Queryfest, part XXVIII: not so sorry I could not travel both

Since I have been sneaking discussions of memoir craft and marketing — matters discussed thoughtfully online with astonishing rarity, for some reason — into our last few posts on querying, I would like to begin today with a commendation for reader Marc, who goes by the moniker Marc in MD on the Daily Kos. He’s been running a genuinely interesting and helpful series of posts there on the often frustrating and abstruse process of pulling together a nonfiction book proposal and sending it out to agents. In particular, I would strongly recommend his really good post on the process of figuring out what one’s book’s competition actually is to anyone even considering writing a proposal. Well done, Marc!

Speaking of memoir (again), I didn’t feel that I could close Queryfest’s examination of memoir querying without talking about a travel memoir. Travel memoir querying presents its own special joys challenges, does it not? On the bright side, it usually has a pretty well-defined story arc: the memoirist generally begins in an environment not too dissimilar from his target audience’s, travels to an environment quite dissimilar, then returns. Or doesn’t, as the mood and world events strike; there have been quite a few perfectly wonderful travel memoirs by writers who only returned to their native lands in book form. In any case, there’s a trajectory defined by Here, There, and how the protagonist was changed by the experience of moving between them.

That level of clarity about where to begin and end the book might well strike some non-travel memoirists as enviable. Not being sure what to include and what to glide past as summary is, after all, one of the fundamental dilemmas of the memoir trade. Few of us have been lucky enough to live lives featuring a self-evident story arc — or, thank goodness, unlucky enough to live ones in which every waking moment was stuffed to the gills with dramatic tension.

Let’s face it, just chronicling every event, meaningless and not, would be stultifying on the page. The art of memoir lies largely in selection, picking and choosing amongst the detritus of a life well lived to produce one heck of a story.

The travel memoirist must be selective as well, of course; the time she checked her luggage at J.F.K. is going to thrill readers considerably less, in all likelihood, than the incident in which she rescued that troupe of traveling acrobats from an angry mob of marauding squid. But the very fact of picking up and moving from one part of the globe to another automatically provides at least the rudiments of a dramatic structure.

Two roads may well have diverged in a yellow wood, but dag nab it, you didn’t travel both. You’re going to write about the one less traveled.

Yet at the querying stage, presenting that particular road’s appeal to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, can be awfully difficult. And all too often, your garden-variety travel memoirist does not even realize that he needs to make the case that a reader will want to follow him — as opposed to any other traveler — through that yellow wood at all.

Those of you who just felt a wave of nausea washing over you are not in fact seasick. You’re merely savvy enough about memoir marketing to realize that I’m about to bring up the dreaded matter of platform.

Platform, for those of you new to the term, is the array of experience, credentials, research, and/or celebrity status (however defined) that makes a writer uniquely qualified to write a particular nonfiction book — and, equally important, will make potential readers believe s/he is the best person in the known universe to write it. In nonfiction circles, great writing generally is not enough to sell a book to a publisher; a great platform is usually necessary as well.

Why bring this unpleasant concept up now, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to all of you memoirists (but if I don’t, who will?), but at querying time, what’s going to convince Millicent that her boss, the agent of your dreams, absolutely needs to take a gander at your book proposal is not merely how beautifully you describe the story arc of your memoir, but your platform for writing it.

I sense many of you clutching at your hearts, gasping for breath, but honestly, saying that a nonfiction writer requires a platform is not as limiting as you may think. Platforms come in all shapes and sizes. Someone who has actually climbed K2, for instance, would be inherently more credible writing about the ascent experience than someone who had not, but then, a professor who had devoted the last 15 years to the study of mountaineering could also write authoritatively about it, merely from a different perspective. Then, too, a baby born halfway up might have some interesting things to say about the mother who bore her in transit, as would the journalist whose beat included interviewing everyone who made the ascent. And there’s just no denying that the movie star clambering a third of the way up in order to research a role might well be able to sell a few books about crampons.

My point, should you care to know it, is that contrary to perennial rumors endemic to the writers’ conference circuit, one does not have to be a celebrity in the appearing-on-a-sitcom sense in order to have a convincing platform for writing a particular story. Although even the most cursory glance at the memoirs currently gracing the shelves of a well-stocked bookstore will tell you that having appeared on TV certainly helps.

So does winning an Oscar. Or a presidential election. I’m guessing, though, that those fortunate enough already to be household names (or unfortunate enough, depending upon one’s perspective) are not much given to trawling the Internet for querying advice.

Legions of travel memoirists have had their hands raised patiently since I first brought up platform, I notice. “But Anne,” you intrepid souls protest, and who could blame you? “I have the best conceivable platform for my story: I actually lived it. I took the trip in question, and I happen to be talented enough to write about it exceedingly well. Since that’s self-evident — I could hardly have written about the experience, at least as nonfiction, had I not experienced it — I don’t need to worry about presenting a platform in my query, right?”

Oh, how many memoirists fall into that trap! And with good reason: it’s hard to argue that dear self is not the world’s leading authority on one’s own life.

But that’s true of any memoirist, right? If simply being a true story written by the person who lived it were sufficient to assure Millicent’s attention, all a memoir querier would have to do would be to say, “Hey, this is my story.”

And, indeed, that is more or less what most memoir queriers do. The result tends to look a bit like this — and, as always, if you’re having trouble reading this or any query example, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

“Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who haven’t been working your way through Queryfest scoff. “The average memoir query isn’t that bad.”

Okay, you caught me: it isn’t. The spelling is usually far worse.

Seriously, you’d be astounded at how often Millicent sees memoir queries with no sign of any platform at all. It’s not precisely that these memoirists are expecting her to guess why a reader predisposed to pick up a true story might grab the book being queried, as opposed to any other, off the bookstore shelf — but honestly, they might as well. Because, as you can see, poor Millie is left to speculate. Can you really blame her for assuming — correctly or not — that if the query doesn’t mention a platform, the writer doesn’t have one?

I hear you gulp, memoirists, but lest we forget, just because something really happened does not necessarily mean it will make gripping reading. Let’s go ahead and coin an aphorism: For a memoir query to be successful, it must make evident not only the premise of the story being told, but also why the storyteller is credible — and why a reader would want to read her tale.

That should not come as a tremendous surprise, I hope, to the Queryfest faithful. As we already know, a nonfiction query needs to contain all of the following elements:

1. The book’s title.

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms. If the category does not make it apparent that the book is nonfiction, the query should say so.

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

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

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

6. (Optional, but still a good idea.) A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.

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

8. The writer’s contact information in all cases, and a SASE if querying by mail.

Poor IB’s query above, as you may see, does not deliver on a number of these points. The letter is devoid of a platform paragraph, as well as any indication of the target readership. Millicent is left equally in the dark about why IB chose to query her boss at all. Instead, IB throws away valuable query space in informing her — repeatedly — of something that she already knows: that a memoir is, by definition, the true story of something that happened to the writer.

Travel memoirists fall into this particular trap quite often, and for precisely the same reason IB did: they don’t think about the necessity of establishing a platform. Why bother? Just as it is tempting to believe that being the person who actually lived through the described experiences is a sufficient platform for any memoir, with a travel memoir, the justification tends to be I came, I saw, I wrote about it.

To Millicent’s eye, however, that’s only the beginning. She also wants to know what makes this travel experience worthy of an entire book, rather than, say, an article or two? And if a particular traveling experience can indeed carry a 300-page memoir — and many can — what renders this traveler more qualified to write about it than another?

Well might you shift uncomfortably, travel memoirists. These are pretty pointed questions, ones that many memoirists would prefer not to address. “Why, it was an interesting experience!” these fine souls cry indignantly. “And I’m a good writer. Why shouldn’t I write about it?”

Calm down, indignant travelers: no one is saying that you shouldn’t delve in to the highly competitive (especially since EAT, PRAY, LOVE) travel memoir market. But at the risk of repeating myself, the mere fact that a talented writer happened to take a specific trip does not necessarily a strong memoir make. Yes, it all depends on the writing, but as with any nonfiction book, quality of the writing is not the only factor an agent would have to consider in weighing whether she can sell a proposal. She also has to consider platform, the array of credentials, name recognition, and experience that renders an author a credible author for that particular book — and that the publishing house can legitimately use to make that case to potential readers.

Yes, for a travel memoir, the writer does in fact need to have the trip in question and write about it well. Those are necessary qualifications, but not sufficient — and that comes as a great surprise to most first-time memoirists, whether or not they are writing about travel. Even though they produce book proposals, like any other aspiring nonfiction writer, they tend not to think of themselves as what they are in the publishing industry’s eyes: writers applying for the job of writing a particular book.

For that reason, a platform paragraph is as indispensable in a memoir query as in any other nonfiction query. Unless Millicent knows what your platform is, how can she assess whether you are the best conceivable author for this particular story?

Still, I sense some skepticism floating around out there in the ether. “Okay, Anne,” a travel memoirist pipes up, “I can see where that makes sense for your run-of-the-mill memoir, or even one for a relatively mundane trip. But I traveled to an exotic place! I saw amazing things! And, fortunately for my memoir’s story arc, I also did some darned interesting things! Surely, in my case, the story’s appeal would be self-evident to Millicent.”

I wouldn’t bet on that, traveling man; in order to request your book proposal, she’s still going to have to make the case to your boss that she might be able to sell your story. That’s true, I’m afraid, no matter how inherently fascinating a first-person travel account may be.

But some of you are not going to believe that, I see, until I give you a concrete example. And why should you?

Please join me, then, in considering a query submitted by brave, intrepid, and resourceful Author! Author! reader Dorothy Gale. (Not her real name, of course.) Clearly, Dorothy has many of the most laudable characteristics of the successful travel memoirists: not only did she take a wildly interesting trip to a far-off land, do many interesting things when she got there, and write about it, she also was courageous enough to volunteer her query for our scrutiny. That’s an author that I’d follow anywhere.

She has even written what the overwhelming majority of travel memoirists would consider a superlative query. It’s well-written, makes the trip sound legitimately fascinating, and seems to be targeted to the right agent. Take a gander:

I could quibble a bit about formatting — the date and closing are pretty far from the actual center of the page, and there is only one space after the colon in the title, rather than the requisite two — but you must admit, this sounds like one heck of a trip. Good job, Dorothy!

But is that going to be enough to wow Millicent? To answer that question, let’s whip out our list of query requisites again.

1. The book’s title: check.

2. The book’s category: check.

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent: technically, yes, but the vagueness of because of your successful representation of books like… seems a trifle hesitant.

Also, does the repetitive structure of those first two sentences encourage Millicent to read on? Those of us who teach querying like to call this kind of phrasing a checklist opening: yes, all of the necessary elements are present, but they are introduced flatly, as if the writing style in a query didn’t matter.

It does matter, however, very much. Chant it with me, Queryfesters: every syllable of a query is a writing sample, just as much as every word of a submission is. Since agents can only judge writing talent by what’s in front of them, it’s reasonable to expect them to evaluate the query, as well as the synopsis and author bio, for writing quality.

Here, the checklist opening does not do justice to the writing in the rest of the query, let alone the book proposal or manuscript. Look how much stronger the query is if we vary the phrasing and remove the vagueness in that first paragraph — and, while we’re at it, correct those minor formatting quibbles.

More confident-sounding, isn’t it? I shan’t pretend, however, that reworking the wording didn’t require tightening the signature space considerably. Never fear; we shall address that down the line. In the meantime, let’s continue with our list of desirata.

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative’s: this is the query’s strength, and what a strength it is! This description is stuffed to the gills with one-of-a-kind details. I’m delighted to see that Dorothy has done such a bang-up job on the single most important section of her query. Good job, Dot!

Again, we have the necessary element in spades, but does this presentation make the most of the story? To someone who reads as quickly as Millicent, cramming the entire story into a single paragraph is likely to result in some details getting lost. And to what does that line about research refer?

See what a difference it makes to break it up a little. And, because I can’t resist, to punch up the punctuation and tighten the phrasing a bit.

The story jumps off the page now, doesn’t it? Yet still I sense you are not entirely satisfied, you picky folks.

“But Anne!” the sharp-eyed among you cry, and rightly so. “It’s longer than a page now!”

Yes, I know. Didn’t I tell you we would be attending to that once we’d made sure Dorothy’s query included all of the requisite elements? Speaking of which, let’s move on.

5. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book : not a sign of one, other than the obvious, the fact that Dorothy did the things she describes so well.

Again, is that enough? Possibly, but probably not. The case being made here should seem familiar by now: she came, she saw, she wrote about it. Or, as she puts it, because I lived in Nepal and speak fluent Nepali, I am able to bring this world alive from the inside out.

The reference to linguistic skills works well, but Millicent already knows that Dorothy lived in Nepal, doesn’t she? So is repeating it the best means of establishing her platform?

The thing is: I have no idea; it may be. As much as I would love to be able to whip up a convincing list of credentials for our Dorothy, I regret to say that I cannot: I don’t know what her platform is for this book. Her query did not tell me.

Sorry about that. I’m also sorry about the high probability that since Dorothy mentions no credentials, previous publications, or other platform elements, Millicent will simply assume that she doesn’t have any. Which I’m guessing isn’t actually the case here.

Again, though, I don’t know; the query does not provide the information I would need to make that assessment. While I could, for the sake of example, engage in some wildly irresponsible hypothesizing, that wouldn’t really help Dorothy improve her query, would it? Let’s proceed.

6. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does: Dorothy did quite a nice job of this, I think. She makes an excellent case that quite a few potential readers travel to Nepal — and, by implication, might conceivably want to read about it before they go. It is a trifle strange, though, that the statistic she uses is two years old; a more recent statistic would have served the query better.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that this was simply the most recent statistic available when Dorothy wrote her query; it’s not unusual for tourism statistics to take a year or two to come out. What do you think, though, of her contention that only people who have made similar trips will be interested in her story? Do you think that’s the case?

Personally, I would be astounded if that were true; in my professional opinion, she’s limiting her target audience unnecessarily. In my experience, world travelers are not the only people who read travel memoirs. Indeed, the armchair traveler tends to read about many places she never visits in the flesh.

Who else might read this book? Well, for starters, presumably, for every person in the English-speaking world who actually makes it to Nepal, there are five, fifty, or a thousand individuals that want to go but lack the resources, time, and/or gumption, right? And would it be trite of me to suggest that some fraction of the already-established readership for books like the aforementioned EAT, PRAY, LOVE might have some interest in picking up a memoir like this?

I leave that one to your good judgment. But if you’ll permit my nudging your thought processes a little, may I remind you that people in the publishing industry tend to think of target audience in terms of who has a history of buying what kind of book?

7. A brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project: again, the required information is here, but I have to say, the wording feels a trifle abrupt to me.

Why? Well, that bit about the proposal is stating something that Millicent actually will find self-evident. Naturally, Dorothy will send a proposal, if Hawkeye asks for it; Millicent would simply assume that she would not be querying unless she had a completed proposal in hand. So why take up valuable query page space mentioning it?

Especially when, as the eagle-eyed have already pointed out, space is at a premium now. Let’s see if considering our final necessity will show us a way out of that predicament.

8. The writer’s contact information: yes, it’s here, in all of its glory. If only we could fit it on the page!

Happily, there’s a trick to this. Look at how much page space is freed up by the simple expedient of moving the querier’s contact information into the header.

More than enough, as you may see, to tinker with the last couple of paragraphs. The overall effect is pretty compelling, isn’t it?

“Ah,” you will say, “but you have not freed up enough room to add a platform paragraph. What do you plan to do about that, Anne?”

Me? Not a thing: as I said before, I just don’t know enough about Dorothy’s background to whip up a convincing platform paragraph. It’s possible — although, again, I suspect it’s unlikely — that the single best plank in that platform is precisely what she thought it was: that she had lived there.

If so, I would be reluctant to tinker further with this query; Millicent may well be willing to wait until she reads the proposal to learn the ins and outs of Dorothy’s platform. But see how a relatively small number of changes maximizes the argumentative impact of the case she was already making?

If she did decide to add a platform paragraph — and I’m hoping you do, Dot — she could free up the requisite lines in a couple of ways. In a pinch, she could get away with only three skipped lines, rather than four, for the signature (although a classically-trained Millicent would prefer that she didn’t). She could also lose a line of empty space between the date and Hawkeye’s address; there’s some extra space here.

There’s a final expedient that would free up even more room. Any guesses?

I’ll do better than tell you the answer to that question; I shall show you. Heck, I’ll even make up a platform paragraph from whole cloth, just to show you it’s possible to shoehorn one into this letter. Watch me:

Oodles of room, isn’t there? I could even add a reference to EAT, PRAY, LOVE, if I so chose.

Notice, please, that only two of the credentials in the faux platform paragraph are publications — and those are online. They also happen to be credits that Dorothy could self-induce, if you catch my drift.

Hey, if anything is stopping her from starting a blog to begin to attract an audience for her memoir, I certainly don’t know about it. Ditto for any insurmountable impediment to her contacting bloggers and webmasters of sites devoted to travel and asking them if they would be willing to host a charmingly-written guest post.

In case I’m being too subtle here: not having a boatload of previous publications in one’s dock does not mean a writer is platform-free. Be creative, and remember, these days, many writers don’t get paid for their first publication. The goal is to get people to read your writing — and to let Millicent know that they have.

But maybe a list of publications isn’t the best platform for your book, anyway. There’s more than one way to storm a castle, right?

Please join me in thanking Dorothy for her generosity in sharing her query, and in wishing her the best of luck in both her querying and continued travels. Keep up the good work!

Assessing who should be on your query list-palooza, part VIII: learning to recognize a gift when it’s offered

torn bird of paradise

Wow, this has been a sad, strange week, campers. Prime evidence: I gave two — count ‘em, two — friends editorial feedback on their respective fathers’ obituaries, to run in local newspapers in different states. I suppose I am the person even I would call for trustworthy proofreading at a time like that, but still, I can’t help but feel that this has been no ordinary week.

I don’t know if you have ever written an obituary or eulogy, but it’s a strange, sad, marvelous process. Like the bird of paradise above, the result should be beautiful, but it will always appear to fall short of perfection. It requires real art to pull off well: few lives have a single coherent narrative, and most are so complex that the eulogizer must be extremely selective about what to include. Like any other synopsis, it can be written entirely in generalities, naturally, but the best are full of the telling details that could have come from no one else’s life but the dear departed.

I’m not bringing this up purely to depress everyone, I assure you. The necessity to summarize complex realities into a few pithy statements is actually quite germane to a matter we have been discussing at some length of late: how to glean information from agency guide listings and websites, to make sure that your query list includes only those agents genuinely and demonstrably interested in representing your type of book.

And half my readership does a double-take. “But Anne,” logic-huggers everywhere cry, “I don’t see the connection — and by the way, the flaws in that bird of paradise appear to have been externally-inflicted, not intrinsic to the flower itself. How is having to summarize an entire lifetime in a few short paragraphs remotely similar to agents having to boil down the possibly quite wide array of books they have represented, are currently representing, and hope to represent in future to just a few short sentences? Or have I just answered my own question?”

Why, yes, you have, logic-lovers — and good point about the flower. The difference lies in the perspective of the beholder. While no one expects an obituary or eulogy to give a complete picture of every nuance of the living person, aspiring writers frantically scanning agency guides and websites are often disappointed, or even frustrated, to find agents’ preferences expressed in only the most general of terms.

That’s unfortunate, because as I mentioned last time, agencies that give clear indications about what they do and do not want to see in a query or a submission are a boon to the savvy query list-generator: by being up front about what kinds of book projects stand a chance of success in the hands of their screener (our old pal Millicent, to be sure), these agencies save writers of other kinds of manuscripts buckets of time.

How, you ask? Conscientious followers of this series, chant it with me now: querying agents who do not habitually represent books in one’s chosen book category is a waste of an agent-seeking writer’s time and energy.

It’s also, not entirely coincidentally, a waste of Millicent’s time and energy to screen a query for a manuscript her boss would not even consider. That’s why, in case any of you fine folks had been wondering, agencies that are not in the market for first-time authors are usually quite blunt in their guide listings about not being particularly open to submissions from new writers. This is actually kind of them: like the agent who stands up at a conference and says, “By the way, although my agency does represent romances, I don’t, so please don’t pitch them to me,” an outright statement of reluctance in an agency guide can save a writer the time, energy, and disappointment of a fruitless approach.

But that’s not how the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers read such statements in guides and on agency websites, is it? Instead, they hear: you’re not important enough for us to consider or ha! We’ve just slammed a door in your face, newbie. Or even: if you were truly talented, oh previously unpublished one, we would already know who you were. Therefore, since we do not, you must not be a very good writer.

Okay, so that last interpretation is a trifle on the paranoid side. But after several straight hours surfing websites or flipping through guide pages, searching for agents who might conceivably be open to representing one’s groundbreaking SF/Western/Highland romance/cookbook, every indicator of lack of interest in one’s own type of book can start to feel like a personal micro-rejection, right?

Don’t believe that search fatigue affects overall querying patterns? Think again. Just as the alphabetically first-listed businesses under a category in the Yellow Pages tend to get called marginally more often, aspiring writers tend to query the agencies at the beginning of the alphabetical listings more frequently than those whose names begin with, say, L: in the face of so many similar-sounding listings, many queriers simply lose steam midway through the Cs. Because some begin at the end and work backwards through guides, the agencies at the end of the alphabet tend to see slightly more query traffic than those between M and T.

Seriously, it’s true, especially just after the first of the year: a hefty percentage of all of those New Year’s resolution-keepers (“This year, I’m going to start sending out a query each day until I land an agent!”) will pick up a standard agency guide, turn to the As, and work forward, or turn to the Zs and work backward. ?So you might want to avoid the A and B agencies, as well as the W-Zs, until well after the first of the year, to avoid being caught in the January rush.

Don’t worry: the average New Year’s resolution lasts less than three weeks. After Martin Luther King, Jr., day, you can feel free to approach those As and Zs; their Millicents will have worked their way through the piles of mail sufficiently to catch a glimpse of their desks again.

But I am digressing, amn’t I? “But Anne,” admirers of linear thought point out, “we were talking about how to read those listings, weren’t we? As fascinating as those last couple of paragraphs on alphabetical order were, shouldn’t we be getting back to the point?”

So we should, consecutive reasoners. Sometimes, the statements in the guides a trifle ambiguous, as if the agency wants to leave itself a bit of definitional wiggle room. Check out this slightly murky piece of guidance, either culled from the agency guide at my elbow or a figment of my extremely vivid imagination:

In approaching with a query, the most important things to me are your credits and your biographical background to the extent it’s relevant to your work. I (and most agents) will ignore the adjectives you may choose to describe your own work.

Now, many aspiring writers would instantly interpret this as don’t bother to query if you don’t already have a book out, but is that in fact what’s being said here? Let’s approach this like one of those nasty reading comprehension problems from the SATs. Is the agent in question actually expressing a preference for

(a) receiving queries from only the previously published (because of that reference to credits),

(b) receiving queries for nonfiction books only (because that first sentence seems to be talking about platform),

(c) receiving queries that are very terse and business-like, containing only minimal mention of the actual content of the book (because the agent who wrote it harbors an inexplicable animosity toward adjectives), or

(d) not trying to limit the scope of queries at all, but only meaning to give some well-intentioned general advice about the desirability of mentioning one’s credentials in a query letter.

How can a savvy querier tell which is the correct interpretation? Actually, she can’t — at least based upon the original quote alone. The fact is, it just isn’t possible to tell what’s meant without reading the rest of the listing — and even then, I would still recommend rushing right over to the agency’s website to double-check its submission guidelines.

Why go to the extra trouble? Well, going over a list of recent sales, the agent in question emerges as someone with a track record of representing science fiction and mystery extremely well. Would you have gleaned that from the statement above?

