Handwritten manuscripts, profanity in queries, and other phenomena that give Millicent pause

I had meant to devote my next post to showing you fine people more examples of title pages done right — and done wrong, so we could discuss the difference. Why invest the time and energy in generating both, you ask? Clearer understanding, mostly. Oh, I know that I could just slap up a single properly-formatted title page and walk away, pleased with myself for having provided guidance to writers submitting to agencies and small publishing houses; I could also, as some other blogs devoted to helping aspiring writers do, post readers’ own pages and critique them. In my long experience working with writers, established and aspiring both, however, I’ve found that talking through an array of positive and negative examples yields better results.

In no area of advice is this more strongly the case than in manuscript formatting. Since very few aspiring writers have had the opportunity to see a manuscript in circulation by a major agency close up, it can be quite difficult to tell whether one is following the rules — if, indeed, the submitter is aware that there are rules. Many are not. By presenting my readers with a plethora of practical examples and ample discussion, I hope to help writers new to the game avoid falling into pitfalls they might not otherwise know exist. It also enables those who have never enjoyed the inestimable advantage of having read manuscripts or contest entries on a daily basis to see first-hand just how much submission quality varies, even amongst the best-written specimens.

I sense some finely-tuned authorial antennae waving out there. Yes, novelists and other aficionados of character development?

“Is there a reason that you’re explaining this to us, Anne? Surely, by the middle of a series devoted to explaining the requirements of standard format for book manuscripts, any reader paying even the vaguest attention could be safely relied upon to have picked up on your fondness for compare-and-contrast exercises aimed at helping us develop our collective sense of what will and will not strike our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, as professional means of presenting good writing. Heck, that would be obvious to anyone taking a casual scroll through your blog. So am I correct in picking up a subtext here?”

Well spotted, close observers of human nature: I am in fact leading up to something. And while anyone who works with manuscripts for a living could tell you that what I shall be spending the rest of this post discussing is a pitfall into which eager aspiring writers stumble all the time, sometimes at serious cost to themselves, I’m afraid that explaining what that common trap is and how to negotiate one’s way around it will require sharing an example or two that are far from pretty.

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written an industry etiquette post. I normally would not interrupt a series in progress in order to introduce one, but for the last six months or so, I, others who write online advice for writers, and even the excellent individuals toiling away in agencies have been seeing an uptick in a particular type of approach from aspiring writers. Admittedly, it’s always been common enough to drive the burn-out rate for writing gurus sky-high — in this line of endeavor, 7 1/2 years makes me a great-grandmother — yet anytime those of us still cranking out the posts start complaining about the same thing at the same time, it’s worth noting.

What’s the phenomenon? you ask with bated breath. Ah, I could tell you, but it would be easier to get why those of us behind the book scenes have been buzzing about it if I showed you. Fortunately — for discussion purposes, if not for me personally — yesterday, I received a sterling example of the breed of missives those of us in the profession often receive from total strangers, demanding attention and assistance for their writing endeavors.

Before I reveal yesterday’s communiqué in all of its glory, let’s take a moment to talk about how a savvy writer might want to go about alerting a publishing professional to the existence and many strong points of his or her book. It’s not an especially well-kept secret that, in this business, there are not all that many polite ways to go about it. If one is seeking to get a book published with a traditional large or mid-sized publishing house, one can only do so through an agency. If one is seeking an agent for that purpose, one either writes a 1-page query letter containing a specific set of information about the book or registers for a writers’ conference featuring formal pitching sessions to give at most a 2-minute description. If one wishes to work with a small publisher, one takes the time to find out what that particular publisher’s submission requirements are, then adheres to them through storm and tempest.

That’s it. Any other form of approach virtually always results in rejection. on general principle.

Why? Well, think about it: if you were an agent or editor, with which kind of writer would you prefer to work — one who has made the effort to learn the rules and follow them courteously, or one whose blustering demand for attention informs you right off the bat that, at minimum, you’re going to have to sit this writer down and explain that this is a business in which politeness counts?

Aspiring writers, especially those faced with the daunting task of contacting one of us for the first time, often find these simple strictures monumentally frustrating, if not downright perplexing. Many more regard industry etiquette as counterintuitive — or so we much surmise from the fact that the pros constantly find themselves on the receiving end of telephone calls from writers of whom they have never heard. Both agencies and publishing houses with well-advertised no unsolicited manuscripts, please policies get thousands every year. Although all of the major U.S. publishing houses have only accepted agented manuscripts for quite some time, the virtually complete disappearance of the slush pile seems not to have made the national news, if you catch my drift.

Some of you are shifting uncomfortably in your chairs, I notice. “But Anne,” a few of you on the cusp of approaching the pros for the first time murmur, “I understand that the rules of querying and submission might make life easier for agents and editors, but I’m excited about my book! I’ve worked really hard on it, and I’m impatient to see it in print. If it’s the next bestseller, I would think they would want to snap it up as quickly as possible. If it’s well-written, why would anyone in a position to publish it care how I manage to get the manuscript under their noses?”

Several reasons, actually, and very practical ones. First — and the one that most astonishes the pros that anxious aspiring writers so often don’t seem to take into consideration — literally millions of people write books every year. Many, if not most, are pretty excited when they finish them. So from the publishing world’s perspective, while it’s completely understandable, charming, and even potentially a marketing plus that a particular writer is full of vim about placing his book in front of an admiring public, it’s not a rare enough recommendation to justify tossing the rules out the window.

Second, while it pains me to say this, a writer is not always the best judge of her own book’s market-readiness; even if she were, as the industry truism goes, an author’s always the least credible reviewer of her own book. You would never know that, though, from how frequently Millicent hears from writers absolutely convinced that their efforts are uniquely qualified to grace the bestseller lists. Although the once-ubiquitous it’s a natural for Oprah! has mostly fallen out of currency, this kind of hard sell remains a not-uncommon opening for a query:

My novel, Premise Lifted from a Recent Movie, is sure to be as popular as The Da Vinci Code. Beautifully written and gripping, it will bowl readers over. You’ll be sorry if you miss this one!

While it’s not completely beyond belief that this writer’s self-assessment is correct, agents and editors tend to prefer to judge manuscripts themselves. Why? Well, since so many aspiring writers begin approaching agents and publishing houses practically the instant they polish off a first draft, it’s actually pretty common for even quite well-written manuscripts with terrific premises to arrive still needing quite a bit of revision. Millicent remains perpetually astonished, for instance, at how few submitters seem to take the time to spell- and/or grammar-check their work, much less to proofread it for flow and clarity.

Oh, stop rolling your eyes: any reputable agency, much less good small publishing house or well-known literary competition, will receive enough well-written, perfectly clean manuscripts — the industry’s term for pages free of typos, dropped words, protagonists’ sisters named Audrey for three the first three chapters and Andrea thereafter, etc. — not to have to worry about rejecting those that are not quite up to that level of sheen. From an aspiring writer’s perspective, it’s an unfortunate fact of recent literary history that the rise of the personal computer has caused the sheer number of queries and submissions to increase astronomically, rendering it impossible for even the most sleep-sacrificing professional reader to read more than a small fraction of the manuscripts eagerly thrust in his general direction.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, any pro with more than a few months’ worth of screening experience or writing contest judging will be aware that a super-confident writer does not necessarily come bearing a manuscript that will take the literary world by storm. Indeed, one of the reasons that the query above would be rejected on sight is that supreme confidence can be an indicator that the writer in question simply isn’t all that familiar with the current book market or how books are sold. That reference to The Da Vinci Code all by itself would automatically raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows: in publishing circles, only books released within the past five years are considered part of the current market.

Then, too, since the kind of hard sell we saw above has been a notorious agents’ pet peeve for a couple of decades now, the very fact that an aspiring writer would use it could be construed — and generally is — as evidence that she’s not done much homework on how books actually get published. The popular notion that a good book will automatically and more or less instantly attract agents’ and editors’ attention is not an accurate reflection of current publishing realities, after all. (If that comes as a surprise to you, you might want to invest a little time in reading through the posts under the aptly-named START WITH THESE POSTS IF YOU ARE BRAND-NEW TO PUBLISHING category at the top of the archive list at right.)

Why might giving the impression that one isn’t overly familiar with the proverbial ropes prove a disadvantage in a first approach to a pro? Those of you who have been following my recent series on manuscript formatting already know the answer, right? It’s less time-consuming to work with a writer to whom the ropes are already a friendly medium. And honestly, it’s not that unreasonable for Millicent to presume that if our querier above does not know that boasting about a book is not what a query is for, she might also be unaware that, say, a book manuscript should be formatted in a particular way. Or that it’s now routinely expected that since submissions must arrive at publishing houses completely clean, savvy writers will submit them to agencies already scanned for errors.

It’s not as though a busy agent would have time to reformat or proofread a new client’s work before submitting it to an editor, right? Right? Do those glazed eyes mean some of you are in shock?

I can’t say as I blame you — when the first few agencies began recommending in their submission guidelines the now rather common advice that potential clients not only proofread their manuscripts carefully, but run them by a freelance editor before even considering approaching an agent, the collective moan that rose from the admirable, hard-working aspiring writers who routinely check each and every agency’s website before submitting positively rent the cosmos in twain. It can be a big shock to a writer new to querying and submission just how fierce the competition is to land one of the very scarce new client spots on a well-established agent’s client list.

“But I wrote a good book!” they wail, and with reason. “Why does landing an agent and getting published have to be so hard?”

The aforementioned competition, mostly: it gives agencies, publishing houses, literary contests, and even good freelance editors quite a bit of incentive to read as critically as possible. Lest we forget, most queries and requested materials are not read in their entirety — as we’ve discussed, most submissions get rejected on page 1, and most queries get slipped into the no, thank you pile before the end of their opening paragraphs.

Which makes sense, right? If the opening lines contain typos, clich?s, or any of the other unfortunately common first-approach faux pas, Millicent generally just stops reading. She assumes, rightly or wrongly, that what hits her eyes initially is an accurate representation of what is to follow. That’s the norm for agents, editors, and contest judges, too: if the third paragraph of page 1 is grammatically shaky, or if the writing is unclear, it’s taken for granted that Paragraph #3 will not be the only one that could use some additional work.

That tends to come as a surprise to many, if not most, aspiring writers. The rather endearing expectation that good writing will be read with a charitable eye often crashes straight into the reality of how many queries, submissions, and/or contest entries a pro has to read in a day. Millicent can only judge writing by what’s in front of her, after all. No matter how lovely the prose may be on page 56, or how stunning the imagery on page 312, if page 1 isn’t sufficiently polished, she’s going to make up her mind before she has a chance to admire what may come later in the book.

The same logic applies to the tone and consideration of the initial approach. If a writer observes the prevailing norms of publishing world etiquette — by, say, e-mailing a query rather than cold-calling the agent or adhering to a small publisher’s posted requirements to send a query containing specific pieces of information about the book instead of just popping an unsolicited book proposal into the mail and hoping for the best — then it’s reasonable to project that level of consideration onto any subsequent relationship, right? If, on the other hand, a writer first contacts the pro by non-standard means or, sacre bleu!, impolitely, it wouldn’t really make sense to expect rigorous rule-adherence or courtesy down the road, would it?

Oh, should I have warned you to sit down before I sprung that one?

Like most people, I suspect, agents, editors, and the people who work with them tend to prefer to devote their efforts to those who will be treat them with respect. This is a business positively stuffed to the gills with nice people. Although it may be difficult to discern from the perspective of a writer trying to break into print, most professional readers are quite aware that they are dealing with writers’ dreams — and do their best to handle them gently.

That’s why, incidentally, so many agencies and publishing houses employ kindly-worded form-letter rejections. More often than not, those sets of vague platitudes like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, we regret to say that this book doesn’t meet our needs at this time, or I don’t think I can sell this in the current market are less attempts at explanation than efforts to spare feelings.

I know, I know: that’s not what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such a communication. It can be maddening not to know for sure why a query didn’t wow Millicent, or whether a submission stumbled on page 1 or page 221; being given a specific rejection reason could help one improve one’s efforts next time.

What the pros know from long, hard experience, though, and what aspiring writers may not consider, is that some rejection recipients will regard any explicitly-cited reason to turn down the book as an invitation to argue the matter further. This is an especially common reaction for conference pitchers, alas: first-time successful pitchers sometimes mistake polite professional friendliness and enthusiasm for a promising book concept for the beginning of a friendship. Or confuse “Gee, I’d like to read that — why don’t you send me the first 50 pages?” with an implicit promise of representation and/or publication.

From an agent or editor’s point of view, issuing a rejection, however regretfully, is intended to end the conversation about the book, not to prolong it. If they want you to revise and resubmit, trust me, they won’t be shy about telling you.

You may also take my word for it that no matter how excellent your case may be that s/he is in fact the perfect person to handle your book, how completely viable your plan may be to tweak the manuscript so s/he will fall in love with your protagonist, or how otherwise estimable your argument that this is indeed the next The Da Vinci Code may be, trying to talk your book into acceptance will strike the rejecter as rude. It’s just not done.

And in all probability, it won’t even be read. The agency may even have established a policy against it.

Don’t want to believe that? Completely understandable, from a writer’s point of view. An agent or editor wouldn’t have to engage in many correspondences like the following, however, to embrace such a policy with vim.

Dear Tyrone,
Thanks so much for letting me read your book proposal for a Western how-to, Log Cabin Beautiful: Arranging a Home on the Range. I’m afraid, however, that as intriguing as this book concept is, I would have a hard time convincing editors that there’s a large audience waiting for it. At best, this book would likely appeal only to a niche market.

Best of luck placing it elsewhere.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
I’ve received your rejection for Log Cabin Beautiful, and I must say, I’m astonished. Perhaps living in New York has blunted your sense of just how many log cabin dwellers there actually are? It’s hardly an urban phenomenon.

Please find enclosed 27 pages of statistics on the new log cabin movement. I’m returning my proposal to you, so you may have it handy if you reconsider.

Please do. I really did pour my heart into this book.

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

Tyrone —

I’m returning both your proposal and the accompanying startling array of supporting documentation with this letter. I’m sorry, but your book just doesn’t meet our needs at this time.

Hawkeye McBestsellerspotter
Picky and Pickier Literary Management

Dear Hawkeye,
Perhaps you didn’t really get my book’s concept. You see…
{Five pages of impassioned explanation and pleading.}
Won’t you give it a chance? Please?

Sincerely,
Tyrone T. Umbleweeds

{No response}

Dear Hawkeye,
Sorry for contacting you via e-mail, but my last letter to you seems to have gone astray. To continue our discussion of my book…

Time-consuming, isn’t it? Not to mention frustrating for poor Hawkeye. And in all probability, this is one of the nicer post-rejection arguments she’s had this month.

Just don’t do it. Quibbling won’t change a no into a yes, and believe me, the last thing any querier wants to be is the hero of the cautionary tale Hawkeye tells at writers’ conferences.

Should I be alarmed by how pleased some of you look? “But this is wonderful, Anne,” a tenacious few murmur. “Hawkeye answered. That must mean that she read Tyrone’s pleas, doesn’t it? And if she read them, there must have been some chance that she could have been convinced by them, right?”

Not necessarily, on that first point — and no on the second. Before any of you who happen to be particularly gifted at debate get your hopes up, it’s exceedingly rare that an agent would even glance at a follow-up letter or e-mail. They wouldn’t want to be confronted by the much more usual post-rejection response, which tends to open something like this:

Dear Idiot —
What the {profanity deleted} do you mean, you just didn’t fall in love with my book? Did you even bother to read it, you {profanity deleted} literature-hater? I’ll bet you wouldn’t know a good book if it bit you on the {profanity deleted}

I’ll spare you the rest, but you get the picture, right? For every 1, 100, or 10,000 writers that take rejection in respectful silence, there are at least a couple who feel the need to vent their spleen. And, amazingly enough, they almost always sign their flame-mails.

Yes, really. I guess it doesn’t occur to them that people move around a lot in publishing circles. Today’s rejecting Millicent might well be tomorrow’s agent — or sitting in an editorial meeting next to an editor who wants to acquire their books the year after that.

The sad thing is, the very notion that manners might count doesn’t seem to occur to quite a few people. Perhaps that’s not entirely astonishing, given how firmly many aspiring writers reject the notion that, as I like to point out early and often, every single syllable a writer sends to anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing will be considered a writing sample. Those who express their desires and requests in polite, conventional terms tend to get much better responses than those who do, well, anything else.

Even sadder: as anyone in the habit of receiving requests from aspiring writers could tell you, the senders sometimes don’t seem to understand that just because a certain type of phrasing or vocabulary is acceptable in social circles or on television doesn’t necessarily mean that it would be appropriate when trying to interest a publishing professional in one’s book. You wouldn’t believe how often the Millicent working for Hawkeye opens queries like this:

Hey, Hawkeye —

Since you claim on your website to be looking for literary-voiced women’s fiction focusing on strong protagonists facing offbeat challenges, why don’t you do yourself a favor and read my book, A Forceful Female Confronts Wackiness? It’s really cool, and I know you and your buddies at the agency will like it.

Millicent stopped reading just after that startlingly informal salutation, by the way. You can see that the tone is also askew thereafter, though, right? It’s the way someone might address a longtime friend, not a total stranger. And not a friend one particularly liked, apparently: what’s up with that snide since you claim… part? What could the querier possibly hope to gain by implying that Ms. McBestsellerspotter is being insincere in expressing her literary preferences?

Why, yes, it’s possible that the querier didn’t mean to imply any such thing, now that you mention it. Had I mentioned that Millicent can only judge a writer by what’s actually on the page in front of her, and that every single syllable a writer passes under a professional reader’s nose will be read as a writing sample?

What do I need to do, embroider it on a pillow?

I sense a certain amount of bemused disbelief out there. “Oh, come on, Anne,” those that pride themselves on the graceful phrasing of even their most hastily tossed-off e-mails observe. “Surely, addressing someone in a position to help get one’s book published this informally is practically unheard-of. I could see it — maybe — if the book in question was written in the same chatty voice as that query, but even then, I would assume that most writers would be too fearful of offending an agent like Hawkeye to approach her like this.”

Oh, you’d be surprised. Agents and editors who are habitually nice to writers at conferences routinely receive e-mails just like this. So do most of us who offer online advice, as it happens, particularly if we blog in a friendly, writer-sympathetic, and/or funny voices.

It is precisely because I am friendly and sympathetic to the struggles of aspiring writers that I am reproducing yesterday’s e-mail: I could give you made-up examples until the proverbial cows came home, but until one has actually seen a real, live specimen of this exceedingly common type of ill-considered approach, it can be rather hard to understand why someone who receives a lot of them might stop reading them after just a couple of lines. Or — I told you this wasn’t going to be pretty — why so many literature-loving, writer-empathizing folks in the biz eventually just give up on being nice about sharing their professional insights at all.

Naturally, I’ve changed name, title, and everything else that might allow anyone who might conceivably help the sender of this astonishing letter get published, but otherwise, our correspondence remains exactly as I first saw it. To maximize its usefulness as an example, though, I shall stop periodically to comment on where the sender’s message seems to have gone awry and how the same information could have been presented in a more publishing world-appropriate manner.

Heya Anne;

Okay, let’s stop here, and not merely because a semicolon is an odd choice in a salutation (the usual options are a comma, colon, or dash). It would have given most professional readers pause, too, not to see the necessary direct address comma: were heya actually a word, Heya, Anne would have been the correct punctuation.

Can you imagine Hawkeye or Millicent’s facial expressions, though, upon catching sight of a query opening this informally? True, I write a chatty blog, and the disembodied voices I choose to attribute to my readers do routinely address me in posts as Anne, but honestly, I’ve never met the sender before. A more conventional — and polite — salutation would have been nice.

This early in the e-mail, though, I’m willing to assume what Hawkeye or Millicent would not: “Frank” is trying to be funny. I read on.

I’ve drafted a 30,000 word treatise on {currently highly controversial political topic}. I call it Main Title-Reference to Similarly Themed Bestseller from the Late 1980s.

I’m going to stop us again. Treatise is an strange word in this context, but that’s not what would give a professional reader pause here. 30,000 words is quite a bit shorter than most political books; it’s really closer to a pamphlet. It’s also about a quarter of the length of the bestseller referenced here — which was written by a former professor of mine, as it happens, just before I took a couple of seminars with him in graduate school. So, unfortunately for Frank, he’s making this argument to someone who heard over a year’s worth of complaints by the author of the other work about how often his title got recycled.

Surprised at the coincidence? Don’t be. For decades, going into publishing has been a well-trodden path for those with graduate degrees (or partially-completed graduate degrees) who decide not to become professors. Or when professor jobs become scarce. Or when universities decide that it’s cheaper to replace retiring faculty with poorly-paid lecturers, rather than with, say, faculty.

But I digress. More to our current point, this section contains a formatting problem: the hyphen used as a dash in the title would be incorrect in standard format for manuscripts, would it not? What was I saying about Millicent’s tendency to extrapolate an entire manuscript’s formatting faux pas from a slight stumble like this?

If you’ve been murmuring, “My, that’s a lot of reaction to just a few lines of an e-mail,” congratulations. You’re gaining a sense of just how closely professional readers observe every single syllable of every single piece of writing you send them. Speaking of which, let’s move on with our missive-in-progress.

It is not a rant or a historical narrative but a polemic attempt to change the rhetoric.

Sorry to have to stop us again so soon, but just so everyone knows, telling a professional reader that a manuscript is not a rant will automatically raise the suspicion that it is a rant. That’s pretty much the reaction that non-professional readers have to statements like this, too, come to think of it. Just human nature, I’m afraid.

Also, note the non-standard use of polemic. Usually, it means an aggressive attack upon somebody else’s theories. It would have been helpful if Frank had mentioned whose. Pressing on…

Scholarly in tone and temper is how it is presented but metaphors, similes, enthymemes, as well as personal observation and experiences are liberally used.

I’m rather glad that Frank decided to tell, rather than show, the “tone and temper” of his book, because talking about the language in which a manuscript is written is an exceedingly common querying mistake. A book description should aim at informing the professional reader what the book is about, not the kind of linguistic tricks the author has used to tell the tale. Think about it: why should Millicent (or I, for that matter) care that Frank is fond of metaphors, similes, or aphorisms, except insofar as they work in the manuscript itself? Wouldn’t the best — indeed, only — way to demonstrate that they do work be to show them in the writing?

Speaking of demonstrating authorial intentions, as a group, professional readers tend to be suspicious when a book description says the manuscript is written in a style not reflected in the writing of the description itself. Since this letter has not so far been written in scholarly language, the assertion that the book is carries less weight than it otherwise would.

And now that we’re at the end of Frank’s first paragraph, should we not know why he decided to contact me at all? So far, it reads like a query, but why on earth send a blogger a query? He doesn’t seem to have a blog-related question (which should have been posted as a comment on the blog, anyway, right?), nor does he appear to be seeking editorial services. Has he perhaps made the rather ubiquitous mistake of believing that anyone called an editor works at a publishing house?

No, seriously, I hear from aspiring writers laboring under this misconception all the time. Let’s read on to see if that’s what’s on Frank’s mind.

Anyway, I’ve two publishers who want me to send them my manuscript. {He names them here.} They’ve sent me forms to fill out.

Okay, so he’s sent queries to publishers, but I recognize that both of the publishers he names are self-publishing houses. Curious about whether either has recently opened a traditional publishing imprint, I checked both websites. Both offer downloadable forms, asking writers to fill them out and send them along with a manuscript or proposal.

Now I’m even more confused. Both of these printers offer editing services for self-publishing writers. So again, how would he like me to help him? Reading on…

One of the things they want is an annotated table of contents. I googled {sic} it and saw your blog.

Not entirely surprising news, as that’s a standard part of a nonfiction book proposal. As I hope every nonfiction writer reading this is aware, the archive list conveniently located at the lower right-hand corner of this page includes categories specifically aimed at assisting you in pulling together a book proposal. (You’re welcome.)

If he’s having trouble with his annotated ToC, however — which, to be fair, isn’t always easy to write — why not tell me how? Or, better still, ask a question in the comments on the relevant posts?

Or is he seeking my assistance with something else? The next couple of sentences raise a possibility that rather astonished me.

Man you write up a storm-must be one hellava typer. I can’t type worth a {profanity deleted} -my manuscript was hand written-then hunted and pecked.

More hyphens employed as dashes and other offbeat punctuation — and excuse me, but is he asking me to type his manuscript for him? Because I’m such a good little typer?

Jaw firmly dropped, I read on. The rest of the e-mail will have greater impact, I suspect, if I show it in its entirety. Or as much as I can legitimately reproduce on a family-friendly blog.

Anyway, for {profanity deleted} and giggles I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend. Although they haven’t given a deadline I’ve set mine for early next month-this things {sic} been three years in the making and its {sic} time to fish or cut bait.
Thanks for your time and attention-good luck to you.
Sincerely,
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

I’m at a loss for words. I also still don’t know for certain why Frank contacted me in the first place — to what, I wondered, could I just thought you might give me something to work with and/or recommend possibly refer? Advice doesn’t make sense — presumably, he turned up what I had to say about annotated ToCs when he Googled the term. Or at any rate would have, had he checked out the posts under the cryptically-named ANNOTATED TABLE OF CONTENTS category on the archive list.

Here, though, is where I part company with most other professional readers. Millicent, for instance, probably would not have taken the time to ask follow-up questions if a query was unclear — or if it swore at her, for that matter. I did consider not answering it for that reason. Still, if Frank was harboring some question that he was too shy to post on the blog, I was reluctant to leave him hanging. Ditto if he just didn’t understand the difference between a freelance editor and the services for which he would be paying at either of the presses he cited.

While I was at it, I thought it might be a good idea to nudge him back toward a professional tone. As I said, it’s surprising how often writers contacting the pros don’t seem to regard it as an occasion for formal courtesy.

Hello, Mr. Wantstogetpublished —

Congratulations upon completing your book, but I’m afraid that your e-mail was a trifle unclear. Are you asking me to recommend a book on how to write a book proposal? Are you asking to book some consultation time with me on the telephone to go over the forms and how to write the annotated table of contents? Or are you looking for someone to hire to computerize your manuscript for you, since no publishing house would accept a handwritten manuscript?

If you are looking for a word processing professional, I have to say, paying a editor with a Ph.D. to do it is probably not the best use of your resources. To find someone in your area with the skills and expertise to present your manuscript professionally, you might want to call the English department at your local community college; students often are eager for this sort of work. Anyone you hire could find both the rules of manuscript formatting and visual examples on my blog.

If, on the other hand, you were asking for a book recommendation, would you mind posting that request on the blog itself? That way, my answer could be of benefit to other writers. I understand the impulse for personal behind-the-scenes contact, but part of the point of blogging is that it permits me not to have to address thousands of readers’ individual concerns one at a time.

Just so you know, though, many, many writers have used my blog’s directions on how to write a book proposal to write a successful annotated table of contents. Check the Nonfiction heading on my archive list. Should you have questions on what I recommend in those posts, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section.

That seemed to cover the bases — but see why Hawkeye and her ilk have fallen out of the habit of responding to vague e-mails like this? If the writer isn’t clear about what he wants, it takes quite a bit of time and effort to spin out a guessing-game’s worth of logical possibilities.

Another reason the pros tend to burn out on following up on these types of missives: about half the time, a thoughtful response like this will go unanswered. Then the writing guru ends up feeling a bit silly for having been nice enough to try to answer a question that was both asked in the wrong place (if the guru happens to blog, that is) and in an indistinct manner.

While I had Frank’s attention, though, there was no reason I shouldn’t try to help him become a better member of the online writing community. After politely expressing the hope that he would find the guidance he was seeking on my blog, I added:

To assist you in your publication efforts, do you mind a little free advice? People in publishing tend to judge writing quality by every single thing a writer sends them. Your e-mail contained two clich?s, something to which editors are specifically trained to respond negatively, regardless of context. You might want to choose your words with a bit more care.

Also, publishing is a formal business; manners count. It would never be appropriate to use even minor profanity in a communication with a publishing professional a writer had never met — and even if we had, it would not be advisable in an initial approach. A word to the wise.

Best of luck with your book!

Not out of line with the advice he might already have seen on the blog, right? Now, if Frank was like most aspiring writers, he would be glad of some feedback from a professional. He would also, I hoped, be pleased that I had told him where to look on my blog for writing tips. As Hawkeye and Millicent would be only too eager to tell you, however, not all aspiring writers who ask for help are particularly overjoyed to receive it.

You can see it coming, can’t you? Very well: here is Frank’s reply in its entirety. Please be kind enough to read it all the way to the end before shouting, “I told you so,” Millie.

Anne-
Your blog is-well a BLOG-its {sic} really hard to navigate and way to {sic} pedantic-as are you. Anyway my proposal letter worked! My manuscript is processed-it was drafted by hand. Oh fyi-Tolstoy re-wrote War and Peace 10 times before he submitted to the printer. Bye, Bye Ms. PHD
Well isn’t that special!
Frank Lee Wantstogetpublished

One hardly knows where to begin, does one? Leaving aside the obvious questions about why somebody who hates blogs would turn to one for advice and why one would go to the trouble of tracking down a blogger whose advice one found pedantic, I can only assume that my subtle hints about formality of tone were lost on poor Frank. And while clearly, he continues to operate under the assumption that a print-for-pay press is the same thing as a traditional publisher, he’s certainly not the only aspiring writer confused by ambiguous wording on a self-publishing site. The best of luck to him, I say.

But if typing was not what he was seeking, why did he contact me in the first place?

We shall never know. I shall limit myself, then, to observations that might help other writers. First, even if Frank found my response unhelpful, a reply that merely vented spleen served no purpose other than to burn a bridge. That made me feel sorry for him, but that would not be most pros’ reaction.

Second, if one feels compelled to cite pop culture references, do try to keep them within the current decade. Better still, avoid them entirely; by definition, quotes are not original writing, and thus not the best way to show off your unique literary voice or analytical acumen.

Third, as hard as I laughed at his evidently not having been able to come up with a stronger zinger than a reference to my degree (“You…you…educated person, you!”), it bears contemplation that the professor he admired enough to cite in his own book’s title graded me in graduate school. As I mentioned above, publishing is stuffed to bursting with former academics; an aspiring writer can never be sure on a first approach if, where, or with whom the publishing professional he’s asking to help him went to grad school. So if one’s tastes run to credential-bashing, a letter to someone in a position to help get a book published might not be the best venue for it.

Oh, and to address an amazingly common misconception about formal salutations: femaleness is not a universal solvent of credentials. If one wishes to address any holder of an earned doctorate formally, the letter should open Dear Dr. X, regardless of whether the recipient is a man or a woman.

Above all, though, if you decide to make direct contact with anyone who works in publishing, do be polite — and do be clear about what kind of favor you’re asking, if you’re writing anything but what Millicent would expect to see in a garden-variety query. Remember, answering aspiring writers’ questions is not part of most professional readers’ job descriptions: agents make their living representing their already-signed writers, just as editors make theirs handling manuscripts and guiding them to publication. Most of the time, it’s entirely up to the recipient whether to respond to such non-standard approaches or not.

Your mother was right, you know. People really will like you better if you use your manners.

Next time, we shall be delving back into the wonderful world of title page examples. Why? Because we like you. Keep up the good work!

Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?

As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while are, I hope, already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits all querying advice. Or generic writing rules allegedly applicable to all writing everywhere, for that matter. While there are indeed some standard expectations hovering above the querying process — keep it to a single page; be polite; include your contact information; tell the nice agent what kind of book it is, and so forth — I have for seven years now been a tireless advocate of the notion that there’s no such thing as a query that will appeal to every agent, every time.

Certainly not one that will withstand mass mass-mailing to every agent in Christendom with no more fine-tuning between strikings of the SEND key than a change in the salutation from Dear Mr. Representativeson to Dear Ms. Choosemenow. Yet as someone who regularly blogs about querying, teaches classes on it, and offers one-on-one consultation to writers trying to improve their querying chances, I regularly encounter would-be queriers absolutely outraged at the mere suggestion that learning enough about an agent’s sales record and client list to be able to personalize the missive might conceivably be more effective than simply sending the same thing to everyone.

The personalized route is demonstrably more effective, incidentally, but try telling that to an eager would-be author determined to send out 200 queries within the next week and a half. There’s no one so sure of what he is doing than someone that’s learned only the bare minimum requirements for a query and thinks that any old agent will do.

Also not true, by the way: agents specialize by fiction vs. nonfiction, book category, and often by writing style or narrative worldview as well. Narrowing their sales focus enables them to pitch their existing clients’ work more effectively to their already-established network of editorial connections.

But try explaining that to a determined writer who’s promised herself, her kith and kin, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy that she’s going to land an agent for her novel, darn it, before Easter or perish of exhaustion in the attempt. No matter how gently those of us who handle manuscripts for a living break the news that in practice, there’s no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for even the best-written book in a category her boss simply does not represent, she’ll cling to the belief that while there’s a stone left unturned, she hasn’t yet given it her best shot.

I have also not been particular quiet about my belief that, contrary to online popular opinion, it does not make either creative or strategic sense to approach people looking for original writing and innovative ideas by lifting a prefab query template, plugging your book’s information into it as if it were a Mad Lib, and merrily send the result to the agent of your dreams. Usually, all that achieves is causing Millicent the agency screener’s eyes to glaze over, because, let’s face it, the 712th reading of a stock phrase like my novel is complete at XX,XXX words is no more likely to strike anyone as startlingly beautiful writing than the 12,453rd.

But try explaining that to someone cranking out Query No. 84 out of a projected 217. “But I saw it in an example online!” these well-intentioned souls will shout, wiping the sweat from their eyes as they lick the next envelope — or, even more often, pound the SEND key yet again. “If it didn’t work, why would it be posted to help people like me?”

Oh, where do I even start with that one? Perhaps by keeping it simple: despite the apparently astonishingly pervasive belief that all of the writing/querying/submission advice online is equally credible, it isn’t. Furthermore, there’s no Ambrosia, the Good Agent or Euphemia, the Good Editor floating over the ether, whacking incorrect or, even more common, insufficiently explained online guidance with their magic wands, transforming misguided self-described words of wisdom into something actually useful.

Believe it or not, the ideas put forth in that last paragraph reliably generate controversy in querying classes, in the comment section of post on querying, and, indeed, in pretty much any writers’ conference in North America. Which is funny, because often, the very aspiring writers most vehement about a particular theory on querying success tend to be those most irritated by the diversity of opinion they’ve turned up online. It’s hard to blame them, really: if you want to hear fifteen different views on querying, each presenting itself as the authoritative last word, all you have to do is traipse into a class, conference, or online forum and ask to be told what to do.

I accept all that, after all these years. That’s why I always provide such extensive explanations for any querying — or submission, or writing, or editing — strategy I urge you to embrace: as an established blogger, I’ve learned from experience that savvy writers new to the game are often juggling conflicting advice from multiple sources. I would never dream of asking smart people to take my advice just because I say so.

It may come as a surprise, then, that today, I’m going to give you some querying advice that I do in fact expect everyone within the sound of my fingertips tapping on my keyboard to take as much to heart as if Ambrosia, Euphemia, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy all appeared above your writing desk, chanting it in three-part harmony: never, under any circumstances, send out a query letter without having both spell-checked and proofread it.

I hear some of you chuckling, thinking it would never occur to you to hit SEND or pop a query in the mail without double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that it was free of typos and grammatical errors. Would you still think it was safe to shrug off this rule if I added and you should do this every time, even if you’re sending out essentially the same query letter ?

Ah, you’ve stopped laughing now, haven’t you? At some point in his checkered career, virtually every aspiring writer has just churned out two or more query letters that closely resembled each other. With the entirely predictable result that the Millicent working for agent Sharpeye McNitpicker at Literary Giants Literary Management has frequently opened an envelope to find an opening like this:

Selectivity Exclusiveberg
Seldompicksupanewclient & Jones Literary Agency
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg:

Well might you gasp, but honestly, when you’re mailing off a lot of queries all at once, it’s pretty easy to shove one into the wrong envelope. And, lest those of you planning to query via e-mail be feeling smug, it’s even easier to copy an earlier query and forget to change the salutation. Imagine Sharpeye’s Millicent’s facial expression upon finding this in her inbox:

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg,

Since you so ably represented Rookie T. Neophyte’s MY FIRST NOVEL, I am hoping you will be interested in my mainstream novel…

It wouldn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out what happened here — clearly, our querier had just sent off a query to the excellent Mr. Exclusiveberg. Millicent would realize that, of course. Think about it, though: if you were Sharpeye’s loyal screener, wouldn’t you be just a trifle annoyed at this querier’s lack of attention to detail? Wouldn’t you be inclined to leap to the conclusion that a writer this overwhelmed by the querying process, however understandably, would also feel flummoxed by the often-intimidating submission process? Or the sales process, or the publication process? Wouldn’t you be likely to suspect that this querier might be just a trifle more time-consuming for your boss to represent than someone who took the time to make sure the right query went to the right agent?

And while I’m asking rhetorical questions about your feelings about a job you don’t currently have, wouldn’t you also feel the urge to hit DELETE the 926th time you saw a query addressed to your nice female boss like this:

Dear Mr. McNitpicker:

Congratulations on your continued success in representing Bigwig Z. Bestseller’s thrillers. My thriller, DERIVATIVE? YOU BET! is very much in the same tradition.

Here, our querier has correctly identified one of Sharpeye’s clients, but has obviously not bothered to read her bio — which, as any true admirer of Ms. McNitpicker would happily tell you, repeatedly and correctly refers to her agenting triumphs via the feminine pronoun. Because her name might conceivably refer to someone either male or female, her Millicent has also rolled her eyes over many an otherwise well-crafted query that has tried to hedge by using both names:

Dear Sharpeye McNitpicker,

Or by embracing a too-familiar tone in the query overall, presumably to justify dispensing with the honorific altogether in favor of the first name:

Dear Sharpeye,

I love your blog! And while we’re talking about great writing, why not take a look at my memoir, REMINISCENCES OF A NARCISSIST? It’s so fantastic, it’ll blow your mind.

Now that you’ve been toddling along in Millicent’s moccasins for a few examples, it may not completely astonish you to learn that all of these are usually instant-rejection offenses. If a screener saw any of them only once in the proverbial blue moon, she might be amused enough to let it pass, but if she toils at a large agency or screens for an agent that represents a bestselling author, she might well see each of these several faux pas crop up several times per week.

If not per day. But try telling that to a querier who thinks he’s cleverly avoided the Scylla of gender misidentification by steering straight for the Charybdis of unprofessionalism.

Oh, you thought I chose today’s opening illustration at random? Would that be in keeping with my notoriously close attention to detail?

The strong likelihood of misaddressing the agent of your dreams, or at any rate, his hardworking Millicent. is not the only reason that I would urge you to read your queries — feel free to sing along with me here, long-time readers — EACH TIME IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, however, even though we all know that’s the best way to catch any mistakes. Beautifully-addressed queries frequently run afoul of yet another beastie haunting agency waterways.

Instead of just warning you of the monster’s existence, let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat. To give it a sporting chance of escaping, I’ve allowed it to swim freely around a hard-copy query. If you’re experiencing trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Not the world’s easiest missive to read, is it? But just try explaining that to the lover of fonts who is absolutely convinced that choosing an off-the-wall typeface will make her query stand out from the crowd. And she’s right: it will — for the font and nothing else.

Remember, part of what a writer demonstrates in a query is a reasonable willingness to conform to the expectations of the publishing industry. In that spirit, here’s that query again in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard. Notice how much more room Wacky has to make her case with a smaller font.

How gratifying to see so many hands flung skyward. Yes, eagle-eyed readers? “But Anne,” those of you conversant with my HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER FROM SCRATCH series bellow triumphantly, “there are quite a few things wrong with this letter! It doesn’t contain a date, for one thing, and Wacky’s e-mail address appears in blue, a Word AutoFormat correction that’s notoriously annoying to screeners. Nor does it include Wacky’s phone number. Shouldn’t a savvy querier be making it easier, not harder, for an agent to contact him? Her? What kind of a name is Wacky, anyway?”

You’re quite right, bellowers: I had asked you a trick question — this query does contain several red flags, even with the more legible font. Any of you bright people want to tell me why not including a date on a regular mail query might trigger rejection?

Help yourself to a gold star from petty cash if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because an undated letter might have been sent anytime! That makes it seem as though — sacre bleu! — Wacky has been reusing the same query for every agent she’s approached, changing only the address, salutation, and work to be praised!” This is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, dating from the pre-personal computer days when aspiring writers would write what were known as Dear Agent letters, photocopy a hundred of them, and mail them to every agency in New York.

Today, the personal computer renders the same tactic much easier to disguise, but still, why advertise it? While writing a basic query letter and personalizing parts of it for each agent is in fact quite a clever strategy, it defeats the purpose if the letter’s lack of a date indicates that it’s a multi-purpose document. Maintain the illusion; even though Millicent knows perfectly well that with the current practice of not answering queries if an agent does not want to request a manuscript, she’ll appreciate the courtesy.

Did you happen to notice, though, the dead giveaway that Wacky had not proofread this query — and thus, Millicent might be within her rights to extrapolate, might not have proofread his manuscript, either? If you didn’t catch the repeated problem, try going back and reading the query out loud.

Did you spot the multiple dropped words that time? Whenever text is composed quickly, there’s a danger of the head’s moving faster than the fingers, resulting in skipped words, punctuation, and even sentences. And perhaps I’ve been misinformed, but when writers are composing something they don’t really want to write — like, say, a query letter or synopsis — they do tend to rush the job.

