Querypalooza, part XVI: the logic — and illogic — behind the SASE, or, how to be prepared if something falls on you from a zeppelin

I have a few more insights into query-construction, campers — hard as it is to believe that I left anything out over the last week, I’ve just realized that I had yet to address the problems inherent to writing a query for a multiple-protagonist, multi-perspective, and/or multi-voiced novel. I shall be addressing those burning issues tonight, never fear.

And yes, it was in poor taste to use the phrase burning issues immediately below a photo of a zeppelin, now that you mention it. Sorry about that, but as it happens, the matters I shall be tackling this morning are ones notorious for blowing up in aspiring writers’ faces when they least expect it.

Last time, I began talking about the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope (get it?) that should accompany EVERY mailed query letter and/or submission packet. (E-mailed queries and submissions cannot include them, obviously, as these forms of communication have no temporal heft to them.)

Forgetting to include a SASE is an instant-rejection offense at most agencies, and with good reason: if the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions, and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense. Yes, I know: it’s annoying to be underwriting one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the writer in this arrangement.

To name but one: finding out that your query or submission has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. For a query, it’s usually letter-sized, but should you happen to be querying an agency whose guidelines call for writers to include more than five pages of additional materials (e.g., writing sample, synopsis, author bio, book proposal, a chapter or two), you’d be sending that in a Manila envelope, right? In that case, the SASE would need to be a second Manila envelope, stuffed inside the first, carrying sufficient materials to ship all of those additional materials back to you.

Why? Because the point of the SASE is to ensure the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency; you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed. The basic rule of thumb is to include a container and enough postage for the recipient to be able to ship any materials you may have submitted back to you.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I heard not a collective gasp, but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript submission. And I’m not just talking about the stamped, self-addressed #10 envelope one would send with a mailed query letter: I’m talking about a package with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to the writer in one piece.

It can get cumbersome, once the time comes to pack it all up. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to US-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to wrap their eager fingertips around some US stamps.

Don’t worry, foreign readers: there’s a trick to it. I’ll be getting to that.

The expectation that an aspiring writer will ALWAYS include a SASE with any kind of paper query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that I’ve noticed that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. It’s become one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my taking a second post to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

SASE logic seems to be counterintuitive for many aspiring writers. I’m constantly barraged with questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

Oh, would only that were possible, Melospiza, but there’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript: as with a SASEless query, NOT including a SASE in a submission is usually an automatic-rejection trigger.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the submission packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by only a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “Okay, I can understand why Millicent would reject SASE-free queries without reading them,” these head-clutchers cry, “but why, in heaven’s name, would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, oh retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

The longer answer is hardly more comforting. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. Which means, in practical terms, that if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, IT is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back.

Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE. The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection — or no response at all. (Yes, even for a submission. Pages often go bye-bye.)

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do not omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do, but check anyway.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there becomes too deafening, let’s voice it: “You must be pulling our collective leg, Anne,” I hear some of you saying. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agent is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript for Millicent to read. Remember, it’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk; even a very successful agent at a giant agency seldom picks up more then 5 or 6 new clients per year, even including ones poached from other agencies. (Which happens all the time, by the way. It would astonish most aspiring writers to know just how many of us agented writers are unhappy with our current representation. As I say early and often, you don’t want just any agent to represent you — you want a well-connected, engaged agent who loves your writing and will defend it to the death.)

Thus every submission that disqualifies itself on technical grounds is another step toward that ongoing goal of thinning the pack of contenders. Do you really want to volunteer your precious manuscript for that particular kamikaze mission?

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice inevitably leads to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the people who actually pay for the return postage. After all, from the writer’s perspective, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office. Fingers crossed!

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above re: secret handshakes.)

If you’re willing to risk it, you could always include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Originally, the whole paper-wasting arrangement was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling, if you don’t count Abe Lincoln scrawling the Gettysburg Address on the back of a used envelope — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to anyone querying or submitting for the first time today.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents because publishing houses still read through their slush piles, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz, obviously. Nor could you attach a Word document to an e-mail and send it off via Pony Express.

Equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy. So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses simultaneously?

They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single syllable, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE used to assist the average aspiring writer. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out. She would come home and edit them; he would type a revised version. One or the other of them would get a good idea, and they would collaborate in writing the result: one dictating, one typing. She would take them to writing classes and the magazine editors who were already publishing her brother’s SF short stories, returning with still more feedback. Off he went to type another draft.

From scratch. Every single time either of them wanted to change a word. Hard for those of us who write on computers even to imagine, isn’t it?

As writers did in those dark days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Except for the ones that Kleo hand-sold by taking to a magazine editor, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. She was, in effect, his original agent. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? I don’t want to see you crawling about in the ashes, frantically trying to find the remnants of your hard disk.)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: Philip had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story depressing, the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and I have it on good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

Admittedly, it was not the most comforting lullaby to have sung above one’s cradle, but she knew whereat she spoke — and it’s as true today as it was five decades ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

Also, as I mentioned last time, the practice was intended to protect the writer’s copyright. Just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

Three other things of which a savvy writer keeps very good track: which agents she has already queried (and with what unsolicited-but-permitted extra materials), which already-queried agents have requested materials (and what they requested; every agency asks for the submission packet to contain different components), and which agents are still waiting for her to send them those materials. If an aspiring writer is querying and/or submitting to multiple agents at once — and she should, unless the agent of her dreams has a no simultaneous submissions policy — she had better maintain excellent records; otherwise, it’s just too easy to mix things up.

Or not to know where to send Query #18 when the first 17 SASEs turn up in her mailbox. Or her inbox.

Speaking of minding the details, a savvy writer also takes care when applies postage to her SASE. Let’s take a gander at what postage-related fears were keeping intrepid reader Rachel up at night:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp (and the same shipping box), because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go. Is that how they’re doing it now?

Good question, Rachel. Before I answer it, let’s clarify the situation by reiterate the difference between a query packet’s SASE (i.e, a missive containing the query letter + any unsolicited materials an agency’s website said were permissible to send with it) and one tucked into a submission (requested materials).

When sending a query, including a SASE is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope. (Oh, like you’ve been able to get the SA out of your mind.)

