Querypalooza XI: making your book sound like a real page-turner

How was the first workday after the long weekend, campers? Dragging a bit today?

If it’s any consolation, Millicent the agency screener probably is, too. Imagine walking into your office after a lovely Labor Day holiday (or, in many agency offices, an even more lovely multi-week break) to discover your desk has totally disappeared under the backlog of incoming queries and submissions? Or that your e-mail inbox is crammed so full that if you are going to do anything else over the next few days, you’ll have to be doing nothing but hitting the DELETE key constantly for hours on end?

(Confidential to the three readers who started as Millicents today: congratulations on the new gig! But I wasn’t kidding about the volume of work, was I?)

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst. Speaking of which, after Querypalooza, it’s right back to close textual analysis, self-editing, and more of those fascinating winners of the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

Speaking of fascinating prose presented well (a clumsy segue, but hey, it was an awfully long weekend chez Mini), the last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable in the current literary market. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book how or why it is interesting. Or exciting. Or even vaguely original.

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

Of course, some of those queries must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound even remotely so. (At least, I hope you would.) It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.

Just not true, I’m afraid; the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the book being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter.

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. (See earlier expression of sympathy for the newbies’ eyestrain.) Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Still seem unfair? Think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), the letter is going to have to make HER believe that the book is fascinating.

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:

broken-recordRealistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

Not to mention demonstrating that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a manuscript’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many templates out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues.

(30) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be — the goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about wowing Millicent with amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like:

She’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

She’s a ditsy cheerleader, apparently, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader

Getting the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(31) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — notoriously common in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché, and few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if he does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing adolescent ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

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

(32) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects: how better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible (“But they really sound that way!”), but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(33) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context, but remember, Millicent is reading a whole lot of these missives in a row. The fact that your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences — or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in each — is bound to make those queries start to blur together after a while. Take a peek at this fairly typical gem:

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope it will interest you. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA, and thus probably not reflective of the narrative voice in this particular narrative. Despite the current popularity and burgeoning innovation of the YA market, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem? As I have argued about narrative writing, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line.

Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning. After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.

(34) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Eschewing the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because — not to put too fine a point on it…

broken-recordPretty much every professional reader is specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing, by definition. At minimum, it’s less vibrant than more direct and active sentences. If you want to impress a pro with the quality of your writing, you should avoid the passive voice as much as possible.

Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your writing teacher to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end. There are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.

Had enough of that reader-abusing structure? Millicent has — and frankly, so have I. After years of yanking such sentences out of query letters, synopses, and manuscripts, I actually found it mentally painful to construct that last paragraph.

Because the literary disdain for the passive voice is so close to universal, most of you probably already take active steps to avoid using it in your manuscripts, but surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well. In a way, that’s understandable: when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses. On an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(35) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in the past (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.

So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so?

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine.

(36) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes seem high enough for my protagonist that readers will care about the outcome? Does the conflict come across as both plausible and compelling? For other nonfiction, have I made the problem or issue I’m addressing appear important?
There’s a truism in editing: if a dialogue scene is dragging, raise the stakes for one of the speakers. The more the characters care about the outcome of a conflict, the easier it will be for the reader to care, too. By the same token, a fine revision tactic for keeping the reader turning nonfiction pages is to make a strong and continual case for why the subject matter of the book is vital — to the individual reader, to the society, to the world.

The same principle holds true for queries: if Millicent understands what a protagonist stands to gain or lose from confronting a clearly-defined problem, she’s more likely to find the story compelling. Similarly, if the query makes it pellucidly clear why she should care about its central question — and, more importantly, why readers in the target audience should care — the argument is more likely to grab her.

Or, to cast it in #35 terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.

Memoir queries are especially prone to underselling the importance of what’s at stake for the protagonist. After all, from the memoirist’s perspective (and frequently for writers of autobiographical fiction as well), the primary significance of the story may well be that (a) it’s a true story, and (b) it happened to the writer. Shouldn’t the very truth of the story, combined with the single person most able to give an inside perspective, be enough to captivate readers?

That’s certainly an understandable point of view, from a writerly perspective, but from a professional viewpoint, the answer is usually no. No one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because the events described in it happened to the author; there are far, far too many truthful memoirs out there for that to be the sole criterion for book buyers. Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of book.

So does Millicent in evaluating a query to decide whether she should request pages. Just as it’s the writer’s job to construct a manuscript or book proposal’s narrative to render the story compelling not just for herself, it’s incumbent upon the querying memoirist to give a screener plenty of reason to say, “Wow, this sounds not only like the narrator is an interesting person in an interesting situation — the conflict he faces comes across as one that will fascinate many readers in the already well-saturated memoir market.”

Yes, her thoughts really are that prolix. Our Millie is a complex reasoner.

Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard in making your case for your story or argument’s importance: implying that resolving leaf droppage on neighbors’ yards is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter from Millicent. The line between conveying importance and self-importance can be distressingly thin.

That’s the beauty of raising the stakes: ideally, you won’t have to make positive statements about the importance of your subject matter at all, at least for fiction. (For nonfiction, go ahead and explain why the world should care.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw his own conclusion. You’re just leading him toward the conclusion you wish him to draw.

(37) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder. Ahem:

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.

(38) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book, isn’t it?”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last night: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

Of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of Querypalooza, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousand fold.

Next time — that’s 10 am PST tomorrow, campers; although we’re still in Querypalooza mode, it would be madness to try to maintain the three-shift schedule of the weekend — I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in the platform paragraph of your query. Or, as we like to call it here at Author! Author!, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Yum, yum. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part VI: announcing your arrival clearly, or, insert cliché here about having only one chance to make a first impression

street lamp Pacifica1

Before I launch into our latest installment of Querypalooza, I’d like to ask for a moment of silence, please. (Which shouldn’t be terribly difficult for those of you reading this in the middle of the night, should it?) All of us here at Author! Author! would like to sent out a heartfelt RIP to Larry Ashmead, editor to such science fiction luminaries as Isaac Asimov. Mr. Ashmead was one of the great eclectic-minded editors, known for taking chances on first books simply because — gasp! — he fell in love with them.

His background was eclectic, too: as his AP obituary notes, “He received a doctorate in geology from Yale University, but decided he preferred geology to geologists and chose to work in publishing, his 43-year career beginning at Doubleday and ending with his retirement from HarperCollins in 2003.” This kind of leap from academia to publishing used to be charmingly common; for smart, well-read people, it seemed like a natural next step.

May you enjoy the extensive libraries of the afterlife, Mr. Ashmead. Do say hello to Mark Twain for me.

Back to the business at hand. In our last thrilling installment of Querypalooza, we began going through a list of questions intended to help you steer clear of the most common querying mistakes. So far, our troubleshooting list has concentrated upon length and tone. Tonight, however, I would like to shift our focus toward the more market-oriented aspects of the query.

And half of you just tensed up, didn’t you? Not entirely surprising: for many, if not most, aspiring writers, marketing is a dirty word. You can’t throw a piece of bread at a circle of writers without hitting someone who will insist that writing for the market is the moral opposite of writing for art’s sake.

To a professional writer, the market/art split is a false dichotomy. There’s plenty of marvelous writing that’s done very well commercially. And it would be surprising if most aspiring writers weren’t aware of that: as a group, after all, we’re some of the most devoted readers of the already-published, right?

Besides, insisting that thinking seriously about who is going to buy your work is tantamount to selling out is self-defeating for a writer trying to land an agent. Knowing something about how books are sold is not optional for an author working with an agent or editor; it’s a prerequisite. (If you are brand-new to the process, you might want to set aside some time to peruse the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right.)

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities. Writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. I would never knock it. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about how to market it to them.

And that means learning to speak the language of the industry, at least enough to describe your work in terms that every agent, editor, and screener will understand. To do that, you’re going to need to give some thought to what your book is about, who you expect to read it, and where it might sit on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Not to frighten you, but you’re also going to have to be able to convey all of this information within a few sentences.

Query letters are, after all, brief — and may not have even an entire page of Millicent’s attention to make their cases. To crank up the broken record player again,

broken-recordThe vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected. Therefore, the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to TELL, as well as show.

So let’s turn our attention to the crucial information in that first paragraph. To our muttons!

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?
Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph?
If your first paragraph doesn’t tell Millicent either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query him (having spoken to him at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

Don’t groan over the amount of research this may entail — indiscriminate querying is not likely to match you up with the best agent for your work. Besides, in order to personalize each query, you need to come up with only one or two reasons for picking this particular agent.

Remember our two examples from last time, where Flaubert accidentally mixed up one agent’s name and background with another’s? It contained some good reasons, couched in some restrained praise. To refresh your memory, he sent this:

wrong names query

When he intended to send this:

Despite our Gustave’s momentary inattention to critical detail, he had essentially the right approach in both letters: he devoted the opening sentences of his various queries to telling each agent why he was querying him or her, rather than simply sending the same letter to everybody. In fact, he brought up two perfectly adequate for each: for Ms. Marketer, he mentioned both an article she had written and a book she had successfully represented; for Mr. Bookpusher, he brought up having heard him speak at a conference — and a book Ms. Marketer had successfully represented.

Again: proofread before you send it out. Every time, without exception.

Agents-who-blog make this kind of opening quite easy for queriers: all you have to do is mention that you’re a fan. Do be absolutely positive before embracing this tactic, however, that you have read enough of the blog in question to know what the agent has said she is looking for in a query or book project. Trust me, AWBs’ Millicents already see enough queries from people who make it quite plain that all they know about the blogging agent is her name.

Don’t hesitate to mention if you attended a conference where the agent spoke: traditionally, conference attendance is considered a sign that a writer is serious about learning how the publishing business works. (Which is kind of funny, actually, as so many writers’ conferences focus far more on craft than practical issues like manuscript preparation and submission. You’d be amazed at how often conference organizers have asked incredulously, “You want to teach a two-hour seminar on formatting? What on earth for? Isn’t everybody already familiar with professional standards?”) Even now, when so many writers are gleaning their knowledge from the Internet, many agents still tell attendees to include the conference’s name in the first line of the query, the subject line of the e-query, or both.

It’s worth using as an entrée even if you did not get a chance to interact with him at all. At a large or snooty conference, it’s not always possible — and even if you do manage some face-to-face time, the agent may well be meeting so many aspiring writers in so short a time that he may not remember every individual. So don’t be shy about reminding him that you were a face in the crowd.

(6) Is it clear from the first paragraph what kind of book I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s jaw-dropping how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Quoth Millicent: “Next!”

The book category, the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, is the most often omitted element. And that’s a shame, because in either a query or a pitch, the more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound.

Why terse? Well, mostly because book categories tend to be only one or two words long: historical romance, science fiction, urban fantasy, women’s fiction, Highland romance, YA paranormal, Western, literary fiction, memoir, and so forth. In fact, these terms are so concentrated that it’s very, very easy to annoy Millicent by adding unnecessary adjectives or explanation: literary fiction novel or science fiction novel are technically redundant, for instance, because all novels are fiction, by definition. By the same logic, true memoir, real-life memoir, and memoir about my life are all needlessly repetitive descriptions.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among both queries and pitchers is in the opposite direction of terseness — or even using the terminology that agents themselves use. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the writer’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

Which means, incidentally, that within the query, you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and that perennial favorite of first novelists, it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hurt me if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language.

Contrary to popular opinion, picking a conceptual box for your work will not limit its market appeal; it will simply tell Millicent which shelf at Barnes & Noble or category on Amazon you expect to house your book. It honestly is that simple. You really do not need to stress out about the choice nearly as much as most aspiring writers do.

So take a nice, deep breath and consider: what books currently on the market does my book resemble? How are these books categorized?

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific among you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. But won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest at the beginning of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials. It will only render you more memorable if you are the science fiction writer whose query included the immortal words, Having twenty-seven years’ experience as a deep-sea archeologist, I also am working on a book on underwater spelunking.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat about which project you are trying to sell? Terseness is your friend here.

(7) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. While query fatigue is certainly understandable, it tends not to produce a positive tone for presenting your work.

Insecurities, too, show up beautifully on the query page. While the writer’s opinion of her own work is unavoidably biased, in my experience, that bias tends to be on the negative side for most. We’ve all heard a lot about queriers who make overblown claims about their work (This book will revolutionize fiction!, This is a sure-fire bestseller!, or that perennial favorite, It’s a natural for Oprah!), but apologetic openings like I’m so sorry to bother you,, Pardon me for taking up your time,, and This may not be the kind of book that interests you, but… turn up on Millicent’s desk more often than you’d think.

Much of the time, this sad-sack tone is the result of query fatigue. I know that repeated rejection is depressing and exhausting, but it really is in your best interest to make an effort to try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first.

No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either. And never, ever, EVER mention how long you’ve been querying, how many agents have already rejected this project, or how hard it has been emotionally. It’s unprofessional. A query is not the place to express frustration with the querying process; save that for lively conversation with your aforementioned significant other, family members, and friends.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you.

No, no matter HOW long you’ve been shopping your book around. Speaking of overly-effusive politeness,

broken-recordOf you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.”

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. Remember, in-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

This remains true, incidentally, even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, do.)

(8) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I may have mentioned already,

broken-recordEvery agent and screener in the biz already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!” Such inflated claims make a manuscript seem LESS marketable, ultimately, not more.

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever.

So how do you make your work sound marketable without, well, just asserting that it is? Glad you asked.

(9) Does my query make it clear what kind of readers will buy my book — and why?
Few queries address this point, but to folks who speak publishing’s lingua franca, it’s simply not possible to talk about a manuscript without considering these questions. So you’ll reap the benefits of both professional presentation and comparative rarity if your query identifies your target market clearly, demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Trust me, Millicent is going to respond quite a bit better to a statement like MADAME BOVARY will resonate with the 20% of Americans who suffer from depression at some point in their lives than Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! She sees the latter type of claim on a daily — or even hourly — basis and discounts it accordingly. At best, such claims come across as exaggerations; at worst, they look like lies.

Why might she think that? Well, logically, a claim like Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! could not possibly be true. No book appeals to everyone in a large demographic, and nobody knows that better than someone who works within the publishing industry. Far, far better, then, to make a realistic claim that you can back up with concrete numbers.

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics — and that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.)

Instead, it makes far more sense to discover how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter. I feel a golden oldie coming on:

broken-recordNo book ever written appeals to every conceivable reader — or can be represented effectively by any randomly-selected agent. While your future publisher’s marketing department will undoubtedly have ideas about who your ideal reader is and why, it’s far, far easier to talk about your book professionally if you first take the time to figure out what kind of readers are in your target audience.

The term target audience made some of you tense up again, didn’t it? As scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

Let’s start off with a nice, non-threatening definition of terms. What is a target audience?

Simply put, the target audience for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. Not just a segment of the population, mind you, but readers who are already in the habit of buying books like yours. That’s why it is also known as a target market: it is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

So I ask you: who out there needs to read your book and why?

If that question leaves you a bit flummoxed, you’re certainly not alone — most fiction writers and nearly all memoirists initially have a difficult time answering that question about their own work. First-time memoirists are notorious in their first panic to answer huffily, “Well, obviously, the book’s about me.”

Yes, that is obvious, now that you mention it. But what else is the memoir about? Even the most introspective memoir is about something other than its author.

Fiction writers, too, tend to stumble over the answer. “Well, people will read it for the writing, obviously,” novelists mutter. “Isn’t that enough? It’s sort of based on something that really happened, if that helps.”

Of course, lovely writing is going to be one of a good novel’s attractions, but every book category has well-written books in it. Well-crafted sentences are expected in professional writing. But unless you are planning to market your book as literary fiction — i.e., a novel where the beauty or experimental nature of the writing and exquisitely-examined character development are the book’s primary selling points — nice writing, which of course a plus, is not much of a descriptor. (Besides, literary fiction is a relatively tiny portion of the fiction market, usually coming in around 3-4%. Why so small? It assumes a college-educated readership.)

What makes it a poor descriptor? It does not answer the central questions of a query letter: what is your book about, and who needs to read it?

Or, to put in the terms Millicent might: what are the potential readers for this book already reading? Why are they reading it? What about this book is likely to appeal to those same readers?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your book is about something other than its protagonist, right? That something has probably been written about before — so why not find out how those books were marketed, to glean inspiration about how to market yours? (As Pablo Picasso was reportedly fond of saying, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”)

Or you can approach it even more straightforwardly: pick an element of your story that might make your ideal reader pick up your book. It’s set on a farm; the protagonist’s sister has multiple sclerosis; the characters keep going to a drive-in movie theatre. Any running theme is legitimate subject matter for marketing purposes.

Then ask yourself: who might be interested in this subject? How many small family farms are there in the US? Just how many people have multiple sclerosis? Who is likely to remember drive-in theatres fondly?

Getting the picture? Might not people who are already interested in that topic — and, ideally, are already demonstrating that interest by buying books about it — be reasonably regarded as potential readers for your book? What books do these readers already buy? Who are their favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with theirs?

While we’re at it, who represents these readers’ favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Is tracking down all of this information bound to be a lot of work? Yes, possibly, but as the Internet has made performing such research quite a bit easier than it was at any previous point in human history, you’re probably not going to garner any sympathy from Millicent. (Word to the wise: just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it is true; it’s worth your while to double-check with credible sources. Why, just last month, a Wikipedia spokesperson told an interviewer that the site is not intended to be anyone’s only source of information; it’s designed to give an overview of a subject.) But just as performing background research on who agents are and what they represent will enable you to target your queries more effectively than indiscriminate mass mailings to everyone who has ever sold a book in your book category, doing a bit of digging on your target audience before you send out your queries will save you time in the long run.

Still at a loss about how to begin about gathering this data, or even what information you should be gathering? As it happens, I’ve written about these issues at some length — and have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right. Those posts should give you quite a bit of material for brainstorming.

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” I hear some of you say. “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in EVERY book on the market, right? There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines like a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to a particular demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective: if she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs.

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific. For one thing, it will make your query stand out from the crowd. And PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for Oprah. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

While these may sound like narrow definitions, each actually represents an immense group of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books. Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book.

Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will this reader’s life be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to her?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors.

Try to think of learning to speak this language as less of an annoying hurdle than as another step toward assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

More thoughts on marketing your work follow at 10 am. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part III: eschewing the classic annoyance triggers, or, once the egg is broken, how are you going to put it back into the carton?

cracked eggs

Are you still hanging in there after 6 pm’s packed-to-the-gills post, campers? Good for you. In deference to anyone who might happen to be sleeping next to someone reading this, I’m going to keep it down in this, the third post in our Querypalooza series (which began at 10 am yesterday morning, for those of you just tuning in; I shall be posting every 8 hours or so throughout Labor Day weekend.)

So get comfortable, and we’ll warm up to the hardcore discussion of query letters in a casual manner, with a nice, calming, verdure-based anecdote about interpersonal vitriol.

Until a couple of months ago, we lived next door to people who simply couldn’t abide trees, or indeed, greenery in any form. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to swaying cedars, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritated the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment.

Particularly if the leaf in question happened to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity. Not so much as a stray blade of grass ever seemed to evade their notice: their yard could not have had more impervious surfaces if it were an industrial kitchen.

At least twice a year, the Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities) would demand that we chop down our magnificent willow tree. The rest of the time, they contented themselves with scowling at our ornamental crabapple, refusing gifts of homegrown pears, and swearing audibly throughout the entirety of their every-other-day concrete-sweeping extravaganzas. That last ritual began just after they very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

Just between us, we like trees on our side of the fence. So did the people who owned the house before us, and so do all of our neighbors except the dreaded Smiths. We live in Seattle, for heaven’s sake, where a proposal to rip out a single 100-year-old cedar on private property typically attracts fifty citizens to a public meeting to howl in protest. In fact, prior to a recent city council election, I received more than one circular explaining where all the candidates stood on trees (sometimes literally, judging by the photographs) and their possible removal.

If I were a tree forced to live in an urban environment, in short, I’d definitely move here.

So in the Smith’s view, we were far from their only inconsiderate neighbors — we are merely the geographically closest in a municipality gone greenery-mad. We were, however, the only locals who kept bringing them holiday cookies in the hope of smoothing things over, as well as the only ones to tell them to go ahead and cut off branches at the property line, as is their right.

This neighborly behavior did not win us any Brownie points with the Smiths, alas, and with good reason: long after the cookies disappeared down their gullets, our willow tree still greeted them every morning by waving its abundant leaves at them. I don’t know if you’ve ever lived in close proximity to one of these gracefully-swaying giants, but they have two habits that drive people like the Smiths nuts: they love dropping leaves that are, unfortunately, susceptible to both gravity and wind, and they just adore snaking their branches into places where there aren’t other trees.

Like, say, the parking lot that was the Smiths’ yard.

Thus, I cannot truthfully say I was surprised to walk into our yard to discover Mr. Smith ten feet up in the willow, hacksaw in hand and murder in his eye. (I talked him down before any branches fell.) Nor was I stunned when the Smiths tore down the fence between our yards, propping the old fence on our lilac and laurel for a few weeks, apparently in the hope that the trees wouldn’t like it much. (They didn’t, but they survived.) Or when the two trees closest to the new fence shriveled up and died (dropping MASSES of leaves in the process, mostly on the Smith’s concrete) because someone had apparently dumped a bunch of weed killer on them.

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

In the interest of maintaining good relationships on the block, we let all it all go, apart from telling Mr. Smith that our insurance wouldn’t cover neighbors plummeting from our tree and laughing as though his repeated requests that we remove the willow taller than our house were a tremendously funny joke that just keeps getting more humorous with each telling. We just stopped plant anything close to the fence and heroically resisted the urge to shake our trees just before one of the Smiths’ immensely noisy yard parties.

From the Smiths’ point of view, of course, this response was unsatisfactory in the extreme: from their perspective, we held all the power, as we were the stewards of the tallest trees in the neighborhood. (Which shade a stream that runs off to a salmon breeding ground; we are the ones who explain to new neighbors not to use anything toxic on their yards, lest it run into the stream.) We were the harborers of raccoons, the protectors of the possums, the defenders of that unsightly hawks’ next.

To them, we had a monopoly on the ability to change the situation, and that, to put it mildly, irks them so much that each spring, I trembled for the baby hawks.

Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possessed a far from insignificant power: the ability to annoy us by molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, and poisoning our trees. We quietly took defensive steps, trying to avoid open confrontation, but we could not always protect ourselves or our furry friends. (Because I love you people, I’ll spare you the story of what happened when someone in the neighborhood fed the mother of three small raccoon cubs wet cat foot with broken glass mixed into it.)

So we, the Smiths, the wildlife, and the rest of the neighborhood lived in a state of uneasy détente, at least until the day we were moving the debris from the dead trees. Even though our efforts were speeded by audible cheering from the Smiths’ house, I could have sworn that we had cleared the ground. Yet a couple of days later, branches littered our side of the fence again. We carted those away, only to discover the following week piles of leaves that had apparently fallen from trees that were no longer there.

The Smiths had evidently decided to start dumping fallen leaves over the fence. That showed us, didn’t it?

Why am I sharing this lengthy tale of woe and uproar, other than to demonstrate my confidence that no one on the Smiths’ side of the fence reads? Because our situation with the neighbors so closely paralleled the relationship between agents and many of the aspiring writers who query them.

Yes, really: by everyone’s admission, the agents own the trees — but that doesn’t mean that aspiring writers don’t resent clearing up the leaves. Or that they don’t in their own small ways have the ability to annoy agents quite a bit.

I sense some of you settling in to enjoy my account of this. “Pop some popcorn, Martha,” long-time query-resenters cry. “We’re going to have us some entertainment!”

Don’t get your hopes up — most of these annoyance tactics are only visible from the agents’ side of the fence. Completely generic Dear Agent letters, for instance. Sneaking a few extra lines above the prescribed page into an e-mailed query letter because, after all, what agency screener is going to have time to check that whether it ran longer? Shrinking the margins and/or the typeface on a paper query so that while it is technically a single page, it contains a page and a half’s worth of words. Deciding that the agency website didn’t really mean it about sending only the first five pages with the query, since something really great happens on page 6 of yours. Continuing to e-mail after a rejection, trying to plead the book’s case. Telephoning at all, ever.

Oh, and all of those nit-picky little manuscript problems we have been discussing all summer. Including any or all of those can be a trifle annoying, too.

Think about that, I implore you, the next time you are tempted to bend an agency or contest’s submission rules. While dumping the leaves over the fence might well make the Smiths feel better, it certainly didn’t render them any more likely to convince us to rip out all of our trees; if anything, it’s made us more protective of them.

By the same token, aspiring writers’ attempts to force agents to change the way they do business by ignoring stated guidelines and industry-wide expectations doesn’t achieve the desired effect, either. It merely prompts agencies to adopt more and more draconian means of weeding out submissions.

Nobody wins, in short.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch sides and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the other side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue.

Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection. “Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

Unfortunately, if an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he DOES need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

Stop glaring at me — that’s just a fact.

Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing.

Why did that make some of you gasp? Logically speaking, to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over query rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly common ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

Those are the only possibilities, if all you sent was a query. So, if you think about it, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying.

Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

“But Anne,” some of you protest through a mouthful of popcorn, “I make a special point of querying only agencies whose websites ask me to imbed a few pages in my e-query or on its submission form. So when those folks reject me — or more commonly these days, just don’t respond — I should take that as a rejection of my writing talent and/or book, right, and not just of my query?”

Not necessarily. You have no way of knowing whether the rejection happened before Millicent finished reading the query (the most frequent choice), after she finished reading it, on page 1 of the writing sample, or at the end of it. All you know for sure is that something in your query packet triggered rejection.

The query is the most sensible first choice for reexamination, since it’s the part of the query packet that any Millicent would read first — or at all. After all, if the query itself didn’t grab her attention (or if it dumped any of those pesky leaves over her fence), it’s unlikely to the point of laughability that she read the attached pages.

In response to all of those jaws I just heard hitting the floor, allow me to repeat that: typically, professional readers stop reading the instant they hit a red flag. True of Millicents, true of contest judges, even frequently true of editors. Sorry to be the one to break that to you.

The vast majority of queriers and pitchers do not understand this. They think, and not without some justification, that if an agent’s website asks for ten pages of text, that someone at the agency is going to be standing over Millicent with a whip and a chair, forcing her to read that last syllable on p. 10 before making up her mind whether to reject the query.

Just doesn’t happen. Nor would it be fair to our Millie if it did. In practice, she simply does not have the time to scan every syllable.

Even at a mere 30 seconds per query — far less than writers would like, but still, about average — screening 800-1200 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else…like, say, reading all of those submissions from aspiring writers whose pages she actually requested.

Besides, from her point of view, why should she take the time to read the entirety of a query letter whose first paragraph or two is covered with those annoying leaves? “Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

A pop quiz, to see if you’ve been paying attention: is the best strategic response to this kind of rejection to

(a) decide that the rejection constitutes the entire publishing world’s condemnation of the entire book and/or your talent as a writer, and never query again?

(b) conclude that the manuscript itself was at fault, and frantically revise it for a year before querying again?

(c) e-mail the agency repeatedly, pointing out all of your manuscript’s finer points in an effort to get them to change their minds about rejecting your query?

(d) insist that Millicent was a fool and send out exactly the same query packet to the next agency?

(e) scrutinize both the query and the pages for possible red flags, then send out fresh queries as soon as possible thereafter?

If you said (a), you’re like half the unpublished writers in North America: not bad company, but also engaging in behavior that renders getting picked up by an agent (or winning a contest, for that matter) utterly impossible. I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: even a thoughtful rejection is only one reader’s opinion; no single rejection of a query or submission could possibly equal the condemnation of the entire publishing industry.

If you said (b), you’re like many, many conscientious aspiring writers: willing, even eager to believe that your writing must be faulty; if not, any agency in the world would have snapped it up, right? (See the previous paragraph on the probability of a single Millicent’s reaction being an infallible indicator of that.)

If you said (c), I hope you find throwing those leaves over the fence satisfying. Just be aware that it’s not going to convince Millicent or her boss to chop down the willow.

If you said (d), well, at least you have no illusions that need to be shattered. You are tenacious and believe in your work. Best of luck to you — but after the tenth or fifteenth rejection, you might want to consider the possibility that there are a few leaves marring the beauty of your query letter or opening pages.

If you said (e), congratulations: you have found a healthy balance between pride and practicality. Keep pushing forward.

While we’re considering the possibility of fallen leaves, let me bring up the most common fallen leaf of all: boasting about the writing quality, originality of the book concept, or future literary importance of the writer in the query. If your query contains even a hint of this, take it out immediately.

Why, you ask? Agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go clean up your respective rooms.

My point is, if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t other people be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

Even if you are feeling fairly confident that your query does not stray into the realm of self-review, you might want to ask someone whose reading eye you trust to take a gander at your query, to double-check that you’ve removed every last scintilla. Why? Well, aspiring writers are not always aware that they’ve crossed the line from confident presentation to boasting.

To be fair, the line can be a mite blurry. As thoughtful reader Jake asked some time back, in the midst of one of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph in a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.

whereas

A back jacket blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. To translate that into the terms of this post, the first’s appearance in a query letter is professional, while the second is a shovelful of fallen leaves.

Many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating. Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it.

From Millicent’s perspective — as well as her Aunt Mehitabel’s when she is judging a contest entry — the difference is indeed glaring. So how, as Jake so asks insightfully, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them?

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to ask while considering the issue:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe what the book is about, or does it pass a value judgment on it?
Remember, if Millicent can’t tell her boss what your book is about, she’s going to have a hard time recommending that the agency pick it up. So go ahead and tell her; resist the temptation to use your dream back-jacket blurb.

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it, in the hope of attracting readers. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does. So do her Aunt Mehitabel and her cousin Maury, who screens manuscripts for an editor at a major publishing house.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use to try to sell it to an editor at a publishing house?

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: an effective query describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise. (If you’re not certain how to do that, don’t worry — we’ll be getting to that later this weekend.)

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually necessary to the query letter, or are they extraneous?
I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“They say it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant. You don’t have very much space in a query letter; use it to provide only the information that’s required.

(4) Does my query make all of the points I need it to make?
Oh, you may laugh, but humor me for a moment while we go over the basics. A successful query letter has at minimum ALL of the following traits:

* it is clear,

* it is less than 1 page (single-spaced),

* it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner,

* it is politely worded,

* it states unequivocally what kind of book is being pitched, using a book category that already exists in the publishing industry, rather than one the writer has simply made up,

* it mentions whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction,

* if it is nonfiction, it includes some description of the writer’s platform (credentials for writing the book, including expertise and/or celebrity status),

* it includes a SASE (if it is being sent via regular mail) or full contact information for the querier, and

* it is addressed to a specific agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it describes.

You would not believe how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. (Yes, even the fiction/nonfiction bit is often omitted.) And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 5. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common omission: the book category. Many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories, not vague descriptions. That’s unfortunate, because it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label.

Other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: publishing simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category.

Trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

If you don’t know how to figure out your book’s category, or why you shouldn’t just make one up, please, I implore you, click on the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S category on the archive list at right before you send out your next query letter. Or pitch. Or, really, before you or anything you’ve written comes within ten feet of anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

But I’m veering off into specifics, amn’t I? We were talking about general principles.

(5) Does my query make my book sound appealing — not just to any agent, but to the kind of agent who would be the best fit for my writing?
You wouldn’t believe how many blank stares I get when I ask this one in my classes, but as I’ve pointed out before, you don’t want just any agent to represent your work; you want one with the right connections to sell it to an editor, right?

That’s not a match-up that’s likely to occur through blind dating, if you catch my drift. You need to look for someone who shares your interests.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Don’t pretend you’re unfamiliar with the style: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

To put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style? Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation. It really is that basic, in their world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in, are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, it looks at best like an attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants.

At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what whatever means in this context. And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t make ‘em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it. Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you.

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not get you what you want.

More discussion of the ins and outs of querying follows at 10 am, naturally. Sweet dreams, campers, and keep up the good work!

Juggling multiple protagonists, part VII: describing your book well is a matter of focus

leaves in bird feeder

Sorry about the odd timing of my posts this week, campers — a nasty, lingering migraine leapt through my studio’s window and gobbled up a couple of days. I emerged only long enough yesterday to announce the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, then crawl back into the dark cave under my blankets.

Just in case my brain-befogged state rendered the rules less than perfectly clear, what YA author Phoebe Kitanidis and I are inviting the Author! Author! community to do is submit the actual first page of your manuscripts, in precisely the format you would send to an agent who requested pages. Phoebe and I will critique the lucky winners’ first pages in a future blog post.

In other words: if you’d like to know what Millicent the agency screener would say about your first page before you send it to her, this contest would be a great opportunity.

Let’s get back to business. In my last post in this series, we discussed . Regardless of whether you chose to emphasize only one of the characters’ storylines or tell the story of the novel, not of each protagonist, I encouraged you to emphasize the most original parts of your story.

That’s not a bad rule of thumb for writing a query for any manuscript, by the way, regardless of your voice choices within it. Since agents tend to specialize in just a few book categories, Millicent sees a whole lot of queries promoting rather similar-sounding stories — or so they start to seem to her, after she’s read 20,000 of them. The more unexpected details you can work into that descriptive paragraph, then, the more likely your query is to cause her to exclaim, “Hey, I want to read this manuscript — it sounds fresh.”

I also suggested that attempting to summarize the entire plot of a 400-page manuscript in a scant paragraph is a Herculean task for even a single-protagonist novel; trying to pull it off for a seven-protagonist novel is akin to the labors of Sisyphus. For those of you not up on your Greek mythology, he’s the guy the gods condemned to roll a giant rock up a steep hill, only to have it keep rolling back down again, for all eternity.

Which I’m guessing sounds like a lighthearted romp in the park to those of you who have spent months trying to concoct an effective query letter or pitch for a multiple-protagonist novel.

Instead of continuing to push that boulder up the hill, why not borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book, and leave some of the story to Millicent’s imagination? After all, as we’ve discussed, all a successful query or pitch really has to do is show Millie an interesting protagonist(s) in an interesting situation(s), right?

Or, to put it in terms that would be easier to describe in a hurry, a good query or pitch introduces the player(s), their goal(s), and the barrier(s) to achieving them. Like every page of a strong manuscript, the descriptive paragraph should contain conflict.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to dismiss your query as offering her a book about a passive protagonist, would you?

As I’ve been typing those last few paragraphs, I could hear the trees outside my window buffeted by some pretty massive gusty collective sighs. I understand: many, if not most, of you multiple-perspective lovers feel — and with good reason — that how you have chosen to tell your characters’ stories is as integral to your book as the stories themselves. Necessarily, the reader’s experience of the story is going to be inextricably tied up with how it is written.

But that doesn’t mean that this information is going to be helpful to your query or pitch, in practical terms.

Remember, neither the descriptive paragraph in a query or a two-minute pitch is intended to be a substitute for reading the manuscript in question. Their sole purpose is to get Millicent or the agent to whom you are pitching to ask to read it.

So it honestly is not in your interest to give away too much of the story, or even to talk too much about all of the nifty narrative tricks you’ve worked into the text. Let all that come as a pleasant surprise. Instead, try regarding your descriptive paragraph or pitch as an opportunity to demonstrate how well you can tell a story — and a fresh one at that.

Part of it, anyway.

How does one decide which part? You’re the one who understands your storyline well enough to divide it up into multiple perspectives — you tell me.

The cedar tree in my yard is still bending with the force of those sighs, I notice. “Okay,” the sighers concede reluctantly, “I can sort of see why I might need to lighten my storyline a bit in order to query or pitch it, if we want to reduce the discussion to mere marketing terms. But I still don’t understand why simplifying my extraordinarily complex plot would help my query or pitch. From where I’m standing, its complexity is its main selling point. Wouldn’t narrowing the focus of my description just make it sound, well, simple?”

Well, there’s are a couple of practical reasons narrowing the focus usually helps — and then there’s a different kind of practical reason. Let’s take the most straightforward one first.

From a query-reader or pitch-hearer’s point of view, once more than a couple of characters have been introduced within the first couple of sentences, new names tend to blur together like extras in a movie, unless the description makes it absolutely clear how they are all tied together. Typically, therefore, Millicent will assume that the first mentioned by name is the protagonist.

So if you started to describe a multiple protagonist novel on pure plot — “Melissa is dealing with trying to run a one-room schoolhouse in Morocco, while Harold is coping with the perils of window-washing in Manhattan, and Yvonne is braving the Arctic tundra…” — even the most open-minded agent or editor is likely to zone out on everybody but Melissa. There’s just too much to remember.

And if remembering three names in the course of a two-minute pitch doesn’t strike you as a heavy intellectual burden, please see my earlier post on pitch fatigue. Even the most hardened Millicent is likely to start to experience plot blurring after a few hours of screening.

It’s easy to forget that yours is almost certainly not the only query or pitch that agent has seen or heard within the last 24 hours, isn’t it, even if you’re not trying to explain a book that has several protagonists? Often, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels will make an even more serious mistake than overloading their elevator speeches with names — they will frequently begin by saying, “Okay, so there are 18 protagonists…”

Whoa there, Sparky. Did anyone ask about your perspective choices? So why present them as the most important single fact about your novel?

I mean, you could conceivably pitch Barbara Kingsolver’s multiple-narrator THE POISONWOOD BIBLE as:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution.

That isn’t a bad summary of the plot, but it doesn’t really give much of a feel for the book, does it? The story is told from the perspectives of the various daughters, mostly, who really could not agree on less and who have very different means of expressing themselves.

And that, really, is the charm of the book. But if you’ll take a gander at Ms. Kingsolver’s website, you’ll see that even she (or, more likely, her publicist) doesn’t mention the number of narrators until she’s already set up the premise.

Any guesses why?

Okay, let me ask the question in a manner more relevant to the task at hand: would it be a better idea to walk into a pitch meeting and tell the story in precisely the order it is laid out in the book, spending perhaps a minute on one narrator, then moving on to the next, and so on?

In a word, no. Because — you guessed it — it’s too likely to confuse the hearer.

Hey, do you think that same logic might apply to any complicated-plotted book? Care to estimate the probability that a pitch-fatigued listener or bleary-eyed Millicent will lose track of a grimly literal chronological account of the plot midway through the second sentence?

If you just went pale, would-be pitchers and queriers, your answer was probably correct. Let’s get back to Barbara Kingsolver.

Even though the second descriptive paragraph above for THE POISONWOOD BIBLE does not do it justice, if I were pitching or querying the book (and thank goodness I’m not; it would be difficult), I would probably use it above, with a slight addition at the end:

A missionary takes his five daughters and one wife to the middle of Africa. Once they manage to carve out a make-do existence in a culture that none of them really understand, what little security the daughters know is ripped from them, first by their father’s decreasing connection with reality, then by revolution. The reader sees the story from the very different points of view of the five daughters, one of whom has a mental condition that lifts her perceptions into a completely different realm.

Not ideal, perhaps, but it gets the point across.

But most pitchers of multiple POV novels are not nearly so restrained, alas. They charge into pitch meetings and tell the story as written in the book, concentrating on each perspective in turn as the agent or editor stares back at them dully, like a bird hypnotized by a snake.

And ten minutes later, when the meeting is over, the writers have only gotten to the end of Chapter 5. Out of 27.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often I experienced this phenomenon in my pitching classes, when I was running the late lamented Pitch Practicing Palace at the Conference-That-Shall-Remain-Nameless, and even when I just happen to be passing by the pitch appointment waiting area at your average conference. All too often, first-time pitchers have never talked about their books out loud before — a BAD idea, by the way — and think that the proper response to the innocent question, “So, what’s your book about?” is to reel off the entire plot.

And I do mean entire. By the end of it, an attentive listener would know not only precisely what happened to the protagonist and the antagonist, but the neighbors, the city council, and the chickens at the local petting zoo until the day that all of them died.

Poor strategy, that. If you go on too long, even the most patient agent may well draw some unflattering conclusions about the pacing of your storytelling preferences, if you catch my drift.

This outcome is at least 27 times more likely if the book being pitched happens to be a memoir or autobiographical novel, incidentally. Bad idea. Because most memoir submissions are episodic, rather than featuring a strong, unitary story arc, a rambling pitching style is likely to send off all kinds of warning flares in a pitch-hearer’s mind. And trust me, “Well, it’s based on something that actually happened to me…” no longer seems like a fresh concept the 783rd time an agent or editor hears it.

So how well do you think it’s going to work if you open the descriptive paragraph of your query that way?

Word to the wise: keep your description snappy, emphasize the storyline, and convince the hearer that your book is well worth reading before you even consider explaining why you decided to write it in the first place.

Yes, in answer to that indignant gasp, both memoirists and writers of autobiographical fiction work that last bit into their pitches and queries all the time. Do not emulate their example; it may be unpleasant to face, but few in the publishing industry are likely to care about why you wrote a book until after they’ve already decided that it’s marketable. (Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but publishing is a business, after all.)

Which brings me to the second reason that it’s better to tell the story of the book, rather than the story of each of the major characters: perspective choices are a writing issue, not a storyline issue per se. And while you will want to talk about some non-story issues in your pitch — the target audience, the selling points, etc. — most of the meat of the pitch is about the story (or, in the case of nonfiction, the argument) itself. And in the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, it’s the only meat.

In other words, the agent or editor will learn HOW you tell the story from reading your manuscript; during the querying/pitching phase, all they need to hear is the story.

Or to put it in more practical terms: hands up, pitchers of multiple-protagonist novels who have seen an agent or editor’s eyes glaze over just after hearing the words, “Well, I have these three protagonists…”

It’s an understandable thing to say, of course, because from the writer’s perspective, the structural choices are monumentally important. But from the marketing perspective, they’re substantially less so.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you walked into a bookstore, buttonholed a clerk, and asked, “Where can I find a good book told from many points of view? I don’t care what it’s about; I just woke up this morning yearning for multiplicity of perspective.”

I thought not. Although if you want to generate a fairly spectacular reaction in a bored clerk on a slow day, you could hardly ask a better question, come to think of it.

There’s another very good reason not to overload your query or pitch with too much in-depth discussion of how the story is told, rather than what the story is. Writers very, very frequently forget this, but the author is not the only one who is going to have to pitch any given book before it get published.

Let’s face it: the main reason writers query or pitch a manuscript is to render pitching it someone else’s responsibility, isn’t it?

Think about it. A writer has chosen the multiple point of view narrative style because it fits the story she is telling, presumably, not the other way around, right? That’s the writer’s job, figuring out the most effective means of telling the tale. That doesn’t change the fact that in order for an agent to sell the book to an editor, or the editor to take the book to committee, he’s going to have to be able to summarize the story.

That’s right — precisely the task all of you would-be pitchers out there have been resenting throughout this entire post. And inveterate queriers have been resenting for years.

What does this mean in practical terms? If the story comes across as too complex to be able to boil down into terms that the agent or editor will be able to use to convince others that this book is great, your query or pitch may raise some red flags for Millicent. So it really does behoove you not to include every twist and turn of the storyline — or every point of view.

Does the fact that a branch just flew off my cedar tree indicate that my arguments have not quelled all of the righteous indignation, out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you upright souls cry, “all I want to do is to present my manuscript honestly in my query or pitch. If I ignore 90% of the story, isn’t that misleading?”

Not really, considering that you’re presenting your book in a context that absolutely precludes telling the entire story — and everyone involved understands those limitations. Trust me, once Millicent and her boss fall in love with your manuscript, neither is ever going to say to you, “Hey, the descriptive paragraph in your query letter led me to expect a simpler, less delightfully complex narrative! Begone with you, lying scum!”

Brevity is simply the nature of the beast. If you accept that the point of the query or pitch is not to distill the essence of the book, but to convince someone in a position to help you get it published to ask to read it, all you’re doing is delaying Millicent’s delighted discovery of just how complex your narrative is.

Preserve some of the mystery the first time out. A query or pitch is not a synopsis, after all.

Before your gasps do my cedar any more damage, let me add hastily: next time (probably this weekend, headaches permitting), I shall be giving you some tips on how to construct a synopsis for a multiple-protagonist novel. So regularize your breathing, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part XVI: wait, but I heard…

imshocked

Sorry about the several-day silence, campers. Apparently, there are two strains of flu going around this winter; both were kind enough to stop by my house. I’m going to keep it short today, so I can get right back to such intellectually stimulating endeavors as forcing liquids and lying helplessly under a cat.

