Throughout this latest barefoot run through the often rocky field of query letters, I have been thinking a lot about querying fatigue, that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection. “Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?” Unfortunately, if an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he DOES need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.
That’s just a fact. So I hope that my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying.
Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads ONLY your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.
I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.
So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying. Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?
The sole goal of querying, as of pitching, then, is to generate a request to read some of it — not, as many queriers and pitchers seem to believe, to sell the book per se.
Why am I bringing this up in mid-series, you ask, other than to be a ray of sunshine on a rainy Seattle day? Well, it’s all part of a longer-term plan: earlier in the summer, if you will recall, I promised that learning how to pitch would help make you a better querier; last week and this, I have discussed how a savvy pitcher might apply those lessons to constructing a query letter; yesterday, I broached the often-neglected subject of the difference between query letters that claim to be the next bestseller, and those that provide an agent with some reasons to believe it.
Beginning to descry the outlines of my evil plan? I don’t want any of you to follow my querying guidelines blindly, but to UNDERSTAND the goals and pieces of the query letter well enough to write one that is actually original. I would like to see my readers not merely sending out professional-looking query letters, but ones that shout, “Hey, I’m not just a writer who has slapped my ideas into a boilerplate query — I’m a smart, thoughtful person with a good idea for a book who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.”
Overkill? Perhaps. But in my experience, more effective than just changing the words in the same template half the aspiring writers in North America are using this week — and believe me, fashions in querying change almost as often as fashions in hemlines.
All of which brings me back to a question thoughtful reader Jake wrote in to ask earlier in the summer, in the middle of my rhapsodies on pitching:
I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.
We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (“Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used)
I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?
Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:
A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph of a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.
A blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.
The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating.
Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it. From Millicent’s perspective, the difference is indeed glaring.
So how, as Jake so insightfully asks, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them? As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to ask while considering the issue:
(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe the book, or does it pass a value judgment on it?
Generally speaking, agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, as I mentioned yesterday. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.
That’s at MAKING the bed, naturally, children.
My point is, if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t otherpeople be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?
The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.
See the difference? Millicent does.
(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use?
Does this question sound eerily familiar? It should, at least to those of you who followed me through the pitching series earlier this summer.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: an effective query or pitch describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise.
(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually necessary to the query letter, or are they extraneous?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“They say it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)
To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant.
A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits: it is clear; it is less than 1 page (single-spaced); it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner; it is polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.
You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.
No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 2. Again, sound familiar?
A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label. And other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”
I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napoléon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.
Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their client’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category — trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.
If you don’t know how to figure out your book’s category, or why you shouldn’t just make one up, please, I implore you, click on the BOOK CATEGORIES section of the list at right before you send out your next query letter. Or pitch. Or, really, before you or anything you’ve written comes within ten feet of anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.
But I’m veering off into specifics, amn’t I? We were talking about general principles.
I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Oh, come on: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship — which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent — and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.
So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?
To put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style> Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?
To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.
Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.
And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”
Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like a rather pitiful attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants. At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.
And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?
Don’t make ’em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.
I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it.
Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you. More discussion of the ins and outs of querying follows in the days to come, so take a nice, deep breath and keep up the good work!