I’m guessing not. Leaving the thoughtful guide-peruser to wonder: what biographical background would be especially relevant to, say, a SF story set on Pluto? Need one actually have committed a murder to interest this agent in a mystery, or would it just be a nifty selling point?

Even just a basic web search can often turn up clarifying extras. If I told you that the agent responsible for our example also wrote an article recently for a SF fanzine, would your sense of how open he is to new writers increase? Might you even conclude that while this agent is primarily interested in science fiction, his agency is just beginning to expand its nonfiction list? And if so, mightn’t the comment about platform be aimed at nonfiction book proposers, rather than novelists?

A quick search of the last couple of years of this agency’s sales showed this to be precisely the case. (Sorry to disappoint all of you axe murderers out there who had gotten your hopes up.)

See why I think it’s a good idea to do some double-checking — and not to take every statement made in a blurb or listing at face value? Sometimes, industry-speak requires translation.

While we’re on the subject of nonfiction (and industry-speak), let’s take a look at another fairly common type of guide listing statement:

Nonfiction author and/or collaborator must be an authority in subject area and have a platform. Send a SASE if you want a response.

I must admit, I love the if you want a response part: if there is a querier out there who sends out missives WITHOUT wanting a response, I’ve never met him.

But is don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE the only message this agency is trying to send? Definitely not. The first sentence gives some indication of probable rejection criteria (hooray); the second sentence is most likely just giving general advice. Actually, it was probably intended as a bit more than kindly advice: from the phraseology, it’s probably safe to conclude that they simply toss out queries that arrive without a SASE, as many agencies do.

Which does, I suppose, boil down to don’t bother to query if you’re too lazy to include a SASE, now that you mention it. But if you had simply gone with your first knee-jerk reaction to that part, you would have missed the implication that this agency would welcome queries from legitimate experts on nonfiction subjects, wouldn’t you?

That’s not all an experienced eye could glean from this only apparently off-putting statement, however. I find the first sentence interesting as much for what it doesn’t say as what it does: while it would not be wildly inappropriate to conclude that, like our first exemplar, this agency’s Millicents have been trained to reject any NF query that does not include a clear statement of relevant credentials, it is not saying that the agency is only interested in the previously published — not an uncommon restriction for NF agencies. It also, by specifically mentioning a collaborator, is indicating that it is open to queries from ghosts.

So if I were considering querying this agency, I would run, not walk, to my list of selling points. Why? To cull bullet points to cram into my query letter about why I (and/or my collaborator) is the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, and why my target audience will be fascinated to read it.

On the off chance that I’m being too subtle here: There is no substitute for reading agency guide listings and websites IN THEIR ENTIRETY. All too often, would-be queriers mistakenly cross great potential agents off their query lists based upon impressions derived at a first glance — or even based on a perceived tone.

What kind of tone might engender this reaction, you ask? Perhaps an ambiguous beauty like the following:

We prefer that writers be previously published. However, we would take on an unpublished writer of outstanding talent.

That one made you a trifle hot under the collar, didn’t it? Go back and read it again, slowly. I put it to you, dear readers: is this agency open to queries from the previously unpublished or not?

To my eye, the answer is both. They probably would not reject a query outright for not including the credentials paragraph so strongly urged by the agent in our previous example — but a query from a previously unpublished writer would really, really have to wow ‘em to be considered. Or, to put it more crudely, they probably don’t want to rule out the possibility of the author of the next DA VINCI CODE’s not querying them because they said in their listing that they only represented previously published writers.

Remember, a listing, website, or conference blurb is not necessarily the obituary for an agency, depicting with impeccable accuracy its sales achievements to date, but unable to give any hint about the future. Usually, it also reflects what they hope to represent as well. Sometimes, as here, the actual content of that hope is left ambiguous.

And you thought I’d abandoned my obituary analogy. I’m more tenacious than that.

So is it worth a previously unpublished writer’s time to query an agency that seems to be hedging its bets like this? Possibly — provided that the agency has a solidly impressive track record in selling book’s in the writer’s chosen category and that it has sold a first book within the last couple of years.

Why that last caveat? As I have mentioned before, sometimes agency listings are rerun unchanged year after year. Websites are not always up-to-date reflectors of recent sales, either, and many, many agencies will list only their best-known clients. The expressed openness to writers of extraordinary talent expressed in a guide listing, then, might not be a current enthusiasm. Or even a recent one.

How can a savvy writer tell? Fly straight to its sales record. This need not be time-consuming: instead of concentrating on its client list in its entirety, focus on debut novel sales. (Most of the industry databases will include this information.) Or if you write nonfiction, first books in general.

If you don’t see any, you might want to rely more heavily on their assertion that they prefer the previously published and save yourself a stamp. Again, they have done you a favor.

Starting to get the hang of this? Let’s take a look at one more listing statement — or, better yet, let’s compare these three:

We care about writers and books, not just money, but we care about the industry as well. We will not represent anyone who might hurt our clients or our reputation. We expect our writers to work hard and to be patient. Do not send a rude query; it will get you nowhere. If we ask to see your book, don’t wait around to send it or ask a bunch of irrelevant questions about movie writes and so forth…If you can’t write a synopsis, don’t bother to query us. The industry is based upon the synopsis; sometimes it is all the editor ever sees. Be professional and follow our guidelines when submitting. And don’t believe everything you hear on the Internet about editors and publishers — it isn’t always true.

Present your book or project effectively in your query. Don’t include links to a webpage rather than use a traditional query, but take the time to prepare a thorough but brief synopsis of the material. Make the effort to prepare a thoughtful analysis of comparison titles. Why is your work different, yet would appeal to the same readers?

We are not interested in receiving poorly written submissions from authors with grandiose attitudes; don’t compare yourself to Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, etc. Blackmail never works — don’t tell us that you’ll only send your manuscript to us if we can guarantee you will be published. Please always send a SASE or else we won’t be able to contact you. Write stories that make sense; research everything down to the bone. Most importantly, be proud of your work; no self-deprecation.

Okay, what’s wrong with these three excerpts from guide listings?

From an aspiring writer’s point of view, absolutely nothing; they’re stuffed to the brim with thoughtful, practical advice about how to avoid these agents’ respective pet peeves. Well done, blurb writers, who may or may not exist outside my head!

To more cynical eyes, these responses might perhaps indicate questionnaire-answerers with a fair amount of time on their hands — the first lines of the first do carry a mission-statement aura about them. If I had to guess, though, I would say that pretty much all of these admonitions refer to individual queries they have received recently, rather than to general trends.

Faced with this sort of broad-reaching statement, a cynical querier might verify the size and longevity of the agency. Very small agencies — say, under 25 clients — will frequently have more specific blurbs, and for a very good reason: they can accept fewer clients per year than an agency that represents a couple of hundred clients. So probabilistically, they tend to be slightly worse bets than the larger concerns.

But it is awfully nice of them to tell writers up front what will trigger an automatic rejection, no? Make no mistake, that is what they are doing here — and indeed, what any agent who chooses to give specific querying advice almost certainly intends.

Trust me, no one likes to see her advice neglected. It’s in your interest to follow it to the letter, if not in all your queries, than at least in queries aimed toward the advice-giver’s agency.

In short, it is very much in a writer’s interest to read blurbs and listings very, very carefully — and in their entirety. Weigh all of the information you are being offered, even if it seems ambiguous or downright opaque: if an agent took the time to write more than the bare minimum, he’s probably trying to tell you something.

That’s also often true of obituaries and eulogies, come to think of it: a rushed, careless, or simply overwhelmed eulogizer might well fall back on generalizations and platitudes. It’s the telling details, though, that give the reader or hearer a sense of the actual person being described.

When individual preferences pop up in agency guide listings or in submission guidelines, cherish them. Appreciate them for the useful signposts that they are, and be glad that someone at that agency was kind enough to give aspiring writers some guidance. Because, really, is it in anybody’s interest for a query to end up on the wrong agent’s desk?

Oh, yes, I have more to say on the subject. Tune in next time, and keep up the good work!

Just when you thought we were ‘Paloozaed-out, here comes Authorbiopalooza!

tickertape parade

Okay, so maybe the masses aren’t rejoicing to quite this extent. But back in the heady days of Querypalooza, a number of you fine people asked for a similar fiesta devoted to preparing for that usually unexpected request, the author bio. And since many, many more of you did not raise violent objection when I suggested I might take a run at it this fall, it’s been on my agenda.

Actually, I’ve moved it up on my agenda — and not only because my annual quick perusal of a few hundred agency websites (oh, you thought I didn’t check how submission guidelines change between my yearly querying series?) revealed that a higher percentage of query packets are expected to contain something bio-like than in times past. I had intended to devote an intervening week or so to close textual analysis of more winners in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest — I haven’t forgotten about you, third-placers! — now that we’ve had a few refreshing, synopsis-filled weeks to catch our breath and get excited about craft issues again. However, that’s the kind of post that requires an upbeat attitude to write well, and since I had yet another crash-related health setback this week, I probably won’t be my trademarked chipper self for another week or so.

Don’t ask. Just pile up more pillows on the bed and hope for the best.

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

And half of you just tensed up, worried that you might not have enough professional credentials to render you interesting to an agent or editor, didn’t you? I recognize the symptoms: the same proportion of my readership drew in its collective breath sharply when I first broached the issue of composing the credentials paragraph for your query letters.

Back then, the whimpering ran a little something like this: “But Anne, this is my first book! I don’t come from a magazine or newspaper background, so I don’t have previous publications to cite. Therefore, nothing I could possibly say about myself has any potential whatsoever for impressing Millicent the agency screener. Hadn’t I better just avoid saying anything autobiographical at all?”

The short answer is no. The long answer is NOOOOOOOOO. Why? Well, in the first place, it’s a myth that the only personal information worth noting in a query letter or author bio is previous publications. They help, obviously, but they certainly aren’t the only things a potential agent or editor might want to know about you.

It’s actually kind of surprising how pervasive that myth is, given the glaring logical fallacy it contains. Think about it: for it to be true, all agents would have to (a) prefer previously-published authors to the exclusion of all others, (b) not understand that even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, and/or (c) be unaware that writers occasionally draw upon life experience to construct their narratives. Obviously, selling memoir would be more or less impossible if (c) were true — and as any of you who have read an interview with an established author recently, disregarding life experience would render many novels harder to market as well.

But let’s zero in on the core of the concern: agencies that harbor the (a) prejudice will come right out and say prefers to represent previously published writers or obtains most clients through recommendations from others in their agency guide listings and websites; if neither states that up front, it’s safe to assume that while writing credentials might help your query get through the door, they’re not required for admission.

Why? Because even bestselling authors must at some point have to produce a first book, silly. (You might have seen that one coming, after (b), right?) While first books typically make up only about 4% of the literary market in any given year — yes, really — in the current tight market, it can actually be easier for an agent to sell an editor on a new writer with an exciting (read: easy-to-publicize) bio than on an author whose first two books did not sell well.

So it would be financially misguided for an agency that did not adhere to (a) to instruct its Millicents to rule out any query or bio that did not list past publications. Yes, even for fiction. Platform matters these days, of course — in the current tight book market, any selling point is bound to help — but contrary to popular believe among aspiring writers, platform need not consist solely of previous publications and/or celebrity in a non-writing field.

Even a cursory peek at the dust jackets of any randomly-selected group of new releases will demonstrate otherwise. Dust jacket bios virtually always contain non-publication information, for the exceedingly simple reason that it might interest a potential reader in the person who wrote the book.

Which is, incidentally, one of the reasons agency guidelines ask aspiring writers to include biographical info in their queries and/or a bio in their query or submission packets. Not only are they curious about what you’re like — they want to know if there’s anything in your background that would make a publishing house’s marketing department swoon with joy.

“Hey!” the marketers shout, linking arms to engage in raucous dancing. “This new writer is going to be a terrific interview on a subject other than his book! How often does that happen?”

Still not convinced that it might be in your best interests to make yourself sound like an interesting person, one who perhaps has at some point in the course of a lifetime done something other than sit hunched in front of a computer, typing feverishly? Okay, I’ll pull out the big gun, argumentatively speaking: (d) for non-publication credentials not to matter, agents whose submission guidelines or requested materials letters ask for biographical information couldn’t possibly mean their requests.

Which would be a trifle strange, considering how many query guidelines include tell us something about yourself or similar verbiage. And it would render all of those requests for query or submission packets to include an author bio downright bizarre.

That being the case, why would a savvy querier or submitter even consider not providing them with this information?

Does this sound vaguely familiar to those of you who followed Querypalooza and/or Synopsispalooza? It should: for the last — yow, has it been a month and a half already? — I’ve been concentrating upon query packets, submission packets, and the things that go in them. Throughout that worthy endeavor, I have mentioned early and often that the guiding principle of constructing a query packet, submission packet, or contest entry is give them precisely what they ask to see.

No more, no less. 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. 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, the title page, 50 pages of text, and a SASE large and stamp-laden 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 lying dormant 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 are that surprisingly rare aspiring writer capable of and willing to follow directions to the letter.

Thus, as a clever between-the-lines reader might have already figured out, if an agency’s guidelines specify that they want to see a bio paragraph in your query or an author bio in your query or submission packet, it would behoove you to put ‘em there. Ditto if a request for pages asks for a bio.

All that being said, my next piece of advice may come as a bit of a surprise: I always advise aspiring writers to include an author bio with requested pages in a submission packet. I’m not talking about that 5-page writing sample some agents ask to see, naturally, but even if an agent asks to see even as little as 50 pages or a chapter, consider tucking your bio at the bottom of the stack.

Oh, if you could see your faces; did Frankenstein’s monster just walk into the room? “But Anne,” you shriek in horror, ducking swiftly behind the nearest large piece of furniture, “that might look as though I (pause here for hyperventilation) were disregarding the submission guidelines! Why in heaven’s name would I take a risk like that?”

Good question, panicky ones. Try breathing into a paper bag while I answer it.

Quite simply, it’s such a common professional practice that it’s unlikely to raise any eyebrows. 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 the last page of a book proposal. So including it in a full manuscript submission tends to come across as professional, rather than an amateur’s attempt to slip additional information in under the wire.

Just between us, though: 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 freak out, I hasten to add: including an author bio in a submission packet is most emphatically not required. Unless, of course, the agent or editor in question has asked to see one.

Increasingly, though, they are asking — even at the querying stage, which would have been unheard-of just a few years ago. Now, agents routinely 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.

That set some of you hyperventilating again, didn’t it? Relax — 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, eh? Don’t go sinking into that lavender-scented bath too quickly, though, because twos things about the author bio have changed in recent years. First, the author is now expected to write it, rather than the publisher’s marketing department. (Although they may well tweak it.) Second, the author needs to provide it increasingly early in the publication process.

How early, you ask? Well, I don’t want to disturb your plans for the weekend, but do you have time to start work on yours right now?

Come out from behind that large piece of furniture; the monster can see you perfectly well back there. Procrastinating about this particular professional obligation won’t make it go away.

Besides, you knew this day was coming — or that it would once you successfully sold a book, right? Although agents and editors are asking for author bios earlier in the process than in days of yore, it can hardly come as a surprise that you’d have to come up with one eventually. 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 this very second? Wouldn’t it make more sense to wait until, say, somebody in authority actually asks to see it?”

Well, to be quite honest with you, you could get away with doing just that. It wouldn’t be the wisest course, however.

Why? Well, 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 to linger there until the end of recorded time. (Or longer, perhaps: most of the end-of-the-world scenarios I’ve seen have paper and cockroaches as the happiest survivors of nuclear activity.)

Seventeen dozen hands just shot up in the air, despite the potential for attracting roving monsters’ attention. “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, hang on: there’s a Formatpalooza in our collective future — the kind of author bio appropriate to the query or submission stage differs fairly significantly from the kind found on dust jackets.

For one thing, it’s longer. The standard in the neighborhood of 250 words — or, to put it in visual terms, one double-spaced page or just over half a single-spaced page with an author photo at the top. (And yes, Virginia, I shall be inundating you with concrete examples of both later in this series. How can you even doubt?)

“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 back in Querypalooza, I don’t feel that my 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 — and asks to see a bio?”

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 slows 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 27th, 2011.

Why wait so long, you howl in frustration? 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?

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, so her February is not nearly so hectic as her January. But for those resolution-fueled few weeks, she’s not likely to be an exceptionally good mood, if you catch my drift.

All that being said (and I had a surprising amount to say on the subject, didn’t I, considering that the foregoing 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, even if you are not planning to query an agency that asks for a bio up front.

Again, how does now sound?

Why I am I pressing you on this? For some very, very practical reasons: often, the request for a bio comes when your mind is focused upon 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: the one-page author bio is actually a very important tool in your marketing kit.

Yes, yes, I know: over the years — and frequently throughout the course of Query- and Synopsispalooza — 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, cynicism hardening your comely eyes? 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, my background is pretty unusual (and detailed, conveniently enough, in my bio, if you’re interested). My cult of personality aside, 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 precisely what most aspiring writers facing a bio request do. In the extra minute and a half they have left between devoting 20 minutes to dashing off a 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 manuscript — or, heaven help us, the writer — also dull, disorganized, and/or unprofessional. After all, they are likely to reason, the author’s life is the material that she should know best; if she can’t write about that lucidly, how can she write well about anything else?

That made you dive behind the sofa again, didn’t it? Sad but true, Millicent and her ilk have to draw conclusions based solely upon the evidence on paper in front of them. If only a writer had any control over how they might perceive her personally…

Oh, wait, she does: she can write her bio so she comes across as fascinating.

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. That’s important, because — chant it with me now, long-time readers – “What’s your platform?” is practically the first thing any agent or editor will ask a NF writer.

Think about it: your platform consists of 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 when you were thinking about the credentials 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.

“Hey, Anne,” some of you ask suspiciously, clutching your paper bags and keeping an eye out for any monsters who might be about to jump out at you, “why was that last bit in boldface? I’m a novelist, so I was preparing to zone out on that bit about platform, but the amount of ink in the type makes me wonder if I should be internalizing a lesson here.”

Well reasoned, paranoid novelists: just as the author bio is an alternate venue for the NF writer to demonstrate his platform, the bio provides Millicent similar information about a novelist.

Aren’t those of you fiction writers tempted to cling to the old-fashioned notion that you’re exempt from this daunting challenge glad that you already had your hyperventilation bags in hand? “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.

If this comes as a nasty surprise to you, you’re not alone. The 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 most assuredly 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: if you want to gain practice in being an agent’s dream client, train yourself not to equivocate whenever you are asked to provide extra material whilst marketing your work. 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, post a comment here to 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 in your bio so important, I hear you ask? Because professionalism is one of the few selling points a writer can’t list in an author bio. A bio is not a self-praise session, after all: it’s a collection of facts, organized to make it clear to Millicent that you are either extremely credible, personally fascinating, the best person in the known universe to write this particular book, or, ideally, all of the above.

And no, you may not simply tell her any of those things directly. Self-aggrandizing statements look pretty silly on the page, after all. See for yourself:

Bart Smedley is a consummate professional writer. He’s up every day at 4:30 AM, hard at his writing. Instead of taking the lunch hour most ordinary mortals do, he hies himself to the local library to read past issues of Publishers Weekly, in order to understand his future agent’s lot better. An undeniably wonderful human being, Bart is a delight to know, funny, insightful, and personable. Also, he is physically attractive: he is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever.

Admit it: you’d laugh if you were Millicent. To most people in positions to bring your work to publication, self-praise 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? 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.

Again, 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, though, 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 “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? (My readers are so smart; I can always rely on them to ask the perfect questions at the perfect times. Also to have a paper bag and monster-repellant spray handy.)

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? 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 after perhaps 7 seconds?

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. Go ahead and become one with those shoes.”

This is why, in case you have been wondering, NYC-based agents and editors sometimes treat those of us who live 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. Or so I surmise from his tone.

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. Not entirely coincidentally, I shall be spending the next week of posts on helping that happen.

And make mine tempeh, avocado, and sprouts on sourdough, please, with a side of smoked salmon for my yeti friend here. Oh, and six AA batteries on rye for the monster lurking in the background. In a paper bag, if you please, so we’ll be prepared for any contingency.

We’ve got to build up our energy for some hardcore bio-writing, after all. Keep up the good work!

P.S.: while I’m in nagging mode, when’s the last time you backed up your writing files? If you can’t remember, wouldn’t now be an excellent time to rectify that?

Synopsispalooza, Part VII: writing a nonfiction synopsis so it doesn’t sound like just another big fish story

ernest-hemingway-trout-fishing

I’d like to start out with a request for clemency today, campers. Since the advent of Querypalooza early last month, I’ve been inundated with eager questions from anxious queriers. I’m thrilled about this, honestly — I do not think that writers, aspiring or otherwise, talk about this vital among themselves nearly enough. For that reason, I would like to make a formal request (or, more accurately, to codify a policy I had to adopt in self-defense a while back).

Ahem: would you mind posting questions in the comments section of the blog, rather than sending them to me via e-mail? Ideally, in either the comments section of the most recent post or, even better, in a post related to the question?

I ask for several reasons — and not due to the predictable it’s considerably less time-consuming for me to answer blog-related questions during my designated blogging time, rather than throughout my rather packed workday excuse. First, it’s more generous to other members of the Author! Author! community: if you have a question, chances are others do, too. Asking me to address your concerns privately deprives other readers of the opportunity to see the answer and ask follow-up questions. Second, it’s inefficient; it makes more sense for me to spend 20 minutes answering a question in the comments than to answer the same question 20 times individually, at 4 or 5 minutes per answer. Third, while I’m flattered that readers feel that I am approachable, it goes against the fundamental nature of a blog to follow up on discussions here by contacting me in secret.

Let’s all enjoy the discussion, shall we? I’d appreciate it.

Back to business. So far in Synopsispalooza, we’ve discussed what a synopsis is and isn’t, how it should be formatted, how to make it as brief as a single page, and how to cobble together something longer. I’ve also reminded you repeatedly — look, I’m about to do it again now — that there is no such thing as a standard length for a query or submission packet synopsis. Check EACH agency’s submission requirements for its individual preferences.

“But Anne!” those of you simultaneously querying or submitting to many agencies wail, and who could blame you? “Won’t that take a lot of extra time? Doesn’t it imply that instead of churning out one all-purpose synopsis, I may have to write several of different lengths? And what do I do if an agency’s guidelines do not specify a length, but merely says something like include a brief synopsis? Is that code for a particular length?”

My, you ask a lot of questions within a single breath, multiple queriers. In the order asked: yes, but it’s necessary; yes, but it’s necessary; I’ll get to that three paragraphs hence, and no — why would it be in an agency’s interest to trick aspiring writers about that?

Hey, nobody said that this process was going to be easy — or easy to figure out. It isn’t, even for the most talented first-time writer. If any malignant or ill-informed soul ever tells you otherwise, you would be better off whacking yourself in the head with a 15-pound carp than taking that ridiculous counsel to heart.

Not that I’m advising anyone’s whacking himself in the head with a fish of any size, of course. It’s not good for the fish, and it’s not good for you.

The general rule of thumb for everything an aspiring writer sends an agent is send them precisely what they ask to see. If their guidelines (usually available on its website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides; check both) ask for a 1-page synopsis, send a 1-page synopsis; if it asks for 4 pages, send 4. If, however, neither an agency’s published guidelines (for a query packet) nor the letter requesting materials (for a submission) specify how long a requested synopsis should be, it is up to you. Just don’t make it longer than 5 pages.

Why 5? Because, as I have mentioned in previous posts in this series, 5-page synopses have historically been standard for agents to ask clients they have already signed to produce for their next projects. If an agent does for some esoteric reason of his own expect queriers to guess what number he is thinking, it’s probably 5.

Not that the point of this exercise is to guess what the agent is thinking. Not about synopsis length, anyway.