I didn’t want to leave you hanging so close to the end of this long series on how books do — and don’t — currently get published in the US market. It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? We debunked a few common myths about getting published (most notably, the one about good writing always finding an agent or publisher relatively quickly), approaching major publishing houses (if the houses you have in mind are located within the United States, you need an agent to do it for you), how agents handle queries and submissions from aspiring writers, and finally, what happens to a manuscript after an agent picks it up.

Did you find all that empowering, or just depressing? The former, I hope: once a writer can recognize that the formal hurdles she’s expected to jump to land an agent and/or find a publisher for her manuscript are just that, formal hurdles designed to discourage writers who haven’t done their homework, rather than a series of referenda on how talented she is, she can plan accordingly.

How so? Well, if a query, submission, or book proposal does not follow the rules, it tends not to matter how good the writing in the manuscript is. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, professionalism is almost as important as talent, at least in the initial approach.

Or, to put it less delicately, not taking the time to learn the ropes only seems as if it would speed up the trip from completed manuscript to publication. In reality, just leaping into querying or submission unprepared usually lengthens that trip.

Yes, yes, I know: those of you who have been querying or submitting for a nice, long while are shocked, shocked, to hear that the learning curve for those new to the trying-to-get-published game can be pretty steep. But remember, this honestly was news to every currently-published writer at some point.

Hey, it’s complicated stuff.

Thus this series. I habitually devote a great deal of blog space to showing aspiring writers a few short cuts, but once a year, I like to place that advice within a larger context. And frankly, every year, I take a lot of flak from the pros for doing it. Seriously.

Why, you ask? Well, every pro has a slightly different reason, but the one I (and others devoted to helping aspiring writers over the technical hurdles) hear the most tends to run a little something like this: blogs like yours have made it harder to tell the good manuscripts from the rest. Back before it was so easy for writers to find out what to do, far more queries were instantly rejectable; before you started yammering about standard format, most submissions could be dismissed at a glance.

I take this as a compliment — because why, really, should a writer brand-new to the game know how these things are done? Given how complex, counter-intuitive, and let’s face it, contrary to the prevailing societal notions of how books get published the realities are, it’s just a bit puzzling that folks in the publishing industry just expect serious aspiring writers to pick up the basics on their own. It’s not as though rejections typically include admonitions to learn how to write a professional query letter, for instance, or come right out and say, “Look, we read only the first paragraph of your submission because it was not double-spaced, contained three typos and a cliché in the opening sentence, and was printed on off-white paper instead of bright white. That’s no reflection on your writing style — but if you want to have a better shot next time, learn a little something about what we expect to see.”

What do rejected writers see instead? We’re sorry, but this manuscript does not fit our needs at this time. Or I just didn’t fall in love with this story.

“But what does that mean?” aspiring writers constantly ask me in despair. “I know that this agent is telling me something about how I can improve my query/submission, but I can’t figure out what!”

Actually, the agent probably isn’t: most rejections are form-letter boilerplate, and thus not personalized at all. The whole point of a form rejection is to minimize the time Millicent the agency screener has to devote to a query or submission her agency isn’t going to pick up, right? So unless a rejecter gives a specific reason, it’s just a waste of an aspiring writer’s energy to try to read anything into prepackaged phrases that are equally likely to be applied to a poorly-written query that Millie never even considered and a professional-sounding one that just didn’t read as though her boss agent would be interested in the story.

Except to consider the possibility that Millicent is implicitly saying, look, I can’t take your work seriously until you learn the ropes.

Notice how often the word serious has cropped up in the last few paragraphs? There’s a reason for that: in the publishing world, a serious writer is by definition someone who not only has talent and good ideas for books, but has taken the time to learn how to present her work professionally.

That made some of you roll your eyes, didn’t it?

I’m not too surprised. Throughout this series, I’ve been sensing a strange combination of discomfort, disbelief, and outright outrage floating around in that part of the cosmic ether where I choose to imagine my far-flung readership resides. Oh, the discontented have been too nice to kick up much of a protest over my account of these rather grim realities, but since the commenter-to-non-commenting-reader ratio on any blog is quite top-heavy, I’ve gotten good at sensing unspoken confusion. If I had to guess the single sentiment that has been muttered most often by readers of this series, it would be this:

“Hey — that’s not what I heard!”

Hands up, everyone who has thought some permutation of this sentiment, either earlier in this series or when getting the skinny from some ostensibly authoritative source like me. In a way, I applaud this reaction — since there’s such a lot of advice out there for writers, you should be thinking critically about all of the marketing and writing advice you hear. If I haven’t mentioned recently, it’s not a good idea to take any self-described publishing expert as gospel, even if that expert happens to be yours truly.

That can be an awfully tall order; as most of you are probably already aware, there are a LOT of conflicting prescriptions for writing success floating around. Including, incidentally, the information writers pick up at literary conferences. On the conference dais and even during pitch sessions, aspiring writers sometimes hear radically mixed messages.

Don’t believe me? Okay, see if any of these scenarios sound at all familiar:

* A writer preparing to attend a conference diligently wades through both the standard agents’ guides and the websites of the agents scheduled to attend the conference. Once she hears those agents speak at the conference, she finds head spinning at how different her dream agent’s speech about what she wanted to represent right now was from her stated preferences in the guide or on her website.

* After waxing poetic behind a podium about how much he loves literature in general and his favorite genre in particular, an agent or editor brushes off those aspiring writers brave enough to take him at his word and approach him to pitch, giving cold responses ranging from “I don’t handle that sort of book” (spoken in a tone that implied that you should already have known that, whether or not he specified during his speech) to “Gee, that sounds interesting, but my client roster is totally full at the moment” (so why come to a conference to solicit more?)

* The agents at a particular conference say that they are eager to find new clients, yet none of them actually end up signing anyone who pitches to them there. (A more common occurrence than most of us who teach at conferences tend to admit.)

* An agent’s (or editor’s) warm face-to-face response to a writer’s conference pitch is very much at odds with her rather tepid and slow communications during the submission process. “But she loved my idea at the conference!” the writer will protest, tears in her eyes, wondering what she has done wrong. (The probable answer: nothing. The fact is, sometimes a nice conversation at a conference is just a nice conversation at a conference.)

Why am I bringing up these mixed messages here, toward the end of this series on the basic trajectory of publication, other than to validate some writers’ well-justified confusion?

Well, remember how I mentioned that the long, long road to publication tends to be quite a bit easier for a writer who has realistic expectations than one who does not? Expecting to hear at least partially conflicting advice from the pros will at least relieve a writer of the substantial stress of suspecting that there’s a secret handshake required to break into print, a trick that may be learned by following every single piece of advice one hears to the letter.

Trust me, that way lies madness. Do your homework, figure out what you’re going to do, and do it. Listen to new input, certainly, but use your acquired knowledge of how the industry does and doesn’t work to weigh how likely any fresh piece of advice is to help you.

I’m also bringing it up to encourage all of you to use caution in evaluating whether to pay to attend writers’ shindigs in the upcoming spring and summer conference seasons. Many conferences promote their conferences by implying, if not outright stating, that they’re flying in agents and editors who will sign attendees on the spot.

However, that’s seldom the case: many agents pick up only one or two clients a year out of ALL of the conferences they attend. And that’s in a year when the economy isn’t bottomed out and the publishing industry isn’t trying to figure out the whole e-book phenomenon.

I tremble to mention this, but there is even an ilk who goes to conferences simply to try to raise authorial awareness of market standards, with no intention of signing any authors. They attend simply to educate, as if their names on a conference brochure didn’t at least imply otherwise. Then there are the ones who attend conferences just so they can visit their girlfriends in cities far from New York, or who just want a tax-deductible vacation in the San Juans, and couldn’t be less interested in the writers’ conference whose dais they will be gracing.

Those last few are beyond the scope of my discussion here, but I’m sure the karmic record-keepers frown upon them from afar.

The good news is that doing your homework about any conference you are considering attending can help you avoid wasting your time pitching to people who aren’t interested in helping you get your work published. For some tips on figuring out how to maximize your chances of ending up at a conference where you will be able to pitch to — or at least hear useful, up-to-the-minute advice from — agents who are genuinely looking to represent books like yours, please see the posts under the CONFERENCE SELECTION category on the list at right.

Nor are mixed messages limited to conferences — there’s plenty of confusing information out there, posing as authoritative behind-the-scenes skinny. See if this one rings a bell:

An agency states categorically in one of the standard agency guides and/or on its website that it is looking for new authors in a wide array of genres, a list that apparently doesn’t change from year to year? Yet when a writer queries with a book in one of the listed categories, he is crushed by a form letter huffily announcing that the agency NEVER represents that kind of work.

I have personal experience with this one, I’m sorry to report. I once made the mistake of signing with an agent (who shall remain nameless, because I’m nicer than she) who listed herself as representing everything from literary fiction to how-to books, but who in fact concentrated almost exclusively on romance novels and self-help books, two huge markets. I did not learn until the end of our rather tumultuous association that she had signed me not because she admired the novel she was ostensibly pushing for me, but because I had a Ph.D.: she hoped, she told me belatedly, that I would become frustrated at the delays of the literary market and write a self-help book instead.

I know; I was pretty flabbergasted, too.

Why would an agent advertise that he is looking for book categories she does not intend to represent? Well, for the same reason that some agents and most editors go to conferences in the first place: just in case the next bestseller is lurking behind the next anxious authorial face or submission envelope.

No fooling: an agent may well represent cookbooks almost exclusively, but if the next DA VINCI CODE falls into his lap, he probably won’t turn it down. He may well reject 99.98% of the submissions in a particular genre (and actually state in his form rejections that he doesn’t represent the genre at all, as an easy out), but in his heart of hearts, he’s hoping lighting will strike.

A broad advertiser is always a gambler, at some level.

And yes, now that you mention it, that vagueness is very, very annoying for the writers who believed his blurb in a conference guide or website. (For some tips on how to decipher these, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

The fact is, not everything in this process is what it appears to be at first glance. Had I mentioned yet that those who do their homework tend to have an easier time?

The problem is, the very difficulty of the endeavor discourages many aspiring writers from approaching publishing as a business with ropes to learn. Fearful, they become downright superstitious: because the process can seem mean or even arbitrary to those who are new to it, it can be very tempting to cling to every new piece of information one hears.

I’m not going to lie to you: giving advice to would-be authors is big business these days. Just because a writer pays anywhere from fifty to several hundred dollars to attend a conference or intensive seminar doesn’t necessarily mean that what he will hear there is a single coherent explanation of what to do in order to get his book published.

Don’t expect it. Good seminars and conferences can be extremely informative — as long as you keep your critical faculties active at all times, because you are most assuredly going to be receiving some conflicting information.

Or at least information that might sound contradictory to a writer unfamiliar with the process. Allow me to explain.

The fine folks on the business side of publishing and those of us on the creative side of the business often speak rather different languages. If you’ve learned anything throughout this series, I hope that it was that necessarily, a writer thinks about her writing quite differently than an agent or editor does, and for the best possible reasons: for the writer, it’s self-expression; for the agent or editor, it’s a commodity to be sold.

The result: rampant communication problems between the two sides.

I wish I could refer you to a reliable, comprehensive translation guide between writer-speak and industry-speak, but frankly, I don’t know of one. Like other norms of publishing, a professional writer just sort of picks ‘em up by osmosis.

However, over the years I have gathered an accepted array of truisms that agents and editors tend to spout at eager authors they meet at conferences, in agents’ guides, and on their websites. Although aspiring writers often decide in retrospect that these statements were, at best, inaccurate and/or misleading, these are not lies so much as polite exit lines from conversations, statements of belief, and as often as not, sincere attempts to make struggling aspiring writers feel better about facing the genuinely daunting task of finding representation.

Yet from the writer’s point of view, they might as well be real whoppers.

So here’s my top ten list of confusing statements agents and editors tend to make at conferences — and, increasingly, in form-letter rejections. Because I love you people, I have also included a translation for each in writer-speak, as well as a prescription for reacting to it.

Do keep this guide by you the next time you receive a rejection letter or go to a conference, so you can keep score — and your sanity.

10. “There just isn’t a market for this kind of book right now.”
Translation: I don’t want to represent/buy it, for reasons that may well have something to do with what is selling at the moment, but may also relate to my not having the connections to sell this particular kind of book at this juncture.

Prescription: don’t waste both your time and his by approaching him with books in categories he hasn’t sold recently; move on.

9. “The market’s never been better for writers.”
Translation: I have a very strong preference for representing previously published authors. Since it is now possible for any aspiring writer to self-publish a blog or write for a website, I don’t think there’s any excuse for a really talented writer not to have a relatively full writing resume. (Note: this attitude is almost never seen in those who have ever written anything themselves.)

Prescription: approach someone who says this only after you have a few solid writing credentials gracing your query letter.

8. “I could have sold this 10/20/2 years ago, but now…”
Translation: You’re a good writer (or your pitch was good), but I’m looking for something that more closely resembles the most recent bestseller. I’m not even vaguely interested in anything else right now. Actually, I am pretty miffed at you authors for not paying closer attention to the bestseller lists, because, frankly, you’re wasting my time.

OR:

You’re a good writer, but I started being an agent/editor a long time ago, back when it was easier to sell books. Your work may have a political slant that has gone out of fashion, or it is too long, or it shares some other trait with a book I truly loved that I struggled to sell for a year to no avail. I don’t want to get my heart broken again, so I really wish you would write something else. Have you checked the bestseller list lately?

OR:

The literary market is changing rapidly right now, and so are my connections. So while I may have a respectable track record in selling books just like yours, I’m not certain that I can do it now.

Prescription: assume this one isn’t taking on new clients right now and move on.

7. “We gave your work careful consideration.”
Translation: like most submissions, we probably invested less than a minute in reading it — and by we, I really mean an underpaid intern who was looking for predetermined grabbers on the first page or in the query letter. Please do not revise and resubmit, because we’re really, really busy.

OR:

If I had actually taken the time to read it, I might have had some constructive comments to make, but I simply haven’t the time. In my heart of hearts, I do feel rather guilty for not having done so; that is why I am making this defensive statement in my form-letter reply.

OR:

Your manuscript made it past the screening eyes of three Millicents, and I stuck within it for the first 20 pages before I got distracted. But I just don’t think that I can sell this right now.

Prescription: no means no, no matter how it is phrased. Unless the rejection includes some feedback overtly applicable to your book, assume that this is a form letter and move on.

6. “The length of the manuscript doesn’t matter, if the writing quality is high.”
Translation: I don’t want to be the one to tell you this, but a first novel shouldn’t be more than 400 pages for literary or mainstream fiction, 250-350 for anything else. (Anne here, breaking in mid-translation: for the benefit of those of you who just turned pale, you’ll find an explanation under the BOOK LENGTH category at right. Also, these page counts assume standard manuscript format — and if you don’t know what that is, please see the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category.)

OR:

Frankly, I think you should have taken the time to check how long works in your genre are. However, if you’re a spectacularly talented writer, I would like a peek at your work, because maybe I could work with you to bring it under accepted limits.

OR:

I think the current length standards are really stupid, and I don’t want to give them more credibility by stating them here.

Prescription: walk into a well-stocked bookstore and flip though ten or twelve recently-published books similar to yours. (Avoid those that have been out more than three years, or it won’t be a helpful sample.) How many pages are these books, on average?

Then consider your manuscript: is it longer, bearing in mind that page count shrinks by about 2/3rds between manuscript and printed page? Much longer? If so, is there anything you could do to bring it more in line with the standards of your book category?

If not, should you really be mentioning the word count in your query letter, when a too-high count may lead to instant rejection? Contrary to popular belief, the word count is not a required element in a query letter. (See? It really does pay to do your homework.)

5. “We are interested in all high-quality work, regardless of genre.”
Translation: We actually represent only specific genres, but we are afraid that we will miss out on the next bestseller.

OR:

We are an immense agency, and you really need to figure out who on our staff represents your genre. If I am feeling generous when you pitch to me, I will tell you who that is. I may also pass your query along to the right agent within my agency.

OR:

We are a brand-new agency. We don’t have strong contacts yet, so we’re not sure what we can sell. Please, please send us books.

Prescription: do a little checking, to find out what book categories this agency actually does represent. If they don’t have a track record of selling books like yours, you’ll probably have better luck approaching those that do.

4. “I am looking for work with strong characters/a strong plot.”
Translation: I am looking for books easy to make into movies.

(I wish I had an alternate translation to offer for that one, but frankly, I’ve never heard this statement used any other way at a conference. Sorry about that. Agents looking for literarily strong plots are usually more specific about what they’re seeking.)

Prescription: if your book is filmic, go for it!

3. “We are always eager to find new talent.”
Translation: we are looking for the next bestseller, not necessarily for someone who can write well. (Yes, I know; this one is genuinely counterintuitive.)

OR:

We honestly are looking for new writers, but that does not mean that we’re going to be willing to represent work that we don’t think we can sell in the current market. Please send us only genuinely marketable work.

Prescription: again, time spent in your local bookstore can only help you. Find out what kind of stories are selling in your book category these days. If your manuscript does not overtly resemble them, is there a way you could regear your query letter to make your book’s appeal to the readers currently buying books in your category more obvious?

2. “We are looking for fresh new approaches.”
Translation: This is a definitional issue. If the book concept is a spin on something already popular or on a well-worn topic, it is fresh; if it is completely original, or does not appeal to NYC or LA states of mind, it is weird.

Yes, really. For an intensive examination of the prevailing logic, please see the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.

OR:

We are looking for young writers, and think older ones are out of touch.

Prescription: here, too, you’re going to need to do some homework to find out who the speaker represents/publishes. If he actually does habitually seek out exciting new voices, that will soon be apparent.

Remember, though: contrary to popular opinion, merely being a previously unpublished writer does not necessarily equal being a fresh new voice.

1. “True quality/talent will always find a home.”
Translation: But not necessarily with my agency.

OR:

Because I love good writing, I really want to believe that the market is not discouraging talented writers, but I fear it is. Maybe if I say this often enough, the great unknown writer in the audience will take heart and keep plowing through those rejections until she succeeds.

Prescription: this pro is telling you to do your homework. Do it; in the long run, you’ll be happier.

Confused by all of this double-speak? I don’t blame you, but don’t lose heart. There are two sentiments that always mean precisely the same thing in industry- and writer-speak:

“I love your work, and I want to represent it,” and

“I love this book, and I am offering X dollars as an advance for it.”

These, you can take at face value.

Again, I’m bringing all of this up not to depress you, but to prepare those of you new to the agent-seeking process for the earth-shattering notion that you honestly don’t want to work with an agent who isn’t excited about your type of book. And they often try to tell aspiring writers just that: if it’s a waste of your time to query someone who doesn’t have the connections to sell your book, it’s a waste of both of your time to approach someone who doesn’t even consider your book category.

In the hurly-burly of a conference or in the frustration of trying to come up with a list of agents to query next, it can be very, very easy to forget that. Contrary to the prevailing wisdom, agents are not identical; they specialize.

Please remember that there are plenty of good agents and editors out there, ones with integrity who genuinely want to help talented writers sell their work. I am passing all of this along in the hope that knowing the tactics of some of the ones who aren’t so wonderful will help you figure out whose opinions are worth taking seriously — and whose should be brushed aside without further ado, so you can continue on your merry way.

Next time, I shall wrap up this series, then it’s on to the mysteries of manuscript formatting. Keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part V: home is where…your book will sit in a bookstore?

gentleman hanging his hat3gentleman hanging his hatgentleman hanging his hat2

Remember how I was telling you that some of my best ideas for posts came from readers’ questions. Well, it’s happened again: after yesterday’s post on the various possible outcomes of a query or pitching effort and the advisability of querying more than one agent at a time, sharp-eyed reader Elizabeth asked a very important follow-up question:

Anne, ?I’ve always heard you should query one agent at a time. If they don’t want simultaneous submissions or queries, would they say so on their website or guidelines? … So far I haven’t seen anyone requesting exclusive inquiries.

I’m so glad you brought this up, Elizabeth — I’m sure that you are not the only writer who has heard that old chestnut. It’s one of the most wide-spread pieces of aspiring writer mythology. In its extended form, it runs a little something like this: agents like to get a jump upon other agents, so they insist — not just prefer — that writers query them one at a time; if a writer dares to send out multiple simultaneous queries and one of the agents decides to make an offer, he will become enraged to the point of losing interest in the book project.

Unagented writers have been whispering this one to one another for decades. It’s never been true for queries, and it’s seldom true for even requested materials today.

There’s a practical reason for that: sending out a query, waiting to hear back, getting rejected, and starting afresh would add years to most agent-searching efforts. Agents make their living by discovering new writers; they don’t want the truly talented to give up in despair. Which is what would happen, in many cases: in an environment where many agencies state on their websites that if a querier does not hear back, that means they are not interested, expecting writers to query one at a time would be downright cruel.

Now, the opposite assumption prevails: if an agency does not explicitly state on its website or agency guide listing that it will accept only exclusive queries, its member agents will generally assume that every aspiring writer who queries them are also querying other agents. Which means, in practice, that aspiring writers who have heard the pervasive rumor to the contrary are effectively granting exclusive reads of their queries unasked.

The same holds true for submissions: all too often, aspiring writers will believe that they have no choice but to wait until they receive a reply from a single agent, but most of the time, the agent does not expect such a break. (For an in-depth look at why this is the case, please see the archived posts under the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right.)Unless an agent asks point-blank for an exclusive look at a manuscript, or her agency has a policy requiring non-competitive submissions, the writer is free to continue to query and/or submit until she signs a representation contract.

In fact, many agents actually prefer multiple submissions, as long as the writer tells them that others are reviewing the manuscript; to a competitive mind, something others covet is inherently valuable. Heck, I’ve known agents who wait for others to make an offer before even skimming the manuscript on their desks.

To be fair, there are a few — very few — agencies out there who do prefer to have solo peeks at queries, but they usually make this fact ABUNDANTLY clear on their websites and in their listings in the standard agency guides. Quite a few more like to be the only ones looking at requested materials, but again, they don’t make a secret of it; the requests for pages generally include this information. (If you’re curious about what happens to a multiply-submitting writer who already has a manuscript with one agent when another asks for an exclusive peek — a more common dilemma than one might think — please see either the EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION or WHAT HAPPENS IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

So never fear, Elizabeth: as long as conscientious queriers like you do their homework, you’re not going to run afoul of the vast majority of agents. But it always, always pays to check before querying or submitting.

