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

Good evening, campers! Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open our night shift Querypalooza post with an image of an un-stormed one.

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

What’s that you say, campers? That’s what it felt like back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerns feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — thanks for clearing up that little misconception.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what kind of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

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

Because agents and their screeners read hundreds of the darned things every week, even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

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

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

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply. (You didn’t honestly believe that Millicent or her boss actually re-typed I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with thisevery time, did you?)

In the spirit of trying to avoid being the object of either dismal fate, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one, shall we? At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far. As a reward for virtue, we begin tonight with a few an exceptionally easy problems to fix.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. It simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say:

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

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

Otherwise, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir. Just make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness in a different tense. For example:

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

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

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book. But all the same, just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only goal here; if you really want to make a great first impression, allow the descriptive paragraph to reflect the voice of the book.

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

So if the book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

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

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

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your ENTIRE letter were written in an entertaining tone. And let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a comedy.

Seriously. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Sorbonne, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

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

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

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

Don’t believe me? Take a gander:

MIXED SIGNALS is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of the turbulent 1960s. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description is essentially about a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? WHO is it about? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. She is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what the manuscript is for, right? As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

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

If not, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

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

Even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly many agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries, the query is going to determine whether Millicent reads anything else you sent. So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

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

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

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

With:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) What do you remember about the second?

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

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women?

I rest my case.

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

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

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

(23) If my descriptive paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This is a question that often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

Most query letters share one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in my earlier series on pitching (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE on the archive list at right) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident.

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

To revisit one of my earlier mantras: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

Once again, we see that it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind, this seems like an excellent place to stop for the day. More probing questions follow at 10 am, of course.

Oh, you thought I was going to bring Querypalooza to a screeching halt the instant Labor Day weekend was over? Oh, but we still have exciting material to cover, campers. So while I shan’t be able to keep up this weekend’s blistering pace once the working week has started, you might want to check back in tomorrow morning. And early evening, if I have not collapsed into a quivering heap of exhaustion by then.

I wouldn’t send you out to query only partially prepared, after all. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part V: before you pop that missive in the mail…

Anne Mini and the mail slot

We’ve just been zipping through the diagnosis and treatment of the ailments from which your garden-variety query letter tends to suffer, haven’t we? There’s a good reason for that: many, many aspiring writers stateside are using this long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters, and I wanted my readers to have freshly updated advice on hand for the beginning of the autumn foray.

It’s not only the queriers who are feeling autumn in the air these days; it’s prime polishing time for submitters, too. Labor Day marks the dividing line between the summer writers’ conference season and the fall conference season, so pitchers who received requests for materials over the summer are starting to feel antsy about sending out those submissions. Another week’s worth — or month’s worth — of proofreading won’t harm their books’ chances, actually, but still, most savvy manuscript-owers feel that they should send out summer-requested materials by the time school starts.

The cumulative result, naturally, is that when Millicent, her fellow agency screeners, and their boss agents come dragging into the office on Tuesday, they will be greeted by a month’s backlog of queries and submissions. Inboxes both literal and virtual will be stuffed to overflowing.

So it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a couple of weeks or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood. At minimum, do not even dream of e-mailing a query until at least Thursday, when the into-the-agency flood will have subsided a little. (You already knew not to e-mail queries on weekends in general, right? Monday morning always greets Millicents and their agents with overloaded inboxes.)

All of which is to say: just because we’re devoting this weekend to all things query-related does not mean that you absolutely have to send something off by the end of the weekend, or even the end of the week. I’d much, much rather see my readers spend an extra week or two on drafting a really good query letter than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Especially if the difference between popping it in the mail on this Tuesday a.m. and next means being able to have someone whose literary (and grammatical) opinion you trust read your query draft. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. And that’s as much of a problem for writers accustomed to the querying process as for those new to it: since most experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each (don’t worry; I’ll be getting to that), there tends to be a lot of cutting, pasting, and general rewriting going on between mailings and/or strikings of the SEND button.

And what is an extremely likely outcome when any piece of writing is constantly being revised over time? Shout it out, those of you who were hanging around this blog earlier in the summer: it can turn into a Frankenstein manuscript, an unholy mish-mash of half-completed revisions.

The single most common type of Frankenstein query, as we saw last time, is the mismatched salutation and address. Nothing screams out I’m doing a mass mailing of queries, and you, sir, are palpably on the bottom of my wish list! like a letter that runs thus:

wrong names query

See the problem? In the stress of sending out multiple queries — a smart strategy in its own right, by the way; with sometimes months-long turn-around times at some agencies and no-reply policies at others, waiting to hear back from Agent A before querying Agent B is a sure-fire strategy for wasting years of your life — Mssr. Flaubert copied the address of one agent onto a letter personalized for another.

What he intended to send (and probably didn’t ever notice he didn’t send) was this:

Our Gustave fell victim to query fatigue, in short. Quite understandable, of course, but how do you think Ms. Marketer is likely to respond not only to being addressed by the wrong name and with the honorific for the wrong sex, but being congratulated for her speech at a conference she never attended?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

So please, proofread every single query every single time . Yes, even e-queries. Many a Millicent has been left shaking her head regretfully over a dropped word or misspelling in an otherwise admirable query.

Better yet, have a first reader you trust go over it. This is an excellent contribution to your writing career for any significant others, family members, or friends whom you, in your great wisdom, have deemed too fond of you to be trusted to provide critical feedback on your manuscript. (Trust me, “But my mom loved it!” is not an argument that flies well in the publishing industry.)

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the oh-so-common trap of getting complacent about your basic query. Just because a letter has garnered chapter requests in the past does not mean that it couldn’t use a bit of punching up. Even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of garden-variety query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record:

broken-recordUnfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial letter to the manuscript itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic link to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephonic connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is really talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never –- well, almost never — turns out like that. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-recordBeing a professional writer is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve seen over the course of Querypalooza. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on fine-tuning the delicate art of query diagnosis.

Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-recordThe querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue. It’s as competitive now as it has ever been in my lifetime.

And I’m not nearly so young as I look. (Nor is my hair always as wild as it appears in the photo at the top of this post, but that’s another story.)

Seriously, it’s a jungle out there, to coin a phrase. But before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-recordRe-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website or agency guide listing has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. For any attached pages, the best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-recordAs much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support, encouragement, and the occasional spot-check for salutation-matching, not for technical feedback on your writing. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query packet materials a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

As excellent as this advice is, I sense that some of you are already merrily making plans to disregard it. If you are planning to be the only pre-Millicent peruser of your query packet…

broken-recordMake sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier –- and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute. As Gustave knows to his sorrow, it’s just too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I covered this earlier in this series, speaking of broken records, but it bears repeating: even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety. I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visual-aid-assisted run-down on why their being able to tell that is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-recordYou must indent your paragraphs in a mailed query letter — or, indeed, in any writing sample of any length intended for agent-dwelling eyes. No exceptions; business format is not acceptable in this context.

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-recordDon’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page. Just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. All too often, the plot or argument description overflows its allotted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected THIS agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-recordRemember, your job in the query is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 20 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But (feel free to sing along; you should all know the words by now)

broken-recordMillicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

And even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not be the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is not the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…

A close second: I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…

And third: Before you dismiss this query without reading it, just let me point out…

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief to Millicent.

The checklist shall continue in my late-night (2 am Pacific) Querypalooza post. Keep plowing forward, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part III: eschewing the classic annoyance triggers, or, once the egg is broken, how are you going to put it back into the carton?

cracked eggs

Are you still hanging in there after 6 pm’s packed-to-the-gills post, campers? Good for you. In deference to anyone who might happen to be sleeping next to someone reading this, I’m going to keep it down in this, the third post in our Querypalooza series (which began at 10 am yesterday morning, for those of you just tuning in; I shall be posting every 8 hours or so throughout Labor Day weekend.)

So get comfortable, and we’ll warm up to the hardcore discussion of query letters in a casual manner, with a nice, calming, verdure-based anecdote about interpersonal vitriol.

Until a couple of months ago, we lived next door to people who simply couldn’t abide trees, or indeed, greenery in any form. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to swaying cedars, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritated the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment.

Particularly if the leaf in question happened to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity. Not so much as a stray blade of grass ever seemed to evade their notice: their yard could not have had more impervious surfaces if it were an industrial kitchen.

