Queryfest XI: who, me? Inconspicuous? When I’m tap-dancing and waving sparklers?

Yet another unplanned hiatus, campers: my server went down like a glass-jawed boxer, taking my blog access and e-mail with it. If you were picturing me taking advantage of my suddenly net-bereft existence by curling up on the nearest chaise longue with a stack of new releases, you underestimate the shrillness of my telephone. How on earth did so many curious people — and I mean that in both senses — find out that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the 1934 San Francisco General Strike? Is there some sort of database for academic work the author never tried to get published? Or are there merely very few people who have written on the subject, since, say, Franklin Roosevelt was president? I’m not complaining — I’ve gotten some awfully interesting conversations out of it, enough to prompt me to dig out my long-buried notes on a novel set in the 1930s — but if anyone’s gearing up to come knocking on my studio door to ask questions about my fifth-grade history paper on the Bonus March, the professor’s out for the weekend. I want to get back to that stack of new releases.

My literature-minded parents, you will be either amused or appalled to hear, made me type that history paper in standard format, because professional presentation of a book manuscript was not the kind of thing they wanted their little girl to traipse into middle school not being able to do. I had to explain to my teacher what a slug line was.

Speaking of documents that must adhere to the rigors of standard format, I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission: after so many days away from you fine people, I’m longing to kick Queryfest into overdrive. In celebration of my newfound vim and the ostensible cooperation of my server (hang in there, baby!), I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist this very evening. I’m going to be tackling readers’ burning questions on the subject in the days to come, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t devoted a midnight or two to worrying about your querying prowess. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at manufacturing huge, complex structures entirely out of angst.

I’m also going to be taking my infamously sharp editing pencils to a randomly-selected few readers’ queries as illustrative examples. If you would like to toss yours into the mix, submit it exactly as you would to the agent of your dreams — but send it as a Word attachment, please, so I may take a peek at your formatting — to contest@annemini(dot)com. (You thought I would set up a separate address for non-contests?) Naturally, I shall change contact information if I use it as an example; please give some indication in your e-mail whether you would prefer that I use your actual name or a pseudonym. Oh, and do include a positive statement that I have your permission to use your query as an example.

To our muttons. As those of you with unusually good memories may perhaps recall, before the connectivity imps dragged me temporarily from your presence, I had asked — nay, demanded — that those of you who had already drafted queries print them up, plant them firmly by your doubtless attractive elbows, and ask yourselves an array of trenchant questions about them.

Time again to whip ‘em out. Our last batch of questions will focus upon means of conveying that your book is interesting, in addition to being marketable under current literary conditions. Contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for even the most fascinating book how or why it is likely to pique readers’ interest. Or whether it is exciting. Or even vaguely original.

Blessed are the Millicents, for they shall be plowing through it all.

Of course, some of the queries passing under her weary eyes must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely, gob-smackingly compelling books fail to make them sound even remotely so. It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination — and sufficient reason for total strangers to mob bookstores, clamoring to read their books.

I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who have spent the last few years polishing the latest iteration of the Great American Novel, but that’s just not how it works. Few readers march into the corner bookstore and announce to the nice person manning the cash register, “I want to buy a book. Not on any particular subject matter, mind you, and I have no strong literary preferences of my own. No, I want to purchase some volume of prose simply because someone was enterprising enough to write it. Lead me instantly to such a tome, my good man.”

“That’s going to present a bit of a problem,” the clerk would be forced to say. “By definition, every book in here was written by someone enterprising enough to write a book. Unless, of course, it’s a celebrity memoir, in which case it was written by someone enterprising enough to get paid for writing in someone else’s voice.”

Doesn’t happen much, I’m afraid. And that’s why, in case anyone had been wondering, agents and the Millicents who screen queries for them seldom cast their eyes over a query that makes a book sound mundane and exclaim, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that this story doesn’t sound very exciting, or that I think it will not appeal to any currently-established group of readers. The author clearly worked very hard on it, and that’s good enough for me. Let’s request the full manuscript!” Not being in the business of seeking out the best in new literature on a not-for-profit basis, they harbor a prejudice for books they believe they can sell.

Then, too, the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Literally everyone who sends off a fiction query has done as much — or should, if she is playing by the rules. (You did know that agents assume that any novel being queried or pitched will be not only completely drafted already, but fully polished, right?) And every nonfiction book proposer is at least planning to sit down and write a book.

So in order to catch Millicent’s eye, your query is going to need to make the book sound like it has more going for it. An original and thrilling plot, for instance. An intriguing narrative voice. A set of facts not presented in that particular way before, or an argument the nation would be better for having heard. That sort of stuff.

It may seem strange that I feel compelled to point that out, but you would be astonished at how many queries don’t make a good case for any of these. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

Which, I hasten to add, isn’t necessarily a reflection upon the book being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter in question.

Yes, outraged masses banging on the door of my studio? “But Anne,” purists everywhere shut, “I’m a novelist/memoirist/narrative fiction writer/political essayist looking for the skinny on the Bonus March, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely, Millicent must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it is not particularly likely to interest readers in a specific target demographic, rather than leaping to that conclusion based on the query alone?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to get through on any given day. Since her boss, the agent of your dreams, could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to leap to that conclusion as speedily as possible for the overwhelming majority queries. She was specifically hired to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits for the agency, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, Virginia, the ones that just don’t make the book sound especially interesting.

Darned right, that requires a snap judgment, and certainly a subjective one. A Millicent who bores easily tends to be very, very good at her job — which, lest we forget, primarily involves rejecting aspiring writers.

Stop seething and think about that massive pile of queries on her desk for a moment: the authors of every single one of those find their own books fascinating, too, but that’s not enough to intrigue our favorite agency screener. To be the one query out of a hundred for which she will request pages (a more generous proportion of acceptance to rejection than most, incidentally), that letter is going to have to make her believe that the book is fascinating.

Why, yes, that is a pretty tall order, now that you mention it — and virtually impossible to pull off when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:

broken-recordRealistically, every English sentence a writer places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a manuscript’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many templates out there and stir.

It’s conducive to boredom, amongst other drawbacks. Instead, you will want to use every ounce of writing skill to make that screener forget that you are listing the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — but your job is to make it look easy. A good writer, the theory runs, should be able to make even relatively ho-hum matters read well. If you are talented enough to make a paragraph about your writing credentials sound like a gripping saga (or, at the very least, as though all of human history up to yesterday had been specifically arranged to render you the best possible writer for the book you are proposing), imagine how stirring a descriptive paragraph you could construct about your plot or argument.

You must have found them fascinating, mustn’t you, to devote all of that time to writing a book about them?

Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on our query checklist are intended to help you sound like the good writer you are — and your book like the great read it is. Who could have seen that coming?

(31) Is my query letter 100% free of clichés?
In a manuscript, the desirability of steering clear of the hackneyed and well-worn is self-evident — or should be. The goal here, after all, is to convince an agent or editor that the manuscript is original; by definition, clichés have been done before.

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios. There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, the doctor who can’t heal himself, the protagonist in a high-risk job who cannot commit romantically, the man whose family is slaughtered within the first scene so he has an excuse to embark upon a festival of revenge, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make Millie exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” Or at least, “Wow, that’s a magnificent turn of phrase about a fairly predictable plot point.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about how much Millicent likes amazing details? That’s the best cure for the common cliché.

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept. News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction. This is the place to air your ideas, not the common wisdom.

The second is just hard to pull off in a short piece of writing, for much the same reason that experimental spellings, innovative sentence structures, and imaginative punctuation tend not to lend magic to a writing sample. (Unfortunately for writers of cutting-edge literary fiction.) To a professional seeing any given writer’s work for the first time, it’s pretty hard to tell what is a deliberate play upon language and what is simply evidence that the submitter did not pay very close attention in English class.

Similarly, on a quick read of a short sample, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference between a reference to a tired old concept like this:

Ambrosia (a not-so-sweet 16) is a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport.

and a subtle subversive twist on a well-worn concept:

Ambrosia (16) is a ditsy cheerleader — or is she? She has spent her first three years of high school carefully cultivating a reputation as a nitwit, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

I don’t mean to shock anyone, but it’s just a fact that skimmers will often read only the beginnings of sentences. And since both descriptions begin with she’s a ditsy cheerleader

Does that chorus of groans mean you’re getting the picture?

Save the subtle social criticism for the manuscript; in your query letter and synopsis, stick to specifics, and avoid stereotypes like the — wait for the cliché — plague. Excise anything that has even the remotest chance of being mistaken for a stereotype.

(32) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — a notoriously common tactic in older writers’ queries for books aimed at the YA or twentysomething market, incidentally. However, there can be a fine line between a hip riff on the zeitgeist and a cliché. Few human creations age faster than last year’s catchphrase.

And nothing signals an older writer faster to Millicent than a teenage character who rolls her eyes, pouts, habitually slams doors, and/or quotes the latest catchphrase every 42 seconds at the dinner table. Certainly if she does it in the summary paragraph of a query letter.

Yes, some teenagers have been known to do all of these things in real life; Millicent’s seen it, too. Telling her again is just going to bore her.

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing adolescent ear. He was also prone to shouting, “TWAIN!” at students who failed to spell proper nouns correctly, presumably in reference to Mark Twain’s assertion that he didn’t care what was printed about him, as long as they spelled his name right. (Several public figures have disputed his claim to have said that first; Dorothy Parker certainly said it most often.)

Sure, my teacher’s DTs occasionally caused him to see Edgar Allen Poe peering at him menacingly from dark corners, but the man knew his way around a sentence. Like him, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to complain, “not somebody else’s.”

Don’t tempt these people — they already have itchy rejection-trigger fingers.

(33) Is my query letter free of jargon?
Not all boredom springs from predictability,: sometimes, it’s born of confusion. A common source of the latter: the over-use of technical terms in a query letter.

Predictably, jargon pops up all the time in nonfiction queries and proposals, especially for manuscripts on technical subjects. How better to impress Millicent with one’s expertise, the expert thinks, than by rattling off a bunch of terms a layperson couldn’t possibly understand?

I can think of a better way: by presenting one’s credentials professionally — and by explaining complex concepts in terms that even someone totally unfamiliar with the subject matter will understand.

Remember, even if Millicent works for an agent who happens to specialize in your type of nonfiction book, she’s almost certainly not a specialist in your area. Nor is her boss — or, in all probability, the editor who will acquire the book. For marketing purposes, it’s safest to assume that they were all English majors, and choose your words accordingly.

Novelists also tend to use jargon quite a bit in their queries, especially if their protagonists are doctors, lawyers, physicists like our cheerleader friend, professors (or ex-professors, like yours truly), or members of another legitimately jargon-ridden profession. These writers believe, not entirely without cause, that incorporating jargon will not only make these characters sound credible — quoth they: “But these people really sound that way!” — but will make the writers themselves sound as though they know what they’re talking about.

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.) And honestly, if a writer can’t make it through a paragraph-long plot description without resorting to jargon, why shouldn’t she assume that the manuscript will be peppered with the stuff?

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write. Since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions, not an integral part of them.

Wow Millicent with your expertise in your book’s subject matter, by all means — but in the query, be sure to cast them in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(34) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context, but remember, Millicent is reading a whole lot of these missives in a row. The fact that your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences — or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in each — is bound to make those queries start to blur together after a while. Take a peek at this fairly typical gem:

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope it will interest you. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet. They catch a fish. It gets away. Life is strange.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA, and thus probably not reflective of the narrative voice in this particular narrative. Despite the current popularity and burgeoning innovation of the YA market, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — poor grammar and/or spelling are far more common prompts. (Chant it with me now, campers: reread that query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you pop it in the mail or hit SEND.) However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea in a pea-green boat. They find their clothing all wet in record time. They toss their uniforms into the ocean, and their captain sees them dancing about the deck in their very non-regulation underwear. Hilarity ensues, and a court-martial has never been funnier.

Did you catch the problem? As I have argued about narrative writing, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line.

Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning. After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to impress Millicent with your writing acumen.

(35) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Eschewing the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because, not to put too fine a point on it…

broken-recordPretty much every professional reader in the U.S. has been specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing. At minimum, it’s less vibrant than more direct and active sentences. If you want to impress a pro with the quality of your writing, you should avoid the passive voice as much as possible.

Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your querying coach to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end, just going on and on without ever seeming to reach any point or satisfactory conceptual conclusion, perhaps because due to lemmings a lack of proofreading by them in order to free their text from incursions by older draft remnants. Or maybe they are just being glowered at by E. Allen Poe. In any case, there are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.

Had enough of that reader-abusing structure? Millicent has — and frankly, so have I. After years of yanking such sentences out of query letters, synopses, and manuscripts, I actually found it mentally painful to construct that last paragraph.

Because the literary world’s disdain for the passive voice is so close to universal, most of you probably already take active steps to avoid using it in your manuscripts. Surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well, though. In a way, that’s understandable: when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

So instead of Harold’s teacher went around the room, rapping the students who had received grades of B- or lower over their quivering knuckles with a ruler, many queries will opt for The students who had received grades of B- or lower got their knuckles rapped, or even after receiving a C, Harold found himself with rapped knuckles, as if ruler-wielding cherubim had descended from the heavens and did the rapping without human intervention of any kind.

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions. Everybody knows that seraphim are the ones that wield rulers.

Just between us, there’s another reason to avoid the passive voice in queries and synopses. On an almost subliminal level, the passive voice tends to imply that your protagonist is being acted-upon, rather than being the primary actor in an exciting drama. Which conveniently brings us to…

(36) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot. They receive even more queries that imply that their protagonists are not active.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen — and what do you know? The villain spontaneously confesses. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement. Even then, those lips don’t actually make contact until flooding wafts the rocking horse across the room to push him into her.

As I’ve explained at length in the past about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right), I shan’t belabor the point on the manuscript level. In the course of trying to summarize a complex premise in a query, though, many writers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.

So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so? Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of her job description.

Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine. And no, just having her name be the only one that appears in the descriptive paragraph isn’t necessarily sufficient to pull that off.

(37) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes in the book’s central conflict seem high enough for my protagonist that readers will care about the outcome? Does the conflict come across as both plausible and compelling? For other nonfiction, have I made the problem or issue I’m addressing appear important?
There’s a truism in editing: if a dialogue scene is dragging, raise the stakes for one of the speakers. The more the characters care about the outcome of a conflict, the easier it will be for the reader to care, too. By the same token, a fine revision tactic for keeping the reader turning nonfiction pages is to make a strong and continual case for why the subject matter of the book is vital — to the individual reader, to the society, to the world.

The same principle holds true for queries: if Millicent understands what a protagonist stands to gain or lose from confronting a clearly-defined problem, she’s more likely to find the story compelling. Similarly, if the query makes it pellucidly clear why she should care about its central question — and, more importantly, why readers in the target audience will care deeply about it — the argument is more likely to grab her.

Or, to cast it in #36′s terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.

Memoir queries are especially prone to underselling the importance of what’s at stake for the protagonist. After all, from the memoirist’s perspective (and frequently for writers of autobiographical fiction as well), the primary significance of the story may well be that (a) it’s a true story and (b) it happened to the writer. Shouldn’t the very truth of the story, combined with the single person most able to give an inside perspective, be enough to captivate readers?