Last time, if you will recall, we established that a nonfiction synopsis has six goals — that’s one more than we discussed last year, for those of you keeping track; the market’s continually evolving — and that those aims are different from the primary goals of a novel synopsis. To recap, a successful nonfiction synopsis should:

(1) present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) mention any large group of people or organization who might already be working on this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (if the group or organization is large, go ahead and say how large, so Millicent the agency screener can’t accidentally underestimate it);

(4) give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail and saying what kind of proof you will be offering in support of your points;

(5) demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (again, ideally, backed up with statistics), and

(6) show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the known universe to write the book.

Let’s go back to the statistics issue, as it puzzles many first-time queriers and submitters. I ended yesterday’s post with a cliffhanger: no matter how large the prospective market for your book is, I told wide-eyed readers gathered around the virtual campfire, you can’t legitimately assume that an agent or editor will be aware of just how many potential readers inhabit it. Thus, when you are crafting a synopsis — or query letter, or book proposal — it’s prudent to assume that they will underestimate it.

And thus the market appeal of your book — or any nonfiction book, actually. Unless it’s a tell-all by a celebrity fresh out of rehab or somebody who used to work at the White House, few manuscripts’ market appeal is self-evident on the title page.

Do I already hear some impatient huffing out there? “This doesn’t seem right to me, Anne,” a few nonfiction writers protest. “While I understand why I am forced to descend to the sordid mention of market conditions and readership in my book proposal, my query letter, and any verbal pitch I might work up nerve to give in a conference elevator, the synopsis is supposed to be a summary of what the book is about. Therefore, it must be entirely about content, a pristine run down of just the facts, ma’am. Kindly mend your ways accordingly, missie.”

You’re partially right, impatient huffers: a fiction synopsis should indeed concern itself entirely with its book’s subject matter, rather than marketing concerns. A professional nonfiction synopsis, on the other hand, is mostly about content, but as we discussed yesterday, often is effectively a micro-proposal as well.

Or, to put it a bit more bluntly: if you want to query or pitch nonfiction to the pros, there’s no way to avoid discussing marketing issues. It’s the price a nonfiction writer pays for not having to write the entire book before selling it.

Why, yes, that does tend to be a trifle satisfying to novelists everywhere, now that you mention it. They have to write the whole darned book before they can legitimately start sending out queries and submissions; typically, all a nonfiction writer has to polish off is a sample chapter and a book proposal. And proposals, for the benefit of those of you who have not yet written one, are made up almost exclusively of marketing material.

There’s a reason for that, of course. I hate to break anyone’s bubble about the marriage of art and business, but marketability typically plays a far, far more important role in whether an agent, editor, or even contest judge will be interested in a nonfiction project than in novel. Most of the time, nonfiction sells better.

Don’t believe me, fiction-readers? Okay, try this little experiment: walk into the nearest large chain bookstore and take a good, long look around. Are most of the books fiction or nonfiction?

Assuming it is the latter (as is the case in most non-specialist bookstores), how are the bookstore’s nonfiction sections arranged? 99.99% of the time, it will be by subject matter — unlike the fiction, which is usually arranged by author’s last name, with perhaps separate sections for the better-selling genres.

Which means, at the querying and submission stages, that a nonfiction synopsis that acts like a fiction synopsis — that is, sticking to the story and nothing but the story — is typically a less effective marketing tool than one that gives some indication of what kinds of readers are in desperate need of this particular book and why.

Stop waving that dead fish at me. I didn’t set up this system; I just attempt to render it a trifle less opaque for newcomers.

Yes, the quality of the writing does make a difference in any query or submission, but the fact is, while novels can — and do — sell on the writing alone, even the best-written nonfiction is seldom marketed primarily upon the quality of the writing. In fact, that it’s not at all unusual for an author to be able to sell a nonfiction book, even if it’s a memoir, based on only a single chapter and a book proposal.

More huffing? Okay, go ahead and spit out that resentment: “But Anne, I’ve seen agency websites/listings in agency guides/heard one agent make an offhand comment at a conference and took it as an indicator of how every agent in North America feels insisting that they will ONLY look at memoirs that are already 100% written. So I guess you just misspoke about memoirs being sold by proposal, right?”

Well, I could see where a reader might think that as a memoirist who sold two books via proposal, my view might be a trifle skewed, but no: the vast majority of memoirs sold every year to U.S. publishers come in proposal form, not as finished manuscript. There’s a pretty good reason for that, too — not only are proposals significantly quicker for Millicent the agency screener and her cousin Maury the editorial assistant to read; it’s commonplace for publishers to ask for content change in a nonfiction book after acquiring it. Or even as a condition of acquisition.

Yes, even in memoirs — the writer may have lived the life, but ultimately, the editor is the one who decides what parts of that life are and are not included in the published book. And yes, that sometimes does involve editorial feedback like, “What if you approached this real-life incident in a completely different manner on the page than you did when it happened?”, “Is the mother character really necessary to the story?” and “How would you feel about leaving out that 50-page digression on three years of your childhood?”

Sorry, Mom — the editor says you’re toast. And apparently, 1974-1977 weren’t that interesting.

Given the likelihood that the acquiring editor will request changes, why would an agency stipulate that a memoir that’s probably going to undergo significant revision be completed before the writer queries? Well, a couple of reasons.

Topping the list: memoir can be emotionally devastating to write; I know plenty of perfectly wonderful memoirists who went through years of angst about whether they would be able to commit their lives to paper at all. An agency that doesn’t accept partially-written projects can be relatively certain that the writer will deliver the goods. Also — and again, I don’t want to send any of you memoirists out there spinning into shock, but better you hear this from me — it’s not unheard-of for agencies with this requirement to expect memoirists to construct a book proposal for the already-completed manuscript after they’re signed to a representation contract.

Yes, you read that correctly: a memoirist with a finished draft will probably have to write a book proposal for it, anyway. Working with an agency with a finish-it-first requirement does not necessarily equal a get-out-of-writing-a-proposal pass.

Try to look on the bright side. Since a proposal must talk about the storyline as if the book were already completed, it’s quite a bit easier to write with a manuscript already in hand. Why, all you have to do to come up with an annotated table of contents is to flip through the book, see what each chapter is about, and summarize it.

Besides, the goal of a nonfiction query packet is to prompt Millicent to ask to see the proposal and/or sample chapters, right? So if you’re querying a nonfiction project, the pros will expect you to have a proposal already in hand. So why wouldn’t you make it pellucidly clear in the synopsis who your target market is, why your book will appeal to them, how and why your subject matter is interesting — and, if you’ll pardon my committing the sacrilege, why a non-expert in the field might find it fascinating?

And before anyone asks: no, “Because I spent seven years writing it!” is not a sufficient answer to any or all of the last four questions. In the throes of writing, revising, and composing marketing materials for a book, it can be hard to remember that.

Remember, too, that for the synopsis to whet an agent, editor, or contest judge’s appetite for reading the proposal — the essential task of every syllable of a query packet, right? — the book’s content needs to come across as not merely intriguing to its target readership, but to industry types as well. So if you ever find yourself saying, “Well, that’s a trifle unclear, but my end readers will get it,” take it as a sign from the heavens that you should be rushing to revise that particular piece.

As with a fiction synopsis, you’re going to want to show why the book is appealing, rather than merely telling Millicent that it is — and the trick to that, often, lies in eschewing generalities in favor of juicy, intriguing specifics.

In this spirit, I reiterate: when writing a synopsis, it’s merely prudent to assume that professional readers will underestimate the size of your target audience…and thus the market appeal of your book. This is particularly true if you are pushing a book about anything that ever occurred west of, say, Pittsburgh to a NYC-based agent or editor, or any story set north of Santa Barbara or east of Los Vegas to an LA-based one.

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before that one? It tends to come as a shock to writers living outside the Boston-DC Amtrak corridor.

Naturally, I’m not saying that northeasterners are myopic; let’s just say that the news media are not the only folks who think that little that happens to anyone outside of a day’s drive of their workplaces is likely to affect Americans. The rest of the country is far more likely to know about the general tenor of life in NYC or LA than the fine denizens of those megapoli (megapolises looks so silly) than the other way around. Of course, if those of us who lived outside of the major urban centers thought this way about, say, New York City or London, we would be called provincial.

I know, I know: this attitude seems rather odd in the age of lightning-fast electronic communication and swift travel across time zones, but regional differences still run strong enough that you might actually find yourself explaining to a charming, urbane agent with an MA in American Literature from Columbia or a law degree from Yale that yes, the inhabitants of Seattle CAN support a symphony, and indeed have for many years.

And schools. And indoor plumbing. I’m not entirely sure that my agent believes I don’t live in a tent with a yeti. He likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the New York City hospital where he was born.

The first time he said it to me, he was taken completely by surprise when I, a 6th-generation West Coaster, instantly responded, “Oh, that’s so sad. You should get out more.”

I’m not bringing this up to rib him — okay, so I am just a little bit — but because being aware that agents may not be completely hip to your target demographic means that you, savvy marketer that you are, can compensate for it by coming right out and saying in your synopsis just how big and eager your market actually is for a book like yours.

You might want to bring it up in your query as well. And perhaps in the cover letter you tuck into your submission packet.

What can happen if you don’t, you ask? Only triggering one of the most common rejection reasons for nonfiction: it’s very, very easy for a book to be labeled as appealing to only a niche market. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, niche marketis industry-speak for “Well, no one I know would buy this book…”

Okay, so I’m exaggerating a trifle: technically, it means that the pros think that a book would only be marketable to what they assume to be a tiny demographic. Trout fisherfolk, for instance, or people with cerebral palsy.

Ten points to all of you who just gasped in annoyed disbelief: you are quite right that, in actuality, both of these groups are quite large — Trout Unlimited has 150,000 volunteers, and an estimated 1.5 – 2 million children and adults have cerebral palsy. The extended demographic of people who love members of both of those groups must logically extend into the millions.

Yet someone unfamiliar with those demographics might not be aware of that — which means that in many instances, if not most, a professional reader will be relying solely upon the information that you provide or his own guesstimate if you do not. I implore you, don’t assume that an agent, editor, or contest judge will necessarily be charmed enough by the writing in your synopsis (or book proposal — or book, for that matter) to conduct a little independent research before deciding whether to reject your query packet or submission.

“But Anne,” astonished veteran web-browsers everywhere exclaim, “why should I have to go to that trouble in the age of the Internet? If Millicent is curious about the size of my target market, all it would take is a 10-second web search to see if her guesstimate is correct.

Ah, but you’re assuming that she would drop everything to perform such a search. She’s not: screeners in agencies and publishing houses simply don’t have the time, and often, contest organizers specifically tell their judges that they may rate entries ONLY what’s on the page.

Which means, in practice, that Millicent is extremely unlikely to dismiss that book aimed at anglers without bothering to find out just how many people there actually ARE who habitually fish for trout.

Such as, for instance, our pal Ernest Hemingway, above. As anyone who has ever lived near a good fishing river could tell you, he had — and has — a whole lot of company. But I suspect that you’d have to run into a trout fisherperson or two before you’d see a book on trout and spontaneously cry, “By gum, there’s an immense market for this!”

The same often holds true for regional interest, alas. Due to the reality of where books get published in the United States, a story set in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco will often be deemed of national interest, meaning that book buyers in other parts of the country (and world) might reasonably be expected to flock to the bookstores for it.

Because, obviously, readers the world over are sitting on the edges of their seats, wondering what’s going on in Brooklyn these days. Or so I surmise, from the immense number of books set there over the last hundred years. But let that same story be set in Minneapolis, Shreveport, Olympia, or Halifax, and NYC, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco-based agents and editors tend to dismiss it as appealing only to audiences in the region where it was set.

Think about it: if THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA hadn’t been set in Manhattan, do you honestly think that any major publishing house would have given it a second glance?

Which brings me to another very common piece of conference lore: over the years, I’ve heard many, many agents and editors tell writers of so-called works of purely regional interest that they’d be better off submitting their nonfiction, memoirs, and even novels to regional publishers. In recent years, I’ve begun to wonder to whom they are referring. The publishing industry is not, after all, like theatre — not every major city will spontaneously see a publishing house spring up out of the ground, started by spunky youngsters in their dorm basements, if necessary.

Can’t you just picture it? “I’ve got a barn,” a would-be publisher pants breathlessly, “and you have a mimeograph machine. Let’s publish some books!”

Doesn’t happen very often, alas. It’s a lovely fantasy, though, isn’t it?

Admittedly, there are a quite a few more regional publishers for nonfiction than for fiction or memoir; that’s true of small, independent presses in general. Even for nonfiction, though, it is definitely trickier to interest agents at the big agencies in subject matter unfamiliar to denizens of the Eastern seaboard or LA.

What strategy tip may we derive from this? Since it’s a safe bet that Millicent, Maury, or Mehitabel will in fact be perusing your query, submission packet, or contest entry with an eye to determining national interest, it’s a stellar idea to use your marketing materials — yes, including your synopsis — to make the case that your subject matter IS of national interest.

In the synopsis, as in the query letter and pitch, statistics can be your friend — and they needn’t be statistics about just how many people have already bought books on your topic, either. If you’re writing a blistering exposé of bear abuse in Montana, for instance, it would a very good idea to mention in your synopsis just how many visitors Yellowstone sees in a year, because chances are, Manhattanites will have no idea. (For some handy hints on how to find statistics to back up such claims, please see the YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS category at right.)

Okay, impatient huffers, your time has once again come. Have at it: “But Anne, every time I go to a writers’ conference, all of the agents and editors keep saying that the most important thing for me to show up front is my platform. How does all of what you’ve been saying here fit in with that?”

Very well, actually — and I’m glad that you brought this up, oh huffers. In a nonfiction book synopsis, you not only need to establish the importance of the subject matter — you need to demonstrate that you are an expert in it. Seriously, it’s the first question almost anyone in the industry will ask after you mention casually that you are writing a nonfiction book. “So,” they’ll say, reserving comment about the marketability of your topic until after they hear the answer to this particular question, “what’s your platform?”

So if “Why are you the best person to write this book?” seems secondary to the subject matter, I’m guessing that you probably haven’t pitched a nonfiction book lately.

To clear the brows of those of you knitting them right now, platform is industry-speak for the background that qualifies you to write the book — the array of credentials, expertise, and life experience that qualifies you as an expert on the topic. Put another way, platform is the industry term for why anyone should trust a nonfiction author enough to want to believe what he says in his book, as opposed to any of the other similar books on the market. The platform need not consist of educational credentials or work experience — in fact unless you write in a technical, scientific, or medical field, it generally has less to do with your educational credentials than your life experience.

But by all means, if you happen to be a former Secretary of State, a child actor on a hit TV show, or NBA superstar, do mention it — but don’t be downhearted if you haven’t yet held a cabinet post in your field of expertise, however. As we discussed in Querypalooza, your platform consists ANY reason, or collection of reasons, that you are the single best person currently residing in the universe to write this particular book — and that members of the reading public might flock to see you do it.

Not books in general: this book. It’s a great idea to devote some serious thought to your platform before you begin to market your book — and yes, that means before you sit down to write the synopsis, too.

Don’t look at me that way; I’m doing you a favor here, not just assigning extra work for its own sake. All of you nonfiction writers out there should not only be prepared to answer questions about your platform before you have ANY contact with an agent or editor — you should be able to talk about yourself as an expert on the subject matter of your book. Trust me, you’ll be happier in the long run if you get used to thinking of yourself that way before you walk into a publishing house to meet with your new editor.

Synopsis-writing time is a great opportunity to start, because your synopsis should contain at least passing mention of your expertise. This is true, incidentally, even if your book happens to be a memoir.

“Wait just a memory-picking minute!” I hear the memoirists out there cry. “Isn’t it pretty darned obvious that I would be the single best living authority upon my own life?”

Not necessarily, from the industry’s point of view. A memoir is always about something in addition to the life story of its author, after all. Ideally, any statement of your platform should include some reference to why you are qualified to write about that other subject matter as well.

So should your synopsis. For instance, if your memoir is about spending your teenage years in a foreign country, invest a sentence or two of your synopsis in talking about how being an outsider gave you a unique perspective on the culture. If your memoir rips the lid off the steamy secrets of a cereal factory, you’ll be better off if you use your decade’s worth of experience filling those boxes as evidence that you are a credible expert on flakes. And if your childhood memoir deals with your love affair with trains, make sure you include the fact that you spent 17 years of your life flat on your stomach, singing “woo, woo” at a dizzying array of models.

You get the picture. It’s not enough to make your subject matter sound fascinating: in your synopsis, your account needs to come across as both fascinating and credible.

For what it’s worth, novels are generally about something other than the beauty of their writing, too. They have settings; characters have professions. For instance, the trilogy I am working on now is set at Harvard; I got my undergraduate degree there. Think that is going to make the books more credible in the eyes of the industry? You bet.

I could feel fiction writers’ blood pressure rising throughout the last few paragraphs, but don’t panic: technically, a novelist doesn’t NEED a platform. Go back and reread that comforting earlier bit about fiction often selling on the quality of the writing alone; repeat as often as necessary until your head no longer feels as though it’s about to explode.

It’s always a nice touch, though, if a fiction writer can mention a platform plank or two in her query, since (brace yourself, novelists) in this tough market, most agents will be pleased to see it. But for fiction, keep your synopsis platform-free; self-promotion in a novel synopsis tends to be regarded as compensation for some heretofore-unsuspected weakness in the plot or the writing.

Whew, that was a lot of gut-wrenching reality to cover in a single post, wasn’t it? I’m sure all of us could use some nice down time. If only we knew someone who might take us fishing…

More wit and wisdom on the synopsis follows tomorrow, of course. Keep up the good work!

Synopsispalooza, Part VI: you can tell the truth and nothing but the truth in a synopsis, but you just don’t have the space for the whole truth

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

I am Oz, the Great and Terrible, spoke the Beast, in a voice that was one great roar. Who are you, and why do you seek me?

Brace yourselves, campers: I’m going to be a positive fountain of apologies today. First, I’ve only just noticed that the post that I had scheduled for Thursday afternoon, then gone merrily on my way, assuming I had left you entertained and informed, apparently did not actually go up on Author! Author! until earlier today. I have no idea why. Technically, that is; I know why I took a couple of days off from posting. (Hint: dum de dum dum TO ME.)

Second, I’m sorry about the resolution of the picture above; something went wrong in the uploading process that I didn’t have time to figure out and fix because I’m currently writing on a pretty tight deadline. Third, my regrets about the fact that the dialogue I quoted above does not include the grammatically-necessary quotation marks found in the original text; my blogging program would not allow them in a caption, for some reason best known to its programmers. Fourth, I beg the forgiveness of every L. Frank Baum fan out there: I’ve only just noticed that the quote I used is not from Dorothy’s first visit to the Wizard — the subject of the drawing — but one of her companions’.

Fifth, my profound apologies to those of you who have been following this series on synopsis-writing who happen to be promoting a nonfiction book. Not everything I’ve covered so far in Synopsispalooza has applied to you.

In my defense, like so much of the above, that’s not entirely my fault: outside forces dictate that the fiction, memoir, and nonfiction synopsis must all be slightly different. Since novel and memoir synopses are typically closer than nonfiction synopses are to either, I tackled them first.

In the middle of this festival of summary I like to call Synopsispalooza, I’ve been concentrating for so far primarily upon the specialized problems of novel and memoir synopses. Specifically, I went on (and on and on) about the importance of a novel synopsis’ demonstrating beyond a shadow of a doubt that its writer is a gifted storyteller.

For a memoir, this too is crucial: the most gripping real-life account is going to fall flat on the page if it’s not told well, right? So basically, a memoirist should use the same tactics as a novelist, except in the first person and the past tense: make the book sound like a terrific story.

Have I been gone so long that anybody out there does not remember how to pull that off in a 1-page synopsis? Just in case, let’s review its goals:

(1) introduce the major characters and premise,

(2) demonstrate the primary conflict(s),

(3) show what’s at stake for the protagonist, and

(4) ideally, give some indication of the tone and voice of the book.

All of these aims are easily transferable to a memoir, right? All you have to do is think of the memoir as story, rather than autobiography, and yourself as the protagonist, and summarize accordingly.

Does that seem a trifle vague? Okay, I’ll be more specific: A 1-page synopsis for a memoir should answer all of these burning questions — and some of these should sound awfully familiar:

Who am I? (other than the memoir’s author, that is)

What is my background? (Specifically, the part of it that renders it interesting enough to read about for 350 pages — and no, neither rampaging narcissism nor “But I spent all of this time writing it!” are adequate answers.)

How and why was/am I an interesting person in an interesting situation?

Who were the people in my life in the midst of all of this interestingness, and how do they move my story along?

What were my hopes and dreams — and what were the major barriers to my bringing them to fruition? Alternatively, what were my fears and how realistic were they?

What would I have gained by attaining these goals — and what would I have lost if I did not?

Here is how charming I am to follow on the page. Please fall in love with me as a protagonist, me as a writer, and ultimately, me as a client/new author signed to the publishing house/contest winner.

Piece of proverbial cake to pull off in a page, right? Now let’s add in the loftier additional goals of the slightly longer synopsis:

(5) show the primary story arc through BRIEF descriptions of the most important scenes.

(6) show how the plot’s primary conflict is resolved or what the result of adopting the book’s argument would be.

Again, it’s not all that hard to envision synopsizing a memoir in this manner in 3 or 5 pages. Like a novel, a memoir — a good one, anyway — consists of fully-realized scenes, not just a litany I did this and I felt that. Treat Millicent the agency screener to snippets of those scenes, depicted as vividly as possible.

In other words: as for a novel synopsis, you should minimize the number of generalizations in your memoir synopsis. Instead, use as many concrete details as possible — and make sure to include some tidbits Millicent is highly unlikely to see in anybody else’s synopsis. Instead of concentrating upon cramming as much material as possible on the page, focus on making yourself sound original and fascinating.

My, I’m leaning upon the boldface button heavily this evening, amn’t I? It must be the weighty presence of Oz, the Great and Terrible.

Yet for nonfiction — and, if I’m going to be honest about it, some memoir as well — the task of constructing a synopsis is a trifle more complicated. Yes, you do need to come across as a great storyteller with a fascinating story to tell (and argument to make), but you also are charged with the sometimes heavy burden of convincing Millicent that your subject matter as interesting and important, as well as that you are the best possible writer in the universe to consult about it.

Naturally, that case is quite a bit easier to make if your subject matter is already widely recognized as interesting and important. Especially if you happen already to be celebrated internationally for your prowess in explaining it. In that case, you already have what people in publishing call a platform: a demonstrated ability to be able to get people to pay attention to you when you talk on this particular subject.

(Speaking of which, I’ve a favor to ask: over the years, quite a number of you have asked when I am planning to release this blog in book form, so you may have it sitting on your desk as you write. I am seriously considering pulling together a book proposal for a blog-based book this fall, and I could use some glowing blurbs of entreaty and/or testimonials from blog readers to dress up the proposal. If you’d like to help me out and earn my undying gratitude, drop me a line in the comments, and I shall contact you off-site. Thanks!)

If you are not already commanding public attention for your wit and wisdom on the subject matter of your nonfiction project, don’t worry — contrary to depressed murmurings on the writers’ conference circuit, a writer does not need to be already famous in order to have a platform for a particular book.

Yes, really. Trust me, I have a LOT of experience writing all three types of synopsis, as it happens: in recent years, I’ve sold both a memoir and a nonfiction book to publishers, and my second novel is making the rounds even as I type this. Not to mention all of the synopses I see as a frequent contest judge and even more frequent freelance editor. So yours truly has spent quite a bit of time in the last few years hunkered over the odd synopsis, let me tell you. I know whereat I speak.

In fact, just go ahead and imagine the following words of wisdom booming from the mouth of Oz, the Great and Terrible. It will save time and energy in the long run. (And if someone would be willing to say in a blurb that I’m more respected and feared than Oz in his heyday, there might be a candy bar in it for you. I just mention.)