That’s not the only reason this problem has become ubiquitous in queries in the home computer age, however. As you may perhaps have heard, savvy queriers often compose a basic query letter, then personalize it for each recipient. With every cut, paste, and added word, the chances of cutting a necessary element without noticing it rise.

I sense a few more raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne, even with the missing elements, it’s perfectly clear what Wacky wanted to say here. His story sounds like an interesting one, although like many readers, I may well be thinking of it rather differently now that I know it to have been written by a man than a woman. That’s a topic for another day, however. At the moment, what I really want to know is if Millicent is reading Wacky’s query very quickly, anyway, isn’t it possible that she might, you know, overlook the missing words?”

It’s possible, I suppose, remotely so. It’s also remotely possible that by the time we wake up tomorrow, the literary world will have decided that sentence fragments are much, much cooler to read than complete sentences.

And then. We’ll all. Be writing. Like this.

Even if the world changes so much that cats develop opposable thumbs and begin turning up as dealers at poker tables, though, the possibility that dropped words, repeated phrases, misspelled words, clich? use, and other line-level red flags will fall off Millicent’s to-scan-for list within our lifetimes remains so remote that we should probably stop speculating about it and start worrying about those kitties.

The publishing world appreciates good writing, and that means preferring clean, polished prose to, well, the other kind. But just try explaining that to a writer that believes, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, that agency denizens will be willing to look past problematic writing in a query. It’s only fair to judge a writer on the writing in the manuscript, right?

I can see why a writer might feel that way: a query, like a synopsis or a book proposal, calls for a different kind of writing than a novel or nonfiction manuscript. But just try explaining that to Millicent, whose job is predicated, at least in part upon the assumption that it is not only possible but probable that someone who can write a book well can also produce a graceful letter. Or synopsis. Or book proposal.

Oh, dear — should I have told you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Writers trying to break into the biz seldom think about it this way, but at the querying stage, the only basis Millicent has to judge writing quality and talent is, you guessed it, the query letter. If that doesn’t strike her as well-written — or if, as we saw in that last example, it doesn’t seem to have been either proofread or put together with the level of care her agency expects from its writing clients — she will reject it.

And no, in response to what many of you just thought very loudly, she’s not allowed to treat a query like our last example as her own Mad Lib, filling in the spaces with words of her own. That would be judging her writing, not yours.

To be fair, though, she might not have noticed all of the dropped words here, for the exceedingly simple reason that she might not have kept reading after the first or second gap. Once she’s noticed a red flag or two, she’ll generally stop reading and move on to the next query. That’s often the case, incidentally, even if the agency in question’s submission requirements allow queriers to include a synopsis, book proposal, or the first few pages of the book in the query packet. Since the query will be the first thing Millicent reads in it– remember how easy it is for her to reject a type of book her boss does not habitually represent? — if its not well-written, she’s unlikely to peruse anything else. Next!

Which comes as almost as great a surprise to most first-time queriers as the majority of manuscripts’ being rejected on page 1 comes to most first-time submitters, I’ve noticed. Why ask for pages, both parties wonder, unless someone’s going to read them?

Good question, and one with a good answer: so they will be handy. If the screener likes the query, why, she can turn immediately to those opening pages; if she finds the first few pages of the manuscript gripping, she doesn’t have to e-mail the writer to get to read the rest of the book.

While that’s sinking in, let me call on the disgruntled souls that have had their hands in the air since I first broached the subject of Millicent’s eye for sentence-level detail. “But Anne,” they mutter, and can we really blame them? “I get why Millie might have taken umbrage at that last example — she would have had to fill in the missing words herself, and that’s not really her job. As you say, she can only judge the writing by what’s in front of her. But you mentioned typos. Surely, we all see enough of those even in published writing these days that she’s going to see them for what they are, slips of fingers in a hurry, not as deliberate mistakes.”

I’d urge you to try to make that case to someone who reads hundreds of queries per day, but frankly, I don’t think you’d have a chance of convincing a professional reader. Agents, editors, contest judges, and Millicents are specifically charged with noticing the small stuff, after all; it’s part of their job not to look past textual errors. And realistically, given only a page of writing, how on earth could a screener tell whether the writer used the wrong form of there, their, and they’re because he was in a hurry, or because hadn’t learned the rules governing their use?

Or, almost as serious from a publishing perspective, if simply thought it didn’t matter, because someone else would be proofreading his work down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that if the agency signed that writer, they could not ever send out so much as a page of his writing without reading it first? Wouldn’t that prove problematic if an editor asked for a quick revision?

Then, too, it doesn’t pay to underestimate how distracting those of us that read for a living find small gaffes. How distracting, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: since I’m fond of you fine people, I’m not willing to run the risk that even a single one of you might not be aware of how to decide when to use some of the more commonly mixed-up words. Just for the record, then:

There = in that place
Their = belonging to them
They’re = they are

It’s = it is
Its = belonging to it

Mom = the name one might conceivably call one’s mother
her mom = the lady in question’s mother
her Mom = an improper use of capitalization. Generally speaking, only proper names should be capitalized — and if you mention a city, country, or named institution in your query, make sure it is spelled correctly.

Speaking of institutions, person graduates from a school, not graduates college.

Whew, I feel better for having gotten all of that off my chest. Oh, what a relief it is. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and all’s well that end’s well. While we’re at it, where’s the beef?

Sick of it yet? Millicent is — and to be completely honest, she’s puzzled. Why, she finds herself wondering over query after query, would a talented writer waste perfectly good page space by including even a single stock phrase, rather than original phrasing? Isn’t the point of any writing sample — and make no mistake, every syllable a writer sends to an agency is indeed a writing sample — to show how you would phrase things, not how any random person on the street might?

I’m sensing some nervous shifting in chairs, am I not? “Gee, Anne,” those of you gearing up to send out a few queries murmur under your respective breaths, “all of this is making me self-conscious. I feel as though my query is going to be examined under a microscope.”

Not the most original of concepts, murmurers, but I understand the feeling. I have to say, I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re getting antsy — it means you have an accurate understanding of just how important the writing in your query letter is to your chances of interesting an agent in your work.

Had I mentioned that you might want to invest a little time in proofreading?

To give you some practice, and to help convince the few of you out there who I can feel trying to shrug off this advice, here is Wacky’s query again, with the problems we have been discussing cleaned up.

Not a bad little query, is it? Now here it is again, after having come down with a severe case of the typos. Do you find the addition of the gaffes distracting? If you were Millicent, would you read it all the way to the end? (My apologies about the spacing at the bottom; there actually is a margin there, but my pesky finger slipped while I was capturing the image. And yes, I know that excuse wouldn’t fly with a screener.)

Ooh, that was painful to produce. I could have sworn that my fingertips were about to burst into flame when I typed their instead of there. I had meant to use — ow! — an apostrophe + s form a — it burns! It burns! — plural, but my weak frame wasn’t up to it.

Be honest, though: you had only seen that last version, wouldn’t you have assumed that Wacky wasn’t the world’s best writer? And if you’d been sitting in Millicent’s chair, wouldn’t you have been tempted to call, “Next!” even though the book sounded like it might be fun to read?

Or didn’t you notice that the story seemed like a hoot, because your eye kept flying to those typos? And if so, would you like to try explaining that to Wacky, or shall I?

Proofread, people. In your query’s entirety, preferably in hard copy and out loud. And, as always, keep up the good work!

Before you pop that first query or submission of the year into the mail, may I have a word?

And would you mind very much, New Year’s resolvers, if that word were wait?

I know, I know: you want to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, especially the last: as the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst.

Or, at the very least, the time when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected. Why? Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates go up in the first few weeks of January.

Was that resounding thunk that just reverberated throughout the cosmos the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting the floor? I’m not entirely surprised. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? By the same logic, if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries will open their e-mail inboxes and moan, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions, you see.

So did the tens of thousands of successful queriers from last year who decided that after December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It doesn’t occur to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of, say, February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3. Or, really, any time of the year that the sheer weight of numbers would guarantee that competition would be stiffer for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but in practical terms, it would be impossible. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling their work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume. That means agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit? First, high querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets translate, inevitably, to less time spent on each query and submission. Equally inevitable — and you might want to sit down for this one: the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions, most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox tomorrow if you hit SEND today? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of those queries will be easy for the screener — known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that she’s a human being with individual literary tastes working for an agent with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing. At this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Out comes that logic we saw earlier: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories: fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc.; it’s a matter of reaching a specific target audience. While an individual reader may well buy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book tend to share expectations, and publishers market categories accordingly. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if he picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel she’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

Acquiring editors also harbor those expectations — and since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. They, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

Again, why should this trouble a writer longing to land an agent, any agent, as quickly as possible? There is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, it’s a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, in January. New Year’s resolvers, after all, are frequently in a hurry to see results. Too much of a hurry, often, to do much research on any given agent before sending off a query. You would not believe, for instance, how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google and e-mail the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list.

Usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent. And that’s a pity, because not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books — that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to landing one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent advice was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements — it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or, as is even more common, if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information an agent would want to know before requesting pages.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of these problems could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, it’s fairly common for agents and editors alike to use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course; they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. All through the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve.

Picture, then, what will greet your garden-variety Millicent when she walks into the office on the first working day of January. Not only will the usual post-vacation backlog await her, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Tell me, if you were Millicent, how quickly would you be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for, to pluck an example out of thin air, the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you answer any of those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence clear her schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor does they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the New Year’s resolution energy tends to peter out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (An increasingly common agency policy, by the way: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal part of the publication process. Just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

Translation: it may feel like a rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s: if you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less quickly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates tend to be higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for all of their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five typos in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be perusing it within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

I raise my glass to toast those dreams. As always, my New Year’s resolution is to help good writers realize theirs, not just through general encouragement, but also practical advice. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXX: is it a mirage, or do I spy the finish line at long last?


No, you’re not seeing things, campers: this is indeed the last Queryfest post. It’s been a long time coming, as the song would have it, and we’ve wandered down a few side paths along the way, but this is, as they say, it.

Yes, I’m relieved, too. Of all the unpleasant tasks that fall to the lot of the aspiring writer, composing query letters is perhaps the most universally-resented necessity. (Synopsis-writing would be first by a mile, but not all aspiring writers are aware that the more successful they are in getting published, the more often they will to have to churn out synopses.) Not only do most writers of book-length works feel, justifiably, that if their talents leaned in the direction of one-page documents, they would have gone in for writing brief epistolary novels, if not short-form poetry — they believe, and not entirely unreasonably, that the ability to write an engaging letter is not the best proof that one can write a novel. Or a memoir. Or a book proposal.

While that may well be true, there’s a pretty good reason that agencies expect anyone who intends to work with them to learn how to write a professional-sounding query: it’s quite an efficient means of assuring that the writers they pick up will have gained at least a minimal working knowledge of publishing. Think about it: as we have seen throughout this series, in order to whip up a solid query letter, a writer must figure out her book’s category, do a bit of research on what agents represent that type of book, come up with a 30-second pitch of the book’s premise or argument (try timing a dramatic reading of the descriptive paragraph sometime), ponder the book’s selling points and/or one’s own platform, and include a SASE.

Honestly, would you have known to do any of that just because you had the inspiration and persistence to write a book? Indirectly, the agent of your dreams has prompted you to take a crash course in many of the skills you will need to become a happily-published author.

Oh, you thought I had lingered on the constituent parts of the query for months on end because letter-writing fascinated me?

To demonstrate just how far we have all come over the course of Queryfest, here is one final example, written by yet another brave, generous, and naturally creative member of the Author! Author! community, A. Verage Reader. I was delighted to see A’s query pop into my inbox: not only does her book sound like a real page-turner, but she has also, like so many well-meaning, talented aspiring writers across the globe, submitted a query that presents our hypothetical agent, Hawkeye McAgentson of Picky & Pickier Literary Management, with a quandary: should she base her decision to request pages upon the story A is telling in her query, or upon how she presents it and herself?

And already, the intrepid few who have been following this series from the very beginning fling your hands into the air. Yes, thoughtful, sharp-eyed, and faithful readers? “But Anne,” you point out, “realistically, would Hawkeye be the one making this decision? Yes, her staff might pass the most successful queries on to her, but Hawkeye is usually busy selling her clients’ books to read every query personally, isn’t she? So wouldn’t the first-round weeding out be performed by our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener?”

Quite right, Queryfest stalwarts, and since this often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time queriers, how glad I am that you reiterated it. Contrary to popular opinion, most well-established agents simply do not have time to read the thousands of queries they receive, much less to narrow down those thousands to the three or four manuscripts they can reasonably take on per year. That’s why agencies employ Millicents, to reject the overwhelming majority of queries and submissions. That way, the agent can concentrate upon reading the tiny percentage of manuscripts and book proposals that Millie deems well-written, written well for the target audience (not always the same thing), market-ready, something the market is ready for (see last parenthesis), and a storyline or argument likely to interest Hawkeye.

I know, I know: having to make it past Millicent’s notoriously nit-picky scrutiny can seem like an insurmountable barrier. Most queriers would prefer that Hawkeye read every single query and submission herself — or, better still, just allowed potential clients to send the first 50 pages instead of a query. Honestly, though, when yours is one of the dozen or so on Hawkeye’s desk, you’ll be deeply grateful to Millicent for freeing up her boss’ schedule enough to read your work closely.

In that spirit, let’s slip into Millicent’s reading glasses and take a gander at A’s query. If you could request manuscripts from only a couple of the several hundred queriers who contacted Hawkeye this week, would you say yes to this one? (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Actually, that was sort of a trick question, wasn’t it? Naturally, Millicent could not have said yes to this query: I don’t employ a Millicent, for the exceedingly simple reason that I am not an agent. I am a freelance editor. And even if I were an agent, I would expect my Millicent to be aware that the proper formal salutation for a lady with a Ph.D. is Dear Dr. Mini.

Actually, the only people I make call me Dr. Mini are medical doctors. It bugs them to such an astonishing degree that as both a trained social scientist and a writer of comedy on serious issues, I feel an intellectual duty to try to find out why.

So had A. sent me this query, I would not have been in a position to give her the answer she wanted. By the terms of this contest, though, she did not send it to me — she sent it to Hawkeye. While the address (or, in this case, non-address) at the top clearly indicates that she intended to mail it to me.

This, I’m afraid, is usually an instant-rejection offense — and far more common than any of us would like to think. Oh, it’s a completely understandable faux pas: A. was probably printing out several queries at once, and the one for this Mini person accidentally ended up in the envelope addressed to Picky & Pickier. Happens all the time. Yet you can hardly blame Hawkeye’s Millicent from taking umbrage at being expected to read a paragraph about how much A. admires somebody else’s blog.

Not that somebody else isn’t flattered, of course. Heaven help A., though, if Hawkeye happens also to blog.

I’m harping on this not only because it is one of the most common (and least-often acknowledged) reasons queries get rejected, but also because about a third of the brave, generous souls who volunteered their query letters for scrutiny here stumbled into precisely the same trap. So, reliably, do between a quarter and a third of the entrants of any writing contest: the rules call for one thing, and the entrant does something else. Care to guess what that means for the contest entries in question?

Uh-huh: “Next!”

Actually, the response should be closer to, “Hey, thank you for saving me some time!” In practice, queries, submissions, and entries that do not conform to expectations, especially when the recipient has taken the time to list those rules for all to see, are a positive boon to overworked professional readers. Millicent, her Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, and Maury, their cousin who works as an editorial assistant in a small publishing house, can simply reject all of those documents at first glance. That takes much, much less time than reading them in their entirety — and leaves extra time in their respective days to devote to the queries, submissions, and entries that did follow the rules.

In case I’m being too subtle here: read any submission guidelines carefully before you seal that envelope or hit SEND. Assuming that you know what they call for — or, as many aspiring writers presume, wrongly, that every agency or contest out there must necessarily want to see precisely the same things — can be exceedingly costly. Invest the time in double-checking.

Do I hear some tender-hearted souls out there sighing? Yes, I feel sad for all of the good writers with fine books who get rejected on the basis of simple mix-ups, too. Tell you what: let’s pretend that I gave A. the pep talk in that last paragraph before she sent in her query. Let’s further assume that Hawkeye actually does write a blog aimed at helping potential clients, because, honestly, it’s less work for me that way.

Here’s what the query might have looked like in that alternate reality. Again, if you were Millicent, how would you respond?

Do I sense some hesitation out there? “Gee, Anne, I want to read this query with the attention it deserves, but having read so many similar letters throughout the course of Queryfest, I’m afraid I find the presentation here a trifle distracting. Why, for instance, is the date located in the bottom margin, rather than the top, where it belongs? Why, too, is it in a different font? Speaking of fonts, this doesn’t look like 12-point in either Times New Roman or Courier, the standard fonts for the U.S. publishing world. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say it was Calibri 11 point. While I am nit-picking about format, why are the closing and contact information tabbed to 2.5″, rather than halfway across the page? And shouldn’t A. have left room for a signature?”

Congratulations, hesitators: you have begun looking at pages like a screener. Yes, the formatting is off here; the type is indeed too small for any writing intended for submission to an agency. While neither will necessarily present a reading problem — the content of the letter is perfectly clear here, right? — both would raise some reasonable concerns about whether the manuscript being queried would be in standard format. Millicent would have some legitimate reason to expect that it wouldn’t.

And why is that a problem, long-time readers? Chant it with me now: even the most talented writer unfamiliar with the norms of publishing will be more time-consuming for an agent to represent than a similarly-talented writer who has done his homework. The single quickest way for Millicent to judge this is to check how closely the submission adheres to standard format for book manuscripts.

So, again, Millicent may have a reason to say, “Thank you for saving me some time!” That’s sad, because an easily-fixed set of presentation problems have prevented a reading of A’s query on its content.

On the bright side, the choice of typeface was probably not what put Millicent off this version. While not adhering to the industry-standard fonts is seldom a deal-breaker in a query (as it can be in a submission), it’s undeniably true that to the pros, a query in those fonts just seems more professional than one that isn’t.

Don’t not sure why? Okay, here’s A’s query again, with nothing changed but what the hesitating many pointed out. If you were Millicent, would you feel more confident that the writer of this version would be able to send you a manuscript in standard format, or the writer of the original?

Ah, that looks more familiar, doesn’t it? But now that the non-standard formatting no longer distracts your eye, Millicent-of-the-moment, do you notice anything else? Here’s a hint: the overwhelming majority of queries exhibit this problem to a greater or lesser extent.

If, after you perused A’s query carefully, you flung your hand into the air and cried, “There are quite a few typos here — missing commas, misspelled words, and a misused semicolon. Oh, hey, there’s also a dropped word or two. And is it me, but is there an extra space in the non-standard sign-off?” give yourself a gold star for the day. Millicent is constantly astonished at how many queries are apparent neither spell-checked nor proofread.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed, performing the former does not obviate the necessity of performing the latter. Spell-checkers are not infallible; neither are grammar-checkers. (For some reason that surpasses human understanding, mine is constantly urging me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re and telling me that reflexive pronoun use is always wrong.) There is, I’m afraid, just no substitute for good, old-fashioned proofreading.

Why? Well, now that we know that conclusion-jumping is part of Millie’s job, what do you think she might reasonably assume about a manuscript if the query for it contains misspellings and typos?

Yep. And since an unproofed submission is likely to get rejected, anyway…

Given the grave importance of getting the small details right, how does one maximize the probability of catching small problems before sending off that query, campers? That’s right: since every syllable an aspiring writer submits to an agency is a writing sample, it’s worth your while to re-read your query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. It’s simply the easiest way to catch typos, spacing problems, and missing words.

Yes, your neighbors may think you’re a little strange, but hey, no one said the path to publication was easy.

Before I show you A’s query again with that array of minuscule problems corrected, there’s another element in that last draft that might raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows, as well as her doubts about the manuscript’s being in standard format. Any guesses? There’s another gold star at stake.

If you leapt to your feet and cried, “Why, I had not thought about it on earlier read-throughs, but the numbers under 100 are presented in this query as numbers. In standard format for book manuscripts, those numbers would be written out in full: eighteen, not 18,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. As counterintuitive as it may seem, queries are frequently judged as though they were manuscripts; not doubling a dash would be a red flag, too.

Yes, really. Millie’s boss is not going to have time to proofread her clients’ work before submitting it to a publishing house.

So let’s take this query seriously as a writing sample and buff away those little problems, shall we? While we’re at it, let’s change that closing to something more traditional for a formal letter. Do you want to ask for a partial now, Millicent?

Stronger, but I have to say, this version still feels a bit minimal to me. Not merely because there’s quite a bit of room left on the page — a temptation to add plot elements that most queriers would not be able to resist — but because the wording in the opening paragraph and the target audience paragraph are a little, well, ungraceful. Almost as if providing this information were not a compositional pleasure, but an irksome requirement.

Imagine that. Why, an innocent bystander might almost think that writing a query is just an annoying hoop through which aspiring writers have to leap in order to gain a fair reading of their manuscripts.

Surprisingly often, queries make that pervasive attitude quite apparent — and that’s never helpful to a book’s chances. Even if the querier in question happens to phrase distaste for the entire process beautifully, it’s not Millie’s fault that the system is set up this way, is it?

Besides, a flat telling does not show off anyone’s writing to its best advantage. That is, alas, the case here: the writing in those informational paragraphs would not match the tone or writing style of the book description. Based on them alone, Millicent would have a hard time figuring out what A’s writing style was.

Another problem: the importation of generic elements. As we have discussed many times throughout Queryfest (although, in fairness, after A. sent in her query for critique), Millicent sees that line about the word count in about half of the queries that cross her desk: apparently, it’s in quite a few boilerplates floating around out there. That doesn’t mean it is well-written, or that including will, as so many new queriers evidently believe, make your letter sound professional. At this point in querying history, it just sounds like someone else’s writing — and not very interestingly-phrased writing at that.

Why is that problematic? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, Queryfesters: contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, a query is a writing sample. Since stock phrases are, by definition, not original writing, it’s a better use of page space to write your letter from scratch.

At the risk of repeating myself, I always advise against including word count in a query unless an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for it. Fortunately, A’s word count is well within the expected range for her chosen book category, but being much under 60,000 words (estimated at 250 words/page in Times New Roman x the number of pages in the manuscript) or over 100,000 provides Millicent with, you guessed it, a legitimate reason to reject the query.

“Why, thank you!” she exclaims. Or she should.

Since a query is in fact a writing sample, I hesitate to rework the phraseology in order to encourage Millicent to spend more time with this letter: after all, she wants to know what A. sounds like on the page, not me. Far be it from me, too, to compound the already widespread problem of generic query phrasing by adding a new prototype to the mix.

Were I A., however, I might express these sentiments rather differently. A great start: being more specific about why this book is right for Hawkeye. This is something you might like to represent does, you must admit, does beg the question, “Okay, why?” (And what, Millicent wonders, prevented A. from querying her boss before?)

And a forest of hands sprouts in the ether. Yes? “You’ve lost me, Anne,” weary queriers the world over protest. “I get that it’s worth my while to personalize each query slightly, but A. has already done that: she brought up Hawkeye’s blog. Since she’s a long-time reader, does she honestly need to paraphrase the agent’s expressed protagonist preferences, too?”

It’s not strictly necessary, perhaps, but why pass up the opportunity to help Millicent gain a sense of what’s special about this storyline — or a dandy opportunity to say, essentially, “Hey, Hawkeye, I’ve not only read your blog — I have absorbed what you have been saying. Here I am, demonstrating that. Wouldn’t I be good at incorporating your feedback as my client?”

Sound like a tall order for a non-obsequious first paragraph? Not at all: the key lies in specificity, combined with a professional tone. And speaking of creating a professional impression, since the YA market is aimed at readers from 13 to 17, is it really necessary for A. to point out that her book is geared toward that age range?

Seems less forced now, doesn’t it? In this version, the reader’s focus is right where it should be: on the story.

So let’s talk about how A. might render that more appealing to everyone’s favorite screener. To get us started, let’s take a few steps back. Remember a few minutes ago, when I mentioned the desirability of reading one’s query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off? Give that a try now, please.

It’s not always clear to whom they refers, is it? That’s quite common in book description paragraphs, I’m sorry to report: because queriers are so eager to cram as much of the storyline as possible into the letter, they frequently include so many plot twists and introduce so many characters that Millicent can’t follow what’s going on.

That’s a real shame here: A. has worked in some delightfully unexpected specifics into this description, but they are getting lost. While that line about the father’s body and the mother’s mind is quite nice, the book description leaves us guessing why going to Poland will remedy the situation; indeed, the phrasing of that third sentence could be interpreted to mean that the mother is left with only one choice, not Meghan. Why Poland, and not, say, Belgium? While we are speculating, what is a Holy Apprentice, and why is it capitalized?

I have no idea; I’m merely asking what Millicent would. Not having read the manuscript in question — which sounds awfully darned exciting, I would only be guessing on these points. So please forgive me, A., if I get the plot wrong as I polish out the question-raisers.

I’m going to begin by highlighting those thus eye-catching bits about the parents and the possessed teddy bear. And while I’m at it, I shall to remove the impression, created by the repeated use of to be, that this is a story that’s told, not shown. More sentences in the active voice will also convey the subtle impression — and, I suspect an accurate one — that this is a fast-paced book.

Ha! If you were looking for additional evidence that it’s significantly more difficult to catch typos on a backlit computer screen than in hard copy, seek no more: as I was tinkering with the text, I noticed that I had missed that problematic punctuation and structure in the last sentence of the fourth paragraph. I shall go ahead and correct it now; let this be a lesson to us both. While I’m nit-picking, I’ll move A’s e-mail address to beneath her phone number. Millicent is more likely to look for it there.

Again, I don’t know if this is how the plot progresses; I have not read the book. Neither has Millicent, though, and she can judge its potential only by what is actually in front of her: the query. Best of luck with it, A!

Now that we have applied Queryfest principles to a wonderfully broad array of readers’ letters to agents, let’s turn our attention to the bigger picture. What have we learned on a larger level about querying?

Six things, I hope — no, make that seven. And just to keep things interesting, the first few may on the surface appear to be mutually contradictory.

First, a successful query letter must contain certain elements, elements that are surprisingly often absent in the prototypes one finds floating around the web. The most frequent omission: a polite opening that gives the agent at least some vague sense of why you picked her, out of all of the agents currently treading the earth’s crust, to approach.

Or, indeed, giving her some clue of what you think she represents. Millicent’s constantly asking herself, “What makes this querier think my boss would be remotely interested in this type of book? As far as I know, she has never sold anything like it.”

I think we all know why that query showed up on her desk: someone did not do his homework well enough to learn that agents specialize. Or to understand why it’s in any querier’s best interest not to make an agent guess why his manuscript would be a good fit for the agency.

Oh, there are some good reasons explanations on these points tend to turn up in prototypes: it’s not a one-size-fits-all feature. A writer would have to do some actual research, not only investing time in learning about each agent he approaches, giving some serious thought to what kind of book he has written, and figuring out the best matches. That’s a far cry from the extremely limited plug-your-book-category-into-a-search-engine research from which most first-time queriers derive their query lists.

Which leads me to Overarching Lesson #2: Because the single easiest kind of query to reject is one for a type of book an agent does not represent, personalized queries tend to work much better than generic ones.

“Oh, great,” I hear the masses mutter. “I’ve been working for months, even years, to get my basic query letter down to a single page without cheating on the margins or font. Are you gearing up to tell me that I will need to write an entirely fresh missive for every single agent I approach?”

Not entirely, no: as we saw in today’s extraordinarily fruitful example — thanks again for volunteering, A! — only the first paragraph would have to alter, in most instance. Unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox, you should be able to use the bulk of a well-written query repeatedly. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Do I hear sweet music in the distance? Like any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, I have devoted so many months to Queryfest: my aim has been not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these people are not generalists.

What? Still too subtle? Okay, I shall hoist a brick through the nearest window: while Millicents share common pet peeves, each agent, and thus each Millicent, is looking for slightly different things in a query letter.

Stop groaning; it wouldn’t have made good strategic sense to send an identical letter out to everyone, anyway, for reasons we have been discussing for months now. Besides, there is no such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It honestly is as simple as that sometimes. Coming to grips with that — and doing the research necessary to avoid knee-jerk rejection — will make you a much, much happier querier than if you cling to the unfortunately ubiquitous belief that the only reason queries ever get rejected is due to some fundamental flaw in the book.

That can happen, of course, but the vast majority of the time, other problems send Millicent’s hand flying toward the form-letter rejection pile. Even if your query side-steps all of the usual pitfalls, however — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if your letter is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask with fear and trembling? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive this week to even the best knitting book in recorded history. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation; even the query that wins most will lose some. Don’t squander your precious energies worrying about it.

That being said, a strategic-minded querier can avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, Labor Day, or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then.

Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street. Since you probably will not be the first to know if any of those things happens, though, you can’t possibly plan your querying schedule around them. I feel another aphorism coming on: as there will inevitably be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

To be brutally honest, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had taken the time to hand-write at the bottom, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll still have to pass. As if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

Can you wonder that this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me? Like so many queriers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting, due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or had gotten engaged five minutes, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve had some very nice chats with this agent at conferences since.

Whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, recipes for infallible love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that — ready for Overarching Lesson #3? == a writer has no way of affecting when any query (or manuscript, or published book) is going to hit an agent, editor, contest judge, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

Admittedly, as an agented writer, I do have some control over when my agent sees my manuscripts — but even then, it’s up to him when to read them. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. Like, say, the matters we have discussed today. Or the writing in your query.

Why? We have only to consult Overarching Lesson #4: since every syllable of a query packet is a writing sample, it makes sense to regard the descriptive paragraph not just as a super-fast plot summary, but as an invitation to show off your storytelling skills.

As we saw in today’s example, in an otherwise laudable attempt to try to place as much of the plot or argument in front of Millicent, many queriers simply try to do too much on the querying page. Honestly, all that’s required at this stage is a lively, book-category-appropriate description of the premise, presenting your protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for fiction), you as an interesting narrator of your experiences as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for memoir), or your credentials as the world’s best person to argue about an important issue or event (for nonfiction).

Piece o’ cake, right?

Not really, but truly, it’s not as hard as most queriers make it for themselves. Just tell your story in your own voice, rather than in generic-sounding summary statements: it’s the best way to convince Millie that you are one heck of a storyteller.

Above all, be original — and yes, I’m aware that’s not very common querying advice. Consider, however, overarching Lesson #5: as tempting as it may be to make your book sound like a recent bestseller (or to claim it’s the next one), hard-sell techniques do not work in queries or pitches. Since you have so little time to impress an agent, it’s better strategy to use it not to sound like everybody else.

Or, to put it bit more bluntly: if your query does not make it plain how your book is unique, it’s probably not going to impress Millicent. Trust me on this one.

But don’t beat yourself up if your best efforts doesn’t hit a home run every time. Recall, please, Overarching Lesson #6: because of OLs Nos. 1-5, queries get rejected all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing quality or marketability of the book in question. It does not follow logically, then, that if a query gets rejected, the book is necessarily not ready for publication — or, as many disappointed queriers assume, that a rejection from one agency equals a rejection from the industry at large.

Yes, I know: it doesn’t feel like that when you’re trying to work up energy to send out Query #19 right after Rejection #18 arrives. It can seem almost impossible to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and proceed to the next name on your agent list right away, but believe me, the longer that rejection sits on your desk, the harder it will be to work up energy to do it at all.

Please, for your own sake, don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of sending the next one. Keep pressing forward, and bear in mind Overarching Lesson #7: the only manuscript that stands no chance whatsoever of interesting an agent and getting published is the one that sits in a drawer, perpetually unqueried.

I wouldn’t kid you about that. So try. And keep trying. Your writing is worth it.

Oh, and pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through Queryfest; it has been a long, hard road. But you don’t come to Author! Author! just to pass the time, right? Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXVI: the monster always returns. So, apparently, do allergic reactions.

I had meant to wrap up the last few reader-generated queries over the weekend, campers, but disaster befell. Okay, perhaps not disaster of a magnitude to make the national news, but a hideous disruption nonetheless: my new doctor decided that when I handed her a list of allergies headed by a skull and crossbones, I didn’t really mean that I should not be ingesting any of the substances on the list. Or so I surmise from the fact that filling her prescription and meticulously following both her directions and the pharmacist’s rather different dictates resulted in my face instantly swelling up until I resembled the unholy love child of Frankenstein’s monster and Ernest Borgnine, not a pretty pair. By the following morning, I looked as though I had been burned at the stake by amateurs who couldn’t manage to turn me regularly enough to ensure proper browning. Evidently, my would-be roasters became enraged by their failure, enough so to punch me repeatedly in the eyes.

I’m much better now, though. Small children only scream and hide behind their mothers should I happen to smile. I’m beginning to understand why the Phantom of the Opera did not get out much.

Resembling an escapee from the much-ballyhooed Bodies exhibit has its perks, of course. Why, only yesterday, my doorbell rang. It being Igor’s day off, I lightly tripped down the front stairs to greet what I quite reasonably assumed would be a mob of villagers armed with pitchforks and flaming torches. No such luck: it was only the U.P.S. man, dragging a crumbling plywood coffin onto my doorstep. Apparently, the sender had ripped a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf from his home, stuffed it full of cement blocks, hammered a sheet of plywood on each open side, and sent it on its merry way.

The panting gentleman from U.P.S. wanted me to sign for it. “My God,” he stammered, “what happened to you?”

What effrontery, eh? You wouldn’t believe how often those of us who work from home offices are called upon to receive the neighbors’ deliverables.

Once the deliveryman had drunk in his fill of doctor horror stories (and added a few of his own), he got down to work. A second, smaller bookshelf emerged from the van, accompanied by what looked suspiciously like a table whose legs had been boxed in to form a container for table linens, a hatbox barely containing what appeared to be a lifetime supply of socks within a Gordian knot of clear strapping tape, and a floor lamp voluminously wrapped first in a crazy quilt, then several layers of Visqueen. Passersby must have thought that a freighter had run aground upon my front steps, scattering flotsam and jetsam into my rose bushes.

Feeling that the social situation called for some lightening, I asked the U.P.S. guy what he thought was in those odd-shaped containers. “Pardon my asking, but I’m an editor, and occasionally, I work on mysteries. How much information does the sender actually have to give about what’s inside? That box that looks like it could easily hold a dead body, for instance — how do you know it doesn’t contain a dead body?”

The deliveryman must not have seen his fair share of horror movies, for his response to the lady with the flayed face inquiring how best to ship a murder victim did not elicit much more than a shrug. “We just ask what’s inside.”

I gave him my best child-frightening grin. “Under the assumption that a mass murder bent upon sending his victims cross-country couldn’t bring himself to tell a little white lie?”

That seemed to stump him. “Well, if they lied about shipping a dead body,” he observed after a while, “they’d get in trouble if the box burst open, I can tell you that.” He thereupon launched into a surprisingly well thought-out lecture upon how to pack a corpse for ground transport. Dry ice featured prominently in his explanation, as did, chillingly, Visqueen. And evidently there are no moral depths to which duct tape will not plunge.

It just goes to show you, my friends: most people will give out an astonishing amount of information about their jobs if they believe the result will end up in a book. So for goodness’ sake, someone out there in the mystery, thriller, or horror communities please take advantage of my deliveryman’s garrulousness; as the person signing for those suspiciously human-sized boxes, I’m here to tell you that having one appear suddenly would make quite the plot twist.

Seriously, it was a bad afternoon to be blessed with imagination. Having been raised on the writings of H.P. Lovecraft, it was all I could do to stop myself from taking a crowbar to ‘em before the new neighbor came home, to see what horror lay within. There are some boxes man was not to open, however.

The bookcase contained only books, I’m sorry to report: disappointingly prosaic, unhappily predictable. But I’m sure some enterprising writer out there could come up with something much, much creepier in the fictional version.

As any query-screener at an agency that caters to the macabre could tell you, though, horror queries that make the books they are pitching sound horrifying are as rare as thrillers whose plots as presented seem thrilling. On any given day, Millicent is inundated by comedy queries that do not tempt her to crack a smile, romance queries that leave her cockles unwarmed, and whodunits so straightforward that she can guess from the one-paragraph description who the murder is. And, heaven help us, query after query that don’t tell her much about the book at all, just that it’s great, fabulous, and the agent for whom she works will deeply regret saying no to it.

You’ll forgive me if in my current Vincent Price frame of mind, that last boast — quite a common one in queries, incidentally — comes across as a threat. That’s probably not the way the thousands upon thousands of queriers who phrase their appeals in this manner mean it, of course, but you must admit, you’ll be sorry if you don’t give my book a chance! at least borders on the creepy.

“Why will my boss, the agent, be sorry?” Millicent mutters, reaching for the stack of form-letter rejections never far from her elbow. “If the manuscript is anything like the query, it’s a cliché fest. Next!”

Was that resonant thump I just heard the sound of some of your jaws hitting the floor at that last sentiment, or has some Edgar Allen Poe fan mailed me a beating heart? Yes, campers, it’s true: just as a query laden with unsubstantiated claims of excellence (This is the best book you’ll read all year!), hard sell terminology (You won’t want to miss your chance to get in on the ground floor of this bestseller!), or insult (I know that agents aren’t really looking for anything original, but can I convince you to take a chance this time?), a cliché-laden query tends to be self-rejecting. And for reasons that I hope are self-evident: stock phrases may sound good, but by definition, they don’t convey anything about the writer’s style to Millicent.

Oh, you thought Enclosed please find SASE, complete at 78,000 words, or only by following her heart can she find true happiness was going to wow Millicent with its literary originality? What could a hackneyed phrase possibly convey to an agent, editor, or contest judge, other than the fact that the writer has heard the same clichés that everyone else has?

“But Anne,” the masses fond of the language as she is spoke cry out in dismay, “you’re not saying that using those phrases will make me look bad to Millicent, are you? I thought that phrasing was just how people in literary circles talked about books. I thought some of those phrases were required; I’ve seen them in enough query templates. I thought (muffled sob) that using them would (sniffle) make my query seem more professional.”

Here, take my handkerchief, those of you who fell into that exceedingly common new querier’s trap, and don’t be so hard on yourselves. You had no way of knowing how often Millicent sees those phrases you admired, after all; unless an aspiring writer stops to think about the sheer number of queries any reasonably well-established agent must receive in a week, it’s difficult to grasp just how annoying the sight of a phrase used in a third of them — my story is about…, anyone? — . Indeed, since so much of the querying advice out there implies that agents are simply looking for a marketable concept presented in rigid, formulaic terms, many queriers derive the opposite impression: an aspiring writer might well read up on the topic and still believe, wrongly, that originality of phrasing does not count at querying time. Or that it might actually be a liability.

News flash: writing style does count in a query, and more than one might think. Especially if the query in question includes any self-review of the writing in the manuscript.

And half my readership bridles at the very idea. “Oh, come on, Anne!” the conscientious many shout, and who could blame them? “I know better that to review my own book in my query; I’ve done my homework well enough to know that Millicent, like most professional readers, prefers to make up her own mind about writing quality. She would rather be shown that I can write than told as much. So do we really need to discuss this any further?”

Unfortunately, we do, at least if the average query crossing Millicent’s desk is any indication. Having taught many, many querying classes to many, many aspiring writers who thought they had been following the rules, it’s my considered opinion that queriers are not always aware of when they have crossed the line between factual description and qualitative review. Surprisingly often, even those who have overshot that line by a mile and landed smack dab in the realm of boasting do not notice.

How is that possible, you ask? Cast your critical eye over the following missive, a query I have carefully constructed to tumble headlong into as many common pitfalls as possible. See how many you can spot. (And, as always, if you are having trouble making out the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Not a lot to like from Millicent’s perspective, is there? Yet actually, despite the unprofessional presentation, obvious instant-rejection triggers, and perhaps less-obvious subtle red flags, this bizarre purple query does in some ways make the case for the book rather well. Millicent is unlikely to notice that, though, for the exceedingly simple reason that this query features several elements that would cause her to reject it unread.

Let’s tote up those reject-on-sight triggers, shall we? Two strike the eye right off the bat: the non-standard page size and the color of the paper. Dee may have thought offbeat stationary would make his query stand out from the crowd, and he’d be right. But not in a good way; this color choice just makes him look as though he’s unaware that the overwhelming majority of books are printed in black type on white paper. Or — brace yourself; this isn’t going to be particularly charitable — as though Dee believed his book’s premise were too boring to catch an agent’s attention without a wild presentation.

Hey, I warned you that it wasn’t going to be pretty. The routine, matter-of-fact harshness with which Millicent is trained to cull queries would make the most jaded horror reader turn pale. Her judgments have to be that cut-and-dried, though, if she’s going to get through the hundreds of queries that arrive every week.

Be honest, now: if you have written one of the few upon which she wants to lavish more than 30 seconds or so, isn’t it to your benefit that she can reject a clearly unprofessional query like Dee’s at first glance?

I sense that some of you aren’t buying it. “But Anne, there’s no necessary correlation between the presentation of the query, or even the polish of its writing, and the manuscript. Plenty of very talented aspiring writers don’t have a clue what a professional query looks like, after all. So doesn’t Millicent run the risk of turning down the next Great American Novel by judging the book solely on the cosmetic aspects of the query?”

