Queryfest XI: who, me? Inconspicuous? When I’m tap-dancing and waving sparklers?

Yet another unplanned hiatus, campers: my server went down like a glass-jawed boxer, taking my blog access and e-mail with it. If you were picturing me taking advantage of my suddenly net-bereft existence by curling up on the nearest chaise longue with a stack of new releases, you underestimate the shrillness of my telephone. How on earth did so many curious people — and I mean that in both senses — find out that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the 1934 San Francisco General Strike? Is there some sort of database for academic work the author never tried to get published? Or are there merely very few people who have written on the subject, since, say, Franklin Roosevelt was president? I’m not complaining — I’ve gotten some awfully interesting conversations out of it, enough to prompt me to dig out my long-buried notes on a novel set in the 1930s — but if anyone’s gearing up to come knocking on my studio door to ask questions about my fifth-grade history paper on the Bonus March, the professor’s out for the weekend. I want to get back to that stack of new releases.

My literature-minded parents, you will be either amused or appalled to hear, made me type that history paper in standard format, because professional presentation of a book manuscript was not the kind of thing they wanted their little girl to traipse into middle school not being able to do. I had to explain to my teacher what a slug line was.

Speaking of documents that must adhere to the rigors of standard format, I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission: after so many days away from you fine people, I’m longing to kick Queryfest into overdrive. In celebration of my newfound vim and the ostensible cooperation of my server (hang in there, baby!), I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist this very evening. I’m going to be tackling readers’ burning questions on the subject in the days to come, 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.

Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t devoted a midnight or two to worrying about your querying prowess. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at manufacturing huge, complex structures entirely out of angst.

I’m also going to be taking my infamously sharp editing pencils to a randomly-selected few readers’ queries as illustrative examples. If you would like to toss yours into the mix, submit it exactly as you would to the agent of your dreams — but send it as a Word attachment, please, so I may take a peek at your formatting — to contest@annemini(dot)com. (You thought I would set up a separate address for non-contests?) Naturally, I shall change contact information if I use it as an example; please give some indication in your e-mail whether you would prefer that I use your actual name or a pseudonym. Oh, and do include a positive statement that I have your permission to use your query as an example.

To our muttons. As those of you with unusually good memories may perhaps recall, before the connectivity imps dragged me temporarily from your presence, I had asked — nay, demanded — that those of you who had already drafted queries print them up, plant them firmly by your doubtless attractive elbows, and ask yourselves an array of trenchant questions about them.

Time again to whip ‘em out. Our last batch of questions will focus upon means of conveying that your book is interesting, in addition to being marketable under current literary conditions. Contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for even the most fascinating book how or why it is likely to pique readers’ interest. Or whether it is exciting. Or even vaguely original.

Blessed are the Millicents, for they shall be plowing through it all.

Of course, some of the queries passing under her weary eyes 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, gob-smackingly compelling books fail to make them sound even remotely so. 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 — and sufficient reason for total strangers to mob bookstores, clamoring to read their books.

I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who have spent the last few years polishing the latest iteration of the Great American Novel, but that’s just not how it works. Few readers march into the corner bookstore and announce to the nice person manning the cash register, “I want to buy a book. Not on any particular subject matter, mind you, and I have no strong literary preferences of my own. No, I want to purchase some volume of prose simply because someone was enterprising enough to write it. Lead me instantly to such a tome, my good man.”

“That’s going to present a bit of a problem,” the clerk would be forced to say. “By definition, every book in here was written by someone enterprising enough to write a book. Unless, of course, it’s a celebrity memoir, in which case it was written by someone enterprising enough to get paid for writing in someone else’s voice.”

Doesn’t happen much, I’m afraid. And that’s why, in case anyone had been wondering, agents and the Millicents who screen queries for them seldom cast their eyes over a query that makes a book sound mundane and exclaim, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that this story doesn’t sound very exciting, or that I think it will not appeal to any currently-established group of readers. The author clearly worked very hard on it, and that’s good enough for me. Let’s request the full manuscript!” Not being in the business of seeking out the best in new literature on a not-for-profit basis, they harbor a prejudice for books they believe they can sell.

