Queryfest, part V: things are not always as they appear to be

No, this is not a composite shot, nor has it been Photoshopped: this is an undoctored snapshot of fish in a hotel lobby. Note how well they coordinate with the wallpaper.

So did I somehow manage to capture flying fish in an unguarded moment? Of course not: as the coral in the bottom right-hand corner might have tipped you off, I took this picture through a large fish tank that had been impeccably cleaned that morning.

The fish are, as one might expect, swimming, and through a more familiar medium than air. Yet while you and I both know that those fish are not actually paddling madly through the lobby, bumping into those hastily checking out, someone unfamiliar with the habits of fish or the ambient conditions of hotel lobbies might assume otherwise, based on what is visible here.

Bear our fishy friends in mind, please, as we wend our way through today’s exploration of all things query-related. This photo illustrates some basic facts of querying: since the writer is so familiar with her own manuscript, she sometimes forgets that the query-reader — the agent of her dreams, or more often, the Millicent employed to screen queries for the agent of her dreams — can judge a queried book’s content only by what actually makes it into the letter. All too often, a vague descriptive paragraph, one that talks about the book rather than telling its story, leaves poor Millie guessing.

Not buying that analogy? Okay, try this one on for size: the chances of landing an agent by addressing a query to just any agent — or, sacre bleu, to Dear Agent at just any agency — without first ascertaining that the intended recipient does in fact represent your type of book are about as high as strolling into a hotel lobby to snag the morning paper and being greeted by fish lazily meandering through the air. It could appear to be the way things work, but if you’ll look a little closer, those seemingly free-ranging fish are confined.

Not crazy about that analogy, either? Here’s an even more fundamental querying truth, a corollary of the first: regardless of what a writer intends to say in a query letter, Millicent must rely upon what it actually says. No matter how beautifully the manuscript in question may be written, if the query is awkward — as, let’s face it, hastily thrown-together missives tend to be — you really can’t blame her for leaping to the conclusion that the manuscript’s writing suffers from the same malady.

Okay, so maybe you are capable of blaming her, in the dark of night and the privacy of your studio. But it isn’t really her fault: a single-page query letter does not provide a heck of a lot of information upon which to make a determination about whether to request manuscript pages. If that information is conveyed poorly — or, even more common, if some of that information doesn’t make it into the query letter for the simple reason that the writer doesn’t know it should be there — the query is often self-rejecting.

What does that have to do with our friends the fish, you ask? No matter how pretty they may look soaring through the air in front of the lobby’s dubious artwork, the sight of them is inherently jarring. The onlooker expects fish to appear only within certain contexts. While a fish out of water will always catch the eye, the connoisseur of fins will be looking to the briny deep to find the best specimens.

Yes, that was rather a stretch, now that you mention it, but I wanted to use the photo. Just present your query as Millicent expects to see it, okay?

Since quite a few of the elements of a professionally-presented query are a bit counterintuitive, especially to those writing one for the first time, it’s important not to rush the process. Yes, it’s tedious, not nearly as much fun as writing the book itself. However, I’d much, much rather see my readers spend an extra week or two on drafting a really good query letter than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Especially if the difference between popping it in the mail on Monday morning and three Mondays from now means being able to have someone whose literary (and grammatical) opinion you trust read your query draft. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. Is she really the first sentient being you want seeing your query?

All too often, the answer is yes, occasionally with disastrous consequences. The dangers of sending off a first draft should be self-evident — and if they are not, allow me to refer you to those earlier fish analogies. (Oh, you thought I had time to run these posts through multiple drafts?) It can take even a very gifted writer a few tries to get it right.

Not that over-tinkering doesn’t carry its own perils. Certain gaffes are as likely to turn up in queries penned by writers accustomed to the querying process as for those new to it.

How is that possible, you scream in horror? The nature of on-screen revision, for one thing. Since most experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each (don’t worry; I’ll be getting to that soon), there tends to be a lot of cutting, pasting, and general rewriting going on between mailings and/or strikings of the SEND button.

Here’s a pop quiz for those of you who were hanging around Author! Author! last spring: what extremely common outcome is likely to plague any piece of writing whose specifics have been constantly being revised over time without its author sitting down and re-reading the whole thing between revisions? Shout it out: it can turn into a Frankenstein manuscript, an unholy mish-mash of half-completed revisions.

The single most common type of Frankenstein query, as we saw last time, is the mismatched salutation and address. Nothing screams out I’m doing a mass mailing of queries, and you, sir, are palpably on the bottom of my wish list! like a letter that runs like the following. (As always, if you’re having trouble reading this example, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing the + key to enlarge the image.)

wrong names query

See the problem? In the stress of sending out multiple queries — a smart strategy in its own right, by the way; with sometimes months-long turn-around times at some agencies and no-reply policies at others, waiting to hear back from Agent A before querying Agent B is a sure-fire strategy for wasting years of your life — Mssr. Flaubert copied the address of one agent onto a letter personalized for another.

What he intended to send (and probably didn’t ever notice he didn’t send) was this:

Clearly, our Gustave fell victim to query fatigue. Quite understandable, of course, but how do you think Ms. Marketer is likely to respond not only to being addressed by the wrong name and with the honorific for the wrong sex, but being congratulated for her speech at a conference she never attended?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

So please, proofread every single query every single time . Yes, even e-queries. Many a Millicent has been left shaking her head regretfully over a dropped word or misspelling in an otherwise admirable query.

Better yet, have a first reader you trust go over it. This is an excellent contribution to your writing career for any significant others, family members, or friends whom you, in your great wisdom, have deemed too fond of you to be trusted to provide critical feedback on your manuscript. (Trust me, “But my mom loved it!” is not an argument that flies well in the publishing industry.) Often, these kind souls are only too glad to help, even with a task as inherently unglamorous as sitting down with your query in one hand and a checklist of the information it needs to contain in the other.

Another great employment for aid-eager friends: have ‘em read your query twice, then set it aside. Talk about something entirely different for five minutes — and then have ‘em tell you the premise of the book and why it will appeal to your target market. (It helps if you tell them up front that “Because Johnny wrote it!” is not an argument Millicent is likely to find convincing.) If you’re feeling really ambitious, hand the letter back to them and ask them to tell you why you’re targeting that particular agent with this particular manuscript.

Seem like a tall order? Actually, it isn’t: if you’ve described the book memorably, even a non-professional should be able to recall its premise. And if you’ve been direct in your first paragraph about why, out of all the proverbial fish in the sea, you’re angling for this one, a lay reader should be able to catch the reference.

A good first reader should also be able to tell you when it’s time to weed out puns like that last one. You wouldn’t want to receive that kind of painful feedback from a total stranger, would you?

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the oh-so-common trap of getting complacent about your basic query. Just because a letter has garnered chapter requests in the past does not mean that it couldn’t use a bit of punching up. Even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of garden-variety query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? For most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic, rather than the book being queried. Out comes the broken record:

broken-recordUnfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin? Remember, all the information Millicent has about your book is on the query page.

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial letter to the manuscript itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic link to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

Of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephonic connection to the demi-gods.

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

It never –- well, almost never — turns out like that. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordBeing a professional writer is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve already seen over the course of Queryfest. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not garnering the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on the delicate art of query diagnosis.

Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-recordThe querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue — and that’s really saying something. It’s as competitive now as it has ever been in my lifetime.

Seriously, there are a heck of a lot of fishies clamoring for just a couple of spots in Millicent’s boss’ aquarium. But before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-recordRe-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website or agency guide listing has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. For any attached pages, the best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine.

My, we’re covering a lot of different types of physical environment today, are we not? Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-recordAs much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support, encouragement, and the occasional spot-check for salutation-matching, not for technical feedback on your writing. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query packet materials a solid reading.

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

As excellent as this advice is, I sense that some of you are already merrily making plans to disregard it. If you are planning to be the only pre-Millicent peruser of your query packet, then I implore you…

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

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute. As Gustave knows to his sorrow, it’s just too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer: it’s a standard instant-rejection trigger. Yes, even if you are e-querying: I covered this earlier in this series, speaking of broken records, but even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visual-aid-assisted run-down on why their being able to tell that is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-recordYou must indent your paragraphs in a mailed query letter — or, indeed, in any writing sample of any length intended for agent-dwelling eyes. Business format is not acceptable in this context.

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or her Millicent) that this is a terrific book by assertion, rather than presenting the premise compellingly? It maybe attempting to summarize the entire plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

Query letters over-reach in these ways all the time. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-recordDon’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page. Just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I devoting too many lines of text to describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. Too often, the plot or argument description overflows its allotted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected this agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-recordRemember, your job in the query is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 20 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know — or a pushy jerk who would be a pain to represent?
Oh, you may laugh, but you’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers sound annoyed, fed up, or just plain unpleasant in their queries. A prime means of creating any of these effects: using the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent.

broken-recordMillicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

Even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not be the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is not the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began Since you agents have set yourselves up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…

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

And third: Before you dismiss this query without reading it, just let me point out…

Be honest now: would you rush out and sign these people, or would you shudder slightly and move on to the next query? If you are even tempted to say the former, I ask you: if you were an agent, would you be willing to introduce a client that sounded like this to an editor? Or would you assume that if you did sign any of these people, you’d have to invest hours on end lecturing them about how to present themselves professionally?

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Oh, you think I’m joking about that last one? In the current informal environment, addressing total strangers by their first names, making assumptions about what they’re like, and even presuming similarities are far from uncommon, alas. But publishing is a formal business; manners still count.

I see that’s having little effect on you; you want to see just how disastrous a too-familiar approach could possibly be. Okay, let’s toss it in the water and see how it swims:

“Why is this writer leaping to all of these conclusions about my boss?” Millicent mutters. “Even if this Gustave person had any basis for them, this would still be kind of creepy. And what’s the deal with the less-than-standard-length page?”

Oh, Millie, you should be grateful that this message wasn’t scrawled in a greeting card. Possibly with kittens on the front. This Gustave guy sounds positively desperate.

Trust me on this one: a cold query to an agent you’ve never clapped eyes upon before is not the place to demonstrate how friendly you are. Nor is it the proper moment to draw conclusions about that agent’s personality, preferences, or motivations. Even if you should happen to guess right, you’re not applying for the job of this person’s best friend, after all: you’re a writer seeking this agent’s professional services.

Show that you can maintain appropriate boundaries. A great rule of thumb: let the agent set the level of familiarity. Don’t address an agent (or, indeed, anyone in the publishing industry) in familiar terms — like, say, by first name alone — until she addresses you that way first.

Which is to say: keep that salutation formal. And keep the begging to a minimum, will ya?

Instead, demonstrate that you are a serious writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is not a charitable activity aimed at the betterment of the human condition. It’s often that, too, but at base, publishing is a business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief to Millicent.

Oh, yes, there are more points to the checklist, but frankly, I can’t keep up the fish analogies. Keep swimming forward, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Entr’acte: an increasingly common criticism that simply makes no sense in literate circles

I’m a trifle miffed today, campers — but probably not at you. If you are one of the many of Author! Author! readers who leave substantive, interesting questions in the comments (thank you!), or one of the overwhelming majority that do not comment at all (I hope you’re finding the posts helpful!), please accept my gratitude, but you might want to avert your eyes from this one. As I have noted many times, readers’ questions have improved this blog remarkably over the years — and certainly plumped up the archives. Indeed, having question-specific archive categories at all was a reader’s idea. (Thanks, Dave!)

I intend to post a new Queryfest entry later this evening for all of you. For the moment, however, I’m going to address those who post non-substantive comments here. Particularly those who have evidently picked up on the latest trend in spam commenting: criticizing bloggers who post more than a couple of paragraphs at a time.

It’s perhaps not surprising that commenters bring this up from time to time. My posts do tend to be unusually long, even for a business that assumes anyone seriously interested in pursuing it professionally would have the requisite attention span to read not only in-depth magazine articles (which are often about the length of my average post), but actual books. People looking for quick answers to simple questions might well find extensive, thoughtful discussions off-putting, but as I explained at some length in a recent post, both the writing life and the publishing world are complex. If they weren’t, why would they be interesting enough for an editor to continue blogging about them for six years?

Perhaps more to the point, my blog is known as a place to find out how to do the things that pretty much any U.S.-based agent or editor will expect a talented new writer to know how to do. How to query, for instance. How to write a synopsis. How to create a verbal pitch. How to format a manuscript professionally.

None of these are matters that can be explained adequately in just a few paragraphs. If they were, all that an aspiring writer would need to do to learn the ropes of publishing would be to plug a term like query into a search engine, spend 15 minutes reading, and walk away fully informed.

I assume that some of you, at least, have tried just that. How did it work out for you?

I’ve said it before, and apparently I need to keep saying it: I write this blog because, in my experience, it’s quite difficult for even the most talented new writer to find out what agents and editors expect to see. I write about matters at length because, unlike most of the rule-barkers out there, I don’t believe a reasonable, intelligent writer should follow a rule just because a self-styled expert says so. As I point out early and often, I don’t expect my readers to take my word for any of this: I presume that the members of the Author! Author! community are intelligent enough to want to know why they should be following my advice.

So if you just want to be told what to do in bullet points, this probably isn’t the blog for you. While it’s kind of you to want to take the time to post comments like, “My, what a long post this is,” I assure you, I’m already aware of it. I do it on purpose. Other readers seem to find it helpful, but if you prefer super-short posts, I can only encourage you to seek them elsewhere.

Instead of, say, ordering me to make my posts shorter. That’s not advice I’m likely to take until getting published magically becomes easy for first-time writers.

I’m especially unlikely to take it now, since so many serious writers on writing have been receiving scads of comments to this effect within the last couple of months, seldom couched in terms that indicate the objection is a response to the specific post’s content. All of a sudden, writers of helpful, practical blogs are being inundated with admonitions to be less wordy.

Why the rush to judgment on this point? Usually, when the same critique pops up on a wide array of blogs simultaneously, it’s either because a single person (known in blogging circles as a troll) has posted essentially the same comment everywhere under an array of different names, in an attempt to start arguments, or a new illegitimate link-creator has figured out that many spam filters will not weed out comments that appear to be critical. (You’d be surprised at how many web presence-boosting services accomplish it by posting links in fake comments on blogs.) Or — and this is the most common — some ostensibly authoritative online source has begun leveling that criticism at its competitors, and people are simply parroting it.

Which is why, in case some of you who have been passing along this type of comment have been wondering, many blog programs now automatically weed out comments that seem repetitive or prefabricated. Especially likely to trigger the filter: comments that neither address the subject matter of the post in question or do so under an obviously fake name. (For reasons that surpass understanding, a hefty percentage of spam-for-pay services simply use the product’s name as the commenter’s moniker.)

While my spam filter prevents most such comments from bugging my readers — a spam-clogged comments section discourages discussion, I find — not all of the recent iterations of the it’s too long! plaint have been as easy to categorize as spam vs. legitimate comment. I have in fact saved a few from the spam filter’s maw, because there seemed to be an actual human being behind the repetitive comment. The accompanying arguments in these have ranged from the commenter’s not having time to read a complex argument of any sort (on a post in the middle of a series that took up most of the summer; apparently, it took until Part XIII for the commenter to notice that my posts tend to run on the long side) to a claim that an entire post could have been summed up in a single rule (evidently, he had missed that the entire post was an explanation of that particular rule).

Heck, a recent commenter excoriated me for having taken the time to answer questions he had the comments. He said that my reply was too long.

I swear I am not making that up: a blog reader came to me for specific advice, then berated me for having written a complex reply to his complex questions. How awful of me to have taken his concerns seriously enough to invest some time in answering them.

Now, I don’t really mind answering questions on back blog posts: there’s a lot of practical advice here, and it’s completely understandable that writers new to the game might have follow-up questions. Indeed, past readers’ questions tend to contribute mightily to the length of my posts; as those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! are aware, I often incorporate readers’ questions into discussions of particular topics. Heck, it’s not uncommon for me to write a post, or even a series, in response to a particularly good question.

Like most bloggers conscientious about responding to comments, I don’t expect to receive credit for answering questions on sometimes years-old back posts. It’s an activity invisible to the majority of Author! Author! habitués who read the top posts regularly, archive-diving only when they have a specific question.

I do mind, however, having my time wasted. So, it turns out, do many other bloggers who write substantively on writing. In order to reserve our blogging time for those who actually enjoy our blogs, some bloggers have decided simply to mark all repetitive comments as spam, rather than responding to them as individual criticisms — as, indeed, they may not be.

I’m not going to do that, on the off chance that at least some of these comments genuinely are cris de coeur from serious aspiring writers in a hurry to glean as much bottom-line information as hastily as possible. Instead, I am simply going to refer any future commenters with this objection — at least, those whose comments have no other subject matter — to this post.

See why I warned away those who use the comments to ask questions — and are happy to receive thoughtful answers?

Because I suspect that this particular objection is just a fad, possibly picked up from ambient political discourse, I’m also going to take the time to explain to those who feel it is a legitimate complaint why exclaiming it’s too long! about writing as short as my average post is an objection highly unlikely to strike anyone even vaguely affiliated with publishing as a valid or even memorable critique. (FYI, the reason members of Congress have been complaining about the length of bills lately is not that bills have gotten longer — hundreds of pages has been standard for decades — but because the Speaker cut the budget for administrative staff in half at the beginning of this year. Fewer on-staff readers equals more disgruntlement at document length.)

Here’s the reason the objection will fall flat: anyone who works with books for a living hears this not as a plea for a more concise argument for its own sake; we all know that while brevity is desirable in some formats — poetry, for instance — a 400-word essay is not inherently better than a 4,000-word essay. It all depends on the content and the and the target audience. Heck, agents and editors of books seldom bring up length at all unless a manuscript is longer than 400 pages.

So what those of us who deal in the printed word hear when readers complain that a piece is too long is not gee, I feel that this argument didn’t require so many examples or wow, I’m interested in this topic, but I have only a two-minute coffee break in which to read it, but — brace yourselves, brevity-huggers — I have a really, really short attention span. As a result, I not only think the average newspaper article is way too long; I eschew magazines as well. And I would not even consider buying a book. Cater to my preferences, please!

I have news for you, short-is-always-better advocates: the Internet is largely set up for people like you. Go find 200-word discussions of topics that have perplexed scholars for centuries, if that’s what makes you happy; there’s certainly no shortage of them. If that’s how you prefer to acquire information, this is a great time for you to be doing it.

Go seek out those super-brief sources, with my blessing. All I ask, all any of us who blog in depth ask, is that you not demand that 100% of the information on the Internet take precisely the same form.

To each his own. Because I honestly do like to help aspiring writers, I would also add: please don’t assume that stating a preference for brevity is going to win you Brownie points with those who create or sell books for a living.

Why? Well, for those of you who have not had your ear to the ground in publishing circles lately, book sales have declined remarkably in recent years. So have magazine and newspaper circulations. It’s not altogether astonishing, then, that the people who make their livings by producing publications might harbor just a tinge of resentment toward folks who feel that any multi-page argument is inherently too long, regardless of subject matter.

At minimum, those who work in long form are unlikely to regard such complainers as their target audience. Why, after all, would purveyors of book-length writing pay much attention to the criticism of someone who makes it quite plain that he seldom reads books? Especially when such comments appear on blogs that agents and editors have been known to read, the backlash can be considerable.