Yes, but the prospect doesn’t keep her up at night. It’s her job to make this particular rush to judgment, after all. And while polished and professionally presented manuscripts are occasionally introduced by unpolished and misformatted queries, it’s something of a rarity. Writers unaware or inattentive to the industry’s presentation standards in a query frequently are equally in the dark or careless in their manuscripts.

Besides, if Millicent actually read this query, she would find additional reason to believe that Dee’s manuscript would not be in standard format. She also has proof in front of her that Dee is not especially attentive to applying standards consistently. Did you catch the telltale signs?

If you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “I know! I know! The last sentence of the first paragraph does not have a space between the end of the dash and the beginning of the next word, as would be proper in a manuscript, but the dash in the fourth paragraph is formatted properly,” you deserve a gold star for the day. A writer accustomed to standard format for book manuscripts would tend to double his dashes and place a space at each end. Millicent may well be trained to regard not embracing that professional habit as a sign that a querier is unfamiliar with that rule, and thus with the rigors of standard format. The fact that Dee does use the dash correctly once, though, indicates that he is familiar with the rule, but just didn’t bother to apply it consistently.

Can you really blame Millicent for drawing some conclusions about his probable attention to detail in his manuscript from that?

Speaking of conclusions she could catch the instant she claps eyes upon this letter, did you notice that it was undated? That often means that what follows is going to be boilerplate, the same message sent to half the agents in North America. A bad sign, usually: since agents specialize, a savvy querier targets only those who represent books similar to hers not just in book category, but in writing style and/or appeal to similar readers.

A mass-mailed query, by contrast, is predicated upon the assumption that any agent would be able to represent the book equally well. Not exactly flattering to the recipient, is it?

The suspicion that this query is being sent indiscriminately to every agent whose name popped up in a search engine would only be confirmed by Dee’s having used both the agent’s first and last name in the salutation. To Millicent, that’s the sure sign of a mail merge. Next!

I have a different theory about why queriers sometimes address an agent by both names, however: they’re not sure whether Ms. or Mr. is appropriate. In the case of a name like Orang O’Tang, that confusion would be understandable. But if the agency has a website, Millicent’s not going to be all that sympathetic; since it’s quite rare for an agency not to include bios for its staff, and for those bios to contain the odd pronoun or two, a query that opts for neither Ms. or Mr. shouts from the rooftops that the querier didn’t bother to learn anything about the agent before deciding to query him. Or her.

There are quite a few instant-rejection triggers in the body of the letter, too, but for this pass, let’s just stick to the stuff that would discourage Millie from reading past the salutation. How about the too-familiar sign-off, for instance, just above the too-familiar signature? This is a letter to a stranger, for heaven’s sake; this type of sign-off would be inappropriate in even an informal note, unless it was too a very close friend, right? And speaking of signatures, where is Dee’s going to go, since he has left no room for it?

Let’s rid the query of all of those eye-distracting features, therefore, so it stands a chance of getting read. While I’m at it, I’m going to indent the paragraphs, to make Dee come across as a touch more literate to folks who handle manuscripts for a living.

The writing in body of the letter is identical to the first version, but admit it: if you were Millicent, you would be infinitely more likely to regard this letter as coming from a writer who knew what he was doing, would you not? You would, if nothing else, pick up this missive with a more open mind.

At least until you read that first sentence; 99% of Millicents would not make it all the way through to the period. Indeed, the entire first paragraph is made up of classic screeners’ pet peeves: the opening that implies that this query is inherently more important than any of the others the agency might receive that day, without offering any tangible proof that is the case; the clichéd phrasing that’s probably intended to be funny but isn’t; the wild speculation about how well it will sell; the comparisons to bestsellers unaccompanied by any explanation of how this book is even remotely similar to them; the two claims at the end that everyone who likes to read at all and anyone who enjoys laughing will want to read this book.

To someone who deals with the business side of publishing, all of these assertions are ridiculous — and, from the querier’s point of view, they’re counterproductive. Ordering an agent to pay attention is far less likely to work than giving her some reason to pay attention, right? If six of the first twelve words in the letter are stock phrases, why shouldn’t Millicent conclude that the manuscript being offered is stuffed to the gills with clichés as well? (Actually, from a screener’s perspective, this is the next bestseller is the most pernicious cliché of them all.) And since no one familiar with the book market would seriously contend that there has ever existed a book that would appeal to every single conceivable reader, isn’t it fair for Millie to assume that Dee just doesn’t know much about how books are marketed?

Oh, you think that’s an interpretive stretch? Then how would you explain Dee’s having compared his book’s prospects to four bestsellers in four different and unrelated book categories, released over the course of four decades? From the publishing world’s perspective, beyond all having been written in English and having sold well, The Da Vinci Code, Bridget Jones’ Diary, Jaws, and the Harry Potter series could hardly have less in common.

Queriers do this all the time: they believe, wrongly, that simply mentioning a bestseller will make the book being queried more market-friendly. Often, this tactic is predicated upon an assumption that agents are only seeking the next bestseller, rather than strong new voices in the book categories they already represent. But bestsellers are rare; contrary to popular opinion, it’s the books that sell less spectacularly but consistently year after year that form the financial backbone of publishing. And certainly what provide the bread and butter of most agencies.

So all Dee has accomplished by rattling off these titles is to demonstrate that he has quite a bit to learn about how the publishing industry works. Not the best way to impress the denizens of agencies, as a general rule.

Nor is the hard-sell tactic he embraces at the end of the query: So don’t pass this one up: this is one book in a million. It will make your career! Given the lack of publishing knowledge Dee has already demonstrated, is there a reason an agent would take career advice from him? To Millicent, this is just empty boasting. Next!

Sadly, Dee almost certainly would not see these passages that way: in all probability, he just thinks he is being upbeat, projecting confidence. But in a context in which it’s considered presumptuous for writers to tell agents that their own writing is good, a querier is much better off projecting confidence through presenting his book concept professionally than indulging in generic cheerleading.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at how much better the book description comes across if the first and last paragraphs align more closely to what Millicent would expect to see there. Like, say, the title of the book.

Oh, hadn’t you noticed that Dee had omitted it in the two earlier versions? Heck, Millicent would have had to read into the second paragraph in order to find out it was fiction.

The actual story comes across as the most important part of the query now, doesn’t it? That’s not a coincidence: since professional queries all contain more or less the same elements, extraneous discussion merely distracts from the story being pitched. In practical terms, it doesn’t matter to an agency how well Dee thinks his book will sell; for Millicent to be able to make the case to ask to see the manuscript, it’s far more important that she know the title, the book category, and why the writer thinks her boss will be a good fit for the book.

Why? Well, if the book is not in a category her boss represents, and it is not immediately apparent why her boss would be drawn to this story, why shouldn’t she reject it?

That doesn’t mean that Dee’s out of the woods yet, though. Although he’s framed his query much more professionally this time, he’s run afoul of one of Millicent’s pet peeves: talking about his story in English term paper language, rather than just telling the story.

“Not again!” would-be queriers all over the globe protest, rending their garments. “I just thought using terms like protagonist and dramatic arc made me sound more serious about my writing. Are you telling me now that’s not the case?”

That’s precisely what I’m telling you, I’m afraid, but again, this isn’t an arbitrary distinction. For fiction and memoir, part of what the writer is selling is her ability as a storyteller, right? Talking indirectly about a story seldom shows off those talents as well as just, well, telling the story.

Fortunately, Dee’s query suffers from only a minor case of Term Paper Syndrome. In its more virulent form, TPS distances the reader even more from the action:

My story is about a veterinarian who teaches himself to talk animal language. He faces as his antagonist a free thinking rooster, Ivar, a strutting fool willing to blow up the world rather than allow himself to be misquoted. As this conflict deepens, a subplot involving a twist upon the Cyrano de Bergerac theme, a romantic triangle in which the human beloved of a noble tortoise falls in love with Dr. Doomuch, the translator of the tortoise’s impassioned sonnets.

Not the most evocative way to introduce this plot to the reader, is it? And honestly, those ostensibly professional-sounding terms don’t add much here. Millicent’s not going to be writing an analytical essay on Dee’s query, after all.

So here’s that query again, with distancing language removed. See for yourself if you don’t find the story more engaging this time around.

You don’t miss the academic language, do you? I assure you, Millicent wouldn’t.

Unless those of you with your hands in the air have an alternate opinion you’d like to share? “But Anne,” the eagle-eyed point out, “I notice that you left one of the TPS terms, dramatic climax, in the query. May I ask why?”

Of course you may: it was all part of my evil teaching plan, a nudge to get your eyes trained upon another notorious screeners’ pet peeve. As it happens, the one that we were discussing just before I introduced you to Dee and his querying habits.

Was that too long ago? Allow me to refresh your memory with a provocative question: is Dee reviewing his own writing here? If so, does it harm his query?

To anticipate what the masses jumping up and down, flinging their hands into the air repeatedly in a vain attempt to get me to call upon them, would probably bellow if I let them, yes — and yes. If you were intending to bellow anything else, I invite you to consider this sentence:

Hilarious high jinx ensue, and the dramatic climax will surprise and delight you.

Dee probably didn’t think of it this way, but there’s no getting around the fact that he’s (a) announcing his opinion that the high jinx are hilarious and (b) declaring that the climax is both surprising and delightful. In what sense are any of those statements not self-reviews? And as such, why should Millicent believe that they are true?

Even if Millicents and the agents for whom they work were much given to taking a writer’s word for it that he’s more talented than other people, Dee’s phrasing here might also raise some hackles. He’s not just claiming that his climax is surprising and delightful — he’s insisting that an agent whom he has never met will find it so. A trifle presumptuous, no?

Trust me on this one: professional readers like to make up their own minds about what is surprising and/or delightful on the manuscript page. Ditto with hilarity: they don’t like to be told when to laugh. So leave it to others to review your work; it’s inherently more credible.

In order to allow that vitally important last point to sink in fully, I’m going to resist the urge rework Dee’s letter again; no, not even the provocation of that unattributed song quote will tempt me. Let it stand as is, as a negative example of how good writers often shoot their queries in their metaphorical feet without noticing the injury. Sometimes repeatedly.

What’s noteworthy here is that none of the rejection reasons we have discussed today had anything whatsoever to do with the marketability of the story, the quality of Dee’s writing, or even whether Millicent got a kick out of the premise. All of these red flags arose from how Dee chose to present that story to the agent of his dreams. Yet by the standards applied by most aspiring writers, Dee’s original query would have seemed just fine.

As much as writers everywhere might prefer it not to be the case, this is an industry that does rely very much on first impressions, at least at the query and submission stages. While that can be frustrating for those trying to break into the biz, agents don’t get more hours in the day than anyone else: the more queries they receive, the faster they must decide which to reject. That’s just simple math.

It’s also simple reason. As the U.P.S. guy so astutely observed, if the dead body falls out of the inadequate shipping container en route, someone’s going to be in big trouble: the person who packed that box.

I was going to try to work in a parallel with my multi-day allergic reaction here, but frankly, I don’t think I’m going to come up with a more distasteful image than the one in the last paragraph. I shall quit while I am ahead, therefore. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

Piece of cake, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or like this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and precisely the same query in 10-point type:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XXII: if it be the winter of Millicent’s discontent, can spring be far behind?

Before I fling all of us headlong into yet another examination of what strategies do and do not work well on the query page — that’s why you tuned in tonight, right? — I’d like to take a moment to reiterate some advice I gave all of you eager New Year’s resolution queriers a couple of weeks back. Or, at least that hefty chunk of the January querying community that either lives in the United States, is planning to approach literary agents based in the United States, or both: no matter how tempting it may be to send out a query via e-mail over this long Martin Luther King, Jr., Day weekend, please, I implore you, resist the temptation.

“And why should I even consider taking that advice?” those of you joining us mid-Queryfest demand. “At the risk of pointing out the obvious, I have more spare time in the course of a three-day weekend than during the normal two-day kind. Why shouldn’t I hit SEND while I have the leisure to do it?”

Already, a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. I love how closely my readers pay attention. Go ahead and help me fill ‘em in, Queryfest faithful: just as our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, is predictably greeted by many, many more queries on any given day in January, as opposed to any other month of the year, she also finds her inbox stuffed with more e-queries than usual on Mondays than any other weekday, for precisely the reason the newcomers just cited — aspiring writers tend to have more time to send them over the weekend. As a direct result, not only does she typically have more work on Mondays. And as she, like so many people bent upon enjoying their weekends, is often a mite grumpier that day as well.

With what result? Chant it with me, Queryfesters: the rejection rate tends to be higher on Monday mornings than, say, Thursday afternoons. Our Millie simply has a taller stack of queries to work through, without any extra time in which to do it. Fortunately for her sanity, while it’s pretty difficult to compress the amount of time it takes her to process a paper query — about 30 seconds, on average, or less if the querier is helpful enough to insult her intelligence with a hard-selling statement like you’ll be sorry if you pass this one up! or this is the next DA VINCI CODE! — it is spectacularly easy to render the consideration and rejection of an e-mailed query a matter of just a few seconds. Especially now that so many agencies have adopted the to-a-writer’s-eye appallingly rude practice of simply not responding to a query if the answer is no.

Not sure how to speed up the consideration process? Okay, I ask you: how much time would it take you to twitch the finger nearest the DELETE key in its general direction? And how much more likely would you be to do it on a morning when your bleary eyes fell upon 722 queries in your inbox than the happy day when it contained only 314?

So, at the risk of repeating myself, I ask you: do you honestly want your query to land on her computer screen on a Monday morning?

Sad to say, though, it could arrive at a worse time: the Tuesday following a three-day weekend. Due to the aforementioned tension between aspiring writers’ free time and the rhythm of her work week, we may also confidently predict that she will be inundated with still more e-queries then than she would on an ordinary Monday, right? Just after Labor Day, for instance, or Memorial Day, it requires very little imagination to picture just how itchy her fingertips are going to be for that DELETE key.

It thus follows as night the day, then, that when a three-day weekend happens to fall in January, the dreaded month when a good half of the aspiring writers in North America who intend to query this year will be hitting the SEND key if they are going to take the plunge at all, Millicent’s e-mail coffers and mail bag will be as full as she is ever likely to see them. Need I devote more screen space to the predictable effect upon the rejection rate the following Tuesday?

I’m guessing not, with a group as savvy as this. Hint, hint, wink, wink, say no more, as the immortal Eric Idle used to say.

Speaking of Millicent’s a.m. stress levels, mine hit a peak this morning, triggered by the gentle snowfall pictured above. Not that I am anti-snow in general; indeed, I typically find the first — and sometimes only — snow of the year quite exciting. It snowed a grand total of thrice in the Napa Valley in the course of my childhood; it was something of an event. I didn’t actually see large quantities wafting down from a grumpy sky until my junior year of high school, in the course of an ill-fated let’s-show-the-kids-how-Congress-works field trip during which I got pushed sideways over a chair because I was the only student participant who believed Social Security was worth saving. (Hey, it was the 80s. And my sprained ankle is fine now, thanks.)

So I was darned excited to look up from my desk this morning to see great, big white flakes hurtling at my window. I can only plead the fact that I happened to be editing a manuscript at the time as an excuse for what happened next.

My SO came tripping into my studio, bearing a hot cup of tea. “Have you looked outside? It’s a winter wonderland!”

“I should think it would be obvious,” I said, gratefully accepting the mug, “from the fact that I am sitting right next to a window that I might have observed the snow. And couldn’t you manage to come up with a less hackneyed way to describe it than winter wonderland?”

And that, dear friends, is what reading even quite good manuscripts for a living will do to an otherwise charming person’s manners: I am certainly not the only professional reader who automatically revises everyday speech in an attempt to raise its literary value. Imagine how much touchier I would be if I had Millicent’s job on a Monday morning.

Had I mentioned that you might want to think twice about hitting that SEND button this weekend? Wouldn’t your time be better spent building a snowman?

To be fair to both Millicent and myself, stock phrases, clichés, and stereotypes do abound in your garden-variety query, synopsis, and manuscript submission. So common are they that one might well conclude that there’s an exceptionally industrious writing teacher out there, working day and night to inculcate the pernicious notion that the highest goal of literary endeavor consists in stuffing narrative prose to the gills with the most repetitive, prosaic elements of everyday speech.

In a sense, that is sometimes the case: as many, many writers can attest, the continental U.S. has not suffered in the past half-century from a shortage of English teachers bent upon convincing their students that good writing should flow as easily as natural speech. The most visible results of this endeavor have been, as we have discussed before, a superabundance of chatty first-person narrators given to telling, rather than showing, the stories through which they lead their readers, a general disregard of subject/object agreement (presumably because the proper everyone and his Uncle George contracted rabies strikes the ear less gracefully than the pervasive but incorrect everyone and their Uncle George contracted rabies), and, most irritating of all to the professional reader corps, texts peppered with the kind of catchphrases and polite phrases that show up in conversation.

Why is that last one problematic? Well, think about it: by definition, the stock responses to common stimuli (pleased to meet you, have a nice day, I’m so sorry for your loss), standard phrases exchanged in mundane interactions (sign right here, have a nice day, may I help you?), and mere polite murmurings (after you, excuse me, you’re welcome) are generic; their strength — and their social safety — lies in the very fact that people spout these statements all the time. As such, they do not have personal content: although Madge may genuinely mean it when she tells Bernice to have a nice day, chances are that when she said precisely the same thing to Herbert, Bruce, Ambrose, and Melchior over the course of the following two hours, she did not utter it with the same intent. It’s just something people say.

We’re all aware of that conversationally, right? So why does it frequently come as a surprise to aspiring writers that because such phrases are so very common, they lack the power either to convey characterization, illuminate relationships, or add complexity to an interaction?

Not sure why? Okay, let’s assume that Madge’s co-worker, the otherwise estimable Ima, decides to immortalize their workplace’s everyday speech on the novel or memoir page. Eager to depict darling Madge as the courteous, considerate lady that she is, conscientious Ima makes darned sure to include each and every stranger-charming statement. Unfortunately, the result is not particularly likely to charm a reader, much less one as page-weary as Millicent. Take a gander at a not-atypical opening scene:

“Excuse me.” The tall, handsome stranger handed her his paperwork almost apologetically. “I was told to fill out these forms and bring them to this window.”

“Hello.” Deliberately, Madge finished reorganizing the paper clips in their magnetic holder before glancing at the stack. “How are you this fine Monday morning?”

“Oh, fine. Is this the right window for these?”

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

He covered his watch with his sleeve. “Oh, yes. We’ve been swamped.”

“Well, it’s always like that after a holiday.” She stamped the top three forms. “We’ve been swamped, too. Did you have a nice long weekend?”

“Yes. You?”

“It was fine. Didn’t they give you a B/49-J form?”

“Oh, yes, it’s right here. I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“I’m doing my best, sir. May I see some I.D., please?”

“Okay.” Clearly, the man was accustomed to his smile’s having greater effect on functionaries. He could have posed for a toothpaste ad. “Here it is.”

“Thanks. Just a moment.” She tapped on her computer, frowning. “We don’t seem to have any record of your existence, Mr. Swain.”

“What do you mean?”

She caught just a glimpse of the tentacle wiping the perspiration from his brow. “I’m sure there’s just been a mix-up in the database. You just hang on for a moment, and I’m sure we can get this cleared up in a jiffy.”

Pretty stultifying until that last bit, wasn’t it? Even less excusable from Millicent’s perspective, the narrative didn’t give the slightest indication until that last paragraph that this is the opening for a fantasy. While this sort of bait-and-switch between the ordinary and the unexpected is a classic short story plotting strategy — not to mention the dominant storytelling technique of the old Twilight Zone series, which continues to influence fantasy writers to this day — the speed with which the sheer volume of submissions forces Millicent to read renders the mundanity of this dialogue dangerous. She would have to read all the way to the end of this exchange to see that it’s not just the 274th exchange echoing everyday speech that she’s read this week.

Lest anyone be tempted to dismiss her tendency to lump this interaction with all the others (including issuing the same cry of, “Next!”), note, please, just how little those polite, ordinary speeches reveal about either of the characters shown or the situation. This dialogue could take place in any customer service environment: in a bank, at the DMV, at the teleport terminal between Earth and the planet Targ. Because these statements are generic, they can’t possibly tell the reader anything specific. And while the writer and his writing group might well find that keep-‘em-guessing ambiguity hilarious, Millicent’s simply seen it too often to play along for very many lines.

Does the chorus of martyred sighs out there indicate that some of you Queryfesters are tiring of playing along as well? “Okay, I get it, Anne,” those of you impatient to get queries out the door moan, “dialogue on the page needs to be something better than just a transcript of everyday speech. Lesson learned. But why in the name of the seven purple moons of Targ did you decide to stop dead in the middle of a series on querying to tell us about this Millicent-irritant now?”

An excellent question, impatient moaners, and one that richly deserves a direct answer. Try this one on for size: since Millicent, like most professional readers, has an extremely low cliché tolerance, it’s poor strategy to include even one stock phrase in a query letter.

And yes, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed (the mind acoustics are phenomenal here on Targ), she sees cliché-filled queries all the time. See for yourself — and, as always, if you are having difficulties reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + several times to enlarge the image.

Oh, you thought I was going to use a real reader’s query to illustrate this particular faux pas? That would have been a bit on the cruel side, wouldn’t it? Besides, given a readership as savvy, fascinating, and creative-minded as this one, where could I possibly have found a query as cliché-ridden as this one?

Actually, although it pains me to say it, about a quarter of the volunteer queriers submitted letters containing one or more of Ima’s hackneyed phrases; although our fictional exemplar here is inordinately fond of them, you’d be astonished at how many real queries contain roughly this ratio of stock phrase to original writing. Odd, isn’t it, considering that as every syllable an aspiring writer sends an agency is a writing sample (you hadn’t been thinking of your query in those terms, had you?), that so many queriers would rush to make themselves sound exactly like everyone else?

Incidentally, about one in six of the queries I received from would-be volunteers also replicated a particular phrase in Ima’s letter — and that surprised me, because this all-too-common statement contains two elements that I frequently and vehemently urge Author! Author! readers not to include in their queries at all. Did you catch it?

No? Would it help if I mentioned that at most agencies, one of the deadly elements would render this query self-rejecting?

If your hand shot into the air at that last hint because you wanted to shout, “I know! I know! It’s because Ima said in the first paragraph that every reader currently walking the planet Earth — if not the planet Targ — would be interested in this book! From Millicent’s perspective, that’s a completely absurd claim, as no book appeals to every reader,” give yourself a pat on the back, but not a gold star. Yes, this particular (and mysteriously popular) assertion does tend to irritate most Millicents (especially on the Tuesday after a long weekend, when she will see many iterations of it), but it’s not always an instant-rejection offense.

No, were that boast the only faux pas here, Millicent probably would have kept reading until after the third or fourth unoriginal phrase. I seriously doubt, though, whether she would have made it past Ima’s first sentence. Any guesses why?

If your eye immediately pounced upon the phrase complete at 137,000 words, feel free to ransack the gold star cabinet. Why is this phrase — lifted directly from some maddeningly pervasive template floating around out there on the Internet, I gather — a rejection-trigger? It’s not, believe it or not, the fact that so many aspiring writers have been shoehorning it into their queries in recent years that it has effectively become a cliché, as far as Millicent is concerned. The real problem with it that it effectively bellows at Millicent, “Hey, lady — this querier does not know thing one about how books are sold in the U.S.”

An unfairly sweeping conclusion? Perhaps, but let’s don Millicent’s glasses and whip out her text-dissecting scalpel to figure out why she might leap at it. In the first place, this statement includes unnecessary information. If the book being queried is fiction, people in agencies will assume that the manuscript is complete, for the exceedingly simple reason that it would be impossible for a first-time, non-celebrity writer to sell an incomplete first novel. Fiction is sold on a completed manuscript, period.

Nonfiction is typically sold on a book proposal, not a full manuscript, so were Ima’s book a memoir, including the information mentioning that the manuscript is complete would not necessarily be a selling point, either. The only exception: the relatively rare nonfiction-representing agency that states point-blank in its submission requirements that it will consider a first memoir only if the writer has already completed a draft of it.

Why might they harbor that preference? Ask any memoirist: writing truthfully and insightfully about one’s own life is hard, doubly so if the life in question has been at all traumatic. The brain and the body often doesn’t make a huge distinction between living through something difficult and reliving it vividly enough to write about it explicitly and well. It’s not at all unusual for even an exceptionally talented writer to become heavily depressed, or even physically ill, in the course of fulfilling a contract for a memoir.

Since most of pulling together a proposal involves writing about the book’s subject matter, rather than writing the story from within — telling what happened, as opposed to showing it clearly enough that the reader feels as though she’s walking around in the narrator’s skin — many first-time memoirists worry, and rightly, that they might not have the emotional fortitude to finish the book. Others are stunned to discover that after months or years of effort aimed at landing an agent and selling the book concept to a publisher, they simply cannot bring themselves to complete it. Or, if they do, they balk at exposing their innermost secrets to the world.

There’s absolutely no shame in any of that — second thoughts are natural in this instance. However, an agent who has seen a pet project cancelled at the last minute because a client could not finish the book he was contracted to deliver might well become wary about running into the same problem in future. So while agencies that handle a lot of memoir tend to get inured to this sort of disappointment, it’s not at all unheard-of for a newly-burned agent or agency to establish a full manuscript-only policy.

Most of the time, though, that’s not the expectation; publishers buy memoirs all the time based solely upon a proposal packet and a single chapter. But they don’t, as a rule, buy incomplete fiction.

So when Ima makes a point of saying in her query — and right off the bat, too — that her manuscript is complete, probably merely because she saw an example online that used that phrase, she is effectively making a virtue of having lived up to the publishing industry’s minimum expectation of fiction writers. To Millicent’s mind, that’s just not something anyone familiar with how fiction is actually sold in this country would do.

But as much as most agents prefer to take on new clients who have done their homework about how publishing does and does not work, professional naïveté all by itself is seldom considered an instant-rejection offense. That unusually high word count, however, often is. In fact, many Millicents are explicitly trained to reject a query that mentions the manuscript it is promoting exceeds 100,000 words.

Why draw the line there? Cost, mostly. Although the average manuscript shrinks in length by about 2/3rds in the transition to print, it’s just far more expensive to print a long book than a shorter one. Since the publication costs rise astronomically at about 125,000 words — different binding is necessary, and trade paper binding is more problematic — and it’s so common for first-time authors to be asked to revise their books and add pages prior to publication, they like to leave themselves some wiggle room.

So pervasive is the prejudice against first books over 100,000 words (i.e., 400 pages in Times New Roman) that it’s not unheard-of for agents to tell clients with books pushing the upper limit simply to leave the word count off the title page. (If you were not aware that the word count is typically included on a professional title page, or that a title page is necessary for a manuscript, run, don’t walk to the HOW TO FORMAT A TITLE PAGE category on the archive list at right.)

Did some of you do a double-take at the 100,000 words = 400 pages equation? “But Anne,” Ima cries, justifiably upset, “my manuscript is nowhere near 400 pages. But it is about 137,000 words. What gives?”

I’m guessing that you have been using actual word count, Ima, not estimated. For short stories and articles, it’s appropriate to report what Word says your word count is, but for books, that’s not historically how it has been figured. And unfortunately for your query, Millicent will just assume that any word count that ends in a zero is an estimate.

Actually, she’s likely to leap to that conclusion, anyway, because that’s how word count for books has historically been figured: 250 x # of pages for Times New Roman, 200 x # of pages for Courier. Yes, yes, I know, Ima: the resultant figure will bear almost no resemblance to the actual word count. That’s fine — expected, even.

But that expectation does carry some pretty heavy implications for using the stock phrase complete at X words, necessarily. Specifically, when Millicent spots your query’s assertion that your manuscript is 137,000 words, she — and a potential acquiring editor — will just assume that your novel is 548 pages long. (137,000 divided by 250.) And that, as we discussed above, would place it well beyond what her boss, the agent of your dreams, could hope to sell as a first book in the current fiction market.

“But Anne,” Ima protests, tears in her eyes, “I see plenty of fantasy novels that long in the bookstore. Because, yes, I am one of those great-hearted and sensible aspiring writers who realizes that if I expect bookstores to help promote my novel when it comes out, I should be supporting them now by buying books from them.”

While I approve of your philosophy, Ima — and would even upgrade it by pointing out that an aspiring writer who does not regularly buy recently-released first books in her own book category is shooting her own long-term best interests in the metaphorical foot — what you probably have in mind are novels by established authors. What a writer with an already-identified readership demonstrably willing to buy his books can get away with often differs radically from what a first-time author can hope to sneak past Millicent. And because market conditions change, it’s certainly different from what a first-time author might have been able to sell five years ago.

It’s a truism, to be sure, but people in the industry repeat it for a reason: in order to get discovered, a new writer’s work doesn’t merely have to be as good as what is already on the shelves; typically, it needs to be better.

Now, an aspiring writer can find that truth discouraging — apparently I’ve depressed poor Ima into too deep a stupor to keep formulating questions — or she can choose to find it empowering. Yes, that stock phrase gleaned from an online query template led Ima down the path of certain rejection, but honestly, can you blame Millicent and her ilk for wanting to reject queries crammed with prefab, one-size-fits-all phrasing?

Be honest, now: if you were an agency screener, wouldn’t you prefer to reward queriers who made the effort to sound like themselves?

Of course, it’s quite a bit more work to come up with original phrasing for what most aspiring writers regard, let’s face it, as merely an annoying hoop through which they have to jump in order to get agents to read their manuscripts. It’s more than that, though — to Millicent, it’s your first opportunity to wow her with the originality of your voice, the startling uniqueness of your story or argument, and, yes, your professional grasp of the realities of publishing.

Listen: every piece of writing you send to an agency is yet another opportunity to demonstrate that you can write. Millicent wants to see your literary voice on the page, not other people’s phrasing, and certainly not a pale echo of what anybody random person on the street might say. (I’m looking at you, Madge.) Read your query carefully to make sure that you sound like you and nobody else — and that the story you are telling or the argument you are making doesn’t read like anybody else’s, either.

A tall order? Most assuredly. But isn’t this what a good writer wants, people in the publishing industry taking her writing seriously enough to pay close attention to how she chooses to arrange words on the page?

Ponder that, please, until next time, when I shall once again be analyzing a reader’s actual query. Have the confidence to eschew those templates, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XX: tying yourself up in knots to please that agent, or, they couldn’t possibly mean what they say, could they?

If you’ll forgive my getting personal for a moment, have you ever been in a relationship — romantic, friendly, coworkerish — with someone who was just positive s/he knew precisely what you wanted without ever having asked you what your actual preferences were? You’d never gone downhill skiing, perhaps, because you’re secretly afraid of heights — and suddenly, that surprise weekend getaway finds you clinging for dear life to a ski lift, while your beaming significant other repeatedly congratulates himself upon broadening your horizons. Or you’d successfully avoided your sociopathic cousin Bertrand for the last decade, and your matron of honor abruptly announces at the rehearsal dinner that her wedding present to you involves flying Bertrand from New Zealand for your special day, along with his paranoid wife, a teenage son far too fond of matches, and a border collie whose psychological problems defy categorization by even the best scientific minds. Or a member of your book club turns to you at the end of a cookie-fueled discussion of LITTLE DORRIT to ask smugly, “You know how you always claim walnuts don’t agree with you? Well, they do: those brownies you wolfed down were stuffed to the gills with ‘em. I knew you’d just never had them handled right.”

She’ll continue in this vein as you gasp for air, frantically signaling that your tongue is swelling to Godzilla-like proportions. If you are fortunate enough to share a book club with someone who recognizes anaphylactic shock when she sees it, your friendly baker will keep chattering all the way to the emergency room. She honestly means well.

Oh, their intentions are so good, these desire-anticipators, and their methodology so bad. The coworker given to bringing you back a latte every time she runs out to pick one up for herself does it to make you happy, after all; the fact that she just can’t seem to remember that you’re lactose-intolerant doesn’t detract from the purity of her intention, does it? What a nit-picker you are; she said she was sorry. Oh, and once you get over that gastric upset, don’t forget to reimburse her for the drink.

Of course, not all desire-anticipation attempts result in disaster, or even lifelong resentment. Tammy’s tendency to push hot milk on you did get you to try that lactase supplement, after all, and now you can eat ice cream. Aren’t you pleased about that? Perhaps you actually had never enjoyed a properly-presented walnut, and the allergen that sent you to the hospital when you were ten had been a misdiagnosed cashew. What a relief to know what to avoid. It’s possible that Bertrand’s wife has finally found a medication that works for her, and your second cousin’s arson conviction was entirely baseless. Aren’t you ashamed for having prejudged them? And maybe, just maybe, once you’re on top of that mountain, you’ll realize that a baseless fear had prevented you from discovering the one sport for which you have genuine Olympic potential.

Or maybe not. Either way, your learning curve probably would have been quite a bit more pleasant had your well-wisher simply asked you what you wanted before imposing it upon you.

“Ah,” desire-anticipators across the globe cry in unison, “but we don’t have to ask: some of us just pay attention. And don’t underestimate our memories. If you liked sauerkraut on your hot dog when I took you to a ball game back in 1982, you must still like it, right? It wouldn’t be baseball if you didn’t get your smothered wiener. Wait here; I’ll grab you one.”

Uncle Henry, is that you? And is this a good time to mention that for the subsequent ten years, I gobbled up those hot dogs only because it seemed to be so important to you? I loathe sauerkraut. While we’re at it, can we have a serious talk about those sherry-marinated beets you love to make for Thanksgiving?

It’s hard to fault the motivations of the Uncle Henrys of this world, but from the receiving end, it’s easy to spot the flaw in their logic. I ate a hot dog with sauerkraut once in my extreme youth, and against my own better judgment; therefore, I must always want to eat them should similar circumstances recur. By the same token, if I succumbed to a craving for a hot-fudge sundae yesterday — which I didn’t, because I’m lactose-intolerant, Tammy — I must perforce want one in every dessert course from now until the end of time. No more zabaglione for me. And if I was charmed by the giant pretzel my SO brought home on a whim one rainy afternoon last year, I will be equally charmed if he wakes me up by bouncing into the house with one after his 6 a.m. run tomorrow.

What do you mean, I’m unreasonable if I don’t want a pretzel smothered in mustard for breakfast? Or as a midnight snack? Or as a chaser to that enormous beet salad I had for lunch, because Uncle Henry was over?

If I am ever unreasonable on such occasions, it’s when desire-anticipators insist that I must want something, because everybody wants it. All the world loves chocolate, right? I must be kidding about only liking it for the first couple of bites. Every woman loves both shopping and shoes — so why didn’t I want to devote a couple of hours to trying on stiletto heels while I was on crutches? And since every possessor of a pair of X chromosomes must desperately want to get married (to someone, anyone; have you met my recently-divorced Cousin Bertrand?), why do fully half of us back away precipitously when the bride is about to fling her bouquet? Why, in fact, did all of the bridesmaids at my college friend Janet’s wedding retreat beneath a nearby awning, to remove any possibility of catching hers? I’ve seen more popular influenza.

Janet’s still pretty mad about that, speaking of lifetime resentments. As the person she had chosen to read the Shakespearean sonnet during the ceremony — Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments — obviously, it was my duty to risk life and limb to snag those flowers. And want to, darn it. In the 22 years since, I’ve simply commissioned the nearest little girl to catch the bouquet for me. No one is fleeter of foot than a 9-year-old in pursuit of a pretty bouquet.

Except the ones who don’t like flowers. They exist, you know.

Of course, there are plenty of tastes that are pretty close to universal. It’s hard to find someone who hates every conceivable variety of pie, for instance, and virtually everyone dislikes being told what to do if the order seems unreasonable. (Yet for some reason that beggars understanding, no fewer than sixteen brides of my acquaintance have asked me to read the same Shakespearean sonnet at their respective weddings. Presumably, some standard wedding-planning guide listed it as one of the more acceptable secular readings amongst a startlingly small array. Either that, or there’s something about me that makes people take one glance in my direction and murmur automatically, “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediments.” Perhaps I should stop writing it in permanent marker on my forehead.)

“Okay, Anne,” lovers of universally-applicable rules concede reluctantly, “I shan’t ask you to read it at my wedding to your cousin Bertrand. (Why hadn’t you ever mentioned what a charming man he is, by the way?) But if I may be prosaic for a moment, is there a particular reason that you’re going on about this type of assumption in the midst of a series on querying?”

Why, yes, there is, rule-huggers — and, as it happens, a darn good one. All too often, queriers new to the game (and a surprisingly hefty percentage of those who have been at it a while) will glance at submission guidelines and murmur, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly be serious about saying they want to see only a query. I’ll just tuck my synopsis into the envelope.”

Or, since the rise of e-mailed queries, “Oh, this agency says it won’t open attachments, but they also say they want the first ten pages. They couldn’t possibly want to see improperly-formatted text; I’ll just attach a Word document, anyway.”

Or, in the rare case where an agency does want pages sent as attachments with a query, “Oh, the guidelines say they want just the first ten pages, but the whole 30-page chapter is one file. They couldn’t possibly expect me to reformat my manuscript. I’ll just go ahead and attach that.”

Or, in response to any specified maximum length for a query or submission packet, “Oh, they say they want five pages, but the first scene ends on page 6. They couldn’t possibly want to stop reading in mid-scene. I’ll just go ahead and send all six pages.”

Or, after perusing an agency website or agent’s conference bio, “Oh, this agent doesn’t list any clients in my book category, and her blurb doesn’t mention that she’s looking for my kind of writing, but her name turned up in a database/in the index of one of the standard guides to literary agents as representing books like mine. She can’t possibly have stopped representing that type of book. I’ll just go ahead and query her anyway.”

Or, the most common query faux pas of all, “Oh, I don’t need to check whether this agency has posted specific guidelines for what it wants to see in a query packet; everyone wants the same thing. Although the agent of my dreams blogs regularly/gives classes on querying at conferences/is extremely vocal in interviews easily found on the web, I don’t need to do any research; he couldn’t possibly harbor individual preferences. I’ll just send him precisely what I’m sending everyone else.”

They are, in short, indulging in desire-anticipation, rather than treating each individual agent as, well, an individual. And we all know how folks on the receiving end of that kind of assumption tend to like it, don’t we?

I said, don’t we? I don’t care that Cousin Bertrand told you otherwise. Like most of the query advice-givers out there, he’s just telling you, probably quite authoritatively, precisely what you want to hear: that what would be the least amount of trouble for you is the path you should pursue.

And let’s face it, all of the tacks above involve far, far less work for the querier, submitter, or contest entrant than investing the time in finding out what each agency or contest rules ask to see. That doesn’t mean, however, that an agency that goes to the trouble of posting guidelines, an agent who announces what she does not want to see this year, or a contest that posts rules all entrants must follow couldn’t possibly mean it. While admittedly, sometimes neither provides especially clear guidelines — we’ve all seen the ever-popular and extremely terse agents’ guide listing query with SASE — in publishing circles, people are presumed to be able to express themselves lucidly in writing.

If they say they want it, believe them. And if they say they don’t want it, believe that, too. These are individuals, entitled to individual tastes, after all; if someone doesn’t eat walnuts, why would you waste your valuable baking time offering him brownies stuffed to the gills with them? Wouldn’t it in the long run be a more efficient use of your time and energies to figure out who the brownie lovers are and share the fruits of your labors with them?

Contrary to astoundingly pervasive popular belief amongst aspiring writers, it’s not the norm for agents to pick up a query for a book in a category they don’t habitually represent, scan it, and cry to the skies, “I don’t have the connections to sell this book, but I like the writing and the premise so much that I’m going to sign this writer anyway!” Nor are they much given to exclaiming, “Oh, this query packet contains many more pages/elements/a batch of chocolate chip cookies that our guidelines did not request, presumably to give the writer an unfair advantage over everyone who did follow our clearly-stated rules, but that doesn’t matter. We have all the time in the world to lavish on writers who can’t or won’t follow directions.”

That last bit caused many of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” desire-anticipators ask in quavering tones, “I’ll admit that I’ve murmured one or more of the sentiments above whilst pulling together query packets, particularly when I’m trying to send a whole bunch out at once — as I often do, say, immediately after New Year’s Day — but it never occurred to me that anyone would think I was trying to take unfair advantage by ignoring the rules. I meant well. In fact, I thought I was following directions; I just didn’t know that there were different sets of them.”

I know you meant well, step-skippers, but frankly, Millicent the agency screener doesn’t know you as well as I do. Neither does her aunt, Mehitabel the veteran contest judge, when faced with a contest entry a page and a half longer than the rules allow. While it would be nice if they could give you and aspiring writers like you the benefit of the doubt, there are simply too many aspiring writers like you competing for too few slots for them not to regard inability to follow stated directives as an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, no matter why the querier, submitter, or contest entrant did not adhere to those rules. To see why, let’s take another look at those six types of trouble-saving, desire-anticipating practices, comparing the writer’s logic to Millicent’s.

The extra element adder says, “Oh, they couldn’t possibly be serious about saying they want to see only a query. I’ll just go ahead and send along anything else I think might aid Millicent in her decision.”
The writer thinks: I’ve seen other agencies’ submission guidelines that have asked for synopses at the querying stage. I’ve already gone to the trouble of writing one, so I might as well use it. As long as Millicent is perusing my query, she might as well consider it.

When Millicent receives the over-stuffed packet, she responds, “Wow, this querier did not read the submission guidelines — or did not understand them. Whether he didn’t do his homework on my agency or didn’t read carefully enough to get what we were asking, this client would be more work to represent than someone who does read instructions thoughtfully and implements them. Like, say, the next query in my reading queue. Next!”

