Expanding your query list, Part IX: More reviews, and some final words of advice

Yesterday, I discussed how to use book reviews in order to point you toward agents to query. If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Allow me to reiterate: just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, I, and literally every agented writer I know, have learned not to query agents who are not DEMONSTRABLY interested in our kind of writing or our kind of writer NOW.

And unfortunately, what the agents say about themselves the standard agents’ guides is not always the best indicator of this. Both personal preferences and industry trends have been known to change with lightning speed, and those blurbs are changed at most once per year. It’s not uncommon for the listings to remain the same for a decade at a time. Nor, as we saw in my series last March and April on the agents and editors scheduled to attend the 2006 PNWA conference, are agents’ conference blurbs especially reliable. Those, too, are frequently reused for years on end.

All of this is admittedly frustrating, but believe me, the research is well worth your time. Sending only targeted queries can substantially reduce your rejection rate. At the risk of sounding broken-recordesque, this is especially true if you have been going the mass mailing route — most agents simply ignore “Dear Agent” letters, but they genuinely do pay attention to queries that pay them the compliment of noticing that they have sold books in the past.

As I have mentioned, oh, about 700 times before (see earlier broken record comment, above), it is VASTLY to your advantage to be able to open your query letter with a clear, book-specific reference to why you have selected that particular agent: “Since you so ably represented David Guterson’s SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, I believe that you will enjoy my book…”

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time.

But do it strategically. As I mentioned yesterday, finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to your work. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit tedious to keep on informing the world yet again that Alice Walker can write and that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel, but as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for new agenting pastures. If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication. The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed. And start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. If you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of the New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

And don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book! Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough (how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be?), the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at finding these.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire YOUR prose flair. Or — and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial — if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. For instance, I was reading a review of Stephanie Kallos’ John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Admittedly, sometimes the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, which is less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre. I noticed, for example, that since my favorite new literary novel, Layne Maheu’s amazing SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

One last comment on tracking down agents to query: if you absolutely, positively cannot find out who represents a particular living author after a reasonable amount of effort, let me know — I might be able to find out. I have connections for this sort of question. (This offer is not unlimited, of course: please don’t just send me your entire list. Blogging is a volunteer endeavor, after all.)

On Monday, I shall be talking about how agencies differ from one another. This does not mean I am leaving the subject of querying forever, though: if you have questions you would like answered, or agent-hunting stories you would like to share, feel free to chime in via the COMMENTS function, below.

One quick piece of business before I sign off for today: are many of you planning to attend the Surrey conference in October? Leave a comment, if so — if enough of you are, I’ll do the same sort of research run-down on the agents due to turn up there as I did for PNWA this summer, because a lot of my readers seemed to find that helpful. So write in, please!

And, of course, keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, Part VIII: Surfing the sea of reviews

Before I launch into today’s installment, I feel the need to pause a moment and gloat: today, the Spanish government began to enforce a law that stipulates models must be over certain specified Body Mass Indexes. In plain English, they turned away about 30% of the models who showed up for work today, because they weighed too little, and I have been deriving real enjoyment from watching the size 0s and 2s on television prattle on sanctimoniously about how awful it is that 15-year-old models choose to starve themselves.

Because, as we all know, early adolescents set all the rules in any society. Where on EARTH did those women, the talking heads cry, get the idea that they needed to be skeletal in order to get work as models or actresses? And why in heaven’s name do young girls look up to models as standards of beauty? Clearly, something very strange indeed has been going on behind adult backs, to set up goals of comeliness so diametrically opposed to those embraced by those of us old enough to vote, edit fashion magazines, or cast movies.

I learned today, from one of those size 2 talking heads, that the average NYC model is 6 feet tall and weighs 117 pounds, apparently the twin sister of that 98-pound weakling who used to get sand kicked in his face by the muscle men in the old cartoons. The purpose of all that sand-kicking, of course, was to steal the willowy beauty of their day. And what did she look like? Allow me to quote from a 1949 book on women in the workforce: “Fashion models must be 5’6” to 5’10” (with heels) and wear a size 12 or 14. The model has to draw a fine line between going to enough parties to be seen regularly and getting enough sleep to appear always fresh and clear-eyed for work.”

Not to mention financing that speed habit. Somewhere up in that great pink boudoir in the sky, I sincerely hope Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, and Jayne Mansfield are having a good, hearty belly laugh at us all right now. And then eating vats upon vats of ice cream.

All right, I am descending from my soapbox now; back to business. In previous postings, I talked about how to track down who represents whom, so that you may address queries to the agents who represent authors whose work you like, or (even better) whose work or background resembles yours in some important respect. Today, I am going to discuss an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews.

“Wait just a model-starving second!” I hear those of you who have been paying attention to this series cry. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year ago? What about your passionate diatribe yesterday about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, you get a gold star for the day. Chant it with me now: from the time a book is purchased by a publisher to the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Sometimes longer. And publishing trends, like an aspiring model’s weight, can fluctuate wildly over a much shorter period of time: the same agents who were clamoring a year ago for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES are now telling writers that memoir simply doesn’t sell. The agents who were combing conferences for the next SEX IN THE CITY two years ago are now insisting that chick lit is doomed.

And, of course, six months from now, after everyone has calmed down after the Random House class action settlement with James Frey’s pre-scandal readers (payments underwritten, one suspects, by the hugely increased sales of the book AFTER the scandal broke), some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

However, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what NOW pretty much requires subscribing to one of the rather expensive industry publications, such as Publishers Marketplace or Publishers Weekly. As a dispenser of free advice myself, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available to writers. Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers. So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it.

The book review method is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. While print media book reviews almost never list the agent of a book in question (as opposed to industry advance reviews – see Part IV of this series — which occasionally do), reading the reviews will enable you to single out writers who are either writing for the same micro-niche you are or whose style is similar to yours. Then, once you have identified the writers whose representation you covet, you can use the methods I have already discussed to track down their agents.

The book review will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well. As you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are NOT reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.) Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like LIBRARY JOURNAL, they simply do not have room to review them all.

They review perhaps a dozen per month, out of all those submissions. And to narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, most print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, you’re starting to see some shift on the subject — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

Querying authors whose books get reviewed is good place to start looking for such an agent, obviously.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this series on agent-spotting, so we may move on to other pastures. But before I go, I have a question to toss out there, for future posts: have you been hearing industry terminology used at conferences, or seeing in writer-targeted publications, or even found me using here, that you would like to see defined with some precision?

If so, please send them to me via the COMMENTS function, below, so I know to include them in my upcoming glossary of industry-speak. Since I hope that this fall’s querying blitz is going to bring many of you into contact with agents and editors eager to help you promote your writing, I thought it might be a good idea to give you a crash course in the language they will be speaking.

Keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, Part IV: spotting an agent in the wild

I bring you glad tidings for a second day in a row, my friends: one of our very own long-term readers, the ever-fabulous Phoebe Kitanidis, just signed with agent Jim McCarthy of Dystel & Goderich Literary Management yesterday! She writes both adult and YA fiction and, to add to her many virtues, was one of the marvelous Pitch Palace volunteers at this summer’s PNWA conference.

So everyone join me, please, in great big foot-stomping hurrahs for Phoebe, and brilliant prognostications of her continued success!

I have a double reason to rejoice: DGLM is the agency that represents yours truly, so this is a win for two of my communities, as far as I’m concerned. I gather from my agent’s perpetual astonishment at my enthusiasm for other writers’ work (I’m notorious for pitching my friends’ books at conferences — particularly conferences where the friend in question is a couple of time zones away), not everyone regards publication as a team sport.

But hey, we writers can use all the mutual support we can get, right?

To paraphrase everyone’s favorite writing auntie, Jane Austen (I grew up surrounded by writers and artists, but not everyone did. I say, if you don’t have literary relatives, adopt ‘em), we writers are an oppressed class: we need to stick together. Heck, I’ll just go ahead and quote that wonderful passage from her NORTHANGER ABBEY — the novel, if you’ll recall, that her publisher bought and sat upon for years and years without publishing, just like a certain memoir I could mention — so it’s safe to say that she knew a little something about writerly frustration. The quaint punctuation, for those of you new to Aunt Jane’s style, is hers:

“Yes, novels; — for I will not adopt that ungenerous and impolitic custom so common with novel writers, of degrading by their contemptuous censure the very performances, to the number of which they are themselves adding — joining with their greatest enemies in bestowing the harshest epithets on such works, and scarcely ever permitting them to be read by their own heroine, who, if she accidentally take up a novel, is sure to turn over its insipid pages with disgust. Alas! if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard? I cannot approve of it. Let us leave it to the Reviewers to abuse such effusions of fancy at their leisure, and over every new novel to talk in threadbare strains of the trash with which the press now groans. Let us not desert one another; we are an injured body. Although our productions have afforded more extensive and unaffected pleasure than those of any other literary corporation in the world, no species of composition has been so much decried. From pride, ignorance, or fashion, our foes are almost as many as our readers. And while the abilities of the nine-hundredth abridger of the History of England, or of the man who collects and publishes in a volume some dozen lines of Milton, Pope, and Prior, with a paper from the Spectator, and a chapter from Sterne, are eulogized by a thousand pens — there seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them.”

Amazing how modern Aunt Jane remains, isn’t it? If you substituted “the 900th interpreter of the Middle East conflict” for the bit about the History of England, and changed the anthologer mentioned into a reference to CHICKEN SOUP FOR THE SOUL (or indeed, to most of the textbooks currently used in English and American literature classes), the critique is still valid now. Heck, throw in a hostile word or two about James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE PIECES (because it’s not as though Random House originally saw it as a novel or anything) or Kaavya Viswanathan’s HOW OPAL MEHTA GOT KISSED, GOT WILD, AND GOT A LIFE (because the average 17-year-old is more than capable of dictating ethics to her publishers), this passage could have appeared in a trade journal within the last year.

So let’s commit to being mutually supportive — and keep that good news rolling in, everyone. Send in your triumphs, everybody, big and small, so we can celebrate them together. And thanks, Phoebe, for reminding us that it IS possible for the writer to win playing against the stacked deck of the publishing industry.

Okay, back to my topic of the week (which looks as though it will be the topic of next week, too) — and fasten your seatbelts, everybody, because it’s going to be a lengthy ride. Today, I am going to take you through how to find out who represents whom, so that you can query the agents of authors whose work resembles yours. (For a discussion of why this is a good idea, see the earlier segments of this series.)

Isn’t it astonishing that this most basic information — who represented any given book — should be SO difficult to come by? There’s no good reason for it; since all publishing deals in the U.S. are matters of public record (not the specifics, perhaps, but definitely the players), gathering this data should be the proverbial walk in the park. But it undoubtedly isn’t, at least without paying for access to an industry database.

Yes, the standard agents’ guides do usually ask the agency to list a few of their best-known clients in the blurbs. Best-known is the operative phrase here: yes, it’s nice to see names that you recognize, but an agency’s big sellers are often neither their most recent sales nor a particularly good indicator of that they are looking for in a NEW client. Agents’ preferences change all the time; I always concentrate on what the agent has sold within the last three years as the most reliable indicator of what s/he would like to see in a query.

And even in the rare instances where the blurbs do provide up-to-date titles, few of the guides include the authors’ names in the index, so the aspiring writer is reduced to skimming the entire book, looking for familiar writers. Not terribly efficient, is it?

Sometimes, you can learn who represents an author via a simple web search, but this, too, can be very time-consuming. A standard search under the author’s name will generally pull up every review ever published about her work, every article in which she is mentioned, and prompts to buy her book at Amazon AND B & N — not in that order — as well as the author’s own website, which often does not include representation information, surprisingly enough. Wading through all of this information can be very frustrating, and does not always lead to what you need.

So what’s a querier to do?

If you are searching for the agent who represented a specific book, it is worthwhile to check out the industry reviews excerpted on the booksellers’ sites. Actually, Amazon, B&N, and Powell’s all often post industry reviews, too. Occasionally, the agent’s name is listed at the end of these reviews.

(Why would these reviews list such an arcane detail? Well, the industry reviews are the advance press — Kirkus, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly — reviews written primarily for the benefit of retailers who are considering stocking the book. They appear considerably before the release date; it is not unheard-of for editors to pull a book from the print queue that has received a less-positive-than-anticipated advance reviews, so that the book may be re-revised prior to release. Print reviews, by contrast, tend to coincide with the book’s release, and are aimed at the general reading public. Thus, they seldom contain information of interest only to people in the industry.)

As I mentioned earlier in this series, writers-conference wisdom dictates that the best means of finding out who represents an author is to check the book itself for acknowledgments. Often, authors will thank their agents — and if not, the common cant goes, maybe you should think twice about that agent, anyway. (The notion that perhaps the author might merely be rude does not come up much in conference discussions, I notice.)

In fact, I cannot even count the number of times that I’ve heard conference speakers advise aspiring writers to walk into a major bookstore, plop down in front of the genre-appropriate shelves, and start making a list of every agent thanked in every well-packaged book. That way, these speakers assure us, you know that you will be dealing with agents who have made sales recently, and thus must have fairly up-to-date connections amongst editors, who are notorious for moving from one publishing house to another at the drop of the proverbial chapeau.

Remember how I was ranting earlier in this series about how a lot of the standard marketing advice writers get is quite out of date? Well…

It’s definitely worth checking a few books, but don’t be surprised if a couple of hours at Borders yields only a few names of queriable agents. The fact is, acknowledgements are simply a lot less common than they used to be — and it’s not because writers have become less grateful as a group. With the rise of trade paper as a first-printing medium for novels (as opposed to hardback, paperback, and pulp), fewer and fewer first-time authors are being allowed to include acknowledgments at all. One less page per book saves publishers money.

