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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

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

And it may be helpful to include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Details that tell it all: a post-Boxing Day story about excess baggage

Before I launch into today’s post, I am delighted to bring you some fabulous news about a member of the Author! Author! community, long-time reader and incisive commenter Kate Evangelista. Kate’s first novel, TASTE, will be published by Crescent Moon Press! Please join me in congratulating her on this wonderful leap forward in her writing career — and in looking forward eagerly to the day when I can let all of you know that the book is available for sale.

It sounds like a great read, too. Take a gander at the blurb:

At Barinkoff Academy, there’s only one rule: no students on campus after curfew. Phoenix McKay soon finds out why after she finds herself on school grounds at sunset. A group calling themselves night students threatens to taste her flesh until she is saved by a mysterious, alluring boy. With his pale skin, dark eyes, and mesmerizing voice, Demitri is both irresistible and impenetrable.

Unfortunately, the gorgeous and playful Yuri has other plans. He pulls Phoenix into the dangerous world of flesh eaters. When her life is turned upside down, she becomes the keeper of a deadly secret that will rock the foundations of the ancient civilization living beneath Barinkoff Academy. She doesn’t realize until it is too late that the closer she gets to both Demitri and Yuri, the more she is plunging them all into a centuries-old coup d’état.

Sounds exciting, eh? It also, if you’ll forgive my lapsing into the practical in mid-kudo, an awfully darned good role model for anyone on currently in the process of trying to write a descriptive paragraph for a query or a synopsis, by the way should anyone be interested. Kate’s charming author photo, too, is instructive: she comes across as friendly, interesting, and certainly literate, with all of those shelves in the background. Not to mention the playful gleam in her eye that promises adventure to come.

So well done on several fronts, Kate. It’s a genuine pleasure to see a writer who has worked as hard as you have receive recognition, and I, for one, want to read that book.

It just goes to show you, campers: it can be done. Keep persevering, everybody — and keep that good news rolling in!

Back to the business at hand — or rather, back to the hiatus between the last theory-minded Queryfest posts and the rest of this week’s reader-generated practical examples. (Look for the latter to begin on Wednesday and continue through the end of the year!) After having devoted Sunday’s post to a Christmas-themed parable about the importance of vivid, original details to impressing every querier’s beloved nemesis, Millicent the agency screener, I fully intended to run this companion piece, another anecdote-based lecture on specifics, on Boxing Day. Then the lights went out (again!) but the oven remained operational (post-Christmas cookies!), and I never managed to post this yesterday.

I suppose I could just have skipped it and moved on to pragmatic query consideration today, but in case I was too subtle in my last post: just as the threshold between an opening page of a manuscript or book proposal that leaps off the page at a weary-eyed Millicent and one that doesn’t is frequently a turn of phrase, image, or specific that surprises her, the difference between a query that makes a weary-eyed Millicent jerk bolt upright, exclaiming, “Wow! This story/argument/memoir story arc has potential!” and one that leaves her unmoved is sometimes as little as a single, creative detail that she’s never seen before.

That’s harder than it sounds to pull off: as I pointed out on Sunday, Millicent — like her boss the agent, the editors to whom the agent pitches clients’ books, the members of the editorial committees to which those editors suggest manuscripts they would like to acquire, and any experienced contest judge — reads a heck of a lot. Not only in general, but in the book category that her boss represents.

And aspiring writers, unfortunately for their queries and submissions, often do not have the time, inclination, or the access to what others are writing to be anywhere near that familiar with what Millicent would and would not consider a cliché. Even writers who, bless their warm and literature-loving hearts, routinely improve their professional knowledge by not only keeping up with the new releases in their categories, but also seeking out works by first-time authors of books like theirs in order to see what has pleased the agents and editors who handle them recently, will often remain blissfully unaware that a pet plot twist, character trait, or turn of phrase is not original. To them, it just sounds good.

How could they know, poor benighted souls, those particular plot twists, character traits, and turn of phrase have turned up in a good quarter of what crossed Millicent’s desk within the last six months? Admittedly, if any of those things appeared in a recent bestseller in that book category, it’s a safe bet that our Millie will be inundated with them for the next two years — more if a movie version appears. And because so many writers define good writing in a particular category by what sells well — not the only criterion, I think, nor the best — a submitter is often genuinely unaware that his nifty description on page 14 echoes the same nifty description on page 247 of a bestseller, a fact that almost certainly will not be lost upon a well-read Millicent.

At least, not after she’s cast her eyes over the 53rd similar submission. Of the week.

Of course, not all popular elements are derived from established authors’ works. By some mysterious means known only to the Muses alone, the zeitgeist seems to whisper the same suggestions in thousands of writerly ears simultaneously. So often does this occur, and so lengthy is the lag time between submission to an agency and eventual publication for most first books, that even an extremely conscientious trawler of the latest releases would have a hard time predicting what types of details or story arcs to avoid this year, as opposed to next.

What does all of that mean in practice? Well, it’s pretty easy to bore Millicent, for one thing: see the same plot, plot twist, memoir story arc, or descriptive detail 1,700 times in any given year, and you might become a trifle inured to its charms, too. In order for a detail, image, or argument to impress her as original, she genuinely has never to have seen it before — or, more realistically, never have seen it done in that particular way before.

Or anywhere near as well. And even then, she has to like it.

That doesn’t mean, though, that going completely wacky or waxing surrealistic is necessarily the way to win her literary heart, either. As we have discussed before, publishing pros make a pretty strong distinction between the fresh, an original concept, twist, or voice that’s likely to appeal to an already-established book-buying audience, and the weird, an original concept, twist, or voice that doesn’t really fit comfortably into either the expectations of the book category for which the author is ostensibly writing or the current literary market. A fresh plot, story arc, or phrasing is the polar opposite of one that’s been done (see earlier point about the fate of original twists from bestsellers), or, even worse, is dated.

Confused? You’re certainly not alone: due to the market-orientated slant of freshness, a book idea that’s fresh today might well have been done by tomorrow — and will be downright dated a year from now. Complicating things still further, agents and editors will sometimes talk about a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

“Okay, Anne,” originality-lovers everywhere cry, scratching their heads. “I’ll bite: is that good, or is that bad?

Well, it’s a good question, for starters — but yes, a fresh take is a positive thing. Consider, for the sake of example, the story of the Ugly Duckling. That’s certainly been done a million times, right? Since most YA readers and virtually all literate adults currently buying books on U.S. soil may already be presumed to be familiar with the basic story, it would be hard to surprise any reader, much less one as genre-savvy as Millicent, with the essential plot twist there. But if, for instance, a writer felt that the UD’s turning out to be something completely different and pretty watered down the message of the early part of the tale — what, it would have been perfectly okay for the other poultry to have made fun of an ugly duck who actually was a duck? — and presented essentially the same premise, but had UD possess the ability to foresee that the duck pond was shrinking and lead her waddling brethren and sistern to swampy safety elsewhere, thus winning their respect, that would be a fresh take on a well-worn topic.

Oh, you may laugh, but a clever author did in fact create a similar variation on this story that was very successful, both artistically and commercially: it was a little number called THE COLOR PURPLE. Very fresh — in 1982. But do I even need to tell you how many Ugly Duckling variations the Millicents of the mid-eighties saw tumble into their inboxes? As anyone who perused women’s fiction bookshelves regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s could no down tell you to her sorrow, it was done. Over and over again. And since that essential plotline has been done so many times since, can you imagine how dated the same manuscript would appear if it showed up on Millicent’s desk today?

So get your thinking caps on, campers. We’re going to devote the rest of today’s post to learning to walk the fine line between the Scylla of what’s been done and the Charybdis of the weird. But before I launch into the how-to part of our program, allow me to tell you a little story.

To set it up for those of you who have not boarded a commercial airliner lately, since the airlines have started charging to check bags, many passengers have simply begun wheeling their bulky suitcases down the center aisle, fighting with one another to find space for them in the overhead bins. During the holidays, this battle royale necessarily entails jostling some passengers’ shopping bags full of presents too delicate or valuable to pack in checked luggage. In the midst of this ongoing conflict between the crammers and the fearful, we join our intrepid memoirist.

After my companion and I were seated — he in 18B, your humble narrator in 18C — I felt my chest tighten: the gentleman behind me had evidently bathed that morning in some pepper-based cologne. That, or he was a secret agent for the airline transit authority, testing the viability of toxic scents in knocking nearby passengers senseless.

A sympathetic flight attendant told me I could move if I could find an empty seat away from the source of the nerve agent. Having first gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack, I wiggled my way into the center aisle to begin scouting.

Up by row six, a tall woman in cashmere with faux fur cuffs knocked me sideways — right into in the lap of the man in 6C. I repeatedly apologized for treating him like Santa Claus (he didn’t seem to mind much), but I could not budge: the imperious woman was blocking the aisle too thoroughly while searching for a place to stow her immense roll-on luggage in the already crammed overhead bins.

A time-conscious flight attendant murmured in her wake, tactfully replacing the shopping bags the passenger was blithely flinging to the floor. “Could you please hurry, ma’am? We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Clearly, though, that baggage had to be placed just so. As my assailant made her noisy way down the aisle, I was able to free myself of my human seat cushion and follow, clambering over the flotsam and jetsam the flight attendant could not manage to scoop up. I felt like the caboose in a slow-moving train.

By the time I could smell where I was supposed to be parked, the picky passenger had managed to free enough space in the bin above row nineteen to shove her suitcase inside. The flight attendant and I pushed from behind.

As I slipped, choking, into my assigned seat, the woman turned to the flight attendant. “Well, that’s a relief. Now you need to switch my seat assignment.”

The exhausted flight attendant looked at her blankly. “You’re in 6E.”

“Yes,” the woman said testily, “but my bag is back here. I’ll have to wait until everyone else gets off the plane before I can grab it. I need to sit next to it.”

Feeling both revolutionary levels of resentment rising off the rest of the passengers and my throat constricting from the cologne fumes, I knew my time had come. I leapt to my feet. “She can have my seat! I don’t mind coming back for my carry-on.”

The woman had plopped herself into my seat before the flight attendant could even nod. She thanked no one.

The flight attendant propelled me forward to row six before the irritating passenger could change her mind. I gave the five extra bags of pretzels she slipped me to the man who had let me share his lap.

Amusing, I hope? Good, but as those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while had probably already begun suspecting by the end of the first paragraph, I didn’t share that anecdote with you purely for entertainment value, or even to vent. (I thought the other passengers were going to attack the rude lady. She must have delayed our departure by 15 minutes.)

No, I’ve included this story here because it has an editing problem — several, actually. Any guesses?

Hands up if you think it is too long. Is the action/narrative ratio off? Do you think a swifter telling would have allowed the comedy inherent in the situation to come out more clearly, or would you have liked to see more internal reaction from the narrator?

Which is right? Well, it depends upon what kind of narrative the author is creating — and where the scene is going. In a memoir, the reader expects the narrator’s character to be revealed through her reactions to the events around her, so I might well want to ramp that up. Getting out of the narrator’s head and into her body might be a good place to start: I felt my chest tighten is a strong detail in that respect; it makes the same point as I began to worry, but does so by showing how the emotion manifested, rather than just naming it.

Oh, hadn’t I mentioned lately that most of the memoir Millicent has been seeing lately seldom mentions a reaction occurring below the narrator’s neck? I guess one has to read an awful lot of memoir manuscripts to know about that.