That’s if she’s in a good mood. If she’s just burned her lip on a too-hot latte — or, even more likely, has just finished reading 14 queries from desire-anticipators, her response might well run more like this: “Hey, who does this writer think he is, to assumes that I will be willing to spend three times the time on his query than on everybody else’s?”

Yes, really. Couldn’t be much farther than your intentions, could it, element-adder? But now that you stop and think about it, wouldn’t reading your query require precisely the extra time and effort Millicent just mentioned? And is that fair?

Painful, I know, but worth contemplating, I think. It’s far, far better that we discuss the possible outcomes here than for any of you to risk automatic rejection on this kind of avoidable basis. Let’s move on.

The dogged attacher says, “Oh, this agency says it won’t open attachments. I’ll just attach a Word document, anyway.”
The writer thinks: I’ve done my homework about agents, and I’ve learned that improper formatting can be fatal to a manuscript submission. So because my e-mail program doesn’t preserve all of the bells and whistles of Word, I’m more likely to impress Millicent if I submit in a format I know is right: as it would appear on the manuscript page.

Upon receiving the query with the attachment, Millicent responds, “Oh, great — another one who didn’t bother to read our guidelines, which clearly state that we don’t read unsolicited attachments. I’m just going to reject this query unread.”

I’m afraid that you are going to hurt your neck, doing all of those double-takes. “You’ve got to be kidding me, Anne,” dogged attachers everywhere protest. “This is an instant-rejection offense? In heaven’s name, why? The agency’s guidelines asked for this material, and it would only take Millicent a couple of seconds to open it.”

Ah, but if she did, she would risk exposing her agency’s computer system to viruses — the primary reason that most agencies did not accept e-mailed queries at all until after the anthrax scare rendered opening thousands of pieces of mail considerably less desirable. In essence, by sending an unrequested attachment, a querier is expecting Millicent not only to devote those extra few seconds to opening it, but to violate her agency’s standing computer use policies.

That “Next!” sounds quite a bit more reasonable now, does it not?

The kitchen sink sender says, “Oh, the guidelines say they want just the first X pages, but my document is Y long. I’ll just send the whole thing.”
The writer thinks: it would be a whole lot of work to copy the requested pages, create a new Word document, copy the text into it, and make sure that the formatting is right. Millicent can just stop reading whenever she wants — and if she likes my writing, she may well want to read more. This is a win/win.

But Millicent, blinking in disbelief at the size of the file, snaps: “Either this querier can’t read directions — problematic, as I murmured above — or she’s expecting me to make an exception for her. For her and her alone, I will read not X pages, but however many she chooses to send me. That’s completely unfair to everyone else who queries, as well as an unwarranted imposition upon my time. Next!”

Does the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments I hear out there mean that this is the first time some of you have tried to see this exchange from Millie’s perspective? Does that mean you will never over-send again?

No? Okay, let’s move on to the next set of excuses.

The sneaky upgrader says, “Oh, they say they want X pages, but the first scene/chapter/a really good bit ends slightly farther into the manuscript. I’ll just go ahead and send enough pages to complete that section.”
The writer thinks: as my manuscript currently stands, stopping at page X does not provide a complete scene and/or cuts off before a bit I particularly like. In fact, the bottom of page X ends in mid-sentence. Since no sane person could possibly want to cease reading in mid-thought, obviously, what the agent really wants is for me to send the entire section/chapter.

And Millicent, cranky at spotting the 20th such over-long writing sample of the day, just shrugs and rejects it unread. “This querier must think we are awfully stupid, to assume that we would believe that any good book would automatically come to a natural stopping-point on the bottom of page X. Way to substitute your opinion for how to assess writing for ours, non-professional. Next!”

Harsh? You bet, considering that all the writer was trying to do here was provide a complete reading experience. But in Millie’s defense — and Aunt Mehitabel’s; contest entrants indulge in sneaky upgrading tactics all the time — this strategy betrays a complete misunderstanding of why some agencies ask for writing samples to be included in query packets. It’s not so they can get into your story; it’s so they can see if you can write.

Not only write well, but write well for readers in your chosen book category. (You’d be astonished at how many opening pages don’t sound remotely like works in their intended categories.) If Millicent decides that you do, then she can turn to the synopsis or request the manuscript/proposal in order to consider your book as a whole.

That was a big aha! moment for some of you, I’m sensing. But the rules lawyers amongst you still have questions: “Okay, Anne, I accept that requesting a writing sample at the querying stage is a pretty good way to spot the strong stylists right off the bat. I can even see that by accepting those pages up front, Millicent can save herself a great deal of time: instead of basing her assessment of whether to request the manuscript or book proposal upon the query alone, then having to wait until those requested materials arrive in order to reject them on page 1, she can skip a step.

“Given that practice, though, shouldn’t I be sending my best writing as a sample, rather than just the first few pages? My favorite part of the book is a 150 pages in. That scene also, conveniently enough, happens to be the precise number of pages the agency’s guidelines suggest. So I’d be smart to send them instead, right?”

It’s a clever notion, rules lawyers, but absolutely not: while you could get away with a mid-book writing sample in a pitching situation, if the agent in front of you asked to see a few pages, the assumption with any requested pages or writing sample in a query packet is that they will begin on page 1 of the book. Why? Well, it’s the way a reader in a bookstore would first encounter the text, for one thing; it’s the part of the story that requires the least set-up, by definition. And since neither agents nor editors simply open manuscripts in the middle and read random passages in order to assess their quality, the opening pages provide a better indication of how they would respond to the manuscript or proposal as a whole.

I know, I know: that places writers who take a while to warm up at a significant disadvantage. You wouldn’t believe how many manuscripts have fabulous openings buried somewhere on page 15. Since the overwhelming majority of manuscripts are rejected on page 1 — I am doling out the hard truths today with a lavish hand, amn’t I? — Millicent just doesn’t see that great prose.

The track record-ignorer says, “Oh, this agent doesn’t list any clients in my book category, and her blurb doesn’t mention that she’s looking for my kind of writing, but her name turned up in a database/in the index of one of the standard guides to literary agents as representing books like mine. I’ll just go ahead and query her anyway.”
The writer thinks: because the Literature Fairy constantly combs the Internet to assure that every single piece of information floating around out there about agents and agencies is not only true, but absolutely up to date, if I can find even one source that claims a given agent represents my kind of book, she must abide by that. So there’s really no reason for me to do any research beyond running by chosen book category through that database or looking in the index of an agents’ guide.”

This one makes Millicent positively choke on her latte, even after it has cooled down. “Why on earth,” she exclaims, “wouldn’t my boss be allowed to change her mind about what she represents? This is a market-driven business, after all: she can only afford to pick up clients whose work she believes she can sell in the current market. So while I might have given this well-written query serious consideration five years ago, back when she handled this category, now, I can simply reject it as soon as I ascertain that it’s pitching a book she doesn’t represent.”

I’ve said it before, and I’ll doubtless say it again: since there is no easier query to reject than one apparently addressed to the wrong agent — Millie seldom needs to read beyond the first paragraph in order to glean that much — it is a complete waste of an aspiring writer’s time to query an agent who does not currently represent books in his chosen book category. Save yourself some chagrin; take the time to check.

Starting to sense a pattern here? Like, say, that trying to save time by skipping the research step is often a false economy, resulting not only in more rejection, but often a longer querying process as well?

I shall leave you to ponder that one for the nonce. Let’s move on to the 600-pound gorilla of querying faux pas.

The one-size-fits-all querier says, “Oh, I don’t need to check whether this agency has posted specific guidelines for what it wants to see in a query packet; everyone wants the same thing.”
At this point in Queryfest, do I even need to reproduce this writer’s logic? Well, okay, for the sake of future would-be queriers who might stumble upon this post in isolation in the archives: anything called a query must by definition mean the same thing, right? So anything I have ever heard about querying, as well as any advice on the subject I might find on the Internet, must be referring to the same thing. That must be true, since the publishing industry — and, by extension, agencies — are set up first and foremost to identify new talent in raw form; for a good writer with a good book, this process should be easy. That being the case, all I need to do is find a template that someone says will work and follow it. Easy-peasy.”

Breathe into this bag, Millicent, until you stop hyperventilating. Then share your thoughts: “Criminy, another aspiring writer who can’t read. Or hasn’t bothered. My agency takes the time to publish guidelines for a reason: we know what we want to see. While this querier may well have a great manuscript on his hands, the letter does not give me the information and/or materials I need in order to say yes to it. So I am saying no.

“Wait — I’m not done yet. Since this querier is treating my agency as identical to every agency, and my boss as identical to every other agent currently milling around Manhattan, I shall return the favor: this query is identical to a good half of the others I see in any given month. Not in subject matter, but in attitude. Believe it or not, following the rules we set out is rare enough that following them makes a query stand out from the crowd. So fly back home to the person who wrote you, little query, and I hope that if he does genuinely have talent, this rejection will teach him to treat his future agent — and her staff — with more respect.”

Of course, it would be far, far easier for the writer in question to learn that particular lesson if the rejection letter actually said any of this — or if he received a formal rejection at all. Even twenty years ago, though, this type of generic, wallpaper-New-York-with-letters query almost always received not a personalized reply, but a form-letter rejection. Queriers who presented themselves better, but had missed the mark in small ways, were often given specific reasons the agency wasn’t asking to see pages. Now, not only would virtually every rejected query generate the same form letter at most agencies — many agencies simply don’t reply at all if the answer is no.

So how is that misguided querier to learn better? Good question. The basic theory underlying the querying and submission process — that since a manuscript or proposal not only needs to be well-written, book category-appropriate, and market-ready in order to catch a good agent’s eye, but also presented professionally at the query and submission stages, a gifted writer might have to take the same manuscript through many revisions and multiple query and submission rounds before finding the best home for it — is predicated upon the assumption that any serious writer will figure out both that it’s essential to her book’s success that she invest the time in learning the ropes, but that she is aware that there are ropes to learn. And that she will have the time, patience, and faith in her talent to keep pressing forward in spite of rejection until she has acquired the necessary skills and expertise to wow an agent.

That’s a whale of a presumption, one that could be quite easily undermined by, well, talking to even a small handful of the thousands upon thousands of exceptionally talented writers who spend years trying to crack the code. But I’ve already said enough today about the dangers of assuming that one knows what is in other people’s minds — or other people’s interests.

There’s another, more query-specific cost to this series of presumptions — but rather than tell you what it is, I have the great good fortune of being able to show you. At the beginning of Queryfest, I appealed to the Author! Author! community, calling upon queriers brave and true to volunteer their real queries for discussion here. These are actual queries from your actual fellow writers, campers: I’m sure I don’t need to remind you that while we welcome constructive criticism here at Author! Author!, we should all be grateful that these hardy souls have been generous enough to help further our discussion.

So on this day of examining common presumptions from both sides of the querying fence, I am delighted to bring you what from a writerly perspective might be considered an excellent query letter for a genuinely interesting-sounding book, courtesy of Author! Author! reader Kitty Hawk. As with all of our never-to-be-sufficiently-thanked Queryfest exemplars, Kitty’s name and contact information have been altered to protect her privacy. And as always, if you are having trouble seeing the particulars, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

Sounds like a heck of a good read, doesn’t it? It also, thank goodness and Kitty’s great good sense, steers clear of all of the problems we discussed above. She’s also, very much to her credit, caught the YA tone exceptionally well here: while the level of word repetition and relatively simple sentence structure would not be pluses for most adult fiction queries, a Millicent working for a YA-representing agent would certainly have no trouble appreciating Kitty’s familiarity with the conventions, vocabulary, and tone of her chosen book category. So far, very well done, Kitty!

Yet although virtually the entire letter is devoted to a description of the book, Millicent might well stop reading before she learns much about it — and for a reason that, like so many of our double-sided tactics above, was probably far from Kitty’s intent. Any guesses what it is?

Hint: the devil is in the details here. You’re going to need to take a very, very close look at the page.

That means, naturally, if your hand immediately shot skyward as you cried two paragraphs back, “This letter is in business format, not correspondence format,” you hit upon a reason Millicent might have taken this letter less seriously if it arrived via regular mail — even at this late date, business format is not considered particularly literate by people who deal with books for a living — but not typically an instant-rejection offense. Besides, since most e-mail programs more or less force unindented paragraphs, this oversight wouldn’t particularly matter in an e-mailed query. Since Kitty submitted this to Agent McAgentson via e-mail (via me), I vote for cutting her some slack on this one.

Ditto if you pointed out, and rightly, that Kitty has included only one means of contacting her — a no-no, even in an e-mailed query. She should have included the whole shebang: mailing address, phone number, e-mail address. Yes, Millicent could simply have hit REPLY to ask for pages, but as we discussed earlier in this series (but not as early, I believe, as the date Kitty sent today’s example to me), queries get forwarded around agencies all the time. So if an administrator or Millicent’s boss, the agent, had forwarded it to the screeners, or one screener had forwarded it to another (not at all implausible, considering how many Millicents are students working part-time as interns), that request for materials would head back to the sender, not Kitty.

Of course, that could still happen if Kitty includes her full contact info, but still, it’s always a good idea to make it as easy as possible for the agent of your dreams to contact you. Hawkeye might have a question best discussed by phone (unlikely at this stage, but not unheard-of), or the agency might print out successful queries. Or — sacre bleu! — Kitty’s eventual submission might get misplaced, and Millicent might have to go tearing through the files, frantically trying to track down a means of contacting her.

Anyway, Kitty does not have the usual justification for not wanting to devote several lines of the page to the way contact information is usually presented in correspondence format: this query is quite comfortably under a page. Especially as — and again, while Millicent might see this as a gaffe, most aspiring writers would not — the right and left margins are not the usual 1 inch, but 1.25. That allows plenty of room for adding necessary information.

What might this query look like with these small, purely technical errors corrected? Glad you asked. In order to help us spot the red flag that might prevent this (again, quite well-written) query from getting read at virtually any U.S. agency, as well as the pale pinkish flag that might cause some Millicents to delete it after paragraph 1 if it were sent via e-mail, let’s make the cosmetic corrections and see just how big a difference it might make on the page.

Quite a difference for less than a minute’s worth of revision, isn’t it? And now that you see the two letters side by side (or, more accurately, stacked), can you see why Millicent might well have had a visceral negative reaction to the first? The first version scans like a printed-out e-mail; the second looks like a letter.

Okay, now do you see the instant-rejection trigger? What about the reason she might have stopped reading a few paragraphs in, or the reason she might not have made it all the way through that quite nice description? No? Then how about the structural choice that might cause a time-strapped Millicent — aren’t they all? — to assume that this letter contains less professional information than it actually does?

Now that I’ve dropped that tonnage of hint for the last one, let’s concentrate on it first. To figure out what Millie might have expected to see earlier in the letter (oops, there I go again, bouncing those hints), why don’t we refresh our memories about the requisite vs. the merely helpful elements to include in a query letter, checking to see which, if any, Kitty has omitted?

What a fine idea, if I do say so myself. A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

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

And it may be helpful to include:

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.

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

Okay, how did this query do? It does contain the title and the category, as well as a nicely-written description of the book and a polite, if rather terse, sign-off. But that’s it. Millie would be left to guess why Kitty was approaching her boss, whether she had any previous publications, and to whom, out of the wide and varied array of YA readers, this book is likely to appeal and why.

I can’t even begin to estimate how often screeners receive queries like this, book descriptions shoehorned into letter format. Yes, it makes the story sound appealing, but if it weren’t addressed to an agency, a reader might even have a hard time figuring out that it is a query intended to solicit an invitation to submit a manuscript, rather than a sales pitch for an already-published book..

“That last paragraph, while I do indeed that information, doesn’t make much sense if it isn’t a query,” Millicent muses, “so I suppose it must be. But honestly, does Kitty assume that an agency receives no correspondence other than queries?”

Yet, again, from a writer’s perspective, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this query as it now stands, other than a few typos. (We’ll be getting to those later.) It’s polite; it contains what many first-time queriers would assume was the totality of the information necessary in a query letter; it’s genre-appropriate and presumably addressed to an agent who represents books like this.

All of this is good — but by not including all of the elements Millicent would expect a writer familiar with the querying process (and thus a homework-doer) to display, it inevitably comes across as slightly less professional than it could. The big tip-off that Kitty is new (or newish) to querying: placing the book’s title and category at the bottom of the missive.

Why is that a sign of relative inexperience? Because screeners scan queries really, really fast — on average, a mailed query will receive less than 30 seconds of her attention, and that’s counting stuffing the form-letter rejection into the SASE. For e-queries, it’s often even less.

So I ask you: is it really a good idea to make Millie scroll down to learn what kind of book this is? Or to presume that she will read a paper query all the way to the closing thank-yous before deciding whether this manuscript belongs in a book category her boss currently represents?

Don’t believe it would make much of a difference? Okay, here’s that query again, with nothing changed except the title and category’s being moved to the top. Oh, and I’m going to add a date, to decrease the (possibly accurate) impression that Kitty might be mailing precisely the same query to every agent in the country that represents YA paranormal romance.

I see your brows knitting: you’re thinking it looks a trifle funny now, don’t you? Millicent can tell right away whether it’s a book in a category her boss represents, but the presentation is awkward. Also, why include the word count, unless Picky and Pickier’s guidelines specifically ask for it? THE GROTTO is not long enough that mentioning this detail is going to be a deal-breaker — as it often is, if the count is over 100,000 words — but wouldn’t it be more to Kitty’s advantage to use that space for something else? Like, say, some mention of why, out of all the agents currently working in the U.S, she is approaching Hawkeye, or who might want to read this book?

And I’m sure it didn’t escape your sharp eye that in order to fit in the date, I had to skimp on the number of lines between the Sincerely and the contact info. Millicent would have noticed that, too.

So how are we going to free up the requisite space to personalize this query for Agent McAgentson? Well, for starters we can tighten that description: since Millicent is expecting a description only 1-2 paragraphs long, that’s to Kitty’s advantage, anyway. That will enable us to lessen the word repetition and move a nicely unusual detail closer to the top.

Absolutely no doubt that it’s a query now, is there? It’s also clear from the get-go that it’s a book that Hawkeye represents — it must be, since Kitty’s mentioned a similar book. Heck, she even has room now to add a paragraph about her writing credentials, educational background, and/or relevant life experience.

I’m sensing some disgruntlement out there, though. “But Anne,” lovers of completeness point out, “we get less of the story this way. True, it is less word-repetitious, and that nice YA tone still comes across loud and clear, but shouldn’t Kitty want to cram as much of the plot into her query as humanly possible?”

Not necessarily, completeness advocates: all she needs to do is establish her protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation, setting up the central conflict — or, in this case, three — and giving Millicent some sense of what’s at stake. Check, check, and check. This version also enjoys the advantage of getting to the paranormal elements faster.

Oh, hadn’t you noticed that a screener would have to make it halfway down the page in the original version before encountering any paranormal element at all? If Hawkeye represents only paranormals, rather than straight-up YA romances, Kitty’s legitimately paranormal story might easily have gotten dismissed as not right for the agent’s list.

The two reasons that many Millicents would have stopped reading before the end of the original version are quite a bit more apparent now, though. Did you catch either?

If you murmured, “Well, I did notice that the tense kept changing,” give yourself a nice, warm pat on the head. For fiction, a book description should be entirely in the present tense. And remember, tense consistency is considered a sign of professionalism.

If you also called out, “Hey, there are quite a few typos here,” feel free to rub your tummy as well. Like college application screeners, most Millicents are specifically trained to stop reading after just a few typos.

Both are easily fixed, however, at least by hands not feverishly occupied in patting a head and rubbing a tummy at the same time. Personally, I would add the characters’ ages — a standard professional touch — but again, that’s the work of a moment. So is punching up the language a little to make Leah seem a bit more active, always a plus in a protagonist, and excising that minor cliché about having nowhere to turn. And If I knew more about the story, I would like to add a clearer sense of what her destiny entails, but for now, I’m going to have to leave that to the person best equipped to fill in the details, the writer.

Which leaves us with only the seemingly unimportant oversight that might well have prevented Millicent from reading the body of this letter at all. Ready, set — discern!

Please tell me you spotted it this time. Hint: to Millicent’s eye, it’s a pretty clear indicator that Kitty has been reusing the same query over and over again, merely changing the agent’s address and salutation this time.

That’s right, campers: Kitty addressed the query to Dear Mcagentson, rather than Dear Ms. McAgentson. While the missing honorific might have been the result of a simple slip of the mousing hand while cutting and pacing, mispunctuating the agent’s name — and thus effectively misspelling it — implies hasty retyping. Believe it or not, both are common enough agents’ pet peeves that much of the time, either will get a query rejected unread.

Isn’t it amazing how changing just a few elements, matters that might well strike a writer as trivial, can make such a monumental difference in how Millicent would receive a query? And isn’t it nice to see Kitty’s good story presented professionally, to maximize its chances of getting picked up?

The answer on both counts, should you be wondering, is yes. Let’s take one last look at her query, all polished up.

Ah, that’s nice. Please join me in thanking Kitty profusely for allowing us to deconstruct her query — and in wishing her the very best of luck in finding the right agent for what sounds like a wonderful book.

More real-life query examples follow in the days to come. Watch those assumptions, everybody, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XIX: looking on the bright side, or, deck the halls with…more query faux pas?

Okay, okay: so it’s not actually snowing in Seattle this holiday season. A West Coast girl can dream of a white Christmas, can’t she?

Speaking of holiday fantasies, since many of my young readers have been out of school this week, I had planned to devote it to posting readers’ queries, so we could talk about them and perhaps tweak them into even greater fabulousness. It turns out, however, that Christmas shopping, cookie-baking, and general festive fraternizing is a mite more challenging on crutches than I had anticipated.

Lesson learned: if one is inclined to toppling, don’t stand between a determined gift-giver and any desirable items stacked pyramid-style. On the bright side, the result is evidently every bit as funny to bystanders in real life as it is in the movies.

I shall be flinging the crutches away next week, though, just in time to devote the last few days of the year to, you guessed it, critiquing readers’ queries. That way, those of you bound and determined to try your luck in the annual New Year’s Resolution Query Avalanche will have a bit more information and practical insight at your itchy fingertips.

That does not mean, however, that I shall not devote some small part of next week to urging everyone within the sound of my voice — yes, I know that the analogy doesn’t really work with a blog; I’m on a roll here — to resist sending out those newly-polished queries until after the post-New Year’s flurry has subsided. Like clockwork (or, more accurately, like calendar-work), tens of thousands of aspiring writers all over North America begin an individual querying push on January 1. As a direct and unfortunate result, querying volume is exponentially higher in January than at any other time of the year.

Translation: rejection rates tend to be higher; Millicent the agency screener has to read faster in self-defense. She needs to be able to free enough desk space to set down her steaming latte before it scalds her fingers, right?

On the bright side, if you can manage to hold off on putting your fresh resolutions into action, the blizzard landing on Millicent’s desktop tends to subside about three weeks into the new year. Why three weeks? Not to toss a bucket of ice water on anyone’s good intentions, but that’s the adherence duration of the average New Year’s resolution.

Do the snorts of derision out there in the ether indicate that some of you remain unfazed by the prospect of greatly heightened competition? “Oh, really,” those of you with your tender hearts set on hitting the SEND key at 12:01 a.m. on January 1 scoff, “what does it matter? I can see why it might take a bit longer for a querier to hear back then — good to know; thanks — but processing time for queries often runs into the weeks or months these days, anyway. Millie will get to my query when she gets to it, but at least I can push forward. It’s her job to ferret out the best queries for the best book, after all; since good books always find an agent, when she sees my query can’t possibly make a particle of difference.”

The Literary Equity Fairy’s fan club has come a-caroling again this year, I see. Contrary to popular belief, she does not always get to strike every well-written book with her magic wand, assuring that it will land on precisely the right desk at precisely the right time for its true quality to be fully appreciated. Due to the sheer volume of demands upon her energies, she often inexplicably falls down on the job, especially at querying time — and especially during those periods when Millicent, whose primary job is to reject the vast majority of queries that enter her office, encounters an unusually large influx of mail.

Oh, and Virginia? We need to have a talk about Santa Claus, too.

No, I don’t have the heart for that: although it’s my duty as your literarily-savvy friend and advisor to blow gently upon pretty querying and submission misconception bubbles until they burst of their own accord, I’m also here to support aspiring writers as you pursue your dreams. So between now and the end of the year, I’m going to do my level best to help those of you set on New Year’s resolution querying do so with as much information and practical insight as possible at your itchy fingertips.

To that end, as a present to my readers — especially those who might not have had time to sit down and compose a query until a holiday break — I am going to devote the next week to polishing off Queryfest. In order to render those last few posts as helpful as possible, I am once again going to throw open the floodgates to readers’ queries. For this weekend only, I shall be accepting queries as examples to use in next’s week’s review; I shall choose one at random for critique.

How might an eager New Year’s resolver volunteer for this, you ask? By following a few simple rules. If you would like me to consider treating your letter to my patented close scrutiny here at Author! Author!:

(1) Please send your query via e-mail as a Word attachment (no other formats, please) to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Monday, December 26, 2011 at 10 a.m. in your time zone.

Oh, you thought I was going to irritate your kith and kin by tempting you away from the eggnog on Christmas Day? I have far too much respect for your mother.

(2) Include the words QUERYFEST SAMPLE in the subject line.

(3) At the top of the e-mail, please include a cheery greeting (hey, I work a long day, even at holiday time), a statement that you are granting me permission to reproduce your query on Author! Author! for discussion purposes, and whether you would prefer me to post your query for critique anonymously or under your real name. You may feel free to suggest a pseudonym for me to use, as long as it is G-rated.

(4) Speaking of G-rated, please remember that Author! Author! is deeply committed to keeping this site accessible for young readers and those whose primary Internet access is at a public library. No profanity in your query, period.

(5) Please format your query PRECISELY as you would submit it to an agent; it will make a better example that way. If I select your query as an example, I shall naturally change your contact information.

For the purposes of structure, please address your query to:

Ms. Hawkeye McAgentson
Picky and Pickier Literary Management
111111 First Street
Imaginary, NY 11111

(6) Submitted queries must not be longer than a single page, single-spaced, in 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. The page must have one-inch margins — and trust me, I will notice if they are smaller.

(7) One entry per writer, please.

(8) No entries will be accepted after December 26, 2011 at 10 a.m. in your time zone. Exemplars will be chosen at random from all submissions.

While we are waiting for real-world examples, let’s return to considering hypothetical good and not-so-good queries. On this particular not-so-silent night, I thought we would amuse ourselves with a couple of common faux pas as a segue into discussing the more serious difficulties of coming up with selling points for a book without an obvious preexisting target audience or credentials at least apparently relevant to the writing of a novel that is purely imaginative.

Yes, those are indeed knotty problems, now that you mention it. All the more reason to kick off with some fun.

As we discussed earlier in this series, both the credentials and target market paragraphs are optional in a query. That’s fortunate, because for most aspiring writers, they are the hardest parts to write. “But I’ve written a book,” hopeful queriers everywhere grumble, and with good reason. “Surely, reading it is the only way to ascertain whether I can write. Why should I have to come up with any more proof that I’m a writer than offering to send the agent of my dreams pages? Is that not, in fact, the point of the query?”

Good point, hopeful grumblers, but as I’ve noted early and often throughout Queryfest, the only way Millicent or her boss, the agent, can possibly find out what a beautifully-written, grippingly plotted, and/or fascinatingly argued piece of prose you’ve produced is if your query (or pitch) has convinced her to ask to read it. Rather than wasting your energy, however justifiably, upon resenting the tedious necessity of having to query at all, try to think of it as merely a means to an end.

Just because writing a query is no sane writer’s idea of a good time, however, is no reason to try to toss off a letter as quickly as possible. Like so many tasks required of the professional writer, querying is a learned skill. Which you have learned over the course of this series, right?

“Yeah, yeah, Anne,” those of you whose eyes lit up a few paragraphs ago at the prospect of some engagingly terrible examples of how to do it wrong. “When do we get to the promised fun?”

Stop drumming your fingers on the table, eager beavers; your teeth will have plenty to gnaw upon soon. As in any narrative, a proper set-up is imperative for a joke to work; nothing is less amusing than a joke that has to be explained after it is told.

Given how stiff the competition is at the querying stage — especially, I can’t resist adding, if one happens to send off that query immediately after New Year’s Day, Labor Day, Memorial Day, or, if one happens to favor querying by e-mail, during any three-day weekend — it’s not terribly surprising that some queriers go to some pretty extreme lengths to try to catch Millicent’s notoriously hard-to-impress eye. One of the classic ways that writers light in the professional credentials department compensate for not having much of a publishing background is by name-dropping. Specifically, by telling Millicent that So-and-So says that the book is X, therefore it is worth her while to read.

Basically, this strategy involves rubbing up against someone famous in the hope that the glamour will rub off. When done with restraint — and with a true claim; do be aware that it’s not unheard-of for Millicent to check — the result can make a query jump out of the pack. Take a gander:

famous name query

Another name-dropping method that tends to work even better — if, again, the claim made in the letter is true — is to garner a referral from one of the agent’s current clients. See how easily Dorothy is able to use such a referral to personalize the basic query she already had on:

referral query

As with every other type of personalization, though, the primary danger inherent to mention a recommendation in a query is that it is invariably disastrous if a writer inadvertently sends that recommendation to the wrong agency — and yes, Virginia, that happens all the time. Due to the ease and consequent popularity of copy-and-paste word processing technology, a tired Dorothy is very, very likely to send precisely the letter above to two different agents without realizing that she’s done it.

Why is the probability so high? Because, like so many queriers anxious to send out as many letters to as many agents as rapidly as possible, our Dorothy simply copies the contents of one e-mail into the body of another and presses SEND. Why, look: she’s done it again now.

missent referral query

Dorothy may never learn of her error, due to the ubiquity of stock rejections devoid of any explanation of why Millicent chose to pass — but a good screener undoubtedly will. The invariable response: “Next!”

Even if Millicent’s overworked (and usually underpaid as well) eyes do by some divine act of Providence happen to glide past the reference to some other agency’s client, this second query would have gotten rejected in Ms. Volumes’ office, anyway. Any guesses why?

That was sort of a trick question; you’d have to have looked at the two agency’s guidelines to figure out that the problem was the enclosed pages. While Ms. Books’ agency’s specify that queriers may include chapters and a synopsis in their query packets, Ms. Volumes’ agency’s submission guidelines quite clearly reads query only, please.

Hmm, if only there had been a way around this problem…oh, wait, there was: do your homework. Remember, not every agency wants to see the same thing in a query packet; assuming that they all do is an easy-to-spot sign of inexperience.

So is sending a letter clearly intended for one agent to another. That, too, is simple to avoid: read every syllable of everything you send to every query IN ITS ENTIRETY and OUT LOUD, every time. And if you can print a draft copy to read IN HARD COPY, so much the better.

Why, yes, adding both of those tasks to your querying process would render it more time-consuming, now that you mention it. But isn’t that vastly preferable to the horrifying alternative?

Since e-queriers are so much more likely to fall prey to the aforementioned horrifying alternative, I’m happy to pass along a strategy tip from inveterate commenter Dave:

Might I suggest that folks querying by e-mail write and perfect the query letter in Word or their favorite word processing program? They can print it out, read it aloud, and make sure it’s perfect. Then when it is time to send the query, merely copy and paste into the e-mail. At this point, before hitting SEND, it might also be a good idea to correct any formatting anomalies that may have occurred during the pasting operation.

I find this excellent: Dave’s strategy also permits greater ease in spell- and grammar-checking than most e-mail programs allow. (You were already aware that most Millicents are instructed to become wary at the first typo in a query and to stop reading after the second, right?) While it may not completely obviate the possibility of mixing up which personalization should be heading to which agency, merely adding another layer of review renders it less likely.

But let’s get back to name-dropping, shall we? As I mentioned in passing above, if you mention a famous person or someone the agent might conceivably know, it’s imperative that you not stretch the truth about what they might have said about you or your work. Not even a little.

Your mother was right, you know: honesty is the best policy. The more potentially impressive a kudo, the more likely Millicent is to wonder about its veracity — and the more likely her boss is to reach for the phone to double-check.

To those of you who just turned pale: serves you right. If the person you are quoting in your query would not be willing — nay, pleased — to hear that you are capitalizing upon her name to land an agent, you shouldn’t be doing it. It may seem like a harmless prank, but trust me on this one: if an agent asks your ostensible recommender why she sent you to him, and the answer is, “Wait — what makes you think I sent him to you?” your query is toast.

So is your reputation, if the Millicent who handles the query finds the quote outrageous enough to turn the attempt into an anecdote. Choose your quotations with care, and assume that the agency will follow up.

Speaking as someone whose name has been known to turn up in queries penned by writers of whom I have never heard (you know who you are, presumptuous readers: my agency doesn’t appreciate it, and neither do I), I have to say, those follow-up calls and e-mails are a trifle unnerving to receive. Like many authors, I meet literally hundreds of aspiring writers in any given year; although I keep records of whom I refer and where, there’s always the nagging fear that I might have forgotten someone.

Unethical queriers prey on that fear, relying upon poverty of memory and laziness of fact-checking to make their sleight-of-hand pay off. And that’s a pity, because this type of name-dropper makes it harder for people like me to refer aspiring writers whose work I honestly do believe my agent might enjoy.

You’re making everyone look bad, Dorothy. Clean up your act, or at least snatch a few hours’ sleep between Query #37 and Query #38.

Do be careful, too, about taking an established author’s comments out of context; if asked, the commenter may well become offended if those nice things she said about your writing were not about the book you’re querying. Not every bon mot that falls from the lips of the famous is fair game to co-opt for promotional purposes, after all.

When I was in graduate school, for instance, I took a seminar with the late Saul Bellow. At the end of the year, I was delighted to see that he had scrawled on the bottom of my term paper, “Your writing is very likable.”

Now, that awfully nice to see, of course; I don’t know about you, but when a Nobel laureate says something positive about my writing, I sit up and take notice. However, would I have been justified in saying Saul Bellow said my writing was very likeable in every query letter I sent out for the rest of my natural life?

Of course not. The man was talking about a 30-page seminar paper I had written on the novels of Italo Svevo, for heaven’s sake, not — and this would be the implication, if I had ever included his comment in a query letter — one of my novels. Even now that Professor Bellow has joined the choir celestial and could not possibly contest my taking his statement out of context, I would not dream of using it in a query or as a jacket blurb.

Oh, that second use hadn’t occurred to you as a possibility? Congratulations: you’re more ethical than a lot of writers. I can’t even count the number of times established authors have said within my hearing, “Wait — when did I say this? Did I even read this book?”

Even scrupulously ethical name-droppers can — and do — run into other kinds of trouble: all too often, they get carried away with the proper nouns, positively littering the page with them. They forget that the power of celebrity lies in its relative rarity: if a writer can legitimately cite one famous fan of his own work, that’s impressive, but if he lists several, even if they are all genuine fans, it’s going to come across as overkill at best and a complicated lie at worst.

Reluctant to believe that more isn’t better? Judge for yourself:

name dropping query

A bit over the top, is it not? One of those famous names might have grabbed Millicent, but so many in a row falls flat. Especially as a couple of those kudos come from unverifiable-because-dead endorsers. And if anyone at Millie’s agency happens to be a personal friend of anyone in that cavalcade of stars — not at all beyond belief; the literary world is smaller than most people think — you can bet that that person will take great pleasure in dropping them an e-mail to ask, “So how do you know this Eugene Aristocratic? He didn’t mention why you thought he might be a good fit for our agency, and I was curious.”

And what do you think happens if the late William F. Buckley — or, indeed, anyone Eugene chose to cite in this all-star line-up — says something like, “Eugene who?”

That’s right: “NEXT!”

On the bright side, although this is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, perjured name-droppers generally receive precisely the same form-letter rejection as everybody else; while professional readers will regale one another with tales of outrageous imposition, it’s relatively rare that the actually perpetrators will be on the receiving end of a well-deserved tongue-lasting. So the wonder is not the fact that people like that never learn, but that after all this time, Millicents across New York have not banded together to come up with a checklist of the most egregious insults to their intelligence commonly found in letters. Imagine how helpful it would be to the clueless if a Millicent could simply grab a list from a photocopied stack, circle doubtful references, and tuck it into the SASE along with the form-letter rejection?

Another pet peeve that would well deserve circling: who?. This feedback would be a boon to name-droppers who reference people of whom Millicent has never heard. Like, say, the writer of this sterling missive:

who the heck query

“Who the heck is Fortunatus L. Offenbach?” Millicent mutters, reaching for a form letter. “Why should I care about his opinion on anything? While I’m speculating aloud, isn’t this book description rather similar to the one I read just a few minutes ago — and wait, isn’t the second name here the same as the writer on the other query? Who stole whose book idea, I wonder?”

Oh, yes, our Millie’s memory for text is that good; professional readers can sometimes remember individual phrases for years on end. Even if any particular screener’s brain isn’t that retentive, you never can tell whose query she will read just before or just after yours, Eugene.

Connections to the glamorous (or, in Perry’s case, the not-so-glamorous) are not the only query statements that occasionally strike Millicent as far-fetched. As inquisitive and incisive reader Adam points out,

Isn’t there a danger of stretching too much about connections of importance (i.e. penchant for linguistics resulting in witty character names, thesis about Jane Austen gives specialization of domestic inertia and idle chatter, etc)? Might this kind of tack be harder with genre fiction (more difficult, not impossible), or only mean said query-candy-makers need to be more creative/selective?

I don’t see any special reason that coming up with Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy should be harder for genre fiction than any other variety, Adam. It’s just that in general, fiction writers tend to experience more difficulty in figuring out how to query their work. Since nonfiction writers have to write book proposals, they are less inclined than novelists to try to turn the entire query into a plot summary for the book.

Then, too, the subject matter of fiction is frequently less conducive to the kind of easily-quantified statement that fits nicely into a target audience paragraph. However, while a statement like one out of eight book-buyers in the U.S. suffers from dyslexia is quite a bit easier to work into a query for a dyslexic’s memoir than a science fiction novel where one of the 18-member space crew happens to be dyslexic, it’s actually not a bad statistic to include with either.

Hey, readers like characters that reflect the realities of their own lives; witness the huge popularity of Percy Jackson in THE LIGHTNING THIEF. It’s easier to identify with a character with whom the reader shares traits, likes, dislikes, and/or problems.

Which leads me, not entirely coincidentally, to a tip for coming up with convincing selling-points for your novel: rather than just thinking in terms of what might make you, the writer, sound more professional or literary-minded to Millicent, try brainstorming about what aspects of the book might make it appealing to the reader.

For instance, having written one’s thesis on Jane Austen wouldn’t actually be much of a selling point unless you happened to have written an Austen-themed book, right? So that wouldn’t be the strongest thing to mention in a credentials paragraph in a science fiction query. (And even if you did want to mention your master’s degree, it would make more sense coming in the platform paragraph than lolling about amongst the book’s selling points.) But if a major character is a passionate bocce player, it might well help pitch your book to find out just how many bocce players there are in this country — I can tell you now that unless Millicent comes from a family of bocce enthusiasts, her guesstimate will be low — and whether they ever have authors come to speak between matches.

Try to stick to selling points that might actually influence a book buyer’s decision-making process (hey, bocce players’ loved ones have to get them something for Christmas, right? Why not a bocce-themed novel?), rather than something that contributed to the writing process. All too often, queriers will waste valuable page space with statements like this:

I decided to write about competitive bocce after many years of deliberation — many of these characters are based on real people, and believe me, the last thing you want is to annoy someone gifted with that much accuracy in hoisting projectiles.

That might well be true, but why would anyone but the writer himself and the soon-to-be-outraged bocce players care that the querier had reservations about producing this book? More to the point, how is this information relevant to Millicent’s decision about whether to ask for pages? How would it be relevant to a reader’s decision about whether to pick the book off a shelf?

In fact, it isn’t, in either case, however important it may be personally to the writer. To return to Adam’s example, why would a reader care how the writer came up with the names before she read the book? That’s the kind of information that belongs in a post-publication interview, not a query.

Besides, it’s always dicey to review one’s own writing in a query; Millicent wants to be shown that you can write, not told. So referring to one’s own name choices as witty probably is not the best strategy for convincing her that you are indeed possessed of wit. Making the query itself sparkle with wit is a much better bet.

Remember, though, that both the target audience and platform paragraphs are optional. While being able to argue that your book has an easily-identified target audience and/or that you have the perfect background to have written your novel are very helpful to include, don’t force it. If a selling point or credential feels like a stretch to you, it probably will to Millicent as well.

So what’s an honest, ethical writer to do if she genuinely can’t come up with any selling points and has no relevant background to include in her platform paragraph? Omit ‘em.

There’s no law that says a query must be a full page long, you know. Just say as much as you need to say to convince Millicent you’ve written an interesting book in a category her boss represents — and hope for the best.

All that being said, there’s another reason Millie might have rejected Eugene’s name-dropping query — did you catch it? Because the letter’s larger sins might have distracted you, here it is again for your perusing pleasure.

name dropping query

Did you catch the typos, especially in that last paragraph? Millicent would have. So would Eugene, had he — feel free to chant it along with me, campers — taken the time to read his query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. And because he didn’t, do you think Millicent — who might herself be a graduate of an Ivy League school, or an intern still attending one, or the sibling of one or the other — is more or less likely to respond positively to Eugene’s smarter-than-thou tone?

