Queryfest, part XXIV: how to format a query, or, directions for those who have gotten lost in the tall grass of competing querying advice

After so many white and gray Seattle winter images in a row, campers, I thought everyone might be refreshed by the sight of a little green. As I like to tell the students in my writing classes, hitting the same note over and over again, even in the name of realism, can get a little old. Breaking out of the mold occasionally can be very refreshing for the reader.

Speaking of getting set in one’s ways — or, at any rate, in one’s worldview — do you remember how at the beginning of this series, I mentioned that one reason that there’s so much conflicting advice out there about how to write a winning query letter is that to the people who handle them all the time, it honestly isn’t a matter that deserves much discussion? To an experienced agency screener like our old pal, Millicent, as well as the agent for whom she works, the differential between a solid, professional-looking query and one that, well, isn’t could not be more obvious. In addition to any content problems the latter might have, it just feels wrong to a pro.

There’s an excellent reason for that: despite continual online speculation on the subject, there honestly isn’t much debate in agency circles over what constitutes a good query letter. Nor is there really a trick to writing one: you simply need to find out what information the agent of your dreams wants to see and present it simply, cleanly, and professionally. And if the agency’s posted submission guidelines are silent about special requests — or, as still remains surprisingly common, those guidelines consist entirely of a terse query with SASE — find out what the norm is for your type of writing and gear your query toward that.

Piece of cake, right?

Actually, from an agency perspective, that’s a pretty straightforward set of directives. Because there are so many sites like this that explain what to do, as well as quite a few books, many a Millicent just can’t understand why so many aspiring writers complain that the process is confusing. They enjoy an advantage the vast majority of queriers do not, you see: they have the opportunity to see hundreds upon hundreds of professional queries for book projects. The good ones — that is, the ones that stand a significant chance of garnering a request for pages — all share certain traits. So what’s the big mystery?

Yes, yes, I know that you would never be able to tell that was the prevailing attitude, judging solely from the constant barrage of competing advice floating around out there on the subject, but frankly, the overwhelming majority of that is not written by people who have practical experience of the receiving side of the querying experience, if you catch my drift. An astonishingly high percentage of it seems to be authoritative statements by people who want to help writers, but are merely passing on what they have heard. And not always originating from a credible source.

And what’s the best way to deal with competing advice, Queryfest faithful? Chant it with me now: don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet, no matter how authoritatively it is phrased. Consider the source before applying the rule; if you don’t know who is recommending it, check another source. Don’t assume that a single agent’s expressed preference is applicable to the entire industry; check every single agency’s guidelines before querying or submitting. And never, ever follow a template or ostensibly must-do set of guidelines unless you are positive you understand why you need to do it that way.

Believe it or not (ah, good: you’re reading even my advice with the requisite grain of salt now), following those simple five guidelines will help remove almost all confusion. The fact is, a startlingly high proportion of the advice out there is presented both anonymously and without explanation. It’s just rules, often accompanied by dire threats aimed toward those who do not follow them. And, as I have mentioned earlier in this series, most aspiring writers instinctively quail before such threats, believing — wrongly — that credible agents feverishly crawl the web, making sure that no incorrect querying advice remains posted.

Except that doesn’t happen — frankly, there’s no reason it should. People who work in agencies already know what does and doesn’t make a good query letter, after all. Why on earth should they waste their time finding out what people outside their industry believe they want?

Especially when, let’s face it, the query they have in mind contains all of the information most agencies need in order to make a determination whether its inmates will be seriously interested in requesting pages of the book in question. Just so the list from which we’ve been working throughout Queryfest will be easily accessible to folks who (shudder!) expect to learn everything they need to know about querying a book or book proposal — again, not anything else — in a single post, please sing along, those of you with the laudable patience to have worked your way all the way through this series.

A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative’s.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project.

6. The writer’s contact information and a SASE, if querying by mail

That all sounds at least a little bit familiar, I hope? If not, you will find extensive explanations — with visual examples! — earlier in this series. Moving on…

Optional elements it may prove helpful to include in your query:

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (P.S.: before you claim that it’s literally the only book on your subject matter, do some checking; unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations are often rejection triggers.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book.

Despite this being review, I still sense some raised hands out there. Yes, those of you joining us toward the end of this series? “Okay, I can see where there’s some overlap between your list and what I’ve seen elsewhere. Since there is, why shouldn’t I just follow the templates I’ve seen posted elsewhere?”

That groan you hear rattling around the cosmos, questioners, is the cri de coeur of the conscientious: they’ve been listening to repetitions of this particular question from late entrants since this series began. Like so much of the solid, professional development advice out there for aspiring writers, what is aimed at the crowd that longs for quick answers often bounces off its intended target and hits those who have been doing their homework diligently. So while well-meaning agents tend to formulate both their agencies’ submission guidelines and statements they make at writers’ conferences at the good 90% of queriers who do not take the time to find out how agencies actually work, the frustrated tone of some of those comments strikes the professionally-oriented 10% right between their worried eyes.

Which is to say: you’ll find the answer to that issue earlier in this series, first-time questioners. Because I believe so strongly that it does a disservice to serious aspiring writers — that 10% with the crease rapidly becoming permanently etched between their thoughtful eyes — to provide only glib how-to lists, I would be the last to discourage anyone who wants to make a living writing books from learning the logic behind what Millicent expects her to do. (See earlier comment about this perhaps not being the blog for those who prefer short, simple answers to complicated questions.)

That being said, there is a short, simple answer to that particular question: because not all of the query templates out there are for books, that’s why. As I’ve mentioned before in this series, much of the query advice out there does not mention explicitly whether the query being described is for a book, a magazine article, a short story, an academic article…

Well, you get the idea, right? Contrary to popular opinion, not every entity dealing with writing carries the same expectations. Or desires the same type of query. Or expects identical formatting. Pretending that because a query designed to propose an article or short story was posted online, marked query, must necessarily be equally appropriate for a book proposal, despite the fact that the two would be read by completely different professional audiences, does not make it so.