And if no one else is willing to say it, I will: just because an author thanks an agent does not necessarily mean that the agent has been overwhelmingly helpful — selling the book is the agent’s JOB, after all. While the author is thanking everyone else, it would look a little funny not to thank even the least helpful agent, wouldn’t it? Most of the professional acknowledgements you do see are fairly compulsory — this is not a business where it pays to burn bridges, after all.

(Nor is this expectation of blanket thanks limited to mainstream publishing, by the way. Back in my bad old university days, I was STUNNED to discover that in academic work, acknowledgments are more or less mandatory. I actually could not have gotten my dissertation accepted without the requisite page of thanks to the professors in my department who kept telling me to write about something else. Go figure.)

Then, too, some agents who aren’t particularly interested in attracting new clients will actually ask their authors NOT to mention their names on acknowledgement pages. Or to mention only their first names. Or at least not to identify them as agents. This is why, in case you were wondering, you so often see a list of a dozen names loosely identified as helpers in the publishing process, rather than that standby of former days, “I’d like to thank my wonderful agent, Jan White…”

This practice, naturally, makes it significantly harder to track down who represented what. Wondering why they would want to do this to nice people like us?

You know how I keep telling you that the vast majority of hurtful things agents do in the course of rejecting writers aren’t actually aimed at hurting writers or making our lives more difficult? Usually, our annoyance is merely a side effect, not the explicit goal: sending out form rejection letter, for instance, saves agencies boatloads of time; the fact that such rejections convey no actual feedback to writers is, from their point of view, incidental.

Well, as nearly as I can tell, this one IS specifically intended to make our lives more difficult. But don’t blame the agents (or at any rate, don’t blame ONLY the agents); blame the unscrupulous aspiring writers I was telling you about a couple of days ago, because such actions are in self-defense.

They do it, my friends, because they have heard the same advice at conferences as we all have. Agents are increasingly hip to the fact that people who are neither buying nor reading their clients’ work (i.e., those lingerers in front of shelves at B&N) are still sending them letters beginning, “Since you so ably represented Author X, I am sure you will be interested in my book…”

All of which is to say: the acknowledgments route is not a bad way to come up with a few names, but like so much else in the agent-attracting process, it’s considerably harder to do successfully than it was even five or ten years ago. So, realistically, since you will probably only be able to glean enough for one round of simultaneous queries, you should try to minimize how much time you invest in this method.

On Monday, I shall talk about how to spread your net wider — I’ve been struck by an inspiration upon which I simply must ruminate blogistically (hey, this is a new field; I’m entitled to make up new words to describe it) over the weekend. So tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Expanding your query list, part III

Before I return to the topic du semaine, let’s all do a little collective jig of satisfaction in recognition of recent triumphs by members of our online community here: excellent writer Toddie Downs (best known here as inveterate question-asker Toddie) has an article in October’s issue of THE WRITER magazine. Way to go, Toddie!

Also our recent guest blogger Jordan Rosenfeld has an article in the current WRITERS DIGEST, an article within which, I have from good sources, I am quoted being either witty, wise, or ridiculous. (I forget which.) Hooray, Jordan!

Please, everybody, join me in a nice round of applause for both. And please do let me know when your triumphs occur, so we can celebrate them here. The path of the writer is often not an easy one, my friends: the more we can rejoice over the victories of our friends, the more joyful the journey will be for all of us.

Really. Honest. All serious writers have days where it’s hard to remember the shape and texture of hope. For me, nothing perks up a dark night of the soul like turning on my computer to learn that a writer I like has just scored points against the system. Go, Team Creative!

Okay, back to business. I’ve been writing over the last couple of days about ways to figure out which agents to query OTHER than simply opening the Herman Guide at random, hammering your finger down on a page, and sending a letter to the one grazed by your fingernail. A query to an agent who does not represent your kind of work is usually not worth the investment in postage, much less your energy.

Yesterday, I was discussing querying the agents who represent writers you like. The “Since you so ably represent Author X…” technique works best, naturally, when the querying writer’s work bears some striking resemblance to that of the cited author. I wouldn’t advise hitting up David Sedaris’ agent (Don Congdon) with ultra-serious literary fiction, any more than I would send a rollicking comedy to Annie Proulx’s (Liz Darhansoff) or hard-right political analysis to Michael Moore’s (Mort Janklow).

However, if your well-read friends and trusted first readers say, “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you write like Francine Prose?” it’s worth checking to see if Francine Prose’s agent (Denise Shannon) is accepting new clients. And mentioning, if at all possible, specific ways in which your work resembles, say, Ms. Prose’s well-respected HUNTERS AND GATHERERS.

Need I repeat here that there are SIGNIFICANT perils attached to drawing parallels to books that you have not read? Never, ever, EVER succumb to the temptation of comparing your book to a book with which you are unfamiliar — especially to the unknown book’s agent, who may well have been the person who purged the book of misspellings and semicolons. The chances of such an analogy backfiring are simply too high.

How high, you ask? Well, ask a writer I know who, while querying a novel filled with scenes of people ripping into rare steaks, succulent veal, etc., happened to spot a copy of Ruth L. Ozeki’s MY YEAR OF MEATS in a bookstore. Without reading anything but the acknowledgments page, the querier shot off a letter full of meat-loving details to Ms. Ozeki’s agent, Molly Friedrich of the Aaron Priest Literary Agency.. Need I even say that MY YEAR OF MEATS is an exposé of abuses in the meat-production industry so vivid that it is considered in some circles an excellent argument for vegetarianism?

Just don’t do it.

Stick to comparisons of important plot, character, or narrative worldview similarities between your book and another. Hedging your bets by vague statements like, “It’s been said that my book reads just like THE DA VINCI CODE” will not win you friends and influence agents. Trust me: such statements are far more likely to annoy than impress.

Why? Well, think about it: just how many times per day do you suppose the average chick lit agent was seeing “This is the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY!” in the first paragraphs of query letters when it was a bestseller? Do you really want your query letter to sound like a quarter of the ones already in the rejection pile?

Of course not. You need to make your work sound unique, not just marketable.

Generally speaking, opening a query with something like, “Everyone says I write just like David Guterson,” will not play as well as, “Since you represented SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS, you may be interested in my novel…”

This is true, incidentally, even if one of the people who told you that you wrote just like David Guterson was David Guterson’s mother. (A lovely woman, incidentally; the last time I bumped into her, she held me captive in the frozen food section of our local Trader Joe’s until I promised to rush out and buy a copy of OUR LADY OF THE FOREST that very day. That’s the kind of mother ever writer should have!) It pains me to say it, but the vast majority of agents will simply cast aside a query that quotes someone they have never heard of praising the book being offered.

So you really should avoid saying, “My writing teacher says this is the best book since BLEAK HOUSE,” or “A friend told me that I write just like Audrey Niffenegger.” (Represented by Joe Regal of Regal Literary, I’m told.) Both of these are quotes from actual query letters, incidentally, presented to me for feedback on why they were not garnering enthusiastic responses. Both of the queriers subsequently revised their letter, and are now happily represented, I am delighted to report.

If you can legitimately say, “Colin Powell says my memoir, LUST FOR WAR, is the best war story since ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT,” by all means, say it. But make sure that the person you are quoting is well-known (or at least well-known to the agent you are querying) AND that the quote is truthful. (You’d be amazed — at least I hope you would — at how many queriers gratuitously quote the famous without their permission, on the theory that the agent will never check. FIE!!!)

But, hey, if you can justifiably say that Kurt Vonnegut wept over your text, place that information in the first line of your query letter — whether you are querying his agent (Knox Burger of Harold Ober Associates) or not. It’s too valuable a commendation not to use.

Do not give in to the temptation of quoting out of context, however. Years ago, when I was in grad school, I took a graduate seminar with Saul Bellow. I still have the term paper on which he wrote, “You are a very engaging writer.” Oh, how easy it would have been to present that quote as though he had said it about my first novel, especially as by that time, Professor Bellow was no longer among the living! But obviously, I couldn’t legitimately that luscious little blurb out of context.

I know, I know. Sometimes honesty looks an awful lot like stupidity. But at least I am 100% certain that I will never be caught in a self-promoting exaggeration at an industry meeting, where it could cost me serious credibility points. Leave the puffing up of your work to your publisher’s marketing department; let the quality of your writing speak for itself.

Remember, the reference to the agent’s already-established client is intended not so much as a name-dropping power play, meant to stun with importance, than as a bow to the agent’s past professional successes and a preliminary answer to the obvious question in any query-reader’s mind: “Why is THIS author targeting THIS agency with THIS book?” Just so you know, if any reasonably intelligent English-conversant reader could read more than half of your query letter WITHOUT knowing the answer to that question, the query is almost certainly going to be rejected.

Kind of surprising that most querying classes and guidebooks don’t point this out more often, isn’t it?

Tomorrow, I shall go into how to track down who represents whom, as the standard advice on the subject is, alas, not particularly helpful. As you may have guessed from the ease with which I was able to add who represented whom in this post, there is a trick to it, like so many things in the publishing world. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Honesty: policy, or just a good idea?

Yesterday, I discussed two ways of finding agents to query other than through direct meetings at writers’ conferences (which is still one of the best — and, unfortunately, most expensive — ways to connect with an agent): soliciting agents who spoke at conferences you attended with whom you did NOT speak, and tracking down those who represent your favorite authors. I have a few more words of advice about the latter method yet to dispense, but first, allow me to revisit the former briefly.

It has come to my attention that some wily writers out there habitually surf the web, tracking down major writing conferences, and sending “I so enjoyed your talk at Conference X, and I hope you will be interested in my work…” queries to the agents listed as having spoken there. These unscrupulous souls do this for conferences they have never attended, and yet they write “Conference X attendee” in big red letters on the outside of their submission envelopes. Oh, the shame of it all…

And why do these clever-but-underhand writers do this? Because they have been around the industry long enough to know that (a) by a couple of weeks after a large conference, the average agent might not remember be able to pick everyone who pitched to her out of a police line-up, much less remember who was or was not in the audience during her how-to-wow-me speech, (b) even at a small conference, many writers are too shy to approach an agent directly, so chances are, the agent will not have met everyone there, and (c) at a big agency, a reasonably well-established agent will have a screener going through her queries for her, anyway.

Therefore (these cads reason) the chances of being caught in the lie about attending are next to nil, and since the benefits of being able to claim conference attendance can be fairly significant — as I mentioned yesterday, conference-going queriers’ letters usually end up in the closer scrutiny pile — they have no scruples, apparently, about dressing themselves in borrowed clothes. Why not, these abandoned types reason: at worst, being caught means the query and/or eventual submission’s being rejected, that’s all.

Fie, fie.

Actually, there are a couple of ways in which such bold souls DO get caught, and since I am here to preach practicality, rather than morality, I feel honor-bound to point them out. First, agent rosters for conferences are NOTORIOUSLY malleable; agency screeners love to tell tales of the query letters they’ve received that extolled the pleasures of meeting an agent who was never in the time zone of the mentioned conference. Second, since agents routinely talk about their specific book needs of the moment at conferences, what they say there is often substantially different than what they told the fine folks who put together the standard agents’ guides a year before. (Even if their preferences are wildly different, though, the unprincipled conference-claiming writer will only come across as working from an outdated guidebook. Still, fie.)

Brace yourself for #3, because it represents some pretty hardened criminality. Some dodgy writers are not satisfied with imposing upon a screener with an untrue statement in a query letter: sometimes, they will send the first 50 pages of their manuscripts to an agent who attended a conference, along with a disingenuous letter thanking the agent profusely for requesting the materials at a conference so jam-packed with writers that the agent might well have been pitched to dozens of times in its hallways.

Fie, fie, FIE!!! I find this one particularly offensive, since I know at least three successfully published authors who got their agents this way. But that doesn’t make it right, my friends; it only makes it common.

You’re better than that. I know you are.

Okay, I’m finished tutting; now that we’re all sadder but wiser about the ways in which this wicked, wicked world works, back to how to solicit other writers’ agents.

Yesterday, I talked about the most common advice agents give to aspiring writers: find out who represents your favorite authors, usually through trolling acknowledgments pages, and querying their agents. This can be a dandy way to find a good agent, but do be aware that if the writers whose agents you approach are well-known and/or award winners, their agents may not be altogether keen on picking up the unpublished. Check the standard agents’ guides before you invest a stamp on a query: chances are, too, that the agent representing a major author NOW is not the same one who first took a wild chance on him as an unknown.

Why? Well-established authors often move up to more important agents as they gain prestige, so by the time that a Pulitzer Prize-winner like Alice Walker ends up at the Wendy Weil agency, she may have traded up two or three times. (Or, like John Irving, he may have married his agent, Janet Turnbull Irving of the Turnbull Agency, a feat you could hardly hope to reproduce between now and Christmas.) It’s also not unheard-of for an agent to make her reputation on a single well-known client, and want to concentrate most of her efforts on that client, rather than on new ones. (Crystal ball, why do you keep showing me the image of Alice Volpe of the Northwest Literary Agency, who represents JA Jance? Must be a transmission error.)

My point is, these bestselling authors’ prestige was probably the key that opened the door to the top-flight agencies, rather than their beginning-of-the-career raw talent. Generally speaking, you will be better off if you place the agents of writers on the bestseller lists lower on your priority roster, and concentrate on midlist or first-time authors. If you do decide to go hunting for the big game, bear in mind that that Writers House , for instance, sees a LOT of queries that begin, “Since you represent Ken Follett…” and “Since you sold Nora Roberts’ last book…”

You may not get any points for novelty.

Recall, too, that an agent who represents a bigwig necessarily spends quite a bit of time catering to the bigwig’s business — and thus may well have little time to lavish on a new-but-brilliant client. (If you should ever find yourself within shouting distance of Don Maass of the Donald Maass Agency, ask him about how many days per year he devotes to a client like Anne Perry, as opposed to a client he’s just signed. Go ahead; I seriously doubt he’ll be offended: he talks about it at conferences.) In short, setting your heart on your favorite bestseller’s agent may not be the best use of your time and energy.

Where the “Since you so ably represent Author X, I believe you will be interested in my work…” gambit will serve you best is with lesser-known writers, particularly those who are just starting out. Many agents are nurturing a pet author or two, someone whose books sell only a few thousand copies, but will be breaking into mainstream success any day now.

Where recognition is scant, any praise is trebly welcome, so the clever writer who is the first (or tenth) to identify the up-and-coming writer as THE reason for picking the agent is conveying a subtle compliment to eyes hungry to see it. The agent (or assistant) often thinks, “My, here is a discerning person. Perhaps I should give her writing a chance.”

Good reason to go to public readings of first-time writers, eh? The less famous the writer, the less well-attended the reading usually is. Maybe, if you are very nice (and one of the three people who showed up for the book signing), the brand-new author might even agree to let you begin your query letter, “Your client, Brand-New Author, recommended that I contact you…”

Again, do you think such a letter will get more or less attention than the average query?

A couple of words of warning about using this strategy, however: do NOT imply, even indirectly, that the writer you are citing sent you to her agent UNLESS IT IS TRUE.

Aspiring writers do this all the time; it’s a well enough known dodge that agents routinely ask their clients, “Hey, what can you tell me about this writer?” If you do indeed have a recommendation, great. (And in terms of pure ethics, I think that a famous writer’s telling you at a conference, “Gee, you should talk to my agent” constitutes a recommendation.) If you do not, however, it’s just not wise to tempt fate.

Also, it’s dangerous to use the names of writers whose work you do NOT like as calling cards, and downright perilous to use the names of writers whose work you do not know. Assume that, at some point, you will be having a conversation with the agent about the author whose work you praised.

The more obscure the author, in my experience, the more likely this conversation is to happen. If you hate the prose stylings of Alan Hollinghurst (whose work I love, personally; he’s represented by Emma Parry of Fletcher & Parry), or if you have never read any Dorothy Allison ( Frances Goldin Agency; also represents Barbara Kingsolver, I notice), it’s probably not the best idea to present yourself as an enthusiast to their respective agents, or indeed to anyone who knows their work very well.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty IS the best policy. Go give her a call, and keep up the good work!

The great agent search: “I’d like to thank all the little people…”

Since I spent yesterday’s post lecturing you fine people on why, even if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this, you should keep querying other agents until the ink is actually dry on the contract, I shall spare you further blandishment on the subject today.

Except to say: I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next. Repeat until you’re picked up.

Today, as promised, I am going to talk about how to find agents to query — not just any agents, but the kind of agents who represent writing like yours. I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach.

Why, you ask? Well, if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach. And if you’ve never heard an agent rail on the subject, let me fill you in: nothing insults them more than being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books.

This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides. Go figure.

And this, in case you were wondering, is why the mere sight of a query beginning, “Dear Agent,” rather than addressing the targeted agent by name, will make your garden-variety agent so crazy that she wants to put her fist through the nearest window with the query letter still clutched in her bloody fist. Seriously, they tend to react to this kind of salutation as though the querying writer had just kicked their grandmothers: at minimum, they regard it as rude. Agency screeners are uniformly ordered to reject such letters without reading them.

If you’ve been sending out “Dear Agent” letters, go back and read that last sentence again. Fifteen times, if necessary.

The single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them. (Later in the week, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected.) Within the industry, respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

May I assume that this is old news to most of you, though? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before, right? Although perhaps not its corollary: don’t approach agents at conferences unless they have a track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre? Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. You want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out second-round agents to query. If you attended a conference this summer, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were not able to pitch. However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those whose client lists do not include books like yours. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection, after “Dear Agent” salutation, is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent; like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book, check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds. (If you attended this summer’s PNWA conference, I did profiles on all of the attending agents back in March and April, to make the research process easier for my readers. You’re welcome.)

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

Okay, if you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield five or eight more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours. Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or NF, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous. Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

More on this ever-absorbing subject tomorrow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Moving with the times

Pardon my couple of days of silence, please: I have been in California for the last week, packing up my mother’s house, and we drove a U-Haul 1000 miles north over the weekend. I’m just a trifle tired, as a result.

Posting from the Napa Valley was a bit of a challenge. Since my mother is something of a Luddite, her house was still not equipped with a phone jack, and thus e-mail capabilities, until four days ago: that’s right, the rotary dial phone was still hard-wired to the wall, believe it or not.

How the phone company people laughed when I told them that.

Some of you may be too young to remember this (and is there a phrase in the English language that makes the speaker sound older than THAT?), but back in my early childhood, the phone company actually owned one’s home phone, at least in my neck of the proverbial woods; the homeowner merely rented it from the company. In our case, the rental was a model from the early 1950s, already installed long before I was born, a huge, black behemoth with a 3-pound receiver and a metal dial so hard to turn that I needed to use a pen for leverage when I was a kid.

Then one day, the phone company (only one at the time, recall) decided to get out of the rental business altogether, and presented its customers with a fateful choice. You could either pay to have your home rewired for the newfangled phones, the kind that required jacks, and go out and buy a new phone to plug into them, or you could go the cheaper route and just purchase the phone you’d always used. My parents opted for the latter, and that’s why the muscles in my upper arms were so abnormally well developed when I was a teenager.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but the phone jack decision represented a fork in the road for my family, one that continues to carry repercussions to this very day — or rather, until four days ago, when my stalwart boyfriend whipped out a screwdriver and installed a phone jack in about seven minutes flat.

What kind of repercussions, you ask? Well, maintaining the big black beast (which, incidentally, came north with me in the U-Haul, both because I have fond memories associated with it and because I could use the upper-body workout these days) limited our communication options for more than two decades. Since it was hard-wired into the wall, we could not, for instance, install such cutting-edge communication technology as an answering machine. Nor, since it was not a significantly more complex instrument than the one which Alexander Graham Bell used to transmit, “Watson, come here; I need you,” could we participate in such sterling community activities as navigating through any given business’ voice mail system, because that requires a touch tone phone. (In case you’re curious about how this can possibly be done at all, what the owner of an old-fashioned phone does is wait on the line until the computer finally figures out that no numbers are being punched in. On average, it takes about 20 minutes.)

So why did we put up with it for so long? Well, habit is a powerful thing, and over time, many of us rationalize away inconveniences as inevitabilities, don’t we? My mother, bless her heart, forgot that that she had plunked down the $30 to buy the phone: she believed — until last Tuesday, to be precise, when I flatly forced a phone company employee to explain that what she believed was no longer possible — that the phone company still owned the phone; she only rented it, and thus was in no position to change how she communicated with the outside world. And after a decade or two of trying to convince her otherwise, I simply gave up and bought her a cell phone five years ago.

I needed to be able to leave messages for her.

I can feel some of you out there squirming in your computer chairs, wondering what this has to do, if anything, with marketing your writing, or indeed, with the writing life in general. Just this: a significant proportion of the advice out there on how to land an agent was minted at approximately the same time as my mother’s decision to buy the phone, instead of moving on to new technology. Heck, some of the truisms you hear about how to hook an editor were old by the time that rotary phone was installed.

That is the way with aphorisms: they are notoriously slow to move with the times.

And that is why, dearly beloved, that those time-honored tips that you learned about querying and submission often do not work anymore. The business has simply changed, like phone technology, and as with the phone jack revolution, if you stick with the old ways, you’re going to come across as a bit behind the times to those who are working on the cutting edge.

That being said, I am going to ask you to accept something that would have been anathema according to the old submission rules, so take a deep breath. Here it is: if you are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor who has requested pages, you will be MUCH better off if you keep querying while you wait.

I’m going to be honest with you here: practically everyone else who is giving writing advice at the moment will tell you otherwise. If you’ve been to a writers’ conference or two, you have almost certainly been told not to do this. When an agent asks to see your book, we’ve all been told, it’s downright offensive to show it to someone else; such a request forms a sacred bond between writer and potential agent, one that will be irreparably harmed if the writer keeps submitting. It’s like cheating on your spouse a week before the wedding.

Yes, and phones all used to be hard-wired into walls. Times change, as do the industry’s expectations.

The fact is, most agents currently working in the United States would be ASTONISHED to hear that a truly talented but unagented writer with a strong manuscript WASN’T doing multiple submissions. Agents may not universally understand much about art, except how to make a profit on it, but they do almost to a man enjoy a deep comprehension of the concept of time being valuable. The idea that a good book would remain under wraps for a couple of months because of a brief conversation at a conference would not only flabbergast most of them — they would regard it as poor marketing strategy, as well as a truly puzzling ignorance of how the industry works.

Oh, there are exceptions, of course, the agencies who refuse even to consider multiple submissions. But they are very, very rare — and quite uniformly state in the standard agents’ guides and on their websites that they have such a policy. If they do not state it as a preference, they simply do not operate that way.

Repeat after me: phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls. Phones no longer have to be hard-wired into walls.

Until you have actually signed with an agent, you are perfectly free to keep shopping your book around. You are more than within your rights to continue querying — as your book’s best advocate, you should.

I don’t care how many times you have heard otherwise on the writers’ grapevine: the myth that you will mortally insult an agent by showing your book to other agents is even more widely reported than the one about how every query at every agency is logged into a national agents’ database, so that agents can check to see who has already rejected any given book. Or the one about how agencies keep such good track of queries and submissions that if you have ever received a rejection from them, you can never try again.

Frankly, I think that the main purpose of these pervasive but untrue rumors is to help writers feel more important (and certainly more memorable) in the face of an industry that often treats them like interlopers. It’s pretty appealing to imagine an agent falling so in love with your book that she becomes jealous over it, isn’t it, flying into a green-eyed rage when another agent so much as flirts with it? Or that your submission was so memorable that screeners at an agency will, although they have rejected the manuscript, remember your name for years to come? Or that your book is so potentially revolutionary to the world of prose that agencies would devote significant resources to working in concert to preventing its ever landing on bookshelves near you?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but statistically, none of those ego-pleasing things are at all likely to happen. As important as a submission is to its author, it is, alas, one of an avalanche to the agent. The average agency receives over 800 queries per week, far too many to remember or even catalogue each rejected one individually. Agencies ask to see dozens of manuscripts per week, at minimum, and reject most of those they receive. They simply could not do business otherwise: in order to make money, an agent has to spend most of her time selling the work of her already-signed authors, rather than picking up new ones.

Oh, and phones plug into jacks now.

Don’t feel bad if you believed the old stories — there was a time when most of them were true. (Well, okay: the national database one has never been remotely true. Was there even a national database for missing children before a year or so ago?) But your chances of succeeding in this business go up significantly if you respond to the current conditions within the industry, not what was true when Carter was in the White House.

Adopt, adapt, and improve, as the Knights of the Round Table used to say. Let’s install a phone jack and communicate like the big kids do, huh?

Which brings me to the blog’s mission for this week: I am going to be talking about ways to find new agents to query, over and above going through the standard agents’ guides alphabetically or simply searching online under “literary agents.” Because for the sake of your book, even if you are biting your nails to the elbow, waiting to hear back from the agent of your dreams, you honestly do need to keep querying.

That’s not being pessimistic; it’s just being practical. And it’s doing what the agent of your dreams is probably already assuming that you’re doing, anyway. Times have changed.

So expect to see some good nuts-and-bolts advice here over the next few days. And in the meantime, keep up the good work

Respect the cheese plate!

Super Reader Toddie wrote in the other day with an excellent question:

“Anne – Do you have any words of wisdom/nice template for the follow-up letter/email itself, when we get the temerity to send it? I waffle as to how much to include in order to stay on the good side of the agent vs. being seen as a nasty pest/provoking an automatic rejection.”

Toddie, thanks for asking this as a follow-up to my dictum on follow-ups: until an agency has had your submission — that’s requested manuscript pages, people, not a query letter — for EITHER 8 weeks (not including the 3-week industry summer vacation) OR half again as long as the agent told you to expect (if the agent told you 6 weeks, give it 9 before you follow up), you may legitimately inquire about it without being a pest. Indeed, you SHOULD inquire about it then, because if you wait much longer, the chances of being able to find it again if it is lost are slim.

Note that I said SUBMISSION, and not query letter. If you haven’t heard back on a query letter in 8 weeks AND you sent a SASE with it, just assume that it was lost. Send another, and don’t bother to mention that you’ve queried before. At worst, you’ll get a peevish little note from a screener, saying he already remembers it, but most of the time, it will simply be read as a fresh query. Screeners’ memories are not that good, and often the bodies screening queries in the summer are not the same ones screening them at the same agency in the winter.

But okay, let’s say that you have been waiting for 8 weeks to hear back on requested materials. Or an agency sent you back your manuscript with no letter attached, or you received your SASE with neither letter nor manuscript in it, or you received a rejection letter clearly intended for someone else’s manuscript (and yes, I’ve seen all of these happen. Agencies move a LOT of paper in any given week). Any of these warrants a follow-up note — and if you received someone else’s materials, you should send them back to the agency right away along with that note, because some poor writer is waiting for those.

Do send a note or an e-mail, rather than calling. Why? Well, if any of the outcomes I have mentioned above is true, you’re going to be letting the agent know that someone at the agency has fallen down on the job. At best, the agent will be annoyed at her screener and apologetic toward you; at worst, the agent will resent the implication that she should be working faster. And in every case, yours will be the ring of the phone that does not herald an offer from a publisher for one of her clients’ books.

So tell me: do you really want to be on the initiating end of that call?

