More faux pas: making it easy to help you

My series on industry etiquette is beginning to wind to a close, and reading back over it, I realized that it does sound as though agents just sit around, waiting to be insulted by aspiring writers. That’s not really the case, actually: it’s just that the competition for their scant attention is so fierce that the costs of walking away from a gifted writer who is even just a bit rude are minimal.

I think agents everywhere should forgive us, however, if from the rejected writer’s point of view, though, the distinction between being very easily turned off, inordinately picky, and aching to be insulted sometimes look very similar indeed.

My hope in running through some of the major faux pas is to make sure that none of my readers inadvertently give them an excuse to don those walking boots. Since I’ve been concentrating so much lately on what you SHOULDN’T do, though, I wanted to devote some time today talking about what you SHOULD, to talk about how to be polite rather than how to avoid being impolite.

To that end, I am going to share an extremely important piece of writerly advice, one that I learned from established authors in my wayward infancy, even before I knew my way around a keyboard:

Make it as easy as humanly possible for folks in the industry to help you.

Seems kind of self-evident, doesn’t it, stated baldly like that? But honestly, aspiring writers don’t practice it enough.

Oh, most of us send the requisite SASEs with our work — a courtesy which, incidentally, is regarded by the industry as a convenience for the writer, not for the agent or editor, a way to assure that the manuscript in question did not just float into a black hole somewhere, never to be seen again. The theory that SASEs are an insidious means of forcing writers to pay postage on their own rejections is exclusive to writers’ minds.

However true it may be.

There are other little courtesies that make it easier for the agent to respond, of course. Back in my querying days, I would habitually enclose a business-size SASE in addition to the manuscript-sized one whenever an agent asked for a partial manuscript, to make it a snap to ask for the rest of the book.

These days, one is much more likely to hear back via e-mail, or even phone, so a great way to make it easy to say yes to you is to include your e-mail address and phone number prominently in your cover letter.

I would also — as intrepid and clever reader Janet mentioned doing in a comment a few weeks back — include a stamped, self-addressed postcard, to make it easy as pie for an agency to let me know that it had received my submission. To render the process a little more fun, I used to enliven mine with checkboxes: “Yes, the manuscript arrived in one piece on (date),” “No, the manuscript was mauled by the post office in transit; please send again,” and “Only this postcard arrived intact.”

No one ever checked anything but the first, of course, but at least I amused a screener or two, and I had physical evidence that my manuscript had indeed reached its desired destination. More to the point, I made it clear to the agency screeners that I was taking responsibility for getting my work to them promptly and in one piece — and demonstrated that if something went wrong in transit, I wanted to know about it so I could make it right.

I was, in short, showing that I would be easy to help once they signed me.

Similarly, when asking for feedback from a first reader, I like to include a set of questions I would like answered with the manuscript. That way, the first reader does not need to second-guess what kind of feedback I want. It tells the reader up front that instead of waiting defensively for critique, I am welcoming it.

Again, I was signaling that I would be easy to help.

Can you see this one coming? Chant with me now the sensible mantra of anyone who wants to do a little climbing within the industry:

Make it as easy as humanly possible for any agent with whom you have contact to help you.

Again, seems self-evident in theory, but it’s not often put into practice. After all, we writers reason, we’re being judged on our writing at the agent-finding phase, not our manners, right? No one sends off a query with the intention of carrying off the Miss Congeniality prize.

Of course, talent alone SHOULD be enough to open the door to success — but honestly, you would be amazed at how many query letters and pitches come across as calculated to make sure that the quality of the writing is the ONLY criterion that could possibly explain acceptance, as if coasting into a professional relationship on the wheels of personal charm were somehow cheating one’s muse.

Seriously, many queries and pitches are downright truculent, or even actually hostile. And half the time, writers do not even seem aware that they are coming across that way. But take a look at some common first impressions agents receive:

Misguided approach 1: Norbert has been working on his novel for a number of years. Having tried his luck at a few small presses, he finds to his chagrin that none of the major publishing houses will even look at an unagented manuscript. His heart sinks when he realizes that he is going to have to invest still more of his precious writing time in finding an agent.

Disgruntled, he sits down at his keyboard to compose his first round of queries. “Since it is impossible to get a fiction publishing contract anymore without an agent,” he writes, “I am writing to see if you will be willing to represent me.”

Okay, what did Norbert do wrong — so wrong, in fact, that few agency screeners would bother to read beyond this tragic first sentence?

While it may seem a trifle unfair to stop reading simply because Norbert has stated a fact about the current state of the publishing industry, from an agency reader’s POV, he is taking his frustration out on the agency for a situation for which the agency is not responsible. It is certainly to agents’ advantage that they have become the gatekeepers of the industry, but the decision to limit how publishing houses accept submissions was the publishers’ decision, not the agents’.

It is human nature to resent being blamed for other people’s actions, but that is not the only reason Norbert’s approach is unlikely to yield positive results. Agents are looking for writers with whom it will be easy to work, and beginning the relationship with what they perceive as whining about necessity — hey, it’s their perception, not mine — does not, in their eyes, convey a cheerful, gung-ho willingness to adapt to the rigors of the publishing world.

They’d rather deal with someone who doesn’t lambaste them. Go figure.

Actually, agents have good reason to be cautious about writers’ attitude problems, you know. Contrary to common belief amongst unagented writers, a writer can seldom simply hand his book to his agent and walk away, confident that it will be sold. Especially a first book. Even if the agent loves a book to pieces, she usually will want changes to it before she begins to market it to editors, to make it easier to sell. A client who complains at every step is going to be harder to handle at this stage, as well as later on, when the manuscript is circulating amongst agents.

Harder how, you ask? Pick up any of the standard agents’ guides, and check out what they almost universally say about nightmare clients: ones who call and e-mail constantly for reassurance, rather than letting their agents get on with the serious business of selling their work.

Norbert’s mistake, then, is that he gave the impression in his query letter that his attitude toward the agency’s role in the publication process would make it hard for the agent to help him succeed. Given a choice, virtually any agent would prefer to help someone who would not bring that anger to the table.

No matter how well-justified that anger might be.

Of course, not all aspiring writers are as up front as Norbert is about his issues. Some prefer to air the ways in which they will be difficult to help indirectly. Tomorrow, I will tell you their sad tales.

In the meantime, take a few minutes to glance over your query letter: does it make you sound like a writer who is going to be hard to help along the path to publication, or like one who would be, if not always a joy, at least a professional who understands that the road is often hard?

It’s worth giving some thought. And, of course, keep up the good work!

A final word on queries

How did everyone’s query letter do in the countdown? Well, I hope. If you find yourself in perplexity about some aspect of the missive, feel free to ask questions via the comments function, below. (But please, I implore you, do NOT just e-mail me your query letter. I’m swamped.)

Before I sign off on the topic of querying for the time being, in order to retackle contest entries with renewed enthusiasm, however, I want to speak today about the extraordinarily difficult task of keeping yourself from stressing out while your queries are wending their way through agencies thither and yon.

Keeping your spirits up is very seldom addressed in your average querying class, is it? And in most how-to publications out there, the implication is that since the advice contained therein will elevate your query letter from rejectable to irresistible in a few easy steps, there is no need to consider the possibility that a good writer might have to send quite a few of them out.

Frankly, I think this attitude – although probably meant to be chock-full o’ positive vibrations for your success – actually makes it harder for writers going through the querying process.

I wondered for a very long time where aspiring writers got the rather fantastic idea that talent is always recognized instantaneously, as if there were a special angel who did nothing all day but assure that any gifted writer’s copy of GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS would automatically fall open to the perfect fit. And then I started listening to the bigwig writers who spoke at the conferences where I was teaching. Turns out, conference speakers tend to be huge proponents of the notion that Somebody Up There sees to it that the gifted don’t have to query more than a handful of times.

While it would be easy to dismiss this attitude as self-aggrandizement – “You, the audience, may be struggling to get your work a fair reading, but I, the speaker, am so brilliant that agents appeared on my doorstep as soon as I printed out the first draft” – I don’t think that’s actually what’s behind this kind of assertion. I think that often, by the time a writer is prominent enough to be asked to speak (particularly to give a keynote speech) at a major conference, he tends to have landed his agent so long ago that the writing market has completely changed in the interim.

So, effectively, unless the speaker is unusually devoted to helping aspiring writers and is still in the trenches like yours truly, trying to assist others to get published, the story he is likely to tell will bear about as much resemblance to what a querier can expect now as your grandparents’ stories about their high school years bore to yours.

Wanna hear my father’s story about the first time he sat in a car? It was a Model A. Think that helped me learn to drive?

This was brought home very forcefully to me this fall, when I was teaching at a small conference packed to the gills with exceptionally talented writers who had made their names between 10 and 40 years ago. When asked about how to land an agent, these well-meaning souls to a man muttered the usual truisms about how good writing always finds a home, and all you really have to do is get someone to read it.

Which, to a writer new to the game who is at all savvy to the current hyper-competitive environment at agencies, could be heard very much as, “I’m all right, Jack; I’ve got mine.” Not overwhelmingly helpful, as guidance goes.

Then one of the writers I have admired for a very, very long time stepped up to the podium. She’s probably 15 years older than I am, which is to say that I estimated that she had hooked up with her agent just about the time when it started getting genuinely hard for good writers to find representation. The timing had a lot to do with the rise of the personal computer, by the way, and even more with the later rise of the internet: once writers did not have to laboriously retype or expensively photocopy every manuscript submitted, submissions to agencies went up exponentially; once writers could research agencies on the web, queries burgeoned.

In any case, I was in great hopes that this author, unlike the other speakers, would have a life story that might parallel the conference attendees’ struggles enough to be instructive. No such luck, alas: it turned out that she had been in an MFA program…

Lost you already, hasn’t she?

…and she went to a conference and made friends with an editor because she was crying over something. The editor read “the only good short story I had written so far,” introduced the writer to her best friend…


…who happened to be an excellent agent, and snapped her up immediately. Thus, the writer had never queried at all.

Well, that was helpful, wasn’t it?

Seriously, I think these types of stories depress writers who are querying now; they give new life to that old myth that real talent is always recognized instantly. In the current market – and actually, for most of the last 15 years since that lecturing writer had an agent magically fall into her lap like Newton’s apple – that just hasn’t been the case.

Trust me on this one: you will be a MUCH happier camper if you reconcile yourself NOW to the notion that you will probably need to send out dozens (and dozens, and maybe even dozens) of query letters before you land an agent – and that this most emphatically does NOT mean you are without talent, or that the publishing world is hostile to your work.

Once you accept that reality, sending out one letter at a time just seems, well, kind of silly, doesn’t it? If you’re going to need to get your work under many noses, it only makes sense to send out quite a few queries at a time. Not so many that you can’t keep track of who wants what, of course, but enough that when you hear back from one, you have others out there.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: it’s emotionally FAR easier to keep a query cycle going than to start one from scratch. Especially if you are starting from scratch immediately after the agent of your dreams has just sent you a form-letter rejection. Many queries equal many possibilities: cumulatively, they help keep hope alive.

And anything that keeps hope hoppin’ is not something at which a writer should be sneezing, in this market.

Also, one-at-a-time querying is inefficient. This is an industry where tastes change in a matter of months, sometimes even weeks. If it takes you a year to query ten agents, it’s not beyond belief that by the end of that time, what the first agent is looking to acquire will have changed completely.

Seriously. I’ve seen it happen.

Let me knock another common writers’ conference truism on its nasty little head before anyone brings it up: it’s just not true that agents become angry if you submit to more than one of them at once. That was true in older, slower times, but frankly, it hasn’t been widely true since the Reagan Administration.

The FIRST Reagan Administration.

True, one occasionally does see notations in the standard agents’ guides stating that a particular agency prefers exclusive submissions. You know why that’s there? Because the expectation of exclusivity is so rare in the industry now that unless it is stated baldly up front, the assumption is that every agent on the planet accepts simultaneous submissions.

So there. Query early, query often, and don’t you dare conclude that no one wants your book until you’ve queried a hundred agents – and even then, make sure it’s your book that’s getting rejected, and not just your query letter.

Tomorrow, we shall rejoin our series on contest entries, already in progress. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part VII: for the lack of a poetic moniker, the other stuff

For the last few days, I have been going through a checklist of questions a prudent querier should ask herself before popping that missive (plus SASE, of course) into the mail. As I’m sure the sharper-eyed among you have noticed already, I am being a trifle repetitious in this series overall, not my usual style. Bear with me on this one, long-time readers: this information is so very important to the success of all you queriers out there that I really want to hammer it home.

Yes, there are many, many, MANY sources out there advising how to craft a query letter, much of it contradictory; I assure you, I am not claiming to be the final authority on it. However, I do have a very successful track record handling queries, both for my own work and my editing clients’, so I have quite a solid idea of what definitely will NOT work. So even if you have read so many pieces of advice on querying that you think that if you read another, you will go stark, raving mad like that poor man in BELOVED, you might want to cast your eyes over this list.

After all, even the best writer in the world is not born knowing how to pitch her work, is she?

So, query in hand, ask yourself the following questions. Yes, some of them are pretty elementary, but better that I mention here than even a single reader out there makes what is often a fatal mistake, right?

(11) Have I mentioned the book’s genre and/or book category?

Told you some of these would be elementary, right? You’d be surprised at how few query letters even mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction.

This is a business run on categories: pick one, and use some of your precious query letter space to state it outright. Because there’s just no getting around the fact that in order to get your book published, any agent currently residing on the planet will have to tell any editor in the business what genre your book falls into — thus, it is really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

As I mentioned the other day, a lot of writers think they can fudge genres by listing several: comic romance, spiritual how-to, women’s thriller. Logically, these hybrids may make sense, but if a composite category isn’t already quite well established (paranormal romance, for example), it looks wishy-washy to professional eyes.

The one exception: Literary/Mainstream Fiction. This one is okay, because honestly, no one is really sure where precisely the dividing line between the two categories lies, and occasionally (very occasionally), very literary works have huge mainstream appeal.

(12) Have I avoided using clichés?
I would go so far as to list this as a general axiom: NEVER USE A CLICHÉ IN YOUR SUBMISSIONS, at any stage. Especially not in your query letter.

I used to think this one was self-evident, but after years and years of reading aspiring writers’ queries with an eye to punching them up, I have been proven wrong. A LOT of query letters (and synopses, and contest entries) feature ostensibly humorous references to clichés. I blame television for this: the sitcom (and Saturday Night Live) have led all too many to believe that sheer repetition of a phrase (“You look mabalous,” anyone?) renders it amusing.

All too many are wrong. Just because your coworkers will chuckle when you quip, “Where’s the beef?” (okay, so maybe you coworkers in the mid-1980s would have), it doesn’t mean that the phrase — or truism, or malapropism — is going to be funny in a formal request for representation. If you choose to make your query letter humorous, use your own material.

Why? Because originality shows your talent off far better than your ability to quote. And while the general population’s tolerance for second-hand and oft-repeated jokes tends to be rather high (witness the careers of Milton Berle, Bob Hope, and practically any comedian Saturday Night Live has foisted upon the rest of us, if you doubt this), in the publishing industry, the tolerance is close to nil.

I am not kidding about this. Agents and editors tend to regard the jokes floating around in the zeitgeist with roughly the same loathing as they hold for clichés: the bubonic plague may be worse, by most objective standards, but you’d hardly know it to hear them talk about these phenomena. They feel, and not without some justification, that any writer worth thirty seconds of their time should be able to make it through a page of introduction, five pages of synopsis, and fifty pages of submission without resorting to rehashed phrases.

I have faith that you can do it, too.

(13) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I sound as though I am a competent professional, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your certificate in woodworking, if your book touches even vaguely upon circular saws.

Most of the time, though, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you graduated from any institution after high school, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include.

(14) Have I made any of the standard mistakes that send agents screaming into the night?

Again, this is recap, and all of these are trivial to the uninitiated eye, but trust me, ALL of them will get your query pitched into the reject pile before you can say Judith Regan:

*Referring to ANY book as “a fiction novel”
*Taking more than three words to describe the book category.
*Any version of the sentiment, “I know you don’t represent this kind of book, but…”
*Claiming to have been referred by a client who did not actually refer you (and yes, agents generally do ask the alleged referrer)
*A query letter longer than a single page.
*Obvious margin-fudging or ultra-small typeface usage to make a query only a page long.
*Not including a SASE.
*Addressing a female agent as “Dear Mr. Smith,” or a male one as “Dear Ms. Jones.”
*And finally (drum roll, please), the biggest pet peeve of all, addressing the agent as “Dear Agent.”

(15) Is my letter in correspondence format, not in business format?

I’ve literally never seen this advice given elsewhere, but it is a fact: to people in the publishing industry (and the magazine industry as well, I’m told), business format — be it in a letter or a manuscript — looks illiterate. And that’s the last thing you want to convey to someone you expect to take your writing seriously.

(Yes, I know: I write in business format here. Blame the blogging program, which simply eats tabs willy-nilly.)

Indent EVERY paragraph the regulation five spaces. (Yes, in your manuscript, too. If you don’t know why this is an automatic rejection offense, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.) Single-space the letter, and have the date and the signature halfway across the page.

(16) Is my query letter in the same font as my manuscript? Is it free of boldface and underlining? And is my font choice one of those favored by the industry?

I know that it may seem a trifle silly, but long experience has shown that query letters that adhere to standard manuscript format tend to be taken more seriously from the get-go. (If you don’t know what standard format is, or that there was a special format for manuscripts that differs from how books are printed, please see the FORMATTING MANUSCRIPTS category at right.)

In practical terms, this means that your query should be in 12-point Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New. (If you have constructed false letterhead on your computer, your header may be in a different typeface.) Nothing in the letter — or indeed, in your manuscript — should be in either boldface or underlined. If you use a foreign-language word, italicize it.

“But how,” some of you may be calling right about now, “do I designate my title, if I am not to use boldface or underlining?”

Good question. Within the context of a letter, pretty much everyone in the industry will reproduce a title in all caps (ALL THE PRETTY HORSES), but you may italicize a title instead.

(17) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?

When I teach basic query-writing technique, I find that this question surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter, more than any other. The fact is, though, those guidelines are widely enough known now that a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is definitely not good. In fact, a letter that is too all-business may actually get shoved into the rejection pile on that basis alone.

Why? In a word: boredom. Think about that agency screener with her 800 letters to open per week. Just how many straight-out-of-a-textbook queries do you think she sees on an average day? How about in an average hour?

Get my point? And see why I have been historically reluctant to post a universal prototype for a query letter here?

Don’t make the all-too-common mistake of presenting a man without a face: your query letter needs to sound like you at your best. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a person with quirky tastes, 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.

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.

Phew! That was a lengthy one, wasn’t it? It may not feel like it, but believe it or not, I honestly am trying to hurry through this material, so I can get back to giving advice on crafting your contest entries. Something tells me THAT series may take us right up to the PNWA contest deadline…

The fun never stops here, does it? Keep up the good work!

P.S. to Damon: the address on your e-mail keeps bouncing back when I reply! Would you mind e-mailing again?

Your query letter, part VI: The body of the letter

Yesterday, I urged you to take a long, hard look at the first paragraph of the query letter you’ve been sending out, to make sure you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer destined to be discovered any minute by another agent IF the agent you are querying does not have the good sense to snap you up first. Today, I want to talk about the body of the letter, the part where you talk about the book itself.

Is everybody comfortable, query letter in hand? Read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind (and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar), then ask yourself the following questions. The numbering, of course, is a continuation of yesterday’s list:

(6) Is my brief summary of the book short and clear?

Many writers try to cram the whole synopsis into the query letter, going on for paragraphs at a time about the storyline or argument of the book. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet. You really only have 3-5 sentences here to grab an agent’s interest, so you might well be better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are, rather than trying to outline the plot.

I hear those frown lines starting to form: here we go again, yet another arbitrary agency requirement. Actually, there is a pretty good reason for this one, something that can work to your advantage — it forces the writer to minimize distracting details. After all, if you are querying fiction, it took you an entire book to tell the story well, didn’t it? And if you are querying nonfiction, didn’t it take you a whole book (well, okay, a book proposal) to make the argument well? So how likely is it that you would be able to convey the entire complexity of your plot in a paragraph, anyway?

To get a sense of how too many details can confuse an agency screener, pretend to be our old pal, the unpaid intern who has already read 75 queries this morning, has just burnt her tongue on her latte, and is reading her last query before her lunch date. Obviously, it’s in your own best interest to read that last one as quickly as possible, right? So consider the following two summaries: which would be more likely to make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Murgatroyd, a blind trombonist with a lingering adolescent passion for foosball, has never fallen in love — until he met Myrtle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel. But what chance does he have? Myrtle’s just been dumped by the world’s greatest Sousaphinist; she has vowed never to look at the brass section again. Can Murgatroyd win the heart of his first love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Snappy, isn’t it? The characters come off as quirkily interesting, and the basic conflicts are immediately apparent: request away. Contrast this with the more common type of summary:

“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Murgatroyd, the child of a smothering father and absent-minded mother who was blinded at age six by a wayward electrical wire. As a child, Murgatroyd hated and feared electricity, which causes him to avoid playing conventional sports: football fields are always brightly lit. This light metaphor continues into his adult life, where he performs in symphony halls with lights trained on him all the time. Life isn’t easy for Murgatroyd. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. He makes friends in the woodwind section, but the people who play next to him remain aloof. A mysterious woman is hired to conduct the symphony. Murgatroyd is intrigued by her, because…”

Hold it a minute: We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

To phrase this in the language of the industry: next!

(7) Have I made it clear what the book is actually about — and how it is different from other books?

This might seem like a flippant question, after the last, but frequently, writers get so carried away pushing the book in principle that they forget to mention the theme at all. Instead, they rely upon the kind of summary that writers use in casual conversation, chestnuts along the lines of, “My book is a political thriller about a man who tries to kidnap a third of Congress.”

“Um,” our little friend the screener thinks, “are you going to tell me anything about who this guy is? His motivation, perhaps? Who might conceivably try to stop him in his attempt?”

Burnt-lip screener has a point here: without some indication of the characters and conflict, stories start to sound very, very much alike. The result is that summaries like “LOVE SONG is the story of a romantic woman seeking the love of her life,” tend to be dismissed out of hand: this could, after all, describe the vast majority of romances, no?

Hint: if your summary in the letter does not include any mention of the central conflict of the book, you might want to rework it. And it’s always a good idea to mention your protagonist by name (by first name, at least) in the first line of the description

(8) Is my summary in the present tense?

Okay, this one is genuinely a weirdness of the industry: one-paragraph summaries, like pitches, are always in the present tense. Even if you are describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire. Go figure.

(9) Does it emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

If you find being direct about why your book is needed by your target audience (“PIGSKIN SERANADE is designed to appeal to the romantic football-lover in all of us”) a trifle gauche — and actually, even if you don’t — it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers.

The easiest way to do this is to make sure that the tone of summary echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a comedy, you’d better make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure there’s some sex in the summary. And so forth.

(10) Wait — have I given any indication here who my target audience is?

Most query letters include no reference whatsoever to the target audience, as though it were in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched. But if an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for the agent to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”

In pretty much every instance, no. To translate again: next!

How’s your query letter holding up? This honestly is a quiz where you want to score 100%. Tomorrow, I shall wrap up the checklist, so you can send out your queries with confidence. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part V: first impressions matter tremendously

I’ve been talking for the last few days about big problems to which query letters are prone, but am I preaching to the choir here? Don’t all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid these pitfalls?

Not necessarily – even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters. For most new writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their missives themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record, because I honestly do think the misconceptions around rejection are harmful to good writers: unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin? Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never – well, almost never — works like that: writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned, as we’ve seen over the last few posts.

But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want? Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to learn the fine art of diagnosis.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, read over your query letter, synopsis, and, if you’ve been submitting it, first chapter; better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine.

Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable: as much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust – such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters – and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. That doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier – and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

Once you have done this, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my advice from earlier in this series, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

(1) Is my query letter polite?

Not just civil, mind you: genuinely courteous. Even good queriers tend to start to sound a bit exasperated by their fifteenth try. In fact, you’d be amazed at how often people use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for conditions in the industry: my personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first.”

A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Okay, these are extreme examples, but do bear in mind that agents have to interact their clients quite a bit throughout the publication process; I hear from my agent more often than I do virtually all of my old chums from college. Do make sure that you’re coming across in your query as someone with whom it will not be painful to associate on a regular basis.

(2) Does my letter sound competent and professional, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Do I sound as though I know what I’m doing, or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

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

And, whatever you do, do NOT mention that the book has been rejected elsewhere, or that you’re having a hard time finding an agent, or that you think it will be challenging to sell in the current market. These are all surprisingly common elements in query letters, as they are in pitches: give some writers a few minutes, and they’ll give you eight good reasons that no one will ever pick up their work.

Trust me, that kind of modesty does not charm on the isle of Manhattan. Even if you don’t feel confident, try to sound so.

(3) Does my book come across as marketable, or does it read as though I’m boasting?

I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked, launch into an extended medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings at the drop of the proverbial hat. Trust me, they’ve already seen their share of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”
It simply doesn’t work.

(4) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter why I am writing to this particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

Agents complain vociferously and often about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide, but you need not address your query to a generic “Dear Agent” to set off their repetition radar. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

And if the answer was, “This was the first agency alphabetically,” you might want to consider coming up with a reason that sounds better on paper.

Why? Human nature. Most agents are proud of their work: if you want to get on their good side, show a little appreciation for what they have done in the past. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work, definitely mention that in your query letter. (As in, “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”)

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented; I’ve written fairly extensively on this subject in the past (if this is news to you, please see the AGENTS category at right), so I shall only list the top ways briefly here. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. There are several online search engines that will permit you to enter an author’s name and find out who represents him; I use Publisher’s Marketplace, as it is so up-to-date on just-breaking sales news.

If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Alternatively, if you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that upfront. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to give a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

(5) Does my first paragraph mention the book category? And have I avoided the all-time fiction agent peeve of referring to the book as a “fiction novel”?

Again, when approaching people to whom industry-speak is a native tongue, it really does behoove you to describe your book in their language – and avoid describing it in terms that a publishing professional would never use. If you are unsure what a book category is, you might want to take a gander at the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right; if you are unsure why an agent would object to the term “fiction novel,” ask yourself this: what novels aren’t fiction?

You might have noticed that all of the questions so far concern the first paragraph of your query letter. I have dwelt upon the first paragraph, because – as I was discussing yesterday — countless query letters are discarded by agents every day based upon the first paragraph alone. Think about it: if you had to get through 200 queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading if the first paragraph were not promising?

Oh, yes, you SAY you would. But honestly, would you?

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Again, it is really in your interest to adhere to the prevailing manners of the publishing world: for all intents and purposes, it is considered rather impolite to make a busy agent (or assistant) read the entire cover letter in order to find out what you want. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front, the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

Which is, by the way, the primary reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically prefer them: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line of it. Yes, they’re more convenient for the writer, but they’re also much, much less trouble for the agency.

Personally, I would prefer to be harder to dismiss.

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you should ask about subsequent portions of your query letter — and yes, I know that it seems impossibly nit-picky to concentrate this hard upon a page of text that isn’t even in your book. I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part IV: don’t wait for that knock on the door

Again, pardon me for posting two blogs so very close together temporally: blame my ISP, whose desire to thwart its subscribers apparently trumps my desire to post on a daily basis.

I’ve been talking for a few days about the goals of the query letter and how to achieve them without sounding as though you’re trying to sell the agent vacation home land in Florida. In that spirit, I thought some of you might find it useful to see what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim – rote reproductions abound in rejection piles – but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice. To make the example more useful, I’ve picked a book in the public domain whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY.

Ms. Savvy Marketer
Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Ms. Marketer:
I very much enjoyed your recent article in THE WRITER magazine. Since you so ably represented First-Time Author’s debut novel, FRENCH LADIES IN LOVE, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction book, MADAME BOVARY.

Emma Bovary is a beautiful woman who knows what she wants out of life: great, overwhelming love, the kind of romance she has read about in novels. Yet married to the most ordinary of ordinary men, and operating on an even more ordinary income, she must create romance on her own. Yet in pursuing her dream of a love-filled, glamorous life, she must put her marriage, child, respectability, and even life in jeopardy.

Emma Bovary’s dilemma will be familiar to many novel readers, an echo of an often unspoken but nevertheless strong longing to live a fantasy life. Rather than ridiculing the heroine for her ambitions, as in Stendhal’s bestselling THE RED AND THE BLACK, or making light of the social problems of such a pursuit would entail, like Thackeray’s VANITY FAIR, MADAME BOVARY concentrates on the quotidian tradeoffs already familiar to readers’ lives: living with having married the wrong man, feeling unappreciated, the difficulty in obtaining arsenic.

I am seeking an agent sensitive to the complexities and charm of the mundane, who can help me not only market this book, but who is also interested in working with me to develop my continuing career as a novelist. I may be reached at the address and phone number below (or would be, had the telephone been invented yet), as well as via internet at

Thank you for your time in considering this. I am including a SASE for your reply.


Gustave Flaubert
1234 Hovel Lane, attic apartment
(789) 665-2298

Now, apart from being in business format (because my blogging program will not allow me to indent paragraphs), that’s an awfully good query letter, one that presents the book well without being too pushy or arrogant. But let’s assume that Mssr. Flaubert had not done his homework; what might his query letter have looked like then?

Picky & Pickier Literary Management
0000 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 00000

Dear Agent:
You’ve never read anything like my fiction novel, MADAME BOVARY. This is one opportunity you’d be a fool to miss!

MADAME BOVARY is a story of lust, greed, and unscrupulousness, set against the backdrop of provincial France. The poet Baudelaire says it’s the greatest novel of the 19th century, and I’m sure you’ll agree.

I know agents are notoriously risk-averse, but why not take a chance on an unknown writer, for a change? You’ll be glad you did.


Gustave Flaubert

Now, I respect my readers’ intelligence far too much to go through point by point, explaining what’s wrong with this second letter. Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

The thing to note here comes as a great big surprise to most aspiring writers: even a great book will be rejected at the query letter if it is pitched poorly. Yes, any agent in her right might would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose – but with a query letter like the second, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero.

Let’s not forget an important corollary to this realization: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a Borders today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Yes, I know: deep down, pretty much every writer believes that if she were REALLY talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it. C’mon, admit it, you’ve had the fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand. “I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “May I come in and talk about it?’

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for your rights?

Fantasy is all very well in its place, but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by it. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given time.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at any given time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

In a word, no. Oh, feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted. (For a great, inspiring cheerleading essay on how writers talk themselves out of believing this, check out Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life.)

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fifth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. As long-time readers of this blog are already aware, there are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries a hundred times, if necessary. Because until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not.

Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part III: Writer seeking LTR with agent

I’m much, much later in posting this than I had planned, as apparently my ISP chooses one of the busiest usage times of the week, Saturday afternoon and evening, to perform routine maintenance without informing any of its subscribers. (Bad ISP! No cookie!) So please excuse me if I post a couple of blogs at once.

I hope my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying. Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically: even though we all know that an agent who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.

No, unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare 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. So, logically speaking, 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?

So before you write off a particular book as unmarketable, you should take a good, hard look at your query letter. Actually, that’s not quite true: you should send your query letter to a few dozen agencies, and THEN, if none have asked to see the first 50 pages of the book, take a good, hard look at the letter. Either way, you should be sending, and you should be looking.

A successful query letter has 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 polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.

You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And 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 2.

A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label. And 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 until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: the industry 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.

Think of your query letter as a personal ad. (Oh, come on: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing yourself to someone with whom you are hoping to 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? 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. (Yes, 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, this at best looks like a rather pitiful 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 should read it.

Keep up the good work!

Your query letter, part II: Speedy Gonzales as agency screener

January 19th, 2007

After my last post, was it my imagination, or did I hear those of you new to the process groaning? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to you 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?”

Um, are you sitting down? You actually don’t have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

That’s right: most query letters are not even read to their ends by screeners. Why? Because most of them disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

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. 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!”

To professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter – yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE. Usually, they will simply stop reading if a query letter opens this way, because to them, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”

Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent 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.

Okay, I’m hearing those ambient groans again – and even from those of you who stuck with me through the Idol list of first-page-of-manuscript rejection reasons in November. Query screening is actually – wait for it – MORE knee-jerk than submission screening, for one very simple reason.

Long-time readers, chant with me now: time. The average agency receives 800+ queries per week (that’s not counting the 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 quickly 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.

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.

Again: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?

Over the next few days, I’m going to address precisely that issue. (Hey, I took a few days off this week; I can write through the weekend for a good cause.) Then we can get back to the contest tips, and everyone will be happy.

As happy, in any case, as a writer can be whilst querying or prepping a contest entry. Keep up the good work!

Ready, set: QUERY!

I’m completely exhausted today, dear readers, but extremely happy: two days ago I finished my novel revision for the excellent editor at major-publisher-who-shall-remain-nameless-until-there’s-a-contract-on-the-table. Printing and proofing always takes longer than any reasonable creature would guess it would, so it was not boxed up until well into yesterday evening, and not mailed until this morning. But it is done, done, done.

I shall now collapse into a little puddle of gratified endeavor until my next project starts poking at me. I estimate I have until Friday.

Now that Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is past, it is once again safe to send queries to agents: true, they still need to get tax information out to their clients by the end of the month (the IRS keeps an eagle eye on royalty payments), but by now, the New Year’s Resolution rush of queries has died down a bit. Translation: they are a WHOLE lot less grumpy today than two weeks ago.

I have been concentrating for the past couple of weeks on helping you prep for contest entries, since PNWA’s contest deadline is in February, but talented and insightful reader Janet gently reminded me of something last week: I haven’t actually written a blog on how to put together a query letter since…could it have been as long ago as September of 2005? Yet here I was, blithely sending those of you who have never done it before out into the tiger-filled woods with no guidance.

So I’m going to take a brief detour from contest prep issues to run through query basics again. Because, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, or just poor marketing.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest. Businesslike without being in business format (I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who just love the non-indented paragraphs common to business letters, but that style appears illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), a good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic parts:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:
* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to figure word count, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book. (If you already have a 3-4 sentence elevator speech prepared, feel free to use this as your second paragraph.)

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining who the target market for this book is (over and above the book category) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Okay, so it IS difficult. Even more so if you play fair: 1-inch margins, 12-point type (yes, they WILL notice if you shrink it; the average agency receives in excess of 800 queries per week), and avoid flashy paper and typeface choices that might make your query stand out from the crowd.

Yes, these probably will make your letter visible in the midst of a great big stack, but probably not in a way that it going to help you.

Remember, this is an industry where standardization is regarded as a sign of professionalism. So bright white paper –20-lb or better, please – actually tends to make the best impression, as does using the preferred typefaces of the industry in query letter and submission alike: Times, Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New.

Yes, I know it’s silly to be judged so purely on presentation, but trust me on this one: 99% of the time, a query letter in Times New Roman printed on nice white paper will be taken more seriously than EXACTLY the same set of words typed in Helvetica on floppy copy paper. Or on even on classy off-white stationary.

Go figure.

Do keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in the reader 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.

Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. I didn’t mention petulance above by accident.

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 (it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves) are in fact aware of all of these things. And 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.

As I said: 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?

I shall overwhelm you with more tips and tricks of the trade tomorrow, I promise. In the meantime, I would appreciate any and all positive vibrations you might see fit to send wafting toward my manuscript as it makes the way through the committee that needs to approve it for publication. I’ll keep you posted, naturally.

Keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part IV: sometimes, you just need an accountant

‘Twas the week after Christmas, and all through the publishing houses, not a creature was stirring, not even that junior editor who swore to you at a conference last summer that she’d get to your submission within a month. So let’s let the literary world enjoy its long winter nap and move on to matters that we writers can control, eh?

For those of you joining this series late — because you have, say, lives or family and friends who might conceivably like to see you during the holidays — since neither now or immediately after the New Year are particularly good times to query or submit (half the writers in North America’s New Year’s resolutions include some flavor of, “Send queries immediately!” This leads to very, very grumpy screeners between Jan. 2 and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.), this is an excellent time to get feedback, so you can revise between now and February’s submissions and contest entries. (Don’t worry, those of you who are eyeing the PNWA’s contest deadline nervously: my next series will be on contest entries.)

On Christmas Eve (hey, professional writers seldom get holidays; I wrote for hours yesterday, because I’m currently on a tight deadline), I brought up the notion of approaching readers in your book’s target demographic who might not currently be die-hard book-buyers. Tip #5 is essentially different than Tip #3, which advised getting feedback from inveterate readers of your chosen genre or field, who would already be familiar with the conventions, limitations, and joys possible in books like yours. Potential readers in your target audience may not yet have read a book like yours, however, may — for reasons that you are VERY eager to explain to your dream agent — need desperately to get their paws on your work.

Getting feedback from those who do not read voraciously, then, can sometimes give a writer great insight unavailable from any other source. If you can make a case that your book is ideally suited to address the under-served needs of your target demographic, that’s a great selling point (and a more or less necessary point in any NF book proposal). Feedback from these types of people will, obviously, provide you with tips on how to achieve that admirable goal.

Let’s say you’ve written a lifestyle book for former high school athletes who no longer exercise — a rather large slice of the population, I would imagine. Three of your five chapters are filled with recipes for fiber-filled bran muffins, salads, and trail mix. Naturally, because you paid attention to Tip #3, you would want to include among your first readers someone familiar with cookbooks, as well as someone who reads a lot of exercise books.

However, it would also be well worth your while to seek out jocks from your old high school who have never opened either a cookbook or exercise book before, because they are the underserved part of your target market. If you can tailor your book’s advice so it makes abundant sense for your old volleyball buddy, you’ll know you have a good shot at writing for people like her.

Hey, you might as well get SOME use from all of those nagging messages keeps sending you about getting back in touch with old playmates, right?

Word to the wise: if you are a member of a writers’ group, and you have not been getting overly useful feedback on your work, you might want to consider whether its members actually are in your target demographic. Just because a writer is intelligent and knows a lot about craft doesn’t necessarily mean that he’s the best last reader for your work before you submit it to an agent.

As an editor, I constantly get queries from potential clients whose creative NF is being ripped apart by the novelists in their critique groups, whose mysteries are being dismissed by literary fiction writers, whose romances aimed at the under-20 set are garnering frowns from the over-60s. In the early stages of the writing process, when you are concentrating on story and structure, intra-group differences may be minimal, but if I had a dime for every memoirist who was told by advocates of tight first-person fiction to scrap any effort at objectivity and add more sex and violence to the book, I would own my own publishing house.

Where I would publish all of you, naturally. Perhaps I should start soliciting those dimes.

As when you are considering any potential first reader, set aside for the moment whether you like the people in your group, or whether you respect them, or whether they have already published books outside your field. Look very carefully at their respective backgrounds and ask yourself: are these the kind of people I expect to buy my book? If they did not know me, would they buy it at all?

If the answer to either is no, go out and find some people who are and will, pronto.

Which leads me to Tip #6: solicit MULTIPLE first readers, not just one – and let your first readers know that each is one of several.

Unless you are dealing with a seasoned professional (such as yours truly), asking a single person, however well-qualified, to give you feedback loads too much weight onto every critical grunt and positive eye gleam. It’s intimidating to the reader, and thus usually harmful to the quality of the feedback. Overwhelmed by the responsibility, many otherwise conscientious folks placed in this position panic: one will drop the book like a live coal the instant they spot a grammatical problem, another will spend a week straight filling your margins with soul-searing arguments against the way you’ve chosen to tell the story.

Besides, your work is complex, right? It may be very difficult to find the single ideal best reader for it. So why not mix and match your friends to create an ideal composite reader? Which brings me to:

Tip #7: Find different readers to meet your book’s different needs.

Most of us would like to think that anything we write will invariably touch any given reader, but in actuality, that’s seldom the case. I, for instance, am no fan of golf (I dislike plaid in virtually all of its manifestations), and thus would be a terrible first reader for a book about any of its multifarious aspects — but my buddy Mary, who has written a terrific musical called FAIRWAYS currently gracing your better country clubs across the nation, would probably eat it up. Yet we’re both inveterate readers and writers with long histories of giving excellent feedback. (This should NOT be construed as my urging you to send her your golfing manuscripts, incidentally.)

Nor is it often the case that we happen to have an array of first readers easily at our disposal — although, again, if you join a good writers’ group, you will in fact have gained precisely that. In the absence of such a preassembled group, though, you can still cobble together the equivalent, if you think long and hard about what individual aspects of your book could use examination. Once you’ve identified these needs, you can ask each of your chosen readers to read very explicitly with an eye to her own area of expertise, so to speak.

In the lifestyle book example above, it was easy to see how readers from different backgrounds could each serve the book. With fiction, however, the book’s various needs may be harder to define. In a pinch, you can always fall back on finding a reader in the same demographic as your protagonist, or even a particular character — I know a lot of teenagers who get a HUGE kick out of critiquing adult writers’ impressions of what teenage characters are like. If a major character is an accountant, try asking an accountant to read the book for professional accuracy. Even if you are writing about vampires or fantasy creatures, chances are that some regular Joes turn up in your stories from time to time. If only as soon-to-be-sucked-dry victims.

And so forth. Specialized readers can be a positive boon to a writer seeking verisimilitude.

More tips follow tomorrow, of course. A heads-up to folks with questions on these and other matters: I may be a bit slower than usual getting back to you over the next couple of weeks. As some of you already know (especially those of you who were within complaining distance of me at any of last week’s many seasonal festivities), an editor at a major publishing house has asked me to revise a novel of mine fairly extensively between now and a mid-January editorial meeting. (For those of you who have been keeping track, this is the second such requested revision within the last three months.) Obviously, this task is sucking up most of my time and attention at the moment. But don’t despair: I shall get to your questions and comments as soon as I can.

Happy Boxing Day, everybody, and as always, keep up the good work!

Details, details, Part II: avoiding a fulsome fate

“God is in the details,” architect Mies van der Rohe allegedly wrote.

I’m not a big fan of his buildings, to tell you the truth, but I do think that this aphorism applies to writing in spades. It’s quite clear to us as readers, usually — walk into any crowd of writers, and you’re sure to find at least one on-going discussion of So-and-So’s stylistic choices. There are writers whose use of semicolons makes me swoon, thank you very much, and as brilliant Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa has pointed out, for most of us writers, there are fictional characters who have affected us more than most flesh-and-blood human beings.

But for the vast majority of aspiring writers who write in isolation, without significant contact with other people who speak the creative language, keeping sight of the huge weight small touches carry in their own work is harder. And this is a pity, because the little, unique details are often what catches an agent’s eye — and the misbegotten details definitely catch agency screeners’.

It pays to pay attention to the little things, therefore. Yet time and again, I hear submitting writers speak of the submission process as though the little things — spelling all of the words correctly, for instance, or formatting pages in accordance with standard format — don’t matter. It’s the overall writing, these fine folks argue, that will make or break one’s chances with an agent or editor.

Well, yes and no. If the writing is absolutely beautiful, but the formatting is all akimbo and the spelling is lousy, there’s an outside chance that someone at an agency might be in a saintly enough mood to overlook the problems and take a chance on the writer. However, virtually all of the time, an agent, editor, contest judge, or screener’s first reaction to such a manuscript is the same as to one that is dull but technically perfect: rejection. And with few exceptions, the rejectors will not even take the time to scrawl, “Take a formatting class!” or “Next time, spell-check!” on the returned manuscript.

Why can they afford to be so caviler? Long-time readers, chant along with me now: because they receive enough technically perfect AND well-written manuscripts that they don’t need to worry about the rest. If a writer is truly talented, they figure, she’ll mend her ways and try again.

All that being said, let’s return to yesterday’s list of standard formatting restrictions, shall we?

(9) The first page of a chapter should begin a third of the way down the page.
That’s twelve single-spaced lines, incidentally. The chapter name (or merely “Chapter One”) may appear on the first line of the first page, but then nothing else should appear until a third of the way down.

This means that the title of the book, “by Author’s Name,” and/or your contact information do NOT belong on this page — all variations of a classic rookie mistake. Including any of this information on this page (other than in the slug line) will simply make the submission appear unprofessional.

But of that, see the next entry.

(10) Contact information for the author belongs on the title page, NOT on page 1.
Yes, you should ALWAYS include a title page with ANY submission of ANY length, including contest entries and the chapters you send after the agent has fallen in love with your first 50 pages. Even when a contest does not specify that you should (and no, it doesn’t count toward page count; the first page of the first chapter is page 1).

Literally every manuscript that any agent in North America sends to any editor will include a title page, yet around 92%) seem to be unaware that including it is industry standard. On the bright side, this means that if you are industry-savvy enough to include a professionally-formatted title page with your work, your submission automatically looks like a top percentile ranker to professional eyes from the moment it’s pulled out of the envelope.

It’s never too early to make a good first impression.

If you do not know how to format a proper title page (and yes, Virginia, there IS a special format for manuscripts), please see the Your Title Page category at right.

(11) The beginning of each paragraph should be indented five spaces — no exceptions — and nothing you send to anyone in the industry should EVER be in block-style business format.

To publishing types, any document with no indentations, skipping a line between paragraphs, and the whole shebang left-justified carries the stigma of (ugh) business correspondence, which is to say that they regard it as a symptom of creeping illiteracy.

Just don’t do it.

Yes, yes, I know: published books — particularly mysteries, I notice — often begin chapters and sections without indentation. Trust me, that lack of indentation was the editor’s choice, not the author’s, and copying the style here might get your work knocked out of consideration. At minimum, you won’t get any points for style.

Pop quiz: which do you think is going to strike format-minded industry professionals as more literate, a query letter in business format or one in correspondence format (indented paragraphs, date and signature halfway across the page)?

Uh-huh. Don’t you wish that someone had told you THAT before you sent out your first query letter?

(12) Don’t skip an extra line between paragraphs, except to indicate a section break.
This one is for all of you bloggers and business letter-writers out there. The whole darned manuscript should be double-spaced, and paragraphs are all indented, so there is no need to skip a line to indicate a paragraph break.

The ONLY exception is that you may skip an extra line to indicate a section break in the text.

(13) Words in foreign languages should be italicized.
The logic here is very straightforward: don’t want the agent of your dreams to think you’ve made a typo, do you?

You may also use italics for emphasis, book titles, song titles, etc. — and just so you know, anyone who follows AP style will tell you to underline these. DO NOT LISTEN TO THESE TEMPTERS: AP style is for journalism, not book publishing. They are different fields, and have different standards.

In a submission for the book publishing industry, NOTHING should be underlined. Why? The reason is actually very practical: underlining uses more ink than italics in the book production process. Thus, italics are cheaper.

(14) All numbers (except for dates) under 100 should be written out in full: twenty-five, not 25.

I’m surprised how often otherwise industry-savvy writers are unaware of this one, but the instinct to correct it in a submission is universal in the industry.

Here is how charmingly archaic the industry is: this formatting rule was originally for the benefit of the manual typesetters. When numbers are entered as numbers, a single slip of a finger can result in an error, whereas when numbers are written out, the error has to be in the inputer’s mind.

Again, be warned, those of you who have been taught by teachers schooled in the AP style: they will tell you to write out only numbers under 10. Yes, this is true for newspaper articles, where space is at a premium, but it is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG in a manuscript.

Did I mention it was wrong? And that my aged eyes have actually seen contest entries knocked out of finalist consideration over this particular issue?

(15) Dashes should be doubled — rather than using an emdash, with a space at either end. Hyphens are single and are not given extra spaces, as in self-congratulatory.
Yes, I know: my blogging software will not allow me to insert a doubled dash here, and any Microsoft product will automatically change a doubled dash to the longer emdash.

Change it back. Seriously, any agent would make you do this before agreeing to submit your manuscript to an editor, so you might as well get into this salutary habit as soon as possible.

Microsoft may actually have a point here: I fully admit that doubling the dashes is a monumental pain, and the practice is archaic. Books no longer preserve these spaces, for reasons of printing economy; many writing teachers tell their students just to go ahead and eliminate them. An AP-trained teacher will tell you to use the longer emdash, as will the Chicago Manual of Style.

In this, however, they are wrong. Standard format for manuscripts is invariable upon this point.

And heck, MS Word’s grammar checker has more than once told me to replace the correct form of there, their, or they’re with an incorrect one. Who are you gonna believe, me or Bill Gates?

(16) The use of ANY brand name should be accompanied by the trademark symbol, as in Kleenex™.
If you catch an agent under the age of 30, or one who doesn’t have a graduate degree, you may get away without including the trademark symbol, but legally, you are not allowed to use a trademarked name without it. Writers — yes, and publishing houses, too — have actually been sued over this within the last few years, so be careful about it.

There you have it: the rules. Literally every page of text you submit to an agent, editor, or literary contest (yes, including the synopsis) should be in standard format. Oh, and it’s a good idea to make sure everything is spelled correctly, too.

Yes, these are all small details, but this is an industry that thrives on details. There’s a reason, after all, that the term “nit-picker” is more or less synonymous with “editor.” Not only should you read your ENTIRE submission IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you even think of popping it in the mail — you should give serious thought to allowing some trusty soul to proofread it for you.

Why is another pair of eyes a good idea? Because not all manuscript errors are typos. Here’s an illustrative anecdote, to show you why.

When I was in grad school, I was a teaching assistant for a professor who longed beyond all things to be an inspiration to her students. You know, the kind who spur their students to the kind of DEAD POETS SOCIETY minor free thinking that’s not particularly dangerous to the status quo/

And how did she choose to inform her students of this fact? Frequently, during undergraduate lectures, she would soften her habitual chiding of a narrow-minded student by throwing her arms wide and exclaiming, “Be as intellectually wide-ranging as possible! I want all of you to lead fulsome lives!”

Every time she did it, we teaching assistants arrayed at the back of the room would have a terrible time keeping straight faces. Because, you see, the professor had made a very common mistake: she believed fulsome was a synonym for full. She had, she said, heard many people use it this way. But just because a usage is common doesn’t mean it is correct.

Fulsome means noxious, noisome, loathsome. So, inadvertently, she was urging all of her students to have perfectly hideous lives.

God is in the details; sometimes all of us need an extra pair of eyes to remind us of that.  Keep up the good work.

And this above all things: label your book correctly

Last week, I talked a good deal about the risks that writers of literary fiction and others who play with the standard structures and usages of the language take in submitting their unusual work to agencies and editors. While I’m on the subject, this is probably a good time to revisit a very common writerly prejudice about literary fiction. To whit:

It is commonly believed that all good writing is literary, and that referring to one’s own work as literary is synonymous with saying that it is well written. Neither of these propositions is true.

Literary fiction is a marketing category, just as fantasy or historical romance are marketing categories. It refers to the 3-4% of the fiction market designed to be read by readers with college educations (or at any rate, large vocabularies), a high tolerance for introspection, and no inherent distrust of high falutin’ punctuation frills like the semicolon. The beauty of the writing is a major part of the point of the book, and character development trumps plot, generally speaking.

So when a writer walks up to an agent or editor at a conference and says something like, “It’s a thriller, but it’s written like literary fiction,” it does not translate as, “Gee, this is a really well-written thriller,” but as, “This writer doesn’t know the market.” It’s almost as great a faux pas as when an author speaks of his own work as a “fiction novel” (all novels are fictional) or “a nonfiction memoir” (all memoirs are nonfiction). It’s an admission that the writer isn’t very familiar with the lingo of the trade.

And we all know how fond agents and editors are of explaining the nuances of the industry to up-and-coming writers.

But sounding like a neophyte is not the only reason to avoid muddying your category distinction by adding the literary label as if it were the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. Why, the average agent will think upon being told that a genre work is literary, doesn’t this writer write in the language of his chosen genre? Every genre has its handful of conventions; is this writer saying that he’s simply decided to ignore them? Why write in a genre, if you’re not going to write in the genre’s style? And why am I asking myself this string of rhetorical questions, instead of listening to the pitch this writer is giving or paying attention to the query in front of me?

See the problem? Calling non-literary work literary sounds a bit sheepish, as if you were saying that given your druthers, you would be writing literary fiction instead of what you have in fact written. If you want to write literary fiction, fine: I hope you win a Nobel Prize. However, if you write in a genre, you should be proud of the fact, not apologetic — if not for your own sake, then for the sake of the impression you will make when you pitch it. Think about it: is someone who has devoted her life to the promotion of science fiction and fantasy going to THANK you for indirectly casting aspersions on the writing typical of that genre? There’s a lot of beautifully-written SF and fantasy out there — it’s just written within the confines of the genre.

So the quicker you can shake the unfortunately pervasive rumor that a genre label automatically translates in professional minds into writing less polished than other fiction, the better. No, no, no: genre distinctions, like book categories, are indicators of where a book will sit in a bookstore; they’re not value judgments. Simple logic would dictate that an agent who is looking for psychological thrillers is far more likely to ask to see your manuscript if you label it PSYCHOLOGICAL THRILLER than just as FICTION. And an agent interested in psychological thrillers will not even sniff at a book labeled LITERARY FICTION.

This is not to say that agents do not sometimes tag their clients’ work with, “but it reads like literary fiction” or “it’s on the mainstream-literary cusp,” if they feel this is a selling point for a particular book. But remember those signs on roller coasters that say, “You must be this tall to ride the Ultra-Mega Flume of Doom,” that made you so angry as a kid? In the industry, there are invisible signs reading, “You must be with this important an agency to blur publishing categories.”

Really. Just as editors are conditioned to regard an author who calls twice per week to talk about promotional opportunities a pest, but an author whose agent calls just as often with exactly the same information a joy, they respond better to certain phrases when agents say them.

During the big-break-seeking period of a writer’s career, the more accurately a book is labeled, the more likely it is to catch the eye of an agent or editor who honestly wants to snap up that kind of book. Think of it as a professional courtesy: hyper-specific category labels are a shortcut that enables them to weed out pitches outside their areas almost instantly; that, in case you were wondering, is why agents like to be told the category in the first paragraph of the query letter. It saves them scads of time if you tell them instantly whether your book is a hardboiled mystery or a caper mystery: if it isn’t the variety they are looking for today, they can reject it almost immediately.

Think of it as your little Christmas present to them. And to yourself: why waste your already-overburdened time catering to someone who doesn’t handle what you write?

I learned the hard way just how category-minded folks in the industry can be. I write mainstream fiction and memoir, but I once had the misfortune to be assigned for a conference critique to an editor who did not handle either. I was disappointed, of course, but I am a great believer in trying to turn these conference matching accidents into learning opportunities. So, gritting my teeth like a nice girl, I listened patiently to what he had to say about the first chapter of my novel.

What he had to say, unsurprisingly, was that while he found the writing excellent, he would advise that I change the protagonist from a woman to a man, strip away most of the supporting characters, and begin the novel with a conflict that occurred two-thirds of the way through the book, the fall of the Soviet Union. “Then,” he said, beaming at me with what I’m sure he thought was avuncular encouragement, “you’ll have a thriller we can market, dear. I’d been happy to take another look at it then.”

Perhaps I had overdone the politeness bit; I hate it when total strangers call me dear. I’m not THAT cute, I tell you. “But it’s not a thriller.”

He could not have looked more appalled if I had suddenly pulled a switchblade on him. “Then why are you talking to me?” he huffed, and hied himself to the bar for what I believe was yet another double Scotch.

In retrospect, I can certainly understand his annoyance: if I had been even vaguely interested in writing thrillers, his advice would have been manna from heaven, and I should have been droolingly grateful for it. I would have fallen all over myself to thank him for his 20-minute discourse about how people who read thrillers (mostly men) dislike female protagonists, particularly ones who (like my protagonist) are well educated. The lady with the Ph.D. usually does not live beyond the first act of a thriller, he told me, so yours truly is going to keep her pretty little head sporting its doctoral tam in another genre. Dear.

I learned something very important from this exchange: specialists in the publishing biz are extremely book-category myopic; the thriller editor and I could not have had less to say to each other if he had been speaking Urdu and I Swedish. To his mind, every way in which my work deviated from what he wanted to publish was a black mark against my novel. Books outside a publishing professional’s area of expertise might as well be poorly written; in his mind, no other kinds of books are marketable.

Just in case you think that I’ve just been being governessy in urging you again and again to be as polite as possible to EVERYONE you meet at ANY writers’ conference: that near-sighted editor is now a high mucky-muck at the publishing house that later bought my memoir — which, I can’t resist telling you, covers in part my years teaching in a university. Chalk one up for the educated girls. But isn’t it lucky that I didn’t smack him in his condescending mouth all those years ago?

So label your work with absolute clarity, and revel in your category affiliation. Think about it: would Luke Skywalker have been able to use the Force effectively in a mainstream romantic comedy? No: the light sabers shine brightest in the science fiction realm.

In other words, to thine own genre be true; if you’re good at what you do, there’s no need it tart your work up with extravagant claims. Let your excellent writing speak for itself. And keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: what would be useful rejection information?

Since I’ve been talking for the last month about rejection criteria that is news to most querying writers, and yesterday about how little actual information the average agency tends to send back with a rejected manuscript, it’s pretty clear (to me, at least) that there is an awfully large communication gap between aspiring writers and the agents to whom they submit their work. Having talked about the issue with people on both sides of it, I have come to the conclusion that this lapse is actually quite frustrating for both sides: agents report feeling that writers don’t seem to understand just how little time they can devote to each query and/or submission; writers report that they feel that their work is being treated with disrespect, and that it’s hard to improve without getting actual feedback on what they’re doing wrong.

One aspect of this conflict particularly caught my attention: most of the agents with whom I have discussed this seem to believe that it’s the FACT of rejection that annoys writers so, rather than the form it takes. Simply put, many of them seem to feel that there is no way that they could reject a manuscript without angering its writer, and that form letters are, in part, a recognition of that reality. But is this true?

So let me turn the question out to you, dear readers: what kind of information would you LIKE to see in a rejection letter? Feedback on how to improve your querying style? A simple statement about why your work in particular is not for that agency? A photocopied form listing common problems, with the appropriate ones checked off?

Alternatively, are you of the school of thought that would prefer to be told no as quickly as possible, without fanfare, so you may move on to the next agency on your list? Would you prefer form letters that did not attempt any explanation at all, and spared you the usual platitudes?

And, finally: is there anyone out there who actually prefers form letters to a personalized response?

Now is your time to vent, everybody – but please, eschew profanity (I already get enough spam comments from porn-site teasers trying to post here, thank you very much), and for your own protection, let’s avoid naming specific agents. It’s just not that big an industry, and I don’t want to encourage you to be burning any bridges that might be useful to you down the line.

But seriously, if you were in their shoes, how would you do it differently?

Hanging with the cool kids

Yes, yes, I took a couple of days off, and I am interrupting my series on the rigors of lifting scenes from real life, but I assure you, it’s all in the name of a good cause: I ventured north with a couple of fabulous writer friends to the Surrey Writers’ Conference this last weekend. A big hello to the dozen or so of you I met there! I always love meeting my readers, especially when they are being brave and virtuous enough to get out there and pitch their work. (Even when you corner me to ask if I REALLY meant it about changing all of the emdashes in your manuscripts to doubled dashes. The agent with whom I was enjoying a drink at the time thought that was pretty funny. I gathered; I will now forever have the reputation of being the Pacific Northwest’s Resident Grammar Harpy.)

So I have been schmoozing internationally, partially for professional development, partially for fun, and partially in the hope of spreading last summer’s amazingly successful Pitch Practicing Palace to maple leaf flagged pastures in future. To be precise, my friends and I did what writers who have passed the Rubicon of representation are supposed to do at conferences: we hung out in the bar, chatting with agents, editors, and the other presenters.

Had I mentioned before that if you are serious about making connections, the best place to make connections at almost ANY writers’ conference is the bar? Ditto with the space outside where the smokers lurk. Why? Well, let’s be charitable and say the reason is that writers tend to work in scattered isolation, and leap at the chance to socialize with their own species.

The more important reason is that these are also the places where the agents and editors are relatively safe from hallway pitchers — and as someone who routinely yammers at you to take your courage in your hands and buttonhole agents to pitch to them, I should probably speak to that. As those of you who are long-time readers of this blog already know, if you are at a conference to find an agent, I think it’s a trifle silly to limit yourself to only your assigned pitch appointment. If your dream agent is walking by, I see no reason that you should not approach her for a polite pitch; I know many, many good writers who have found their agents this way.

An even more polite way to do it is to walk up after the agent has taught a seminar at a conference, heap the preceding class with praise, and ask if you may have a minute of his time to pitch. I know a wonderful writer who landed his agent by routinely presenting himself at one end of the dias at agents fora and pitching his way from right to left all the way down the stage. Most agents are sweet, writer-loving people, contrary to their reputations as book-rejecting machines: they will usually agree to give a minute of their lives to a writer courteous to ask them nicely for it.

The catch: you should use ONLY a minute of their time. Also, don’t follow the agent of your dreams into the bathroom to pitch; it’s considered gauche. (And believe me, it does happen. All the time.) Stalking is also considered beyond the pale, but I’m sure that all of MY readers are far too charming to, say, insist upon pitching a jet-lagged agent the moment he pops out of his hotel room in the morning or as he is staggering back into it, his head reeling with pitches, late at night. (Again, a story I’ve heard more than once in a conference bar.)

Remember, too, that agents are individuals, not walking representatives of an entire industry – if they say they aren’t interested, or they don’t represent your type of work (do a spot of research first, okay?), THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY AS A WHOLE IS REJECTING YOU. If your hallway pitchee (or any pitchee, for that matter) says, “Gee, I don’t think that’s for me,” don’t argue. Just thank the agent for her time, melt away, and move on to your next pitch.

Which brings me back to the conference bar. Because there are — hooray, hooray — so many aspiring writers who are brave enough to make hallway pitches, and there are, alas, stalkers and other rude people, already-agented writers like me are rather restful company for agents and editors. (As the agent who bought us breakfast yesterday morning — not for nefarious reasons, mind you; one of my friends is her client — said when we tried to reach for the bill, “Hey, none of you want to pitch me. I love you.”) We’re neither giving them the hard sell nor hanging on their every word as a hint to future success.

We treat them like — gasp! — people.

And that, for those of you who have wondered about the bar phenomenon at conferences, is why the agents and editors are so often to be found there, talking with people like me. Which makes it an excellent place to schmooze, even — and this surprises a lot of conference neophytes — in the middle of the day. It’s sort of like the safe spot in a game of tag; they can stop running when they’re there.

Not that you should just pull up a chair — need I even say that this happens, too? — and plop yourself in the middle of a group of influential strangers. Make friends the way you would at any other party. Observe the social graces, for heaven’s sake; get someone like me to introduce you.

Yes, it’s true: writers like me are in fact the social lubricant of the conference bar. Cultivate us; buy us breakfast: most of us are nice people, too, who enjoy helping talented people make good connections. Remember, a smart agent-seeking writer does not go to conferences merely to pitch: she also goes to meet other writers — especially ones who routinely hang out in bars at conferences, schmoozing.

After all, an agented writer often has spent a significant portion of her life at literary conferences — we tend to know a LOT of other writers, editors, and yes, agents. And I’ve literally never heard an established writer say at a conference, “How the hell should I know what agent to recommend you query?” Being human beings, many of us just love being approached as beacons of wisdom. Seriously, it’s kind of fun, after years of struggling for recognition — and the newly-agented often have very extensive lists of who represents what still lingering in their brainpans. Go ahead, make a few friends by asking for advice.

This is not to say that everyone you meet in a conference bar will be bowled over at the opportunity to help you, or that you should treat every casual conversation as an opportunity to pitch your work. They won’t, and you shouldn’t — and not only because it’s not very polite to yammer endlessly about yourself to a brand-new acquaintance. While I would dearly love to be able to report that every single person you’re going to meet at a writers’ conference is a sterling human being eager to help your career, since we are talking about hanging around in a liquor-serving establishment here, I’m going to add a few prudent caveats to my recommendation that you try to make new friends in this environment.

If you’re new to the game, hit the bar with a friend or two, to be on the safe side, and if you’re underage, do your schmoozing at lunch, when most hotel bars also serve food. Also, if you missed my height-of-conference-season post on why it should NEVER be necessary to visit the hotel room of someone to whom you’re pitching, please see my series on conference lore (category at right) before you go traipsing off with anyone. No matter how long an author’s work has graced the NYT bestseller list, or how many millions of copies an agent’s clients have sold, your chances of making a good professional connection are far better if everyone’s clothes stay on.

I’m not just being a fuddy-duddy; I have nothing against a little light nymphomania from time to time, but we’re talking about your future career here. Writers’ conferences are hardly notorious for being hotbeds of sin (well, okay, Maui), but I don’t want to see any of you getting hurt. Your grandmother was right: petting won’t make you popular, and it definitely won’t help you get your book sold.

Remember, too, that just because you’re in a bar doesn’t mean you have to be drinking. If you’re drinking a tonic-and-lime (my personal favorite) or a soft drink, no one is going to sneer at you, as long as you tip your server appropriately. I’m very serious about this last part. You may well be there for hours, so think of it as table rent; your server has to eat, too, and for all you know, the agent or editor with whom you’re hobnobbing put herself through an MFA program by cocktail waitressing. Besides, buying a round or two at a conference is a legitimate business expense for a writer — if you’re going to be asking for a receipt, tip accordingly.

Most importantly, though, keep your head about you. It’s never a good idea to drink too much around people you are trying to impress — yes, even if they are drinking a great deal themselves. At the risk of sounding like one of those 1950s social guidance films for school kids: drinking a great deal will NOT make you more likable.

It will, however, make you hung-over at your pitch the following morning. Trust me, I used to teach frat boys at major football school; I know a LOT about the after-effects of alcohol on the human intellect. Know your limits, and stick to them.

And, if you want to be welcome at the conference bar the next time around, please observe the great rule of mixing business with pleasure: never, never, NEVER pitch in a social situation unless the agent or editor sitting next to you ASKS, “So, what do you write?” In the bar, these people are off-duty; please respect that, no matter how much you want to use it as a business occasion. Even if the circle of drinkers is talking about NOTHING but the industry, it will break the mood if you act as though you’ve walked into a pitch meeting.

Often, agents will ask, if they like you, and then it is perfectly appropriate to pitch, of course. It is also perfectly appropriate to walk up to the person with whom you were enjoying tonic-and-lime the night before and say, “Hi, X, I didn’t want to bug you last night when you were relaxing, but may I pitch to you now?” Polite people generally get brownie points. And, of course, you can always send a post-conference query beginning, “I so enjoyed chatting with you at the recent Surrey conference. I hope you will be interested in my book…”

But please, let these poor souls have a little down time. As someone who routinely listens to pitches for hours at a time, let me tell you, pitch fatigue can hit a well-meaning listener hard, especially one who has flown or driven a few hours to get to your fair city. (Or one who did not stick to tonic-and-lime the night before, for that matter.)

Being a good listener takes quite a bit of energy, after all. By the end of a conference day, agents are often tired, brain-befuzzed and, depending upon the stalker-to-polite-person ratio at that particular conference, feeling hunted. Believe me, you’ll make a better impression in the long run if you do not interrupt them in mid-hamburger to pitch.

Okay, I’ve spent enough time being the Good Manners Fairy for today; I need to get back to my revision now. Tomorrow, back to the real-life scenes — and, as always, keep up the good work!

Fee-charging agencies, Part IV: non-charging agencies that charge fees

For the past few days, I have been examining agencies from the other side of the looking glass: not in terms of the well-advertised ways that an agency can help a writer make money, but instead how some agencies (and “agencies”) make money off writers by not selling their work. Today, I am going to discuss ways that ostensibly NON-fee-charging agencies charge their clients money, over and above the standard 15% of eventual book sales.

Some of you who went running to the standard agency guides after my last couple of posts were a bit startled, weren’t you? “But Anne,” I heard some of you out there murmuring, “I’m interested in an agency that the guides say charges for certain things — postage, for instance, or photocopying. Does this mean that I should avoid them?”

No — but this is an excellent question, one you should definitely discuss with any agent who offers to represent you. Hang on a moment, though, while I bring the folks who haven’t taken a gander at a guide lately up to speed.

The standard guides — the book ones, that is; the online guides tend not to — ask agencies point-blank whether they charge their clients any additional service fees or ask for upfront payments. (In the extremely reliable Writer’s Digest guide, the answers to this question are found under the TERMS part of each listing.) Pay attention: they are asking for YOUR benefit.

Most of the time, when non-fee-charging agents charge their clients, it is for office expenses: photocopying, postage, courier fees, and occasionally even long-distance calls, although this last practice has declined as long-distance calls have become cheaper. The AAR allows this, for much the same reason that the IRS allows writers to take query postage, letterhead, and printer cartridges as business deductions — these are all legitimate costs associated with selling a particular book.

Typically, these costs are deducted from your first advance check, but some agencies ask for office expense money up front; if you’re asked for hundreds of dollars, start asking very pointed questions about what they intend to do with it. However, the vast majority of agencies that charge these fees genuinely do try to keep the costs as low as possible. They just want you to pay for them.

Don’t be shy about asking — if your agency charges for such services, the costs should be spelled out in your representation contract, and you should discuss the details with your potential agent BEFORE you sign. Sometimes, the terms are negotiable, believe it or not. If the per-page photocopying charges seem excessive, for instance, it’s often worth your while to ask if you can make your own copies of your book and mail them to the agency; it’s usually cheaper per page.

For tips on how to go into the particulars of a proffered contract without offending anyone, see tomorrow’s blog. For now, let’s keep moving through expenses and tackle the upfront or reading fee.

The upfront fee is precisely what it says on the box: the agency either charges writers a fee for screening their submissions, as I discussed yesterday, or charges an advance against the advance, as it were. Again, the AAR frowns upon this, so if you are asked for such a fee by a member agent, feel free to report them.

Sometimes, though, the question of upfront fees is not so straightforward. There are agents who are technically non-fee-charging agents (i.e., they do not charge for an initial read) who nevertheless ask potential (and sometimes even current) clients to pay them for editing services. These agents will find a query they like, respond enthusiastically, ask to see the manuscript, THEN ask for a critique fee in order to get the manuscript ready for publication. Sometimes, they even sign the client BEFORE asking for the critique fee, so it comes as something of a surprise.

Usually, these fees are not very much — $50-$100 seems to be the norm — but essentially, such an agency is asking the author to pay their in-house editor’s salary. And yes, Virginia, some of the agencies that do this are indeed members of the AAR and thus are listed as non-fee-charging in the standard guides.

How can they pull this off? Because less than 2% of these agencies’ income, ostensibly, comes from providing such services. (Or they are lying about it in the guides. If neither the AAR or a standard guide receives a complaint that an agency is charging clients fees, the chances they are going to be caught in the lie are slim to none.)

Thus, a request for a critique fee from ANY agent should prompt you to ask some questions IMMEDIATELY, such as how much of the agency’s income is generated by critique fees rather than by commissions (it should be under 2%), whether the fee will be refunded after your first book is sold (this varies), and whether any and all fees are spelled out explicitly in the agency contract (they should be). If the answers seem at all odd, or if the agent hedges, PLEASE report it immediately to the AAR (if the agency in question is a member), Preditors and Editors (so other writers may be warned), and me (ditto).

As with a reading fee paid to a fee-charging agent, bear in mind that ANY upfront fee does not necessarily guarantee that the agent will sign you. In fact, with an officially non-fee-charging agency, paying an upfront or editing fee COULDN’T be a precondition for representation; it would be false advertising.

Again, all a critique fee EVER guarantees is that you will get feedback on your manuscript. This can vary from an array of simple summary statements (“The murder is believable, but the manuscript begins to drag when the posse of nuns arrives”) to very specific, concrete revision suggestions (“Switch chapters four and five, and lose all of the semicolons.”)

Don’t let the power differential blind you to the sensibility of doing a little comparison shopping before you agree to see if you can get the service they are offering cheaper elsewhere. If the agent suggests that your work needs hardcore editing before it is sent out, check out what local freelance editors would charge before you agree to pay their in-house editor.

Also, be aware that the quality (and quantity) of commentary varies WILDLY amongst agents who charge critique fees — just as it does amongst agents who don’t charge for feedback. As I believe I’ve mentioned roughly 200 times in the last four months, over and above certain technical matters, an agent’s response to a manuscript is largely subjective. I’ve known agents to give five single-spaced pages of specific guidelines on revising a manuscript, and ones who scrawled two lines on the back of the title page, handed the MS back to the author, and called it good.

Familiarity with the current publishing market is also quite variable; as anyone who has ever attended a large writers’ conference can tell you, MOST agents speak about the market in general as though they were intimately conversant with every aspect of it. This is just not how the industry works: agents specialize.

So while it is obviously in your best interest to make sure that the agent representing you has strong connections in your chosen genre, it is doubly important that the agent who is charging you for feedback has firm basis for telling you what aspects of your book will and will not fly in the current marketplace. Emphasis on CURRENT, because this is an industry whose tastes change on practically a monthly basis..

Before you lay down a single nickel or invest significant amounts of time in following the advice you receive in return for a critique fee, do your research, to make sure that the critiquing agent does indeed have a good grasp of your market. Checking the Publishers Marketplace database to see if she has sold anything like it within the last two years would be a good place to start, as would asking for a client list. Ask if you can talk to another client, preferably a published one, who has used the in-house editing service with success. Ask what about your book WILL sell; ask for comparisons to other books on the market.

And no, to a credible agent, these should NOT be offensive questions. If an agent who has already made a representation offer (or with whom you have already signed) is serious about feeling that your book needs in-house editing before he submits it to publishers, he should be able to give you concrete reasons why, not just platitudes about how tough it is to sell a book these days. Because, as many of us know from long, hard experience, manuscripts that aren’t already technically close to perfect very seldom receive representation offers: it’s not as though you would need to pay your agency to have someone switch the book into standard format, after all, or to make it coherent.

A good place to start the questions might be, “If you charged for this service, why didn’t you say so in your listing in Guide X?” Because if the agency is charging clients for services and not telling the standard guides about it, that should raise all kinds of red flags for you.

You need to be able to trust these people: if everything works out as it should, they will be handling the bulk of your income for years to come.

One final caveat about agents who charge this kind of fee: some of them do make good sales, but bear in mind that any agent who spends a significant proportion of his time critiquing the work of potential clients must necessarily spend a lower percentage of his time selling the work of his existing clients.

This is true of non-fee-charging agents as well, of course. So when you are searching for agents, give it some thought: do you really want to be represented by someone who spends half his time reworking his clients’ books. Or traveling around the country, teaching classes for writers? Or who spends a quarter of every workday maintaining a fabulous blog?

The answer may well be yes — these sorts of activities do undoubtedly add to an agent’s prestige. But there are necessary time trade-offs that will have an effect on you.

And at the risk of repeating myself, despite the glamour of having an agent go through your work with a fine-toothed comb (ostensibly) and the burgeoning market of increasingly spendy products and services available to the up-and-coming writer, it is possible to navigate these waters on the cheap. A good writers’ group can provide you excellent feedback for free; libraries tend to stock the newest writing books rather quickly, and it costs you only time and effort to research agents.

If you are willing to pay for services, do so for the right reasons, and not in the hope of jumping ahead in the agency queue. It may well be worth it to you to pay a freelance editor, rather than investing a year in a writing group to get feedback on your book, or to take a reputable weekend seminar on how to polish your novel, rather than reading all of the books available on the subject.

It’s up to you. Just do your homework, double-check the credentials of everyone who wants to charge you money, and try to avoid buying the proverbial pig in a poke. And, naturally, keep up the good work!

Fee-charging agencies, Part II

Yesterday, I raised the red flag about the kind of “agency” that exists primarily not to sell its clients’ books to publishers, but to profit on writers’ frustration with the difficulty of landing an agent. There are many self-described agencies out there that apparently operate as fronts for high-priced editing services, tell writers that their work has promise, but that promise can only be fulfilled by enlisting the services of a specific outrageously expensive editing firm – which, of course, pays a kickback to the agency.

Sometimes, these kinds of agencies can be tough to spot, because it’s actually not unheard-of for perfectly credible agents to tell authors, “Gee, this could really use some professional editing,” and recommend a couple of good freelancers. I’ve gotten clients this way, in fact.

However, there’s a big difference between an agent’s giving a general piece of advice after reading a manuscript and agencies that either sell their query lists to editing companies (yes, it happens) or who include an editor’s brochure as part of their rejection packet in exchange for a commission.
This is a more subtle way to profit from querying writers, but to my mind, it’s just as ethically questionable as a specific referral + kickback. It’s using the power of rejection to make a sales pitch. Often, such agencies will have asked the writer to send an entire manuscript before suggesting the book doctor, which can make the referral seem very credible. The implication is, of course, that if the author hires that specific editor, the agent will offer representation at a later date, but these agencies seldom put that in writing.

No matter how complimentary a referring agent is about your work, such a referral is still a rejection, and you should regard it as such. Don’t assume that anything that’s typed on letterhead featuring the word “agency” is necessarily good advice on how to succeed as a writer.

Why should you be a tad incredulous? Well, when such a recommendation is made by an agent who allegedly knows the market, about a manuscript that he has ostensibly read carefully, it sounds like well-informed advice, but think about it: how do you know that the agent DID read the manuscript carefully — indeed at all, before recommending that you seek out a particular editor? Perhaps the agent automatically refers EVERY manuscript he rejects to that editing agency. Perhaps he gets a nice, juicy referral fee for each writer he refers.

Other soi-disant agencies take the scam even farther, demanding that writers obtain a so-called objective evaluation (with a price tag that can run upwards of $100) of their manuscripts before even considering them for representation – and the fees just keep mounting after that. Typically, these “agencies” rush at writers with too-eager offers of representation, then after a contract is signed, billing the writer for every so-called necessary service the agency provides.

Rule of thumb: legitimate agencies don’t ask for your credit card information.