Everyone clear on that? Please ask follow-up questions, if not.

In the meantime, let’s get back to yesterday’s hot topic: how Millicent the agency screener can tell almost instantly whether a queried or submitted book is a potential fit for her agency. As it happens, it has a lot to do with whether the queriers or submitters have done their homework: the single most common rejection reason is that the agent approached does not represent that type of book.

True of queries; true of verbal pitches; true of manuscript submissions. If an agent doesn’t already have the connections to sell a book within the current market, it doesn’t make sense for him to consider representing it. (Unless, of course, it’s a type of book so hot at the moment that he believes a trained monkey could sell it.)

I can already feel some of you gearing up to equivocate. “But Anne,” wheedle those of you who believe your book is so inherently marketable that you are eager to learn that trained monkey’s address, “I’m not silly enough to try to interest an exclusively nonfiction agent in my novel, or a fiction-only agent in my memoir. But surely beyond that, a good book’s a good book, right?”

Um, no. At least not to the pros. Where a book sits on a shelf in a well-stocked bookstore is integral to who will be willing to consider representing it — and which editors will be willing to consider acquiring it.

I’ll go even farther: to an agent or editor, there is no such thing as a generic book. Every traditionally-published book currently being sold in North America falls into a book category.

Book categories and why they are your friends
As I brought up earlier in this series, no single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest.

Why, you cry, clutching your pounding head at the apparent paradox? As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits, potentially.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists — even peripatetic ones like me, who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of flockery, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well.

So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. If you’re not sure how to figure this out, you’ll find some guidance in the aptly-named BOOK CATEGORIES archives on the list at right.

Okay, now you’ve freaked me out. How on earth do I figure out what my category is?
Generally speaking, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary.

Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Women’s Fiction-Western-Nature Essay. Committing is in your interest, not Millicent’s, after all: if she receives a query for a Science Fiction-Chick Lit – Urban Vampire Epic, and her boss agent represents only chick lit, it’s not a very tough rejection choice.

I know — I would like to read that last one, too.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap (mainstream fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground), so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it more accurately.

A great place to start: figure out who is already writing the kind of books you write.

Figuring out the category of already-published books
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, an excellent first step toward committing to a book category is to track down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examine the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funnier than it sounds.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, being akimbo seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

Admittedly, it can be rather a pain to decide which category is right for your work, but once you have determined it, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: don’t even consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent books in your category.

Like granting an agent an unrequested exclusive, it’s just a waste of your time. Unless, of course, you genuinely don’t care if your book gets published next year or forty years hence.

Next time, I shall give you a bird’s-eye view — or, more accurately, a Millicent’s-eye view — of what happens to requested materials after they arrive at an agency. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Words for writers to live by — and a contest!

lifelines

Before I launch into today’s wit and wisdom, a great big shout of congratulations to Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers on this week’s publication of LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS, released by little publisher some of you may perhaps have heard of, Random House. Thanks for giving all of us quote-lovers such a rich treasure trove!

Not to mention such a great resource for writers looking to deepen the dialogue and background of their African and African-American characters — something for which all of us here at the Author! Author! community already know Askhari, if you will recall. Remember back in February, when she celebrated the release of her book, THE AFRICAN BOOK OF NAMES, by writing that terrific guest blog on choosing character names?

Yes, you read that correctly: this is her second book out this year. I only blandish the best guests to delight and enlighten you. Because, as they say in Uganda, “They who possess much wisdom, have it in their ears; they who possess little wisdom, have it on their lips.”

Like a lot of writers, I’m completely addicted to quote books, and LIFELINES includes hundreds of proverbs I’ve never seen before. But don’t take my word for it — here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Lifelines: The Black book of Proverbs travels to all corners of the globe to reclaim and preserve African wisdom. This book offers the remarkably wise heart of Africa and her children to readers experiencing career changes, new births, weddings, death, and other rites of passage. Readers will find truth in the African saying, “When the occasion arises, there is a proverb to suit it.”

Proverbs are presented in vibrant story-poem form; and are uniquely arranged by key life cycle events such as birth, initiation, marriage, and death. The proverbs can be found under themes such as “wealth”, “parenting”, “change” and “strength.” Inspired illustrations introduce each section along with beautiful vignettes showing how African proverbs comfort, inspire and instruct during different phases of life.

Lifelines illuminates how traditions, civilization and spirit survive and thrive, despite centuries of loss of freedom, family, identity, language, land, and wealth. The proverbs offer wisdom for every stage of our lives. Collected in one place as never before, it is the perfect addition to the book shelves of families large and small, from Nairobi to New Orleans and every city in between.

From birth: Every cackling hen was an egg at first. -Rwanda

to marriage: A woman’s clothes are the price her husband pays for peace. -Central Africa, East Africa, and Southern Africa (Bantu)

and elderhood: Every time an old man dies it is as if a library has burnt down. -West Africa

as well as every stage of life in between, the proverbs found in Lifelines offer the guidance and wisdom to last a lifetime.

Unlike other collections of proverbs, Lifelines hews closely to the cycle of life and draws inspiration from the authors combined 110 years of experience. Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers have set out to let their proverbs both tell a story and stand alone. So whether you flip it open to a random page, read it through from start to finish, or go searching for a proverb to match your unique circumstance, you’ll find just the right lifeline to provide the comfort and guidance you’re looking for.

And, as I said, it’s utterly addictive, particularly for writers. Don’t you wish you had always had this little gem handy to toss at the well-meaning kith and kin who ask at holiday dinners, “So, is the book done yet?”

Those who eat eggs don’t know whether the chicken suffered. (Martinique)

Now that’s a comeback. Those of you who would like to get your mitts on a copy right away can, of course, pick one up on Amazon or for those of you who prefer to purchase from an indie bookstore, Powell’s, as well as directly from the publisher. (The last is a trifle more expensive than the first two, but receiving a box with RANDOM HOUSE as the return address might make many an aspiring writer’s heart go pitter-pat.)

But I promised you a contest, didn’t I? Askhari and Yvonne have been kind enough to arrange a book give-away for you fine people. This one is going to be fun for all of us. The rules:

1. Pick your all-time favorite proverb or quote about writing.

2. Figure out why you love it so much, and write a paragraph about why it inspires you. (Keep it under 100 words, please.)

3. E-mail the quote and your paragraph, along with the quote’s original source (if you know it) and your name to anneminicontest@gmail.com by midnight Pacific Standard time on Wednesday, November 25th.

4. Wait in eager anticipation for me to announce the winner on December 4th, when I’ll post the most stirring quotes.

Easy, right? I’m really looking forward to hearing the quotes that help you keep the faith — and to giving away the book.

To get those quote-finding juices flowing, I’m going to devote the rest of today’s post to talking about keeping the faith — not merely while you’re gnawing your nails, waiting to hear back from an agent or editor, or while you’re girding your loins to send out those queries and/or requested materials out before the NYC-based publishing industry slows to a crawl between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Most of the work of writing, after all, occurs long before the submission stage, alone in the dark of night.

Or light of day, depending upon your writing schedule.

So I was very pleased to stumble across a delightfully apt quote for aspiring writers, courtesy of Anaës Nin’s DIARY (Vol. 3, 1939-1944): “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

While I don’t think that’s always true — dear self is not, after all, the absolute center of the universe — it’s certainly true of trying to break into print. The only book concept that has absolutely NO chance of getting picked up by an agent is the one that no agent ever sees. Consequently, opportunities do in fact expand for those courageous to keep pitching and querying.

The converse is also true: opportunities contract for those not willing to put their writing out there. Too many aspiring writers reject their own work before a soul in the industry has an opportunity to take a look at it.

Creative minds are uniquely qualified, unfortunately, to talk their owners out of taking the big risk. The what if? muscles in writers’ brains tend to be rather well-developed, after all. And, as Ruth Gordon informed us in L’OFFICIEL, courage, “like a muscle, it is strengthened by use.”

(Oh, like you don’t go scurrying to your quote book when you find a good new one to add, and then start leafing through what’s already there?)

Again, true of both querying and submission: plenty of writers never get past the first rejection letter; it crushes them, because they read it as an entire industry’s — nay, the entire world’s! — rejection of what they have to say.

If you have fallen into this category for even twenty consecutive minutes, ever — and who among us hasn’t? — let me ask you to take on faith, at least provisionally, something I have learned from long, long experience: the 4th rejection hurts less than the first, and the 147th less than the 146th.

Virtually any currently published author could confirm that. Believe it or not, the vast majority of writers who have landed agents and publishing contracts have had their work rejected dozens upon dozens — if not hundreds upon hundreds — of times over their professional lifetimes. Including yours truly. But we kept ploughing ahead until the industry started to take us seriously.

As Louise Nevelson wrote in DAWNS + DUSKS, “I think all great innovations are built on rejections.”

I’m not going to lie to you — it takes courage, and plenty of it, to keep querying and submitting your work to total strangers. And while I’m on a truth-telling binge, allow me to add: I think that those of us who don’t have to query anymore (i.e., already agented writers) and those who never had to query in the first place (agents, editors, pretty much everyone on the business side of the publishing industry) have a nasty habit of pretending that querying is just like sending out any other business letter.

It isn’t, of course; it requires facing down the naysayers in your own head and risking the rejection of people you do not yet know. Yet have you noticed how often speakers at writers’ conferences and writers of articles on querying imply that it’s the easiest thing in the world?

“There is plenty of courage among us for the abstract,” Helen Keller wrote in LET US HAVE FAITH, “but not for the concrete.”

Having been on both sides of this particular aisle, I’m here to tell you: tackling the day-to-day necessities of maintaining an ongoing querying campaign is much, much, MUCH more difficult than standing up and gassing about querying techniques from behind a podium. So the next time you’re at a conference being lectured about it, remember to pat yourself on the back a little for being braver than the speaker, in all probability.

It is SO easy to forget whilst hiking the querying-and-submission trail that it honestly does take more courage on the part of an agent to sign a previously unpublished writer than a published one, just as it requires more bravery for an editor to take a chance on a brand-new writer than upon the 17th work by an established name. This is why, in case you were wondering, those of us who have been in the biz for a while cringe when we hear an aspiring writer say, “Well, my book is at least as good as the rest of the junk out there.” The standard against which a new writer’s work is held is not that of the current market, contrary to popular belief, but considerably above it.

Don’t believe me? Okay, try this little experiment: read five books by first-time authors in your chosen book category that have come out within the last year — then go and take a gander at what the time-honored leaders of the genre have put out lately. Do they honestly seem to be edited, let alone written, to the same standard?

It’s a good idea in general to get into the habit of reading the work of new authors in your book category, anyway, to keep abreast of what is being bought and sold recently — I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard agents and editors complain about aspiring writers’ not being familiar with the current market, as opposed to what was hot ten years ago.

Besides, if you want to live in a world where publishers are eager to buy books like yours, it only makes sense to convey that preference through buying them yourself, right? Right?

And if neither is incentive enough to spur you to curl up this autumn with the latest offerings in your chosen book category — or to ask the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver to stuff a few of ‘em into your stocking — here’s another: reading first-time authors is a great way to pick up agent leads.

Why first-time authors, as opposed to the other kind? Because the vast majority of books sold to publishers each year in this country are written by the already-published. Why? Well, they have track records. And think about it: how often do you — or did you, prior to adopting the practice of actively seeking out first-time authors I suggested above — buy books by first-time authors?

Okay, what about ones you don’t know personally, or who haven’t won major awards?

Readers tend to gravitate toward names they know — and bookstores often encourage the practice. Unless the writer is a celebrity in another medium or a politician, first books are substantially less likely to be placed in a prominent position in a chain bookstore. Certainly, they are less likely to be place face-out on the bookshelf, which decreases that probability of being browsed considerably. Naturally, this results in sales statistics that show very plainly that established authors sell better than new ones.

So your chances of getting picked up are higher if you already know a particular agent has been successful selling a first-timer like yourself. You know, at any rate, that the agent has been exceptionally brave at least once.

And wouldn’t you know it, Helen Keller has ANOTHER pithy statement that’s appropriate here, and from the same book? “Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. The fearful are caught as often as the bold.” Are you listening, agents?

Because the agent who compulsively sells first novels is something of a rarity, let me once again urge you to draw a firm distinction in your mind between agents whose listings in the standard agents’ guides SAY they are open to queries from previously unpublished writers, and those who have a successful TRACK RECORD of selling first books.

As Abigail Adams seems to have written to her troublemaking husband in 1774, “We have too many high sounding words, and too few actions that correspond with them.” Amen, Abby!

To be fair, agents — the successful ones, anyway — only take on what they’re pretty sure they can sell. As anyone in the industry will tell you at great length after he’s had a few drinks (oh, like it’s accidental that writers’ conferences almost always take place in hotels with bars in them…As Agnes Repplier was prone to say, and even wrote in 1891’s POINTS OF VIEW, “If a man be discreet enough to take to hard drinking in his youth, before his general emptiness is ascertained, his friends invariable credit him with a host of shining qualities which, we are given to understand, lie balked and frustrated by his one unfortunate weakness.”), a first book, unless it is written by a celebrity, is quite a bit harder for an agent to pitch to a publisher than a second or third.

In fact, on average, less than 4% of the fiction published in any given year is by first-time authors.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you. But as George Sand apparently wrote to some friend of hers in 1863, “Let us accept truth, even when it surprises us and alters our views.” Or, if you prefer Thomas Jefferson, “We must not be afraid to follow the truth, wherever it may lead.”

I’m sure I could find a dozen more quotes on the subject if I really took a spade to the Bartlett’s, but I’m sure you catch my drift. My point is, it’s not all that difficult translate your reading habit into querying leads — because while life may shrink or expand in proportion to one’s courage, chance also favors the prepared mind. Or so said Louis Pasteur.

What, you thought the boiling milk thing just came to him one day while he was thinking of something else?

Getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year — and next year, and the year after that — will give you a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category, making it easier to tell whether your work genuinely falls within it. It will help convey a sense of upir target readership as well.

While this may seem like a very large task to set oneself, most book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications. For years, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7.

And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered. Guess who I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

The realization could have made me despair — but instead, it convinced me to sit down and take a good, hard look at the novel I was shopping around at the time, to see if there was any way that I could make it more mainstream, because that opened up so many more querying possibilities. And sure enough, after I had taken most of the semicolons out of the text and readjusted the thought/action ratio a little, I found that my novel was about equally welcome to agents who represented adult fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction — which makes some sense, as there is considerable overlap amongst the readers of all three.

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in the industry. But unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is she to know that?

There is another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, of course: it’s a great way to identify agents to query. As I mentioned many, many times throughout my recent HOW TO WRITE A REALLY GOOD QUERY LETTER series (conveniently viewable under the category of the same name on the archive list at right), every agent on the planet is flattered by queries that begin, “Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…”

They are far likely to be buttered up, in my experience, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients. (Because, presumably, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”)

Use this quirk to your advantage.

To slather on the butter with a more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. (Quoth Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach in APHORISMS: “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”) Naturally, nice-saying is going to be a whole lot easier if you have actually read the book in question.

Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY AT HOME, I believe you will be interested in my book…”

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy, all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Buying them is ideal, of course: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers.

Not to mention the good karma factor. The world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often. Because, after all, who can forget Hamelyn’s 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Hamelyn aside, books ARE expensive, and I know that some of you will be in too much of a hurry to check all of the relevant books out of the library. So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders.

1. You don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it.
Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) What you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not an infallible guide to what agents are selling now.

And as I am probably not the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)

Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.

2. Use the industry’s own press to keep abreast of who is representing what right now.
Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Lunch, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Fringe benefit: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth. (Hint: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is.)

To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)

3. Find out who is representing first books right now.
If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.

(As George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “If you could make a pudding w’ thinking o’ the batter, it’d be easy getting dinner.” So true, George, so true.)

4. Keep an eye out for trends, so you may send out your queries at the best time for your book.
Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time. (As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”)

Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.

In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery: “Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…”

Yes, being this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks we writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.

“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. Keep those chins up. And, of course, keep up the good work!

The mysteries of the human memory — and a few more words of wisdom about the SASE

life of brian crosses

I’ve had Monty Python on the brain quite a bit lately, I notice — and not just because my neighbor was playing an apparently all-parrot-sketch-all-the-time station while I was planting bulbs this afternoon. I’m working on revising a novel with a 17-year-old narrator, set roughly at the time when — surprise, surprise — yours truly was 17, and since it’s a comedy, I’ve been having to recreate what I would have thought funny at the time. Since, as any memoirist could tell you, hunting internally for one type of memory often pulls up another entirely, I found myself procrastinating today by writing about the time in junior high school when my family and I actually had to cross a picket line in San Francisco — San Francisco! — to see The Life of Brian.

Strange much how the public perception of what’s upsetting changes, isn’t it?

A psychologist friend of mine told me recently that recent research demonstrates that the brain can respond as dramatically to recalled memories as to present life; sometimes, she says, the mind will experience flashbacks AS current events. I’m fascinated by this, not only as a memoirist (and yes, the memoir that was supposed to come out a few years ago is still tied up in legal knots; thanks for asking), but as a novelist. To be specific: I’m on a tight deadline with this revision, and if my cats didn’t remind me occasionally that they do not possess opposable thumbs or the ability to open cabinets (well, okay, MOST cabinets), they would probably be forced to start nibbling on my toes under my desk to stave off imminent starvation.

I’m inclined to blame this on the way that the creative process colonizes the writer’s brain. The cats seem inclined to blame it on me, which I suppose amounts to more or less the same thing: if it can’t wait until I polish the scene in front of me to a high gloss, it’s probably not going to happen.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? Ask your kith and kin what you’re like during periods of intensive writing. You may be unusually good at jumping back and forth between the creative and observational parts of your brain, but if you’re writing on a regular basis, I’m betting that those who have the good fortune to live and work with you have built up a stockpile of anecdotes about how you space out on the minutiae of quotidian life when you’re writing hard.

Oh, you thought you were the only one? Far from it. Little things like laundry, taking vitamins, watering plants, and checking e-mail seem to slip unnoticed out of the working writers’ consciousness in the middle of a writing jag — and don’t even get me started on how the amnesia about practicalities can intensify in the face of an imminent deadline.

I suspect that this is a necessary side effect of the alchemy of creation. Because, really, in order to render our characters’ lifeworlds gripping on the page, we writers have to create them in our minds every bit as vividly and in all of the detail of a vitally important memory. That’s a pretty absorbing task, isn’t it?

With a pretty gratifying payoff, potentially: if we do our job very well indeed, we might create a story, a situation, a character that seems to the reader to have stepped straight out of real life. Only better.

Is it that same is-it-real-or-is-it-Memorex trick of the brain, I wonder, that would allow a reader to fall in love with a character in a novel? As Mario Vargas Llosa wrote in THE PERPETUAL ORGY:

A handful of fictional characters have marked my life more profoundly than a great number of the flesh-and-blood beings I have known.

He’s talking about a literary orgy, incidentally, not a physical one: quite a lot of the book is about his passionate decades-long love affair with the entirely fictional Emma Bovary. And who can blame for falling in love with her, really? She’s a pretty absorbing character.

Do I sense those of you who are trying to get queries and/or submissions out the door within the next couple of weeks becoming a bit restless in the face of these musings? “I’m as fond of the creative haze as anyone else,” I hear some of you stalwart souls say, “but right now, most of my writing time is getting eaten up by the process of trying to sell my work. So if you don’t mind my asking, what does any of this have to do with the very practical concerns we’ve been discussing for the last few weeks?”

A couple of things, actually. First, in the throes of agent-seeking, it can be pretty easy to forget that Millicent and others like her who screen queries and submissions actually are looking to fall in love with some writer’s work.

Yes, you read that correctly: even the most virulent rejection-generator is usually eager to discover a novel that pulls him immediately into its lifeworld, or a memoir that wrings his heart, or the next Emma Bovary. I don’t think it’s at all coincidental that agents and editors so often describe their first responses to submissions in the language of attraction: you’re going to love this book, it’s a sexy topic, it didn’t grab me, I can’t get this book off my mind, I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.

Set those to music, and you’ve got a pop song. As hard as it may be to believe, Millicent is waiting to be swept off her feet.

Which is why, in case any of you fine souls out there have been wondering, I tend to discuss querying and submission in romantic terms: the query letter is a personal ad for your book; you want attract not just any agent, but the one that’s the best match for you and your work; the first page needs to seduce Millicent into wanting to read on; the chemistry between an agent and a book matters deeply. Ditto between a book and an editor. So in addition to everything else we writers are trying to create, our writing also need to inspire love.

The interminable and annoying querying/submission process sounds substantially more noble put that way, doesn’t it? Feel free to use this argument the next time some non-writer gapes at the amount of time you’ve invested in trying to land an agent; generating love can take some time.

My second reason for bringing up this high-falutin’ topic is, I’m afraid, disappointingly prosaic. Yesterday, I started to answer a very practical question about SASEs (Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope), and I seem to have gotten sidetracked.

I can only plead that I was absorbed in a revision. Excuse me a moment while I feel my languishing cats.

To remedy at least the first of these situations, let’s recap: why, in these days of growing environmental awareness, is the writer expected to send a SASE (that’s stamped, self-addressed envelope to the rest of the population) in anticipation of a rejected manuscript’s return? “I understand why I need to include a SASE for a query,” aspiring authors tell me, “but do I really need it for the submission? It’s not as though I’m going to be able to reuse the manuscript after it’s passed through the mail twice, anyway. Can’t I just ask them to recycle it instead?”

In a word, no. In several words, no, no, no, no, no, no, NO!

To help us all understand this cosmic mystery, I explained the history behind the SASE last time: part of its original purpose was not just to save agencies the cost of postage, but also to render submissions cheaper for the writer. It was also intended to preserve copyright by allowing the author ostensible control about whose grimy paws were on the manuscript when.