Generally speaking, it’s not in your best interest to call anyone in the industry with whom you do not already have a relationship — and no, a nice conversation at a conference does NOT count, by publishing world standards. This is a fairly formal industry, still run by the written word. So it’s best to be as polite as possible — adhere to the Cheese Plate Rule.

What? Don’t tell me that no one ever explained the etiquette of cheese consumption to you. Really? No one but me was raised regretting the Bourbons? What is the world coming to?

Okay, then, I’ll explain: after the dessert course, the hostess presents the guests with an array of cheeses and small knives, right, so that each guest may serve herself? But each cheese is a different shape – an isosceles triangle of Brie, perhaps, next to a rectangle of triple crème, a square of sage Derby, and a wee round of Stilton — so how do you know how to cut off your individual slice?

By preserving the integrity of the cheese: you cut off your piece so as to allow the cheese from which you slice it to remain essentially the same shape as before you began. Thus, you would cut along one long leg of the triangle for the Brie, so the original remains a triangle, across the short way for the triple crème, a shave along the top of the Derby, a pie slice off the Stilton, etc. That way, when the other diners return for seconds, the cheeses will resemble their original shapes closely enough that each eager eater can hone in instantly upon her favorite from round one.

Curious how I’m going to tie this to agents, aren’t you?

Just as one should preserve the integrity of the cheese by conforming to its original shape, a polite writer should preserve the integrity of the budding relationship with an agent by responding via the medium through which the agent requested the materials. If you queried by regular mail, and you received a mailed request to send more materials, sending a follow-up via regular mail preserves the integrity of the relationship, labeling you as polite and considerate: you are letting the agent determine the extent of your intimacy.

In other words, just because you have an agent’s phone number or e-mail address doesn’t mean you should necessarily use it. Respect the cheese plate!

However, if you have already exchanged e-mail with an agent, it is entirely appropriate to follow up via e-mail. If the agent called you personally to ask to see the rest of the manuscript after you’d submitted the first 50 pages, you could legitimately phone – although personally, I would probably e-mail in this instance.

And no, Virginia, if you met the agent at a conference, you do not have to wait until next year’s conference to follow up (although I have known ultra-polite writers who have done so, actually, much to the surprise of the agents). Preserving the integrity of the cheese in this situation would require following up in the same manner as you submitted your materials: either by regular mail or by e-mail.

You’ll never look at cheese the same way again, I assure you.

So, back to Toddie’s question: what should you say? Well, I’m a big fan of allowing people who have messed up an easy means of saving face, so I would advise setting up a way that the agent can do what you want without having to accept any blame whatsoever for the delay. And heck, a little flattery never hurts, either. (Hey, these are touchy people.) So if an agent has had a submission for 8 weeks, I might send a letter that said:

“Dear Mr. X,
Thank you for asking to see the first fifty pages of my manuscript, THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL. Since eight weeks have passed since I sent it, I am beginning to fear that perhaps it got lost in the mail. Here are the pages you requested again, with another SASE. If you would not mind dropping the enclosed stamped, self-addressed postcard in the mail so that I know that this copy did indeed arrive intact, I would appreciate it.”

And I would send exactly the same pages again. Ditto if I received an empty SASE or somebody else’s manuscript — because, you see, with that many submissions, it actually is possible that the submission did get lost. In the more likely case that it did not, this letter allows the agency to pretend that it did.

And the submission is read by a contrite screener, rather than a defensive one. Everyone wins!

You will notice, I hope, that I have been speaking exclusively of agency submissions here, rather than of editors. If you have submitted to a small press, the method above is fine — although for your own protection, you should always send manuscripts to a press that accepts direct submissions from authors via a form of mail with a return receipt.

However, if you met a kind editor from a major house at a conference who asked to see your pages and have not heard back, no amount of cheese-paring is going to enable you to make the follow-up request sound polite. Because, you see, all of the major houses have policies that preclude their reviewing unagented submissions — which means that in asking to see your work, the editor was doing you a personal favor, by definition. So, technically, he doesn’t have an obligation to get back to you, alas.

Just let it go.

I should mention, for the sake of completeness, that the organizers of this year’s PNWA conference swore up and down that every single editor who attended was in fact empowered to pick up new authors directly. If that is true, and an editor you met there solicited your material, feel free to follow up. However, as none of the major publishing houses have changed their stated policies on the subject in recent months, I tend to doubt that such a follow-up would receive much of a response.

What you should NOT do, under any circumstances, with either an editor or an agent who has already sent back your work, is ask for insight on why. Any reasonably busy person in the industry simply reads too many manuscripts to remember individual ones a week or two after the fact, unfortunately, so this is universally considered an unreasonable request.

You are right to tread with care, Toddie: this is a notoriously easily-offended industry. But if you both follow the Cheese Plate Rule and make it as easy as humanly possible for the recipient of your follow-up request to read your work immediately, you are far more likely to be happy with the ultimate outcome.

Keep up the good work!

Time in the writer’s world

Still hanging in there, patient ones? Yesterday, I was talking about how the typical agent and editor have a VERY different sense of how time passes than, say, the writer whose work is sitting on their respective desks. As maddening as it is for is, a couple of months to turn around a manuscript just isn’t as long to them as it is to us. Today, I would like to discuss how time runs differently for writers than for other mortal souls in other respects.

Have you ever noticed how writers who have recently finished a book speak and even think about the time spent writing as practically endless? Barefoot walks across the Sahara have taken less time, to hear us tell it. Even I, who wrote a memoir that necessarily dredged up some very tender memories in less than a year and a half, first idea to final comma, tend to describe the actual writing process as though it took years upon years. Is it because writing a book ages the writer at an unusually rapid rate, much as moving at the speed of light would make us age backwards, or am I and my writing colleagues, to put it colloquially, whiny wimps?

Because I love you people, I shall spare you the answer that virtually every agent and editor in the business would give to that particular question.

My theory is that most of us exaggerate the time spent writing that first book in order to try to convey to non-writers just how big a chunk of our mind, energy, and soul has gotten sucked into that all-too-often thankless project. Not to mention after writing it, sacre bleu! all of the additional time and anguish to find an agent for it! And then to sell it to a publisher! I think that in our heart of hearts, we want all of those hours to be apparent to outside observers, so that they may be impressed — while, of course, maintaining that writerly fiction that we are such geniuses that our work is invariably perfect on the first draft.

The hours of work, like it or not, are NOT readily apparent to outsiders, sometimes not even those within the industry itself, surprisingly enough. I write comedy, and I can tell you from long, hard experience that most non-writers think jokes flow off my fingertips at the speed of conversation; tell a non-writer that you spent a decade writing a novel, and half the time, he will automatically assume that you are not only lazy, but the universe’s slowest typist.

For most people, the idea of spending hours alone with their thoughts on a regular basis is unfathomable. I am certainly not the only writer in existence whose friends have no idea how she spends her day. Even when our kith and kin catch us in the act, all they really see are hands moving across a keyboard or eyes staring into space. It just doesn’t look like hard work to them. With painters and sculptors and other kinds of artists, it is at least self-evident to outsiders HOW they spend their time.

Coming from an academic background, I used to think that my scholarly friends would understand what I do, but the rules are so different for getting scholarly work published that I have changed their mind. Since “publish or perish” is the rule at the university, academics pretty much automatically get articles and books published if their research is interesting, but the rest of us writers, alas, are not so lucky. When you finish writing your doctoral dissertation, you at least get to wear fancy robes for a day and hear someone in authority say your name out loud in front of a whole lot of people. (I ask you: when’s the last time a large institution set aside a day to celebrate your finishing a novel?) And, unlike academic writing, publication rate is not a particularly good indicator of the quality of the work.

Thus, I think, the extraordinarily high value we writers place on the end product. It is something tangible we can show to people, physical proof that during all of those hours, we were actually DOING something. Not to mention validation of all of our unseen gut-wrenching work.

I have found another line of work with a similar rhythm to ours, though: years of unrecognized work only being retroactively validated by the end product. An old friend from college, a mathematician by trade, called me some time ago to catch up. That was back when I had every reason to believe that my memoir (A FAMILY DARKLY: LOVE, LOSS, AND THE FINAL PASSIONS OF PHILIP K. DICK) would be coming out sometime before I have grown a long gray beard, and although it seems astonishing to me in retrospect, I was tremendously impatient for the release date. In talking about it with my mathematician friend, I heard myself perform that writerly expansion of time, making the writing process sound interminable.

Turns out I had mistaken my audience. Mathematicians, he told me, often spend ten or twenty years on a single problem; there are proofs he does not expect to see solved in his lifetime. Physicists, too, routinely linger this long in thought: did you think someone just woke up one day and imagined the quark? Granted, when mathematicians and physicists crack the big problems, they tend to be rewarded lavishly, with hundreds of thousands of dollars, Nobel Prizes, and similar door prizes. But imagine spending all of that time figuring something out, all the while wondering if someone else is going to solve your equation first. All the while waiting for recognition that can only come after years of hard, patient, lonely work, on a project that may never succeed.

Wait a minute — we’re writers! We don’t have to imagine it; we live it. While a few among us will ultimately be rewarded with lots of money (or, possibly, even the Nobel Prize), the vast majority of us will not. And yet, bless us, still we put in the hours, the years, for the same reason that the mathematicians and physicists do: we want to contribute something new to human thought. We want to explain humanity to itself.

What a nice thing for us to do for the world, eh?

No wonder time seems long to us, with such lofty aspirations. And no wonder that it is absolutely vital that we remind ourselves early and often, particularly during those interminable-feeling periods when we are waiting to hear back from an agent or editor, that we are in fact public benefactors. We just aren’t treated like it until we hit the big time – and because most of the people we know don’t really understand what we do before that point, we can sometimes make the terrible mistake of starting to believe that speedy publication is the ONLY valid measure of the quality of writing.


And I can prove it with an anecdote. Once there was a novelist – a very, very good one– who wrote for years before she became an overnight success at the age of 36. That may seem young for success as a writer, by current standards, but bear in mind that she completed her first full novel at 22; it was not published until 14 years later.

Because she believed in her dreams, she did manage to sell another novel in the interim, to a reputable publisher — she completed it at 24, but it took her five years to sell it — but he paid her only the tiniest of advances. Maddeningly, the publisher ended up holding onto the second book for the rest of her life, publishing it only AFTER her subsequent books had attained significant success.

The author, as some of you may have guessed, was Jane Austen. The first book was SENSE AND SENSIBILITY; the second, the one held hostage by the silly publisher until after her death, was NORTHANGER ABBEY.

Try to remember this, the next time you find yourself feeling that the time between you and publication is apparently endless, in defiance of all the laws of physics. Remember this, whenever you are tempted by non-artistic logic to view difficulty in getting a book published as a sure indicator of low writing quality. Would any reader now say that SENSE AND SENSIBILITY was so poorly written that it deserved to be waitlisted for 14 years?

Again, poppycock.

I say let’s hear it for all of us who keep working in the quiet of our solitary rooms. Don’t let anyone tell you that finishing a book isn’t a significant achievement, regardless of the response of the publishing world. If people ask you what you DO in all of those hours sitting at your desk, tell them that you are emulating your Aunt Jane, trying to make time compress and shed a little light on the world.

Keep up the good work!

The end of the annual publishing vacation — and a minor milestone

Well, congratulations, all of you hardy souls who sent out queries and submissions within the last couple of months and have been waiting with various degrees of patience for that agent or editor to return from summer vacation. (If you have read this blog with any regularity, you are probably already aware that almost everyone in the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day. If you’ve received a reply during that time, you have most likely been dealing with the low person on the totem pole at the agency – or the assistant of a higher-up — the one who is left behind to deal with emergent crises and to turn the lights on and off each day.)

Before you celebrate the end of your long, hot wait too heartily, though, do recall that the vast majority of writers in the United States are not in fact aware of this vacation period, any more than they take note of the Frankfurt Book Fair in October (1-2 weeks of non-mail reading), the winter catch-up period (Thanksgiving to Christmas), or the January overload (presses and agencies only have a month to get out last year’s tax info to their writers; also, half the population of North America’s New Year’s resolutions apparently revolve around sending out queries and submissions right after the first).

The industry-savvy just know not to expect much to get done during these times.

However, since submissions go on unabated, or even increased, in the post-conference period just before Labor Day, your average agent walked into her office this morning to find it buried under at least three weeks’ worth of queries and submissions. (I say “at least” because understandably, not everyone works as hard the day before vacation as the Protestant work ethic might dictate.) And all of those interns who were working as unpaid screeners for the summer have now gone back to school.

Intimidating picture, isn’t it? Just THINK of all the trees lying dead on agents’ desks at the moment.

Sad for the trees, yes, but not tremendous news for you, either: you should probably not expect to hear back this week. Or next.

Yes, even if you sent out your requested materials in mid-July. In fact, you might be better off if the agent of your dreams does NOT read your submission this week: during high-volume periods, the likelihood that the query screener or submission reader is going to be feeling put-upon and annoyed is substantially higher. That almost invariably equals a less sympathetic read. On the whole, you’re be happier with the outcome if your reader is feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.

Yes, I know: it’s horribly frustrating to have to wait so long. Blame it on the rather short-sighted mentality of the industry: as most agents will tell you if pressed (as in under rocks; I’m a very persistent question-asker), it actually isn’t their job to read queries and submissions; technically, that’s prep work for future tasks that might never materialize.

Think about it: realistically, even if the Great American Novel is sitting on their respective desks at this very moment, it’s not going to make money for them for months, or even years. Which lends a certain lack of urgency to plowing through that pile of papers, doesn’t it?

In other words: 99% of the time, the delays have NOTHING to do with you or the quality of your book. Try not to take them personally. Just accept that you have no control over where your query or submission is sitting in that pile.