So please bear in mind the probable impact of demands to shorten information that’s being provided to you for free online. Even if you’ve seen that critique leveled elsewhere often enough in recent weeks for it to seem valid, it’s just not likely to strike either those who write, those who represent writers, those who publish, or even those who like to read as a reasonable criticism.

Best of luck finding that 150-word summary of how to write a successful query letter elsewhere, though. Regardless of where you choose to glean the requisite information, keep up the good work.

Queryfest, part IV: wait, you mean it matters how it looks on the page?

So far in the course of Queryfest posts, I have been talking about how to present your book project so that it sounds like a professional writer’s argument that a manuscript is worth a peek, rather than a carnival hawker’s introducing the Greatest (fill in the blank here) in the World. Take a peep behind the curtain for only 10 cents!

Both are intended to prompt the onlooker to want to look, of course, but as we discussed last time, hard sells (You’ll be sorry if you let this book slip through your fingers, Mr. Agent!), self-assessments (This book contains the most exciting chariot race since Ben Hur!), and the ever-popular claim of universal appeal (every woman who has ever had a best friend will want to read this novel!) tend to fall flat in queries. Agents like to make up their own minds about the quality of writing. A much savvier way of piquing their interest: a straightforward, professionally-worded description of what your book is about, who its specific intended readership is, and why you think the agent you’re addressing would be a good fit for it.

What’s that you say, campers? You would like to see some concrete examples of queries done well and others that miss the mark?

What an excellent idea; the rest of Querypalooza shall be stuffed to the gills with plenty of both. Rather than leap right into questions of content, however, let’s get ourselves accustomed to how a query should — and should not — look on the printed page.

Gird your loins, campers: today, we’re going to be tackling the purely cosmetic issues.

I hear some of you grumbling already, do I not? “But Anne!” a few voices protest out there in the ether. “I can understand why I need to make my manuscript appear professional by adhering to the rules of standard format, considerately gathered for my benefit under the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list conveniently located on the lower right-hand side of this page, but a query letter rises or falls purely on its content, doesn’t it? As long as I do not scrawl it in crayon on tissue paper, why should I worry about what it looks like?”

Good question: why is it in your interest to pay attention to the superficial side of querying? Because in a mailed query, formatting and presentation are the first things Millicent the agency screener notices. It’s the first indication she has of just how familiar a writer has made herself with how the publishing industry actually works.

Okay, I’m afraid I didn’t quite catch all of the implications of that gale-force collective gasp. Did it indicate (a) a certain level of surprise that Millicent will be judging anything but the content of the query, (b) a shocked realization that the denizens of agencies might perhaps harbor some expectations about how the information in a query should be presented, rather than simply regarding it as a free-form expression of creativity, and/or (c) a clawing, pathological fear that the seventeen queries you sent out last week for your memoir about living in the wilderness for five years might lose some credibility because they were written on bark with blackberry juice?

In the interest of rendering the comparisons to follow as useful to as broad a range of queriers as possible, I’m going to assume it was all of the above. And rather than tell you why our Millie’s view of a query might be colored by how it is presented, I’m going to show you.

Because first impressions can be indelible, before I demonstrate just how a poorly presented query looks wrong, let’s take a gander at what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim — lest we forget, rote reproductions abound in rejection piles — but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice.

And please, those of you who only e-query: don’t assume that none of what I’m about to say about traditional paper queries is inapplicable to you. Even agents who accept only e-mailed queries were weaned on mailed ones; the paper version is still the industry standard, dictating what does and does not look professional to folks in the biz. Even if there is no paper whatsoever involved in your querying process, you should still be aware of how query letters should appear on a page.

For ease of comprehension, I’ve decided to construct a query for a book whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY. (At least, I hope that those of you who write novels about the human condition will be familiar with it. If not, and you are at all interested in learning anything about how a few vivid details can light up a page, I would highly recommend your picking up a copy.) If you’re having trouble reading this example at its current size, try holding down the COMMAND key and pushing the + key a couple of times to enlarge the image.

Makes the book sound pretty compelling, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you ask to see the first 50 pages?

After the last few posts, I hope it’s clear to you why this is an awfully good query letter: in addition to containing all of the required elements, it presents the book well, in businesslike terms, without coming across as too pushy or arrogant. Even more pleasing to Millicent’s eye, it makes the book sound genuinely interesting and describes it in terms that imply a certain familiarity with how the publishing industry works. (The date on the letter is when the first installment of MADAME BOVARY was published, incidentally; I couldn’t resist.)

Well done, Gustave! It’s perfectly obvious that, in addition to having written a whale of a good book, you were professional enough to learn how the agent of your dreams would expect to see that book’s many excellencies presented in a query.

For the sake of comparison, let’s take a gander at what the query might have looked like had Mssr. Flaubert not done his homework.

You see what’s wrong with this version, right? Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

No, but seriously, I hope that you spotted the unsupported boasting, the bullying, disrespectful tone, and the fact that this query doesn’t really describe the book. Also, to Millicent’s eye, its being addressed to Dear Agent and undated would indicate that ol’ Gustave is simply plastering the entire agent community with queries, regardless of individual agents’ representation preferences.

That alone would almost certainly lead her to reject MADAME BOVARY out of hand, without reading the body of the letter at all. And those ten pages the agency’s website or listing in a standard agents’ guide said to send? Returned unread to our pal Gus.

The Dear Agent letter has a first cousin that also tends to engender automatic rejection. It’s a gaffe to which even very experienced queriers routinely fall prey. See if you can spot it in its natural habitat:

bad-flaubert-query-letter-2

If you reared back in horror, exclaiming, “Oh, no! Our Gustave has sent the query to agent Clarissa Richardson, but left the salutation from what was probably his last query to agent Tom Jones!” congratulations: you win a gold star with walnut clusters. Since the advent of the home computer, aspiring writers have been falling into this trap constantly; cutting and pasting only works if all of the personalized elements get changed each and every time.

The cure? Pull out your hymnals, long-time readers, and sing along: read EVERY SYLLABLE of each query letter IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD before you send it, every single time you send it.

Yes, even if you are e-querying or pasting a letter into a form on an agency’s website. Do not hit SEND until you have made absolutely sure that the salutation matches the recipient.

Did you catch the two other major problems with both versions of this letter? Go ahead; go back and look again.

First, how exactly is the agent to contact Gustave to request him to send the manuscript? She can’t, of course, because Mssr. Flaubert has made the mistake of leaving out that information, as an astonishingly high percentage of queriers do.

Why? I suspect it’s because they assume that if they include a SASE (that’s Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you new to the trade, and it should be included with every mailed query and submission unless the agency’s website specifically says otherwise), the agent already has their contact information. But if, heaven forfend, the SASE and the query get separated — hey, Millicent’s desk has been known to hold reams and reams of paper at any given moment — or, as is increasingly common, the agency prefers to respond to queries via e-mail, Gus is out of luck.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought: no matter how great the query makes the book appear to be, Millie is not going to take the time to track down Gustave’s address. “I don’t care if it is the next A SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION,” she sniffs, moving on to the next query. “I have 500 queries to get through before I can go home tonight.”

Aspiring writers are even less likely to include their contact information in e-mailed queries. “Why bother?” the e-query thinks, blithely hitting SEND. “All the agent needs to do to get in touch with me is hit REPLY, right?”

Not necessarily: e-mailed queries get forwarded from agent to assistant and back again all the time. Millicent’s hitting REPLY might just send the joyous news that she wants to read your first 50 pages to someone in the next cubicle.

I hesitate to bring this up, but it’s also not unheard-of for e-mails to be sent to the wrong querier, or for SASEs to get mixed up. I once received a kind rejection for someone else’s book stuffed into my SASE. I returned the manuscript with a polite note informing the agency of the mistake, along with the suggestion that perhaps they had lost my submission.

True story. To add a happy ending: the agency assistant who wrote the extremely apologetic response to my having handled it professionally grew up to be my current agent, now a senior agent at the same agency.

The moral: don’t depend on the SASE or return button alone. Include your contact information either below your signature or in the header.

This is especially important if you happen to be querying a US-based agent from outside the US. English-speaking foreign writers often presume, wrongly, that US agents have a strong preference for working with the locals, that not being able to fly a few thousand miles for frequent face-to-face meetings would be a deal-breaker, or that an expatriate would be better off using her mom’s home address in Indiana so as to appear to be living in North America. As a result, they tend not to mention in their (almost invariably e-) queries that they and their manuscripts are not currently stateside.

However, the US is a mighty big country, and e-mailing is inexpensive; distance is not a deal-breaker, typically. NYC-based agents have been representing clients without meeting them in person since the early 20th century. Some agencies might deduct the cost of international phone calls from the advance, just as they might choose to charge the writer for photocopying, but in the era of e-mail and Skype, that’s increasingly rare.

Go ahead and include your contact information, wherever you are. Being far-flung might even be a selling point, if the agent happens to like to travel. (Oh, you don’t think the agent of your dreams would like to crash for a few days on your couch in London?)

But I digress. Back to the diagnosis already in progress.

Gustave’s second problem is a bit more subtle, not so much a major gaffe as a small signal to Millicent that the manuscript to which the letter refers might not be professionally polished. Any guesses?

If you said that it was in business format rather than correspondence format, congratulations: you’ve been paying attention. In a mailed submission, this format would strike most Millicents as less literate than precisely the same letter properly formatted. (It would be fine in an e-mailed submission, where indented paragraphs are harder to format.)

Any other diagnoses? No? Okay, let me infect the good query with the same virus, to help make the problem a bit more visible to the naked eye:

See it now? This otherwise estimable letter is written in Helvetica, not Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the preferred typefaces for manuscripts.

Was that huge huff of indignation that just billowed toward space an indication that favoring one font over another in queries strikes some of you as a trifle unfair? Especially since very few agencies openly express font preferences for queries (although a few do; check their websites and/or agency guide listings).

To set your minds at ease, I’ve never seen font choice alone be a rejection trigger. I can tell you from very, very long experience working with aspiring writers that queries in the standard typefaces do seem to be treated with a touch more respect.

I know; odd. But worth knowing, don’t you think?

Font size, however, often does prompt knee-jerk rejection; stick to 12 point.

Don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a modified version of the good query, accidentally mailed out in 14-point type:

Yes, yes, I know: you probably wouldn’t even dream of having sent it out this way on purpose — but are you absolutely positive that your default font is 12 point, not 14? Are you sure that when you copied your letter from Word and pasted it into an e-mail, your e-mail program didn’t alter the query into the 14-point type you prefer for composing e-mails?

The moral: even if you have sent out essentially the same query letter dozens of times (oh, don’t pretend that you’ve never just pasted in new contact information to an already-used letter), it’s very much in your interest to read it over each time. You’d be surprised how often simple slips of the mouse result in some rather odd outcomes on the query page. Or how frequently e-mails arrive looking substantially different than their authors intended.

While we’re on the subject of cosmetic problems, let’s take a look at another common yet purely structural way that well-written query letters can send off an unprofessional vibe:

Not all that subtle, this: a query letter needs to be limited to a SINGLE page. This restriction is taken so seriously that very, very few Millicents would even start to read this letter.

Why are agencies so rigid about length when dealing with people who are, after all, writers promoting book-length works? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: TIME. Can you imagine how lengthy the average query letter would be if agencies didn’t limit how long writers could ramble on about their books?

Stop smiling. It would be awful, at least for Millicent.

Fortunately, the one-page limit seems to be the most widely-known of querying rules, if one of the most often fudged in e-queries. “What’s Millicent going to do?” the fudger mutters. “Print it out in order to catch me at my little ruse? She doesn’t have that kind of time.”

Which is rather unfair to screeners, since e-queries can, since they omit the date and address salutation at the top of the message, be several lines longer and still fit within the one-page ideal. I just mention. If you’re fearful of running long, compose your query in Word, ascertain that it could be printed onto a single page, then copy and paste it into an e-mail.

The one-page limit is so widely known, in fact, that aspiring writers frequently tempt Millicent’s wrath through conjuring tricks that force all of the information the writer wishes to provide onto a single page. Popular choices include minimizing the margins:

or shrinking the font size:

or, most effective at all, using the scale function under Page Setup in Word to shrink the entire document:

Let me burst this bubble before any of you even try to blow it up to its full extent: this sort of document-altering magic will not help an over-long query sneak past Millicent’s scrutiny, for the exceedingly simple reason that she will not be fooled by it.

Not even for a nanosecond. The only message such a query letter sends is this writer cannot follow directions.

An experienced contest judge would not be fooled, either, incidentally, should you be thinking of using any of these tricks to crush a too-lengthy chapter down to the maximum acceptable page length. Ditto for pages requested for submissions to agencies or publishing houses: if you shrink it, they will know. And they won’t appreciate your attempt to trick them,

Why am I so certain that any professional reader will catch strategic shrinkage? For precisely the same reason that deviations from standard format in manuscripts are so obvious to professional readers: the fact that they read correctly-formatted pages ALL THE TIME.

Don’t believe the tricks above wouldn’t be instantaneously spottable? Okay, glance at them, then take another peek at our first example of the day:

Viewed side-by-side, the formatting differences are pretty obvious, aren’t they? Even in the extremely unlikely event that Millicent isn’t really sure that the query in front of her contains some trickery, all she has to do is move her fingertips a few inches to the right or the left of it, open the next query letter, and perform an enlightening little compare-and-contrast exercise.

Don’t tempt her to do it. It will not end well for you.

The benefits of eschewing formatting skullduggery is not the only thing I would like you to learn from today’s examples, however. I would also like you to take away this: with one egregious exception, these examples were more or less the same query letter in terms of content, all pitching the same book. Yet only one of these is at all likely to engender a request to read the manuscript.

What does that mean, in practical terms? Even a great book will be rejected at the querying stage if it is queried or pitched poorly.

Yes, many agents would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose on the manuscript page — but with a query letter like the second, or with some of the sneaky formatting tricks exhibited here, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero. Millicent receives too many well-written queries from writers who follow the rules to waste even a moment regretting those who do not.

The moral, should you care to know it: how a writer presents his work — in the query or on the manuscript page — matters.

That means, by extension, that even a long list of rejections based upon an improperly-formatted query might well be unreflective of how Millicent would respond to the same manuscript as presented in an impeccable query. So keep refining that query, campers: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a bookstore today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Oh, don’t pretend that you haven’t considered giving up. Deep down, pretty much every aspiring writer believes that if she were really talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it at all. It’s an incredibly common writerly fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand.

“I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “Here, sign this, so I may sell the manuscript I have not yet read to that editor who is waiting at the car parked at your curb.”

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

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

I have nothing against a good fantasy (especially of the SF/Fantasy genre), but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by daydreams. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given moment.

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

Feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted.

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part III: eschewing the classic annoyance triggers, or, leaving that leaf unturned may cost you

Still hanging in there, campers? By this point in my annual examination of all things query-related, I’m accustomed to hearing howls of anguish out there in the ether. I’ve caught the occasional whimper, but still, I’m worried that I may already have stunned you into mute horror with my accounts of just how competitive the agent-finding market is these days.

Because that particular Medusa has turned many a talented would-be author’s dreams to stone, I’m going to start slowly today. Let’s ease into a hardcore discussion of query letters in a casual manner, with a nice, calming, verdure-based anecdote about interpersonal vitriol.

Until a couple of years ago, I lived next door to people who simply couldn’t abide trees, or indeed, greenery in any form. I’m not talking about a minor antipathy to the odd magnolia or a reasonable fear that a nearby swaying cedars might drop a branch on the house during a nasty windstorm, either — the mere sight of any leaf-bearing living thing irritated the adults in this family into a frenzy of resentment.

Their especial aversion: if the leaf in question happened to detach itself from its parent plant and respond to gravity. The very thought of a pile of autumn leaves rendered them apoplectic; to suggest, however gently, that the season might have been nicknamed fall for a reason was to invite an 18-minute tirade on the troublesomeness of plant matter. Not so much as a stray blade of grass ever seemed to evade their notice; their yard could not have had more impervious surfaces had it been an industrial kitchen.

At least twice a year, the Smiths (not their real name, but a clever pseudonym designed to hide their true identities) would demand that we chop down our magnificent 60-foot willow tree, on the grounds that occasionally, one of its leaves would be wafted onto their porch. They also had it in for another neighbor’s apple tree, our pear, and a few innocent pines across the street. After the city declined to remove an 80-foot fir, the Smiths very pointedly ripped out their (uncovered, with five children in residence) swimming pool because, they told us huffily, OTHER PEOPLE’S leaves kept blowing into it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The arborist said he sees that a lot.

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

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

To them, we had a monopoly on the ability to change the situation. That, to put it mildly, irked them so much that each spring, I trembled for the baby hawks. Seen from our side of the fence, though, the Smiths possessed a far from insignificant power: all of the neighborhood-annoying ability that molesting wildlife, intimidating our cat, poisoning our trees, and encouraging each of their five children to take up a musical instrument could convey.

On sunny days, the tots practiced scales in their spotless yard. We were on board with it until the youngest brought home a tuba.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nobody wins, in short.

While you’re thoughtfully crunching popcorn and turning that little parable over in your mind, I’m going to switch gears and talk about that great annoyer of the fine folks on the writer’s side of the querying-and-submission fence, querying fatigue. Those of you who have been seeking agents for a while are familiar with the phenomenon, right? It’s that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection.

“Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?”

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

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

Querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads only your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing. Logically speaking, to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your manuscript.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, don’t roll your eyes. Even at a mere 30 seconds per query — far less than writers would like, but still, about average — screening 800-1500 queries per week would equal one full work day each week doing absolutely nothing else…like, say, reading all of those submissions from aspiring writers whose pages she actually requested.

Besides, from her point of view, why should she take the time to read the entirety of a query letter whose first paragraph or two is covered with those annoying leaves? Why wouldn’t she assume that if the query is filled with typos, the five pages the agency’s submission guidelines said you could send would be similarly unpolished, too?

“Someone ought to take a rake to this letter,” she grumbles, slurping down her latte. “Next!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I know — I’ve talked about this one already in this series, but it’s such a common Millicents’ pet peeve that it can’t be repeated enough. Agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, and rightly so. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

He’s MAKING the bed, naturally, children. Go practice your tuba in the yard.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

whereas

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

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

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

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

As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to consider while examining a query that’s already been rejected a few times:

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

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

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

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use to try to sell it to an editor at a publishing house?
An effective query describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise. (If you’re not certain how to do that, don’t worry — we’ll be getting to the nuts and bolts in a few days.)

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

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant. You don’t have very much space in a query letter; use it to provide only the information that will help an agent see just how marketable your book actually is.

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

* it is clear,

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

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

* it is politely worded,

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

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

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

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

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

You would not believe how few query letters that agencies receive actually exhibit all of these traits. Even the fiction/nonfiction bit is often omitted. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because gaffes like these make it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

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

A particularly common feature to omit: the book category. Many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories, not vague descriptions like well, it’s sort of based on something that really happened to me or it’s a combination Western/romance novel/science fiction epic, with elements of humor thrown in. What’s an agent to do with a description like that? Where would such a book reside in a bookstore? How would a reader looking for such a book describe it to a bookstore employee, or find it on Amazon?

More to the point at querying time, how would the agent know which imprints would consider publishing such a book? It would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label, for the exceedingly simple reason that book categories are how the industry keeps track of which readers are buying which books. If a query says a book is a Highland romance, the agent knows right away who the target reader is, what that reader expects to see on the page (roughly, anyway), and how well books in that category tend to sell. If, on the other hand, the query describes that same book as a well-written examination of two passionate lovers — one in a kilt, one in a dress — as they face terrifying conflicts and moving emotional wrenches, the agent would actually have to read the book before even beginning to think about which editors might be interested in it.

I see that glint in your eye, but no, that’s not a good thing, from the querier’s perspective. Millicents seldom request manuscript pages because they’re curious about what kind of a book is being queried. Most often, if they can’t categorize the book at a glance, they will just reject the query.

Most of the time, omitting the book category is simply the result of ignorance: the overwhelming majority of queriers simply don’t know that it’s necessary to include. They know what kinds of books they’ve written, after all; it doesn’t occur to them that the category wouldn’t be self-evident. Other queriers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, fail to mention their book’s category for strategic reasons, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of writer reasons, “so I just won’t tell them what kind of book I’ve written until after they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: publishing simply doesn’t work that way. If Millicent cannot tell from your query where your book will eventually rest on a shelf, she’s not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time. (It’s happened to me, and recently.) As long as people in the industry speak and even think of books by category, though, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

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

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

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

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself? Or, to put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style?

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

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or the state in which they reside. It really is that basic, in their world. And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in, are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.

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

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

Don’t give Millicent’s psychic skills a workout; be specific, and describe your work in the language she and her boss understand. Otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

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

But don’t, whatever you do, vent your completely understandable frustration in self-defeating leaf-dumping. It’s a waste of energy, and it will not result in the outcome you want. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part II: the infamous self-rejecting query, or, when is a letter addressed to a business not a business letter?

Querying, I think we all can agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it. It generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in sending one out is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way. Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

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

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

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

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

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

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

This isn’t at all uncommon, by the way; even very talented fledgling writers often harbor unrealistic ideas about how books find representation. Let’s face it, we all know at least one writer who has blithely sent off a query, expecting to receive in reply an immediate offer of representation, only to be astonished to learn that the agent to whom he sent it actually wants to read his manuscript before making a commitment. Chances are that you’re also acquainted with a writer, perhaps the same one, laboring under the illusion that a really good book will move from the query stage to publication, or at least an offer of publication, within a matter of weeks. Then there’s the writer flabbergasted when her query does not receive an instantaneous response, and the one stunned to realize that it often takes 3-6 months or even longer for an agent to get back to a writer about a submitted manuscript.

And hands up, anybody who also knows a writer who, after his first query was rejected (or, as has become increasingly common, did not generate a response at all), decides that there’s no need to query anyone else. If one agent rejected it, they all will, right?

Wrong on every point, I’m afraid. Chant it with me now, veterans of Queryfest, Part I: agents are individuals, with individual tastes; they represent specific book categories, not books in general; therefore, there is no such thing as a single manuscript — or a perfect query letter — that will please every agent, everywhere, every time.

The query letter structure I proposed last time — not the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page.

Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers try to do.

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

Hey, I went to a small school. My class wasn’t even big enough to sustain exclusive cliques.

Believe it or not, a book project that generates masses of rejected queries is not necessarily a bad book concept, poorly written, or even unmarketable. Rejection is often a function of heavy competition, agent specialization, and aspiring writers not being aware of what information a query letter is supposed to contain.

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

I sense some of you clutching your chests, all set to launch into a full-blown panic attack, but you can relax. I’m not talking about spilling your soul onto a single sheet of paper.

I’m talking about making your query letter unique. And not in the all-too-common misdefinition of the word as a synonym for special. I mean unique in its proper sense of one of a kind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound like anyone you know?

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

The gates of the Emerald City are not going to open unless you knock, people. I’ve said it before, and I shall no doubt say it again: the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published is the one that is never queried or pitched.

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

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

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

Are you rending your garments and shouting, “Why, Lord, why?” Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph. They are, in fact, self-rejecting.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

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

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

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

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

Everyone in the country will want to read this book!

Women everywhere will want to buy this book!

This book is like nothing else on the market!

There’s never been a novel/memoir/nonfiction book on this subject before!

And, of course, the all-time most common:

It’s a natural for Oprah!

Admittedly, Millicent sees this one less often since Oprah’s network show went off the air, but you’d be surprised at how little the demise of Oprah’s book club caused the frequency of this claim’s appearing in query letters to diminish. Five years ago, it wasn’t at all uncommon for Millicent to see this assertion ten or fifteen times per day.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble (yet I do seem to be doing it quite a bit lately, don’t I?), but even back when Oprah’s book club was in full swing and concentrating on living authors, this claim was seldom credible to professional eyes, unless the author could legitimately include in the query the date upon which she was already booked to appear on the show. Ditto with all of the boasts above, actually: to Millicent, these are all absurd statements to discover in a query letter.

Yes, even if the book in question actually is the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks. After one has heard the same claim 1500 times, it starts to lose a little vim.

“Why do these queriers keep telling me that their books are unique?” Millicent grumbles, reaching for her fourth latte of the afternoon. “Why aren’t they SHOWING me?”

Ah, there’s the rub: assertions like these simply are not as effective at establishing a writer’s ability or a story’s appeal as demonstrating both practically, through well-written sentences and a summary containing lively and unusual details. At base, all of these hard-sell statements are reviews — and not, let’s face it, from the most credible source. Authors tend, after all, to be slightly partial to their own work.

Or so the pros surmise from the scads and scads of queries telling them point-blank that this book or that is terrific.
Even in the rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would you be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

To put it another way, if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Enough to stop in your tracks, giving up all hope of getting your errands done that morning, and ask him for information about his pie-making process? Based upon only his self-assessment, would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth?

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

Oh, you may laugh, but honestly, expecting an agent to ask to read a manuscript purely because you think it might sell well to a non-specific audience is the literary equivalent of that pie-pusher’s telling a passerby to open wide and swallow. Requesting manuscript pages means setting aside time (usually Millicent’s first, then, if she approves it, the agent’s) out of very busy schedules to engage in intensive reading. Why would agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history in a query — or educational background, or even platform — if not to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production before agreeing to invest the time in ingesting it?

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

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

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

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

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

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there?

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

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

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is the best novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH; several of my first readers/my writing teacher/my mother said so. Even if I did happen to be clutching the hems of their respective garments at the time, begging piteously for some positive feedback on my writing, isn’t it relevant in a query that I’m not the only human being that thinks I can write?”

Well, yes and no, garment-clutchers. Yes, you should mention in your query letter if someone of whom Millicent is likely to have heard and whose opinion she is likely to respect has said, preferably in writing, that your manuscript will revolutionize literature as we know it. At least if s/he meant it in a positive sense.

No, you should not bring up that someone of whom the literary world at large has never heard has compared you to Leo Tolstoy. Trust me on this one: it’s just going to sound like yet another boast

Think about it: why would someone who reads for a living just take a total stranger’s assurance that a manuscript is the most hilarious novel since TOM JONES? Professional readers tend to like to make up their own minds about how good a book is. Besides, how could Millicent possibly verify a review from a random person? For all she knows, your sainted and exceptionally literate mother has no taste in books at all, or any familiarity with the current book market. For all she knows, you just made up that writing teacher’s comment.

Oh, pick your jaws off the floor, quoters-of-others: of course, you weren’t intending to do such a thing, but you’d be astonished at how often queriers seem to pluck positive reviews from the ether. Unless you can legitimately cite a well-established author in your chosen book category — and believe me, Millicent will double-check the quote — or a household name other than Mom, your glowing review is all too likely to get dismissed as just another of the thousands of similar plugs our Millie sees every month.

Unless “Who is this person, and why should I care what he thinks?” is the response you were hoping to engender?

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

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds. That doesn’t seem like a lot of time to make up one’s mind, does it?

Actually, it is ample for a query letter rife with typos and unsubstantiated claims about how great the book is to turn a professional reader off. Or one that fails to mention whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction — another mind-bogglingly frequent omission. Or one that wastes too much valuable page space telling Millicent that the book will inevitably sell well, rather than providing her with enough information about the story for her to see why it will. Or one that asks her to read a kind of book her boss simply does not represent.

It’s more than enough time, in short, to reject a self-rejecting query.

Try not to blame Millicent for speeding through those missives, automatically ruling out the ones that contain common mistakes and omissions. I can’t stress enough that agency screeners do not reject quickly merely to be mean. It’s their job, and to a certain extent, developing pet peeves and shortcuts is a necessary psychological defense for someone handling hundreds of people’s hopes and dreams in any given day’s work.

Even the best-intentioned Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the pervasive misconception that business format is proper for either query letters or manuscripts. It isn’t: business format for letters is, as the name implies, appropriate for business letters; query letters should be in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs, and there’s a completely different standard format for manuscripts.

That may be counter-intuitive to some writers — writing is writing, isn’t it? — but to those who handle professional manuscripts for a living, it seems self-evident. “Why would a query and a manuscript be formatted identically?” Millicent asks, genuinely astonished at the very idea. “They have utterly different functions. And since the publishing industry prides itself on maintaining standards of literacy, why would we jettison indentation just because people in other types of business that have nothing to do with books decided some years ago that indenting paragraphs was optional? Shouldn’t it be obvious to anyone who has ever picked up a traditionally published book that indentation is far from obsolete?”

Indented paragraphs are, to put it bluntly, not only the industry standard, but proper in English prose. They are an idea whose time has not only come, but remains.

It’s also darned handy at screening time: improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot in either a query or manuscript. So why wouldn’t Millicent free up an extra few seconds in her day by rejecting paper query letters devoid of indentation on sight? Especially when empirical experience has shown her that aspiring writers who don’t use grammatically-necessary indentation in their query letters often eschew it in their manuscripts as well?

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

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

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

mars query indented

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

biz style mars query

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

Admittedly, to someone who has never seen a professionally-formatted query (or manuscript, for that matter) in person, it might not be so obvious. It also might not be obvious to those unfamiliar with correspondence format. Why, the very last time I used these examples at Author! Author! detail-oriented reader Kathy pointed out,

In your first example, you put a space between the indented paragraphs. But in our manuscripts, we don’t add that extra space.
So are we to add that extra space between indented paragraphs? And do we indent the paragraphs in an email query? I’m so confused!

I feel your pain, Kathy, but frankly, Millicent wouldn’t: the rules governing manuscript format are simply different from those governing correspondence. That’s always been true (at least since the advent of typewriters in the mid-19th century), yet many queriers seem to find it confusing. That generally comes as a surprise to folks in the publishing industry, because it would simply never occur to them that anyone would confuse a manuscript with a letter, or indeed, that anyone would believe that all writing on paper should be formatted identically. Thus the relative intolerance of business format I mentioned above.

To clear up the confusion, queries CAN have a skipped line between indented paragraphs, but it’s optional. They should be single-spaced (and limited to a single page), printed on only one side of the page (not all that difficult for a single-page letter), and have one-inch margins. Queries also have left-justified salutations and addresses, as well as middle-justified closing compliments and signatures.

Book manuscripts, on the other hand, are double-spaced, with no skipped line between paragraphs except to indicate breaks between different sections of text. Their paragraphs must always be indented — the practice of not indenting the first paragraph of a chapter is found only in published books, not properly-formatted manuscripts. They have slug lines (and if any of this is news to you, run, don’t walk to the aptly-named HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

So manuscripts really don’t look anything like letters, when you come right down to it. Nor do they look like e-mails.

A writer could get away with non-indented paragraphs in an e-mailed query these days, but it’s certainly not mandatory. As I mentioned, the Internet and most e-mail programs are set up for business format (i.e., no indentation, single-spaced). Thus, most e-mails are single-spaced with a skipped line between paragraphs, non-indented paragraphs, and left-justified closing and signature. Because that is the norm for e-mailed communications, that format is perfectly acceptable for an e-mailed query.

In a paper query, though, non-indented queries tend to be self-rejecting. Ditto with requested materials, even if you are sending them via e-mail. (Unless her agency specifies otherwise, Millicent will expect you to send any requested pages as Word attachments, not as inserts in the body of an e-mail; thus, all pages should include indented text. FYI, agencies that tell queriers to include sample pages or chapters with their queries are not technically requesting material: they simply like for Millie to have more information at her fingertips before she makes a decision. For an in-depth discussion of the differences between query packets and submission packets, please see the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A QUERY PACKET and HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET on the archive list at right.)

“Wait just a paper-wasting minute!” indentation-avoiders everywhere cry. “Let’s go back to that bit about non-indented queries being self-rejecting. Standards have changed; e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards in any context. Besides, at the risk of repeating ourselves, it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.”

I understand the logic, of course, but it simply doesn’t apply at the query stage: Millicent cannot possibly judge the manuscript’s writing until she has requested and read the manuscript, right? A query is judged on different criteria (and yes, Virginia, I shall be going over those criteria in detail later in the series.)

Even if it were not, the agent for whom she works couldn’t possibly submit a manuscript devoid of indented paragraphs to a publisher, period; no amount of argument is going to convince Millicent otherwise. Demonstrating a familiarity with the location and function of the TAB key, then, is a pretty good idea.

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

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

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

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, and that a savvy querier should therefore be only too delighted to curry favor with these fine people by means as simple as hitting the TAB key from time to time, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike. Therefore, it must be in business format. QED, tradition-hugger.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. Agents do occasionally state point-blank at conferences, in interviews, and even in their submission guidelines that they want to receive businesslike query letters. But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we talked about last time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample. And every page is proof that a writer not only has taken the time to learn the norms of the industry — like, say, that queries and manuscripts should be formatted differently — but is conscientious enough to be able to follow them consistently without coaching.

Why, yes, that is quite a lot to read into something as simple as how a writer chooses to format a query, or whether he knows not to open it with his best friend’s immortal assertion that the novel being queried is fated to sell better than JAWS, PEYTON PLACE, and the entire TWILIGHT series combined. But when a stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up before you take a bite out of it.

I can feel some of you getting depressed over this, but actually, I find it empowering that the high rejection rate is not arbitrary. Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive not only daily, but since the advent of e-mail, hourly. Lest we forget, the average agency receives 800-1500 queries per week, and that’s not counting the post-Labor Day backlog or New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks. Agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

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

And, of course, the most obvious self-rejecter of all, any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise. Queriers don’t get to play rules lawyer; you’re just going to have to accept that these people know what their own connections are.

You are sitting down, are you not? Good, because what I have to say next may come as something of a shock: each of these self-rejecting queries will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon.

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

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

Sound like a lot of trouble? You’re not alone in thinking so, I assure you. There’s a reason I revisit this topic so thoroughly once a year; I’m just trying to save you a little legwork.

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

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. We shall be talking about how to go about that next time, naturally. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest 2011 is open for business — and the masses rejoice!

At long last, I am proud to cut the ribbon on Queryfest, this year’s intensive foray into the ins and outs of all things query-related. I had intended to kick off the festivities on Monday, but as I may have mentioned last weekend, this walking on two legs thing is a whole heck of a lot more tiring than it looks. No wonder toddlers take so many naps.

That image seems appropriate, given how many aspiring writers spend any given day scratching their heads over that most basic of submission guideline requests: query with SASE. While that phrase might not seem particularly remarkable to those of us who deal with manuscripts for a living — or, indeed, to those of you who have been agent-hunting for long — to a writer brand-new to the quest, it can be downright mystifying.

“What is a query, other than a question?” these brave souls wonder. “What does that acronym stand for, and what about a SASE is too horrible to describe in fully fleshed-out English words?”

Perfectly reasonable questions, all — and surprisingly difficult to answer conclusively with even a rather thorough Internet search. As clever and incisive reader Elizabeth commented in our discussion last fall,

My queries are getting better as I go, but each expert I follow has different advice. How to choose which will work best for me and my book? It’s a quandary.

An excellent question, Elizabeth, and one I’m quite positive that many of your fellow queriers share. There’s certainly no shortage of how-to guides for would-be queriers out there; there are almost as many formulae out there for sure-fire query letters as there are professional givers of writing advice. Heck, substantial numbers of amateurs seem to post their notions, too, mostly phrased as though the advice in question were, if not actually something that any truly talented writer should have been born knowing, at least a precept to which any sane person seeking publication should adhere or risk being laughed out of literate society. Not to mention so self-evidently true and easy to follow that no explanation is required: simply stating the rule seems to be sufficient.

But they tend to be one-size-fits-all propositions, don’t they? Often, these doubtless well-meant query guides are simple lists of rules, light on explanation but heavy on dire warnings about what will happen to the unwary writer who does not follow them down to the last period.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but better that you hear it from me than learn it from agonizing experience: the perfect query applicable to every set of agents’ eyes is as mythical as a unicorn and a centaur hitched to Apollo’s chariot. Frankly, generic queries don’t work, and even a relatively good boilerplate is going to start looking like a carbon copy to agents and their screeners within just a few months of its becoming popular with queriers.

I know, I know: that’s not what you’ve been hearing elsewhere. It’s true, nevertheless: no one, but no one can give you a fill-in-the-blanks query template that will work every time. Nor will following any given set of rules — yes, even mine — produce a query that will wow every single agent in the country.

How do I know that? Well, experience: the publishing world just doesn’t work like that. It values originality and individual writing style — why on earth would it even want to see identical (or close to identical) verbiage in every query letter?

But that’s not the only reason following a template is not a good idea. Because every book — and every category of book — is different, there is no such thing as a foolproof query formula into which any aspiring writer could simply plug her own information and hit SEND. And even if a query blueprint appropriate to any book, fiction or nonfiction, actually did exist, it wouldn’t necessarily be in your best interest to use it: literary agents are, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, not automatons programmed to respond identically to everyone else in the publishing industry, but individual people with individual tastes.

Each of ‘em likes what they like, in short. That may seem like it makes your task harder, but actually, it can be empowering: you will be a much, much happier querier if you don’t fall into the exceedingly common querier’s trap of believing that any single agent’s response to your query is necessarily (a) the response any agent would have to it, (b) proof that the publishing industry’s rejecting your book’s concept, rather than the query letter that presents it, and therefore (c) just a handful of rejections means you should give up on the book.

Because the agenting world is diverse — and needs to be, in order to get the job done — (b) and (c) cannot be true. Even if agents did not harbor personal tastes (but they do), no one agent speaks for the entire industry. Furthermore, no agent in the world represents every kind of book, so the widespread belief that sending even the best-crafted query letter to any ten randomly-selected agents will engender ten identical responses is misguided. If nine of those agents don’t have solid track records representing books in your category, that never-fail boilerplate will, I can tell you now, fail with all nine.

And it may well fail with the tenth as well, if she’s just broken her heart by investing a year or two in fruitlessly trying to sell a book like yours. Or if she did sell that book three years ago, but the market has shifted. Or if she happened to have had a terrible honeymoon in the island paradise in which your story is set.

See earlier comment about individuals’ having individual tastes. Which is why (a) is unlikely to be true as well — but I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

That doesn’t mean, though, that those diverse-minded potential agents for your work don’t share certain expectations for what a query should be — or that there are not queries that would in fact be rejected by most of the agencies currently operating in this country. A professional query looks a certain way, contains specific information, and is, above all, a compelling argument for paying attention to both the book being queried and its author.

Which is why, as those of you who have been surfing the net in search of definitive answers may well have been wondering, agents, editors, and even freelance editors like me tend to be a trifle impatient with the oft-heard (but completely understandable, from a new writer’s perspective) complaint that it’s impossible for aspiring writer to tell what to do because there isn’t a single standard how-to list out there to which every authoritative source subscribes. From a professional point of view, the expectation underlying this complaint doesn’t even make sense: queries should be individuated for the book they are pitching, period.

So how could there possibly be a one-size-fits-all boilerplate? Or even a single list of rules? Every book — and every book category — is different; every agency has its own guidelines, and every agent has his own personal likes and dislikes. That being the case, why would it even be in agents’ best interest to subscribe to a single set of querying rules?

And where would they do it, the National Agency-Oppression Convention? The Society for the Simplification of the Deliberately Complex Field of Publishing? The Association for the Destruction of Opinion-Expression on the Internet?

Another commonly-held belief amongst aspiring writers that the pros tend to find mystifying: the notion that it’s the publishing industry’s job to track down every query advice-giving entity out there and bully it into conformity. It’s not as though the Internet Fairy is out there enforcing advice standardization across the Internet on any subject, or even fact-checking, for the most part.

Like everything else you find online, querying advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, even mine.

Which is why, as those of you used to barked orders on what to do may well find surprising throughout Queryfest, I shall make a point to explain not only what your querying options are, but the pros and cons of each. With concrete examples, whenever possible. (And in case any of you missed last weekend’s announcement: if you would like to have your query letter used as an example in this series, here is how to go about submitting it. Who doesn’t like free professional query critique?)

So fair warning: what I’m going to be offering in Queryfest is not a one-size-fits-all boilerplate for querying success. That would be a waste of your time. Instead of just telling you what to say and how to format it, I’ve designed this series to help you create your own individualized query letter, perfect for your book and no one else’s.

How is this possible? For the same reason that agents and editors tend to be dismissive of the notion that it’s hard for a first-time querier to figure out what to do. From a professional point of view, it’s kind of surprising that even someone who believes every piece of advice he reads, from any source, wouldn’t pick up eventually that any query needs to contain the same basic elements: title, book category, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, brief description, credentials/platform for writing that particular book, polite sign-off, SASE if querying by mail.

Don’t worry, acronym-fearers; we’ll be defining that. I shall also be going over all of these requisite elements in enough detail that you can juggle them the manner best suited to present your book.

That’s going to require learning how agents think about books — and learning to talk about your manuscript in the terms that will make sense to them. Not to mention learning how to address your new and improved query to the right people. No query gets rejected faster than one pitching a book that the agent to whom it is addressed doesn’t handle.

If more than one statement in that last paragraph came as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. The overwhelming majority of queriers don’t learn nearly that much about how the publishing industry actually works before trying to capture its interest — and that’s a pity. In today’s hyper-competitive literary market, intelligent agents are not merely looking for good manuscripts by talented writers; they are seeking good manuscripts by talented writers who have rendered themselves easy to work with by having taken the time to learn how the publishing industry — wait for it — actually works.

In my experience, the most effective query letters are the alchemical effect of a combination of a well-written, professional letter, a writer who has taken the time to learn to talk about her manuscript in terms meaningful to the publishing industry, a book concept that happens to be appealing to the current literary market, and an open-minded agent with the already-existing connections to sell it successfully. Such a confluence doesn’t occur all that often — and it virtually never happens by accident.

“Heavens, Anne,” some prospective query-writers scoff, “if that’s your standard of good querying, I’m not surprised that you believe it doesn’t happen very often. As Elizabeth Bennet told Mr. Darcy after he listed his criteria for a genuinely educated woman, I do not wonder at your not knowing many; I wonder at your knowing any at all.”

Touché, skeptics, but not entirely true. As a matter of fact, I know scads of writers who produced such query letters by dint of persistent and intelligent effort.

How did they manage to pull off that difficult high dive? By coming to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as a single query letter ideal for every conceivable agent. There is, however, such a thing as a perfectly wonderful query letter specialized to appeal to a specific agent, as well as a slightly modified version personalized for another.

For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be talking about cobbling together such a letter. Once you have the tools in your writer’s toolkit, you can use them to construct a whole flock of such letters, each tailored to an individual agent’s likes and dislikes and the expectations of your chosen book category.

Already, I hear martyred sighs rising across the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” easy-fix advocates protest, “that sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work, and I already resent taking time away from my writing to query agents. Couldn’t I, you know, just recycle the same letter over and over again?”

Well, you could, protesters. You could, I assure you, stop reading this right now, invest less than 20 seconds in a Google search of writing the perfect query letter, and come up with literally hundreds of one-size-fits-all templates that would make your life easier in the short run.

But I don’t think you should. Candidly, I think that the literally thousands of sources out there telling writers to follow this or that fool-proof formula are doing a serious disservice to those they advise, even when the actual elements of the advice they are giving is pretty good.

Why? Writers’ notorious aptitude for unwarranted self-blame, mostly; it’s driven literally millions of talented people into giving up on their books prematurely. The cycle usually runs a little something like this:

(a) Aspiring writer (let’s call him Ambrose, for the sake of storytelling convenience) finds an allegedly sure-fire query boilerplate online, in a book, in a class, and/or on the street somewhere.

(b) Rejoicing at the apparent ease of querying, Ambrose hurriedly copies and pastes his own information in to the template and sends it off to 1/5/127 agents.

(c) Since Ambrose’s query gives an accurate picture of neither his book nor his writing — how could it, when it consists almost entirely of one-size-fits all phrasing? — it gets rejected 1/5/127 times, usually via a form-letter rejection. (Hey, agents use templates, too; they’re real time savers.)

(d) Since Ambrose believes that the template he is using cannot possibly be the problem (it’s utterly foolproof, right?), he concludes that the only possible reasons he could have been rejected are:

(1) The book was lousy; somehow, the agent managed to sense that the writing was poor without reading any of it, or,

(2) The book was lousy, because the agent read the materials her website or agency guide listing said he could include with his query, or,

(3) The book’s concept was lousy, because that’s all the agent could possibly have judged from the query itself, but regardless,

(4) Rejection can only mean that he shouldn’t have queried with the book in the first place.

(e) Ambrose gets depressed for hours/weeks/months, far too much so to risk rejection again by sending out more queries, at least not anytime soon.

Recognize the pattern? Not from your own querying history, I hope, but from one or more of your writer friends?

What renders it sad is not solely the fact that Ambrose was rejected, but that his logic has a hole in it. He has not seriously considered the many, many other reasons an agency might have chosen to reject his query.

Such as, you ask? Well, the individual taste issues I mentioned above, of course. The culprit could also be having made the right case to the wrong agent, for instance, or having made the wrong case to the right agent. Or even having made the right case to the right agent at the wrong time; market demands — and thus agents’ needs — change all the time.

Rejection at the query stage can also be the result of the writer’s having formatted the letter oddly, or having failed to follow the directions on the agent’s website, agency guide listing, or Publishers’ Marketplace page. It could even have been a matter of having adhered to the standards set forth on one of these sources after the agency has changed its rules, or because the targeted agent no longer represents one or more of the types of book one of those sources says she does.

Rejection may, in short, come flying at an aspiring writer from any number of sources. As I think would be quite apparent if querying writers talked amongst themselves more about both rejection and the nuts and bolts of querying, rejection is not always the querier’s fault.

Nor, necessarily, is it the fault of the manuscript being queried. Most queries fail on a few very basic levels that don’t have much to do with the writing quality of the manuscript.

Yes, really: the vast majority of queries are rejected on the query letter alone. There’s a good reason for that: most of the query letters currently floating through the US Mail or flying via e-mail actually do deserve to be rejected by professional standards, but not because the books they are pushing are poorly written, poor concepts, or any of the million other reasons a manuscript might not be up to publication standard.

The most popular: unprofessional presentation, non-standard spelling and/or grammar, omitting to mention necessary information, hostile tone (again: yes, really), being sent to an agent who does not represent the kind of book presented, and, most notorious of all, the query’s obviously being a generic letter designed to be sent out indiscriminately to every agent currently operating in North America.

Agents have a pet name for the latter: they’re called Dear Agent letters, because some of them are so generic that they are not even addressed to a particular agent. Virtually without exception, US-based agents simply reject Dear Agent letters unread.

Also destined for the reject pile: queries sporting overused tricks to attract an agent’s attention — strategies, it may not astonish you to learn, often borrowed from one of the zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively infallible query letter. Perhaps it is unfair, but nothing says generic query like the hip new lead-in that some hugely popular marketing guru was advising two years ago.

In my experience, simple works better than gimmicky — and certainly better than a boastful hard sell. Quite possibly because it is significantly rarer.

Although I am confident that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls that plague the average querier, the overwhelming majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or (and I suspect you will have seen this coming. obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits-all pattern. We can do better than that, I think.

So let’s start at the basement and work our way up, shall we?

For those of you absolutely new to the art of approaching publishing professionals, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced, with 1-inch margins) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest in the manuscript it describes. It is also, contrary to what most aspiring writers believe, a writing sample, so if it is poorly written, it’s toast, regardless of the strength of the book being offered.

It’s equally important to talk about what a query is not. A strong query should not be, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly, professional writer who has done her homework. Nor is its goal to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!”

So what is its goal, you ask? To prompt the agent or editor to request pages. Period.

Let’s face it: no agent worth his 15% is going to sign a writer without reading any of her work. The sooner an aspiring writer accepts that, the sooner she can stop setting herself up for Ambrose-level disappointment. Going into the querying process with realistic expectations makes the process much, much easier on the ego.

So how does one go about eliciting the admittedly less dramatic but ultimately more respectful of your writing result, a direct request to read your manuscript? Without bells and whistles: an effective query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

It is, in essence, the manuscript’s personal ad, intended to attract a compatible agent or editor to ask for a first date. To put it in terms more familiar to those of you followed my recent Pitchingpalooza series, the query is a written pitch, intended not to prompt an instantaneous offer to represent the book, but a request to read some or all of the manuscript or book proposal.

Ah, I just scared some of you with that comparison to pitching, didn’t I? “That’s all very easy to say, Anne,” point out those of you who find the prospect of sitting down face-to-face with a real, live agent about as appealing as hand-feeding a hungry wolf marshmallows by balancing them on your nose, “but you just got finished telling us that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all formula. So how does a writer trying to break into the biz pull it off without a prescriptive plan that tells him precisely what to do at every step?”

Well, for starters, don’t feed wild animals that way. Are you trying to get mauled?

Once you toss aside the twin preconceptions that there is only one kind of perfect query letter and you are being expected to guess what it contains, constructing a good query letter introduction for your manuscript or query letter becomes quite a bit easier. It just requires a bit of advance preparation.

I felt you tense up again, but trust me, this is prep that you — yes, YOU — are uniquely qualified to do: figuring out what your book is about, who might want to read it, and why. Once you have figured out those elements, writing the query letter is a matter of constructing a document with elements you already have on-hand.

And that’s a comparative breeze, because instead of trying to chase an elusive wraith of an ideal or copying what worked for somebody else, you’re talking about a book you love. What’s more natural to a writer than that?

I hasten to add: being natural does not mean presentation doesn’t count. Your query needs to be businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), discussing your book project in terms that an agent might use to describe it to an editor.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths; you are already well prepared to do this.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the information you would need to include, so you may see for yourself just how much of it you probably already have at your fingertips. Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent
Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place — or putting it as bluntly as, “I did a web search under Literary Agents, and your name popped up.”

*The book’s title
Self-explanatory, I should hope, but you would be surprised how often queriers leave it out.

*The book’s category
Where your book would sit in a bookstore? Most queries omit any mention of book category, but as in a pitch, it’s essential; no agent represents every type of book on the planet.

*Word count (optional)
Actually, I never advise including this, unless the agency states specifically in its guidelines that it wants to see word count in queries. If they don’t ask, don’t include it.

Why not? Because including the word count makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre — for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words (estimated)– it won’t do you any harm include it, usually, but if it is longer, it’s not worth your while. (If you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.
This is the part that stymies most queriers. Relax — we’re getting to it. For now, just bear in mind that this section should not be a paraphrase of your dedication page or a preview of the blurb you’d like to see on the jacket. Don’t praise your book; describe it.

3a. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book
What an agent will have in mind is an already-established target market of readers with a demonstrated interest in books like yours. Keep it realistic. Speculation that every woman/man/fly fisher in America will want to read your book will fall flat, for the exceedingly simple reason that any agent will already have seen this claim literally thousands of times.

3b. and why your book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.
If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller. You want your work to come across as unique.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book
Or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have pulled off this daunting task well. Here is where you present your platform — or, to put it in a less intimidating manner, where you explain why the agent should take you seriously as the author of this book.

Actually, this paragraph is not optional for nonfiction, and it’s a good idea for everyone. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist listings, etc., and academic degrees. (Don’t worry: we shall be talking in depth about what degrees will and will not strike an agent as relevant for a fiction writer.)

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

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

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

There, that’s not impossible to pull off in a single page, is it?

Oh, dear, you’re tensing up again at the prospect of sitting down and writing it, aren’t you? Don’t panic: again, you may already have constructed — mentally, anyway — some or all of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter. You merely have to pull them together into a polite missive personalized for each agent you plan to approach.

A good way to start is to work on each element of the query individually, then snapping the pieces together. Trying to write the entire thing from beginning to end in one sitting, as most aspiring writers do, is not only more stressful than doing it piecemeal; it also tends to end in a rushed, panicked note tossed off quickly, just to have it done.

Don’t look at me that way; I know you’re in a hurry to pop that letter in the mail, but in the long run, taking the query piece by piece can save you time. Take a gander at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin — and if you’re having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

I see quite a few lit-up eyes out there. “Um, Anne?” some wily sorts murmur, jotting down hasty notes. “What you’ve just shown looks suspiciously like a template. Mind if I borrow it wholesale and use it as such?”

Actually, I do, but not because I’m especially proud of having penned a sentence as immortal I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. You should eschew copying anybody else’s query letter for the very simple reason that it is important that your query letter sounds like your book.

Not my book, or the creation of any of the small army of writing gurus out there, but yours. After all, you’re not seeking representation for a generic volume; you’re looking for the best agent for your particular manuscript.

So why on earth would you waste your time — and your manuscript’s potential — on a generic query letter? By the time we’re finished, the very suggestion that your book’s chances would be improved by utilizing boring, one-size-fits-all query copy is going to make you laugh out loud.

At least, I hope it will. Tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Premises, premises

I honestly hadn’t intended to take the last few days off from blogging, but I assure you, I have a dandy excuse. To give you a hint, I invite you to contemplate the riddle of the Sphinx: what animal walks on four legs in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?

On to the day’s business — or rather, the business of last week. Scouring my to-blog-about list for amusing and thought-provoking topics to while away the time before the advent of Queryfest, my annual foray into all things query-related, I came across a terrific question from reader Kelly:

I have a question about plot clichés, if you have the chance to address it. Obviously, the ‘it was all a dream’ won’t fly. What other common plot twists do those of you who see so many manuscripts just groan about? Thanks and feel better soon.

That bit at the end will tell you just how long even very good questions sometimes linger in my hey, that would make a great post pile: kind Kelly was wafting me positive energies immediately after my car crash last year. There’s been some recent progress in that area, by the way: after 14 months, I’m finally walking without a cane.

Can tap-dancing be far behind?

So if I’m honest about it, responding to Kelly’s question is really the business of last year. That seems oddly appropriate, given one of the publishing world’s most common complaints about writers: a fondness for procrastination.

Oh, don’t grimace; everyone procrastinates a little. It’s healthy not to be too rigid. Besides, one of the most important lessons any writer of book-length work has to learn is that a full-length manuscript is not the kind of thing that even the most gifted crafter of prose can polish off in a day, a week, or a month.

Oh, some writers (including yours truly) can indeed draft new text very quickly, but that’s not the issue. Writing a book requires consistent, patient application, not merely short, intense bursts of endeavor. So does revising a manuscript. Yet since most of us do our best work if we can devote some unbroken time to it, it can be very tempting to put off diving in — or diving back in — until we can devote a whole day, week, or month to it, isn’t it?

And that temptation, boys and girls, is why most serious writers have woken up on at least one fine spring morning, sat bolt upright in bed, and shouted, “Wait — how much time has passed since I swore that I was going to finish that revision? Or start it?”

Or exclaimed, “Hey, wasn’t my New Year’s resolution to send out ten queries per week? Have I sent out even one this month?”

Or moaned, “Oh, my God — the agent of my dreams requested pages six months ago, and I’m still revising. Should I take another run at Chapter 152, or should I pop the whole shebang in the mail as is? What if she doesn’t want it anymore?”

I’m not bringing this up to depress all of you who swore that Labor Day (or the Fourth of July, or Valentine’s day, or St. Swithin’s day) was going to be the moment you sprung into action, honest. Nor am I passing judgment on the many, many aspiring writers whose lives swamped their good intentions. I’m not even changing the subject so that I may put off answering Kelly’s excellent question for a few more minutes.

I’m bringing it up, if you must know, because writers who procrastinate so often create characters that procrastinate. Seriously, it’s one of Millicent the agency screener’s most frequent complaints about how novelists and memoirists plot books: characters irk her by sitting around and thinking too much.

Or, to mix things up a little, by sitting around and talking through the problems with their best friends, coworkers, mothers, fathers, or, depending upon book category, the people they are about to try to murder. Especially, as is often the case in novel submissions, when these little chats over coffee, in bars, over lunch, over a telephone, or in hastily-improvised torture chambers consist largely of the protagonist recapping conflict that reader has already seen.

How, from an editorial standpoint, could that not seem redundant? “Criminy, move on,” Millicent scolds the text in front of her. “The point of novel narration is not to convey every single thing that happened in the book’s world, but to tell a story in a lively and entertaining manner!”

Because I love you people, I shall spare you what she hisses at memoir submissions in which the narrator agonizes for fifty or sixty pages on end about whether to confront someone who clearly needs some confrontation — only to decide not to do it after all. In fiction and nonfiction alike, her preference nearly always leans toward the active protagonist given to making things happen, rather than a passive one to whom things happen.

Half of you clutched your chests at some point over the last four paragraphs, didn’t you? Relax; I’m not about to suggest the all-too-often-heard advice on this point: telling writers never to show their protagonists thinking is akin to asserting that no character, however devoted to the color pink, may ever be depicted wearing it. Intelligent characters frequently think, and one-size-fits-all writing rules are almost invariably wrong a great deal of the time.

What I am suggesting, heart-clutchers, is merely that Millicent, like most professional readers, has from long experience developed a finely-tuned sense of how much rumination is too much, as well as when it starts to feel repetitious. To eyes trained to spot textual and conceptual redundancy, even a single repeated thought pattern can jump off the page. Small wonder, then, that showing the complexity of a problem by depicting the protagonist revisiting the same set of doubts over and over again is a notorious professional readers’ pet peeve.