Writers tend to forget this in the cyber age, when huge chunks of writing can be transferred from one end of the planet to the other with the simple push of a button (yes, of course I know that the world is not as flat as that image implies. Don’t quibble at me now; I’m on a roll), but technically, in order to retain copyright over your own writing, you need to control where and when it is read by others. Writing I post on this blog, for instance, is under my control, since I dictate where people can view it; I could disable RSS feeds, if I wanted. (Oh, the power! The power!) If I sent the same posts out via e-mail, they could end up anywhere, forwarded far beyond my knowledge.

When you send uncopyrighted material off to an agency or publishing house — to a credible one, anyway — you and your readers there are both operating on the tacit assumption that they will not reproduce your work without your permission. You are not, in effect, authorizing them to show it to anyone else until you sign a contract that explicitly grants them the right to do so.

When you send a SASE, you are implicitly asserting your right to control where your work is sent next. It conveys an expectation that if they reject it, they will mail it back to you, rather than forwarding it to the kind of pirate press that is currently cranking out the 8th, 9th, and 10th installments in the Harry Potter series.

I hear the one in which Harry fights a dragon actually isn’t bad.

As I believe I have mentioned seventeen or eighteen hundred times before, this is a tradition-bound industry; it has historically been slow to change. No matter how good the logic against some of its long-held norms, this one did not change at all until there were some very tangible benefits on the agents’ end to altering it.

For example, the anthrax scare convinced some agencies to accept e-mailed queries and submissions. And the post 9/11 requirement to tote heavy packages to the post office prompted some agencies to start recycling rejected manuscripts, rather than having the lowest intern on the totem pole — the one who aspires to Millicent’s job someday — wheel a paper-loaded dolly up out of the building.

But practice, most agencies still adhere to the old norms. Don’t believe me? Thumb through any of the standard agency guides, and count how many agencies mention that they recycle.

Spoiler alert: your thumb is probably going to get pretty tired before you find even one.

Like so many other aspects of the querying and submission process, at one time, the use of the SASE carried greater benefits to the writer than it does now, but time has hardened courtesies into demands, and habits into traditions. Today, if you do not include a SASE with your submission, you may well be perceived as thumbing your nose at the traditions of people you are trying to impress.

As satisfying as that may be, allow me to suggest that it might not be the best way to convince an agent of your Socratic intellect and lamb-like willingness to take direction. So while my long-standing affection for writers, trees, and the printed pages both work to produce would LOVE to be able to say dispense with the SASE for the manuscript’s return in favor of a simple #10 envelope, it would not be in your best interest to fling away the old norms.

The only alternative that I have seen work in practice — and that only rarely — is to include a line in the cover letter, POLITELY asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: as I mentioned yesterday, it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript to be tossed aside without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Knowing the likelihood of that happening, I feel as though I should go off and plant a tree now. Or perhaps reread MADAME BOVARY.

Instead, I’m going to be intensely practical for a few moments and tell you PRECISELY how to play the SASE game correctly. The basic rule of thumb is to include a container and enough postage for the recipient to be able to ship any materials you may have submitted back to you. Thus:

When you send a paper query (as opposed to the e-mail variety), include a stamped envelope addressed to yourself. Do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency you’re querying actually asks for a SASE on its website or in its blurb in the standard agency guides.

A few technicalities: if you are sending more than 4 pages of text along with your query — if the agent asked for an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis — make sure that the postage on your query’s SASE is sufficient to get all of those pages back to you. A #10 (business-size) envelope is the norm to accompany queries, and stamps are universally preferred over metered postage. Since the agency will be popping the returned materials into the nearest mailbox, the stamps you use should be those currently in use in the AGENCY’s country of residence, not yours.

This means that if you are submitting to a US-based agency or publishing house from outside the country, you will need to dig up some US stamps. Since foreign post offices often sell these at a considerable mark-up, you can save a lot of money if you buy the stamps directly from the US Postal Service online.

When you send requested materials via mail (again, as opposed to e-mail submissions), include in your submission packet an envelope or box addressed to yourself, along with sufficient postage for the safe return of EVERYTHING you have submitted. If you want to be really considerate, you may also include a #10 SASE, so the agent may contact you to ask for more pages, but in the age of e-mail and relatively inexpensive long-distance calling, that particular request is unlikely to come via regular mail.

Again, do this EVERY time, regardless of whether the agency (or publishing house) to whom you are submitting has actually asked for a SASE. Omit it only if the agency specifically asks in its guidelines that you not include it. (I know of only one agency that currently makes this request; need I remind you to read EACH agency’s submission guidelines, in case they differ?)

If the requested pages fit in a Manila envelope, it’s perfectly acceptable to fold a second one in half, stamp and address it, and tuck it in the submission package. If you have been asked to send so many pages that you need to pack ‘em in a box, paper-clip a return mailing label and stamps to your cover letter, along with a polite request that the agent would affix both to the shipping box in the event of rejection.

You HAVE been sending cover letters with your submissions, right? Just sending a manuscript all by itself is considered a bit rude.

Relax, those of you who just clutched your chests: I’ll be talking about how to put together a cover letter for a submission packet as soon as I polish off this series on SASEs.

Who knew there were so many different things that needed to go into a submission packet, eh?

Speaking of tactics I hope each and every one of you was using long before you met me: every time you send requested materials, you should write REQUESTED MATERIALS in great big letters in the lower right-hand corner of the submission envelope. If you have been asked to submit electronically, include the words REQUESTED MATERIALS in the subject line of the e-mail.

This will help your submission to land on the right desk, instead of in the slush pile. Or the non-existent recycling bin.

That 17-year-old voice wants me to pay attention to her now; so do my cats. I think all of us novelists already know which side is going to win that little tug-of-war, don’t we? Keep up the good work!

Why you need to tuck a SASE into your query or submission packet, or, how to be prepared if something falls on you from a zeppelin

A few days back, I promised to run through the care and feeding of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope that should accompany EVERY query letter and/or submission packet — and those of you who restrict your querying to e-mail and filling out forms online just stopped paying attention, didn’t you?

That’s a mistake, you know. In case you don’t know, publishing is still largely a paper-based industry; until just a few years ago, e-mailed queries were widely considered as unprofessional as a phone call to an agent who has never heard of you. (All of my readers know better than to cold-call with a pitch, right?) Since the anthrax scare, more agencies are accepting electronic queries and submissions; some even prefer them. However, hard-copy submissions are still the preference of even many agents who accept electronic queries, so you might as well learn to cope with a request to mail ‘em.

And if that doesn’t convince the electronically-minded among you to stick around for the rest of this post, here’s another good reason: there are still plenty of great agents who do not accept e-queries or submissions at all. Do you really want to limit your querying list to only those who prefer to read on a computer screen or Kindle?

Ah, that got your attention, didn’t it? Excellent. Let’s move on.

The expectation that an aspiring writer will ALWAYS include a SASE with a mailed query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my annual attempt to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I just heard not a collective gasp but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript. And I’m not just talking about the stamped, self-addressed #10 envelope one would send with a mailed query letter: I’m talking about a package with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to the writer in one piece.

It can get cumbersome. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to NYC-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to get their eager fingertips around some US stamps. (Don’t worry, foreign readers; there’s a trick to it.)

And let’s face it — when you’re in a dither of excitement, trying to get your requested manuscript out the door, it can seem like an unnecessary hoop through which to leap. Or so I surmise from the fact that every time I make my annual visit to this topic, I get barraged with very good questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

I’m SO glad Melospiza brought this up, because this is one of those secret handshake things — you know, a practices that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told. There’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript, or even of a query: NOT including one leads to automatic rejection at most agencies.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “In heaven’s name,” these head-clutchers cry, “why would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, oh retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

I’m sorry to report that the longer answer is hardly more comforting. Amongst hard copy enthusiasts, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. Which means, in practical terms, that if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, IT is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back.

Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE. An envelope and a stamp to respond to a forgetful writer may seem like a negligible expense — but multiply it by the 800 or 1000 queries the average agency receives every week, and we’re talking about a considerable investment in writers whose work they’ve already decided not to represent.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do NOT omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript — UNLESS the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do.)

Okay, before the disgruntled muttering out there gets too deafening, let’s voice it: “You must be pulling our collective leg,” I hear some of you saying. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agency or publishing house is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript for Millicent to read.

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice would tend to lead to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the people who actually pay for the return postage. After all, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes the MS, they’re going to ask to see the rest of the manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office.

If they don’t like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how it works, that’s why.

Yet originally, believe it or not, it was set up this way in order to PROTECT writers. The sad thing is, though, the logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to many people new to the biz.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz; equally obviously, no sane human being would send out his only copy.

So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses simultaneously? They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE helped the average aspiring writer way back when. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out.

As writers did in the days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into a gray Manila envelope with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Kleo was also taking both his writing and her own to be critiqued by other writers and editors at the time, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it in the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Bears some consideration, doesn’t it?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their miniscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writer of yesteryear do when faced with 17 rejections on the same day? Did he toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did he rend his garments and give up writing forever? Did he poison his mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once? All of the above?

No, he did what professional writers did back then: had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story too depressing, I hasten to add: the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and I have it on good authority that one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

She knows whereat she speaks — and it’s as true today as it was 55 years ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

So yes, Virginia, as hard as it to believe, in the beginning, the SASE was intended to save the submitting writer money and time, not to drain both.

Also, it was intended to protect the writer’s copyright: just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, as it does many writers, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

More on SASE tradition and practice follows tomorrow, if you can stomach the stress. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The art of self-portriature

Anne Mini multiplied

Yes, that’s yours truly, apparently wielding a wee supernova. I prefer to think the repeated iterations of the image are not a mirror effect, but glimpses of future images of me on the covers of literary magazines. (Oh, as if you wouldn’t frame them for your mother.)

But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. Specifically, let’s talk about how you’re going to portray yourself in your author bio.

Saw that one coming, didn’t you? I expect so: for the last — yow, has it been a month already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Not that I’m recommending that any of you just go cramming any of the items we’ve been discussing into the envelope, of course; as always, the guiding principle of querying and submission remains give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less — and this applies equally well to query packets as submissions, by the way. If an agency’s submission guidelines say to query with a synopsis, the first five pages, and an author bio, that’s precisely what the savvy querier’s envelope should contain, along with a SASE. (If you don’t know what any of these things are, please consult the archive list at right.) By the same token, if an agent responds to a query with a request for the first 50 pages, the submission packet should contain a cover letter (don’t worry; we’re getting to that), the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-heavy enough to get the whole shebang back to you.

That’s it. No home-baked cookies, even if you’re marketing a cookbook; no synopses for the other five manuscripts in your desk drawer, and certainly no page 51. Remember, part of what you’re demonstrating in a query or submission packet is that you’re both capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Which is why what I’m about to say may surprise you: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if it’s as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Why? Well, when an agent circulates a novel to editors, it’s generally with an author bio as the bottom page in the stack; it’s also commonly the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than trying to slip additional information in under the wire.

But if some additional information might slip under the wire this way, is that such a bad thing?

Before those of you who currently have requested materials floating around agencies or small publishing houses begin to panic, I hasten to add: including an author bio is not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, they are asking, even at the querying stage — which is why, in case you’ve been wondering for the duration of the last few paragraphs, why I am writing about it now, within the context of our ongoing examination of query packets and the things that go in them. Unlike just a few years ago, agents now frequently request author bios with submissions, especially for nonfiction, agents will often want to know up front who this writer is, what s/he does for a living, and what else s/he’s writing.

Stop hyperventilating — you can do this.

Soothingly, author bios are one of the few marketing materials in the writer’s promotional kit that tends not change much throughout the agent-finding-through-publication process. Nor, even more comforting, have the basics of writing one changed much in the last 30 years.

Refreshing, huh?

Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because one thing about the author bio HAS changed in recent years: the author is now expected to write it, and increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Um, do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Don’t look so shocked — although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it’s hardly a surprise that you’d have to come up with one, is it? Any of you who has ever read a hardcover book with a dust jacket must have at least suspected that your bio was somehow relevant to the process, right?

I sense some glancing at the clock out there, don’t I? “But Anne,” those of you on your way out the door to mail requested materials whimper, “I’m aware that I’m going to need to construct one sometime, but need it be NOW? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until someone actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could. But as I mentioned last time, writing an eye-catching author bio isn’t easy; just as it’s much less stress-inducing for an aspiring writer to cobble together a synopsis almost anytime other than immediately after an agent or editor has asked her to produce one, tossing together an author bio when you’re frantically trying to proofread your novel at 3 AM and figure out how much postage to slap on your SASE for its safe return is quite a bit more challenging than, say, devoting a free afternoon to the task three months before you’re planning to query at all.

I just mention. The results also tend to be — if not better, than at least of a quality that would not make the writer cringe should a shortened version ever turn up on a dust jacket.

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air. “Shortened version?” the confused shout in unison. “Wait, isn’t the author bio identical to that 50-word paragraph I’ve been seeing for years inside the back flap of book covers, a belief apparently corroborated by your crack above about how we all should have expected to have to write one eventually?”

Touché on that last point, and it’s a good question in general: many, if not most, aspiring writers simply assume that what they see in print is precisely what the publishing industry expects to receive. But just as a professionally-formatted manuscript does not resemble a published book in many respects — and if that’s news to you, PLEASE take a gander at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT and/or STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right before you even consider querying or submitting your work — the kind of author bio the pros have in mind differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. Usually in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, a single double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (Don’t worry: I’ll be going over your formatting choices in exhaustive detail soon, I promise.)

Think of it as the 1-page synopsis of your writing life.

“Um, Anne?” the time-pressed pipe up again. “That sounds as though you’re about to ask me to rattle off my selling points as an author, and as we discussed at some length not so long ago, I don’t feel that my writing credentials are all that impressive. Besides, it’s awfully difficult many of us to carve out time in our schedules to write, much less to market our work to agents. I’m in the middle of my tenth revision of Chapter 3, and I’m trying to get a dozen queries in the mail before Thanksgiving. I also have a life. May I be excused, please, from dropping all that in order to sit down and compose something I only MIGHT need if one of those agents asks to see the book?”

Well, first off, clock-watchers, congratulations for having the foresight to send off a flotilla of queries well before the onset of the holiday season. As long-term readers of this blog are already aware (I hope, given how frequently I mention it), the publishing industry is notorious for slowing W-A-Y down between Thanksgiving and the end of the year.

Best to get your query letters in before the proverbial Christmas rush, I always say. Because, really, if you don’t, you’re probably going to want to hold off on sending the next batch until after the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.

Yes, in response to all of those shouted mental questions from those of you who do not happen to be U.S. citizens: I do mean after January 20th. 2009.

Why wait so long, you howl? Several reasons. First, as we discussed before, during, and after the traditional mid-August-through-Labor-Day publishing vacation period, Millicent’s desk is going to be piled pretty high with envelopes when she returns after her winter holidays. Place yourself in her snow boots for a moment: if you were the one going through all of that backlog of unopened queries, would you be more eager to reject any given one, or less?

I’m going to leave the answer to that between you and your conscience.

Second, in the US, agencies are required by law to produce tax documents for their clients by the end of January, documenting the royalties of the previous year. Yes, everyone knows it’s coming, but common sense will tell you that the vast majority of the inmates of agencies were English majors. Have you ever watched an English major try to pull together his tax information?

‘Nuff said, I think.

Third — and to my mind, the best reason by far — do you REALLY want your query (or submission) to get lost amongst similar documents from every unpublished writer in North America who made the not-uncommon New Year’s resolution, “By gum, I’m going to send out 20 queries a month, beginning January 1!”

Fortunately for Millicent’s sanity, the average New Year’s resolution lasts a grand total of three weeks — which, this coming January, lands quite nicely near Inauguration Day.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that it could have been summarized quite adequately as, “Start getting those queries out now!”), I would encourage all of you who are at the querying stage of your careers to set aside anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days to sit down and hammer out a great author bio for yourself.

Ideally, sometime really, really soon. Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is on other things, like doing a lightning-fast revision on your book proposal so you can send it to that nice editor who listened so attentively to your pitch at a conference or just before you start dancing around your living room in your underwear because your before-bed e-mail check revealed a response to a query.

Agents and editors tend to toss it out casually, as if it’s an afterthought: “Oh, and send me a bio.” The informality of the request can be a bit misleading, however: your one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yeah, I know: over the years (and definitely over this last summer, when I devoted a whole lot of our time together to querying, pitching, and submission issues), I have told you that many, many things were important tools in your marketing kit. Your synopsis, for instance. Your query letter. Your pitch. Your first 50 pages. Your first page.

And you know something? I wasn’t lying to you any of those times. They’re all important.

So just how important is the author bio, you ask? Well, it’s not unheard-of for editors, in particular, to decide to pass on the book they’re being offered, but ask the agent to see other work by the author, if the bio is intriguing enough.

Yes, really: it’s happened more than once. Heck, it’s happened to me more than once.

Admittedly, I come from a pretty wacky background (detailed in my bio, if you’re interested), but I think a general axiom may be derived from the fact that attracting interest in this manner has happened to any writer, ever: it is not a tremendously good idea just to throw a few autobiographical paragraphs together in the last few minutes before a requested manuscript, proposal, or synopsis heads out the door.

Which is, as I hinted gently, precisely what most aspiring writers do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between dashing off a 20-minute synopsis and when the post office door locks for the night.

Big, big mistake: if the bio reads as dull, disorganized, or unprofessional, agents and editors may leap to the unwarranted conclusion that the writer is also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that he should know best; if he can’t write about that well, how can he write well about anything else?

I know; wacky. But remember, these folks usually don’t know the writers who submit: Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based upon the evidence on paper in front of them.

A good bio is especially important if you write any flavor of nonfiction, because the bio is where you establish your platform in its most tightly-summarized form. All of you nonfiction writers out there know what a platform is, don’t you? You should: it is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask you when you pitch a NF book. Your platform is the background that renders you — yes, YOU — the best person on earth to write the book you are pitching. This background can include, but is not limited to, educational credentials, relevant work experience, awards, and significant research time.

You know, the stuff we discussed at length both when you were crafting your pitch back in the summer and again in September, when you were thinking about the biographical paragraph of your query letter. For a NF writer, the author bio is a compressed résumé, with a twist: unlike the cold, linear presentation of the résumé format, the author bio must also demonstrate that the author can put together an array of facts in a readable, compelling fashion.

Actually, the same holds true for a novelist’s author bio — and lest any of you fiction writers out there be tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge, think again. “A bio?” novelists say nervously when agents and editors toss out the seemingly casual request. “You mean that thing on the back cover? Won’t my publisher’s marketing department write that for me?”

In a word, no. They might punch it up a little down the line, but in the manuscript-marketing stages, you’re on your own.

That tendency to assume that someone else will take care of the bio is practically universal amongst writers — until they have been through the book publication process. Unfortunately, despite the ubiquity of this misconception, hemming and/or hawing about the production of one’s bio is NOT the way to win friends and influence people in an agency.

Or a publishing house, for that matter. You think the marketing department isn’t eager to get to work reorganizing your bio?

So if you take nothing else from today’s post, absorb this enduring truth and clutch it to your respective bosoms forevermore: whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work, train yourself not to equivocate.

Instead, learn to chirp happily, like the can-do sort of person you are: “A bio? You bet!”

Yes, even if the agent or editor in question has just asked you to produce some marketing data that strikes you as irrelevant or downright stupid. Even if what you’re being asked for will require you to take a week off work to deliver. Even in you have to dash to the nearest dictionary the second your meeting with an agent or editor is over to find out what you’ve just promised to send within a week IS.

Or, perhaps more sensibly, drop me an e-mail and inquire. That’s what Author! Author! is here for, you know: to help writers get their work successfully out the door.

Why is appearing eager to comply and competent so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer CAN’T list in an author bio — and to most people in positions to bring your work to publication, it’s regarded as a sure indicator of how much extra time they will have to spend holding a new author’s hand on the way to publication, explaining how the industry works.

How much extra time will they want to spend on you and your book, I hear you ask, over and above the time required to sell it? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times.) It varies from agent to agent, of course, but I believe I can give you a general ballpark estimate without going too far out on a limb: none.

Yes, I know — all the agency guides will tell the previously unpublished writer to seek out agencies with track records of taking on inexperienced writers. It’s good advice, but not because such agencies are habitually eager to expend their resources teaching newbies the ropes.

It’s good advice because such agencies have demonstrated that they are braver than many others: they are willing to take a chance on a new writer from time to time, provided that writer’s professionalism positively oozes off the page and from her manner.

I’ll bet you a nickel that the writers these agencies have signed did not respond evasively when asked for their bios.

Professionalism, as I believe I have pointed out several hundred times before in this forum, is demonstrated in many ways. Via manuscripts that conform to standard format, for instance, or knowing not to call an agency unless there’s some question of requested materials actually having been lost. It is also, unfortunately for those new to the game, demonstrated through familiarity with the basic terms and expectations of the industry.

This is what is known colloquially as a Catch-22: you get into the biz by showing that you know how people in the biz act — which you learn by being in the biz.

So, as you have probably already figured out by now, “Bio? What’s that?” is not the most advisable response to an agent or editor’s request for one. Nor is hesitating, or saying that you’ll need some time to write one. (You’re perfectly free to take time to write one, of course; just don’t say so up front.)

Why is even hesitation problematic, I hear you ask? (Another terrific question; you really are on the ball today.)

Well, let me put it this way: have you ever walked into a deli on the isle of Manhattan unsure of what kind of sandwich you want to get? When you took the requisite few seconds to collect your thoughts on the crucial subjects of onions and mayo, did the guy behind the counter wait politely for you to state your well-considered preferences?

Or did he roll his eyes and move on to the next customer? And did that next customer ruminate at length on the competing joys of ham on rye and pastrami on pumpernickel, soliciting the opinions of other customers with the open-mindedness of Socrates conducting a symposium, or did he just shout over your shoulder, “Reuben with a dill pickle!” with the ultra-imperative diction of an emergency room surgeon calling for a scalpel to perform a tracheotomy with seconds to spare before the patient sustains permanent brain damage from lack of oxygen?

If you frequent the same delis I do when I’m in town, the answers in both cases are emphatically the latter. Perhaps with some profanity thrown in for local color.

NYC-based agents and editors eat in those delis, my friends. They go there to RELAX.