When sending a submission packet, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see 50 pages or a chapter or two, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

(Don’t worry; I shall be devoting part of this coming weekend about how to handle a request for a partial. I wouldn’t leave you hanging.)

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, again, tune in this weekend.)

Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. (Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end; I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully, you guessed it, this weekend.)

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies; the far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

Good news for the far-flung: the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad. The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

But let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last few years have indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions, for instance; they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly doesn’t want its screeners to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, most agencies have policies forbidding e-queriers from sending unsolicited materials as attachments. Too much risk of computer contamination. Instead, they will usually ask queriers to copy any permissible additional materials and paste them into the body of an e-mail.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript, since they tend to be heavy little critters. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself, or even that the Millicent who screened it will. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. Check policies before you submit. (Interestingly, agencies that operate this way virtually always still expect submitters to include SASEs with their submissions.)

The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actually stamps on it, rather than metered postage. It’s called a STAMPED, self-addressed envelope for a reason, you know.

Despite the changes I mentioned above, the imperative to use stamps on a SASE has never wavered: the goal here is not convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for his own manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either lobbying her to use a flat-rate Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Which means that buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. And print your manuscript on nice, bright-white, 20-pound paper while you’re at it, please. It’s aesthetically more pleasing than the cheap stuff.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the information that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet our old pal, the Sanitary Author, is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of good questions.

Tune in at 7 p.m. PST tonight for a few more thoughts on query construction. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XVII: selecting the elements that will grab Millicent’s attention, or was a lost dog honestly the most exciting news story of the day?

dog rescue story 2

Before I launch into this evening’s installment of our ongoing series on the ins and outs of querying, I have a question for all of you: would you be interested in my running a Synopsispalooza sometime soon? Followed, perhaps, by an Authorbiopalooza, a Marketingplanpalooza, and/or a Howtofindagentstoquerypalooza? Or my personal favorite, Howtogetgoodfeedbackwithoutoffendingyourmomandotherkithandkinwhowanttoread(deep breath)yourmanuscriptpalooza?

If enough readers are up for any or all of these, I’d be happy to oblige, although as always, I’m eager to get back to craft issues. Admittedly, there are already how-to posts for these important processes on the archive list, but I haven’t gone over any of them in a while. Market conditions change over time; so do literary tastes and trends. And as those of you who have been through a querying series with me in the past have no doubt noticed, I tend add quite a bit of new material every time I revisit a topic.

So no, in answer to what newer readers’ minds just shouted, the stuffed-to-the-gills nature of my Querypalooza posts is actually not all that unusual here at Author! Author! I’m all about thoroughness, and I get genuinely excited about this stuff.

Do think about the synopses, author bios, etc., and let me know. No great rush: after Querypalooza ends on Sunday (I think; it may spill over a trifle into next week, depending upon how example-happy I get this weekend), I shall be devoting a bit of time to the close textual analysis of the winning entries in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest contest that we began going over with the proverbial fine-toothed comb in early September. It will be a good segue out of these intensely marketing-oriented ten days, marrying considerations of craft with yet more consideration of how to catch Millicent the agency screener’s elusive attention in a positive manner.

Or, to put it in practical terms: if you are at all interested in learning how a pro reads a first page — you know, the single page an agency is most likely to allow queriers to attach to their queries, as well as the first thing Millie will see in your submission — make sure to tune in.

But first, a little more on the theme of catch Millicent’s elusive attention in a positive manner.. Last spring, during a spirited discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, reader AM made a great suggestion:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

Now that’s a polite way to grab someone’s attention. If I can wade my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right onto AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

And while we’re on the subject of blandishment: no matter how much you want to grab Millicent’s attention, never, ever, EVER include a bribe of any sort in a query or submission packet. It will not garner positive attention for your book project; in fact, it is virtually always an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, even if it’s merely a photograph or two of the gorgeous scenery you have written about in your travel memoir or that business card you had made up for your last foray to a writers’ conference. Agencies have to be extremely defensive about this one: due to how fast rumors about the latest querying trick spread around the Internet, if even a single Millicent accepted a single box of fudge from an aspiring cookbook writer, half the agencies in the country would find themselves up to the top of their cubicles in bribery-aimed cookies, helium balloons, and fruit baskets. Not to mention something most agents have a horror story about already, videotapes of aspiring authors giving speeches about their books.

So what is the best plan for stuffing that query packet to get your work noticed positively? Checking the website and/or agency guide listing for each and every agent you plan to query, making sure that you are sending precisely what they expect queriers to send — no more, no less — topping it with a professional, well-crafted query letter, and mailing it off with a SASE. Or going through exactly those steps for an e-mailed query.

Given that most agencies with websites are pretty explicit about what they do and don’t want aspiring writers to send them, you would expect that query packets that conform to their various standards — because, lest we forget, every agency is looking for something slightly different — but actually, every Millicent I have ever asked about it (and believe me, I ask as many as I can) complains about how often her agency receives query packets with extras.

Or — sacre bleu! — with elements missing.

The only message such query packets are actually sending to the Millicents who open them is hey, look: here’s a writer who can’t follow straightforward directions! Or possibly, depending upon the clarity of the agency’s guidelines, wow, here’s a writer who doesn’t read very well. (More common than any of us would like to think, alas.) Or, the most likely of all, oh, no, here’s another writer who didn’t bother to do his homework; we went to all the trouble of telling potential queriers what we wanted, yet this guy just assumed that every agency was identical.

All sentiments our Millie is prone to sum up tersely elegantly as: “Next!”

So what, out of all of the possibilities a writer’s active imagination could conceive and all of the suggestions for querying techniques flying around out there in the ether, is the bare minimum that MUST be in a query packet? So let’s recap the basic elements that any agent would expect to see:

*1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

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

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book.

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

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

That’s it, right? If you don’t include all of those, your query letter cannot succeed. Two other highly advisable, but not strictly speaking required, elements include:

7. A BRIEF marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (Optional for fiction, but I would strongly recommend either including it or replacing it with #8.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book. (Also optional for fiction, and can be replaced with #7; it’s niftier, however, if you can manage to include both, even for novels.)

Is everyone comfortable wrangling all of those elements? (Now is the time to speak up, if not.) When all of these elements are pulled together into a smoothly-worded piece of correspondence, it reads like this:

mars query

Now that we’re thinking in terms of constituent parts vs. whole, we can see that what AM is asking about is not the entire query letter — she couldn’t be, since elements 1, 2, and 5-7 are not concerned with plot or narrative, right? #3 could be, but only if the agent had a track record of representing multiple-narrator books. (In that case, Since you so ably represented STORY IN FIFTEEN VOICES, I hope you will be interested in my multiple-narrator novel… would be perfectly acceptable.)

You look so cute with your eyes bugged out like a cartoon character’s. “What do you mean, Anne?” flabbergasted would-be queriers everywhere exclaim. “How is it possible that something as important as the narrative structure of the book could affect only a single paragraph of the query? Isn’t the voice choice the single most important thing to know about a multiple-narrator story — or a first-personal narrative, for that matter? Or, if it’s not the most important, isn’t it at least the most interesting?”

From a professional point of view, the answer to those last two questions is very short: no. And the answer to the second, the one about why the narrative choice shouldn’t spill over to the rest of the query is also pretty brief: because how a writer has chosen to tell the story in the book is not a required element in the query.

You don’t see it on the list above, do you?

Unless an agency’s guidelines specifically ask for it, leave it out, or as we’ve already discussed, you’ll run the risk of producing a query that reads more like a book report than, well, a query. Remember, the query is not expected to provide analysis or review of the manuscript it is pushing: it’s supposed to tell Millicent the story.

Let’s face it: telling her how many protagonists there are, or whether the narrative talks about their experiences in the first or third person, actually doesn’t give her much of an indication of what the book is about, right? So is it really the best use of scant querying space?

In case you’re waffling on that last question, here’s a peek at what the result might be if a writer’s answer were yes. (If you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing +.)

book report-style query

Quick: what is this book about? What is the event that all of these narrators observed, and what about it is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest through 187 changes of perspective?

Beats me. So how can it be an effective query letter? Especially when — and give yourself some extra Brownie points if you caught this — Expansive made the classic Millicent-baiting mistake of referring to his work by the redundant phrase literary fiction novel. (All novels are fiction, right?) Besides, everyone knows that ol’ Pointy is a woman, and thus should be addressed as Ms. McGettoitson.

Equally damning, all of that analysis of structures and themes is going to read like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince Millicent that this is a story she should read. Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that.

So how would I advise Expansive to go about revising this query? Well, for starters, I would encourage him not to name so many characters in his descriptive paragraph (pop quiz: without looking, how many can you name? That’s the maximum he should keep), concentrating on the overall story of the novel, rather than enumerating as many perspectives as he can in that short a space. Second, I would urge him to make that first paragraph a touch less off-puttingly pretentious in its phrasing.

Third, I would advise him to throw out the second paragraph altogether. Period.

And every multiple-perspective lover’s hand shoots into the air. “But Anne, the first thing almost any aspiring writer will say if asked to describe his multiple-perspective novel, or even first-person narrative, is something like, ‘Well, there are eight points of view.’ Are you seriously suggesting that he should suppress that information in his query?”

Personally, I would let it be a pleasant surprise at manuscript-perusal time. Few professional readers would consider the narrative voice choice the most important thing to know about a book, after all. As anyone who has ever read fiction manuscripts for a living would be only too glad to tell you, there are excellent multiple-perspective novels; there are lousy ones, and there are a million different gradations in between.

Ditto with every other perspective choice. At query time, it’s just not a significant issue; it doesn’t give Millicent much of a hint about why her boss might conceivably be interested in this book. It’s not as though agents are very much given to strolling into the office first thing in the morning, yawning, and saying wistfully, “You know what I’d really like to read today? A first-person narrative. Yep, that would really hit the spot. Got any of those on hand, Millie?”

Not going to happen. If the narrative choice works on the page, great, but the only way Millicent can possibly tell if it does is to — wait for it — read the manuscript. Which, by definition, she’s not going to be doing at the querying stage.

So why not let your exciting perspective choices be a pleasant surprise at submission time? Concentrate instead in the query on getting her to ask to see the manuscript.

Which leads us right back to AM’s query-editing problem, doesn’t it? She’s in luck: the only part of a query letter that could possibly require a multiple-protagonist novel to be handled differently from a single-protagonist one would be #4, that pesky descriptive paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about.

Paragraph #4 on our must-have list, in other words.

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing the descriptive paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent into asking to see the manuscript.

Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query, right? Right? Hello?

If you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Many writer new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot to representing the book. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal she hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor — the assumption that it should renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder. The sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this far more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:

an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. And the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant-in-a-dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, okay: so that’s a pretty jaded response. Also, the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take, for example, what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed him and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to read it.) See how the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s beauty, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the protagonists and their initial conflicts. And I haven’t gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. Even starting 2/3rds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, it completely got rid of Lee and transformed Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a pity, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in Uncle John’s place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts.

As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how he intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise — as is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story; leave Millicent curious to hear more.

But is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Why, that’s the advice I gave Expansive, wasn’t it? Allow me to elaborate.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative. (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and describe that in Paragraph 4.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than other omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person?
The point of the query is not to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a fringe benefit discovered at manuscript-reading time, Expansive.

Before anyone steps up onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me give you another example of why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms. Tell Millicent a compelling story instead.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” Expansive and his ilk concede reluctantly, “I plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, oh sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

More practical examples follow next time, of course — 10 am PST, according to our schedule, although I reserve the right to hit the snooze button a couple of times tomorrow morning. Enjoy your evenings, campers, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XIV: getting creative with your platform paragraph, or, can we strike the phrase worthless credential from the language, please?

narrow road sign

I had to laugh this morning, campers. You know how I’ve been complaining periodically throughout this querying series about how often reasonable advice (or, even more often, an agent’s offhand comment about a personal preference) becomes transformed through sheer repetition into a purported Cosmic Law of Querying that bears only a faint familial resemblance to the original advice? Nowhere is the potent equation specific statement + word of mouth + time = distortion more operational than in the word-of-mouth paradise that is the aspiring writers’ community. Especially now, when Internet searches are so gifted at ripping individual statements out of context and communications are so rapid.

Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a misconception can make it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on.

Case in point: do you recall how careful I was in yesterday’s post on constructing a platform paragraph to assure all of you that the examples I was using were fictional, and thus should not be cited anywhere, anytime as truth? Well, the moment I logged onto the blog this drizzly Seattle a.m., I found an incoming link from the University of Bonn.