Then, too, the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Literally everyone who sends off a fiction query has done as much — or should, if she is playing by the rules. (You did know that agents assume that any novel being queried or pitched will be not only completely drafted already, but fully polished, right?) And every nonfiction book proposer is at least planning to sit down and write a book.

So in order to catch Millicent’s eye, your query is going to need to make the book sound like it has more going for it. An original and thrilling plot, for instance. An intriguing narrative voice. A set of facts not presented in that particular way before, or an argument the nation would be better for having heard. That sort of stuff.

It may seem strange that I feel compelled to point that out, but you would be astonished at how many queries don’t make a good case for any of these. 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 in question.

Yes, outraged masses banging on the door of my studio? “But Anne,” purists everywhere shut, “I’m a novelist/memoirist/narrative fiction writer/political essayist looking for the skinny on the Bonus March, 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 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 is not particularly likely to interest readers in a specific target demographic, rather than leaping to that conclusion based on the query alone?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to get through on any given day. Since her boss, the agent of your dreams, could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to leap to that conclusion as speedily as possible for the overwhelming majority queries. She was specifically hired to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits for the agency, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, Virginia, the ones that just don’t make the book sound especially interesting.

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.

Stop seething and 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), that letter is going to have to make her believe that the book is fascinating.

Why, yes, that is a pretty tall order, now that you mention it — and virtually impossible to pull off 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:

broken-recordRealistically, every English sentence a writer 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.

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 screener forget that you are listing the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — but your job is to make it look easy. A good writer, the theory runs, should be able to make even relatively ho-hum matters read well. If you are talented enough to make a paragraph about your writing credentials sound like a gripping saga (or, at the very least, as though all of human history up to yesterday had been specifically arranged to render you the best possible writer for the book you are proposing), imagine how stirring a descriptive paragraph you could construct about your plot or argument.

You must have found them fascinating, mustn’t you, to devote all of that time to writing a book about them?

Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on our query checklist are intended to help you sound like the good writer you are — and your book like the great read it is. Who could have seen that coming?

(31) 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, the doctor who can’t heal himself, the protagonist in a high-risk job who cannot commit romantically, the man whose family is slaughtered within the first scene so he has an excuse to embark upon a festival of revenge, 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 Millie exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” Or at least, “Wow, that’s a magnificent turn of phrase about a fairly predictable plot point.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about how much Millicent likes 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. This is the place to air 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 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 this:

Ambrosia (a not-so-sweet 16) is 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:

Ambrosia (16) is a ditsy cheerleader — or is she? She has spent her first three years of high school carefully cultivating a reputation as a nitwit, 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

Does that chorus of groans mean you’re 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 — wait for the cliché — plague. Excise anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a stereotype.

(32) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — a notoriously common tactic 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. 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 she 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. He was also prone to shouting, “TWAIN!” at students who failed to spell proper nouns correctly, presumably in reference to Mark Twain’s assertion that he didn’t care what was printed about him, as long as they spelled his name right. (Several public figures have disputed his claim to have said that first; Dorothy Parker certainly said it most often.)

Sure, my teacher’s DTs occasionally caused him to see Edgar Allen Poe peering at him menacingly from dark corners, but the man knew his way around a sentence. Like him, 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 complain, “not somebody else’s.”

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

(33) 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 who will acquire the book. 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, professors (or ex-professors, like yours truly), 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 — quoth they: “But these people 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.) And honestly, if a writer can’t make it through a paragraph-long plot description without resorting to jargon, why shouldn’t she assume that the manuscript will be peppered with the stuff?

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, not an integral part of them.

Wow Millicent with your expertise in your book’s subject matter, by all means — but in the query, be sure to cast them in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(34) 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. They catch a fish. It gets away. Life is strange.

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 — poor grammar and/or spelling are far more common prompts. (Chant it with me now, campers: reread that query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you pop it in the mail or hit SEND.) However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea in a pea-green boat. 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 impress Millicent with your writing acumen.

(35) 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…

broken-recordPretty much every professional reader in the U.S. has been specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing. 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 querying coach 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, just going on and on without ever seeming to reach any point or satisfactory conceptual conclusion, perhaps because due to lemmings a lack of proofreading by them in order to free their text from incursions by older draft remnants. Or maybe they are just being glowered at by E. Allen Poe. In any case, 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 world’s 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. Surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well, though. 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 had 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. Everybody knows that seraphim are the ones that wield rulers.

Just between us, there’s another 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…

(36) 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. They receive even more queries that imply that their protagonists are not active.

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 — and what do you know? The villain spontaneously confesses. 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. Even then, those lips don’t actually make contact until flooding wafts the rocking horse across the room to push him into her.

As I’ve explained at length in the past about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right), I shan’t belabor the point on the manuscript level. In the course of trying to summarize a complex premise in a query, though, many writers 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 her 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. And no, just having her name be the only one that appears in the descriptive paragraph isn’t necessarily sufficient to pull that off.

(37) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes in the book’s central conflict 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 will care deeply about it — the argument is more likely to grab her.

Or, to cast it in #36′s 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.

Don’t believe me? Okay, plunk yourself down in front of the memoir section of any well-stocked bookstore. Remain motionless until you overhear a browser in that section murmur, “You know what I’m looking for? A true story. Preferably one that really happened, if possible in real life. It would be nice if the author were the person to whom it happened, and I would be absolutely in heaven if that character never stirred so much as a fingertip to alter her ambient conditions. Yep, that’s the book for me.”

When you’ve stood still so long that bookstore patrons have begun to use you as a coat rack, perhaps you will admit I have a point here.

Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of a memoir. 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 honestly 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 the burning issue of leaf droppage on your lawn is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter. 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. Or at least a niche audience of readers.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw her own conclusion. You are just leading her toward the conclusion you wish her to draw.

You’re also, I would like to remind you, leading her away from drawing unflattering conclusions about you and your book. Which is why you should ask yourself…

(38) 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:

broken-recordFor a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

(39) Does my query letter read it is talking about a book in my chosen book category?
Well might your jaw drop. It is unbelievably common for queries in general, and book description paragraphs in particular, not to sound like what they are, promotion for a specific type of book aimed at a specific target audience who will look for it on a specific bookshelf in any old bookstore. Thrillers often aren’t described as remotely thrilling; mysteries fail to mystify, and heartwarming tales of romance and personal fulfillment leave Millicent’s cockles downright icy.

Can you really blame her, then, for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that the manuscripts in question will not provide the experience readers of thrillers, mysteries, or heartwarming tales have come to expect?

Even if the plot comes across as genre-appropriate or the argument is presented well, the language used in queries frequently leaves Millicent wondering if their authors have even read widely in their chosen book categories. Queries for YA dotted with three-syllable words, like descriptions of books purporting to explain the mysteries of particle physics in which no word exceeds four letters, imply a manuscript that does not, to put it mildly, take its target readership’s vocabulary levels into account.

Remember, Millicent is trained to think in terms of book categories — and to make her mind up fast. Just as it would be poor strategy for the first page of your novel or book proposal to leave her in doubt about your ability to write well for your target audience, your query’s word choices, particularly in the book description paragraph, should reflect the book category in which you hope to publish.

(40) 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 time: 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, to employ an often misused term, unique. Your book actually isn’t like anybody else’s — so why should your query read like 57 of the last 72 that crossed Millicent’s desk? 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, you might want to bring that up in your query, too. 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 Queryfest, 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 rise exponentially.

Next time, I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in your platform paragraph. Or, as we like to say here at Author! Author!, we’re going to be celebrating Halloween by handing out some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Keep up the good work!

Leave a Reply

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