While showing, rather than the dreaded telling, is good strategy in many kinds of writing, there honestly isn’t a one-size-fits-all revision strategy for fiction. How a savvy writer might go about showing what’s going on in the scene above and what kind of details might make the piece sing would vary. In a romance, for instance, the reader would probably want a slightly different focus, perhaps showing my companion’s dismay at being first left alone, then saddled with another seatmate, or more complex interactions with the gentleman with the lap. So the smart specifics to add here would illustrate the relationship between the narrator and her companion: he could make an ineffectual grab after her as she flees the cologne, for instance, or try to convince Santa to switch seats with him, so the pair could travel together.

If, by contrast, this is a scene intended for a thriller, and the reader has some reason to suspect that one of the passengers on the plane is carrying something lethal, this semi-amusing bit of business might merely be a means of prolonging the suspense, right? In that instance, I would want to edit to speed up this scene, so Millicent would not become impatient at a too-lengthy digression. Or I would have the protagonist spy another character doing something odd out of a corner of her eye, allowing the reader the fun of speculating whether the obnoxious woman was some sort of decoy, creating an intentional distraction from the real threat. If I really wanted to ratchet up the danger, our heroine could feel something cold and hard beneath her after she tumbled into Santa’s lap: a gun?

Or, to surprise Millicent more, how about a titanium leg that can receive radio signals?

The possibilities are legion, right? Many self-editors, though, as well as a hefty percentage of writers’ group critiquers, would not take intended book category into account when making decisions crucial to revising this scene. All too often, short and terse is deemed appropriate for any type of book.

But it doesn’t always work, because — wait, I’m going to let you see why for yourself. Here’s that scene again, winnowed down to a just-the-facts-ma’am telling. This, too, is a style Millie sees quite often in memoir submissions.

After my companion and I reached our seats, I felt my chest tighten: the guy behind me reeked of cologne. I waved down a flight attendant to ask if I could change seats, and she said yes, but she was too busy to find one for me. I gobbled down some precautionary antihistamines to ward off an asthma attack and began scouting.

A woman shoved me into some guy’s lap in row six. She was trying to find an overhead bin to stow her luggage, but the ones near her seat were already crammed. The flight attendant kept urging her to hurry, since the plane couldn’t start taxiing until everyone was seated. I remained trapped in the guy’s lap until the woman had exhausted all of the possibilities near her seat and moved up the aisle, with the flight attendant replacing the items she had displaced.

The woman finally found enough space for her bag above row nineteen, just behind me. But before I could buckle myself in, the woman demanded to sit near her bag, rather than in her assigned seat.

The passenger and flight attendant had a small argument about it, causing the other fliers to express resentment. I offered to switch seats with her, in order to solve both of our problems. The flight attendant gave me extra pretzels; I shared them with the guy whose lap I had previously occupied.

Not a very effective editing job, is it? It’s precisely the same story, true, but most of its charm has evaporated. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shot your hand into the air, exclaiming, “The humorous voice is gone!” lower that hand 18 inches and pat yourself on the back with it. Very, very frequently, insecure self-editors will sacrifice narrative voice to pace, resulting in the kind of tale you see above.

But one of the main selling points a writer has for an agent or editor is freshness of voice! If it’s largely edited out, how is Millicent to know that this is a writer with an interesting and unique worldview?

If, on the other hand, you cried out, “In this version, the reader doesn’t really learn much about who these characters are or why this incident is important. It’s just a flat description of events,” you also deserve a pat on the back, because that’s also true. Characterization is a very frequent casualty of the revision process, because, well, it takes up room on the page.

I’m reserving today’s gold star, though, for those of you who noticed both of these problems, yet pointed out, “Hey, Anne, both of these examples share a flaw I’d like to see fixed: what are any of these people like? Admittedly, the second example exhibits much weaker characterization than the first, but most of these characters are one-note: the pushy passenger is rude, the flight attendant harried, and the guy with the lap — well, let’s just say that I couldn’t pick him out of a police lineup, based upon this account. I’d find this story both more enjoyable and more plausible if the narrative showed them more. In fact, isn’t this a show, don’t tell problem?”

Wow, that’s one well-earned gold star. Both versions are indeed light in the characterization department.

Some lovers of terseness out there find that diagnosis a bit dismaying, I sense. “But Anne,” they protest, struggling manfully to keep their commentary brief, “isn’t the usual goal of editing to cut out what doesn’t work? You admitted above that the original anecdote was a little long — won’t adding characterization just make it longer?”

Not necessarily — if the characterization is achieved not through analysis or lengthy descriptions, but through the inclusion of vivid, unexpected details and interesting phrasing. Such as:

The lanky woman seemed barely muscular enough to drag her leopard-print suitcase behind her, yet she surged up the aisle, flinging open every single overhead compartment on both sides as she passed. A small child bashed in the head by a pink umbrella moaned in her wake. The flight attendant leapt to keep the morass of holiday gifts, rolled-up winter coats, and overpacked suitcases from tumbling onto the passengers who had arranged their carry-ons so carefully just minutes before, but to no avail. Within moments, rows seven through twelve resembled a picked-over bargain bin at a thrift store.

“Could you please hurry, ma’am?” she kept murmuring after every slam and between bites on her regulation pink-frosted lips. The first-class flight attendant was wearing the same color. “We can’t close the cabin doors until everyone is seated, and we’re already behind schedule.”

Thirteen sets of hanging doors later, the woman shoved aside a red shopping bag to make room for her carry-on. I helped the flight attendant wrestle the last three compartments shut before both of us provided the necessary muscle to inter the leopard. She did not thank us.

Obviously, these three paragraphs are not an adequate substitute for the entire story, but see what I have done here? The details provide characterization that neither the first version’s narrative reactions nor the second’s series of events showed the reader.

In this third version, however, the reader is neither left to fill in the specifics — something a time-strapped Millicent is unlikely to do — nor expected to guess what conclusions the author wants her to draw from these actions. The details make it perfectly plain that the lanky woman could not care less about anybody else’s comfort, feelings, or even rights: leaving those bin doors open behind her for the flight attendant and another passenger to close shows the reader what kind of person she is, just as the specifics about the volume of the luggage and the uniform lipstick, contrasted with the flight attendant’s consistent politeness, illustrate her dilemma, and the narrator’s automatically pitching in to help demonstrates her approach to the world.

Vivid details are the gem-like tiny touches so beloved of editors everywhere, the telling little tidbits that illuminate character and moment in an indirect manner. The frequency with which such details appear in a manuscript is often one of the primary factors professional readers use in determining whether to keep reading — and if such unusual specifics are incorporated skillfully into a query’s book description, they often prompt a request for pages.

Why? Well, more than almost any other device, they give the reader insight into the author’s worldview.

Sound like too amorphous a concept to be useful at revision time — or query-writing time, for that matter? It isn’t. A good writer sees the world around her with unique eyes, and — ideally, at least — powers of observation heightened to an extent that many non-writers would actually find painful.

This requires pretty sensitive nervous tissue, as H.G. Wells pointed out. He liked to call writers Aeolian harps (that’s a fancy way of saying wind chime, in case you were wondering), responding to our perceptions of the world through our art and, he hoped, making it better in the process.

Wells is now best-known for his science fiction, of course, but in his lifetime, many of his most popular novels were about social interactions. As I mentioned back on Veterans’ Day, his Mr. Britling Sees It Through was considered at the time THE definitive work on the British home front during the First World War. My favorite of his social novels is The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, a comedy about marriage and the establishment of decent, affordable apartment buildings for young working women.

Okay, so his political beliefs were not particularly well-hidden in his social novels. Neither was his evident belief that the primary purpose of female intellectual development was for those pesky women with brains to make themselves more attractive to men with brains. But his eye for social nuance — and social comedy — was exceptionally good.

The tiny little details that our sensitive nervous tissue lead us to notice — the way you wear your hat, the way you sip your tea, as the song says — are a large part of what makes great writing seem almost miraculous to readers. Not everyone notices the worn-down heel of the left shoe of the man in his interview suit, after all, or the way the eyes of the president of the local charitable organization occasionally glaze with hatred while her mouth is loading the members with drippingly complimentary gushings.

Feeling special yet? You should: being aware of these details is a gift, after all, a sharpness of eye with which not very many human beings are endowed. Yet most writers don’t rely upon it nearly heavily enough in constructing their narratives — and still less in their queries.

And to someone whose job it is to read manuscripts all day, every day, seeing that gift wasted can start to get pretty annoying. “Where are those delightfully unexpected little insights?” the Millicents of the world think, running their fingertips impatiently down page 1. “Where is the evidence that this writer sees the world in a way that will change the way I see it myself?”

A tall order, yes, but — wait, do I hear some cries of distress out there? “Did you just say,” a strangled voice asks, “page ONE? As in my manuscript should produce evidence of my unique worldview and uncanny eye for telling little details that early in my book? Can’t I, you know, warm up a little?”

Great question, strangled voice. The answer is yes, if you want to make absolutely certain that an agency screener will read PAST the first page. (If you doubt this, please take a gander at the HOW NOT TO WRITE A FIRST PAGE category on the archive list at right. It’s a series on reasons that agents report for not reading past page 1, a pretty sobering group of posts.) And to anticipate your next cri de coeur, yes, you should make an effort to provide such evidence in the book description section of your query, for the exceedingly simple reason that at most agencies, that’s all the page space you have to convince Millicent that her boss needs to read your manuscript.

Some of you submitters may find the necessity for cajoling reading more than a few paragraphs from people who, after all, asked you to send a chapter or 50 pages or your entire book. If you’re a novelist, it can be especially galling: presumably, if your forté as a writer were brilliant single-page stories, you would be entering short-short competitions, not writing 400-page books, right?

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to this view. If I ran the universe, agents and editors would be granted an entire extra day or two per week over and above the seven allocated to ordinary mortals, so they could read at least 10 pages into every submission they request. Writers would get an extra day, too, and lots of paid vacation time, so we could polish our work to our entire satisfaction before we sent it out.

And Santa Claus would tumble down my chimney to shower me with presents every day of the year, instead of just one.

Unfortunately, I believe I have mentioned before, I do not run the universe. If we writers want to be successful, it behooves us to recognize that queries and submissions are often read very, very quickly, and adapt our first few pages — and our queries — to that reality.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But before you condemn the rigors of the industry too vigorously, take a moment to consider the conditions that might lead to someone at an agency or publishing house to conclude that it would be desirable, or even necessary, to give a requested manuscript only a page — in a manuscript or in a query — to establish the author’s brilliance.

Lest we forget, Millicent can sometimes be the world’s most impatient reader. While some screeners and agents are looking to be wowed, Millie is in a rush to get out the door; she’s put off her lunch date three times already this week, because she had to work through lunch, and she’s not going to miss it again.

It is now 12:10, she’s just noticed a run in her tights, and your manuscript is the next in the pile. How easy do you think it is going to be for it to impress her into reading past page 1?

I bring up Millicent’s foul mood not to scare you — but since a writer has absolutely no control over the mood of the person deciding whether to accept or reject his manuscript, it is worth preparing your submission so that it would impress EVEN Millicent at her most frustrated. That’s just good submission strategy.

It’s also good querying strategy. Assume a bored Millicent longing to be startled out of her malaise by an exciting detail, and you’re halfway to perking up your query.

I hear some of you huffing, but pause to spare some sympathy for the Millicents of the agenting world, as well as Maury, the editorial assistant who is her equivalent in publishing houses. They are expected to read reams and reams of paper very, very fast — and for this Herculean effort, they are not necessarily always paid. Often, in this harsh economy, this work is assigned to interns. If it’s the summertime, Millicent is probably on break from a good Northeastern college, someplace like Barnard, and since her parents can afford to support her while she takes an unpaid but résumé-building job, she’s probably from an upper-middle class background.