Why? Because yesterday’s post contained this totally made-up statement: Audrey Hepburn holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

This is not true; I said in the post it was not true. But did the web bot searching for the phrase University of Bonn trouble itself with fact-checking? Or with context?

The moral: Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Even if you read it here. Or heard someone say that they might have heard it here.

Speaking of the nature of truth and one’s obligation to tell it, inveterate commenter Elizabeth chimed in on Querypalooza XII, bringing up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:

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

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

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly. (When’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)

As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, in writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in writers’ psyches.

In my experience, practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction. When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.

“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent the agency screener. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know it’s only filler. I’d best not mention any of it.”

No, she’ll know that you’re a previously published author — what are those articles, chopped liver? And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.

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

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

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

So in excising her two best credentials, Elizabeth merely fell into the unfortunately all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. But that’s not terrifically surprising, is it, in the face of all of that yammering about worthless credentials?

The usual conception of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get brainstorming, shall we? Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

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

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

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

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

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

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

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

And don’t discount how much more credible your life experience might make you if you write fiction about it, either. Which author do you think would be easier for a publisher’s marketing department to convince a magazine writer to interview, one who has written a book whose protagonist is a day trader, or this great new author who’s just distilled her 8 years as a day trader into a behind-the-scenes novel?

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

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

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

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

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

Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.

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

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

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

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

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease.

I am a graduate of Yale University, guaranteeing a mention of my book on tulip cultivation in the alumni magazine. Currently, The Yale News reaches over 100,000 readers bimonthly.

(To reiterate: I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore. I’m looking at you, University of Bonn.)

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

If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.) Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.

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

Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

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

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences. As we discussed earlier in this series, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:

750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

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

(I’ll keep you posted on whether that last one gets picked up by a Canadian web bot.)

(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned yesterday, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

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

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

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

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

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

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

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

(If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone suffering from kneecap dysplasia at this very moment, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist. I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny, because when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were pointing in the right direction.)

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

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

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

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

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

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way?

Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach your novel in an English literature class?

Again, remember that you need to express these difference in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.

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

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

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

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

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

So this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category. (For some tips on how to figure that out, as well as an in-depth explanation of the sometimes elusive distinction between what the publishing industry considers fresh and what it will dismiss as weird, check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Next time — that’s 7 o’clock PST this evening, campers, on our slightly-less-breathless post-Labor Day schedule — we shall be moving on to query packet construction and mailing issues. Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air?

No, but seriously, paying attention to these details can save a querier a heck of a lot of trouble. Not to mention rejection. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XV: nicely stamping your SASE and other Millicent-pleasing habits of the sanitary author

sanitary-author

I’m not much given to double-takes, campers, but I must admit, I did a lulu when I spotted this sign standing by the side of a two-lane highway in unincorporated Neskowin, Oregon. To the casual observer, Neskowin is a blink-and-you-miss-it collection of buildings, but to the observant tourist, it is fraught with enigma: its population is 170, according to its ostensibly unofficially municipal website — a human density which renders the two golf courses located there, well, surprising. Who is playing golf in such high numbers that a lone course wasn’t deemed sufficient for local needs? Bears? Sea lions? Migratory Scots with an affection for Pacific Rim cuisine?

All of these legitimate wonders pale, however, next to the enigma of the Sanitary Author.

What makes him or her so darned clean, the passing motorist is left to speculate, and why is the population of Neskowin so proud of that particular resident’s hygiene habits that the non-city fathers saw fit to erect a sign to commemorate the SA’s immaculate practices? Did s/he win some sort of international award for cleanliness, a plaudit akin to the Nobel prize, in order to raise him or her so very high in the town’s esteem?

Not, obviously, as high as videos, coffee, or ice cream, but still, it’s more recognition than most authors get.

Does the SA reside in remote forest because such cleanly writing practices would not have been feasible within the confines of a large city like New York, Los Angeles, or even charming and nearby Portland? More importantly from the point of view of fellow authors, how does being so sanitary affect the quality of the SA’s writing — and if it has a net positive effect, should we all be beating a path to Oregon, demanding to follow in the SA’s spotless footsteps?

And should we be worried about all of the unsanitary authors running around out there?

Oh, I know what prosaic types out there are likely to tell me: since the period after AUTHOR would tend to indicate an abbreviation, this sign probably only refers to the local sanitary authority, the fine municipal employees who look after water quality and maintain the local sewer system. So much for impenetrable ambiguity, the literal would doubtless conclude. Just ignore that sasquatch strolling by; there’s nothing to see here.

But look closely at that sign: there’s a period after SANITARY, too. Complete words are seldom abbreviations, I find.

So the mystery continues. I shall make a valiant effort to wrest my mind away from the Sanitary Author and concentrate on the matter at hand: queries and the things that accompany them.

Oh, it’s no use: the image is burned into my brainpan. A psychologist friend of mine once told me that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks AS current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist.

The writer’s descent into a creative trance is one of the least-understood of human phenomena, isn’t it? Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing.

Personally, when I’m in mid-chapter, I lose most of my sense of the passage of time. If my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, MOST cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if it can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard. Or — and I honestly am getting around to the point of our series again — when you are embroiled in sending out a flotilla of queries.

Oh, you thought you were the only one who spaced out? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a querying binge or writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline or, heaven help us, immediately after an agent asks to see a partial or full manuscript.

(I’m going to be talking about those last two contingencies this weekend, by the way. Delving into the practicalities of submission seemed like a natural way to round out the ten days of Querypalooza.)

I suspect that this checking out from the everyday world is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is about his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who intended to get queries and/or submissions out the door now that the annual post-Labor Day return of the publishing world to New York has arrived becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to find an agent. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical concerns we’ve been discussing for the last week?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that Millicent and others like her who screen queries actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

The querying hurdle is, at least in principle, set in place to maximize the probability of discovering the next Great American Novel — or memoir, or nonfiction book — by freeing agency staff from the necessity of reading pages from every ambitious soul currently writing in English. That way, the theory goes, Millicent can concentrate on deciding amongst the crème de la crème.

Your mind is still focused on the paragraph before last, isn’t it? Yes, you read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls him immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings his heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you fine souls out there have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor. So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially more noble put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. I meant to begin this post by talking about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelopes), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in my writing. Excuse me a moment while I feel my languishing cats.

Or perhaps I zoned out because, let’s face it, SASEs are not the most thrilling of topics. But they are absolutely vital to discuss within the context of Querypalooza, because a mailed query unaccompanied by a SASE will get rejected automatically at virtually every U.S. agency. Almost invariably without being read.

And if Millicent doesn’t read your query, it’s literally impossible for her to decide to request your manuscript, and therefore impossible for her to fall in love with your writing. Which, in turn, renders it impossible for her boss, the agent, to fall in love with your writing, for the agent to convince an editor to fall in love with your writing, for the editor to convince an editorial committee to fall in love with your writing, and for the publishing house’s marketing department to convince readers to fall in love with your writing.

So omitting the SASE isn’t just a technical gaffe; it’s the catalyst in a tragic tale of lost love.

That’s the writer’s opportunity cost of neglecting to include a SASE in your query packet, but there are costs on the agency end as well. Think about it: having the SASE arrive in the same envelope with the query means that Millicent can grab either a form-letter rejection or please-send-us-pages note (oh, didn’t you realize that both were boilerplates?) the very instant after she makes up her mind which is appropriate.

It takes very little time, and the writers themselves are providing the resources. What’s not for the agency to like?

In fact, they like it so much that that most agencies have standing policies against SASE-free queries at all. Providing an envelope and a stamp to reject a single forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800-1500 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they’ve already decided not to represent.

So if you didn’t hear back on that last raft of queries — you know, the ones where you glibly told Millicent to contact you via e-mail if she wanted to see pages — that’s probably why.

Yes, in answer to what half of you just thought so loudly, answering your mailed query via e-mail would have been costly for the agency, too, although obvious, not as much so as hauling an envelope from the supply cabinet. The Millicent charged with opening all of those envelopes and scanning the paper queries would have to stop what she was doing, carry your query — and only yours — to a computer, open the agency’s e-mail server, type in a rejection (which would probably be identical to the form letter she’s been stuffing in SASEs all day), send it, then go back to work.

Multiply that by every querier who thinks he’s being clever, considerate, and/or paper-saving by insisting on this, and it would add up to a lot of unnecessarily expended energy over the course of a year. Far, far cheaper for the agency just to tell its Millicents to toss any query unaccompanied by a SASE into the recycling bin.

Although if she does decide to ask for pages, she will probably let you know via e-mail, rather than by sending a reply in the SASE you so thoughtfully provided. I like to think of this as the SASE Utility Paradox: the rejected writer must pay for the postage and envelope that carry the bad news; the accepted writer must offer the stamp and envelope as a sacrifice to the gods of querying.

Either way, you’re going to be buying some envelopes and stamps. (Don’t forget to keep receipts; if you file a Schedule C for your writing business, you may be able to deduct the cost of both as a promotional expense. Talk to a tax expert with experience handling writers’ returns — which I am not –before you deduct anything, however, because the IRS rules governing writers are both strange and different than those applicable to other kinds of artist.)

Believe it or not, part of the SASE’s original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but to render the querying and submission processes cheaper for the writer: it was substantially less expensive than if the agencies sent back manuscripts with postage due. (Which used to be the alternative.) It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the writer ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to prove copyright over unpublished writing, the writer needs to know at all times where all the extant copies are, saying who can and cannot read it. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

That’s why, in case any of you had been wondering, writing posted online is technically published. It makes it easier for writers to prove that they were the original authors of their online work.

The control-who-reads-it doctrine still governs how agencies operate. When you send previously unpublished material off to an agency — to a credible one, anyway — you are both operating on the tacit assumption that no one on the other end will reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

(Which means, by the way, that you should be very wary of an agent who implies, as some have been known to do in order to edge out the competition, that she has already shown submitted materials to an editor as an inducement for you to sign with her. Technically, she cannot market your writing to anyone until you give her explicit permission to do so — but a writer who has just won a literary contest and is juggling manuscript requests from several agents might not be aware of that.)

When you send a SASE with a submission, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agencies’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions; prior to that, virtually none of them did. (Some still don’t; double-check before you press SEND.) And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Spoiler alert: your thumb is probably going to get pretty tired before you find even one. Yes, even in 2010.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince Millicent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

Knowing the likelihood of those norms changing anytime soon, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY. Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you PRECISELY how to play the SASE game correctly.

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), include a stamped (not metered envelope addressed to yourself. Do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides.

If you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage.

Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours. This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Again, do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read each and every agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission packet. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs. Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Next time — that’s 10 a.m. PST tomorrow, for those of you keeping track — we’ll delve a bit deeper into the practicalities of submission. You wouldn’t want to be caught unprepared if your query is successful, would you? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XIII: showing off your qualifications (over and above the obvious)

damn-yankees

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Last time, we embarked upon an in-depth discussion of that most-dreaded part of a good query letter, from most aspiring writers’ point of view: the section known as the platform paragraph. Why dreaded? Because the overwhelming majority of mistakenly hear a professional request for their book’s credentials as, “You have to prove to us that we should take you seriously as a writer, oh unpublished one, before we will deign to read your work.” Or as, “We only want to know this because we’re not interested in writers who don’t already have arm-length lists of published books.” Or even, “Who the heck do you think you are, believing you should write a book at all?”

Naturally, writers querying with their first manuscripts would find such expectations threatening. But if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instant. All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, there are plenty of other possible selling points for your manuscript.

How do I know that? Because the fine folks who work in agencies don’t actually expect the platform paragraph to answer any of the questions above. What questions do they want you to answer? “Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book, tell this story, and/or make this particular argument?”

Substantially less stressful to think of it that way, isn’t it?

Try not to get too bogged down in worrying about the standard prestige points. Today, we shall be going through a long list of potential selling points for your book. Pretty much everyone should be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities that might fit the bill.

But I’m not going to be doing all of the work here. Dig out your trusty pad and pencil; you’re going to be coming up with a list of your book’s selling points.

And I’m not talking about mere vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find your manuscript an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with anyone in the publishing industry. Nor is the astonishingly common, “But I want to get published so much!”

