The threshold of difficult: a tale of three memoirists, or, can’t we all get along?

I’m getting back to you a few days later than I intended in posting, campers, but not for any of the usual reasons. Not that the usual reasons wouldn’t have been more than enough: this last week has been a festival of juggling my editing clients’ deadlines, adapting book promotion advice to the needs of individual books and the ever-changing tastes of the literary market, and dealing with the second week of that allergic reaction I mentioned a couple of posts back, the one that initially made me look like the unholy love child of Boris Karloff from his Bride of Frankenstein period and James Spader, shortly after that unfortunate offspring had been burned at the stake by villagers of the pitchfork-and-torch variety. By this last Monday, the histamine had faded, naturally: for the next four days or so, I merely resembled Cro-Magnon man as it might have been played by Lon Chaney, Sr., of Phantom of the Opera fame.

And some people say there’s no such thing as progress.

No, my excuse for sidling away from the blog this week was far more profound: for the first time in the six-and-a-half-year Author! Author! hegemony, I found myself wondering whether I should blog about a power dynamic relatively common in agent-writer and editor-author relationships. Not because its existence is any secret — as any faithful attendee of literary conferences knows, plenty of the pros are not shy about sharing stories of difficult clients — but because I hesitated to add more complaints to the already-burgeoning array of horror stories floating around the Internet. As long-term Author! Author! readers know, I’m very aware of how easily professional advice to writers can get twisted in the retelling: what might begin as a single weary, battle-scarred agent blurting out a pet peeve or expressing a personal preference on a conference dais can all too often end up being presented online as a universally-applicable rule of submission, querying, or even writing style three months later.

“But Anne!” those of you fond of trawling the web to form composite impressions of wildly contradictory advice protest, and who could blame you? “What’s wrong with that? Obviously, someone in the conference audience heard what the weary agent said and wanted to warn other writers away from running afoul of that agent’s pet peeve — or any agent’s pet peeve, for that matter. Speaking of horror stories, we’ve all heard our share about how easy it is for a well-meaning-but-industry-ignorant writer to blunder into being labeled (shudder) difficult. I, for one, am grateful for that plethora of warnings.”

I’m not faulting the motives of those who choose to pass such admonitions along — the first time. That is indeed often a generous move. The problem arises when that initial warning gets passed along again (and again, and again), often with tweaks, embellishments, and, let’s face it, incorrect interpretations. As should not come as much of a surprise to anyone who has ever played the magic game of Telephone, by the tenth, fifteenth, or fiftieth retelling, the pro who first uttered the advice would not recognize it. Frequently, it’s not just the content that changes; you’d be amazed how often a single observation about a unique situation gets transmogrified into a barked order about what must be done in every instance.

Oh, you thought that a sweeping axiom like the surprisingly ubiquitous agents hate it when writers use adverbs started life that way? Hardly likely. From a professional point of view, it’s an absurd assertion: sometimes adverbs make sense to use, sometimes they don’t.

It’s not at all difficult to picture, though, some poor agent sighing over an opening page in which every other sentence is decorated with an -ly — or that same agent talking about it on a conference panel a week later. With half the aspiring writers in the audience frantically scribbling notes, it’s only reasonable to expect Agent X hates adverbs to turn up online fairly shortly thereafter, right? Or for the next person to pass the news along to report it as agents hate adverbs? And, down the line, for someone who misunderstood the point of an English class exercise aimed at improving characterization in dialogue to conflate instead of Herbert said angrily, why not try showing his anger in his speech? with the shocking news about agents breaking out in hives the instant they clap eyes on an adverb in a submission, creating a universal axiom that no good writer uses adverbs, ever.

Which, I suspect, would come as something of a surprise to Agent X. As the most cursory glance through his clients’ published novels and memoirs would demonstrate, he’s a great fan of the skillfully-applied adverb.

At the risk of coining an axiom, both the source and the context are important to consider when weighing writing advice. And that goes double for anything you may hear about the kind of behavior that gets writers labeled difficult.

Oh, I’m not saying that you should not worry about the phenomenon: it definitely exists, and it is most assuredly true that writers unfamiliar with the rules of the game occasionally find themselves on the receiving end of the epithet without perceiving that an interaction has gone awry. I’m just saying that when you hear a blanket rule asserted, you might want to ask some follow-up questions about how the asserter knows it to be true. And when you stumble upon one of those third-hand this-is-how-a-writer-got-dropped horror stories, whether told from the agent’s, editor’s, or writer’s perspective, you might want to consider the possibility that the original teller’s intent is not being borne out in the version before you. Or — and this is true more often than any of us who give writers advice online might like to think — that a conclusion drawn from a single person’s reaction to a single instance might not in fact be reflective of an industry-wide feeling about a pervasive phenomenon.

I’m going to be talking about some of those pervasive phenomena a little bit later — hey, I wasn’t kidding about being hesitant to blog about some of this stuff — but first, let’s address that widespread writerly fear of running afoul of unspoken rules. As I said, it’s not entirely unjustified: what experience has made self-evidently rude to someone working in an agency might not strike someone new to the querying process as even vaguely impolite.

Take cold-calling an agent, for instance: if you’d like to see an entire panel of publishing professionals cringe in unison, by all means, raise your hand in an agents’ forum and ask if it’s okay to call an agent instead of querying in writing. Chances are, every agent on the dais will have a personal horror story about that pushy aspiring writer who thought, wrongly, that if a hard-sell technique works for used cars, why, only a spineless wimp would content himself with writing a query letter, sending it off, and waiting weeks or months for a reply. Why wait that long, when the agency that represented Tuesdays with Morrie has a listed telephone number?

Oh, you may laugh (at least, I hope those of you who have queried or pitched before are), but agencies get approached like this all the time. As you may have heard, agents hate it.

Unfortunately, those who have heard that are not the only people who want to land agents. So why not just call, the writer who has not taken the time to learn how books actually get published reasons, perhaps pretending to be a personal friend of the agent’s to get past Millicent, and explain to the agent how he just has to drop everything to read his manuscript? While he’s at it, wouldn’t it strengthen the appeal to go on a tirade about how much he wants to get published — unlike, say, every other writer who contacts the agency?

Why? To anyone not new to the agency biz, the answer is simple: because agencies simply don’t work that way, and with good reason. Think about it: if an agent got a reputation for saying yes to this kind of approach, he would be inundated with calls from precisely the type of writer that most agencies do not want to represent, those who believe that being talented grants them the right to expect instantaneous, personal attention.

Which is, incidentally, usually the way difficult gets defined in a publishing context: a writer’s not following prevailing industry etiquette in a manner that requires someone within it to expend unanticipated time and energy in dealing with her.

That covers a lot of territory, obviously, but once a writer understands this underlying principle, not being difficult becomes, well, easier. Instead of trying to learn and abide by each rule of etiquette one at time, laboriously, as if they existed in a vacuum, a writer can simply look at what she is being asked to do, compare it to what she is planning to do, and ask, “Okay, will this make more work for the agent/editor/contest judge? And if so, is the benefit I hope to derive from it worth the risk of eating up more of that person’s time?”

Don’t you wish someone had told you about that test before the first time you queried or submitted to an agent? Unfortunately, this measure of behavior is so self-evidently applicable to those who would actually be inconvenienced by violated expectations that it’s rarely discussed in the company of writers, except as a complaint.

Except, perhaps, phrased as send what we tell you to send, not what you want us to see. And please believe us that we chose the query format for a reason.

By either of these standards, the clueless caller above is clearly difficult, but so is the submitter who, when asked to send the first ten pages of a manuscript, sends fifteen. In both cases, the agent (or, in the second instance, her Millicent) would have to spend valuable time handling a situation she had no way to see coming: chatting with a writer calling out of the blue, reading those extra pages. Since the writer in both cases is being difficult — and does it really matter from her point of view whether the behavior is the result of ignorance or inconsideration? — why should she bother to invest that time at all? Why not just reject the writer out of hand?

Was that thunderous clamor out there in the ether the sound of a good third of you leaping to your feet? Perhaps — and I’m only guessing here — the third of you who have in the past sent more pages than an agent requested? Or that a contest’s rules specified? “But Anne,” the over-sending many shout, “I didn’t mean to be difficult. Surely, no one serious about evaluating writing would want to base that assessment on two-thirds of a scene. Wasn’t I being nice to care about the agent’s reading experience? Or are you saying that I should have rewritten the scene so that it ended on page 10?”

Neither, as it happens: you should have sent the first ten pages. Period. Sending more is being difficult.

Your audible huffs of annoyance are understandable, over-senders, but here we have an instance where the perception of inconsideration differs wildly from the writer’s and agent’s perspectives. You assumed, and not unreasonably, that the request for a partial, contest’s length restriction, or permission to send a specified number of pages with your query was not only intended to provide the agent with an indication of your writing style, the professionalism of your presentation, the voice of the book in question, its appropriateness for your target audience, and how you handle narrative, but to demonstrate how you structure a full scene.

Oh, you didn’t think about it that much? You just thought it would make better reading if the writing sample didn’t get cut off in mid-paragraph?

I hate to break it to you, but either way, an over-sender deliberately disregards a request for a specific number of pages. That’s not only difficult, from the recipient’s perspective; that’s rude. Not only does including the extra pages imply an expectation that the agent, Millicent, or contest judge will make time to read them, but also — you might want to sit down for this one — a belief that the person requesting that number of pages just didn’t understand that not every manuscript will feature a section or chapter break at the bottom of page 10.

Or 15, or 50, or whatever length the requesting agent/contest rules/submission guidelines indicated. Which, from a professional reader’s perspective, is a pretty insulting assumption: honestly, someone who handles manuscripts for a living or has judged more than a single contest entry would have to be awfully unobservant to think that. No one who asks for 10 pages expects a ten-page scene; they want to see if you can write. If an agent or contest wants to read an entire chapter or manuscript, it will ask for it point-blank.

The over-sending writer doesn’t think of it in those terms, naturally; often, he’s just trying to present himself in the best light as a storyteller. In doing so, however, he also presumes, wrongly that the pro will bend the rules in just this one instance. What could another couple of pages matter, after all?

Plenty, to an agent, Millicent, or contest judge who reads tens of thousands of pages a year. Five extra pages on a ten-page writing sample means devoting one and a half times the reading minutes to this submission than one that followed the rules. Why make the exception, when we all know from experience that on the writing grapevine, an anecdote about a single writer-agent interaction can quickly mutate into an immutable rule of conduct?

More to the point, wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect that a writer who violated one rule or request, however well-meaningly, would do it again in future — and that the belief that the rules really don’t apply to him would be problematic down the line, as well as time-consuming for the agency? If a writer thinks it is acceptable to send 15 pages instead of 10, why wouldn’t he also presume that the agency and the industry are willing to let him fudge on the length of a synopsis? Or an author bio?

Still think it’s unfair to leap to the conclusion that such an aspiring writer would be a difficult client at the query packet stage? Okay, let’s consider how Millicent might make that assessment at the submission stage. Try this one on for size: what if a novelist presumes, not entirely unreasonably, that since publishing houses employ copyeditors, he doesn’t need to proofread or spell-check?

Millicent sees this all the time, of course; usually, she leaps to the conclusion that the writer just can’t spell and/or doesn’t know the rules of grammar. But let’s assume for the moment that an apparently random array of typos pepper an otherwise estimable manuscript. Is that enough evidence to decide that this writer is difficult?

No? Okay, what if a memoirist operates on the assumption that somebody else involved in the publishing process is going to fact-check the parts of the book that she did not experience first-hand, so it really doesn’t matter if her manuscript said the Cuban Revolution occurred in 1952?

Lest anyone be tempted to rip that last line out of context and promulgate it as fact around the Internet: it didn’t. Look it up.

But is this gaffe sufficient to label the writer too difficult to take on as a client? Most aspiring writers would say no; from their perspective, it’s just a minor typo. Would you feel different, though, if the mistake were consistent throughout the manuscript?