Yet that is precisely what many of the templates out there do, frequently without telling those who stumble across them that the formula or visual approximation is geared toward a particular part of the writing industry. Because writing is writing, right?

Not to those who handle writing professionally, no — which is why, in case those of you confused (and who could blame you?) by competing querying advice had been wondering, the argument but I saw it done this way online!/in a book of advice for writers/in what a friend of a friend of a professional writer forwarded me! will cut no slack with Millicent. Why should it? In fact, why on earth would an agency that represents books and book proposals care at all what the querying norms are for any other kind of writing?

So let’s add a sixth simple rule, while we’re at it: don’t follow generic advice. If you read through querying advice carefully and still cannot tell whether it is intended to help writers of books, poets, short story writers, or those trying to break into journalism, move on to another, more specific source.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, so to speak, let me make it pellucidly clear: the advice in Queryfest is intended only to assist writers of book-length works querying agencies or small publishers within the United States. It is aimed at helping aspiring writers produce a solid query that will look and feel right to that specific group of readers. I make every attempt never to ask my readers to follow a rule without explaining it, and I encourage all of you to ask questions if anything remains unclear. (Do take the time to read the relevant post first, though, huh? Every advice-giving writing blogger I know positively hates it when commenters ask for a recap of questions already answered in that post.) As always, though, I would urge any writer following this advice to double-check any submission guidelines a particular agency might have taken the time to post or list in one of the standard agency guides.

Everybody okay with that? If not, may I suggest that Queryfest may not be for you, and wish you luck finding the answers you seek elsewhere?

The same train of logic applies, I tremble to tell you, to how a query is presented on a page. And that’s unfortunate for many queriers, for although neither the requirement that a query be limited to a single page nor the rules for correspondence format have actually not changed at all since the advent of the word processor — it’s merely easier to center things in Word than on a typewriter — fewer typing classes in schools have inevitably led to a lower percentage of the population’s being familiar with how a formal letter should look on a page. Which is, should anyone be wondering, like this:

Or like this:

Either will look right to Millicent, either in a paper query or via e-mail; for reasons I have explained at great length and with abundant visual examples earlier in this series, at a traditional agency, these are the only acceptable query formats. (Yes, yes: younger agents, ones who went through school after typing classes became rare, are less likely to care deeply, but business format has for so long been despised in the publishing industry as only semi-literate that it honestly isn’t prudent to use it in a paper query.)

Judging by the hundreds of queries I’m asked to evaluate every year (I’m currently running a limited-time special on it, should anyone be interested), correspondence format does not seem to be familiar to many aspiring writers, at least not in its typed form. So let’s pause for a moment to go over what will strike Millicent as right about both the letters above, shall we?

A paper query in correspondence format should feature, from top to bottom:

1. Single-spacing, with 1-inch margins on each side. The only acceptable exception to the latter is

2. The sender’s contact information, either centered in the header or appearing directly under the signature, never both. If you choose to use the centered at the top option, you may use boldface or a slightly larger font for this information. Otherwise,

3. Everything in the letter should be in the same font and size. For a query, the industry standard is 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. (More on the importance of that below.)

4. The date of writing, tabbed to halfway or just over halfway across the first line of text. In Word, that’s either 3.5″ or 4″.

5. The recipient’s full address. That one is borrowed from business format, actually, but it’s a prudent theft: it maximizes the probability that your missive will end up on the right desk.

6. A salutation in the form of Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Mr. Jones, followed by either a colon or a comma. Stick to one or the other, in both cases. In the U.S., unless you know for a fact that the recipient either (a) holds an earned doctorate, like your humble correspondent, (b) is an ordained minister, or (c) is a married woman who actively prefers being called Mrs., the only polite option for a female recipient is Ms. And no matter how gender-ambiguous an agent’s first name may be of the recipient’s sex, never address a query to Dear Chris Brown; check the agency’s website or call the agency to ask.

7. In the body of the letter, all paragraphs should be indented. No exceptions. In Word, the customary paragraph indention tab — which is to say, the one that’s expected in a manuscript, as well as a letter — is .5″. If you like and space permits, you may skip a line between paragraphs, for readability, but it is not mandatory.

8. In a query, titles of books may appear either in ALL CAPS or in italics. Choose one and be consistent throughout the letter; it drives a detail-oriented soul like Millicent nuts to see both on the same page. If you cite a magazine or newspaper in your query, its name should appear in italics.

9. A polite sign-off, tabbed to the same point on the page as the date. No need to be fancy; sincerely will do.

10. Three or four skipped lines for your actual signature.

11. Your name, printed, tabbed to the same point on the page as the sign-off, with your contact information below, if it has not appeared at the top of the page.

Those are the rules that would apply to any letter in correspondence format. For a paper query, observing other guidelines are also advisable.

12. A query should be printed in black ink on white paper. While it’s not mandatory to print your query on bright white paper, 20-lb. weight or better (I always advise my clients to use 24-lb; it won’t wilt with repeated readings), black ink shows up best upon it.

13. I mean it about the white paper: no exceptions. No matter how tempting it is to believe that your query will stand out more if you print it on, say, buff, gray, or ecru, it’s not a good idea. Yes, it will not look like the others, but this is a business that prides itself on uniformity of presentation. Don’t risk it.

14. A query should never exceed a single page. Again, no exceptions.

15. Sorry, queriers-from-afar, but if you plan on sending a paper query to a US-based agency, their Millicents will expect it to be printed on locally-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, not A4. On the bright side, they’ll expect your manuscript to be printed on that US paper, too, so you might as well stock up on it.

If you have trouble tracking down that size outside North America, try asking at your local FedEx (it ate Kinko’s, whose foreign branches almost always carried at least a few reams of our-sized paper, for the benefit of traveling business folk) or a hotel that caters to business travelers. You could also just go for broke and order a few reams of paper online from a US-based company — or an American-owned one like Amazon UK. Because I love you people, I’ve just checked the latter, and I found the proper size at a fairly reasonable price.

If you are querying via e-mail, of course, you should skip a few of these niceties: because it is difficult to ensure that spacing will remain intact in transit (it’s strange how much a different e-mail program can mangle an otherwise perfectly acceptable letter, isn’t it?), it’s safer not to skip lines between paragraphs. While indentation is still nice, it isn’t mandatory here, and as e-mails inherently contain a date marker, you need not include the date line. For the same reason, you may omit the recipient’s full address, beginning the e-mail instead with the salutation. Contact information belongs at the bottom of the letter, and most e-mailed correspondence features a left-justified sign-off and signature.

Having a bit of trouble picturing those differences? Here’s that letter again, as it would appear in an e-mail.

Looks quite different, does it not? That’s purely a matter of necessity, not of industry-wide preference: since many e-mail programs force users to opt for business format (no indentation, a skipped line between paragraphs, date, sign-off, and signature all lined up with the left margin), Millicent has, like her bosses, reluctantly come to accept non-indented paragraphs. But that doesn’t mean the purists in the industry like it as a trend.

They saw the slippery slope from a mile away, you see: because both the Internet and e-mail programs disproportionately favor (ugh) lack of indentation, an ever-increasing segment of the otherwise literate population has come to regard that format as (double ugh) perfectly proper. So although I wince even to bring it up, Millicent has also been seeing more and more actual manuscript submissions devoid of indentation, instead skipping lines between paragraphs.

Which is, incidentally, not the right way to format a book manuscript or proposal, as I devoutly hope those who read my Formatpalooza post on the subject already know. (And if any of that’s news to you, please run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.) In fact, business format so different from how agency denizens expect text to appear on a page intended for submission to a publishing house that Millicent typically won’t even begin to read it.

Why, those of you who write that way habitually scream in terror? Well, can you think of a better way for her to tell at a glance whether the submitter has taken the time to learn how book manuscripts and proposals are submitted to publishing houses? It’s not as though an agent could possibly submit an unindented manuscript to an editor, after all.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard the sound of thousands of writerly jaws hitting floors, or do I need to explain the direct implication for queries? “But Anne,” many of you moan, clutching your sore mandibles, “now that I see correspondence format in action, I realize that I have been borrowing elements from across a couple of styles for my regular mail queries. If I may borrow your last example for a moment to show you what I’ve been doing, can you tell me how Millicent might respond to it? And should I be sitting down before you answer?”

Of course, jaw-clutchers — and yes, a chair might be a good idea. Perhaps even a fainting couch, because I suspect what you have on your hands is a good, old-fashioned Frankenstein query.

Comfy? Okay, let’s take a gander — and to render this better practice, try slipping into Millicent’s spectacles for the duration. If you were she, what would strike you as incongruous, and thus distracting from the actual content of the letter?

Quite a contrast with what our Millie was expecting to see, isn’t it? Let’s start at the top of this discolored page — would you have read that, in Millicent’s desk chair? — and work our way down. First, in a charmingly archaic but misguided attempt to mimic casual letterhead (traditionally reserved for handwritten notes, by the way), the Frankenstein querier has chosen a truly wacky typeface to showcase his contact information. Doesn’t look very professional on the page, does it?

From there, the mish-mosh of styles becomes less visually distracting, but comes across as no less confused. While the left-justified date, lack of indentation in the body of the letter, and skipped lines between paragraph would lead anyone who began reading, as those zany screeners like to do, at the beginning of the letter and proceeding downward to presume that the letter is in business format, the sign-off and the signature are not in the right place for that format. Nor are they in the right place for correspondence format: they are too far right. Muddling things still further, the RE: line is appropriate for a memo, not a letter.

In the face of all that visual inconsistency, I wouldn’t blame you if you missed some of the subtler missteps, but I assure you, a well-trained Millicent wouldn’t. The missing comma in the date, for instance, or the fact that while one book title is presented in all capital letters, the other is in italics, for no conceivable reason. (Unless our querier is laboring under the false impression that published books’ titles should appear one way, and unpublished manuscripts another? Agencies typically make no such distinction.) Then, too, the oddball subject line appears in boldface, as well as The Washington Post. Again, why?

So while this query does indeed stand out from the crowd — doubtless the intent behind that horrendous yellow paper — it doesn’t leap from the stack for the right reasons. And what does it gain by the effort? By eschewing a more traditional presentation, all it really achieves is buying a little extra time for Millicent: this is not, apparently, a query she needs to take particularly seriously.

Shocked? Don’t be. Just as Millicent and her cronies have a sense of what information does and does not belong in a query, over time, as they process thousands of queries, she begins to gain the ability to tell at a glance which queries simply don’t have a chance of succeeding at her agency. The ones that don’t mention a book category, for instance, or those that present a book or proposal in a category her boss does not represent. The ones with typos, or the ones that are one long book description. The ones filled with typos. And — brace yourself — the ones that are formatted as though (and this is Millicent talking here, not me) the writer had never seen a letter before.

Oh, that last one isn’t always an automatic-rejection offense, but inevitably, odd formatting affects a pro’s perception of a writer’s professionalism. How? Well, just as agents and editors develop an almost visceral sense of whether a manuscript is in standard format or not, their screeners learn pretty fast what a good query looks like. And just as they often will automatically begin reading an unprofessionally-formatted submission with an expectation that the writing will not be as polished as that in a manuscript that looks right, Millicents frequently will read an oddly-presented query with a slightly jaundiced eye.

Especially, as it happens, if the query in question appears specifically designed to generate unnecessary eye strain. To someone who reads all day, every day, the difference between a query in the publishing industry’s standard, 12-point Times New Roman or Courier:

and precisely the same query in 10-point type:

could not possibly be greater, unless the latter were printed on that bizarre yellow paper from our previous example. The first utilizes the font size in which Millicent expects to see all manuscripts, book proposals, queries, synopses, and anything else its denizens ask to see; the second, well, isn’t. But that’s not the kind of thing an agent is likely to blurt out at a conference, mention on his blog, or even — you might want brace to yourself, if you’re new to the game — list as a required query attribute in the submission guidelines on his agency’s website.