This regional tendency to mistake thoughtful consideration or momentary hesitation, for malingering or even slow-wittedness often comes as an unpleasant shock to those of us who are West Coast bred and born, I must admit. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we like to encourage meditation in daily life; there are retail emporia in the greater Seattle metropolitan area where the Buddha himself could happily hold a full-time job with no significant loss of contemplative time.

Even in retail. “I’m here if you need anything,” the Buddha would say, melting into the background to think. “Just let me know if you have questions about those socks. There’s no rush.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us out here like flakes. In certain minds, we’re all wandering around stoned in bellbottoms, offering flowers to strangers at airports, reusing and recycling paper, and spreading pinko propaganda like, “Have a nice day.”

That is, when we’re not writing our books in moss-covered lean-tos, surrounded by yeti in Birkenstocks. (Oh, you laugh, but I’m not entirely sure that my agent understands that I’m not composing my current novel in a yurt by light provided by a squirrel-run generator.)

My point is, it would behoove you to have an author bio already written by the time you are asked for it, so you will not hesitate for even one Buddha-like, yeti-consulting moment when the crucial request comes. And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here.

We’ve got some author bios to write. Abundant practicalities to come, of course, and as always, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good synopsis, part VIII: truth in advertising

parrot sketch

It’s got to be a quick one today, I’m afraid, campers: as some of you may have suspected when I didn’t turn up here yesterday, the monster deadline I mentioned last week has devoured me whole. While I’m busy crawling out of its gullet, though, I didn’t want you to think I had forgotten you.

Last time, I suggested that if you write nonfiction, you might want to use part of your synopsis to establish — gently — your platform, to make it pellucidly clear to agency screener Millicent in even her worst moods that you are indeed uniquely qualified to write the book you are summarizing. While that is a pretty good idea, it occurred to me in the dead of night that before I proceed with more synopsis-writing advice, I might want to warn you about tumbling into the rather common opposite trap.

I refer, of course, to synopses that sound not just like back jacket blurbs for the book, all premise and puff, without a serious overview of the plot, but like the speech the MC makes before handing the author his or her Lifetime Achievement Award: not only is this book’s author brilliant, talented, and the best person in the universe to write this book, but a great humanitarian and my close personal friend as well.

It’s funnier if you picture Sammy Davis, Junior saying it. Or if you happen to be old enough to remember the alcohol-soaked roasts where compères used to utter such platitudes.

If you are writing a synopsis for a novel, PLEASE avoid the temptation to turn the synopsis into either a self-praise session (“My writing teacher says this is the best comic novel since CATCH-22!”) or an essay on why you chose to write the book (“Wrenched from the depths of my soul after seventeen years of therapy…”). Neither tends to work well, both because neither is really about the book — and, let’s face it, praise is more credible coming from someone other than the person being praised, isn’t it?

And if you doubt the latter, flip over pretty much any book published in North America within the last twenty years and take a gander at the blurbs from famous people. Don’t they ring truer coming from pens OTHER than the author’s?

Yet both the relayed second-hand compliment and the diatribe about the author’s personal motivation for writing the book are rather common inclusions in synopses. How common, you ask? Well, if I had a dime for every novel synopsis or query I’ve seen that included the phrase, it isn’t autobiographical, but… I would own my own miniscule island in the Caribbean.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve heard it in a pitch, I’d fly the remaining members of Monty Python to that Caribbean and have them do the parrot sketch live for my friends. Or maybe just listen to Eric Idle talk for several hours straight. (One pretty good indication that a 4th-grader is going to grow up to write comedy: she has a crush on the guy in Monty Python who did his writing solo, rather than with a partner. Swoon!)

And if I had a dime for every time seen it in a query letter, I’d just buy the five major North American publishing houses outright and make their policies more writer-friendly. But it seems that the repetition fairy isn’t giving out spare change to editors like me anymore, no matter how many aspiring writers I stuff under my pillow. More’s the pity.

My point is, hyperbolic self-review is almost as common as…well, I was going to say as common as aspiring writers who claim, “My book is a natural for Oprah!” but that’s hyperbolic self-review, isn’t it?

The frequency with which synopsizers attempt these approaches is precisely why these techniques are so often turn-offs for our pal Millicent the agency screener — or her Aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter. When you’re reading 800 submissions per week, commonalities can get pretty darn annoying. At minimum, they can make the synopses that contain them all start to blur together.

Trust me, however true any second-hand praise above may be — not knowing your writing teacher and her relationship to Joseph Heller, I cannot comment upon the blurb above’s veracity — or how difficult it was for an author to write a book, both forms of self-compliment come across as clichès.

Besides, a good fiction synopsis is NOT a justification for having written the book in the first place: properly, it is one hell of a good story, presented well. Period.

For nonfiction, as I mentioned yesterday, you will want to do some gentle self-promotion, to give an indication of why your book is uniquely marketable and you are the most reasonable person in the universe to write it (platform, platform, platform!) but again, try not to get sidetracked on WHY you chose to write it or boasting about how generally necessary this book is to the betterment of humanity.

Again, it may surprise you to hear, but a LOT of NF synopses go off on these tangents, to their own detriment. Given a choice, use the space to flesh out your argument with — chant it with me now, readers — INTRIGUING SPECIFICS.

There are very few contexts in the publishing world where launching on a lengthy disquisition why you wrote the book is even appropriate — and just so you have it in the back of your mind for future reference, here they are:

 

(1) Within a nonfiction book proposal, it is sometimes a necessary component to making the argument that you are uniquely qualified to write the book you are proposing, to establish your platform or the book’s marketability. If so, your agent may well advise you to add a section to the proposal entitled something like, “Why Tell This Story Now?”

 

(2) Within the context of an interview AFTER the book is released, writers are free to ramble on about it as long as they like. Interviewers LOVE hearing about writers’ motivations — which, I suspect is why aspiring writers so often want to tell everyone they see what is and is not autobiographical in their novels; we’ve all seen it in a million literary interviews.

(3) When you are chatting with other writers, or if you become very, very good friends with your agent or editor after the contract is signed. Then, talking about it until you’re blue in the face is an accepted part of the creative process.

(4) Immediately after Eric Idle asks you, “So what inspired to became a comic novelist?”

 

Other than those four situations, however interesting your motivations may have been, they tend not to be anywhere near as interesting to other people — at least those who work in the publishing industry — as the book itself. Nor should they be. At least if the book is any good.

Don’t believe me? Start attending book readings for tomes you are unlikely to read. 99% of the time, the author will speak at length about why s/he chose to write this particular book. Watch the audience’s reaction: it’s rare that eyes don’t glaze over at this point.

After you have attended three such readings within the course of a week without yawning once, THEN come to me and talk about whether your synopsis should include a paragraph on why you wrote the book.

I know it’s hard to accept, but actually, in a business sense, why an author wrote any book is not particularly important to the industry. In their eyes, unless you are a celebrity cashing in on your name recognition, you wrote your book for one very simple reason: because you are a writer.

Writers tend to do that, they’ve noticed. From that rather cold point of view, a writer who goes on and on about the psychological impulses to tell a particular story (unless the book in question is a memoir) comes across as not very professional — or, at any rate, as a writer who might not really understand that readers can’t reasonably be expected to purchase a book simply because the writer went to the trouble of writing it.

Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but it’s true: as much as we writers love to talk about our creative process, on the business side of the industry, such discussion tends to be regarded as a sign of that species of self-involvement that can render an artist rather deaf to the demands of the marketplace.

I have extremely mixed feelings about this assumption, because in my experience, most aspiring writers tend to blurt out their reasons for penning a book not because they think of themselves as Artistes Above Such Sordid Considerations as Marketability, but because they feel so isolated throughout the actual writing process. After years locked up with a book project, it can a positive relief to be able to talk about it to someone, isn’t it, especially when that someone is empowered to get the book published at long last?

It’s natural, it’s understandable, and it’s probably even healthy. By all means, go with that impulse. But please, please take my word on this one: you should most emphatically not do it in your synopsis.

Or indeed, in the presence of anyone employed in the publishing industry, unless you are responding to a direct question from an agent or editor. At least, not until after a contract is signed.

As usual, there are a couple of exceptions. Obviously, if the agent of your dreams asks, “So, where did you get the idea for this book?” you can and should give an honest answer, unless you happen to have beaten another writer over the head in the dead of night and stolen her work-in-progress. Or if someone stands up at a book reading and asks the same question — although as a rule, I would discourage planting your significant other or other crony in the audience to ask that particular question.

(Yes, I’ve seen it happen, and it’s invariably really obvious that it’s a set-up.)

Also — at the risk of repeating myself — if you have some very specific expertise that renders your take on a subject particularly valid, feel free to mention it in your pitch or query letter. And in your synopsis, if you are summarizing a nonfiction book. But in fiction, that information does not really belong in the synopsis.

But I can feel already that some of you are not going to fight me on this point. So here is a bit of advice for those of you who are planning to, well, ignore my advice: if you are writing a novel, and you feel that you have an inside perspective that simply must be mentioned in the synopsis, stick it at the end, where it won’t be too intrusive.

On that logically convoluted note, I leave you for the day. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XII: pulling together a query packet without a demigod’s help

labors of Herakles

I’m a bit frazzled today, I’m afraid: I am currently suffering under one of the more common professional writers’ ailments, an impending deadline. How do I feel about my prospects of meeting it? Well, here’s a clue: the ancient Greek vase above depicts one of the labors of Herakles.

To quote the late, great Billie Holiday: the difficult I’ll do right now/the impossible may take a little while.

I couldn’t bear to lock myself into my isolation tank, however, until I had wrapped up this series by talking about how to put together a query packet — a question I’ve been hearing often enough in recent months that I’ve started a category for it on the archive list on the bottom-right side of this page.

Hey, I’m all about ease of reference. FYI, if you can’t find a heading on the category list that matches the question that happens to be burning in your mind in any dark midnight, try typing a keyword or two into the site’s search engine, located in the upper right-hand corner of this page. If you still can’t find a few pertinent words of wisdom, feel free to drop me a line in the comments.

To tell you the truth, I’ve resisted writing much on this topic, for the exceedingly simple reason that I didn’t want anyone to confuse a query packet (i.e., the stack of things an agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides might ask a querier to send along with the query letter) with a submission packet (the array of papers an agent has SPECIFICALLY asked a writer to send after a query or a pitch).

The former known in the industry as unsolicited materials, the latter as requested materials.

And already the confusion starts: “But Anne,” some of you new to the process protest, and who could blame you? “I’m confused. If the agency’s website, guide listing, or page on that always-useful resource for writers seeking agents, Publishers’ Marketplace tells aspiring writers that they should send a synopsis or the first 50 pages with a query, in what sense is that not a request? Especially when half of those listings refer to their standards as submission requirements?”

I see your logic, oh rules lawyers, but you’re confusing passive guidelines with an active request. Anyone able to track down an agency’s website or listing might discover its submission guidelines, the prerequisites to which an aspiring writer must adhere in order to get a query under one of their agents’ spectacles at all. But as any agent or editor in the biz could tell you, agencies draw a very firm distinction between preliminary materials sent out of the blue (from their perspective) and pages that they actually asked a writer to submit, based upon a successful query or pitch.

How seriously do they take that distinction? Well, let me put it this way: I’ve seldom heard anyone who has worked within five blocks of an agency refer to any pages sent with a cold query (i.e., a query letter from a writer who has had no previous contact with the agency and hasn’t been referred by someone they know) as a submission.

Judging by the knitted brows out there, that little explanation didn’t leave you unconfused, did it? “Okay, Anne,” the brow-knitters say, arms folded and all ready for an argument, “I believe that they make a distinction, but I still think I’m right to think of those 50 pages the agent of my dreams’ website told me to send as both requested materials and a submission. If not, why would they call them submission guidelines, huh? Got a glib answer for that one?”

Actually, I have several. You’d better get comfortable.

In the first place, if your dream agent’s website stated that queriers should go ahead and send sample pages, it didn’t ask YOU to do so; it asked everyone who might submit to them. Given that such a public request effectively narrows down the potential pool of querier to every writer on earth who currently doesn’t have an agent, you can hardly blame those who work at the agency for not considering those guidelines in the same light as a specific request to a specific writer.

In the second place, submission guidelines is an industry term; publishing houses use it as well, but like word count or literary fiction, the definition in use at the moment is in the mind of the speaker. It’s not as precise as those coming into the conversation from the outside might like.

For all its imprecision, the term’s use in this context performs a pretty specific function: it catches the eye of writers so new to the industry that they are unaware that they shouldn’t just mail off a full manuscript to any agent who happens to catch their innocent imaginations. Understood that way, an agency’s guidelines are in fact submission guidelines — they tell aspiring writers not to submit at all, but to query instead.

In the third place, I hate to be the one to bring this up, have you by any chance compared the guidelines on the agency’s website with those in one of the standard agency guides and/or the individual agent’s listing on the aforementioned Publishers’ Marketplace?

It’s a bit time-consuming to check multiple sources, but often worthwhile: not only do guide listings tend to have different emphases than website blurbs (thus enabling you to fine-tune your query list), but it’s also surprisingly common for the various sources to ask queriers to send different things.

Yes, really. It’s not at all unheard-off for the most recent Guide to Literary Agents to suggest querying with a synopsis, the agency’s website to ask for a query plus the first ten pages, and the individual agent’s Publisher’s Marketplace page to specify a query plus the first chapter and an author bio. Heck, it isn’t even all that unusual for one source to say that an agency welcomes paper queries, while another insists that it will only accept queries via e-mail and the website has a form to fill out and submit electronically.

No wonder writers are confused. I’m not bringing this up, however, to criticize agencies, but as part of my ongoing quest to convince agent-seeking writers that being hyper-literal and rules-lawyerish is not necessarily helpful at the querying stage.

Why, you ask? Well, remember how I had mentioned earlier in the summer that conference-goers sometimes confuse an individual agent’s personal preferences with an industry-wide norm? Sometimes, what guidelines end up in an agency guide are a function of the preferences of whoever happened to fill out the form — or of no one at the agency’s thinking to go back and update its Publishers’ Marketplace listing when the guidelines on the agency’s website have changed.

It doesn’t really matter why it happens, does it? My point is this: if a particular agency has two or three sets of guidelines floating around out there, it follows as night the day that its resident Millicent must be seeing two or three different kinds of query packet on any given day.

What were you saying about taking a guide listing or website’s guidelines as a request?

In the fourth place (yes, I’m still working on the original question), as I have pointed out earlier in this series, just because if an agency’s site/listing/representative at a writers’ conference expresses a generic interest in seeing extra materials — a synopsis, for instance, or a bio, or even pages — that doesn’t mean its screener Millicent will necessarily read them. If the query doesn’t spark her interest, she’s extremely unlikely to give the book project a second chance just because additional materials happen to be in front of her.

Before you get all huffy about that, brow-knitters, allow me to add hastily: this is largely a function of time not being infinitely elastic. It’s Millie’s job to weed out queries, right?

“But wait,” my brow-knitting friends ask hesitantly, “is it possible that I’m misunderstanding you here? From what you’re saying, it sounds as though my being able to send pages along with my query isn’t necessarily an advantage — all it really does is save Millicent the trouble of asking to see them.”

Well, if that’s the conclusion you want to draw from all this, I would be the last to stop you. One of the Labors of Herakles is calling me.

Another is calling you, oh querier: do your homework before you send out that query. And send precisely what the agent expects to see.

How might one figure out just what that means, in the face of conflicting guidelines? Generally speaking, although the Publishers’ Marketplace and the Herman Guide listings tend to offer the most information (again, useful for figuring out which agent at the agency to approach), agencies’ websites usually offer the most up-to-date guidelines. I’d advise following them — but checking another source or two is always a good idea.

Especially if you’re not especially fond of copying and pasting your first few pages into the body of an e-mail or into a miniscule box on an online form. It can wreak havoc with formatting.

Querying via form on a website
Those forms are self-explanatory (part of their popularity, I suppose): many of them simply tell aspiring writers to paste their query letters into a form, along with a writing sample. I trust that you can figure them out on your own.

And if you can’t, I probably won’t be able to help: they’re too individualized for me to create general rules of thumb for dealing with ‘em. Sorry about that. Have you considered checking one of the standard agency guides to see if the agency with the troublesome form would accept a mailed query letter instead?

E-mailed query packets
E-mailed queries are not so straightforward, especially if the guidelines (wherever you found them) ask for additional materials. DO NOT, under any circumstances, include attachments in an e-mailed query; virtually every agency in North America has an iron-clad policy against opening unrequested attachments. They’re just too likely to contain viruses.

Hey, I’m not casting aspersions upon your no doubt squeaky-clean computer. I’m just reporting what the process looks like from the other side of the desk.

If the agency’s website SPECIFICALLY asked for attachments, send them in Word (the industry standard), but do not send them as .docx. Many, many agencies are running older versions of Word (on PCs, usually) and will not be able to open .docx files.

Like any file-transferring snafu between an agency and a writer, this is considered the writer’s fault. And no, Millicent won’t e-mail you back, asking you to send a different version. Nor will the agency call upon its crack computer support staff, for the simple reason that, as astonishing as this may seem to those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, NYC-based agencies seldom have an in-house computer expert. Probably because s/he would be so like to tell them to upgrade what version of Word they’re using.

I’m telling you: a little foresight will go a long way toward getting her a document someone at the agency can actually open.

If you happen to be running a recent version of Word, your document may be saved as a .docx automatically, so use the SAVE AS… function to save your document as a Word 97-2004 document (.doc). Mac users, do be aware that your system may allow you to give your documents longer names than an older PC’s system might recognize as valid.

How do you include additional materials without attachments? Copy and paste them into the body of your e-mail, a few skipped lines after the end of your query. Fair warning, though: as I mentioned above, formatting often gets lost in the transition.

Particularly vulnerable, for some reason: double-spacing. Even if you have to change the spacing in the e-mail by hitting the RETURN key at the end of every line, make sure any text you send is double-spaced.

Always start an e-mailed query packet with the query letter itself, then move on to any requested materials in the order they were listed on the website. Unlike a paper query, an e-mailed query need not include date and full address of the recipient, but do open with a salutation: Dear Ms. Smith…

Why? Well, think about it from Ms. Smith’s perspective: wouldn’t a mass e-mail be the most efficient way of broadcasting 2,000 generic Dear Agent queries? Do you really want your e-query mistaken of one of those?

Most of you probably knew most of this, though, right? Let’s move on to a little-known trick o’ the trade — located in the part of the e-mailed query to which writers tend to give the least thought.

The subject line of an e-mailed query
The subject line is key to an e-query’s ending up in the right place, so you are going to want to make that space count. Or at any rate, prevent your e-mail from getting relegated to the spam file.

Most agents prefer writers to include the word QUERY in it, presumably so they don’t mix up your e-mail with that invitation to their high school reunion. If you just heard the agent speak at a conference, include the name of the conference in both the subject line and the first line of your query; many agencies will give priority to post-conference queries.

Conversely, if you already have an in with the agent, make sure to include that in the subject line, too. If you met the agent at a conference and she told you to send her a query (as opposed to sending materials; it happens), write REQUESTED QUERY and the name of the conference in the subject line; if you were lucky enough to garner a referral from an existing client, type QUERY — (Client’s name) REFERRAL.

Getting the picture? Good. Let’s move on to mailed query packets.

Querying the old-fashioned way: on paper
Here, too, the running order is important: the query letter itself should be on the top of the pile, no matter how many pages of material the agency’s website said to send. It needs to be the first thing Millicent sees; she’ll want to read it first.

Underneath the letter, you may stack any pages the guidelines said you could send. Send ONLY the maximum number of pages — if the guidelines said to send ten pages, send only ten, even if that means leaving Millicent in mid-sentence.

Hint: double-check the agency’s guidelines to see whether the number of pages is a hard requirement or an up-to. Often, if the number of pages is significant, the requirements will say something like you may send up to 50 pages. In such cases, if your Chapter 2 ends on page 43, it’s perfectly acceptable to send only 43 pages.

Heck, Millicent might even be grateful for your restraint. She has a lot of reading to do in a day, you know.

Include a title page on top of the pages; it’s traditional, and the information included there will both make you look more professional and render it easier to contact you if the answer is yes. if you don’t know how to format a title page (and yes, Virginia, there is a specific way to do it), please see the aptly-titled TITLE PAGES category on the list at right.

Traditionally, the synopsis comes after manuscript pages, with an author bio always at the very end of any kind of submission packet. (True of book proposals, too, by the way.) Again, though, you’re going to want to read the submission guidelines carefully: a few agencies prefer a 1-page synopsis to precede manuscript pages.

Speaking of book proposals, I know that many agencies’ guidelines say a writer can just go ahead and send them with a query, but speaking as someone who has sold a couple of nonfiction books, I would be hesitant to send one out unsolicited, especially in paper form; that’s a lot of paper to mail, and it’s not as though you can copyright a book idea. Personally, then, I would simply send a query and wait to be asked to send the proposal.

Old-fashioned? Perhaps. But one thing that’s easy to overlook amid all of these conflicting expectations is you’ll almost never go wrong if you just send a query letter without additional materials.

So if you’re in any doubt, keep it simple. Millicent can always ask to see more.

The SASE
Most aspiring writers are aware that every paper query should include a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope), but many do not know that a SASE should be large enough and contain sufficient postage for the return of EVERYTHING sent in the query packet, as well as a single-page reply.

That surprised some of you, didn’t it? “Whoa, Anne!” some red-faced brow-knitters exclaim. “What do you mean, it needs to be able to hold everything? I’ve just been sending regular #10 business envelopes as my SASEs, even when I’ve been submitting my entire manuscript!”

Not what the agent of your dreams had in mind. The purpose of the SASE is to send your materials back to you, not merely so the agency doesn’t have to pay postage on a form-letter rejection. Okay, so it’s also so the agency doesn’t have to pay to reject writers, but it’s genuinely for the writer’s protection: do you want your pages wandering off just anywhere?

And then there’s the practical consideration: think how much paper Millicent handles in a week, especially if she happens to work in an agency that permits queriers to include manuscript pages. If she didn’t have a quick and painless way to get all of those pages off her desk as soon as she had rejected them, within a month, she wouldn’t even be able to get to her desk chair.

Within six months, no one would be able to get into the office at all. Poor Millie would be trapped under a mountain of unsolicited submissions, screaming, but nobody would be able to hear her. Paper makes terrific insulation, you know.