If it’s the rest of the year, or she has already graduated, she is probably paid — poorly — and lives in an apartment the size of a postage stamp with four other young people with similar jobs. Millie would not have gone into this line of work had she not liked reading — in fact, she may have writing aspirations herself, or she may want to become an agent or editor, so taking a job screening queries and submissions seemed like dandy on-the-job training at the time.

But now, after weeks on end of seeing hundreds upon hundreds of rather similar storylines, her capacity for appreciating literature has markedly dimmed. Sometimes, when she is especially cranky, a single line of awkward dialogue or two lines free of conflict can make her feel downright oppressed.

And your manuscript will have to get past Millie, and often also a senior assistant who has been screening manuscripts for even longer and has an even shorter boredom fuse, before it lands on the agent’s desk.

Still think it’s a good idea bore her, as long as your writing is strong enough?

What if, as occasionally happens, your manuscript is the next on her list to read immediately after she has broken up with her loutish boyfriend, she twisted her ankle clambering up from the subway, or she’s wondering how she’s going to pay the rent? And if poor Millie has just burned her lip on her non-fat double-shot tall latté — well, let’s just say that the first few pages of your manuscript had best be tight. And your query had better be fascinating.

And either should feature at least a few delightful little details that will make Millicent sit up, forgetting her bright magenta lip, and cry, “Eureka! This writer showed me something I’ve never seen before, presented in magnificent, clear prose! Forget my lunch date — I have something to READ!”

The miracle of talent, as Mme. de Staël tells us, is the ability to knock the reader out of his own egoism. Let the first example an agent sees of your writing be living proof of that.

I think you have it in you; that gift of insight is what made you want to write in the first place, isn’t it? Don’t let the difficulties of the querying and submission processed dim that mission. Millicent, and readers everywhere, will be the better for the originality of your insight.

Oh, and do make an effort to share those overhead bins; you never know when the guy upon whom cast-off luggage tumbles will turn out to be Millicent’s brother. Although that’s an ending to an Ugly Duckling story she’ll never see coming. Keep up the good work!

Bringing those unbelievable stories to life on the page, or, well-mannered camel seeks wiser man

It’s Christmas Day, campers, but my tree has gone dark: the electricity has been out for the last two hours. The local authorities claim that gigantic boom we all heard around noon resulted from a frantic windstorm’s having taken out a transformer. A less literary-minded analyst might take this story at face value. You can’t fool me, though. This is obviously Phase I of the Grinch’s most recent plan to steal Christmas.

Either that, or the Great Celestial Plotmaster(s) have been reading a lot of classic mystery lately. The day has all the hallmarks of the genre: while stoplight at the top of the hill’s being on the blink (or, rather, uncharacteristically not being on the blink) is admittedly the kind of thoughtfully-selected, pragmatic detail that makes a fictional world spring to life on the page, my brunch guests’ finding themselves plunged into darkness — or as close to darkness as a deep gray Seattle afternoon will permit — must hardly have come as a surprise to those familiar with the genre. I’ll bet you saw it coming the proverbial mile away. What’s next, a cat leaping out of nowhere to startle us at a suspenseful moment?

I mean, really: all of the characters are gathered in one place, and the lights go out? Even the Agatha Christie-impaired around the table immediately began making nervous jokes about which one of us was about to meet a grisly fate.

That’s why, in case any of you have been wondering since last spring’s foray into editorial pet peeves and how to avoid them, I tend to urge savvy revisers not only to scan their manuscripts for places where summary statements (such as All the lights went out could be productively replaced with character- or situation-revealing details (In the middle of the soup course, the chandelier suddenly gave up on emitting light. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. The butler fumbled in the sideboard for matches.), but for opportunities to surprise and delight the reader with unexpected specifics (In the middle of the soup course — a clear, sherry-laced leek broth with a jaunty dollop of crème fraîche floating gaily on top — the dusty chandelier suddenly gave up on its losing battle to shed light on the table. Even the stoplight at the corner had ceased blinking annoyingly in Montel’s peripheral vision. Startled, he knocked his shrimp fork onto a passing cat.).

My, but that was a long sentence. Somewhere in the literary stratosphere, the late Henry James must be chortling over his holiday goose, muttering to Edith Wharton, “They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“Too few semicolons for my taste,” Edith replies. “And watch your elbow: if you knock the figgy pudding over, you are sure to set the tablecloth on fire.”

My point, should any of you by some remote chance have lost sight of it in the midst of all that frenetic activity, is that while every type of book — and certainly every genre of fiction — has its own conventions, tropes, and characterization expectations, word for word, a writer is going to get substantially more expressive mileage out of a creative telling deal than one that any inveterate reader of that book category could guess. Or even, if it’s a common enough element, add subconsciously to the scene if it does not appear on the page.

Oh, when you read that second description of the lights going out, you didn’t murmur, “I bet the butler did it,” before your eyes passed the parenthesis at the end of the example?

Yes, Millicent the agency screener is encouraged — indeed, is often explicitly trained — to be on the look-out for manuscripts that read like, well, books in their chosen categories, and yes, each book category, particularly each genre fiction category, has its own recognized and recognizable plot twists, plot lines, stock characters, and, yes, types of details. Because agents specialize in particular types of book, as well as certain types of voices — a fact well worth bearing in mind when selecting which agents to query — it does tend to be to a writer’s advantage at submission time if the manuscript fulfills category-specific expectations. (That’s as true in a query’s descriptive paragraph as in a submission’s first few pages, by the way: if the text doesn’t sound as though it would fit comfortably within the manuscript’s chosen book category, it will usually be rejected.)

Let’s face it, though, the line between making your text read like it belongs shelved with others like it and like a cliché fest can sometimes be pretty thin. Many an aspiring writer believes, mistakenly, that producing a pale replica of a famous author’s writing is a better way to win friends and influence people at an agency than to come up with something more original. Or, even more mistakenly, does not become familiar enough with what’s currently being published in that book category to be aware what conventions would now strike someone who deals with those manuscripts for a living as passé.

To put it another way: when was the last time you read a mystery in which the butler actually did it?

The result, unfortunately, is that our poor Millicent tends to see the same types of specific — as well as the same plot twists, character types, and even phrasing — over and over and over again. When you consider the sheer volume of stories within the same category any agent successful in selling such books receives in any given year, that’s hardly astonishing.

The trouble is, most submitters remain woefully in the dark (and not because the lights went out) about how such elements are likely to be received at an agency. Good writing in a particular book category is good writing, right?

Sheer repetition has made Millicent believe otherwise, alas — but honestly, it’s hard to blame her for feeling that way. What might strike Writer A as requisite for that genre is frequently precisely what Writer B considers an homage to a classic and what Writer C will decide to drop in as a humorous riff on a cliché. And that’s not even counting what Writers D-F will honestly believe is original, but is actually a subconscious lifting of material or phrasing from an admired book.

“Oh, come on,” Millicent mutters, scalding her lip on that too-hot latte she forgot in her annoyance she had set aside to cool. “Does this writer honestly think that someone who reads as much as I do can possibly read an opening line like Yesterday, I fantasized that I returned to Ottawa without Daphne du Maurier’s REBECCA springing to mind? Last night I dreamt I went to Manderlay again is arguably the most famous first line in the genre!”

Wondering why I am bringing all of this up in the midst of a series on querying? Well, several reasons. First, I wasn’t going to post today at all, but as my guests went home when the soup got cold, I had a bit of extra time on my hands. I also had a charged-up laptop, as it happens, so clearly, this is kismet.

Especially as I had a holiday-themed anecdote I had been itching to recycle, anyway. I could have worked it into a series of queries, but hey, it’s a holiday — I thought everyone might enjoy a little break from our two solid months of query consideration. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m guessing that those of you devoted enough to your writing to be checking in at Author! Author! today might be more seriously interested in a discussion of craft than your garden-variety casual Internet browser.

Either that, or you might be trying to avoid your nearest and dearest. I’m happy to help you do that, too.

So gather close to the Yule log, campers, and let me spin my tale. As you read, try to think like Millicent: does the narrative contain enough specifics to provide all of the characterization needed? Does it occasionally stumble into the realm of cliché? While you’re at it, why not embrace the chance to embrace the Author! Author! tradition of trying to figure out what editorial tweaks could improve the story?

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer have been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plasters the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erect a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently do not, poor Curly frequently thrusts himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrain themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

One small pink-clad screamer simply would not leave the animals alone, however. She kicked at the metal fencing, screaming words I was a surprised a kindergartener would be able to use correctly in a sentence, or, indeed, incorporate into her everyday vocabulary without getting expelled. When she picked up a rock, I wandered over to the fence to distract her with a hastily-constructed fairy tale about our barnyard friends. And camels.

Almost immediately, a bulbous man in shorts and a t-shirt materialized by my side. Despite ambient cold that left our breath visible, his exposed arms and legs were not even goose-bumped. “Come over here,” he barked at the little girl, dragging her along the fence until they were directly in front of Curly.

Was he going to make her apologize to the camel? Curly did not seem to be expecting it, but perhaps his furry friends would appreciate the gesture.

Releasing the quivering child, the man — whose clothing, I noticed, was emblazoned with advertisements for a local band and Nike, respectively, not the nursery — reached up and over the chain-link fence, snapping his fingers. Placidly, Curly dipped his head, extending his hyper-mobile lips toward the hand.

Curious to hear what happened next, aren’t you? That’s a good indicator that a scene is paced well. See how selecting those details carefully, as well as not over-burdening the text with explanations, can increase suspense while simultaneously moving the plot along?

So why, I ask you, would our old pal Millicent, have stopped reading part-way through paragraph #3? Because, I assure you, most would have: one of her most notorious pet peeves has reared its ugly head here.

If you pointed out that the narration switched tenses between the second and third paragraphs, congratulations! Paragraphs Nos. 1 and 2 are in the present tense; paragraph #3 is in the past.

Submissions and contest entries do that all the time; so do, believe it or not, descriptive paragraphs in query letters. Sometimes, they even switch back to the original tense later in the text, or vacillate from sentence to sentence.

Already, I can spot some raised hands out there. “But Anne,” adherents of variable tenses point out, and with some reason, “Paragraphs #1 and #2 describe ongoing conditions, while paragraph #3 on focuses upon one-time events. Doesn’t that mean that the tense choices here are appropriate, or at least defensible?”

Good question, lovers of the present tense. Professional readers — agents, editors, contest judges, writing teachers, etc. — are trained to spot redundancies in a manuscript. They’re also taught to leap upon inconsistencies.

In other words, Millicent is likely to assume that the change of tense is not the result of well thought-out authorial choice, but simply a mistake that did not get caught in the proofreading process — or, if this were a descriptive paragraph in a query, the after-effects of an incomplete merger of two different versions, one in the present tense and one in the past.

Why might that make her stop reading altogether? Like other commonly-made errors, the tense inconsistency may well jar her out of the flow of the story. Next!

You habitual tense-switchers are not particularly happy with that answer, are you? “Okay, so she’s detail-oriented, but this isn’t a writing mistake; this is a stylistic choice. So why would Millicent be annoyed by it?”

On its face, your logic is pretty sound, tense-switchers: it would indeed be possible, within the context of a civil conversation between author and reader, to justify the tense choices in the example above. A writer might ostensibly win an argument with, say, a writing teacher, critique group, or even an editor about keeping the switch in the text. But that doesn’t mean it would be a good idea to submit pages with tense inconsistencies to Millicent — or to her aunt Mehitabel the contest judge, for that matter.

Why, you ask? Long-time readers of this blog, chant it with me now: because the writer is seldom present when an agency screener, editorial assistant, or contest judge encounters his manuscript for the first time. Successful manuscripts, queries, synopses, and contest entries are thus those that do not require additional verbal explanation.