Why, those of you surveying the difference for the first time ask in horror? Because 12-point is used universally for book manuscripts and proposals (in the U.S., at least), it would never occur to anyone who screens for a living that any other size of type was acceptable. Anything else simply looks wrong on the page.

To be blunt about it, most Millicents — heck, most professional readers — would consider the second example above not only strange; she’s also likely to regard it as rude. After all, from her perspective, all the smaller type means is greater eyestrain for her: clearly, the writer of the second version hadn’t considered that there might be a human being with tired eyes on the receiving end of that missive.

Seriously, if you were Millicent, how would you respond if a query with minuscule type appeared on your desk? Would you invest the extra minute or two in trying to make out what it says, or would you just move on?

For most Millicents, there’s just no contest: move on, and swiftly, just as she would if the query in question were a badly-smudged photocopy. Given that it’s her job to narrow the field of queries down to the 5% or less that her boss might conceivably have time to consider, why would she bother to give more than a passing glance to a missive that simply screams, “The person who wrote this is either unaware that manuscripts are supposed to be in 12-point type, or just doesn’t care how difficult he is making your life, screener!”

And yes, before anyone asks, she is equally likely to reach that unflattering conclusion regardless of whether Millicent is reading that query on a printed page or on a computer screen. Just because our Millie can increase the size of the e-mail in front of her does not mean that she will take — or even have — the time to do it, after all.

Especially when — again, you might want to brace yourself, neophytes — the single most logical explanation for why a querier would select the smaller type size would to be to commit the following instant-rejection offense; see if you can catch it. As always, if you are having difficulty reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image; just because Millicent doesn’t have the time to avoid eyestrain in this manner doesn’t mean you should tire out your peepers.

Awfully hard to read, isn’t it? Any guesses about why this version would set off rejection red flags, even if Millicent happened to be unusually fresh-eyed and in a good enough mood to try to make it out?

To someone as familiar with the standard one-page query as she, it would be perfectly plain that were these words in ordinary-sized type, this letter would be longer than the requisite single page. Which, as I hope we all already know, would automatically have resulted in rejection, even had Tricksy been honest enough to use a 12-point font.

And yes, in response to what half of you who favor e-querying just thought very loudly indeed, Millicent probably would also have caught the extra length had this query been sent via e-mail, where page length is less obvious. But whether Tricksy decided to avoid the necessity of trimming by typeface games or by just hoping no one would notice an extra few lines, trust me, she’s not likely to pull the wool over an experienced query reader like Millicent. Fudging is fudging, regardless of how it is done.

Remember, the one-page limit is not arbitrary, a mere hoop through which aspiring writers are expected to jump purely so Millicent can enjoy the spectacle; queries are also that short so she can get through even a quarter of the missives that arrive in a day at an even marginally established agency. It’s also, let’s face it, the first chance the agency has to see if a potential client can follow directions.

You would be flabbergasted at how many queries just bellow between their ill-formatted lines, “Hey, Millie, this one didn’t read the agency’s submission guidelines!” or “Hey, you’re going to have to explain things twice to this writer!” Or even, sadly, “Wow, this querier either has no idea what he is doing — or he is actively trying to circumvent the rules!” Is that really how you want the agent of your dreams (and her staff) to think of you as a writer?

Perhaps it is a bit counterintuitive, but to many Millicents, obvious attempts to cheat — yes, that’s how they tend to think of creative means of reformatting a too-long query so it will fit on the page — are every bit as off-putting as missing elements. Had querier Tricksy altered the margins, removed the date, and/or compressed the contact information in order to achieve the illusion of shortness, the result would probably have been instant rejection. Let’s nip any tendencies in that direction in the bud by showing just how ridiculous the hope that Millie wouldn’t notice this actually is.

Doesn’t stand a chance of passing as normal, does it? The sad thing is, had Tricksy put half as much effort into fine-tuning this query as she did trying to fool Millicent with fancy formatting tricks, she probably could have trimmed it to an acceptable length. As it stands, her formatting gymnastics are just too distracting from the letter’s content to be anything but a liability.

The moral of all this, should you be curious, is fourfold. First, rather than wasting time and energy resenting having to learn what Millicent and her ilk expect to see, or complaining that the pros have not, do not, and have no future intention of sifting through all of the competing querying advice out there — why should they, when they already know the rules? — why not invest that time and energy in researching what precisely it is the individual agents who interest you actually do want? That’s far more likely to bear fruit than searching for a single, foolproof, one-size fits all template to fit all of your querying needs. And no matter how much queriers would like it not to be the case, there’s just no substitute for checking every agency’s guidelines, every time.

Second, when you do that research, consider the source of information: is it credible, and is it specifically aimed at writers of your kind of work? If, after reading through the offerings, you can’t comfortably answer both of those questions, start looking for more information and asking for clarification. Before you take even the most authoritative-sounding advice — yes, even mine — it’s in your interest to make absolutely certain you understand precisely what you are being advised to do, and why.

Which brings me to the third moral: as nice as it would be if every agency currently accepting new clients posted a step-by-step guide to writing precisely the query letter it wants to see, the overwhelming majority of US-based agencies do not get very specific about it. Even those that do list requirements often leave them rather vague: give us some indication of who would want to read this book and why or tell us about your platform is about as prescriptive as they ever get.

And, let’s face it, when many writers new to the game read such requests, they feel as though they are being told that no one will ever want to read their books unless they somehow manage to become celebrities first. Which, for someone who was planning to attain celebrity by writing a terrific book, that impression can be terribly off-putting.