To add insult to injury, these pseudo-agencies typically do not send out their clients’ work at all. However, they have been known to sign a writer to a long-term contract that grants the agency 15% of any future sales of the book in question — without having done any actual agenting work on its behalf.

Obviously, such agencies should be avoided like the plague that they are, but unfortunately, they specifically prey upon writers unfamiliar with how the industry works — ones who do not know, for instance, that the Association of Authors’ Representatives will not admit agencies that charge such fees, and are always happy to tell a curious author whether they’ve had complaints about a particular agency. Or ones who do not know that the standard agency guides (Writer’s Digest’s yearly GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and Jeff Herman’s GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS, also updated yearly), don’t list this sort of agency at all. Or ones who do not know that Preditors and Editors routinely lists all of the agents and agencies in the country, along with indications of whether they are reputable or not. Or ones who are unaware that in a legitimate agency, novels are virtually NEVER accepted for representation until the agent has read the entire book. (The fake agencies are notorious for asking to see a few chapters, then offering representation right way.)

These unscrupulous agencies, in short, prey upon the ignorance and hope of nice people new to the biz, and there is no pit of hell deep enough for those who prey on the innocent.

The moral: do your homework. Any reputable agency worth its salt should be willing to show you its client list before you sign, for instance, and it’s perfectly legitimate to ask if they ever charge their clients for services. Ask the offering agent point-blank if s/he is a member of the AAR, and request a schedule of any fees he charges.

It’s also a good idea to limit your search to recognized agencies. Check the agency guides. If you are absolutely committed to finding an agent online, be wary of an agency that seems only to have a website, without being listed in any agency guides. If you feel absolutely compelled to answer an ad (not a good idea, as established agencies simply don’t advertise), triple-check with independent sources before you sign ANYTHING.

There are some things for which reputable agencies do charge, however; I shall go into some of these tomorrow. In the meantime, remember that this is an extremely competitive business, the odds of which are not all that different per capita than getting admitted to an Ivy League school. Wouldn’t you be suspicious if someone on the street offered you admission to Harvard, if you paid him a fee, even if he is wearing a crimson sweatshirt?

Think about it: should you really be any less suspicious of an agency that offers to sell you your dreams on a similar basis?

Keep up the good work, my friends!

How size matters, part II

I was talking yesterday about the differences between big agencies and small agencies. After I posted it, a small voice in the back of my mind (or perhaps it was in the vast web of psychic connection between me and my readers) kept nagging at me: “Wasn’t that just a tad insensitive? Sure, you had the luxury of choosing between agents, but that was a contest-generated fluke: most aspiring writers query until they’re blue in the face. So where do you get off, suggesting that they limit their choices?”

Here’s where I get off, little voice: I’ve met far too many good writers who focus their queries solely upon the great big agencies, on the theory that only a well-known name is going to be able to represent their work well. It’s just not true. I’ve also knows a whole lot of authors represented by the aforementioned gigantic agencies and “My God, how did you get HIM to read your work?!?” agents who have found themselves desperately unhappy with their representation.

When targeting an agent, I honestly don’t think that the rule should be location, location, location, as though your talent were just looking to park itself on the most expensive piece of Manhattan real estate that will accept it. A far better rule of thumb would be intention, intention, intention — in my experience, writers are MUCH better off if they figure out first what they want from their future agents, and target accordingly.

So, in short, I am writing about agency size in order to give you some background with which to take a radical evolutionary step in how you think about landing an agent: considering not just whether you and your book would be a good fit for the targeted agent, but whether the targeted agent would be a good fit for YOU.

Finding such an agent requires more than researching the profession; it necessitates self-knowledge. What DO you want from your prospective agent, over and above the simple definition of her job, selling her clients’ books to publishers?

If this question sounds vaguely familiar to you long-time readers out there, blame the PNWA. Remember just before conference season, when I asked you to give some good, hard thought to what you want from your agent, over and above representation? And HOW you want to be represented? Querying time is also an excellent period for considering these questions, because agencies – and individual agents – have wildly different representation styles.

Consider very, very carefully how important personal contact is to you, because if this relationship works out, you will be living with your decision for a very long time. Will you go nuts if a month or two goes by silently while an editor has your manuscript, or would you prefer not to hear from your agent until she has concrete news? Would you be happy with the occasional e-mail to answer your questions or keep you updated, or would you prefer telephone calls? Do you want to hear the feedback of editors who have rejected your work, so you can revise accordingly between submissions, or would you rather get through as many submissions as quickly as possible?

Let me let you in on a secret the agented learn very, very quickly: all of these behaviors are very much dependent upon how busy the agent is, and what kind of demands the agency places upon her time. Generally speaking, the bigger the agency, the busier the agent. Similarly, the fewer the agents at an agency, the busier, as a rule.

The second makes immediate sense — a sole proprietorship is obviously more dependent upon one particular agent’s efforts than a communal endeavor, right? — but the big = busy formula is a bit counter-intuitive, isn’t it? Big agencies have greater resources for support staff, whereas in a small agency (or with a stand-alone agent) the agents may be doing support work as well; it would make sense if the small agency agents had less time to lavish on their clients.

However, nowhere is the old adage “tasks expand in direct proportion to the time available to perform them” more evident than in the publishing industry: as an agent becomes more important, he takes on more clients. Big equals powerful here.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course. A few “boutique agencies” deliberately keep themselves small in order to occupy a very specific niche, but it is rare. There’s no missing these agencies, by the way — they ALWAYS identify themselves as boutique in their blurbs, lest anyone mistakenly think that they were small because they were unsuccessful. (See earlier comment about big = powerful.) Often, boutique agencies sharply limit the proportion of unpublished writers that they will represent, or do not represent the unpublished at all. They do, however, tend to lavish attention upon the few they do select.

As do, admittedly, some agents at major agencies, but do bear in mind that no matter who represents you, no matter how much your agent loves your work, you will be only ONE of the authors on the agent’s list. Time is not infinitely flexible, despite anyone’s best intentions. Before you commit to a big agency or a major agent, ask yourself: do I really want to be someone’s 101rst client?

This may sound like a flippant question, but actually, it is a very practical one, and one that speaks very directly to your personal level of security about your work. (And no, that’s not a value judgment about the quality of anyone’s writing; very good writers need positive encouragement and support, just like anybody else, especially when they are under the industry’s patented last-minute revision deadlines. But of those, more tomorrow.)

Big agencies and important agents have made their names, generally speaking, on high-ticket clients; often, as I have discussed in recent weeks, that high-recognition client is the reason aspiring writers covet their representation skills. However, it takes time to cater to a bigwig client — that necessarily is not available for Big Agent’s lesser-known clients.

How much time are we talking about? Well, I once had a lovely chat with a past president of AAR who handled one of the biggest mystery writers in the biz. Apart from handling her book negotiations, he told me, he also spent a week with her every winter ensconced in her mountain retreat — not skiing or snowboarding, but micro-editing her next work to make its market appeal as broad as possible.

Yeah, I know. Nice support if you can get it.

Before you float off into fantasies about being successful enough to command your own personal slave editor and/or mountain lodge, stop and think about the implications of being one of this agent’s OTHER clients. That’s a week a year when he is not available to pay even the vaguest attention to the needs of Clients 2 – 143. So who do you think ends up handling those other clients’ concerns? That’s right: not the bigwig agent at all, but his I’m-working-my-way-up-the-ladder assistant agent.

Who, I have it on reliable authority, is somewhat overworked. So how much time do you think the junior agent has to devote to his own clients?
Getting the picture about why a major agency might not always be the best choice for a new writer? Think about it: if Big Agent’s 144th client is actually dealing most of the time with the agent’s junior partner, rather than Mr. Big himself, with whom is the long-term, mutually beneficial interaction occurring? And with whom is the writer building a lifetime relationship?

Clients of small agencies seldom get the mountain-cabin treatment, of course, but just as a matter of time management, an agent who handles 25 clients is usually going to be spending more of it on each than an agent with 100; to stay in business (and agencies go out of business ALL THE TIME), a smaller agency is going to need to sell its clients’ books a bit faster, more lucratively, or both — which, in turn, is often harder for them to do, because they tend to lack the connections.

This pressure can be a significant drawback if your book is a sleeper, or one targeted to a very tight niche market: while a major agent or big agency can afford to keep a client whose books are not selling, a petite agency does not really have that luxury. Being a major agent’s unremunerative pet project may be better for an author than being the slow-selling albatross around a minor’s agent’s neck.

Both of those descriptions, incidentally, could describe exactly the same book. As they say in international relations circles, where you stand depends upon where you sit.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: it honestly is a good idea to try to get some sense of who your agent is, and what the working conditions are at the agency, beyond the cold statistics of her clients’ sales. This is yet another good reason to go to writers’ conferences and book readings, of course – to meet writers and ask what working with their agents is like.

This practicality is a surprisingly infrequent question at readings, I am astonished to report. Yet who would know better what it’s like to be a writer represented by an agency than a writer who IS represented by that agency? But before you can ask this kind of question fruitfully, you need to figure out what you do and don’t want in your agent.

This is a funny business, you know – the industry is never tired of telling writers that we are a dime a dozen. Yet so are agents, if you think about it. The guides are full of ‘em. You don’t have to attend very many conferences before you meet your first hungry new agent, willing to promise the moon, nor to meet your first 100-client bigwig.

There are a lot of alternatives in between, of course, but the only way you are going to find your best fit is to give some hard thought to what you want and ask good questions until you figure out if the agent who wants you is in fact the best choice for you and your work.

And speaking of your good work: keep it up!

Agencies and AGENCIES

After having spent the last couple of weeks giving you advice on how to track down agents OUTSIDE the standard agency guides, I think it’s only fair for me to spend a post or two talking a bit about the information you can glean from within them. Most guides will give you the same basic information: the agency’s name, address, contact person, member agents, book categories represented, whether they are currently accepting new clients, and preferred method of query.

In short, referring to any of the standard guides will help an aspiring writer avoid the single most common querying mistake, a Dear Agent letter. Almost any guide will give you a specific person to whom to address your query, so do it.

If you have been researching the subject a little, you may have noticed that the standard print guides, such as JEFF HERMAN’S GUIDE TO BOOK PUBLISHERS, EDITORS, & LITERARY AGENTS (where on earth did he come up with such a startlingly original title?) and Writers Digest Book’s GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS (ditto), do not always tell the reader much more than the very basic online guides, such as Preditors and Editors.

Even within an individual guide, listings can vary quite a bit: in the Herman Guide, the questions tend to be geared toward likes and dislikes, in the manner of centerfolds gone by (turn-ons: polite, well-written query letters; turn-offs, synopses rife with misspellings), but in the Writers Digest guide, the agents can say pretty much whatever they want. Or not, as the mood strikes them.

And that, dear friends, is the reason one agency will have a 2-page write-up in a guide while another equally prestigious one will have a scant paragraph. The major book guides rely almost exclusively upon what the agents themselves tell them about themselves on yearly questionnaires, so do be aware that the information you find there, over and above the basic facts of where the agency is located and what they’ve sold, is not always entirely objective.

Some things that writers of my acquaintance have found over the years that these listings may not always be totally objective about: how eager they are to receive queries; how much they enjoy helping new writers build their careers; how quickly they respond to queries; how quickly they respond to submissions; how much they like good writers and good writing (hint: they almost all say that they adore both). It’s not even all that uncommon for a writer to rely upon the specialties listed in these guides, send off a query, and receive in response a huffy form letter, saying the agency hasn’t handled that sort of material in YEARS.

Why should this be the case? Well, the questionnaires the guides send out are fairly long; why not just re-use the responses from last year? (The Herman guide seems to alter the questions slightly from year to year, to make this trick harder; I suspect that this is the reason that fewer agencies are listed there.) Publishing fads change FAST, so the agency hot for chick lit last year may well automatically reject every chick lit query this year. If this happens, don’t waste your energy repining: such a rejection has nothing to do with you or your book. Just cross the agency off your list and move on to the next.

You can – and should – rely upon what the agency listings say they absolutely DON’T want, however. Generally speaking, agencies err on the side of listing too many genres in their guide blurbs, rather than too few, so if they say they aren’t interested in something, they tend to mean it. As in: sending in a query for a type of book that they’ve ever indicated anywhere that they don’t like (even, annoyingly, if an agent has merely stated it in an interview) is a sure way to generate one of those huffy rejection forms.

Don’t say you didn’t hear it here first.

Why would an agency over-list its desired type of books? For the same reason that agents walk into conferences and spout ridiculously broad statements like, “I’m interested in any well-written fiction.” They’re afraid that they’re going to miss out on the next DA VINCI CODE. The smaller the agency, the more likely they are to mis-list; a wide net, they seem to believe, will catch better fish. But really, their agents have personal preferences, just like agents at great big agencies.

Just so you know, no matter what these agency blurbs say, no one represents everything — in fact, they shouldn’t. It would be flatly impossible to have the connections to represent every stripe of book. This is yet another reason it’s an excellent idea to check what an agent or agency has sold recently BEFORE you query: an agent may be as eager as you are to sell your book to a great publisher, but in order to get an editor to read a book, an agent has to be able to catch her attention. It’s simply a fact that it’s SUBSTANTIALLY easier for an agent who has already sold your type of book before to sell your book.

Think of it like eating in a fancy restaurant, where your agent wants to place the order (your book) with a busy wait staff (the editors). Eventually, every diner will probably get service, but some water glasses get refilled faster than others’, don’t they? The staff will take care of their regulars. And if the guy on Table 8 is well-known to be a big tipper, you can bet that half the waiters are going to magically appear by his side the moment he arches an eyebrow.

Obviously, an important agent has an easier time booking lunch dates (no metaphor this time: food, drinks, and/or coffee seems to be integral to the deal-making process) to talk about her clients’ books than someone just starting out. Perhaps less obviously, a junior agent at a big, important agency (like, I am happy to report, the one that represents yours truly, so I know whereat I speak) is often able to use the agency’s wide web of connections in order to get her clients’ work under the right editorial eyes, in a way that sometimes a better-established agent at a smaller agency cannot.

Again, it’s a good idea to check both what the agent and her agency have sold of late.

However, a big agency is not necessarily the right choice for everybody. As the client of a large agency, you do enjoy many benefits: the prestige of signing with a recognized name, more support staff to answer your questions (or not, depending upon how the agency feels about keeping its clients informed), and more collective experience upon which you can draw. Just as with a well-known agent, you are working with a known quantity, with verifiable connections.

With a new agency or new agent, it can be hard to assess connection claims until a track record of sales has been established (see earlier comment about the desirability of checking such things). Sometimes, the hungry can be excellent gambles — if your book sells quickly and/or well, you can be the favorite steed in the shiny, new stable. Before that (and often after), a hungry agent often offers services that a bigger agency or a busier agent might not provide. Extensive free editing, for instance. Intensive coaching through rewrites. Bolstering the always-tenuous authorial ego. If you are a writer who wants a lot of personal attention from an agent, the less busy agent might well be the way to go.

Still, you cannot deny the appeal of the contacts and oomph of a big agency, even if you are not represented by the most important agent in it. Personally, I am represented by a big agency, one that handles more than 300 clients (and very well, too, in my opinion). How much of a difference does it REALLY make, on a practical level? Well, you know how ALL nonfiction book proposals are presented to agents and editors in conservative dark blue or black folders, because a unique presentation is generally regarded as an indicator of a lack of professionalism?

My agency is influential enough to present its clients’ proposals in GRAY folders. Ooh, the power. The pageantry!

Yes, I am very lucky — contrary to what writers conference gurus and get-your-work-published books tell you, luck plays AT LEAST as great a role as talent in determining who gets signed by whom; people who tell you that the only possible reason a writer would have a hard time finding the right agent is lack of talent are either misinformed or misleading — and people in the industry recognize that. When I was deciding between agents, I attended a small writers’ conference in Montana, one of those gloriously intimate ones where perhaps only one agent attends, but you can talk with her for an hour.