So even if the writer is technically correct, if a tense switch seems unjustified to Millicent — if it appears to be, say, an incomplete revision between a manuscript originally in the present tense and a subsequent draft in the past, or vice-versa — that’s usually the ball game. So why risk it? Especially when, as in this case, making the tense consistent does not detract at all from either the meaning or the voice of the section. Lookee:

Curly the camel, Moe the donkey, and, to mix Christmas traditions as thoroughly as possible, Donner the reindeer had been on tour together, strip mall manger scene after strip mall manger scene, since they were just small, furry refugees from the petting zoo where they were born. Despite their years of entertainment experience, my local nursery — plants, not animals — plastered the six-foot wire fence around their enclosure with warnings to wreath-buying patrons about keeping their fingers, gloves, hat pom-poms, scarf tassels, and bundled-up infants away from Curly’s long reach, Moe’s strong teeth, and Donner’s oddly-shaped antlers.

They also, somewhat less emphatically, erected a sign informing dog-owners that crèche livestock are not, to put it mildly, best friends with man’s best friend. Since dogs cannot, unfortunately, read and many leash-tugging owners apparently would not, poor Curly frequently thrust himself between some yapping visitor and his hoofed friends. Nearby, nursery personnel visibly restrained themselves from shouting, “Hey, can’t you read?”

On the whole, though, human behavior seemed to leave the trio unfazed. Scores of children flung hay at them, bellowing, “Hey, Reindeer!” — or “Hey, Dog,” from those who had never seen a miniature donkey before or were confused by the ambient barking. The trio just stood there, blinking slowly, eyes glazed. Most of the time, the parents would intervene before the children grew too frustrated with their passivity and rushed the pens.

That’s as painless a revision as you’re ever likely to encounter, folks, by see how big a difference it makes to the text? All it requires is a good proofreading eye and a willingness to view the story from Millicent’s perspective, not the writer’s. (The latter, after all, is already familiar with the storyline.) And need I even add that this variety of inconsistency is easiest to catch if one reads one’s submission or contest entry IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD?

I thought not. Let’s move on with the story, to see if we can catch any other Millicent-displeasers.

Delicately, politely, as if he were extracting an egg from beneath a mother hen, Curly took the man’s fingers into his gargantuan mouth. The hand did not budge. The camel paused meditatively for a few seconds, tasting, then sucked the hand into his mouth up to the elbow, dragging the man up to his tiptoes.

Instinctively, I took a step toward the child. If the object lesson about the dangers of violating animals’ personal space was about to go horribly awry, the least I could do was shield her from seeing the bloody denouement.

The man waved me back with his free hand. “See, Tanya?” he told the saucer-eyed girl. “They like people. If you treat them nicely, they’ll treat you nicely.”

“That’s right, sweetie,” a stringy-haired woman called from the nearby wreath display. “Be nice to the animals, and they’ll never hurt you.”

“You just have to learn what they like.” A helpful bystander kicked a tall crate toward the man’s feet, so he could follow his arm skyward. “Camels love sucking on things.”

Mentally, I began taking notes, in preparation for my inevitable testimony in a court of law. “I think she’s got the point. Maybe it’s time to back off now?”

Okay, what’s the problem this time? Hint: it’s even harder to catch than the last.

No? What about all of that redundancy in the dialogue?

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “But Anne,” several exclaim, “that’s how people talk in real life! You’re not gearing up to tell us that Millicent finds realistic dialogue annoying, are you?”

Um, sort of. At least the parts of real-life speech that are redundant. Or not germane to what’s going on. Or just plain boring.

Which is to say, as any close listener to everyday speech would happily tell you, most of it.

Oh, how often writers forget that real-life dialogue generally does not reproduce well on the page! If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard a writer say, “But s/he really said that!” or “But that’s what people really sound like!” I would buy my own Caribbean island and send my entire readers on free writing retreats.

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “isn’t that pretty self-evident? Just as absolutely faithful recreations of real-life events often don’t translate well into fiction, neither does most dialogue. Am I missing an additional nuance here?”

Perhaps one: aspiring writers are also apt to forget that real-life dialogue is seldom character-revealing — and thus reproducing it in a manuscript will often not convey as much about a character as we sometimes expect. Take, for instance, the oh-so-common writerly habit of placing the speeches of an annoying co-worker, relative, ex-lover, nasty dental receptionist, etc. into fictional mouth of a minor novel character as a passive-aggressive form of revenge.

Come on, every writer’s at least thought about it. To a professional reader, the very plausibility of this type dialogue often labels it as lifted from real life:

“Oh, wait a minute, Sarah.” Pausing in mid-gossip, Theresa picked up the overturned plastic cup before anyone else could step on it, placing it neatly on the dining hall checker’s desk.

Dina the checker glared at it as if it was covered in baboon’s spit. “Don’t you dare leave your trash on my desk. Do you think I have nothing to do but clean up your messes?”

“It was on the floor,” Theresa stammered awkwardly.

“Don’t you give me your excuses.” Dina grew large in her seat, like a bullfrog about to emit a great big ribbet. “You walk that right over to the trash can. Now, missy.”

“I thought you had dropped it.”


“I’ll save you a seat,” Sarah offered, embarrassed.

Inwardly seething and repenting of her Good Samaritanism, Theresa obediently gave up her place in the block-long lunch line in order to take the walk of shame to the garbage receptacles on the far end of the dining hall. How quickly a good mood could evaporate!

Tell me: what about this scene would tip off Millicent that this really happened, and that Dina is a character, if not from Christmas Past, at least ripped from the writer’s actual experience? And why would her being able to tell this be a liability? Why, in fact, would Millicent be surprised if Dina never showed later in the book any side other than the touchy one displayed here — or, indeed, if she never appeared again?

Actually, that was a set of trick questions. The answer to each part is the same: because the narrative doesn’t provide enough motivation for the intensity of Dina’s response. Fairly clearly, the writer doesn’t think that any such explanation is necessary.

That’s usually an indication that the writer has a fully-formed mental image (negative, in this case) of the villain in question — something that Millicent, by definition, would not walk into the scene possessing. Nor would any other reader who was neither there when the incident occurred nor had heard the author complain vociferously about it.

In other words, what we have here is a rather subtle manifestation of the telling, rather than showing phenomenon. Because the writer experienced this exchange as nasty because Dina was nasty, she has assumed that the reader will perceive it that way as well. But without more character development for Dina — or indeed, some indication of whether this kind of insistence was typical for her — the reader isn’t really getting enough information to draw that conclusion.

Or any other, for that matter. It’s just an anecdote. Yet most self-editing writers, especially those who happen to be writing memoir, wouldn’t notice this narrative lack. Any guesses why?

If you immediately shouted that it was due to the fact that his memory of Dina the real person is so strong, help yourself to four peppermint cookies from the holiday table. In the writer’s mind, her character is so well established that he can just write about her, rather than helping the reader get to know her.

The other tip-off that this was a real exchange is that Theresa is presented as a completely innocent victim of an unprovoked attack. The pure villain vs. completely blameless protagonist is a dead giveaway that dear self is concerned.

And yes, I WAS darned annoyed when Dina — in real life, a very nice woman named Ellen who happened to be having a spectacularly bad day — misinterpreted my act of good citizenship. If I crave well-deserved vindication from the total strangers who might conceivably read this story, however, it’s incumbent upon me to do quite a bit more character development. Not to mention integrating the incident into the storyline well enough that it’s actually interesting to read.

Of course, we want to be true-to-life in our dialogue: as Virginia Woolf tells us, “fiction must stick to the facts, and the truer the facts, the better the fiction.” But let’s not forget that in order to maintain a reader’s interest, a book has to have entertainment value, too — and that however amusing a verbal tic might be in person, repetition is often annoying in on the page.

This is especially true when a character is tired, angry, or in pain, I notice: all of a sudden, the dialogue sounds as though all of the characters are trapped in one of those interminable Samuel Beckett plays where the people are doomed to move immense piles of sand from one end of the stage to the other with teaspoons. See if this dialogue sounds familiar, theatre-goers:

A: “Oh. You’re home.”

B: (nursing the thumb the elephant trod upon in the last scene) “Yeah.”

A: “Have a nice day?”

B: “Um-hm.”

A: “I was cleaning out the attic today, and I came across that picnic blanket we used when we went out to Goat’s Rock Beach to scatter Father’s ashes. How it rained that day, and then the sun broke out as if Father and God had joined forces to drag the clouds aside to smile upon our picnic.”

B: “Yeah. “

A: “Ham sound good for dinner?”

B: “Yeah.”

A good third of the dialogue Millicent sees runs approximately like this, I tremble to report. Understand now why she might become just a tad touchy at the sight of dialogue that provides neither character development nor moves the plot along?

As a general rule of thumb — sore or otherwise — I like to flag any piece of dialogue that contains more than one use of yeah, really, yes, no, uh-huh, or, often, um. Almost invariably, these are an indication that the dialogue could either be tightened considerably or needs to be pepped up.

Similarly, anyway and however in dialogue are pretty reliable flares, indicating that the speaker has gotten off-topic and is trying to regain his point — thus warning the manuscript reviser that perhaps this dialogue could be tightened so that it stays ON point.

My fictional characters tend to be chatty (dialogue is action, right?), and I was once taken to task for it by a fairly well-known author of short stories. She had just managed to crank out her first novella — 48 pages typeset, so possibly 70 in standard manuscript format — so perhaps unsurprisingly, she found my style a trifle generous with words.

“Only show the dialogue that is absolutely necessary,” she advised me, “and is character-revealing.”

Hard to argue with that, eh? Yet, like most writers receiving critical feedback, I fought it at first. Since the dialogue in my advisor’s published works has seldom, if ever, strayed beyond three lines, regardless of situation or character, I was not particularly inclined to heed this advice — have you noticed how often it’s true that established writers with little or no teaching background spout aphorisms that all boil down to write as I do? — but I have to say, it has been useful in editing, both for others’ work and my own.

I can even derive an axiom of my own from it: if a person said it in real life, think twice before including it. If it isn’t either inherently interesting, plot-advancing, or character-revealing, does it really need to be there?

One more insight, then I’ll let you get back to your relatives: you’ve been having just a little trouble paying attention to my arguments, haven’t you? I’m betting that some substantial part of your mind has been distracted, wondering what happened to the arm in the camel’s mouth.

That, my friends, is how Millicent — and most other readers, professional and non-pro alike — feels when an interesting one- or two-paragraph teaser, the kind that aspiring writers so love placing within italics at the beginning of their manuscripts, gives way to an apparently or only tangentially unrelated second scene. Yes, we see it in published books all the time, but in a submission, it’s a risky strategy.

“Hey!” Millicent cries, spitting out her mouthful of scalding latte, “what happened to that darn interesting plot I’d gotten absorbed in? What’s this writer trying to do, hook me with something exciting, then drop me into a comparatively mundane storyline?”

Let’s be honest, folks: that’s precisely what most writers who use this trick are trying to do. Professional readers are wise to it by now.

Remember, part of being a good storyteller involves knowing when to relieve the suspense — and frankly, in the case of my camel story, Alfred Hitchcock himself would have chosen to do so by now. Ahem:

“Give me a boost,” the man asked calmly, but his eyes were beaming panic over his daughter’s head. Curly’s lips were exploring the first few inches of his t-shirt sleeve.

Since his arm appeared to be on the verge of being ripped off at the shoulder, the crate-kicker and I hastily complied. With his uneaten hand, he began tickling the camel’s lips, rubbing the gums as if he were a mammalian dentist. Curly face elongated, as though he were going to sneeze. A loud pop, a slurp, and the man’s arm returned to the land of the living.