In a nonfiction synopsis of any length, your goal is sixfold — and as those annoying disembodied voices on business’ voice mail systems so love to say, please listen carefully, as our options have changed in recent years:

(1) to present the problem or question the book will address in a way that makes it seem fascinating even to those not intimately familiar with the subject matter (even at an agency that specializes in your type of nonfiction, it’s unlikely that either Millicent or the agent will be very well-read in your particular area of expertise);

(2) to demonstrate why readers should care enough about the problem or question to want to read about it (or, to put it another way: why should Millicent care about it?);

(3) to mention in passing who specifically is already interested in this problem or question, to demonstrate already-existing public interest in the subject (the Sierra Club, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Harpo Marx Fan Club, the entire scientific community, etc.);

(4) to give some indication of how you intend to prove your case, showing the argument in some detail (hey, you’re on your own on this one);

(5) to demonstrate why the book will appeal to a large enough market niche to make publishing it worthwhile (not the same thing as official, organized interest, necessarily), and

(6) to show beyond any reasonable question that you are the best-qualified person in the universe to write the book (not, alas, always self-evident to our Millie).

In answer to that immense gulp I just heard: yes, a nonfiction writer does need to pull that off in anywhere from 1-5 pages, depending upon what the agent, publishing house, or contest rules request. I’m not entirely sure that I proved half that much in my master’s thesis.

And let me tell you, it was a pretty good master’s thesis. Oz was impressed, I’m told.

Nonfiction writers tend to have been stellar students, so I’m not at all astonished to see a plethora of hands politely raised already. Good students are frequently full of questions. “But Anne,” many of you point out politely — and believe me, I appreciate it. “That list above reads strikingly like the goals of a book proposal, a lengthy, heavily-detailed document that, correct me it I’m wrong, entire multi-page sections devoted to each of the numbered issues above. If I’m expected to accomplish all of that heavy lifting in the synopsis, what on earth am I supposed to be accomplishing in the proposal?”

The same thing, actually, but at greater length and with more evidence. Next question?

Just kidding; no need to burst into tears at the prospect. Lean in closer, and I’ll let you in on a little well-kept professional secret: a good nonfiction synopsis is not just a summary of the book’s argument, but a super-short book proposal.

Think of it as proposal concentrate. Add a sample chapter, a competitive market analysis, and an annotated table of contents, stir, and hey, you’ve got a book proposal. Not as tasty as fresh-squeezed, perhaps, but Millicent doesn’t have time to watch you argue it from scratch at the query packet stage.

I can feel you tensing up, but seriously, there’s no need. If you can write a book proposal — and you can, if you know enough about your subject matter to write a book — you can construct a really good nonfiction synopsis.

Where to begin, you ask? Well, I used to tell everyone who would listen that the argument was the most important element of a nonfiction synopsis — if it doesn’t come across as coherent and well-reasoned, after all, the book project is sunk. However, watching how nonfiction books are being marketed and bought these days, I’ve changed my tune. (To Dum de dum dum TO ME, apparently.)

Now, Oz the Great and Terrible is telling you that the single most vital aspect of a successful nonfiction synopsis lies in framing the central question of the book in a way that makes it appear not only interesting to Millicent – who, let’s face it, is almost certainly not going to be a specialist in your subject area; she was (or is) an English major, probably at a highly respected New England college — but likely to catch the notoriously fickle eye of the media. Basically, the synopsis needs to present the book’s concept as easy to promote to an already-existing audience.

If you doubt that, take a quick run to your local megabookstore and take a gander at how many political memoirs are coming out this month. It’s not that their subject matter is necessarily more fascinating than other nonfiction topics, or even, in many cases, that the author has such a terrific platform for telling the behind-the-scenes story. (The classic response of White House officials to tell-all books has historically been, “Who? Oh, didn’t he work here once for a week? I don’t even remember what he looked like.”) No, it’s that even the most poorly-written of these books are likely to be discussed on television and radio shows already devoted to such topics.

Hey, the 24-hour news cycle doesn’t feed itself, you know.

Thus, at the risk of observing the obvious, a query packet synopsis that makes Millicent exclaim by the end of the first paragraph, “Oh, this one would be a cinch to promote!” is far, far more likely to generate a request to see the book proposal than one that prompts her to muse, “Hmm, this is beautifully written. Too bad only four people in Southwestern Montana will be interested.”

Up go the hands again. “Excuse me, Anne? I had gathered from your Querypalooza series — conveniently gathered for the benefit of those who missed it under the category of that name on the archive list at the bottom right-hand side of this page — that I was supposed to use the platform paragraph of my query to make the case that a readership already exists for my book. Wouldn’t tackling that again here be redundant?”

Ah, but synopses often end up places that query letters do not. A 1-page nonfiction synopsis might, for instance, sit by the phone for easy reference while an agent pitches the proposal to an editor; a 5-page synopsis might get circulated to an editorial committee before the acquiring editor makes and offer. The better a micro-proposal it is, the better legwork it can do for its writer.

That being said, the synopsis’ presentation of how and why the central problem of the book is typically a bit different from the query’s. It’s longer, for one thing, and less likely to include an explicit statement of how many articles The New York Times has run on the subject within the last two years.

It’s also more likely to be in the form of a story — and before any of you writing books on particle physics start guffawing, hear me out.

Every problem can be framed in the form of a tale; if you doubt that, just crack open any 7th-grade math textbook and take a gander at the word problems. While a purely technical exposition may well seem dry to the non-specialist, vividly-told real-world example of what can and does go wrong if the central problem of the book is not solves can instantly answer the questions, “So why will anybody care about this?” A gripping anecdote can serve the same function for a historical account.

So why not open your synopsis with a gripping one- or two-paragraph anecdote that illustrates what’s at stake in solving the problem tackled by the book?

Don’t laugh — it works. Especially for any sort of biography or memoir, a brief foray into storytelling can demonstrate not only that the writer is a fine storyteller, but can provide an intriguing entree to a subject that might at first glance appear dull to the non-specialist. Which, for example, does a better job of explaining the importance of breakthrough in sewing machine technology, this:

In the old days, a surprising number of textile workers lost fingers or even hands in industrial sewing machine accidents. Tamlyn Baker pondered the problem for forty-five years, invented a new kind of threading machine, then died in obscurity.

Or this:

The thread broke: for the eighth time that month, a burlap sack-maker lost a finger. Like the others, this woman would be fired and go home to tell her children to prepare to starve. Tamlyn swore once again to perfect her hands-free threading device, even if she had to burn every candle in the Midwest staying up to do it.

Okay, so the latter is a trifle melodramatic — but if you were Millicent, which book proposal would you request?

The second most important element of a nonfiction synopsis is the argument: it’s imperative that the synopsis-reader be able to follow it. Show it in logical order, rather than jumping around or leaving pieces out. No need to be pedantic about it, of course: In Chapter Eight… is not a transition likely to impress Millicent with your storytelling acumen.

Why is showing the basic argument of the book so important? Well, in a nonfiction synopsis, you should not only show the content of the book, but also that you can argue coherently.

Yes, you in the tenth row? “But Anne, this seems counterintuitive. Wouldn’t the best way for an agent or editor to check out my argumentative style be to, you know, read my manuscript? Or at least my proposal?”

I could shoot that one down right away, but first, let’s all take a refreshing mental holiday and picture how much easier all of our lives would be people in the publishing industry actually thought that way. Ah, that’s nice: a world where writers’ talent was judged solely by thoughtful, well-paid, prose-loving agents and editors, lounging on comfy sofas in sun-drenched lofts, languidly turning over page after page of entire manuscripts sent to them by aspiring authors because they have literally nothing else to do all day.

And look, outside that massive loft window — do I see a pig flying by, with Jean Harlow on his back, waving sparklers and smooching Clark Gable?

Okay, back to the real world: realistically, a nonfiction synopsis does indeed need to encapsulate the argument that it takes an entire book to make in just a couple of pages — or at least to establish the central question and indicate how you’re going to go about answering it.

Think of it as a tap-dancing audition, your two-minute chance to show your fancy footwork: if you argue well enough here, an agent (or editor at a small publishing house) will ask to see the argument in the book.

Did I just hear some gasps out there? “Two minutes?” a few of you squeak. “How closely can she possibly read my synopsis in that short amount of time? The one-page version perhaps, but the 5-page?”

I didn’t mean to startle you — but yes, that’s about the maximum your synopsis will have under an agent’s (or, more likely, Millicent’s) bloodshot, overworked eyes. Contrary to popular opinion, nonfiction queries and submissions tend not to be treated to much closer or more respectful readings than novels these days — and that’s saying something.

Popular opinion may have a point here, at least at the agency level, because nonfiction has historically been quite a bit easier to sell to the major publishing houses than fiction. At this point in publishing history, though, the market is so tight that it just doesn’t make strategic sense for nonfiction writers to assume that they — or, more accurately, we — don’t need to present book projects as professionally and eye-catchingly as novelists do.

So assume two minutes, maximum, possibly less. Let’s face it, this isn’t a lot of time to establish an argument much more complicated than the recipe for your sainted mother’s cream of tomato soup.

Even if Mom’s methodology consisted primarily of opening a can of Campbell’s, you may find yourself in a descriptive pickle.

It is more than enough page space, however, to demonstrate that you have the writing skills to make an argument where each sentence leads logically to the next. It’s also enough time to show that you have a coherent plan for proving your propositions, and for indicating what evidence you intend to use.

If I seem to be harping on the necessity of making a COMPLETE, if skeletal, argument here, it’s because the single most common mistake nonfiction synopsizers make is to give only PART of the argument, or still worse, only the premise, with no indication of how they intend to make their case. Instead, they use the space to go on a rant about how necessary the book is, essentially squandering precious argumentative space with marketing jargon and premise.

But a solid underlying argument is the sine qua non of the nonfiction synopsis. Period. If it doesn’t appear to hold water — yes, even in a 1-page synopsis — the book simply isn’t going to strike the industry as marketable.

To make it appear as solid in the synopsis as I’m sure it is in the proposal and/or manuscript, don’t forget to mention what kind of evidence you will be using to support your claims. Have you done extensive research? Exhaustive interviews? Hung out with the right people?

If you have a professional background in the subject matter of your book that unquestionably renders you an expert, or personal experience that gives you a unique insight into the subject, try to work that into the synopsis, early on. Otherwise, stick to the subject matter and explain what your book is going to teach people about it;

I use the term teach advisedly, because it is often quite helpful for synopsis writers to think of the task as producing a course overview for the lesson that is the book’s content: how will this book help readers, and what kind of readers will it help? Ultimately, how will both these readers and the world around them be better off because they read this book?

Oh, you don’t think your work is that important? If you don’t believe that your writing is capable of making the world a better place, why put in all of the effort to write it, break your heart querying, or bite your nails down to the elbow while you are waiting to hear yea or nay on your book proposal?

Once you have made the book’s worth clear, how about demonstrating precisely what about your approach will captivate those readers as no other will? Of course, I’m not talking about TELLING a potential agent or editor how terrific the book is — that’s the book proposal’s job, right? — but SHOWING that you can write the heck out of this topic.

Remember, it’s your job to make your subject matter sound absolutely fascinating. To achieve this successfully, a good nonfiction synopsis needs to show how the book’s take on the topic on it is original.

At the risk of repeating myself, in order to do that, you are going to have to spell out your argument. Not merely in generalities, but in sufficient detail that — everyone chant it with me now — an agent, editor, or contest judge could understand it sufficiently to describe it to someone else without having read the book.

Because, let’s face it, that’s precisely what Millicent the agency screener is going to have to do in order to get her boss to ask to see your book proposal or manuscript — and what her cousin Maury the editorial assistant will have to do to get his boss even to consider publishing it.

Have I convinced you yet that you really do need to present a cohesive, well-argued theory here? And did I happen to mention the importance of its being cohesive?

Easier said than done, of course. In the author’s mind, the argument often lies the details, not in the larger, more theoretical points. How can you narrow it down? It’s helpful to have an outline of your proposed chapters in front of you, so you can use the synopsis to demonstrate how each chapter will build upon the next to make your overall case.

Oh, don’t groan. If you’re writing a nonfiction book, you are going to need to pull together a chapter-by-chapter overview anyway, to include in your book proposal: it’s called the annotated table of contents. This moniker is a tad misleading, because it brings to mind the simple chapter title + page number tables of contents we’ve all seen in published books. An annotated table of contents consists of the titles in order, yes, but it also contains a paragraph or two about the argument or material to be presented in that chapter.

For tips on how to pull this off successfully, please see the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL category on the list at right. I’ll still be here when you get back.

Don’t get so caught up in reproducing the argument in the synopsis, though, that you overlook working in a brief explanation of why the world needs your book, and why you are the best person imaginable to write it. This is typically the greatest difference between a fiction and a nonfiction synopsis: while a platform always helps for a novelist, it’s often not practicable for a science fiction writer to say, “I’m an expert on life on the planet Targ, having lived there for forty-seven Targian years (two months our time),” is it?

If you are writing on a subject that has already been well-trodden by past authors, it’s even more vital to make these points clear. The synopsis needs to render it apparent to Millicent and Maury at a glance why your book is different and better than what’s already on the market.

In answer to the small, instinctive moans of protest that just escaped from your gullet: yes, this is repetitive with material you will cover in your book proposal. As I mentioned above, in most of the contexts in which your synopsis will travel — tucked into an envelope with a query letter; accompanying a sample chapter or contest entry; floating around a publishing house after an editor has already fallen in love with your proposal — the reader will not also be clutching your proposal.

In other words: don’t count on its being available to make your case. Your goal should be to produce a synopsis that shows off your writing skills, the strength of your argument, and the inherent marketability of your book in a fraction of the space allotted to a proposal.

As always, there is no need to be heavy-handed in your own praise to achieve this, either. To prove it to you, I’m going to give you a sample opening, modest enough that it would strike no one as overbearing. Read carefully, as there will be a pop quiz afterward to see if you can spot the ways that this paragraph achieves Goals #3 and #4:

Have you ever wondered what goes on underneath the snow while you are skiing on top of it? Although there are many books currently on the market for the US’s 1.3 million snowboarding enthusiasts, MOUNTAINS MY WAY is the first to be written by a geologist. Seen through the eyes of a professional rock hound with thirty years of experience in the field, the reader is introduced to mountains as more than an array of cold, hard rocks: mountains emerge as a historical document, teeming with life and redolent of all of the stages of human history.

How did you do? Give yourself points if you noticed that the opening question was an excellent hook: it grabbed the reader, showing immediately how this book might relate to the reader’s practical life; a rhetorical question for which the book itself provides an answer is a great way to establish a book’s appeal at the very beginning of the synopsis.

Also, pat yourself on the back fifty times if you zeroed in on the subtle way in which this paragraph dissed the competition — the implication here is that the authors all previous books on the subject were such boneheads that THEY thought mountains were just collections of rocks.

No one is naming names here, but those authors know who they are. Shame on you.

Take yourself out for a cupcake if you noted the clever (if I do say so myself) use of demographic information. (Which I made up wholesale for example’s sake, so for heaven’s sake, don’t quote it elsewhere.) If you have statistics on your prospective market, this is the place to mention them — here, and in your query letter, and in your pitch. As in:

Currently, two million Americans have been diagnosed with agoraphobia, yet there are few self-help books out there for them — and only one that is actually written by an agoraphobic, someone who truly understands what it feels like to be shut in by fear.

Why is it so important to hammer home the statistics in every conceivable piece of marketing material for your book? Well, no matter how large the prospective audience for your book is (unless it is an already such a well-covered market that anyone in the industry could reasonably be expected know about it, such as golf fans), you can’t ever, ever assume that an agent or editor will be aware of its size.

ALWAYS assume that they will underestimate it — and thus the market appeal of your book. Oz, the Great and Terrible, tells you that more often than not, they will.

While Oz’ booming tones are echoing around in your brainpan, I think I shall end for the day, so all of your nonfiction writers out there may go off and meditate upon your target demographic and why it desperately needs your book. Join me tomorrow for another Synopsispalooza post, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXI: querying memoir, or, appealing to the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife

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Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: we’ve covered a heck of a lot of material over the course of Querypalooza; I wasn’t kidding when I teased the series by calling it querying boot camp. Judging from reader comments I’ve been seeing in the comments and e-mails, as well as verbally, people seem to be enjoying the specificity of these posts, so I’m going to devote yet another evening to going over some examples of the sometimes subtle differences between a query that grabs and one that just lies on Millicent the agency screener’s desk.

Ready to dive right back in? Good. Let’s take a gander at a solid query for an interesting-sounding memoir — and while the photos above have already gotten those of you old experienced TV-savvy enough to be familiar with the old Andy Griffith show to contemplate the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife, let’s go ahead and reincarnate him as an agent who represents spiritual growth memoirs. (Hey, it’s been a long, long series — odd fantasies are very helpful to keeping myself alert.)

As always, my apologies if these page shots appear a trifle fuzzy on your browser. If you’re having trouble reading specifics, please try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + until the image is large enough to read easily.

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements (book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off), as well as a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis (so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query).

It also — and it’s astonishing how few queriers think to try something along these lines — actually told the Agent Barney what she was hoping he could do for her: I am seeking an agent both spiritually-aware and market-savvy. While establishing standards on the writer’s side may seem at first blush a trifle pushy, Ataraxia is merely alerting Barney to the fact that she has actually given some thought to what she does and doesn’t want in an agent.

Long-time readers, chant it along with me now: a savvy writer does not want to land just any agent; she knows her work will be best off in the hands of the right agent, someone who loves her writing, is genuinely interested in her subject matter, and already has the connections to get her books under the right editorial noses to get it published.

That’s a far cry from the usual I just want to land an agent, any agent, so you’ll do — I’m desperate! tone of many queries, isn’t it? Ataraxia is approaching Barney as a professional writer with an interesting book project — why shouldn’t she be as selective as he is?

She also did something rather clever here, to compensate for including extra information. Anybody notice what it was?

If you immediately shouted, “She eliminated the lines previous examples had skipped between paragraphs, as well as some lines at the top that were not strictly necessary to correspondence format!” take a gold star out of petty cash. While that extra space is aesthetically pleasing, it’s not required.

And snag two more stars if you also sang out, “She omitted mention of the SASE!” While it’s always a good idea to mention the SASE tucked inside the envelope — hey, Millicent’s in a hurry; she has a lot of queries to scan in any given morning — it’s not indispensable. Wisely, Ataraxia decided that it was more important to include an extra line or two about her story than to make it plain to our Millie that she had followed the rules.

She did, however, make room to mention the synopsis — an excellent idea, even if the agency’s submission guidelines specifically insisted that queriers include one. It underscores that the writer has taken the time to learn the individual agent’s preferences and is trying her level best to meet expectations.

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Another means of making this particular point is to use the old-fashioned enclosures notation:

good memoir query 2

As you may have noticed, this method takes up more room on the page than mentioning the same information in a single-line sentence; Ataraxia has had to trim down the body of the letter accordingly. But it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Most importantly, both versions of this query make the memoir sound like a heck of a good story, as well as an unexpected one. Although the book description is a trifle on the lengthy side, it’s worth the page space — this book sounds both very marketable and like a hoot to read, doesn’t it?

Yes, it took up more room to describe the book, establish that there is a market for it, and talk about her credentials, but for a memoir, that’s a smart move: remember, no one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because it’s a true story; that’s the case, at least in theory, for every memoir ever written. It’s the memoirist’s job in the query, then, to convince Millicent that the book has other selling points.

Nor is the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy this book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

As you no doubt noticed, Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing list as well.

Why wouldn’t that platform grab Millicent? Past publications would be nice, of course, but what is here is quite sufficient for the intended audience of this book.

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book.

That’s why, in case any of you inveterate writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

But that’s not how most writers hear references to platform, is it? The aspiring tend to react to it as a value judgment: why in the world would anyone be interested in YOUR book, nonentity? Not entirely coincidentally, their next thought tends to be well, the deck is stacked against me. Obviously, the only people who can get memoirs published these days are celebrities. I might as well give up.

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year. How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does.

So please, don’t let yourself be discouraged by the common wisdom. Naturally, a celebrity’s platform is going to be more obvious at first glance than other people’s; equally naturally, a first-time book proposer with three master’s degrees in various aspects of the book’s subject matter will have an easier time convincing Millicent that she’s an expert than someone with less academic wall decoration.

But does that mean that these are the only types of memoirists with a platform? No, of course not. In order to produce a successful query, a memoirist needs to figure out who his target audience is, what his book offers them that similar books do not, and how he is going to inform them of that fact.

Note to those of you who just groaned, “But Anne, that’s precisely what I would have to do to write a book proposal!: darned tootin’. For a nonfiction book, the query letter, synopsis, and proposal all share the same goal: to convince people in the publishing industry that you are uniquely qualified to tell an interesting story or make an important argument that readers already buying similar books are demonstrably eager to hear.

You just have longer to prove those points in a synopsis or proposal. But to write any of them well, you need to ask yourself: what is original about my book? Who needs to read it, and why?

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

I hope so, because the vast majority of memoir queries — and nonfiction queries in general — read as though the writer has never thought about these issues vis-à-vis his own book project. Or, if he has, he’s decided that if he even attempts to address them truthfully, no Millicent in her right mind would even consider reading his book proposal.

Often, the result is downright apologetic, even if the story is very compelling indeed. Let’s take a gander at how Ataraxia might have expressed herself had she been born Panicky, but grew up with precisely the same story and essentially the same credentials. Heck, let’s even retain the same descriptive paragraph:

memoir query panicky

Amazing what a difference just a slight shift in tone and confidence can make, isn’t it? In actuality, Panicky has exactly the same platform as Ataraxia — but because she has presented it so timorously, without the specific marketing details that made our earlier examples such grabbers, she comes across as substantially less qualified to write this book.

Yes, that’s completely unfair. But can you honestly blame Millicent for drawing such different conclusions about these two writers?

And did you happen to notice the Freudian slip that just shouts how nervous Panicky is? In case you missed it:

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Read it, presumably, but Panicky apparently can’t bring herself to say it. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily; she doesn’t want to step on any toes.

Just as the border between confident and arrogant can be murky at times, the line between polite and self-deprecating can be a narrow one. I’m quite positive that if asked, Panicky would insist that she was merely being courteous: she honestly is grateful that an agent as well-established as Barney would even consider her book project; she has done her homework well enough to be aware of how busy he is likely to be.

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. See the relevant statistics for yourself:

Thank yous: two direct (I’m sorry to take up your valuable time; ), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Apologies: two direct (Thank you so very much for taking the time even to consider my book; Thanks again), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Equivocations: one confidence wobble perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), four unsubstantiated marketing claims (food tourism one of the fastest-growing travel trends in the United States; Millions of Americans engage in food-related travel; Many of them are undoubtedly women traveling alone; I believe that my students would be very interested in my memoir.)

Suggestions that this would be a difficult book to sell and/or promote: two expressed authorial fears about appearing in public (While I fully realize that my current size may prove problematic for promoting this book on television; many cultures (including ours) regard a big woman as inherently flawed)

Implications that the agent wouldn’t — or even shouldn’t — be interested in the book: one prompt to disregard (perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), one implication that he couldn’t understand it (This might not occur to someone of so-called normal size, but it is actually…), one implication that it doesn’t matter very much whether he likes it or not (Whichever you decide, please have a nice day — and eat some yummy food!)

Quite a lot of dissuasion for a one-page letter ostensibly intended to convince ol’ Barney that this worthwhile book project, isn’t it? And most of it is totally unnecessary: as we saw in Ataraxia’s version, there’s no necessary trade-off between politeness and confident presentation.

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner.

So would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether she made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it? Remember, even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

The rather depressing moral to this story: how a writer presents himself on the page counts.