And do be aware that time when your manuscript is sitting on someone’s desk, awaiting a decision, passes substantially more slowly than time spent in any other way that doesn’t involve incarceration. The Count of Monte Cristo has nothing on us. Before you pick up the phone or log onto your e-mail server to issue a peppery WHAT’S TAKING SO LONG? statement, please, please, please bring this blog to mind and consider the possibility that your sensibilities may be a bit more, well, sensitive than usual. Is this REALLY the best mental state for asking someone to do a favor for you by moving you up in the queue?

Which, in case you didn’t know, what a writer’s question about what’s taking so long sounds like to an agent at any reasonably successful agency: not worry that the submission has been lost, but an unfair request to queue-jump. True, the rule of thumb is that if an agency has had your manuscript for more than 8 weeks, you can legitimately make inquires, but just after the summer holiday, even such a well-justified question can come across as badgering. For prudence’s sake, just subtract that 3-week summer vacation from your 8-week countdown.

Trust me: just as agents’ sense of time is off right now, so is yours. Take a deep breath, then turn away from the phone or e-mail for another week. And if you want to pummel a lavender-scented pillow for a while in the meantime, that might be a good idea, too.

And while we’re at it: this is the 50th blog of my new website! Wahoo!

Yes, I know, it doesn’t look that way, since I’ve been slowly adding the archives from my old blog on the PNWA site. But this is indeed the 50th under the new régime.

To celebrate, why not mention the blog to a couple of your writing friends? I know quite a few my old readers have been having trouble figuring out how to find me — one kind of has to know how to spell my name in order to find the site, and most of my former readers knew me merely as the PNWA’s Guest Writer. So if you would be so kind as to pass the word along (assuming that you’ve been getting something out of the site, of course), that would be a lovely 50th birthday present for this space.

Oh, and in response to a couple of e-mails I’ve gotten recently: if you want to post a question on the site (usually the quickest way to get me to answer them, especially if I’m on the road, as I am frequently), all you have to do is go down to the COMMENTS link at the bottom of each post. Click on that, then scroll down through the already-posted comments there. At the bottom, there will be an ADD COMMENT box. Post your question there, and I’ll get to it as soon as I can!

Happy 50th post, everybody! Please, try not to worry about your submission or query. And keep up the good work!

Personality in the query letter

Loyal reader MooCrazy posted an excellent question a while back, one that I thought deserved treatment at length. It’s been a hectic week, though, so it’s taken me a bit to get back to it. Here is her question, slightly abridged:

“I think of a query letter as very brief and business-like, not a place for my natural irreverence to burst forth. But I would be wrong about that, I bet. Please suggest how to convince an agent or editor that one’s work appeals to readers’ sense of humor without coming across as unprofessional or downright silly. The voice that comes naturally to me when writing narrative deserts me when composing business letters or even these questions to you. Any pointers on what sort of self-talk I should engage in to overcome this inhibition?”

Moo, I love this question, because it cuts right to the heart of the conflict between making your submission materials ultra-professional vs. conveying enough of your personality (and your book’s) to attract an agent with a worldview similar enough to yours that you can work together happily for a decade or three. And I’m going to be honest with you here: 99% of the selling-your-writing guides will tell you flatly that your query letters should be NOTHING but professional, mere variations on a very distant, business-like theme.

In short, 99% of the guidance out there will tell you to make your query letter exactly like every other writer’s who pays attention to them. I think that this is a serious mistake, when you are trying to stand out in the crowd.

Let me show you why. I go to a lot of conferences all over the country, so I meet many, many agents trolling for clients. A few years ago, I heard a relatively new agent give a demonstration of what it is like to go through an hour’s worth of query letters — not the dozens of hours a week an agency screener actually spends upon them, mind you, but just long enough to give us a sense of what did and did not work. She read us real query letters aloud (sans names, of course), asking after each one: “Would you ask to see the first 50 pages?”

Most illuminating. As you might expect, about 80% of them were not professional enough to be seriously considered, because they did not meet the minimum standard for a successful business letter: they either did not say what they wanted (you’d be amazed how few query letters mention that the author is seeking representation), why they were soliciting that particular agent (a pet peeve at agencies everywhere), what the book was about, what the book’s category was, or why anyone might conceivably might want to read it. Boasts abounded (a recurring favorite: “This is the next (insert name of bestseller here)!”), as did, surprisingly enough, not-so-veiled threats (“You’ll be sorry if you pass up this opportunity.”) Too many people mistake pushiness, wild enthusiasm, and exaggeration for sales technique.

And all of these were the ones who remembered to include a SASE. Next!

Now, perhaps I place too much faith in my readers in general (and you in particular, Moo), but I’ve gone over the art of query-writing enough here that I like to think that none of you would make these particular stripes of mistakes. (If you’re new to this blog, check out the QUERYING category to the right.) As you say, Moo, those of us who realize that writing is a business know better.

However, businesslike need not mean cold or boring — or that you need to utilize the turgid clichés of the standard business letter. The query-reading agent made this point beautifully: after 45 minutes of hearing, “enclosed please find…” and “thank you for your prompt attention to this matter,” believe me, everyone in the room was starting to feel quite resentful that people gifted enough to write an entire book couldn’t come up with more original ways to convey these necessary business sentiments. We wanted to slap them into being more colorful.

Obviously, you will want to stick to some business norms: keep the letter to a single page; list the full name and address of the agent above the greeting; greet the agent as “Dear Ms. X” or “Dear Mr. Y”, rather than by the first name (if you have any doubt whatsoever about the sex of your intended recipient, call the agency and ask the receptionist.); include your contact information either in the header or below the signature; add an “enclosed” notation at the bottom, noting what materials are in the package. If you are concerned about goading an agent into rage by the fact that you’re sending out many queries simultaneously (which most agents will automatically assume you are, incidentally), add “simultaneous submissions” under the “enclosed” notation.

You should not, however, use business format to the extent that you do not indent your paragraphs. This is a literate business, so many agency screeners draw unkind inferences about writers who do not indent, the nasty thoughts generally reserved for those who cannot spell. Nor should you be so formal that you don’t sound like an interesting person.

The presenting agent illustrated this last point very effectively, too. After about 55 minutes of mostly rejectable examples, she read us a query that was at first blush absolutely perfect. It did positively everything that the guides tell writers to do: it told the agent why he had picked her, what his book was about, the target market, and a little about the writer’s publication record. It ended with a polite thank-you for taking her time, and included a SASE.

She held this sterling document high in the air. “Who can tell me why I rejected this?”

Since I had a lot of experience reading queries, my hand shot in the air, but everyone else in the room looked at one another, puzzled. If we had been in a cartoon or a comic book, a huge thought bubble would have been hanging over the audience, reading, “But I know I’ve sent out queries identical to that! My God, what did I do wrong?”

By this time, I was practically jumping up and down in my seat, dying to put them out of their collective misery. Smiling, the agent pointed at me, and I said, “It’s a man without a face. It could have been written by positively anybody – or copied practically word for word from half the writers’ marketing guides on the bookshelf.”

“Bingo,” the agent said.

From the writer’s point of view, this seems like a mean trick, doesn’t it? You can do everything right — and STILL be rejected! It’s not just a matter of boring the agent — although, since advice-giving books have made good writers’ query letters so VERY similar, that’s a big part of it. Do you really want your missive to sound exactly like 20 others the agent’s seen that week?

But if you think about the kind of a relationship the query letter is intended to solicit, it quickly becomes clear why an infusion of personality is necessary: yes, you and your agent will be doing business together, but this is also the person you will be trusting to handle your baby. This is the person who is going to be giving you some of the best and worst news of your life; this is the person with whom you will be sharing the joys and sorrows of the rest of your career. Your successes will be his successes.

This is not just any business relationship: it’s a personal one, too.

So tell me: if you were in the agent’s shoes, would you prefer to anticipate spending the next 30 years communicating with a man without a face, a perfectly businesslike automaton, or an interesting, funny, complex person?

Moo, if you are lucky enough to be funny, and can convey that in writing, believe me, your chosen agent is going to want to know about it as soon as possible. And it’s in your interest, too: would you really want to end up with an agent without a sense of humor? Or someone who doesn’t want to accept you the way you are?

I know that I’ve been comparing the querying process to dating quite a bit over the last month, but honestly, the last thing I would advise an interesting writer to do is to suppress her personality in her query letter, any more than I would encourage someone I liked to misrepresent herself on a date. And that goes double for the author bio. If you’ve been brave enough to lead an offbeat life, celebrate it!

It can only make you more memorable, if you’ve presented your work in a businesslike manner. Generally speaking, the more of the flavor of your book you can convey in the cover letter, the better.

So YES, Moo, I would HIGHLY encourage you to make your query letter as funny as your book! Wouldn’t you like your letter to be the one in the last three hundred that puts a smile on your dream agent’s face? Genuine comic talent is rare. And if you were an agent looking for comedy, wouldn’t you be THRILLED to receive a query letter that was genuinely amusing, for a change?

And that concludes my pep talk du jour, dearly beloved. Keep up the good work!

Preparing to talk with an agent, Part II

On Thursday, I broached the seldom-discussed subject of how to talk to an agent who wants to sign you, a situation I devoutly hope all of you will be facing very soon. Today, I want to go into the logic behind the two major submission strategies favored by agents, individual submissions and multiple submissions, and how the strategy pursued by your agent can affect you and your book. Individual submissions are far and away the more common choice for fiction, so I shall discuss it first.

Let’s assume that you have already signed with Agent X and revised your manuscript to within an inch of its life at X’s behest. Once Agent X is satisfied with the work to be submitted (and be prepared, everyone: getting it into submittable shape can take months or even years; “How much revision do you typically do with your authors before submitting?” might be a good question to ask in advance), then she will pitch your work to an editor — via phone, lunch, coffee, chance meeting at the local deli, the odd conversation at an alumni club meeting, etc. — and if the editor sounds interested, your manuscript or book proposal will wend its way to the editor’s desk.

I would like to report that once there, it is instantly pounced upon and eagerly read by the editor, but in all likelihood, it will sit there for a while, twiddling its papery thumbs in a pile with other bored manuscripts. Here is where your agent’s persistence will really pay off: a good agent who cares about a project will keep on nagging unmercifully until your manuscript gets read.

How long can it sit there? Well, it depends. Several months is common, but would you throw something at your monitor if I told you a year is not unheard-of for an individual submission? After all, the editor knows no one else is seeing it, so it’s automatically a lower priority than the submissions with a deadline, right?

This is not, in short, a situation where anyone concerned should be holding her breath, waiting for a response.

Please do be aware, though, that with individual submissions, long waits do not necessarily mean bad news. I know writers who have had good books held by editors for over a year — both books that the editor eventually acquired and books that the editor rejected. If the editor just dislikes the writing style, that will probably be determined quickly: often, an editor (or, more commonly, his assistant) will read the first few pages of a submitted manuscript fairly shortly after receiving it to see if there’s any chance at all at he might want to acquire it. If the answer is no, trust me, it will be off his desk in a hurry.

What will NOT happen, however, is that a book will be rejected and STILL remain sequestered in editorial files. Nor will it be read and set aside to think about. Almost universally, long waits are attributable to your book’s not having been read yet, at least by the person empowered to make an actual decision, not to his trying to make up his mind between a couple of projects. (Although, to be fair, at most houses, several people will have to read the book before it lands on the desk of the decision-maker, and that, too, takes time.)

From the writer’s point of view of course, these delays are maddening – all the more so, because the writer is almost never told what is going on with the book during these delays. The only sane response is to leave the whole matter in your agent’s hands and start working on your next book, but few among us have that kind of sang froid, alas.

In my case, while my novel is making the rounds of publishers, I have a memoir that might conceivably be coming out within the foreseeable future, my next novel to complete, my editing business to run, and this blog to write: I certainly have plenty to do. Yet even I find myself wondering if the manuscript of my novel will sit so long in one place that the paper will spontaneously produce leaves, acorns, perhaps even an entire tree. Someday, will archeologists be trying to estimate the age of my manuscript by its rings? Or in geological time, if it petrifies?

This is, of course, the primary drawback to individual submissions of a manuscript. “Aha! “ I hear you cry, “then I should press my agent-to-be for multiple submissions!”

Well, not necessarily. Multiple submission (also known as simultaneous or mass submission) is, as the name implies, when your book or book proposal is sent to many editors at once. Nonfiction is very often sold this way, as is any book expected to generate sufficient interest for an auction. Your agent will pitch your book (over the phone or the aforementioned comestibles), the editor will express interest, your book or book proposal will be sent, and this process is repeated with your agent’s entire A-list of editors.

The advantage of this is that interest from several editors can engender a bidding war. The threat of another editor’s scooping up the next hot thing can also speed up the reading process considerably. The disadvantage, however, is that it makes your book very subject to the winds of gossip. If half the editors say no, the other half will probably hear about it.

Yes, New York is a big city, but in many ways, its publishing world is a small town. Your agent’s assistant probably went to college with assistants of a couple of the editors who will see your book. People talk. If one editor makes an offer, you can bet your boots that she will mention it to people she knows. Similarly, if she turned down a book an agent was pitching as the best read since the Declaration of Independence, she’s likely to mention it to her chums. As a result, books can go from very hot to very not in a matter of days.

For those of us who reside in more laid-back portions of the country, the speed of Manhattanite collective changes of mind can be dizzying, if not downright odd. Why, we Pacific Northwesterners wonder, does everyone want the same thing at the same time? Surely, the book market is more complex than that?

I wish I could explain this phenomenon, my friends, but I can no more explain fads in the book market than I can fads in fashion. Why is it that when you walk into an NYC publishing house, for instance, all of the editorial assistants will be dressed more or less the same? Beyond me. But remember those beach-combing New Yorkers I told you about? Same mentality.