Uh-huh. Had Eugene been anywhere near as smart and witty as he thought he was, he would have let his writing demonstrate those admirable traits all on its own. Wit, like talent, is better shown than told.

Words to live by, I think. Keep looking on the bright side, everyone — and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XVIII: and had I mentioned the desirability of doing your homework?

That’s right, campers: it’s time for another one of my little object lessons on the desirability of taking context into account. Quick, tell me what the snapshot above depicts.

A trifle difficult to hazard a reasonable guess without knowing what falls outside the bounds of the photo, is it not? Since light has a delightful habit of bouncing off many types of medium in similarly attractive ways, you might well have shouted out a wide array of answers: raindrops on a windshield backlit by a changing stoplight, perhaps, or confetti falling at night. A hailstorm as seen through rose-colored sunglasses might also have seemed plausible.

Would you change your answer, though, if I told you that I took this photograph not only indoors, but in a funky women’s apparel boutique? There, too, my camera might have picked up quite a few different reflective options by focusing tightly on a piece of amber jewelry, for instance, or shooting the shop through a beaded scarf.

I’m relatively certain, however, that even had first I named the shop and listed its entire contents, few of you would have glanced at the photo above and immediately exclaimed, “Oh, that’s a close-up of a black wool tam o’ shanter with gold sequins knitted into it at irregular intervals.” At least, not unless some of you have been secretly harboring your old disco togs for a few decades now, waiting for the day the Bee Gees cease merely stayin’ alive and begin actively making their comeback.

I sense more than a few rolling your eyes, and not just at the notion of dancing the night away in a heat-saturated club while wearing wool headgear. “That was a trick question, Anne,” the eye-rollers huff, and who could blame you? “By basing my guess purely upon that single snapshot — as opposed to, say, an array or pictures documenting the other items for sale adjacent to that tam o’ shanter or a photograph of some benighted soul getting down and funky underneath it — I was bound to guess incorrectly.”

Precisely, eye-rollers: it’s never a good idea to glance quickly at something complex that’s brand-new to you and assume that you understand it completely. Yet that’s precisely what many, if not most, first-time queriers do when approaching an agency to seek representation.

“Oh, I can do that,” they say, squinting at whatever letters happened to pop up when they typed query + novel into a search engine, or casting a cursory glance over a checklist on a how-to website. “All I need to do is talk about my book.”

Those of you who have been following Queryfest are already cringing, I hope. In case anyone isn’t, let’s take a gander at the all-too-common result of the reasoning above. As always, if you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and hitting the + key a few times to enlarge the image.

I am not showing you the second page of this misguided missive for the exceedingly simple reason that there is absolutely no chance that our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, would even consider reading beyond the bottom of this page. Had Meanswell done his/her homework on querying a little better, s/he would know why: under no circumstances should a query exceed a single page.

Do those gales of laughter indicate that some of you found that last point a bit on the self-evident side? “Oh, come on, Anne,” some of you scoff. “Surely, we don’t need to take up our valuable analytical time here going over that faux pas. Keeping the query under a page is literally the first thing most of us learned about approaching agents.”

Ah, but I’m not bringing it up for the benefit of writers who have taken the time to learn something about the querying process. I felt compelled to mention it because it’s actually not beyond belief that some swiftly-scanning web surfer will click onto this post someday and try to copy Meanswell’s letter.

Oh, you may giggle, but you haven’t seen my comments archives. Believe it or not, I do occasionally receive messages from would-be queriers who inform me in aggrieved tones that they followed my example to the letter, so to speak, but they still haven’t landed an agent. Surprisingly often, it turns out that they simply lifted the first example I posted on a particular day, without reading any of the explanation around it.

Well might you shudder. But as you do, congratulate yourself on being serious enough about your writing career to do your homework about what differentiates a good query from, well, 99% of what Millicent sees.

Noticing a pattern here? Throughout this long series, I have doggedly kept re-using a key phrase: I have been encouraging savvy writers to do their homework on individual agency guidelines before they send off a query; I’ve pointed out that this or that faux pas just screams at Millicent the agency screener that the queriers who commit them have not done their homework; the single best means of figuring out a book’s marketing category is — wait for it — for writers to do their homework about what similar books are currently on the market.

As opposed to, say, embracing the astonishingly popular alternative of glancing at a website or two, assuming that what one finds in a ten-minute search will necessarily cover everything a writer might need to know about pulling together a query, and scrabbling together something that seems to fit the bill. Being in that much of a hurry not only maximizes the chances of rejection, but also tends to come across as disrespectful to both the agent being approached and the manuscript itself. As I have said before and shall no doubt say again, there is no such thing as a generic agent, right for every conceivable type of book; agents specialize. They also have individual tastes. So no matter how much the current literary market might, in the author’s estimation, need a particular book right away, it just doesn’t make sense to skip the information-gathering step.

In other words: do your homework.

The sad thing is that the staggeringly high percentage of first-time queriers who make mistakes like Meanswell’s do so innocently. Since virtually any agency will use the word query in its submission guidelines, just plugging the term into a search engine should come up with an adequate definition, right? Every agent is looking for precisely the same thing, right? And since writing is writing, it doesn’t matter whether the directions that happen to pop up first are for querying a book manuscript, writing a cover letter to accompany a book proposal, or approaching a magazine with an article or short story, right?

Actually, wrong on all counts. Words frequently mean more than one thing, especially terms that crop up in unconnected contexts. Travel agents book trips for their clients, after all, but that activity does not remotely resemble the kind of booking police officers perform when they arrest people. And just because publishing houses, magazines, academic journals, and railroad schedules all contain writing doesn’t mean that those who produce them go about collecting that writing in the same manner. It’s only reasonable, then, to expect that each of these disparate types of publishers would have its own standards for querying.

Context, people. Figure out what kind of entity is best suited for your type of writing — an agency for a manuscript, an agency or small publishing house for a book proposal, a magazine for a short story, a journal for an academic article, a newspaper for a news article, etc. — then take the time to learn how professionals publishing in that forum construct query letters. For book publishing, I think you’ll find that the most successful purveyors of manuscripts to agents do not use the same letter for everybody they approach, but tweak each query to speak to the individual agent’s interests.

In other words, they do their homework before they query.

Yes, yes, I know: you’ve begun to twitch like Pavlov’s pups at mealtime each time I mention this, but I’m not the only querying guru fond of this phrase, as it happens. You can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting an agent, editor, contest judge, or writing coach loudly deploring just how few of the aspiring writers they meet seem to have do their homework before querying, submitting, pitching, entering a contest, or anything else that would require putting ink on paper and handing it to somebody in a position to evaluate it professionally.

Why is this phrase so ubiquitous in professional reader circles? Well, not being a mind-reader, I can’t say for certain what each and every speaker who spouts it is thinking, but I can hazard a guess: it probably stems from the fact that a good half of the queries any agency receives are so unprofessionally put together and worded that they might as well be billboards declaiming THIS ASPIRING WRITER DID NOT TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN HOW AGENCIES WORK BEFORE POPPING THIS INTO THE MAIL.

“Half?” a good quarter of you ask, gulping. “Seriously, that many?”

Actually, most of the agents I know place the percentage closer to 60% and rising. Why might it be going up? Again, I don’t profess to be a mind-reader, but I’ll take a crack at an answer: with the rise of the Internet, it’s not only become much, much easier to generate a list of who represents what kind of book; with the relative ease of e-mailed queries, it’s become substantially less expensive and time-consuming for an ambitious non-homework-doer to query 75 agents in a weekend.

Often, unfortunately, with missives like the charmer below. This writer has done a bit more homework than Meanswell; he, at least, is aware that he needs to limit his missive to a single page. Like so many generic queries, though, this one has the agent’s name and address mail-merged into the top, to give it the appearance of a personalized letter.

Don’t believe that this is a representative sample? You’re quite right: this letter is spelled far too well.

I would hope that by this late point in Queryfest, I would not need to elaborate on what’s wrong with this letter. (Arial Black 16 point type? Please!) Obviously, it contains none of the required elements but the title, so its chances of charming Millicent into reading so much as a syllable of the attached manuscript are approximately nil. And she wouldn’t even need to read the query if she worked at one of the many, many agencies that does not accept unsolicited submissions — at most agencies, a query packet that included a manuscript would simply be dumped into the trash.

Resentme is really racking up the instant-rejection points here, isn’t he? Clearly, this writer has not done his homework: he doesn’t know what a query letter is supposed to do, other than act as an introduction to a stack of paper.

Yet even if by some miracle Millicent decided to look past this letter’s complete lack of requisite information, writing style, and professional presentation, Resentme still could not possibly receive any benefit from having sent this query. Any guesses why?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, hand waving wildly in the air, and cried out, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, the guy forgot to include his contact information!” you have more than earned your gold star for the day. Even homework-doing writers routinely forget to include these salient details — a genuine pity, because when Millicent unearths a truly professional-looking query for an interesting book of the variety her boss typically represents in a day’s mail, she gets excited about it. How sad, then, if she has no way to convey that excitement — or a request for pages — to the person who wrote it.

A small forest of raised hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” the puzzled masses shout with one voice, “I only query via e-mail. So I don’t have to worry about this contact information stuff, right? All Millicent has to do to contact me is hit REPLY.”

Well, technically, yes, puzzled masses — if she happens to make up her mind while the e-mail is still on her screen. (Oh, your finger has never slipped while you were scrolling through e-mails, accidentally deleting something you wanted to keep?) And if she is empowered to ask for pages without consulting a higher-up — which may not be the case, if she just started her new screening gig, say, immediately after January 1, and Resentme was one of the tens of thousands of North American writers whose New Year’s Resolution was to send out a flotilla of queries. (More on that last bit follows next week, never fear.) If she is required to forward the queries she liked up the ladder, her supervisor’s hitting SEND would shoot the missive back to her, not to you.

But none of that is the primary reason that every query, every query packet, and every submission packet should include the sender’s full contact information, including phone number, mailing address, and e-mail address. You should do it because you don’t want Millicent to have to waste even a moment thinking, oh, didn’t this writer remember to tell me how to get ahold of her? Didn’t she do her homework?

Speaking of the perils of not doing one’s homework, did you catch the other omission that would cause Millicent to grind her teeth and cry, “This is a form letter! Resentme has probably sent this to every agent in the Manhattan phone directory within the last 24 hours. Next!”

Any wild guesses? How about the fact that the letter is not dated, presumably so the sender can reuse it in perpetuity?

Seriously, this is a classic agents’ pet peeve — precisely because it’s an extremely common time-saving technique for all of the Resentmes out there. Or at least it was back when lazy aspiring writers had to rely upon Xerox machines, rather than just hitting the print key repeatedly or SEND, to wallpaper New York with completely generic queries.

Why does the very sight of a generic query make Millicent’s fingertips itch for a form-letter rejection? Well, for starters, one-size-fits-all letters make her job more difficult. Generic queries virtually never give her any hint about

(a) the book in question’s category (so she will have to guess whether it falls into one that someone at her agency actually represents),

(b) why the writer thinks her boss would be a good fit for it (since a generic query is intended for every agent’s eyes, it cannot afford to be specific), and/or

(c) what might make this book marketable (because that would require the querier to do a bit of, you guessed it, homework).

So can you honestly blame her for leaping to the conclusion that the sender just didn’t do his homework? Or for assuming, as most professional readers would, that a writer who didn’t do his homework about how to write a query probably didn’t do his homework about how to format a manuscript, either?

Yes, really — and that presents a serious stumbling-block at querying time. Even in an agency already resigned to explaining how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work to first-time authors, a non-homework doer would stand out an unusually energy-sapping client: he doesn’t even know enough about the ropes of the industry to know that he should learn how to climb them.

The second reason that obviously generic queries tend to engender such universally negative reactions amongst screeners — other than the fact that they’re often phrased as demands for attention, rather than requests for assistance, that is — lies in human nature. No one likes to be treated as if she were a service-providing machine. Good agents have a right to be proud of what they do: they help bring great writing — and great writers — to publication.

What’s wrong with their appreciating queriers who have taken the time to find out about what they have sold in the past more than those who address them as though any agent were as good as any other? Or preferring queriers who phrase their requests politely, in a query that deliberately speaks to the agent’s individual interests, over those who are quite clearly just trying to hit as many agencies in as short a time as possible?

Why should we blame them, in short, for preferring writers who have obviously done their homework to those who equally obviously have not?

The problem is, it’s getting harder to tell the difference. Ten years ago, there was a lot less querying advice available upon demand. Today, anyone with the minimal technical ability to perform a Google search of the word query might well find within just a few clicks a prototype that avoids the faux pas above entirely.

If she’s lucky, that is. She’s equally likely to come up with something that doesn’t fit the bill at all.

With a little bit of homework, pretty much anyone can find a template into which he can simply plug his information instead of writing a truly unique query letter from scratch. So what ends up on Millicent’s desk on any given morning is 150 letters rather like this:

mediocre query

with perhaps one like the following somewhere in the middle of the stack:

nearly good query

Both are generally passable by prevailing wisdom standards, right? Millicent actually does have to read a bit closer in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Please tell me, though, that it was clear to you why the second was better. Competent told Millicent why she picked this particular agent (complimenting a current client’s book is always a classy touch), described her premise well, and listed a couple of legitimate authorial credentials for this particular book. Perhaps her book’s title was a trifle derivative of the existing client’s, but overall, this query did what it needed to do.

The first example, sadly, did not. True, Sadie did open the first with an eye-catching hook statement (and not a bad one, actually), but she made Millicent guess the book category — probably because Sadie wasn’t sure of it herself. She’s also left Millie to guess what her qualifications are to write this particular book. And what on earth does a collection of insights mean, anyway? It isn’t even clear from this query whether what’s being offered is a how-to book for living with a food restriction, a quote book, or an illness memoir.

It would, in short, be pretty obvious to a careful reader which writer had done her homework and which hadn’t. However, if Millicent happened to be having a bad day — and who is more entitled, really? — both of these writers might have ended up receiving form-letter rejections.

Why? Well, did you spot the notorious agents’ pet peeve in Competent’s first paragraph that might have caused our Millie to choke irritably on her too-hot latte and reach gaspingly for the form-letter pile?

No one could blame you if you missed it, because it’s quite subtle: Competent referred to her book as a fiction novel. Technically, this is redundant; all novels are fiction, by definition.

Which is why, in case anybody had been wondering, authors often pause a moment or two before answering the ubiquitous question, “Oh, you’ve just finished a novel? Fiction or nonfiction?” Like everyone else even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry, we have to tamp down our knee-jerk response: there’s no such thing as a nonfiction novel, silly!

Actually, the epithet at the end of that thought is usually quite a bit harsher, but this is a family-friendly site.

As I mentioned in passing earlier in this series, fiction novel is not the only phrase likely to provoke this reaction. So is true memoir. Or, perversely, sci-fi novel instead of science fiction novel.

Why the last one? Literary history, my dears: science fiction and fantasy had a hard time getting taken seriously as literature. That prejudice extends practically to this very moment: the first science fiction author to be included in the prestigious Library of America series was my old friend Philip K. Dick.

In 2007, more than 25 years after his death.

The literary world’s slowness to embrace one of the great literary genres frequently used to take the form of insults aimed at SF writers. As late as the early 1980s, literary-voiced science fiction and fantasy was still routinely being dismissed in mainstream literary circles as just sci-fi. As in, “Oh, I never read sci-fi; that’s kid’s stuff.”

Historically, then, it’s been a matter of respect to refer to the category either by its full name, science fiction, or SF. So from the perspective of a Millicent who works at a science fiction-representing agency, an aspiring writer who refers to his own writing as a sci-fi novel clearly hasn’t done his homework about his own chosen book category.

Competent did do something clever, though: for an agent whom one has not had the opportunity to hear speak at a conference, read an article or blog authored by, or come up with some other excuse for picking him out of an agents’ guide, bringing up a current client’s most recent publication is a dandy justification. As a bonus, up-to-date client lists are almost always readily available on agency websites.

I just mention that for the benefit of those of you who might not have time to do much homework.

Let’s face it, these days, many, not most, aspiring writers decide whom to query not through extensive market research about who is selling what in their chosen book categories, but by plugging a book category into a search engine and sending a query to the first name that it spits out. Or first 25 names. Or, in some cases, all of ‘em.

I’ve already spoken enough about the advantages of personalizing one’s query to match each individual agent’s expressed preferences, literary tastes, and sales track record that I shall not take up blog space today by commenting again upon the strategic wisdom of this method of query list generation. Suffice it to say that I hope those of you who have followed Querypalooza from the beginning looked at that paragraph above and immediately muttered, “Wow, 25 agents. That’s going to be days of background research,” rather than, “There’s a search engine that would spit out more than 25 names for my list? Great — I’ll send out another 50 generic queries tomorrow.”

Normally, I would take issue with that last statement, energetically pointing out the many potential pitfalls into which a one-size-fits-all querying strategy is likely to lead a writer who — chant it with me now — hasn’t done his homework. But it’s getting late, and I’d like to talk about another example or two before I sign off for the night.

Besides, you’re intelligent people: you already have the tools to analyze the qualitative difference between a generic query and a well-personalized one yourself. Compare the following, for instance, with the last two examples above. All were sent to the same agent, and all of the queriers had access, via the Internet, to precisely the same information about her.

good query2

Notice anything as you cast your eyes over those three letters? Perhaps that what elevated the last two’s opening paragraphs was a single reference each to work the agent had done in the past? Just how long do you think it took either of those writers to dig up those tidbits on the agency website?

Word to the wise: the amount of homework required to personalize an already-solid draft query is not particularly extensive. Nor is the imperative to check each agency’s website or guide listing for specialized submission instructions especially onerous. It honestly is worth every second it takes.

Bearing all of that in mind, let’s take another peek at today’s first example, poor old Meanswell’s overstuffed missive, with an eye to giving him some much-needed advice on how to present that book better on the query page.

Did you catch more problems this time around? Beginning at the top of the page, the letter is undated; it’s in a wacky typeface (and a large one at that); the salutation is too familiar (unless Meanswell had actually met Aiden before, s/he should have stuck with the formal and safer Dear Mr. Authors); the query doesn’t mention what kind of book it is (indeed, Millicent would not learn that the protagonist is a fifth grader until well into the plot summary); there’s no indication of why Meanswell is approaching Aiden; the plot summary is far too long, and so is the query. Heck, it isn’t even clear, except from the Jupiter element, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.

If you were Millicent, would you be willing to take the time to make sense of this?

As if all of that weren’t enough, there are another couple of extremely common faux pas here. Care to guess?

If you flung your hand to the skies and shouted, “I know! Since an agent will expect a potential client to have written the novel manuscript in question in its entirety before even thinking about querying, Meanswell’s mentioning that the manuscript is completed is unnecessary,” award yourself a second gold star for the day. Although this phrasing appears in a startlingly high percentage of the query templates floating around out there, including this information implies ignorance about how fiction is sold in this country.

If you also muttered under your breath, “Well, in Meanswell’s shoes, I wouldn’t have mentioned the word count at all, given how long the book is,” help yourself to another gold star out of petty cash. Although acceptable word counts do vary from book category to book category, in most fiction-representing agencies, the Millicents are trained to regard anything over 100,000 words as too long to sell readily. All Meanswell has really done by mentioning the length of the manuscript is to provide Millie with a reason to reject it unread.

“Wait just a knee-jerk rejecting minute!” template-lovers across the Internet point out. “What do you mean, s/he should have left it out? I’ve seen plenty of how-tos that insist that word count is an essential part of the query!”

Would you throw the nearest portable object at me if I pointed out that this belief can only be the result of insufficient homework-doing? Yes, there are a few agencies out there that do ask point-blank for word count in queries — the better to reject the overly-long, my dears — but it’s far from a universal request. Since it can only work to a novelist’s disadvantage to include word count (trust me, Millicent is not going to clap her hands and exclaim, “Oh, goody, it’s only 85,450 words!”), why include it in queries to agencies whose submission guidelines don’t request it?

Let me answer that one for you, homework-avoiders: the only plausible reason to do it is if you believe that all agencies want to see exactly the same things in their queries. Anything called a query must refer to precisely the same thing, right?

Of course not. Even a quick glance at fifteen or twenty sets of agency guidelines — or a rapid flip through one of the standard agency guides — will demonstrate not only that different agencies routinely ask for different information to be included in queries, but that the expectation that word count will be mentioned at all is a relative rarity.

I leave it to your fertile imaginations to figure out why, under these circumstances, there are so many templates and how-tos out there that call for word count. While your creative wheels are spinning, however, let’s take a look at how Meanswell might have approached Aiden in a manner that makes it plain not only that the book is interesting, but that its writer has done his/her homework:

“Hey, no fair, Anne!” the sharper-eyed among you protest. “When I read Meanswell’s first version, I had no idea s/he had such good credentials for writing this book.”

Exactly — and neither did Millicent. Whose fault was that?

After all, you can’t reasonably expect her to guess the context in which you wrote your book, right? Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XVII: please don’t skip this one if you’re not querying memoir, or, the Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife

donknotts2donknotts1donknotts3

As those of you intrepid souls who followed Pitchingpalooza may recall, last summer, I stumbled upon perhaps the worst salesman it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, a carpet and linoleum purveyor subsequently known chez Mini as Duh, Obviously the Owner’s Ne’er-do-well Nephew. DOONN for short. I believe he thought we were calling him Don.

Don wasn’t bad at his job in any of the usual senses: he was not ignorant of the theory or practice of floor covering, nor did he appear to be unconversant with the means by which a consumer might conceivably purchase same in an ideal world. His particular gift lay in the direction of implying that it would be a monumental, epoch-shattering mistake for me — or anyone else, for that matter — to buy Marmoleum from his shop. Or from another emporium.

Or, indeed, at all. It wasn’t his place to tell me what to do, his every facial expression and gesture proclaimed, but surely, my mother could not be aware that I hung out in places like this.

Be it carpeting, laminate, vinyl, or tile, he was equally determined to let slip nothing positive. The Spanish Inquisition had more upbeat overall messaging. Should blackening his click-together cork tiles’ good name prove insufficiently repellent to customers, he would move swiftly on to actively smothering the decision-making process with a cunning combination of dissuasive patter about how difficult flooring was to replace and a smiling resistance to providing specifics about the products he sold.

Like, say, the colors in which it might be available, should anyone be foolish enough to tempt the fates by purchasing it.

If there was one thing he hated, it was customers walking through the door. He managed to convey, not once but perpetually, that while he might have been an affable guy had we met him at, say, a picnic, he was rapidly reaching the end of his rope with all of us pests traipsing into his store and expecting him to evince some interest in getting our floors covered. If only he were left alone, he might just get some work done.

Yet I had it on pretty good authority that the shop did in fact sell floor coverings; indeed, judging from the storeroom, it sold nothing else. Not wishing to draw any untoward conclusions from this, I sought out a second opinion. Sure enough, at the store’s other branch, Don’s presumptive uncle’s hard-sell techniques strongly implied that the company wasn’t just a front for some illicit, non-flooring-related activity, nor did shooing customers out the door appear to be company-wide policy. Indeed, Unc proved only too eager to brew up a pot of coffee, pull up a few chairs, and commiserate for an hour on how a shrinking economy has caused the range of non-carpet flooring options out there to dwindle to a mostly unremarkable few — but would we like to see a few samples?

Seriously, what happened to the funky linoleums of yesteryear? Is some unholy conspiracy determined to limit our citizenry to walking upon floor surfaces in hues ranging only from sand to dirt to mud? And why in heaven’s name is such a high percentage of commercially-available carpeting some shade of taupe?

When Unc sent me back to Don, over my rather vehement objections, to peruse a sample book concealed for some reason best known to themselves in a locked drawer in the latter’s desk, these questions seemed only to strain our already tenuous détente. “Maybe it’s not the right time to replace your floors,” he suggested.

There was a touch of genius to his sales avoidance. He didn’t just try to talk me out of considering Tarkett tiles, for instance; he generously invested five full minutes in explaining precisely how arduous they would be to order, how unsure he was that the samples he had were representative of what the company had to offer these days, and how only a color-blind idiot would find what he had in stock neither ugly nor uninteresting. (He had a point there.) On the off chance I might still be harboring some residual desire to purchase, he told a highly unsavory anecdote about how his former Tarkett representative had been summarily fired so, he claimed, her employers would not have to pay her back commissions.

A lesser man might not have shared the actual disputed dollar amount or the gripping details of the subsequent court case, but Don was made of sterner stuff — unlike, apparently, any floor covering he could recommend. (“You’ll only have to replace it eventually,” he warned.) By the end of his tirade, he not only had impressed upon me that he didn’t particularly wish to sell any Tarkett on moral grounds; he made me feel that I was a sorry excuse for a human being for ever having considered buying it.

I’m ashamed to say that I would have, too. If only they still made the pattern I liked.

He was well into a searing indictment of bamboo hardwoods and the madmen who hawk them before he noticed it was almost closing time. His passion for explaining that he didn’t like to start an invoice within half an hour of the end of the day so absorbed him that he barely put any energy at all into brushing off the poor soul who rushed into the store on a fool’s errand seeking some carpeting for his daughter’s bedroom.

Don sent the guy scurrying into a dimly-lit corner of the warehouse without a flashlight. “Don’t panic if you see anything crawling around over there,” Don shouted after him. He settled onto his stool again. “Not that he’ll find anything the kid will like; girls have weird tastes. Now, what were we talking about?”

Midway through his blistering exposé of vinyl laminate and all of its disreputable relatives, I waved a few samples of Marmoleum in front of his face. “Would you think too badly of me,” I inquired meekly, “if I took these home to see how they might look next to the kitchen cabinets?”

He snorted. “If you don’t mind giving business to foreigners.” Then, evidently suspecting that he might have gone a trifle too far, he added, “I do have one of the best installers in the Pacific Northwest for that, though. I think he’s still on work release…”

Why bring up good ol’ Don at this juncture in Queryfest, you ask? Because even after I had written up my own sales slip, forced a deposit upon him, and made my way past the stacks and rolls of flooring that for reasons best known to the Almighty had not yet been snapped up by an eager consumer, I had not left behind his peculiar style of promoting what he had to sell. I see this type of salesmanship all the time in query letters.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true — and I’d like to devote today’s post to examining why.

The answer’s not as simple as many queriers not understanding how to present their books well, or even, as we discussed last time, their not having a firm grasp upon what the essential elements of a query are or why each is necessary to include. As often as not, it’s a matter of attitude.

How so? Well, take a gander at virtually any online forum where aspiring writers discuss the vagaries of querying: a lot of queriers are darned annoyed that they have to do it at all. Or at the very least, that the primary purpose of agencies is not to ferret out exciting new stories and voices.

You’ll wrench your neck if you keep doing double-takes like that. Is it really all that surprising that agencies are not non-profits devoted to the advancement of American literature, but businesses engaged mostly in the profit-seeking endeavor of trying to sell their already-established client lists’ manuscripts? It’s not as though going through those thousands of queries per year actually makes any money for the agency, after all: reputable agencies’ income comes only from commissions on their clients’ books.

But you’d never know that from listening to most aspiring writers talk about the querying process. As an inveterate teacher of the fine but widely-misunderstood arts of querying, pitching, and book proposal-writing, I often find myself confronted by those who, to put it mildly, are not pleased to learn that in the current literary market, catching an agent’s eye is not particularly simple or fun.

“What do you mean, I have to figure out before I approach an agent who will want to read my book and why?” they fume, generally in tones that invite me to say that I was just kidding about all of the hoops through which they were going to have to jump. “I’m a writer, not a marketer; my publisher will have a department to handle all of that. Besides, if the industry were really set up to find the best new writing, none of this marketing stuff would matter. I would be judged by my writing, and that would be that.”

Intuitively, I can see how this kind of logic would make sense to a writer new to the game: once you write the book, the hard part should be over, right? But in practice, writing a good manuscript is only the first step on the long, twisty road to publication.

Oh, stop groaning: it could hardly be otherwise, as the publishing world now operates. Major U.S. publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals for adult books from unagented writers — you were already aware of that, right, if you have been reading up on querying strategies? — and as a direct result, reputable agencies are approached by far too many aspiring writers for reading unsolicited manuscripts to be feasible. In order to sift through the hundreds of thousands of book ideas tossed at them yearly, agencies have had to establish ground rules like before we will read so much as a syllable of your manuscript or proposal, you must ask permission to send it, queries must not exceed one page, and yes, we mean that last one that even if your plot is so complex that Noah Webster himself would despair of describing it in less than 17 pages.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers resent the necessity of following such directives — as well as any specific instructions listed on the agency’s website, of course — is not precisely news to the fine folks who read queries for a living. Queriers may not think they are being obvious about it, but you would be astonished how often contempt of the querying process fairly drips from the page. Take, for instance, a missive like this:

Don’t see what’s wrong with this as a persuasive document? If so, you’re certainly not alone: to many queriers, this artless missive might well appear to be a cry for help. Indeed, it was probably intended that way: poor Dee is probably not so much hostile as worn out from appealing time after time to agents that don’t seem to want to hear about her book.

To Millicent the agency screener, however, who sees queries like this literally every day — every weekday, at least, and especially on Monday mornings, if her agency accepts e-mail queries — Dee’s possibly well-justified lament would appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How so? Well, I could dwell on all of the technical reasons this query would be depressingly easy for Millicent to reject on sight. It’s not at all clear why Dee has chosen to approach this agent, for instance, as opposed to every other currently milling about the greater New York metropolitan area. It’s not at all clear who the target audience is for this book, or why they would be drawn to this story. And while we’re at it, what is this book about?

Oh, and 248,000 words is about two and a half times the norm for first memoir. 75,000 -100,000 would be much more in the expected ballpark, but since the overwhelming majority of memoirs are sold via book proposals, rather than as full manuscripts, why is our pal Dee mentioning the length of the current draft at all?

Honestly, though, most of this is a moot point, as our Millie is unlikely to make it past that first paragraph — and can you blame her? Within three short lines of text, Dee manages to hit # standard screeners’ pet peeves: she reviews her own writing, implies that the reason she has not yet been successful is that there is something wrong with the publishing industry, and questions the agent’s intelligence. Perhaps most jaw-dropping to someone whose job it is to thin the competition to the scant few her boss has time to read, Dee tells Millicent that many other agents have already rejected similar queries.

“Gee,” Millicent mutters, reaching for that stack of form-letter rejections that’s never far from her elbow, “I can’t imagine why. Most of us just love being berated for not wanting to read more than a page of this kind of passive-aggression. Clearly, if we allowed ten-page queries, this writer would complain about that, too.”

Fair? Perhaps not, from Dee’s point of view: she was, after all, merely expressing some frustration. But she did it at the wrong person, and in the wrong venue, to do herself or her book any practical good.

She was, in short, talking Millicent out of taking a serious look at that Marmoleum. A pity, really, because for all we know, that particular type of flooring was precisely what Millie’s boss, the agent of Dee’s dreams, was looking to snap up.

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

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements — book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off. It even includes a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis, so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query. (If the agency’s submission guidelines asked for a query and she doesn’t see it, she’s likely to reject the whole packet on general principle. Remember, one of the purposes of posting those guidelines on the agency website is to see if prospective clients can follow directions.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Again, part of the point of this exercise is to show that you can follow directions. Another means of showing off your virtues in that direction: use the old-fashioned enclosures notation.

good memoir query 2

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

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

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

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, is not in and of itself likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy the book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing and/or e-mailing list as well.

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

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book. That’s why, in case any of you dedicated writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

Can you really blame them for wanting to know what the Marmoleum looks like before ordering some?

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

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year.

How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does — and by making that case clearly in their query letters.

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

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

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

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

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

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

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

memoir query panicky

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

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

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

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Panicky wants Millicent to read it, presumably, but she apparently can’t bring herself to make that request. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily, she’s heard; she doesn’t want to tread on any toes.

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

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. The relevant statistics speak for themselves:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner. Even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

So, you are probably wondering, would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether the screener made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it?

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is — wait for it — to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work. A great way to kick off that brainstorming: familiarizing yourself with your target market. Not just who is in it, but what books have been aimed successfully at those readers within the past five years. Once you understand why readers are already buying books like yours, it should be easier to see which of those appealing characteristics your book shares.

Once you have come up with at least a couple of believable selling points, you can center your query on them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

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

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

Millie is not going to shout any of those things over your query, however, if your query leaves her in the dark about precisely how your book is unique. Not only will she probably not have the time or inclination to guess; she will wonder, and rightly, whether a writer apparently reluctant to market his own book to an agent will be equally resistant to helping promote the book once it is published.

Yes, that will be the publisher’s marketing department’s job, when the time comes. But if you do a bit of that book category research I suggested above, you may notice something about successful first books published within the last few years: their authors tend to have invested quite a bit of effort in promoting them.

Imagine how pleased their Barneys must be about that — and how, in turn, they might instruct their Millicents to keep their weary eyes peeled for new writers who might be equally energetic in selling their books.

This is no time to be hiding your Marmoleum samples under a bushel, people. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XV: selecting the elements that will grab Millicent’s attention, or was this honestly the most exciting news story of the day?

Since I’ve gone down to posting only once or twice per week — a rate I hope to be ramping up again, perhaps as soon as tomorrow — I’ve noticed something interesting, campers: reality seems to have slowed its rate of tumbling all over itself to provide me with practical or symbolic examples of whatever I plan to discuss next. The last time I delved into the fine art of querying, the world around me seemed to burst into anecdotes every time I looked up from the computer.

I’m glad to report that since Thanksgiving, the Muses have gotten off their collective tuffet and hopped back on the illustrative story bandwagon. This weekend, they provided me with a lulu — and, perhaps to make amends for their lack of productivity throughout the autumn, they seem to have gone out of their way to provide parallels to not just one, but several widely misunderstood aspects of querying. So sit back, relax, and let the girls do their stuff with today’s tale.

One of the more charming (or more trying, depending upon how one chooses to look at it) aspects of having grown up in a small town lies in the ongoing interconnectedness one feels with the playmates of one’s early years. Where the friend options are few, pickiness is a luxury. Even if you happened to loathe a particular nursery school classmate with abandon, chances are that by the time the two of you graduate from high school, you will probably have enjoyed at least a couple of moderately pleasurable collective moments along the way. Or at least having shared the often-underestimated bond of having loathed the same person in junior high and having had the town’s elders shake their heads over your respective coiffure choices in high school.

Oh, you try to find more scintillating entertainment in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard. Bucolic paradises are frequently very dull.

So although I left that delightful small town at a pace that can only be described as a dead run when I was seventeen, when my kindergarten classmate Kevin left a voice mail message last week, saying he had something important to tell me, I called him back with alacrity. We had spoken perhaps five times since we graduated from high school, but hey, we’d learned to play the xylophone together as tots: the least I could do was let him tell me something I had already heard from my mother (who had gotten the skinny via the garrulous grocery check-out clerk who had happened to scan Kevin’s mom’s Froot Loops earlier in the week), that he had proposed to a Lady From Elsewhere and was planning to move her back home.

That he chose to break the news in two short sentences should have warned me what was to come: even in kindergarten, Kev had embraced John Wayne-like levels of taciturnity; in situations both mundane and life-shifting, he has always eschewed wordiness. Nouns and verbs seldom occupied the same breath with him. Now, his sentences were not complete enough to contain his beloved’s name. By five minutes into our conversation, he was answering my polite questions about the LFE and their wedding plans with monosyllables — and seeming to enjoy it immensely.

I, on the other hand, felt as though I were cross-examining a hostile witness, the kind Perry Mason would have decided must be the murderer. “Well, I’m happy for you, Kevin,” I said, hoping to draw the teeth-pulling to a graceful close. “Do give my best to your mother — and, of course, to your lovely fiancée.”

The mention of the LFE seemed to galvanize him into action. “You should talk to her!” he cried, ignoring his beloved’s perfectly audible cries of, “Who, me?”

I’m not particularly given to heart-to-hearts with complete strangers, but sure that if not my mother, then at least the checkout clerk would be dying to hear some details about the LFE, I revved up my interview skills anew. After a startlingly brief set of exchanges, I was perfectly convinced that the LFE and Kevin were made for each other: she must make him feel like a positive chatterbox. Where he might go out on a limb with a yes or no, the lady favored non-committal humming.

I’ve conducted more productive interviews with mollusks. Actually, I’m fairly confident that your garden-variety mollusk bride-to-be might have coughed up a more substantive response to, “Tell me about your engagement ring,” than a terrified blurt of, “Um, it’s gold?” followed by thirty seconds of anxious silence.

Compared to her answers to most of my questions, that was a philosophical treatise. I might be going out on an interpretive limb here, but I suspect that the LFE is exceedingly shy.

If she was frightened to talk to me, however, she was petrified that I might get off the phone before Kevin returned. Or so I surmise, from the fact that my repeated, “Well, I really should let you get back to your evening together,” did not elicit anything that might remotely be interpreted as an invitation to hang up the phone, unless in the Far Land of Elsewhere, whimpering “No, don’t go!” is the standard way to say good-bye. I began timing the silences after her brief answers, just to have something to do.

Shortly after we’d broken the minute-and-a-half barrier, I heard something unexpected in the background: Kevin’s voice, talking to what sounded like a small child. By dint of a torturous game of 20 Questions, I managed to get the LFE to admit that she had a six-year-old (who, like her mother, was apparently devoid of a name), that she was in the room, and that Kev was playing with her. A full five minutes of motherly silence followed, punctuated only by my commentary on what I guessed the child to be saying and doing.

Having quite a bit of time on my hands, I found myself wondering if perhaps Kevin and the LFE were operating under a completely different understanding of the purpose of an interstate phone call than I had encountered before. Many of the requisite elements of a normal telephone exchange were here — two persons on the same phone line at the same time, an ostensibly exciting development to discuss, time in which to do it — but by no stretch of the imagination was this a normal telephone exchange. Was the point here to share time together, even if there was no conversation? Was having me listen to him chatter with the child Kevin’s way of letting me know that he was enjoying his new family, or did was he in another room, happy in the belief that his sweetie and I were enjoying a half an hour of uninterrupted girl talk?

Or — and this seemed increasingly likely as the seconds ticked by — had he simply forgotten that I was on the phone, and she was too meek to remind him?

Eventually, I did what any self-respecting small-town refugee would have done: I positively forced the LFE to listen to my thanking her for having made Kevin happy (“Mmmph,” she replied), wished her luck with the wedding-planning process — and faked an emergency to excuse getting off the phone. I have no idea whether she actually believed a curtain rod had fallen onto my cat, but at least she said good-bye and hung up.

And my readers heave a huge sigh of relief. “That was odd, Anne,” many of you point out, “but am I missing something here? Didn’t you at least hint that this event put you at least vaguely in mind of something having to do with querying?”

Why, yes, it did. From Millicent the agency screener’s perspective, queries that include some or even all of the required elements but seem to adhere to a different logic than she recognizes are not all that rare. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the kind of e-mail that appears in her agency’s inbox on a regular basis.

Dear Ms. Agentson,

Communication, Garbled tells the story of Ambrosia, a woman trapped between conflicting forces beyond her control. Try as she might, she can’t see a way out, until Greg opens a door for her that she thought had been closed long ago.

Please give me a chance. I have worked very hard on this, and I really, really want to get it published.

Sincerely,

Struggling B. Storyteller

This artless little missive raises more questions than it answers, doesn’t it? “What on earth is this book about?” Millicent cries, rending her garments. “What forces? Why are they beyond her control, and what are the consequences? Who the heck is Greg, and what makes Struggling think a cliché like reopening a closed door conveys any specific meaning? Is Communication, Garbled the title, or is it a review of this letter? Perhaps most perplexingly, why does this writer believe it’s my job to figure out what his? her? book is about, rather than the writer’s job to convey the premise of the story lucidly?”

Why, indeed, Millie: you’re quite right that this vague e-mail does not give you enough information to figure out whether your boss, the agent of Struggling’s dreams, might conceivably want to represent this manuscript. It doesn’t mention the book category, the intended audience, the premise — and because this description could be applied equally well to thousands of wildly different plots, a screener would have absolutely no way of guessing productively on any of these essential points. If Struggling had opened with some indication of why s/he had picked this particular agency (like, say, Since you so ably represented Competent Author’s debut novel, UNCLEAR EXCHANGES, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction project…), Millicent might have been able to make an educated guess, but since she has hundreds of queries to screen before lunch, why would she waste time speculating?

Especially for a query that doesn’t even say whether the book it is pushing is fiction or nonfiction. Heck, if it hadn’t landed in the agency’s inbox along with 1500 similar missives, Millie might not even have been able to guess it is a query intended to solicit representation.

In short, it contains some of the elements of a standard query letter, but does not bring them together in a manner comprehensible to a reader who knows nothing about the book in question. From Millicent’s perspective, Struggling has missed the point of this mode of communication.

From the writer’s side of the SEND button, though, it’s fairly clear what happened here, though, isn’t it? Struggling knows what her book is about: concerned with the brevity requirements of a query, she’s generalizing. Millicent’s boss represents books like the one she’s written, so wouldn’t anyone at the agency be able to fill in the blanks about where this book would sit in a bookstore, who the target audience is, and why Struggling approached this agent in the first place?

