Expanding your query list, part III

Before I return to the topic du semaine, let’s all do a little collective jig of satisfaction in recognition of recent triumphs by members of our online community here: excellent writer Toddie Downs (best known here as inveterate question-asker Toddie) has an article in October’s issue of THE WRITER magazine. Way to go, Toddie!

Also our recent guest blogger Jordan Rosenfeld has an article in the current WRITERS DIGEST, an article within which, I have from good sources, I am quoted being either witty, wise, or ridiculous. (I forget which.) Hooray, Jordan!

Please, everybody, join me in a nice round of applause for both. And please do let me know when your triumphs occur, so we can celebrate them here. The path of the writer is often not an easy one, my friends: the more we can rejoice over the victories of our friends, the more joyful the journey will be for all of us.

Really. Honest. All serious writers have days where it’s hard to remember the shape and texture of hope. For me, nothing perks up a dark night of the soul like turning on my computer to learn that a writer I like has just scored points against the system. Go, Team Creative!

Okay, back to business. I’ve been writing over the last couple of days about ways to figure out which agents to query OTHER than simply opening the Herman Guide at random, hammering your finger down on a page, and sending a letter to the one grazed by your fingernail. A query to an agent who does not represent your kind of work is usually not worth the investment in postage, much less your energy.

Yesterday, I was discussing querying the agents who represent writers you like. The “Since you so ably represent Author X…” technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up David Sedaris’ agent (Don Congdon) with ultra-serious literary fiction, any more than I would send a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff) or hard-right political analysis to Michael Moore’s (Mort Janklow).

However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients. And mentioning, if at all possible, specific ways in which your work resembles, say, Ms. Prose’s well-respected HUNTERS AND GATHERERS.

Need I repeat here that there are SIGNIFICANT perils attached to drawing parallels to books that you have not read? Never, ever, EVER succumb to the temptation of comparing your book to a book with which you are unfamiliar — especially to the unknown book’s agent, who may well have been the person who purged the book of misspellings and semicolons. The chances of such an analogy backfiring are simply too high.

How high, you ask? Well, ask a writer I know who, while querying a novel filled with scenes of people ripping into rare steaks, succulent veal, etc., happened to spot a copy of Ruth L. Ozeki’s MY YEAR OF MEATS in a bookstore. Without reading anything but the acknowledgments page, the querier shot off a letter full of meat-loving details to Ms. Ozeki’s agent, Molly Friedrich of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency.. Need I even say that MY YEAR OF MEATS is an exposé of abuses in the meat-production industry so vivid that it is considered in some circles an excellent argument for vegetarianism?

Just don’t do it.

Stick to comparisons of important plot, character, or narrative worldview similarities between your book and another. Hedging your bets by vague statements like, “It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE” will not win you friends and influence agents. Trust me: such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress.

Why? Well, think about it: just how many times per day do you suppose the average chick lit agent was seeing “This is the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY!” in the first paragraphs of query letters when it was a bestseller? Do you really want your query letter to sound like a quarter of the ones already in the rejection pile?

Of course not. You need to make your work sound unique, not just marketable.

Generally speaking, opening a query with something like, “Everyone says I write just like David Guterson,” will not play as well as, “Since you represented SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, you may be interested in my novel…”

This is true, incidentally, even if one of the people who told you that you wrote just like David Guterson was David Guterson’s mother. (A lovely woman, incidentally; the last time I bumped into her, she held me captive in the frozen food section of our local Trader Joe’s until I promised to rush out and buy a copy of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST that very day. That’s the kind of mother ever writer should have!) It pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered.

So you really should avoid saying, “My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE,” or “A friend told me that I write just like Audrey Niffenegger.” (Represented by Joe Regal of Regal Literary, I’m told.) Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally, presented to me for feedback on why they were not garnering enthusiastic responses. Both of the queriers subsequently revised their letter, and are now happily represented, I am delighted to report.

If you can legitimately say, “Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,” by all means, say it. But make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or at least well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful. (You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check. FIE!!!)

But, hey, if you can justifiably say that Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a graduate seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel, especially as by that time, Professor Bellow was no longer among the living! But obviously, I couldn’t legitimately that luscious little blurb out of context.

I know, I know. Sometimes honesty looks an awful lot like stupidity. But at least I am 100% certain that I will never be caught in a self-promoting exaggeration at an industry meeting, where it could cost me serious credibility points. Leave the puffing up of your work to your publisher’s marketing department; let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Remember, the reference to the agent’s already-established client is intended not so much as a name-dropping power play, meant to stun with importance, than as a bow to the agent’s past professional successes and a preliminary answer to the obvious question in any query-reader’s mind: “Why is THIS author targeting THIS agency with THIS book?” Just so you know, if any reasonably intelligent English-conversant reader could read more than half of your query letter WITHOUT knowing the answer to that question, the query is almost certainly going to be rejected.

Kind of surprising that most querying classes and guidebooks don’t point this out more often, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I shall go into how to track down who represents whom, as the standard advice on the subject is, alas, not particularly helpful. As you may have guessed from the ease with which I was able to add who represented whom in this post, there is a trick to it, like so many things in the publishing world. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

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