He strutted his way down from the crate. “See?” he told the girl. “If you know what you’re doing, they won’t hurt you.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she whispered, staring aghast at his friction-reddened arm, manifestly resolving never to have anything whatsoever to do with an animal larger than herself again.

The moral, if I may venture one: just because something seems like a good idea at first blush doesn’t mean that it’s worth stubbornly adhering to it. One of the keys to successful self-editing is flexibility.

That, and keeping any parts of your body involved in typing out of animals’ mouths. Happy holidays, everybody, and keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) One entry per writer, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

famous name query

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

referral query

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

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

missent referral query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

That’s right: “NEXT!”

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

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

who the heck query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words: do your homework.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

mediocre query

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

nearly good query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, the epithet at the end of that thought is usually quite a bit harsher, but this is a family-friendly site.

As I mentioned in passing earlier in this series, fiction novel is not the only phrase likely to provoke this reaction. So is true memoir. Or, perversely, sci-fi novel instead of science fiction novel.

Why the last one? Literary history, my dears: science fiction and fantasy had a hard time getting taken seriously as literature. That prejudice extends practically to this very moment: the first science fiction author to be included in the prestigious Library of America series was my old friend Philip K. Dick.

In 2007, more than 25 years after his death.

The literary world’s slowness to embrace one of the great literary genres frequently used to take the form of insults aimed at SF writers. As late as the early 1980s, literary-voiced science fiction and fantasy was still routinely being dismissed in mainstream literary circles as just sci-fi. As in, “Oh, I never read sci-fi; that’s kid’s stuff.”

Historically, then, it’s been a matter of respect to refer to the category either by its full name, science fiction, or SF. So from the perspective of a Millicent who works at a science fiction-representing agency, an aspiring writer who refers to his own writing as a sci-fi novel clearly hasn’t done his homework about his own chosen book category.

Competent did do something clever, though: for an agent whom one has not had the opportunity to hear speak at a conference, read an article or blog authored by, or come up with some other excuse for picking him out of an agents’ guide, bringing up a current client’s most recent publication is a dandy justification. As a bonus, up-to-date client lists are almost always readily available on agency websites.

I just mention that for the benefit of those of you who might not have time to do much homework.

Let’s face it, these days, many, not most, aspiring writers decide whom to query not through extensive market research about who is selling what in their chosen book categories, but by plugging a book category into a search engine and sending a query to the first name that it spits out. Or first 25 names. Or, in some cases, all of ‘em.

I’ve already spoken enough about the advantages of personalizing one’s query to match each individual agent’s expressed preferences, literary tastes, and sales track record that I shall not take up blog space today by commenting again upon the strategic wisdom of this method of query list generation. Suffice it to say that I hope those of you who have followed Querypalooza from the beginning looked at that paragraph above and immediately muttered, “Wow, 25 agents. That’s going to be days of background research,” rather than, “There’s a search engine that would spit out more than 25 names for my list? Great — I’ll send out another 50 generic queries tomorrow.”

Normally, I would take issue with that last statement, energetically pointing out the many potential pitfalls into which a one-size-fits-all querying strategy is likely to lead a writer who — chant it with me now — hasn’t done his homework. But it’s getting late, and I’d like to talk about another example or two before I sign off for the night.

Besides, you’re intelligent people: you already have the tools to analyze the qualitative difference between a generic query and a well-personalized one yourself. Compare the following, for instance, with the last two examples above. All were sent to the same agent, and all of the queriers had access, via the Internet, to precisely the same information about her.

good query2

Notice anything as you cast your eyes over those three letters? Perhaps that what elevated the last two’s opening paragraphs was a single reference each to work the agent had done in the past? Just how long do you think it took either of those writers to dig up those tidbits on the agency website?

Word to the wise: the amount of homework required to personalize an already-solid draft query is not particularly extensive. Nor is the imperative to check each agency’s website or guide listing for specialized submission instructions especially onerous. It honestly is worth every second it takes.

Bearing all of that in mind, let’s take another peek at today’s first example, poor old Meanswell’s overstuffed missive, with an eye to giving him some much-needed advice on how to present that book better on the query page.

Did you catch more problems this time around? Beginning at the top of the page, the letter is undated; it’s in a wacky typeface (and a large one at that); the salutation is too familiar (unless Meanswell had actually met Aiden before, s/he should have stuck with the formal and safer Dear Mr. Authors); the query doesn’t mention what kind of book it is (indeed, Millicent would not learn that the protagonist is a fifth grader until well into the plot summary); there’s no indication of why Meanswell is approaching Aiden; the plot summary is far too long, and so is the query. Heck, it isn’t even clear, except from the Jupiter element, whether the book is fiction or nonfiction.

If you were Millicent, would you be willing to take the time to make sense of this?

As if all of that weren’t enough, there are another couple of extremely common faux pas here. Care to guess?

If you flung your hand to the skies and shouted, “I know! Since an agent will expect a potential client to have written the novel manuscript in question in its entirety before even thinking about querying, Meanswell’s mentioning that the manuscript is completed is unnecessary,” award yourself a second gold star for the day. Although this phrasing appears in a startlingly high percentage of the query templates floating around out there, including this information implies ignorance about how fiction is sold in this country.

If you also muttered under your breath, “Well, in Meanswell’s shoes, I wouldn’t have mentioned the word count at all, given how long the book is,” help yourself to another gold star out of petty cash. Although acceptable word counts do vary from book category to book category, in most fiction-representing agencies, the Millicents are trained to regard anything over 100,000 words as too long to sell readily. All Meanswell has really done by mentioning the length of the manuscript is to provide Millie with a reason to reject it unread.

“Wait just a knee-jerk rejecting minute!” template-lovers across the Internet point out. “What do you mean, s/he should have left it out? I’ve seen plenty of how-tos that insist that word count is an essential part of the query!”

Would you throw the nearest portable object at me if I pointed out that this belief can only be the result of insufficient homework-doing? Yes, there are a few agencies out there that do ask point-blank for word count in queries — the better to reject the overly-long, my dears — but it’s far from a universal request. Since it can only work to a novelist’s disadvantage to include word count (trust me, Millicent is not going to clap her hands and exclaim, “Oh, goody, it’s only 85,450 words!”), why include it in queries to agencies whose submission guidelines don’t request it?

Let me answer that one for you, homework-avoiders: the only plausible reason to do it is if you believe that all agencies want to see exactly the same things in their queries. Anything called a query must refer to precisely the same thing, right?

Of course not. Even a quick glance at fifteen or twenty sets of agency guidelines — or a rapid flip through one of the standard agency guides — will demonstrate not only that different agencies routinely ask for different information to be included in queries, but that the expectation that word count will be mentioned at all is a relative rarity.

I leave it to your fertile imaginations to figure out why, under these circumstances, there are so many templates and how-tos out there that call for word count. While your creative wheels are spinning, however, let’s take a look at how Meanswell might have approached Aiden in a manner that makes it plain not only that the book is interesting, but that its writer has done his/her homework:

“Hey, no fair, Anne!” the sharper-eyed among you protest. “When I read Meanswell’s first version, I had no idea s/he had such good credentials for writing this book.”

Exactly — and neither did Millicent. Whose fault was that?

After all, you can’t reasonably expect her to guess the context in which you wrote your book, right? Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XVII: please don’t skip this one if you’re not querying memoir, or, the Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife


As those of you intrepid souls who followed Pitchingpalooza may recall, last summer, I stumbled upon perhaps the worst salesman it has ever been my pleasure to encounter, a carpet and linoleum purveyor subsequently known chez Mini as Duh, Obviously the Owner’s Ne’er-do-well Nephew. DOONN for short. I believe he thought we were calling him Don.

Don wasn’t bad at his job in any of the usual senses: he was not ignorant of the theory or practice of floor covering, nor did he appear to be unconversant with the means by which a consumer might conceivably purchase same in an ideal world. His particular gift lay in the direction of implying that it would be a monumental, epoch-shattering mistake for me — or anyone else, for that matter — to buy Marmoleum from his shop. Or from another emporium.

Or, indeed, at all. It wasn’t his place to tell me what to do, his every facial expression and gesture proclaimed, but surely, my mother could not be aware that I hung out in places like this.

Be it carpeting, laminate, vinyl, or tile, he was equally determined to let slip nothing positive. The Spanish Inquisition had more upbeat overall messaging. Should blackening his click-together cork tiles’ good name prove insufficiently repellent to customers, he would move swiftly on to actively smothering the decision-making process with a cunning combination of dissuasive patter about how difficult flooring was to replace and a smiling resistance to providing specifics about the products he sold.

Like, say, the colors in which it might be available, should anyone be foolish enough to tempt the fates by purchasing it.

If there was one thing he hated, it was customers walking through the door. He managed to convey, not once but perpetually, that while he might have been an affable guy had we met him at, say, a picnic, he was rapidly reaching the end of his rope with all of us pests traipsing into his store and expecting him to evince some interest in getting our floors covered. If only he were left alone, he might just get some work done.

Yet I had it on pretty good authority that the shop did in fact sell floor coverings; indeed, judging from the storeroom, it sold nothing else. Not wishing to draw any untoward conclusions from this, I sought out a second opinion. Sure enough, at the store’s other branch, Don’s presumptive uncle’s hard-sell techniques strongly implied that the company wasn’t just a front for some illicit, non-flooring-related activity, nor did shooing customers out the door appear to be company-wide policy. Indeed, Unc proved only too eager to brew up a pot of coffee, pull up a few chairs, and commiserate for an hour on how a shrinking economy has caused the range of non-carpet flooring options out there to dwindle to a mostly unremarkable few — but would we like to see a few samples?

Seriously, what happened to the funky linoleums of yesteryear? Is some unholy conspiracy determined to limit our citizenry to walking upon floor surfaces in hues ranging only from sand to dirt to mud? And why in heaven’s name is such a high percentage of commercially-available carpeting some shade of taupe?

When Unc sent me back to Don, over my rather vehement objections, to peruse a sample book concealed for some reason best known to themselves in a locked drawer in the latter’s desk, these questions seemed only to strain our already tenuous détente. “Maybe it’s not the right time to replace your floors,” he suggested.

There was a touch of genius to his sales avoidance. He didn’t just try to talk me out of considering Tarkett tiles, for instance; he generously invested five full minutes in explaining precisely how arduous they would be to order, how unsure he was that the samples he had were representative of what the company had to offer these days, and how only a color-blind idiot would find what he had in stock neither ugly nor uninteresting. (He had a point there.) On the off chance I might still be harboring some residual desire to purchase, he told a highly unsavory anecdote about how his former Tarkett representative had been summarily fired so, he claimed, her employers would not have to pay her back commissions.

A lesser man might not have shared the actual disputed dollar amount or the gripping details of the subsequent court case, but Don was made of sterner stuff — unlike, apparently, any floor covering he could recommend. (“You’ll only have to replace it eventually,” he warned.) By the end of his tirade, he not only had impressed upon me that he didn’t particularly wish to sell any Tarkett on moral grounds; he made me feel that I was a sorry excuse for a human being for ever having considered buying it.

I’m ashamed to say that I would have, too. If only they still made the pattern I liked.

He was well into a searing indictment of bamboo hardwoods and the madmen who hawk them before he noticed it was almost closing time. His passion for explaining that he didn’t like to start an invoice within half an hour of the end of the day so absorbed him that he barely put any energy at all into brushing off the poor soul who rushed into the store on a fool’s errand seeking some carpeting for his daughter’s bedroom.