The short answer is that it’s not Millicent’s job to read the querier’s mind, but the querier’s job to present her work clearly. The long answer is…wait five minutes in silence, then read the first sentence of this paragraph again.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: Struggling might well have written a stellar book, but her misinterpretation of the requirements of the query letter render the quality of the manuscript a moot point at the querying stage. Most of the time, this kind of query is the result of a writer’s having based the query not upon research about what the agent in question is seeking, or even what a generic query might contain, but rather a vague guess about what a query letter is.

Such guesses mystify the pros, frankly. They believe, and with some reason, that there are enough blogs like this, reputable books aimed at aspiring writers, and writers’ conferences out there that any writer serious about landing an agent should be able to learn the basic elements of a query quite easily. Even if that were not the case — but it is — many agencies go out of their way to list those elements for potential queriers, posting guidelines on their websites. That being the case (their reasoning continues), a writer with sufficient talent to compose a good book should be able to string those elements together in a graceful and coherent style.

So when a screener is confronted with a query that appears to have been written without either a basic understanding of what the requisite parts of a good query letter are or how those parts might be fitted together into a convincing argument to request the manuscript, she generally feels more than justified in rejecting it regardless of the inherent interest of the story. A query like Struggling’s, then, might be legitimately be regarded as self-rejecting: it differs enough from what Millicent has been trained to regard as the minimum standard for a successful query letter that it is instantly recognizable as a non-starter.

Were those shrieks of rage I just heard echoing around the ether, or has my house been invaded by harpies? “Talk about misconceptions!” those of you who have been wading through the mountains of querying advice out there wail. “Clearly, these people haven’t taken a look at the welter of information out there on the subject. I’m perfectly willing to follow directions, but there are literally thousands of sources of advice out there, and half of them contradict one another!”

Of course, they haven’t taken a look at what’s out there — why should they? Millicent already knows what information a query letter should contain. But Struggling and writers like her tend not to be those who have, like you wailers, conscientiously worked their way through a number of different credible sources on how to write a query. No, Struggling almost certainly based her effort upon quite limited research, assuming — wrongly — that she understood what an agent might be expecting to see even though she had never written a query letter before.

That so many queriers don’t recognize that a query must contain certain industry-specified elements, including the imperative to include enough information about the book that Millicent doesn’t have to guess why it might appeal to her boss, is almost as frustrating to those who screen queries for a living as for those who write them and get rejected. To the pros, a query is an application to have an agent or editor take a writer’s work seriously — and part of the case to be taken seriously includes the writer’s demonstrating that she has invested the time in learning how the querying and submission process works.

Frustrating, from the writer’s point of view? Certainly — but remember, aspiring writers tend to be the ones who expect a book to be picked up right away, not agents or editors. People in the industry are well aware that it often takes a good writer years to learn the ropes, but from their perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of queriers begin the agent-seeking process before their manuscripts are ready for professional scrutiny, increasing the chances of rejection; to an experienced screener, Struggling’s query above practically cries out, “I typed THE END two weeks ago, so I have not yet had time to revise and polish this manuscript!”

Will that be a valid conclusion in every case? No, of course not, but a best-guess query and a first draft go hand-in-hand often enough that you really can’t blame Millicent for making the correlation. Or for rejecting the query in the hope that Struggling will be prompted to do the requisite homework to write a better letter next time. And if that professionalization process sucks up enough time that Struggling has a chance to do a little revision on her novel, isn’t that actually in her book’s best interest in the long run?

Yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel that way when you open a form-letter rejection. But honestly, doesn’t it make you feel just the tiniest bit better to know that form letter was not necessarily saying Give up — this book doesn’t have a chance but possibly, You haven’t given me enough information to assess this project, because you’re not speaking about your book in professional language, but I hope that you will do better next time?

Don’t like that moral? Okay, try this one on for size: it’s very much in your interest to do your homework not only on what elements should be in a query in general, but what, if any, advice any particular agent or agency you are planning to approach has put out there for potential clients. Trust me, if Ms. Agentson took the time to create a page on her agency’s website to explain what she wants to see in a query, she will expect Struggling to be familiar with it before writing the query letter.

If, after scouring agents’ guides and agency websites, you’re still not sure what the protocol is for querying your type of book, I also have a bit of advice for you. It’s short and sweet: find a credible source and ask.

What, you thought successful authors were born knowing this stuff? Would I have had material to blog for more than six years if that were the case?

To encourage the asking of trenchant questions, I shall devote the rest of tonight’s post to an exceptionally sensible question brought up a couple of years back by intelligent and thoughtful reader AM. In the course of a spirited discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, AM suggested:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

There, now — that wasn’t so hard, was it? If I can wade my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right onto AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

And while we’re on the subject of blandishment: no matter how much you want to grab Millicent’s attention, never, ever, EVER include a bribe of any sort in a query or submission packet. It will not garner positive attention for your book project; in fact, it is virtually always an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, even if it’s merely a photograph or two of the gorgeous scenery you have written about in your travel memoir or that business card you had made up for your last foray to a writers’ conference. Agencies have to be extremely defensive about this one: due to how fast rumors about the latest querying trick spread around the Internet, if even a single Millicent accepted a single box of fudge from an aspiring cookbook writer, half the agencies in the country would find themselves up to the top of their cubicles in bribery-aimed cookies, helium balloons, and fruit baskets. Not to mention something most agents have a horror story about already, videotapes of aspiring authors giving speeches about their books.

So what is the best plan for stuffing that query packet to get your work noticed positively? At the risk of repeating myself, checking the website and/or agency guide listing for each and every agent you plan to query, making sure that you are sending precisely what they expect queriers to send — no more, no less — topping it with a professional, well-crafted query letter, and mailing it off with a SASE. Or going through exactly those steps for an e-mailed query.

Given that most agencies with websites are pretty explicit about what they do and don’t want aspiring writers to send them, you would expect that query packets that conform to their various standards — because, lest we forget, every agency is looking for something slightly different — it’s astonishing just how often the Strugglings of this world send, well, something else. Every Millicent I have ever asked about it (and believe me, I ask as many as I can) complains about how often her agency receives query packets with extras.

Or — sacre bleu! — with elements missing. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is almost universally an instant-rejection offense.

Why? Well, the only message such query packets are actually sending to the Millicents who open them is hey, look: here’s a writer who can’t follow straightforward directions! Or possibly, depending upon the clarity of the agency’s guidelines, wow, here’s a writer who doesn’t read very well. (More common than any of us would like to think, alas.) Or, the most likely of all, oh, no, here’s another writer who didn’t bother to do his homework; we went to all the trouble of telling potential queriers what we wanted, yet this guy just assumed that every agency was identical.

All sentiments our Millie is prone to sum up with terse elegance as: “Next!”

So what, out of all of the possibilities a writer’s active imagination could conceive and all of the suggestions for querying techniques flying around out there in the ether, is the bare minimum that MUST be in a query? Glad you asked:

1. The book’s title

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

3. A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book.

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

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

Is it clearer now why Millicent would not even have considered asking for Struggling’s manuscript? Our writer friend’s query included only (1), a vague stab at (4), and, if we’re generous, (5). That’s simply not enough information for Millie to be able to make an informed decision about asking for pages.

All of those elements are required, but that doesn’t mean you can’t include a bit more persuasion. Two other highly advisable, but not strictly speaking required, elements include:

7. A BRIEF marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (Optional for fiction, but I would strongly recommend either including it or replacing it with #8.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book. (Also optional for fiction, and can be replaced with #7; it’s niftier, however, if you can manage to include both, even for novels.)

Is everyone comfortable wrangling all of those elements? Now is the time to speak up, if not.

Now that we have the notes, let’s talk about making some music. When all of these elements are pulled together into a smoothly-worded piece of correspondence, it reads something like the following. (If you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

mars query

Now that we’re thinking in terms of constituent parts vs. whole, we can see that what AM is asking about is not how to construct the entire query letter — she couldn’t be, since elements 1, 2, and 5-7 are not concerned with plot or narrative, right? #3 could be relevant here, but only if the agent had a track record of representing multiple-narrator books. (In that case, Since you so ably represented STORY IN FIFTEEN VOICES, I hope you will be interested in my multiple-narrator novel… would be perfectly acceptable.)

You look so cute with your eyes bugged out like a cartoon character’s. “What do you mean, Anne?” flabbergasted would-be queriers everywhere exclaim. “How is it possible that something as important as the narrative structure of the book could affect only a single paragraph of the query? Isn’t the voice choice the single most important thing to know about a multiple-narrator story — or a first-person narrative, for that matter? Or, if it’s not the most important, isn’t it at least the most interesting?”

From a professional point of view, the answer to those last two questions is very short: no. And the answer to the second, the one about why the narrative choice shouldn’t spill over to the rest of the query, is also pretty brief: because how a writer has chosen to tell the story in the book is not a required element in the query.

Oh, scrape your jaw off the floor. You don’t see it on the list above, do you?

Unless an agency’s guidelines specifically ask for information about narrative voice, leave it out, or as we’ve already discussed, you’ll run the risk of producing a query that reads more like a book report than, well, a query. Remember, the query is not expected to provide analysis or review of the manuscript it is pushing: it’s supposed to tell Millicent the premise.

Let’s face it: telling her how many protagonists there are, or whether the narrative talks about their experiences in the first or third person, actually doesn’t give her much of an indication of what the book is about, right? So is it really the best use of scant querying space?

In case you’re waffling on that last question, here’s a peek at what the result might be if a writer’s answer were yes.

book report-style query

Quick: what is this book about? What is the event that all of these narrators observed, and what about it is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest through 187 changes of perspective?

Beats me. So how can it be an effective query letter? Especially when — and give yourself some extra Brownie points if you caught this — Expansive made the classic Millicent-baiting mistake of referring to his work by the redundant phrase literary fiction novel. (All novels are fiction, right?) Besides, everyone knows that ol’ Pointy is a woman, and thus should be addressed as Ms. McGettoitson.

Equally damning, all of that analysis of structures and themes is going to read like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of writing in a query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince an agent that this is a story she should read. Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that.

So how would I advise Expansive to go about revising this query? Well, for starters, I would encourage him not to name so many characters in his descriptive paragraph. Not sure why? Okay, here’s pop quiz: without looking, how many can you name?

That’s the maximum he should keep. He could also make the descriptive paragraph more compelling by concentrating on the overall story of the novel, rather than enumerating as many perspectives as he can in that short a space.

Those are the big fixes. While he was at it, I would urge him to make that first paragraph a touch less off-puttingly pretentious in its phrasing. I would also advise him to throw out the second paragraph altogether.

And every multiple-perspective lover’s hand shoots into the air. “But Anne, the first thing almost any aspiring writer will say if asked to describe his multiple-perspective novel, or even first-person narrative, is something like, ‘Well, there are eight points of view.’ Are you seriously suggesting that he should suppress that information in his query?”

In a word, yes. Few professional readers would consider the narrative voice choice the most important thing to know about a book, after all.

Why? Well, think about it: how could voice choice alone possibly help Millicent decide whether a book’s plot might interest her boss? As anyone who has ever read fiction manuscripts for a living would be only too glad to tell you, there are excellent multiple-perspective novels; there are lousy ones, and there are a million different gradations in between.

Ditto with every other perspective choice. At query time, it’s just not a significant issue. It’s not as though agents are very much given to strolling into the office first thing in the morning, yawning, and saying wistfully, “You know what I’d really like to read today? A first-person narrative. Yep, that would really hit the spot. Got any of those on hand, Millie?”

Not going to happen. If the narrative choice works on the page, great, but the only way Millicent can possibly tell if it does is to — wait for it — read the manuscript. Which, by definition, she’s not going to be doing at the querying stage.

So why not let your exciting perspective choices be a pleasant surprise at submission time? Concentrate instead in the query on getting her to ask to see the manuscript.

Which leads us right back to AM’s query-editing problem, doesn’t it? She’s in luck: the only part of a query letter that could possibly require a multiple-protagonist novel to be handled differently from a single-protagonist one would be that pesky descriptive paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about.

#4 on our must-include list, in other words.

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing the descriptive paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent into asking to see the manuscript. Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query, right?

Right? Hello? Please don’t tell me that we’re heading into another minute and a half of silence.

To be fair, if you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Many writers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot to representing the book. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal she hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor and thus could reasonably be expected to attract book-buyers by name recognition alone — the assumption that it should renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder. The sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this far more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:

an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. As a fringe benefit, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant-in-a-dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, so that’s a pretty jaded response. Also, the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make for a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take a gander at what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly.

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed Uncle John and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to read the manuscript.) See how quickly the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is nevertheless the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s comeliness, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the small army of protagonists and their initial conflicts. Had the movie buffs out there noticed that I haven’t yet gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. That started two-thirds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, completely excising Lee and transforming Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a shame, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally, and pronto. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel might be, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in his place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference between them. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts.

As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how Adam intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other perennial faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise. As is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story up front; be detailed, but leave Millicent curious to hear more.

Is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Why, that’s the advice I gave Expansive, wasn’t it? Allow me to tailor it to this case.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative, right? (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and describe that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than most omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person?
The point of the query is not to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a fringe benefit discovered at manuscript-reading time, Expansive.

Before anyone hops onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me give you another example of why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms. Tell Millicent a compelling story instead.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” Expansive and his ilk concede reluctantly, “I plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

But whatever you do, don’t make her guess what your book is about it. As I can tell you from experience, prying basic information out of a recalcitrant conversational partner is just no fun. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XIV: I’m back, and in celebration of that, shall we all agree to strike the phrase worthless credential from the language, please?

Before I launch into either an explanation of my recent unanticipated hiatus from posting or the much-anticipated next installment in Queryfest, a brief announcement for Seattle-area members of the Author! Author! community: this coming Sunday, November 20th, I and fellow editors Kyra Freestar and Sarah Martinez shall be answering writers’ questions on matters editorial from 2 -3 p.m. (and longer, if the questions run hot and heavy) at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle — and it’s free, free, free, folks. How did this delightful event come about? In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, my very own Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild is sponsoring a panel straightforwardly entitled, Okay, I’ve Written a Novel — What Do I Do Now?

So if you have some stored-up questions or just would like to learn a bit more about what happens to manuscripts after writers type THE END, come on down. Although we will be concentrating on NaNoWriMo participants’ concerns, all writers are welcome, and I always like to meet my readers. After the panel, I would be happy to help you wrangle with any query-related concerns you might have.

Heck, I’ll even sweeten the deal: I’ll give query feedback to the first 15 Author! Author! readers who come up and introduce themselves to me at this editing extravaganza. (I’ll be the one wielding the sign-up list.) So come early, stay late, and don’t forget to print out a draft of your query!

Now, then, back to business — or rather, back to why I haven’t been open for business for the past couple of weeks. Remember last year, when my vehicle was the meat in a car pile-up sandwich? Well, every couple of months, a new symptom emerges, just to keep things interesting. The latest and perhaps the most irritating, although there’s certainly some competition for the latter honor: extended perusal of a back-lit screen made me feel as though I’d been doing loop-de-loops in a World War I-era biplane.

Curse you, Red Baron!

Not the optimal state for blogging, as you might imagine — and did I just hear some ambient tittering? Yes, long-time readers, I thought of that one, too: there is a certain dramatic fitness to your humble correspondent, a writing guru famed for urging aspiring writers to read their manuscripts — and their queries — IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD before sending them out to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, suddenly being forced to read everything in hard copy. Once again, the Muses prove they have a sense of humor.

Are those of you who didn’t titter scratching your heads? Since clean queries and submissions — i.e., pages free of typos, misspellings, grammatical difficulties, and the type of gaps in logic common to multiply-revised prose — are the minimum expectation of the publishing world, not an optional extra, it would behoove you to proof your query and any accompanying materials very, very carefully before sending ‘em off. Many Millicents are specifically instructed to stop reading after the second misspelled word — and are you positive that when you moved the eighth sentence from the first paragraph to the third, you didn’t accidentally lop off a word? Or repeat one?

It’s much, much easier to catch typos, logic gaps, and other professional reader-annoyers on the printed page than on my recent nemesis, the back-lit computer screen. Why? Well, most people read about 70% faster on a computer screen; it’s easier for the eye to gloss over punctuation, words, or even entire lines. On a printed page, you’re simply more likely to catch a typo — and if you take the time to read your missive out loud as well, you’re substantially more likely to notice a skipped or repeated word or concept.

Yes, pretty much everyone makes this kind of typo in e-mails these days. And no, Millicent is not going to cut your query any slack for reflecting that trend.

And if you are scratching your head afresh over how I managed to transform an explanation of my disappearance for a couple of weeks into an admonition to pay attention to the little things in your query, well, I’m a professional advice-giver. Don’t try this at home.

Last time, if you can remember that far back, I embarked upon a list of suggestions for plumping up that perennial plaguer of the previously unpublished, the credentials or platform paragraph of the query. All too often, those new to the game assume — wrongly — that the only relevant credential in an agent’s eyes would be a previous publication, preferably a book appealing to more or less the same target audience as the one being queried. But since it’s been true for a long time that having an agent is a prerequisite to getting published by a major U.S. house (or, indeed, even having one’s work considered for publication there), that kind of logic would result in a vicious circle: only the previously-agented and the darlings of literary magazines could possibly catch Millicent’s eye.

Simple observation of first-time authors’ jacket bios will tell you that’s not the case. Most first-time novelists and memoirists do not have previous publication credentials — and you’d be surprised by how often even platform-conscious nonfiction agents will take on book proposals from writers without so much as a book review in a college paper to their credit. As agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Which is not to say that a well-crafted platform paragraph cannot substantially increase your query’s chances of wowing Millicent. It can — but constructing the right array of credentials to boost your credibility as the writer of your particular book may well require thinking in broader terms.

And I can already see some of you rolling your eyes — and based upon the ever-churning query rumor mill, I can’t say I am surprised. The writers’ conference circuit and the Internet are stuffed to the gills with blistering admonitions against breathing so much as a word about one’s less-than-National-Book-Award-winning literary efforts in a query; the usual argument is that if the credential in question didn’t involve national exposure, or at the very least hard cash in exchange for having typed out the relevant poem, article, or short story, Millicent will simply laugh her head off and reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

In practice, that’s often not true — so why it this rumor so pervasive? Heck, the very last time I posted on this topic, incisive reader Elizabeth brought up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:

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

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

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)

As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, on writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in many aspiring writers’ psyches. Practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction.

When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.

“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know all of that is only filler, a desperate attempt to slap a Band-Aid over the fact that I’ve not published a book before. I’d best not mention any of it.”

That would be a serious mistake: you, my well-rounded friend, are a previously-published author, and it’s very much in your interests to let Millicent know about it. (What are those articles, chopped liver?) And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.

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

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

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

Unfortunately, many queriers do. Take the talented Elizabeth above: in excising her two best credentials, she fell into the all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. So did her probably well-meaning sister, apparently: like so many queriers, they were thinking of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s get down to brainstorming sources for your ECQLC. Last time, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

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

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

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

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

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

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coal-mining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Have you noticed in your book category research that virtually every other book that has dealt even glancingly with life in a traveling carnival seems to be based upon conjecture about what goes on behind the Tilt-a-Whirl, while you know?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To a well-trained Millicent, the first statement is completely different from the second two. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. Nor is it particularly surprising as a credential: industry professionals tend to assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.

Possibly because so many queries include phrases like, this story is semi-autobiographical.

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

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco — and they have not yet, by a long shot — it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your query. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the sentiment, Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…

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

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

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter; I have already contacted them about speaking at their national and regional conferences about my book, HEY! SPEAK UP, HARPO!

My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease. Although roughly 200 Americans are diagnosed each week, relatively few recent novels have addressed the diagnosis and treatment process.

Oh, and before I forget, I should reiterate my admonition from last time: I pulled the examples on this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em in your queries, therefore.

Speaking of statistics yanked from the ether, do make absolutely certain than any statistics you cite are true. Long-time readers, chant along with me now: just because an assertion appears on the Internet does not necessarily mean that it is true; there is no Fact-Checking Fairy wafting from website to website, correcting exaggerated claims or false assertions. Remember, “But I read it online someplace!” is not going to strike people who produce books for a living as unassailable research.

Because so many queriers do include wild claims — if Millicent had a dime for every time she’s seen this book will interest every woman in America!, she would have started her own publishing house years ago — it’s an excellent idea to proof your query for anything that might conceivably be mistaken for such an unsubstantiated assertion. Generally speaking, you’re better off avoiding superlatives altogether: presenting your book as the best, the most original, or the only is pretty easy for our Millie to dismiss.

Not sure why? Okay, here is a rather popular query assertion. If you were Millicent, would you be swayed by it?

My book is the only novel ever written on the subject of competitive bowling. Although many left-handed women bowl, I am the first ever to put pen to paper about it.

Even if Millicent is entirely unfamiliar with the history of the bowling novel, the claim that this author is the only one to write about it is not particularly plausible. Not only do agents and editors tend not to find this kind of argument convincing — they’re far more likely to assume that the writer has just not bothered to do much literary market research.

And no, they would not consider a quick Amazon search exhaustive. Besides, manuscripts often spend a couple of years in press prior to publication: how does this writer know that fifteen such books have not been acquired by major houses within the last six months?

Dialing back the superlatives is safer. Better yet, back your assertions with concrete numbers.

Although over a hundred million people currently bowl for pleasure or profit, and bowling organizations have more dues-paying members than any sport other than football, novels set against a bowling backdrop are relatively rare.

Okay, why is this stronger ECQLC than our earlier example? It makes the point about how few novels there are about bowlers, but it does so by establishing the size of a group already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. It also, cleverly, shows that many of these people are already spending money in pursuit of this interest. Even if only a fraction of that 100,000,000 read, that’s a pretty hefty target market — and that’s not even considering all of the people who know and love bowlers and thus might conceivably be looking for books to give them as birthday and holiday presents.

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

Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years, by the way. JAWS was indeed one of the biggest sellers of the 20th century, but what was selling in 1974 will not necessarily sell today.

I hate to break it to writers of long experience, but Millicent probably had not been born by 1974 — or 1984, for that matter. Agency screening tends to be a young person’s game; select your pop culture references accordingly.

Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: while TV stars’ memoirs tend to sell well, due to their wide name recognition, not everyone who watches Mad Men would necessarily knock over another bookstore browser to grab a novel about people who work in advertising. Then, too, even the least experienced Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.

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

Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Remember, Millicent’s not a demographer: leaving her to guess how big your target audience is may not help your query’s credibility.

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

As the recent Occupy Wall Street protests have demonstrated, many Americans are suspicious of the influence of money in politics. HEY! I WANNA RUN FOR CONGRESS! provides a step-by-step guide for those wishing to build a grass-roots political campaign.

(8) Proof that you are writing about a topic that already interests a bunch of living, breathing potential readers
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences; heck, our constitution actually requires that we count everybody every ten years.

Take advantage of that affection for the concrete number. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.

Formby the Ferret may be an unusual protagonist for a cozy mystery, but popular interest in ferrets has been on the rise. Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, the condition afflicting this book’s protagonist.

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

(Had I mentioned that the statistics cited here are not to be relied upon — or quoted as fact?)

(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned last time, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered. If you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it.

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

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

See how impressive that last one was? And that’s not easy to pull off, considering that by virtually everyone’s admission, the Harding Administration was one of the least interesting, ever; Silent Cal was no Rudolf Valentino, after all.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening then. Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your query to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

And, let’s face it, unless you happen to be able to convince Millicent that you are the reincarnation of the Amazing Kreskin, arguing that your book will serve the immediate factual needs of readers a couple of years hence is typically a pretty hard case to make. It’s easy to stray into the kinds of hard-to-verify claims (Ten years hence, we will all get around by hovercraft — and readers of my fantasy trilogy, UP IN THE AIR, will be well prepared to glide into the future.) or black-and-white superlative abuse we discussed above (Everyone who will fill out a birth certificate in years to come will want to read WHAT YOUR BABY’S NAME SAYS ABOUT YOU AS A PARENT.)

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

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

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

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

If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone who has been suffering from kneecap dysplasia over the last year, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist.

I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny: when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were consistently pointing in the right direction.

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

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

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

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

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

Lest those of you who write literary fiction think that this one does not apply to you: have you given any serious thought lately to how many queries claim that a book will interest readers simply because it is well-written?

Which you should avoid saying, by the way: few things turn agents, editors, and the Millicents who screen for them faster than a query in which a writer reviews his own book. Let your fine writing speak for itself; your job in the query is to make the case that the subject matter of the book and/or something in your background, either as a writer or in the rest of your life, will make readers want to grab your book off the shelf, as opposed to any other.

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

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

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

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

Yes, yes, I know: many of you have written perfectly lovely literary novels difficult whose audiences are difficult to pin down in this manner, but to Millicent, a statement like my protagonist’s challenges will appeal to college-educated women is practically tautological: college-educated women form the overwhelming majority of literary fiction readers. How, then, would such an assertion make your book sound any different — or any more appealing to literary fiction readers — than all of the other books seeking to capture that group of readers?

If you genuinely cannot come up with any subject-matter-related way to set your book apart, well, your topic must be pretty abstract. But even then, you could still come up with some selling points by asking yourself: how does my book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach my novel in an English literature class?

Remember, that you need to express these traits in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary — that’s industry-speak — but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is. That’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

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

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

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

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Why? Well, first-time authors are increasingly expected to do most, if not all, of their own book promotion.

Oh, should I have warned those of you new to the biz to sit down before I said that? Any dry cracker should help clear that nausea right up.

Seriously, think about it: a writer already poised to promote her book would be a boon to an agent or editor. Nor need you be the principal idea-monger of a marketing firm to be able to make a pretty good case that you’re already getting your promotional machine warmed up. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.

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

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

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

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

A word to the wise, though: don’t even consider listing your website in your query along with a suggestion that Millicent take a gander at your work there. I can tell you now that she won’t; she simply doesn’t have time.

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

So what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category? Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (This is the best book on sail boarding since MOBY DICK!), but content-filled comparisons (Currently, there is a sad dearth of how-to guides on the market for the reader interested in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard. HERE, FISHIE, FISHIE! will bring the most up-to-date technology to bear on this difficult challenge.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, generating selling points is a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

It’s great to be back, campers. Keep up the good work!

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

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

Still hanging in there, Queryfesters? Traditionally, this is the part of my annual review of the mysteries of querying that my readers seem to find most challenging: in-depth discussion of that most-dreaded part of a good query letter, the section known as the platform paragraph.

Why dreaded? Because many, many fledgling writers mistakenly hear a professional request for their book’s credentials as, “You have to prove to us that we should take you seriously as a writer, unpublished one, before we will deign to read your work. Dance, fool, dance!” Or as, “We’re not interested in writers who don’t already have arm-length lists of published books, so by all means, doom yourself by admitting that you haven’t published before.” Or even, “Who the heck do you think you are, believing you should write a book at all? You have your nerve, disturbing us with your letter! Begone, and never let your manuscript darken our inboxes again!”

Naturally, writers querying about their first manuscripts would find such expectations threatening — if those were the actual expectations. As we discussed last time, the point of the credentials paragraph is not to give agency denizens the opportunity to laugh at the hopes of the unpublished between bouts of poking submitters of requested materials with pitchforks and feeding innovative manuscripts into large bonfires, lest someone accidentally discover and publish them.

‘Fess up, veteran queriers: that’s not very far from the way you envisioned the inner workings of the first agency that rejected you, is it, on the day you received that form-letter rejection?

The truth is nowhere near that threatening, I’m happy to report. The reason Millicent the agency screener likes to see credentials is that it makes it easier for her to recommend your work to her boss: a previously-published writer is likely to have some experience working with an editor; her manuscript is likely to be formatted professionally and be relatively clean; she might even have some idea how books are marketed. All of these are selling points for a writer, from the agency’s point of view.

But I’m not going to lie to you: if a query mentions that the writer has performed his own essays on NPR, or published a handful of short stories in specific literary magazines, or was a semi-finalist in a prestigious writing competition, Millicent also has some reason to believe that this person can write pretty well. That’s not necessarily self-evident in a credential-free query; the structure tends to render even very talented stylists’ voices dry. A solid platform paragraph is like a row of tap-dancing baton-twirlers, singing in five-part harmony, “Millie! We know you’re in a hurry to get though that waist-high pile of queries you needs to read before you can catch the subway home, but this one will abundantly justify your stopping that process dead in its tracks long enough to engage in the comparatively lengthy process of asking this writer for pages.”

Do I hear some chortling out there? “Oh, come on, Anne,” adherents of the pitchfork-and-tail view of agencies cry. “How much time could that possibly take? All Millicent’s got to do is type a couple of simple lines, requesting materials, and stuff it into the SASE that I provided. Heck, the agency probably has a form letter for that, too, as well as for rejections.”

Why, yes, chortlers, what you describe — and rather well, too — would take only a couple of minutes. However, rejecting the query in front of her would take only about thirty seconds. Less, if it’s an e-mailed query: then, all she has to do is hit DELETE.

Be honest, now: if you had another 150 queries to screen before you could go home for the day, knowing that there would be another 500 waiting for you when you came in tomorrow, wouldn’t you be rather careful about how often you invested the extra couple of minutes?

All the more reason, then, to include previous publications (book-length or short), writing awards, and writing degrees in your platform paragraph. However, if, like the overwhelming majority of first-time novelists agents sign to representation contracts every year, you do not have publishing-related experience to your credit, do not panic, even for an instant. All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but there are plenty of other possible selling points for your manuscript.

So rather than kicking yourself for not having devoted your college years to interning for a literary journal so its editors would have owed you a few dozen favors, how about not writing off your past non-writing experience? Instead of assuming that there is only one credential that will catch Millicent’s eye, why not devote your platform paragraph to answering the question, “Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book, tell this story, and/or make this particular argument?”

Substantially less stressful to think of it that way, isn’t it? Believe me, your query-writing process will be much, much easier if you try not to get too bogged down in worrying about the standard prestige points.

What should you consider instead? Glad you asked. Today, I shall be going through a long list of potential selling points for your book. But I’m not going to be doing all of the work here, folks. Dig out your trusty pad and pencil; you’re going to be coming up with a list of your manuscript’s selling points.

Why am I urging you to concentrate on your particular manuscript’s specific selling points, rather than simply handing you a generic list of usually-acceptable items to include as credentials? Well, just as there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query template that will please every agent, every time, the elusive perfect platform to sell any conceivable book simply does not exist. Great platforms are seldom the result of multiple choice; they are cobbled together by their authors.

Great platform paragraphs are also not always simply bios of their illustrious authors — they often talk about the book’s appeal to its target audience. Any guesses why?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because as we discussed yesterday, the purpose of the platform paragraph is not merely to provide a curriculum vitae of the author’s previous publications, but to give Millicent a sense of the already-existing audience clamoring for this book,” take a gold star out of petty cash. You are quite right: while listing your fourteen international bestsellers is one means of demonstrating who might be prepared to ante up some loot to read your next book, another might be to talk about your blog’s extensive and devoted readership. Yet another: a brief discussion of how eagerly the roughly two million Americans who sprain their ankles every year might embrace a novel about a semi-professional tennis player whose ankles alternate swelling to the size of a grapefruit.

See what I just did there? Not only did I establish why the target audience might be interested in this book; I used statistics to alert Millicent to just how big that audience might be.

Remember, a strong selling point consists of more than a vague assertion about why an editor at a publishing house would find your manuscript an sterling example of its species of book destined to set the literary world gasping — that much is assumed, right? Instead, try to come up with reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you query, but as we discussed this summer during Pitchingpalooza, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if you know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with anyone in the publishing industry. Nor is the astonishingly common, “But I want to get published so much!” And don’t even get me started on the ever-popular between-the-lines assertion, “Well, it’s not my problem to figure out how to market this darned thing. I’m sure that my future agent will simply intuit who my target demographic is and why my book will appeal to it.”

To head off some rejection at the pass: none of these is likely to prompt Millicent to miss her usual train home so she can shoot you an e-mail, asking for the first fifty pages of your manuscript. Think about it: pretty much everyone who queries has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

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

In case you are tempted to follow suit: don’t. I’m quite certain that all of these things are true, and believe me, I understand the urge to talk about them. Allow me to suggest, however, that a query — your first contact with the agent of your dreams, potentially — is not the most strategic place to air these concerns.

Over coffee with a fellow writer, feel free to vent. But when you have such a limited amount of space to impress Millicent with the inherent strength of your book’s plot or argument and your great qualifications to write it, is it really the best use of a few lines?

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

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

In other words: “Next!”

Why is this an instant-rejection offense? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to these self-revealers, but this is not the way to gain an agency screener’s sympathy, or even her attention. Even in a business that tends to regard writer and hyper-sensitive as essentially synonymous terms, such emotional outbursts in a first approach to an agency are almost universally considered a waste of Millicent’s time.

Why? Well, you tell me: what, if anything, could a litany of complaints about how difficult it is to break into the biz possibly tell Millicent about the book being queried that might encourage her to conclude that she should request the manuscript?

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

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

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

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

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the writers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that querying is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of teardrops staining the letter), this approach typically does not work. Millicent simply sees this strategy used too often to experience even the slightest qualm in rejecting it.

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

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

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

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

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

Did that little diatribe fill you with heart, miles and miles and miles of heart? Good. Let’s start generating your list of selling points, so you may comb through it for ECQLC to decorate your platform paragraph.

Before I start making suggestions, let’s be clear on what you’re going to want on your list. A selling point should show (not tell) why you are the best person to write this book, what about your book is likely to appeal to readers in your target market, and/or that the intended audience is larger (and, ideally, demonstrably more interested in your subject matter) than Millicent might have previously been aware.

To be most effective, you won’t want to make these arguments in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based reasons that they will clamor to read it. For instance, while “This book will appeal to every woman in North America!” is far too vague to be a convincing argument, “Although the PGA estimates that there are 26.2 million golfers in the U.S., there have been relatively few novels that portray the steamy behind-the-scenes realities of the golf cart repair shop.”

It helps, of course, if there actually have been very few novels published recently on the subject. It’s worth your while to check — you’d be astonished at how many makers of such claims evidently don’t.

“What does this querier mean, this is the first novel ever written about shark attacks?” Millicent exclaims, reaching for the ever-present stack of form-letter rejections. “I seem to recall a small, little-known book called JAWS.”

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

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

It’s worth including on your list any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter. Why? Because it will make your query look professional — and, I must say it, better than the 134 queries Millicent has already seen today that did not talk about their books in marketing terms.

Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who whose entire query was devoted to how frustrating it is to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days. Especially when it’s the first novel ever written about an old lady who spends her retirement years wandering around, solving murders.

Everybody got those pencils sharpened and ready? Okay, here goes: why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story or make this argument, and why will people who are already buying books like yours want to read it?

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

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

Here, borrow my handkerchief. Hadn’t I mentioned that emotional outbursts aren’t adequate substitutes for well-reasoned selling points?

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

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

In other words: no, I’m not willing absolve you of the necessity to include a platform paragraph in your query, no matter how many times or how nicely you ask. It’s just too likely to help you.

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

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

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

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

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

Conan the Barbarian has been a quilting enthusiast for thirty-seven years; all of the stitches described in his Civil War romance are historically accurate.

Napolèon Bonaparte’s extensive travels around Europe have equipped him to provide unique insights into his travel guides.

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

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

While I’m on the subject of claims that shouldn’t be taken at face value, this seems like a dandy point to repeat a piece of general Internet wisdom: just because a statistic appears online doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. It’s not as though the Fact-Checker Genie whirls his way through every website every day, cleaning up inconsistencies and correcting misstatements. Heck, even the Spelling Fairy fails to make her rounds on a regular basis.

So while you are looking for statistics to decorate your platform paragraph, make sure you are lifting them from a credible source. Remember, to people who create books for a living, a ten-second Google search does not constitute research; they will expect you to have taken the time to track down verifiable facts.

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

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

Elmer Fudd holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on the effects of atomic bombs upon wascally wabbits.

Charlton Heston was granted an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his efforts to further gun usage.

Cleopatra completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College. She also claims descent from the goddess Aphrodite.

Okay, so that last bit isn’t really a selling point for a cookbook. But you must admit, it would make Millicent do a double-take when reading Cleopatra’s bio.

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

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

Sweeney Todd was named Baker of the Year four years running.

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

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

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

So if you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT HAS ABSOLUTELY NO RELATION TO THE BOOK YOU ARE CURRENTLY QUERYING. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

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

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it renders you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. (And if you doubt that, you aren’t going to enough author readings. You’d be amazed at how many of ‘em never lift their eyes from the page, or who read in a drab monotone, or seem unfamiliar with the words on the page.)

Some possible examples:

Bigfoot writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

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

I’m going to hold off on the rest of the list until tomorrow, to give everyone a chance to ruminate on the possibilities we’ve discussed so far. While you are pondering, try not to talk yourself out of listing any particular selling point: remember, this list is for you, a tool to help you construct your platform paragraph, so don’t over-edit here. And don’t invest too much energy in phrasing; we shall be talking later in this series about how to work these points gracefully into your query.

Oh, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XII: you want me to talk about my writing credentials? The horror! The horror!


I had intended to broach the subject of writing credentials yesterday, campers, as a Halloween treat. But honestly, I was afraid that even a lighthearted treatment might scare some of you to death.

Oh, you thought you were alone in feeling this way when an agency’s submission guidelines or querying form ask for your credentials? Far from it. To your garden-variety aspiring writer, the mere notion of having to come up with writing credentials, much less including an entire platform paragraph in a query, induces a level of spontaneous terror that would have made the late, great Vincent Price groan with envy — and a level of anxiety over what does or does not count as a credential that would have caused suspense-monger Alfred Hitchcock to say, “No kidding? All of that, just from a set of query guidelines?”

Even now, I can hear previously unpublished writers everywhere moaning and casting their gazes wildly about for the nearest fainting couch. “What do you mean, credentials paragraph?” they demand, clutching at their tightening gullets. “All that bone-chilling set of query guidelines asked for was a mention of whether I’d published anything before. And I thought only nonfiction writers had to worry about coming up with a platform!”

At the risk of causing your windpipes to close entirely, I shall show you an example. Don’t be scared: it’s something you’ve undoubtedly seen before, at least if you have been following Queryfest. As always, if you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

mars query

Just in case anyone had trouble finding it, it’s the entire third paragraph, the part that begins, not entirely coincidentally, with I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, due to… As Aspiring’s query demonstrates, the credentials paragraph need not contain only publishing credits; it can contain an array of relevant experience.

In fact, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, a platform need not be made up of previous publications and/or television appearances. What renders a writer qualified to write any given book is — wait for it — specific to that book.

Ah, there’s nothing like dropping one’s jaw onto the floorboards for restoring normal breathing patterns.

Before we proceed, let’s define our terms. A platform is the collection of credentials, life experience, and specific expertise that forms the basis of a writer’s claim to be the best person on earth — or, at any rate, one of the best persons currently inhabiting the earth — to write the particular book she is pitching, querying, or proposing. Until fairly recently, the term applied only to nonfiction: platform was industry-speak for the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book, but now, it’s not uncommon for agents and editors to speak about a novelist’s platform as well.

And a forest of hands sprouts up in the ether. Go ahead and ask the question on your minds, frantic wavers. “It’s all very well to say that what will work to make that case varies from book to book and writer to writer,” writers everywhere point out, “but that doesn’t necessarily help me figure out what to put in my platform paragraph. I know what I bring to this book, but what kinds of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform? Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what can I dredge up from my past that’s guaranteed to impress Millicent the agency screener?

Good question, hand-raisers, but 85% of you just tensed up again, didn’t you? Not too surprising: most aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with the prospect of having to justify having had the audacity to sit down to write her book in the first place.

But let’s stop the self-defeating interior monologue right there: the purpose of the credentials paragraph is not to justify daring to be a writer. You’re a writer because you’re a writer; everyone in the publishing industry understands that, so you don’t need to explain it to Millicent. And, frankly, if your book description hasn’t already caught her interest, it’s unlikely that even a pretty stellar platform will make up for it.

What the platform paragraph gives you an opportunity to do is bolster the case you have already made to have your writing taken seriously by demonstrating that you have a background that renders you an expert in the book’s subject matter. Or that others have noticed you for your writing, in the case of publications or awards. Or even, in the case of academic degrees, that you are a person who finishes what you start.

All of these are desirable traits in an author. But you hadn’t been thinking of your credentials in these terms, had you?

To be fair, this is seldom the way agency websites and speakers at writers’ conferences tend to talk about platform; their definitions are often pretty cut-and-dried. It’s not unusual for a fledgling writer to walk away with the impression that he cannot possibly land an agent unless he happens already to have (a) published several books with major publishing houses, yet somehow managed to avoid picking up an agent along the way, (b) won a major literary contest, (c) published a plethora of short stories in The New Yorker, or (d) had the foresight to have become a celebrity in his spare time. While none of these are actually prerequisites, no one in the industry would deny that they are mighty decorative in a query.

And what is the hapless writer who cannot legitimately claim (a) – (d)? I’m afraid the classic professional answer is a trifle on the callous side: if you don’t have writing credentials, get some.

Most aspiring writers are turned off by this advice, because they assume it could only be referring to formal publishing credentials, but that’s not the only possibility here. Admittedly, people who have never tried to write for publication sometimes do think it’s easier for a good writer to break into print than it actually is — you’d be astonished at how many agents and editors can still be heard urging literary conference attendees to start their careers by trying to get short stories and poetry published in small journals, as if the number of publication slots (and, indeed, of small literary journals) had not dropped precipitously in recent years. There’s even a fairly substantial school of thought that the rise of the Internet has rendered getting one’s writing in front of others so much easier than it used to be that a print-ready writer’s not having some sort of previous publication is actually surprising.

