The query checklist, part II: feeding our furry friends

I am presently being overrun by raccoons. Baby ones, four of them, along with their parents and a mangy beast who appears to be their dissipated adopted uncle, or perhaps just The Raccoon Who Came To Dinner, a houseguest our resident raccoon family is just too polite to evict. The babies think I am the Goddess of Cat Food, and will scratch on my back door after they have eaten up all of the food our outdoor kitty was not swift enough to gobble up first, to demand more. Why do we feed them? Well, most of our neighbors have concreted-over yards (for reasons that escape me; in my experience, fallen rain needs to go somewhere after it hits the ground), but our yard is largely wild. Thus, we get a disproportionate share of the neighborhood’s wildlife traipsing through our yard.

The raccoon parents were born under our deck, and know me of yore as the Queen of the Kibble from their childhoods. They pick up each piece of kibble between their long front paws and nibble it daintily, like the well-bred critters that they are. The babies, on the other hand, almost spherical with fur except for tiny pointed ears and stripy little tails shaped like isosceles triangles, are ravenous little maulers, indiscriminately shoving everything they can manage to pick up into their sweet little maws: kibble, the edge of the doormat, small rocks, their siblings’ tails. When they discover a non-foodstuff in mid-chew, they blithely discard it and eagerly snatch up the next thing, hoping it will be something that they will want to ingest this time.

So you see, my friends, my back yard is run identically to the publishing industry. Like many experienced agents and editors, Mama and Daddy Raccoon have a very strong preconceived notion of what they want, and do not pay the slightest attention to anything, however tempting, that does not conform to their idées fixes of what they should consume. The babies are like agents new to the biz, or ones afraid that the next bestseller will pass them by: they will bite on anything and everything once, only to spit it out quickly and move on to the next thing. (See why you should consider querying the less experienced agents from time to time, as well as the big names?)

I mention this, because I have been talking lately to quite a few writers who were feeling dispirited by having been brushed off by agents and editors to whom they pitched at a recent conference that shall remain nameless, or rejected via form letter for the fiftieth time. Please, if the Mama Raccoon you had set your heart on picking up your work did not recognize it as her preferred brand of kibble, do not take it as proof positive that your work is not palatable. Take it as a sign that your pitch or query did not fit the masked one’s preconceived notions, and move on to find an agent who has been dreaming of exactly your flavor of book.

But to do that, you will need to make sure that your query letter is very nummy indeed. On with the checklist of red flags to avoid:

(4) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America? If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, do I make that obvious immediately?

Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, definitely mention that in your query letter. As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel… Trust me, this kind of personal recognition makes the garden-variety agent’s furry little ears perk up instantly.

I picked up this little trick not at writers’ conferences, but in my former incarnation as an academic. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Yes, she is 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. Think of it as going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. 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. And that’s even before the department chair slips the senior graduate students a few bucks to take you out, get you drunk, and worm your other prospective job offers out of you.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia.

I had lunch this very day with a writer who just used this method in a pitch with triumphant success. The agent was blown away that the writer had taken the time to find out whom she represented and do a little advance reading. 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. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publishers’ Marketplace, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news.

If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was for the book in question; legally, they must tell you, due to some obscure quirk of jurisprudence that I have never been able to track down. In any case, they will tell you, even if the book came out decades ago. 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.

Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that in the first line of your query letter. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to invent a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

(5) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

I am dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. (Yes, even if this is an agent to whom you are sending requested material.) Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph. (This is the reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you might want to ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection. Remember, one of the primary purposes of the query letter is to identify your work as something that the raccoon reading it will instantly recognize as her favorite filet mignon.

Keep up the good work!

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