Don sent the guy scurrying into a dimly-lit corner of the warehouse without a flashlight. “Don’t panic if you see anything crawling around over there,” Don shouted after him. He settled onto his stool again. “Not that he’ll find anything the kid will like; girls have weird tastes. Now, what were we talking about?”

Midway through his blistering exposé of vinyl laminate and all of its disreputable relatives, I waved a few samples of Marmoleum in front of his face. “Would you think too badly of me,” I inquired meekly, “if I took these home to see how they might look next to the kitchen cabinets?”

He snorted. “If you don’t mind giving business to foreigners.” Then, evidently suspecting that he might have gone a trifle too far, he added, “I do have one of the best installers in the Pacific Northwest for that, though. I think he’s still on work release…”

Why bring up good ol’ Don at this juncture in Queryfest, you ask? Because even after I had written up my own sales slip, forced a deposit upon him, and made my way past the stacks and rolls of flooring that for reasons best known to the Almighty had not yet been snapped up by an eager consumer, I had not left behind his peculiar style of promoting what he had to sell. I see this type of salesmanship all the time in query letters.

That made some of you do a double-take, didn’t it? Yet it’s true — and I’d like to devote today’s post to examining why.

The answer’s not as simple as many queriers not understanding how to present their books well, or even, as we discussed last time, their not having a firm grasp upon what the essential elements of a query are or why each is necessary to include. As often as not, it’s a matter of attitude.

How so? Well, take a gander at virtually any online forum where aspiring writers discuss the vagaries of querying: a lot of queriers are darned annoyed that they have to do it at all. Or at the very least, that the primary purpose of agencies is not to ferret out exciting new stories and voices.

You’ll wrench your neck if you keep doing double-takes like that. Is it really all that surprising that agencies are not non-profits devoted to the advancement of American literature, but businesses engaged mostly in the profit-seeking endeavor of trying to sell their already-established client lists’ manuscripts? It’s not as though going through those thousands of queries per year actually makes any money for the agency, after all: reputable agencies’ income comes only from commissions on their clients’ books.

But you’d never know that from listening to most aspiring writers talk about the querying process. As an inveterate teacher of the fine but widely-misunderstood arts of querying, pitching, and book proposal-writing, I often find myself confronted by those who, to put it mildly, are not pleased to learn that in the current literary market, catching an agent’s eye is not particularly simple or fun.

“What do you mean, I have to figure out before I approach an agent who will want to read my book and why?” they fume, generally in tones that invite me to say that I was just kidding about all of the hoops through which they were going to have to jump. “I’m a writer, not a marketer; my publisher will have a department to handle all of that. Besides, if the industry were really set up to find the best new writing, none of this marketing stuff would matter. I would be judged by my writing, and that would be that.”

Intuitively, I can see how this kind of logic would make sense to a writer new to the game: once you write the book, the hard part should be over, right? But in practice, writing a good manuscript is only the first step on the long, twisty road to publication.

Oh, stop groaning: it could hardly be otherwise, as the publishing world now operates. Major U.S. publishing houses don’t accept unsolicited manuscripts or book proposals for adult books from unagented writers — you were already aware of that, right, if you have been reading up on querying strategies? — and as a direct result, reputable agencies are approached by far too many aspiring writers for reading unsolicited manuscripts to be feasible. In order to sift through the hundreds of thousands of book ideas tossed at them yearly, agencies have had to establish ground rules like before we will read so much as a syllable of your manuscript or proposal, you must ask permission to send it, queries must not exceed one page, and yes, we mean that last one that even if your plot is so complex that Noah Webster himself would despair of describing it in less than 17 pages.

The fact that the overwhelming majority of aspiring writers resent the necessity of following such directives — as well as any specific instructions listed on the agency’s website, of course — is not precisely news to the fine folks who read queries for a living. Queriers may not think they are being obvious about it, but you would be astonished how often contempt of the querying process fairly drips from the page. Take, for instance, a missive like this:

Don’t see what’s wrong with this as a persuasive document? If so, you’re certainly not alone: to many queriers, this artless missive might well appear to be a cry for help. Indeed, it was probably intended that way: poor Dee is probably not so much hostile as worn out from appealing time after time to agents that don’t seem to want to hear about her book.

To Millicent the agency screener, however, who sees queries like this literally every day — every weekday, at least, and especially on Monday mornings, if her agency accepts e-mail queries — Dee’s possibly well-justified lament would appear to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

How so? Well, I could dwell on all of the technical reasons this query would be depressingly easy for Millicent to reject on sight. It’s not at all clear why Dee has chosen to approach this agent, for instance, as opposed to every other currently milling about the greater New York metropolitan area. It’s not at all clear who the target audience is for this book, or why they would be drawn to this story. And while we’re at it, what is this book about?

Oh, and 248,000 words is about two and a half times the norm for first memoir. 75,000 -100,000 would be much more in the expected ballpark, but since the overwhelming majority of memoirs are sold via book proposals, rather than as full manuscripts, why is our pal Dee mentioning the length of the current draft at all?

Honestly, though, most of this is a moot point, as our Millie is unlikely to make it past that first paragraph — and can you blame her? Within three short lines of text, Dee manages to hit # standard screeners’ pet peeves: she reviews her own writing, implies that the reason she has not yet been successful is that there is something wrong with the publishing industry, and questions the agent’s intelligence. Perhaps most jaw-dropping to someone whose job it is to thin the competition to the scant few her boss has time to read, Dee tells Millicent that many other agents have already rejected similar queries.

“Gee,” Millicent mutters, reaching for that stack of form-letter rejections that’s never far from her elbow, “I can’t imagine why. Most of us just love being berated for not wanting to read more than a page of this kind of passive-aggression. Clearly, if we allowed ten-page queries, this writer would complain about that, too.”

Fair? Perhaps not, from Dee’s point of view: she was, after all, merely expressing some frustration. But she did it at the wrong person, and in the wrong venue, to do herself or her book any practical good.

She was, in short, talking Millicent out of taking a serious look at that Marmoleum. A pity, really, because for all we know, that particular type of flooring was precisely what Millie’s boss, the agent of Dee’s dreams, was looking to snap up.

By contrast, let’s take a gander at a solid query for an interesting-sounding memoir — and while the photos above have already gotten those of you old experienced TV-savvy enough to be familiar with the old Andy Griffith show to contemplate the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife, let’s go ahead and reincarnate him as an agent who represents spiritual growth memoirs. (Hey, it’s been a long, long series — colorful fantasies are very helpful to keeping myself alert.)

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements — book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off. It even includes a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis, so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query. (If the agency’s submission guidelines asked for a query and she doesn’t see it, she’s likely to reject the whole packet on general principle. Remember, one of the purposes of posting those guidelines on the agency website is to see if prospective clients can follow directions.)

Ataraxia’s query also — and it’s astonishing how few queriers think to try something along these lines — told the agent what she was hoping he could do for her: I am seeking an agent both spiritually-aware and market-savvy. While establishing standards on the writer’s side may seem at first blush a trifle pushy, Ataraxia is merely alerting Barney to the fact that she has actually given some thought to what she does and doesn’t want in an agent.

Why is this a sign of professionalism in a query? Long-time readers, chant it along with me now: a savvy writer does not want to land just any agent; she knows her work will be best off in the hands of the right agent, someone who loves her writing, is genuinely interested in her subject matter, and already has the connections to get her books under the right editorial noses to get it published.

That’s a far cry from the usual I just want to land an agent, any agent, so you’ll do — I’m desperate! tone of Dee’s query, isn’t it Ataraxia is approaching Barney as a serious writer with an interesting book project — why shouldn’t she be as selective as he is?

She also did something rather clever here, to compensate for including extra information. Anybody notice what it was?

If you immediately shouted, “She eliminated the lines previous examples had skipped between paragraphs, as well as some lines at the top that were not strictly necessary to correspondence format!” take a gold star out of petty cash. While that extra space is aesthetically pleasing, it’s not strictly required.

Snag two more stars for yourself if you also sang out, “She omitted mention of the SASE!” While it’s a good idea to mention the SASE tucked inside the envelope — hey, Millicent’s in a hurry; she has a lot of queries to scan in any given morning — it’s not indispensable. Wisely, Ataraxia decided that it was more important to include an extra line or two about her story than to make it plain to our Millie that she had followed the rules.

She did, however, make room to mention the synopsis — an excellent idea, even if the agency’s submission guidelines specifically insisted that queriers include one. It underscores that the writer has taken the time to learn the individual agent’s preferences and is trying her level best to meet expectations.

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Again, part of the point of this exercise is to show that you can follow directions. Another means of showing off your virtues in that direction: use the old-fashioned enclosures notation.

good memoir query 2

As you may have noticed, this variant takes up more room on the page than mentioning the same information in a single-line sentence; Ataraxia has had to trim down the body of the letter accordingly. But it gets the point across, doesn’t it?

Most importantly, both versions of this query make the memoir sound like a heck of a good story, as well as an unexpected one. Although the book description is a trifle on the lengthy side, it’s worth the page space — this memoir sounds both very marketable and like a hoot to read, doesn’t it?

Yes, it took up more room to describe the book, establish that there is a market for it, and talk about her credentials, but for a memoir, that’s a smart move: remember, no one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because it’s a true story; that’s the case, at least in theory, for every memoir ever written. It’s the memoirist’s job in the query to convince Millicent that the book has other selling points.

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, is not in and of itself likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy the book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing and/or e-mailing list as well.

Why wouldn’t that platform grab Millicent? Past publications would be nice, of course, but what is here is quite sufficient for the intended audience of this book.

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book. That’s why, in case any of you dedicated writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

Can you really blame them for wanting to know what the Marmoleum looks like before ordering some?

But that’s not how most writers hear references to platform, is it? The aspiring tend to react to it as a value judgment: why in the world would anyone be interested in YOUR book, nonentity? Not entirely coincidentally, their next thought tends to be well, the deck is stacked against me. Obviously, the only people who can get memoirs published these days are celebrities. I might as well give up.

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year.

How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does — and by making that case clearly in their query letters.

So please, don’t let yourself be discouraged by the common wisdom. Naturally, a celebrity’s platform is going to be more obvious at first glance than other people’s; equally naturally, a first-time book proposer with three master’s degrees in various aspects of the book’s subject matter will have an easier time convincing Millicent that she’s an expert than someone with fewer academic wall decorations.

But does that mean that these are the only types of memoirists with a platform? No, of course not. In order to produce a successful query, a memoirist needs to figure out who his target audience is, what his book offers them that similar books do not, and how he is going to inform them of that fact.

Note to those of you who just groaned, “But Anne, that’s precisely what I would have to do to write a book proposal!”: darned tootin’. For a nonfiction book, the query letter, synopsis, and proposal all share the same goal: to convince people in the publishing industry that you are uniquely qualified to tell an interesting story or make an important argument that readers already buying similar books are demonstrably eager to hear.

You just have more page space to prove those points in a synopsis or proposal. But to write any of them well, you need to ask yourself first: what is original about my book? Who needs to read it, and why?

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

I hope so, because the vast majority of memoir queries — and nonfiction queries in general — read as though the writer has never thought about these issues vis-à-vis his own book project. Or, if he has, he’s decided that if he even attempts to address them truthfully, no Millicent in her right mind would even consider reading his book proposal.

Often, the result is downright apologetic, even if the story is very compelling indeed. Let’s take a gander at how Ataraxia might have expressed herself had she been born Panicky, but grew up with precisely the same story and essentially the same credentials. Heck, let’s even retain the same descriptive paragraph:

memoir query panicky

Amazing what a difference just a slight shift in tone and confidence can make, isn’t it? Panicky enjoys exactly the same platform as Ataraxia — but because she has presented it so timorously, without the specific marketing details that made our earlier examples such grabbers, she comes across as substantially less qualified to write this book.