Save her from that dreadful fate: send a large enough SASE with enough US stamps — not metered postage, please; you want Millicent to be able to toss it into the nearest mailbox — to get back to you. In order to pull that off if your query packet contains more than 4 pages, you’re probably going to want to send it in a Manila envelope, rather than a business-sized envelope.

That way, there will be plenty of room for the SASE, right?

Traditionally, the SASE goes at the bottom of the pile: present if needed, but not distracting. In years past, it used to be considered kind of stylish to include both an adequately-large SASE with a submission, in case of rejection, AND a business-sized one, in case of acceptance, but in a query packet, that’s likely to strike Millicent as overkill. Besides, these days, she’s every bit as likely to e-mail you a request for more pages as to send it in your SASE.

And that, my friends, is the story of query packets; like so much else in writer-agent relations, the practices were much more streamlined back in the days before the rise of the personal computer, much less the Internet. In fact, a case could be made, and a cogent one, for the popularity of the Internet’s being the cause of each agency’s specifying that it wants different materials in query packets: back when the standard agency guides and word of mouth were the primary ways that writers found out what standards were, pretty much everyone just asked for a query, or query + synopsis.

In fact, the industry truism of yore dictated that a writer should NEVER send manuscript pages or a proposal unless and agent had specifically asked him to do so. Frankly, I think that expectation was a bit easier on writers: there was far less stressful guesswork involved.

So are agencies asking for more materials up front just because they can? Maybe, or maybe some of them just wanted to streamline the rejection process by arranging to have a writing sample on hand as soon as Millicent read the query letter: that way, she can rule out promising book concepts whose writing doesn’t deliver in one contact with the writer, rather than the former two.

Or perhaps — and I’m not saying this is true; I’m merely speculating — providing guidelines that are unlike those of other agencies is a clever means of discovering just how good a prospective client is at following directions; if every agency asks for something slightly different, the Dear Agent queriers who treat every agent on earth as identical are going to stand out like the proverbial sore thumbs, right?

Just in case I’m right on that last one, follow the individual agency’s directions. To the letter. And if that means choosing from amongst several sets of guidelines, pick one and cling to it like a leech.

Trust me, both you and Millicent will feel better if you do. In an often confusing and alienating process, concrete direction can be very reassuring.

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part X: making the book sound like a real page-turner

Did everyone have a delightful Labor Day weekend — or, even better, one filled with productive writing and/or querying time?

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst.

The last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, that’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book, or even an exciting one.

You’d be surprised at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound 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.

Just not true, I’m afraid. 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 books being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter.

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Still seem unfair? Think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), the letter is going to have to make HER believe that the book is fascinating.

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query letter is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is.

Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along: realistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

And that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a book’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many samples out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that agency screener forget that you are hitting the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues. But first, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far, shall we?

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

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

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

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

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

(23) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?

(24) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?

(25) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?

(26) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

(27) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?

(28) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?

Anyone being kept up at night by any of those, or experiencing any difficulties in putting one or more into practice? If so, please speak up — my goal here is to be helpful.

While you’re framing your questions, let’s get back to the imperative to be interesting.

(29) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be — the goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about wowing Millicent with amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional eye seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like:

she’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

she’s a ditsy cheerleader, 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

Get the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the proverbial plague. Cut anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(30) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — notoriously common in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché, and few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if he does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

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

(30) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects: how better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible (“But they really sound that way!”), but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(31) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context: your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences (or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in them). As in,

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope you will be interested in representing it. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA. Today, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea, and they find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem?

As I have argued about manuscripts, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line. Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning.

After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.

(32) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Avoiding 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 — most professional readers have been trained to believe passive voice equals poor writing, inherently.

Yes, I was aware that you already knew that. I bring it up, though, because when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

There’s another, subtler reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses: on an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(33) Does my summary make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in earlier posts (see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations.

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it.

(34) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
For a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

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.

(35) 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.”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

And, of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, that had better come across in your query. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Pillory This, by guest blogger Flavia Alaya

under the rose alaya coverPhoto:  Ellen Denuto

Hello, campers –

Yes, I know: we’ve been trying to polish off our ongoing series on polishing up a query letter, but now that the holiday weekend is upon us, I thought we should pause, take a breath, and celebrate just how much work all of you have done throughout this series — or, depending upon your reading habits, give some of you time to catch up. Hey, query-writing is hard stuff.

Which is why I am so delighted to bring you my promised reward for virtue: a fascinating post on dealing with having one’s book reviewed by memoirist and nonfiction writer Flavia Alaya, author of the incredibly brave and revealing UNDER THE ROSE: A CONFESSION, among many, many other works. (Seriously, her bio will astound you — see the end of this post.) From the publisher’s blurb:

Beneath its “scandalous” surface, Flavia Alaya’s story goes to the heart of women’s struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency. When she first met Father Harry Browne, Alaya was a vibrant but sheltered young woman on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia became too compelling to resist, they embarked on a love affair that violated some of the deepest taboos of society, the Church, and her Italian American family, yet endured for over two decades, through years of shared dedication to social activism and through the birth of three children.

Intriguing, no? From the slightly more revealing Library Journal review:

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historian — and a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship’s secrecy (it was hidden “under the rose”), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style.

And the still more descriptive ForeWord review:

She was a twenty-two-year-old Fulbright scholar from New York fleeing her immigrant Italian family’s claustrophobic love, he was a thirty-eight year old Catholic priest from the city’s Irish tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, researching Church archives. They met in a Perugia café in 1957: a thunderbolt, opera’s grand coup de foudre of destiny.

Their affair, shamelessly shameful, was to be sub rosa, under Cupid’s rose of secrecy. In small rented rooms, in the fervid, emotive culture, Italy itself seemed to become their duenna and collaborator. They returned to New York, she to an apartment on the Upper West Side, he (as fate would have it) to a parish blocks away, the fiction of their friendship so carefully maintained that not even her own family knew the father of her children. Ironically, their private war against the Church’s conservative patriarchy augured the decade’s larger battles of civil disobedience and feminist freedom. With their own adopted neighborhood soon slated for massive urban renewal, which would displace so many working poor, Father Harry Browne moved quickly into political activism. (It was in Father Browne’s office that the FBI arrested Father Berrigan, notorious for burning Pentagon draft records to protest the Vietnam War.) Thus, as in opera as in life, love and politics are ever held close, one of the many paradoxes Alaya so lovingly, so wisely ponders in Under the Rose.

Those asking for theology or psychotherapy may be disappointed, but those asking for well-written honesty will be handsomely rewarded. In a poignant, lucid language that combines the pace of fiction with the intimacy of a love letter, her “memory-ghosts” bring private and social history to full circle, the story of an immigrant’s search for freedom of expression. Under the Rose is the very model of memoir writing, of a woman’s voice finally finding perfect pitch.

Why am I showing you three different plot summaries, you ask, rather than just the usual publisher’s blurb? For a couple of reasons, one pertaining to our series-in-progress, one to today’s topic.

First, did you notice anything about those three descriptions of the same book? The first two were of reasonable lengths to use as the summary paragraph of a query letter — 99 and 162 words, respectively. So what makes the first strong back jacket copy, but the second a better bet for a query or pitch?

If you immediately cried, “By gum, Anne, the vivid details in the second!” give yourself a gold star for the week: you’ve been paying attention. The specifics really make a difference in the storytelling department, don’t they, even in so short a piece?

If you also shouted, “The blurb reviews, while the second demonstrates why a reader might be interested in the book,” award yourself a second gold star. Heck, take yourself out for an ice cream sundae: that was an astute observation.

But wait; today’s pop quiz is not over yet. Since the first two descriptions illustrated my ongoing point so beautifully, any guesses about why I saw fit to include the third?

Hint: the answer lies in the word count.

Okay, I’ll just give you this one: at 302 words, it would make a pretty good 1-page synopsis. You know, the kind that agencies’ websites and agency guides’ listings keep asking writers of 350-page books to send with their queries and/or pages. True, the last paragraph is pure review, as is the last sentence of the second.

But it just goes to show you: it is indeed possible to give the contours of a story in that number of words without resorting to blurry generalities. No matter how many times you re-checked that requirement on the agent of your dreams’ website, hoping you had misread it, it’s actually not all that unreasonable a request.

The second reason to walk you through all of those reviews was even more straightforward: Flavia’s going to talk to us today about what it’s like to get a book reviewed. And not necessarily nicely.

One of the classic writerly fears, right? Flavia is going to tell us how to confront it straight-on, instead of running away screaming.

I’m very excited about this guest post, and not merely because, as those of you who have been dropping by Author! Author! for a while are no doubt already aware, I’m a huge fan of wrestling those big, bad writerly fears out into the open, examining them thoroughly, and talking about how to deal with them practically. There’s been a lot of talk on the conference circuit lately about career writers, the kind who have more than one book in ‘em.

Career writers’ work used to be considered the backbone of the publishing business, you know. A blockbuster may sell a million copies on a fluke, but authors whose established readerships kept returning for subsequent books provide publishers with consistent, relatively predictable income. With the decline of the multi-book contract, however, many agents in recent years had become less interested in hearing about a prospective clients’ other book ideas than in whether the manuscript in front of them might be the next breakout hit.

With the economic downturn, however, the phrase career writer has been turning up on more and more lips. It’s not even all that unusual these days for agents to ask newly-signed clients to come up with one-paragraph descriptions of their next three or four projects, just to have at the ready in case an editor impressed with a manuscript asks.

Don’t tense up; start brainstorming.

As this trend has been heating up in recent months, I’ve been eagerly blandishing career writers to come and share their insights with our little writing community. You want to know what a long-term career strategy looks like, don’t you?

So please join me in welcoming Flavia Alaya, career writer and memoirist extraordinaire. But before I hand you over to her, let me add: UNDER THE ROSE is available on Amazon and, of course, directly from the publisher. Oh, and that lovely photo of Flavia above was taken by Ellen Denuto.

Take it away, Flavia!

under the rose alaya covermilk-of-almonds-cover-alayareconciling-catholicism-coverunder-the-rose-alaya-cover-2

Under the Rose is memoir as collage—less in style than in process. When it began its manuscript life, the book was the relatively brief and tidy account (with a few flashbacks) of my first 13 or so years with Harry, in Italy, then in New York—essentially our secret life together…sub rosa, or “under the rose.” When the manuscript (which was sold three times over 16 years of writing and rewriting—long story!) was finally acquired by The Feminist Press and positioned for their Cross-cultural Memoir Series, publisher Florence Howe asked to see the core theme in the context of a “life.” This meant weaving two or three more complex narratives into the original—the back-stories (what was it in both our early lives made us able to tolerate, maybe even need, that kind of secrecy?) and the post- and post-post-scripts: how we both met the critical test of going public, and then how I faced life without him when he died.

A challenge. Many challenges. First, unpacking more hard truths about my family—and his—than I’d ever intended to. Then (harder) untangling the sticky weave of that final public decade together in the ‘70s, when we struggled to float the flimsy raft of a “liberated” partnership—with three small kids nailed to it—through virtual tsunamis of academic and ecclesiastical politics. Not only did I have to tear the book apart and reassemble it. I had to back off from it. I had to take the entire project (which had seemed so obvious and simple, once) more seriously…and myself less. Much less.

Which is one reason this review struck me as so baffling:

What is the point of her ‘confession’? That she’s a good and put-upon person? If so, it is better left to others to make the point for her; none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness.

A bite, a mere rebarbative nine-year-old mouthful of what used to be standard Barbara Grizzuti Harrison agita in The New York Times Book Review…except that it was directed at me and my memoir.

Baffling. Because if I’d had my way, Under the Rose would have been subtitled, with obvious irony: “A Life in Six Operas.” Even the present “Confession” has its edge—absolution was the last thing I was looking for! But here was the Press again, hoping a more salty subtitle might trump their off-putting imprint and win them some new readers. Inside, however, opera names still define the book’s six parts (Tosca, Gioconda, Traviata, etc.), and adjust the tone (or so I thought) in two self-satirical ways, denoting the spectacular Italian American family culture I grew up in, first, and then caricaturing the over-the-top romanticism I’d internalized with it. Maybe it was a complex way to suggest, as a part of the theme, why my inner diva took so very long to outgrow, and why it cost so much tearing of heart muscle. But I didn’t think it inaccessible, especially to a Times reviewer.

On the other hand…

Well, on the other hand, Harry was a very funny man. You couldn’t take him anywhere—not without pulling a crowd that would quickly be doubled over in bodily pain. No invidious comparisons with great Italian literature are intended, but maybe Under the Rose should come with a warning label: if clerical sex doesn’t make you laugh, close the book. Or burn it.

I girded myself to reread the review for this blog, but I was sure I could deal with it. I was way too sensitive then. And besides, she’s dead. And besides, nine years is long enough.

But no, the bloody thing still had its ghoulish way with me, like a Dracula lover. Be objective, I tell myself. And I am. Objectively, it must be one of the most venomous reviews of a memoir ever to appear in The New York Times Book Review. OK, limit the sample to ex-editor Charlie McGrath’s wrathful-God Book Review universe, where there were body-counts. The citation still stings.

Right now, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking it would be really nice if you’d take my word for it, but I bet you feel double-dared to go and read it. Well, damn you, go ahead. But come back afterward, because that review never should have been the end of it—not for me, but not even for her.

Here it is.

OK. Agree with me on this, that what Harrison’s maundering few-hundred words are unleashing is disgust, a given, a natural response to the book’s basic and objectively revolting premise, that I actually had an underground career as a priest’s “wife.” Well, it is objectively revolting, isn’t it? For an Opus Dei sort like herself, of whom it could be said—and was—that the Curia was kindlier and less Roman? Please.

And now, seeing as Roman is the only form of Catholicism to demand a pretense of lifelong eunuchry in its priesthood, channel the fair-minded editor of the Book Review assigning the book to her: who could be more qualified to review a challenge to the ideal of Catholic celibacy? Let her rip! “Fortunately Alaya loves herself sufficiently, {sic} to relieve the reviewer of any obligation to protect her ego.”

Ah, what fortress faith, what crusading passion, to crush the nano-flash of pity that inspired that line. I still find it hard to get past it.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #1:
A brutal review goes straight to your voice. For a while it’s as if somebody has carved out your larynx with a bread-knife and you keep on trying to make the breath you still push through the replacement tube sound like you.

For years I’ve twitched whenever people said they’d come across that review on the web. Sure, I was onto Grizzuti’s rap-sheet as hitwoman, but what was I supposed to say? That she’d slashed the likes of Joan Didion and Spike Lee too, and look at the company I’m in?

There are some reviews you should never read twice, unless you have another larynx to turn. No, nine years are not enough. And now Google can serve up Grizzuti’s little murder, on demand, to me or anybody looking for me, almost always at the top of the hit-list. Maybe forever—all the forever that matters to a writer.

There’s a silly analogy to Keats’s urn in here somewhere. Instead of those lovers forever yearning toward each other to the sound of a silent flute, there’s this worthless writer forever pinioned by this bloody reviewer’s disgust, somehow never able to “love herself sufficiently” to get outside that shell of ego-protecting denial.

But…

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom # 2:
You don’t stop talking just because you get told to shut up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t. And, yes, you probably shouldn’t.

Maybe stories like this don’t end till you really go silent. As self-writing goes, let’s just say I’m probably at the end of the middle of whatever story this is, where I gravitate to scholars of autobiography and reflect on their wisdom. Lauren Berlant is one. She says in pretty good academy-speak that to write the self is to try to create “a spectacular interiority worthy of public notice” (The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, 1997).

I love the compression of this. Right at the top it says that you’re making a spectacle of yourself, which I admit I have done, and still do.

But the “worthy of public notice” part? That’s the paradox for Berlant to unfold. If the interior self you’re exposing isn’t normative, if it’s different in a way not embraced by the larger culture, or if what you’re exposing—maybe a hidden truth or reality, an injustice—is something the majority culture (or somebody in its service) would rather not see exposed, then it’s difficult to make it “worthy” of public notice, isn’t it.

Except perhaps over time, and in this sense, to write the truly “spectacular” self is to write to the future. Because as you write it, in that time, it must be by definition unworthy, and by somebody’s standards even shameful, or better, shameless. Something to be pilloried, in service to the spectacle of your shamelessness.

Pillory this. Grizzuti and the Times did, bless ‘em, and I guess from that perspective there‘s an edge of flattery in it. Otherwise, why me? Under the Rose, my first non-academic book, had come out of CUNY’s Feminist Press, so minor and semi-academic a publishing house by Times standards that not one of its best books had yet had a single dedicated review within their pages. Mine should have been an equivalent non-event, yet they gave it a full-page that Sunday, with artwork, no less, page 9.

John Updike was there a week later.

Maybe BGH hated my book for good literary reasons, but I doubt it. Her deft surgical skills were simply at the service of a special version of the normative—hers, of course, but also the Times‘ then, before the scandals that made Catholic pretensions to purity fair game. You and I know that if it were true that “none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness,” there’d be a lot fewer book reviews than memoirs.

This is good to remember, to score up there on the wall (as one of my writer-friends does) with other great self-help mantras. It also self-helped (it still does) that Under the Rose went to press with the imprimaturs not just of Marilyn French but of Nuala O’Faolain and Sandra Gilbert, both brilliant memoirists, both sometime Catholics, and both household saints in my calendar. I wonder by my own litmus test whether I really was “writing to the future” if some pretty testy other reviewers said some pretty nice things about Under the Rose in some pretty good places.

But back then, of course, in the fresh wake of Grizzuti, it didn’t matter who liked it. Behind that thick bark of ego she gave me there was barely a trickle of self-love left for savoring praise. Only weeks before that review was published my father had died—the patriarch who’d figured so huge in my story that I’d once actually thought of calling it Father—and the very Sunday it appeared I was in flight to California to help empty his house.

For a while, I’d say his death probably silenced me more than Grizzuti. Remembering it now makes me wonder what else I lost, or had to lose? Well, some things I thought I wanted, like the respect of my academic colleagues, the more careerist of whom instantly smelled Times roadkill and cut me off. It took awhile for me to see that academic cachet was something I’d already begun to de-value—otherwise why write a memoir in the first place? Maybe they’d known that before I did.

Could be, then, whatever else I lost, whatever still hangs somewhere in that vague .alt universe, was some of the same stuff—stuff I only thought I wanted.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #3:
We have more than one life to live, and more than one voice to give.

I had a lot of possible voices from the beginning. So it could be that the right analogy for that review was not a laryngectomy but a stink-bomb. It emptied the building. But it didn’t take long to hear the riot of squatters rumbling up the stairs to fill the place. All those voices! They may have been attached to the same maimed name, but they had something, spectacular or not, still left in them to say.

milk-of-almonds-cover-alaya

I was nearly immediately invited to contribute to two anthologies, one a group of Italian American women writing on food and culture (a short story, “Love Lettuce,” to The Milk of Almonds (Feminist Press, 2002); and an essay for a gathering of mostly Catholic feminists on their complicated attachments to the Church (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate” in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?, the University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, a publication that, by the way, merits a special little Grizzuti-star).

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But my favorite re-gift came from an Italian scholar with a passion for sex and the sacred, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who trumped the grimly silent Academy (and it must be my formidable ego that makes me LOVE to repeat this story) by making Under the Rose a cameo text at a conference session of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York. (Serena is a serious trip: see her own memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, 2006, and her website.)

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And then, as you know, the future—or one of the futures—I was writing to came maybe sooner than anybody expected, and what is fondly termed the Priestly Pedophilia Scandal burst on the culture scene.

Almost immediately, a Dublin publisher (New Island Press) contracted to do their own edition of Under the Rose.

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Whereupon the Irish—who live in such an intimately conflicted family relationship with the Church, bought it, read it, reviewed it (quite soberly and generously), eventually made a half-hour TV movie about it, and seemed generally delighted to deflect attention away from the boys, and in the direction of my consensual, heterosexual, and mostly cavorting relationship with an utterly charismatic, brilliantly political, and howlingly funny Irish-American person who was, as it happened, also a priest “to the bone.”

Still, I have never published another book. Those “squatter” voices, a half-dozen or so like this one, slip in and slip away. Some are quite true, not ringers, slowly reclaiming the place now that the furniture in the apartment is a bit ratty but less odiferous.

I keep telling myself I have to get some new furniture. Or a whole new apartment—my ever recidivist self-love certain that there’s an absolutely brilliant historical novel in me…or maybe a series of murder mysteries, a theme on which I’ve become more expert with time.

But I cannot tell a lie. I was probably never meant to tell anything but true stories, truly. I regret that I didn’t devote more craft to making my one big book three smaller and better ones. And now I’d love to pull together a collection of hilariously picaresque true tales about my rogue of a lover-husband on this, my second time around.

flavia-and-husband

FLAVIA ALAYA, who dubs herself “a writer of all work,” professed cultural history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and helped found its original School of Intercultural Studies. (Sub)versions of infamy and secrecy attract her: her first book, a Harvard Press biography of Anglo-Scot writer William Sharp, is the still-standard account of his masquerade as a female poet (“Fiona Macleod”). Later work pioneered a feminist revaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the disparaged English poet who was, of course, also a consummate (if more discreet) memoirist.

But a little like Elizabeth, Flavia has always been too love-struck for the perfect feminist, and when her partner, star labor and immigration historian—and Roman Catholic priest—Harry Browne, died of leukemia in 1980, the project of writing about him—about them—seemed a way to prolong their life together. The adventures detailed inside this memoir made for a rocky manuscript adventure outside it that didn’t end (as you’ll see) with its publication by the Feminist Press in 1999.

But the “writer of all work” scrubs on, maybe more in the kitchen than the front parlor. As a civil rights advocate post-9/11 she wrote immigration detention exposés (and recounted anti-detention street activism) for the online journal CounterPunch. But always under the spell of city life and culture, her skills have turned not just to preservation activism but to “scripting the (local) landscape” as a form of community resistance to change, a vaguely subversive culture underground. From New York’s West Side to Paterson, New Jersey, small books—hidden histories revealed—like Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian, Silk and Sandstone, and Bridge Street to Freedom (a multi-layered account of the landmarking of a station of the Underground Railroad) have become a favorite medium. In collaboration with a local sports maven, she recently unpacked the lively story of Paterson’s Depression-era Negro Leagues stadium into a successful National Register application and a website.