That’s certainly an understandable point of view, from a writerly perspective, but from a professional viewpoint, the answer is usually no. No one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because the events described in it happened to the author; there are far, far too many truthful memoirs out there for that to be the sole criterion for book buyers.

Don’t believe me? Okay, plunk yourself down in front of the memoir section of any well-stocked bookstore. Remain motionless until you overhear a browser in that section murmur, “You know what I’m looking for? A true story. Preferably one that really happened, if possible in real life. It would be nice if the author were the person to whom it happened, and I would be absolutely in heaven if that character never stirred so much as a fingertip to alter her ambient conditions. Yep, that’s the book for me.”

When you’ve stood still so long that bookstore patrons have begun to use you as a coat rack, perhaps you will admit I have a point here.

Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of a memoir. So does Millicent in evaluating a query to decide whether she should request pages. Just as it’s the writer’s job to construct a manuscript or book proposal’s narrative to render the story compelling not just for herself, it’s incumbent upon the querying memoirist to give a screener plenty of reason to say, “Wow, this sounds not only like the narrator is an interesting person in an interesting situation — the conflict he faces comes across as one that will fascinate many readers in the already well-saturated memoir market.”

Yes, her thoughts honestly are that prolix. Our Millie is a complex reasoner.

Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard in making your case for your story or argument’s importance: implying that resolving the burning issue of leaf droppage on your lawn is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter. The line between conveying importance and self-importance can be distressingly thin.

That’s the beauty of raising the stakes: ideally, you won’t have to make positive statements about the importance of your subject matter at all, at least for fiction. (For nonfiction, go ahead and explain why the world should care. Or at least a niche audience of readers.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw her own conclusion. You are just leading her toward the conclusion you wish her to draw.

You’re also, I would like to remind you, leading her away from drawing unflattering conclusions about you and your book. Which is why you should ask yourself…

(38) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder. Ahem:

broken-recordFor a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

(39) Does my query letter read it is talking about a book in my chosen book category?
Well might your jaw drop. It is unbelievably common for queries in general, and book description paragraphs in particular, not to sound like what they are, promotion for a specific type of book aimed at a specific target audience who will look for it on a specific bookshelf in any old bookstore. Thrillers often aren’t described as remotely thrilling; mysteries fail to mystify, and heartwarming tales of romance and personal fulfillment leave Millicent’s cockles downright icy.

Can you really blame her, then, for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that the manuscripts in question will not provide the experience readers of thrillers, mysteries, or heartwarming tales have come to expect?

Even if the plot comes across as genre-appropriate or the argument is presented well, the language used in queries frequently leaves Millicent wondering if their authors have even read widely in their chosen book categories. Queries for YA dotted with three-syllable words, like descriptions of books purporting to explain the mysteries of particle physics in which no word exceeds four letters, imply a manuscript that does not, to put it mildly, take its target readership’s vocabulary levels into account.

Remember, Millicent is trained to think in terms of book categories — and to make her mind up fast. Just as it would be poor strategy for the first page of your novel or book proposal to leave her in doubt about your ability to write well for your target audience, your query’s word choices, particularly in the book description paragraph, should reflect the book category in which you hope to publish.

(40) Does my query letter read as though I have a personality?
I like to save this question for last, since it so frequently seems to come as a surprise to writers who have done their homework, the ones who have studied guides and attended workshops on how to craft the perfect query letter.

Personality?” they cry, incredulous and sometimes even offended at the very thought. “A query letter isn’t about personality; it’s about saying exactly what the agent wants to hear about my book, isn’t it?”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last time: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room. The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

In a situation where you are pitching your imagination and perceptiveness, is this the best impression you could possibly make?

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and, to employ an often misused term, unique. Your book actually isn’t like anybody else’s — so why should your query read like 57 of the last 72 that crossed Millicent’s desk? You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

Of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, you might want to bring that up in your query, too. Because, you see, a query letter is not just a solicitation for an agent to pick up your book; it is an invitation to an individual to enter into a long-term relationship with you.

As I mentioned at the very beginning of Queryfest, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading rise exponentially.

Next time, I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in your platform paragraph. Or, as we like to say here at Author! Author!, we’re going to be celebrating Halloween by handing out some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest X: all of these questions aren’t burning you out on querying, are they?

How are you faring, Queryfest participants? (I was on the cusp of dubbing you Queryfesters, but the image the word evoked was a trifle distasteful. An editor never stops thinking about how words will scan on a page, as well as what they mean and how they might sound spoken aloud.) Are your queries looking bright, shiny, and relatively free of the straightforward errors and omissions that dog the garden-variety letter to agents?

Or — and please be honest with me; I can take it — is your original query concept now hanging in tatters, wafting in the wind, mournfully longing for the day when it felt ready to stride out the door and into Millicent the agency’s screener’s overflowing inbox, blithely unaware of just how stiff the competition is there?

Oh, those of you who felt this way thought you were alone? Actually, it’s a pretty common response to realizing for the first time that in the publishing world, every syllable of everything a writer submits is a writing sample. There’s no such thing, then, as a successful query that’s just kinda close to what Millicent has been trained to seek, nor is just hitting every point on an agency’s posted querying guidelines generally sufficient.

I feel an aphorism coming on: while those new to querying often presume that the query is just a formality, composed of a series of hoops through which an aspiring writer must jump, and that their writing will not be judged until an agent requests and receives manuscript pages, that is simply not how the system works. For the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers out there, the query letter is literally the only sample of their writing anyone at the agency will read.

To put it another way, in order to get an agent (or editor, at a small publisher) to read any of your manuscript at all, you will first have to convince her to do so. Querying and pitching are your only options to do that politely — and frankly, most writers’ conferences that allow pitching are quite expensive. As querying is the lower-cost option, a good agent’s inbox, either tangible or virtual, constantly overflows with missives from aspiring writers.

A good half of those communications will be so unprofessionally put together, poorly written, and/or missing crucial pieces of information — the type of book it is, for instance — that Millicent the agency screener will be able to tell at a glance that her boss, the agent, will not be interested. Another third will be better written and contain most or all of the necessary elements, but will arrive at agencies that just don’t represent that kind of book. (Yes, really — you’d be astonished at how few queriers seem to research agents before hitting SEND.)

Then there’s that top 17% or so, the conscientious writers that have taken the time to learn something about how agencies actually work. Their queries tend to be aimed at agents who represent books like theirs, at least, but they often undersell their own stories by trying to make them sound too much like a recent bestseller. Or mystify Millicent by not indicating a book category at all. Or even — sacre bleu! — inadvertently make themselves look unprofessional by adopting an inappropriately informal tone (Hi, George. Looking for solid memoirs by self-made businesspeople — well, have I got a book for you!), engaging in a generic hard sell instead of demonstrating the book’s market appeal (This is the next Great American novel, and you’d be a fool to pass up your chance to get in on the ground floor of what’s sure to be a blockbuster series!, or making claims that reveal they’ve just not bothered to do very much research about what books like theirs are gracing bookstore shelves these days (This is the only novel ever written about a woodcarver’s deep love of his craft, a devotion so profound that his pieces seem alive to him.)

“Yeah, right!” Millicent chortles, reaching for the omnipresent stack of form-letter rejections. “Hey, Geppetto, ever heard of an obscure book called PINOCCHIO?”

I sensed at least 5% of you shifting in your seats. “Gracious, Anne,” the time-strapped cry, clutching their suddenly pale cheeks. “I get that it’s in my best interest to pick a book category and target only agents who represent it, but what makes you think I have TIME to keep up with all of the latest publications in my chosen genre? It took me years to carve out the requisite hours to write my manuscript/draft my book proposal, and having to query at all, much less construct a synopsis, is eating great big holes into my revision time. Isn’t it more important to write a good book than to figure out how to sell it to an agent?”

Well, yes and no, pale clock-watchers. Yes, your chances of getting published are substantially higher if you have written a good book, but that alone is not sufficient endeavor to land an equally good agent for it — a fact which, unfortunately, most first-time writers of good books don’t figure out until they have been querying for a while.

Often not even then. Hands up, everyone who has heard a rejected fellow writer complain that the publishing world just isn’t ready for his book — that it’s too revolutionary, uses language too well, presents an entirely new spin on human relationships, exposes a secret unlike any that has been seen on the printed page before, etc. Keep those hands in the air if, upon subsequent questioning, you discovered that this paragon of literature got rejected at the query stage, rather than as a submission. And wave those hands mightily if you said, either to yourself or to the huffy writer, “Excuse me, Ambrose, but if all the agent saw was your query, how could your startling insights, blistering prose, and/or trenchant analysis of the human condition have been the reason she rejected it? Mightn’t the problem have been, you know, the query?”

Because I love you people, I’m not going to ask those of you who have been the Ambrose in this situation to raise your hands. You know who you are.

I am, however, going to ask Ambrose and those who happen to be personally fond of him to take a moment to ponder the possibilities here. Far too many talented aspiring writers assume that the only reasons their queries could have been rejected is some problem with the book: the story’s not marketable enough, publishers stopped buying chick lit two years ago, the protagonist sounds like a downer, etc. Accordingly, they become discouraged — what would be the point of continuing to query a rejected book? — and just give up.

I get why giving up on querying might be tempting — honestly, I do. However, there’s no denying that the book that isn’t particularly marketable today may well be next year, or even next month; keeping a weather eye on recent releases could help you there. It’s also undoubtedly true that agents’ tastes often change over time, as do agencies’ plans for where they want to place their focus, so the agency that rejected your last book flat might well be interested in your next. And let’s face it, where one agent (or, more likely, his Millicent) does not see market potential, another will, but you’re not going to find that out unless you persevere.

Then, too, if your query lands on the wrong desk, no matter how great the book in question is, or even how beautifully the query is written, it doesn’t stand a chance, right? The same principle applies if you approach the wrong agent within an agency; since the standard etiquette dictates that a writer may query only one, it honestly is worth doing your homework first. You can also kiss that agent goodbye– and you wouldn’t believe how common this is — if you queried the perfect agent too soon after you finished writing the book, before you’ve had an opportunity to go back over it with the proverbial fine-toothed revision comb.

You were aware, right, that you’re only supposed to query any given agent once with any given writing project? Oh, Millicent turnover is so rapid these days that it’s unlikely that the same human being will screen your query two years apart, but if you realize three months hence that Chapter 2 contains a huge continuity problem, sending a repeat query isn’t likely to revivify your prospects at that agency.

As frequently as Millicent sees all of these faux pas — especially the one about beginning to query too soon: now that many agencies allow queriers to include the first few pages in their query packets, it’s apparent far earlier in the process who has and has not taken the time to re-read or even proofread her work — there’s one that crosses her desk even more. I am referring, of course. to the query that reads exactly like 30 others she has read that day, for the exceedingly simple reason that there’s a template out there that 31 of the day’s queriers heard somewhere was sure-fire.

Trust me on this one: a personalized query will stand out in that crowd — and one that sounds remotely like you’ve done some reading of recent releases in your chosen book category will practically bring tears of relief to Millicent’s weary eyes. Returning to our query troubleshooting list…

(25) Is it clear from my query that I’m familiar with recent releases like mine? Even better, do I sound as though I have picked this agent based upon that familiarity?
This may seem like a subtle one from the writer’s side of the querying relationship, but on the query page, it’s often painfully obvious if the querier is thinking of both his book and his query list in generic terms: he has a book to sell, and agents sell books for writers, so any agent who sells remotely similar books will do, right?

Wrong. No agent represents every kind of fiction — and certainly not every conceivable kind of memoir. Actually, although it may be hard to tell this from a brief blurb in an agency guide, it’s relatively rare for agents not to specialize within a particular book category. And I’m not just talking about an agent’s preference for Highland romance over romances set in Ancient Rome, either: these people often like to see particular types of sentence describing those lads and lassies. As will soon be apparent if you take the time to go to a bookstore, pull recent books by three or four of the agent’s clients of the shelves, and read a few opening pages.

Research, my dears, research; there’s just no substitute for it — and the more specifically you can show the fruits of that research, the better. Why, you ask? In the interest of inculcating good writing habits, instead of telling you, I shall show you.

Let’s say, for the sake of example, that Desperate Togetpublishedson has written a YA novel set against the backdrop of the highly competitive junior show jumping circuit, a sterling piece of literature entitled NEVER SAY NEIGH. Let’s further assume that Desperate wants to query Literate McSalesperson, an agent with a long-established track record of selling books about horses and the preteens who love them.

That’s a great choice, probably based upon some solid research on who’s selling books like Desperate’s these days. But Literate’s Millicent would never know it from a query that opened like this:

Because you represent YA aimed at young girls, I hope you will be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

That’s not bad, but Desperate’s honest-to-goodness market research doesn’t really shine here, does it? The bit about Literate’s representing YA for young girls could have been gleaned by the most cursory glance at one of the standard agency guides — or even a simple web search. (And news flash: most YA is aimed at young girls; they tend to read more than young boys.)

Let’s take a peek at what happens if our Desperate decides to be a trifle more specific.

I read in Jeff Herman’s Guide to Literary Agents that you were “looking for YA with strong female protagonists.” My novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, definitely fits the bill: it’s about a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Better, isn’t it? If a trifle literal-minded: does the direct quote of what anyone in the industry would consider a fairly generic preference honestly help the case here? And does it really matter where Desperate picked up this information? A less pedantic presentation of the same information would make the same point without — please forgive my putting it this way, but it is how Millicent would think of it — sounding as though Desperate had read somewhere that he should include a reason for approaching Literate, but couldn’t come up with anything specific?

Calm down, Desperate, and try it again. Literate isn’t really looking for citations here.

Since you represent YA with strong female protagonists, you may be interested in my novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

Ah, that’s nice — but if Desperate actually did go to the trouble of tracking down some other books Literate represented, that professional-level effort is not apparent here. Citing a specific book would leave no doubt on the matter. It’s an especially nice touch to bring up a first-time author’s title, underscoring that Desperate has done the requisite research to realize that Literate does take a chance on a new voice from time to time. (Not a foregone conclusion in the agenting world, by the way; it’s worth your while to check.)

Since you so ably represented Debuty de Firsttimer’s HOW AM I EVER GOING TO CLIMB INTO THAT SADDLE? I hope you will be interested in my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH. It’s the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

Fifteen-year-old Fifi never dreamed she would be faced with a wall that high…

“But Anne!” the literal-minded cry, and who can blame you? “That nifty bit about the strong protagonists fell out of this version! Since Literate feels strongly enough about that preference to have mentioned it in her guide listing, shouldn’t Desperate bring it up?”

Ah, but Desperate did bring it up — by depicting his protagonist as strong, rather than just saying she was. Nifty trick, eh?

Do be certain, though, that any book you cite actually is comparable to yours. Don’t stray outside your book’s category, or you’ll defeat the purpose here. I hate to show a bad example, just in case blog-skimmer out there decides to copy it under the assumption that I meant it as a guide (oh, you’d be astonished at some of the comments I get from people who don’t read carefully), but as Desperate has been generous to make this mistake first, I’d like you to benefit from his sad experience.

