Your query letter, part VII: for the lack of a poetic moniker, the other stuff

For the last few days, I have been going through a checklist of questions a prudent querier should ask herself before popping that missive (plus SASE, of course) into the mail. As I’m sure the sharper-eyed among you have noticed already, I am being a trifle repetitious in this series overall, not my usual style. Bear with me on this one, long-time readers: this information is so very important to the success of all you queriers out there that I really want to hammer it home.

Yes, there are many, many, MANY sources out there advising how to craft a query letter, much of it contradictory; I assure you, I am not claiming to be the final authority on it. However, I do have a very successful track record handling queries, both for my own work and my editing clients’, so I have quite a solid idea of what definitely will NOT work. So even if you have read so many pieces of advice on querying that you think that if you read another, you will go stark, raving mad like that poor man in BELOVED, you might want to cast your eyes over this list.

After all, even the best writer in the world is not born knowing how to pitch her work, is she?

So, query in hand, ask yourself the following questions. Yes, some of them are pretty elementary, but better that I mention here than even a single reader out there makes what is often a fatal mistake, right?

(11) Have I mentioned the book’s genre and/or book category?

Told you some of these would be elementary, right? You’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction.

This is a business run on categories: pick one, and use some of your precious query letter space to state it outright. Because there’s just no getting around the fact that in order to get your book published, any agent currently residing on the planet will have to tell any editor in the business what genre your book falls into — thus, it is really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

As I mentioned the other day, a lot of writers think they can fudge genres by listing several: comic romance, spiritual how-to, women’s thriller. Logically, these hybrids may make sense, but if a composite category isn’t already quite well established (paranormal romance, for example), it looks wishy-washy to professional eyes.

The one exception: Literary/Mainstream Fiction. This one is okay, because honestly, no one is really sure where precisely the dividing line between the two categories lies, and occasionally (very occasionally), very literary works have huge mainstream appeal.

(12) Have I avoided using clichés?
I would go so far as to list this as a general axiom: NEVER USE A CLICHÉ IN YOUR SUBMISSIONS, at any stage. Especially not in your query letter.

I used to think this one was self-evident, but after years and years of reading aspiring writers’ queries with an eye to punching them up, I have been proven wrong. A LOT of query letters (and synopses, and contest entries) feature ostensibly humorous references to clichés. I blame television for this: the sitcom (and Saturday Night Live) have led all too many to believe that sheer repetition of a phrase (“You look mabalous,” anyone?) renders it amusing.

All too many are wrong. Just because your coworkers will chuckle when you quip, “Where’s the beef?” (okay, so maybe you coworkers in the mid-1980s would have), it doesn’t mean that the phrase — or truism, or malapropism — is going to be funny in a formal request for representation. If you choose to make your query letter humorous, use your own material.

Why? Because originality shows your talent off far better than your ability to quote. And while the general population’s tolerance for second-hand and oft-repeated jokes tends to be rather high (witness the careers of Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and practically any comedian Saturday Night Live has foisted upon the rest of us, if you doubt this), in the publishing industry, the tolerance is close to nil.

I am not kidding about this. Agents and editors tend to regard the jokes floating around in the zeitgeist with roughly the same loathing as they hold for clichés: the bubonic plague may be worse, by most objective standards, but you’d hardly know it to hear them talk about these phenomena. They feel, and not without some justification, that any writer worth thirty seconds of their time should be able to make it through a page of introduction, five pages of synopsis, and fifty pages of submission without resorting to rehashed phrases.

I have faith that you can do it, too.

(13) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I sound as though I am a competent professional, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your certificate in woodworking, if your book touches even vaguely upon circular saws.

Most of the time, though, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you graduated from any institution after high school, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include.

(14) Have I made any of the standard mistakes that send agents screaming into the night?

Again, this is recap, and all of these are trivial to the uninitiated eye, but trust me, ALL of them will get your query pitched into the reject pile before you can say Judith Regan:

*Referring to ANY book as “a fiction novel”
*Taking more than three words to describe the book category.
*Any version of the sentiment, “I know you don’t represent this kind of book, but…”
*Claiming to have been referred by a client who did not actually refer you (and yes, agents generally do ask the alleged referrer)
*A query letter longer than a single page.
*Obvious margin-fudging or ultra-small typeface usage to make a query only a page long.
*Not including a SASE.
*Addressing a female agent as “Dear Mr. Smith,” or a male one as “Dear Ms. Jones.”
*And finally (drum roll, please), the biggest pet peeve of all, addressing the agent as “Dear Agent.”