Oh, you didn’t know that writing posted online is technically published? Sort of changes how you think of your blog’s value as a writing credential, doesn’t it?

Does that widespread snorting out there mean that some of you have heard different? “Yeah, right, Anne,” some of you scoff. “I’ve heard agents say at conferences that Internet publications are completely worthless as writing credentials.”

Actually, it would be a trifle surprising if you had heard those very words. As so frequently happens with brief snippets of querying advice that fly around the writers’ conference circuit, this often-heard truism is a radical oversimplification of a much more complex concept. What the pros actually tend to say when cornered on the subject is that online publications are not the same as print publications. As credentials go, they are usually taken less seriously. But that’s not the same thing as a credential’s being worthless, or even irrelevant, is it?

Stop nodding; it isn’t. By that logic, a dollar is worthless because it isn’t a hundred-dollar bill.

At query time, a writer has to work with the background he actually has, not what he would like to have in order to impress Millicent. (Assuming, of course, that he has not had the leisure to follow that advice about going out and getting some publication credits.) If a web-based award, featured article in an online publication, or regularly-maintained blog is the writing credential you have, it probably will not wow Millicent as much as a short story published someplace like the aforementioned New Yorker, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t help establish that your writing is already being read by somebody.

Oh, you hadn’t thought of your writing credentials in terms of an already-existing audience? You should: the goal of including publishing credentials in your query is not merely to show that some editor out there has already taken a chance on your writing, but to show that others have read your work — and thus you have an already-existing audience, however small.

Why is that important? Well, people in agencies, like inhabitants of publishing houses, harbor a well-documented prejudice in favor of writers whose books might conceivably sell to an admiring public. They enjoy seeing evidence that an otherwise unknown writer’s name might ring a bell with some readers down the road, when the book being queried is released.

Why do you think they regard celebrities as having inherently strong platforms? It’s not just that those people are household names; they have names readers would recognize on a bookshelf.

Millicents also frequently appreciate credentials that imply some experience writing under a deadline. Thus, a published book review in a local free paper is in fact a credential; so is being the resident writing expert for a public library (almost always a volunteer proposition), interviewing someone for a workplace newsletter, being a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, or even — dare I say it? — maintaining a blog that posts on a regular basis.

(Unlike, say, mine in recent weeks; sorry about that. This car crash recovery thing honestly is very energy-sapping. I shall try to plow through the rest of this series with more regularity.)

“This makes sense,” my former scoffers observe, “and frankly, this logic isn’t all that complicated. So why don’t agency guidelines and speakers at conferences just tell us to list what’s relevant to the book, and leave the credentials at that, instead of running down online publications?”

That’s an excellent question, ex-scoffers. Would you like the cynical answer, or the non-cynical one?

Let’s begin with the latter. To folks who deal with queries all day, every day, what is and isn’t a useful credential is pretty self-evident: a solid platform consists of facts about the author that will render the book easier to market, first to editors, then to the reading public. It just wouldn’t occur to them that someone new to the industry might want or need to hear more than that.

If you happen to be querying a book in a genre with a well-established, vigorous online readership, darned right that your fourteen juried submissions to that respected online ‘zine would be worth including in your platform paragraph. So would a blog that caters to readers in your chosen book category, as well as your third-place ribbon from that highly competitive online literary contest.

But a vague reference to posting a short story on a website of which Millicent has never heard? Unlikely to help your case much.

The cynical answer, I warn you, carries a bit of a sting: like so much of the professional advice for would-be queriers floating around out there, complaints about queries that include online publications are not, generally speaking, uttered with the expectation of being treated with the force of law. Surprisingly often, the frustrated souls who produce them are thinking of a specific query offender. Or at any rate, a class of them whose queries tend to read a little something like this; see if you can spot the subtle agent-irritants throughout.

See why a query like this might stick in the mind, if not the craw? Even if Millicent could bring herself to overlook the peculiar typeface and the oddly-colored paper (“I want it to stand out in the stack!” — Casual), she’s unlikely to read beyond the hard-selling, boast-laden, practically information-free opening paragraph. While the book description does apparently lay out at least part of the book’s central conflict, who is the target reader here? Young people, after all, is a trifle non-specific. And while you may think I made up the bit about the six-figure advance and how much the writer wants to get published, screeners see these sort of assertions all the time in queries.

Don’t believe me? I lifted those two sentences directly from the last conversation I had with a screener; I had just asked her what a querier could say to put her off the book immediately.

Did you notice, though, how thoroughly unimpressive the online publication looks on this page of purple prose? (Sorry; I couldn’t resist.) That’s not necessarily any reflection of the publications themselves — Casual has simply not told Millicent enough about them to judge their worth as credentials. It’s simply a vague assertion, leaving her to wonder: published what online? Published where online?

Starting to make more sense that her boss might complain about online publishing credentials the next time she’s asked about it at a writers’ conference?

Some of you remain unconvinced that any non-publishing credential will do, though, don’t you? I can’t say that I’m entirely surprised; I have long suspected that part of many writer fear stems from that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers. That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can.

“What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would prefers to represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp and a month or two of chagrin by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it, in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor. They are saving the previously-unpublished some wasted time.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are literally hundreds of wonderful agents out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of squandering your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again. “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I haven’t won any online awards lately.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it?

What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

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

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game.

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering for the last few paragraphs, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies. (10,000 sales is the usual threshold for impressive for the latter, by the way.) A previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query. The previously published also tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline, a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their respective jobs significantly harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of any sort silently signal that you approach your work like a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is immensely complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as actual readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories than if you wrote periodic columns on boosting homeowners’ recycling acumen for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query. Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying.

Oh, you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem, if you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the downside is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate that — wait for it — the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers labor under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at the very concept of a deadline, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them. But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you wouldn’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query? She may not be as impressed by that proof of professional preparedness as some others, but that doesn’t mean she will ignore it altogether. Besides, having something publishing-related to put in the platform paragraph always beats having only non-writing credentials there.

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…

Need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in more than one book category. But think about it: if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is indeed what some of them mean. But most of them are just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

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

A few of that forest of raised hands seem to have regrown. “Back up a minute, Anne. What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well. Even established novelists often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. Book reviews. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with the book you are querying. Or even your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might well be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. (See, I told you to keep humming.)

Or this: you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference in theory, but occasionally, it does in practice. Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Have you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, can-booter: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may easily be described very tersely. Not an insignificant advantage, in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

Don’t believe me? Okay, how many lines of text would it take you to tell Millicent that you used to be a Monkee?

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality, not a literary assessment. Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct a platform. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet. So why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

You’re dubious, are you not? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel they pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness in a criminal trial: my Ph.D. would might not render me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being whose perceptions of reality could be trusted. (Perhaps because they don’t count as many academics among their acquaintance as I do.)

A personal platform is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book. Whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform also demonstrates why people in the media might be interested in interviewing the author.

While your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you have written the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for book sales, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of this NF sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA-aimed book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

If memory serves, however, Amy Carter, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirably pleasure-seeking in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

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

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not; any experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading. That summer you spent following the caribou herd, documenting its — ahem — dating patterns.

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

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as publication-based ones. So why not spend the next few months making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, which is a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Oh, you wouldn’t?

If your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by. You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. (Where have I heard that before?) Do be aware, though, that unless your blog is fortunate enough to garner a significant number of hits on a regular basis (thanks, readers!), Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se. If it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? Or those comments that in the electronic age, publication credentials are easier to come by than ever? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out one individualized query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

That being said, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question — in boldface, no less.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

Again, this is old hat to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident. The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: that beautifully-written descriptive paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query itself is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

“Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform planks might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, AND an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph (or even two, if they’re short) pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

Is your brain buzzing like a beehive, awash in the multiplicity of options? If not, don’t panic — in my next post, I shall be churning out one of my patented lists in order to kick-start your brainstorming. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest X: all of these questions aren’t burning you out on querying, are they?

How are you faring, Queryfest participants? (I was on the cusp of dubbing you Queryfesters, but the image the word evoked was a trifle distasteful. An editor never stops thinking about how words will scan on a page, as well as what they mean and how they might sound spoken aloud.) Are your queries looking bright, shiny, and relatively free of the straightforward errors and omissions that dog the garden-variety letter to agents?

Or — and please be honest with me; I can take it — is your original query concept now hanging in tatters, wafting in the wind, mournfully longing for the day when it felt ready to stride out the door and into Millicent the agency’s screener’s overflowing inbox, blithely unaware of just how stiff the competition is there?

Oh, those of you who felt this way thought you were alone? Actually, it’s a pretty common response to realizing for the first time that in the publishing world, every syllable of everything a writer submits is a writing sample. There’s no such thing, then, as a successful query that’s just kinda close to what Millicent has been trained to seek, nor is just hitting every point on an agency’s posted querying guidelines generally sufficient.

I feel an aphorism coming on: while those new to querying often presume that the query is just a formality, composed of a series of hoops through which an aspiring writer must jump, and that their writing will not be judged until an agent requests and receives manuscript pages, that is simply not how the system works. For the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there, the query letter is literally the only sample of their writing anyone at the agency will read.

To put it another way, in order to get an agent (or editor, at a small publisher) to read any of your manuscript at all, you will first have to convince her to do so. Querying and pitching are your only options to do that politely — and frankly, most writers’ conferences that allow pitching are quite expensive. As querying is the lower-cost option, a good agent’s inbox, either tangible or virtual, constantly overflows with missives from aspiring writers.

A good half of those communications will be so unprofessionally put together, poorly written, and/or missing crucial pieces of information — the type of book it is, for instance — that Millicent the agency screener will be able to tell at a glance that her boss, the agent, will not be interested. Another third will be better written and contain most or all of the necessary elements, but will arrive at agencies that just don’t represent that kind of book. (Yes, really — you’d be astonished at how few queriers seem to research agents before hitting SEND.)

Then there’s that top 17% or so, the conscientious writers that have taken the time to learn something about how agencies actually work. Their queries tend to be aimed at agents who represent books like theirs, at least, but they often undersell their own stories by trying to make them sound too much like a recent bestseller. Or mystify Millicent by not indicating a book category at all. Or even — sacre bleu! — inadvertently make themselves look unprofessional by adopting an inappropriately informal tone (Hi, George. Looking for solid memoirs by self-made businesspeople — well, have I got a book for you!), engaging in a generic hard sell instead of demonstrating the book’s market appeal (This is the next Great American novel, and you’d be a fool to pass up your chance to get in on the ground floor of what’s sure to be a blockbuster series!, or making claims that reveal they’ve just not bothered to do very much research about what books like theirs are gracing bookstore shelves these days (This is the only novel ever written about a woodcarver’s deep love of his craft, a devotion so profound that his pieces seem alive to him.)

“Yeah, right!” Millicent chortles, reaching for the omnipresent stack of form-letter rejections. “Hey, Geppetto, ever heard of an obscure book called PINOCCHIO?”

I sensed at least 5% of you shifting in your seats. “Gracious, Anne,” the time-strapped cry, clutching their suddenly pale cheeks. “I get that it’s in my best interest to pick a book category and target only agents who represent it, but what makes you think I have TIME to keep up with all of the latest publications in my chosen genre? It took me years to carve out the requisite hours to write my manuscript/draft my book proposal, and having to query at all, much less construct a synopsis, is eating great big holes into my revision time. Isn’t it more important to write a good book than to figure out how to sell it to an agent?”

Well, yes and no, pale clock-watchers. Yes, your chances of getting published are substantially higher if you have written a good book, but that alone is not sufficient endeavor to land an equally good agent for it — a fact which, unfortunately, most first-time writers of good books don’t figure out until they have been querying for a while.

Often not even then. Hands up, everyone who has heard a rejected fellow writer complain that the publishing world just isn’t ready for his book — that it’s too revolutionary, uses language too well, presents an entirely new spin on human relationships, exposes a secret unlike any that has been seen on the printed page before, etc. Keep those hands in the air if, upon subsequent questioning, you discovered that this paragon of literature got rejected at the query stage, rather than as a submission. And wave those hands mightily if you said, either to yourself or to the huffy writer, “Excuse me, Ambrose, but if all the agent saw was your query, how could your startling insights, blistering prose, and/or trenchant analysis of the human condition have been the reason she rejected it? Mightn’t the problem have been, you know, the query?”

Because I love you people, I’m not going to ask those of you who have been the Ambrose in this situation to raise your hands. You know who you are.

I am, however, going to ask Ambrose and those who happen to be personally fond of him to take a moment to ponder the possibilities here. Far too many talented aspiring writers assume that the only reasons their queries could have been rejected is some problem with the book: the story’s not marketable enough, publishers stopped buying chick lit two years ago, the protagonist sounds like a downer, etc. Accordingly, they become discouraged — what would be the point of continuing to query a rejected book? — and just give up.

I get why giving up on querying might be tempting — honestly, I do. However, there’s no denying that the book that isn’t particularly marketable today may well be next year, or even next month; keeping a weather eye on recent releases could help you there. It’s also undoubtedly true that agents’ tastes often change over time, as do agencies’ plans for where they want to place their focus, so the agency that rejected your last book flat might well be interested in your next. And let’s face it, where one agent (or, more likely, his Millicent) does not see market potential, another will, but you’re not going to find that out unless you persevere.

Then, too, if your query lands on the wrong desk, no matter how great the book in question is, or even how beautifully the query is written, it doesn’t stand a chance, right? The same principle applies if you approach the wrong agent within an agency; since the standard etiquette dictates that a writer may query only one, it honestly is worth doing your homework first. You can also kiss that agent goodbye– and you wouldn’t believe how common this is — if you queried the perfect agent too soon after you finished writing the book, before you’ve had an opportunity to go back over it with the proverbial fine-toothed revision comb.

You were aware, right, that you’re only supposed to query any given agent once with any given writing project? Oh, Millicent turnover is so rapid these days that it’s unlikely that the same human being will screen your query two years apart, but if you realize three months hence that Chapter 2 contains a huge continuity problem, sending a repeat query isn’t likely to revivify your prospects at that agency.

As frequently as Millicent sees all of these faux pas — especially the one about beginning to query too soon: now that many agencies allow queriers to include the first few pages in their query packets, it’s apparent far earlier in the process who has and has not taken the time to re-read or even proofread her work — there’s one that crosses her desk even more. I am referring, of course. to the query that reads exactly like 30 others she has read that day, for the exceedingly simple reason that there’s a template out there that 31 of the day’s queriers heard somewhere was sure-fire.

Trust me on this one: a personalized query will stand out in that crowd — and one that sounds remotely like you’ve done some reading of recent releases in your chosen book category will practically bring tears of relief to Millicent’s weary eyes. Returning to our query troubleshooting list…

(25) Is it clear from my query that I’m familiar with recent releases like mine? Even better, do I sound as though I have picked this agent based upon that familiarity?
This may seem like a subtle one from the writer’s side of the querying relationship, but on the query page, it’s often painfully obvious if the querier is thinking of both his book and his query list in generic terms: he has a book to sell, and agents sell books for writers, so any agent who sells remotely similar books will do, right?

Wrong. No agent represents every kind of fiction — and certainly not every conceivable kind of memoir. Actually, although it may be hard to tell this from a brief blurb in an agency guide, it’s relatively rare for agents not to specialize within a particular book category. And I’m not just talking about an agent’s preference for Highland romance over romances set in Ancient Rome, either: these people often like to see particular types of sentence describing those lads and lassies. As will soon be apparent if you take the time to go to a bookstore, pull recent books by three or four of the agent’s clients of the shelves, and read a few opening pages.

Research, my dears, research; there’s just no substitute for it — and the more specifically you can show the fruits of that research, the better. Why, you ask? In the interest of inculcating good writing habits, instead of telling you, I shall show you.

Let’s say, for the sake of example, that Desperate Togetpublishedson has written a YA novel set against the backdrop of the highly competitive junior show jumping circuit, a sterling piece of literature entitled NEVER SAY NEIGH. Let’s further assume that Desperate wants to query Literate McSalesperson, an agent with a long-established track record of selling books about horses and the preteens who love them.

That’s a great choice, probably based upon some solid research on who’s selling books like Desperate’s these days. But Literate’s Millicent would never know it from a query that opened like this:

Because you represent YA aimed at young girls, I hope you will be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

That’s not bad, but Desperate’s honest-to-goodness market research doesn’t really shine here, does it? The bit about Literate’s representing YA for young girls could have been gleaned by the most cursory glance at one of the standard agency guides — or even a simple web search. (And news flash: most YA is aimed at young girls; they tend to read more than young boys.)

Let’s take a peek at what happens if our Desperate decides to be a trifle more specific.

I read in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents that you were “looking for YA with strong female protagonists.” My novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, definitely fits the bill: it’s about a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Better, isn’t it? If a trifle literal-minded: does the direct quote of what anyone in the industry would consider a fairly generic preference honestly help the case here? And does it really matter where Desperate picked up this information? A less pedantic presentation of the same information would make the same point without — please forgive my putting it this way, but it is how Millicent would think of it — sounding as though Desperate had read somewhere that he should include a reason for approaching Literate, but couldn’t come up with anything specific?

Calm down, Desperate, and try it again. Literate isn’t really looking for citations here.

Since you represent YA with strong female protagonists, you may be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Ah, that’s nice — but if Desperate actually did go to the trouble of tracking down some other books Literate represented, that professional-level effort is not apparent here. Citing a specific book would leave no doubt on the matter. It’s an especially nice touch to bring up a first-time author’s title, underscoring that Desperate has done the requisite research to realize that Literate does take a chance on a new voice from time to time. (Not a foregone conclusion in the agenting world, by the way; it’s worth your while to check.)

Since you so ably represented Debuty de Firsttimer’s HOW AM I EVER GOING TO CLIMB INTO THAT SADDLE? I hope you will be interested in my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

“But Anne!” the literal-minded cry, and who can blame you? “That nifty bit about the strong protagonists fell out of this version! Since Literate feels strongly enough about that preference to have mentioned it in her guide listing, shouldn’t Desperate bring it up?”

Ah, but Desperate did bring it up — by depicting his protagonist as strong, rather than just saying she was. Nifty trick, eh?

Do be certain, though, that any book you cite actually is comparable to yours. Don’t stray outside your book’s category, or you’ll defeat the purpose here. I hate to show a bad example, just in case blog-skimmer out there decides to copy it under the assumption that I meant it as a guide (oh, you’d be astonished at some of the comments I get from people who don’t read carefully), but as Desperate has been generous to make this mistake first, I’d like you to benefit from his sad experience.

Since you handled science fiction writer Outta Myleague’s extraordinary debut, THIS STORY HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUNG GIRLS OR HORSES, I am writing you in the hope that you will be willing to represent my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

“Excuse me?” Millicent cries. “Do you not understand the term science fiction? Why on earth would an agent interested in one book want to read the other?”

Good question, Millie. Unfortunately, you’ve already rejected Desperate’s query, so I doubt you’re going to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him anytime soon.

Do all of those glazed eyes out there indicate that some of you are frantically searching through your memories, trying to recall tidbits you have read about various agents and the books they have represented? Excellent. I have a bit more to say about how you might turn that information to your advantage, but in order to give you all some processing time, I’m going to veer our discussion back toward matters more technical.

(26) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or U.K. spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
Hey, I told you the next one was going to be technical. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border. And while your spell-checker may not find fault with either version, a New York-based Millicent is going to take one look at the former and say, “Great. Now some poor soul is going to have to comb through this manuscript, changing everything to U.S. spellings.”

I hate to burst any bubbles currently floating outside U.S. borders, but the publishing world’s opinion is united about who that poor soul should be: the writer. Who, let’s face it, might not be all that happy about the prospect. So in practice, when a query turns up here with U.K. or Canadian spellings, it says to Millicent, “Hi! If you ask to see this manuscript, not only will your finely-tuned editorial sense have you longing to correct the spelling every other page, but if your boss falls in love with the writing, she will have to have a rather unpleasant conversation with the writer.”

Yes, I am saying what you think I am, far-flung writers: if you’re planning to write for the American market, Millicent will expect you to use U.S. spellings in your query. Her boss is going to insist that you alter every single instance in your manuscript, anyway, so why not beat the Christmas rush and do it now?

You’re quite right — it’s annoying, but honestly, Millicent and her ilk have a point here. While books that have already hit the big time in the U.K. or Canada are routinely available in their original forms here, the original publication site dictates what is considered proper. Since a previously-unpublished manuscript with U.K. spellings would have to be altered before it could be released in the U.S. market, can you blame an agent for considering such a manuscript not ready for circulation to domestic agents?

At the query stage, though, the presumption of further revision’s being needed is not the only danger. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

The same principle applies in reverse, of course: tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience, the agent, based upon where he resides. If you’re a Yank approaching a U.K.-based agent, you’ll be better off conforming to his view of the English language. (Unless, of course, you happen to be an American celebrity — then, your oddball spellings will be part of your complicated charm.)

Ready to start talking about books like yours again? Dandy.

(27) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance with a Futuristic Feel to It or Time-Travel Thriller with Magical Realist Elements.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such descriptors are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that she’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that she’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put my book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a — wait for it — conceptual box, after all, a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. (Starting to read like a word problem in a math class, isn’t it?) After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Oh, as though long-time readers of this blog didn’t see that coming.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her? More to the point, is it really in your best interest to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Vampire Romance-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(28) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query.

Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it. A publication is a publication is a publication.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting critique group, feel free to mention that as well, although this one is less effective than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. (The Internet has spawned some pretty wacky writers’ groups, and Millicent knows it.) Anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include, though.

If you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth; writers who do this almost invariably get caught in the long run. (The same holds true for queriers who include recommendations from people who didn’t actually recommend them, by the way.) Just leave out this paragraph. Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(29) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means, in practice, that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected. And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(30) Have I made any of the standard faux pas, the ones about which agents complain early and often?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it. If you thought Millicent was in a bad mood after she burned her tongue, trust me, you don’t want to see how she reacts to that memoir based on something that really happened to me.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular Millicent-irritant, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Delphine Margason says this is the most moving book about figure skating she’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on a show hosted by someone like Oprah. Or Jon Stewart. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Charlie Rose.

Or…well, you get the picture.

Violating any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread. Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones that fell onto her desk within the last month.

Believe it or not, we still haven’t run through all of the common Millicent-irritants out there — and we have barely begun taking a serious gander at examples of what does and doesn’t work on the query page. Join me next time for more on these exciting topics, and, of course, to keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part IX: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open tonight’s Queryfest post with an image of an un-stormed one. I like to yank this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? It may have felt like that back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerned feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — I guess I can end Queryfest here and now.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are.

Stop rolling your eyes; it’s true. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what species of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

That’s a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between, due to problems that the writers who sent them could have fixed fairly easily. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question in the current market, or even the quality of the writing.

Yes, yes, I know — the form-letter rejection you got implies otherwise. But form letters rejections are, by definition, sent to everyone an agency is rejecting, regardless of the reason. Because a good agency genuinely does not want to discourage writers on the way to perfecting their craft and professionalizing their presentation, their prefab rejections are usually geared toward the best of the rejected manuscripts, the near-misses for whom it’s actually true that the book sounds intriguing, but publishing houses just are not buying that sort of manuscript right now.

That is not, however, your garden-variety rejected query. A hefty percentage of them all contain the same 10 or 15 stripes of mistake. And that repetition has serious implications for even otherwise good queries that happen to stumble into the same pitfalls.

A forest of hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” conscientious queriers everywhere moan, “that’s absurd! How could anyone else’s querying habits, or even the querying habits of every single other aspiring writer in the nation, possibly have any effect upon my query’s reception at an agency? They’re all judged individually, aren’t they?”

Well, yes and no, moaners. Because agents and their screeners read so many of the darned things, they inevitably develop pet peeves and start identifying common red flags. And because our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, often spends hours on end scanning queries, even if only 20 of them share the same basic error — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. That’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

In response to that giant collective huff of indignation I just out there: you’re probably thinking that Millicent is hypersensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people on crutches across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car. What’s she going to do, honk like a goose?

True, she rejects writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting queries — yes, they’re really called that — means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejecter is not the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question would be not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, please, to assess how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordIf there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing, rather than assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

To put it more simply, offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy — it’s her job to reject 98% of what she sees, recall — but any writer willing to put in the time and effort can learn how to avoid provoking her.

I know — it’s tempting just to assume it’s her problem and press on. It’s a pain to revise a query letter, after all, or indeed, to write one in the first place. But it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of frustrated queriers radically underestimate the amount of energy they habitually put into resenting the necessity to query at all. Is that honestly the best use of a writer’s time?

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what he can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors out of his control. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where most rejected queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s one-size-fits-all rejection note. Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply.

I just saw some of your faces fall: hands up, everyone who has ever wasted hours — or days — in trying to read some specific feedback into a rejection platitude like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, just because it appeared in a letter with a personalized salutation or in an e-mail. While Millicents and their bosses do occasionally break their rejection pattern to add a personal note to a rejection, it’s rare enough these days that you should be flattered if you receive one.

But that’s far from the norm; the advent of the copy-and-paste function has been a positive boon to agencies, much as photocopy machines were a couple of decades before. It’s not hard to see why: honestly, if you were Millicent, would you be willing to type I’m sorry, but this manuscript just doesn’t fit our needs at this time hundreds of times per week if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

In the spirit of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of such stock let-‘em-down-easy phrasing, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one. At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far — believe me, Millicents everywhere will applaud you for it. As a reward for virtue, I begin tonight with a few exceptionally simple problems to fix.

(18) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the third person and the present tense?
Regardless of the narrative perspective of the manuscript itself, descriptive paragraphs in queries are always written in the third person. So if your description of your first-person fantasy begins I had just landed my dream job when the aliens landed on the roof, change it right away: to Millicent’s eyes, it will read like a description for a memoir. Ditto for pitches and synopses, by the way.

Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before you sent out your first query?

The proper tense choice, too, may strike some writers as counter-intuitive: one-paragraph book descriptions, like pitches and synopses, are always written in the present tense. Yes, even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know both of these things because the Query Fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so. Or so I surmise from the fact that this particular piece of advice isn’t given much these days.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE IN THE THIRD PERSON AND THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir. Which leads me to:

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. 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 chose to bury it in the back yard instead.

You must admit, this is more than a little at odds with a sane person’s sense of time. (But then, so is the turn-around time for queries and submissions, frequently.)

Please note, though, that other than this shift in tense and person, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir: your goal here is make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness. For example:

Back in my days as a silent movie star of the 1920s, women ruled the silver screen. I was paid more than my male counterparts; I had my pick of projects (and extras for my private pleasures); my dressing room’s cushions were trimmed in mink. But once the talkies came, I was faced with an impossible choice: take a massive pay cut or allow my public to be told that my beautifully resonant opera-trained voice was too squeaky for the new technology. If I was going to make the films that I wanted, I realized I would have to start writing and directing for myself.

See? By describing herself as the protagonist in a story, rather than just a person talking about herself, our starlet has made a compelling case that both she and the challenges she confronted would make for fascinating reading.

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book, unless it’s a memoir. But just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only aim here: you’re also trying to demonstrate that you are aware of the types of voices considered stylish in your chosen book category — and that you can in fact write in a voice that the already-established readers of that category will like.

Stop laughing. Query letters do so have narrative voices. It’s just that most of the boilerplates we see are so businesslike in tone and generic in content that you’d never notice.

It’s definitely possible, though, to construct a query that gives Millicent a foretaste of your manuscript. If your book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the descriptive paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that only the descriptive paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your letter were written primarily for laughs. Let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a chucklefest. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Aspen Institute for Gut-Busting, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

Although I just did, didn’t I? In a query, though, that would have been a risk: jokes that fall flat are a common screeners’ pet peeve. So unless you’re positive that your joke is (a) original — almost impossible, if it’s related to some standard query element like SASE inclusion — (b) doesn’t detract from the clarity of your letter, and (c) is funny enough that a Millicent bleary-eyed after seven hours of straight screening will chuckle, save the one-liners for your stand-up act.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your narrative voice is unique?

(21) Am I telling a compelling story in my descriptive paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
All too often, aspiring writers will construct their descriptive paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers. There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents.

But collective nostalgia for one’s happy days in Intro to American Literature doesn’t mean that a descriptive paragraph demonstrating that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Analysis-based descriptions distance the reader from the story being told.

How so, you ask? They tend to rely upon generalities, in a context that cries out for one-of-a-kind specifics. Take a gander at a representative sample:

MIXED MESSAGES is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of turbulent social change. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description could be applied equally well to hundreds of thousands of wildly different plot and voice.

As a result of trying to sound analytical, this description presents the protagonist as a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? Who is this troubled man? Where does he live? What kind of work does he do? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. Faced with a description like this one, though, she is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why apply that particular epithet? Because this kind of description talks about the novel, rather than telling its story as a story.

Because Millicent’s job is to spot great storytellers, not great textual analysts, she would have preferred it if the querier simply presented the story directly. Then, too, the writer’s choice to concentrate upon the themes and construction of the novel, rather than who the protagonist is and what conflicts he wants or needs to battle in order to fulfill his dreams decreases the reader’s incentive to care about what’s going on.

Indeed, we’re left wondering what is going on. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner Millicent is far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spy some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose, A students; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Cue the music department.

broken-record Neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane at the query stage: the goal of the descriptive paragraph is to show what the book is about, not how it is written. Let the narrative choices come as a delightful surprise.

Remember, your goal here is not to provide a substitute for reading your manuscript, but to describe the book’s premise and central conflict or argument intriguingly enough to prompt someone at the agency to ask you to send pages. At the submission stage, you can let your narrative choices speak for themselves.

Which is, of course, as it should be. As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

(22) Does my descriptive paragraph emphasize the specific points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

I said demonstrate, mind you, not just assert. If the answer is no, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. Remember, no matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript — and if your query does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, as well as nicely written, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript.

That’s likely to be the case, incidentally, even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly common agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries: just because the agency’s guidelines say that a querier can include other materials doesn’t mean that everything in the packet is going to be read thoroughly before acceptance or rejection. Millicent simply doesn’t have time for that, if she’s going to get through hundreds of queries before lunchtime.

Translation: the query is going to determine whether she reads anything else.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point sufficiently. If it’s any consolation, contemplating your book’s selling points is great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them fresh book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(23) Even if Millicent skipped my opening paragraph, would the descriptive paragraph that followed prompt her to exclaim, “Oh, that story is perfect for {fill in my target audience here}? Or have I forestalled that spontaneous cry by describing my book in back-jacket terms?
This is a corollary of the last one, obviously, but still worth considering as a separate question. One of the most common mistakes in descriptive paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

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

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know nowwhere this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

As you may have already gathered, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

By contrast, the second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests and perhaps a grizzly.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, you thought that she wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance, too?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they might well regard the first version as inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so those last two examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women — or to indoorsy women who like to fantasize about adventurous encounters with outdoorsy men and/or bears?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the story, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the projected reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(23) If my descriptive paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This question often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript? Most query letters elect to adopt one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has. If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the description as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not embrace the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic can be applied to any category of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph, actually. If you have written a steamy romance, choose the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail, and so forth.

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my full and enthusiastic permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(24) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most queries include no reference whatsoever to the target audience. It’s as though their writers believe it’s 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 attitude is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If Millicent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it or not, is there really time for her to murmur, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

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

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident, therefore, to Millicent.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty darned close to self-evident.

Structure your query to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to recognize your book’s worth. Write it well, yes, but also show why readers in your chosen book category will find it appealing. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript,” don’t you?

To that end, it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true. Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind anytime, this seems like an excellent place to stop our list for the evening. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, Part VIII: Millicent! Let us in! Millicent!

angry mob2

A quick announcement before I launch into today’s installment of Queryfest, aimed specifically at writers between the ages of 18 and 30 seeking some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC). The deadline for Narrative Magazine’s annual 30 Below Story Contest is October 29th. Entry is limited to young adult writers — that’s writers who are themselves young adults, folks, not YA writers — and delightfully, there are some actual cash prizes not only for the top few entries, but for the finalists as well.

They will also consider all entries for publication, and my, is the range of what they are opening to publishing broad. Quoth the contest’s organizers:

Narrative is calling on writers, visual artists, photographers, performers, and filmmakers between eighteen and thirty years old, to tell us a story. We are interested in narrative in the many forms it takes: the word and the image, the traditional and the innovative, the true and the imaginary. We’re looking for short stories, short shorts, essays, memoirs, photo essays, audio and video stories, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. The editors of Narrative have published the works of many new and emerging writers, who have gone on to become household names, and we continue to look for and to encourage the best new talent we can find.

So you might want to consider checking it out, ECQLC-seekers. Fair warning, though: there is an entrance fee.

Back to the topic at hand. Every time I devote a few weeks to a serious examination of all things query-related, I hear from many, many would-be queriers whose first (or at least second) reaction is to glance at the sheer number and length of the posts and back away quickly, clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum.

So if you have stuck with it so far, congratulations. Queryfest is not for the faint of heart, but then, neither is querying. Currently, it’s as hard as it has ever been for a first-time writer to catch an agent’s eye. The combination of a rise in home computer ownership, coupled with a slow economy, have caused the tide of queries pouring onto Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day to swell from its usual flood to something akin to a tsunami.

Hey, it’s tough out there. The why I have been urging you to take a hard, critical look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, unbound manuscripts, and, of course, query letters, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” (Alternated with, of course, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of your query as part of an implacable daily onslaught on Millicent’s defenses? It’s no accident that she keeps burning her lip on lattés — her task can be so repetitious, so seemingly endless that even Sisyphus occasionally glances up from that immense boulder the unkind gods sentenced him to roll up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll down again as soon as he reaches the top, mops his weary brow, and murmurs, “Wow, am I glad that I don’t have Millicent’s job.”

Contemplating how many queries she might have read prior to yours — not to mention the mountainous piles she may have to peruse between the thirty seconds she can devote to your letter and when she can go home for the day — can either be deeply depressing for a querier. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to consider that the chances of a randomly-selected query’s leading to the book in question’s being picked up by a great agent and sold to a good publishing house fall somewhere between getting accepted to a top medical school and being hit by lightning while holding an umbrella. I remember thinking when I sold my memoir, gee, I’m about to get published, I’m a woman with a doctorate, and I’m ambidextrous. Statistically speaking, I’m about as likely to exist as a purple gorilla.

Just because something is unlikely, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen; there’s a vast difference between difficult and impossible. As I like to tell discouraged aspiring writers early and often, the only manuscripts that have no chance of getting published are those that just sit in a drawer or on a hard disk, unqueried, unsubmitted, and unseen by the literary establishment.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t let the intense competition keep you from trying. You might just end up being the gorilla with the all-over mauve highlights.

Don’t underestimate how much doing your homework about what a good querying entails improve your changes, either. Just think of what a high percentage of queries either do not contain all of the necessary information, or are improperly formatted, or are downright rude, mistakes you intrepid souls working your way through Queryfest are unlikely to make. Nor are your queries likely to be among the unfortunate many that substitute hard-sell tactics for description, picking an agent’s name out of a hat for serious research into what the query recipient represents, or a vague, rambling paragraph about what the book is about for the one- or two-word book category already in use by the U.S. publishing industry.

Feeling luckier already, aren’t you, Jungle Jim?

You’re also, if you follow my advice, going to separate yourself from the crowd by not forcing your book concept into a boilerplate that a third of the aspiring writers out there happen to be using at the moment. You wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. And that’s bad for aspiring writers, because generic queries are among the easiest to reject: not only are they comparatively unmemorable — a boilerplate account of even a thrilling plotline tends to fall a bit flat — but your garden-variety Millicent finds them somewhat insulting.

And not merely because so many cut-and-paste operations intended to update old queries for reuse end up in disaster. Even when the address and salutation match AND end up in the right envelope, recycling the same query for every conceivable agent renders it effectively impossible to make sure your query ends up on the right desk.

Oh, it could happen, but so could Millicent’s coffee cup being hit by a meteor. Want to wait around to see if it happens, or would you prefer to make the effort to improve the odds?

No, but seriously, folks, the way that most first-time queriers approach figuring out whom to query is close enough to random that it’s surprising that they ever hit the right target. It just doesn’t make sense as a strategy for making a decision vital to the success of your writing career: if you don’t do individual research on each agent’s likes, dislikes, and placement record, how can you possibly know that any given one will be the best fit for your book? You don’t want just any agent to handle it, after all — your manuscript deserves the professional assistance of an agent with a proven track record of (and concomitant connections for) selling books like yours.

Agents are not generalists, any more than writers are: they specialize. That means, in practice, that a writer is unlikely to find such an agent by the simple (and unfortunately common) means of doing a web search on agents + {insert book category here}. Or by the formerly most popular alternative, snatching one of the standard agency guides off the shelf at the nearest bookstore, flipping to the index, and making a list of every agency that lists itself as representing that category.

While neither is a bad first step toward tracking down the ideal agent for a particular book, you must admit that neither is exactly a fine-tuned agent-seeking instrument. Yes, limiting your efforts to only those agents who represent manuscripts in your category is a necessary first step toward finding the best agent for your work — chant it with me now, campers: one of the most common reasons queries get rejected is being aimed at an agent who doesn’t represent that kind of book — but as many a query-fatigued aspiring writer can attest, it can result in a long, undifferentiated list. How does one decide whom to approach first?

Based on the comparative popularity of agencies whose names begin with A, B, or C, as well as those beginning with W, Y, or Z, my guess would be that most queriers simply proceed alphabetically — or in reverse alphabetical order. The fact that the D-V agencies tend to see fewer queries would indicate that embracers of this approach often give up in frustration before they get very far into their lists.

In the face of this undeniable reality, you can’t really fault Millicent for regarding the lack of a clear statement of why a writer selected her boss off a list of agents representing that book category as evidence that he might not have done his homework, can you? Most of the mob beating on the gate at any given moment is made up of homework-avoiders, after all.

Which brings me to the other primary reason for striving for an individual voice in your query letter: to Millicent, a well-written, personalized letter that describes a manuscript in clear, enticing, market-oriented terms is — wait for it — professional. As in exhibiting the minimum level of performance for getting her stamp of approval.

That means, in practice, being specific. And yes, I know that’s hard, in a document must contain a an extremely brief summary of your book.

Therein lies the problem, often. The first thing most aspiring writers learn about a query is that it should contain a description of the book it is hoping the agent will represent. (Okay, the second thing: the requirement that a query be a page or less is quite widely known.) To the first-time querier, that can sound an awful lot like you have only a page to summarize a 400-page manuscript!

That’s ridiculous, of course — a querier has only a paragraph (or two, at most) to describe her book. Less, if the description isn’t particularly interesting or doesn’t make the book seem like a good fit for either the agent to whom the query is addressed or the current literary market.

A 1-page synopsis is where that writer has to summarize her 400-page book. Note the distinction, please: it’s vital to your sanity while composing a query — or trying to keep it under a single page, for that matter. In fact, I feel an aphorism coming on:

broken-recordA query’s descriptive paragraph describes the manuscript; a synopsis summarizes it. The query presents the premise and central conflict (or, for nonfiction, the subject matter and central question), while the summary gives a complete, if brief, overview of the plot, including some indication of its resolution.

Why is being aware of this distinction vital for a savvy querier’s sanity? Because if you try to summarize the entire plot of your book in a query letter, you will drive yourself mad.

And, frankly, you will annoy Millicent. We may see why all too clearly manifested in the generality-fest that is average descriptive paragraph:

THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL tells the story of boy meets girl set against the turbulent backdrop of the type of war aptly described as hell. Although Dwayne and Mimette initially don’t click, circumstances throw them together and they fall madly in love. Through confronting numerous obstacles, they come to know themselves better and learn important life lessons before finding their very own happy ending.

Quite the a cliché-fest, isn’t it? That isn’t always the case with a too-general descriptive paragraph, of course, but the two often go hand-in-hand. As far as Millicent is concerned, they can keep on walking hand-in-hand right into the sunset, just like Dwayne and Mimette: her job is to look for original stories.

Which THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL might be, for all we know. But how on earth could Millicent tell, given the vagueness of this description?

Aspiring writers with a bit more knowledge about how agencies work may veer off into another type of generality, the lit class description. It tends to run a little something like this:

THE NUCLEAR FALLOUT WITHIN is a classic political thriller written in a literary fiction voice. Told in the first person from four different and conflicting points of view: a handsome protagonist (Senator Lance Manlison, 38), a brainy yet uninhibited love interest (Dr. Bambi-Pearl Dignityfree, 23), an odious antagonist (Snarly Weaponwielder, 52), and a deaf-mute unrelated bystander (Cheapdevice Smith, 13). Deftly alternating between these distinct voices, the narrative draws the reader into a beautifully-described world of intrigue, power, and intense introspection.

Both of these examples are probably factually correct statements about what occurs in the book, but that’s really beside the point at the querying stage. “What specifically are these books about?” Millicent is left muttering. “And why aren’t either of these writers using the scant space afforded in a query to demonstrate that they know how to tell a story? Are they under the impression that how they write doesn’t matter?”

I can answer that one, Millie: at the querying stage, that’s precisely what most aspiring writers do think; many regard the query as little more than an annoying-but-necessary piece of busywork, rather than an opportunity to show that they can write. But they’re wrong: the goal here is to stand out from that teeming population of queriers by coming across as a good writer with a good, marketable story.