Frequently, their impatience is justified: while deeply-felt internal conflict can be quite interesting on the page, most protagonists in first-person and tight third-person narratives don’t think about problems differently each time. Instead, the writer seeks to have the page mirror the way people mull over problems in real life: with redundant logic, facing the same fears and rehashing the same options on Monday as on Friday.

Or the following Friday. Or two years from Friday.

“God, I wish that this writer had never seen a production of Hamlet,” Millicent has been known to murmur over the fourth slow-moving protagonist of the day. “Would it be too much to ask the narrative to get out of this character’s head long enough for her to do something? It wouldn’t even have to advance the plot — I’d settle for her taking up lion-taming or developing a sudden passion for spelunking. Anything, so she gets out of her chair and moves around the world!”

“But Anne!” I hear some of you chest-clutchers point out, and with good reason, “people honestly do fall into thought loops when they’re worried about something, especially if they lean toward the compulsive in general. I’m sorry if it bores Millicent, but I’m trying to represent reality here: the human psyche is not always bent upon producing entertainingly diverse thought patterns.”

Perhaps it isn’t, but you should be. It’s a writer’s job not just to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, but to create a result that will be a pleasure to read. Redundant thoughts, like redundant action, have a nasty habit of discouraging readers from continuing to turn pages. Obsessive characters can be very interesting, but as the pros like to say, it all depends on the writing: it’s very, very easy for realistic depictions of recurrent thought or even feeling to become positively soporific on the printed page.

Not as easily spotted a cliché as it was a dark and stormy night or you may be wondering why I called you all here, admittedly, but the rumination-obsessed protagonist is actually more common in submissions these days than either of these well-worn tropes. None of these are as ubiquitous as teenagers who roll their eyes, of course, or people under 50 who say whatever and like, but all are equal-opportunity Millicent-annoyers.

Now the rest of you are clutching your chests, but at this late date, most adult readers, even non-professional ones, have seen enough compulsive thought patterns on the page to recognize it within a line or two. At most, it will take them a couple of paragraphs to catch on. How, then, is the writer to maintain interest and tension throughout pages and pages of it?

Honestly, a little obsessive-compulsion goes a long way on the page. Millicent’s seeing less of it these days than when the TV show MONK rendered OCD such a popular character quirk; if a hit TV show or movie contains a noteworthy character trait or plot twist, it’s a safe bet that agencies will be receiving hundreds of iterations of it over the next 2-5 years. The Millies of the early 1980s could have wallpapered both North and South Korea entirely in manuscripts that resembled M*A*S*H, for instance; for the last decade, it’s been rare that a police procedural submission does not include a scene reminiscent of LAW AND ORDER or CSI. And frankly, our time on earth is too precious to waste time toting up how many SF and fantasy submissions fairly reeked of the influence of STAR WARS and STAR TREK.

It’s not that some of the borrowed characters and quirks are not inherently entertaining; in a good writer’s hands, they certainly can be. There’s also something to be said for adhering to the conventions of one’s chosen book category: in a Western, readers expect a confrontation between the fellows in the white hats and the black, just as readers of women’s fiction expect their protagonists to grow and change over the course of the story.

By definition, though, what none of these elements can ever be is fresh.

Which goes right to the heart of Kelly’s question, does it not? While the list of premises, plot twists, and character traits that might set Millicent’s teeth on edge changes perpetually — what might have riled her Aunt Mehitabel when she was just starting out as a reader in the mid-1970s is substantially different from what might occur often enough to get on Millie’s nerves today, or her younger sister Margie five years from now — the basic principle remains the same: even if the writing is good, if she’s seen it before, it’s not going to seem fresh or surprising on the page.

Remember, Millicent is not only charged with the task of sifting through submissions to find great writing and original voices; she’s also looking for unique takes on reality and plots that she hasn’t seen before. While imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), at submission time, not seeming like a rehash of the most recent bestseller or blockbuster film is a significant asset.

I know, I know: it’s not all that uncommon for agency submission guidelines to sound as though their Millicents are eagerly awaiting a carbon-copy of whatever is hitting the top of the bestseller lists today. Indeed, sometimes they are looking for copycats. Even with monumental bestsellers like the TWILIGHT series or BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, though, it usually doesn’t take too long before Millie and her boss are saying, “Oh, no, another knock-off? I want the next great bestseller, not what was hot two years ago.”

Don’t believe me? How hard do you think it would be to sell BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY as a fresh manuscript today? It would simply seem derivative.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, those oft-repeated experiments in which some bright soul submits the first 50 pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (1813) to an array of present-day agents and/or publishing houses, in an attempt to test whether their Millicents would know great literature if it fell in their laps, invariably fall flat. Of course, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE would get rejected today; as a new manuscript, it would seem completely lifted from Jane Austen. To a reader familiar with English novels of the period, even the title would seem unoriginal: the phrase PRIDE AND PREJUDICE (in all caps, no less) is repeated no fewer than three times in Fanny Burney’s novel of a generation before, CECELIA, OR, MEMOIRS OF AN HEIRESS (1782).

Besides, have you seen how much time Austen’s protagonists spend thinking?

I know that this might come as a shock to the many, many writers raised on 19th-century literature, but what seemed fresh on the page in 1813 is unlikely to strike Millicent as original or even market-appropriate today. Ditto for 1913, 1943, 1983, or 2003. In fact, what would have wowed ‘em at the agency in any of those years is likely to seem positively dated now, even if the cultural references did not.

Remember, too, that Millie lives in the same media-heavy culture you do: while she might not watch enough T.V. to know what a Snooki is, to catch an Arrested Development reference, or to be able to pick any of the current crop of presidential contenders out of a police line-up, it’s unlikely that she would be lucky enough to have missed any public discussion of these phenomena. If you loved the Saw movies enough to borrow some elements of them for your horror manuscript, chances are that a Millicent working in a horror-representing agency will be harboring some affection for those movies, too.

Which is not to say that a plot similar to the Saw movies might not have done very well, had it hit Millicent’s desk right after the first film in the series came out. Many a writer who has been toiling away quietly for years on a manuscript has suddenly seen it become sought-after as soon as a similar book, movie, or TV show hits the big time. Agents and editors do often clamor for something similar to what’s hot at the moment. Since it takes so long to write a book, however, it’s generally the writers that were already working on a book, not because it was cool, but because they liked the subject matter, who are in the best position to take advantage of such a trend. Or writers who can produce a manuscript with similar appeal within a year or two. After that, imitation is likely to make the book seem dated.

Not sure what a dated manuscript is, or why it might be hard to sell? Okay, let me ask you: if you picked up a book stuffed to the gills with references to Ross Perot, would you (a) embrace it as a book about contemporary politics, (b) assume that it had been published sometime in the mid-1990s, and turn to another book for insights on the current political scene or (c) wonder who in the heck Ross Perot was?

If you said (b), you’re beginning to think like Millicent: the 1992 election was a long time ago. If you said (a), I’m guessing you do not follow politics very closely. And if you said (c), well, ask your parents, but don’t be surprised if they remember his ears more than his politics.

Even if a manuscript avoids the specific pop references that tend to age so poorly on the page — nothing seems more tired than yesterday’s catchphrases, right? — borrowing the plot twists and premises of yesteryear can make a book seem dated. One of the surprisingly immortal premises: neighborhoods where none of the mothers work outside the home, or even consider it. While it’s not beyond belief that such communities still exist, it’s far enough from the mainstream American experience these days that it would require fairly extensive textual explanation.

Embracing writing fads of years past also tends to make a manuscript seem dated. When STAR WARS embraced the Jungian heroic journey structure, it generated a lot of buzz — and for the next two decades, the viewing public was inundated with movies with that same structure. Then, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, advocating that structure for novels became extremely popular, resulting in manuscript after manuscript with essentially the same story arc falling on Millicent’s desk with clockwork regularity. Because Millicent’s boss was screening manuscripts back then, Millie’s been trained to regard that structure as old-fashioned.

Not to mention predictable. And speaking of repetitive premises, does it bother anyone but me that the mortality rate for mothers in the STAR WARS movies is close to 100%?

Seriously, it doesn’t pay to underestimate just how predictable adhering to a well-worn plot device can render a manuscript, especially to someone who reads as much as Millicent. People drawn to work in publishing tend to be both plot-retentive and detail-oriented: I was surely not the only future editor who walked out of the original STAR WARS saying to her big brother, “You know what would make more sense than that ending? If Leah was Luke’s sister? I mean, honestly — why begin their names with the same first letter, something screenwriters usually take wincing pains to avoid, unless we’re supposed to guess that there’s a familial relationship?”

Okay, so this was probably not how most elementary schoolers reacted to the film, but I read a great deal. Not only science fiction, but fables — and the heroic journey story arc was supposed to surprise me? Nice try, Mr. Lucas.

An original plot twist or premise should surprise the reader — and that’s legitimately hard to do. It’s also often difficult for an isolated writer to spot just how much his plot, premise, or characters might resemble what Millicent is receiving from other writers. Even if the writer can successfully weed out conceptions of dramatic fitness culled from stories floating around the zeitgeist — from movies, television, books, even major news stories — that might be turning up in other submissions, rooting out or even noticing stereotypes (what? The guy with tape on his glasses is a computer expert? Who saw that coming?), stock plot twists (the murderer isn’t the first person the police arrest? Alert the media!), overused premises (the police partners who made the arrest are experiencing some romantic tension? The school bully targeting the gay teen is himself fighting urges in that direction? The guy bent on revenge is actuated by the trauma of having seen his wife and small child murdered out of the reader’s sight and before the story began?) and hackneyed phrasing (“I’m sorry for your loss,” anyone?) can often require an outside eye.

Why? Often, such well-worn story elements are so familiar to the writer, as well as to her nearest and dearest, that they don’t seem like clichés. They just seem like the constituent parts of a story. Therein lies the essential paradox of trafficking in the already-done: that plot twist that feels dramatically right may well come across that way because you’ve seen it before.

And so has Millicent. Remember, clichés don’t irritate agents, editors, and contest judges the first time these fine folks spot them on the manuscript page, typically, or even because the pesky things are repeated over the course of a particular submission or contest entry. What chafes their sensibilities is seeing the same phrases, characters, plot twists, and even premises over and over across hundreds of manuscripts.

Hey, if you’ve seen one completely selfless mother, a lady completely devoid of any personal preferences unrelated to her children, you might not actually have seen ‘em all. After screening the forty-seventh synopsis featuring a selfless mother within a week, however, it might well start to feel that way.

That’s a pretty good test of whether a manuscript might have strayed into over-nibbled pastures, by the way: if the synopsis — or, sacre bleu, the descriptive paragraph in the query letter — makes reference to a well-established stereotype, it’s well worth looking into how to make the characters less, well, predictable.

And now two-thirds of you chest-clutchers are mopping your weary brows. Honestly, this is beginning to read like a word problem on the math section of the S.A.T.

By definition, stereotypes and clichés are predictable: they are the shorthand a culture uses for archetypes. The mean tenth-grade girl, for instance, or the dumb jock. The absent-minded professor who can’t find the glasses perched on top of his head. The sociopathic lawyer who cares only about winning cases, not justice. The tough drill sergeant/teacher/physical therapist who seems like a bully at first, but turns out to be concealing a heart of gold.

Hey, what happened to all the floozies harboring hearts of gold? When did they fall out of the collective mind? Sometime during the Reagan administration? Or was it a decade earlier, when librarians and schoolteachers lost the right to yank the pencils from their collective hair, remove the eyeglasses that they apparently don’t require in order to see, and have the nearest male exclaim, “Why, Miss Jones — you’re beautiful!”

Now, poor Miss Jones would to be an expert in particle physics, save the world in the third act of the story, and look as though she had never eaten a cookie in order to engender that reaction. It’s enough to make an educated woman bob her hair.

Naturally, what constitutes a cliché evolves over time, just as what seems dated in a plot does, but as far as characterization goes, one factor remains the same: a stereotype telegraphs to the reader what kind of behavior, motivations, and actions to expect from a character. A pop quiz for long-time readers of this blog: why might that present a problem in a manuscript submission?

For precisely the same reason that a savvy submitter should avoid every other form of predictability, especially in the opening pages of a manuscript or contest entry:: because being able to see what’s going to happen in advance tends to bore Millicent. If a professional reader can tell instantly from a story’s first description of a character precisely how he is going to act and how he is likely to speak, where’s the suspense?

The same holds true for too-common premises, by the way. Those two coworkers of opposite sexes squabbling? They’ll be in love within fifty pages. That child the woman who swore she never wanted children inadvertently acquires, by accident, theft, or some inconsiderate relative’s leaving him on her doorstep. It will completely transform her life. The completely irresponsible man who discovers he’s had an unknown child for decades? He’s going to be integral to that kid’s life, and vice versa. That wish the protagonist makes on page 2, even though the text explicitly tells us that she never wishes on passing stars? It’s going to come true.

In spades. It’s written on the sand.

Oh, you thought that Millie wouldn’t catch on that teenage Billy was going to wreck his new motorcycle by the second time his parents are shown to be worried about it? I hate to burst anyone’s plotting bubble, but at this juncture in literary history, most professional readers would have said, “Oh, he’s doing to crash it,” halfway through the scene where he bought the bike.

She’s also going to foresee that the character a bystander identifies as having had a hard childhood is going to be the mysterious murderer decimating the summer camp/isolated hotel/submarine’s crew, the grandmother/grandfather/elderly neighbor giving the youthful protagonist with nowhere else to turn sterling (if predictable) advice is going to have some sort of a health scare by three-quarters of the way through the book, and that the otherwise clear-thinking lady who wisely retreated to someplace her violent ex-husband/evil boss/corrupt Congressman isn’t will be startled when he shows up.

Quite possibly standing behind her while she is gazing soulfully into a mirror. A cat will have startled her first, however. That fellow also not going to be dead the first time she, her knight in shining armor, or the few remaining members of that light-hearted weekend canoeing party think they have dispatched him.

Hey, the monster always returns is a cliché for a reason.

I don’t mean to alarm you, but reading manuscripts for a living often results in a serious decrease in the ability to be astonished by plot twist at all. Avert your eyes if you have never seen The Sixth Sense, but I had twice suggested to my date that the psychologist was a ghost before the end of the first therapy scene. I kept asking, “But if he’s alive, why isn’t he talking to the kid’s mother? And why doesn’t she have any interests or concerns unrelated to her child?”

To anyone who has been reading manuscripts for a living for more than a week or two, there’s another problem with stock characters. Millicent tends to associate them with rather lazy writing — and certainly with lax research. I’m not just talking about the astonishingly common phenomenon of novels saddling their protagonists with professions with which their writers are clearly unfamiliar (if I had a nickel for every tax specialist character who takes an annual month-long holiday on April 16th because the writer who created her isn’t aware of how many people file their taxes late, I would be able to afford a month-long holiday right now) or the equally common fish-out-of-water stories in which the writer seems as out of his depth in the new environment as his protagonist (my personal pet peeve: protagonists who inherit wineries, then proceed to run them with a whole lot of heart — and learning valuable life lessons — while clearly learning virtually nothing about the actual practicalities of making wine).

I’m talking about characters, usually secondary ones, that are different in some fundamental way from the protagonist. You wouldn’t believe how often subtly-drawn primary characters share page space with downright cartoonish villains or minor characters.

When writers just guess at the probable life details and reactions of characters unlike themselves, they tend to end up writing in generalities, not plausible, reality-based specifics. A common result: characters whose beauty and brains are inversely proportional, whose behavior and/or speech can be predicted as soon as the narrative drops a hint about their race/gender/sexual orientation/national origin/job/whatever, and/or who act exactly as though some great celestial casting director called up the nearest muse and said, “Hello, Euterpe? Got anything in a bimbo cheerleader? Great — send me twelve.”

Seen once on the page, one-note characters are kind of annoying. When those cheerleaders come cartwheeling across a good 40% of YA set in high schools, even a hint of waved pom-pom can get downright annoying.

Even amongst agents, editors, and judges who are not easily affronted, stereotypes tend not to engender positive reactions. What tends to get caught by the broom of a sweeping generalization is not Millicent’s imagination, but the submission. If it seems too stereotypical, it’s often swept all the way into the rejection pile.

Why, you ask? Because by definition, a characterization that we’ve all seen a hundred times before, if not a thousand, is not fresh. Nor do stereotypes tend to be all that subtle. And that’s a problem in Millicent’s eyes, because in a new writer, what she’s looking to see — feel free to chant it with me now — originality of worldview and strength of voice, in addition to serious writing talent.

When a writer speaks in stereotypes, it’s extremely difficult to see where her authorial voice differs markedly from, say, the average episodic TV writer’s. It’s just not all that impressive — or, frankly, all that memorable.

“But Anne,” writers of reality-based fiction and nonfiction alike protest, “sometimes, stereotypes have a kernel of truth to them, just as clichéd truisms are frequently, well, true. Isn’t it possible that Millicent sees certain character types over and over again because they pop up in real life so often, and writers are simply reflecting that? Should she not, in short, get over it?”

Ah, editors hear that one all the time from those writing the real, either in memoir form or in the ever-popular reality-thinly-disguised-as-fiction manuscript. In fact, it’s an argument heard in general conversation with some fair frequency: many, many people, including writers, genuinely believe various stereotypes to be true; therein lies the power of a cliché. The very pervasiveness of certain hackneyed icons in the cultural lexicon — the policeman enraged at the system, the intellectually brilliant woman with no social skills, the father-to-be who faints in the delivery room, that same father helpless if he is left alone with the child in question, to name but four — render them very tempting to incorporate in a manuscript as shortcuts, especially when trying to tell a story in an expeditious manner.

Oh, you don’t regard stereotypes as shortcuts? Okay, which would require more narrative description and character development, the high school cheerleader without a brain in her head, or the one who burns to become a nuclear physicist? At this point in dramatic history, all a pressed-for-time writer really has to do is use the word cheerleader to evoke the former for a reader, right?

Unless, of course, a submission that uses this shortcut happens to fall upon the desk of a Millicent who not only was a high school cheerleader, but also was the captain of the chess team. At Dartmouth. To her, a manuscript that relies upon the usual stereotype isn’t going to look as though it’s appealing to universal understandings of human interaction; it’s going to come across as a sweeping generalization.

Can you really blame her fingers for itching to reach for the broom?

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “Isn’t this all going a little far afield from Kelly’s original question? Wasn’t she really asking for a list of overused plot twists and premises a savvy aspiring writer should avoid?”

Possibly, but that’s precisely the conundrum of freshness. What would have struck Millicent as fresh a year ago, when Kelly first brought this up, is not what would seem so to her now. Freshness is an ever-moving target, difficult for an aspiring writer — who, after all, usually takes at least a year or two to fashion a premise into a full manuscript — to hit predictably. Since nobody can legitimately claim to know what will be selling well a couple of years from now, committing to a premise is always going to be something of a risky proposition.

All a writer can do is strive to make her plot and characterization as original as her voice — and, ideally, as surprising. The best means of figuring out what will come as a pleasant surprise to her is to read widely in your chosen book category. What kinds of plot twists are used, and which overused? What’s been done to death, and what’s new and exciting? What’s considered characteristic and expected in your type of book these days, and what’s considered out of bounds?

Once you have come up with provisional answers to those questions, ask yourself another: how can I make my book’s premise, characterization, and plot even better than what’s already on the literary market?

Speaking of conundrums, have you solved the riddle of the Sphinx yet? It’s the humble human being: as babies, we crawl; in our prime, we walk on two legs; in old age, we use canes.

Actually, people tend to use walkers now, but who are we to question the wisdom of the Sphinx? All I know — and this is so far from a standard premise that I can’t recall a bestselling novel of the last twenty years that has dealt with this subject in any significant depth — is that after one has been hobbling around on three legs, it’s astonishingly tiring to wander around on just two. And that, my friends, is the explanation for my recent blogging silence: I’ve been taking a long change-of-season nap.

All the better to launch into Queryfest next time, my dears. Keep up the good work!

An update on the Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011 — and would anyone out there like to be a guinea pig for Queryfest?

I’ve got three bits of business to cover this evening, campers. For the scrolling ease of future browsers of this site, I’m going to be concentrating on the news in this post, and the discussion of craft in my next.

For starters, something I think is going to please a whole lot of you: in response to literally hundreds of readers’ requests over the years, I am planning to include readers’ queries as examples in Queryfest. Scads of ‘em. And given how enthusiastically readers have lobbied in the past for me to take a pen to their queries, I suspect the slots are going to fill up fast.

Which is to say: if you have ever daydreamed, fantasized, or outright demanded that I turn my notoriously critical eye on your query letter, the time to act is now, as I shall only be accepting queries for the next two weeks. I shall be selecting most exemplars randomly, but in the interests of kicking off Queryfest with a bang, I’m going to use each and every one of the first two dozen queries my readers submit.

Perhaps not in their entirety or all at once — as some of you may recall from last year’s insanely quick Querypalooza, I tend to spend several days on each constituent part of the query. I reserve the right to use excerpts, or to concentrate upon one part of a query while talking relatively little about the rest of it. If I concentrate on only one bit, however, I shall contact the writer privately about the rest.

How does one jump into line 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 to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by midnight your time on Sunday, October 2, 2011.

(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), 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, 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) The first 24 entries that adhere to all of these rules will appear as examples in Author! Author’s Queryfest. I shall be drawing further examples at random from the pool of entries that arrive thereafter.

(8) No entries will be accepted after October 2, 2011 at midnight in your time zone.

I’m looking forward to seeing how you are presenting yourselves, campers — and I’m most excited about using readers’ actual query letters as examples this year. Many thanks to the dozens upon dozens of you who suggested it.

On to our second bit of business. Due to an incomprehensible server glitch, about a third of the entries in the Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011 — deadline September 30th! — seem to have been eaten by the Technology Goblin. While I’m fairly confident that Author! Author!’s crack techie team will successfully do battle with the goblin on your behalf, early contest entrants, it probably would be prudent to send your entries again.

Hey, the Technology Goblin is hungry. And we haven’t quite figured out if there’s a pattern to what he likes to eat for breakfast.

Missed the contest rules — and, equally important, the description of the prizes — the first time around? Let’s take another quick gander at ‘em, shall we?

Author! Author! Perfect Pitch Competition of 2011

In order to celebrate the end of Pitchingpalooza and encourage the practical application of the skills learned and polished there, Author! Author! is calling upon its talented readers to enter pitches for their books into healthy competition. Winners will not only receive fabulous prizes (see below), but will have their pitches, the first page of their manuscripts, and an author photo featured in a post here at Author! Author! for all the world to see and admire.

Sound good? Wait, it gets better. To make the experience more interesting for onlookers, pitchers may present their fabulous premises in three distinct categories:

Category I: The keynote or Hollywood hook, a one-sentence teaser for your book

Category II: The elevator speech, a 100-word or less presentation of your book’s premise and central conflict

Category III: The formal 2-minute pitch, a 250-word introduction of your protagonist, the central conflict, and what’s at stake in your story OR the problem that your nonfiction book addresses

All entries must be submitted via e-mail to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone. Late entries will not be considered.

Entrants may enter more than one category. Please submit each entry in a separate e-mail, in accordance with the rules below.

The grand prize winner in each category will receive a half-hour Mini Consult on his or her query, synopsis, and first 10 pages, as well as having the winning entry, the first page, and an author photo posted on Author! Author! Runners-up will see their entries, first pages, and photos posted and critiqued as well, as vivid examples of how good a pitch can be when it is done right.

Because winners will also be awarded life-long bragging rights and coveted ECQLC , the judges reserve the right to award as many (or as few) prizes as the quality of the entry pool warrants. Awards are purely up to the discretion of the judging panel.

Those are the general rules. Here are the specific steps required to win. Do read them all carefully, as I am anticipating vigorous competition.

1. Polish your pitch to a high gloss and save it as a Word document.
Only .doc entries in Word will be accepted — not TextEdit, PDF, or any other formats, please. Please title the Word file with either your name or the title of your book, not just as contest entry. (The last time I ran a contest like this, I received 37 with that file name.)

2. Make sure that the entry is properly formatted.
All entries must be in standard format for book manuscripts. No exceptions, I’m afraid. If it is not double-spaced, in 12-point type, and featuring a slug line with your name and the book’s title at the top of the page, the judges will not consider it.

3. On a separate page of the same Word document, write the book’s title, the book category, and a BRIEF (

In other words, what is fresh about your book? (Hint: this question will be significantly easier to answer if you mention what your book category of choice is.) Please be as specific as you can about what is new and different about your book. Vague claims of being the best novel since WAR AND PEACE probably won’t impress the judges.

4. On the same page, include your contact information.
Name, address, and e-mail address will suffice. You want us to be able to let you know if you have won, don’t you?

5. Make sure to mention which category you are entering.
Again, the three possibilities are: the keynote or Hollywood hook, the elevator speech, and the formal 2-minute pitch.

6. Attach the Word document you’ve created to an e-mail.
Please include PERFECT PITCH ENTRY in the subject line, and mention the category you’re entering in the body of the e-mail. (It makes it easier to process the entries.) Make sure to say who you are, too, so we don’t get entries mixed up.

It’s also a nice touch to say something pleasantly chatty by way of introduction (along the lines of “Keep up the good work, Anne!”) in the e-mail itself. I just mention.

7. E-mail the whole shebang to anneminicontest@gmail(dot)com by Friday, September 30, at midnight in your time zone.
Do I need to explain that the (dot) should be rendered as a period when you are typing the address? Nah, probably not.

Even if you are not planning to pitch anytime soon, I would strongly encourage you to enter this contest — as I mentioned early and often throughout Pitchingpalooza, writers frequently find themselves having to pitch at a moment’s notice. A hour’s worth of preparation today can save you an eternity of “Um…” down the line. Besides, an elevator speech makes a terrific descriptive paragraph for a query letter.

Wait — weren’t we just talking about that? Or won’t we be in the weeks to come?

How detailed our discussion will be depends largely upon you, campers. Do consider participating, and keep up the good work!

PS: the cute guinea pig photos appear courtesy of copyrightfreepictures.org.uk.

Phrases a savvy writer should not touch with a hundred-foot pole

Hello, campers —

I’m planning on posting a lovely, long post this evening, an in-depth answer to a reader’s intelligent question about writing clichés, but until the dark and no doubt stormy night allows me to suggest that perhaps you have all been wondering why I asked you all here, let me state here and now that the murder is — BANG!

Just kidding. Seriously, I’ve been swamped the last couple of days (speaking of editorial clichés), and I want to devote some serious time to this important and under-discussed topic. Rather than leave you pining for a fresh post another twelve or fifteen hours (or longer, should I decide to do something radical like take a nap before blogging next), I’m rerunning a post from last February. Not only does it strike me as a perfect lead-in to any discussion of hackneyed phrases and concepts, but it addresses an extremely common professional readers’ pet peeve: manuscripts that misappropriate or misuse the aforementioned well-worn tropes.

Oh, and I’m going to nag you a little on submission strategy first. So fasten your seatbelts, everybody — it’s going to be a bumpy night day. Enjoy!

Can we talk?

Actually, I’ve been meaning to bring this up for quite some time now, but the moment never seemed quite right. You were gearing up to send out a flotilla of queries, perhaps, or were intent upon getting a submission out the door. Maybe we were all focused upon how to prep a writing contest entry, a verbal pitch, or a synopsis.

In short, there always seemed to be something more pressing than having this painful discussion. But as your writing advisor and, I’d like to think, your friend, I just can’t stand around and watch you hurting yourself any longer without saying something. I say this with love, but you’ve been engaging in self-destructive behavior, behavior that is making it harder for you to land an agent, get published, and get your good writing in front of the readership it deserves.

Oh, I see you roll your eyes. It’s easy, isn’t it, to blame a system stacked against the new writer? But this is something you are doing to yourself, I’m afraid, something as lethal to your manuscript’s marketability as taking a match and setting it on fire instead of mailing it to the agent who requested it.

I refer, of course, to the average aspiring writer’s addiction to sending out requested materials without taking the time to proofread them — or having someone else proofread them.

I’m not even talking about the to-my-mind deplorable practice of submitting those pages before reading them IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD — although as I may have mentioned several hundred times before in this very forum, that’s the single best way to catch typos, dropped words, logic problems, half-revised sentences, and the fact that your protagonist’s hated coworker was called Tisha for the first 57 pages, Patricia in Chapters 4, 8, 17, and parts of 24, and Trish for the rest of the book. I’m talking about just assuming that a quick computerized spell-check will be sufficient because, hey, you’ve got a busy life.

Or, as is common with contest entries that need to be postmarked by a certain date and time, performing it when one is so tired that one inadvertently hits the REPLACE ALL button instead of IGNORE ALL. The result: 300 pages in which political coalitions are invariably described as political cotillions, leaving the poor judge in that historical fiction contest to wonder why nobody ever seems to be dancing.

Or, even more common, dispensing with even the computerized spell-check in your eagerness to get the pages a real, live agent has requested sent off before another sunset has passed. Never mind that Millicent the agency screener is unlikely to have any sympathy whatsoever for your unfortunate habit of consistently mistyping receive with the e and the i inverted, or the fact that somehow, you missed the day of English class when the difference between there, their, and they’re was clarified beyond any risk of future confusion. You had been working on that manuscript for years — you simply couldn’t bear to wait the additional few hours it would take to proof those requested pages.

Oh, it’s all quite understandable. Speaking as someone who reads manuscripts for a living and has served as a writing contest judge, however, it’s also completely understandable that a professional reader might reject those pages on the basis of all of those typos alone.

Yes, you read that correctly: it’s not at all uncommon for a professional reader to stop reading at the second or third typo, skipped word, or grammatical problem. So if you are not routinely proofreading your work before you submit it or enter it in a contest — or having some sharp-eyed soul do it — you may well be dooming your manuscript to rejection.

So I ask you: what are you actually gaining by not taking the time to make sure that your pages are clean?

A clean manuscript, for the benefit of those of you new to the term, is industry-speak for a manuscript completely devoid of misspelled words, grammatical gaffes, dropped words, incorrect punctuation, logic problems, formatting errors, clichés, or any of the many, many other small errors that make those of us trained to read for a living grit our teeth because we see them so very often. Indeed, Millicents and contest judges are often specifically instructed to consider seriously only clean manuscripts.

What happens to the rest, you ask with fear and trembling? They are subjected to the most common word in our Millie’s vocabulary: “Next!”

Why? Well, several reasons — and far better ones than you might expect.

The first and most straightforward: if a manuscript is riddled with errors, some luckless soul is going to have to fix them all before an agent could possibly submit it to an editor with any hope of placing it successfully. The same holds true for a submission to a publishing house: copyediting is very time-consuming and costs real money. And few literary contests will want their good names sullied by awarding top honors to an entry that looks as though the entrant conceived of it 24 hours before the contest deadline, typed it with fingers blurring across the keyboard, and ran panting to the post office three minutes before it closed.

Nobody, but nobody, likes to read a first draft. And I say that as a writer who once actually did pull together a literary contest entry — the first chapter of a book, synopsis, and entry form — in 23 hours and 32 minutes.

I won, too, despite the never-sufficiently-to-be-deplored typo on page 17. Do as I say, not as I did.

Why? Well, to a professional reader — like, say, Millicent, her boss the agent, the editor to whom the agent might conceivably sell your book, or a contest judge — all of these seemingly little writing problems are not merely the hallmark of a writer in a hurry or easily-fixed trivialities that merely mar the surface of the deep, deep pool that is a brilliantly-written story, annoying but not particularly important. They are a sign that the writer is not professional enough to realize that this is an industry in which spelling does in fact count.

Or that presentation in general counts. One of the hallmarks of an aspiring writer who has yet to learn much about how publishing works is an apparent belief that agents and editors sit around all day, casually reading through submissions and acquiring any that happen to catch their fancy.

“Oh, this writer has promise,” these fantasy pros murmur over their snifters of warm cognac as they leisurely turn pages, perched on intricately tufted chaise longues. “He can’t spell, but that’s easily fixed at the editorial stage. I’m so fascinated by this story and the voice in which it is written that I’m just going to ignore the fact that the writer clearly didn’t bother to read his own book. I’m going to read it until the very last word of the very last page before I make up my mind about it, but I have a strong feeling that the answer is going to be yes.”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but that’s simply not how professional readers operate: they just don’t have time to read every submission in its entirety. Nor could they possibly take on every writing project that tickled their fancy. An agent or editor who routinely embraced projects without thinking about her ability to sell them would soon be out of a job, after all.

As a direct result, the fine folks who work in agencies and publishing houses look first for reasons to reject manuscripts, scouring each line for problems. Only those submissions that pass this scrutiny for hundreds of pages stand a chance of getting picked up. Even setting the bar this high, a well-respected agency or contest will still receive so many perfectly clean (or nearly so), nicely-written submissions that they can afford to reject everything else.

I sense some trembling hands tentatively raised out there. “What do you mean by scouring each line?” some of you quaver, thinking perhaps of that writing sample you entered into that online submission form without proofreading. “It would be impossibly time-consuming to read an entire manuscript that closely, especially with the high volume of submissions the average agency receives. Why, the only way they could possibly pull it off would be to stop reading when they encounter a problem, and move on to the next one.”

That’s precisely what they do. Oh, not necessarily at the first problem, but certainly before the fourth or fifth.

Was that great whooshing sound that just deafened us all the result of half of you gasping as you frantically tried to open your manuscript files to begin revising them? A clean manuscript suddenly sounds like a very, very desirable thing, doesn’t it?

That’s a smart orientation. The competition for those very few client openings at agencies — and even fewer new author openings at publishing houses — is unbelievably fierce, far too fierce to expect a charitable reading.

Millicent forms the first line of defense — I feel you cringing, but that’s how agents and editors think of her — against the blizzard of submissions battering against their mailroom doors. Even an agent unusually hungry for clients usually can take on only three or four a year. That means, in practical terms, that for every submission she approves, there are hundreds she or her Millicent must reject.

The same holds true for queries, of course. Except that for hundreds, substitute tens of thousands.

Fortunately for Millicent (but unfortunately for writers), most submissions honestly are self-rejecting. How so? Well, one of the most popular methods is by combining improper formatting with a few typos on page 1.

You know, the sort of thing that the combination of a little research into how the publishing industry works and a few minutes of proofreading would easily have caught. To Millicent, a writer who hasn’t put in the time to do either isn’t ready for the publishing world. The hypercritical way that professional readers scrutinize manuscripts might kill him.

Which is to say: a savvy writer expects her future agent and editor to expect a completely clean manuscript every time. Yes, even when the writer has only three weeks to revise the last quarter of the book because a new editor has just taken over the project from the acquiring editor, and the newbie has some exciting new ideas about plot resolution.

Oh, it happens. To an agent, a good client is a flexible client.

Which brings me to another excellent reason Millicent is specifically trained to regard a clean manuscript as the minimum requirement for serious consideration: a client who does not proofread (or possess the skills to do it well) is inherently more time-consuming for an agency to represent than one who habitually produces clean manuscripts. While an established author can get away with being high-maintenance, one trying to break into the biz for the first time cannot.

Oh, an agent expects to hold a new client’s hand a little; submitting to publishing houses can be a long, drawn-out, and extremely stressful process. But if that client cannot be relied upon to provide the agent with clean pages, who is going to end up proofing them?

The agent, that’s who. See why she might instruct her Millicent to select clients likely to spare her the trouble? Or why if the writer hasn’t bothered to read this manuscript, why should I? is such a common mantra amongst professional readers?

Or, to be blunt about it, why I saw fit to stage an intervention for those of you who aren’t already scrutinizing your submissions to prevent them from falling into this most common of self-rejection pitfalls?

To be fair, though, not all rejection-triggers would necessarily turn up in a quick proofreading — or even when reading a manuscript IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD. Often, for instance, writers new to the game will miss another of Millicent’s pet peeves, the use of clichés.

Or, an even surer professional reader-annoyer, the misuse of clichés.

That caused some of you to do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” you cry, rubbing your sore necks, “isn’t a misused cliché not a cliché, by definition? Doesn’t it at least have the charm of surprise?”

Yes and no, in that order — to professional readers, at least. Allow me to explain.

Since so many aspiring writers are under the mistaken impressions that (a) dialogue in a book should read precisely like conversations in real life, despite the fact that most real-world conversations are so repetitious that they would plunge readers into profound slumber, (b) a narrative voice should sound like the way someone might actually talk, regardless of whether the narration is in the first person or not, and/or (c) an essential tactic for achieving either (a) or (b) is to incorporate those pat little catchphrases most speakers use into one’s writing, discovering clichés on the submission page is the norm, not the exception.

Because writers who embrace (a), (b), or (c) believe — and with some reason — that there is inherent virtue in echoing everyday speech, they usually don’t think of these common phrases as clichés. Let’s take a gander at a few dozen of them in action.

Jeremy strode through the door, bold as brass. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and dogs out there.” He mussed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was glued to the family’s pride and joy, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, shrimp. Where’s the beef?”

“Blow it out your ear,” Tad snarled without taking his eyes off the nine-inch screen. His Davy Crockett cap had slid off his head onto his cowboy suit. His discarded hula-hoop rested on top of the crumpled Twister set and a signed photo of Marilyn Monroe. “And sit on it. It’s almost Howdy Doody time.”

Betsy rolled her eyes, gritted her teeth, and shrugged her shoulders. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as pie, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything you read. Let the buyer beware. “Does that mean it’s time to put on the feedbag? I’ve been slaving over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to traipse through that door.”

Jeremy had already tuned her out: his Walkman, whatever that was, was turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him upside the head and give him a piece of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that noise,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your eyes. My goodness, if I had a dime for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his eyes like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be doing these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handed to him on a silver platter. When she was a girl, walking to school through three feet of snow, year in, year out, rain or shine, come hell or high water, without fail, her mother would have given her what for if she had flounced into the house like a movie star. Just who did he think he was?

“Just wait ’til your father gets home,” she muttered under her breath.

Granddad shuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his mouth, clutching his low-hanging pants, and longing for the return of the Taft Administration. “Is dinner ready yet? I’m starved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary brow. “There’s only so much I can do. I only have two hands. I do and do and do for you people, and this is the thanks I get. A woman’s work is never done.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking sharp, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s meow, don’t you, you young whippersnapper?”

“Hey, chill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘do. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a headache, Dad. The kids have been running me ragged.”

“You think you have a headache? Back in my day, we had headaches.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we had some rain. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her brow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her apron while the clouds rolled by. It looked like stormy weather. Still, she could look for the silver lining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Every time it rained, it rained pennies from heaven. “I’ve been worried sick about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table, since I don’t have a daughter to do it for me, and I can’t ask either of the boys to do it in this time period?”

“Boys will be boys.” Granddad shuffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbugging at the malt shop to that newfangled jazz? Doing the Charleston with some flibbertigibbet with rouged knees and a beaded dress?”

“You should come clubbing with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and crazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own business,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say…”

Had enough? Millicent has — and did, by the middle of the second paragraph.

Stock phrases are problematic on the page for much the same reasons that standard polite exchanges are. They’re predictable, and because everyone does say them, a character’s uttering them does not reveal anything about his emotional state, mental gymnastics, or even the situation at hand. (Sorry — once one starts generating hackneyed phrases, it’s hard to stop.)

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned that polite chitchat is also a common type of cliché? Because literally anyone might say these phrases, they are the opposite of character-revealing. Take a gander:

“Why, hello there, Gladys,” Ambrose said. “How are you today?”

“Fine. How are you?”

“Fine. How is your husband, Terrence, and your four children, Maude, Eleanor, Franklin Delano, and Frances? All well, I trust.”

“Yes, fine. How’s your cocker spaniel, Macguffin?”

“Oh, fine, fine. Nice weather we’re having, isn’t it?”

“Very. We could use some rain, though.”

“Sure could use it.”

“Sure could. Ah-choo!”

“Bless you.”

“Thank you.”

“Still have those nasal allergies, eh? They must be quite annoying.”

“Oh, they’re not so bad. At least I don’t have toe fungus.”

“Thank goodness for that. May I hold the door for you? Ladies first.”

“Thanks. Watch out for that puddle.”

“I appreciate your telling me. I wonder how it got here, considering that we haven’t had any rain. O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!”

“And therefore as a stranger give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Ambrose, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come, here, as before, never, so help you mercy, how strange or odd soe’er I bear myself, as I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on, that you, at such times seeing me, never shall, with arms encumber’d thus, or this headshake, or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase, as ‘Well, well, we know,’ or ‘We could, an if we would,’ or ‘If we list to speak,’ or ‘There be, an if they might,’ or such ambiguous giving out, to note
that you know aught of me: this not to do, so grace and mercy at your most need help you, swear.”

“Whatever you say, Gladys.” Ambrose tipped his hat politely. “Have a good day.”

“You, too, Ambrose.”

Okay, so I got bored enough to throw a slight twist in there. But see how stultifying all of that politeness is on the page?

Once again, I spot some timid hands in the air. “But Anne, isn’t this just what nice people say? And if I want the reader to like my protagonist, don’t I need to show that he’s polite, rather than telling it by some such statement as Nate was a polite guy?”

If you really want to induce Millicent to take a shine to ol’ Nate, I would strongly suggest that you do neither. Most readers will come to dislike a protagonist who bores them, not matter how nice his words or actions are. Since Millicent is paid to get bored a whole lot faster than the ordinary reader (see earlier comments about weeding out as many submissions as possible), her threshold of impatience with nondescript polite conversation is exceedingly low.

I wouldn’t push it. Instead, why not have Nate win her heart by doing and saying unexpected kind things?

“Okay, Anne,” those of you prone to flinging your hands skyward concede reluctantly. “I can see why I might need to trim both the stock phrases and purely polite exchanges. But weren’t you going to tell us about misused clichés?”

Ah, yes, I was, campers; thank you so much for reminding me. And how’s your mother doing?

No, but seriously, folks, while stock phrases bore professional readers, misstatements of these same phrases tend to drive Millicent into apoplexy. While such clichés as it’s a dog-eat-dog world, take another tack, and I couldn’t care less often — and incorrectly — turn up in conversation as it’s a doggie-dog world, take another tact, and the irritatingly immortal I could care less, the only reason to use the incorrect versions on the page would be to make the character saying them seem ignorant, right?

Right? Anyone out there?

Even ironic use is dangerous, though: because Millicent sees these misstatements so often, she’s likely to have a knee-jerk reaction to their appearance. And it’s hard to blame her, isn’t it? Not only do these phrases imply that the writer has a rather poor ear for dialogue, but even had these tropes been rendered correctly, they would still be hackneyed phrases, and thus unoriginal.

Call me zany, but don’t you want Millicent to judge you on your writing, rather than someone else’s?

Then, too, misstated clichés often reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the meaning of the original. What would a doggie-dog world look like, anyway? Why bother to mention that someone could care less than he currently does? And while taking a different tack while sailing makes some sense as a metaphor, what would taking a different tact involve? Diplomacy in another language?

My favorite example comes by way of a roommate of mine in graduate school, a young lady who had grown up without a television in the house. She loved stock phrases, but she was perpetually getting them wrong.

“What do you mean, you wouldn’t touch it with a 100-foot pole?” I would cackle. “The standard length is ten. How would you even lift a hundred-foot pole?”

She was also prone to misapplying such metaphors. “I can’t find my keys,” she would say. “They’re like a needle in a haystack.”

“I wish you would tell me how,” I would say, lifting the sofa cushion under which her personal items so often worked themselves. “Not everything that’s lost is like a needle in a haystack, you know.”

She would look as startled as a deer in the head lice. “It isn’t?”

Okay, so perhaps there were some undiagnosed mental health issues involved. And now that I see it in print, as startled as a deer in the head lice may well be my new favorite faux cliché. It’s actually quite evocative of panic, is it not?

But you see the overall point, right? A misused familiar term may well produce a laugh, but even if you are writing comedy, you might want to use it sparingly. In submissions, misappropriated clichés often result in bad laughter, a chuckle at the expense of the story, a giggle that the author did not intend.

Now that you know what such misstatements look like individually, let’s revisit our first example, so you may see how and why they might annoy Millicent on the page.

Jeremy scrod through the door, bold as copper. “Hey, Mom. It’s raining cats and ducks out there.” He missed little Tad’s hair as he passed; the boy was taped to the family’s pride and happiness, the new black-and-white TV. “Hey, petunia. Where’s the mutton?”

“Blow it out your nose,” Tad snarled without taking his gaze off the nine-inch screen. His Daniel Webster cap had slid off his head onto his sailor suit. His discarded Pet Rock rested on top of the Pong remote and a signed photo of Theda Bara. “Sit on something. It’s almost time for the Miniskiteers.”

Betsy rolled her mouth, gritted her ribs, and shrugged her arms. Playing host family to a time-traveling teen from 1984 wasn’t as easy as cake, despite what the brochure had promised. But then, you couldn’t believe everything. Let the biller beware. “Does that mean it’s time to don the fedbag? I’ve been praying over a hot stove all day, waiting for you to lapse through that door.”

Jeremy had already turned her out: his Walkmen, whoever they were, were turned up too high. One day, she was going to smack him beside the head and give him a place of her mind.

“You’ll go deaf from all that sound,” she shouted at him. “And don’t sit so close to the TV, Tad; you’ll ruin your posture. My goodness, if I had an orangutan for every time I’ve told you…”

Jeremy rolled his cigarette like James Dean, as all the kids seemed to be these days. He seemed to expect the world — or at least his supper — to be handled to him on a silver tray. When she was a girl, walking to school through three inches of snow, year in, bear out, rain or more rain, come Milwaukee or high water, without failure, her mother would have given her what for it if she had flounced into the house like a movie preen. Just who did he think he could be?

“Just wait ’til your father gets here,” she muttered under her breathe.

Granddad snuffled into the kitchen, shoving his false teeth into his and clutching his low-hanging tie. “Is dinner prepared yet? I’m staved.”

She sighed, mopping her weary hair. “There’s only so many I can do. I only have two hand. I do and do and do and do and do for your people, and this is the thanks I git. A woman’s work is never down.”

The old man caught sight of Jeremy. “Looking bark, kiddo.” When the boy did not respond, Granddad lifted a speaker from his ear. “Think you’re the cat’s leisure suit, don’t you, you young whipperstinger?”

“Hey, take a bill pill.” Jeremy took off his headphones before the old man messed up his ‘roo. “You look mahvelous.”

“Marvelous,” Betsy corrected under her breath. “I have such a backache, Dad. The kids have been running me rugged.”

“You think you have an ague? Back in the day, we had agues.” Granddad peered through the window. “‘Bout time we accumulated some significant rainfall. Sure do need it.”

“We sure do,” she agreed, mopping her blow, nodding her head, and nervously playing with her ape while the clouds rolled near. It looked like stormy seasons. Still, she could look for the silver pining and the pot of gold at the end of the rainblow. Every time it pains, it pains good fortune. “I’ve been worried ill about Jeremy. Could you find out where he has been while I set the table with silverware, plates, and gasses?”

“Boys well be boys.” Granddad sniffled back to Jeremy. “Where have you been, son? Jitterbeetling at the salt shop to that newfinagled bock-and-roll?”

“You should come with me sometime, Granddad. We are two wild and lazy guys.”

Tad’s curly head popped up behind the couch. “Isn’t that misplaced cultural reference from the 1970s?”

“Mind your own bees’ honey,” Jeremy growled. “Sometimes, you just gotta say what the Buick…”

Have I made my point yet, or do I need to keep greeting that red horse?

In the days to come, I shall be going over more seemingly small Millicent-irritants. Not the big stuff, mind you, but the tiny, niggling narrative choices that make her teeth…well, I was going to say grind, but that would be a cliché. Once you are aware of precisely how and why these tidbits annoy the pros, you may keep an eye out for them while you are proofreading.

That’s while, right, not if? Keep up the good work!

But enough about you — what about me?

Today, I had planned to launch headlong into my annual foray into how to construct a graceful and effective query letter, campers, but frankly, didn’t we devote an awful lot of the summer to discussing how to pitch? After so many weeks on end of dealing with practicalities, I feel that the artist in each of us deserves a little holiday.

So let’s refresh ourselves by talking craft for a while. Queryfest will be every bit as useful next week.

Memoir-writing and writing about reality as fiction has been much on my mind of late, and not merely because my memoir remains in publishing limbo. (Yes, still. Let’s just be grateful that not every memoirist’s extended family has the wherewithal to make credible $2 million dollar lawsuit threats.) While we writers talk endlessly amongst ourselves about craft and structure for fiction, it’s actually quite rare to stumble into a knot of literary conference attendees avidly discussing how to make a personal anecdote spring to life on the page.

Why is that, when it is so very hard to write memoir well? All too often, the prevailing wisdom dictates that all a writer needs to produce a successful memoir is an exciting life, an ability to write clearly, and, if at all possible, celebrity in another field, so the writing will matter even less. The writer’s platform and the inherent interest of the story, we’re told, are all that matter in a memoir. Anything beyond that, presumably, is gravy.

As to structure, that’s held to be self-evident. In the immortal words of Lewis Carroll,

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. “Where shall I begin, please, your Majesty?” he asked.

“Begin at the beginning,” the King said gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

As a memoirist and an editor who works regularly with same, I must disagree. While a chronological structure can work, not all human events start out scintillating; depending upon the story, another structure might work better.

Then, too, a memoir cannot really be deemed a success unless readers find it entertaining, enlightening, or at the very least, interesting. That’s not merely a matter of story. Any long-form writing, be it fiction or nonfiction, will benefit from a strong narrative structure, a consistent, likable narrative voice, a plausible and engaging story arc, believable, well-drawn characters, a protagonist the reader would be happy to follow for a few hundred pages…

In short, many of the elements one might find in a well-constructed novel. But that’s not all that a good reality-based story requires, is it? After all, few readers will want to read a story, whether it is presented as memoir or as fiction, simply because it really happened. It needs to feel real on the page — and it needs to be enjoyable to read.

What makes me think that this might be news to many writers of memoir and reality-based fiction, you ask? For my sins, I have served quite frequently as a contest judge, assessing both memoir and novel entries, and I’m here to tell you, they look more similar on the page than one might think.

How so? They tend to share a few characteristics: a one-sided approach to scenes, as if the protagonist’s perspective were the only possible one; an apparent assumption that the reader will automatically side with the protagonist, regardless of what is going on, and bolstering both, a propensity for relating conflictual exchanges as though they were verbal anecdotes, light on detail but strong on emotion. Or, to boil all of these down to a single trait, these narratives tend to be disproportionately weighted toward a single point of view.

And memoirists’ hands fly heavenward all over the world. “But Anne,” they point out, and who could blame them? “My memoir is my story. Why wouldn’t it be biased toward my perspective?”

It should, of course — but in the interests of representing one’s own point of view, memoirists and writers of the real often render the narrative so one-sided that the situation neither seems plausible nor fairly presented. It just reads like a diatribe in scene form, a piece of prose whose primary point is not storytelling, but getting back at someone.

About half of you have started to blush, have you not? I’m not surprised; in both memoir and reality-based fiction, the scene where the reader is evidently expected to take the protagonist’s side, not because the antagonist is shown to be particularly awful, but because the narrative presents the antagonist without any sympathy — or, usually, any redeeming characteristics — is a notorious pet peeve of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener. And not just as a generality, either. When Millicents, their boss agents, and the editors to whom they cater gather to share mutual complaints in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, the annoying coworker stereotype often crops up in conversation.

As in, “You think you’re tired of conceptual repetition? I’ve read fourteen submissions this week alone with omitable annoying coworker scenes.”

It’s perhaps not altogether astonishing that memoirs would be rife with interactions between the protagonist/narrator and the people who happen to rile her, told in a breathlessly outraged tone, but aspiring writers of fact-based fiction are often stunned to discover that they were not the first to think of inserting actual conflicts into fictional stories. They shouldn’t be: there’s a pretty good reason that such scenes are ubiquitous in manuscript submissions and contest entries. Care to guess?

If you immediately cried out, “By gum, Anne, every writer currently crawling the crust of the earth has in fact had to work with someone less than pleasant at one time or another,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Given how often aspiring writers resent their day jobs — and, by extension, the people with whom they must interact there — that such unsavory souls would end up populating the pages of submissions follows as night the day.

If these charming souls appeared in novel and memoir submissions in vividly-drawn, fully fleshed-out glory, that actually might not be a problem. 99% of the time, however, the annoying co-worker is presented in exactly the same way as any other stereotype: without detail, under the apparent writerly assumption that what rankles the author will necessarily irk the reader.

Unfortunately, that’s seldom the case — it can take a lot of page space for a character to start to irritate a reader. So instead of having the character to demonstrate annoying traits and allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions, many a narrative will convey that a particular character is grating by telling the reader directly (“Georgette was grating”), providing the conclusion indirectly (through the subtle use of such phrases as, “Georgette had a grating voice that cut through my concentration like nails on a chalkboard”), or through the protagonist’s thoughts (“God, Georgette is grating!”)

Pardon my asking, but as a reader, I need to know: what about Georgette was so darned irritating? For that matter, what about her voice made it grating? It’s the writer’s job to show me, not tell me, right?

I cannot even begin to count the number of memoirs and novels I have edited that contained scenes where the reader is clearly supposed to be incensed at one of the characters, yet it is not at all apparent from the action of the scene why.

Invariably, when I have asked the authors about these scenes, the response is identical: “But it really happened that way!”

No surprise there. These scenes are pretty easy for professionals to spot, because the protagonist is ALWAYS presented as in the right for every instant of the scene, a state of grace quite unusual in real life. It doesn’t ring true.

The author is always quite astonished that his own take on the real-life scene did not translate into instantaneous sympathy in every conceivable reader. Ultimately, this is a point-of-view problem — the author is just too close to the material to be able to tell that the scene doesn’t read the way she anticipated.

Did I just see some antennae springing up out there? “Hey, wait a minute. Mightn’t an author’s maintaining objective distance from the material — in this case, the annoying co-worker — have helped nip this particular problem in the bud long before the manuscript landed on Millicent’s desk?”

Why, yes, now that you mention it, it would. Let’s look at the benefits of some objective distance in action.

Many writers assume, wrongly, that if someone is irritating in real life, and they reproduce the guy down to the last whisker follicle, he will be annoying on the page as well, but that is not necessarily true. Often, the author’s anger so spills into the account that the villain starts to appear maligned, from the reader’s perspective. If his presentation is too obviously biased, the reader may start to identify with him, and in the worst cases, actually take the villain’s side against the hero. I have read scenes where the case against the villain is so marked that most readers would decide that the hero is the impossible one, not the villain.

This character assassination has clearly not gone as planned. A little more objective distance might have made it go better. Who was it that said, revenge is a dish best served cold?

Yes, I called it revenge, because revenge it usually is. Most writers are very aware of the retributive powers of their work. As my beloved old mentor, the science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, was fond of saying, “Never screw over a living writer. They can always get back at you on the page.”

Oh, stop blushing. You didn’t honestly think that when you included that horrible co-worker in three scenes of your novel that you were doing her a FAVOR, did you?

My most vivid personal experience of this species of writerly vitriol was not as the author, thank goodness, but as the intended victim. And at the risk of having this story backfire on me, I’m going to tell you about it as nonfiction.

Call it a memoir excerpt. To prevent confusion, I’m going to offset the narrative from the discussion.

A few years before I began blogging, I was in residence at an artists’ colony. Now, retreats vary a great deal; mine have ranged from a fragrant month-long stay in a cedar cabin in far-northern Minnesota, where all of the writers were asked to remain silent until 4 p.m. each day to a sojourn in a medieval village in southwestern France to a let’s-revisit-the-early-1970s meat market, complete with hot tub, in the Sierra foothills.

A word to the wise: it pays to do your homework before you apply.

This particular colony had more or less taken over a small, rural New England town, so almost everyone I saw for the month of March was a writer, sculptor, photographer, or painter. While world-class painters and sculptors were imported up ice-covered rural roads every few days to critique and encourage those newer to their respective arts, the National Book Award winner scheduled to give feedback to the writers didn’t bother to show up for the first week of her residency. Amenities like kilns, darkrooms, and ladders to facilitate the construction of 20-foot woven cardboard cocoons seemed to appear whenever the visual artists so much as blinked. The writers, a tiny minority, had been shoved into a dank, dark cellar with cinder block walls; you could see the resentment flash in their eyes when they visited the painters’ massive, light-drenched studios, and compared them to the caves to which they had been assigned.

See what I just did there? I skewed the narrative so you would resent the visual artists.

But was that necessary? Objectively speaking, they were not the villains in this situation; they, like me, were visitors to the retreat. Besides, since the overwhelming majority of the Author! Author! community is made up of writers, couldn’t I simply have assumed that my readers would identify with the cave residents pretty much automatically?

Or, better yet, couldn’t I have included a vivid detail or two that would have nudged the reader in that direction without the narration’s appearing to be presenting a myopic account?

What kind of detail, you ask? Let’s try this one on for size.

Due to the musty dampness of the writers’ cellar, I elected to write in my assigned bedroom, in order to catch the occasional ray of sunlight. Sure, there were certain drawbacks — the desk had been designed for a hulking brute twice my size, while the desk chair had apparently been filched from a nearby kindergarten — but at least the heat worked. Too well, in fact: an hour and a half into my first afternoon of writing, a sleepy hornet emerged from the gaping hole around the charming antique light fixture and aimed straight for my head.

It was not the best moment to learn that the windows had been sealed for the winter. You know writers: we can’t be trusted not to let all of the heat out. Unlike, say, painters, whose windows might safely open onto vast vistas of forested hillside.

As the afternoon sun warmed the room, hornet after hornet emerged from its long winter’s nap. After the eighth had expressed its displeasure at my having had the temerity to have turned on either the light or the heat, I shook the bees off my jacket, wrapped my head and shoulders in several scarves, and plunged into a blizzard. By the time I reached the administration building, I was chilled to the bone.

Perhaps naïvely, I had assumed that the hornet’s nest in my room would come as a surprise to the retreat’s administrators. The writer who’d had the room the previous November — the local authorities had deemed it inadequately heated for winter residence — had complained about the bees, too. The painter-in-residence charged with rooting them out had simply not gotten around to it.

And didn’t for three days. He was too busy with a canvas that just couldn’t wait to be handed down to posterity. The administrators encouraged me to regard sleeping on a couch next to the dining hall as my contribution to the world’s supply of art. I had to wait until after dark in order to retrieve my laptop.

That engaged your sympathies more robustly, didn’t it? It’s still my experience and my perspective, told in my voice — but I’ve allowed you to draw the conclusion. That’s simply better storytelling.

Don’t see it? Okay, contrast the fleshed-out account above with the following series of summary statements.

Sharing meals in a dining hall was a bit high school-like, conducive to tensions about who would get to sit at the Living Legend in Residence’s table, squabbles between the writers and the painters about whether one should wait until after lunch to start drinking, or break out the bottles at breakfast (most of the writers were on the first-mentioned side, most of the painters on the latter), and the usual bickerings and flirtations, serious and otherwise, endemic to any group of people forced to spend time together whether or not they have a great deal in common.

An environment ripe, in other words, for people to start to find their co-residents annoying.

Aren’t you already longing for me to show you how specifically they were annoying, rather than merely telling you that they were? Let’s exacerbate the problem in the manner so many writers of the real do, creating the illusion of narrative distance by switching the text almost entirely into the passive voice.

Of course, such problems are endemic to large artists’ colonies. One classic means of dealing with the inevitable annoying co-resident problem is to bring a buddy or three along on a retreat; that way, if the writer in the next cubicle becomes too irritating, one has some back-up when one goes to demand that she stop snapping her gum every 27 seconds, for Pete’s sake. I am of the school of thought that retreating entails leaving the trappings and the personnel of my quotidian life behind, but there’s no denying that at a retreat of any size, there can be real value in having someone to whom to vent about that darned gum-popper. (Who taught her to blow bubbles? A horse?)

Doubtless for this reason, several artists had brought their significant others to the hornet-ridden New England village. Or, to be more accurate, these pairs had applied together: writer and photographer, painter and writer, etc. One of these pairs was a very talented young couple, she a writer brimming with potential, he a sculptor of great promise. Although every fiber of my being longs to use their real names, I shall not.

Let’s call them Hansel and Gretel, to remove all temptation.

And let’s see how this telling, not showing thing I’ve got going works for character development, shall we?

Hansel was an extremely friendly guy, always eager to have a spirited conversation on topics artistic, social, or his personal favorite, explicitly sexual. The dining hall’s Lothario, one constantly spotted him flirting with…hmm, let’s see how best to represent how he directed his attentions…everything with skin.

Amusing, but wouldn’t some details have brought his predilections more clearly before the reader’s eyes? Let’s try showing some of his work.

His eyes flickered over the female residents so persistently that I wondered if he was looking for a model. On day three, when he invited me to his palatial sculpture studio, I realized that he might have been seeking a lady to encase in plaster of Paris: practically every flat surface held representations of breasts, legs, pudenda, and breasts. He practically backed me into a backside. Murmuring some hasty excuse about needing to get back to my hornets, I slipped away from his grasping hands and dashed out into the pelting snow.

Still don’t see why that was better? Okay, let’s revert to generalities.

Being possessed of skin myself, I naturally came in for my fair share of Hansel’s attentions. (How’s that for a colorless summary of the proceeding story?) Generally speaking, though, I tend to reserve serious romantic intentions for…again, how to put this…people capable of talking about something other than themselves. Oh, and perhaps I’m shallow, but I harbor an absurd prejudice in favor of the attractive.

This is precisely the type of paragraph that will absolutely slay ‘em in a verbal anecdote, or even in a blog, but often falls flat on the page. Yes, it’s amusing; yes, people actually do speak this way, so it’s a plausible a first-person narrative voice. But it’s vague. It’s character development, in the sense that it purports to tell the reader something about the narrator, but the reader just has to take the narrative’s word for it. Is that really the best way to convince the reader what a protagonist is like?

An artists’ retreat tends to be a small community, however; one usually ends up faking friendliness with an annoying co-resident or two. Since there was no getting away from the guy — believe me, I tried — I listened to him with some amusement whenever we happened to sit at the same table. I was, after all, the only other artist in residence who had read any Henry Miller. We had coffee a couple of times when there was nobody else in the town’s only coffee shop. And then I went back to my room, battled away the wildlife, and wrote for 50 hours a week.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Gretel started fuming at me like a dragon over the salad bar. Apparently, she thought I was after her man.

Now, I don’t know anything about the internal workings of their marriage; perhaps they derived pleasure from manufacturing jealousy scenes. I don’t, but there’s just no polite way of saying, “HIM? Please; I do have standards” to an angry wife, is there? So I simply started sitting at a different table in the dining hall.

A little junior high schoolish? Yes, but better that than Gretel’s being miserable — and frankly, who needed the drama? I was there to write.

Let’s pause here to consider: what do you, the reader, actually know about Gretel at this point? Are your feelings about her based upon what you have actually seen her do or my conclusions about her motivations? And are the facts even clear: was I the only resident of whom Gretel was jealous, or did she fume over the salad bar with anyone possessing two X chromosomes?

Wouldn’t it have worked better had I just shown her slapping peanut butter violently onto some white bread while I tried to make pleasant conversation with her, or depicted her veering away from me with her cracked metal tray? In short, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show this as a scene, rather than telling it as an anecdote?

Often, this fix is expressed rather confusingly: writers are told to insert some narrative distance into such scenes. I’m not a big fan of this language, for the simple reason that most memoirists and writers of the real new to editor-speak tend to interpret it as a call to make the narrative appear objective by, you guessed it, retreating into the passive voice. Let’s take a gander at this strategy in action.

Another phenomenon that often characterizes a mixed residency — i.e., one where different types of artists cohabitate — is a requirement to share one’s work-in-progress. At this particular retreat, painters and sculptors had to fling their studios open to public scrutiny once a week. Each writer had to do at least one public reading in the course of the month.

Feels like you’ve been shoved back from the story, doesn’t it? That’s how verbal anecdotes tend to read on the page: as rather vague summaries. When they are in the passive voice as well, the narrator can come across as the passive puppet of circumstances, rather than as the primary actor of the piece, the person who makes things happen.

Let’s borrow a tool from the novelist’s kit and make the protagonist active, shall we?

Being a “Hey – I’ve got a barn, and you’ve got costumes!” sort of person, I organized other, informal readings as well, so we writers could benefit from feedback and hearing one another’s work. I invited Gretel to each of these shindigs; she never came. By the end of the second week, my only contact with her was being on the receiving end of homicidal stares in the dining hall, as if I’d poisoned her cat or something.

It was almost enough to make me wish that I had flirted with her mostly unattractive husband.

But I was writing twelve hours a day (yes, Virginia, there IS a good reason to go on a retreat!), so I didn’t think about it much. I had made friends at the retreat, my work was going well, and if Gretel didn’t like me, well, we wouldn’t do our laundry at the same time. (You have to do your own laundry at every artists’ retreat on earth; don’t harbor any fantasies about that.) My friends teased me a little about being such a femme fatale that I didn’t even need to do anything but eat a sandwich near the couple to spark a fit of jealous pique, but that was it.

Aha, so Gretel had singled me out. Was there a good narrative reason not to make that plain earlier? It almost certainly would have been funnier — and made both my reactions and my conclusions as narrator make more sense to the reader.

At the end of the third week of our residency, it was Gretel’s turn to give her formal reading to the entire population of the colony, a few local residents who wandered in because there was nothing else to do in town, and National Book Award winner who had finally deigned dropped by (in exchange for a hefty honorarium) to shed the effulgence of her decades of success upon the resident writers. Since it was such a critical audience, most of the writers elected to read highly polished work, short stories they had already published, excerpts from novels long on the shelves. Unlike my more congenial, small reading groups, it wasn’t an atmosphere conducive to experimentation.

Wow, I’ve left you to fill in a lot of details here, have I not? How could you possibly, when the narrative so far has given you only a very sketchy view of time, place, and character?

Four writers were scheduled to read that night. The first two shared beautifully varnished work, safe stuff, clearly written long before they’d arrived at the retreat. Then Gretel stood up and announced that she was going to read two short pieces she had written here at the colony. She glanced over at me venomously, and my guts told me there was going to be trouble.

See how I worked in the false suspense there? Rather than showing precisely what her venomous glance was like — impossible for you to picture, right, since I have yet to tell you what she looks like? — I embraced the ever-popular storytelling shortcut of having the protagonist’s reaction to an event or person take the place of showing what was actually going on. Think that was the best strategy for this story?

Let’s try another tack. How about getting a little closer to what’s happening in that crowded room, so the reader may feel more like she is there? Or at least more like she’s standing in the narrator’s shoes?

Gretel settled a much-abused spiral notebook onto the podium and began to read a lengthy interior monologue in stentorian tones. Her eyes never left the paper, and with good reason: the plotless account depicted Hansel and Gretel — both mentioned by name on page 1, incidentally — having sex in vivid detail. Just sex, without any emotional content to the interaction, in terms neither titillating nor instructive. It was simply a straightforward account of a mechanical act, structured within a literal countdown to the final climax: “Ten…nine…eight…”

It was so like a late-1960’s journalistic account of a rocket launching that I kept expecting her to say, “Houston, we’ve got a problem.”

I cringed for her — honestly, I did. I’d read some of Gretel’s other work: she was a better writer than this. So what point was she trying to make by reading this…how shall I put it?…a literarily uninteresting piece whose primary point seemed to be to inform the uncomfortable audience that she and her husband had consummated their marriage?

See how I used my response to develop the narrator’s character? Memoirists and writers of the real too often forget that the narrator is the protagonist of the story they are telling, and thus needs to be fleshed out as a character. If I’d attacked that last paragraph with a big more descriptive vim, I might have worked in some interesting insights into both Gretel and Hansel’s characters — how did her account jibe with his sculptural depictions of the act, for instance?

Oh, you thought that all of those body parts were languishing around his studio solo? Alas, no; I’ve seen less accurate models in biology classes. Again, wouldn’t it have been more effective storytelling to have shown that — or even made that last comment — while the protagonist was in the studio?

That would also have been the natural time to work in that Hansel’s sculptures did not…again, how to put this tactfully?…appear to have been based upon his wife’s womanly attributes. Artistically, he favored curves; she was so angular that she could have cut vegetables on her hip bones.

Lingering too long in the narrator’s head can be distracting from the action, though. Throughout the next paragraph, I invite you to consider: as a reader, would you have preferred to see the action more directly, or entirely through the narrator’s perspective?

Maybe I just wasn’t the right audience for her piece: the painters in the back row, the ones who had been drinking since breakfast, waved their bottles, hooting and hollering. They seemed not to notice that although the monologue was from a female perspective, there were no references whatsoever to the narrator’s physical sensations, only what Hansel was doing. The part of Gretel might have been quite adequately played by a robot.

Call me judgmental, but I tend to think that when half the participants seem to be counting the seconds until the act is over, it’s not the best romantic coupling imaginable. Still, looking around the auditorium, I didn’t seem to be the only auditor relieved when it ended. “Three…two…one.” No one applauded but Hansel.

In first-person pieces, the narration will often switch abruptly from inside the protagonist’s head to an ostensibly objective set of descriptions. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You be the judge: how well do you think the next paragraph carries the story forward from the last?

Gretel’s second piece took place at a wedding reception. Again, it was written in the first person, again with herself and her husband identified by name, again an interior monologue. However, this had some legitimately comic moments in the course of the first few paragraphs. As I said, Gretel could write.

Somewhere in the middle of page 2, a new character entered the scene, sat down at a table, picked up a sandwich — and suddenly, the interior monologue shifted from a gently amused description of a social event to a jealously-inflamed tirade that included the immortal lines, “Keep away from my husband, {expletive deleted}!” and “Are those real?”

Need I even mention that her physical description of the object of these jabs would have enabled anyone within the sound of her voice to pick me out of a police line-up?

Wouldn’t it have been both more interesting and better character development to have shown the opening of Gretel’s second piece, rather than leaving it to the reader’s imagination? Ponder how that choice might have affected your perception of whether this scene is funny or tragic, please, as the narrative belatedly tells what it should have shown in the previous section.

She read it extremely well; her voice, her entire demeanor altered, like a hissing cat, arching her back in preparation for a fight. Fury looked great on her. From a literary standpoint, though, the piece fell flat: the character that everyone in the room knew perfectly well was me never actually said or did anything seductive at all; her mere presence was enough to spark almost incoherent rage in the narrator. While that might have been interesting as a dramatic device, Gretel hadn’t done enough character development for either “Jan”– cleverly disguised name, eh?– for the reader either to sympathize with the former or find the latter threatening in any way.

There was no ending to the story. She just stopped, worn out from passion. And Hansel sat there, purple-faced, avoiding the eyes of his sculptor friends, until she finished.

The first comment from the audience was, “Why did the narrator hate Jan so much? What had she done to the narrator?”

Had I been telling this anecdote verbally — and believe me, I have — this spate of summary statements and analysis of what the reader has not been shown might well work beautifully. Memoirists tend to be fond of paragraphs like this, commenting upon the action as if the reader had also been there. It makes abundant sense, from the writer’s perspective: after all, I was actually there, right?

But talking about events creates a very different impression on the page than writing about them vividly enough that the reader can picture the action and characters for herself. If I had shown you the story Gretel was reading, at least in part, you could have judged this character based on her own words — much more powerful than the narrator’s simply telling you what you should think about her.

A professional reader like Millicent — or, heck, like me — might well raise another objection to that last section: since the narration is so skewed to the protagonist’s side, some readers may feel that this account lacks credibility. Could Gretel actually have been as vitriolic (or unstrategic) as I’ve depicted her here?

Actually, she was, every bit — but does that matter, if the narrative can’t make her seem plausible on the page? The fact that Gretel existed and that she chose to act in this extraordinary manner is not sufficient justification for the reader to finish this story. It also has to work as a story, and that’s going to require some serious character development for not only the narrator, but the other characters as well.

You’d be astonished at how often memoir submissions do not treat either as characters. Frequently, Millicent sees memoirs — and slice-of-life fiction, for that matter — that are simply commentary upon what was going on around the protagonist. Yet a memoir isn’t a transcript of events, interesting to the reader simply because they happened to the narrator; it’s one person’s story, skillfully pruned to leave out the dull parts. If the reader doesn’t get to know that narrator, though, or come to experience the other characters as real, the memoir is likely to fall flat.

Why? Because it will read like a series of anecdotes, rather than like a book.

Fictionalizers of real life tend to have an easier time thinking of their protagonists as protagonists, I notice, but as any Millicent could tell you, they often give away the narrative’s bias by clearly siding with one character over another. Or by depicting one character as all sweetness and light and the other as all evil. A popular secondary strategy: describing other characters’ reactions to the antagonist as universally in line with the protagonist’s, as though any onlooker would have had exactly the same response.

I was very nice to Gretel afterward; what else could I do? I laughed at her in-text jokes whenever it was remotely possible, congratulated her warmly on her vibrant dialogue in front of the National Book Award nominee, and made a point of passing along a book of Dorothy Parker short stories to her the next day.

Others were not so kind, either to her or to Hansel. The more considerate ones merely laughed at them behind their backs. (“Three…two…one.”) Others depicted her in cartoon form, or acted out her performance; someone even wrote a parody of her piece and passed it around.

True, I did have to live for the next week with the nickname Mata Hari, but compared to being known as the writer whose act of fictional revenge had so badly belly flopped, I wouldn’t have cared if everyone had called me Lizzie Borden. And, of course, it became quite apparent that every time I went out of my way to be courteous to Gretel after that, every time I smiled at her in a hallway when others wouldn’t, I was only pouring salt on her wounded ego.

Is there anything more stinging than someone you hate feeling sorry for you?

At last, we come full circle, back to my original point in sharing this anecdote in the first place: if your answer was any flavor of yes, you might want to consider waiting until you’ve developed some objective distance from your annoying co-worker before committing her to print. Think at least twice about what you’re putting on the page, particularly for work you are submitting to contests, agencies, or small presses.

Or, heaven forbid, reading to a group of people you want to like you. Or your narrator.

If you’re still angry, maybe it’s not the right time to write about it for publication. Your journal, fine. But until you have gained some perspective — at least enough to perform some legitimate character development for that person you hate — consider giving it a rest. Otherwise, your readers’ sympathies may ricochet, and move in directions that you may not like.

It’s always a good idea to get objective feedback on anything you write before you loose it on the world, but if you incorporate painful real-life scenes into your fiction, sharing before promotion becomes ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE. If you work out your aggressions at your computer — and, let’s face it, a lot of us do — please seriously consider joining a writing group. To be blunt about it, finding good first readers you can trust can save you from looking like an irate junior high schooler on a rampage.

And Gretel, honey, in the unlikely event that you ever read this, you might want to remember: revenge is a dish best served cold. Or, as Philip used to say, never screw over a living writer. You never know who might end up writing a blog.

Hey, I’m only human — which renders me a more interesting protagonist in a memoir, right? As a memoirist, I have to assume that my readers too intelligent to believe that I was 100% perfect in this trying situation (I must admit, I did make an unkind joke or two in private), or that Gretel was 100% nasty (in actuality, she was rather nice to people her husband did not appear to be obsessed with sculpting), I suspect that most readers would also wonder whether Hansel actually stood by passively while his wife seethed with jealousy (he didn’t: he egged her on, in what appeared to me to be characteristic of their relationship). Were I planning to use this dynamic in a memoir, it would be in the story’s best interest to develop those less-neat elements into a more plausibly complete account.

If I hoped to fold this frankly pretty darned annoying incident into a novel, the imperative to flesh these people out into fully-rounded characters would be even stronger. Showing their foibles through action and dialogue, rather than just telling the reader what conclusions to draw, is not only better storytelling — it’s less intrusive narration.

Would I feel as vindicated? Perhaps not. Enough time has passed, however, that I now see this story as fundamentally sad: instead of befriending a more experienced writer who could have conceivably helped her on the long, twisty road to publication, Gretel allowed the troubled dynamic of her marriage to become the central focus of a bunch of not-particularly-sympathetic strangers. She, too, was in that dank basement, while her husband created his fantasies of women who did not resemble her in comparative comfort. If he hadn’t chosen me to as the prod with which to keep poking her insecurities, I’m sure he would have found somebody else.

So who is the actual villain of this piece? You decide; that’s the reader’s job, after all.

Keep up the good work!