Two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation writing fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center helped complete her memoir and then carry forward a draft novel on the life and amazing disappeared career of Joseph McDonnell, once-flamboyant Fenian, cofounder of the First International, editor of the long-lived Paterson Labor Standard, and pioneer author of the first progressive labor legislation in New Jersey. She has paused in this unfinished business to script narratives of industrial, labor and women’s history into the landscape of Bridgeton, New Jersey, her new base, as well as home of the largest historic district in the state.

How to write a really good query letter, part IX, in which you will repeat after me until you believe it: there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent; there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent; there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every single agent…

crack-in-the-stonescrack-in-the-stones

As promised, we’re nearing the end my series on how to write a better-than-average query letter — if, by the end of Labor Day week, your query letter is not polished to a high gloss, I shall not be to blame.

What’s on the agenda after that? Well, as much as I would like to switch our discussion back to craft immediately thereafter — yes, yes, I know: I’m pining for it, too, and I have a dangerously tall stack of reader questions to revisit — I’m aware that many of you will be sending out requested materials this month. (Congratulations, successful pitchers and queriers!) So although I took a brief run at the topic just before I started this series, I shall be revisiting it at greater length, addressing such burning issues as is there a proper running order for a submission packet?what kind of box should I ship my manuscript in? and the ever-popular what the heck is a SASE, anyway? After that, I will be taking a quick jaunt through the ins and outs of crafting a Millicent-intriguing synopsis, completing my guided tour of the query packet.

I know, I know: not scintillating, perhaps, but definitely practical. If you have any lingering questions on the subject that you’d like me to address, the next week or so would be a dandy time to leave a comment on the subject.

You know how much I enjoy being thorough. Let’s turn our attention back to query letter diagnostics.

And already eyes across the English-speaking world roll. “Isn’t there an easier way to go about this?” the time-strapped cry. “No offense, Anne, but you’ve been making me concentrate so intensely on a single piece of paper that every fiber of my being ties itself in a sailor’s knot at the very mention of a query. On top of everything you’ve pointed out here, I’m also going to have to do some research on each of the agents to whom I intend to address my highly-personalized queries. PLEASE tell me that I won’t need to write an entirely fresh missive for each one.”

Not entirely, no: quite a few paragraphs will probably be recyclable, unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Because like any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

Thus this series: the goal here is not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these are not generalists.

Which means, to put it bluntly, that while their Millicents share common pet peeves, they are all looking for different things in a query letter.

For the record, I don’t believe that there IS such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It’s as simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I have been going over here tends to work well; it has a proven track record across many book categories.

However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive to even the best knitting book today. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation.

A strategic-minded querier can, however, avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, just after Labor Day, or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1.

Trust me, all of those New Year’s resolution-fulfillers will provide her with more than enough reading material to keep her cross and rejection-happy for a few weeks. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then. Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street.

My point is, there will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

Frankly, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll have to pass in the margins of my missive — as if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

To tell you the truth, this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me, and like many writers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know.

But the fact is, whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when my query — or my manuscript, or my published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you CAN control. Speaking of which, let’s recap our checklist so far.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

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

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

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

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

Everyone happy with those? Taking that stunned silence for a no, I shall press forward.

(23) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
This is true of submissions as well: while honourjudgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are technically incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border.

Tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience: the agent. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you?

(24) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?
You’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms. Like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious querying space to state outright what KIND of a book you are shopping around.

This is a business run on categories, people: pick one. Tell the nice agent where your book will be sitting in a bookstore, and do it in the language that people in the publishing industry use.

The fact is, any agent will have to tell any editor what genre your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it up front. (If you’re unclear on why, please see my earlier post on the importance of identifying the book category in a verbal pitch.) So go ahead and state it up front.

If you’re in serious doubt about the proper term, dash to your nearest major bookstore, start pulling books similar to yours off the shelf in your chosen section, and look on the back cover: most publishers will list the book’s category either in the upper left-hand corner or in the box with the bar code.

Then replace the books tidily on the shelf, of course. (Had I mentioned that I’m a librarian’s daughter? I can prove it, too: Shhh!)

(25) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance Travelogue or Time-Travel Thriller.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such names are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller be bad?

I hate to break this to you, but in quite a number of ways. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that he’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that he’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put MY book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course; agents make their clients commit all the time. But being stubborn about it isn’t going to help you convince Millicent that you’re a professional, either.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. Which is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Fantasy-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are marketed.”

(26) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail next week, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. But if you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth: just leave out this paragraph.

Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(27) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a NF author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means — and I do seem to being blunt quite a bit today, don’t I? — that a nonfiction query letter that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected.

And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir. I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter — the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(28) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Chester Smith says this is the most moving book about trout fishing he’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on Oprah. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones received within a single month.

Is this the last of the query checklist? Not by a long shot, my friends, but as we’ve all been working so hard this week, I have a little treat in store for you tomorrow, an inspirational little tale to help you keep your eye on the reason that you’re going to all of this trouble in the first place.

So don’t forget to tune in tomorrow — and, of course, to keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

Weren’t expecting that last one, were you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

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

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

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

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

Good. Let’s move on.

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

Getting the picture?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2) What do you remember about the second?

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

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

I rest my case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VII: differentiating yourself from the rest of the crowd intent upon storming the castle

angry-mob
Still hanging in there, everyone? Or are you getting a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail?

Actually, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you had the opposite reaction: visiting the site, glancing at the title, exclaiming, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that!” and clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum. Who could blame the hasty retreaters? For the past few posts, I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, and unbound manuscripts, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent the agency screener rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

You hadn’t been thinking of your query letter as part of an implacable daily onslaught, had you? Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the inevitability of a query letter’s being part of that perpetually angry mob — and how to avoid sounding in your query letter as if you are wielding the third pitchfork from the left.

Why might that be to your advantage, you ask? Novelty, among other things: you wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. (If you don’t know why a query letter’s sounding generic is a bad idea, please see my earlier post in this series on the dreaded cloning effect.)

The other reason is — wait for it — professionalism. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad summary statements (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (Dear Agent: please read my book) makes their work seem professional. If the query reads just like what they’ve seen online, they reason, it has to be good, right?

Not necessarily. Typically, if it reads that way, it’s just like a good half of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle. Next!

But when a query is unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. For a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

Why? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing lurching about Geneva belongs to him. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F to open the door, she’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying her secret laboratory where he dabbles in revivifying the dead.

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to catch her eye, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the angry mob’s attempts to get her attention.

Okay, so that analogy was a trifle forced; very few of the screeners of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latte, right?

My point is, in the face of a constant barrage of queries, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. Our goal in this series is to rid your letter of the most common rejection-provokers.

And before anyone says it: yes, yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your manuscript. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.

To pull out my broken record again: please, before you ask yourself the following questions, read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where — long-time readers, chant it with me now — you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem.

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time.

And if you don’t read it aloud IN HARD COPY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the guilt wagon now and back onto the checklist trail. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much in it?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

Everyone clear on those? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not. While you’re formulating questions, let’s move on.

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?
This may seem like a draconian question, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if the first paragraph rambled? Or, heaven forefend, contained a typo or two?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

I have been dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. (Yet another reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

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

Frequently, authors get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

Here’s a quick way to tell if your letter is hitting the mark: unearth that book keynote you came up with earlier in this series for a pitch, and compare it with your summary paragraph in the query. Do they read as though they are describing the same book?

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book ready to hand? That’s 1-5 entire, glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Did I hear a few gasps out there? “But Anne,” I hear those timorous about storming the castle cry, “the agency’s listing in the standard agency guide and/or website does not mention sending a synopsis with my query. I thought I was supposed to send only EXACTLY what the agent requested?”

Well caught, oh anonymous voices: sending only what is requested is indeed the rule for SUBMISSIONS. And obviously, you should check what the particular agency wants to see. If an agency asks for something special in its querying guidelines, such as the first 5 pages of your manuscript (the agency that represents yours truly encourages writers to send a first chapter, but that’s rare), you should send precisely that.

However, most agencies do not spell out so clearly what they want to see stuffed in that query envelope: even the most cursory flip through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents will produce many repetitions of the minimal phrase query with SASE that it becomes slightly hypnotic.

In my experience, the Millicents at such agencies may not always read an included synopsis, but they don’t go around automatically rejecting queries that include them, either. With one exception: if a synopsis is sent as an attachment with an e-mail query.

Actually, it’s pretty much always a mistake to send an attachment with either a query or a submission; unless the agent specifically requests it, it will almost always go unread. Most agencies have policies against opening unrequested attachments, so if you include a synopsis with your e-query, add it in the body of the message, after the letter itself.

In a paper query, I think a good synopsis is usually worth including, provided that it is brief, well-written, and professional. (If the very idea of producing such a synopsis makes you wince, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category on the list at right.) Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book.

Within the query letter itself, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
This is a tough one for most queriers — as we discussed in my recent Pitching 101 series, the overwhelming majority of queriers and pitchers resort to vague generalities in order to cram as much plot into that short descriptive paragraph as humanly possible.

The result: a whole lot of summaries that sound pretty generic. One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Not the best strategy when one is trying to convince an agent that the book in question is DIFFERENT from what’s already on the market. As in a pitch, the first commandment is thou shalt not bore, and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

So why not spice things up with details that only you could devise?

Remember, too, that a query letter, like everything else an aspiring writer submits to an agency, is a writing sample; you’re going to want your summary to show off your well-honed storytelling skills (for fiction or creative NF) and/or argumentative acumen (for NF). In addition, you’re going to want to make your story concept or argument sound fresh.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we pull all that off in a brief paragraph? In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words. It’s still a great strategy.

As I argued in an earlier post on pitch construction, what makes a book summary memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not usually its overall arc but its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details. Remember, your goal in the query letter is not to tell the book’s entire plot or reproduce its primary argument, but to present its premise in a way that invites further scrutiny.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

<>Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle. On the rebound from a ten-year marriage with Parisian bassoonist Serge, Gisèle scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say clichè-ridden.

Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil’s…

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

Worn out from that extensive compare-and-contrast exercise? Let’s take a break with a simple yes or no question.

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches and synopses, are ALWAYS written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know this because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: THE SUMMARY SHOULD BE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.”

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

Oh, and before it slips my mind: all too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

That was restful, wasn’t it? I could shift back to the knottier questions, but I think that’s enough for you to think about for the nonce.

As long as you remember this: what makes a manuscript or book proposal great is not how similar it is to already-published books, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché— or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t. In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them.

But as you do, never forget that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VII: differentiating yourself from the rest of the crowd intent upon storming the castle

angry-mob
Still hanging in there, everyone? Or are you getting a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail?

Actually, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of you had the opposite reaction: visiting the site, glancing at the title, exclaiming, “Oh, I don’t want to think about that!” and clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum. Who could blame the hasty retreaters? For the past few posts, I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, and unbound manuscripts, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent the agency screener rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

You hadn’t been thinking of your query letter as part of an implacable daily onslaught, had you? Today, I’m going to talk a bit about the inevitability of a query letter’s being part of that perpetually angry mob — and how to avoid sounding in your query letter as if you are wielding the third pitchfork from the left.

Why might that be to your advantage, you ask? Novelty, among other things: you wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. (If you don’t know why a query letter’s sounding generic is a bad idea, please see my earlier post in this series on the dreaded cloning effect.)

The other reason is — wait for it — professionalism. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad summary statements (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (Dear Agent: please read my book) makes their work seem professional. If the query reads just like what they’ve seen online, they reason, it has to be good, right?

Not necessarily. Typically, if it reads that way, it’s just like a good half of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle. Next!

But when a query is unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. For a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

Why? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing lurching about Geneva belongs to him. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F to open the door, she’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying her secret laboratory where he dabbles in revivifying the dead.

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to catch her eye, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the angry mob’s attempts to get her attention.

Okay, so that analogy was a trifle forced; very few of the screeners of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latte, right?

My point is, in the face of a constant barrage of queries, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. Our goal in this series is to rid your letter of the most common rejection-provokers.

And before anyone says it: yes, yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your manuscript. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail.

To pull out my broken record again: please, before you ask yourself the following questions, read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where — long-time readers, chant it with me now — you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem.

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time.

And if you don’t read it aloud IN HARD COPY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the guilt wagon now and back onto the checklist trail. Let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much in it?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

Everyone clear on those? Now would be an excellent time to speak up, if not. While you’re formulating questions, let’s move on.

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?
This may seem like a draconian question, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if the first paragraph rambled? Or, heaven forefend, contained a typo or two?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

I have been dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. (Yet another reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

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

Frequently, authors get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

Here’s a quick way to tell if your letter is hitting the mark: unearth that book keynote you came up with earlier in this series for a pitch, and compare it with your summary paragraph in the query. Do they read as though they are describing the same book?

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book ready to hand? That’s 1-5 entire, glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Did I hear a few gasps out there? “But Anne,” I hear those timorous about storming the castle cry, “the agency’s listing in the standard agency guide and/or website does not mention sending a synopsis with my query. I thought I was supposed to send only EXACTLY what the agent requested?”

Well caught, oh anonymous voices: sending only what is requested is indeed the rule for SUBMISSIONS. And obviously, you should check what the particular agency wants to see. If an agency asks for something special in its querying guidelines, such as the first 5 pages of your manuscript (the agency that represents yours truly encourages writers to send a first chapter, but that’s rare), you should send precisely that.

However, most agencies do not spell out so clearly what they want to see stuffed in that query envelope: even the most cursory flip through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents will produce many repetitions of the minimal phrase query with SASE that it becomes slightly hypnotic.

In my experience, the Millicents at such agencies may not always read an included synopsis, but they don’t go around automatically rejecting queries that include them, either. With one exception: if a synopsis is sent as an attachment with an e-mail query.

Actually, it’s pretty much always a mistake to send an attachment with either a query or a submission; unless the agent specifically requests it, it will almost always go unread. Most agencies have policies against opening unrequested attachments, so if you include a synopsis with your e-query, add it in the body of the message, after the letter itself.

In a paper query, I think a good synopsis is usually worth including, provided that it is brief, well-written, and professional. (If the very idea of producing such a synopsis makes you wince, I would urge you to consult the HOW TO WRITE A SYNOPSIS category on the list at right.) Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book.

Within the query letter itself, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
This is a tough one for most queriers — as we discussed in my recent Pitching 101 series, the overwhelming majority of queriers and pitchers resort to vague generalities in order to cram as much plot into that short descriptive paragraph as humanly possible.

The result: a whole lot of summaries that sound pretty generic. One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Not the best strategy when one is trying to convince an agent that the book in question is DIFFERENT from what’s already on the market. As in a pitch, the first commandment is thou shalt not bore, and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

So why not spice things up with details that only you could devise?

Remember, too, that a query letter, like everything else an aspiring writer submits to an agency, is a writing sample; you’re going to want your summary to show off your well-honed storytelling skills (for fiction or creative NF) and/or argumentative acumen (for NF). In addition, you’re going to want to make your story concept or argument sound fresh.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we pull all that off in a brief paragraph? In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words. It’s still a great strategy.

As I argued in an earlier post on pitch construction, what makes a book summary memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not usually its overall arc but its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details. Remember, your goal in the query letter is not to tell the book’s entire plot or reproduce its primary argument, but to present its premise in a way that invites further scrutiny.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

<>Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle. On the rebound from a ten-year marriage with Parisian bassoonist Serge, Gisèle scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.

Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil…

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

Worn out from that extensive compare-and-contrast exercise? Let’s take a break with a simple yes or no question.

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches and synopses, are ALWAYS written in the present tense. Even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know this because the synopsis fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: THE SUMMARY SHOULD BE IN THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.”

It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time. But then, so are the querying and submission processes, frequently.

Oh, and before it slips my mind: all too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, say so; go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

That was restful, wasn’t it? I could shift back to the knottier questions, but I think that’s enough for you to think about for the nonce.

As long as you remember this: what makes a manuscript or book proposal great is not how similar it is to already-published books, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t. In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them.

But as you do, never forget that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part V: before you pop that query into the mail, let’s listen to a few golden oldies

animated envelope cat-mailanimated envelope

We’ve just been zipping through the diagnosis and treatment of the ailments from which your garden-variety query letter tends to suffer, haven’t we? There’s a good reason for that: many, many aspiring writers stateside will be using the upcoming Labor Day long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters and submissions, and I wanted my readers to have freshly updated advice on hand for the beginning of the autumn foray.

Are those of you reading this outside the United States wondering why that particular holiday is so popular for query and submission preparation? Could it perhaps be that we like to celebrate our Puritan and commercial national heritage (contrary to the history offered in 5th-grade Thanksgiving pageants, the rather mercenary Jamestown settlement was established prior to the Pilgrims’ landing on Plymouth Rock, seeking religious freedom), US citizens are actually required to work toward the pursuit of happiness on Labor Day? Is it a holiday to celebrate how few holidays from work we get around here?

Not precisely: Labor Day was established in recognition of the union movement. You know, the folks that brought us the concept of weekends off in the first place.

No, the popularity of querying and/or submitting immediately after Labor Day stems from three sources. First, the holiday marks the beginning of the US school year, so many aspiring writers think of it as a good time to start something fresh, like an intensive querying campaign. (A similar logic prompts scads of queriers and submitters to pop things in the mail just after New Year’s Day.)

Second, as those of you who have been following Author! Author! all month are already aware, much of the NYC-based publishing industry goes on vacation between the second week of August and Labor Day. (So for those of you who already have agents sitting home and gnawing your nails over submissions to editors: even if the editor of your dreams liked it, s/he probably would not have been able to pull an editorial committee together this month to discuss acquiring your book.) Thus, just as it makes more sense to avoid querying or submitting during the notoriously quorum-defeating holiday-laden days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, many savvy aspiring writers choose to spend August revising, rather than popping queries or submissions into envelopes.

Third, and not entirely unrelated to the second reason, Labor Day marks the dividing line between the summer writers’ conference season and the fall conference season, so pitchers who received requests for materials over the summer are starting to feel antsy about sending out those submissions. (Don’t worry; another week’s worth of proofreading won’t harm your book’s chances.)

The cumulative result: Millicent and her cronies will be dragging into the office nine days hence, only to be greeted by (in some cases) a month’s worth of queries and submissions. So it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a couple of weeks or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood.

Okay, okay, I’ll admit it: in addition to those excellent practical reasons, I have an ulterior motive for urging you not to pop those queries in the mail just yet. I’d much, much rather devote an extra week or two on the topic than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Do I see some hands being thrown skyward out there? “But Anne,” I hear those of you with query letters on the point of being stuffed into already-addressed envelopes, “isn’t this a trifle redundant? After all, you’ve been talking for the last few posts about big problems to which query letters are prone, so aren’t you preaching to the choir here?”

You’ve got a point there, hand-flingers: I, too, would dearly like to believe that all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid the major pitfalls. In fact, over the course of the last four+ years (can you believe I’ve been blogging for that long?), all of us here at Author! Author! have worked pretty hard to produce that outcome.

Go, Team Literate!

I must confess, though, that I worry about the reader who found this blog only a week ago, my friends, as well as the one who started reading faithfully just a few months back. These fine folks have not yet lived through one of my troubleshooting series — and, hard as it may be to imagine, not everyone has the hours — or, at this point, days — to spare to troll my archives. (Helpful hint to those in a hurry: the HOW TO categories on the list at right contain the briefest sets of explanations of a number of basic writerly skills, like query-generating; lengthier, more detailed accounts lurk under other category headings.)

Before those of you who have worked through one of my querying series before and lived to tell the tale decide to blow off the rest of this post in order to dash outside into that nice summer day, I hasten to add: I’m not going over this material again only for the sake of new or archive-shy readers. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent the agency screener’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. So please, even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of common query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record:

broken-record unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never — well, almost never — turns out like that. And out comes the broken record player again:

broken-record Writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve seen over the last few posts. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on fine-tuning the delicate art of diagnosis.

Word to the wise: even if you have already run your query through the wringer of my last set of diagnostic posts, you might want to cast your eye over these as well. Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-record the querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue. It’s as competitive now as it has been in my lifetime — and I’m not nearly so young as I look.

Seriously, it’s a jungle out there, to coin a phrase, so I have beefed up the questions this time around. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my earlier advice, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-record re-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-record as much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

broken-record Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier — and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute, because it’s too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I covered this earlier in this series, speaking of broken records, but it bears repeating: even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety. I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visual-aid-assisted run-down on why their being able to tell is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-record you must indent your paragraphs. No exceptions; business format is not acceptable here.

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-record don’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page; just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. All too often, the plot or argument description overflows its allotted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected THIS agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-record Remember, your job here is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 30 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But (feel free to sing along; you should all know the words by now)

broken-record Millicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

And even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not be the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I know — shocking.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began, Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…

A close second: I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client; I’ll be talking a bit about that next month) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

Speaking of which…

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but you wouldn’t believe how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph? Because, as I mentioned earlier in this series,

broken-record the vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected. Therefore, the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to TELL, as well as show.

If your first paragraph doesn’t tell Millicent either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query her (having spoken to her at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific of you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. But won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest in the first paragraph of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, absolutely, but not the best way to pitch your work.

A query is not the place to express querying fatigue. Try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first. No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation. Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you.

No, no matter HOW long you’ve been shopping your book around. Speaking of overly-effusive politeness,

broken-record if you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.”

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. In-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

And yes, this remains true even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, do.)

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I mentioned earlier in this series,

broken-record every agent and screener in the biz already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!” Such inflated claims make a manuscript seem LESS marketable, ultimately, not more.

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever.

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Why, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Why, it’s almost as though I had been thinking ahead when I designed the Pitching 101 series.

Perhaps that’s because figuring out how to identify your book’s target market and a few reasons that your book would appeal to that demographic were exercises we did earlier in the summer. (If you missed that part of the PITCHING 101 series, I have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right.)

Which means that all of you out there who have been following this series the whole time should give yourselves a big ol’ pat on the back: you’ve spent the last six weeks assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

So well done, everybody. Tomorrow, I shall continue with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep listening to those golden oldies, everyone, and keep up the good work!