Don’t try to reason it out more than that: it is one of the great mysteries of life, like the origin of evil and why the line you chose at the supermarket always moves more slowly than the others. Just look out your window at the Pacific Northwest verdure, reflect that you can probably see more trees from your office window than are in the entirety of Central Park, and reconcile yourself to regional differences in character. Remember that you perplex them, too.
So, too, should you regard the mystery of the alternation of glacially-slow reading times and we-need-you-to-overnight-your-changes urgency. Panic and apathy often seem to be the only two possible states of being. It might occur to you, living in an environment where the air is breathable, that it would in fact be theoretically possible for agents and editors to come up with a temporal plan, where one event follows another in a logical manner, and deadlines may be met with the calm tranquility that only comes from advance preparation.

Take my advice: don’t try to present this quaint view to people in the New York-based publishing industry, lest you be labeled a West Coast Flake. Instead, just take quiet steps to insure your own inner peace and personal tranquility, and let them get on with their heart-stopping perpetual panic.

And no, I am not talking about meditation: I’m talking about adding two weeks to any negotiated deadline, so you may finish making your changes without losing too much sleep. I’m talking about pretending that FedEx does not serve your remote part of the country; the USPS’ Priority mail is more than fast enough for a manuscript that will sit on an editor’s desk until the next Ice Age.

My point here (and I’m relatively sure that I still have one) is that the more you know about your prospective agent’s preferred solicitation style up front, the more stress you will be able to save yourself down the line. Will you be dealing in the geological timeframes of individual submissions, or the live-or-die gamble of multiple submissions? Either way, get a solid explanation now, before the panic begins, because honey, trying to get an explanation from a Manhattanite agent in the middle of a panic is like Dorothy trying to talk strategy with the cyclone that landed her in Oz.

Learn what you can first, then hold on for the ride. And wherever you are in the process, keep up the good work!

Manuscript Revision V, and the dreaded summer sabbatical

Well, it’s official: the annual exodus of the publishing world from Manhattan has begun. From now until after Labor Day, it’s a no-man’s land, a desert where underpaid agency interns rule the office for a couple of weeks and it’s well-nigh impossible for an editor who has fallen in love with a book to pull together enough bodies for an editorial meeting to acquire it.

Not everyone in the industry is on vacation, of course, but most are. Let’s just say that if you yodeled in my agency right now, the echo would astonish you.

What does this mean for writers, in practical terms? Well, agencies are not going to be getting around to a whole lot of submissions over the next couple of weeks, so if you haven’t sent your post-conference queries or submissions out, and the agent you’re querying isn’t low man on the totem pole at the agency (often the one who is left behind to guard the fort in August), you might want to take a couple of weeks to revise before sending it. And if you HAVE sent a submission, it’s very, very unlikely that you will hear back before Labor Day week.

Yes, even if you sent it a month ago.

And yes, they’re doing this to everybody. And oh, yes, they ARE aware that they’re dealing with people’s dreams. Doesn’t stop ‘em from going on vacation.

Back to matters that we writers CAN control. On Wednesday, I was talking about the importance of freshness in your manuscript, discussing what the industry does and does not consider fresh enough to get excited about in a submission. Over the next couple of days, I want to discuss factors that can kill the perception of freshness faster than an agency screener can shout, “NEXT!”

To introduce you to the first good-feeling assassin, let me tell you a story.

In the mid-1990s, a professor at Harvard Law School took a sabbatical and joined the faculty at Georgetown for a year. After he had been installed in his new office for a week, he realized that he was lonely. He’d had tenure for so long at Harvard that he no longer remembered what it had been like to be the new guy in the faculty lounge — and it was miserable.

One day, determined to make friends, he walked into the faculty lounge, sat down next to another law professor, and introduced himself. His new acquaintance seemed friendly enough, but the Harvard professor was pretty rusty at small talk. When they had exhausted discussion about the latest Supreme Court ruling (not too exciting, but hey, they were law professors), he cast his mind back to the last time he had been the new guy, back in the early 1970s, and resuscitated a question that had worked like a charm in the faculty lounge then: “So, what does your wife do?”

The Georgetown professor broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, as if the Harvard prof had just made the funniest joke in the world.

The Harvard professor didn’t know whether to be piqued or amused. “I’m sorry — I don’t get the joke. Doesn’t your wife work?”

“Oh, she does,” the Georgetown prof replied dryly, fixing our hero with a glance of singular disdain. “You might possibly have heard of her work, in fact.” The Harvard professor had been talking for the last half an hour to Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s husband.

Now, the story may be apocryphal (although I had it from someone who claimed to have been the first professor’s research assistant), but the moral is clear: when speaking to strangers, it behooves you to watch what you say, because you do not necessarily know what their backgrounds or beliefs are. Keep those feet far away from your mouth.

Translation for those submitting to agencies or publishing houses: NEVER assume that your reader will share your sex, gender (yes, they mean different things, technically: sex is biological, gender is learned), ethnicity, generation, social class, educational background, sociopolitical beliefs, political party affiliation, views about the Gulf War, or familiarity with pop culture. Because, you see, it is entirely possible that the person who will end up screening your submission will not be akin to you in one or more of these respects.

Nothing hits the reject pile faster than a manuscript that has offended its reader — unless it is one that an agency screener believes will offend book buyers.

In many ways, this is counterintuitive, isn’t it? As everyone who has ever walked into a bookstore knows, controversy can fuel book sales tremendously. (Well, okay: everyone who has ever walked into a bookstore EXCEPT my publisher knows this.) Once controversial works are out, they tend to sell well — readers, bless their hearts, will often buy books they know will make them angry enough to debate. However, writing on controversial subjects often has a substantially harder time finding a home with an agent – and rather seldom wins contests, I have noticed.

I am not saying that dull, safe writing on mainstream subjects invariably carries off all the trophies — far from it. You can write about child abuse, neglect, murder, and rape until you’re blue in the face without most contest judges becoming offended, and certainly without raising a blush in the average agent. We’ve all read so much about these grisly topics that while the individual stories remain shocking, the concept isn’t; at this point, they’ve become such familiar scenarios that the trick is presenting them in a fresh way. You can write about losing your virginity, cheating on your taxes, and defrauding investors — and agents and editors will merely want to hear how your take on these once-taboo subjects is different from what’s already on the market.

You cannot, however, get away with presuming that any given reader (read: agent, editor, or contest judge) will share your political or social beliefs, however — or, for that matter, anything else in your background or mindset. You can try, like the Harvard professor, to pull off assuming that everybody else’s wife is like your own, but like him, you run the risk of being dismissed as ignorant, insensitive, or worse.

I am most emphatically NOT suggesting that you gut your work of any controversial content, nor am I talking about (and I hate this term) political correctness. I am talking about its being very much in your interests to explain your views thoroughly for the sake of readers who might not share your life experiences or views.

Or who, alternatively, might be VERY familiar with your subject matter, just as the unknown Georgetown professor was unexpectedly knee-deep in Supreme Court lore. Make sure that your submission is respectful of readers at both ends of the familiarity spectrum.

Recognize that your point of view is, in fact, a point of view, and as such, naturally requires elucidation in order to be accessible to all readers.

And do be especially aware that your submission may as easily be read by a 23-year-old recent college graduate with a nose ring and three tattoos as by a 55-year-old agent in Armani. Ditto for contest entries: I can’t tell you how many entries I’ve screened as a judge that automatically assumed that every reader would be a Baby Boomer, with that set of life experiences. As a Gen Xer with parents born long before the Baby Boom, I obviously read these entries differently than an older (or younger) person would. As would a judge, agent, or editor in her late 60s.

See what I mean?

We all have different takes on what we read, and, perhaps more importantly for the sake of your book, different ideas of what is marketable, as well as notions about to whom it might be sold. If an agent or editor thinks that your take on a subject might offend the book’s target market, s/he is unlikely to fall in love with your book enough to want to pick it up.

There are a few simple ways you can minimize the possibility of triggering either the highly sensitive oh-no-it-will-alienate-readers response or an agency screener’s personal hackles. Avoid clichés, for starters, as those tend to be tied to specific eras, regions, and even television watching habits. They date you, and in any case, as most agents will tell you at length if you give them the opportunity, the point of submission is to convey the author’s thoughts, not the common wisdom.

If you can get feedback on your submission from a few readers of different backgrounds than your own, you can easily weed out references that do not work universally before you send the work out. Most writers learn this pro’s trick only very late in the game, but the earlier you can incorporate this practice into your writing career, the better.

Does this seem inordinately time-consuming? It need not be, if you are selective about your readers and give them to understand that they should be flattered that you want their input.

I speak from experience here: I do practice what I preach. I routinely run every chapter of my novels past a wonderful writer who is not only 20 years older than I am, but also grew up in a different country. When I am writing about the West Coast, I garner input from readers raised out East. My female protagonists always traipse under the eyes of both female and male first readers. Why? So I am absolutely sure that my writing is conveying exactly what I want it to say to a broad spectrum of readers.

Third, approach your potential readers with respect, and keep sneering at those who disagree with you to a minimum. (Which is surprisingly common in manuscripts.) I’m not suggesting that you iron out your personal beliefs to make them appear mainstream — agents and editors tend to be smart people who understand that the world is a pretty darned complex place. But watch your tone, particularly in nonfiction, lest you become so carried away in making your case that you forget that a member of your honorable opposition may well be judging your work.

This is a circumstance, like so many others, where politeness pays well. Your mother was right about that, you know.

Finally, accept that you cannot control who will read your work after you mail it to an agency or a publishing house. If your romance novel about an airline pilot happens to fall onto the desk of someone who has recently experienced major turbulence and resented it, there’s really nothing you can do to assuage her dislike. Similarly, if your self-help book on resolving marital discord is screened by a reader who had just signed divorce papers, no efforts on your part can assure a non-cynical read. And, as long-term readers of this blog already know, a tongue just burned on a latté often spells disaster for the next manuscript its owner reads.

Concentrate on what you can control: clarity, aptness of references, and making your story or argument appeal to as broad an audience as possible.

Keep up the good work!

The small press dilemma

For those of you who missed it, excellent and faithful reader MooCrazy wrote in a few days ago about a concern shared by many writers: the dilemma about how to handle desirable career transitions when dealing with a small press. Quoth Moo:

“Would you please speak to the issue of finding an agent after an author has published a first book through a traditional publisher without one? I love my current publisher, a small regional press. They claim the feeling is mutual. (I make a point of being very easy to work with.) However, I want to make sure my next book – a romp through a farm, similar to Bob Tarte’s “Enslaved by Ducks” – is represented by an agent because it is possibly national, even international in appeal. Should I stick with the publisher I love but try to interest an agent anyway? Will my publisher think it is bad manners to bring an agent in? They’ve already invited me to submit again. I don’t want it to appear that I don’t appreciate and trust them. Of course, there’s always the chance they won’t even like this book. It would be presumptuous of me to assume so.”

Moo, I hear you, and I’m glad you brought this up. I have heard some version of this concern from practically every author I have ever known who went through a small press. You don’t want to ruin the relationship, naturally, but you don’t want to limit your future books a press that may not have the distribution capacity to help your career grow in the long term. You want to be loyal to people who have been nice to you, but you would like to have your future books make a bit more of a splash. You don’t want to alienate those who may be your best chance at publication for the next book, but you are well aware that that prime face-out space on bookshelves and very visible table displays at the major bookstore chains are leased by the big publishing houses.

Here’s a short answer to the dilemma: last time I checked, Bob Tarte was represented by the recently-visiting-in-this-neck-of-the-woods Jeff Kleinman; his clients speak well of him. I have no idea if he would like your book project, but I suspect he would respond with sensitivity to a query letter that began, “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference.” (Don’t say this if it isn’t true, of course.) Since you so ably represented Bob Tarte’s excellent ENSLAVED BY DUCKS, I believe you will be interested in my book. While I already have an ongoing relationship with Small Publisher X, who printed my last book, I am eager to seek a broader audience for my work.” Why not test this supposition by sending off such a letter right away?

Before I go into all the reasons that this might be a good idea, let me run through why such an opening might be effective. That, from an agent’s point of view, is a pretty alluring opening paragraph to a query letter. It says that you’ve already taken the time to do some professional development for yourself as a writer, by going to a conference; it recognizes him for his past professional efforts, and ties those efforts to your work, and last, but certainly not least, it tells the agent that you already have publication credits. What’s not to love?

Yes, I know: this reads as though I am evading the central issue, which is whether small publishers get annoyed when their authors try to agent up. But in order to understand the prevailing industry attitudes about this, it’s important to understand why an agent would not see ANY ethical problem to picking up a writer who already has a self-negotiated contract with a small press.

Why? Well, in industry terms, there honestly would be no problem whatsoever: it’s understood that career writers often begin with small presses and move up to big ones. It’s also understood that to deal with the large presses, a writer will need an agent. Just as no one in professional baseball would expect a very gifted minor league player to remain with his original team when a major league club beckoned, it would actually surprise most publishing professionals if a serious writer DID stay with a very small press purely out of loyalty.

So from an agent’s POV, all your having a pre-existing relationship with a small publisher means is two things: first, that you have a successful track record of pleasing an editor (which is a selling point that he can use to try to pitch your work to the majors), and second, that there is already an editor at a press out there who is predisposed to read and admire your work (which means his job will be easier). This is going to make you a very attractive client prospect.

But will your publisher become annoyed if you shop your next book around to agents before you show it to them? Well, there certainly are unreasonably jealous people out there, but people who work for small presses also understand that it’s far from uncommon for a writer to start out at a small press and move up to a big one with the help of an agent. Actually, the more successful they are at promoting your first book, the more they could logically expect you to move onward and upward.

