Your query letter, part V: first impressions matter tremendously

I’ve been talking for the last few days about big problems to which query letters are prone, but am I preaching to the choir here? Don’t all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid these pitfalls?

Not necessarily – even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters. For most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their missives themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record, because I honestly do think the misconceptions around rejection are harmful to good writers: unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin? Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, 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 never – well, almost never — works like that: writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned, as we’ve seen over the last few posts.

But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want? Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to learn the fine art of diagnosis.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, read over your query letter, synopsis, and, if you’ve been submitting it, 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.

Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable: 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. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust – such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters – and blandish her 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 and others; fifty years later, 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 line editing while she reads my work, 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 a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier – and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

Once you have done this, 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 yourself the following questions. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my advice from earlier in this series, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

(1) Is my query letter polite?

Not just civil, mind you: genuinely courteous. Even good queriers tend to start to sound a bit exasperated by their fifteenth try. In fact, you’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: 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…”

Okay, these are extreme examples, but do bear in mind that agents have to interact their clients quite a bit throughout the publication process; I hear from my agent more often than I do virtually all of my old chums from college. Do make sure that you’re coming across in your query as someone with whom it will not be painful to associate on a regular basis.

(2) Does my letter sound competent and professional, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Do I sound as though I know what I’m doing, or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

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 query and/or repeatedly in the body of the letter comes across as 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.

And, whatever you do, do NOT mention that the book has been rejected elsewhere, or that you’re having a hard time finding an agent, or that you think it will be challenging to sell in the current market. These are all surprisingly common elements in query letters, as they are in pitches: give some writers a few minutes, and they’ll give you eight good reasons that no one will ever pick up their work.

Trust me, that kind of modesty does not charm on the isle of Manhattan. Even if you don’t feel confident, try to sound so.

(3) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?

I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked, launch into an extended medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings at the drop of the proverbial hat. 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!”
It simply doesn’t work.

(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?

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, but you need not address your query to a generic “Dear Agent” to set off their repetition radar. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

And if the answer was, “This was the first agency alphabetically,” you might want to consider coming up with a reason that sounds better on paper.

Why? Human nature. 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, 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…”)

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented; I’ve written fairly extensively on this subject in the past (if this is news to you, please see the AGENTS category at right), so I shall only list the top ways briefly here. 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 Publisher’s 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. 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 upfront. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to give a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

(5) Does my first paragraph mention the book category? And have I avoided the all-time fiction agent peeve of referring to the book as a “fiction novel”?

Again, when approaching people to whom industry-speak is a native tongue, it really does behoove you to describe your book in their language – and avoid describing it in terms that a publishing professional would never use. If you are unsure what a book category is, you might want to take a gander at the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right; if you are unsure why an agent would object to the term “fiction novel,” ask yourself this: what novels aren’t fiction?

You might have noticed that all of the questions so far concern the first paragraph of your query letter. I have dwelt upon the first paragraph, because – as I was discussing yesterday — 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. Again, it is really in your interest to adhere to the prevailing manners of the publishing world: for all intents and purposes, it is considered rather impolite to make a busy agent (or assistant) read the entire cover letter in order to find out what you want. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front, the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

Which is, by the way, the primary reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically prefer them: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line of it. Yes, they’re more convenient for the writer, but they’re also much, much less trouble for the agency.

Personally, I would prefer to be harder to dismiss.

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you should 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.

Keep up the good work!

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