Still no? Okay, what if the protagonist’s family had emigrated from Cuba in 1950, and the narrative represented the move as their having fled the revolution? If you were Millicent, would the prospect of your boss’ having to convince the writer that she is wrong about her family’s motivations for coming to this country? Or accuse her of having misrepresented them in order to make a narrative point? And that regardless of why the historical accuracy is off, she is going to have to change either the date or the memoir’s story arc?

Still no takers? Okay, what if a nonfiction writer believes, with some justification, that since her future agent must by definition know much, much more about the current market for her type of book than she does, she’s just not going to bother to include a marketing section in her book proposal? Again, it happens all the time. So does restricting the Competitive Market Analysis to just a couple of books, or limiting the marketing plan to a breezy announcement that since bookstores sometimes allow book signings (a fact that’s sure to astonish anyone currently working in the publishing industry), the writer is willing to show up at any signings the publisher might take the time to set up.

Now Millicent has pretty good reason to believe that not only will this writer be both time-consuming and rather irritating, at least at first, for her agency to represent — do you want to be the one to tell her boss, the agent, that it is his job, not the writer’s, to write the book proposal in its entirety? — but that this writer is actively planning to be time-consuming for the publishing house that picks up her book as well. (These days, first-time authors usually set up their signings themselves.) So the agency will probably have to spend time mediating some disagreements down the line.

What do you think? Too difficult?

I’m sensing that for some of you, even this provocation seems insufficient. “But Anne, I always thought being difficult was a function of how someone works and plays with others, a pattern demonstrated over the course of many incidents over time. I understand that all of the attitudes you describe would result in more work for the agent, but surely each could be fairly easily resolved with just a short explanatory conversation. After all, the writer has every motivation to try to make this relationship work.”

Perhaps, but you would be surprised at how often writers don’t act that way, at least in their earliest interactions with the agents and editors of their dreams. That’s a real pity, because for better or worse, all an agent, her Millicent, and/or a contest judge can base her assessment of a writer upon is the evidence actually in front of her: the query or pitch, accompanying materials, contest entry, requested pages — and that writer’s behavior while providing them. Given that they are charged with the task of selecting a small handful of writers out of the thousands who approach them (or, in the judge’s case, winnowing hundreds of entries down to a list of finalists in the single digits), is it honestly astonishing that they would have developed a tendency to extrapolate ease of working with a writer based upon whether that writer adheres to industry manners and respects the pro’s time?

Believe it or not, writers often do send quite definite messages about their attitudes at the querying stage. Take, for instance, the querier who shrinks the query’s typeface in order to cram more information into a one-page letter. Or the submitter who sends requested pages in a mailing format requiring a signature on the receiving end. Or, sacre bleu, the rejected writer that sees fit to send an e-mail, demanding a complete explanation of a no.

Is this difficult behavior? Well, apply our test: it’s all time-consuming — and frankly, kind of annoying — on the receiving end. How so? Well, he font-shrinker presumes that Millicent will both not notice the deviation from the norms of query presentation (but she will) and be willing to strain her eyes to read the extra parts (but she won’t). The confirmation signature-requirer may not think about the fact that his demand would compel someone at the agency to stop what she is doing in order to pay attention to an arriving package, but believe me, when you’re receiving fifty manuscripts a month, forty-nine of which did not require a work stoppage to accept, it’s noteworthy.

And do we even need to discuss the futility of having a heart-to-heart with an angry writer with whom one has already decided not to work? Or why such a conversation would have no chance whatsoever of changing the agent’s mind? Or, if gravity suddenly began making things fall up, babies abruptly began being born 42 years old, and agents started being open to this sort of follow-up conversation with queriers, the question the agent would have to weigh throughout that conversation would not be gee, did I make a mistake in rejecting this writer? but wow, if this writer is so touchy about a simple, polite no, how will he react when I or his future editor ask him to make changes in his manuscript?

That last one, of course, is the classic publishing pro’s complaint about difficult writers: indeed, the term is often used as a synonym for those so in love with their own words that they are not open to revision suggestions. Those of you who attend writers’ conferences have heard that one before, have you not? It’s right up there with writers are lazy and writers whine about deadlines in complaint popularity.

How popular, you ask? Well, if you walked into that bar that’s never more than a hundred yards from any writers’ conference in North America, sat at the next table over from the agents, and took a sip from your drink every time you overheard one of those three comments, you wouldn’t remember enough about the event the next day to render it a useful learning experience.

Suffice it to say, though, that if you did have a clear enough head to remember it, you would no longer wonder why agents and editors have been known to roll their eyes when writers start to talk about their creative freedom being hampered. Although many, many writers are pretty good about implementing editorial feedback (at least after an initial period of shock has passed), every pro who’s been at it for a while has a personal horror story about that one writer who stamped his feet, screamed, cried, and threatened to sue over a suggestion as practical and simple as “Would you mind changing your protagonist’s sister’s name, since Ellen looks so much in print like Eileen (the villain), Helen (the sidekick), Helene (the schoolyard friend in that flashback), and you’ve chosen for some reason best known to yourself to abbreviate all of those names in the dialogue to El, Eil, Hel, and Hel?”

Oh, you think I’m joking? I once edited a memoir in which the seven daughters of the family’s names all ended in –een — not because those were their names in real life, but because the author felt that this array of synonyms was an essential reflection of the family’s ethnicity. When I pointed out, nicely, that the visual similarity rendered the fifteen (oh, no, another –een!) scenes in which they appeared as a group slightly challenging for readers who had not seen fit to equip themselves with a program to follow, not to mention impossible for a skimmer, the author saw fit to…

Well, let’s just say the reaction wasn’t pretty. Unlike most editors and virtually all agents working with a first-time author, however, I was willing to keep making the case for changing the names not just once, but many times over the course of a few months. But then, unlike denizens of publishing houses and agencies, freelance editors charge by the hour.

That giant thud you just heard, in case you were curious, was the collective stomach of every agented writer reading this hitting the floor immediately after toting up what their last creative disagreement with their representatives would have cost.

I bring up the creative differences issue advisedly: when aspiring writers borrow trouble about the problems they might face in working with an agent or editor at a publishing house, it’s often the concern they express first. Certainly, those of us who answer writers’ questions hear it frequently. Usually, it runs something like this: “My vision of the book doesn’t fit neatly into the publishing industry’s notion of what books like this are like.” (Pause for the advice-giver to ask how, what makes the writer think so — and if he believes his book concept is a category-buster, is it possible he’s assigned it to the wrong book category?) “I know what I want to say, though, and I’m afraid that an agent will ask me to change it to make it easier to sell.”

Well, if the book honestly does contain elements that would render it less marketable, and those elements are not so critical to the story arc or NF argument that they did not trigger rejection all by themselves, this writer is probably right: it would be a good agent’s job to advise him how to maximize the book’s marketability. Writers do, after all, seek out agents because of the latter’s expertise in selling books to publishing houses, right?

Instead of desiring the judicious application of that expertise, however, the change-fearful writer would prefer an agent simply to take the manuscript as he has chosen to form it and walk it around to editors. Happily for the fearer, many good agents’ acceptance standards are so high that they do sometimes — not often — decide to send out a new client’s work without requesting changes. That most emphatically does not mean, though, that the fearful writer’s agent would be pleased if, after interesting an editor in acquiring the book, the writer flatly refused to accept revision requests from the publisher.

Which, in case anyone out there is harboring any illusions on the subject, is the norm for newly-acquired books in the current market, not the exception. It’s also fairly common now — brace yourself, should any of your illusions have survived that last sentence unscathed — for a book under contract to be passed from the control of the acquiring editor to another editor before the manuscript reaches the front of the print queue, due to layoffs, retirements, parental leaves, etc.

Still think Millicent should not be considering ease of working relationship at the querying phase?

Now that I’ve depressed you into a stupor, I’d like to share with you the situations I hemmed and hawed about talking about at all; let’s consider them in the light of the difficulty-assessment criteria we’ve gotten so good at applying. A couple of caveats before we launch, though: I am presenting these not to hold the (heavily fictionalized) persons and (factually accurate) attitudes involved up to ridicule or censure, but in the hope that we might discuss these interactions fruitfully, with an eye toward helping all of you avoid such contretemps in your writing careers.

I do think the matter is ripe for discussion. Although the web is stuffed to the gills with admonitions about what agents love and hate, as well as writers’ complaints, we actually don’t talk all that much — or all that productively — amongst ourselves about how to reconcile professional expectations about how a working writer should interact with the business side of the industry with how those of us on the creative side tend to think of our manuscripts. And that’s a shame, because all too often, when something goes wrong, the writer in the situation can mistakenly believe that she’s the only one to whom it has happened.

Fair warning: some of what is to follow may make some of you angry. Although I understand that it may be tempting to take a few pot shots at the messenger, I do wish you wouldn’t. I also hope that, even if some of this strikes you as unfair — and it probably will — we can concentrate upon how these situations could have been improved or avoided, rather than giving in to the temptation of luxuriating in lamentations.

As I said, there is already quite enough of that on the net, isn’t there?

To keep the conversation from getting too heated or personal feelings getting hurt, I would like to reiterate that the people here are all fictionalized, to protect the parties involved. Sexes have been changed; story details have been significantly altered; no publishing professional or house is identifiable. So if any of the resulting case studies happens to bear any resemblance to something that happened to you or someone you know, please take it as a testament to just how pervasive these phenomena are, rather than a provocation to clutch your heart, cry, “Mon dieu, that’s me/my critique partner, Sheila/my agent!” and tumble sideways in a heap.

So please help me welcome, with compassion and an open mind, three well-meaning memoirists, Huey, Dewey, and Louise. In order to help clarify the sometimes hard-to-discern missteps, miscommunications, and power dynamics, I’m going to tell each of their stories twice: once from the writer’s point of view, and once from the relevant publishing professional’s perspective. True to the rules of memoir (and first-person narrative in general), each will be exclusively from that perspective. Perhaps, after considering both sides, we can mediate between them.

Let’s begin with Huey’s saga. Take it away, Hugh!

I have to say, I was disappointed. I had been querying my memoir, the story of my wife’s battle with a life-threatening illness, for more than two years when Agent Montrose asked to see my proposal. The request caught me a bit off-guard, I’m afraid: I had a full manuscript, but had only been picking away at the proposal in fits and starts. Every time I sat down with it, I felt like I was being given a pop quiz on material we hadn’t covered in class. It just didn’t make sense that they would rather have me write about my book than read the book itself.

So when Montrose sent the request for the proposal, I e-mailed him back and said that it would be a few months. Wouldn’t he like to see the manuscript instead? He said no — a blow, of course, but he was nice about it. He said to send the proposal when it was done.

Well, I worked on it; really, I did. Every few weeks, I sent an e-mail to Montrose, to let him know how I was getting along. The first couple of times, he replied cheerily, telling me to take my time and to let him know if I had any questions. Then he just stopped replying. He didn’t even respond to my Christmas card.

So now I don’t know what to do. I think I could finish the proposal in another month or so — I have some vacation coming up — but if he’s lost interest, shouldn’t I be moving on?

Before we move on to Montrose’s version, what’s your initial impression? Was Huey being difficult, or has he just been having difficulties? Is his assessment of Montrose’s waning interest well-founded? And then there’s the most important question of all: should Huey finish the proposal? Or should he be looking — or have been looking — for an agent who would have said yes to reading the manuscript?

Got your answers to that dizzying array of rhetorical questions firmly in mind? Excellent. Let’s take a gander at what happened from Montrose’s perspective.

I have to say, I was disappointed; that book had some real potential. I know what you’re thinking — there are a million caretaker memoirs out there, so what’s different about this one? Well, the synopsis, for one thing: unlike a good 80% of the memoir synopses I see, this one had a beginning, middle, and an end; the two main characters grew and changed. I think that disease memoir readers would root for these people.

Millie, my assistant, kept burbling about how her aunt had gone through the same thing as his wife, and how much she was looking forward to a really good book about it. Publishers love people like Millie: whenever any of their acquaintance goes through something rough, their first instinct is to buy ‘em a book.