Why won’t these excuses fly? Well, pretty much everyone who queries has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly. Sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of queriers make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to talk about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc.

First-time pitchers are even more likely to tumble down this rabbit hole, alas. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously many pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, pitchers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn how and why books get published.

In other words: “Next!”

Why is this an instant-rejection offense? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to these self-revealers, but this is not the way to gain an agency screener’s sympathy, or even her attention. In fact, such emotional outbursts are a waste of Millicent’s time.

Why? Well, you tell me: what, if anything, in a litany of complaints about how the publishing industry works, however well-justified, tells Millicent one single thing about the book being queried.

I’ll answer that one for you: nothing. But it does give her some indication of whether the querier has done any homework about how agencies work, or how books get published.

A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyper-emotionalism.

The same holds true, of course, for queries. Sadly, queriers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the writers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that querying (or pitching) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of teardrops staining the letter), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

Aspiring writers’ hearts are notoriously brittle. Why else would anyone query only once, or twice, or a small handful of times, then give up altogether, assuming (wrongly) that if his book were really meant to get published, it would have been snapped up instantly?

The common misconception that good writing will inevitably and immediately attract an agent, regardless of how unprofessionally it is presented, can be even more damaging at query-writing time: when believers in the Agent-Matching Fairy sit down to write their queries, they often become depressed at the very notion of having to make the case that their manuscripts are worth reading. Frequently, these poor souls mistake the need to market their books for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, many writers shrink away from this perfectly reasonable question. So much so that they become positively terrified of querying at all. “They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that sits in a drawer, unqueried. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Did that little diatribe fill you with heart, miles and miles and miles of heart? Good. Let’s start generating your list of selling points.

Before I start making suggestions, let’s be clear on what you’re going to want on your list. A selling point should SHOW (not tell) why you are the best person to write this book, what about your book is likely to appeal to readers in your target market, and/or that the intended audience is larger (and, ideally, more interested in your subject matter) than Millicent might have been aware. To be most effective, you won’t want to make these arguments in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it.

Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

Why? Because it will make your query look professional — and, I must say it, better than the 17 queries Millicent has already seen today that did not talk about their books in marketing terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who whose entire query was devoted to how frustrating it is to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

Don’t skimp on the brainstorming stage; the more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your platform paragraph will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So on your marks, get set, go: why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story or make this argument, and why will people who are already buying books like yours want to read it?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to Millicent is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I already hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning — and we come to a stop again. “But Anne,” you protest in dulcet tones, “you astonish me. Surely, if any book category should be exempt from being marketed on anything but the beauty of the writing, it’s mine. I always thought that the primary benefit of writing fiction was that I wouldn’t ever have to sully my art with sordid marketing concerns. Yes, aspiring nonfiction writers have to produce book proposals, and thus are forced to brainstorm about marketing, but until fairly recently, fiction writers could concentrate on storytelling, craft, and, of course, lovely writing. I’ve been nervously watching as more and more, genre fiction writers are being expected to market their own work, but gosh darn it, I write for a relatively tiny target audience deeply devoted to beautiful writing. Please, please tell me that I can just leave the platform paragraph out of my query, and thus don’t have to let you drag me kicking and screaming toward the list below!”

Wow. Hadn’t I mentioned that emotional outbursts aren’t adequate substitutes for well-reasoned selling points?

Seriously, literary novelists, I think you’re missing the point here. No Millicent can possibly be bowled over by the beauty of your writing unless she reads it. And she will only read it if she is impressed by your query.

There’s just no way around that. So it behooves you not only to craft your descriptive paragraph to be as lyrical and moving as humanly possible, but also to use your platform paragraph to make your book sound different — and easier to market — than all of the other literary fiction books Millicent will see queried that day. It will cause your query to jump out of the stack at her: your tribe’s collective reluctance toward thinking about marketing virtually guarantees that if you do it well, your query will shine out as preeminently professional.

In other words: no, I shan’t absolve you of writing a platform paragraph. It’s just too likely to help you.

Where should a literary fiction writer start in coming up with selling points? Precisely where every other writer does: the subject matter. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So ask yourself: why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

Or, if you prefer to put it in highbrow terms: if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

For fiction, the subject matter you choose as the focus of your platform paragraph need not be the central issue of the book, by the way. Even if your novel is about post-apocalyptic government restructuring, if a major character is the gardener charged with replanting the White House’s Rose Garden in newly-toxic soil, and you’ve been a landscaper for a decade, that’s relevant. (It informed what you chose to have that character plant, didn’t it?)

Some prompts to get you — and everybody else — brainstorming. Some effective selling points include…

(1) Experience that would tend to bolster your claim to be an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of most nonfiction platforms, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a novelist: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

Charlton Heston was granted an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

And it need not be recognition for your writing, either: the point here is to demonstrate that there are people (translation for Millicent: potential book-buyers) who already have positive associations with your name. Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Yes, yes, I know: I spent most of this morning’s post convincing you that you needn’t despair if you had no previous publications. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to urge those who do to bring them up in the platform paragraph — are you crazy? Millicent has a reverence for the published word the borders on the devout.

So if you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

And please, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only fiction credentials count if you’re pushing a novel, or that your published short story won’t help you get your memoir past Millicent: a publication is a publication is a publication. Some editor took a chance on you; Millie needs to know that in order to assess your query properly.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples:

Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I’m going to hold off on the rest of the list until tomorrow morning, to give everyone a chance to digest both this and this morning’s gargantuan post before we move on. Get good sleep, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XII: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower

Sorry that I’m posting our latest Querypalooza installment a few minutes late today, campers. First, I overslept a bit (probably predictable, seeing as I had committed to last weekend’s post-every-eight-hours schedule before it occurred to me that such a posting regimen would necessarily preclude my ever sleeping more than, say, seven hours and twenty minutes at a stretch), then I got embroiled in answering readers’ questions on earlier posts in this series. I aspire to being more prompt with today’s 6 p.m. post.

As long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, already aware, I welcome questions and comments from my readers. They keep things lively, and frankly, without them, Author! Author! would not have grown, evolved, and some would say mushroomed over the past five years into the seething cauldron of ideas it has. Your input has transformed it from a series of editorial pieces (which is, really, what it was for the first year, when I was Resident Writer for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association; their board insisted on column format without visible comments) into a vibrant, ever-burgeoning community.

