Book marketing 101: scanning your query letter for problems, part VI, or what makes Millicent cry, “My, but this sounds fascinating.”

This will be my last post (for the time being, at any rate) about the mysteries of querying — hooray for all of us for chugging through it! Today’s questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable.

And no, that’s not necessarily a foregone conclusion.

You’d be surprised at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound so. In fact, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Partially, this is due to writers’ forgetting that the query letter is a writing sample, too.

It’s a trifle jarring to think of it that way, isn’t it? But realistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

And that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a book’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many samples out there and stir.

Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits. Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy.

Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues.

(14) Have I avoided using clichés?
In a manuscript, this one is self-evident, but actually, clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters and synopses. Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — especially common in queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market.

However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept. The first almost never works, especially for fiction — see earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept (she’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport) and a subtle subversive twist (she’s a ditsy cheerleader, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination).

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader… get the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Or, to put it as bluntly as my high school English teacher would have: cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(15) Does the sentence structure vary enough?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context: your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences (or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in them). As in,

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope you will be interested in representing it. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Or, to cite an even more popular structural choice:

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to see, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

As I have argued about manuscripts, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line. Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning.

(16) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether?
This one is a good idea in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house, because — not to put too fine a point on it — most professional readers have been trained to believe passive voice equals poor writing, inherently.

Yes, I was aware that you already knew that. I bring it up, though, because when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, as if ruler-wielding cherubium descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses: on an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which leads me to…

(17) Does my summary make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted elsewhere (see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations.

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it.

(18) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
This question frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

“Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not the best impression you could possibly make, is it?

A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. 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. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

I firmly believe that 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.

Keep up the good work!

PS: While the status of my memoir remains up in the air, I have tried restrain myself from commenting on the many excellent Philip K. Dick fan sites. (For those of you new to the blog, 2 1/2 years ago, a publisher acquired my book about my childhood and teenage relationship with the writer — my mother’s first husband — and it was set to come out last year. The Dick estate threatened to sue both my publisher and me personally if it ever saw the light of day; they never specified why, nor asked for major changes. I gather that there is some question in their minds about whether I own my own memories.)

However, there is something truly odd going on over at the very thoughtful Total Dick-Head blog that I think may be of interest to both fans and writers in general: the PKD estate has evidently demanded that the site take down a reproduction of a fan newsletter. Since the original was published over 25 years ago, and apparently no one has objected to it in the interim, this strikes me as a mite surprising, not to say ungracious.

Or it would be, if it consisted of material that either the estateniks or Philip himself wrote. But it doesn’t seem to be — according to my copy, the newsletter was edited (and largely written by) the president of the Philip K. Dick Society and then-literary executor of the Dick estate, Paul Williams. Philophiles may know him as the author of one of the first PKD biographies, Only Apparently Real.

Williams evidently gave the blog’s writer, a serious scholar of Philip’s work, explicit permission to post it. But the estate is now asserting that he didn’t have the right to give permission to reproduce the newsletter — or, indeed, any of the nine years’ worth of Philip K. Dick Society newsletters he edited. Nor, although they claim they own the copyright, will they post the newsletters on the official PKD fansite. (I don’t pretend to follow their logic, but you can see the official rationale here.)

Which would be a little less odd if the newsletters had not been for sale for quite some time on Williams’ website — as indeed they still are at the time of this posting. Call me zany, but to my mind, this implies that the copyright to his publications is his.

This whole episode makes me really sad, as Philip was such a hater of every form of censorship. Williams has literally devoted decades to getting out the word about Philip’s writing, and it’s a real shame that fans and scholars alike will not have online access to his work.

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