Yes, that’s completely unfair. But can you honestly blame Millicent for drawing such different conclusions about these two writers?

Incidentally, did you happen to notice the Freudian slip that just shouts how nervous Panicky is? In case you missed it:

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Panicky wants Millicent to read it, presumably, but she apparently can’t bring herself to make that request. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily, she’s heard; she doesn’t want to tread on any toes.

Just as the border between confident and arrogant can be murky at times, the line between polite and self-deprecating can be a narrow one. I’m quite positive that if asked, Panicky would insist that she was merely being courteous: she is grateful that an agent as well-established as Barney would even consider her book project; she has done her homework well enough to be aware of how busy he is likely to be.

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. The relevant statistics speak for themselves:

Thank yous: two direct (I’m sorry to take up your valuable time; ), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Apologies: two direct (Thank you so very much for taking the time even to consider my book; Thanks again), one indirect (I would be grateful)

Equivocations: one confidence wobble perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), four unsubstantiated marketing claims (food tourism one of the fastest-growing travel trends in the United States; Millions of Americans engage in food-related travel; Many of them are undoubtedly women traveling alone; I believe that my students would be very interested in my memoir.)

Suggestions that this would be a difficult book to sell and/or promote: two expressed authorial fears about appearing in public (While I fully realize that my current size may prove problematic for promoting this book on television; many cultures (including ours) regard a big woman as inherently flawed)

Implications that the agent wouldn’t — or even shouldn’t — be interested in the book: one prompt to disregard (perhaps you may be interested in my memoir), one implication that he couldn’t understand it (This might not occur to someone of so-called normal size, but it is actually…), one implication that it doesn’t matter very much whether he likes it or not (Whichever you decide, please have a nice day — and eat some yummy food!)

Quite a lot of dissuasion for a one-page letter ostensibly intended to convince ol’ Barney that this worthwhile book project, isn’t it? Don would be so pleased. The sad part is that most of it is totally unnecessary: as we saw in Ataraxia’s version, there’s no necessary trade-off between politeness and confident presentation.

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner. Even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

So, you are probably wondering, would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether the screener made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it?

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is — wait for it — to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work. A great way to kick off that brainstorming: familiarizing yourself with your target market. Not just who is in it, but what books have been aimed successfully at those readers within the past five years. Once you understand why readers are already buying books like yours, it should be easier to see which of those appealing characteristics your book shares.

Once you have come up with at least a couple of believable selling points, you can center your query on them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

Don’t tell me your book doesn’t have any selling points; I don’t believe it. Any book worth a good writer’s time to compose has strengths. So does everyone’s life history. It’s just a matter of matching the one or the other to your target audience’s needs in a manner that will make Millicent exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen this before! I really want to read this!”

Or, alternatively, “Wow, this is a book by {fill in celebrity here}; I wouldn’t have thought he could read, much less write. Well, I guess we should take a look at it, because he has a lot of fans.” That generally works pretty well, too.

Millie is not going to shout any of those things over your query, however, if your query leaves her in the dark about precisely how your book is unique. Not only will she probably not have the time or inclination to guess; she will wonder, and rightly, whether a writer apparently reluctant to market his own book to an agent will be equally resistant to helping promote the book once it is published.

Yes, that will be the publisher’s marketing department’s job, when the time comes. But if you do a bit of that book category research I suggested above, you may notice something about successful first books published within the last few years: their authors tend to have invested quite a bit of effort in promoting them.

Imagine how pleased their Barneys must be about that — and how, in turn, they might instruct their Millicents to keep their weary eyes peeled for new writers who might be equally energetic in selling their books.

This is no time to be hiding your Marmoleum samples under a bushel, people. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XVI: weaving together all of those disparate elements into a Millicent-pleasing whole, or, could we possibly see some practical examples, please?

West Seattle beach

“What?” those of you who have been following Queryfest lo! these many weeks cry in astonishment. “Another post on how to put together a query letter? Surely, by now, we’ve covered the basics?”

The basics, yes. The finesse, not entirely. Bear with me here.

As those of you stalwart souls who have been following this long, in-depth, and (my apologies) sporadically posted series are, I hope, acutely aware, it’s a matter of great astonishment to those of us who work with manuscripts for a living how often reasonable professional advice to aspiring writers (or, even more often, an agent’s offhand comment about a personal preference) becomes transformed through the magic of third-through-hundredth repetition into a purported Cosmic Law of Querying that bears only a faint familial resemblance to the original advice. Apparently, nowhere is the potent equation specific statement + word of mouth + time = distortion more operational than in the word-of-mouth paradise that is the aspiring writers’ community.

That has been true since Jane Austen’s time, certainly — the next time a long turn-around time on requested materials frustrates you, you might want to refresh your spirit by reading up on her publisher’s sitting on her first book for years on end, leaving her to guess why — but the speed and frequency with which sensible advice can mutate has risen astronomically in recent years. Not entirely surprising, when Internet searches are so gifted at ripping individual statements out of context, communications are so rapid — and far, far too many people believe, mistakenly, that if they saw something online, it must be true..

Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, a misconception can make it halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its boots on. And because of the astonishingly pervasive belief in the Internet Truth Fairy, the winsome pixie that flits from site to site, waving her magic wand over misstatements, misapprehensions, and outright lies and transforming them into the purest of driven truths, well-meaning writers all over the country — nay, the world — end up following advice not only at odds with the original advisor’s intention, but sometimes even diametrically opposed to it.

How does that happen, you ask, wide-eyed? Good question.

Do you recall how careful I was in my recent post on platform paragraph construction to assure all of you that the examples I was using were fictional, and thus should not be cited anywhere, anytime, as fact? Thought I was being a tad pedantic, didn’t you?

I had good reason: in last year’s foray into the mysteries of query-writing, I woke one drizzly Seattle a.m., to find an incoming link from the University of Bonn.

Why? Because my post the previous evening had contained the following totally made-up statement: Audrey Hepburn holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on atomic bombs.

Now, to the best of my knowledge, this is not historically true; I said in the post that it was not true. But did the web bot searching for the phrase University of Bonn trouble itself with fact-checking? Or with context?

The moral: Don’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Even if you read it here. Or heard someone say that they might have heard it here.

I hope I shan’t shatter anybody’s cherished illusions about the ITF, but there’s quite a bit of query-construction advice floating around out there on the Internet, and not all of it is particularly helpful. Partially, that’s a function of lack of term definition: just as standard format for book manuscripts and proper formatting for short stories differ in many ways (yes, really), yet few websites professing to tell writers how their work should appear on the page mention those important distinctions, a query to an agent seeking representation for a book, a query to a magazine to try to place an article, and a query to someone outside of the publishing industry would all call for different approaches.

Self-evident as soon as you hear it broken down that way, right? Each would require different information; the recipients would expect different styles. Even what would constitute a polite tone would vary, depending upon destination.

All of that screaming echoing out there in the ether is emitting, I presume, from the many, many aspiring writers out there who launched their efforts to get published by plugging query letter into a search engine and reading the top five results. Or the top fifty. As many of you have no doubt discovered to your chagrin, not only is every self-styled expert not recommending the same strategies; often, the advice is contradictory. And that tends to come as a big, nasty surprise to the legions of aspiring writers out there who believe, all practical evidence to the contrary, that the publishing riddle is so easy to crack that a one-minute Google search and ten minutes of reading will provide every scintilla of guidance necessary to land an agent.

Not to mention those who firmly cling to a belief in the ITF’s error-reducing wand.

To whom I say: please read with care, and never follow querying advice if you don’t completely understand how to implement it and how implementing it will help you. Be wary of any self-styled sure-fire boilerplates: in an industry devoted to celebrating individual authorial voices, aspiring writers are expected to come up with queries that don’t sound exactly like everyone else’s.

And don’t be afraid to ask follow-up questions. In these days of slashed budgets, even the best-intentioned fairy godmothers sometimes fall down on the job.

Case in point: earlier in these series, I wrote at length — yes, yes, I know: that qualifier doesn’t narrow it down much — about how narrative voice does and does not play a role in a strong query letter. Yet even as my much-beleaguered fingertips were typing a spirited defense of a narrative paragraph that tells the book’s story, rather then just discussing it the way one might in an English term paper, I found myself murmuring, “You know, I’ve been talking about each of the requisite elements of a query — as well as a couple that are merely helpful and stylish to include — as if they were building blocks: stack ‘em up, and you have yourself a query. I’m pretty sure that we’ve covered the constituent parts sufficiently, but have I given enough examples of how those parts fit together into a harmonious whole?”

Well might I mutter. Although the overall impression a careful reader might derive from Queryfest is a coherent whole, we’ve mostly been talking about individual parts, paragraphs, or even sentences, have we not? For those of you new to the querying process, I imagine it’s been sort of like my asking you to form a mental picture of a beach, not by flashing you the photograph at the top of this post, but by showing you the same space chopped up like this:

detail of West Seattle beachdetail 2detail3

It’s not that any of these close-ups are inaccurate, per se (although that last shot of the boulder has some perspective problems), but even viewed all together, they don’t give the full picture. This evening, I would like to rectify that by simply overwhelming you with examples of entire query letters.

Yes, in response to what half of you just shouted: I, a writer, am voluntarily going to sit down and write not only one query letter tonight, but several, back to back. And I’m not going to be driven insane by stress in the process. Heck, I’ll probably even enjoy it.

And the masses swoon. “How is this miracle possible?” you cry. “Is not querying a migraine-inducing, fingernail-gnawing, soul-sucking process by definition? How might a sane creative person run this gauntlet and emerge unscathed?”

Come closer, and I’ll let you in on a little professional writers’ secret: querying gets easier with practice. Once you get the hang of the logic behind it and learn to describe a book in professional terms, it actually isn’t all that hard.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, agents, editors, and even already-agented writers tend to give querying advice as if a show-stopping query were something any truly talented writer could toss off in 15 minutes flat. They’re not being insensitive to the difficulties facing the aspiring writer intimidated by the querying process; they’ve just forgotten what it’s like to do it for the first time. Or the incredible courage required for someone who knows nothing about such a letter other than the fact that he cannot land an agent without it to take pen in hand and even begin a draft, much less send it.

No, the fine folks who read these things for a living must, in self-defense, get inured to the difficulties. Given what a high percentage of even rather interesting-sounding queries Millicent must reject, she must come to accept the industry truism that a more polished, professional-looking query is a pretty good indicator of an aspiring writer who has been plugging away at if for a while.

Oh, you may groan, but there’s a reason they believe it: just as most submitters do not present their manuscripts in standard format the first time they send off requested materials, for the simple reason that they have not been hanging around the publishing world long enough to know that in the U.S., agents submit their clients’ work to editors in a specific format (which you will find laid out at length under the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right, should these repeated references be making you a bit nervous), most eventually successful queriers send out at least a few awkward, incomplete, or downright inadequate queries early in their drive to get published. There’s nothing like rejection, after all, to make a writer question whether his query is doing the job.

So to the pros, believe it or not, rejection doesn’t always represent a final refusal to consider a writer’s work; it can be a necessary and even helpful part of a good writer’s training.

Which is to say: query-writing gets easier with practice. At least it does if you understand what’s supposed to go into the darned thing.

Let’s recap what’s absolutely required in a query letter, and what merely advisable to mention. Here are the absolutely indispensable elements of a successful query letter. Without each and every one, rejection is more or less inevitable.