It should cheer you to know, however, that such statements are only rarely intended to scare newbies away. Indeed, agents often truly believe those admonitions to be helpful; remember, those directives are typically aimed at preventing the faux pas commonly made by the 90% of queriers who don’t do their research, not the 10% that do. And if submission guidelines tend to be a bit on the nebulous side, it’s just that to people who read queries and submissions for a living, sheer repetition has made the basic structure of a solid query seem to be self-evident. They’d no more think of explaining the difference between an unsuccessful descriptive paragraph and one that sings than they would undertake to explain to you how to walk. No one is born knowing how to do it, of course, but once a person has learned the mechanics, it becomes second nature.

Just how obvious do the elements of the query appear to the pros, you ask? Well, at the risk of seeming myopic, until this afternoon, it hadn’t occurred to me that any of you fine people might actually want a category on the archive list entitled HOW TO FORMAT A QUERY LETTER. After all, I had discussed formatting early in Queryfest; throughout the course of this series, I’ve posted dozens of visual examples. Yet when a reader asked me about it this afternoon, I was stunned to realize that I’d never done a post like this, one that listed all the requisite elements and the formatting requirements in one place.

I grew up surrounded by agented writers, you see; I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a properly-formatted query looked like. Or a properly-formatted manuscript, for that matter. Or that other kinds of writing called for different iterations of both.

Which leads me to the fourth and final moral of the evening: even the best-intentioned and most credible query advice-givers, the ones with actual professional experience to back up their opinions — who are, as we have discussed, usually in the minority online — may not always be able to second-guess what a writer brand-new to the game wants to know. Or even what he needs to know, because advice-dispensers like me are not always aware of what advice-takers don’t know.

Could you explain the pure mechanics of walking? Or of snapping your fingers? No, you probably just do both. That unthinking fluency is a product of practice, of long experience.

If you want to benefit from someone else’s experience, though — and isn’t that what seeking out advice is all about? — don’t expect the advisor either to read your mind or to tell you spontaneously what you want to know. Oh, I try; quite a few of us do. I hear from writers all the time who have landed agents following the advice I’ve posted here, and without ever having posted a question in the comments. But I can do a better job teaching you the ropes if you ask questions.

I don’t know what all of you do and don’t know, you see. It’s just a different perspective.

So as we wend our way through the last few Queryfest posts and back toward the more creatively-exciting pastures of craft and self-editing, I would strongly encourage you to post questions in the comments. Actually, I welcome questions all the time, but I’m especially interested in knowing if anything about the querying process remains fuzzy to those of you who have been following this series. I shall also, while we’re finishing up our examination of readers’ queries, be trotting out some well-founded readers’ questions that I’ve been intending to address at length for quite some time.

Many thanks to the reader who asked me for this post, and everybody, keep up the good work!

9 Replies to “Queryfest, part XXIV: how to format a query, or, directions for those who have gotten lost in the tall grass of competing querying advice”

  1. Hello again, Anne!
    Love this post. Your style is unmistakeable and the names and addresses you come up with of your examples always make me smile.

    Yes, it seems that writing a query letter should be simple enough, but I know that sometimes these are the details that require repeating more than once.

    I hope it is OK for me to post this question here, being as it is not about querying letters anymore.

    In the spirit of asking a question for future posts, I have been meaning to ask you to address omniscient narrator issues. Even though I think I have been correcting some of my nastiest bad habits, the issue of head-jumping is one I am still quite confused by.

    Some people tell me I should just stick to one point of view per chapter, but even though that seems like one way to go I do not believe it’s the only way to go.
    I am in the middle of reading the fourth book by Terry Pratchett (from his Discworld series, all four of the Tiffany Aching adventures) and even though he sticks primarily to narrating things from Tiffany’s point of view, many times he’s in other people’s heads within the same scene! And further, he blurs the line between omniscient and first person narrator in long paragraphs where begins by describing what a character is thinking in standard narrator voice and gradually morphing the language to sound like the way the character actually speaks!

    Here’s an excerpt:

    Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us, the kelda thought. She sighed inwardly. She would never let her husband know this, but sometimes she did wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?

    Do you see what I mean? Anyway, I really hope you’re doing well (every time you go more than three days without posting I worry) and I look forward to your next post, as always!

    1. Oh, that’s a great subject for a craft post, Nuria — perhaps even several. I know I have blogged about it in general, but I’m not sure I’ve done one with extensive examples; Queryfest has been making me a much bigger fan of that, although it does render writing the posts a bit more time-consuming. (One of the reasons I’ve been posting less frequently, by the way.) It would also give me a wonderful excuse to re-run my observations about Point-of-View Nazis; it’s always helpful to know which readers will be angered by a particular style choice and why.

      The example is really helpful here — thanks for including it! — but just so you know, I’ll have to ask the author’s permission before using it in a post. (Technically, anything posted online is published, and an excerpt longer than 50 consecutive words is beyond fair use.) That’s why I usually write my own examples or take them from works in the public domain. Given how common the omniscient voice was in the 19th century, however, finding an example of it shouldn’t involve much more than walking to the right bookshelf in my library. And since I’ve been seeing more and more manuscripts in the omniscient voice lately, I’m sure it will help quite a few writers out there if I go over its rules.

      I am very glad that you used this particular example, though, because it raises the possibility of several layers of perspective definition, so just in case I can’t obtain permission to use it in a post, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that you replicated it to address your concern, just in case I don’t get another chance. Now then: did you choose this paragraph because it’s not from Tiffany’s point of view, and therefore a deviation from a larger narrative that is, or to illustrate your second point? If it’s the latter (and from how you’ve presented it, I suspect it is; I haven’t read the book in question), it was a revealing passage to pick.

      Why? Well, if the she in this excerpt is the kelda, this paragraph is all in the same perspective, the close third person. I can certainly see why you might think it wasn’t, however. Just to confirm the probable logic — and do tell me if you reasoned otherwise: of the five sentences, the first, fourth, and fifth are direct representations of her thought, in her voice, but the second is a description of an action and the third is a summary of her reasoning. So you’re viewing this as beginning in an omniscient voice (because of the kelda thought) and using the summary statements to morph (an interesting way to think of it!) into a first-person voice by those statements at the end, right?