Since I already had several irons on the fire, I was not about to be a dog in the manger. I did not approach the agent du jour, except to introduce a writer who I thought would interest her (I’m notorious for doing this; writers are often too shy to introduce themselves). By the end of the conference, the agent had heard that my book had won a major award and, her curiosity piqued, she sought me out to see if I had signed with anyone yet. A couple of minutes into our conversation, I mentioned who I was deciding between, and the agent instantly deflated. “Oh,” she said. “We’re talking THAT league.”

As I said, I have been very lucky: winning the PNWA contest got my work a hearing with many agents in THAT league. (In the unlikely event that I am being too subtle here: entering contests can shave years off the agent-seeking process!) I have also been lucky in that while I enjoy the benefits of a large agency, my agent makes the time to answer my questions and talk with me about my future and current writing: whether our quite-frequent contact is primarily the result of our respectively scintillating personalities or the roller-coaster ride my memoir has been taking on the way to publication, I leave you to speculate.

However, I have to be honest with you, if you write for one of the smaller niche markets, signing with an agent in THAT league may well leave you feeling like a shiny new toy a week after Christmas: the agent may love your book, but between the million-dollar projects and yours, which do you think is the most likely to be set aside for a rainy day? At a smaller agency, or with a less prestigious agent, your work may actually see the light of day faster.

Have I totally confused you, with so many pros and cons? It’s not my intention, I promise – I just want to help you decide how to target your queries to get the outcome you want. Since there are so many agents out there, both listed in the standard guides and not, I could easily spend every day in the year profiling a different one, without ever having time to discuss anything else of interest to writers. So if I can drop a set of sweeping generalities upon you from time to time, to help you navigate amongst the many, many querying choices, I like to do it.

Tomorrow, I shall talk a bit more about how big agency/small agency differences play out for the authors they represent. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Titles that are, um, catchy

Yesterday, I started to answer a multi-part question from loyal reader and excellent question-asker MooCrazy, but I ran out of time before I could get to one of its constituent parts. To wit: “Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying..?” Today, I would like to tackle this good question, and the issue of title malleability in general, at my characteristic great length.

As anyone in the industry will tell you, a good, eye-catching title can be a real selling point for a book. Rather like a Hollywood hook in a verbal pitch, it can grab the query-reader’s attention memorably in a very short space of time. Not to mention the fact that an interesting title indicates the author’s inherent creativity far better than, “I hope you will be interested in my as-yet-unnamed novel…”

Someone might mention the latter point to the fine people who title movies for a living. Stealing the title of a pop song from thirty years ago (I’m looking at YOU, PRETTY WOMAN) doesn’t exactly scream out Macarthur genius-grant levels of creativity, does it?

There are plenty of formulae out there for constructing a good title — gerund + name, as in JUDGING AMY (or CHASING AMY, come to think of it) has been popular for far too long, in my opinion — but to be absolutely honest with you, this is yet another of those areas where most industry insiders cannot give you any clearer direction than anyone you might meet browsing in your neighborhood bookstore. Like the famous Supreme Court dictum about pornography, almost no one in the industry can define precisely what a good title is, but they all know it when they see it.

Personally, I favor arresting titles over merely descriptive ones or puns: given the choice amongst Bob Tarte’s titles, for instance, I would go for ENSLAVED BY DUCKS over FOWL WEATHER every time. Why? Well, I dare you: just try to forget ENSLAVED BY DUCKS.

In fact, an excellent test of a good title is to tell it (ONCE) to a non-literary friend, then ask her to repeat it back to you an hour later. Better still, tell her all of the titles you have brainstormed for your book, and see which she remembers an hour later. Because — and this is a HUGE difference between how writers think of titles and how the rest of the industry does — from an agent or editor’s point of view, THE TITLE’S PURPOSE IS MARKETING, NOT BOOK DESCRIPTION.

Pause for a moment and let that one sink in. In the minds of the industry, the title exists solely to cajole readers into buying it. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but they don’t consider naming a book an art.

So the more memorable your working title, the better. If you can work an apparent paradox into your title, for instance, it is more likely to be remembered. THE POISONWOOD BIBLE is catchy, because of the contrast between a scary word (poison) and a comforting one (Bible); THE MALTESE FALCON, by contrast, is merely descriptive — something you would remember about the plot after you read the book, certainly, but not an arresting enough image to make you snatch the book from a shelf.

I know it’s counter-intuitive to think of a title as external to the book, but when you’re querying, marketing your book needs to be your top priority, alas. A title that requires further explanation, as most that are content-specific do, will probably not catch an agent’s eye as well as one that does not. Thus, while CATCH-22 is actually an extraordinarily apt title for the novel — the concept repeated at least a hundred times throughout the course of the book — in order to query the book in the current publisher’s market, you would have to EXPLAIN what a Catch-22 was before the title seemed apt. And poof! There goes a paragraph of your query letter.

In fact, now that I come to think about it, I notice that every single one of that list I have run before, the five immense bestsellers that were each rejected by many, many publishers before finding a home, all had titles that required further explanation! Lookee:

Dr. Seuss, And To Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street (rejected by 23 publishers)
Richard Hooker, M*A*S*H (21)
Thor Heyerdahl, Kon-Tiki (20)
Richard Bach, Jonathan Livingston Seagull (18)
Patrick Dennis, Auntie Mame (17)

You can just hear an agency screener muttering, “Who the heck is Auntie Mame?” can’t you?

So if you go for a descriptive title, make sure it conjures up some pretty powerful mental images in the observer. You might not know instantly from the title what SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS was about, but it evokes a lovely mental picture, doesn’t it?

Inserting a strong image also hedges your bets. If you go for image, rather than just the rhythm of the words, you can sometimes make your book stick in the head of an agent or editor who does not remember the title per se: not everyone necessarily remembers the entirety of the title of my novel, THE BUDDHA IN THE HOT TUB, as such, but trust me, they do remember that both a Buddha and water are involved.

All that being said, as most authors who have seen a first book of theirs go through the wringer of a publishing house know to their sorry, the title the author picks at the manuscript stage is almost NEVER the title that ends up on the published book. Often, an agent will switch a title to something more likely to catch a particular editor’s eye, but in general, it is the publishing house’s marketing department who gets to title the book — and if that happens, the author is usually contractually barred from changing it back.

Sorry to be the one to tell you that.

In fact, editorial rumor has it that many marketing departments will automatically reject any title offered by the author, on general principle, no matter how good or how apt it may be, in order to put the publishing house’s stamp upon the book. I don’t know how true this rumor is, but I can tell you for an absolute certainty that if your publisher retitles your book, literally everyone at the publishing house will think you are unreasonable to mind at all. Knowing this in advance can help you keep your equilibrium when the inevitable happens, and not fall so in love with your title that it’s a deal-breaker.

Allow me to share my own tale of woe on the subject. As a freelance editor and friend of literally hundreds of aspiring writers, I have held more than my share of weeping authors’ hands in the aftermath of their titles being ruthlessly changed, so although I was fond of the original title of my memoir — IS THAT YOU, PUMPKIN?, I certainly did not expect it to stick. I knew that my title likely to be changed, and frankly, I was not expecting to be consulted about it. I am, after all, not a person with a marketing degree, but a writer and editor. I know a good title when I see one, but I cannot legitimately claim to know why one book will make its way up to the cash register while the one next to it won’t. I was prepared, in short, to be spectacularly reasonable.

This compliant attitude, I am sorry to report, was not even vaguely adequate to deal with the situation when my publisher decided to change the title of my book. I could have been as chipper as Shirley Temple in tap-dancing shoes and as willing to alter my habits as a first-time dieter, and it still would not have been enough.

So how did I end up with a title I positively hated? Well, my memoir is about my relationship with science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, and at two distinct points, my publisher planned to release my book to coincide with the filmed version of one of his books, A SCANNER DARKLY. The instant that decision was made, my fate was sealed: the marketing department decided within the course of a single closed-door meeting to change the title of my book to A FAMILY DARKLY, presumably to make it reminiscent of the movie.

“Interesting,” I said cautiously when my editor first told me that my baby had been rechristened while I had been looking the other way. “Um, do you mind if I ask what A FAMILY DARKLY means? Yes, it deals with dark issues, but it’s a funny book. And, if you don’t mind my mentioning it, an adverb can’t be used to modify a noun.”

My editor was unsympathetic to my concerns. “It was the marketing department’s idea. They think it’s, um, catchy.”

The succeeding scintillating discussion on matters logical and grammatical lasted over six months — and no, I still haven’t found out what the title means, or why it was deemed necessary to throw the rules of grammar to the winds. Suffice it to say that both sides set forth their arguments; mine were deemed too “academic” (meaning that I hold an earned doctorate from a major research university, which apparently renders my opinion on what motivates book buyers, if not actually valueless, at any rate very amusing indeed to marketing types), and the title remained changed. Even after the movie had been released, and the book still had not, I was stuck with a title that I could not possibly justify if somebody asked me about it at a book reading.

And at no point in the process did anyone affiliated with the process every give even passing consideration to what I think would be ANY author’s main complaint in the situation: the title had nothing to do with the content of the book. The marketing department would never know that, however, because to the best of my knowledge (avert your eyes, if you are easily shocked), no one involved in the titling decision ever read so much as a page of the book.

Welcome to the big leagues, boys and girls.

“Why,” I hear my generous and empathetic readers asking, bless them, “did they bother to discuss it with you at all, if they had already made up their minds?”

An excellent question, and one that richly deserves an answer; half the published writers I know have wailed this very question heavenward repeatedly after their titles were summarily changed by their publishers. I believe that the answer lies in the field of psychology, rather than marketing. Because, you see, when a brand-new title is imposed upon a book, the publishers don’t just want the author to go along with it without overt protest: they want the author to LIKE it. And if the title goes through several permutations, they want the author to be more enthusiastic about the final change than about the first one.

In other words: get out those tap-dancing shoes, Shirley.

Furthermore, your enthusiasm is, if you please, to be instantaneous, despite the fact that if the marketing department (who, in all probability, will not have read your book by the time the title decision is made) is mistaken about the market value of the new title, the author is invariably blamed. (Think about it: haven’t you always held your favorite writers responsible if their new books have silly monikers? And didn’t you wonder why I had such a weird title for my memoir?) Oh, and unless your contract states specifically that you have veto power over the title, you’re going to lose the fight hands down, even if you don’t suffer my ostensible handicap of postgraduate degrees.

Let me tell you, this is not the kind of frustration you can complain about to your writing friends, either. You will see it in their eyes, even if they are too polite to say it out loud: you have a publishing contract, and you’re COMPLAINING?

Thus, the hapless author gets it from both sides: an author who doesn’t like the title imposed upon her book is an uncooperative, unrealistic, market-ignorant mule to her publishers, and a self-centered, quibbling deal-blower to her friends. All anyone can agree about is that she is ungrateful beyond human example. Sorry about that.

I wish I could report that I had found a clever way to navigate past this Scylla and Charybdis, but I have not, nor has any author I know. The best you can hope to be, when your time comes, is polite and professional. And a damned good tap-dancer.

I guess, in the end, all the writer can do is accept that some things, like the weather and the titles of her own books, are simply beyond her control, now and forever, amen. At the querying stage, pick an eye-catching title, but try not to fall too in love with it. Maybe you should hold your actual favorite in reserve, for the inevitable discussion with the marketing folks, when they ask you in belligerent tones, “Well, do you have a better idea?”

Something tells me that you do — but don’t worry; I won’t say a word about it to your prospective publishers. Keep up the good work!


All right, I am substantially less grumpy today, due in large part to memoir-related negotiations that I am not, as usual, at liberty to discuss. Here’s a hint, though: by mid-October, I may be able to tell you the ENTIRE story about why the book hasn’t come out yet, in vivid Technicolor.

In the meantime, I have some housekeeping to do today: my desktop is piled high with unanswered questions from readers (well, my virtual desktop is, anyway), all of which richly deserve answers. Practical questions, too, the kind that everyone wants answered. For instance, clever and insightful reader Claire wrote to ask:

“Suppose an agent wants to see your whole manuscript. Does one send it in a box? With enough postage inside for them to return it? How does the whole SASE thing work for an entire manuscript? Thanks.”

Claire, thanks for asking this: I can’t tell you how many last-minute, panicked phone calls and e-mails I’ve gotten on this very point – I think perhaps the writers in question just start looking up freelance editors on line while they’re about to rush off to the post office, and call every phone number until they catch someone who knows.

The answer is no, not anymore. In the old days – say, 30+ years ago – the author was expected to provide a box, and a rather nice one, then wrap it in plain brown paper for shipping. These old boxes are beautiful, if you can still find one: dignified black cardboard, held together by shining brass brads.

So if you can get it there in one piece box-free (say, if it is short enough to fit into a Priority Mail cardboard envelope), go ahead. Remember, though, that you want to have your pages arrive looking fresh and unbent, so make sure that your manuscript fits comfortably in its holder in such a way that the pages are unlikely to wrinkle.

If not, find an inexpensive box – if you live in the greater Seattle area, Archie McPhee’s, of all places, routinely carries fabulous red and blue boxes exactly the right size for a 450-page manuscript WITH adorable little black plastic handles for about a buck each. The craft chain store Michael’s also carries a box with the right footprint to ship a manuscript without too much internal shifting, as do some office supply stories. However, these boxes are generally a tad on the expensive side, and they are often too deep for the average manuscript, so you will need to add some bubble wrap or other filler. (Avoid the temptation to use newspaper; newsprint stains.)

But whatever you do, don’t reuse a box clearly marked for some other purpose, such as holding dishwashing soap. (Yes, it’s been known to happen.)

Include a return mailing label, already made out to you, the proper stamps for postage (metered strips will not work here), and add a paragraph to your cover letter explaining that you want them to reuse the box. To be on the safe side, explain HOW you want them to reuse the box: peel the back off the mailing label, stick it over the old label, affix new postage, and seal. (Trust me, sometimes they have trouble figuring it out.)

My preferred method is to use one of those free Priority Mail boxes that the post office provides, the ones that are about 2 inches deep. They’ll actually hold two 400-page manuscripts side-by-side quite comfortably, so I usually add padding to keep the unbound manuscript (for those of you who don’t know: never bind a manuscript in any way) from bouncing around too much. I want it to look good when it gets there, after all.

Since it would be impracticable to fold up another Priority Mail box inside, I either enclose the label and postage, as I described above, or, if I really don’t think that I’m going to be getting it back anytime soon, just nab one of those tough little everything-you-can-cram-in-here-is-one-price Priority Mail envelopes, self-address it, add postage, and stick it into the box. If you don’t care if your manuscript comes back to you a little bent, this is a wonderfully cash-conscious way to go. Those envelopes are surprisingly tough, in my experience — what are they made out of, kryptonite? — and while the pages don’t look too pretty after a cross-country trip in them, they do tend to arrive safely.

In case you couldn’t tell, I’m not a big fan of writers over-investing in impressive return postage. If you’re getting the manuscript back, it’s because they’ve rejected it, right? Who cares if the pages show up on your doorstep bent?

My, that was a long answer to a simple question, wasn’t it? On to the next, which is actually two in one:

“Anne – Would you please address the topics of 1) choosing a title before querying and 2) the role of a web site, not only to promote a current book but to sell the next one (if, indeed it is of any use in selling the next one). I sure would appreciate it.
Thanks, MooCrazy”

Happy to, Moo – but as I have a LOT to say on the issue of titles, pray forgive me if I take your second question first, and delay the first until tomorrow. (If you reread that question four or six more times, you will find that it honestly does make sense, I promise.)