(15) Is my letter in correspondence format, not in business format?

I’ve literally never seen this advice given elsewhere, but it is a fact: to people in the publishing industry (and the magazine industry as well, I’m told), business format — be it in a letter or a manuscript — looks illiterate. And that’s the last thing you want to convey to someone you expect to take your writing seriously.

(Yes, I know: I write in business format here. Blame the blogging program, which simply eats tabs willy-nilly.)

Indent EVERY paragraph the regulation five spaces. (Yes, in your manuscript, too. If you don’t know why this is an automatic rejection offense, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.) Single-space the letter, and have the date and the signature halfway across the page.

(16) Is my query letter in the same font as my manuscript? Is it free of boldface and underlining? And is my font choice one of those favored by the industry?

I know that it may seem a trifle silly, but long experience has shown that query letters that adhere to standard manuscript format tend to be taken more seriously from the get-go. (If you don’t know what standard format is, or that there was a special format for manuscripts that differs from how books are printed, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

In practical terms, this means that your query should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New. (If you have constructed false letterhead on your computer, your header may be in a different typeface.) Nothing in the letter — or indeed, in your manuscript — should be in either boldface or underlined. If you use a foreign-language word, italicize it.

“But how,” some of you may be calling right about now, “do I designate my title, if I am not to use boldface or underlining?”

Good question. Within the context of a letter, pretty much everyone in the industry will reproduce a title in all caps (ALL THE PRETTY HORSES), but you may italicize a title instead.

(17) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?

When I teach basic query-writing technique, I find that this question surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter, more than any other. The fact is, though, those guidelines are widely enough known now that a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is definitely not good. In fact, a letter that is too all-business may actually get shoved into the rejection pile on that basis alone.

Why? In a word: boredom. Think about that agency screener with her 800 letters to open per week. Just how many straight-out-of-a-textbook queries do you think she sees on an average day? How about in an average hour?

Get my point? And see why I have been historically reluctant to post a universal prototype for a query letter here?

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of presenting a man without a face: your query letter needs to sound like you at your best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, the query should reflect that, too. And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query.

There is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Phew! That was a lengthy one, wasn’t it? It may not feel like it, but believe it or not, I honestly am trying to hurry through this material, so I can get back to giving advice on crafting your contest entries. Something tells me THAT series may take us right up to the PNWA contest deadline…

The fun never stops here, does it? Keep up the good work!

P.S. to Damon: the address on your e-mail keeps bouncing back when I reply! Would you mind e-mailing again?

6 Replies to “Your query letter, part VII: for the lack of a poetic moniker, the other stuff”

  1. I honestly didn’t know that you indented in a query. Oh, dear. Also the 12 font, though I think I have been writing in 12 font. Back to the letter.

    1. Hooray! I don’t know why all of the query advice-givers seem to leave out these important points…but they really are the kind of issue where if you talk to agents about it, 9 out of 10 will just blink and say, “Yeah, obviously.”

  2. Indent 5 spaces? Okay, so I’ll redo my letters before I send them out (sigh). But what do I do about the 156-word synopsis that’s after the intro para and before the bio para? Do I double-space before and after but still indent?

    1. Indent EVERY paragraph in your letter. Do not skip a line in between paragraphs. (But if your synopsis paragraph is 156 words, you might want to think about breaking it into two paragraphs, for cosmetic reasons.) In short, format it like a personal letter.

      I’m finding it fascinating to hear from so many people that indentation is a chore, since before ten years ago, no one outside a secretarial pool would have dreamt of NOT indenting paragraphs. Indenting 5 spaces is standard for everything but business format — anytime, anywhere. It is only business letters that ever made us think otherwise. And the fact that e-mail makes personal format difficult.

      That, and the fact that some editors have seen fit to adopt the medieval manuscript habit of not indenting the first paragraph of a chapter. But, again, what is done in books is NOT done in manuscripts.

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