How was the first workday after the long weekend, campers? Dragging a bit today?
If it’s any consolation, Millicent the agency screener probably is, too. Imagine walking into your office after a lovely Labor Day holiday (or, in many agency offices, an even more lovely multi-week break) to discover your desk has totally disappeared under the backlog of incoming queries and submissions? Or that your e-mail inbox is crammed so full that if you are going to do anything else over the next few days, you’ll have to be doing nothing but hitting the DELETE key constantly for hours on end?
(Confidential to the three readers who started as Millicents today: congratulations on the new gig! But I wasn’t kidding about the volume of work, was I?)
I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.
Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst. Speaking of which, after Querypalooza, it’s right back to close textual analysis, self-editing, and more of those fascinating winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.
Speaking of fascinating prose presented well (a clumsy segue, but hey, it was an awfully long weekend chez Mini), the last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable in the current literary market. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book how or why it is interesting. Or exciting. Or even vaguely original.
Blessed are the Millicents, for they shall be plowing through it all.
Of course, some of those queries must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound even remotely so. (At least, I hope you would.) It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.
Just not true, I’m afraid; the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.
Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the book being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter.
Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”
The short answer: time.
The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. (See earlier expression of sympathy for the newbies’ eyestrain.) Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.
Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.
Still seem unfair? Think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), the letter is going to have to make HER believe that the book is fascinating.
Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:
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.
Not to mention demonstrating 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 manuscript’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many templates out there and stir.
It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. 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.
(30) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be — the goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.
Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.
There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.
It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”
How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about wowing Millicent with amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.
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.
News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.
If you’re wondering why, please see my 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. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) 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 like:
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 on a well-worn concept:
She’s a ditsy cheerleader, apparently, 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…
Getting 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. Cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.
(31) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — notoriously common in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché, and few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.
And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if he does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.
Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.
When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing adolescent 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.
(32) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.
Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects: how better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?
I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.
Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.
Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible (“But they really sound that way!”), but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.
Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)
Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.
Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…
(33) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context, but remember, Millicent is reading a whole lot of these missives in a row. The fact that your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences — or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in each — is bound to make those queries start to blur together after a while. Take a peek at this fairly typical gem:
I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope it will interest you. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.
Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA, and thus probably not reflective of the narrative voice in this particular narrative. Despite the current popularity and burgeoning innovation of the YA market, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.
Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.
I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea, 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.
Did you catch the problem? As I have argued about narrative writing, 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. After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.
(34) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Eschewing the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because — not to put too fine a point on it…
Pretty much every professional reader is specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing, by definition. At minimum, it’s less vibrant than more direct and active sentences. If you want to impress a pro with the quality of your writing, you should avoid the passive voice as much as possible.
Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your writing teacher to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end. There are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.
Had enough of that reader-abusing structure? Millicent has — and frankly, so have I. After years of yanking such sentences out of query letters, synopses, and manuscripts, I actually found it mentally painful to construct that last paragraph.
Because the literary disdain for the passive voice is so close to universal, most of you probably already take active steps to avoid using it in your manuscripts, but surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well. In a way, that’s understandable: 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, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.
And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.
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 conveniently brings us to…
(35) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
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 at length in the past (for evidence of same, 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. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.
So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so?
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 exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.
Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine.
(36) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes seem high enough for my protagonist that readers will care about the outcome? Does the conflict come across as both plausible and compelling? For other nonfiction, have I made the problem or issue I’m addressing appear important?
There’s a truism in editing: if a dialogue scene is dragging, raise the stakes for one of the speakers. The more the characters care about the outcome of a conflict, the easier it will be for the reader to care, too. By the same token, a fine revision tactic for keeping the reader turning nonfiction pages is to make a strong and continual case for why the subject matter of the book is vital — to the individual reader, to the society, to the world.
The same principle holds true for queries: if Millicent understands what a protagonist stands to gain or lose from confronting a clearly-defined problem, she’s more likely to find the story compelling. Similarly, if the query makes it pellucidly clear why she should care about its central question — and, more importantly, why readers in the target audience should care — the argument is more likely to grab her.
Or, to cast it in #35 terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.
Memoir queries are especially prone to underselling the importance of what’s at stake for the protagonist. After all, from the memoirist’s perspective (and frequently for writers of autobiographical fiction as well), the primary significance of the story may well be that (a) it’s a true story, and (b) it happened to the writer. Shouldn’t the very truth of the story, combined with the single person most able to give an inside perspective, be enough to captivate readers?
That’s certainly an understandable point of view, from a writerly perspective, but from a professional viewpoint, the answer is usually no. No one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because the events described in it happened to the author; there are far, far too many truthful memoirs out there for that to be the sole criterion for book buyers. Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of book.
So does Millicent in evaluating a query to decide whether she should request pages. Just as it’s the writer’s job to construct a manuscript or book proposal’s narrative to render the story compelling not just for herself, it’s incumbent upon the querying memoirist to give a screener plenty of reason to say, “Wow, this sounds not only like the narrator is an interesting person in an interesting situation — the conflict he faces comes across as one that will fascinate many readers in the already well-saturated memoir market.”
Yes, her thoughts really are that prolix. Our Millie is a complex reasoner.
Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard in making your case for your story or argument’s importance: implying that resolving leaf droppage on neighbors’ yards is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter from Millicent. The line between conveying importance and self-importance can be distressingly thin.
That’s the beauty of raising the stakes: ideally, you won’t have to make positive statements about the importance of your subject matter at all, at least for fiction. (For nonfiction, go ahead and explain why the world should care.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw his own conclusion. You’re just leading him toward the conclusion you wish him to draw.
(37) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder. Ahem:
For a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.
(38) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so 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 very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book, isn’t it?”
I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last night: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.
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, is this the best impression you could possibly make?
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 writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.
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.
As I mentioned at the very beginning of Querypalooza, 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 thousand fold.
Next time — that’s 10 am PST tomorrow, campers; although we’re still in Querypalooza mode, it would be madness to try to maintain the three-shift schedule of the weekend — I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in the platform paragraph of your query. Or, as we like to call it here at Author! Author!, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.
Yum, yum. Keep up the good work!