Since you handled science fiction writer Outta Myleague’s extraordinary debut, THIS STORY HAS ABSOLUTELY NOTHING TO DO WITH YOUNG GIRLS OR HORSES, I am writing you in the hope that you will be willing to represent my YA novel, NEVER SAY NEIGH, the story of a strong, determined young girl overcoming obstacles ranging from low tree branches to high walls to uncaring adults in her pursuit of becoming a champion show jumper.

“Excuse me?” Millicent cries. “Do you not understand the term science fiction? Why on earth would an agent interested in one book want to read the other?”

Good question, Millie. Unfortunately, you’ve already rejected Desperate’s query, so I doubt you’re going to have the opportunity to discuss the matter with him anytime soon.

Do all of those glazed eyes out there indicate that some of you are frantically searching through your memories, trying to recall tidbits you have read about various agents and the books they have represented? Excellent. I have a bit more to say about how you might turn that information to your advantage, but in order to give you all some processing time, I’m going to veer our discussion back toward matters more technical.

(26) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or U.K. spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
Hey, I told you the next one was going to be technical. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border. And while your spell-checker may not find fault with either version, a New York-based Millicent is going to take one look at the former and say, “Great. Now some poor soul is going to have to comb through this manuscript, changing everything to U.S. spellings.”

I hate to burst any bubbles currently floating outside U.S. borders, but the publishing world’s opinion is united about who that poor soul should be: the writer. Who, let’s face it, might not be all that happy about the prospect. So in practice, when a query turns up here with U.K. or Canadian spellings, it says to Millicent, “Hi! If you ask to see this manuscript, not only will your finely-tuned editorial sense have you longing to correct the spelling every other page, but if your boss falls in love with the writing, she will have to have a rather unpleasant conversation with the writer.”

Yes, I am saying what you think I am, far-flung writers: if you’re planning to write for the American market, Millicent will expect you to use U.S. spellings in your query. Her boss is going to insist that you alter every single instance in your manuscript, anyway, so why not beat the Christmas rush and do it now?

You’re quite right — it’s annoying, but honestly, Millicent and her ilk have a point here. While books that have already hit the big time in the U.K. or Canada are routinely available in their original forms here, the original publication site dictates what is considered proper. Since a previously-unpublished manuscript with U.K. spellings would have to be altered before it could be released in the U.S. market, can you blame an agent for considering such a manuscript not ready for circulation to domestic agents?

At the query stage, though, the presumption of further revision’s being needed is not the only danger. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

The same principle applies in reverse, of course: tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience, the agent, based upon where he resides. If you’re a Yank approaching a U.K.-based agent, you’ll be better off conforming to his view of the English language. (Unless, of course, you happen to be an American celebrity — then, your oddball spellings will be part of your complicated charm.)

Ready to start talking about books like yours again? Dandy.

(27) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance with a Futuristic Feel to It or Time-Travel Thriller with Magical Realist Elements.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such descriptors are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that she’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that she’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put my book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time. In fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a — wait for it — conceptual box, after all, a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. (Starting to read like a word problem in a math class, isn’t it?) After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Oh, as though long-time readers of this blog didn’t see that coming.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her? More to the point, is it really in your best interest to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Vampire Romance-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(28) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query.

Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it. A publication is a publication is a publication.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting critique group, feel free to mention that as well, although this one is less effective than it used to be 10 or 20 years ago. (The Internet has spawned some pretty wacky writers’ groups, and Millicent knows it.) Anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include, though.

If you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth; writers who do this almost invariably get caught in the long run. (The same holds true for queriers who include recommendations from people who didn’t actually recommend them, by the way.) Just leave out this paragraph. Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(29) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means, in practice, that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected. And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(30) Have I made any of the standard faux pas, the ones about which agents complain early and often?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it. If you thought Millicent was in a bad mood after she burned her tongue, trust me, you don’t want to see how she reacts to that memoir based on something that really happened to me.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular Millicent-irritant, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Delphine Margason says this is the most moving book about figure skating she’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on a show hosted by someone like Oprah. Or Jon Stewart. Or Stephen Colbert. Or Charlie Rose.

Or…well, you get the picture.

Violating any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread. Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones that fell onto her desk within the last month.

Believe it or not, we still haven’t run through all of the common Millicent-irritants out there — and we have barely begun taking a serious gander at examples of what does and doesn’t work on the query page. Join me next time for more on these exciting topics, and, of course, to keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part IX: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open tonight’s Queryfest post with an image of an un-stormed one. I like to yank this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? It may have felt like that back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerned feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — I guess I can end Queryfest here and now.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are.

Stop rolling your eyes; it’s true. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what species of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

That’s a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between, due to problems that the writers who sent them could have fixed fairly easily. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question in the current market, or even the quality of the writing.

Yes, yes, I know — the form-letter rejection you got implies otherwise. But form letters rejections are, by definition, sent to everyone an agency is rejecting, regardless of the reason. Because a good agency genuinely does not want to discourage writers on the way to perfecting their craft and professionalizing their presentation, their prefab rejections are usually geared toward the best of the rejected manuscripts, the near-misses for whom it’s actually true that the book sounds intriguing, but publishing houses just are not buying that sort of manuscript right now.

That is not, however, your garden-variety rejected query. A hefty percentage of them all contain the same 10 or 15 stripes of mistake. And that repetition has serious implications for even otherwise good queries that happen to stumble into the same pitfalls.

A forest of hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” conscientious queriers everywhere moan, “that’s absurd! How could anyone else’s querying habits, or even the querying habits of every single other aspiring writer in the nation, possibly have any effect upon my query’s reception at an agency? They’re all judged individually, aren’t they?”

Well, yes and no, moaners. Because agents and their screeners read so many of the darned things, they inevitably develop pet peeves and start identifying common red flags. And because our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, often spends hours on end scanning queries, even if only 20 of them share the same basic error — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. That’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

In response to that giant collective huff of indignation I just out there: you’re probably thinking that Millicent is hypersensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people on crutches across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car. What’s she going to do, honk like a goose?

True, she rejects writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting queries — yes, they’re really called that — means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejecter is not the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question would be not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, please, to assess how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordIf there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing, rather than assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

To put it more simply, offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy — it’s her job to reject 98% of what she sees, recall — but any writer willing to put in the time and effort can learn how to avoid provoking her.

I know — it’s tempting just to assume it’s her problem and press on. It’s a pain to revise a query letter, after all, or indeed, to write one in the first place. But it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of frustrated queriers radically underestimate the amount of energy they habitually put into resenting the necessity to query at all. Is that honestly the best use of a writer’s time?

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what he can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors out of his control. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where most rejected queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s one-size-fits-all rejection note. Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply.

I just saw some of your faces fall: hands up, everyone who has ever wasted hours — or days — in trying to read some specific feedback into a rejection platitude like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, just because it appeared in a letter with a personalized salutation or in an e-mail. While Millicents and their bosses do occasionally break their rejection pattern to add a personal note to a rejection, it’s rare enough these days that you should be flattered if you receive one.

But that’s far from the norm; the advent of the copy-and-paste function has been a positive boon to agencies, much as photocopy machines were a couple of decades before. It’s not hard to see why: honestly, if you were Millicent, would you be willing to type I’m sorry, but this manuscript just doesn’t fit our needs at this time hundreds of times per week if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

In the spirit of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of such stock let-‘em-down-easy phrasing, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one. At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far — believe me, Millicents everywhere will applaud you for it. As a reward for virtue, I begin tonight with a few exceptionally simple problems to fix.

(18) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the third person and the present tense?
Regardless of the narrative perspective of the manuscript itself, descriptive paragraphs in queries are always written in the third person. So if your description of your first-person fantasy begins I had just landed my dream job when the aliens landed on the roof, change it right away: to Millicent’s eyes, it will read like a description for a memoir. Ditto for pitches and synopses, by the way.

Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before you sent out your first query?

The proper tense choice, too, may strike some writers as counter-intuitive: one-paragraph book descriptions, like pitches and synopses, are always written in the present tense. Yes, even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know both of these things because the Query Fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so. Or so I surmise from the fact that this particular piece of advice isn’t given much these days.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE IN THE THIRD PERSON AND THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir. Which leads me to:

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. It simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say:

Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I chose to bury it in the back yard instead.

You must admit, this is more than a little at odds with a sane person’s sense of time. (But then, so is the turn-around time for queries and submissions, frequently.)

Please note, though, that other than this shift in tense and person, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir: your goal here is make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness. For example:

Back in my days as a silent movie star of the 1920s, women ruled the silver screen. I was paid more than my male counterparts; I had my pick of projects (and extras for my private pleasures); my dressing room’s cushions were trimmed in mink. But once the talkies came, I was faced with an impossible choice: take a massive pay cut or allow my public to be told that my beautifully resonant opera-trained voice was too squeaky for the new technology. If I was going to make the films that I wanted, I realized I would have to start writing and directing for myself.

See? By describing herself as the protagonist in a story, rather than just a person talking about herself, our starlet has made a compelling case that both she and the challenges she confronted would make for fascinating reading.

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book, unless it’s a memoir. But just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only aim here: you’re also trying to demonstrate that you are aware of the types of voices considered stylish in your chosen book category — and that you can in fact write in a voice that the already-established readers of that category will like.

Stop laughing. Query letters do so have narrative voices. It’s just that most of the boilerplates we see are so businesslike in tone and generic in content that you’d never notice.

It’s definitely possible, though, to construct a query that gives Millicent a foretaste of your manuscript. If your book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the descriptive paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that only the descriptive paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your letter were written primarily for laughs. Let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a chucklefest. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Aspen Institute for Gut-Busting, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

Although I just did, didn’t I? In a query, though, that would have been a risk: jokes that fall flat are a common screeners’ pet peeve. So unless you’re positive that your joke is (a) original — almost impossible, if it’s related to some standard query element like SASE inclusion — (b) doesn’t detract from the clarity of your letter, and (c) is funny enough that a Millicent bleary-eyed after seven hours of straight screening will chuckle, save the one-liners for your stand-up act.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your narrative voice is unique?

(21) Am I telling a compelling story in my descriptive paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
All too often, aspiring writers will construct their descriptive paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers. There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents.

But collective nostalgia for one’s happy days in Intro to American Literature doesn’t mean that a descriptive paragraph demonstrating that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Analysis-based descriptions distance the reader from the story being told.

How so, you ask? They tend to rely upon generalities, in a context that cries out for one-of-a-kind specifics. Take a gander at a representative sample:

MIXED MESSAGES is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of turbulent social change. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description could be applied equally well to hundreds of thousands of wildly different plot and voice.

As a result of trying to sound analytical, this description presents the protagonist as a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? Who is this troubled man? Where does he live? What kind of work does he do? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. Faced with a description like this one, though, she is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why apply that particular epithet? Because this kind of description talks about the novel, rather than telling its story as a story.

Because Millicent’s job is to spot great storytellers, not great textual analysts, she would have preferred it if the querier simply presented the story directly. Then, too, the writer’s choice to concentrate upon the themes and construction of the novel, rather than who the protagonist is and what conflicts he wants or needs to battle in order to fulfill his dreams decreases the reader’s incentive to care about what’s going on.

Indeed, we’re left wondering what is going on. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner Millicent is far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spy some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose, A students; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Cue the music department.

broken-record Neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane at the query stage: the goal of the descriptive paragraph is to show what the book is about, not how it is written. Let the narrative choices come as a delightful surprise.

Remember, your goal here is not to provide a substitute for reading your manuscript, but to describe the book’s premise and central conflict or argument intriguingly enough to prompt someone at the agency to ask you to send pages. At the submission stage, you can let your narrative choices speak for themselves.

Which is, of course, as it should be. As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

(22) Does my descriptive paragraph emphasize the specific points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

I said demonstrate, mind you, not just assert. If the answer is no, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. Remember, no matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript — and if your query does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, as well as nicely written, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript.

That’s likely to be the case, incidentally, even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly common agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries: just because the agency’s guidelines say that a querier can include other materials doesn’t mean that everything in the packet is going to be read thoroughly before acceptance or rejection. Millicent simply doesn’t have time for that, if she’s going to get through hundreds of queries before lunchtime.

Translation: the query is going to determine whether she reads anything else.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point sufficiently. If it’s any consolation, contemplating your book’s selling points is great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them fresh book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(23) Even if Millicent skipped my opening paragraph, would the descriptive paragraph that followed prompt her to exclaim, “Oh, that story is perfect for {fill in my target audience here}? Or have I forestalled that spontaneous cry by describing my book in back-jacket terms?
This is a corollary of the last one, obviously, but still worth considering as a separate question. One of the most common mistakes in descriptive paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.


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

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know nowwhere this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

As you may have already gathered, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

By contrast, the second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests and perhaps a grizzly.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, you thought that she wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance, too?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they might well regard the first version as inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so those last two examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women — or to indoorsy women who like to fantasize about adventurous encounters with outdoorsy men and/or bears?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the story, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the projected reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(23) If my descriptive paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?
This question often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript? Most query letters elect to adopt one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has. If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the description as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not embrace the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic can be applied to any category of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph, actually. If you have written a steamy romance, choose the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail, and so forth.

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my full and enthusiastic permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(24) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most queries include no reference whatsoever to the target audience. It’s as though their writers believe it’s in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that attitude is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If Millicent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it or not, is there really time for her to murmur, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

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

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident, therefore, to Millicent.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty darned close to self-evident.

Structure your query to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to recognize your book’s worth. Write it well, yes, but also show why readers in your chosen book category will find it appealing. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript,” don’t you?

To that end, it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true. Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind anytime, this seems like an excellent place to stop our list for the evening. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, Part VIII: Millicent! Let us in! Millicent!

angry mob2

A quick announcement before I launch into today’s installment of Queryfest, aimed specifically at writers between the ages of 18 and 30 seeking some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC). The deadline for Narrative Magazine’s annual 30 Below Story Contest is October 29th. Entry is limited to young adult writers — that’s writers who are themselves young adults, folks, not YA writers — and delightfully, there are some actual cash prizes not only for the top few entries, but for the finalists as well.

They will also consider all entries for publication, and my, is the range of what they are opening to publishing broad. Quoth the contest’s organizers:

Narrative is calling on writers, visual artists, photographers, performers, and filmmakers between eighteen and thirty years old, to tell us a story. We are interested in narrative in the many forms it takes: the word and the image, the traditional and the innovative, the true and the imaginary. We’re looking for short stories, short shorts, essays, memoirs, photo essays, audio and video stories, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. The editors of Narrative have published the works of many new and emerging writers, who have gone on to become household names, and we continue to look for and to encourage the best new talent we can find.

So you might want to consider checking it out, ECQLC-seekers. Fair warning, though: there is an entrance fee.

Back to the topic at hand. Every time I devote a few weeks to a serious examination of all things query-related, I hear from many, many would-be queriers whose first (or at least second) reaction is to glance at the sheer number and length of the posts and back away quickly, clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum.

So if you have stuck with it so far, congratulations. Queryfest is not for the faint of heart, but then, neither is querying. Currently, it’s as hard as it has ever been for a first-time writer to catch an agent’s eye. The combination of a rise in home computer ownership, coupled with a slow economy, have caused the tide of queries pouring onto Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day to swell from its usual flood to something akin to a tsunami.