At least twice a year, the Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities) would demand that we chop down our magnificent willow tree. The rest of the time, they contented themselves with scowling at our ornamental crabapple, refusing gifts of homegrown pears, and swearing audibly throughout the entirety of their every-other-day concrete-sweeping extravaganzas. That last ritual began just after they very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

Just between us, we like trees on our side of the fence. So did the people who owned the house before us, and so do all of our neighbors except the dreaded Smiths. We live in Seattle, for heaven’s sake, where a proposal to rip out a single 100-year-old cedar on private property typically attracts fifty citizens to a public meeting to howl in protest. In fact, prior to a recent city council election, I received more than one circular explaining where all the candidates stood on trees (sometimes literally, judging by the photographs) and their possible removal.

If I were a tree forced to live in an urban environment, in short, I’d definitely move here.

So in the Smith’s view, we were far from their only inconsiderate neighbors — we are merely the geographically closest in a municipality gone greenery-mad. We were, however, the only locals who kept bringing them holiday cookies in the hope of smoothing things over, as well as the only ones to tell them to go ahead and cut off branches at the property line, as is their right.

This neighborly behavior did not win us any Brownie points with the Smiths, alas, and with good reason: long after the cookies disappeared down their gullets, our willow tree still greeted them every morning by waving its abundant leaves at them. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to one of these gracefully-swaying giants, but they have two habits that drive people like the Smiths nuts: they love dropping leaves that are, unfortunately, susceptible to both gravity and wind, and they just adore snaking their branches into places where there aren’t other trees.

Like, say, the parking lot that was the Smiths’ yard.

Thus, I cannot truthfully say I was surprised to walk into our yard to discover Mr. Smith ten feet up in the willow, hacksaw in hand and murder in his eye. (I talked him down before any branches fell.) Nor was I stunned when the Smiths tore down the fence between our yards, propping the old fence on our lilac and laurel for a few weeks, apparently in the hope that the trees wouldn’t like it much. (They didn’t, but they survived.) Or when the two trees closest to the new fence shriveled up and died (dropping MASSES of leaves in the process, mostly on the Smith’s concrete) because someone had apparently dumped a bunch of weed killer on them.

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

In the interest of maintaining good relationships on the block, we let all it all go, apart from telling Mr. Smith that our insurance wouldn’t cover neighbors plummeting from our tree and laughing as though his repeated requests that we remove the willow taller than our house were a tremendously funny joke that just keeps getting more humorous with each telling. We just stopped plant anything close to the fence and heroically resisted the urge to shake our trees just before one of the Smiths’ immensely noisy yard parties.

From the Smiths’ point of view, of course, this response was unsatisfactory in the extreme: from their perspective, we held all the power, as we were the stewards of the tallest trees in the neighborhood. (Which shade a stream that runs off to a salmon breeding ground; we are the ones who explain to new neighbors not to use anything toxic on their yards, lest it run into the stream.) We were the harborers of raccoons, the protectors of the possums, the defenders of that unsightly hawks’ next.

To them, we had a monopoly on the ability to change the situation, and that, to put it mildly, irks them so much that each spring, I trembled for the baby hawks.

Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possessed a far from insignificant power: the ability to annoy us by molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, and poisoning our trees. We quietly took defensive steps, trying to avoid open confrontation, but we could not always protect ourselves or our furry friends. (Because I love you people, I’ll spare you the story of what happened when someone in the neighborhood fed the mother of three small raccoon cubs wet cat foot with broken glass mixed into it.)

So we, the Smiths, the wildlife, and the rest of the neighborhood lived in a state of uneasy détente, at least until the day we were moving the debris from the dead trees. Even though our efforts were speeded by audible cheering from the Smiths’ house, I could have sworn that we had cleared the ground. Yet a couple of days later, branches littered our side of the fence again. We carted those away, only to discover the following week piles of leaves that had apparently fallen from trees that were no longer there.

The Smiths had evidently decided to start dumping fallen leaves over the fence. That showed us, didn’t it?

Why am I sharing this lengthy tale of woe and uproar, other than to demonstrate my confidence that no one on the Smiths’ side of the fence reads? Because our situation with the neighbors so closely paralleled the relationship between agents and many of the aspiring writers who query them.

Yes, really: by everyone’s admission, the agents own the trees — but that doesn’t mean that aspiring writers don’t resent clearing up the leaves. Or that they don’t in their own small ways have the ability to annoy agents quite a bit.