The idea of your writing being judged solely by how you construct a single-page letter is making some of you squirm, isn’t it? “But Anne,” wiggle worms everywhere protest, and with good reason, “I’m a novelist. My gift lies in expressing myself at length. Why would any agent who represents book-length works allow, much less instruct, his trusty Millicent to make snap judgments about books without reading them?”

I sympathize with your feelings, but that agent cannot afford to: remember that tsunami of queries washing over Millicent’s desk? If she had to read even the first few pages of every single one of those manuscripts before ruling out those that are out of the question, she would constantly be swimming through an ocean of required reading.

Can you honestly blame her for draining the pool a little by rejecting the vague and the publishing world-inappropriate book descriptions on sight?

Most descriptive paragraphs don’t go to either of these extremes, of course; many are combinations of both, with perhaps a sprinkling here and there of detail. That’s not all that astonishing, given the comparatively scant attention most query-writing classes/seminars/online discussions seem to devote to the part of the letter where Millicent is most solidly within her rights to expect your writing to shine.

Hey, every writer can talk compellingly about his own manuscript, right? It’s the rest of the query that really matters, doesn’t it? And if the query reads just like what the writer has seen online, it has to be fine, doesn’t it?

Apparently and unfortunately, no, on all counts. I feel an aphorism coming on: the overwhelming majority of descriptive paragraphs are not sufficiently descriptive — a real shame, because the descriptive paragraph is the querier’s single best opportunity to make the case that her manuscript is unique. Preferably in the a voice similar to the narrative voice of the book.

Does that gargantuan gulping sound I heard out there in the ether mean that two-thirds of you with queries already circulating just realized that they did not do justice to the storytelling magic of your manuscript? Or did you think the point of the description was to make your book sound identical the most recent bestseller? Or — and I suspect that this is going to be the more common gulp-generator — were you previously unaware that the descriptive paragraph (and the query in general) is a writing sample?

On the off chance that it was any of the above, I’m going to drag out the broken record player again:

broken-recordEverything an aspiring writer submits to an agency is in fact a writing sample. Since the agent of your dreams is new to your writing, it’s only reasonable to expect that he will use your query letter, your synopsis, any requested pages, and even your e-mails and cover letters for submissions as bases for evaluating your writing ability. These are literate people; they expect good writers to express themselves well 100% of the time.

At minimum: spell-check everything before you hit the SEND key. Proofread everything — preferable in hard copy, as it’s easier to catch typos and logic problems that way. If you don’t know the difference between its (belonging to it) and it’s (a contraction for it is), or how to make a word plural (hint: almost never by adding an apostrophe + s), learn it. And if you have any doubts about your own grammar or proofreading abilities, run, don’t walk, to someone whose skills are impeccable.

But most of all, use your query as an opportunity to demonstrate to Millicent that, in addition to being charming, literate, and creative enough to come up with a great premise, you can tell a story well. Specifically, the story of your book.

Generally speaking, summary statements are not the best way to pull this off. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad generalities (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life’s most common challenges.), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (This is a fiction novel with great writing based on a true story.) will be sufficient to pique an agent’s interest. All of these tactics are problematic, because a vague query will sound just like a good two-thirds of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle.

Or, as she likes to put it: “Next!” But the news is not all bad here, campers: our Millie has a pretty good eye for spotting the rare purple gorilla.

When a query is simultaneously unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. That means, in practice, that for a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

How so? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing that’s been lurching about Geneva lately could possibly be his houseguest. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F’s assigned gate-keeper, Igor, to open the door, he’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying the secret laboratory where his master dabbles in revivifying the dead, right?

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to leap off the page at her, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the vast majority of the angry mob’s attempts to knock down that door.

Okay, so maybe that analogy was a trifle forced. Very few of the agents of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latté, right?

broken-recordA good agent typically receives in the neighborhood of 800-1500 queries per week — more, if the agency makes it easy for aspiring writers to submit pages online with their queries or happens to fall at the beginning or end of an alphabetical listing. In the face of that constant barrage, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. The generally-accepted figure is 98%.

Starting to make more sense that I’ve been pushing you to concentrate this hard upon a page of writing that isn’t even in your manuscript? I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and ask yourself a few more probing questions before you pop that puppy in the mail. To prepare yourself properly for this level of analysis, take a moment now to read your current draft in its entirety and aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course.

To stop the protest already halfway out of your mouth: I don’t care if you reread (or wrote) it yesterday, or already today, or fifteen minutes ago. Do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time. Millicent has good reason to regard queries as miniature Frankenstein manuscripts.

And if you don’t read it ALOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN ITS ENTIRETY 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.

Now that you’re thinking of your query as a writing sample, let’s take a quick foray back up the page before we move on to that pesky descriptive paragraph.

(15) Does the first paragraph of my query show that I am a good writer, as well as convey the necessary information? Does it get to the point immediately? Or, to but it a bit more bluntly, if I were an agency screener with 200 other queries on my desk or in my inbox, would I keep reading into the descriptive paragraph?
This may seem like draconian questions, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through all of those queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if its first paragraph rambled? Or if, heaven forfend, it contained a typo or two?

Oh, you say you would. But honestly, would you?

It’s worth revisiting the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. That’s another reason I favor paper over e-mailed queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(16) Is my descriptive paragraph short, clear, and exciting to read? Have I actually conveyed what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, aspiring writers get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or, as we discussed above, they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the letter should never be longer than a page, that strategy tends to result in a missive that neither presents the book’s story or argument well nor leaves room for the necessary other elements of the query.

So what should you do instead? Limit the scope of what you are trying to achieve to making the book’s premise or argument sound fascinating.

How might one go about that? Well, for starters, buy yourself some space by axing the lit class terminology: this is not the place to talk about protagonists, antagonists, or plot twists, at least not using those words. Ditto with introductory statements like ALTERED REALITIES is the story of… or SIMILAR FANTASIES tells the tale of… If the opening paragraph has done its job properly, these kind of clauses are never actually necessary.

Second, concentrate upon presenting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation. A time-honored one-paragraph descriptive structure demonstrates why the lead is special in the first sentence or two (utilizing parenthetical age references to save space), devotes the second sentence to the plot’s central conflict, and the third to what’s at stake for the protagonist. As in:

Photojournalist Nana Angelopoulos (27) is far from an inexperienced traveler: her passion for documenting vanishing wildlife has brought her face-to-face with more charging rhinos, furious rattlesnakes, and irate, weapon-brandishing game wardens than even her worried mother (Irene, 56) can remember. Yet now that her favorite preserve is going to be sealed off from human contact forever, she has abruptly begun having panic attacks the moment she steps on a plane. Has the shutter come down permanently on both Nana’s career and the endangered red pandas she loves?

For a character-driven plot, you can focus even more closely on the protagonist. Try opening with your main character’s hopes and dreams, moving on to the primary barriers to his achieving them, and then wrap up by telling Millicent what he stands to win if he overcomes those obstacles — or what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. For example:

All retired paleontologist Sven Olafson (87) wants is a little peace and quiet, but who could relax with intrepid junior explorer Tammi Butterfingers (11) constantly digging for dinosaur bones in his back yard? Or twin grandsons borrowing in his stone tool collection to reconfigure the neighbors’ treasured marble birdbath? Or, worst of all, a malignant postman (Marvin, 62) determined to drive Sven from the only settled home he has ever had outside of a dig site?

Either structure will work for memoir, of course: treat yourself as a character in the book, change the pronouns to I, and tell Millicent what happened to you. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For other nonfiction, just set out the central problem of the book and give some indication of how you plan to address it. If you want to get fancy, toss in a sentence or two making the case that the problem is important, and to whom:

Sasquatches once roamed North America freely, but thanks to human overpopulation, few living children have ever even seen one. Once-mighty herds are now reduced to just a few square acres next to a Bigfoot preserve in southwestern Oregon. Ironically, just as human needs have nearly wiped out these magnificent beasts, human needs may save them from total extinction: new research indicates that molted sloth hair may be the long-sought cure for male pattern baldness. Begging the question: is the recent establishment of megalonychid-shaving factories a triumph in the fight against extinction, or merely vanity-induced animal abuse?

Reads like a well thought-out argument, does it not? What you’re doing here is not generalizing — you’re winnowing down the story to its essential elements. That’s doable, even in just a few lines.

When in doubt, err on the side of brevity over completeness. Remember, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline more of the plot.

But do make sure it sounds like a great story or fascinating argument on an important subject. As in a pitch, the first commandment of querying is thou shalt not bore — and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we both brief and interesting simultaneously?” In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words; it’s still a great strategy. Why not spice things up with details that only you could devise, described in lovely language? If you’re feeling even bolder, why not try waking Millicent up a little?

(17) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
What makes a book description memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not merely its overall arc, but also its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details she’s not likely to have seen before.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict; subplots, while perhaps integral to the book as a whole, tend to water down the storytelling impact of a descriptive paragraphs.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into Millie’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle Démodé, 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, a sociopath prone to torturing innocent kittens in his spare time, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle Démodé. She’s emotionally unavailable, however: on the rebound from a ten-year marriage with sociopathic bassoonist Serge, she scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.

How does a writer know when to say when on the specifics? Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a blistering flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses different a problem for Basil: he has never been directed 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 and left two dozen musically-minded six-year-olds agape in horror. Basil’s father never got over the debacle, and Basil…”

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

Contrary to popular belief amongst queriers frightened by the prospect of having to talk about their manuscripts in marketing terms in Paragraph 1, what makes a descriptive paragraph great is not its ability to show how similar the book is to what is already published, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t.

In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got, purple gorilla? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them. But as you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part VII: have editing pens, will travel

Again, that was a longer gap between posts than I intended — I imagine that some of you intrepid souls are becoming just a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail — but such is the life of a red-pen-for-hire. I go where I am needed, when I am needed. And my, how often the relatively tiny minority of developmental editors with experience in walking a writer through last-minute revision requests seem to be needed lately.

That’s good for those of us who enjoy riding into Dodge, guns blazing, to tame a wild revision crisis, of course, but it can be awfully nerve-racking for the poor writers. Although multiple (and often extensive) substantive revisions after signing a book contract — or, increasingly common, after one’s agent has shopped one’s manuscript around for a while — have been the norm for quite a while now, most first-time authors walk into representation and book contracts with no idea that their books will need to be tweaked further. Once a submission makes it past Millicent the agency screener and is embraced by her boss, the agent of your dreams, all the writer has to do is sit back, relax, and let the book-marketing professionals take over, right?

Um, wrong. Despite most agents’ expecting manuscripts to be completely clean by submission time (i.e., free of typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, and formatting problems), it’s actually rather rare that an agent won’t ask at first-time client for some market-oriented revisions. And it’s downright normal for an acquiring editor to issue an editorial memo either before or after acquisition, laying out a framework for modifying the manuscript with which she has fallen in love.

All of that is expected, at least by those who have been skulking around in publishing circles for a while. What’s changed recently is the frequency with which manuscripts under contract get passed from hand to hand these days. I don’t mean to frighten you this close to Halloween, but you wouldn’t believe how many authors wake up after celebrating a book sale (particularly a first book sale) to find that the acquiring editor is no longer associated with the project, due to layoffs, moves to other publishing houses, early retirements, the editor’s having decided to transmogrify into an agent, or what have you. Regardless of the reason a manuscript is reassigned, one constant tends to crop up: what the new editor wants to see in the book is typically different from what the acquiring editor did.

Very good, those of you who just clutched your chests and appealed to the Almighty: your extrapolation was correct. In practice, this increased mobility means that writers — again, more often those publishing a book for the first time, but it does happen to the tentatively established, too — frequently are faced with the daunting prospect of having to revise a manuscript that has already been revised in accordance with an agent’s expectations a second time for the acquiring editor, often on a rather short deadline. Not entirely surprisingly, this can lead to a writer’s feeling that her original vision has been slowly consumed over several meals by a ravenous lion.

Is this better than how first-time authors felt in the past, when agents or editors asked for a single, immense revision, a process often described as the book’s having been swallowed whole by a boa constrictor? That’s a matter of personal taste, naturally. There’s a reason that the demand for the services of the aforementioned pen-swinging editorial crisis brigade has risen sharply since the publishing industry’s contraction: who’s a writer going to call for help at a time like this?

Hey, it’s a living. For those of us who like jumping in and solving seemingly intractable editorial challenges, especially if we happen to find the rarefied and often moan-filled air of a deadline-pressed revision environment exhilarating, there’s never been a better time to be a freelance editor.

While you’re already lying, moaning, on the nearest fainting couch, I might as well explain why: it’s not all that unusual anymore for editor #2 to give way to a third. Or a fourth. Heck, I even know a few hapless authors struggling through a transition to a fifth editor. I’ve said it before, and I shall doubtless say it again: editors, like agents, are not possessed of a single mind; they harbor individual literary tastes.

Remember that, please, as we continue to talk about the vicissitudes of querying. It’s the key to understanding why generic queries simply don’t work.

If you’re the kind of aspiring writer who finds that last sentiment outrageous, troubling the air with your bootless cries of, “What do you mean, I need to personalize a query for every agent I approach? That’s absurd. Agents are all looking for the same thing: a marketable book. Therefore, all I should need to do is present my manuscript as marketable, and any agent worth his proverbial salt should automatically sit up and take notice,” well, you’re certainly not alone. First time queriers who don’t think that are as rare as people whose second toes are longer than their big toes: certainly not unheard-of — check out any ancient Greek statue, or the Statue of Liberty, for that matter — but definitely in the minority.

In response to what the statistically-minded amongst you just wondered: somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population. And if you also thought, “Gee, if I had a protagonist whose foot was in the genetic minority, I could use that statistic in my query letter,” congratulations: you’ve been paying attention to our ongoing discussion of how to impress Millicent with the size of your potential target market.

While we’re on the subject of target audience and how to talk about it in your query letter, I’d like to take a brief break from our list of common querying faux pas to address some murmurings I’ve been hearing out there in the ether. I shall be talking more about identifying your ideal reader later in Queryfest, of course, but if possible, I’d like to set some worried minds to rest on the challenge, or even the necessity, of identifying in your query who is likely to want to read your book.

Come on, admit it: as a writer, you probably find this question rather intimidating, if not downright appalling, don’t you? “Isn’t it my future publisher’s job to figure out how to market my book?” I’ve heard some of you grumbling, and with some good reason. “Wasn’t it my job to write it, or if it’s nonfiction, to write a book proposal for it? Isn’t alerting an agent to that fact the end of my marketing efforts? Agents, after all, are skilled at pitching books like mine to editors; wouldn’t it be presumptuous for me to tell them how to do it? By the same token, don’t publishers’ marketing departments possess far more intimate knowledge of who is buying what kind of book than I, an isolated writer with no access to sales statistics, could possibly be?”

My, you ask a lot of rhetorical questions, grumblers, but in answer to the central question here, no, a writer’s marketing tasks do not begin and end with landing an agent. There was a time when that was at least partially the case, but for years now, authors — again, especially first-time authors — have been expected to be active participants in book marketing. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for authors to have to set up their own book signings and readings, or even to pay for their own transportation to same. While some publishing houses still spring for website development for their new authors, many simply tell the author to establish a web presence on her own. It’s not even all that unusual for authors to hire their own publicists, on the grounds that their publisher’s publicity departments tend to be so overworked.

So in practice, thinking now about your ideal reader, what s/he is already reading, and why s/he will want to buy your book is smart strategy. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not going to be a bit difficult, or that you’re not going to be tempted to follow one of the many, many query templates floating around the Internet that simply leaves that information out. It’s not technically required, after all: as long as you mention the book category and describe your book well, Millicent doesn’t actually need that information in order to assess whether your book will fit into her boss’ current list.

So if you want to omit it, that’s certainly your right. As your longtime friend and writing advisor, however, I feel that it is my duty to point out that including it has been known to make the difference between her saying, “Oh, yes, there is a well-established target market for this book,” and her muttering regretfully, “This book sounds interesting, and I might personally want to read it based upon this description, but I just don’t think there are enough readers out there for it.”

Or, to put it another way: before you read that statistic about how many people have Greek statue-style feet, wouldn’t you have assumed that it was too small a demographic to be worth naming as a target readership?

So would Millicent. But do the math: as of today, the current U.S. population is 312,431,252. (Thank you, Mr. Internet!) Taking the most conservative estimate of statue foot incidence, the writer with the foot-obsessed protagonist could justifiably assert in his query that about 31 million Americans could identify with second-toe lengthiness.

Before any of you rushes out to compose a novel about such a foot-waver simply in order to use this rather impressive statistic in its query, let me hasten to add that the mere fact of being able to say that something in your book might conceivably resonate with some large group of people isn’t necessarily going to help make your case with Millicent.

This, for instance, would be a rather unconvincing query. As always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Okay, why doesn’t this work? In the first place, did you catch that Whiskers addressed Ms. Bookmongerson as Mr.? “Hmm,” Millicent would muse, reaching for the stack of photocopied form-letter rejections that is never far from her elbow, “I wonder what male agent got the query just before this on Whisker’s list.”

Also, did you notice that the descriptive paragraph began with HERE, BOY! follows…, a lead-in right up there with My book is about… on the Millicent-annoying scoreboard? Obviously, a novel will follow its protagonist; equally obviously, a book description will tell what the book is about. So why waste precious page space — or Millicent’s patience — by stating the self-evident?

But we were talking about target audience, were we not? The biggest problem here is that the statistic-based claim is far too inflated to be plausible: Millicent knows that not every dog lover will buy this book — or, indeed, any book. It’s not only demonstrably untrue, but absurd at first glance: no book is universally appealing to everyone in its target demographic.

That’s a shame, really, because the statistic itself is rather eye-catching. If Whiskers had taken the time to make a solid case that some of those 182 million people are likely to pick up the book for a specific reason, it might have been successful. That argument could have been as simple as while there are many novels about cat owners, dog owners seldom see their day-to-day trials and joys represented on the fiction page or as complicated as a point-by-point comparison with the selling points of MARLEY & ME, as long as it was plausible. As the query stands, though, it just reads as though Whiskers listened to some darned fool of a writing guru who insisted that statistics make the query.

But as we may see, how one presents those statistics is as important as the numbers — using them as page decoration, rather than the basis of a solid case for your book’s appeal, might well cost your query dearly. Why? Well, inflated readership claims are a notorious agents’ pet peeve. So If Millie has been screening queries for a while, she might automatically stop reading at the sight of such a preposterous assertion.

Yes, really. Is that the sound of your knees rattling together in terror, those of you who have sent out queries with similar claims, or has the cosmos suddenly been overrun with maracas players?

Also, Whiskers is just assuming that dog ownership necessarily translates into wanting to read about dogs. Yet plenty of dog owners never give the printed page a passing glance, just as many inveterate book-buyers cross the street when they see a dog sauntering down the sidewalk toward them. As the social science types say, coexistence does not necessarily equal correlation — and definitely doesn’t equal causation.

I know, I know: hardly a day goes by without your hearing that old chestnut, right?

Okay, so maybe it’s not all that widely-known an aphorism, but it’s nevertheless true: just because two things happen to occur at the same time or in similar places doesn’t mean that the two are related, or even that the two things could always be found together. For instance, many people own dogs; many people buy books about dogs. But does the mere presence of a dog in a household mean that the people living there will automatically buy a book about a dog?

Of course not: dog owners are not the only purchasers of books about dogs, by a long shot. Think about dog lovers with pet allergies, for instance, or relatives of dog owners who have no idea what to get them for Christmas. Together, these two groups represent millions of people, all of whom would have been left out of an assessment of target market based upon the relatively easy to disprove assertion that dog owners — and, by implication, only dog owners — have already demonstrated an interest in books like this, and therefore may be relied upon to consider buying HERE, BOY!

Does that large gasp that just ricocheted around the cosmos indicate that at least some of you had not realized that this was the purpose of talking about target market at all? Just in case that’s been stymieing some of your efforts to discuss your book in the language of the industry, I’m going to go ahead and restate it as an aphorism: just telling Millicent in your query that your book is going to sell to a particular group of people is not the same thing as specifying a target audience for your work. Identifying the people who already read books like yours and showing why they will want to read it is the key to convincing Millicent and her boss, the agent of your dreams, that your book has market appeal.

In other words, when the publishing industry talks about demographics, what they have in mind is not just big groups of people, but big groups of people already in the habit of buying particular kinds of books.

Starting to make sense that form-letter rejections so frequently include some permutation of the phrase I just don’t think I can sell this in this literary market, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily that the manuscripts being queried could not possibly garner any readers at all; Millicent simply cannot tell from the overwhelming majority of queries what already-established readership is likely to find the books being presented appealing enough to pick them off the shelf.

It makes intuitive sense, really, when you consider how book sales actually work. Unless publishing types anticipate a book’s being a bestseller (a relative rarity, by definition), why would they care about the tastes of the non-book-buying public? While it is true that occasionally, a book will be so wildly popular that even people who seldom buy books will purchase it — not a bad definition of a blockbuster, actually — the runaway success of books like THE DA VINCI CODE, HARRY POTTER, and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY generally come as something of a surprise to the publishing industry precisely because their lure extends beyond their respective book categories’ usual audiences.

What does that mean for you and your query, you ask? Well, for starters, claiming that your book is the next DA VINCI CODE is, alas, unlikely to win you Brownie points with Millicent unless you offer plausible reasons that your story will grab the same readers. Without such argumentative support, you run the risk of her dismissing it as just another market-ignorant exaggeration from a writer who believes, as so many queriers seem to do, that the literary market consists only of bestsellers. Believe me, anyone who works in a reputable agency will be painfully aware how rare bestsellers are, particularly ones by first-time authors.

Instead of going for the big claim, think smaller. Millicent is aware that the overwhelming majority of book sales are not category-crossing blockbusters, but favorite authors’ work within specific book categories. It’s better querying strategy, then, not to ask only who among the public at large might already be interested in the subject matter of your book, but to look to your chosen book categories’ loyal readership. Is there a subgroup within that audience that has already demonstrated it likes to buy books that share characteristics with yours?

And no, Virginia, I’m not suggesting that you open your query with something as obvious as this:

Really? A mainstream fiction book will appeal to the mainstream fiction audience? Who could possibly have anticipated that? And once again, ol’ Whiskers misidentified the agent’s sex in the salutation.

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be STUNNED at how often queries actually do read like this — or worse. Believe it or not, Millicent’s bloodshot eyes are also frequently confronted with arguments like the following. See if you can spot the subtle logic problem. Or perhaps two.

Where should I even start? On the bright side, Whiskers did manage to address Ms. Bookmongerson correctly in the salutation, but this query has little else to recommend it. The tone is pushy (under the guise of attempted humor, a rather common passive-aggressive technique in queries), the description reads like a romance, not mainstream fiction, and although you and I know that Whiskers actually does have enough professional experience with dogs to legitimize a claim to expertise, those credentials don’t show so much as a whisker here.

All of those weaknesses pale, however, next to that jaw-droppingly irrelevant third paragraph. Just because there are sailor characters doesn’t mean the novel will automatically appeal to everyone who has ever served on the sea, after all. From the descriptive paragraph, how can Millicent tell to what navy the dognappers belonged? For all she knows, they could have been merchant marines, or land-lubbing dog-fanciers cleverly disguised.

Since the logical connection is pretty tenuous, at least from the query-reader’s point of view, it’s not clear why Whiskers brought the navy up at all. And if the book is about dogs, why on earth bring up cats?

Being privy to Whiskers’ behind-the-scenes reasoning — oh, we editorial pen-wielders get around — I can answer that question: she heard somewhere that cat books sold really, really well. She just wanted to jump on that bandwagon.

I can tell her — and you — now that this strategy isn’t going to work. Stick to the target audience for the main subject matter of the book, or at most, the primary subject matter plus a subplot’s worth. Provided, of course, that either of those actually will appeal to the readers you have in mind.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to figure out who those readers might be, even if one is already pretty aware of who is currently buying similar books. As thoughtful and incisive reader Dani observed recently,

I feel that naming a category for your book is a no-brainer. (Finding the category can be a bit more tricky lol) But as far as describing your target audience…this one I’m finding a bit challenging. I’ll have to read your post on that. Is “13-17 year old girls who have lost their parents during war-ridden times and now have to traverse Europe to escape looming doom” too narrow?

I love this question, not only because it nudged me into writing this post (thanks, Dani! And Mr. Internet for bringing us together!), but because although Dani described her target market flippantly, she’s quite right about who is likely to find her book appealing. She’s merely defining her audience too narrowly.

How so? Perhaps jokingly, Dani has assumed that the target reader’s life story would need to be a perfect match with the protagonist’s to claim her as an ideal reader. But what if we take out some of the specifics and broaden our focus a little? What if, in fact, we embraced the proposition that since readers tend to like to read about people like themselves, wouldn’t it make sense that people like your protagonist would be the natural readership for the book?

Let’s try that for a moment: presuming that the ideal reader would fall within the ages Dani specifies, let’s not look beyond girls who are already reading YA. Based upon the description above, what parallels might there be between her experiences and certain portions of the established YA readership?

Constructed that way, it’s much less daunting to think like a publicist for a moment, is it? If you’re having some difficulty starting the brainstorming flow, here’s a hint for you: the young reader I have in mind is unlikely to be traversing Europe, but she might well feel a sense of looming doom. Any guesses?

If you said, “Wait — a lot of young girls have lost parents. I would advise Dani to run, not walk, to find out just how many,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two if you also shouted, “And while you’re at it, do a spot of research on how many kids in that age range have had other deaths in the immediate family! Those young readers might really appreciate a novel that reflected some of their reality.”

I can answer that one off the top of my head, as it happens: about a fifth of Americans experience a death within their families before they are old enough to vote. That’s a hefty chunk of the young population, and frankly, I think they could use more thoughtful novels that don’t whitewash what it’s like to lose someone you love at that age. While bereaved adults can cope by making radical changes in their lives in the wake of a loss — moving to another state, changing jobs, taking up sky-diving, dating unwisely, to name but four — young mourners seldom have that luxury. I also think a lot of young readers would be thrilled to see their trauma taken seriously — something adults tend not to do very often, unfortunately; the young bereaved often come under tremendous pressure to pretend that everything is normal at home. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that, done well, a book like this could be very important to the right reader.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: if you knew a young reader going through that kind of devastating loss, what book would you buy for her? Wouldn’t you at least consider a book like Dani’s, one in which a young heroine has to struggle against a similar loss and, if I am reading the description correctly, is able to do something about it?

The target audience portion of the query sort of writes itself now, doesn’t it?

Does the resonant thunk of thousands of jaws hitting the floor out there mean that you weren’t expecting it to be quite so easy? That’s really Dani’s doing: by defining her protagonist’s dilemmas so clearly, she laid the groundwork for some very straightforward brainstorming about audience. (Well done, D!)

That’s a great first step: defining your protagonist in general terms, in ways that are not too difficult to translate into the conditions of your chosen book category’s current readers’ actual lives. Step two: use those parallels to define what subset of readers would most likely be able to identify with those conditions. Step three: show why.

Obviously, this is going to be a significantly harder case to make if your protagonist happens to be a fourteen-eyed purple sloth from the planet Targ than if she’s a hard-working dentist from Milwaukee with a marked propensity toward procrastination, but there’s no need to be hyper-literal here. You’re a writer; be creative. Does your sloth follow a profession with an earth equivalent, perhaps or is the conflict between the sloths and the space monkeys similar to conflicts in a fantasy subgenre? Does Slothie share characteristics with the reader you have in mind — being bullied at Purple Sloth High might be very relatable for readers who were teased in their youths for being different. Anything can work, provided that

(a) Thing X is integral to the story,

(b) Thing X is apparent from the descriptive paragraph how it is integral to the story (a very common omission), and

(c) the query makes it clear how and why Thing X will appeal to a specific subgroup of your chosen book category’s already-established target readership. Of course, that will be quite a bit easier to establish if

(d) Thing X actually does appeal to that particular subgroup’s sensibilities.

Yet even after having gone over this array of strategies for identifying your target audience, some of you are still toying with leaving it out altogether, are you not? I know, I know: it’s tempting to cling to the notion that people — some people, somewhere — will want to read your book simply because you’ve written it, and written it well. While, let’s face it, until you establish a literary name for yourself, few people who do not know you personally will buy a book solely because it has your name on the cover, it’s perfectly understandable to want potential readers to fall in love with your writing.

For that to happen via traditional publishing, however, someone working with an agency and/or publishing house is going to have to fall in love with the book first — and these are people who think in terms of book categories and target readerships. Learning to describe your manuscript in their language does not mean that your writing is any less beautiful; it merely raises the probability that someone with the power to publish your work will read it.

I’m about to back away slowly now, so you may ruminate on that, but before I do, I would like to ask you to compare a couple more pieces of book-promoting writing. First, harken back to this last summer’s series on conference pitching. Remember the magic first hundred words, the speech that would enable you to talk cogently about your work to any total stranger affiliated with the publishing industry?

”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).”

Knowing my deep ambivalence toward one-size-fits-all formulae, I’m sure it will not surprise you to hear that I would expect a savvy writer to tinker with this format a little. If our pal Whiskers, say, were scheduled to make a formal pitch to agent A. H. Bookmongerson, he might open their conversation like so:

”Hi, I’m Whiskers McGee, and I write mainstream fiction. I’d like to talk to you about my novel, HERE, BOY!, a lighthearted romp about dog-training geared toward that portion of the 60 million dog owners in this country who, although they might not admit it aloud, see their dogs as extensions of themselves — and would get a kick out of a story in which dogs and owners go into psychotherapy together.”

Sounds pretty good in this iteration, doesn’t it? Isn’t it a pity that Whiskers couldn’t use that as the opening paragraph of a query?

Wait a minute — why not? After all, the opening of a query should contain quite a bit of the same information, right?

Dear {agent’s name here},

Since you so ably represented (TITLE OF SIMILAR WORK), I hope you will be interested in my (BOOK CATEGORY) book, (TITLE), geared toward (TARGET MARKET).

(BOOK DESCRIPTION)

Seems as though it would work, doesn’t it? Let’s try plugging in specifics to see what happens.

Dear Ms. Bookmongerson,

Since you so ably represented DROOLY DOGS A-GO-GO, I hope you will be interested in my mainstream novel, HERE, BOY! It’s a lighthearted romp about dog-training geared toward that portion of the 60 million dog owners in this country who, although they might not admit it aloud, see their dogs as extensions of themselves — and would get a kick out of a story in which dogs and owners go into psychotherapy together.

Imogene Crowley (31)…

Not bad, is it? Although identifying your target audience might seem like a maddening limitation of your book’s potential appeal or an intimidating demand that you solve all potential marketing difficulties before you’ve landed an agent, much less a publishing contract, at the query stage, it’s really just a matter of introducing yourself and your writing in the terms Millicent will understand. Trust me, saying who you think is likely to find your book appealing will in no way prevent other readers from buying it, any more than suggesting a target demographic now will rule out promoting your book toward different audiences later on.

Think of it, in other words, not as the end of a conversation about marketing your work, but the beginning.

Next time, we shall dive right back into that checklist we’ve got going. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part VI: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that polyester minidresses are still in style, Barbie?

Barbie ad

Last time, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener, the dedicated and often quite poorly paid individual charged with the awesome task of going through the hundreds upon hundreds of queries a good agency receives each week, deciding what tiny fraction fits closely enough with the resident agents’ interests to warrant requesting pages.

Does that sudden flash of blinding light mean that Millicent’s job description caused light bulbs to appear over some of your heads? Or was it something else? “Oh, I was already aware that it was Millicent’s job to reject over 90% of the queries she sees,” some of the abruptly illuminated call out, “but back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query two paragraphs ago? I was so startled that I almost burned my lip on a too-hot latte, as Millicent always sees to be doing.”

My sympathies on your scalded mouth, campers, but I’m afraid I must make a technical correction: what I described above was a list of the information that absolutely must appear in a query letter in order for Millicent to decide to ask for pages; it wasn’t a formula for how to put it all together. This data could be presented in a million different ways — and should be, because as we have discussed, nothing so bores our Millie as the 5,421rst version of the same ostensibly surefire boilerplate query that’s been making the rounds on the Internet this month.

It would behoove you, therefore, to send her something a trifle more original.

I felt half of you tense up, but you have my permission to relax to the point of lolling: you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends, at least if you have been following Queryfest with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. I have greater ambitions for you than that. You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a relatively pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical leap forward? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would. The first two steps: nailing down a book category and figuring out who your ideal reader is.

A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it. Why? Well, no matter how well-read Millicent and her boss are in your chosen book category, unless you happen to have written a manuscript with exactly the same market appeal as a recent bestseller, neither will necessarily have a clear idea of how many potential readers there are for your book.

The more esoteric your claim to your ideal reader’s sympathies, the more likely this is to be the case, by the way. Let’s assume you’ve written a cozy mystery about a left-handed, redheaded sleuth/clog dancer who breaks her foot by tripping over log while running away from a spider. Now, you could say in your query that your novel will appeal to readers of cozy mysteries — but that’s not likely to come as news to an agent who represents that sub-genre, is it? It’s a tautology: cozy mystery buyers buy cozy mysteries, by definition. You could also claim that your book will appeal to left-handed people, or to redheads, but that would be a hard sell: both of these groups are too large and diverse to render such a claim plausible. You could, however, argue persuasively that there are not at present very many mysteries aimed specifically at clog-dancing enthusiasts, spider-fearers, and/or victims of falling accidents.

That’s not a bad argument — perhaps not the best for the work in question, but certainly a means of demonstrating the possible market appeal of this book. Strategically, you could do worse. However, it would definitely be poor strategy to assume that simply mentioning each of these groups would be sufficient to make your case.

Why not? How likely is either Millicent or her boss to be conversant with the specific demographics of that target audience to be able to say instantly, “Oh, terrific — arachnophobia is one of the most common of all phobias, 1 in 3 Americans over 65 will experience a fall in any given year, and clog dancing has been popular for the last four centuries! That would provide a wealth of different promotional approaches for this book!”

Even if an agency denizen did happen to have that particular array of statistics at her ink-stained fingertips, she’s not going to have the time (and probably not the inclination) to do the math. Although it’s fun to picture, isn’t it? “Let’s see,” Millie muses over your query, “assuming that about 30% of readers will be afraid of spiders, and virtually all of them will know somebody who harbors such a fear (insert adding machine operation sounds here)…and that about 10% of the population is left-handed (click, click, click), although of course that includes the ambidextrous and incompletely dominant as well…and about 13% of the current U.S. population is over 65…carry the three…add that to the national clog sales statistics I have at my elbow…”

Not going to happen. So why make Millicent guess?

In response to the hefty percentage of you who just shouted, “Because tracking down those numbers would be a big, fat pain!”: allow me to suggest that if you do not do that research, it’s terribly unlikely that Millicent will. Even if she happens to be a clogging enthusiast, she’s going to appreciate it if you throw some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is. Not to mention rendering it infinitely easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why, you gasp? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers. No matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given manuscript or book proposal, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

I sense some ambient eye-rolling. “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes — if you happen to be a former president of the United States, a movie star recovering from a drug addiction, or a plain, ordinary writer with previous publishing credentials querying a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire and a werewolf, or a middle-grade novel about a young magician left mysteriously to fend for himself, with the assistant of two friends carefully selected to maximize the probability that young readers will be able to identify with one or the other, in the face of ultimate evil that adults are too dim-witted to see. If you are already a household name or have written a clone of a recent best-seller, it is entirely possible that your target market is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “This memoir gives the inside scoop on the White House,” “This is what it’s like in celebrity rehab,” or, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience, and if you’re already a celebrity or an ex-president, you’re probably not writing your own query letters, anyway. If your manuscript is original — it is, isn’t it? — you’re probably going to have some ‘splaining to do.

Still don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Aspiring writer Ermintrude has written a charming women’s fiction manuscript about Trudymin, an American woman in her early forties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12, as well as the trauma of having grown up with an off-beat name. Miracle of miracles, since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Ermintrude herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.)

Like the vast majority of queriers, Ermintrude has not thought much about her target market before approaching agent Betheen; she just assumes, and rightly, that she’s written a well-crafted women’s fiction novel. Isn’t it enough to say that it will appeal to women?

Um, no: she’s stunned when Betheen tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Ermintrude comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (A tactic a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER embrace, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is too vague to convince Betheen. What Ermintrude really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters. Would you like to hear the demographics on how many of us had oddball names like Sunshine?”

But Betheen heard what Ermintrude SAID in her query and ill-advised follow-up e-mail, not what she MEANT. As they’ve never met, how reasonable was it for Ermintrude to expect Betheen to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Betheen thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Federico) conclude from Ermintrude’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Ermintrude’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Ermintrude says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents, many of whom will have had an elementary school classmate named Zephyr.”

Agent Betheen thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Betheen pitches it to editor Federico this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of underemployed, recycling-conscientious vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Ermintrude has thought through her readership in advance and approaches Betheen with relevant statistics all ready to leap off onto the query page.

Ermintrude says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Betheen responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Federico thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Betheen, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting tale of woe and uproar: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project repeatedly over several years (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often, anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list already in progress. Take a long, hard look at your letter and ask yourself…

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions last time for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Let’s rectify that right now: basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has, alas, made it much, much easier to be dismissive: never have so many been rejected so much with so few keystrokes. So although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

Most aspiring writers don’t even consider doing this — and frankly, it’s easy to see why. Many approach quite a few agents simultaneously, and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. Querying every possible agent one at a time can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I sense some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

What no agency will ever leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So if you heard that most agents prefer exclusive queries, you’ve been misinformed — or have been talking to someone who last queried in the mid-1970s.

Rather than hamstringing your querying efforts by assuming that a relatively rare preference is universal, take the necessary few minutes to check each agency’s querying policies before you send them anything. If you can’t find agency-specific guidelines (and you may not; query with SASE is an exceedingly common agents’ guide listing), it’s safe to assume that (a) they’re not expecting solo queries, so (b) you needn’t even mention multiple queries in your letter. Trust me, (c) if the agent wants an exclusive peek at your manuscript, he’ll tell you so point-blank in the request for pages.

This should, I hope, sound somewhat familiar to those of you who have been querying for a while. If not, I’m more than happy to haul out the broken record player again:

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Fair warning: sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on the agency’s Publisher’s Marketplace page.

I can hear some of you worrying types beginning to gnaw your fingernails down to the elbow, wondering if you sent out multiple queries based upon outdated sets of guidelines, or that the information was coded in a way you did not understand, but again, I would urge you to relax. It’s practically unheard-of for an agent to wake up one fine morning, stretch, and suddenly shout, “Hey, I’m sick of queriers not committing to me from the instant it occurs to them to approach me. I’m going to tell Millicent to dump any query that doesn’t say I’m getting an exclusive look into the recycling bin!”

That’s ridiculous, of course. Many agencies don’t recycle.

Just do your best, and hope for same. If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on how to deal with such a request if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess (and apparently I do), I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time — or Millicent’s.

A query letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel, LEFT-HANDED REDHEAD IN CLOGS. It’s a guaranteed hit with tempestuous coppertops everywhere, and a natural for the talk-show circuit. I enclose a pair of clogs as a gift in the desperate, forlorn hope that a huge, heavy box will be mistaken for a manuscript, and thus this query will end up on someone influential’s desk. Please find me charming?

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, Dear Agent means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, Millicent reasons, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency — and unlikely to the point of rolling around in hysterics on the floor that the querier will have bothered to read the agency’s submission guidelines What’s the hope, then, that requested materials would even remotely resemble professional manuscript pages? And, most agency denizens would additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

The result: virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash, without bothering to read even the first paragraph. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a notorious agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course. To put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

It’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book to a publisher is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

The best way to justify your agent choice is by mentioning one of the agent’s recent sales. (Recent, in publishing-speak, means within the last five years.) Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring her, 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. If she wants to get their vote, she had better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or she’s toast.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who want to believe simply everyone in the universe has read their work. Everyone smart, anyway.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with any book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent {fill in recent title here}, I believe you may be interested in my book, TITLE, a {book category} aimed at {target audience}.”

I can feel your blood pressure rising, but again, relax: 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. If all else fails, call your favorite book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. 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.

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. Are you presenting your work in a way that invites Millicent to take a chance?

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be milking for all it is worth.

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there?

And if you are e-querying, why not mention the conference in the subject line of the e-mail? Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list. Something like this will work just find

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?
Stop cackling, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that routinely accept electronic submissions often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well. If you’re in doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Why? Glad you asked.

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s doubly worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you protest, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it? It’s not as though I did it on purpose.”

I’m afraid intent doesn’t matter much in this instance, but no, these are not necessarily instant-rejection offenses. They often are, though, for obvious reasons.

Oh, it’s not so obvious? Okay, let me ask you: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; verify before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, been interviewed about it, or have written about it in a blog, they will assume that you are aware of it.

Google is your friend, in other words. Take the 5 minutes to check before you query. While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the night:

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I addressing the agent of my dreams as Dear Ms. Smith, rather than Hey, Amy? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie constantly receives queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex. This type of annoying mix-up has led to more agencies posting pictures of their agents on their websites than you’d expect.

If you’re in serious doubt — faced with a grainy photo, no photo at all, an agent with a name like Bo, etc. — call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two polite options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor. Unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should never call an agency until after she has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if she’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely coincidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many talented people so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor. Keep up the good work!