      All of those are style choices, though, not a matter of perspective: however it is expressed, all of the subject matter here concerns a single character’s thoughts and emotion; it would be impossible for the narrator to know any of this unless he could observe what’s going on in her head, right? A point of view outside her would not have access to the information that she sighed to herself, or have been able to summarize her feelings, any more than it could have quoted her thoughts. There’s an easy editorial trick to check for this type of consistency: switching the whole thing into the first person, to see if any other perspective has snuck in inadvertently. Like so:

      Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us, I thought. I sighed inwardly. I would never let my husband know this, but sometimes I do wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?

      Makes perfect sense that way, doesn’t it? So it is actually all from a single perspective, and thus we do not need to worry about head-hopping: since head-hopping involves slipping from the dominant perspective into another point of view without warning or in violation of the rules the narrative has established (including a secondary character’s thoughts or visual perspective in a narrative otherwise almost entirely from the protagonist’s point of view, for instance), by definition, it’s impossible for a paragraph like this one, written from a single point of view to head-hop. You’re probably already aware of that, but I suspect not of the corollary: it’s usually not meaningful to speak of a well-constructed omniscient narrative’s head-hopping, because if it has established the omniscience of the voice from the get-go, slipping from one character’s head to another — provided it is clear when it is happening and whose head we have entered — entails following the rules of omniscience, not breaking them.

      Using that theoretical framework, we can perspective-check this particular paragraph. Logically, we wouldn’t be able to see the kelda’s thoughts unless (a) she is the narrator in a first-person narrative, (b) she is the protagonist in a close third-person narrative focused upon a single character, (c) she is one of the featured characters in an alternating close third-person narrative that focuses upon her from time to time, perhaps alerting the reader through the use of those section or chapter breaks you mentioned, or — and while it’s impossible to judge whether a section that contains only one perspective is part of a larger omniscient narrative voice, I believe this is what is going on here, based upon your set-up — (d) she is a character being featured for the moment in an omniscient narrative that peeks into many characters’ perspectives.

      What makes me think it’s (d)? Well, Terry Pratchett is a fine storyteller and excellent stylist, for one thing, but even if I didn’t know he had written this, the way the author has constructed that first sentence would have been a give-away: placing the kelda thought up front alerts the reader that the paragraph is going to be dealing with her perspective, not somebody else’s. That’s entirely proper and even necessary, in an omniscient narrative, or the reader would be constantly confused. So that first sentence isn’t a departure from the rest of the paragraph; it’s requisite in order for the reader to be able to follow the step into her head.

      If there is narrative voice inconsistency here (as opposed to perspective inconsistency, which we have already determined is not the case), then, it cannot lie in that first sentence, any more than in the fourth or fifth: all are direct representations of her thoughts. So is sentence 3, actually; it’s merely presented in summary form, a perfectly acceptable stylistic choice in this instance. To see why, let’s transform all of the thoughts here into speech.

      “Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us.” The kelda sighed inwardly. “I would never let my husband know this, but sometimes, I do wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?”

      Nothing there to raise any critical eyebrows, is there? Nor is there in the original: the paragraph makes it quite clear that all of this is her thought, and as this test has shown us, sentence 3 might well be a direct quote of her thoughts as well, rather than a summary. For that to be legitimate to display either, of course, the narrative would have had to be in the habit of stepping out of the protagonist’s thoughts, or this paragraph would be jarring. Internally, though, it works perfectly well.

      I suspect, though, you were not judging the perspective consistency here on a point-of-view level, but rather based upon sentence style. For your analysis to be apt here, one of two basic narrative precepts would have to be true. First, it would have to be unacceptable for an omniscient narrative or alternating close third-person narrative ever to describe a character’s feelings or thoughts in summary form. We see that done all the time in both types of narrative, though, so I suspect that’s not the issue. Second, — and I think this is your underlying objection to this paragraph — it would have to be technically incorrect for an omniscient narrative or alternating close third-person narrative to use any pronoun but I in any paragraph purporting to depict a character’s thoughts. Or at any rate to do so unless the entirety of the relevant paragraph were written from the first-person perspective, like our first experiment above. Essentially, if I’m understanding your argument correctly (and again, please tell me if I am not), your objection here is that she sighed, she would never…, and the kelda thought should not have been there at all.

      Assuming that the second is closer to what you mean, would you have preferred that paragraph — or believe that people telling you, wrongly, that an alternating close third-person perspective is always preferable to an omniscient one (which simply isn’t true, if the latter is pulled off correctly; the former is merely more fashionable) would prefer — if it had been phrased entirely in the kelda’s own words, as it could have been if the entire book were written in a close third-person from this character’s perspective? In other words, would this paragraph have struck you as inconsistent-voiced if it had appeared like this?

      {Paragraph in the omniscient perspective}

      Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us. I would never let my husband know this, but sometimes I do wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?

      {Paragraph in the omniscient perspective}

      If that presentation makes more sense to you, then I think we have a diagnosis: you’re analyzing the original not from a perspective perspective, so to speak, evaluating whether the point of view in this paragraph is entirely the kelda’s, but based upon an assumption that any third-person statement would constitute a voice slip in a situation where a close third-person or omniscient narrative is purporting to show what a character is thinking. Is that your objection?

      If so, I can see why: you’re basing your conception of what’s appropriate on a sentence level not upon the rules governing omniscient narratives, but upon what would be valid in a close third-person narrative — i.e., one that did not permit head-hopping, as the omniscient perspective can. In other words, if the entire narrative were a standard close third-person narrative grounded in the kelda’s point of view and only hers, there would be no question that any thought shown must be the protagonist’s (or, in an alternating close third-person narrative, the protagonist-of-the-moment’s), right? So it would be perfectly clear the kelda was doing the thinking if the book (or this scene) adhered to this pattern:

      {Tight third-person narration concentrating upon the kelda’s point of view, excluding anything she could not know or perceive}

      Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us. I would never let my husband know this, but sometimes I do wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?