Hey, it’s tough out there. The why I have been urging you to take a hard, critical look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, unbound manuscripts, and, of course, query letters, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” (Alternated with, of course, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of your query as part of an implacable daily onslaught on Millicent’s defenses? It’s no accident that she keeps burning her lip on lattés — her task can be so repetitious, so seemingly endless that even Sisyphus occasionally glances up from that immense boulder the unkind gods sentenced him to roll up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll down again as soon as he reaches the top, mops his weary brow, and murmurs, “Wow, am I glad that I don’t have Millicent’s job.”

Contemplating how many queries she might have read prior to yours — not to mention the mountainous piles she may have to peruse between the thirty seconds she can devote to your letter and when she can go home for the day — can either be deeply depressing for a querier. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to consider that the chances of a randomly-selected query’s leading to the book in question’s being picked up by a great agent and sold to a good publishing house fall somewhere between getting accepted to a top medical school and being hit by lightning while holding an umbrella. I remember thinking when I sold my memoir, gee, I’m about to get published, I’m a woman with a doctorate, and I’m ambidextrous. Statistically speaking, I’m about as likely to exist as a purple gorilla.

Just because something is unlikely, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen; there’s a vast difference between difficult and impossible. As I like to tell discouraged aspiring writers early and often, the only manuscripts that have no chance of getting published are those that just sit in a drawer or on a hard disk, unqueried, unsubmitted, and unseen by the literary establishment.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t let the intense competition keep you from trying. You might just end up being the gorilla with the all-over mauve highlights.

Don’t underestimate how much doing your homework about what a good querying entails improve your changes, either. Just think of what a high percentage of queries either do not contain all of the necessary information, or are improperly formatted, or are downright rude, mistakes you intrepid souls working your way through Queryfest are unlikely to make. Nor are your queries likely to be among the unfortunate many that substitute hard-sell tactics for description, picking an agent’s name out of a hat for serious research into what the query recipient represents, or a vague, rambling paragraph about what the book is about for the one- or two-word book category already in use by the U.S. publishing industry.

Feeling luckier already, aren’t you, Jungle Jim?

You’re also, if you follow my advice, going to separate yourself from the crowd by not forcing your book concept into a boilerplate that a third of the aspiring writers out there happen to be using at the moment. You wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. And that’s bad for aspiring writers, because generic queries are among the easiest to reject: not only are they comparatively unmemorable — a boilerplate account of even a thrilling plotline tends to fall a bit flat — but your garden-variety Millicent finds them somewhat insulting.

And not merely because so many cut-and-paste operations intended to update old queries for reuse end up in disaster. Even when the address and salutation match AND end up in the right envelope, recycling the same query for every conceivable agent renders it effectively impossible to make sure your query ends up on the right desk.

Oh, it could happen, but so could Millicent’s coffee cup being hit by a meteor. Want to wait around to see if it happens, or would you prefer to make the effort to improve the odds?

No, but seriously, folks, the way that most first-time queriers approach figuring out whom to query is close enough to random that it’s surprising that they ever hit the right target. It just doesn’t make sense as a strategy for making a decision vital to the success of your writing career: if you don’t do individual research on each agent’s likes, dislikes, and placement record, how can you possibly know that any given one will be the best fit for your book? You don’t want just any agent to handle it, after all — your manuscript deserves the professional assistance of an agent with a proven track record of (and concomitant connections for) selling books like yours.

Agents are not generalists, any more than writers are: they specialize. That means, in practice, that a writer is unlikely to find such an agent by the simple (and unfortunately common) means of doing a web search on agents + {insert book category here}. Or by the formerly most popular alternative, snatching one of the standard agency guides off the shelf at the nearest bookstore, flipping to the index, and making a list of every agency that lists itself as representing that category.

While neither is a bad first step toward tracking down the ideal agent for a particular book, you must admit that neither is exactly a fine-tuned agent-seeking instrument. Yes, limiting your efforts to only those agents who represent manuscripts in your category is a necessary first step toward finding the best agent for your work — chant it with me now, campers: one of the most common reasons queries get rejected is being aimed at an agent who doesn’t represent that kind of book — but as many a query-fatigued aspiring writer can attest, it can result in a long, undifferentiated list. How does one decide whom to approach first?

Based on the comparative popularity of agencies whose names begin with A, B, or C, as well as those beginning with W, Y, or Z, my guess would be that most queriers simply proceed alphabetically — or in reverse alphabetical order. The fact that the D-V agencies tend to see fewer queries would indicate that embracers of this approach often give up in frustration before they get very far into their lists.

In the face of this undeniable reality, you can’t really fault Millicent for regarding the lack of a clear statement of why a writer selected her boss off a list of agents representing that book category as evidence that he might not have done his homework, can you? Most of the mob beating on the gate at any given moment is made up of homework-avoiders, after all.

Which brings me to the other primary reason for striving for an individual voice in your query letter: to Millicent, a well-written, personalized letter that describes a manuscript in clear, enticing, market-oriented terms is — wait for it — professional. As in exhibiting the minimum level of performance for getting her stamp of approval.

That means, in practice, being specific. And yes, I know that’s hard, in a document must contain a an extremely brief summary of your book.

Therein lies the problem, often. The first thing most aspiring writers learn about a query is that it should contain a description of the book it is hoping the agent will represent. (Okay, the second thing: the requirement that a query be a page or less is quite widely known.) To the first-time querier, that can sound an awful lot like you have only a page to summarize a 400-page manuscript!

That’s ridiculous, of course — a querier has only a paragraph (or two, at most) to describe her book. Less, if the description isn’t particularly interesting or doesn’t make the book seem like a good fit for either the agent to whom the query is addressed or the current literary market.

A 1-page synopsis is where that writer has to summarize her 400-page book. Note the distinction, please: it’s vital to your sanity while composing a query — or trying to keep it under a single page, for that matter. In fact, I feel an aphorism coming on:

broken-recordA query’s descriptive paragraph describes the manuscript; a synopsis summarizes it. The query presents the premise and central conflict (or, for nonfiction, the subject matter and central question), while the summary gives a complete, if brief, overview of the plot, including some indication of its resolution.

Why is being aware of this distinction vital for a savvy querier’s sanity? Because if you try to summarize the entire plot of your book in a query letter, you will drive yourself mad.

And, frankly, you will annoy Millicent. We may see why all too clearly manifested in the generality-fest that is average descriptive paragraph:

THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL tells the story of boy meets girl set against the turbulent backdrop of the type of war aptly described as hell. Although Dwayne and Mimette initially don’t click, circumstances throw them together and they fall madly in love. Through confronting numerous obstacles, they come to know themselves better and learn important life lessons before finding their very own happy ending.

Quite the a cliché-fest, isn’t it? That isn’t always the case with a too-general descriptive paragraph, of course, but the two often go hand-in-hand. As far as Millicent is concerned, they can keep on walking hand-in-hand right into the sunset, just like Dwayne and Mimette: her job is to look for original stories.

Which THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL might be, for all we know. But how on earth could Millicent tell, given the vagueness of this description?

Aspiring writers with a bit more knowledge about how agencies work may veer off into another type of generality, the lit class description. It tends to run a little something like this:

THE NUCLEAR FALLOUT WITHIN is a classic political thriller written in a literary fiction voice. Told in the first person from four different and conflicting points of view: a handsome protagonist (Senator Lance Manlison, 38), a brainy yet uninhibited love interest (Dr. Bambi-Pearl Dignityfree, 23), an odious antagonist (Snarly Weaponwielder, 52), and a deaf-mute unrelated bystander (Cheapdevice Smith, 13). Deftly alternating between these distinct voices, the narrative draws the reader into a beautifully-described world of intrigue, power, and intense introspection.

Both of these examples are probably factually correct statements about what occurs in the book, but that’s really beside the point at the querying stage. “What specifically are these books about?” Millicent is left muttering. “And why aren’t either of these writers using the scant space afforded in a query to demonstrate that they know how to tell a story? Are they under the impression that how they write doesn’t matter?”

I can answer that one, Millie: at the querying stage, that’s precisely what most aspiring writers do think; many regard the query as little more than an annoying-but-necessary piece of busywork, rather than an opportunity to show that they can write. But they’re wrong: the goal here is to stand out from that teeming population of queriers by coming across as a good writer with a good, marketable story.

The idea of your writing being judged solely by how you construct a single-page letter is making some of you squirm, isn’t it? “But Anne,” wiggle worms everywhere protest, and with good reason, “I’m a novelist. My gift lies in expressing myself at length. Why would any agent who represents book-length works allow, much less instruct, his trusty Millicent to make snap judgments about books without reading them?”

I sympathize with your feelings, but that agent cannot afford to: remember that tsunami of queries washing over Millicent’s desk? If she had to read even the first few pages of every single one of those manuscripts before ruling out those that are out of the question, she would constantly be swimming through an ocean of required reading.

Can you honestly blame her for draining the pool a little by rejecting the vague and the publishing world-inappropriate book descriptions on sight?

Most descriptive paragraphs don’t go to either of these extremes, of course; many are combinations of both, with perhaps a sprinkling here and there of detail. That’s not all that astonishing, given the comparatively scant attention most query-writing classes/seminars/online discussions seem to devote to the part of the letter where Millicent is most solidly within her rights to expect your writing to shine.

Hey, every writer can talk compellingly about his own manuscript, right? It’s the rest of the query that really matters, doesn’t it? And if the query reads just like what the writer has seen online, it has to be fine, doesn’t it?

Apparently and unfortunately, no, on all counts. I feel an aphorism coming on: the overwhelming majority of descriptive paragraphs are not sufficiently descriptive — a real shame, because the descriptive paragraph is the querier’s single best opportunity to make the case that her manuscript is unique. Preferably in the a voice similar to the narrative voice of the book.

Does that gargantuan gulping sound I heard out there in the ether mean that two-thirds of you with queries already circulating just realized that they did not do justice to the storytelling magic of your manuscript? Or did you think the point of the description was to make your book sound identical the most recent bestseller? Or — and I suspect that this is going to be the more common gulp-generator — were you previously unaware that the descriptive paragraph (and the query in general) is a writing sample?

On the off chance that it was any of the above, I’m going to drag out the broken record player again:

broken-recordEverything an aspiring writer submits to an agency is in fact a writing sample. Since the agent of your dreams is new to your writing, it’s only reasonable to expect that he will use your query letter, your synopsis, any requested pages, and even your e-mails and cover letters for submissions as bases for evaluating your writing ability. These are literate people; they expect good writers to express themselves well 100% of the time.

At minimum: spell-check everything before you hit the SEND key. Proofread everything — preferable in hard copy, as it’s easier to catch typos and logic problems that way. If you don’t know the difference between its (belonging to it) and it’s (a contraction for it is), or how to make a word plural (hint: almost never by adding an apostrophe + s), learn it. And if you have any doubts about your own grammar or proofreading abilities, run, don’t walk, to someone whose skills are impeccable.

But most of all, use your query as an opportunity to demonstrate to Millicent that, in addition to being charming, literate, and creative enough to come up with a great premise, you can tell a story well. Specifically, the story of your book.

Generally speaking, summary statements are not the best way to pull this off. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad generalities (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life’s most common challenges.), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (This is a fiction novel with great writing based on a true story.) will be sufficient to pique an agent’s interest. All of these tactics are problematic, because a vague query will sound just like a good two-thirds of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle.

Or, as she likes to put it: “Next!” But the news is not all bad here, campers: our Millie has a pretty good eye for spotting the rare purple gorilla.

When a query is simultaneously unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. That means, in practice, that for a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

How so? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing that’s been lurching about Geneva lately could possibly be his houseguest. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F’s assigned gate-keeper, Igor, to open the door, he’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying the secret laboratory where his master dabbles in revivifying the dead, right?

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to leap off the page at her, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the vast majority of the angry mob’s attempts to knock down that door.

Okay, so maybe that analogy was a trifle forced. Very few of the agents of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latté, right?

broken-recordA good agent typically receives in the neighborhood of 800-1500 queries per week — more, if the agency makes it easy for aspiring writers to submit pages online with their queries or happens to fall at the beginning or end of an alphabetical listing. In the face of that constant barrage, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. The generally-accepted figure is 98%.

Starting to make more sense that I’ve been pushing you to concentrate this hard upon a page of writing that isn’t even in your manuscript? I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and ask yourself a few more probing questions before you pop that puppy in the mail. To prepare yourself properly for this level of analysis, take a moment now to read your current draft in its entirety and aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course.

To stop the protest already halfway out of your mouth: I don’t care if you reread (or wrote) it yesterday, or already today, or fifteen minutes ago. Do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time. Millicent has good reason to regard queries as miniature Frankenstein manuscripts.

And if you don’t read it ALOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN ITS ENTIRETY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Now that you’re thinking of your query as a writing sample, let’s take a quick foray back up the page before we move on to that pesky descriptive paragraph.

(15) Does the first paragraph of my query show that I am a good writer, as well as convey the necessary information? Does it get to the point immediately? Or, to but it a bit more bluntly, if I were an agency screener with 200 other queries on my desk or in my inbox, would I keep reading into the descriptive paragraph?
This may seem like draconian questions, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through all of those queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if its first paragraph rambled? Or if, heaven forfend, it contained a typo or two?

Oh, you say you would. But honestly, would you?

It’s worth revisiting the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. That’s another reason I favor paper over e-mailed queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(16) Is my descriptive paragraph short, clear, and exciting to read? Have I actually conveyed what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, aspiring writers get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or, as we discussed above, they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the letter should never be longer than a page, that strategy tends to result in a missive that neither presents the book’s story or argument well nor leaves room for the necessary other elements of the query.

So what should you do instead? Limit the scope of what you are trying to achieve to making the book’s premise or argument sound fascinating.

How might one go about that? Well, for starters, buy yourself some space by axing the lit class terminology: this is not the place to talk about protagonists, antagonists, or plot twists, at least not using those words. Ditto with introductory statements like ALTERED REALITIES is the story of… or SIMILAR FANTASIES tells the tale of… If the opening paragraph has done its job properly, these kind of clauses are never actually necessary.

Second, concentrate upon presenting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation. A time-honored one-paragraph descriptive structure demonstrates why the lead is special in the first sentence or two (utilizing parenthetical age references to save space), devotes the second sentence to the plot’s central conflict, and the third to what’s at stake for the protagonist. As in:

Photojournalist Nana Angelopoulos (27) is far from an inexperienced traveler: her passion for documenting vanishing wildlife has brought her face-to-face with more charging rhinos, furious rattlesnakes, and irate, weapon-brandishing game wardens than even her worried mother (Irene, 56) can remember. Yet now that her favorite preserve is going to be sealed off from human contact forever, she has abruptly begun having panic attacks the moment she steps on a plane. Has the shutter come down permanently on both Nana’s career and the endangered red pandas she loves?

For a character-driven plot, you can focus even more closely on the protagonist. Try opening with your main character’s hopes and dreams, moving on to the primary barriers to his achieving them, and then wrap up by telling Millicent what he stands to win if he overcomes those obstacles — or what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. For example:

All retired paleontologist Sven Olafson (87) wants is a little peace and quiet, but who could relax with intrepid junior explorer Tammi Butterfingers (11) constantly digging for dinosaur bones in his back yard? Or twin grandsons borrowing in his stone tool collection to reconfigure the neighbors’ treasured marble birdbath? Or, worst of all, a malignant postman (Marvin, 62) determined to drive Sven from the only settled home he has ever had outside of a dig site?

Either structure will work for memoir, of course: treat yourself as a character in the book, change the pronouns to I, and tell Millicent what happened to you. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For other nonfiction, just set out the central problem of the book and give some indication of how you plan to address it. If you want to get fancy, toss in a sentence or two making the case that the problem is important, and to whom:

Sasquatches once roamed North America freely, but thanks to human overpopulation, few living children have ever even seen one. Once-mighty herds are now reduced to just a few square acres next to a Bigfoot preserve in southwestern Oregon. Ironically, just as human needs have nearly wiped out these magnificent beasts, human needs may save them from total extinction: new research indicates that molted sloth hair may be the long-sought cure for male pattern baldness. Begging the question: is the recent establishment of megalonychid-shaving factories a triumph in the fight against extinction, or merely vanity-induced animal abuse?

Reads like a well thought-out argument, does it not? What you’re doing here is not generalizing — you’re winnowing down the story to its essential elements. That’s doable, even in just a few lines.

When in doubt, err on the side of brevity over completeness. Remember, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline more of the plot.

But do make sure it sounds like a great story or fascinating argument on an important subject. As in a pitch, the first commandment of querying is thou shalt not bore — and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we both brief and interesting simultaneously?” In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words; it’s still a great strategy. Why not spice things up with details that only you could devise, described in lovely language? If you’re feeling even bolder, why not try waking Millicent up a little?

(17) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
What makes a book description memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not merely its overall arc, but also its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details she’s not likely to have seen before.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict; subplots, while perhaps integral to the book as a whole, tend to water down the storytelling impact of a descriptive paragraphs.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into Millie’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

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

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle Démodé. She’s emotionally unavailable, however: on the rebound from a ten-year marriage with sociopathic bassoonist Serge, she scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.

How does a writer know when to say when on the specifics? Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a blistering flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses different a problem for Basil: he has never been directed by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground and left two dozen musically-minded six-year-olds agape in horror. Basil’s father never got over the debacle, and Basil…”

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

Contrary to popular belief amongst queriers frightened by the prospect of having to talk about their manuscripts in marketing terms in Paragraph 1, what makes a descriptive paragraph great is not its ability to show how similar the book is to what is already published, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t.

In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got, purple gorilla? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them. But as you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part VII: have editing pens, will travel

Again, that was a longer gap between posts than I intended — I imagine that some of you intrepid souls are becoming just a trifle impatient to pop those query letters into the mail — but such is the life of a red-pen-for-hire. I go where I am needed, when I am needed. And my, how often the relatively tiny minority of developmental editors with experience in walking a writer through last-minute revision requests seem to be needed lately.

That’s good for those of us who enjoy riding into Dodge, guns blazing, to tame a wild revision crisis, of course, but it can be awfully nerve-racking for the poor writers. Although multiple (and often extensive) substantive revisions after signing a book contract — or, increasingly common, after one’s agent has shopped one’s manuscript around for a while — have been the norm for quite a while now, most first-time authors walk into representation and book contracts with no idea that their books will need to be tweaked further. Once a submission makes it past Millicent the agency screener and is embraced by her boss, the agent of your dreams, all the writer has to do is sit back, relax, and let the book-marketing professionals take over, right?

Um, wrong. Despite most agents’ expecting manuscripts to be completely clean by submission time (i.e., free of typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, and formatting problems), it’s actually rather rare that an agent won’t ask at first-time client for some market-oriented revisions. And it’s downright normal for an acquiring editor to issue an editorial memo either before or after acquisition, laying out a framework for modifying the manuscript with which she has fallen in love.

All of that is expected, at least by those who have been skulking around in publishing circles for a while. What’s changed recently is the frequency with which manuscripts under contract get passed from hand to hand these days. I don’t mean to frighten you this close to Halloween, but you wouldn’t believe how many authors wake up after celebrating a book sale (particularly a first book sale) to find that the acquiring editor is no longer associated with the project, due to layoffs, moves to other publishing houses, early retirements, the editor’s having decided to transmogrify into an agent, or what have you. Regardless of the reason a manuscript is reassigned, one constant tends to crop up: what the new editor wants to see in the book is typically different from what the acquiring editor did.

Very good, those of you who just clutched your chests and appealed to the Almighty: your extrapolation was correct. In practice, this increased mobility means that writers — again, more often those publishing a book for the first time, but it does happen to the tentatively established, too — frequently are faced with the daunting prospect of having to revise a manuscript that has already been revised in accordance with an agent’s expectations a second time for the acquiring editor, often on a rather short deadline. Not entirely surprisingly, this can lead to a writer’s feeling that her original vision has been slowly consumed over several meals by a ravenous lion.

Is this better than how first-time authors felt in the past, when agents or editors asked for a single, immense revision, a process often described as the book’s having been swallowed whole by a boa constrictor? That’s a matter of personal taste, naturally. There’s a reason that the demand for the services of the aforementioned pen-swinging editorial crisis brigade has risen sharply since the publishing industry’s contraction: who’s a writer going to call for help at a time like this?

Hey, it’s a living. For those of us who like jumping in and solving seemingly intractable editorial challenges, especially if we happen to find the rarefied and often moan-filled air of a deadline-pressed revision environment exhilarating, there’s never been a better time to be a freelance editor.

While you’re already lying, moaning, on the nearest fainting couch, I might as well explain why: it’s not all that unusual anymore for editor #2 to give way to a third. Or a fourth. Heck, I even know a few hapless authors struggling through a transition to a fifth editor. I’ve said it before, and I shall doubtless say it again: editors, like agents, are not possessed of a single mind; they harbor individual literary tastes.

Remember that, please, as we continue to talk about the vicissitudes of querying. It’s the key to understanding why generic queries simply don’t work.

If you’re the kind of aspiring writer who finds that last sentiment outrageous, troubling the air with your bootless cries of, “What do you mean, I need to personalize a query for every agent I approach? That’s absurd. Agents are all looking for the same thing: a marketable book. Therefore, all I should need to do is present my manuscript as marketable, and any agent worth his proverbial salt should automatically sit up and take notice,” well, you’re certainly not alone. First time queriers who don’t think that are as rare as people whose second toes are longer than their big toes: certainly not unheard-of — check out any ancient Greek statue, or the Statue of Liberty, for that matter — but definitely in the minority.

In response to what the statistically-minded amongst you just wondered: somewhere between 10% and 20% of the population. And if you also thought, “Gee, if I had a protagonist whose foot was in the genetic minority, I could use that statistic in my query letter,” congratulations: you’ve been paying attention to our ongoing discussion of how to impress Millicent with the size of your potential target market.

While we’re on the subject of target audience and how to talk about it in your query letter, I’d like to take a brief break from our list of common querying faux pas to address some murmurings I’ve been hearing out there in the ether. I shall be talking more about identifying your ideal reader later in Queryfest, of course, but if possible, I’d like to set some worried minds to rest on the challenge, or even the necessity, of identifying in your query who is likely to want to read your book.

Come on, admit it: as a writer, you probably find this question rather intimidating, if not downright appalling, don’t you? “Isn’t it my future publisher’s job to figure out how to market my book?” I’ve heard some of you grumbling, and with some good reason. “Wasn’t it my job to write it, or if it’s nonfiction, to write a book proposal for it? Isn’t alerting an agent to that fact the end of my marketing efforts? Agents, after all, are skilled at pitching books like mine to editors; wouldn’t it be presumptuous for me to tell them how to do it? By the same token, don’t publishers’ marketing departments possess far more intimate knowledge of who is buying what kind of book than I, an isolated writer with no access to sales statistics, could possibly be?”

My, you ask a lot of rhetorical questions, grumblers, but in answer to the central question here, no, a writer’s marketing tasks do not begin and end with landing an agent. There was a time when that was at least partially the case, but for years now, authors — again, especially first-time authors — have been expected to be active participants in book marketing. It’s not uncommon, for instance, for authors to have to set up their own book signings and readings, or even to pay for their own transportation to same. While some publishing houses still spring for website development for their new authors, many simply tell the author to establish a web presence on her own. It’s not even all that unusual for authors to hire their own publicists, on the grounds that their publisher’s publicity departments tend to be so overworked.

So in practice, thinking now about your ideal reader, what s/he is already reading, and why s/he will want to buy your book is smart strategy. That doesn’t mean, though, that it’s not going to be a bit difficult, or that you’re not going to be tempted to follow one of the many, many query templates floating around the Internet that simply leaves that information out. It’s not technically required, after all: as long as you mention the book category and describe your book well, Millicent doesn’t actually need that information in order to assess whether your book will fit into her boss’ current list.

So if you want to omit it, that’s certainly your right. As your longtime friend and writing advisor, however, I feel that it is my duty to point out that including it has been known to make the difference between her saying, “Oh, yes, there is a well-established target market for this book,” and her muttering regretfully, “This book sounds interesting, and I might personally want to read it based upon this description, but I just don’t think there are enough readers out there for it.”

Or, to put it another way: before you read that statistic about how many people have Greek statue-style feet, wouldn’t you have assumed that it was too small a demographic to be worth naming as a target readership?

So would Millicent. But do the math: as of today, the current U.S. population is 312,431,252. (Thank you, Mr. Internet!) Taking the most conservative estimate of statue foot incidence, the writer with the foot-obsessed protagonist could justifiably assert in his query that about 31 million Americans could identify with second-toe lengthiness.

Before any of you rushes out to compose a novel about such a foot-waver simply in order to use this rather impressive statistic in its query, let me hasten to add that the mere fact of being able to say that something in your book might conceivably resonate with some large group of people isn’t necessarily going to help make your case with Millicent.

This, for instance, would be a rather unconvincing query. As always, if you are having trouble reading it, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Okay, why doesn’t this work? In the first place, did you catch that Whiskers addressed Ms. Bookmongerson as Mr.? “Hmm,” Millicent would muse, reaching for the stack of photocopied form-letter rejections that is never far from her elbow, “I wonder what male agent got the query just before this on Whisker’s list.”

Also, did you notice that the descriptive paragraph began with HERE, BOY! follows…, a lead-in right up there with My book is about… on the Millicent-annoying scoreboard? Obviously, a novel will follow its protagonist; equally obviously, a book description will tell what the book is about. So why waste precious page space — or Millicent’s patience — by stating the self-evident?

But we were talking about target audience, were we not? The biggest problem here is that the statistic-based claim is far too inflated to be plausible: Millicent knows that not every dog lover will buy this book — or, indeed, any book. It’s not only demonstrably untrue, but absurd at first glance: no book is universally appealing to everyone in its target demographic.

That’s a shame, really, because the statistic itself is rather eye-catching. If Whiskers had taken the time to make a solid case that some of those 182 million people are likely to pick up the book for a specific reason, it might have been successful. That argument could have been as simple as while there are many novels about cat owners, dog owners seldom see their day-to-day trials and joys represented on the fiction page or as complicated as a point-by-point comparison with the selling points of MARLEY & ME, as long as it was plausible. As the query stands, though, it just reads as though Whiskers listened to some darned fool of a writing guru who insisted that statistics make the query.

But as we may see, how one presents those statistics is as important as the numbers — using them as page decoration, rather than the basis of a solid case for your book’s appeal, might well cost your query dearly. Why? Well, inflated readership claims are a notorious agents’ pet peeve. So If Millie has been screening queries for a while, she might automatically stop reading at the sight of such a preposterous assertion.

Yes, really. Is that the sound of your knees rattling together in terror, those of you who have sent out queries with similar claims, or has the cosmos suddenly been overrun with maracas players?

Also, Whiskers is just assuming that dog ownership necessarily translates into wanting to read about dogs. Yet plenty of dog owners never give the printed page a passing glance, just as many inveterate book-buyers cross the street when they see a dog sauntering down the sidewalk toward them. As the social science types say, coexistence does not necessarily equal correlation — and definitely doesn’t equal causation.

I know, I know: hardly a day goes by without your hearing that old chestnut, right?

Okay, so maybe it’s not all that widely-known an aphorism, but it’s nevertheless true: just because two things happen to occur at the same time or in similar places doesn’t mean that the two are related, or even that the two things could always be found together. For instance, many people own dogs; many people buy books about dogs. But does the mere presence of a dog in a household mean that the people living there will automatically buy a book about a dog?

Of course not: dog owners are not the only purchasers of books about dogs, by a long shot. Think about dog lovers with pet allergies, for instance, or relatives of dog owners who have no idea what to get them for Christmas. Together, these two groups represent millions of people, all of whom would have been left out of an assessment of target market based upon the relatively easy to disprove assertion that dog owners — and, by implication, only dog owners — have already demonstrated an interest in books like this, and therefore may be relied upon to consider buying HERE, BOY!

Does that large gasp that just ricocheted around the cosmos indicate that at least some of you had not realized that this was the purpose of talking about target market at all? Just in case that’s been stymieing some of your efforts to discuss your book in the language of the industry, I’m going to go ahead and restate it as an aphorism: just telling Millicent in your query that your book is going to sell to a particular group of people is not the same thing as specifying a target audience for your work. Identifying the people who already read books like yours and showing why they will want to read it is the key to convincing Millicent and her boss, the agent of your dreams, that your book has market appeal.

In other words, when the publishing industry talks about demographics, what they have in mind is not just big groups of people, but big groups of people already in the habit of buying particular kinds of books.

Starting to make sense that form-letter rejections so frequently include some permutation of the phrase I just don’t think I can sell this in this literary market, isn’t it? It’s not necessarily that the manuscripts being queried could not possibly garner any readers at all; Millicent simply cannot tell from the overwhelming majority of queries what already-established readership is likely to find the books being presented appealing enough to pick them off the shelf.

It makes intuitive sense, really, when you consider how book sales actually work. Unless publishing types anticipate a book’s being a bestseller (a relative rarity, by definition), why would they care about the tastes of the non-book-buying public? While it is true that occasionally, a book will be so wildly popular that even people who seldom buy books will purchase it — not a bad definition of a blockbuster, actually — the runaway success of books like THE DA VINCI CODE, HARRY POTTER, and BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY generally come as something of a surprise to the publishing industry precisely because their lure extends beyond their respective book categories’ usual audiences.

What does that mean for you and your query, you ask? Well, for starters, claiming that your book is the next DA VINCI CODE is, alas, unlikely to win you Brownie points with Millicent unless you offer plausible reasons that your story will grab the same readers. Without such argumentative support, you run the risk of her dismissing it as just another market-ignorant exaggeration from a writer who believes, as so many queriers seem to do, that the literary market consists only of bestsellers. Believe me, anyone who works in a reputable agency will be painfully aware how rare bestsellers are, particularly ones by first-time authors.

Instead of going for the big claim, think smaller. Millicent is aware that the overwhelming majority of book sales are not category-crossing blockbusters, but favorite authors’ work within specific book categories. It’s better querying strategy, then, not to ask only who among the public at large might already be interested in the subject matter of your book, but to look to your chosen book categories’ loyal readership. Is there a subgroup within that audience that has already demonstrated it likes to buy books that share characteristics with yours?