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is, well, to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, the next step is to invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work, researching your target market (both its members and what books have been aimed successfully at it within the past five years), and coming up with at least a couple of believable selling points.

Then center your query around them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

Don’t tell me your book doesn’t have any selling points; I don’t believe you. Any book worth a good writer’s time to compose has strengths. So does everyone’s life history. It’s just a matter of matching the one or the other to your target audience’s needs in a manner that will make Millicent exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before! I really want to read this!”

Or, alternatively, “Wow, this is a book by {fill in celebrity here}; I wouldn’t have thought he could read, much less write. Well, I guess we should take a look at it, because he has a lot of fans.” That usually works pretty well, too.

Tomorrow around 10 am Pacific, I shall be revisiting the practical issues of partials. Then it’s back to another evening of examples Monday night.

Never a dull moment here at Querypalooza, eh? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XIV: getting creative with your platform paragraph, or, can we strike the phrase worthless credential from the language, please?

narrow road sign

I had to laugh this morning, campers. You know how I’ve been complaining periodically throughout this querying series about how often reasonable advice (or, even more often, an agent’s offhand comment about a personal preference) becomes transformed through sheer repetition into a purported Cosmic Law of Querying that bears only a faint familial resemblance to the original advice? Nowhere is the potent equation specific statement + word of mouth + time = distortion more operational than in the word-of-mouth paradise that is the aspiring writers’ community. Especially now, when Internet searches are so gifted at ripping individual statements out of context and communications are so rapid.

Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a misconception can make it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on.

Case in point: do you recall how careful I was in yesterday’s post on constructing a platform paragraph to assure all of you that the examples I was using were fictional, and thus should not be cited anywhere, anytime as truth? Well, the moment I logged onto the blog this drizzly Seattle a.m., I found an incoming link from the University of Bonn.

Why? Because yesterday’s post contained this totally made-up statement: Audrey Hepburn holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

This is not true; I said in the post it was not true. But did the web bot searching for the phrase University of Bonn trouble itself with fact-checking? Or with context?

The moral: Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Even if you read it here. Or heard someone say that they might have heard it here.

Speaking of the nature of truth and one’s obligation to tell it, inveterate commenter Elizabeth chimed in on Querypalooza XII, bringing up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:

My sister is in marketing, and was a recruiter and hires writers all the time and told me the story credit in my resume from my school literary mag is worthless. “I would see that and assume you are still in school and trash your resume,” she said cruelly.

I left it out of the last query. In fact, I left out my two college degrees, one of which is in criminology (crime novel) also. Ironically, it contains the BEST descriptive stuff I’ve ever written for this book.

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly. (When’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)

As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, in writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in writers’ psyches.

In my experience, practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction. When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.

“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent the agency screener. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know it’s only filler. I’d best not mention any of it.”

No, she’ll know that you’re a previously published author — what are those articles, chopped liver? And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.

Heck, if she knows her business, she’ll know that you might have a potentially gripping memoir in you. (When did you write all of those theses? In mid-air?)

In the face of the barrage of advice about querying (and marketing, for that matter), it’s so easy for aspiring writers to lose sight of the fact that the platform paragraph is about you. It’s a conceptual container for information that might make Millicent say either, “Wow, this writer knows whereat she speaks,” or, “Wow, this writer knows her way around the writing process.”

Or even, “Wow, this writer sounds like someone my boss, the agent, would absolutely love to work with on a long-term, mutually-beneficial basis.” You would argue with that?

So in excising her two best credentials, Elizabeth merely fell into the unfortunately all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. But that’s not terrifically surprising, is it, in the face of all of that yammering about worthless credentials?

The usual conception of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.

Basically, this conception turns the platform into a Who’s Who entry: if you happen to have one of the small handful of achievements for which there are boxes on the form, you have a listing. If you don’t, you don’t. Which means, in practice, that if all the available boxes are publications — or, in most first-time queriers’ minds, book publications with major houses — virtually no aspiring writer would have any credentials worth mentioning in a query letter.

Anybody see a logical problem with this? Like, for instance, the fact that if Millicent actually did take umbrage at non-literary (or even non-book-literary) credentials, she would have to reject 99.99% of what crosses her desk?

That’s ridiculous, of course. It’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk. And it’s your job to convince her in your query letter that you and your book project are in the top 2%.

Following the common wisdom — if you don’t have any of the narrowly-defined credentials, you should leave the platform paragraph out of your query altogether — may not be the best strategy. And it would be a suicidal strategy for writers of nonfiction, including memoir: just as part of what a nonfiction book proposer is marketing is her expertise in the subject matter of her book, part of what a memoirist is marketing is her personality.

So why on earth would a savvy querier want to pretend that she doesn’t have one? Or a background?

To a lesser extent, the same holds true for fiction: remember, any sensible agent seeking new clients is going to be looking for a career writer, not the proverbial author with only a single book in him. If you have traveled extensively, she might want to know that: you may have a travel memoir in you, or she may have a memoirist with a great story who could use a co-writer. And let’s not forget the fact that interesting people tend to do better at book readings, giving interviews, and other necessary promotional events in a successful author’s life.

There are also the practical concerns to consider. She’s going to want to know what you do for a living, not only because it will tell her more about you, but because your ability to take time off work will have a direct effect upon your ability to drop everything and make revisions. (Sorry to break that to you, ER-doctors-who-write.) On the flip side, if you travel for work, you’ll already be in a position to do book signings in multiple cities without your future publishing house’s having to cough up any dosh for traveling expenses.

Again, the down side to alerting Millicent to any of these selling points is?

Please don’t let yourself get talked out of — or, even more common, talk yourself out of — including relevant information in your query. If you find yourself tempted, think of Elizabeth’s example: what did she gain by cutting her two best credentials, ones that are absolutely germane to her current project? My police procedural is informed by my degree in criminology is, after all, precisely the kind of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC) Millicent deliberately scans those platform paragraphs to find.

Let’s get brainstorming, shall we? Yesterday, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

Today, we move on to less obvious stuff. You know, the things in your background that render you such a fascinating person.

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coalmining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Mention it.

There’s a reason that agents and editors habitually ask aspiring NF writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

And don’t discount how much more credible your life experience might make you if you write fiction about it, either. Which author do you think would be easier for a publisher’s marketing department to convince a magazine writer to interview, one who has written a book whose protagonist is a day trader, or this great new author who’s just distilled her 8 years as a day trader into a behind-the-scenes novel?

Quite different, isn’t it? The amazing thing is that both of these statements could quite easily refer to the same book.

Make sure, by the way, that if your life experience is your most important credential, it appears first in your platform paragraph. If you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, Millicent needs to know that right away. Don’t be coy — the connection with your book may seem self-evident to YOU, but remember, Millicent will not be able to guess whether you have a perfect platform for writing your book unless you tell her about it.

What you should NOT do under any circumstances, however, is say that your novel is “sort of autobiographical.” To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications. Oh, and someone I know may later come along and try to sue you over it, future publisher. Please read my manuscript anyway.”

No wonder, then, that the words autobiographical and fiction in the same sentence so often prompt Millicent to shout, “Next!”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly: basically, I’m urging you to say FALLING CINDERS draws upon my twenty years as a working firefighter instead of FALLING CINDERS is semi-autobiographical or — sacre bleu!This novel is partially based on my life.

Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. However, industry professionals simply assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.

But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not make it more appealing; it merely means potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco, it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your pitch. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since — again, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, but how else are you going to find out? — a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the phrase, “Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…”

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here. If it’s a large organization, go ahead and mention its size. (Left to her own devices, Millicent’s guesstimate would probably be low.) Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, you might want to bring it up — although you might want to clear make sure first that your group is in the habit of such promotion. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter, guaranteeing substantial speaking engagement interest.

My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease.

I am a graduate of Yale University, guaranteeing a mention of my book on tulip cultivation in the alumni magazine. Currently, The Yale News reaches over 100,000 readers bimonthly.

(To reiterate: I pulled all of the examples I am using in this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em, therefore. I’m looking at you, University of Bonn.)

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. (Don’t mentally shake off that last sentence. Not everything on your brainstorming list is going to end up in your query letter; give yourself some creative leeway.)

If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it. (Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years.) Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace.)

Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Some possible examples:

Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

(8) Statistics.
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences. As we discussed earlier in this series, including the real statistics in your pitch minimizes the probability of the agent or editor’s guess being far too low.

Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them. Some possible examples:

750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, creating a large audience potentially eager for this book.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market potential for MASSAGE YOUR WAY BACK TO BUSHINESS.

(I’ll keep you posted on whether that last one gets picked up by a Canadian web bot.)

(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned yesterday, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered.

Thus, if you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it. Possible examples:

So far in 2010, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening THEN.

Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your pitch to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward. Some examples:

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2011, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2015, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in the last two decades to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

(If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone suffering from kneecap dysplasia at this very moment, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist. I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny, because when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were pointing in the right direction.)

So what is your book’s distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: if you engage in a direct comparison with an already-published book, avoid cutting it down. Try to stick to pointing out how your book is GOOD, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the Millicent or her boss DIDN’T go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or, and the agent’s case, represented the book himself.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently. For example:

While Jennifer Anniston’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care.

I would STRONGLY urge those of you who write literary fiction to spend a few hours brainstorming on this point. How does your book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way?

Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach your novel in an English literature class?

Again, remember that you need to express these difference in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary, but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is.

Why not? Well, that’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter This is the best book in the Western literary canon! must necessarily be a bad writer — and one whose literary intake is probably fairly meager at that.

“What on earth must this writer think is currently on the market,” Millicent says under her breath, reaching swiftly for the form-letter rejection stack, “if he thinks he can make a claim like this. I’d bet a wooden nickel that he hasn’t read any literary fiction that’s come out within the last seven years. Next!”

Cast your selling points as marketing realities, though, and she’ll be pleasantly surprised — as long as what you say is true. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features a sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old, and thus will speak to the parents of the 4-7% of children who are dyslexic, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform. Some possible examples:

Leonardo DiCaprio has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Tiger Woods interviewed over 6000 women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE PERFECT.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.

(Note to the 11% of you who just cried, “But my local library doesn’t have such a program!”: has it occurred you to start one yourself? Speaking as both someone who grew up surrounded by working authors and the daughter of a public school librarian who served for years on the city library’s board, half the librarians in the country, community and school alike, and fully two-thirds of the authors would line up to kiss you on the lips if you would volunteer to coordinate such a program in your town. And can you think of a better way to meet your favorite authors?)

Don’t engage in wishful thinking here, though; the point here is not to speculate about what you might do in future, as NF writers must in the marketing plan portion of their book proposals. For platform paragraph purposes (try saying that three times fast), only include promotion that does indeed already exist. Or that you are positive that you can make exist by the time you are having your first honest-to-goodness conversation with an agent who wants to represent your book.

Establishing a website for your writing is a good start — and it’s something practically any aspiring writer with Internet access can do, even with the most minimal resources. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry, because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
I like to see every brainstormed list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point, because it’s awfully important. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what is already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

So this is the time to bring up what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category. (For some tips on how to figure that out, as well as an in-depth explanation of the sometimes elusive distinction between what the publishing industry considers fresh and what it will dismiss as weird, check out the FRESHNESS IN MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (“This is the best book on sailboarding since MOBY DICK!”), but content-filled comparisons (“It’s would be the only book on the market that instructs the reader in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard.”)

Finished brainstorming? Terrific. Now you can write your platform paragraph or book proposal.

After you do, though, don’t throw out your list of selling points — that’s going to come in handy down the line. Even more so if you take the time now to put it in a format you can use again and again.

How? Start by going through your list and figuring out what are the best points, from a marketing point of view. Cull the less impressive stuff. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10 selling points, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or hand to your agent when she’s ready to start pitching to editors. Or pull it out when you are practicing answering the question, “So, what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to use it as a study guide before you give interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points IS a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams.

Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

Next time — that’s 7 o’clock PST this evening, campers, on our slightly-less-breathless post-Labor Day schedule — we shall be moving on to query packet construction and mailing issues. Can’t you just feel the excitement in the air?

No, but seriously, paying attention to these details can save a querier a heck of a lot of trouble. Not to mention rejection. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XIII: showing off your qualifications (over and above the obvious)

damn-yankees

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Last time, we embarked upon an in-depth discussion of that most-dreaded part of a good query letter, from most aspiring writers’ point of view: the section known as the platform paragraph. Why dreaded? Because the overwhelming majority of mistakenly hear a professional request for their book’s credentials as, “You have to prove to us that we should take you seriously as a writer, oh unpublished one, before we will deign to read your work.” Or as, “We only want to know this because we’re not interested in writers who don’t already have arm-length lists of published books.” Or even, “Who the heck do you think you are, believing you should write a book at all?”

Naturally, writers querying with their first manuscripts would find such expectations threatening. But if you have few or no previous publications, awards, writing degrees, etc. to your credit, do not panic, even for an instant. All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, there are plenty of other possible selling points for your manuscript.

How do I know that? Because the fine folks who work in agencies don’t actually expect the platform paragraph to answer any of the questions above. What questions do they want you to answer? “Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book, tell this story, and/or make this particular argument?”

Substantially less stressful to think of it that way, isn’t it?

Try not to get too bogged down in worrying about the standard prestige points. Today, we shall be going through a long list of potential selling points for your book. Pretty much everyone should be able to recognize at least a couple of possibilities that might fit the bill.

But I’m not going to be doing all of the work here. Dig out your trusty pad and pencil; you’re going to be coming up with a list of your book’s selling points.

And I’m not talking about mere vague assertions about why an editor at a publishing house would find your manuscript an excellent example of its species of book — that much is assumed, right? — but reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you query, but believe me, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if YOU know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with anyone in the publishing industry. Nor is the astonishingly common, “But I want to get published so much!”

Why won’t these excuses fly? Well, pretty much everyone who queries has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly. Sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of queriers make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to talk about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, etc.

First-time pitchers are even more likely to tumble down this rabbit hole, alas. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously many pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, pitchers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Yes, really.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn how and why books get published.

In other words: “Next!”

Why is this an instant-rejection offense? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to these self-revealers, but this is not the way to gain an agency screener’s sympathy, or even her attention. In fact, such emotional outbursts are a waste of Millicent’s time.

Why? Well, you tell me: what, if anything, in a litany of complaints about how the publishing industry works, however well-justified, tells Millicent one single thing about the book being queried.

I’ll answer that one for you: nothing. But it does give her some indication of whether the querier has done any homework about how agencies work, or how books get published.

A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyper-emotionalism.

The same holds true, of course, for queries. Sadly, queriers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the writers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that querying (or pitching) is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of teardrops staining the letter), this approach typically does not work. In fact, what it generally produces is profound embarrassment in both listener and pitcher.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

Aspiring writers’ hearts are notoriously brittle. Why else would anyone query only once, or twice, or a small handful of times, then give up altogether, assuming (wrongly) that if his book were really meant to get published, it would have been snapped up instantly?

The common misconception that good writing will inevitably and immediately attract an agent, regardless of how unprofessionally it is presented, can be even more damaging at query-writing time: when believers in the Agent-Matching Fairy sit down to write their queries, they often become depressed at the very notion of having to make the case that their manuscripts are worth reading. Frequently, these poor souls mistake the need to market their books for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, many writers shrink away from this perfectly reasonable question. So much so that they become positively terrified of querying at all. “They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that sits in a drawer, unqueried. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Did that little diatribe fill you with heart, miles and miles and miles of heart? Good. Let’s start generating your list of selling points.

Before I start making suggestions, let’s be clear on what you’re going to want on your list. A selling point should SHOW (not tell) why you are the best person to write this book, what about your book is likely to appeal to readers in your target market, and/or that the intended audience is larger (and, ideally, more interested in your subject matter) than Millicent might have been aware. To be most effective, you won’t want to make these arguments in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based REASONS that they will clamor to read it.

Preferably backed by the kind of verifiable statistics we discussed last time. Include any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter.

Why? Because it will make your query look professional — and, I must say it, better than the 17 queries Millicent has already seen today that did not talk about their books in marketing terms. Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who whose entire query was devoted to how frustrating it is to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days.

Don’t skimp on the brainstorming stage; the more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your platform paragraph will be. Think about it: no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent the agency screener would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

So on your marks, get set, go: why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story or make this argument, and why will people who are already buying books like yours want to read it?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to Millicent is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

I already hear all of you literary fiction writers out there groaning — and we come to a stop again. “But Anne,” you protest in dulcet tones, “you astonish me. Surely, if any book category should be exempt from being marketed on anything but the beauty of the writing, it’s mine. I always thought that the primary benefit of writing fiction was that I wouldn’t ever have to sully my art with sordid marketing concerns. Yes, aspiring nonfiction writers have to produce book proposals, and thus are forced to brainstorm about marketing, but until fairly recently, fiction writers could concentrate on storytelling, craft, and, of course, lovely writing. I’ve been nervously watching as more and more, genre fiction writers are being expected to market their own work, but gosh darn it, I write for a relatively tiny target audience deeply devoted to beautiful writing. Please, please tell me that I can just leave the platform paragraph out of my query, and thus don’t have to let you drag me kicking and screaming toward the list below!”

Wow. Hadn’t I mentioned that emotional outbursts aren’t adequate substitutes for well-reasoned selling points?

Seriously, literary novelists, I think you’re missing the point here. No Millicent can possibly be bowled over by the beauty of your writing unless she reads it. And she will only read it if she is impressed by your query.

There’s just no way around that. So it behooves you not only to craft your descriptive paragraph to be as lyrical and moving as humanly possible, but also to use your platform paragraph to make your book sound different — and easier to market — than all of the other literary fiction books Millicent will see queried that day. It will cause your query to jump out of the stack at her: your tribe’s collective reluctance toward thinking about marketing virtually guarantees that if you do it well, your query will shine out as preeminently professional.

In other words: no, I shan’t absolve you of writing a platform paragraph. It’s just too likely to help you.

Where should a literary fiction writer start in coming up with selling points? Precisely where every other writer does: the subject matter. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So ask yourself: why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

Or, if you prefer to put it in highbrow terms: if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of an NPR show in order to convince him to book the author?

For fiction, the subject matter you choose as the focus of your platform paragraph need not be the central issue of the book, by the way. Even if your novel is about post-apocalyptic government restructuring, if a major character is the gardener charged with replanting the White House’s Rose Garden in newly-toxic soil, and you’ve been a landscaper for a decade, that’s relevant. (It informed what you chose to have that character plant, didn’t it?)

Some prompts to get you — and everybody else — brainstorming. Some effective selling points include…

(1) Experience that would tend to bolster your claim to be an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of most nonfiction platforms, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Marcello Mastroianni has been a student of Zen Buddhism for thirty-seven years, and brings a wealth of meditative experience to this book.

Clark Gable has been Atlanta’s leading florist for fifteen years, and is famous state-wide for his Scarlett O’Hara wedding bouquets.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

(Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.)

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a novelist: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is, from an agent or editor’s point of view, a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Audrey Hepburn holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

Charlton Heston was granted an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his important work in furthering gun usage.

Jane Russell completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College, and thus is well equipped to field questions on the subject.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work (or volunteer efforts), this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

And it need not be recognition for your writing, either: the point here is to demonstrate that there are people (translation for Millicent: potential book-buyers) who already have positive associations with your name. Some possible examples:

Myrna Loy was named Teacher of the Year four years running by the schools of Peoria, Kansas.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Yes, yes, I know: I spent most of this morning’s post convincing you that you needn’t despair if you had no previous publications. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to urge those who do to bring them up in the platform paragraph — are you crazy? Millicent has a reverence for the published word the borders on the devout.

So if you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT IS OFF-TOPIC. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

And please, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only fiction credentials count if you’re pushing a novel, or that your published short story won’t help you get your memoir past Millicent: a publication is a publication is a publication. Some editor took a chance on you; Millie needs to know that in order to assess your query properly.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it makes you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all.

Some possible examples:

Diana Ross writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Twiggy has published over 120 articles on a variety of topics, ranging from deforestation to the rise of hemlines.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I’m going to hold off on the rest of the list until tomorrow morning, to give everyone a chance to digest both this and this morning’s gargantuan post before we move on. Get good sleep, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XII: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower

Sorry that I’m posting our latest Querypalooza installment a few minutes late today, campers. First, I overslept a bit (probably predictable, seeing as I had committed to last weekend’s post-every-eight-hours schedule before it occurred to me that such a posting regimen would necessarily preclude my ever sleeping more than, say, seven hours and twenty minutes at a stretch), then I got embroiled in answering readers’ questions on earlier posts in this series. I aspire to being more prompt with today’s 6 p.m. post.

As long-time readers of this blog are, I hope, already aware, I welcome questions and comments from my readers. They keep things lively, and frankly, without them, Author! Author! would not have grown, evolved, and some would say mushroomed over the past five years into the seething cauldron of ideas it has. Your input has transformed it from a series of editorial pieces (which is, really, what it was for the first year, when I was Resident Writer for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association; their board insisted on column format without visible comments) into a vibrant, ever-burgeoning community.

A fierce ragoût, as Charlotte Brontë would put it. Heck, even the super-specific categories on the archive list at right were initially suggested by a reader. My very first commenter, in fact. So the next time you go scrolling down that now-immense list of options, you should send mental thanks to inveterate commenter Dave.

There’s another, slightly less obvious way that your input has been — and shall continue to be, I devoutly hope — so good for this blog: every so often, someone asks a question that would simply never occur to anyone who works with manuscripts for a living. I’ll never forget the first time it happened. Someone wrote in because she was confused by something I had said in passing about how manuscripts should be formatted: how was it possible, she asked in all sincerity, to have a slug line in the top margin when the rules said there should be a one-inch border of white space all around the page?

It’s a cliché, but my jaw actually did drop. Having grown up surrounded by professional writers, not only would this question never have occurred to me — I had no personal experience that would lead me to guess that anyone else might have formulated it. My parents made me write my elementary school term papers in standard format. Typed, no less. I had never even thought about how difficult it would be for someone who had never seen a professionally-formatted manuscript to envision what it should look like.

And that, my friends, was the inspiring spark for my notoriously explanation-heavy semi-annual HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT series. So the next time any of you have a question about format, you should be thanking that early questioner.

Ditto, incidentally, for Querypalooza. My explanations have definitely been enriched over the years by readers’ comments and questions. Why, only recently, curious and insightful reader Janet raised an interesting query-related issue in the comments:

The thing that stymies me is the credentials part. If you’re trying to interest an editor (as I write mostly short stories at the moment, although I’m Working On A Novel) but you’ve only really just gotten started again and haven’t won or published anything (that’s not fan fiction), how do you deal with that?

That part stymies nearly everyone, Janet — and not only short story writers trying to interest editors in their work. It is, in fact, the classic first-time book writer’s dilemma, and certainly most queriers’.

The classic answer to this question is if you don’t have writing credentials, get some. Most aspiring writers are turned off by this, because they assume this is referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possible option in the platform paragraph of a query. The goal of including publishing credentials there is not just to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on you, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.

Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even — dare I say it? — maintaining a blog.

All of these things demonstrate professional intent — which, if you do not have professional credentials, is the next best thing. I have some tips on brainstorming more possibilities in the posts under the BUILDING YOUR WRITING RESUME category on the archive list at right, but it all boils down to be creative.

Okay, my work here is done. Moving on…

No, but seriously, folks, that is how quickly most of us who deal with books for a living would answer this sort of question. It just wouldn’t occur to us that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more. Being me — and thus having the benefit of five years’ worth of your questions and comments — I know better.

So for the next couple of posts, I’m going to talk about the query’s platform paragraph assuming that there must be many readers out there who have never seen a professional query before. Let’s start by defining our terms, shall we?

A platform is the collection of credentials, life experience, and specific expertise that forms the basis of a writer’s claim to be the best person on earth to write the particular book he is pitching, querying, or proposing. Until fairly recently, the term applied only to nonfiction: platform was industry-speak for the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book, but now, it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to speak about a novelist’s platform as well.

