Personality in the query letter

Loyal reader MooCrazy posted an excellent question a while back, one that I thought deserved treatment at length. It’s been a hectic week, though, so it’s taken me a bit to get back to it. Here is her question, slightly abridged:

“I think of a query letter as very brief and business-like, not a place for my natural irreverence to burst forth. But I would be wrong about that, I bet. Please suggest how to convince an agent or editor that one’s work appeals to readers’ sense of humor without coming across as unprofessional or downright silly. The voice that comes naturally to me when writing narrative deserts me when composing business letters or even these questions to you. Any pointers on what sort of self-talk I should engage in to overcome this inhibition?”

Moo, I love this question, because it cuts right to the heart of the conflict between making your submission materials ultra-professional vs. conveying enough of your personality (and your book’s) to attract an agent with a worldview similar enough to yours that you can work together happily for a decade or three. And I’m going to be honest with you here: 99% of the selling-your-writing guides will tell you flatly that your query letters should be NOTHING but professional, mere variations on a very distant, business-like theme.

In short, 99% of the guidance out there will tell you to make your query letter exactly like every other writer’s who pays attention to them. I think that this is a serious mistake, when you are trying to stand out in the crowd.

Let me show you why. I go to a lot of conferences all over the country, so I meet many, many agents trolling for clients. A few years ago, I heard a relatively new agent give a demonstration of what it is like to go through an hour’s worth of query letters — not the dozens of hours a week an agency screener actually spends upon them, mind you, but just long enough to give us a sense of what did and did not work. She read us real query letters aloud (sans names, of course), asking after each one: “Would you ask to see the first 50 pages?”

Most illuminating. As you might expect, about 80% of them were not professional enough to be seriously considered, because they did not meet the minimum standard for a successful business letter: they either did not say what they wanted (you’d be amazed how few query letters mention that the author is seeking representation), why they were soliciting that particular agent (a pet peeve at agencies everywhere), what the book was about, what the book’s category was, or why anyone might conceivably might want to read it. Boasts abounded (a recurring favorite: “This is the next (insert name of bestseller here)!”), as did, surprisingly enough, not-so-veiled threats (“You’ll be sorry if you pass up this opportunity.”) Too many people mistake pushiness, wild enthusiasm, and exaggeration for sales technique.

And all of these were the ones who remembered to include a SASE. Next!

Now, perhaps I place too much faith in my readers in general (and you in particular, Moo), but I’ve gone over the art of query-writing enough here that I like to think that none of you would make these particular stripes of mistakes. (If you’re new to this blog, check out the QUERYING category to the right.) As you say, Moo, those of us who realize that writing is a business know better.

However, businesslike need not mean cold or boring — or that you need to utilize the turgid clichés of the standard business letter. The query-reading agent made this point beautifully: after 45 minutes of hearing, “enclosed please find…” and “thank you for your prompt attention to this matter,” believe me, everyone in the room was starting to feel quite resentful that people gifted enough to write an entire book couldn’t come up with more original ways to convey these necessary business sentiments. We wanted to slap them into being more colorful.

Obviously, you will want to stick to some business norms: keep the letter to a single page; list the full name and address of the agent above the greeting; greet the agent as “Dear Ms. X” or “Dear Mr. Y”, rather than by the first name (if you have any doubt whatsoever about the sex of your intended recipient, call the agency and ask the receptionist.); include your contact information either in the header or below the signature; add an “enclosed” notation at the bottom, noting what materials are in the package. If you are concerned about goading an agent into rage by the fact that you’re sending out many queries simultaneously (which most agents will automatically assume you are, incidentally), add “simultaneous submissions” under the “enclosed” notation.

You should not, however, use business format to the extent that you do not indent your paragraphs. This is a literate business, so many agency screeners draw unkind inferences about writers who do not indent, the nasty thoughts generally reserved for those who cannot spell. Nor should you be so formal that you don’t sound like an interesting person.

The presenting agent illustrated this last point very effectively, too. After about 55 minutes of mostly rejectable examples, she read us a query that was at first blush absolutely perfect. It did positively everything that the guides tell writers to do: it told the agent why he had picked her, what his book was about, the target market, and a little about the writer’s publication record. It ended with a polite thank-you for taking her time, and included a SASE.

She held this sterling document high in the air. “Who can tell me why I rejected this?”

Since I had a lot of experience reading queries, my hand shot in the air, but everyone else in the room looked at one another, puzzled. If we had been in a cartoon or a comic book, a huge thought bubble would have been hanging over the audience, reading, “But I know I’ve sent out queries identical to that! My God, what did I do wrong?”