And no, Virginia, I’m not suggesting that you open your query with something as obvious as this:

Really? A mainstream fiction book will appeal to the mainstream fiction audience? Who could possibly have anticipated that? And once again, ol’ Whiskers misidentified the agent’s sex in the salutation.

Oh, you may laugh, but you would be STUNNED at how often queries actually do read like this — or worse. Believe it or not, Millicent’s bloodshot eyes are also frequently confronted with arguments like the following. See if you can spot the subtle logic problem. Or perhaps two.

Where should I even start? On the bright side, Whiskers did manage to address Ms. Bookmongerson correctly in the salutation, but this query has little else to recommend it. The tone is pushy (under the guise of attempted humor, a rather common passive-aggressive technique in queries), the description reads like a romance, not mainstream fiction, and although you and I know that Whiskers actually does have enough professional experience with dogs to legitimize a claim to expertise, those credentials don’t show so much as a whisker here.

All of those weaknesses pale, however, next to that jaw-droppingly irrelevant third paragraph. Just because there are sailor characters doesn’t mean the novel will automatically appeal to everyone who has ever served on the sea, after all. From the descriptive paragraph, how can Millicent tell to what navy the dognappers belonged? For all she knows, they could have been merchant marines, or land-lubbing dog-fanciers cleverly disguised.

Since the logical connection is pretty tenuous, at least from the query-reader’s point of view, it’s not clear why Whiskers brought the navy up at all. And if the book is about dogs, why on earth bring up cats?

Being privy to Whiskers’ behind-the-scenes reasoning — oh, we editorial pen-wielders get around — I can answer that question: she heard somewhere that cat books sold really, really well. She just wanted to jump on that bandwagon.

I can tell her — and you — now that this strategy isn’t going to work. Stick to the target audience for the main subject matter of the book, or at most, the primary subject matter plus a subplot’s worth. Provided, of course, that either of those actually will appeal to the readers you have in mind.

Admittedly, it can be difficult to figure out who those readers might be, even if one is already pretty aware of who is currently buying similar books. As thoughtful and incisive reader Dani observed recently,

I feel that naming a category for your book is a no-brainer. (Finding the category can be a bit more tricky lol) But as far as describing your target audience…this one I’m finding a bit challenging. I’ll have to read your post on that. Is “13-17 year old girls who have lost their parents during war-ridden times and now have to traverse Europe to escape looming doom” too narrow?

I love this question, not only because it nudged me into writing this post (thanks, Dani! And Mr. Internet for bringing us together!), but because although Dani described her target market flippantly, she’s quite right about who is likely to find her book appealing. She’s merely defining her audience too narrowly.

How so? Perhaps jokingly, Dani has assumed that the target reader’s life story would need to be a perfect match with the protagonist’s to claim her as an ideal reader. But what if we take out some of the specifics and broaden our focus a little? What if, in fact, we embraced the proposition that since readers tend to like to read about people like themselves, wouldn’t it make sense that people like your protagonist would be the natural readership for the book?

Let’s try that for a moment: presuming that the ideal reader would fall within the ages Dani specifies, let’s not look beyond girls who are already reading YA. Based upon the description above, what parallels might there be between her experiences and certain portions of the established YA readership?

Constructed that way, it’s much less daunting to think like a publicist for a moment, is it? If you’re having some difficulty starting the brainstorming flow, here’s a hint for you: the young reader I have in mind is unlikely to be traversing Europe, but she might well feel a sense of looming doom. Any guesses?

If you said, “Wait — a lot of young girls have lost parents. I would advise Dani to run, not walk, to find out just how many,” give yourself a gold star for the day. Award yourself two if you also shouted, “And while you’re at it, do a spot of research on how many kids in that age range have had other deaths in the immediate family! Those young readers might really appreciate a novel that reflected some of their reality.”

I can answer that one off the top of my head, as it happens: about a fifth of Americans experience a death within their families before they are old enough to vote. That’s a hefty chunk of the young population, and frankly, I think they could use more thoughtful novels that don’t whitewash what it’s like to lose someone you love at that age. While bereaved adults can cope by making radical changes in their lives in the wake of a loss — moving to another state, changing jobs, taking up sky-diving, dating unwisely, to name but four — young mourners seldom have that luxury. I also think a lot of young readers would be thrilled to see their trauma taken seriously — something adults tend not to do very often, unfortunately; the young bereaved often come under tremendous pressure to pretend that everything is normal at home. So it’s not too much of a stretch to say that, done well, a book like this could be very important to the right reader.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let me ask you: if you knew a young reader going through that kind of devastating loss, what book would you buy for her? Wouldn’t you at least consider a book like Dani’s, one in which a young heroine has to struggle against a similar loss and, if I am reading the description correctly, is able to do something about it?

The target audience portion of the query sort of writes itself now, doesn’t it?

Does the resonant thunk of thousands of jaws hitting the floor out there mean that you weren’t expecting it to be quite so easy? That’s really Dani’s doing: by defining her protagonist’s dilemmas so clearly, she laid the groundwork for some very straightforward brainstorming about audience. (Well done, D!)

That’s a great first step: defining your protagonist in general terms, in ways that are not too difficult to translate into the conditions of your chosen book category’s current readers’ actual lives. Step two: use those parallels to define what subset of readers would most likely be able to identify with those conditions. Step three: show why.

Obviously, this is going to be a significantly harder case to make if your protagonist happens to be a fourteen-eyed purple sloth from the planet Targ than if she’s a hard-working dentist from Milwaukee with a marked propensity toward procrastination, but there’s no need to be hyper-literal here. You’re a writer; be creative. Does your sloth follow a profession with an earth equivalent, perhaps or is the conflict between the sloths and the space monkeys similar to conflicts in a fantasy subgenre? Does Slothie share characteristics with the reader you have in mind — being bullied at Purple Sloth High might be very relatable for readers who were teased in their youths for being different. Anything can work, provided that

(a) Thing X is integral to the story,

(b) Thing X is apparent from the descriptive paragraph how it is integral to the story (a very common omission), and

(c) the query makes it clear how and why Thing X will appeal to a specific subgroup of your chosen book category’s already-established target readership. Of course, that will be quite a bit easier to establish if

(d) Thing X actually does appeal to that particular subgroup’s sensibilities.

Yet even after having gone over this array of strategies for identifying your target audience, some of you are still toying with leaving it out altogether, are you not? I know, I know: it’s tempting to cling to the notion that people — some people, somewhere — will want to read your book simply because you’ve written it, and written it well. While, let’s face it, until you establish a literary name for yourself, few people who do not know you personally will buy a book solely because it has your name on the cover, it’s perfectly understandable to want potential readers to fall in love with your writing.

For that to happen via traditional publishing, however, someone working with an agency and/or publishing house is going to have to fall in love with the book first — and these are people who think in terms of book categories and target readerships. Learning to describe your manuscript in their language does not mean that your writing is any less beautiful; it merely raises the probability that someone with the power to publish your work will read it.

I’m about to back away slowly now, so you may ruminate on that, but before I do, I would like to ask you to compare a couple more pieces of book-promoting writing. First, harken back to this last summer’s series on conference pitching. Remember the magic first hundred words, the speech that would enable you to talk cogently about your work to any total stranger affiliated with the publishing industry?

”Hi, I’m (YOUR NAME), and I write (BOOK CATEGORY). My latest project, (TITLE), is geared toward (TARGET MARKET). See how it grabs you: (KEYNOTE).”

Knowing my deep ambivalence toward one-size-fits-all formulae, I’m sure it will not surprise you to hear that I would expect a savvy writer to tinker with this format a little. If our pal Whiskers, say, were scheduled to make a formal pitch to agent A. H. Bookmongerson, he might open their conversation like so:

”Hi, I’m Whiskers McGee, and I write mainstream fiction. I’d like to talk to you about my novel, HERE, BOY!, a lighthearted romp about dog-training geared toward that portion of the 60 million dog owners in this country who, although they might not admit it aloud, see their dogs as extensions of themselves — and would get a kick out of a story in which dogs and owners go into psychotherapy together.”

Sounds pretty good in this iteration, doesn’t it? Isn’t it a pity that Whiskers couldn’t use that as the opening paragraph of a query?

Wait a minute — why not? After all, the opening of a query should contain quite a bit of the same information, right?

Dear {agent’s name here},

Since you so ably represented (TITLE OF SIMILAR WORK), I hope you will be interested in my (BOOK CATEGORY) book, (TITLE), geared toward (TARGET MARKET).


Seems as though it would work, doesn’t it? Let’s try plugging in specifics to see what happens.

Dear Ms. Bookmongerson,

Since you so ably represented DROOLY DOGS A-GO-GO, I hope you will be interested in my mainstream novel, HERE, BOY! It’s a lighthearted romp about dog-training geared toward that portion of the 60 million dog owners in this country who, although they might not admit it aloud, see their dogs as extensions of themselves — and would get a kick out of a story in which dogs and owners go into psychotherapy together.

Imogene Crowley (31)…

Not bad, is it? Although identifying your target audience might seem like a maddening limitation of your book’s potential appeal or an intimidating demand that you solve all potential marketing difficulties before you’ve landed an agent, much less a publishing contract, at the query stage, it’s really just a matter of introducing yourself and your writing in the terms Millicent will understand. Trust me, saying who you think is likely to find your book appealing will in no way prevent other readers from buying it, any more than suggesting a target demographic now will rule out promoting your book toward different audiences later on.

Think of it, in other words, not as the end of a conversation about marketing your work, but the beginning.

Next time, we shall dive right back into that checklist we’ve got going. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part VI: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that polyester minidresses are still in style, Barbie?

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Last time, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener, the dedicated and often quite poorly paid individual charged with the awesome task of going through the hundreds upon hundreds of queries a good agency receives each week, deciding what tiny fraction fits closely enough with the resident agents’ interests to warrant requesting pages.

Does that sudden flash of blinding light mean that Millicent’s job description caused light bulbs to appear over some of your heads? Or was it something else? “Oh, I was already aware that it was Millicent’s job to reject over 90% of the queries she sees,” some of the abruptly illuminated call out, “but back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query two paragraphs ago? I was so startled that I almost burned my lip on a too-hot latte, as Millicent always sees to be doing.”

My sympathies on your scalded mouth, campers, but I’m afraid I must make a technical correction: what I described above was a list of the information that absolutely must appear in a query letter in order for Millicent to decide to ask for pages; it wasn’t a formula for how to put it all together. This data could be presented in a million different ways — and should be, because as we have discussed, nothing so bores our Millie as the 5,421rst version of the same ostensibly surefire boilerplate query that’s been making the rounds on the Internet this month.

It would behoove you, therefore, to send her something a trifle more original.

I felt half of you tense up, but you have my permission to relax to the point of lolling: you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends, at least if you have been following Queryfest with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. I have greater ambitions for you than that. You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a relatively pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical leap forward? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would. The first two steps: nailing down a book category and figuring out who your ideal reader is.

A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it. Why? Well, no matter how well-read Millicent and her boss are in your chosen book category, unless you happen to have written a manuscript with exactly the same market appeal as a recent bestseller, neither will necessarily have a clear idea of how many potential readers there are for your book.

The more esoteric your claim to your ideal reader’s sympathies, the more likely this is to be the case, by the way. Let’s assume you’ve written a cozy mystery about a left-handed, redheaded sleuth/clog dancer who breaks her foot by tripping over log while running away from a spider. Now, you could say in your query that your novel will appeal to readers of cozy mysteries — but that’s not likely to come as news to an agent who represents that sub-genre, is it? It’s a tautology: cozy mystery buyers buy cozy mysteries, by definition. You could also claim that your book will appeal to left-handed people, or to redheads, but that would be a hard sell: both of these groups are too large and diverse to render such a claim plausible. You could, however, argue persuasively that there are not at present very many mysteries aimed specifically at clog-dancing enthusiasts, spider-fearers, and/or victims of falling accidents.

That’s not a bad argument — perhaps not the best for the work in question, but certainly a means of demonstrating the possible market appeal of this book. Strategically, you could do worse. However, it would definitely be poor strategy to assume that simply mentioning each of these groups would be sufficient to make your case.

Why not? How likely is either Millicent or her boss to be conversant with the specific demographics of that target audience to be able to say instantly, “Oh, terrific — arachnophobia is one of the most common of all phobias, 1 in 3 Americans over 65 will experience a fall in any given year, and clog dancing has been popular for the last four centuries! That would provide a wealth of different promotional approaches for this book!”

Even if an agency denizen did happen to have that particular array of statistics at her ink-stained fingertips, she’s not going to have the time (and probably not the inclination) to do the math. Although it’s fun to picture, isn’t it? “Let’s see,” Millie muses over your query, “assuming that about 30% of readers will be afraid of spiders, and virtually all of them will know somebody who harbors such a fear (insert adding machine operation sounds here)…and that about 10% of the population is left-handed (click, click, click), although of course that includes the ambidextrous and incompletely dominant as well…and about 13% of the current U.S. population is over 65…carry the three…add that to the national clog sales statistics I have at my elbow…”

Not going to happen. So why make Millicent guess?

In response to the hefty percentage of you who just shouted, “Because tracking down those numbers would be a big, fat pain!”: allow me to suggest that if you do not do that research, it’s terribly unlikely that Millicent will. Even if she happens to be a clogging enthusiast, she’s going to appreciate it if you throw some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is. Not to mention rendering it infinitely easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why, you gasp? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers. No matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given manuscript or book proposal, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

I sense some ambient eye-rolling. “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes — if you happen to be a former president of the United States, a movie star recovering from a drug addiction, or a plain, ordinary writer with previous publishing credentials querying a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire and a werewolf, or a middle-grade novel about a young magician left mysteriously to fend for himself, with the assistant of two friends carefully selected to maximize the probability that young readers will be able to identify with one or the other, in the face of ultimate evil that adults are too dim-witted to see. If you are already a household name or have written a clone of a recent best-seller, it is entirely possible that your target market is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “This memoir gives the inside scoop on the White House,” “This is what it’s like in celebrity rehab,” or, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience, and if you’re already a celebrity or an ex-president, you’re probably not writing your own query letters, anyway. If your manuscript is original — it is, isn’t it? — you’re probably going to have some ‘splaining to do.

Still don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Aspiring writer Ermintrude has written a charming women’s fiction manuscript about Trudymin, an American woman in her early forties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12, as well as the trauma of having grown up with an off-beat name. Miracle of miracles, since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Ermintrude herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.)

Like the vast majority of queriers, Ermintrude has not thought much about her target market before approaching agent Betheen; she just assumes, and rightly, that she’s written a well-crafted women’s fiction novel. Isn’t it enough to say that it will appeal to women?

Um, no: she’s stunned when Betheen tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Ermintrude comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (A tactic a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER embrace, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is too vague to convince Betheen. What Ermintrude really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters. Would you like to hear the demographics on how many of us had oddball names like Sunshine?”

But Betheen heard what Ermintrude SAID in her query and ill-advised follow-up e-mail, not what she MEANT. As they’ve never met, how reasonable was it for Ermintrude to expect Betheen to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Betheen thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Federico) conclude from Ermintrude’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Ermintrude’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Ermintrude says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents, many of whom will have had an elementary school classmate named Zephyr.”