And you know what I mean by the platform paragraph in a query, right? It’s the third paragraph in the example below, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to…

mars query

Now that we’re all on the same page, so to speak, we’re ready to ask the $64,000 question: what kinds 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?

And 85% of you just tensed up again. Not too surprising: most 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 the prospect of having to justify having sat down to write her book.

I have long suspected that part of the fear stems from 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 prefers to 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. They are saving the previously-unpublished some wasted time.

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 hundreds of wonderful agents out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of squandering your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again. “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?

That got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t it?

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. The previously published also 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 respective jobs significantly 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 immensely complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as actual 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 wrote periodic columns on boosting homeowners’ recycling acumen 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. 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 that — wait for it — 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 labor 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 held 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 wouldn’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. But think about it: 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 indeed what some of them mean. But most of them are just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right? Keep humming it in the key of G.

I spot a few raised hands out there. “Back up a minute, Anne. 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 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. Even established novelists often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. Book reviews. 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 the book you are querying. Or even 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 well 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. (See, I told you to keep humming.)

Or this: 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.

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. Have you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-booter: 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 easily be described very tersely — 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, not a question of literary quality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, 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 a platform. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

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 they 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 might not render 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 whose perceptions of reality could be trusted.

A personal platform 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 also demonstrates why people in the media might be interested in interviewing the author.

While your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you have written 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 book sales, 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 this NF 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-aimed 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?”

I may be going out on a limb here, but how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to your book’s subject matter?

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. That summer you spent following the caribou herd.

Seeing where I’m going with this? At the risk of sounding like, well, pretty much anybody else who gives advice on platform: if you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can always go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as publication-based ones. So why not spend the autumn 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: while technically, everything posted on the web is published, unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner an impressive number of hits on a regular basis (thanks again, readers!), 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? Or those comments that in the electronic age, publication credentials are easier to come by than ever? 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 one individualized 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 — in boldface, no less.

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.

Again, this is old hat 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: that beautifully-written descriptive 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 itself 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. “But Anne, I’m worried that the writing credentials I have don’t really count. I’ve heard, for instance, that mentioning fan fiction just makes Millicent chuckle. And I’m not the only one, judging by Janet’s parenthetical observation about not having ‘won or published anything (that’s not fan fiction).’ Aren’t you being, you know, insanely optimistic?”

Not really. A publication is a publication, whether it is fan fiction or not: if someone else decided whether to put your writing in print or online, it’s technically published, and thus a perfectly legitimate credential. The pervasive rumor that fan fiction credentials don’t count does have some basis in fact, though — as writing credentials go, they are taken less seriously than print pieces, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t count at all.

So why is the caution almost invariably phrased as fan fiction and web credentials don’t count? Because like so many of the soi-disant Thou Shalt Not Do This in a Query rules floating around out there, the nuances of the true situation have fallen out of the advice as it has passed from mouth to mouth. In the usual style of rumor-based fact-checking, what almost nobody goes on to mention is that just because it’s not the best writing credential doesn’t mean it’s completely worthless.

Especially if you happen to write in that genre. If you write fan fiction in your chosen book category, you’re obviously familiar with its storylines, conventions, and current market, right?

Millicent may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness, but that doesn’t mean she will ignore it altogether. Besides, having something publishing-related to put in the platform paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there.

“Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform planks 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 (or even two, if they’re short) pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

Is your brain buzzing like a beehive, awash in the multiplicity of options? If not, don’t panic — in my next post (roughly 6 pm PST, wakefulness permitting), I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. 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!

Querypalooza, part II: state your business!

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Are some of you still feeling a bit shell-shocked after this morning’s Querypalooza post? I wouldn’t be at all surprised if you were: in it, I set out a very basic structure for a query letter. In deference to everyone’s possibly strained nerves, I’m going to take it a bit more gently in this post, assuaging the fears of the nervous, adding nuances to the prototype, and generally spreading joy and enlightenment abroad.

And then I’m going to plunge you back into shock again. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. It’s for your own good, I promise.

Querying, I think we can all agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it. It generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in it is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way.

Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school social dynamics, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from their high school reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be, well, kinda shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are — wait for it — kinda shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant nonfiction book’s never being published. Alternatively, one could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike a hapless ex-school kid gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things an aspiring writer can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from someone who has taken the time to learn how the publishing industry works.

Agents like writers who bother to do that, you know, and with good reason. Such new clients are much less time-consuming than those whose ideas of how books are sold bear only scant relation to reality. Aspiring writers harboring unrealistic expectations tend not only to express resentment when their work encounters stumbling-blocks — they often end up feeling disappointed when things are going well.

I just mention.

The query letter structure I proposed last time — which is, I must reiterate, NOT the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page. Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers try to do.

No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit. To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school graduating class before being signed.

Believe it or not, masses of rejected queries are not necessarily a reflection on the manuscript in question. Rejection is often a function of heavy competition, agent specialization, and aspiring writers not being aware of what information a query letter is supposed to contain.

Apart from doing the necessary homework to get a query that DOES contain the right information onto the desk of an agent who does habitually represent that type of book, the only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable.

Don’t tense up — I’m not talking about spilling your soul onto a single sheet of paper. I’m talking about making your query letter unique.

And not in the all-too-common misdefinition of the word as a synonym for special. I mean unique in its proper sense of one of a kind.

A tall order, you say? Well, keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in an agent (or, more commonly, in Millicent the agency screener: it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves; thus Millicent’s being the one to get the paper cuts) that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do either of those things deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte yet again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it. Not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit.

Sound like anyone you know?

So start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

The gates of the Emerald City are not going to open unless you knock, people. The only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that is never queried or pitched.

Yet even as I typed that, I could sense some ardor-deflation out there. “”My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to my readership is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space, much less seem unique while doing it?”

Um, are you sitting down? You don’t actually have the entire page to catch their attention; to be on the safe side, figure you have only about five lines to convince them to keep reading.

Yes, you read that correctly. While you already have the heart medication and/or asthma inhaler at the ready, it seems like a good time to add: most query letters are not even read to their ends by Millicent and her ilk.

Are you rending your garments and shouting, “Why, oh Lord, why?” Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

At the risk of repeating myself, this is largely attributable to aspiring writers’ not being aware of what information a query letter should and should not contain. Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand.

Like what, you ask? Here are some popular favorites:

This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!

You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

Women everywhere will want to buy this book!

It’s a natural for Oprah!

This book is like nothing else on the market!

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble (yet I do seem to be doing it quite a bit lately, don’t I?), but to professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to discover in a query letter. Yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks.

After one has heard the same claim 1500 times, it starts to lose a little vim. “Why do these queriers keep telling me that their books are unique?” Millicent grumbles, reaching for her fourth latte of the afternoon. “Why aren’t they SHOWING me?”

Ah, there’s the rub: assertions like these simply are not as effective at establishing a writer’s ability or a story’s appeal as demonstrating both practically, through well-written sentences and a summary containing lively and unusual details. Even in the extremely rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would you be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

To put it another way, if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth?

Or would you want some assurances that, say, this hard-selling yahoo knows something about cooking, had produced the pie in a vermin-free kitchen, and/or hadn’t constructed the mincemeat out of ground-up domestic pets?

Oh, you may laugh, thinking that this isn’t really an apt parallel, but why would agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history — or educational background, or even platform — if NOT to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, a good query letter includes what I like to call ECQLC, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy, platform information and/or selling points that will make Millicent sit up and say either, “Wow, this writer has interesting credentials,” “Wow, this writer is uniquely qualified to tell this story,” and/or “Wow, this book has greater market appeal/a larger target audience/is significantly more important to human existence than I would have guessed.”

The crucial exclamation to elicit, obviously, is “Wow!” Not merely because Millicent honestly does enjoy discovering exciting new writing projects (yes, even though it’s her job to reject 98% of the ones that cross her desk), but because a query letter that mentions either the writer’s credentials or the book’s selling points is genuinely rare.

I sense some disgruntled muttering out there, do I not? “Here we go again, Anne,” some mutterers, well, mutter. “I can’t STAND it when the pros start rattling on about platform. Isn’t that just code for we’re not interested in taking a chance on previously unpublished authors?”

Actually, it isn’t. Agents and their Millicents don’t ask to see platform information in queries in order to seem exclusionary toward previously unpublished writers (okay, not merely to seem exclusionary). They want it to be there because specific references to specific past literary achievements are signals to a quick-scanning screener that this is a query letter to take seriously.

As will an opening paragraph that states clearly and concisely why the writer decided to query this agent, as opposed to any other; a well-crafted single-paragraph elevator speech for the book; some indication of the target market, and a polite, respectful tone.

The same basic elements, in short, as an effective verbal pitch.

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there? That’s right, campers — the difference between a vague boast and solid information about your book and why THIS agent is the best fit for it is actually a show, don’t tell problem, at base. Part of your goal in the query letter is to demonstrate through your professional presentation of your project that this is a great book by an exciting new author, not just to say it.

So you might want to eschew such statements as, “My friends say this is the greatest novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It’s also a natural for Oprah.” You can make better arguments for your manuscript’s relevance.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is a natural for Oprah! I’m going on her show next week!”

Well, congratulations — go ahead and open your query letter with the date of your appearance on the show, and the best of luck to you. For the overwhelming majority of you who have not already negotiated with her production staff, I would recommend against mentioning your book’s Oprah potential at all, either in the query letter or, if you write nonfiction, in the book proposal.

Why? Because, conservatively speaking, at least 40% of book proposals Millicent sees mention the possibility of appearing on Oprah. As will most marketing plans, a hefty percentage of verbal pitches, and a higher percentage of query letters than I even like to say.

What’s the result of all of that repetition? Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens with an empty boast like that, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the publishing industry works.” Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent or her screener to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to make up one’s mind, does it? Actually, it is ample for a query letter rife with typos and unsubstantiated claims about how great the book is to turn a professional reader off.

Try not to blame Millicent for this. I can’t stress enough that agency screeners do not reject quickly merely to be mean. It’s their job, and to a certain extent, developing pet peeves and shortcuts is a necessary psychological defense for someone handling hundreds of people’s hopes and dreams in any given day’s work.

Even the best-intentioned Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, might start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the English major’s assumption that business format is in fact not proper formatting for either query letters or manuscripts. Think about it from a screener’s point of view: it’s true, for one thing, and let’s face it, improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot in either a query or manuscript.

So why wouldn’t Millicent free up an extra few seconds in her day by rejecting paper query letters devoid of indentation on sight? Especially when empirical experience has shown her that aspiring writers who don’t use grammatically-necessary indentation in their query letters often eschew it in their manuscripts as well?

I’m hearing more huffing. “But Anne,” some of you demand indignantly, and who could blame you? “What does indentation have to do with the actual writing in a manuscript? Or a query, for that matter?”

Potentially plenty, from Millicent’s point of view: remember, the competition for both client spots at agencies and publication contracts is fierce enough that any established agent fill her typically scant new client quota hundreds of times over with technically perfect submissions: formatted correctly, spell- and grammar-checked to within an inch of their lives, AND original. So there’s just not a lot of incentive for her to give a query with formatting, spelling, or grammatical problems the benefit of the doubt.

Some of you still don’t believe me about the dangers of using business formatting, do you? Okay, let’s take a gander at what Millicent expects to see, a letter formatted observing standard English rules of paragraph-formation:

mars query indented

Now let’s take a look at exactly the same letter in business format:

biz style mars query

Interesting how different it is, isn’t it, considering that the words are identical? And isn’t it astonishing how many paces away a reader can be for the difference to be obvious?

One lone exception to the intent-your-paragraphs rule: in an e-mailed query, of course, the business format would be acceptable, but on paper, it’s not the best strategic choice. Ditto with requested materials, even if you are sending them via e-mail. (Unless her agency specifies otherwise, Millicent will expect you to send any requested pages as Word attachments, not as inserts in the body of an e-mail; thus, all pages should include indented text. FYI, agencies that tell queriers to include sample pages or chapters with their queries are not technically requesting material: they simply like for Millie to have more information at her fingertips before she makes a decision. For an in-depth discussion of the differences between query packets and submission packets, please see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET on the archive list at right.)

Indented paragraphs are, to put it bluntly, the industry standard. Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers seem not to be aware that business format tends to be regarded as less-than-literate, regardless of whether it appears in a query letter, a marketing plan, or — heaven forfend! — a submitted manuscript. (If you don’t know why I felt the need to invoke various deities to prevent you from using business format your manuscripts, please run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category at right.)

In fact, I am perpetually meeting writers at conferences and in classes who insist, sometimes angrily, that a query letter is a business letter, and thus should be formatted as such. They tell me that standards have changed, that e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards, that it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.

I understand the logic, of course, but it simply doesn’t apply here: not all businesses work in the same way. As anyone who works in an agency or publishing house would no doubt be delighted to tell you, there are many, many ways in which publishing doesn’t work like any other kind of business. One does not, for instance, require an agent in order to become a success at selling shoes or to become a well-respected doctor.

If you’re looking for evidence of the biz’ exceptionalism, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore with a good literary fiction section. Find a book by a great up-and-coming author that’s sold only 500 copies since it came out last year, and ask yourself, “Would another kind of business have taken a chance like this, or would it concentrate on producing only what sells well? Would it continue to produce products like this year after year, decade after decade, out of a sense of devotion to the betterment of the human race?”

Okay, so some businesses would, but it’s certainly not the norm.

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, and that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike. Therefore, it must be in business format. QED, tradition-hugger.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. I can easily envision agents stating point-blank at conferences that they want to receive businesslike query letters.

But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we talked about last time.

Business format, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate any kind of content at all; it’s purely about how the page is put together. There’s absolutely nothing about this style, after all, that precludes opening a query with the threat, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your natural life if you let this book pass you by!”

All of these negative examples are lifted from actual query letters, by the way. My spies are everywhere.

All that being said, there’s another reason that I would strenuously advise against using business format in your query letters. A comparative glance at the two letters above will demonstrate why.

Take another look, then put yourself in Millicent’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself: based upon this particular writing sample, would you assume that Aspiring Q. Author was familiar with standard format? Would you expect Aspiring’s paragraphs to be indented, or for him/her (I have no idea which, I now realize) NOT to skip lines between paragraphs?

Okay, would your answer to those questions change if you had a hundred query letters to read before you could get out of the office for the day, and you’d just burned your lip on a too-hot latte? (Millicent never seems to learn, does she?)

No? Well, what if it also contained a typo within the first line or two, had odd margins, or began with, “This is the best book you’ll read this year!” or some similar piece of boasting? Wouldn’t you be at least a LITTLE tempted to draw some negative conclusions from the format?

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample.

Even if the writer doesn’t treat it as such, a screener will. After all, when that stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up.

I can feel some of you getting depressed over this, but actually, I find it empowering that the high rejection rate is not arbitrary. Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive constantly. The average agency receives 800-1200 queries per week (that’s not counting the post-Labor Day backlog or New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise. This is no time to play rules lawyer; these people know what their own connections are.

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

So how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query? By finding out what Millicent has been trained to spot — and learning what appeals to her.

A great place to start: go to writers’ conferences and ask questions of agents about what kind of queries they like to see. Attend book readings and ask authors about how they landed their agents. Take writers who have successfully landed agents out to lunch and ask them how they did it.

But do not, whatever you do, just assume that what works in other kinds of marketing will necessarily fly in approaching an agent. After all, almost universally, agency guidelines specifically ask aspiring writers not to use the hard-sell techniques used in other types of business: writers seeking representation are expected not to telephone to pitch, send unrequested materials, or engage in extracurricular lobbying like sending cookies along with a query letter.

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. Tune in late tonight for some more tips on how. And, of course, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVIII: wrapping up the proposal neatly and tying it with a big red bow (not literally, of course; as you may see, it would not only look a tad silly, but would be difficult to mail without crushing the bow)

gift-wrapped proposal

As that rather cumbersome title implies, I’m going to be finishing up my whirlwind overview of book proposal formatting today. This exciting development (hey, everything’s relative) is, of course, merely a plateau in our continuing climb toward mastery of standard format for book manuscripts. Over the days to come, I shall be wrapping that up, too, via my favorite means: answering readers’ burning questions.

So if you’ve been holding back any, waiting for someone else to ask, now would be a dandy time to leap into the fray. The comments on today’s post would be a dandy place to bring up any lingering concerns.

While I’m trolling for commentary, would anybody be interested in my following this series with a short overview of what a query letter and synopsis should look like? Please weigh in, if so — or if not, for that matter. Personally, I kind of like the idea of having all of the formatting posts back-to-back in the archives, but as I’ve dealt with query letters fairly recently, I fear to bore the masses.

Which is a rather interesting statement for someone who’s just spent weeks on end meticulously detailing small formatting distinctions to make, come to think of it. Apparently, my faith in my own writing’s inherent fascination is boundless.

As is today’s intended subject matter, as it happens. I’m determined to polish off the proposal today, so this is bound to be a long one, folks.

Before we launch into this last installment, let’s recap, shall we? (Yes, yes, I know, I’ve covered all this before, but you’d be surprised at how many writers in a hurry will read only the most recent post in a series like this.) Here, once again, are the constituent parts of the book proposal, in the order they should appear:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

3. The competitive market analysis

4. The annotated table of contents

Everyone relatively happy about all of those? Again, please pop a question into the comments, if not. Moving on:

5. The sample chapter(s)
Generally speaking, professional proposals use Chapter 1 as the sample, rather than one from farther into the storyline or argument, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s usually easier for the reader to follow that way. However, that’s not strictly necessary: in a cookbook proposal, for instance, Chapter 7′s Thanksgiving feast may well wow Millicent more than Chapter 1′s general introduction to baking techniques.

Use your best judgment — but as always, be open to your future agent’s informing you that you judged wrong and that you must write another sample chapter before she submits it to editors at publishing houses. (Yes, it happens. Quite a lot, in fact.)

When making the decision about which chapter to include here, bear in mind that this section is where you’re going to provide the most direct evidence of the voice and writing style of the proposed book. Neither of which, in a good proposal, will come as a surprise to Millicent, because the entire proposal should be written in the voice of the book.

Yes, even the dry marketing parts. Hey, you’re a writer — it’s your job to make even unquestionably dull stuff interesting to read.

A whole lot more work than simply throwing the necessary materials together and hoping that the sample chapter alone is enough to convince Millicent that your voice is right for this project? Undoubtedly. But a better marketing strategy than the far more common approach of composing the rest of the proposal in the faintly exasperated tone of the jumper through unnecessary hoops? Absolutely.

On the brighter side, for a well-prepared writer, the labor involved in incorporating the sample chapter into the proposal is comparatively light. Hold your applause, but in a proposal, the sample chapter is formatted precisely like a chapter in a manuscript.

Okay, you can clap now. You know you want to.

That’s right — provided that as much of the book as you’ve written so far is already in standard format, you can simply copy and paste it into your book proposal at the proper juncture. This means, of course, that the first page of the sample chapter will have more white space at the top than any other page of the proposal. (And if you found that last statement mystifying, may I suggest that you review my earlier post on chapter openings and how they should look on the page?)

I hear some of you muttering and shuffling your feet. You want to see the difference between the first page of the sample chapter and any old page of the proposal, don’t you? Good plan.

Here, for your comparing and contrasting pleasure, is a properly-formatted first page of a proposal. (You do remember, right, that the title page is neither numbered nor included in the page count?)

overview1

That looks familiar by now, right? Because the sample chapter is a major section of the proposal, let’s review how a major section change would be designated in a proposal:

competitive market analysis3

Now take a peek at a minor topic change — which, again, should be old hat by now. (Where on earth did that perverse little expression originate, I wonder?)

subheading in proposal

As I would devoutly hope would be abundantly clear to you by this late point in a series on standard formatting, none of the above remotely resembles the first page of a manuscript. The first page of a manuscript should, of course, look like this:

first page of text

Quite a difference, is it not? Millicent could tell which was a page from a proposal and which had fluttered free of a manuscript from ten paces away.

Now take a gander at the first page of the sample chapter in a proposal:

sample chapter opening

Those last two are remarkably similar, aren’t they? Pop quiz: see any formatting differences between this and the same chapter opening in the manuscript?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, exclaiming, “By Jove, Anne, the slug line clearly demonstrates that rather than starting pagination over again at page 1, the sample chapter’s first page shows where it falls within the book proposal,” congratulations: you have the eye of an editor. As you so astutely pointed out, the page numbers don’t start over at the beginning of the sample chapter; the entire proposal is numbered consecutively. For extra credit, would anyone care to guess why?

If you shouted, “To make it easier for Millicent to put the always unbound pages of the proposal back in order after she collides with someone in the hallway!” you’re really on a roll today. Help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash.

Otherwise, though, the sample chapter and the same chapter in manuscript form should be formatted identically. Realizing that, need I even add that part of what the writer is demonstrating in this section of the proposal is a familiarity with the standards of this industry?

Not to mention the tone and vocabulary norms of your chosen book category. I probably should mention it, though, because many a well-argued and even well-written book proposal has gotten rejected because the prose in the sample chapter just didn’t sound like, well, a book in that category.

As always, if you’re not familiar with what’s currently being published in your chosen book category, why not? And how on earth did you manage to write a convincing competitive market analysis without being up on all the recent releases, anyway?

I’m most emphatically not kidding about this: from an agent or editor’s point of view, a book proposer’s being conversant with the norms, trends, and current market for the type of book she’s proposing is not an optional extra — it’s a basic requirement. It comes standard with the professional nonfiction writer package.

Don’t tell me you can’t afford to buy everything that comes out in your category, either; that’s what libraries and bookstores with comfortable reading chairs are for.

One final word about the sample chapter before I move on to the remaining bits of the proposal: make absolutely sure that the sample chapter delivers on the promise of that chapter’s summary in the annotated table of contents. If there’s any doubt whatsoever in your mind about whether it fulfills that promise — or if it does not represent your best writing — either pick another chapter to use as your sample or start revising.

Cursory sample chapters are the bane of any proposal-reading Millicent or Maury’s existence, and for good reason: if their attention has been sufficiently grabbed by the overview and maintained throughout the middle part of the proposal, it’s a genuine disappointment to discover a sample chapter that just lies there. If they’ve read that far, trust me, they want — and expect — to be wowed.

They also expect that the sample chapter will demonstrate how you intend to flesh out the brief chapter summaries in the annotated table of contents, and rightly so. If the two parts of the proposal appear to be out of sync, M & M are going to wonder if your writing skills are up to the task of producing a consistent final manuscript.

Don’t tempt them to speculate on that score. Call me cynical, but I’ve seldom seen that type of speculation end well for the proposer. It’s not a screener’s job to give proposers the benefit of the doubt, after all.

Speaking of doing one’s job, it’s about time that I talked about the remaining elements of the proposal, isn’t it? Don’t worry; there aren’t many.

6. The author bio
Since writing a stellar author bio is an art form of its own, I’m not even going to attempt to describe here how to write one. For an in-depth discussion of the subject, please consult the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE AN AUTHOR BIO category on the archive list at right.

Seriously, go consult it. Again, this is a place where many first-time proposers skimp, thinking (erroneously, alas) that since they’ve already talked about their platforms earlier in the proposal, all that’s really necessary in the author bio is the kind of bare-bones, just-the-facts-ma’am author bios they’re accustomed to seeing inside the dust jackets of hardcover books. Do not, I implore you, be fooled by those brief paragraphs going by the same moniker as what’s required in a book proposal.

The purpose of an author bio in a book proposal is to provide a handy single-page summary of the writer’s platform for writing this particular book. That means, in practice, that a savvy writer may choose to use different author bio text — or even author photos — in proposals for different books.

Not sure why? Okay, tell me: if you were vacillating between acquiring two books on dog breeding, which bio would appeal to you more, one that simply lists the writer’s previous publications and credentials under a smiling head shot — or one that listed eight dog-related credentials under a snapshot of the writer with his arm around a happy Dalmatian?

No contest, is there?

Do not, for the sake of your own happiness, leave constructing your bio to the end of the proposal-writing process. It’s hard; budget time for it. Why? Well, really apt author bios are hard to write — and most of us go through quite a few photos before we find one of ourselves that we like.

Don’t believe me? Okay, care to guess how many shots my quite gifted photographer friend Marjon Floris took before she caught the one in my bio?

Somewhere in the neighborhood of 800. With two cameras. (Thank goodness for digital technology, eh?) Admittedly, my whole family is pretty camera-shy — my brother’s wedding photographer actually burst into tears during the reception, so frustrated was he at the difficulty of catching candids of any of us wily Minis — but still, a good author photo often takes a lot of trial and error.

Speaking of the camera-shy, am I seeing some of you waggling your fingertips in my peripheral vision? “But Anne,” the photography-averse murmur, making faces at the camera, “I don’t want to include a picture of myself in my bio; believe me, my book’s appeal would in no way be enhanced by a photo of me clutching a Dalmatian, or indeed, any creature whatsoever, warm- or cold-blooded. Can’t I, you know, skip it?”

You’re not going to believe this, but the answer is yes.

At least in a book proposal; it’s more or less de rigueur these days in a bio accompanying a manuscript submission. (Hey, both Millicent and Maury will want to be able to tell their bosses if the new writer they’ve just discovered is photogenic — like it or not, it does sometimes make a difference in marketing these days.)

Without an author photo, a proposal bio is simply another double-spaced single page of text with a title at the top. Here, for instance, is the super-serious bio I used a few years ago in the proposal for the political book I’ve been using as an example all day:

author bio

7. Relevant clippings, if any
This is another platform-proving exercise: if you have written articles, or even other books, it’s customary to include beautifully sharp photocopies of a few of them at the end of your book proposal. Similarly, if you happen to be famous enough for articles to have been written about you and your subject matter, feel free to include ‘em here — provided, in this second case, that they relate to your platform for this particular book.

Since our primary concern in this series is formatting (although I suspect that salient fact may have slipped all of our minds while I’ve been chatting at length about the content of a good book proposal; hey, I’m chatty), I’m going to leave to another time in-depth discussion of how to generate clippings. For now, I’ll content myself with urging you to make sure that the copies are pristine, with nice, clear, readable type.

Oh, and one other thing: do yourself a favor and scan each of the clippings, or have a computer-savvy someone do it for you. Not only will this enable you to submit your proposal to agents and small publishers who prefer online submissions (still relatively rare for nonfiction, but growing in popularity by the day), but it will also save you quite a bit of time down the line, once you’re working with an agent.

Why? Well, it has become quite common for agents to submit book proposals electronically to editors. Unscanned clippings can’t go into a virtual proposal, right?

Pant, pant, pant. Don’t stop running now — we’re practically at the end.

8. The proposal folder
I’ve written about this fairly extensively in the HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL series (conveniently gathered under the category of the same name on the archive list at right), so I’m not going to delve too deeply into the particulars. Except to say: in the United States, book proposals are presented in plain black folders.

Period. Don’t even consider trying to get fancy — and whatever you do, do not bind your proposal in any way. Let those pages flap around loose, just as they do in a manuscript.

Well, not quite the same: tuck the pages (neatly please) into the folder, items 1-4 on the left-hand side (i.e., everything prior to the sample chapter), items 5-7 (the sample chapter and beyond on the right).

Don’t label the folder on the front, either; keep it plain. What Millicent, Maury, and everybody else in the industry expects to see coming out of a submission envelope is this:

book proposal folder1

I know: boring. That’s the way they like it.

The folders in question, by the way, are the ones with horizontal pockets inside, not the ones with brads in the middle. The latter are for high school book reports, the former for book proposals, and ne’er the twain shall meet. So if the folder in your hand does not look like this when you open it:

book proposal photo 2

scuttle on back to the office supply story and pick up one that does. Seriously, proposals in the wrong kind of folder will just look unprofessional to the pros.

And that — whew! — is a lightning-swift (for me) discussion of how to format a book proposal. Congratulations on absorbing so much practical information so rapidly, campers, and keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVII: excuse me — you’re proposing WHAT?

marriage-proposal1

For the last couple of posts, we have bent our collective gaze — steely, to be sure — away from the green pastures of manuscript formatting to turn our attention to the wind-swept plains of book proposals and their proper formatting. As we have seen in our brief sojourn amid the majestic buffalo and skipping lambs, while the text of a book proposal is formatted largely in the same matter as a manuscript’s, the various headings and subheadings are often different.

Before I move on, allow me to digress: did you notice how I dropped that running metaphor when it became apparent that it wasn’t working? That’s a good editing tip for any kind of writing: don’t force it if it doesn’t fly. An even better one: while proofing you work, make sure you read all the way to the end of every sentence; it’s the only way to catch metaphors abandoned mid-stream. (And yes, Virginia, I do see orphaned metaphors wandering about ostensibly well-revised manuscripts. All the time.)

As we saw last time, a professional book proposal contains a wide range of marketing materials, all written in the proposer’s best possible prose, cleverly fitted together in a manner to convince an agent or editor that not only is the proposed book an interesting idea that will appeal to a very specific (and, ideally, well-established) target audience, but that the proposer is the best (and, ideally, the only) conceivable person currently drawing breath to write this particular book. Or, to put it in the language of the industry, it’s a marketable concept presented by a writer with a great platform.

A thousand hands just shot into the air mid-paragraph, didn’t they? “Um, Anne?” many would-be proposers inquire nervously. “You didn’t really mean that bit about the proposal written in the proposer’s best possible prose, did you? After all, the proposal is just a formality, a series of hoops through which I have to jump before a publisher buys my book, right?”

Actually, no — although I can certainly see why you might think so. Unlike novels, nonfiction books (yes, even most memoirs) are sold not because someone falls in love with the manuscript, but because a prospective author has made a convincing case in a proposal that a book that does not yet exist will be marketable to a specific audience and that s/he is the right person to write it. Since the book concept and the argument for it are the primary sales pitch, most first-time proposers conclude that the writing in a proposal is of secondary importance.

They’re absolutely wrong. Every syllable of a book proposal is a writing sample — the only writing sample, in fact, upon which an agent or editor will base his or her conclusions about whether to pick up the book.

If you’ll join me in a wee flight of fancy, I think you’ll see why that absolutely must be the case.

Picture, if you will (and you will, right?), Maury the editorial assistant, diligently scanning the day’s submissions from agents for the next promising nonfiction project. He has reason to be careful: he needs to be very, very selective about what he passes on to his boss, the editor of your dreams. (Let’s call her Ermintrude, just for giggles.) If he simply sends Ermintrude every proposal that sounds as if it might make a good book, he’s not really doing his job, is he? It’s not as though she can offer a publication contract to every interesting-sounding project, after all; at most, even an extremely busy editor might be able to take on somewhere between one and ten a year.

Yes, you read that correctly.

It’s Maury’s job to prevent Ermintrude’s desk from becoming so over-stacked with proposals that she can’t find her phone. So yes, he’s going to weed out any proposal that doesn’t sound interesting right off the bat. He’s also going to reject those that don’t have a clearly-defined concept — which, in a screener’s world, means one that’s both grabbed his attention instantly and is comprehensible within the first few pages of the proposal — as well as those that either don’t define their target market well or do not strike him as likely to appeal to the readers already buying such books. Not to mention those that don’t seem to have a well laid-out marketing plan or chapters likely to deliver fully upon the premise of the proposal, or those proposed by writers who haven’t made a good case for their platforms to write the book.

That’s going to weed out most of ‘em. (I hate to be blunt about it, but because the book proposal is such a widely misunderstood marketing tool, Maury sees a whole lot of rambling proposals. And rambling, unprofessional proposals are most of what Millicent, his cousin who screens agency submissions, sees on a weekly basis.) But let’s be generous and assume that Maury’s had an unusually strong selection of proposals submitted this week: out of 300, 10 are fascinating ideas for books aimed for a well-established audience.

He can’t possibly send them all — ten is Ermintrude’s entire year’s allotment of books, even if she works nights, weekends, and funds the last two herself. So how does he decide which one or two to send upstairs to his boss?

Uh-huh. The ones where the writing screams, “Excuse me, but had you noticed that there’s some talent here?”

Think about that, any of you who were planning to toss together your book proposals over the next long weekend, or stuff them into the mailbox without running the text by another literate human being not already familiar with your book’s concept. (Word to the wise: if that literate human can’t tell you what the book is about and why you’re the best person on earth to write it by the time she is halfway through page 4, you might want to think about some serious revision. And if she doesn’t want to read the book by the middle of page 2, run, don’t walk, back to the drawing board to work on your prose and presentation.)

Now that I’ve scared the living daylights out of you, let’s review the constituent parts of the book proposal — at least, the ones we have covered so far:

1. The title page

2. The overview, a comprehensive document that leaves Maury with no doubt whatsoever about how to answer the following questions:

(a) What is the proposed book will be about, and why are you the single best being with an operational circulatory system and fingers to write about it?

(b) What is the central question or problem of the book? Why the topic is important, and to whom?

(c) Why is this book needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history?

(d) Who is the target audience for this book?

(e) Why will this book appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market does?

(f) How will your platform enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might even think about writing this book?

(g) How strong a writer are you, and is this voice appropriate to the proposed book’s subject matter and target audience?

Okay, okay, so I kind of slipped that last one up the back staircase, but it’s a great asset to a book proposal if it is written in the same voice (and with the same vocabulary) as the eventual book.

Those aren’t the kind of things you want to leave to Maury’s imagination, are they? As we discussed last time, a fantastic way to establish authorial voice and interest in the subject matter is to open with a vividly illustrative anecdote or other method of direct appeal to the reader’s reason and emotions. Opening with dry marketing material tends not to grab Maury’s attention anywhere near as well.

3. The competitive market analysis
This section, as I hope you will recall from last time, is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

Sound familiar? It should here is where the proposer proves the contentions he made in the overview with hard data.

Which of the many, many contentions, you ask, and how does talking about your competition prove them? Well, for starters, who the target audience is for your book? Answer: the readers who have already bought the books listed in the competitive market analysis. (The implicit logic: if those books sold well, that means these people buy a lot of books — and might be eager to buy more.)

Yet another reason that you might want to say something nice about your competition, eh?

You can also use this section to demonstrate how your book is different and better than what’s already on the market — and yes, that can (and should) be done without running down the competition, as long as you’re specific. Think about it: if you mention the best points of the other books and can still make the case that your proposed volume will either do what they do, only more effectively (do you have a stronger platform than another author, for instance, or is the other book outdated now?) and/or not in the same way (what does your take on the subject offer that those other books do not?), your book is going to end up looking better by contrast than if you merely say that everything else is terrible.

Trust me on this one. If you can’t say something nice about a particular comparable book, consider contrasting yours to one that you can praise with a straight face.

Some of you have had your hands raised since yesterday, have you not? “But Anne,” proposers everywhere exclaim, rubbing circulation back into their exhausted arms, “one of the reasons I wanted to write my book in the first place is that there isn’t another recent book on the subject. So how do I come up with a list for the competitive market analysis? Make things up?”

Glad you asked, patient arm-raisers — there’s a pro’s trick to this. But first, indulge me in a short exercise in understanding your book’s appeal.

First, equip yourself with some scratch paper (the back sides of earlier drafts of your proposal, perhaps?) and a comfortable pen. I would suggest selecting a comfortable chair, too, because you’re not to budge until you come up with five different ways to describe your proposed book. And I’m not talking about descriptors like well-written, either — describe your book the way a clerk in a bookstore might to a potential reader.

Got that list firmly in hand? Good. Now hie yourself and your list hence to the nearest well-stocked brick-and-mortar bookstore. (Seriously, what I’m about to suggest is considerably harder to pull off online.)

Standing in the store, feeling silly for carrying that list around. Excellent. Ready, set — don’t find a book like yours.

Yes, really. Instead, go to the first descriptor on your list and find several books that could be described the same way. Proposing a memoir, for instance? Stand in front of the memoir section and keep pulling books off the shelves until you discover a few that are similar in some way to yours.

It can be a very, very small way. Is it a childhood memoir by someone who grew up in the same part of the country as you did? Start taking notes. Is another by a dog-lover, while two chapters of your proposed book cover your relationship with beloved Fido? Sounds close enough to me.

After you’ve ferreted out a few useful titles, move on to the next descriptor on your list. If your memoir set in the mid-1960s, find a few good nonfiction titles that cover similar aspects of the period. If your cookbook is for vegans, how about including as few of the well put-together vegetarian cookbooks out recently? Not too hard to see how your book would be different and better for vegan readers than those, right?

And so forth. The goal here is not necessarily to find a dozen books exactly like yours; it’s also perfectly permissible to devote a paragraph or two each to several different book categories into which your unique book might conceivably fall. By demonstrating that there is already a market for books that match your five descriptors — as there must be, according to industry logic, or those recently-released books would not be on the shelves* — the implication is that past readers of each of those types of book will be interested in yours.

(* Don’t waste your energies questioning this quite questionable assumption; you’ve got a proposal to write.)

Everyone clear now on the purpose and proper formatting of the competitive market analysis? If not, now would be a fabulous time to shout out a question or two. While I’m waiting with my hand cupped around my ear, let’s move on to the next section.

4. The annotated table of contents
This section has some odd conventions, ones that tend to come as a surprise to most first-time proposers, so before I launch into a discussion, let’s take a gander at out example from the other day.

Notice anything here that might offend the muses of standard format? How about the fact that the title of the book appears at the top of the page, as if Annotated Table of Contents were a subtitle? Or the phenomenon of adding a section break between each chapter’s description? Or that the descriptions were in the present tense, like a synopsis?

Actually, there’s a pretty good explanation for the first two of these conventions. (Sorry; you’re on your own for the last.) Remember how I mentioned earlier in this sub-series that unlike a manuscript, book proposals are often broken up into their constituent parts on the reading end, so folks working in different departments at publishing houses may take a gander at ‘em? Titling the annotated table of contents renders it easier to get those pages back into the right proposal. And skipping a line between chapters makes it simpler for an editor to find the chapter she is seeking when she’s in an editorial committee meeting or arguing with your agent about what will be in the final book.

Oh, you weren’t aware that editors often ask writers to change the proposed chapters? Happens all the time, so gird your loins and prepare to play ball.

If the very notion of being asked to remove your meticulously-researched chapter on steam engines (in order to replace it with a similar section on cotton gins, about which the acquiring editor did her undergraduate thesis at Columbia) or to reduce your seven intended chapters on your life prior to the age of 17 into as many paragraphs (so you may concentrate at greater length on your four subsequent years as a sword-swallower) causes your skin crawl in revulsion, do not despair. You actually do have a means of making sure your favorite chapters pass the editorial test: write about them brilliantly in the annotated table of contents.

Seriously, if ever there was a time to show, not tell, this is it.

Why, you ask? Because the vast majority of first proposals just summarize what’s going to be in each chapter, instead of using each chapter to tell a compelling separate story. Because you’re selling your talents as a storyteller here, as well as the subject matter of the book, right?

It’s not surprising that this section falls flat in so many proposals; again, many, if not most, proposers don’t seem to understand the purpose of the annotated table of contents. As we discussed the other day, many, many proposers labor under the misconception that what agents and editors expect to see in this section is simply a list of chapter titles, accompanied by guesstimated page numbers. Many, many other proposers assume that they should devote a page to each chapter.

Or even several. For my sins, I’ve seen proposal drafts with 20-page annotated tables of contents. Believe me, Maury was far from pleased.

Avoid that dreadful fate in yours; keep it brief, but substantial. One to two paragraphs on each envisioned chapter is about right — remembering, of course, that everything in a book proposal is a writing sample. At the risk of repeating myself, show, not tell.

How does one pull that off when covering so much territory in so short a space as a paragraph or two? The same way you came up with the summary paragraph of your query letter, ideally: instead of trying to summarize everything that happens in a chapter in general terms, pick a particularly interesting scene or argument and present it in vivid terms.

In other words: be specific, not general. If you can possibly manage it, try to include details that Maury is unlikely to see in another proposal.

If you just muttered to yourself, “Hey, might this not be an amazingly good place to demonstrate just how my book is different and better than the ones I was discussing in the last section?” congratulations — you’re thinking like a pro. Especially in a memoir or cookbook proposal, this is the precise spot to work in mention of how your book is uniquely yours:

annotated table of contents2

And if you eagerly shot your hand into the air as you glanced over that last example, eager to point out that this example was formatted slightly differently than the one before it, congratulations again — your eye is sharpening. The last version is in the version my agency prefers; the desire for bolding and all caps is not universal.

Just thought you might like to see both. And if I haven’t said it often enough yet: if the agent of your dreams wants you to format your proposal differently from what I advise here — in, for example, clearly laid-out guidelines on the agency’s website — for heaven’s sake, give him what he wants. In the book proposal as well as the manuscript, the average agent is looking for evidence that a potential client can follow directions.

Don’t see why that would be an essential quality in a book-proposing client? Okay, let me ask you: if you were an agent, would you rather represent the writer who says, “Lose my Chapter 13 and dumb down the book’s vocabulary to an 8th-grade reading level? Can do, Editor!” or the one who flies into an uncontrollable fury?

Oh, come on — you didn’t really hesitate over that choice as long as you pretended, did you?

I’ll be wrapping up book proposal formatting next time — literally: I’ll be talking about the folders that encase them. Until we meet again in that happy, not-too-distant future, keep up the good work!

The mysteriously mysterious strictures of standard format, part XVI: how to format a book proposal, revisited

star magnolia blooms

Our star magnolia has finally come back to life! I can’t even begin to tell you how much the sight cheered me up — even after more than a decade and a half in the Pacific Northwest, my native Californian synapses droop drastically during the long, gray winters here. So hooray for an early spring-blooming tree that goes from dead-looking to beflowered in three days flat.

Speaking of lengthy periods of anticipation, way back in early February, eagle-eyed reader Kim pointed out a fairly extensive omission in my twice-yearly examinations of standard format for manuscripts: although I have been providing illustrations of same for several years now, I’d never shown the innards of a properly-formatted book proposal. In fact, as Kim explained,

Anne — Thank you for this glorious blog. It is a wealth of information. I am putting together a submissions package (requested materials, yea!), which includes a book proposal. After searching through your site, I still can’t find a specific format for the thing. For example, should the chapter summaries be outlined? double-spaced? Should I start a new page for each subheading? Also, my book has several very short chapters (80 in total). Should I group some of them together in the summaries, lest it run too long? Or is it better to give a one sentence description of each? Thanks again.

My first response to this thoughtful set of observations, I must admit, was to say, “No way!” After all, I had done a fairly extensive series entitled HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL (beginning here) as recently as…wait, does that say August of 2005?

As in within a month of when I started this blog? More to the point, since before I sold my second nonfiction book to a publisher? (No, you haven’t missed any big announcements, long-time readers: that one isn’t out yet, either.)

Clearly, I have a bit of catching up to do. Equally clearly, I am deeply indebted to my intrepid readers for telling me when they cannot find answers to their burning questions in the hugely extensive Author! Author! archives.

In the interests of responding to Kim’s quite legitimate concerns, let’s continue the page-level look at a professional book proposal we began yesterday. Rather than assume, as I apparently have for the last four and a half years, that merely saying that book proposals should be in standard manuscript format (with certain minimal exceptions), let’s see what that might look like in action. In fact, since I’ve been going over the constituent parts in order, let’s go ahead recap from the beginning, talking a little about what purpose each portion of it serves.

Here, ladies and gentlemen of the Author! Author! community, are the building blocks of a professional book proposal, illustrated for your pleasure. As you will see, much of it is identical in presentation to a manuscript.

1. The title page
Like any other submission to an agent or editor, a book proposal should have a title page. Why? To make it easier to contact you — or your agent — and buy the book, of course.

proposal title

2. The overview
First-time proposers often shirk on this part, assuming — usually wrongly — that all that’s required to propose a nonfiction book is to provide a 4-6 page synopsis of it. In practice, however, a successful overview serves a wide variety of purposes:

(a) It tells the agent or editor what the proposed book will be about, and why you are the single best person on earth to write about it. (Pretty much everyone gets that first part, but presenting one’s platform credibly is often overlooked in an overview. If an agent or editor makes it to the bottom of page 3 of your proposal without understanding why you are a credible narrator for this topic, your proposal is going to fall flat.)

(b) It presents the central question or problem of the book, explaining why the topic is important and to whom. (Amplifying on the argument in (a), couching it in larger terms and trends. Or, to put it another way: why will the world be a better place if this book is published?)

(c) It demonstrates why this book is needed now, as opposed to any other time in literary history.

(d) It answers the burning question: who is the target audience for this book, anyway? (To reframe the question as Millicent’s boss will: how big is the intended market for this book, and how do we know that they’re ready to buy a book on this subject?)

(e) It explains why this book will appeal to the target audience as no book currently on the market will. (In other words, how are potential readers’ needs not being served by what’s already on the market, and why will your book serve those needs in a better, or at any rate different, manner?)

(f) It shows how your platform will enable you to reach this target audience better than anyone else who might conceivably write this book. (Tying together all of the foregoing, adding your platform, and stirring.)

(g) It makes abundantly clear the fact that you can write. (Because lest we forget, a book proposal is a job application at base: the writer’s primary goal is to get an agent or editor to believe that she is the right person to hire to write the book she’s proposing.)

In the interest of establishing points (a), (b), and (g) right off the bat, I like to open a book proposal with an illustrative anecdote or direct personal appeal that thrusts the reader right smack into the middle of the central problem of the piece, reducing it to an individual human level. Basically, the point here is to answer the question why would a reader care about this? within the first few lines of the proposal, all the while showing off the writer’s best prose.

For a general nonfiction book — particularly one on a subject that Millicent might at first glance assume to be dry — this is a great opportunity for the writer to give a very concrete impression of why a reader might care very deeply about the issue at hand. Often, the pros open such an anecdote with a rhetorical question.

overview NF page 1

The opening anecdote gambit works especially well for a memoir proposal, establishing both the voice and that the memoir’s central figure is an interesting person in an interesting situation. While it’s best to keep the anecdote brief — say, anywhere between a paragraph and a page and a half — it’s crucial to grab Millicent’s attention with vividly-drawn details and surprising turns of event. To revisit our example from yesterday:

overview1

overview2

As we saw in that last example, you can move from the anecdote or opening appeal without fanfare, simply by inserting a section break (in other words, by skipping a line). While many book proposals continue this practice throughout the overview, it’s a good idea to mark its more important sections with subheadings, like so:

subheading in proposal

As you may see, incorporating subheadings, while not strictly speaking necessary, renders it very, very easy for Millicent to find the answers to the basic questions any book proposal must answer. If the text of the proposal can address those questions in a businesslike tone that’s also indicative of the intended voice of the proposed book, so much the better.

Please note, however, that I said businesslike, not in business format: under no circumstances should a book proposal either be single-spaced or present non-indented paragraphs.

This one confuses a lot of first-time proposers, I’ve noticed. “But Anne!” they protest, and not entirely without justification. “A book proposal is a business document, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean that it should be in business format?”

The short answer is no. The not-so-short answer is: not if you want Millicent to read it. To the fine folks in the publishing industry, a writer who does not indent her paragraphs is presumed illiterate.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: the publishing industry does not use business format, even in its business letters; always, always, ALWAYS indent your paragraphs.

