The query checklist, part I, and some new ground rules

I’m going to start with some good news today: blog reader Soyon Im has just taken 5th place in the MySpace short memoir contest! Way to go, Soyon! And the rest of you, please: write in to share your triumphs, so we can all enjoy the vicarious thrill.

From that high note, let me move on to a little housekeeping. Since we are starting a new blog relationship here, it is probably a good time to establish some new ground rules. Because my old blog at the PNWA was not, to put it mildly, set up to encourage reader input, the standard way for readers to ask me questions was to send me an e-mail. This was not very efficient; in fact, especially in the days leading up to the conference, it was quite time-consuming for both asker and replier.

So here is my first request: if you have a question you would like me to answer, please post it as a comment here, rather than sending it to my e-mail (or calling). That way, everyone can benefit from learning the answer, and I won’t end up answering the same question twenty times individually. And since we now have a forum where we can discuss topics of common interest, other readers can ask follow-up questions, or tell me how wrong I am, or make any suggestions they want. It will be much better, I think, for everybody.

Second, please do not send me query letters, synopses, or manuscript excerpts, asking for my feedback. I love seeing what my readers are writing, but if I read all of the samples I receive, I simply would not have time to write the blog (or write, or work, or sleep). I am a working writer and editor, and like everybody else, my time is limited to a mere 24 hours per day. Besides, my editors’ guild frowns upon its members providing editing services for free, even casually. I am posting a link to the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild today, to make it easier for readers who want professional editing to hook up with a good freelance editor.

Third — and I hope that this won’t be an issue for very much longer — please do not ask me to give updates or explanations about why I am no longer blogging for the PNWA. I understand that many of you are curious, but frankly, I do not anticipate that I will ever know for sure what happened. I would much rather use my limited time and energy (the above-mentioned scant 24 hours/day) concentrating on you, my readers, than looking backward. If you really, really want to find out more, please feel free to contact the PNWA directly and ask. In this space, I would really, really, REALLY like for all of us to get back to the work we love.

In that spirit, let’s get back to query letters. As I mentioned yesterday, I think it is a good idea to have several out at a time, rather than only one, and to send out a new one the very day a rejection comes in. That way, you can do something constructive in response to that silly form letter, rather than letting the negative feelings sink into your psyche long enough that you start to believe them yourself.

As I have said before, no matter how much an agent may insist that “there’s no market for this right now” or “there’s not enough money to be made with this book,” and no matter how prominent that agent may be, ultimately, a rejection is one person’s personal opinion. Accept it as such, and move on.

But before you do, make sure that your query does not contain any red flags that might be preventing your work from getting a fair reading. Unfortunately, many writers automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a bland querying letter or a confusing synopsis. Or, still more hurtful, that somehow the rejecting agents are magically seeing past the query to the book itself, decreeing from without having read it that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing. This particular fear leaps like a lion onto many aspiring writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many of us, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It almost never works like that: writing is work, and part of that work is being persistent in submitting your work.

Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials that are being used as an excuse to reject your queries. If you can ever manage to corner someone who has worked as an agency screener for more than a day, believe me, the FIRST thing she will tell you about the process is that she was given a list of red flags to use as rejection criteria for queries. And, oddly enough, many of these criteria are not about the book project at all, but the presentation of the submission packet.

The single most common culprit, believe it or not, is typos. Read over your query letter, synopsis, and first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine already. Writing groups are also tremendous resources for this kind of feedback, as are those nice people you met at a conference recently.

Remember, we’re all in this together; let’s help one another out.

As long-time readers of my blogs are already aware, I STRONGLY advise against using your nearest and dearest as your proofreaders, much less content readers. As much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing, unless they have won a Nobel Prize in Literature recently. And often not even then. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — did I mention those great writers you met at a conference? — and blandish him into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick; she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary, feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from compulsively line editing while she reads my work, of course, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity of a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who has not been a fan of my writing since I wrote my first puppet play, ALEXANDRA MEETS DRACULA, in kindergarten. (Alexandra wins, by the way.)

As always, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen; the average person reads material on a screen 70% faster than the same words on a page, so which method do you think provides better proofreading leverage? Uh-huh. Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask the following questions:

(1) Is my query letter polite?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. In my humble opinion, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent. But hey, I could be wrong.

I’ve seen some real lulus. My personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…” A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, A QUERY IS A BUSINESS LETTER. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar. Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

(2) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters (or, still worse, sending them out in droves) is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it. Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, but not the best way to pitch your work. Try to sound as upbeat in your 17th query letter as in your first.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) job, not a personal favor to you.

(3) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”

Trust me, it doesn’t work.

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (preferably with statistics) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic. (For tips on how to do this, please see my late June — early July posts on pitching — now available on this very website! — especially those on identifying your target market and selling points. See, all of the skills you have been learning DO tie together in the end.)

Tomorrow, I shall move on with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

One Reply to “The query checklist, part I, and some new ground rules”

  1. Long-time reader Dave e-mailed me this question, and since I thought everyone would be interested in the answer, I posted it here:

    “When sending a query letter only, would it be advisable to use a slightly larger than normal envelope? I’m thinking that one could use a “11 (if such exists) or a “12. Then the SASE (“10 standard business sized envelope) could be enclosed without folding it.”

    Good question, Dave. If you’re ONLY sending a letter, use a standard business-size envelope (“10) to send it, and enclose a “9 (the size I like to call ”just small enough to fit inside a #10 envelope comfortably”) as your SASE. Works like a charm.

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