Agent Betheen thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Betheen pitches it to editor Federico this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of underemployed, recycling-conscientious vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Ermintrude has thought through her readership in advance and approaches Betheen with relevant statistics all ready to leap off onto the query page.

Ermintrude says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Betheen responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Federico thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Betheen, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting tale of woe and uproar: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project repeatedly over several years (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often, anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list already in progress. Take a long, hard look at your letter and ask yourself…

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions last time for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Let’s rectify that right now: basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has, alas, made it much, much easier to be dismissive: never have so many been rejected so much with so few keystrokes. So although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

Most aspiring writers don’t even consider doing this — and frankly, it’s easy to see why. Many approach quite a few agents simultaneously, and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. Querying every possible agent one at a time can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I sense some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

What no agency will ever leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So if you heard that most agents prefer exclusive queries, you’ve been misinformed — or have been talking to someone who last queried in the mid-1970s.

Rather than hamstringing your querying efforts by assuming that a relatively rare preference is universal, take the necessary few minutes to check each agency’s querying policies before you send them anything. If you can’t find agency-specific guidelines (and you may not; query with SASE is an exceedingly common agents’ guide listing), it’s safe to assume that (a) they’re not expecting solo queries, so (b) you needn’t even mention multiple queries in your letter. Trust me, (c) if the agent wants an exclusive peek at your manuscript, he’ll tell you so point-blank in the request for pages.

This should, I hope, sound somewhat familiar to those of you who have been querying for a while. If not, I’m more than happy to haul out the broken record player again:

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Fair warning: sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on the agency’s Publisher’s Marketplace page.

I can hear some of you worrying types beginning to gnaw your fingernails down to the elbow, wondering if you sent out multiple queries based upon outdated sets of guidelines, or that the information was coded in a way you did not understand, but again, I would urge you to relax. It’s practically unheard-of for an agent to wake up one fine morning, stretch, and suddenly shout, “Hey, I’m sick of queriers not committing to me from the instant it occurs to them to approach me. I’m going to tell Millicent to dump any query that doesn’t say I’m getting an exclusive look into the recycling bin!”

That’s ridiculous, of course. Many agencies don’t recycle.

Just do your best, and hope for same. If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on how to deal with such a request if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess (and apparently I do), I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time — or Millicent’s.

A query letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel, LEFT-HANDED REDHEAD IN CLOGS. It’s a guaranteed hit with tempestuous coppertops everywhere, and a natural for the talk-show circuit. I enclose a pair of clogs as a gift in the desperate, forlorn hope that a huge, heavy box will be mistaken for a manuscript, and thus this query will end up on someone influential’s desk. Please find me charming?

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, Dear Agent means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, Millicent reasons, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency — and unlikely to the point of rolling around in hysterics on the floor that the querier will have bothered to read the agency’s submission guidelines What’s the hope, then, that requested materials would even remotely resemble professional manuscript pages? And, most agency denizens would additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

The result: virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash, without bothering to read even the first paragraph. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a notorious agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course. To put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

It’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book to a publisher is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

The best way to justify your agent choice is by mentioning one of the agent’s recent sales. (Recent, in publishing-speak, means within the last five years.) Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring her, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief, private meetings with everyone on the faculty first. If she wants to get their vote, she had better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or she’s toast.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who want to believe simply everyone in the universe has read their work. Everyone smart, anyway.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with any book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent {fill in recent title here}, I believe you may be interested in my book, TITLE, a {book category} aimed at {target audience}.”

I can feel your blood pressure rising, but again, relax: there are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call your favorite book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. Are you presenting your work in a way that invites Millicent to take a chance?

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be milking for all it is worth.

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there?

And if you are e-querying, why not mention the conference in the subject line of the e-mail? Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list. Something like this will work just find

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?
Stop cackling, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that routinely accept electronic submissions often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well. If you’re in doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Why? Glad you asked.

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s doubly worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you protest, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it? It’s not as though I did it on purpose.”

I’m afraid intent doesn’t matter much in this instance, but no, these are not necessarily instant-rejection offenses. They often are, though, for obvious reasons.

Oh, it’s not so obvious? Okay, let me ask you: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; verify before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, been interviewed about it, or have written about it in a blog, they will assume that you are aware of it.

Google is your friend, in other words. Take the 5 minutes to check before you query. While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the night:

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I addressing the agent of my dreams as Dear Ms. Smith, rather than Hey, Amy? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie constantly receives queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex. This type of annoying mix-up has led to more agencies posting pictures of their agents on their websites than you’d expect.

If you’re in serious doubt — faced with a grainy photo, no photo at all, an agent with a name like Bo, etc. — call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two polite options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor. Unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should never call an agency until after she has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if she’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely coincidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many talented people so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part V: is this my best side?

My apologies about the unexpected hiatus, campers; I know that many of you are anxious to get your queries out the door. Let’s just say that it’s been a heck of a week, and leave it at that.

Among recent events: my birthday was last week — I’m at that perfect age when I’m young enough not to mind being truthful about when I was born, but old enough to be pleased when people’s estimates of my age are low by a decade or two — and my, how the Muses waxed poetic. One of the many benefits of having a large acquaintanceship among writers is that they tend to be oriented toward marking occasions with words, and boy, did they ever. Indeed, I know many writers constitutionally incapable of letting a significant pass without delivering, if not a lecture, at least a few breaths’ worth of trenchant commentary. If not a few dozen pages.

I was particularly enchanted by a piece of aging advice from a rather well-known novelist who says I can pass it along to you, as long as I keep his/her august name out of it: Honey, you should start lying about your age now, while your author photos still make you look dewy. It’s a {expletive deleted} of a lot easier to chop off a decade while it’s still plausible than to wait until you’re old enough to want people to think you’re a dozen years younger. Fringe benefit: you’ll be able to keep using your current bio pic until you’re on Social Security.

This made me giggle: my generation spent the 1980s complaining to one another about how unlikely Social Security was to be around by the time we reached retirement age. On one memorable occasion, a fellow delegate to a teen mock-Congress pushed me sideways over a rickety chair because I was the only person in the room who thought that Social Security was a good idea. Apparently, that offense merited a sprained ankle. When I met my congressman the next day, he not unnaturally mistook my pain-glazed eyes as the telltale sign of inveterate drug use. His office staff called my mother, to alert her to my evident repudiation of Just Say No.

Ah, the Reagan years. You had to be there.

My novelist friend had a point: in a business that’s notoriously unforgiving of writers who exaggerate their bios, it’s an accepted piece of author vanity to misrepresent one’s age — and not merely so a youthful-looking 33-year-old can pass himself off as this year’s literary enfant terrible, or so a hip-minded 55-year-old can continue to pen credible chick lit. There isn’t always even a marketing value to the fib. You’d be astonished how many established authors keep using flattering author photos five, ten, fifteen, or even twenty years after it has, to put it kindly, ceased to resemble them closely.

They just want to look good — who can blame them for that? Except, perhaps, for the writers’ conference volunteer who spends an extra hour wandering around the airport, fruitlessly seeking the flaxen-haired nymph depicted on the book jacket so he can drive her to the convention center, no one is really harmed by this sort of misrepresentation. It may result in the now snowy-haired authoress twiddling her thumbs while she awaits her ride, but that’s a small price to pay for tens of thousands of dust jacket-perusers’ exclamations of, “My, but that’s an attractive literary figure. Would that all of our national treasures were so comely,” isn’t it?

There’s a practical reason that author photos exhibit such extraordinary longevity: let’s face it, coming up with a good author photo can be a pain. Even the most photogenic among us often go through a couple of dozen, if not a couple of hundred, clicks of the shutter before we end up with anything remotely pleasing, much less an image that we would like to identify us for posterity. I frequently end up being the photographer in these situations, aiming at a protesting, howling author-to-be the day before her editor has said that the jacket photo absolutely, positively must be in the printer’s hands by noon, and it’s rare that a resentful author likes any of the first thirty or so. I’m often cajoling and swooping in for close-ups for an hour or two.

Trust me on this one: you’ll be happier if your trigger-happy friend is not trying to get you to smile when you’re right on top of a submission deadline. Also, choosing amongst fifty okay shots and eight good ones is not a decision you’re going to want to make under time pressure.

Start posing now. Your photographer, agent, and editor will thank you for it.

I sensed some of you going pale over the course of the last few paragraphs. “Um, Anne?” the nervous murmur, glancing at their slim pocketbooks. “What do you mean, trigger-happy friend? My future publisher is going to pay a professional photographer to shoot my jacket photos, right?”

Probably not, unless you happen already to be famous. First-time authors are almost invariably responsible for providing their publishers with jacket photos these days, rather than the other way around. As a direct result, not only are non-professional dust jacket photos the norm, but we have substantially less incentive not to re-use those snapshots, once we find ones we like.

Why bring this up in the middle of a series on querying? Increasingly, agencies’ submission guidelines have been requesting queriers to send additional materials along with their letters — and sometimes, those materials include an author bio.

Yes, even for fiction writers. As I said, you might want to get used to posing — and start buttering up your friends who happen to have some fancy shuttering skills.

Back to the business at hand. In our last thrilling installment of Queryfest, we began going through a list of questions intended to help you steer clear of the most common querying mistakes. So far, our troubleshooting list has concentrated upon length and tone. Tonight, however, I would like to shift our focus toward the more market-oriented aspects of the query.

And half of you just tensed up as if you were about to have your pictures taken, didn’t you? Not entirely surprising: for many, if not most, aspiring writers, marketing is a dirty word. Indeed, you can’t throw a piece of bread at a circle of writers without hitting someone who will insist that writing for the market is the moral opposite of writing for art’s sake.

To a professional writer, the market/art split is a false dichotomy. There’s plenty of marvelous writing that’s done very well commercially. And it would be surprising if most aspiring writers weren’t aware of that: as a group, we’re some of the most devoted readers of the already-published, right?

Besides, insisting that thinking seriously about who is going to buy your work is tantamount to selling out is self-defeating for a writer trying to land an agent. Knowing something about how books are sold is not optional for an author working with an agent or editor; it’s a prerequisite. (If you are brand-new to the process, you might want to set aside some time to peruse the HOW DO MANUSCRIPTS GET PUBLISHED? category on the archive list at right.)

If you don’t want to make a living at it, of course, you needn’t worry about marketing realities. Writing for your own pleasure, and that of your kith and kin, is a laudable pursuit. Have at it, Emily Dickinson. But if you want total strangers to buy your work, you are going to have to think about how to market it to them — and that means learning to speak the language of the industry.

At least enough to describe your work in terms that every agent, editor, and screener will understand. To pull that off, you’re going to need to give some thought to what your book is about, who you expect to read it, and where it might sit on a shelf in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

Not to frighten you, but you’re also going to have to be able to convey all of this information within just a few sentences. Query letters are, after all, brief — and may not have even an entire page of Millicent’s attention to make their cases. To crank up the broken record player again,

broken-recordThe vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected. Therefore, the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to tell, as well as show.

That admonition made you sit bold upright, didn’t it? Glad I have your attention. Let’s turn our attention to the crucial information in that first paragraph.

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work? In other words, would a screener who read nothing else in the letter be certain on this point?
I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but if the answer is no, your query is exceedingly likely to get rejected, regardless of how beautifully you have crafted the rest of the letter. Why? Well, if your first paragraph doesn’t tell our pal Millicent the agency screener either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query him (having spoken to him at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

I hear you groaning over the amount of research this may entail, but let’s face it, indiscriminate querying probably won’t match you up with the best agent for your work. It’s a waste of your time to query agents who do not represent books like yours, so in the long run, doing a bit of background-checking may actually speed up your querying process. Besides, in order to personalize each query, you need to come up with only one or two reasons for picking this particular agent.

The one down side to being this specific in your paragraph one: if you are querying many agents at once, it renders it much, much easier to send the wrong query — and infinitely easier for Millicent to notice that you’ve done so.

What might that look like in action, you ask? Remember our two examples from last time, where Flaubert accidentally mixed up one agent’s name and background with another’s? It contained some good selection criteria, couched in some restrained praise. To refresh your memory, he sent this:

wrong names query

When he intended to send this:

Despite our Gustave’s momentary inattention to critical detail, he had embraced essentially the right approach in both letters: he devoted the opening sentences of his various queries to telling each agent why he was querying him or her, rather than simply sending the same letter to everybody. In fact, he brought up two perfectly adequate for each: for Ms. Marketer, he mentioned both an article she had written and a book she had successfully represented; for Mr. Bookpusher, he brought up having heard him speak at a conference — and a book Ms. Marketer had successfully represented.

Again: proofread your queries before you send them out. Every time, without exception — and yes, Virginia, even if you are querying via e-mail or by filling out a form on an agency’s website. Contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, the relative ease of mass-querying electronically often renders Millicents more nit-picky on the detail front, not less.

How can you figure out what kind of reason Millicent will find persuasive? Agents-who-blog make this kind of opening quite easy for queriers: all you have to do is mention that you’re a fan. Do be positive before embracing this tactic, however, that you have read enough of the blog in question to know what the agent has said she is looking for in a query or book project. Trust me, AWBs’ Millicents already see enough queries from people who make it quite plain that all they know about the blogging agent is her name and that she blogs.

Don’t hesitate to mention if you attended a conference where the agent spoke: traditionally, conference attendance is considered a sign that a writer is serious about learning how the publishing business works. Which is kind of funny, actually, as so many writers’ conferences focus far more on craft than practical issues like manuscript preparation and submission. (You’d be amazed at how often conference organizers have asked incredulously, “You want to teach a two-hour seminar on formatting? What on earth for? Isn’t everybody already familiar with professional standards?”) Even now, when so many writers are gleaning their knowledge from the Internet, many agents still tell attendees to include the conference’s name in the first line of the query, the subject line of the e-query, or both.

It’s worth using as an entrée even if you did not get a chance to interact with him at all. At a large or stand-offish conference, it’s not always possible — and even if you do manage some face-to-face time, the agent may well be meeting so many aspiring writers in so short a time that he may not remember every individual. So don’t be shy about reminding him that you were a face in the crowd.

(6) Is it clear from the first paragraph what kind of book I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but it’s jaw-dropping how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Quoth Millicent: “Next!”

The book category, the most straightforward way to talk about your writing in professional terms, is the most often omitted element. And that’s a shame, because in either a query or a pitch, the more terse and specific you can be about your book’s category, the more professional you will sound — as long as you are being terse in the language of the business.

In other words, don’t just manufacture your own category. Tell the nice Millicent what already-established book category your work would fit into most comfortably, so she can tell her boss which editors will be interested in seeing your manuscript. Shilly-shallying will not serve you here: an agent would use only a couple of words to categorize any book, any time, and so should you.

Why be so terse? Established book categories tend to be only one or two words long: historical romance, science fiction, urban fantasy, women’s fiction, Highland romance, YA paranormal, Western, literary fiction, memoir, and so forth. In fact, these terms are so concentrated that it’s very, very easy to annoy Millicent by adding unnecessary adjectives or explanation: literary fiction novel or science fiction novel are technically redundant, for instance, because all novels are fiction, by definition. By the same logic, true memoir, real-life memoir, and memoir about my life are all needlessly repetitive descriptions.

