions that are given as absolutes.
    More Specifically, things like:
    Adverbs will send you to rejection hell; -ly adverbs will send to to a particularly bad part of hell.
    Readers can’t handle POV shifts – – or, Sorry Professor Tolkien and other writers in 3rd person omniscient.
    Put all action in past tense.
    -ing verbs are weak, get rid of them.
    “was” (and other forms of “to be”) should be deleted from your vocabulary.
    “was” followed by an “-ing verb” should never be used.
    Dialog tags are for amateurs.
    semicolons (or parentheses) are not appropriate in fiction.
    –those are just some of the absolutes I’ve encountered. I’m guessing the truth is more nuanced.

  4. comment number 4 by: Anne

    You’re right, Jeff: the truth is far more nuanced. When editors get together amongst ourselves, “Where on earth did this writer get the idea that s/he must never do X?” is often heard; those of us that work with manuscripts spend a lot of time disabusing writers of writing truisms that were not originally intended to be applied as universally-applicable rules.

    I’ll definitely try to work some posts on common one-size-fits-all rules into the next few months, if you like. In the meantime, though, you might want to take a quick look at some of the posts under the WRITING ADVICE TRUISMS; I suspect you’ll be encouraged by what you find there.

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