I sense some of you settling in to enjoy my account of this. “Pop some popcorn, Martha,” long-time query-resenters cry. “We’re going to have us some entertainment!”

Don’t get your hopes up — most of these annoyance tactics are only visible from the agents’ side of the fence. Completely generic Dear Agent letters, for instance. Sneaking a few extra lines above the prescribed page into an e-mailed query letter because, after all, what agency screener is going to have time to check that whether it ran longer? Shrinking the margins and/or the typeface on a paper query so that while it is technically a single page, it contains a page and a half’s worth of words. Deciding that the agency website didn’t really mean it about sending only the first five pages with the query, since something really great happens on page 6 of yours. Continuing to e-mail after a rejection, trying to plead the book’s case. Telephoning at all, ever.

Oh, and all of those nit-picky little manuscript problems we have been discussing all summer. Including any or all of those can be a trifle annoying, too.

Think about that, I implore you, the next time you are tempted to bend an agency or contest’s submission rules. While dumping the leaves over the fence might well make the Smiths feel better, it certainly didn’t render them any more likely to convince us to rip out all of our trees; if anything, it’s made us more protective of them.

By the same token, aspiring writers’ attempts to force agents to change the way they do business by ignoring stated guidelines and industry-wide expectations doesn’t achieve the desired effect, either. It merely prompts agencies to adopt more and more draconian means of weeding out submissions.

Nobody wins, in short.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch sides and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the other side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue.

Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection. “Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

Unfortunately, if an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he DOES need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

Stop glaring at me — that’s just a fact.

Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing.

Why did that make some of you gasp? Logically speaking, to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over query rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly common ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

Those are the only possibilities, if all you sent was a query. So, if you think about it, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

“But Anne,” some of you protest through a mouthful of popcorn, “I make a special point of querying only agencies whose websites ask me to imbed a few pages in my e-query or on its submission form. So when those folks reject me — or more commonly these days, just don’t respond — I should take that as a rejection of my writing talent and/or book, right, and not just of my query?”

Not necessarily. You have no way of knowing whether the rejection happened before Millicent finished reading the query (the most frequent choice), after she finished reading it, on page 1 of the writing sample, or at the end of it. All you know for sure is that something in your query packet triggered rejection.

The query is the most sensible first choice for reexamination, since it’s the part of the query packet that any Millicent would read first — or at all. After all, if the query itself didn’t grab her attention (or if it dumped any of those pesky leaves over her fence), it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that she read the attached pages.

In response to all of those jaws I just heard hitting the floor, allow me to repeat that: typically, professional readers stop reading the instant they hit a red flag. True of Millicents, true of contest judges, even frequently true of editors. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

The vast majority of queriers and pitchers do not understand this. They think, and not without some justification, that if an agent’s website asks for ten pages of text, that someone at the agency is going to be standing over Millicent with a whip and a chair, forcing her to read that last syllable on p. 10 before making up her mind whether to reject the query.

Just doesn’t happen. Nor would it be fair to our Millie if it did. In practice, she simply does not have the time to scan every syllable.

Even at a mere 30 seconds per query — far less than writers would like, but still, about average — screening 800-1200 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else…like, say, reading all of those submissions from aspiring writers whose pages she actually requested.

Besides, from her point of view, why should she take the time to read the entirety of a query letter whose first paragraph or two is covered with those annoying leaves? “Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

A pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: is the best strategic response to this kind of rejection to

(a) decide that the rejection constitutes the entire publishing world’s condemnation of the entire book and/or your talent as a writer, and never query again?

(b) conclude that the manuscript itself was at fault, and frantically revise it for a year before querying again?

(c) e-mail the agency repeatedly, pointing out all of your manuscript’s finer points in an effort to get them to change their minds about rejecting your query?

(d) insist that Millicent was a fool and send out exactly the same query packet to the next agency?

(e) scrutinize both the query and the pages for possible red flags, then send out fresh queries as soon as possible thereafter?

If you said (a), you’re like half the unpublished writers in North America: not bad company, but also engaging in behavior that renders getting picked up by an agent (or winning a contest, for that matter) utterly impossible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: even a thoughtful rejection is only one reader’s opinion; no single rejection of a query or submission could possibly equal the condemnation of the entire publishing industry.