The sad thing is, the widespread tendency among both queries and pitchers is in the opposite direction of terseness — or even using the terminology that agents themselves use. “Just tell me where it would sit in a well-organized bookstore,” Millicent begs. “Why do so many aspiring writers find that so hard?”

Why, indeed? In my experience, it’s usually a matter of either not being aware that the publishing industry runs on book categories — or, if a writer is aware of it, a clawing, pathological terror that putting his work into the same conceptual box in which any agent would need to place it in order to be able to sell it to a publisher in North America would somehow limit Millicent’s understanding of just how complex the book in question is. That’s not how anyone who works in an agency would see it, however. As much as writers seem to adore describing their work as, “Well, it’s sort of a romance, with a thriller plot, a horror villain, and a resolution like a cozy mystery, but the writing is literary,” agents and editors tend to hear ambiguous descriptions as either waffling, a book’s not being ready to market, or the writer’s just not being very familiar with how the industry actually works.

So you might want to avoid those ever-popular terms of waffle, my writing defies categorization, my book is too complex to categorize, my book isn’t like anything else out there, no one has ever written a book like this before, and that perennial favorite of first novelists, it’s sort of autobiographical.

Which, translated into industry-speak, come across respectively as I’m not familiar with how books are sold in North America, I don’t know one book category from another, I’m not familiar with the current market in my area of interest — which means, Mr. Agent, that I haven’t been buying your clients’ work lately, I’m not familiar with the history of the book market in my area, and I was afraid people would hate me/hurt me/sue me for two million dollars if I wrote this story as a memoir.

Don’t blame the translator, please: the writers and the agents are just not speaking the same language. And speaking as a memoirist who actually has had a book subject to a $2 million lawsuit threat, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Nor is committing to a book category. Contrary to popular opinion, picking a conceptual box for your work will not limit its market appeal; it will simply tell Millicent which shelf at a well-stocked bookstore or category on Amazon you expect to house your book. It honestly is that simple.

You really do not need to stress out about the choice nearly as much as most aspiring writers do. Just take a nice, deep breath and consider: what books currently on the market does my book resemble? How are these books categorized?

“But Anne,” I hear the more prolific among you protest, “I write in a number of different book categories, and I’m looking for an agent to represent all of my work, not just some of it. Won’t it be confusing if I list all of my areas of interest at the beginning of my query?”

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials. It will only render you more memorable if you are the science fiction writer whose query included the immortal words, Having twenty-seven years’ experience as a deep-sea archeologist, I also am working on a book on underwater spelunking.

But in the first paragraph of your query, no. Keep it simple. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent right off the bat about which project you are trying to sell?

(7) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?
We all know that writing query letters is no one’s idea of a good time. Well, maybe a few masochists enjoy it — if they’re really lucky, maybe they can give themselves a paper cut while they’re licking the envelope — but the vast majority of writers hate it, hate it, hate it.

Loathe it. Despise it. Resent it with a vehemence that most non-writers reserve for poisonous snakes, black widows, and persons who disagree with them politically.

Which is fine, on a personal level — but can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. While query fatigue is certainly understandable, it tends not to produce a positive tone for presenting your work.

Insecurities, too, show up beautifully on the query page. While the writer’s opinion of her own work is unavoidably biased, in my experience, that bias tends to be on the negative side for most. We’ve all heard of queriers who make overblown claims about their work (This book will revolutionize fiction!, This is a sure-fire bestseller!, or that now-obsolete favorite, It’s a natural for Oprah!), but apologetic openings like I’m so sorry to bother you,, Pardon me for taking up your valuable time,, and This may not be the kind of book that interests you, but… turn up on Millicent’s desk more often than you’d think.

Often, this sad-sack tone is the result of query fatigue, not actual lack of confidence in the book, but Millicent has no way of knowing that. I know that repeated rejection is depressing and exhausting, but it really is in your best interest to make an effort to try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first.

No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either. And never, ever, EVER mention how long you’ve been querying, how many agents have already rejected this project, or how hard it has been emotionally. It’s unprofessional. A query is not the place to express frustration with the querying process; save that for lively conversation with your aforementioned significant other, family members, and friends.

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

No, no matter how long you’ve been shopping your book around. Speaking of overly-effusive politeness,

broken-recordIf you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.”

To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying. These people are busy; take yes for an answer.

Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. Remember, in-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

This remains true, incidentally, even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, send an e-mail. Or just send the requested pages along with a cover letter, apologizing politely for the delay in following up.)

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

broken-recordEvery agent and screener in the biz already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!” Such inflated claims make a manuscript seem less marketable, ultimately, not more.

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever. Even if it’s true.

So how do you make your work sound marketable without, well, just asserting that it is? Glad you asked.

(9) Does my query make it clear what kind of readers will buy my book — and why?
Amazingly few queries address this point, but to folks who speak publishing’s lingua franca, it’s simply not possible to talk about a manuscript without considering the issue of audience. So you’ll reap the benefits of both professional presentation and comparative rarity if your query identifies your target market clearly, demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Trust me, Millicent is going to respond quite a bit better to a statement like MADAME BOVARY will resonate with the 20% of Americans who suffer from depression at some point in their lives than Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! She sees the latter type of claim on a daily — or even hourly — basis and discounts it accordingly. At best, such claims come across as exaggerations; at worst, they look like lies.

Why might she think that? Well, logically, a claim like Every depressed woman in America will want to read this book! could not possibly be true. No book appeals to every single reader within a large demographic, and nobody knows that better than someone who works within the publishing industry. Far, far better, then, to make a realistic claim that you can back up with concrete numbers.

I feel a golden oldie coming on:

broken-recordNo book ever written appeals to every conceivable reader — or can be represented effectively by any randomly-selected agent. While your future publisher’s marketing department will undoubtedly have ideas about who your ideal reader is and why, it’s far, far easier to talk about your book professionally if you first take the time to figure out what kind of readers are in your target audience — and how many of them there are.

I’m not talking about publishing statistics here; I’m talking about easy-to-track-down population statistics, a recommendation that comes as a big surprise to practically every aspiring writer who has ever taken my pitching class. “Why,” they almost invariably cry, “shouldn’t I go to the trouble to find out how many books sold in my chosen category last year? Wouldn’t that prove that my book is important enough to deserve to be published?”

Well, for starters, any agent or editor would already be aware of how well books in the categories they handle sell, right? Mentioning the Amazon numbers for the latest bestseller is hardly going to impress them. (And you’d be astonished by how many agents don’t really understand how those numbers work, anyway.) Believe me, if books like yours are selling well online these days, and if you have queried an agent who represents even one of those books, her Millicent will already be aware of it.

Nor should you waste everyone’s time by making a case that the book category in general has an eager target audience. To a pro, that’s the same thing as saying that your book belongs to that category; by accurately defining your book’s category in paragraph one, you are essentially claiming that established readership for your book. Belaboring that point will not make your manuscript sound more appealing.

So what should you say to impress Millicent? How about how many people there are who have already demonstrated interest in your book’s specific subject matter?

The term target audience made some of you tense up again, didn’t it? As scary as it may be to think about, if you are going to make a living as a writer, you will be writing for a public. In order to convince people in the publishing industry that yours is the voice that public wants and needs to hear, you will need to figure out who those people are, and why they will be drawn toward your book.

Let’s start off with a nice, non-threatening definition of terms. What is a target audience?

Simply put, the target audience for a book is the group of people most likely to buy it. Not just a segment of the population, mind you, but readers who are already in the habit of buying books like yours. That’s why it is also known as a target market: it is the demographic (or the demographics) toward which your publisher will be gearing advertising.

So I ask you: who out there needs to read your book and why?

If that question leaves you a bit flummoxed, you’re certainly not alone — most fiction writers and nearly all memoirists initially have a difficult time answering that question about their own work. First-time memoirists are notorious in their first panic to answer huffily, “Well, obviously, the book’s about me.”

Yes, that is obvious, now that you mention it. But what else is the memoir about? Even the most introspective memoir is about something other than its author.

Fiction writers, too, tend to stumble over this question. Indeed, it frequently offends them. “Well, people will read it for the writing, obviously,” novelists tend to huff. “Isn’t that enough? It’s sort of based on something that really happened, if that helps.”

Of course, lovely writing is going to be one of any good novel’s attractions, but every book category has well-written books in it. Well-crafted sentences are expected in professional writing; they’re not optional extras. But unless you are planning to market your book as literary fiction — i.e., a novel where the beauty or experimental nature of the writing and exquisitely-examined character development are the book’s primary selling points — nice writing, which of course a plus, is not much of a descriptor. (Besides, literary fiction is a relatively tiny portion of the fiction market, usually coming in around 3-4%. Why so small? It assumes a college-educated readership.)

What makes literary a poor descriptor for a book that isn’t literary fiction? It does not answer the central questions of a query letter: what is your book about, and who needs to read it?

Or, to put in the terms Millicent might: what are the potential readers for this book already reading? Why are they reading it? What about this book is likely to appeal to those same readers?

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Your book is about something other than its protagonist, right? That something has probably been written about before — so why not find out how those books were marketed, to glean inspiration about how to market yours? (As Pablo Picasso was reportedly fond of saying, “Bad artists copy. Good artists steal.”)

Or you can approach it even more straightforwardly: pick an element of your story that might make your ideal reader pick up your book. It’s set on a farm; the protagonist’s sister has multiple sclerosis; the characters keep going to a drive-in movie theatre. Any running theme is legitimate subject matter for marketing purposes.

Then ask yourself: who might be interested in this subject? How many small family farms are there in the US? Just how many people have multiple sclerosis — and how many people are relatives, friends, or coworkers of those who do? Who is likely to remember drive-in theatres fondly?

Getting the picture? Might not people who are already interested in that topic — and, ideally, are already demonstrating that interest by buying books about it — be reasonably regarded as potential readers for your book? What books do these readers already buy? Who are their favorite living authors, and what traits do your books share with theirs?

While we’re at it, who represents these readers’ favorite authors, and would those agents be interested in your book?

Is tracking down all of this information bound to be a lot of work? Yes, possibly, but as the Internet has made performing such research quite a bit easier than it was at any previous point in human history, you’re probably not going to garner any sympathy from Millicent. A word to the wise, though: just because information is posted online doesn’t mean it is true; it’s worth your while to double-check with credible sources. (Stop groaning. Just last year, a Wikipedia spokesperson told an interviewer that the site is not intended to be anyone’s only source of information; it’s designed to give an overview of a subject.)

Just as performing background research on who agents are and what they represent will enable you to target your queries more effectively than indiscriminate mass mailings to everyone who has ever sold a book in your book category, doing a bit of digging on your target audience before you send out your queries will save you time in the long run. Yes, really.

At a loss about how to begin about gathering this data, or even what information you should be gathering? As it happens, I’ve written about these issues at some length — and have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right. Those posts should give you quite a bit of material for brainstorming — and if you’re still lost, by all means, leave a question in the comments about it. I’m always happy to help my readers come up with marketing ideas.

Do I hear some disgruntled muttering out there? “I’m not a marketer; I’m a writer,” some of you object, and who could blame you? “How the heck should I know who is going to buy my book? Isn’t that the publishing house’s job to figure out? And anyway, shouldn’t a well-written book be its own justification to anyone but a money-grubbing philistine?”

Well, yes, in a perfect world — or one without a competitive market. But neither is, alas, the world in which we currently live.

As nice as it would be if readers flocked to buy our books simply because we had invested a whole lot of time in writing them, no potential book buyer is interested in every book on the market. There are enough beautifully-written books out there that most readers expect to be offered something else as well: an exciting plot, for instance, or information about an interesting phenomenon.

To pitch or query your book successfully, you’re going to need to be able to make it look to the philistines not just like a good read, but also a good investment.

And before anybody out there gets huffy about how the industry really ought to publish gorgeously-written books for art’s sake alone, rather than books that are likely to appeal to an already-established demographic, think about what the pure art route would mean from the editor’s perspective. If she can realistically bring only 4 books to press in the next year (not an unusually low per-editor number, by the way), how many of them can be serious marketing risks, without placing herself in danger of losing her job? Especially in this economy, when the major publishers have been trimming their editorial staffs?

Oh, well might you avert your eyes. The answer isn’t pretty.

As with choosing a book category, it pays to be specific in identifying your target audience. It will make your query stand out from the crowd. And PLEASE, for your own sake, avoid the oh-so-common trap of the dismissive too-broad answer, especially the ever-popular women everywhere will be interested in this book; every American will want to buy this; it’s a natural for the Colbert Report. Even in the extremely unlikely event that any of these statements is literally true in your book’s case, agents and editors hear such statements so often that by this point in human history, they simply tune them out.

Make sure your target market is defined believably — but don’t be afraid to use your imagination. Is your ideal reader a college-educated woman in her thirties or forties? Is it a girl aged 10-13 who doesn’t quite fit in with her classmates? Is it an office worker who likes easy-to-follow plots to peruse while he’s running on the treadmill during his lunch break? Is it a working grandmother who fears she will never be able to afford to retire? Is it a commuter who reads on the bus for a couple of hours a day, seeking an escape from a dull, dead-end job?

Is it the girl who was pushed over a chair in a long-ago debate about Social Security? If so, I’m flattered, but you might be defining your audience a little too narrowly.

But ‘fess up: before that last paragraph, you thought the groups I had already mentioned were pretty darned specific, perhaps to the point of ridiculousness. But this is a big country, stuffed to the brim with individuals who just love to read. Each group I listed actually represents an immense number of people, and a group that buys a heck of a lot of books.

Give some thought to who they are, and what they will get out of your book. Or, to put a smilier face upon it, how will those readers’ lives be improved by reading this particular book, as opposed to any other? Why will the book speak to them?

Again, be as specific as you can. As with book category, if you explain in nebulous terms who you expect to read your book, you will simply not be speaking the language of agents and editors. My target market is women under 50 is too vague to be helpful to Millicent; college-educated Gen X and Gen Y women who long to see their work struggles reflected in contemporary fiction will identify with my protagonist’s challenges might well cause her to exclaim, “Oh, my boss represents several writers who write for that demographic. This book might appeal to the editors that bought Talented McWriterly’s last novel, in fact.”

See the difference? The first is an empty boast of universal appeal; the second is an explanation of why a particular group of readers who already buy a hefty percentage of the fiction sold each year in this country will resonate with the story. If you were Millicent, which would you think was the better investment of the agency’s time and effort?

Try to think of learning to speak this language as less of an annoying hurdle than as another step toward assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

But like coming up with a flattering author photo, you might not capture the essence of what you are trying to convey the first time around. It usually takes practice — and quite a bit of fine-tuning. Most of all, though, it takes a willingness to approach the process as the necessary first step to becoming a professional writer, rather than as a gratuitous exercise in busywork intended to discourage newcomers — or as a system that’s set up to make it easy for exciting new writers to navigate the first time around.

In practice, it’s neither. Millicent actually does need this information in order to be able to recommend your book to her boss.

Don’t worry: in the days to come, we’re going to be working on how to couch that information in terms that will appeal to her. You can do this. Keep up the good work!