By this time, I was practically jumping up and down in my seat, dying to put them out of their collective misery. Smiling, the agent pointed at me, and I said, “It’s a man without a face. It could have been written by positively anybody – or copied practically word for word from half the writers’ marketing guides on the bookshelf.”

“Bingo,” the agent said.

From the writer’s point of view, this seems like a mean trick, doesn’t it? You can do everything right — and STILL be rejected! It’s not just a matter of boring the agent — although, since advice-giving books have made good writers’ query letters so VERY similar, that’s a big part of it. Do you really want your missive to sound exactly like 20 others the agent’s seen that week?

But if you think about the kind of a relationship the query letter is intended to solicit, it quickly becomes clear why an infusion of personality is necessary: yes, you and your agent will be doing business together, but this is also the person you will be trusting to handle your baby. This is the person who is going to be giving you some of the best and worst news of your life; this is the person with whom you will be sharing the joys and sorrows of the rest of your career. Your successes will be his successes.

This is not just any business relationship: it’s a personal one, too.

So tell me: if you were in the agent’s shoes, would you prefer to anticipate spending the next 30 years communicating with a man without a face, a perfectly businesslike automaton, or an interesting, funny, complex person?

Moo, if you are lucky enough to be funny, and can convey that in writing, believe me, your chosen agent is going to want to know about it as soon as possible. And it’s in your interest, too: would you really want to end up with an agent without a sense of humor? Or someone who doesn’t want to accept you the way you are?

I know that I’ve been comparing the querying process to dating quite a bit over the last month, but honestly, the last thing I would advise an interesting writer to do is to suppress her personality in her query letter, any more than I would encourage someone I liked to misrepresent herself on a date. And that goes double for the author bio. If you’ve been brave enough to lead an offbeat life, celebrate it!

It can only make you more memorable, if you’ve presented your work in a businesslike manner. Generally speaking, the more of the flavor of your book you can convey in the cover letter, the better.

So YES, Moo, I would HIGHLY encourage you to make your query letter as funny as your book! Wouldn’t you like your letter to be the one in the last three hundred that puts a smile on your dream agent’s face? Genuine comic talent is rare. And if you were an agent looking for comedy, wouldn’t you be THRILLED to receive a query letter that was genuinely amusing, for a change?

And that concludes my pep talk du jour, dearly beloved. Keep up the good work!

Preparing to talk with an agent, Part II

On Thursday, I broached the seldom-discussed subject of how to talk to an agent who wants to sign you, a situation I devoutly hope all of you will be facing very soon. Today, I want to go into the logic behind the two major submission strategies favored by agents, individual submissions and multiple submissions, and how the strategy pursued by your agent can affect you and your book. Individual submissions are far and away the more common choice for fiction, so I shall discuss it first.

Let’s assume that you have already signed with Agent X and revised your manuscript to within an inch of its life at X’s behest. Once Agent X is satisfied with the work to be submitted (and be prepared, everyone: getting it into submittable shape can take months or even years; “How much revision do you typically do with your authors before submitting?” might be a good question to ask in advance), then she will pitch your work to an editor — via phone, lunch, coffee, chance meeting at the local deli, the odd conversation at an alumni club meeting, etc. — and if the editor sounds interested, your manuscript or book proposal will wend its way to the editor’s desk.

I would like to report that once there, it is instantly pounced upon and eagerly read by the editor, but in all likelihood, it will sit there for a while, twiddling its papery thumbs in a pile with other bored manuscripts. Here is where your agent’s persistence will really pay off: a good agent who cares about a project will keep on nagging unmercifully until your manuscript gets read.

How long can it sit there? Well, it depends. Several months is common, but would you throw something at your monitor if I told you a year is not unheard-of for an individual submission? After all, the editor knows no one else is seeing it, so it’s automatically a lower priority than the submissions with a deadline, right?

This is not, in short, a situation where anyone concerned should be holding her breath, waiting for a response.

Please do be aware, though, that with individual submissions, long waits do not necessarily mean bad news. I know writers who have had good books held by editors for over a year — both books that the editor eventually acquired and books that the editor rejected. If the editor just dislikes the writing style, that will probably be determined quickly: often, an editor (or, more commonly, his assistant) will read the first few pages of a submitted manuscript fairly shortly after receiving it to see if there’s any chance at all at he might want to acquire it. If the answer is no, trust me, it will be off his desk in a hurry.