Imagine my disappointment, then, when it turned out Huey had not even begun a proposal. Heck, he didn’t even seem to realize that was how nonfiction books were sold; he kept suggesting that I should read the memoir instead — which was something like 150,000 words, for heaven’s sake. I liked what I had seen, though, and he genuinely seemed flummoxed, so I sent him the agency’s proposal guidelines and hoped for the best.

That was sometime in 2010, I think; I don’t really remember. He never sent the proposal, just a lot of excuses, as if I could simply change my mind about whether a proposal was necessary. Too bad — it could have been an interesting memoir.

Taken together, these two accounts form quite a sad little story, do they not? Huey was lucky enough to find an agent (and a Millicent) genuinely taken by his book concept — but he was not ready to take advantage of it. While Montrose’s conclusion that Huey just hadn’t done enough homework about how nonfiction is sold might not have been entirely correct, it’s hard to argue that the effect of the writer’s not having taken the necessary steps to learn how to write a book proposal amounted to the same thing, in practical terms. Yet Montrose did, by his lights, do all he could to help, and rather more than most would have done in this situation: being a good memoir agent, realized that proposal-writing is a professional skill, and thus not something even the most gifted memoirist is born knowing, so he provided his potential client with both encouragement and guidelines.

See how easily, though, a writer’s just not knowing the ropes can result in practical difficulties for the pro trying to help him? Huey felt, understandably, that since the proposal was a stand-in for the book, it didn’t make sense that Montrose couldn’t make up his mind about representation based upon the manuscript. But since Montrose knew that he could not approach the editors he already had in mind for this project without a proposal, what good would it have done to read the manuscript first? Especially when Huey had already told him that the draft was considerably longer than this type of memoir typically runs; with an Annotated Table of Contents in hand, they could talk down the line about cutting it down to a more reasonable length.

So should Huey give up on Montrose at this point and move on to querying other agents? I think that’s the answer he would like here; it would save him an awful lot of work, wouldn’t it? Frankly, I would rather see him invest that energy in a class on proposal-writing. Or reading a good book on the subject. Or hiring a developmental editor to assist him in writing it. Or, heck, he could take a peek at the step-by-step instructions on how to write a book proposal buried in this very site, cleverly concealed under the opaque heading HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL.

Then, when he has a professional proposal in hand, he will be ready to start querying again. As a courtesy, he might drop Montrose an e-mail first, to see if he’s still interested in reading it, but he shouldn’t be too disappointed if the answer is no: a lot has changed in the literary market since 2010. And Millie is in graduate school now; isn’t that terrific?

The issue of who is or is not being difficult isn’t so cut and dried at the submission stage as it was when querying, is it? There’s a reason for that: since the perception of whether someone is easy to work with is inextricably linked to how intensely one happens to be working with him, as well as to the expectations appropriate to that level of contact, the threshold of difficult is obviously different before and after an agent becomes interested in a writer’s work.

It’s also different once a writer and an agent have made a formal commitment to work together. Consider, if you will, memoirist Dewey’s dilemma.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. I slaved over that book proposal — read five books about how to do it, took an expensive weekend seminar, read everything there was about it online, the works. So when Agent Paulette said she loved it, it felt like I’d swum across the Atlantic and washed up on some beach in France. All I wanted was to catch up on my sleep.

So when I didn’t hear from Paulette for a while, it didn’t seem that weird. She said that she would want me to make a couple of tiny changes — no big deal, just tweaks to appeal a little better to the current market. But when I was still waiting a couple of months later, I felt I had to call and ask what was going on. She said she was sorry — she had been just swamped, and she would get to it soon.

Well, a week later, I still didn’t have the feedback. Yet another call. That produced results — and how! Didn’t she realize I had a full-time job? It took me three months to make those changes. Once again, I dumped the results into her capable hands and collapsed.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised when I didn’t hear from her right away — or ever, really, unless I contacted her first. She just kept saying it was a slow process, that editors took a while to read things these days, anything and everything to put me off. After six months, I began to wonder whether she was still sending it out at all. But just try talking to her about it; she’s so touchy.

Dewey would be happy to continue in this vein as long as you’re willing to listen; just ask the other members of his writing group. Because your time is valuable, however, I’ll skip ahead to the end of his story:

And now I’m feeling really trapped: since the book has been shopped around, I would have to write another, or at least another proposal, before I could query someone else. Guess I’m still in the middle of the Atlantic after all.

The lingering questions are pretty self-evident here, I think. In a situation where both partners are doing the job they agreed to do in pursuing a collective goal, it usually takes some time for each to adjust to the other’s work style. To assess how well Dewey’s and Paulette’s meshed, let’s take a peek at what she has to say on the matter.

God, what a nightmare that turned out to be. It started out so promising, too: Dewey’s book proposal was one of the best I’d seen in a long time. It needed a little work, of course — as most of them do — but I was confident that the results would be good.

A lot of brand-new clients are pretty jumpy, so when Dewey started e-mailing me every other day, to ask what he was supposed to change, it didn’t seem that weird. I was in the middle of a three-book deal for another client; he knew he would have to wait his turn. I wasn’t even all that worried when, after I sent him the revision memo, he initially reacted as though I’d asked him to recreate the works of Homer from memory. It was too much, he didn’t have the time, and so forth.

But he was serious about the book and cranked it out. Rather more quickly than the average client, actually; you wouldn’t believe how often I pass along feedback to a client, then hear nothing for a year or two.

Not our boy Dewey, though. Practically the instant he’d sent me the new version, he starts nagging me about when I’m going to submit it. I explained the process to him, naturally: it’s not as though I have much control over how fast other people read. That seemed to calm him down, but a few days later, he’d be calling or e-mailing again. Doesn’t he know I have other clients? And that it’s in his best interest to leave me alone long enough to sell his book?

Again, quite sad. Here are two perfectly nice, professionally-focused individuals, both eager to collaborate on selling a book proposal they both perceive to be excellent. So what happened?

Misaligned expectations, I’m afraid: Dewey just didn’t understand what his role in their relationship would be, other than writing. Because that was what he was prepared to do, he got antsy every time he didn’t have an assignment on his plate; he didn’t have a constructive outlet for all of that nervous energy. So he focused it on prodding Paulette into a job that she already knew perfectly well how to do — which, in turn, took up enough of her time and energy that she felt, not unreasonably, that his demands were making it harder for her to do that job.

An expectations draw, really — and a dynamic that could have been improved by these two fine people having an honest, straightforward conversation about what Paulette was actually doing to promote the book, as well as how he could spend his time and energy while she did it. I’m happy to report that they did have that conversation (perhaps at the suggestion of someone who knew and cared about them both), and they are getting along swimmingly. Paulette’s still knocking herself out, talking up his book — and his next. Dewey’s working on the proposal for that. In his spare time, he’s taking an online class on book promotion; he’s already started a blog, to establish a web presence for the happy day when he has a book out.

Not all such tug-of-wars end quite so harmoniously, however. Prepare yourself, please, to enter the world of Louise.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Evelyn from the get-go: no matter how much work I did or how well I did it — and I really ripped myself to shreds meeting her constant demands — she never seemed satisfied. “I’ll do my best,” was all she ever said, as though she had to compensate for something wrong with my book.

I remember my guts churning during our very first phone conversation: right away, she started criticizing my proposal. Before she’d even signed me! I bit the bullet, though, and knuckled under to her demands, even though they seemed really far afield from where I wanted to take my book. She told me it had to be that way in order to sell, so like a fool, I went along with it.

The book took FOREVER to sell, but I wasn’t supposed to ask questions about where it was or why it was taking so long. I was just supposed to wait by the phone, in case a call came — because then, Evelyn said, the acquiring editor would probably have a whole new set of suggestions for how to modify the book. I just kept praying that the editor that picked it up would get my artistic vision better.

But the instant we had signed the contract, the quibbling began. Was I really married to the chapter I liked best? Did I really have to spend thirty pages talking about my spiritual connection with marsupials? Was it really important to the story I was telling that I had been raised from ages 4 to 6 by bears?

That sort of thing. You’d think they had never met an interesting, multifaceted person before; all they wanted me to do was simplify my complex life. I don’t know how novelists feel about having their stories chopped to pieces, but for a memoirist, that story is a life. I couldn’t exactly change what I had done ten years before because some editor didn’t like it, right?

And don’t even get me started on the marketing trauma. They changed my title — then got mad at me for not liking the new one. They asked what I would like to see in a cover — then came up with something totally different. They asked me to list every town where I had friends — then expected me to construct my own book tour. Even though I showed up and did my best at every single podunk bookstore where they wanted me to do a reading — I even did a few libraries; way to cater to an audience that wants to buy books — they were never satisfied; they always seemed to want me to do more. And no matter how much promotion I did, the book never sold up to their completely preposterous expectations. Naturally, they thought that was my fault, too.

Of course, Evelyn took their side. She did on everything. And every time I tried to talk to her about it, she always changed the subject to my next book. At first, I thought she was kidding — when would I have possibly found time to write a new proposal? I was already working full-time, helping my sister through a truly horrific divorce, and promoting my book. When was it going to be time for somebody else to do some work?

After a few years of this, with no offer for the next book on the table, I just couldn’t take the constant conflict anymore. There’s no way I would work with any of these people again; it’s way too stressful. If and when I have the time and energy to write yet another book proposal, I’d rather start querying again from scratch than to entrust the fruit of my art to Evelyn.

Okay, so I took a few liberties in the bear department; this story was just too depressing otherwise. The lot of the first-time author today couldn’t be more different than it was twenty years ago — and as quite a few of those authors walk into the process with expectations more in line with thirty or forty years ago, when advances were significantly higher and authors carried less of the responsibility for book promotion, the expectations clash can be pretty dramatic.

Since, by Louise’s account, realizing her dream resulted in such deep disappointment, I’m reluctant to analyze her career trajectory too much. At least, not before we’ve heard Evelyn’s side of the story.

Oh, you wouldn’t believe what happened. I had my doubts about Louise from the get-go: when she was into what I asked her to do, she couldn’t be happier, but let one little obstacle fall in her path, and she’d freak out. It always made me just a touch nervous when an e-mail from her appeared in my inbox. But I don’t have to tell you what kind of audience a really good memoir pandas would draw. I honestly did fall in love with that proposal.

In retrospect, though, I should have listened to my gut feeling during our first phone conversation: she nearly fell over when I told her that before I signed her, I would want her to revise her proposal to my specifications first. Editors expect a certain style and structure from my agency’s clients, after all. We had quite the little argument; she seemed to feel that any concession now would doom her book. Once I convinced her that I wasn’t going to back down, however, she did an excellent job on the rewrite.

And my hopes proved justified when I started shopping her proposal around; on paper, Louise was a great client. Her proposal was very strong. She wasn’t inexperienced at working with an editor, either; she had a couple of previous publications — articles on another subject, if memory serves. since she had put herself through graduate school as a stand-up comic, I had no qualms about predicting she would be great at readings. I always mentioned it when I was pitching her book.

In practice, though, she could be pretty trying. Everything would be going along fine, or so I would think, and suddenly, I’d find myself on the receiving end of an ultimatum. I wasn’t selling the book fast enough; I was showing it to the wrong people; was this really the right economy to be trying to push a book on pandas? Every time, it was different; sometimes, I got the feeling she was picking fights with me so she would have an excuse to ask if there had been any nibbles on the proposal. Once the book sold, however, she was over the moon — this was the best possible outcome in every way. And she actually delivered the manuscript to the editor a week ahead of schedule.

So when the editor called me to say that Louise had been stormily contesting every single revision suggestion in the editorial memo, I can’t say that I was entirely surprised. Nor was I particularly surprised when Louise called me in tears, convinced that her book was going to get destroyed. It took a lot of hand-holding over a period of weeks, but eventually, she did make the requested changes. I have to say, they made the book better.

Then the marketing department started calling; Louise hated the change they wanted to make to her title. Then she couldn’t stand the cover design, the back jacket, the Amazon blurb, the advance reviews…in short, everything was a battle that went on for weeks on end. And for someone who used to tell jokes for a living, she certainly seemed reluctant to get out and promote her book. She kept telling me that she had a job, family, obligations: did I want her to write her next book proposal, she would demand, or did I want her to do the publisher’s job for them?

Of course, we all expected her to do both: that’s what career writers do. But she seemed to feel that she had paid her dues, and now was entitled to coast. Which would have made more sense, I’ve got to say, had her first book sold particularly well, or if the proposal for the next were anywhere near as strong as the first. I wish I could say that I believed she had put a quarter of the energy into it that she’s evidently focused upon serving me with ultimatums about how I need to do more for her.

After a while, I just stopped reading them closely; I don’t need the drama. A quick skim was enough. When she sent that nasty e-mail saying that thanks to me, she had lost faith in her second book, and so was dropping it for a third, well, let’s just say that I wasn’t surprised then, either. Or when the third lost its shine for her, too, also apparently my fault. I don’t remember why she said she was leaving our agency; I’m sure it was in a similar vein.

There’s quite a bit that could have gone differently here, but for the sake of today’s discussion, let’s not focus on that. Instead, I would like you to notice that it was not just quite divergent expectations that harmed this working relationship; it was also that issues don’t seem to have gotten hashed out much until at least one party was already angry. An ultimatum, after all, is not exactly an invitation to first-round negotiation.

Allow me to make a tiny, insignificant suggestion to anyone contemplating entering this kind of working partnership: try to regard it as a relationship. Relationships take work, after all, and they tend not to thrive on mind-reading. If both parties are not up front about what they want from the other, is it honestly surprising if one or the other occasionally guesses incorrectly?

If I ruled the universe, every writer-agent (and writer-editor) relationship would start out with a full and frank discussion of what the agent expects to do for the writer — and what the writer will need to do to support those efforts. I would also mandate up-front agreement on how often each party feels it is appropriate to communicate; just knowing when to expect an update can make a huge difference to a writer gnawing his fingernails up to the elbow while waiting to hear back on a round of submissions. That way, too, the writer does not have to guess whether it’s too soon to ask a follow-up question.

The last time I checked, though, I did not rule the universe. If I did, libraries would be open 24 hours per day, businesses would allow their employees two-hour lunches — the better to browse at bookstores or finish reading that chapter, my dear — and my former elementary school would be named after Ambrose Bierce, who lived in my home town many years longer than Robert Louis Stevenson, whose name graces my former middle school. And the high school would bear the name of M.F.K. Fisher, who lived there longest at all.

I’m not sure what they would name after me, once I have shuffled off this mortal coil and joined the choir invisible. I’m sure they could come up with an unnamed Quonset hut.

Since none of these things are currently the case, however, I can only conclude that I do not have the power to change writers’ sometimes troubled relationships with the publishing industry with a wave of my wee hand. All I can do is advise, recommend, and, every so often, mediate. And urge everyone concerned to bear in mind that they are all good people (at least, most of them are) committed to the same quite estimable goal: bringing great stories and marvelous writing to readers everywhere. Who, let’s face it, don’t particularly care how difficult it was to bring the books they love into print.

It’s a noble endeavor, from every perspective. Let’s all try to gain some insight into others’ points of view — and, of course, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XXV: on your mark, get set…um, we haven’t forgotten about the race, have we?

The long-awaited day has come at last, : the mail carrier no longer staggers on his way into the agency; photocopying form-letter rejections has ceased being a full-time job; the last outgoing royalty statement has been finalized, and Millicent the agency screener can once again open her e-mail without having to suppress an impulse to switch lines of work into something more soothing, like becoming a tightrope walker or human fly. No more are aspiring writers across North America basing their respective self-worths upon sending out, willy-nilly, those queries and requested materials that seemed so imperative to pop into the mail immediately after that giant, gaudy ball dropped in Times Square.

January, and thus the Great New Year’s Resolution Avalanche of 2012, have finally passed into the annals of history. You may now, with my blessings, begin querying and submitting again. Millicent’s in a better mood now.

To celebrate this annual miracle — and your own good sense in not pursuing the agent of your dreams at exactly the same time everybody else was trying to beat down her agency’s doors — I’m going to try to wrap up Queryfest over the next few days. Some of you are going to be fielding requests for partials soon, and I’d like you to have freshly-minted advice in hand when they arrive. And after that, who’s up for some exhaustive discussion of craft? Or of a subject I’ve been longing to wrestle into submission (in both senses) in this fine forum, how to develop a story arc in a memoir?

I’m open to other suggestions, by the way. I’m here to answer writers’ questions, so please don’t tell me you haven’t any rattling around your creative brainpans.

In the meantime, to kick off our last little flurry of query examples penned by actual Author! Author! readers, here’s a delightful little missive (for what sounds like a genuinely fun book) from a brave reader calling herself, for the purposes of example only, Pippi Longstocking. (At least, I assume that’s not her given name.)

I’m immensely pleased that Pippi volunteered it, because it presents a perfect opportunity to apply the standards we discussed last time for evaluating a query. It also is marketing a nonfiction book that’s not a memoir, something of a rarity amongst the entrants for Queryfest’s limited personal-attention space. So let’s have at it — and, as always, if you’re having trouble viewing the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image. I’ll meet you on the other side to discuss what we learned.

Charming, is it not? Certainly, the voice here is engaging — and, better yet, in a manner that would make sense for a book like this. It’s clear what the book being presented is about (a less common attribute of nonfiction queries than Millicent might like), who needs it, who might buy it (not always a group that overlaps 100% with the needers), and why.

So far, so good. But I ask you: other than all that, is this a good query for a nonfiction book?

Hands just shot skyward all over the English-speaking world, didn’t they? “What do you mean, other than all that?” the Queryfest faithful cry out. “What else is there, for a nonfiction query? Agents are perpetually saying at conferences and even in their agency’s submission guidelines that platform is the most important matter, and Pippi seems to have a terrific platform for writing this particular book. Clearly, she has the requisite expertise, although it is phrased in a rather boasting manner, and that first sentence about being the authorial voice is phrased oddly. Also, that bit where she tells the agent what the reputation of the agency is strikes me as a little weird. As we have discussed earlier in this series, any of these might put off Millicent the agency screener in a fiction or memoir query, but everybody knows that writing style matters less than platform for nonfiction. So yes, I would say that this is quite a successful NF query. Are we done for the day?”

Whoa, there, campers — that’s a whole lot of assumptions, and not all of them are warranted. Yes, platform (the credentials, work or life experience, and/or celebrity status that might make a reader reach for this book on this NF subject, rather than another) is often vital to the success of a nonfiction query, but contrary to astonishingly pervasive rumor amongst aspiring writers, it’s not the only factor. Nor is the inherent interest of the subject matter, or even the size of the potential audience for the book.

So what else counts here, you ask? Well, a lot of small factors that, when combined, would make up what Millicent is trained to assess as professionalism.

And again, the forest of hands rises before me. “But Anne,” aspiring nonfiction writers everywhere cry, deflated, “Pippi has made the case — and quite well, too — that she has the relevant work experience to legitimize her claim to be an expert. She also apparently has published previously, although, again, the rather offbeat phrasing with which that information is presented would slightly undermine its value, were I Millicent at the end of a hard day of screening. But there’s no denying that by the end of the letter, no one would have any doubt of what her platform is. So how on earth could she come across as more professional?”

Quite easily — at least when you consider that from Millicent’s perspective, platform can be about recognition and prestige in another field, but professionalism is about how well-equipped and willing the writer is to conform to the standards of book publishing. Despite the common wisdom on the subject, it is not only possible but likely that an aspiring NF writer with an excellent platform whose query raises doubts about whether the writer possesses the skills and knowledge to interact professionally with a future agent or editor will get rejected.

Yes, really. Contrary to popular opinion, the perceived professionalism of the query is more important in a nonfiction query than for fiction, not less. For a very good reason, too: it’s not as though Millie’s boss is going to have a full manuscript of this book in hand before making a decision to represent it, as she would for a novel. The agency (and Millie as its first-line decider) usually must assess the writer’s ability to deliver on the promise of the book based upon a query and a book proposal alone. So must the acquiring editor.

That’s not a great deal of information, considering what’s at stake here. A nonfiction writer is, after all, applying to a publisher (via a book proposal conveyed by an agent) for the job of writing a particular book, right? Pulling that off will require not only having the knowledge to inform the book and the platform to promote it, but the writing skills and application to complete it. So you can hardly blame the agent helping the writer land that job for wanting to feel confident in telling an acquiring editor, “Oh, yes, this writer will be able to finish writing this book on time, adhering to your perhaps abstruse submission standards. And I’m quite certain that she’ll be able to make any changes you want to the text — or, indeed, add those chapters not mentioned in the book proposal but nevertheless part of what you expect to see in the finished book — quickly, well, and without much quibbling.”

I ask you: does Pippi’s query currently inspire as much confidence in her adaptability and professionalism as it does in her expertise in the book’s subject matter? Is it as likely to cause Millie to cry out, “Hey, I’d love to work with this fascinating person!” — as it should, since Pippi does legitimately seem to be a fascinating person with diverse achievements — as it is to make her shout, “At last, a writer on a garden-variety topic who already enjoys considerable name recognition across a wide array of potential readers!” with vim?

Yes, yes, I know: we would all like to think that only impersonal, writing-based criteria play into screeners’ decisions about which queries deserve a response and which don’t, but personal impressions honestly do matter. Agencies are staffed with human beings, after all, not marketing robots: Millicent and her boss, the agent of Pippi’s dreams, are very well aware of how much more time-consuming, and therefore how much more expensive, it can be to represent a writer who does not already know how to present his writing professionally.

So for the rest of today’s post, I want to talk about how tweaking some minuscule elements and modifying the tone can raise a query from eliciting a cry of, “Oh, this is an interesting idea for a book, and this is a plausible person to write it,” to something that will make Millicent exclaim, “Wow, this is a great idea for a book, and this seems like the best person in the known universe to write it. And heavens, how pleasurable it would be to work with this person!”

Before we can legitimately draw such grand, sweeping, and possibly unwarranted conclusions about a book proposal none of us have read — Millicent may not harbor qualms about that, but we should — let’s first double-check that this query meets all of the entry-level criteria for consideration, as it were. Because a paper query (i.e., one that sent via regular mail, rather than by e-mail, and thus is likely to receive longer scrutiny) will first strike a screener on a presentation level, let’s go through

Looks quite different already, doesn’t it? That’s mostly due to the contact information’s having migrated to its proper location, but also the result of standardizing the spacing on that third line. Now, the extra space before the comma is gone, and there are the expected two spaces between the state abbreviation and the zip code.

Is that scuffling I hear the sound of those of you who are not especially detail-oriented scrambling to see what your last query might have looked like to Millicent? Excellent; you’re starting to gain a sense of how the little things can add up. Let’s keep moving through our query formatting checklist.

3. Everything in the letter should be in the same font and size: check.

4. The date of writing, tabbed to halfway or just over halfway across the first line of text: again, the proper information is here, but it’s in the wrong place.

In Word, the tab stop for the date should be either 3.5″ or 4″, lined up with the signature below; here, the date is placed at 5″. To a Millicent holding a paper copy, that’s a mysterious placement for it. Having the soft copy in front of me, though, I can tell what happened: instead of left-justifying this line, Pippi centered it, like the contact information, then hit the tab key twice. (Perhaps Pippi had heard that the date should be in the center of the page, and thought this would be the easiest way to achieve that placement?)

Regardless of how and why it got that way, the result is that Millicent is likely to conclude that Pippi doesn’t write very many letters. Again, probably untrue, but let’s go ahead and remove the temptation to draw this conclusion before proceeding down the list. Because the signature is at 4″ in the original, I’ll line the date up with that.

If this version does not strike you as inherently more professional-looking than the last, I invite you to compare it with the original version. See how different the two would appear to Millicent even from several paces away?

I hear some of you scoffing, but honestly, Millicent and her boss have to care about whether a prospective nonfiction client pays attention to what his words look like on the page. Book proposals are expected to adhere to a very specific format: would it really be to Pippi’s advantage for her future agent to submit her proposal to an editor if it did not look the way folks in the industry would expect a professional writer’s proposal to look?

5. The recipient’s full address: check. Here again, the zip code is closer to the city than typing teachers used to advise, but you don’t need to see a whole new version of the page just for that, do you? Especially when Pippi’s now on a formatting roll.

6. A salutation in the form of Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Mr. Jones, followed by either a colon or a comma: check.

7. In the body of the letter, all paragraphs should be indented: check.

8. In a query, titles of books may appear either in ALL CAPS or in italics : check.

9. A polite sign-off, tabbed to the same point on the page as the date. Well, now that’s true.

Although there is nothing technically wrong with signing off with Kindly, I have to say that I’m not crazy about using a non-standard sign-off in a query. “What does Pippi have against sincerely?” Millicent is left to wonder. “Is something in this letter insincere?”

While Kindest regards would be considered acceptable, if a trifle archaic, the use of Kindly all by itself doesn’t really make sense in this context. There’s nothing particularly kind about querying an agency; it’s a professional approach. The informal phrasing is also at odds the super-businesslike (and, in this context, unnecessary) Encl.: SASE , resulting in an overall confusing impression.

When in doubt, err on the side of formality. But there’s no need to use secretarial abbreviations from the 1960s, either.

10. Three or four skipped lines for the actual signature: actually, Pippi has skipped only two lines, something she’s unlikely to notice until she actually tries to sign the thing.

11. The writer’s name, printed, tabbed to the same point on the page as the sign-off: again, now correct.

12. A query should be printed in black ink on white paper: you’ll have to take my word for that one.

13. I mean it about the white paper: no exceptions: oh, you thought I was done nagging you?

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

Let’s take a gander at what the result of all of these small changes would look like. While I’m at it, I’m going to add another line of space between the date and the recipient’s information, to spiff it up even more on the page.

Good-looking, isn’t it? It’s also significantly more like what Millicent expects a query to look like on the printed page, encouraging her to believe that this is a writer whose proposal and manuscript pages will be properly formatted as well. (See earlier comment about how leery any agent would be about taking on a client whose formatting would require double-checking before submission to a publisher.)

I sense some uncomfortable shifting in desk chairs out there. “But Anne,” those of you who kinda resent spending this much time of nit-picky formatting issues point out, “none of this has anything to do with the content of the letter. I get that Millicent might be subliminally affected by how a query looks on the page, but surely, she’s bright enough to be able to see past a flaw or two.”

Yes, of course she is, but my point here is that non-standard formatting is distracting. And a querier should care about that for precisely the reason you name: you want Millie to concentrate on the content of the letter.

As we can do, now that the query is properly presented. So dust off that list of what content needs to be in a query letter, and let’s see how Pippi’s missive measures up.

A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title: check. As someone who reads quite a few titles in any given month, though, I found myself wondering if the use of the singular (A COOL PARENT’S GUIDE) meant that the book was aimed only at single parents. If it isn’t, THE COOL PARENTS’ GUIDE would be inclusive of everybody. Except the uncool, of course.

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms: Millicent is left to guess this. Is this query for a gardening book? Or a parenting guide?

In other words, is the primary audience for this book gardeners with kids, or parents who would like to get their kids to garden? My guess is that it’s the former, given the explanation in the last paragraph. It’s not the query-reader’s job to guess, however, nor is it in the querier’s interest that she should: she might, after all, guess wrong. So it honestly is in Pippi’s best interest to commit.

Yes, yes, I know: this book might well be shelved in either the gardening or parenting sections of a well-stocked bookstore, but that’s not the point of including this information, preferably in the first paragraph; it’s to let Millicent know right away whether this is a kind of book her boss represents. If it appears not to be, the query will almost certainly be rejected.

It’s possible that Pippi is aiming at both audiences (and, with her expertise, perhaps she should), but from an agency perspective, that would be a sign of lack of writing experience. Why? Well, those two audiences would call for two rather different approaches. The first could assume that the reader already has some gardening expertise; the second wouldn’t. And since a book proposal has to contain a Competitive Market Analysis — a overview of similar books out within the last five years, along with explanations of how those books are similar or different to the one being proposed, to make a case that this book would appeal to the readers who bought the others — Millicent is well within her rights to expect Pippi to be familiar with her book category.

So while leaving the category ambiguous might seem to give Pippi more querying options, it actually makes her query look a bit less professional. Because this is such a common rejection reason and Millie reads so quickly, I would advise moving this information to the first paragraph, perhaps in place of the rather less evocative current opening, which reads like a children’s book — not the best strategy in a query aimed at an adult readership.

Oh, you were expecting me to cough up an example of that? If you can hold your horses until after we’ve discussed the other information usually included in a query’s opening paragraph, perhaps I shall. In this query, that part of the argument is relegated to the final paragraph.

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent: I suspect that Pippi intends that rather odd bit of Hollywood narration in the final paragraph to serve this purpose. But place yourself in Millicent’s reading glasses and consider whether this really answers the relevant question:

I tip my wide-brimmed gardener’s hat to you. Picky and Pickier has a solid reputation, representing garden writers who do not disappoint with boring exposition. Therefore, this query has been sent exclusively to your agency. Thank you for your time reading through. I look forward to your response, and hope you will be interested in reviewing my proposal.

Admittedly, the opening sentence is kind of cute, but that misplaced comma is distracting: what Pippi presumably means is that Picky and Pickier has a solid reputation for representing garden writers who do not disappoint with boring exposition But what precisely is the point of telling Hawkeye something she must already know, that here agency has a solid reputation? Or the backhanded jab at the gardening book category, implying that most gardening books are boring?

Begging the obvious question (obvious to Millicent, anyway): why write in a book category one considers boring? Or is what this really intended to say that DIRT FIGHT! will be primarily a picture book, rather than one in which words bear the brunt of describing what the parents and kids are to do? If so, is Pippi planning on illustrating it herself, or will her publisher need to find an illustrator?

And what, while Millicent is wondering, is the significance of thanking her boss for reading through? Is that perhaps a tacit expression of the querier’s fear that a screener might not have still been reading by the time that sentence appeared on the page? Why the lack of confidence?

Aren’t you glad you were already aware our Millie might draw some mighty large conclusions from some mighty small clues?

As a veteran querying teacher, the conclusion I draw from this is substantially more charitable: I suspect that what’s happened here is that Pippi heard somewhere (earlier in Queryfest, perhaps?) that it was a good idea to give Hawkeye some indication why she had decided to query her, out of all the agents in North America. But all this paragraph really says is that Pippi is aware that the agency — not Hawkeye personally — occasionally represents gardening books of the non-boring variety, an avocation our writer evidently considers quite rare.

What makes me think that? Because Pippi actually says that she’s granting an exclusive on this query, even though virtually no agency in North America either expects or requests exclusive queries. Apparently, then, Pippi is willing to tie her hands and not query anybody else until she’s heard back from Hawkeye. That could take months — if Picky and Pickier gets back to queriers at all if the answer is no.

So what has Pippi gained from adding this statement? Nothing practical, certainly: agents are perfectly well aware that since turn-around times have ballooned, it could take years for a querier who approached agents one at a time to get a nibble. Nor will the spontaneous offer of an exclusive typically engender a faster response; Millicent will probably merely conclude that Pippi is working off a set of querying guidelines more than twenty years old. Which, again, does not really make the best case for the professionalism — or at least the current market-awareness — of this potential client.

Those of you working off antique guidelines just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” golden-oldie lovers everywhere protest, “I heard once that agents get really mad if you query more than one at a time. I don’t want to offend anybody!”

While in days of yore — say, before the advent of the personal computer — there were a few agencies that harbored this extraordinary preference, those agencies have always been quite up front about it. Today, however, it’s become uncommon to require exclusive submissions, let alone queries; it places too much responsibility upon the agency.

So all offering an exclusive is likely to achieve is to make a query look old-fashioned at best to Millicent — and at worst, as though the writer really doesn’t care how long it takes to get her book published. Since NF agents tend to like to make a living off their clients’ book sales, that sense of leisureliness might well strike them as a rather expensive luxury.

So what would be a better strategy for Pippi to embrace? How about stating specifically why she chose to approach Hawkeye, rather than implying that any agent with a track record of representing non-boring gardening books would do? Heck, while we’re at it, why not go ahead and narrow the target audience down from all parents to a more realistic audience for a book?

Oh, you thought that there was a book out there that appealed to every parent? To Millicent’s eye, that’s one of those unsubstantiated claims that we discussed earlier.

But enough theory: let’s see this in practice. You may let those horses go, people. Here’s your example.

See how being specific about the category, why she’s approaching this agent, and to whom her book will appeal from the get-go makes Pippi look a heck of a lot more professional? Bringing in a title, rather than referring to gardening books in general, is better strategy here, too: now, rather than telling Hawkeye that her book is laugh-out-loud funny, she allows the agent to draw that conclusion for herself.

Much more elegant, as well as more convincing. And had you noticed that it provides a better set-up for the rather good argument that comes next?

Speaking of which…

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book, ideally in a voice similar to the narrative’s: Pippi does quite a good job of this conceptually — well done! — but this paragraph contains a couple of red flags. Did you spot them?

No? Millicent’s detail-oriented eye would. First, there is a missing word in that second sentence and an omitted apostrophe in the third — dead give-aways that the sender did not proofread this missive IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before popping it in the mail. Nor are those all of the typos here: the third paragraph contains an extra comma.

Why is that problematic? Do I need to repeat the argument about how clients whose submissions need to be double-checked are more time-consuming for Hawkeye to represent?

The typos are not the primary red flag here, however. It’s this sentence: DIRT FIGHT! offers the market its first modern gardening guide for parents. Even if everything else in the query were perfectly professional, this assertion alone would probably be sufficient to engender rejection. Any guesses why?

If you leapt to your feet, screaming, “I know! I know! It’s a sweeping claim that’s unlikely to be factually true!” award yourself a god star for the day. As we have discussed earlier in this series — and as practically every list of agents’ pet peeves floating around out there confirms — categorical statements about a book’s uniqueness tend to set Millicent’s teeth on edge. Basically, they challenge her to search the last five years’ worth of book sales, to see whether the generalization is true.

Yet as those of you who flung your hands into the air and cried, “But there are other books on the market that recognize the advent of the digital age, so Millicent will instantly conclude that this querier is not very familiar with the current book market!” were quite right to point out (the gold stars are in the cabinet across the room; help yourself), this particular sweeping statement is so unlikely to be true that she won’t even need to check. Video games have been around since I was a kid, for heaven’s sake, and television has been in most American homes since the 1950s. And no gardening book writers have noticed?

In Pippi’s defense, queriers make statements like this all the time, in the mistaken belief that their books will seem more important if they claim to be the first or only books of their kind. That can be a selling point — but only if it is unquestionably and demonstrably true. Otherwise, do yourself a favor: don’t go there.

All that being said, I have one question I could not answer without reading Pippi’s no doubt very engaging book: how does DIRT FIGHT! propose to cajole those kids outside? And what’s humorous, the presentation of the suggestions or the suggestions themselves?

I honestly can’t tell — and as someone interested in book marketing, I want to be able to tell. So will Millicent.

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

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

Okay, good: Pippi’s included all of the elements absolutely necessary to a query. She’s also included some optional ones, bless her heart.

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: this explanation is spread across a couple of paragraphs, invading the space typically reserved for a description of a NF book’s argument, but Pippi makes a believable case.

Having shortchanged the description, however, has costs here: not having been told what precisely, other than being aware of the existence of electronic media, sets this gardening book aimed at parents trying to cajole kids outside apart from any other — indeed, the phrase Being the first hip gardening book of its kind implies there are no others to which it may be compared — it will be hard for Millicent to assess whether the rather creative marketing ideas in that last sentence will work.

And a word to the wise: most Millicents have been explicitly trained to regard the passive voice as inherently weak. The last two sentences of the marketing section, then, probably won’t hit her with the impact they deserve conceptually.

I just mention. Given the self-evident excellence of Pippi’s platform for this particular book, it might also make more sense to move her innovative promotional ideas later in the letter, after she has established her expertise. Speaking of which…

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book: this, in many ways, is the strongest part of the letter; it’s not hard to see why Pippi is well-qualified to write this particular book. Even better, the query makes it very clear that it would be easy for Hawkeye to convince an editor that this is an author who speaks with legitimate authority about gardening. Yet as positive and helpful as all of this information is, the way it is phrased will strike Millicent as odd — which in turn will, alas, render these quite legitimate platform points substantially less credible.

Take, for instance, the opening sentence of this section: I am an authorial voice for this guide, due to my experience working with a diverse population of children and farmers. I think we can all guess what this means — Pippi’s voice is authoritative on the subject — but again, it’s not prudent to leave the query-reader to guess. Especially here, where, frankly, the misspelling of Rachael Ray’s name would already raise some eyebrows on the credibility front.

To Millicent, this statement would just be confusing, even absent the typo. Why? Well, by definition, any writer’s voice is authorial, right? Authorial voice typically refers to the style of the writing, not the platform of the writer.

I’m absolutely delighted that Pippi put it this way, though, because this is something queriers do all the time: co-opting a literary-sounding term in an attempt to sound familiar with the publishing industry, and thus more professional. Because such terms are just everyday conversation to Millicent, this tactic tends not to impress her as much as aspiring writers hope — and if the term is misused in a query, the result can be disastrous.

Again: when in doubt about either an assertion or a phrase, leave it out. Trust me on this one.

The results are especially sad in this case, as this section of the query actually reads better without that particular sentence. Here’s that letter again; judge for yourself. While I was at it, I tinkered with some of the non-standard phrasing, as well as forestalling a food book-representing Millicent — and it’s far from uncommon for agents who represent gardening also to handle cookbooks — from quibbling about whether a cook’s appearing on television is the same thing as being one of the world’s most famous chefs. A lot of celebrity chefs do both, of course, but happily for restaurant-goers everywhere, fame in that field is not limited to the telegenic.

As you will see, rearranging this text made the letter longer. Fortunately, the skipped lines between the paragraphs are optional in a letter with indented paragraphs.

Come on, admit it: this reads as more professional, even to those of you who really admired the original version, doesn’t it? Pippi also comes across as more authoritative, not less, when she lets her genuinely impressive credentials speak for themselves, instead of summarizing them. Generally speaking, platforms stand up straighter and rise higher — from where Millicent is sitting, at least — if they are built on facts, rather than assertions.

Believe me now that little things can add up to one big impression? For a nonfiction querier, polishing a query with an eye to coming across as more professional, whether in one’s area of expertise or as an aspiring writer hoping to be hired by a publishing house to write the proposed book, is always a good investment of one’s time.

Best of luck with what sounds like a very useful and amusing book, Pippi, and thanks again for allowing me to use it as an example. There will be many Author! Author! community silently heaping gratitude upon you in the weeks and years to come, I promise you.

Another reader-penned query follows tomorrow. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XIV: I’m back, and in celebration of that, shall we all agree to strike the phrase worthless credential from the language, please?

Before I launch into either an explanation of my recent unanticipated hiatus from posting or the much-anticipated next installment in Queryfest, a brief announcement for Seattle-area members of the Author! Author! community: this coming Sunday, November 20th, I and fellow editors Kyra Freestar and Sarah Martinez shall be answering writers’ questions on matters editorial from 2 -3 p.m. (and longer, if the questions run hot and heavy) at the University Bookstore, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle — and it’s free, free, free, folks. How did this delightful event come about? In celebration of National Novel Writing Month, my very own Northwest Independent Editors’ Guild is sponsoring a panel straightforwardly entitled, Okay, I’ve Written a Novel — What Do I Do Now?

So if you have some stored-up questions or just would like to learn a bit more about what happens to manuscripts after writers type THE END, come on down. Although we will be concentrating on NaNoWriMo participants’ concerns, all writers are welcome, and I always like to meet my readers. After the panel, I would be happy to help you wrangle with any query-related concerns you might have.

Heck, I’ll even sweeten the deal: I’ll give query feedback to the first 15 Author! Author! readers who come up and introduce themselves to me at this editing extravaganza. (I’ll be the one wielding the sign-up list.) So come early, stay late, and don’t forget to print out a draft of your query!

Now, then, back to business — or rather, back to why I haven’t been open for business for the past couple of weeks. Remember last year, when my vehicle was the meat in a car pile-up sandwich? Well, every couple of months, a new symptom emerges, just to keep things interesting. The latest and perhaps the most irritating, although there’s certainly some competition for the latter honor: extended perusal of a back-lit screen made me feel as though I’d been doing loop-de-loops in a World War I-era biplane.

Curse you, Red Baron!

Not the optimal state for blogging, as you might imagine — and did I just hear some ambient tittering? Yes, long-time readers, I thought of that one, too: there is a certain dramatic fitness to your humble correspondent, a writing guru famed for urging aspiring writers to read their manuscripts — and their queries — IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD before sending them out to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, suddenly being forced to read everything in hard copy. Once again, the Muses prove they have a sense of humor.

Are those of you who didn’t titter scratching your heads? Since clean queries and submissions — i.e., pages free of typos, misspellings, grammatical difficulties, and the type of gaps in logic common to multiply-revised prose — are the minimum expectation of the publishing world, not an optional extra, it would behoove you to proof your query and any accompanying materials very, very carefully before sending ‘em off. Many Millicents are specifically instructed to stop reading after the second misspelled word — and are you positive that when you moved the eighth sentence from the first paragraph to the third, you didn’t accidentally lop off a word? Or repeat one?

It’s much, much easier to catch typos, logic gaps, and other professional reader-annoyers on the printed page than on my recent nemesis, the back-lit computer screen. Why? Well, most people read about 70% faster on a computer screen; it’s easier for the eye to gloss over punctuation, words, or even entire lines. On a printed page, you’re simply more likely to catch a typo — and if you take the time to read your missive out loud as well, you’re substantially more likely to notice a skipped or repeated word or concept.

Yes, pretty much everyone makes this kind of typo in e-mails these days. And no, Millicent is not going to cut your query any slack for reflecting that trend.

And if you are scratching your head afresh over how I managed to transform an explanation of my disappearance for a couple of weeks into an admonition to pay attention to the little things in your query, well, I’m a professional advice-giver. Don’t try this at home.

Last time, if you can remember that far back, I embarked upon a list of suggestions for plumping up that perennial plaguer of the previously unpublished, the credentials or platform paragraph of the query. All too often, those new to the game assume — wrongly — that the only relevant credential in an agent’s eyes would be a previous publication, preferably a book appealing to more or less the same target audience as the one being queried. But since it’s been true for a long time that having an agent is a prerequisite to getting published by a major U.S. house (or, indeed, even having one’s work considered for publication there), that kind of logic would result in a vicious circle: only the previously-agented and the darlings of literary magazines could possibly catch Millicent’s eye.

Simple observation of first-time authors’ jacket bios will tell you that’s not the case. Most first-time novelists and memoirists do not have previous publication credentials — and you’d be surprised by how often even platform-conscious nonfiction agents will take on book proposals from writers without so much as a book review in a college paper to their credit. As agents like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

Which is not to say that a well-crafted platform paragraph cannot substantially increase your query’s chances of wowing Millicent. It can — but constructing the right array of credentials to boost your credibility as the writer of your particular book may well require thinking in broader terms.

And I can already see some of you rolling your eyes — and based upon the ever-churning query rumor mill, I can’t say I am surprised. The writers’ conference circuit and the Internet are stuffed to the gills with blistering admonitions against breathing so much as a word about one’s less-than-National-Book-Award-winning literary efforts in a query; the usual argument is that if the credential in question didn’t involve national exposure, or at the very least hard cash in exchange for having typed out the relevant poem, article, or short story, Millicent will simply laugh her head off and reach for the form-letter rejection pile.

In practice, that’s often not true — so why it this rumor so pervasive? Heck, the very last time I posted on this topic, incisive reader Elizabeth brought up a very common misconception about what is and is not a credential of sufficient literary significance to include in one’s platform paragraph:

My sister is in marketing, and was a recruiter and hires writers all the time and told me the story credit in my resume from my school literary mag is worthless. “I would see that and assume you are still in school and trash your resume,” she said cruelly.

I left it out of the last query. In fact, I left out my two college degrees, one of which is in criminology (crime novel) also. Ironically, it contains the BEST descriptive stuff I’ve ever written for this book.

Have you ever noticed how frequently the word worthless comes up when talking about credentials, campers? In querying advice, it’s as closely associated with the platform paragraph and pitching as the term spry is to the elderly.

Don’t believe me? Okay, when’s the last time you heard a young person described as spry?)

As we saw last time, the use of worthless vis-à-vis writing credentials is not limited to the mouths and keyboards of those who give professional advice to writers trying to get published. It is ubiquitous on the web, in blogs, on writers’ fora — and, as a direct result, in many aspiring writers’ psyches. Practically every aspiring writer who has not yet published a book with a major house — thus the descriptor aspiring — harbors a deep, gnawing fear that none of his credentials are good enough to include in his platform paragraph. Or his platform, if he writes nonfiction.

When in doubt, the ubiquitous worthlessness-mongers tell him, leave it out.

“But this is my first novel!” he will protest. “Nothing I can possibly say will hide that fact from Millicent. She’ll see right through my six master’s degrees, seventeen magazine articles, and Olympic bronze medal in ski jumping. She’ll know all of that is only filler, a desperate attempt to slap a Band-Aid over the fact that I’ve not published a book before. I’d best not mention any of it.”

That would be a serious mistake: you, my well-rounded friend, are a previously-published author, and it’s very much in your interests to let Millicent know about it. (What are those articles, chopped liver?) And even if you didn’t have those publications in your background, sir, she would know from the rest of your credentials that you’re interesting.

Heck, if she knows her business, she’ll know that you might have a potentially gripping memoir in you. (When did you write all of those theses? While you were in mid-air?)

In the face of the barrage of advice about querying (and marketing, for that matter), it’s so easy for aspiring writers to lose sight of the fact that the platform paragraph is about you. It’s a conceptual container for information that might make Millicent say either, “Wow, this writer knows whereat she speaks,” or, “Wow, this writer knows her way around the writing process.”

Or even, “Wow, this writer sounds like someone my boss, Picky McAgentsdottir, would absolutely love to work with on a long-term, mutually-beneficial basis.” You would argue with that?

Unfortunately, many queriers do. Take the talented Elizabeth above: in excising her two best credentials, she fell into the all-too-common trap of confusing her platform paragraph with a résumé. So did her probably well-meaning sister, apparently: like so many queriers, they were thinking of a platform is of a relatively limited checklist of pre-approved credentials. If you can check Box X, then you can list that credential. If you can’t check any of the boxes, you simply have no credentials at all, and thus are better of not mentioning anything about your background.

Basically, this conception turns the platform into a Who’s Who entry: if you happen to have garnered one of the small handful of achievements for which there are boxes on the form, you have a listing. If you don’t, you don’t. Which means, in practice, that if all the available boxes are publications — or, in most first-time queriers’ minds, book publications with major houses — virtually no aspiring writer would have any credentials worth mentioning in a query letter.

Anybody see a logical problem with this? Like, for instance, the fact that if Millicent actually did take umbrage at non-literary (or even non-book literary) credentials, she would have to reject 99.99% of what crosses her desk?

That’s ridiculous, of course. It’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk. And it’s your job to convince her in your query letter that you and your book project are in the top 2%.

Following the common wisdom — that old saw that tells us that if you don’t have any of the narrowly-defined credentials, you should leave the platform paragraph out of your query altogether — may not be the best strategy. And it would be a suicidal strategy for writers of nonfiction, including memoir: just as part of what a nonfiction book proposer is marketing is her expertise in the subject matter of her book, part of what a memoirist is marketing is her personality.

So why on earth would a savvy querier want to pretend that she doesn’t have one? Or a background?

To a lesser extent, the same holds true for fiction: remember, any sensible agent seeking new clients is going to be looking for a career writer, not the proverbial author with only a single book in him. If you have traveled extensively, she might want to know that: you may have a travel memoir in you, or she may have a memoirist with a great story who could use a co-writer. And let’s not forget the fact that interesting people tend to do better at book readings, giving interviews, and other necessary promotional events in a successful author’s life.

She’s also going to want to know what you do for a living, not only because it will tell her more about you, but because your ability to take time off work will have a direct effect upon your ability to drop everything and make revisions. (Sorry to break that to you, ER-doctors-who-write.) On the flip side, if you travel for work, you’ll already be in a position to do book signings in multiple cities without your future publishing house’s having to cough up any dosh for traveling expenses.

Again, the down side to alerting Millicent to any of these selling points is?

Please don’t let yourself get talked out of — or talk yourself out of — including this kind of information in your query. If you find yourself tempted, think of Elizabeth’s example: what did she gain by cutting her two best credentials, ones that are absolutely germane to her current project? My police procedural is informed by my degree in criminology is, after all, precisely the kind of Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC) Millicent deliberately scans those platform paragraphs to find.

Let’s get down to brainstorming sources for your ECQLC. Last time, I concentrated on the standard writing résumé bullet points. To recap:

(1) Any experience that makes you an expert on the subject matter of your book.

(2) Any educational credentials you might happen to have, whether they are writing-related or not.

(3) Any honors that might have been bestowed upon you in the course of your long, checkered existence.

(4) Any former publications (paid or unpaid) or public speaking experience.

Today, we move on to less obvious stuff. You know, the things in your background that render you such a fascinating person. Stop hiding that medal under a bushel.

(5) Relevant life experience.
This is well worth including, if it helps fill in some important background for the book. Is your novel about coal miners based upon your twenty years of experience in the coal-mining industry? Is your protagonist’s kid sister’s horrifying trauma at a teen beauty pageant based loosely upon your years as Miss Junior Succotash? Have you noticed in your book category research that virtually every other book that has dealt even glancingly with life in a traveling carnival seems to be based upon conjecture about what goes on behind the Tilt-a-Whirl, while you know?

Mention it. There’s a reason that agents and editors habitually ask aspiring nonfiction writers, “So what’s your platform?” after all.

And don’t discount how much more credible your life experience might make you if you write fiction about it, either. Which author do you think would be easier for a publisher’s marketing department to convince a magazine writer to interview, one who has written a book whose protagonist is a day trader, or a great new author who’s just distilled her six years as a day trader into a behind-the-scenes novel?

Quite different, isn’t it? The amazing thing is that both of these statements could quite easily refer to the same book.

Make sure, by the way, that if your life experience is your most important credential, it appears first in your platform paragraph. If you are writing about firefighting, and you happen to be a firefighter, Millicent needs to know that right away. Don’t be coy — the connection with your book may seem self-evident to you, but remember, Millie will not be able to guess whether you have a perfect platform for writing your book unless you tell her about it.

What you should not do under any circumstances, however, is say that your novel is sort of autobiographical. To an agent or editor, this can translate as, “This book is a memoir with the names changed; I simply wasn’t brave enough to write it as nonfiction. Since it is based upon true events, I will be totally unwilling to revise it to your specifications. Oh, and someone I know may later come along and try to sue my future publisher. Please read my manuscript anyway.”

No wonder, then, that the words autobiographical and fiction appearing within the same sentence so often prompt Millicent to shout, “Next!”

The distinction I am drawing here is a subtle one, admittedly: basically, I’m urging you to say FALLING CINDERS draws upon my twenty years as a working firefighter instead of FALLING CINDERS is semi-autobiographical or — sacre bleu!This novel is partially based on my life.

To a well-trained Millicent, the first statement is completely different from the second two. Having the background experience to write credibly about a particular situation is a legitimate selling point: in interviews, you will be able to speak at length about the real-life situation, a very tangible plus for a first-time author. Nor is it particularly surprising as a credential: industry professionals tend to assume that fiction writers draw upon their own backgrounds for material.

Possibly because so many queries include phrases like, this story is semi-autobiographical.

But to them, a book that recounts true events in its author’s life is a memoir, not a novel. Contrary to the pervasive movie-of-the-week philosophy, the mere fact that a story is true does not automatically make it more appealing; in practice, it may merely mean potential legal problems.

Translation: until folks in the industry have forgotten about the A MILLION LITTLE PIECES fiasco — and they have not yet, by a long shot — it’s not going to be a good idea to highlight the fact that a novel is semi-autobiographical in your query. (Industry rumor has it that AMLP was originally sold as fiction, not memoir, but what did I just tell you about believing rumors?) Especially since a good third of queries (and most first-novel pitches) include some form of the sentiment, Well, it’s sort of autobiographical…

Just don’t do it. Trust me on this one.

(6) Associations and affiliations.
If you are writing on a topic that is of interest to some national organization, bring it up here: these people are already demonstrably into what you’re writing about, right? If it’s a large organization, go ahead and mention its size. (Left to her own devices, Millicent’s guesstimate would probably be low.) Also, if you are a member of a group willing to promote (or review) your work, you might want to bring that up — although you might want to clear make sure first that your group is in the habit of such promotion. Some possible examples:

The Harpo Marx Fan Club has 120,000 members in the U.S. alone, as well as a monthly newsletter; I have already contacted them about speaking at their national and regional conferences about my book, HEY! SPEAK UP, HARPO!

My main character’s struggle with multiple sclerosis will speak to the 400,000 people the National MS Society estimates currently have the disease. Although roughly 200 Americans are diagnosed each week, relatively few recent novels have addressed the diagnosis and treatment process.

Oh, and before I forget, I should reiterate my admonition from last time: I pulled the examples on this list out of thin air. Probably not the best idea to quote me on any of ‘em in your queries, therefore.

Speaking of statistics yanked from the ether, do make absolutely certain than any statistics you cite are true. Long-time readers, chant along with me now: just because an assertion appears on the Internet does not necessarily mean that it is true; there is no Fact-Checking Fairy wafting from website to website, correcting exaggerated claims or false assertions. Remember, “But I read it online someplace!” is not going to strike people who produce books for a living as unassailable research.

Because so many queriers do include wild claims — if Millicent had a dime for every time she’s seen this book will interest every woman in America!, she would have started her own publishing house years ago — it’s an excellent idea to proof your query for anything that might conceivably be mistaken for such an unsubstantiated assertion. Generally speaking, you’re better off avoiding superlatives altogether: presenting your book as the best, the most original, or the only is pretty easy for our Millie to dismiss.

Not sure why? Okay, here is a rather popular query assertion. If you were Millicent, would you be swayed by it?

My book is the only novel ever written on the subject of competitive bowling. Although many left-handed women bowl, I am the first ever to put pen to paper about it.

Even if Millicent is entirely unfamiliar with the history of the bowling novel, the claim that this author is the only one to write about it is not particularly plausible. Not only do agents and editors tend not to find this kind of argument convincing — they’re far more likely to assume that the writer has just not bothered to do much literary market research.

And no, they would not consider a quick Amazon search exhaustive. Besides, manuscripts often spend a couple of years in press prior to publication: how does this writer know that fifteen such books have not been acquired by major houses within the last six months?

Dialing back the superlatives is safer. Better yet, back your assertions with concrete numbers.

Although over a hundred million people currently bowl for pleasure or profit, and bowling organizations have more dues-paying members than any sport other than football, novels set against a bowling backdrop are relatively rare.

Okay, why is this stronger ECQLC than our earlier example? It makes the point about how few novels there are about bowlers, but it does so by establishing the size of a group already demonstrably interested in the book’s subject matter. It also, cleverly, shows that many of these people are already spending money in pursuit of this interest. Even if only a fraction of that 100,000,000 read, that’s a pretty hefty target market — and that’s not even considering all of the people who know and love bowlers and thus might conceivably be looking for books to give them as birthday and holiday presents.

(7) Trends and recent bestsellers.
If there is a marketing, popular, or research trend that touches on the subject matter of your book, add it to your list. (Don’t mentally shake off that last sentence. Not everything on your brainstorming list is going to end up in your query letter; give yourself some creative leeway.) If there has been a recent upsurge in sales of books on your topic, or a television show devoted to it, mention it.

Recent, in industry terms, means within the last five years, by the way. JAWS was indeed one of the biggest sellers of the 20th century, but what was selling in 1974 will not necessarily sell today.

I hate to break it to writers of long experience, but Millicent probably had not been born by 1974 — or 1984, for that matter. Agency screening tends to be a young person’s game; select your pop culture references accordingly.

Do be careful, though, not to imply that everyone who watches a popular TV show will buy a book that’s similar to it: while TV stars’ memoirs tend to sell well, due to their wide name recognition, not everyone who watches Mad Men would necessarily knock over another bookstore browser to grab a novel about people who work in advertising. Then, too, even the least experienced Millicent is well aware that in the couple of years between when an agent picks up a new writer and when the book might reasonably be expected to appear on the shelves, the show might easily become less popular. Or even go off the air entirely.

(In response to that loud unspoken “Whaaa?” I just heard out there: after you land an agent, figure one year for you to revise it to your agent’s specifications and for the agent to market it — a conservative estimate, incidentally — and another year between signing the contract and the book’s actually hitting the shelves. If my memoir had been printed according to its original publication timeline, it would have been the fastest agent-signing to bookshelf progression of which anyone I know had ever heard: 16 months, a positively blistering pace for a book about something other than current events. )

Even if trends support a secondary subject in your book, they are still worth including. If you can back your assertion with legitimate numbers (see last weekend’s earlier posts on the joys of statistics), all the better. Remember, Millicent’s not a demographer: leaving her to guess how big your target audience is may not help your query’s credibility.

Last year’s major bestseller, THAT HORRIBLE GUMBY by Pokey, sold over 97 million copies. It is reasonable to expect that its readers will be anxious to read Gumby’s reply.

As the recent Occupy Wall Street protests have demonstrated, many Americans are suspicious of the influence of money in politics. HEY! I WANNA RUN FOR CONGRESS! provides a step-by-step guide for those wishing to build a grass-roots political campaign.

(8) Proof that you are writing about a topic that already interests a bunch of living, breathing potential readers
At risk of repeating myself, if you are writing about a condition affecting human beings, there are almost certainly statistics available about how many people in the U.S. are affected by it. We Americans are unparalleled at numerically documenting our experiences; heck, our constitution actually requires that we count everybody every ten years.

Take advantage of that affection for the concrete number. Get your information from the most credible sources possible, and cite them.

Formby the Ferret may be an unusual protagonist for a cozy mystery, but popular interest in ferrets has been on the rise. Ferret ownership has risen 28% in the last five years, according to the National Rodent-Handlers Association.

750,000 Americans are diagnosed annually with Inappropriate Giggling Syndrome, the condition afflicting this book’s protagonist.

According to a recent study in the Toronto Star, 90% of Canadians have receding hairlines, pointing to an immense potential Canadian market potential for MASSAGE YOUR WAY BACK TO BUSHINESS.

(Had I mentioned that the statistics cited here are not to be relied upon — or quoted as fact?)

(9) Recent press coverage.
I say this lovingly, of course, but as I mentioned last time, people in the publishing industry have a respect for the printed word that borders on the mystical. Minor Greek deities were less revered. If you can find recent articles related to your topic, list them as evidence that the public is eager to learn more about it.

So far in 2010, the Chicago Tribune has run 347 articles on mining accidents, pointing to a clear media interest in the safety of mine shafts.

In the last six months, the New York Times has written twelve times about Warren G. Harding; clearly the public is clamoring to hear more about this important president’s love life.

See how impressive that last one was? And that’s not easy to pull off, considering that by virtually everyone’s admission, the Harding Administration was one of the least interesting, ever; Silent Cal was no Rudolf Valentino, after all.

(10) Your book’s relation to current events and future trends.
I hesitate to mention this one, because it’s actually not the current trends that dictate whether a book pitched or queried now will fly off the shelves after it is published: it’s the events that will be happening then. Like popular TV shows, current events are inherently tricky as selling points, since it takes a long time for a book to move from proposal to bookstand. Ideally, your query to an agent should speak to the trends of at least two years from now, when the book will actually be published.

And, let’s face it, unless you happen to be able to convince Millicent that you are the reincarnation of the Amazing Kreskin, arguing that your book will serve the immediate factual needs of readers a couple of years hence is typically a pretty hard case to make. It’s easy to stray into the kinds of hard-to-verify claims (Ten years hence, we will all get around by hovercraft — and readers of my fantasy trilogy, UP IN THE AIR, will be well prepared to glide into the future.) or black-and-white superlative abuse we discussed above (Everyone who will fill out a birth certificate in years to come will want to read WHAT YOUR BABY’S NAME SAYS ABOUT YOU AS A PARENT.)

However, if you can make a plausible case for the future importance of your book, go ahead and include it on your list. You can also project a current trend forward.

At its current rate of progress through the courts, Christopher Robin’s habeas corpus case will be heard by the Supreme Court in late 2011, guaranteeing substantial press coverage for Pooh’s exposé, OUT OF THE TOY CLOSET.

If tooth decay continues at its current rate, by 2015, no Americans will have any teeth at all. Thus, it follows that a book on denture care should be in ever-increasing demand.

(11) Particular strengths of the book.
You’d be surprised at how well a statement like, BREATHING THROUGH YOUR KNEES is the first novel in the last two decades to take on the heartbreak of kneecap dysplasia can work in a pitch or a query letter. If it’s true, that is.

If it isn’t, of course, or if the writer simply didn’t do his homework well enough to know that it isn’t, the query’s toast. But as someone who has been suffering from kneecap dysplasia over the last year, I find that I long to read this novel even though I know it doesn’t exist.

I am, in fact, the target audience for this book. Which is kind of funny: when I made this example up several years ago, my knees were consistently pointing in the right direction.

Ask yourself: what is my book’s primary distinguishing characteristic? How is it different and better from other offerings currently available within its book category? How is it different and better than the most recent bestseller on the subject?

One caveat: if you engage in a direct comparison with an already-published book, avoid cutting it down. Try to stick to pointing out how your book is good, not how another book is bad.

Why? Well, publishing is a small world: you can never be absolutely sure that the Millicent or her boss didn’t go to college with the editor of the book on the negative end of the comparison. Or date the author. Or, in the agent’s case, represented the book himself.

Stick to what is genuinely one-of-a-kind about your book — and don’t be afraid to draw direct factual comparisons with other books in the category that have sold well recently.

While Andre the Giant’s current bestseller, EYESHADOW YOUR WAY TO SUCCESS, deals obliquely with the problem of eyelash loss, my book, EYELASH: THE KEY TO A HAPPY, HEALTHY FUTURE, provides much more detailed guidelines on eyelash care for the non-wrestler.

Lest those of you who write literary fiction think that this one does not apply to you: have you given any serious thought lately to how many queries claim that a book will interest readers simply because it is well-written?

Which you should avoid saying, by the way: few things turn agents, editors, and the Millicents who screen for them faster than a query in which a writer reviews his own book. Let your fine writing speak for itself; your job in the query is to make the case that the subject matter of the book and/or something in your background, either as a writer or in the rest of your life, will make readers want to grab your book off the shelf, as opposed to any other.

Seriously, this is a notorious industry pet peeve: almost universally, agents and editors tend to respond badly when a writer actually says that his book is well-written; they want to make up their minds on that point themselves. It tends to provoke a “Show, don’t tell!” response.

In fact, it’s not at all unusual for agents to tell their screeners to assume that anyone who announces in a query letter This is the best book in the Western literary canon! must necessarily be a bad writer — and one whose literary intake is probably fairly meager at that.

“What on earth must this writer think is currently on the market,” Millicent says under her breath, reaching swiftly for the form-letter rejection stack, “if he thinks he can make a claim like this. I’d bet a wooden nickel that he hasn’t read any literary fiction that’s come out within the last seven years. Next!”

Cast your selling points as marketing realities, though, and she’ll be pleasantly surprised — as long as what you say is true. If you can legitimately say, for instance, that your book features a sensitive characterization of a dyslexic 2-year-old, and thus will speak to the parents of the 4-7% of children who are dyslexic, that will be heard as a statement of fact, not a value judgment.

Yes, yes, I know: many of you have written perfectly lovely literary novels difficult whose audiences are difficult to pin down in this manner, but to Millicent, a statement like my protagonist’s challenges will appeal to college-educated women is practically tautological: college-educated women form the overwhelming majority of literary fiction readers. How, then, would such an assertion make your book sound any different — or any more appealing to literary fiction readers — than all of the other books seeking to capture that group of readers?

If you genuinely cannot come up with any subject-matter-related way to set your book apart, well, your topic must be pretty abstract. But even then, you could still come up with some selling points by asking yourself: how does my book deal with language differently from anything else currently on the market? How does its dialogue reveal character in a new and startling way? Or, to put it in the most ego-satisfying manner possible, why might a professor choose to teach my novel in an English literature class?

Remember, that you need to express these traits in terms of facts, not subjective assessment. It’s perfectly legitimate to say that the writing is very literary — that’s industry-speak — but don’t actually say that the writing is gorgeous.

Even if it undeniably is. That’s the kind of assessment that publishing types tend to trust only if it comes from one of three sources: a well-respected contest (in the form of an award), the reviews of previous publications — and the evidence of their own eyes.

(12) Any research or interviews you may have done for the book.
If you have done significant research or extensive interviews, list it here. This is especially important if you are writing a nonfiction book, as any background that makes you an expert on your topic is a legitimate part of your platform.

Ricky Martin has spent the past eighteen years studying the problem of hair mousse failure, rendering him one of the world’s foremost authorities.

Tiger Woods interviewed over 6000 women for his book, HOW TO KEEP THE PERFECT MARRIAGE PERFECT.

(13) Promotion already in place.
Yes, the mind does immediately spring to the kind of resources commonly associated with having a strong platform — name recognition, your own television show, owning a newspaper chain, and the like — but more modest promotional efforts are worth listing as well. Why? Well, first-time authors are increasingly expected to do most, if not all, of their own book promotion.

Oh, should I have warned those of you new to the biz to sit down before I said that? Any dry cracker should help clear that nausea right up.

Seriously, think about it: a writer already poised to promote her book would be a boon to an agent or editor. Nor need you be the principal idea-monger of a marketing firm to be able to make a pretty good case that you’re already getting your promotional machine warmed up. Being the organizer of your local libraries’ monthly meet-the-author forum certainly would count — because, really, who would be in a better position to blandish speaking time with your local library once your book comes out.

(Note to the 11% of you who just cried out in anguish, “But my local library doesn’t have such a program!”: has it occurred you to start one yourself? Speaking as both someone who grew up surrounded by working authors, half the librarians in the country, community and school alike, and fully two-thirds of the authors would line up to kiss you on the lips if you would volunteer to coordinate such a program in your town. And can you think of a better way to meet your favorite authors?)

Don’t engage in wishful thinking here, though; the point is not to speculate about what you might do in future, as nonfiction writers must in the marketing plan portion of their book proposals, but to talk about what you could do if your book dropped, say, now-ish. For platform paragraph purposes (try saying that three times fast), only include promotion that does indeed already exist. Or that you are positive that you can make exist by the time you are having your first honest-to-goodness conversation with an agent who wants to represent your book.

Establishing a website for your writing is a good start — and it’s something practically any aspiring writer with Internet access can do, even with the most minimal resources. Having a website already established that lists an author’s bio, a synopsis of the upcoming book, and future speaking engagements carries a disproportionate weight in the publishing industry, because, frankly, the publishing industry as a whole has been a TRIFLE slow to come alive to the promotional possibilities of the Internet, beyond simply throwing up static websites.

So almost any web-based marketing plan you may have is going to come across as impressive. Consider having your nephew (or some similarly computer-savvy person who is fond enough of you to work for pizza) put together a site for you, if you don’t already have one.

A word to the wise, though: don’t even consider listing your website in your query along with a suggestion that Millicent take a gander at your work there. I can tell you now that she won’t; she simply doesn’t have time.

(14) What makes your take on the subject matter of your book fresh.
I like to see every brainstormed list of selling points include at least one bullet’s worth of material addressing this point. If YOU don’t know what makes your book different and better than what is already on the shelves, how can you expect an agent or editor to guess?

So what makes your work new, exciting, original, and/or a genuinely significant contribution to the current market in your chosen book category? Again, what we’re looking for here are not merely qualitative assessments (This is the best book on sail boarding since MOBY DICK!), but content-filled comparisons (Currently, there is a sad dearth of how-to guides on the market for the reader interested in the fine art of harpooning from a sailboard. HERE, FISHIE, FISHIE! will bring the most up-to-date technology to bear on this difficult challenge.)

Finished brainstorming? Terrific. Now you can write your platform paragraph.

After you do, though, don’t throw out your list of selling points — that’s going to come in handy down the line. Even more so if you take the time now to put it in a format you can use again and again.

How? Start by going through your list and figuring out what are the best points, from a marketing point of view. Cull the less impressive stuff. Ideally, you will want to end up with somewhere between 3 and 10 selling points, enough to fit comfortably as bullet points on a double-spaced page.

Then reduce each point to a single sentence. Yes, this is a pain for those of us who spend our lives meticulously crafting beautiful paragraphs, but trust me, when you are consulting a list in a hurry, simpler is better.

When your list is finished, label it MARKETING POINTS, and keep it by your side until your first book signing. Or hand to your agent when she’s ready to start pitching to editors. Or pull it out when you are practicing answering the question, “So what’s your platform?”

Heck, you might even want to use it as a study guide before you give interviews about your book, because once you’ve come up with a great list of reasons that your book should sell, you’re going to want to bring those reasons up every time you talk about the book, right?

Oh, and keep a copy handy to your writing space. It’s a great pick-me-up for when you start to ask yourself, “Remind me — why I am I putting in all of this work?”

Yes, generating selling points is a lot of trouble, but believe me, in retrospect, you will be glad to have a few of these reasons written down before you meet with — or query — the agent of your dreams. Trust me on this one. And remember me kindly when, down the line, your agent or editor raves about how prepared you were to market your work. There’s more to being an agent’s dream client than just showing up with a beautifully-written book, you know: there’s arriving with a fully-stocked writer’s toolkit.

It’s great to be back, campers. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part V: is this my best side?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wrong names query

When he intended to send this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quoth Millicent: “Next!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel a golden oldie coming on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pitchingpalooza, part XXV: riddle me this

A couple of years ago, in the midst of the test of human endurance and sheer grit known as the Seattle Ring Cycle — four Wagner operas over the course of five days, presented by the same group of singers — I saw something I had never seen before: the orchestra leaving its pit during the curtain call, at precisely the moment when the singer playing the lead in Die Walküre was walking forward for her solo curtain call. (And no, that’s not a picture of Brünnhilde; it’s Frank Gorshin as the Riddler on the old Batman show, a national treasure.)

Why would this very respectable and accomplished group of people have done such a rude and unprofessional thing? Were they simply exhausted, as the audience was, by so many consecutive hours of sitting? Did the golden hour of overtime click in thirty seconds hence? Had a swarm of hornets abruptly descended upon the string section?

All valid possibilities, I suppose, but my guess would be that they staged a walk-out for the same reason the audience members in my part of the balcony stopped yelling “Bravo,” sat down, and engaged in barely-audible golf claps when Brünnhilde tripped lightly to the front of the stage. They felt disappointed.

It wasn’t because the singer didn’t have a marvelous voice; far from it, as she demonstrated in Act III. Nor was the problem her acting: the lady was — and is — world-famous for playing this role. Unfortunately, in anticipation of Act III, she had chosen not to sing at full voice in Act II. As a result, the Valkyrie most closely associated with belting out the top notes was barely audible past the tenth row for a good hour.

An hour, alas, that contained the single best-known aria in Western opera, a little ditty that runs something like this: