For the past few days, I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered — as opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm to post offices around the world in legions like creatures in zombie films, droning, “Represent my book! Represent my book!”
(That would be the undead they’re thinking of storming post offices, mind you, not the 1960s band.)
Yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your manuscript. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection. So print up your latest query letter, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.
Everybody comfortable? Good. Let’s promote the heck out of your book.
First, please read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where — long-time readers, chant it with me now — you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.
Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.
And if you don’t read it aloud IN HARD COPY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.
All right, I’ll hop off the guilt wagon now and back onto the checklist road. (My mother’s favorite joke — Q: how many Mediterranean mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: None. “Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark, while you do what you want…”)
(6) 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 and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. This is the primary 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.
This may seem draconian, but think about it from Millicent the screener’s perspective: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if the first paragraph rambled? Or, heaven forefend, contained a typo or two?
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. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?
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.
All right, on to paragraph two:
(7) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, authors get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.
Here’s a quick way to tell if your letter is hitting the mark: unearth that book keynote you came up with earlier in this series for a pitch, and compare it with your summary paragraph in the query. Do they read as though they are describing the same book?
If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book ready to hand? That’s 3-5 entire, glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.
Did I hear a few gasps out there? “But Anne,” I hear timorous non-zombie voices cry, “the agency’s listing in the standard agency guide and/or website does not mention sending a synopsis with my query. I thought I was supposed to send only EXACTLY what the agent requested?”
Well caught, oh anonymous voices: sending only what is requested is indeed the rule for SUBMISSIONS. And obviously, you should check what the particular agency wants to see. If an agency asks for something special in its querying guidelines, such as the first 5 pages of your manuscript (the agency that represents yours truly encourages writers to send a first chapter, but that’s rare), you should send precisely that.
However, most agencies do not spell out so clearly what they want to see stuffed in that query envelope: even the most cursory flip through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents will produce many repetitions of the minimal phrase query with SASE that it becomes slightly hypnotic. In my experience, the Millicents at such agencies may not always read an included synopsis, but they don’t go around automatically rejecting queries that include them, either.
With one exception: if a synopsis is sent as an attachment with an e-mail query. Most agencies have policies against opening unrequested attachments, so if you include a synopsis with your e-query, add it in the body of the message, after the letter itself.
In a paper query, I think a good synopsis is usually worth including, provided that it is brief, well-written, and professional. (Don’t worry; I shall be going over how to write a killer synopsis next week.) Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book.
Within the query letter itself, you honestly do have only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.
Still tempted to spend the entire page recounting plot twists? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these two summaries: seriously which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?
Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?
Clear in your mind? Now here is entry #2:
BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.
Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil…”
Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!
Tomorrow, I shall delve a bit more into the mysteries of that summary paragraph. I’m going to get back to editing now. Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark. Go have your fun. And keep up the good work!