3. The competitive market analysis
The competitive market analysis is probably the most widely misunderstood portion of the book proposal. What the pros expect to see here is a brief examination of similar books that have come out within the last five years, accompanied by an explanation of how the book being proposed will serve the shared target audience’s needs in a different and/or better manner. Not intended to be an exhaustive list, the competitive market analysis uses the publishing successes of similar books in order to make a case that there is a demonstrable already-existing audience for this book.

But that’s probably not how you’ve heard this section described, is it? Let me take a stab at what most of you have probably heard: it’s a list of 6-12 similar books. Period. The result usually looks like this:

competitive market analysis bad

Makes it pretty plain that the writer thinks all that’s required here is proof that there actually have been other books published on the subject, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, to Millicent’s critical eye, this doesn’t just seem like ignorance of the goal of the competitive market analysis — it appears to be proof positive of the authorial laziness of a writer who hasn’t bothered to learn much about either how books are proposed or the current market for the book he’s proposing.

To be fair, this is the section where first-time proposers are most likely to skimp on the effort. Never a good idea, but a particularly poor tactic here. After all of these years, the average Millicent is awfully darned tired of proposers missing the point of this section — and it’s hard to blame her for being miffed, considering how often first-time proposers assume that it has no point, other than to create busywork. As you may see above, the bare-bones competitive market analysis makes the writer seem as if he’s gone out of his way to demonstrate just how stupid he thinks this particular exercise is.

That’s because he’s missed the point of the exercise. The goal here is not merely to show that other books exist, but that the book being proposed shares salient traits with books that readers are already buying. And because the publishing industry’s conception of the current market is not identical to what is actually on bookstore shelves at the moment, the savvy proposer includes in his competitive market analysis only books that have been released by major houses within the last five years.

That last point made some of you choke on your tea, didn’t it? Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before the first time you proposed?

Even when proposers do take the time to research and present the appropriate titles, a handful of other mistakes tend to mark the rookie’s proposal for Millicent. Rather than show you each of them individually, here’s an example that includes several. Take out your magnifying glass and see how many you can catch.

competitive market analysis 2

How did you do?

Let’s take the more straightforward, cosmetic problems first, the ones that would immediately leap out at anyone familiar with standard format. There’s no slug line, for starters: if this page fell out of the proposal — as it might; remember, proposals are unbound — Millicent would have no idea to which of the 17 proposals currently on her desk it belonged. It does contain a page number, but an unprofessionally-presented one, lingering at the bottom of the page with, heaven help us, dashes on either side.

Then, too, one of the titles is underlined, rather than italicized, demonstrating formatting inconsistency, and not all of the numbers under 100 are written out in full. Not to mention the fact that it’s single-spaced!

All of this is just going to look tacky to Millie, right?

Okay, what else? Obviously, this version is still presented as a list, albeit one that includes some actual analysis of the works in question; it should be in narrative form. Also, it includes the ISBN numbers, which to many Millicent implies — outrageously! — a writerly expectation that she’s going to take the time to look up the sales records on all of these books.

I can tell you now: it’s not gonna happen. If a particular book was a runaway bestseller, the analysis should have mentioned that salient fact.

There’s one other, subtler problem with this example — did you catch it?

I wouldn’t be astonished if you hadn’t; many a pro falls into this particular trap. Let’s take a peek at this same set of information, presented as it should be, to see if the problem jumps out at you by contrast.

competitive market analysis3

Any guesses? How about the fact that the last example’s criticism is much, much gentler than the one before it?

Much too frequently, those new to proposing books will assume, wrongly, that their job in the competitive market analysis is to make the case that every other book currently available has no redeeming features, as a means of making their own book concepts look better by contrast. Strategically, this is almost always a mistake. Anybody out there have any ideas why?

If it occurred to you that perhaps, just perhaps, the editors, or even the agents, who handled the books mentioned might conceivably end up reading this book proposal, give yourself three gold stars. It’s likely, isn’t it? After all, agents and editors both tend to specialize; do you honestly want the guy who edited the book you trashed to know that you thought it was terrible?

Let me answer that one for you: no, you do not. Nor do you want to insult that author’s agent. Trust me on this one.

No need to go overboard and imply that a book you hated was the best thing you’ve ever read, of course — the point here is to show how your book will be different and better, so you will need some basis for comparison. Just don’t go overboard and use phrases like terrible, awful, or an unforgivable waste of good paper, okay?

I had hoped to get a little farther in the proposal today — at least farther than we got yesterday — but as I’m already running long, I’m going to sign off for the day. But since you’re all doing so well, here’s one final pop quiz before I go: what lingering problem remains in this last version, something that might give even an interested Millicent pause in approving this proposal?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! Most of these books came out more than five years ago, and of those, The Gluten-Free Gourmet is the only one that might be well enough known to justify including otherwise,” give yourself seven gold stars for the day.

Heck, take the rest of the day off; I am. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good author bio, part V: all of the things you are — and some great news about a good author!

Deborah Heiligman cover

Before I launch into today’s course of our ongoing banquet on author bios, let’s give a great big Author! Author! cheer for Deborah Heiligman. Why is applause in order, you ask? Her excellent Charles and Emma: The Darwins’ Leap of Faith (Henry Holt) has just been nominated for the National Book Award in the notoriously competitive Young People’s Literature category.

Well done, Deborah!

I love it when an author who has been doing good work for a long time gets nominated for this type of award — and not only this one, either. CHARLES AND EMMA also made it onto a lot of 2008 best lists: it’s a New York Times Editors’ Choice, a Book Links Top Ten Biographies for Youth, a Booklist Top 10 Romances for Youth, and received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly, Horn Book, and Booklist, among others. Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Charles Darwin published The Origin of Species, his revolutionary tract on evolution and the fundamental ideas involved, in 1859. Nearly 150 years later, the theory of evolution continues to create tension between the scientific and religious communities. Challenges about teaching the theory of evolution in schools occur annually all over the country. This same debate raged within Darwin himself, and played an important part in his marriage: his wife, Emma, was quite religious, and her faith gave Charles a lot to think about as he worked on a theory that continues to spark intense debates.

Deborah Heiligman’s new biography of Charles Darwin is a thought-provoking account of the man behind evolutionary theory: how his personal life affected his work and vice versa. The end result is an engaging exploration of history, science, and religion for young readers.

In addition, I now notice, she has a terrific, eye-catching author bio and one of the best author photos I’ve ever seen, or at any rate, one of the most content-appropriate. I don’t want to spoil the picture’s surprise, but here’s her bio:

Deborah Heiligman has published nearly thirty books to date on subjects ranging from bees to babies, chromosomes to Christmas, Darwin to Diwali, metamorphosis to mathematics, including From Caterpillar to Butterfly, the Celebrate Holidays Around the World series and Cool Dog, School Dog. In addition, she’s written for numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Ladies’ Home Journal, Sesame Street Parents Guide, Parents Magazine, and Los Angeles Times among many others. She is married to Jonathan Weiner, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for The Beak of the Finch, lives in New York City, and shares her thoughts on writing, the environment, and more on her blog.

Makes her sound quite interesting, doesn’t it? Packed with professional credentials, but not dry at all. What a remarkable coincidence — we were just talking about the difference between professional and stuffy yesterday, weren’t we?

So redoubled kudos to Deborah for providing us with a good example. Before I move on with today’s business, I would also like to add: her website has some really good research tips for kids writing term papers, as well as advice for aspiring YA writers. CHARLES AND EMMA is available on Amazon, or, for those of you who prefer to deal with an indie bookseller, Powell’s.

Back to the business at hand: making yourself sound fascinating. Over the course of this series, I have, I hope, impressed upon my readers the importance of making your author bio as entertaining as possible. In case I have by some chance been too subtle, allow me to reiterate:

Regardless of how many or few bona fide publishing credentials may grace your résumé, aim for constructing an author bio for yourself that is MEMORABLE, rather than simply following the pseudo-professional norm of turning it into a (YAWN!) list of cold, starkly-mentioned business and educational facts.

Yes, I said pseudo-professional; because droning lists are so very common, unless one’s life achievements happen to include very high-profile events (earning a Ph.D., winning an Academy Award, being elected President of the United States, that sort of thing) or previous book publications (don’t have a joke for that one; sorry), the professional reader’s eye tends to glaze over whilst perusing them.

So what should you do instead, you whimper?

Precisely what the admirable Ms. Heiligman did in the example above: have your bio reflect your personality, and the book’s personality as well. It needs to show two things: that you are an authority with a background that makes you the perfect person to write this book, and that you are an interesting, engaging person with whom publishers might like to work — and whom readers would like to know.

Piece o’ proverbial cake, right? Well, no, but certainly doable, if you realize that the goal here is not just to hand Millicent the agency screener your CV, but to cause her to rush into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “You’re not going to BELIEVE this writer’s background!”

Yes, yes, in answer to what all of you query-weary cynics out there just thought so loudly, it is indeed entirely likely that her boss’ response will be some rendition of, “Gee, Millie, is it anything out of which we could conceivably cobble a platform for a nonfiction book?” — not necessarily the ideal reaction if one happens to be, say, a novelist, admittedly. Before you get all huffy at the idea of being pigeonholed before your time, let me ask you this: isn’t any reason someone who works at the agency of your dreams becomes excited about you good for your book’s prospects?

(Just to shatter the cherished illusions of any of you who still harbor any about the way agencies work, a successful submitter IS going to get pigeonholed, whether s/he likes it or not. Absolutely no point in trying to avoid it. The publishing industry thinks in book categories, which inevitably means shuffling even the most complex and genre-busting writers’ work into a conceptual box. This is a sad reality with which all of us pros who like to category-surf have to contend eventually, so you might want to beat the Christmas rush and get started on it now.

And if anything I said in that last paragraph caused you to think indignantly, “Well, they’ve obviously never seen anything like my historical multicultural Western romantica fantasy classic before — but by gum, they’re not going to make me pick just one!”, I implore you from the bottom of my heart to scroll down the category list at the right of this page, find the BOOK CATEGORY section, and read every post in it at least twice before you even THINK of querying your masterwork. Trust me on this one.)

Fingers have been drumming next to keyboards for quite some time now, I fear. “I GET it, Anne,” those of you just busting to get on with writing your bios already mutter. “I don’t fear being interesting, and primal screaming has done wonders to reduce my inherent hostility to describing my book in just one or two words. And believe me, I’m not in a position to bore Millicent with lists of my publishing credentials. Where on earth should I begin?

Glad you asked, finger-drummers. Here are a few likely sources for author bio tidbits. Not all are necessary to include, of course, but they are likely candidates for ways that you might be interesting to Millicent.

1. Your work history, paid or unpaid
Nonfiction writers, long used to building their own platforms, tend already to be aware of this, but any consistent effort on an author’s part that enables him to say legitimately, “I have a background in the subject matter of my book,” is worth considering including in a bio. Whether you actually got PAID for that experience isn’t particularly relevant; the fact that your agent will be able to say, “Bill didn’t just guess at what la vie de lumberjack is like for his romance novel, LOOK OUT FOR THAT TREE! He spent his youth as a cook in a lumber camp.”

That is not, as they say, a credential at which Bill’s prospective publishers are likely to be sneezing.

If your job titles have not been particularly impressive or you have not remained in any one industry for very long, you’re in good literary company — Joseph Campbell used to say that one of the best predictors of who was going to turn out to be an artist was the number of different jobs he had had before he was 30.

Try not to get hung up on job titles; think about what you actually DID and the environment in which you did it. An administrative assistant at Boeing has every bit as much right as a vice president to say, “Eileen has spent the last fifteen years in the aviation industry,” if her book happens to touch on that topic, right?

Don’t forget to consider any volunteer experience you may have; for bio purposes, it is neither relevant nor necessary to mention that you were not paid for your position as volunteer coordinator of your local cat rescue. There are plenty of political books out there by people who got their starts stuffing envelopes for a city council candidate, after all.

2. Any performing you may have done, paid or unpaid.
If you have any teaching, public speaking, or just plain experience talking in front of large groups of people, consider including at least some passing reference to it. Even if you were famed county-wide for your tap-dancing prowess at the age of 10, trust me, Millicent will want to know.

Why? It demonstrates that you may be relied upon not to disintegrate into a trembling mess if asked to step onto a stage. Or onto a conference dais. Or into a bookstore to sign your latest release.

Authors who can speak well in public are astonishingly rare, as anyone who has ever heard some pour soul mumble his way through a page of his own recently-published prose at a book signing can attest. Comfort in front of crowds is a genuine selling point for a writer. So is the ability to read out loud well — which might render that college summer you spent getting stabbed onstage in as Julius Caesar interesting to Millicent.

Whatever you do, do not even consider omitting teaching experience from your bio — in terms of practical experience at keeping listeners’ attention, teachers get the gold star. There’s even an industry anecdote on the subject: when a reporter asked the late historian (and reputed plagiarist) Stephen Ambrose, author of best-selling presidential bios, how he learned to make history interesting, Ambrose allegedly replied, “I used to teach an 8 AM class.”

Speaking as someone whose lectures were unfortunately scheduled at 10 AM Fridays at an enormous football university whose fraternities hosted regular Thursday night parties, I can only concur. Think that experience hasn’t come in handy promoting books?

3. What you are doing now to pay the bills.
Regardless of whether you decide that any of your work experience is relevant, interesting, or public-speaking-related enough to include, you should mention in your bio what you are doing now for a living, for the exceedingly simple reason that it is going to be one of the things that an agent or editor will want to know about you up front.

The sole exception — and as soon as I tell you the standard euphemism used by authors who fall under its rubric, you’re going to start noticing just how common it is in bios and people in bookstores will stare at you as you chuckle — is if you feel that your current employment is not, shall we say, reflective of who you are. Stating that you are temping in order to be able to quit your job the second a publisher snaps up your book proposal, for instance, while perhaps not a bad long-term strategy, is not going to make you look particularly professional to Millicent.

Nor is I’m working in a job that has nothing to do with my interests because the unemployment rate is pushing 10%, alas. While either or both may well be true, neither is likely to be particularly memorable.

Do I hear a bit more whimpering out there? “But Anne,” some of you point out timidly, “I’m perplexed. My current job does reflect something about me as a human being — how many gas lamp lighters can there still be on the planet, after all — but it’s not by any stretch of the imagination literary. Shouldn’t I omit mention of it on that basis alone?”

In a word, no. In several words: Millicent doesn’t really expect queriers or submitters already to be making their living as writers.

The fact is, it is extremely difficult to make a living as a writer, particularly of books. (You were all aware of that, right?) It often takes years and years — and books and books — before even a great writer can afford to quit her day job. So you may safely assume that Millicent and her ilk are already aware that many excellent writers out there are supporting their art by delivering pizzas, driving cabs, and all of those desk jobs under fluorescent lights upon which bureaucracies the world over depend.

Heck, it’s not entirely beyond belief that Millicent took her desk job under fluorescent lights to feed her own writing habit. Sort of messes with your mental picture of her scowling over your query letter, doesn’t it?

So what’s the standard euphemism for under-employed literary geniuses? You’re going to laugh: it’s freelance writers.

You’ve seen that in many a dust jacket author bio, haven’t you? Perfectly legitimate: as long as you write and no one is employing you write full-time, you are indeed freelancing. You’re just a volunteer freelance writer.

4. ANY life experience that would tend to bolster your implicit claim to be an expert in the subject matter of your book.
Consider showcasing any background you have that makes you an expert in the area of your book. Again, you need not have been paid for the relevant experience in order to include it in your bio, or have a academic or journalistic background to render your 15 years of reading on a topic research.

Definitely mention any long-term interests connected to your book, even if they are merely hobbies. As in, for a book about symphonies, “George Clooney has been an avid student of the oboe since the age of three.” (Don’t quote me on that one, please; I have no idea what Mssr. Clooney’s feelings or experience with woodwinds may be.)

5. Writing credentials, no matter how minor.
List any contests you have won or placed in. If you like, you may also include any venues where you have published, paid or not. Even unpaid book reviews in your company’s newsletter are legitimate credentials, if you wrote them.

6. Recognition of your wonderfulness from the outside world, regardless of its relevance to your writing project.
I’m not just talking about the Nobel Prize here — do you have any idea how exotic winning a pie-baking contest at a county fair would seem to someone who has lived her entire life in New York City?

Don’t laugh; Millicent might genuinely be intrigued. If you were the hog-calling champion of your tri-county area, believe me, it’s going to strike her as memorable.

7. Educational background.
This is one of the few constituent parts of the standard, dull tombstone bio that might conceivably hurt you if you do not include. Because pretty much any North American agent or editor will be college-educated, Millicent will be looking for a writer’s educational credentials.

That’s putting it mildly, actually: Millicent probably has BA in English from a great school like Wellesley. (With honors. Not to intimidate you.) Her sister went to Brown; her brother went to Dartmouth. Higher education, even without degrees, will be meaningful to her.

Perhaps to the point of snobbery. You wouldn’t believe how much mileage I’ve gotten out of my doctorate when conversing with snobs.

So if you are older than standard college age and a high school graduate, go ahead and include any post-high school education in your bio, no matter how long ago it was or what you studied. Don’t mention your major, unless it is relevant to your book.

If you are currently in school, mention it. But don’t mention your high school by name — unless, of course, your story is about how you regularly fought your way through gunfire to make it to class or you went to a well-known elite school (see earlier reference to snobbery). If you’re still in college, though, you should definitely mention where you go.

Don’t look at me that way. Both young writers and returning students tend to be a bit shy, at least in their bios, about being pre-degree, but I think this attitude tends to underestimate just how wistfully most graduates recall their college careers. Especially if one happens to be huddled under fluorescent lights reading manuscripts until one’s Great American Novel is completed, if you catch my drift.

Anyway, if you’re REALLY young and have the stick-to-itiveness to write an entire BOOK, that’s going to be quite interesting to the adults who inhabit the publishing world. Especially if you worked on a school paper or magazine, as that will demonstrate that you have proven you understand and can meet deadlines. That’s a story you can tell excitingly in a couple of lines of text, isn’t it?

If you’re a non-traditional student, returning to the classroom after years of doing other no doubt very interesting things, you probably have an intriguing story to tell, too. When I was teaching at the university level, I was continually wowed by the trajectory many of my older students had taken to get there. YOU may not think of your sacrifices to go back to school at an untraditional age as extraordinary, but there’s a good chance that others will.

Consider mentioning any certificate programs, continuing education, or substantial training you may have, regardless of the subject matter. Prestigious and oddball programs tend to be the most memorable — in fact, a certificate from a hypnosis for horses class may well stick in our Millicent’s mind longer and more vividly than a BA in literature from Kenyon. So would an apprenticeship as a beekeeper.

I see some hands tentatively raised out there. “But Anne, I’ve never had the opportunity to go to college, the time to attend massage school, or the funds to receive training as a reiki practitioner. What do you do if you don’t have any educational credentials to wave at Millicent?”

No need to panic — you’ve got several excellent options at your disposal. You could simply not mention your educational background; fill up the page instead with your rich life experience (see above). Or, better still, turn your bio into an opportunity to show how you have schooled yourself through non-traditional means.

Millicent may be an educational snob, but she knows a good author interview story when she sees one.

Alternatively — and I’m continually surprised at how seldom this seems to occur to aspiring writers — you could sign up to take a night course in a subject that interests you. It needn’t be academic (although a few history courses related to your book’s subject matter wouldn’t kill you, would they?), or even long-term: I’ve seen a writer turn a weekend seminar on candle-dipping into some quite eye-catching author bio material.

Remember, great author bios don’t just happen by themselves, any more than interesting lives do. They are built.

8. Personal quirks.
You need not limit yourself to your professional achievements in your quest to sound interesting. Including a reference to a quirky hobby often works well, as long as it is true; actually, it’s a good idea to include one, because it tells agents and editors that you have broad enough interests to be a good interview subject down the line.

Don’t have a quirky hobby? Do what PR agents have historically told would-be celebrities to do just prior to launching interview tours: acquire an off-beat hobby or interest now, so you may talk about it.

Then write your bio a week later. A tad rule-lawyerish, perhaps, but essentially truthful — and certainly a recognized trick of the trade.

9. Past travel and residence.
If you’ve traveled extensively — or even not so extensively — or lived in the part of the world where your novel is set, that will actually add to your credibility as a storyteller. Yes, even if that part of the world happens to be rural Oregon, because — come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little secret — Millicent and her ilk are often not all that familiar with the geography outside the fabled isle of Manhattan. Even if she is from somewhere else originally — and she often isn’t; my agent likes to boast that he’s never lived more than ten miles from the NYC hospital where he was born, and apparently I was the first person he’d ever encountered whose response was, “Oh, you should get out more.” — she’s likely to be working some awfully long days for very little pay.

Travel can be quite expensive, you know. Give her a micro-vacation at her desk by mentioning your familiarity with exotic climes.

If you were a great traveler — say, after a career in the Navy — consider mentioning your sojourns in your bio even if they’re not relevant to the book you’re promoting. Give Millicent a vicarious thrill.

10. Family background.
This is always legitimate if it’s relevant to the subject matter of the book — if, say, our pal Bill spent his childhood watching his dear old white-headed mother cook for those lumberjacks, instead of doing it himself — but even if it’s not, if your family tree harbors an interesting wood owl or two, why not mention it?

For instance, my great-grandmother was an infamous Swiss-Italian opera diva. Was the fact that a relative who died three decades before I was born could wow ’em with a spectacular rendition of Libiamo Ne’ Lieti Calici actually relevant to what I write? Seldom.

But incredibly memorable? Definitely. And have I been known to include it in a bio, along with the highly dubious distinction that I made my television debut singing Adeste Fideles on a 1978 Christmas special? Wearing a blaring yellow leotard and equally subtle peasant skirt my mother drew swearingly from our antiquated sewing machine the night before, no less? You bet.

Consider, too, mentioning your ethnic background, if it’s remotely relevant to the book. Many, many aspiring writers chafe at this suggestion, but think about it: didn’t your family’s history have SOME effect upon constructing your worldview? Might not your background in fact render your take on a story fresh? Has it affected your voice?

See where I’m going with this? Bringing up relevant background is not asking for your writing to be judged by a different standard; it’s just one of many means of explaining in the very few lines allowed in an author bio how precisely you are different from any other writer who might happen to have written this particular book.

I have to admit, I’m always surprised when a writer who has, say, just polished off a stunning first novel set in colonial India fails to mention that she was born in Darjeeling, but all too often, writers new to the biz will leave out pertinent life facts like this. “Why should I include it?” the writer will say defensively. “It’s not as though I was alive during the time period of my book, and anyway, I don’t want to get pigeonholed as an ethnic writer.”

In the first place, in the English-speaking publishing world as we currently know it, a non-Caucasian author is inevitably going to be regarded as an ethnic writer, rather than a mainstream (read: white and Christian) one, just as anyone who writes a book while possessing ovaries is going to be labeled a woman writer unless she’s had some pretty extensive plastic surgery and/or has written a memoir under the name of Jim.

Unfair to the vast majority of writers who would like to be judged by the quality of their writing, rather than the content of their DNA? You bet. Something your are going to be able to fight successfully at the query and submission stages of your career? Not a chance.

See my earlier comment about pigeonholing.

Take heart: we may not like it, but it can occasionally work for us rather than against us. The author bio is one of the few places where the tendency to regard any writer who isn’t a white, male, straight, college-educated, middle- or upper-middle class English-speaking North American as outside the norm can actually help those of us who, well, aren’t any or all of the above. Especially if your book would be the kind that Millicent might expect only a white, male…etc. to write.

I leave it to your fertile imaginations what she is likely to say when she carries the bio of what the industry might regard as a non-traditional author into her boss’ office.

Noticing a theme here? Anything about yourself that might make a good story is potential material for an author bio, really. It’s up to you to select and present it intriguingly. If only you already had some experience with an endeavor like that.

Oh, wait, you’re a WRITER. You have devoted your life to telling interesting stories.

Not used to thinking of an author bio that way, are you? Give it a good ponder, have a nice weekend, and 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 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!

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!