Still hanging in there, everyone? Or are you getting a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail?
Actually, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you had the opposite reaction: visiting the site, glancing at the title, exclaiming, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that!” and clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum. Who could blame the hasty retreaters? For the past few posts, 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 in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, and unbound manuscripts, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent the agency screener rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.
You hadn’t been thinking of your query letter as part of an implacable daily onslaught, had you? Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the inevitability of a query letter’s being part of that perpetually angry mob — and how to avoid sounding in your query letter as if you are wielding the third pitchfork from the left.
Why might that be to your advantage, you ask? Novelty, among other things: you wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. (If you don’t know why a query letter’s sounding generic is a bad idea, please see my earlier post in this series on the dreaded cloning effect.)
The other reason is — wait for it — professionalism. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad summary statements (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (Dear Agent: please read my book) makes their work seem professional. If the query reads just like what they’ve seen online, they reason, it has to be good, right?
Not necessarily. Typically, if it reads that way, it’s just like a good half of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle. Next!
But when a query is unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. For a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.
Why? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing lurching about Geneva belongs to him. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F to open the door, she’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying her secret laboratory where he dabbles in revivifying the dead.
So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to catch her eye, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the angry mob’s attempts to get her attention.
Okay, so that analogy was a trifle forced; very few of the screeners of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latte, right?
My point is, in the face of a constant barrage of queries, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. Our goal in this series is to rid your letter of the most common rejection-provokers.
And before anyone says it: yes, 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 draft, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.
To pull out my broken record again: please, before you ask yourself the following questions, 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.
Yes, it happens. All the time.
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 trail. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:
(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much in it?
(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
(4) Is my query letter polite?
(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?
(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?
(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?
(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
Everyone clear on those? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not. While you’re formulating questions, let’s move on.
(13) 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?
This may seem like a draconian question, but think about it from Millicent’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?
I have been 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. (Yet another 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.)
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:
(14) 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 1-5 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 those timorous about storming the castle 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.
Actually, it’s pretty much always a mistake to send an attachment with either a query or a submission; unless the agent specifically requests it, it will almost always go unread. 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. (If the very idea of producing such a synopsis makes you wince, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category on the list at right.) 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 — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences 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.
(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
This is a tough one for most queriers — as we discussed in my recent Pitching 101 series, the overwhelming majority of queriers and pitchers resort to vague generalities in order to cram as much plot into that short descriptive paragraph as humanly possible.
The result: a whole lot of summaries that sound pretty generic. One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.
Not the best strategy when one is trying to convince an agent that the book in question is DIFFERENT from what’s already on the market. As in a pitch, the first commandment is thou shalt not bore, and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.
So why not spice things up with details that only you could devise?
Remember, too, that a query letter, like everything else an aspiring writer submits to an agency, is a writing sample; you’re going to want your summary to show off your well-honed storytelling skills (for fiction or creative NF) and/or argumentative acumen (for NF). In addition, you’re going to want to make your story concept or argument sound fresh.
Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we pull all that off in a brief paragraph? In a word: juicy details.
Okay, so that was two words. It’s still a great strategy.
As I argued in an earlier post on pitch construction, what makes a book summary memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not usually its overall arc but its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.
Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details. Remember, your goal in the query letter is not to tell the book’s entire plot or reproduce its primary argument, but to present its premise in a way that invites further scrutiny.
Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict.
Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?
<>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?
Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:
Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle. On the rebound from a ten-year marriage with Parisian bassoonist Serge, Gisèle scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.
Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.
Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:
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!
Worn out from that extensive compare-and-contrast exercise? Let’s take a break with a simple yes or no question.
(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches and synopses, are ALWAYS written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.
And apparently, writers are supposed to know this because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so.
I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: THE SUMMARY SHOULD BE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.
The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.”
It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.
Oh, and before it slips my mind: all too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.
That was restful, wasn’t it? I could shift back to the knottier questions, but I think that’s enough for you to think about for the nonce.
As long as you remember this: what makes a manuscript or book proposal great is not how similar it is to already-published books, but rather how it is different.
Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t. In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.
Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?
Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them.
But as you do, never forget that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?
Keep up the good work!