A fierce ragoût, as Charlotte Brontë would put it. Heck, even the super-specific categories on the archive list at right were initially suggested by a reader. My very first commenter, in fact. So the next time you go scrolling down that now-immense list of options, you should send mental thanks to inveterate commenter Dave.

There’s another, slightly less obvious way that your input has been — and shall continue to be, I devoutly hope — so good for this blog: every so often, someone asks a question that would simply never occur to anyone who works with manuscripts for a living. I’ll never forget the first time it happened. Someone wrote in because she was confused by something I had said in passing about how manuscripts should be formatted: how was it possible, she asked in all sincerity, to have a slug line in the top margin when the rules said there should be a one-inch border of white space all around the page?

It’s a cliché, but my jaw actually did drop. Having grown up surrounded by professional writers, not only would this question never have occurred to me — I had no personal experience that would lead me to guess that anyone else might have formulated it. My parents made me write my elementary school term papers in standard format. Typed, no less. I had never even thought about how difficult it would be for someone who had never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript to envision what it should look like.

And that, my friends, was the inspiring spark for my notoriously explanation-heavy semi-annual HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT series. So the next time any of you have a question about format, you should be thanking that early questioner.

Ditto, incidentally, for Querypalooza. My explanations have definitely been enriched over the years by readers’ comments and questions. Why, only recently, curious and insightful reader Janet raised an interesting query-related issue in the comments:

The thing that stymies me is the credentials part. If you’re trying to interest an editor (as I write mostly short stories at the moment, although I’m Working On A Novel) but you’ve only really just gotten started again and haven’t won or published anything (that’s not fan fiction), how do you deal with that?

That part stymies nearly everyone, Janet — and not only short story writers trying to interest editors in their work. It is, in fact, the classic first-time book writer’s dilemma, and certainly most queriers’.

The classic answer to this question is if you don’t have writing credentials, get some. Most aspiring writers are turned off by this, because they assume this is referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possible option in the platform paragraph of a query. The goal of including publishing credentials there is not just to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on you, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.

Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even — dare I say it? — maintaining a blog.

All of these things demonstrate professional intent — which, if you do not have professional credentials, is the next best thing. I have some tips on brainstorming more possibilities in the posts under the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category on the archive list at right, but it all boils down to be creative.

Okay, my work here is done. Moving on…

No, but seriously, folks, that is how quickly most of us who deal with books for a living would answer this sort of question. It just wouldn’t occur to us that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more. Being me — and thus having the benefit of five years’ worth of your questions and comments — I know better.

So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to talk about the query’s platform paragraph assuming that there must be many readers out there who have never seen a professional query before. Let’s start by defining our terms, shall we?

A platform is the collection of credentials, life experience, and specific expertise that forms the basis of a writer’s claim to be the best person on earth to write the particular book he is pitching, querying, or proposing. Until fairly recently, the term applied only to nonfiction: platform was industry-speak for the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book, but now, it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to speak about a novelist’s platform as well.

And you know what I mean by the platform paragraph in a query, right? It’s the third paragraph in the example below, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to…

mars query

Now that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, we’re ready to ask the $64,000 question: what kinds of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform? Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

And 85% of you just tensed up again. Not too surprising: most aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with the prospect of having to justify having sat down to write her book.

I have long suspected that part of the fear stems from that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers. That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can.

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

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

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

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

I hear that can rattling against the curb again. “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the down side is?

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

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

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you? Any particular reason you wouldn’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

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

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

Need I go on?

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

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

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

I spot a few raised hands out there. “Back up a minute, Anne. What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality, not a question of literary quality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct a platform. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

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

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel they pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would might not render me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being whose perceptions of reality could be trusted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: while technically, everything posted on the web is published, unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner an impressive number of hits on a regular basis (thanks again, readers!), Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se. If it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

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

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “But Anne, I’m worried that the writing credentials I have don’t really count. I’ve heard, for instance, that mentioning fan fiction just makes Millicent chuckle. And I’m not the only one, judging by Janet’s parenthetical observation about not having ‘won or published anything (that’s not fan fiction).’ Aren’t you being, you know, insanely optimistic?”

Not really. A publication is a publication, whether it is fan fiction or not: if someone else decided whether to put your writing in print or online, it’s technically published, and thus a perfectly legitimate credential. The pervasive rumor that fan fiction credentials don’t count does have some basis in fact, though — as writing credentials go, they are taken less seriously than print pieces, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t count at all.

So why is the caution almost invariably phrased as fan fiction and web credentials don’t count? Because like so many of the soi-disant Thou Shalt Not Do This in a Query rules floating around out there, the nuances of the true situation have fallen out of the advice as it has passed from mouth to mouth. In the usual style of rumor-based fact-checking, what almost nobody goes on to mention is that just because it’s not the best writing credential doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless.

Especially if you happen to write in that genre. If you write fan fiction in your chosen book category, you’re obviously familiar with its storylines, conventions, and current market, right?

Millicent may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness, but that doesn’t mean she will ignore it altogether. Besides, having something publishing-related to put in the platform paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there.

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

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

Is your brain buzzing like a beehive, awash in the multiplicity of options? If not, don’t panic — in my next post (roughly 6 pm PST, wakefulness permitting), I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part X: it’s been a hard day’s night. Several in a row, actually.

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As promised, we’re nearing the end of Querypalooza, our high-speed crash course on how to write a better-than-average query letter — if, by the end of Labor Day week, your query letter is not polished to a high gloss, I shall not be to blame. But oh, as the old joke goes, are my arms ever tired!

You know how much I enjoy being thorough. Let’s turn our attention back to query letter diagnostics.

And already eyes across the English-speaking world roll. “Isn’t there an easier way to go about this?” the time-strapped cry. “No offense, Anne, but you’ve been making me concentrate so intensely on a single piece of paper for three days straight. Now, on day 4, every fiber of my being ties itself in a sailor’s knot at the very mention of a query. On top of everything you’ve pointed out here, I’m also going to have to do some research on each of the agents to whom I intend to address my highly-personalized queries. PLEASE tell me that I won’t need to write an entirely fresh missive for each one.”

Not entirely, no: quite a few paragraphs will probably be recyclable, unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Do I hear sweet music in the distance?

broken-recordLike any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

Thus Querypalooza: the goal here is not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these are not generalists.