If you said (b), you’re like many, many conscientious aspiring writers: willing, even eager to believe that your writing must be faulty; if not, any agency in the world would have snapped it up, right? (See the previous paragraph on the probability of a single Millicent’s reaction being an infallible indicator of that.)

If you said (c), I hope you find throwing those leaves over the fence satisfying. Just be aware that it’s not going to convince Millicent or her boss to chop down the willow.

If you said (d), well, at least you have no illusions that need to be shattered. You are tenacious and believe in your work. Best of luck to you — but after the tenth or fifteenth rejection, you might want to consider the possibility that there are a few leaves marring the beauty of your query letter or opening pages.

If you said (e), congratulations: you have found a healthy balance between pride and practicality. Keep pushing forward.

While we’re considering the possibility of fallen leaves, let me bring up the most common fallen leaf of all: boasting about the writing quality, originality of the book concept, or future literary importance of the writer in the query. If your query contains even a hint of this, take it out immediately.

Why, you ask? Agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go clean up your respective rooms.

My point is, if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t other people be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

Even if you are feeling fairly confident that your query does not stray into the realm of self-review, you might want to ask someone whose reading eye you trust to take a gander at your query, to double-check that you’ve removed every last scintilla. Why? Well, aspiring writers are not always aware that they’ve crossed the line from confident presentation to boasting.

To be fair, the line can be a mite blurry. As thoughtful reader Jake asked some time back, in the midst of one of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph in a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.

whereas

A back jacket blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. To translate that into the terms of this post, the first’s appearance in a query letter is professional, while the second is a shovelful of fallen leaves.

Many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating. Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it.

From Millicent’s perspective — as well as her Aunt Mehitabel’s when she is judging a contest entry — the difference is indeed glaring. So how, as Jake so asks insightfully, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them?

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to ask while considering the issue:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe what the book is about, or does it pass a value judgment on it?
Remember, if Millicent can’t tell her boss what your book is about, she’s going to have a hard time recommending that the agency pick it up. So go ahead and tell her; resist the temptation to use your dream back-jacket blurb.

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it, in the hope of attracting readers. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does. So do her Aunt Mehitabel and her cousin Maury, who screens manuscripts for an editor at a major publishing house.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use to try to sell it to an editor at a publishing house?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: an effective query describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise. (If you’re not certain how to do that, don’t worry — we’ll be getting to that later this weekend.)

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually necessary to the query letter, or are they extraneous?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“They say it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant. You don’t have very much space in a query letter; use it to provide only the information that’s required.

(4) Does my query make all of the points I need it to make?
Oh, you may laugh, but humor me for a moment while we go over the basics. A successful query letter has at minimum ALL of the following traits:

* it is clear,

* it is less than 1 page (single-spaced),

* it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner,

* it is politely worded,

* it states unequivocally what kind of book is being pitched, using a book category that already exists in the publishing industry, rather than one the writer has simply made up,

* it mentions whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction,

* if it is nonfiction, it includes some description of the writer’s platform (credentials for writing the book, including expertise and/or celebrity status),

* it includes a SASE (if it is being sent via regular mail) or full contact information for the querier, and

* it is addressed to a specific agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it describes.

You would not believe how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. (Yes, even the fiction/nonfiction bit is often omitted.) And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 5. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common omission: the book category. Many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories, not vague descriptions. That’s unfortunate, because it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label.

Other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: publishing simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category.

Trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

If you don’t know how to figure out your book’s category, or why you shouldn’t just make one up, please, I implore you, click on the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S category on the archive list at right before you send out your next query letter. Or pitch. Or, really, before you or anything you’ve written comes within ten feet of anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

But I’m veering off into specifics, amn’t I? We were talking about general principles.

(5) Does my query make my book sound appealing — not just to any agent, but to the kind of agent who would be the best fit for my writing?
You wouldn’t believe how many blank stares I get when I ask this one in my classes, but as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t want just any agent to represent your work; you want one with the right connections to sell it to an editor, right?

That’s not a match-up that’s likely to occur through blind dating, if you catch my drift. You need to look for someone who shares your interests.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with the style: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

To put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style? Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation. It really is that basic, in their world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in, are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, it looks at best like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what whatever means in this context. And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t make ‘em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it. Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you.

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not get you what you want.

More discussion of the ins and outs of querying follows at 10 am, naturally. Sweet dreams, campers, and keep up the good work!