      {Tight third-person narration concentrating upon the kelda’s point of view.}

      There wouldn’t be anything confusing about that, right? By the rules I just set out, the only possible thinker is the kelda; if thought appeared in the text, it must be hers. Therefore, identifying the thinker would be conceptually redundant.

      There’s a very strong reason not to have presented it this way in an omniscient narrative: if there are any other characters in the scene, it would be completely confusing just to jump into the kelda’s head without telling the reader that’s what just happened. That’s the role of the kelda thought in the original, right? But as you can see by the example next-to-last example, if the reader were left to guess whose thoughts we were seeing without that signpost in a narrative with more than one thinker possibility, the result would just be confusing.

      Yet even in a standard close third-person narrative with only one conceivable thinker — because what renders a third-person narrative close is the ability to read the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings, rather than showing the story solely through the part she plays in it as an observer might have seen her, right? — how Mssr. Pratchett handled the original would also have been perfectly acceptable and reasonable. Let’s take a look at his version, placed in that context:

      {Tight third-person narration concentrating upon the kelda’s point of view, excluding anything she could not know or perceive}

      Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us, the kelda thought. She sighed inwardly. She would never let her husband know this, but sometimes she did wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?

      {Tight third-person narration concentrating upon the kelda’s point of view.}

      No question who is doing the thinking, is there? That’s thanks to the kelda thought: it indicates that the words at the beginning of that first sentence are the kelda’s mental phrasing, not the omniscient narrator’s, setting up that expectation for the rest of the paragraph. And just as she said would not be considered a slip into the omniscient voice from any other type of narrative — even in first-person narratives, other people say things; it’s a simple statement of fact — in a narrative that permits depicting more than one character’s thought, the kelda thought is a perfectly reasonable phrase to use to indicate who thought the words we just read.

      But even as I typed that, I could sense that those shes still strike you as out of place, do they not? If that’s the case, it’s a giveaway that your objection is not actually a matter of perspective (which in this case would turn on the question of whether the point of view depicted in this paragraph is both valid according to the rules of the dominant narrative and is something that the character in question could plausibly have perceived), narrative voice choice (whether this paragraph adheres to the rules set up by the earlier narrative about what elements of the story can be told and how), or even voice consistency (whether all of the style choices in this paragraph are both internally harmonious and harmonious with the overall narrative voice), but rather a matter of logical consistency. Based upon how you phrased your objections, I suspect that when your eye fell upon those shes
      , you immediately murmured, “Wait, is this paragraph from the kelda’s perspective, or the narrator’s?”

      If so — and again, please don’t hesitate to tell me if I’m misinterpreting your concerns here; my goal is to help you iron out this knotty problem — may I also conclude that you may also have read perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us as in the narrator’s voice, not the kelda’s, and thus not in the same voice as the last two sentences? To my eye, that doesn’t appear to be the author’s intention here — and again, the kelda thought is our best clue to that. As we saw in our second experiment, if the actual word in all three sentences were presented within quotation marks, there’s nothing in the style of their expression that would make them seem discordant. Take another look:

      “Perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us.” The kelda sighed inwardly. “I would never let my husband know this, but sometimes, I do wonder whether a young Feegle might profitably be taught something like, well, accountancy. Something that didnae mean ye had to bounce off the walls, and didnae mean you had to fight all the time. But then, would he still be a Feegle?”

      So is it possible that you fell prey to a common skimmer’s bugbear, presuming that unless there are quotation marks opening a paragraph or its first few words explicitly tell you otherwise, the whole paragraph is going to be from the narrator’s perspective, rather than within a particular character’s thoughts, and becoming annoyed when that presumption subsequently turns out to be incorrect? Normally, Millicent would be with you on this one, but again, Mssr. Pratchett went to some pains to alert the reader that those first few words were in fact in the kelda’s mental voice: the kelda thought.

      So the last two sentences’ being in that same voice should not, at least in theory come as much of a surprise. Neither, for the reasons mentioned above, should those shes — unless, of course, the annoyance did not start to kick in until the fourth sentence, because you presumed the first three were coming from the narrator’s perspective, not the character’s. Which, again, would have required either having skipped over the kelda thought — admittedly not unheard-of, for either a skimming reader or a Millicent — or assuming that it was a narrative mistake, based upon an incorrect assumption that the following statement of fact and summary logic in the next two sentences, respectively, could not be coming from her perspective.

      But as I showed above, the only reason a reader might conclude, or even suspect, that the third sentence was a summary and not a direct representation of her thoughts — or, as you concluded, that it was a sneaky segue between omniscient statements and a character’s personal voice — is that it is written in the third person, not the first. The actual phrasing of the thought, however, is casual enough to render such an interpretation unlikely for most readers. Even a Millicent in a great hurry probably would not go there, because of the phrasing of the thought in the first sentence: it contains a grammatical error common to speech, but significantly less common in narrative prose as polished as Mssr. Pratchett’s: if that first sentence were not intended as a direct quote of the kelda’s thought, perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than us would have read perhaps the big jobs have bigger problems because they’re bigger than we are. The copyeditor at the publishing house would have seen to that.

      As it stands, though, the gaffe merely adds a shade of characterization: the kelda, apparently, was not an English major, at least not at a very good school.

      All of which adds up to a perhaps unexpected conclusion: this paragraph as originally written (or at any rate, as published and as you have reproduced it) would have worked perfectly well in either an omniscient narrative — which, from what you report, this book is — or a close third-person narrative, stylistically speaking. It’s clear, contains some very nice shown-not-told characterization, and does not break any narrative rules. So well done, Mssr. Pratchett, as always!

      I find myself wondering, though, if part of the intensity of your reaction might stem not merely from your delightfully passionate devotion to your craft or his handling of the omniscient voice — which is genuinely hard to pull off well if one takes its strictures seriously, rather than proceeding as most aspiring writers who embrace it do, simply assuming that it means not having to follow any perspective rules at all. Or from feeling unsure about what the rules of that voice are, or being asked by others to pick a single character’s perspective and stick to it throughout the entire narrative, chapter, or section. Could your annoyance arise from hearing the restrictions of the close third-person being touted as a guideline for all fiction storytelling? Or your story in particular?

      If so, I genuinely sympathize: the false notion that omniscience is inherently bad — as opposed to being considered a bit old-fashioned in many fiction categories, a completely different matter, but a distinction that often escapes those who prefer universally-applicable hard-and-fast rules to a more nuanced or genre-sensitive approach — has been fading in popularity in recent years, thank goodness, but it still enjoys surprising currency on the aspiring writers’ grapevine. There, it’s seldom even presented in its fully logical form, as an agent or editor might have expressed it at a conference: there are, in fact, Point-of-View Nazis out there who will automatically reject narratives that do not adhere strictly to their three preferred voice choices, first person, close third person, or alternating close third person. And the rumors flying around seldom acknowledge that books that embrace other voice choices (yes, including omniscience) get published all the time, even if they are written by first-time authors; it’s hardly the universal instant-rejection offense POVNs tend to represent it as being.

      As you say, there’s more than one way to handle perspective: people who insist that the close third-person is the only valid choice are simply wrong, as a half-hour spent perusing recent offerings in a well-stocked bookstore will abundantly prove. Especially within this particular genre: fantasy is well known for innovative narrative choices. And you have my full permission to tell any POVN you happen to meet that I said so.

      As agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing. As tempting as it is to fall back on one-size-fits-all style dictates or to confuse the current fashion in what agents are buying with the only form of good writing — or, in the case of this particular rule, what was in fashion 10-15 years ago; the rumor grapevine often lags behind actual industry preferences — a talented writer willing to establish challenging narrative rules for a text and apply them consistently can get away with a lot. And that goes double for an author with an already-established audience. You might mention that to your POVNs, too.

      All that being said, though, are you absolutely certain that the only impetus for the recommendation that you pick one perspective and stick to it is the advice-givers’ belief that it’s the only legitimate narrative style for fiction — or for your chosen genre? As I’ve explained in the HOW TO GET GOOD FEEDBACK series (which I think may have been before your time as a regular reader), while non-professional first readers might be able to sense that there is a perspective or voice problem, they may not have the diagnostic experience to be able to pinpoint precisely what that problem is. Even if your first readers happen also to be writers (as in, say, a critique group) and happen to be inveterate readers of what’s current in your genre (which often isn’t the case in critique groups; it’s far more common for individual members to be writing for different audiences), they may not know how to fine-tune their advice to help you understand their objections. Then, too, many writers enjoy wielding the blunt instrument of generic writing advice: I hear all the time from Author! Author! readers whose first readers just say something sweeping like, “I heard at a conference that nobody’s buying books written like X anymore,” rather than offering specific feedback. Which ultimately isn’t all that helpful to the revision process, is it?

      So it honestly isn’t beyond belief that what you are hearing as generic statements about limited narrative possibilities are, at least in some cases, not very-well-expressed-but-nevertheless-legitimate feedback that you are in fact head-hopping — that, say, in a section of the text that’s otherwise written entirely in the close third person from a single perspective, your current draft slips into another character’s head or includes an element that character could not possibly have perceived, felt, or known. Either of those possibilities should concern you, because they are genuine perspective slips. Common ones, too: the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers embracing single-perspective narration in either the first or the third person simply don’t notice when they show the protagonist’s facial expression in a situation where she could not possibly see her own reflection, for instance, or mention an aspect of a fight the protagonist was too far across the room to see.

      Also surprisingly common: writing the first part of a manuscript from a certain perspective, changing one’s mind partway through, and forgetting to go back and change the already-written parts into the new voice choice. Or spotty revision that does not involve going through the entire manuscript to even out perspective and voice. It’s no accident that consistency of voice and perspective are widely considered markers of polished writing: although it pains me to say it, the vast majority of manuscript submissions are uneven on these points. Heck, many are even factually inconsistent: you won’t find an agent or editor in North America who hasn’t seen a manuscript in which the protagonist’s co-worker had one name in certain chapters and another elsewhere in the book. Few aspiring writers take the time to sit down and read their own books, unfortunately.

      It’s entirely possible that your first readers are not talking about consistency problems, but rather spouting generic so-called rules of writing style in an attempt to convince you to change your overall strategy, but it’s always prudent to double-check. Not just for whether the text suffers from these types of issues, but for whether your narrative is adhering to the rules you set out for it. You’re not going to be able to perform the latter species of revision successfully until you develop absolute clarity on what those rules are — and differentiate between what you have chosen to do and what the standards of good writing in your genre actually require.

      Which is to say: while it is in fact possible that you picked up negative narrative habits via reading, I tend to doubt Mssr. Pratchett was the one who led you down the primrose path; he’s too strong a stylist. What strikes me as more likely is that you may have picked up an incomplete sense of what the standards governing both the omniscient and the close third-person voices are — a very, very common state of understanding for those who started to write because they loved to read. Editors find it kind of endearing, actually.

      If this is indeed what happened here, I hope this response helped fill in the gaps. If it didn’t, please ask follow-up questions — whether I can obtain permission to reproduce the quote or not, I intend to use a more general version of what I’ve said here as the basis for a post on the subject. (Indeed, it’s almost as long as my average post, now that I come to look at it.) And trust me, if you find any of this confusing, another 1,000 writers will, too. So questions honestly will assist everyone concerned.

      1. WOW Thanks Anne!
        I will need some time to read this thoroughly, but I can already tell there will be more questions. Thanks again!

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