Which means, to put it bluntly, that while Millicents share common pet peeves, each is looking for slightly different things in a query letter.

Stop groaning; it wouldn’t have made good strategic sense to send an identical letter out to everyone, anyway, for reasons we have been discussing for days. Besides, there is no such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It honestly is as simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I have been going over here tends to work well; it has a proven track record across many book categories. However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive to even the best knitting book today. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation; even the query that wins most will lose some. Don’t squander your precious energies worrying about it.

A strategic-minded querier can, however, avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, Labor Day (hint, hint), or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1.

Trust me, all of those New Year’s resolution-fulfillers will provide her with more than enough reading material to keep her cross and rejection-happy for a few weeks. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then. Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street.

broken-recordThere will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

Frankly, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll still have to pass in the margins of my missive — as if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

To tell you the truth, this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me, and like so many aspiring writers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve had some very nice chats with this agent at conferences since.

The important thing to recognize is that whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when any query — or manuscript, or published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

(Okay, so I do have more control over when my agent sees my manuscripts — but even then, it’s up to him when to read them. You can lead a horse to water, etc.)

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you CAN control. Like, say, the matters on our troubleshooting list.

(25) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
This is true of submissions as well. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are technically incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border.

Tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience: the agent. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

(26) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance Travelogue or Time-Travel Thriller.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such names are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that he’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that he’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put MY book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time; in fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a conceptual box, after all, merely a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Fantasy-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(27) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, feel free to mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. But if you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth: just leave out this paragraph.

Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(28) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means — and I do seem to being blunt quite a bit today, don’t I? Blame it on lack of sleep — that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected.

And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(29) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Chester Smith says this is the most moving book about trout fishing he’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on Oprah. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones received within a single month.

Is this the last of the query checklist, since it’s now officially after Labor Day? Not quite, but close. I can’t absolutely promise that my arms are going to be up to posting again today — I’m due to drag myself to the physical therapist in a few hours, and he’s bound to frown at least a little on how much I’ve been typing this weekend — but I really would like to polish off Querypalooza as soon as possible.

So tune in this evening at our usual Querypalooza time — and, of course, to keep up the good work!

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 XI: making your book sound like a real page-turner

How was the first workday after the long weekend, campers? Dragging a bit today?

If it’s any consolation, Millicent the agency screener probably is, too. Imagine walking into your office after a lovely Labor Day holiday (or, in many agency offices, an even more lovely multi-week break) to discover your desk has totally disappeared under the backlog of incoming queries and submissions? Or that your e-mail inbox is crammed so full that if you are going to do anything else over the next few days, you’ll have to be doing nothing but hitting the DELETE key constantly for hours on end?

(Confidential to the three readers who started as Millicents today: congratulations on the new gig! But I wasn’t kidding about the volume of work, was I?)

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst. Speaking of which, after Querypalooza, it’s right back to close textual analysis, self-editing, and more of those fascinating winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

Speaking of fascinating prose presented well (a clumsy segue, but hey, it was an awfully long weekend chez Mini), the last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable in the current literary market. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book how or why it is interesting. Or exciting. Or even vaguely original.

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

Of course, some of those queries must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound even remotely so. (At least, I hope you would.) It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.

Just not true, I’m afraid; the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

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

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. (See earlier expression of sympathy for the newbies’ eyestrain.) Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

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

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

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:

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

Not to mention demonstrating that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

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

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

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues.

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

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

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

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

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

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

She’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

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

She’s a ditsy cheerleader, apparently, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

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

Getting the picture?

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

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

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

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

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing adolescent ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

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

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

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

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

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

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

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

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

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

Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your writing teacher to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end. There are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.

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

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

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

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

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

(35) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in the past (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.

So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so?

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine.

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

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

Or, to cast it in #35 terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(38) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book, isn’t it?”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last night: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

Of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of Querypalooza, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousand fold.

Next time — that’s 10 am PST tomorrow, campers; although we’re still in Querypalooza mode, it would be madness to try to maintain the three-shift schedule of the weekend — I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in the platform paragraph of your query. Or, as we like to call it here at Author! Author!, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Yum, yum. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, Part VII: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that bell bottoms are still in style, Barbie?

Barbie ad

Still hanging in there, campers? Last night, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener.

That made your eyes pop open this fine morning, didn’t it? “Wait,” some of the bleary-eyed call out, “back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query in the middle of that paragraph? Before I was fully awake? Is that fair?”

Never mind that — you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends. You’ve even, if you have been following Querypalooza with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. (Was that only 48 hours ago? This weekend has, I must confess, been a lengthy one for me.) You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical transformation? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would.

The first two steps: nailing down a book category for it and figuring out who your ideal reader is. A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it.

Which is to say: once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is, will make it MUCH easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.) Like the vast majority of queriers, she has not thought about her target market before approaching agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (Something a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER do, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Briana, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting fairy tale: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project over a long period (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list.

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions in Querypalooza VI (was that only last night?) for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has made it much, much easier to be dismissive. Although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

Most aspiring writers don’t even consider doing this — and frankly, it’s easy to see why. Many approach quite a few agents simultaneously — and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. One-by-one queries can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I sense some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Admittedly, sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on Publisher’s Marketplace.

What no agency will EVER leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess, I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time.

A query letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works. Virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a NOTORIOUS agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course — to put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

No, but seriously, agents (and their screeners) wonder about this. So it’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book to a publisher is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

The best way to justify your agent choice is by mentioning one of the agent’s recent sales. Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. (Everyone smart, anyway.) If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with any book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent book, {TITLE}, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call your favorite book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. For instance…

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be riding for all it is worth.

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there?

And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail? (Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.)

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list:

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?

Stop laughing, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that accept submissions directly through the website often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well.

If you’re in doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s also worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you shout, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it?”

Not necessarily, but often. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; verify before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, they will assume that you are aware of it.

While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the morning:

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie would constantly be receiving queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex.

If you’re in serious doubt, call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor; unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should NEVER call an agency until after she has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if she’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely accidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many talented people so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor.

Think we’re at the end of the query-refining questions? Not by a long shot. Tune in at 6 pm for my next installment, and keep up the good work!