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

Stop kicking yourselves and wailing, those of you who realized that you have in the past sent out letters with one or more of these rudiments missing. Practically everyone does that at first; see comment above re: it getting easier with practice. Those dark days are behind you now.

What makes me so sure of that, you ask? Because you’re never going to forget to include each and every one of these essential bits of information in a query letter again, right?

Heck, you’re even going to get fancy and include some not -strictly-required elements that Millicent the agency screener generally enjoys seeing in a query:

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

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

You also know — and this is going to place you miles ahead of a startlingly broad swathe of the aspiring writer population — what all of these building blocks are supposed to look like once they’re assembled into a building. A little something like the following , to be precise (and my apologies in advance if the images here come out a trifle fuzzy; if they do, try enlarging them by holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + several times):

good query

See? A place for everything, and everything in its place.

But what happens if the various elements don’t appear more or less in the expected order, or if the tone is not professionally respectful? Great questions. Let’s take a peek at the same book with the same selling points, not presented nearly so well.

good query gone bad

I like to call this the Good Query Gone Bad. It contains all the basic elements (although not done very well); the querier has clearly given some thought to the market appeal of his book (but not presented the results very convincingly); the story itself sounds rather interesting (despite being poorly described). It is, in fact, what many aspiring writers confused by conflicting querying advice produce, the basic notes of the query strung together without getting the tune quite right.

“But isn’t that close enough?” thousands of you ask, tears welling up in your frustrated eyes. “This second letter is a trifle vague, perhaps, and rather pushy at the end, but Millicent couldn’t be in serious doubt regarding what this book is about, could she? Why wouldn’t she give it the benefit of the doubt?”

A pretty good reason, actually: in these days of shrinking agency support staffs, she and her boss cannot read every vaguely-described manuscript that might be interesting and well-written. And in the current literary environment, in which — correct me if I am wrong, long-time readers — thousands upon thousands of very talented writers have spent years upon years learning the ropes of writing a query letter, why wouldn’t she automatically prefer the first example over the second?

The book being presented is the same, but admit it: it sounds more interesting in the first query, does it not? Not to mention coming across as the work of a more experienced writer. If that’s not enough to sway you as you step reluctantly into Millicent’s shoes, consider: which writer would you expect to be more work for the agency to take on as a client, the first or the second?

Uh-huh. Remember, it’s not as though Millicent’s boss can afford to take on every promising writer who queries with an intriguing story: it’s rare that an established agent with an active client list takes on more than three or four new books per year. Considering that agent’s Millicent might easily screen somewhere between 800 and 1500 queries per week, can you really blame her for being exceptionally picky?

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “But Anne,” brow-knitters across the land protest, “even recognizing the exceedingly high level of competition at the querying stage — which, incidentally, strikes me as an unfairly high barrier for a new writer to be expected to hurdle — this second version looks okay to me. Not nearly as good as the first one, of course, but still, it does everything I’ve always heard a query needs to do. The tone may not be professional, but it’s hardly insulting, and you said yourself that the plot still sounds interesting. So mightn’t it get past a Millicent who happens to be in a good mood?”

Well, I suppose it might, furrowers — but do you have any idea how mood-deflating reading a hundred queries before lunch can be?

And this is one of the better ones. Also one of the more polite, believe it or not. Now do you want to risk taking your chances on Millie’s mood saving this one, Savvy?

You’re quite right, though, furrowers, that the tone problems here are subtle, so much so that someone who has never seen a professionally-phrased query letter before might not catch the difference. So let’s put some of those skills we all learned in our English classes to good use and do a solid, old-fashioned compare-and-contrast exercise, shall we?

I shall take that multi-part chorus of moans for a resounding affirmative. Let’s go through our list of required elements one by one, to see what a difference attitude and thoroughness make.

The book’s title: both include that in the first paragraph, check.

The book category: again, check, in both versions. But take a peek at how differently this information is conveyed:

Good example: Since you said that you were specifically looking for YA novels for horse-loving girls aged 10-12, I believe you may be interested in my middle-grade novel.

Gone Bad example: Since you said…you absolutely must read my first novel for middle-grade readers

Not nearly so specific, is it? Yes, middle-grade novel is a legitimate book category, but it’s awfully broad. By giving some indication of what sub-segment of the immense and complex middle-grade market the book is aimed, Savvy does a better job at presenting the book’s market niche.

And call me old fashioned, but I don’t approve of people asking favors giving orders: while I believe you may be interested in is polite speculation, you absolutely must read implies that the agent has no choice in the matter. From orders, Not-so-Savvy escalates by the end of the letter to threats:

Gone Bad example: Don’t let this one pass you by. You’ll be sorry if you do!

Excuse me? I’m quite positive that Not-so-Savvy’s mother, dear old white-haired Mrs. Writerly, cannot know that her offspring is communicating this way with strangers — and strangers he wants to help him, no less. It would break her long-suffering heart.

So let’s not tell her, okay? Or about that nasty little dig at the writers Mr. Championovich has represented in the past.

And what do you suppose is the point of Not-so-Savvy’s going out of his way to mention that this is my first novel for middle-grade readers? How could that possibly be relevant to Millicent’s decision whether she believes this book might interest Mr. Championovich? Unless the query went on to mention previous publications in other book categories, whether this was Not-so-Savvy’s first attempt to write a YA book or his 47th wouldn’t really weigh into her decision.

There’s another reason to avoid including this information in a query. As important as the fact of having written a first novel (as opposed to, say, a third) might be to the writer, all including this information in the query tells an agency inhabitant is that the writer isn’t very experienced — not the best impression to convey, as I mentioned above.

Can’t you think of better ways for a querier to use that precious page space? How about working in another of our required elements?

A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent: again, check on both counts.
But again, note the differential in tone:

Good example: I enjoyed hearing you speak at the recent Learn the Ropes conference in Minneapolis. Since you said that you were specifically looking for YA novels for horse-loving girls…the many sensitive books you have made available for these young readers over the years.

Ah, you hadn’t thought of that bit in the last paragraph as being part of the why me? explanation, had you? To Millicent’s eye, it is: it implied that the Savvy has gone to the trouble of finding out what her boss has represented in the past.

Compare the graceful ingratiation of that, please, with our other exemplar’s efforts to explain why he had approached this particular agent:

Gone Bad example: Since you said at the recent Learn the Ropes conference in Minneapolis…

Um, since he said what? Actually, this was an honest-to-goodness typo in my hastily-constructed example, but as it’s an extremely common species of typo, I didn’t correct it.

Did you catch it the first time? Millicent would have.

Had I reminded you lately to proofread every query every time? While you are ruminating on that excellent precept, let’s continue down our list.

A descriptive paragraph: as a professional reader, I think there’s no comparison between the two queries on this point: the first tells the story via vivid details by focusing on characterization; the second just summarizes the plot.

Admittedly, though, it still makes the story sound exciting. Most queriers would actually be quite pleased if they could be simultaneously this pithy and this entertaining in their descriptive paragraphs.

The glitch in the second is really the result of where this information falls in the letter. See if you can spot the problem in the third paragraph:

Gone Bad example: Every kid who rides horses will love this book. So will kids who feel like outsiders. Tanya, my protagonist, is the new kid in a virtual ghost town — until she’s befriended by Flambeau, the most beautiful wild stallion in the desert. No one but Tanya can touch him, she feels special. At least until Flambeau’s cruel bandit owner shows up!

Comes rather late in the paragraph, doesn’t it? Especially for a piece of writing intended for eyes notorious for skimming queries very quickly.

In journalism, this is called burying the lead. It’s a good story — so why hide its merits in the middle of a paragraph about something else entirely?

Starting to get the hang of this? Excellent. Let’s move on.

A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic : this is perhaps where the strongest contrast between the two lies. Gone Bad’s rendition is far and away the more common in actual queries.

Good example: Tanya’s story will not only appeal to readers of the already well-established horse book market, but to kids who feel like outsiders as well. According to a recent GAO report, one out of every six American third-graders has changed schools at least once, yet only two books for US 10- to 12-year-olds out within the last two years touch on this important life event.

“Swoon!” Millicent murmurs. “A novelist who knows how to do market research! And I’d had no idea how often elementary schoolers move. That’s definitely a large niche market.”

I’d had no idea, either, Millicent, until I conducted a 2-minute web search while I was writing Savvy’s query. Startling, isn’t it? (The fact that they move so much, I mean, not that I was able to turn up an apt statistic that fast. I do have a Ph.D., you know; I’m trained for this stuff.)

Gone Bad example: It is head, shoulders, and forelock above anything else currently on the market! … Unlike most writers who pen books about horses — including, unfortunately, some of your clients — I know my way around a stable… Every kid who rides horses will love this book. So will kids who feel like outsiders.

Okay, so the joke in the first sentence is actually rather funny (if I do say so myself), but what a lot of unsubstantiated claims in a row! Even if they are true, why should Millicent believe them without any corroboration?

It’s starting to be hard to remember that these two queries were for the same book, isn’t it?

A platform paragraph: admittedly, both queries do make the writer sound quite knowledgeable about horses. However, Not-so-Savvy has forgotten his single best credential for writing on this particular subject for this particular audience. See if you can spot his unfortunate omission.

Good example: As a horse world insider, I have drawn upon extensive personal experience to flesh out Tanya’s story. In addition to having taught middle-grade girls Western riding for the past three years, in my own youth, I was a competitive horse jumper. The sights, sounds, and smells of the stable are as familiar and natural to me as sidewalks are to city folks..

Gone Bad example: Unlike most writers who pen books about horses — including, unfortunately, some of your clients — I know my way around a stable. I even teach Western riding.

Did you catch it this time? Even setting aside the rather nasty tone of the opening sentence, can you justify his having left out the information that he has been teaching readers in his target demographic to ride their beloved horses for three years?

Oh, Not-So. I’m genuinely worried about your self-esteem. If you don’t tell Millicent about your book’s selling points, she’s not going to know about them. Is that honestly the best strategy for convincing her that her boss should take a chance on your novel?

A closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project: hoo boy. Try not to avert your eyes from the disastrous contrast you are about to see.

Good example: Thank you for your time in considering this query, as well as for the many sensitive books you have made available for these young readers over the years. I enclose a synopsis and a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Gone Bad example: Don’t let this one pass you by. You’ll be sorry if you do!

Even I feel like averting my eyes from that last one — which is a quote fed to me by an agent who prefers to remain nameless, by the way. She wanted to get the word out that she would prefer, on the whole, never to see this arrangement of words on a query page again.

If it’s all the same to you, queriers. Which I’m betting it will be, now that you have seen first-hand just how rude ostensibly upbeat hard-sell statements like this look in a query.

Makes quite a difference, knowing how a professional screener might view things, eh? Starting to feel more comfortable navigating those ropes by yourself without a net?

I had planned to stuff a few more positive examples into this post, but frankly, proving so thoroughly that the same book can be queried so differently using precisely the same selling points has depressed me into a stupor. I’m sure I’ll rouse myself for another example-heavy post later this week.

But before I sign off, one more thing: remember how I mentioned at the top of this post that agents, editors, and already-agented writers often take it for granted that an aspiring writer really serious about getting into the biz would have done sufficient homework to toss off a query as solid as Savvy’s in 15 minutes flat?

It took me a grand total of 5 minutes to write both of today’s examples in their entirety. Yes, counting those two minutes of web research.

That’s the result of practice, my friends. That, and knowing precisely what Millicent wants to see in a query. Once a writer understands that the only trick here is figuring out how to present her book in those terms, the actual writing of the darned thing can be downright speedy.

Trust me on this one; I’m a doctor. Book doctor, that is. Keep up the good work!