They know, in short, that your wanting to find an agent is not a reflection upon your relationship with them, but merely a practical attempt on your part to enhance your work’s visibility. If they are a credible house (and it sounds as though they are), this will have no effect upon your reputation whatsoever. Authors move from press to press all the time, without any hard feelings, and when well-meaning industry professionals genuinely respect an author, the last thing they want to do is to harm their future books’ chances of commercial success. In fact, if your subsequent books do well, the small press will benefit, because new readers will come looking for copies of your first book. Everybody wins.

Yes, I know: there is a LOT of talk on the conference circuit about writers being blacklisted, but actually, it doesn’t happen very often. In my experience, there are only three situations where presses tend to become mortally offended if their authors seek representation for their next books — and generally speaking, the mortally offended and the genuinely sociopathic are the only people you need to worry about bad-mouthing you. (I’m tempted to digress into diagnosing the motives of the people who have been threatening to sue over my memoir here, but I shan’t.)

What are these terrible instances? First, if it is a press that ONLY works with unagented authors, or who prefers to do so. Such presses are rare, but they do exist; it is undoubtedly cheaper to work with unagented writers. If this is their policy, however, they have set up a situation where their authors HAVE to leave them in order to pursue their careers. Consequently, they expect it.

When such a publisher becomes annoyed with an author for seeking representation, it is only because he was counting upon making more money on any given author before she moved up to the majors. But if a major press where you want to be, it just doesn’t make sense to stick with a press with that kind of policy anyway, does it?

The second instance is where the publication contract for the first book contained a right of first refusal clause over your next book. This is a fairly standard contractual provision, so you should check for it. In essence, it means that when you sold the first book, you agreed to let them look at it before any other publisher does. They already know that they like your writing (which means that it is not at all presumptuous for you to assume that they might want your next, incidentally), and they would rather not have to compete in order to retain you.

If you have such a clause in your first book’s contract, it would not prevent you from sending your next book out to agents. All it would mean is that any agent who did sign you would be legally obligated to show the book to your publisher before shopping it around. It just means that you would have to be honest with the agent about the obligation. You would land the agent, the agent would approach your publisher, and everyone would be happy.

The third situation — and honestly, one hears about it anecdotally far more than it occurs in real life — is where the editor who handled the first book has already heard about the next book and loved it, or has become friendly with the author to the extent that it never occurred to him that you might move on to another press, or who had just assumed that all of their authors are there for a lifetime, or who has fallen so deeply in love with you as to be beyond the reach of ordinary common sense. In short, these are instances where there is either a personal relationship between the author and the editor or publisher — or a dementia on someone’s part that there IS a personal relationship strong enough that it would transcend the norms of the industry.

Truly, there is absolutely nothing you can do about other people’s assumptions. If people at your press decide to be offended at your serving your work’s best interests, though, you might want to give some thought about whether this is the best place for your work in the long term. As an author, your top loyalty needs to be to your books, not to your publisher.

Since you say that you have a good relationship with the fine folks at your publishing house, though, you probably do not need to worry about this. If they’re reasonable people who know the industry, and you’ve been a dream to work with, chances are that they will be pleased if you do well with your next book.

However, if you are seriously worried, here is a close-to-foolproof method for avoiding insulting even the touchiest publishing type: flatter him or her by asking for advice. Send your editor an e-mail, saying that while obviously you would LOVE to have Small Publisher X print your next work, you’ve become aware that for the benefit of your overall writing career, it would make sense for your to seek an agent. Since ideally the editor will be working with any agent you might find, does the editor have any suggestions about whom to query?

This method has two benefits: it diffuses the situation (after all, you ARE being honest, so if the editor want to snap up your next book, s/he knows that s/he will have to take action, pronto) AND it potentially gives you that opportunity to send a query beginning, “Editor Y of Small Publisher X recommended that I contact you about representing my book…” Editors often have agents with whom they prefer to work, and vice versa. A recommendation from an editor will give you a definite advantage in the querying stage.

All that being said, I do think that writers worry too much about offending agents, editors, and publishers — or rather, that the writers who DO end up offending publishing professionals are seldom the ones who sit around worrying about it. The really offensive authors are the ones who don’t meet deadlines, or are rude about editing suggestions, or disappear for a year under the pretext of a rewrite, or don’t live up to promotional obligations, or who call their agents (or prospective agents) three times a week for updates. Trust me, nice writers like you who do everything in their power to be helpful and provide good books are not the ones whom editors and agents curse behind their backs. It’s the other ones, the ones who (I like to think, anyway) do not read my blog.

Remember, your publisher did not do you a FAVOR by publishing your book – your publisher published your book because the staff there thought it could make money and serve art doing it. However cordial your relationship with everyone there, it is in fact a business relationship. These are people who make their living off the talent of writers like you. Most of them are aware of it.

So why do almost all of us tiptoe around these people as though our very existence were cause for apology, although THEY live on OUR work? Well, it’s a pretty common reaction in a situation where one person holds disproportionate power over another.

Of course it is true that an offended agent tends not to sign the writer who offended her, any more than an affronted editor will rush to work with an agent with whom he’s just had a screaming fight. And naturally, you don’t want to impress an agent you want to sign you as a worrywart who will require constant attention from the moment the ink is dry on the contract. But as long as you are polite and respectful both before and after ink is put to paper, doing your job well and allowing them to do theirs, you will usually be fine.

Hope this helps, Moo. And keep up the good work, everybody!

The query checklist, part V: the mythical perfect query letter

Ah, a gorgeous Pacific Northwest summer day: the sun is out; the sky is blue, or rather, just starting to cloud over — and the writers of the Puget Sound are inside, away from it all, tapping away at their computers. All is right with the world.

Today will be the last installment in my series on polishing your query letter to a high gloss. I’m feeling a trifle rushed, since I know that many of you are in the throes of submitting your first 50 pages (or even, in some cases, the entire manuscript!) in the wake of recent conferences, so I want to get to first chapter revision as soon as possible. If any of you are going through synopsis trauma, leave a comment, and I shall do a post or two addressing your concerns.

All right, back to the querying checklist. Some of these questions may seem very basic — or even redundant, if you have constructed your query, as I advised a few days ago, from the constituent parts of your pitch. However, there is a LOT of advice on querying out there (almost all of it in that arrogant, you’re-an-idiot-if-you-don’t-listen-to-me tone that unfortunately seems to dominate the advice-to-unpublished-writers market), and a LOT of different versions of the so-called perfect query letter, so I want to make sure to hit the points that those cooking-mix perfect letters often miss.

For the record, I don’t believe that there IS such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet, still less a formula where you just add your book’s title and stir. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances. Simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I gave you a few days ago tends to work well; it has a proven track record. However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are scary — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day. If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance, for instance, even if that’s her specialty; if an agency screener has just blistered his tongue by biting too quickly on a microwaved knish, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling literary collaboration. No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation.

My point is, there will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved.

Frankly, this took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, “This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll have to pass” in the margins of my missive. I was flabbergasted. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant and couldn’t take on any more clients, due to imminent maternity leave, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. But the fact is, whatever was going on at that agency, it was utterly beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers and telekinetic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when my query — or my manuscript, or my published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. On to the checklist.

(10) Have I mentioned the book category?
I discussed this last month, in connection with your verbal pitch, but it bears repeating here: like it or not, you do need to use some of your precious querying space to state outright what KIND of a book it is. You’d be surprised at how few query letters actually mention whether the work being pitched is fiction or nonfiction — and how many describe the book in only the most nebulous of terms. (Hint: this is not a context in which the phrase “sort of” should appear.)

This is a business run on categories, people: pick one. Tell the nice agent where your book will be sitting in a bookstore, and do it in the language that people in the publishing industry understand. Any agent will have to tell any editor what category your book falls into in order to sell it: it is really, really helpful if you are clear about it upfront.

Since I posted on this fairly recently (June 29 and 30, now available on this very site! I am transferring the archives as fast as I can.), I shall not run through the available categories again. If you’re in serious doubt about the proper term, dash to your nearest major bookstore, start pulling books similar to yours off the shelf in your chosen section, and look on the back cover: most publishers will list the book’s category either in the upper left-hand corner or in the box with the bar code.

Then replace the books tidily on the shelf, of course. (Had I mentioned that I’m a librarian’s daughter? I can prove it, too: Shhh!)

(11) Have I avoided using clichés?
You’d think that this one would be self-evident, wouldn’t you? However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup in my cringing ear. (Long story.)

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that borders on the pathological and, like any tigers you might happen to meet in the wild, it’s best not to provoke them. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout (agents, not tigers), “not somebody else’s.” Don’t tempt these people to pounce; this is not the place to try to be cute. Cut anything from your query and submission packets that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a cliché.

(12) Have I listed my credentials well? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
Truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include.

If you have any background that aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query letter. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context.

(13) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
Here is one of those reasons to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are one of the best places on earth to collect lists of agents and editors’ pet peeves. Referring to your book as “a fiction novel” is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction. Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

In seeking to stick to the single-page limit, however, do not fall into the opposite trap of margin-fudging or using an ultra-small typeface to make it so. As someone who spends her days reading thousands upon thousands of manuscript pages in 12-point type, I can tell you with absolute confidence: anyone who has screened queries for more than a week will be able to tell at a glance if you have shrunk the typeface or margins.

(14) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I have found that this question almost invariably surprises writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter. “Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book.”

I beg to differ. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that an relatively observant agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative. In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, this is not the best impression you could possibly make. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

Your query letter needs to sound like you at your very 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. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is a preliminary invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

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

Keep up the good work!

The query checklist, part IV: work that body!

For the past few days (interspersed with other business), I have been urging you to take a long, hard look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered — as opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds are legion. Oh, and that your book is interesting, too. So pull up or print up your latest query letter (or the one derived from your pitch via yesterday’s blog), and let’s ask ourselves a few more probing questions before we pop that puppy in the mail, shall we?

Everybody comfortable? Good. Let’s promote the heck out of your book.

First, please read the entire letter aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course. I don’t care if you did it yesterday: do it again. And again and again. And if you don’t read it aloud one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it… well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

All right, I’ll hop off the Mediterranean guilt wagon now. (My mother’s favorite joke — Q: how many Mediterranean mothers does it take to screw in a lightbulb? A: None. “Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark, while you do what you want…”) Resuming the checklist from the day before yesterday:

(6) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I said what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, authors get so carried away with the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the entire query letter should never be longer than a page, your summary needs to be very short and sweet, just like your hallway pitch.

If you’re worried about leaving out salient points, here’s an idea: include the synopsis in your query packet. While you have an agency screener’s attention, why not have a fuller explanation of the book available right there in the envelope? That’s 3-5 entire glorious pages to impress an agent with your sparkling wit, jaw-dropping plot, and/or utterly convincing argument.

Including it will free you to concentrate on the point of the query letter, which is to capture the reader’s attention, not to summarize the entire book. In this context, you honestly do have only have 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are or premise is, rather than trying to outline the plot.

Still tempted to spend the entire page recounting plot twists? Okay, let’s step into an agency screener’s shoes for a minute. Read these two summaries: seriously, which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book?

“Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he met Gisèle, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love, without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?”

Clear in your mind? Now here is entry #2:

“BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee™ can bring on a pain-filled flashback. This traumatic circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights staring at little dots printed on paper. Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, who is exactly the type of Frisbee™ tossing lunkhead Basil had spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses a problem for Basil: he has never been conducted by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground. Basil’s father never got over the incident, and Basil…

Okay, agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a lengthy paragraph, and we still don’t know what the essential conflict is!

(7) Is my summary paragraph in the present tense?
This is one of those industry weirdnesses: 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. I don’t make the rules; I just tell you about them.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir, probably because it simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say: “Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I choose to bury it in the back yard.” It’s confusing to a sane person’s sense of time.

(8) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (and I do hope that wasn’t a surprise to you; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads it what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers in your chosen genre. One of the most common mistakes made in summary paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

“CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men,” with

“Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, intertube-navigating men. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave that smells of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.”

Okay, cover up those last two paragraphs, and take this pop quiz: what do you remember most from the first? Anything specific, after the second? Now what do you remember about the second? As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

Tell me, if you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women? I rest my case.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it echoes the tone of the book. If you have written a steamy romance, you’d better make sure that your summary is sexy. If it’s a comedy, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a chuckle. If it’s a horror novel, make sure it’s creepy. And so forth.

(9) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter 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. Call me mercenary, but I think that is rather foolish in a marketing document, don’t you? If an agent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it out of hand, is there really time for her to think, “Hmm, who will buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no. Tell her.

Have a nice weekend, everybody, especially those of you who are going to be floating down the some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym. As for me, I shall be right here, as I so often am, working on my next novel. Don’t mind me; I’ll just sit here in the dark. Go have your fun.

Keep up the good work!

The query checklist, part III: the jigsaw puzzle approach to success

I got so excited going through the red flags that often turn up in query letters that I neglected to point out something that those of you doing it for the first time might very much like to know: if you have been reading my blog since, say, mid-June, you probably already have the constituent part of an excellent query letter written, or at least conceived. You just need to put the parts together.

Was that a great collective “Huh?” I just heard out there, or a gigantic sigh of relief?

Honeys, it’s true: if you went through all of the steps I suggested for developing your conference pitch, you can use them to construct a professional-looking query letter. And if you didn’t, check out this nifty new function: if you select the Pitching Tips category on the right-hand side of the page, it will pull up the relevant archived blogs. How cool is THAT? (And okay, I’ll admit it: I stayed up late last night, posting the relevant back blogs, so they would be there for today.)

Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of a few weeks ago, when you watched wide-eyed as my blog walked you through the dark and mysterious waters of your book’s category (blogs of June 29 and 30), identifying your target market (July 1), coming up with several selling points (July 2), inventing a snappy keynote statement (July 3), pulling all of these elements together into the magic first 100 words (July 4), and giving an overview of the central conflict of the book (the elevator speech, July 5 and 6). Then finally, after a long, hot week toiling our way up a very steep learning curve, we pulled it all together with the pitch proper (July 7).

Think about how you constructed your two-minute verbal pitch. First, you began with the magic first hundred words: “Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).” Then, with nary a pause for breath, you launched into a brief overview of the book’s primary conflicts or focus, using vivid and memorable imagery. In other words, you would follow the first 100 words with your elevator speech. But to add a little piquant twist, and to make your work come across as memorable, you took fifteen or twenty seconds to tell one scene in vivid, Technicolor-level detail. Then, to tie it all together, you would tell the agent that you are excited about it because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.

Ah, those were the days, weren’t they?

I have a little secret to share with you: the query letter is a written formal pitch. So if you boiled your book down into the formula above (or some other that worked for you) for the conference, I’m here to tell you that you already have a very solid query letter floating around in that pretty little head of yours. And you know what? If you gave that pitch even ONCE successfully, you already have a proof positive that it’s a darned good query letter, one that at least one agent found appealing.

Go ahead; pat yourself on the back for that. I can wait.

Naturally, taking all of these constituent parts and arranging them in a single-page (single-spaced, 1-inch margins; no cheating, please) query letter in Times, Times New Roman, or Courier (hey, you want the typeface to match the manuscript’s, right?) on quite nice, bright white paper is going to take a spot of editing, but I’m confident that you have it in you. Here is a structure that I have found effective:

Header (for those of us who don’t have preprinted letterhead easily available), centered: your name, your address, your phone number, your e-mail address. This information should sound very familiar indeed: it’s the contact information on your title page.

The date is a nice touch, then the agent’s name and address. “Dear Ms. Specific Agent,” please, not “To Whom It May Concern” or “Dear Sir/Madam.” If you are unsure whether that cryptic first name in the agency listing refers to a man or a woman, call the agency and ask.

Then comes your first paragraph. As I have been discussing how you should open over the last few days, I suspect you already have that cold. But if you need a jump start, it might conceivably run something like this: “I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent PNWA conference/Since you so ably represented Anne Boleyn’s recent book, THAT DARNED HENRY,” or some other appropriately flattering but dignified identifying remark, “and since you are seeking (insert specific preference expressed at conference here), I believe you will be interested in my (BOOK CATEGORY), (TITLE), geared toward (TARGET MARKET).”

Sounding a little like your first hundred words, isn’t it? And you were comfortable with that, right? So you should breeze through what’s coming next:

Second paragraph: ELEVATOR SPEECH. If you have room, you can include a sentence or two describing that nifty, vivid image you used in your verbal speech here. Remember, specifics are almost always more memorable than generalities, so do make your image as crisp as possible in your query reader’s mind.

Paragraph Three (or Four, if the elevator speech looks better split in two): some permutation of: “I am excited about this project, because of its SELLING POINTS that will appeal to its TARGET MARKET.” This is the proper place to include previous publications or awards, if any — but hey, you knew that, didn’t you, because those were featured prominently on your list SELLING POINTS?

The next paragraph can be all business, something along the lines of: “Thank you for taking the time to consider my project. I am seeking an agent with whom to build a long-term working relationship, and I would be delighted to send you all or part of the manuscript for your perusal. I am enclosing a SASE, for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.”

There, now, that wasn’t so bad, was it? If you can manage to fit all of that onto a single page, and can affix your John Hancock to it, you will have yourself a mighty fine query letter. Hooray!

Of course, there are many, many other ways you can structure this information, but I can tell you from experience that this format works awfully darned well. But please, those of you veterans of the querying wars out there: if you have formats and clever techniques that have worked for you, please post a comment and share them!

Isn’t it nice when you can reach into your writer’s tool bag and find there everything you need for the task at hand? Let me know how the querying works out for you, and keep up the good work!

Let’s talk about this: querying fears, submission terrors, and coping mechanisms

In the interest of promoting community, I am establishing a new periodic series on this blog: Let’s Talk About This. In these, I will propose an issue, and any or all of you can share your views on it via the comments function, to get a conversation going. There are so very many issues that writers seldom get a chance to discuss with other writers — we are an isolated breed — that I am very excited about the prospect of our being able to chat about them here.

The first topic: What fears, reasonable and unreasonable both, assail you while you are getting ready to send out query letters? Are the qualms different when you’ve actually met the agent you’re querying — better, worse, the same? If you’re submitting requested materials, are your fears different than when you are cold-querying? How do these fears affect your day-to-day life? And, finally, have you found coping mechanisms to deal with these fears effectively?

I’ll start the ball rolling: back in my querying days, I developed a nearly pathological fear of the mailbox. I knew it was irrational, but after all, it was the first place I saw every rejection I got, right? I did not think it would suddenly develop fangs and devour me like something in a child’s nightmare, but I did start to feel that its depths were a den of rejection. Over time, I just learned that if I had queries out and circulating (i.e., most of the time), I should delegate picking up the mail to someone else in the household.

Your turn. Let’s talk about this

The query checklist, part II: feeding our furry friends

I am presently being overrun by raccoons. Baby ones, four of them, along with their parents and a mangy beast who appears to be their dissipated adopted uncle, or perhaps just The Raccoon Who Came To Dinner, a houseguest our resident raccoon family is just too polite to evict. The babies think I am the Goddess of Cat Food, and will scratch on my back door after they have eaten up all of the food our outdoor kitty was not swift enough to gobble up first, to demand more. Why do we feed them? Well, most of our neighbors have concreted-over yards (for reasons that escape me; in my experience, fallen rain needs to go somewhere after it hits the ground), but our yard is largely wild. Thus, we get a disproportionate share of the neighborhood’s wildlife traipsing through our yard.

The raccoon parents were born under our deck, and know me of yore as the Queen of the Kibble from their childhoods. They pick up each piece of kibble between their long front paws and nibble it daintily, like the well-bred critters that they are. The babies, on the other hand, almost spherical with fur except for tiny pointed ears and stripy little tails shaped like isosceles triangles, are ravenous little maulers, indiscriminately shoving everything they can manage to pick up into their sweet little maws: kibble, the edge of the doormat, small rocks, their siblings’ tails. When they discover a non-foodstuff in mid-chew, they blithely discard it and eagerly snatch up the next thing, hoping it will be something that they will want to ingest this time.

So you see, my friends, my back yard is run identically to the publishing industry. Like many experienced agents and editors, Mama and Daddy Raccoon have a very strong preconceived notion of what they want, and do not pay the slightest attention to anything, however tempting, that does not conform to their idées fixes of what they should consume. The babies are like agents new to the biz, or ones afraid that the next bestseller will pass them by: they will bite on anything and everything once, only to spit it out quickly and move on to the next thing. (See why you should consider querying the less experienced agents from time to time, as well as the big names?)

I mention this, because I have been talking lately to quite a few writers who were feeling dispirited by having been brushed off by agents and editors to whom they pitched at a recent conference that shall remain nameless, or rejected via form letter for the fiftieth time. Please, if the Mama Raccoon you had set your heart on picking up your work did not recognize it as her preferred brand of kibble, do not take it as proof positive that your work is not palatable. Take it as a sign that your pitch or query did not fit the masked one’s preconceived notions, and move on to find an agent who has been dreaming of exactly your flavor of book.

But to do that, you will need to make sure that your query letter is very nummy indeed. On with the checklist of red flags to avoid:

(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? If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, do I make that obvious immediately?

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. There are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query?

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 in the past, 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… Trust me, this kind of personal recognition makes the garden-variety agent’s furry little ears perk up instantly.

I picked up this little trick not at writers’ conferences, but in my former incarnation as an academic. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Yes, she is expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first. Think of it as going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast. And that’s even before the department chair slips the senior graduate students a few bucks to take you out, get you drunk, and worm your other prospective job offers out of you.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia.

I had lunch this very day with a writer who just used this method in a pitch with triumphant success. The agent was blown away that the writer had taken the time to find out whom she represented and do a little advance reading. There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. 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 Publishers’ 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 for the book in question; legally, they must tell you, due to some obscure quirk of jurisprudence that I have never been able to track down. In any case, they will tell you, even if the book came out decades ago. 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 in the first line of your query letter. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to invent a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

(5) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

I am dwelling upon the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents 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. (Yes, even if this is an agent to whom you are sending requested material.) Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph. (This is the reason I advise against e-mail queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.)

Tomorrow, I shall deal with the questions you might want to 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. Remember, one of the primary purposes of the query letter is to identify your work as something that the raccoon reading it will instantly recognize as her favorite filet mignon.

Keep up the good work!

The query checklist, part I, and some new ground rules

I’m going to start with some good news today: blog reader Soyon Im has just taken 5th place in the MySpace short memoir contest! Way to go, Soyon! And the rest of you, please: write in to share your triumphs, so we can all enjoy the vicarious thrill.

From that high note, let me move on to a little housekeeping. Since we are starting a new blog relationship here, it is probably a good time to establish some new ground rules. Because my old blog at the PNWA was not, to put it mildly, set up to encourage reader input, the standard way for readers to ask me questions was to send me an e-mail. This was not very efficient; in fact, especially in the days leading up to the conference, it was quite time-consuming for both asker and replier.

So here is my first request: if you have a question you would like me to answer, please post it as a comment here, rather than sending it to my e-mail (or calling). That way, everyone can benefit from learning the answer, and I won’t end up answering the same question twenty times individually. And since we now have a forum where we can discuss topics of common interest, other readers can ask follow-up questions, or tell me how wrong I am, or make any suggestions they want. It will be much better, I think, for everybody.

Second, please do not send me query letters, synopses, or manuscript excerpts, asking for my feedback. I love seeing what my readers are writing, but if I read all of the samples I receive, I simply would not have time to write the blog (or write, or work, or sleep). I am a working writer and editor, and like everybody else, my time is limited to a mere 24 hours per day. Besides, my editors’ guild frowns upon its members providing editing services for free, even casually. I am posting a link to the Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild today, to make it easier for readers who want professional editing to hook up with a good freelance editor.

Third — and I hope that this won’t be an issue for very much longer — please do not ask me to give updates or explanations about why I am no longer blogging for the PNWA. I understand that many of you are curious, but frankly, I do not anticipate that I will ever know for sure what happened. I would much rather use my limited time and energy (the above-mentioned scant 24 hours/day) concentrating on you, my readers, than looking backward. If you really, really want to find out more, please feel free to contact the PNWA directly and ask. In this space, I would really, really, REALLY like for all of us to get back to the work we love.

In that spirit, let’s get back to query letters. As I mentioned yesterday, I think it is a good idea to have several out at a time, rather than only one, and to send out a new one the very day a rejection comes in. That way, you can do something constructive in response to that silly form letter, rather than letting the negative feelings sink into your psyche long enough that you start to believe them yourself.

As I have said before, no matter how much an agent may insist that “there’s no market for this right now” or “there’s not enough money to be made with this book,” and no matter how prominent that agent may be, ultimately, a rejection is one person’s personal opinion. Accept it as such, and move on.

But before you do, make sure that your query does not contain any red flags that might be preventing your work from getting a fair reading. Unfortunately, many writers automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a bland querying letter or a confusing synopsis. Or, still more hurtful, that somehow the rejecting agents are magically seeing past the query to the book itself, decreeing from without having read it that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing. This particular fear leaps like a lion onto many aspiring writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many of us, 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 almost never works like that: writing is work, and part of that work is being persistent in submitting your work.

Instead of listening to the growls of the self-doubt lion, consider the far more likely possibility that it is your marketing materials that are being used as an excuse to reject your queries. If you can ever manage to corner someone who has worked as an agency screener for more than a day, believe me, the FIRST thing she will tell you about the process is that she was given a list of red flags to use as rejection criteria for queries. And, oddly enough, many of these criteria are not about the book project at all, but the presentation of the submission packet.

The single most common culprit, believe it or not, is typos. Read over your query letter, synopsis, and 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 already. Writing groups are also tremendous resources for this kind of feedback, as are those nice people you met at a conference recently.

Remember, we’re all in this together; let’s help one another out.

As long-time readers of my blogs are already aware, I STRONGLY advise against using your nearest and dearest as your proofreaders, much less content readers. 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, unless they have won a Nobel Prize in Literature recently. And often not even then. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust — did I mention those great writers you met at a conference? — and blandish him 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; 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 compulsively line editing while she reads my work, of course, 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 of a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who has not been a fan of my writing since I wrote my first puppet play, ALEXANDRA MEETS DRACULA, in kindergarten. (Alexandra wins, by the way.)

As always, make sure that you read everything in hard copy, not just on a computer screen; the average person reads material on a screen 70% faster than the same words on a page, so which method do you think provides better proofreading leverage? Uh-huh. Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems, and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask the following questions:

(1) Is my query letter polite?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. In my humble opinion, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent. But hey, I could be wrong.

I’ve seen some real lulus. My personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…” A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, A QUERY IS A BUSINESS LETTER. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar. Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

(2) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters (or, still worse, sending them out in droves) is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it (if they’re really lucky, they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re at it), but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it. Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, but not the best way to pitch your work. Try to sound as upbeat in your 17th query letter as in your first.

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

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

Trust me, it doesn’t work.

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (preferably with statistics) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic. (For tips on how to do this, please see my late June — early July posts on pitching — now available on this very website! — especially those on identifying your target market and selling points. See, all of the skills you have been learning DO tie together in the end.)

Tomorrow, I shall move on with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep up the good work!