What will NOT happen, however, is that a book will be rejected and STILL remain sequestered in editorial files. Nor will it be read and set aside to think about. Almost universally, long waits are attributable to your book’s not having been read yet, at least by the person empowered to make an actual decision, not to his trying to make up his mind between a couple of projects. (Although, to be fair, at most houses, several people will have to read the book before it lands on the desk of the decision-maker, and that, too, takes time.)

From the writer’s point of view of course, these delays are maddening – all the more so, because the writer is almost never told what is going on with the book during these delays. The only sane response is to leave the whole matter in your agent’s hands and start working on your next book, but few among us have that kind of sang froid, alas.

In my case, while my novel is making the rounds of publishers, I have a memoir that might conceivably be coming out within the foreseeable future, my next novel to complete, my editing business to run, and this blog to write: I certainly have plenty to do. Yet even I find myself wondering if the manuscript of my novel will sit so long in one place that the paper will spontaneously produce leaves, acorns, perhaps even an entire tree. Someday, will archeologists be trying to estimate the age of my manuscript by its rings? Or in geological time, if it petrifies?

This is, of course, the primary drawback to individual submissions of a manuscript. “Aha! “ I hear you cry, “then I should press my agent-to-be for multiple submissions!”

Well, not necessarily. Multiple submission (also known as simultaneous or mass submission) is, as the name implies, when your book or book proposal is sent to many editors at once. Nonfiction is very often sold this way, as is any book expected to generate sufficient interest for an auction. Your agent will pitch your book (over the phone or the aforementioned comestibles), the editor will express interest, your book or book proposal will be sent, and this process is repeated with your agent’s entire A-list of editors.

The advantage of this is that interest from several editors can engender a bidding war. The threat of another editor’s scooping up the next hot thing can also speed up the reading process considerably. The disadvantage, however, is that it makes your book very subject to the winds of gossip. If half the editors say no, the other half will probably hear about it.

Yes, New York is a big city, but in many ways, its publishing world is a small town. Your agent’s assistant probably went to college with assistants of a couple of the editors who will see your book. People talk. If one editor makes an offer, you can bet your boots that she will mention it to people she knows. Similarly, if she turned down a book an agent was pitching as the best read since the Declaration of Independence, she’s likely to mention it to her chums. As a result, books can go from very hot to very not in a matter of days.

For those of us who reside in more laid-back portions of the country, the speed of Manhattanite collective changes of mind can be dizzying, if not downright odd. Why, we Pacific Northwesterners wonder, does everyone want the same thing at the same time? Surely, the book market is more complex than that?

I wish I could explain this phenomenon, my friends, but I can no more explain fads in the book market than I can fads in fashion. Why is it that when you walk into an NYC publishing house, for instance, all of the editorial assistants will be dressed more or less the same? Beyond me. But remember those beach-combing New Yorkers I told you about? Same mentality.

Don’t try to reason it out more than that: it is one of the great mysteries of life, like the origin of evil and why the line you chose at the supermarket always moves more slowly than the others. Just look out your window at the Pacific Northwest verdure, reflect that you can probably see more trees from your office window than are in the entirety of Central Park, and reconcile yourself to regional differences in character. Remember that you perplex them, too.
So, too, should you regard the mystery of the alternation of glacially-slow reading times and we-need-you-to-overnight-your-changes urgency. Panic and apathy often seem to be the only two possible states of being. It might occur to you, living in an environment where the air is breathable, that it would in fact be theoretically possible for agents and editors to come up with a temporal plan, where one event follows another in a logical manner, and deadlines may be met with the calm tranquility that only comes from advance preparation.

Take my advice: don’t try to present this quaint view to people in the New York-based publishing industry, lest you be labeled a West Coast Flake. Instead, just take quiet steps to insure your own inner peace and personal tranquility, and let them get on with their heart-stopping perpetual panic.

And no, I am not talking about meditation: I’m talking about adding two weeks to any negotiated deadline, so you may finish making your changes without losing too much sleep. I’m talking about pretending that FedEx does not serve your remote part of the country; the USPS’ Priority mail is more than fast enough for a manuscript that will sit on an editor’s desk until the next Ice Age.

My point here (and I’m relatively sure that I still have one) is that the more you know about your prospective agent’s preferred solicitation style up front, the more stress you will be able to save yourself down the line. Will you be dealing in the geological timeframes of individual submissions, or the live-or-die gamble of multiple submissions? Either way, get a solid explanation now, before the panic begins, because honey, trying to get an explanation from a Manhattanite agent in the middle of a panic is like Dorothy trying to talk strategy with the cyclone that landed her in Oz.

Learn what you can first, then hold on for the ride. And wherever you are in the process, keep up the good work!