Pretty much anyone in the industry will tell an aspiring writer to set up a website for herself and her book before the ink is dry on the publication contract, but in my experience, not everyone who gives this advice is entirely clear WHY it is a good idea. Amongst the computer-illiterate (a group to which a surprisingly high percentage of inmates of publishing houses and agencies seem to belong), it is not uncommon to regard websites as magical attractors of customers for any business. These are, lest we forget, the people who actually believed it when Internet-promoters predicted ten years ago that supermarkets, shoe stores, and other in-person buying experiences would be wiped out forever by online purchasing.

The industry’s thinking about the web has not, alas, changed much in the intervening decade. Oh, they know now that bloggers exist — at least, they know about the bloggers who get millions of hits daily — but as the regular blog readers among you have probably already noticed, they haven’t seemed to have been able to figure out that a blog’s readership will have ALREADY read the entries on the blog; when they buy a book by a blogger whose work they have followed for some time, they want to see something NEW.

But I digress. My point is, publishers tell writers to set up websites, and sometimes even do it for them, and admittedly, it is a fine thing if a potential book buyer who has heard your name elsewhere can run a basic internet search on your name and find information on your book. However, the resulting websites tend to be tombstones. They are static; since the content never changes, except perhaps to note different dates on a book tour, there’s no reason for your potential readers ever to go there more than once.

Perhaps as a blogger, I am prejudiced, but I think this is an inefficient use of a website. It’s basically just a roadside sign along a very busy, very advertisement-heavy highway. Yes, someone may see it, but there’s a whole lot of competition to wade through first.

The big search engines reward websites whose content changes often — that’s why blogs tend to shoot up the Google lists. (Also, the more content you have to be indexed, the more different kinds of searches will lead to your website.) So if you’re going to invest in a website, and you want to have it be an effective promotional tool, it’s a good idea to plan in advance to make the time to change the content often.

Have you considered writing a blog, for instance?

Don’t get me wrong – like any other kind of advertising, it’s generally better to have a website than not to have one. It is genuinely nice if people who have fallen in love with your first book have a logical place to check in to see when your second is coming out. There is nothing to stop you, either, from creating a “Join my mailing list” button on your website, to make it easier for you to send out e-mails to your fans when there is breaking news about your next book.

However, in my experience with the industry, there is one thing that a blog will NEVER do for an author: be a substitute for submission pages. Counterintuitive, isn’t it, when agents and editors keep yammering about how authors should have blogs? I have heard agents complain ENDLESSLY about writers who include web addresses in their query letters, expecting the agents to make the time to log on and check out their prose there. “Like I have the time to search for the work of someone I don’t know,” they scoff.

Unless you are already a well-established blogger – and sometimes not even then – it just doesn’t work.

By all means, though, if you are marketing a book to agents and editors, mention that you have a website, if you do; in their minds, it will mean that you are serious about helping promote your book. If you are submitting a nonfiction book proposal, definitely mention that erecting a website is part of your promotion plan.

“Wait a minute!” I hear some of the craftier of you out there cry. “If they never check submitters’ websites, why shouldn’t I just go ahead and SAY I already have a website, if it’s a selling point?

For the sake of your karma, for one thing. Or immortal soul, if you prefer to think of it that way. Or just because it’s not very nice to lie to people. And maybe, just maybe, yours would be the one time in the last fifteen years an agent actually did take the time to take a gander at a writer’s website.

I hope that answers your questions, Moo and Claire. The other part of Moo’s question follows tomorrow. In the meantime, keep those good questions rolling in, everybody, and keep up the good work!

The blessings of Ataraxia, or, How to be a dream client

I sat down to write about agencies again today, but to be absolutely honest with you, I had to stop halfway through, because I’ve been having a genuinely upsetting day. Since we writers have to be so tough to make it in this business, it’s easy to forget that we are actually finely-balanced musical instruments. It’s hard to create when we’re thrown for a loop. Today’s loop-generator was a fairly common one for givers of feedback, professional and friendly both, so I think it would be useful for me to write about it. (And if not, hey, I blog pretty much every day, so if it turns out that I’m just being self-indulgent today, I can always be purely useful again tomorrow, right?)

Because I am EXTREMELY selective about whose work I read (I have been exchanging chapters with my first readers for years, and professionally, I will only work with clients I feel are bursting with talent, but even then, if the subject matter or genre is not a good fit with my tastes, or if I don’t think I can help a writer get published within a reasonable amount of time, I will refer him on), the vast majority of the time, my interactions with other writers are a joy. Really. I enjoy giving feedback quite a bit, even when I am charged with the task of helping a client incorporate not-very-sound advice from an agent, editor, or dissertation advisor in such a way that it will not destroy the book.

Okay, I’ll grant you, it doesn’t SOUND like a whole lot of fun. But usually, it is: I love good writing, and like any competent editor, the sight of anything that detracts from good writing’s presentation makes me foam at the mouth and reach for a pen.

Every so often, though, I’ll run into someone who thinks I’m just making up the rules of standard format, or norms of academic argumentation, or even the usual human expectation that within a story, each subsequent event will follow logically upon the one before it. (Blame Aristotle’s POETICS for that last set of rules, not me.) This morning, I was lambasted at length for having had the gall to point out that someone’s Chapter Two might not be utterly clear to a reader that did not have the author reading over his shoulder, explaining verbally the choices made on the page.

Long-time readers of this blog, sing along with me here: when you submit a manuscript, all that matters is what is on the page. If ANYTHING in your first 50 pages is not perfectly comprehensible without a “Yes, but I explain that in Chapter Four”-type verbal clarification, rework it.

Please. Thank you.

Now, since it’s my job – or ethical obligation, in cases of volunteer feedback-giving – to point out precisely this sort of problem wherever it appears in a manuscript, I am always a trifle nonplused when I encounter a writer who thinks I’m only flagging it out of some deep-seated compulsion to be hurtful. Again, I am very selective about whose pages I read, and I burn to be helpful: it’s not uncommon for my commentary on a book to be longer as most of the chapters. I try to be thoughtful, giving my reasons for any major suggested change with a specificity and completeness that makes the Declaration of Independence look like a murmur of vague discontent about tea prices.

Obviously, this level of feedback is not for everybody; one of my best friends in the work refers to me affectionately as a manuscript piranha, but still, she lets me read her work. Because, honestly, is there anything worse than handing your work-in-progress to someone who just says, “Oh, it was fine,” or “Oh, it just wasn’t my kind of book,” without explaining WHY? I think completeness of feedback implies a certain level of devotion on my part to making the manuscript in question the best book it can possibly be.

Yet I was told this morning that, to put it mildly, I was incorrect about this. Apparently, I only suggest changes as a most effective means of ripping the author’s heart from his chest, stomping upon it, pasting it back together, sautéing it in a nice balsamic vinegar reduction, then feeding the resulting stew to, if not the author, than at least the neighbor’s Rottweiler.

Imagine my surprise.

This was for a manuscript I LIKED, incidentally. I had made a grand total of ONE suggested change, in the midst of oceans of praise.

So what did I do? What editors and agents moan privately to one another about having to do for their clients all the time, be preternaturally patient until the “But it’s MY work! It MUST be perfect!” tantrum petered out. Until then, further discussion was simply pointless.

Because, in the first moments after receiving critique, creative people are often utterly, completely, fabulously unreasonable about it. They not only want to shoot the messenger – they want to broil her slowly on a spit over red-hot coals like a kabob, and THEN yell at her. Fear of this stripe of reaction, in case you were wondering, is the most common reason most people will give only that very limited “Oh, it was fine” feedback after reading a friend’s manuscript. They’re just trying to keep their heads attached to their bodies, rather than skewered upon some irate writer’s pike.

It’s also the usual excuse — which you may believe or not, as you see fit, considering the source — that most agents give for why they send out form letter rejections, rather than specific, thoughtful replies to requested submissions. Their stated reason for form letter responses to queries, of course, is sheer volume: they don’t have time to reply to each individually. But obviously, if they have the time to read 50 pages, they have time to scrawl a couple of lines about how it could be improved. The fact is, they don’t want to: they don’t want to engender an angry response that might turn into an endless debate about the merits of a book they’ve already decided, for whatever reason, that they do not want.

Since most writers are peaches and lambs and every other kind of pacific, cooperative kind of entity you can think of most of the time, this fear is perhaps overblown. Most of us are perfectly capable of taking a little constructive criticism in the spirit it is intended. But every so often, some author loses it – and for that author’s display of temper, alas, we all pay.

That’s the official logic, anyway.

So now you know: if you want to establish yourself as a dream client in the eyes of the average agent or editor, who tends to hide under a chair after giving even the mildest feedback to her clients, greet the first emergence of any feedback with apparent tolerance; give yourself time to calm down before you argue. To buy yourself time, say something like, “Wow, what an interesting idea. I’ll have to think about that. Thanks.” Then take the rest of the day off, and don’t so much as peek at your manuscript again until you’ve had a chance to calm down.

Say this, even if in that moment, the suggestion proffered seems to you like the worst idea since Hannibal decided to march all of those elephants over the Alps to get at Rome. Because at that precise second, you are not just an individual writer, concerned with the integrity of your own manuscript: you are representing all of us. Show that, contrary to our stereotype in the industry as touchy hotheads unwilling to consider changing a single precious word, most of us really are capable of taking a little criticism.

Admittedly, my readers all acting this beautifully in the fact of critique probably sounds better to me right now than it might had I not just been scathed for trying to help out. Whenever I am confronted with a defensive critique-rejecter, I must confess, I seldom think of cooperative, thoughtful revisers with any abhorrence.

Feedback, though, and the revision process in general, ought to be treated with more respect by everyone concerned. There really ought to be a muse, if not an ancient Greek goddess, of manuscript revision, someone to whom we can pray for patience and tolerance in getting feedback on our work.

A muse of revision might conceivably make better sense to court than a muse of inspiration. Few of us writers like to admit it, but if we write works longer than a postcard, we all inevitably worship in private at this muse’s altar. Why should the initial inspiration gals get all the credit, when so much of the work that makes a book wonderful is in the re-editing?

Editing gets a bad rap, and self-editing even worse. You can’t spend half an hour in a gathering of more than three serious writers without hearing someone bitch about it. Oh, it’s so hard; oh, it’s so tedious. Oh, I’m sick to death of revising my manuscript. If I have to spend another instant of my life reworking that one pesky sentence, I shall commit unspeakable mayhem on the nearest piece of shrubbery.

We don’t describe the initial rush to write that pesky sentence that way, though, do we? Our muse leaps out at us, flirts with us, seduces us so effectively that we look up a paragraph later and find that six hours have gone by. Our muse is the one that gives us that stunned look in our eyes that our loved ones know so well, the don’t-call-me-for-breakfast glaze that tells the neighborhood that we will not be available for normal human interaction for awhile.

Ah, but the muses of initial inspiration don’t always stick around, do they? No, the flighty trollops too often knock you over the head with a great idea, then leave you in the lurch in mid-paragraph. Do they call? Do they write? Don’t they know we worry ourselves sick, we writers, wondering if they are ever going to come back?

Not so Ataraxia, the muse of revision. (Hey, I came up with the notion, so I get to name her. According to the ancient philosopher Sextus Empiricus — I know, I know; you can’t throw a piece of bread at a party these days without hitting someone chatting about Sextus Empiricus, but bear with me here — ataraxia is the state of tranquility attained only at the end of intense self-examination. Ataraxia is the point at which you stop second-guessing yourself: the ultimate goal of revision, no?)

Ataraxia yanks you back to your computer, scolding; she reads over the shoulder of your dream agent; editors at major publishing houses promise her their firstborn. While being a writer would be a whole lot more fun if completing a good book could be accomplished merely by consorting with her flightier muse sisters, party girls at heart, sooner or later, we all need to appeal to Ataraxia for help.

Best to stay on her good side: for starters, let’s all pledge not to scream at the kind souls who give us necessary feedback. Yes, I suspect Ataraxia would really enjoy that sort of sacrifice.

I’ll confess, I have not always treated Ataraxia with respect myself. How tedious revision is, I have thought from time to time, inventing reasons not to sit down and put in a few hours of solid work on a project. What a bore, to have to go back to a book I consider finished and tweak it: hour after hour of staring at just a few sentences, changing perhaps an adjective or two every ten minutes. Yawn.

Over time, though, I have started to listen to what I was actually telling myself when I complained about revision. It wasn’t that I objected to putting in the time; there have been few days in the last decade when I haven’t spent many hours in front of my computer or scribbling on a notepad; I’m a writer, so that’s what I do. It wasn’t that I felt compelled to rework my novel for the fiftieth time, or, in cases where I’ve been incorporating feedback, that I thought the changes would be bad for the book.

No, my real objection, I realized, is that I expected the revision process to bore me to tears. Am I alone in this?

But Ataraxia watches over even the most ungrateful of writers, so she whacked me over the head with an epiphany: a manuscript is a living thing, and to allow it to change can be to allow it to grow in new and exciting ways.

So now I know: whenever I start procrastinating about necessary revisions, it is a pretty sure sign that I had been thinking of my text as something inert, passive, a comatose patient who might die if I inadvertently lopped off too much on the editing table. What if, instead of thinking of revision as nitpicking, I used it to lift some conceptual barriers within the book? What if I incorporated my first readers’ suggestions about my memoir in a way that made the book better? Not just in terms of sentences and paragraphs, but in terms of content?

Just a suggestion: instead of regarding feedback as an attack upon the book, a foreign attempt to introduce outside ideas into an organically perfect whole or a negative referendum upon your abilities as a writer, perhaps it would be more productive to treat critique (your own included) as a hint that maybe the flagged section could use an influx of fresh creativity.

Try to move beyond just making grammatical changes and inserting begrudging sentences where your first readers have asked, “But why is this happening here?” If you have stared at a particular sentence or paragraph for hours on end, changing it and changing it back — c’mon, you know we all do it — naturally, you’re going to get bored. Naturally, you are going to loathe that kind of revision.

But the next time you find yourself in that kind of editing loop, set the text you’re working on aside for a few minutes. Pick up a pen (or open a new document) and write that section afresh, in new words, as if for the first time. No peeking at your old text, and no cheating by using sentences you recall writing the first time around. Allow yourself to use different analogies, to reveal character and event differently. Give yourself time to play with your ideas and the way you want to say them before you go back to the original text.

Then walk away for ten minutes. Maybe you could do some stretching exercises, to avoid repetitive strain injuries, or at least take a stroll around your house. Feed the cat. Plot a better way to get legions of elephants over the Alps. Anything to get your eyes off the printed word for awhile.

And then, when you return, read the original version and the new. You probably will not want to substitute one for the other entirely, but is there any part of the new version that could be incorporated into the old in an interesting way? Are there sentences that can be switched productively, or some new ones that could be added to the old? Are there arguments or character points in the new that would enliven the old?

What you’re doing with this exercise is transforming revision from a task where you are fine-tuning something essentially finished into an opportunity to infuse the manuscript with fresh ideas at problematic points. Conceptually, it’s a huge difference, and I guarantee it will make the revision process a lot more fun.

As Ataraxia wants it to be, I suspect.

Okay, I feel less self-indulgent now: I think I have wrested some good, practical advice out of my very, very bad day. And naturally, unlike your garden-variety agent or editor, I’m not going to give up on this writer because of a single loss of temper. Nor, unlike the average writer’s friend with a manuscript, am I going to let the one writer who implied that my feedback on his work was the worst idea since Stalin last said, “I know! Let’s have a purge!” discourage me from giving feedback to others.

But please, the next time you are confronted with feedback that makes your blood boil, take a deep breath before you respond. Think about me, and about Ataraxia, and force yourself to say, “Gee, what an interesting notion. May I think about it, and we can talk about it later?” Then go home and punch a pillow 700 times, if you must, but please, don’t disembowel the messenger.

She may be bringing you a news flash from Ataraxia. Keep up the good work!