How to write a really good query letter, part VIII: spinning one heck of a good yarn — for the space of a paragraph

Before I launch back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one, allow me to pause a moment to express the hope that all of the writers living in the path of the California wildfires are and will continue to be safe, sound — and if they have to evacuate, either did or will have time to take copies of their works-in-progress with them.

To those who did not: the hearts of all of us here at Author! Author! go out to you.

In honor of what I devoutly hope were very few lost manuscripts, would the rest of you do me a favor, please? Would you make a complete copy of your writing files now and store it in a safe place? Or if you’re not in a position to do that at the moment, will you please take the precautionary step of e-mailing the files to yourself as Word attachments?

Weren’t expecting that last one, were you?

It’s not ideal, of course, and it isn’t really a substitute for making complete backups early and often. I wanted to mention it, though, because if one were in a hurry — if, say, one’s governor had just ordered the evacuation of one’s neighborhood and one had to choose between saving the family photos, the deed to the house, or the heavy computer — it is something one could conceivably do within just a couple of minutes. It would also — and this is no small consideration in an emergency situation — create back-up copies of one’s work that would be accessible from another computer.

Say, one far, far away from where anything was likely to burst into flame anytime soon.

I’m just saying. Of the many, many hideously sad results of a home or business lost to flames, the manuscript whose only copy was on a lost computer is one of the few against which a prudent person can prepare in advance — and one of the many that can strike prudent people who have prepared.

How so? Well, tell me: where is your primary computer? How close to it do you store your back-ups? And if they’re in the same room, or even the same structure, how long would it take you to reconstruct your book if you couldn’t get to them?

In the longer term, of course, regular back-ups by more conventional methods probably make more sense. I have a terrific little thingamabob that automatically backs up my entire hard disk from time to time, and it’s small enough to shove into a coat pocket if I suddenly had to dash from the building. It wasn’t cheap, but it’s certainly portable.

Less expensive but more trouble: saving back-ups to disks or DVRs. Admittedly, it’s kind of a pain to burn a new one after each significant revision (rule of thumb: if you couldn’t reconstruct what you’ve changed in your manuscript since your last back-up, either from memory or by reading through the backed-up version, it’s time to make another back-up), but disks are easily stashable. So much so that you could store a set somewhere other than the building that houses your computer.

Sound paranoid? Perhaps. But again: how much of your manuscript would you have if your current computer went up in flames? Or got stolen? Or even simply had a hard disk meltdown?

Please, don’t let your only copy get lost forever. Take the time to make regular back-ups, and either don’t store them right next to your computer or encase them in a fireproof box. Someday, you may be very, very happy that you did.

And to those who did not get the chance to take preventative action: again, my condolences.

Back to work. For those of you joining us mid-series, I’ve been spending the past few days going over some common query letter faux pas, so all of us here in the Author! Author! community may avoid them. Let’s recap our checklist 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 here?

(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?

(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?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(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?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

Everyone comfortable with all of those? Or, if comfortable is too strong a word, at least no longer breaking out in hives at the mere mention of these concepts?

Good. Let’s move on.

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed summary paragraph in a query letter. So if the book is funny, go for a laugh here; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, don’t you? “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series — nay, in this post — that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the summary paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/my whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that ONLY the summary paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your ENTIRE query letter were written in an entertaining tone. But let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the platform paragraph of a query letter into much of a comedy.

Seriously. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Sorbonne, it’s hard to turn that into a giggle line.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your book is unique?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
This one should sound at least a little bit familiar — I brought it up back in Pitching 101. (That seems so long ago, doesn’t it, now that the weather has calmed down a bit?) All too often, aspiring writers will construct their summary paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers.

There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents who screen submissions.

But it doesn’t mean that a summary paragraph that demonstrates that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Take a gander:

The protagonist is a troubled man, caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Not the best descriptive paragraph, is it? All of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, but tell me: what is this book ABOUT? WHO is it about? What’s the central conflict?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. She is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why? Well, the presentation of the storyline is distancing; she would much, much rather that the querier simply told the story directly. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner she’s far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spot some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Because neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane: the goal of the summary paragraph is to show what the book is ABOUT, not how it is written.

That’s what the manuscript is for, right? As Millicent’s boss the agent likes to say, it all depends on the writing. Let the narrative tricks come as a delightful surprise.

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

If not, is the summary paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. No matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but if your query letter does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript. Even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly many agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries, the query letter is going to determine whether Millicent reads anything else you sent.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your query letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point.

And here’s the good news: once again, if those of you who did your homework throughout the recent Pitching 101 series are already well equipped to tackle #19: you’ve already sat down and figured out who will be buying your book and why, right? If you have not assembled a list of selling points for your book, there are a series of posts that will walk you through it relatively painlessly, cleverly hidden under the category YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS at right.

Stop groaning. Yes, it’s more work, but if it’s any consolation, it’s great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?
One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who MIGHT conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.


Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know where this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

Trust me, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

The second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, come on — you thought that they wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they think the first version is inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so both examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the BOOK, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This is a question that often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #17, is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

As I mentioned last time, most query letters share one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has.

If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the summary paragraph as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not take the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic applies to any type of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph. If you have written a steamy romance, select the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail.

And so forth. Again, this is basic pitching strategy, right?

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in my earlier series on pitching (easily found under the obfuscating category title IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET AUDIENCE on the archive list at right) already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty close to self-evident.

To revisit one of my earlier mantras: structure your marketing materials to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to help you. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript.”

Once again, we see that it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true.

Just a little something to ponder while some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind, this seems like an excellent place to stop for the day. More probing questions follow tomorrow, of course.

Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *