Queryfest, part XXVIII: not so sorry I could not travel both

Since I have been sneaking discussions of memoir craft and marketing — matters discussed thoughtfully online with astonishing rarity, for some reason — into our last few posts on querying, I would like to begin today with a commendation for reader Marc, who goes by the moniker Marc in MD on the Daily Kos. He’s been running a genuinely interesting and helpful series of posts there on the often frustrating and abstruse process of pulling together a nonfiction book proposal and sending it out to agents. In particular, I would strongly recommend his really good post on the process of figuring out what one’s book’s competition actually is to anyone even considering writing a proposal. Well done, Marc!

Speaking of memoir (again), I didn’t feel that I could close Queryfest’s examination of memoir querying without talking about a travel memoir. Travel memoir querying presents its own special joys challenges, does it not? On the bright side, it usually has a pretty well-defined story arc: the memoirist generally begins in an environment not too dissimilar from his target audience’s, travels to an environment quite dissimilar, then returns. Or doesn’t, as the mood and world events strike; there have been quite a few perfectly wonderful travel memoirs by writers who only returned to their native lands in book form. In any case, there’s a trajectory defined by Here, There, and how the protagonist was changed by the experience of moving between them.

That level of clarity about where to begin and end the book might well strike some non-travel memoirists as enviable. Not being sure what to include and what to glide past as summary is, after all, one of the fundamental dilemmas of the memoir trade. Few of us have been lucky enough to live lives featuring a self-evident story arc — or, thank goodness, unlucky enough to live ones in which every waking moment was stuffed to the gills with dramatic tension.

Let’s face it, just chronicling every event, meaningless and not, would be stultifying on the page. The art of memoir lies largely in selection, picking and choosing amongst the detritus of a life well lived to produce one heck of a story.

The travel memoirist must be selective as well, of course; the time she checked her luggage at J.F.K. is going to thrill readers considerably less, in all likelihood, than the incident in which she rescued that troupe of traveling acrobats from an angry mob of marauding squid. But the very fact of picking up and moving from one part of the globe to another automatically provides at least the rudiments of a dramatic structure.

Two roads may well have diverged in a yellow wood, but dag nab it, you didn’t travel both. You’re going to write about the one less traveled.

Yet at the querying stage, presenting that particular road’s appeal to our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, can be awfully difficult. And all too often, your garden-variety travel memoirist does not even realize that he needs to make the case that a reader will want to follow him — as opposed to any other traveler — through that yellow wood at all.

Those of you who just felt a wave of nausea washing over you are not in fact seasick. You’re merely savvy enough about memoir marketing to realize that I’m about to bring up the dreaded matter of platform.

Platform, for those of you new to the term, is the array of experience, credentials, research, and/or celebrity status (however defined) that makes a writer uniquely qualified to write a particular nonfiction book — and, equally important, will make potential readers believe s/he is the best person in the known universe to write it. In nonfiction circles, great writing generally is not enough to sell a book to a publisher; a great platform is usually necessary as well.

Why bring this unpleasant concept up now, you ask? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to all of you memoirists (but if I don’t, who will?), but at querying time, what’s going to convince Millicent that her boss, the agent of your dreams, absolutely needs to take a gander at your book proposal is not merely how beautifully you describe the story arc of your memoir, but your platform for writing it.

I sense many of you clutching at your hearts, gasping for breath, but honestly, saying that a nonfiction writer requires a platform is not as limiting as you may think. Platforms come in all shapes and sizes. Someone who has actually climbed K2, for instance, would be inherently more credible writing about the ascent experience than someone who had not, but then, a professor who had devoted the last 15 years to the study of mountaineering could also write authoritatively about it, merely from a different perspective. Then, too, a baby born halfway up might have some interesting things to say about the mother who bore her in transit, as would the journalist whose beat included interviewing everyone who made the ascent. And there’s just no denying that the movie star clambering a third of the way up in order to research a role might well be able to sell a few books about crampons.

My point, should you care to know it, is that contrary to perennial rumors endemic to the writers’ conference circuit, one does not have to be a celebrity in the appearing-on-a-sitcom sense in order to have a convincing platform for writing a particular story. Although even the most cursory glance at the memoirs currently gracing the shelves of a well-stocked bookstore will tell you that having appeared on TV certainly helps.

So does winning an Oscar. Or a presidential election. I’m guessing, though, that those fortunate enough already to be household names (or unfortunate enough, depending upon one’s perspective) are not much given to trawling the Internet for querying advice.

Legions of travel memoirists have had their hands raised patiently since I first brought up platform, I notice. “But Anne,” you intrepid souls protest, and who could blame you? “I have the best conceivable platform for my story: I actually lived it. I took the trip in question, and I happen to be talented enough to write about it exceedingly well. Since that’s self-evident — I could hardly have written about the experience, at least as nonfiction, had I not experienced it — I don’t need to worry about presenting a platform in my query, right?”

Oh, how many memoirists fall into that trap! And with good reason: it’s hard to argue that dear self is not the world’s leading authority on one’s own life.

But that’s true of any memoirist, right? If simply being a true story written by the person who lived it were sufficient to assure Millicent’s attention, all a memoir querier would have to do would be to say, “Hey, this is my story.”

And, indeed, that is more or less what most memoir queriers do. The result tends to look a bit like this — and, as always, if you’re having trouble reading this or any query example, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

“Oh, come on, Anne,” those of you who haven’t been working your way through Queryfest scoff. “The average memoir query isn’t that bad.”

Okay, you caught me: it isn’t. The spelling is usually far worse.

Seriously, you’d be astounded at how often Millicent sees memoir queries with no sign of any platform at all. It’s not precisely that these memoirists are expecting her to guess why a reader predisposed to pick up a true story might grab the book being queried, as opposed to any other, off the bookstore shelf — but honestly, they might as well. Because, as you can see, poor Millie is left to speculate. Can you really blame her for assuming — correctly or not — that if the query doesn’t mention a platform, the writer doesn’t have one?

I hear you gulp, memoirists, but lest we forget, just because something really happened does not necessarily mean it will make gripping reading. Let’s go ahead and coin an aphorism: For a memoir query to be successful, it must make evident not only the premise of the story being told, but also why the storyteller is credible — and why a reader would want to read her tale.

That should not come as a tremendous surprise, I hope, to the Queryfest faithful. As we already know, a nonfiction query needs to contain all of the following elements:

1. The book’s title.

2. The book’s category, expressed in existing category terms. If the category does not make it apparent that the book is nonfiction, the query should say so.

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

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

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

6. (Optional, but still a good idea.) 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.

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

8. The writer’s contact information in all cases, and a SASE if querying by mail.

Poor IB’s query above, as you may see, does not deliver on a number of these points. The letter is devoid of a platform paragraph, as well as any indication of the target readership. Millicent is left equally in the dark about why IB chose to query her boss at all. Instead, IB throws away valuable query space in informing her — repeatedly — of something that she already knows: that a memoir is, by definition, the true story of something that happened to the writer.

Travel memoirists fall into this particular trap quite often, and for precisely the same reason IB did: they don’t think about the necessity of establishing a platform. Why bother? Just as it is tempting to believe that being the person who actually lived through the described experiences is a sufficient platform for any memoir, with a travel memoir, the justification tends to be I came, I saw, I wrote about it.

To Millicent’s eye, however, that’s only the beginning. She also wants to know what makes this travel experience worthy of an entire book, rather than, say, an article or two? And if a particular traveling experience can indeed carry a 300-page memoir — and many can — what renders this traveler more qualified to write about it than another?

Well might you shift uncomfortably, travel memoirists. These are pretty pointed questions, ones that many memoirists would prefer not to address. “Why, it was an interesting experience!” these fine souls cry indignantly. “And I’m a good writer. Why shouldn’t I write about it?”

Calm down, indignant travelers: no one is saying that you shouldn’t delve in to the highly competitive (especially since EAT, PRAY, LOVE) travel memoir market. But at the risk of repeating myself, the mere fact that a talented writer happened to take a specific trip does not necessarily a strong memoir make. Yes, it all depends on the writing, but as with any nonfiction book, quality of the writing is not the only factor an agent would have to consider in weighing whether she can sell a proposal. She also has to consider platform, the array of credentials, name recognition, and experience that renders an author a credible author for that particular book — and that the publishing house can legitimately use to make that case to potential readers.

Yes, for a travel memoir, the writer does in fact need to have the trip in question and write about it well. Those are necessary qualifications, but not sufficient — and that comes as a great surprise to most first-time memoirists, whether or not they are writing about travel. Even though they produce book proposals, like any other aspiring nonfiction writer, they tend not to think of themselves as what they are in the publishing industry’s eyes: writers applying for the job of writing a particular book.

For that reason, a platform paragraph is as indispensable in a memoir query as in any other nonfiction query. Unless Millicent knows what your platform is, how can she assess whether you are the best conceivable author for this particular story?

Still, I sense some skepticism floating around out there in the ether. “Okay, Anne,” a travel memoirist pipes up, “I can see where that makes sense for your run-of-the-mill memoir, or even one for a relatively mundane trip. But I traveled to an exotic place! I saw amazing things! And, fortunately for my memoir’s story arc, I also did some darned interesting things! Surely, in my case, the story’s appeal would be self-evident to Millicent.”

I wouldn’t bet on that, traveling man; in order to request your book proposal, she’s still going to have to make the case to your boss that she might be able to sell your story. That’s true, I’m afraid, no matter how inherently fascinating a first-person travel account may be.

But some of you are not going to believe that, I see, until I give you a concrete example. And why should you?

Please join me, then, in considering a query submitted by brave, intrepid, and resourceful Author! Author! reader Dorothy Gale. (Not her real name, of course.) Clearly, Dorothy has many of the most laudable characteristics of the successful travel memoirists: not only did she take a wildly interesting trip to a far-off land, do many interesting things when she got there, and write about it, she also was courageous enough to volunteer her query for our scrutiny. That’s an author that I’d follow anywhere.

She has even written what the overwhelming majority of travel memoirists would consider a superlative query. It’s well-written, makes the trip sound legitimately fascinating, and seems to be targeted to the right agent. Take a gander:

I could quibble a bit about formatting — the date and closing are pretty far from the actual center of the page, and there is only one space after the colon in the title, rather than the requisite two — but you must admit, this sounds like one heck of a trip. Good job, Dorothy!

But is that going to be enough to wow Millicent? To answer that question, let’s whip out our list of query requisites again.

1. The book’s title: check.

2. The book’s category: check.

3. A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent: technically, yes, but the vagueness of because of your successful representation of books like… seems a trifle hesitant.

Also, does the repetitive structure of those first two sentences encourage Millicent to read on? Those of us who teach querying like to call this kind of phrasing a checklist opening: yes, all of the necessary elements are present, but they are introduced flatly, as if the writing style in a query didn’t matter.

It does matter, however, very much. Chant it with me, Queryfesters: every syllable of a query is a writing sample, just as much as every word of a submission is. Since agents can only judge writing talent by what’s in front of them, it’s reasonable to expect them to evaluate the query, as well as the synopsis and author bio, for writing quality.

Here, the checklist opening does not do justice to the writing in the rest of the query, let alone the book proposal or manuscript. Look how much stronger the query is if we vary the phrasing and remove the vagueness in that first paragraph — and, while we’re at it, correct those minor formatting quibbles.

More confident-sounding, isn’t it? I shan’t pretend, however, that reworking the wording didn’t require tightening the signature space considerably. Never fear; we shall address that down the line. In the meantime, let’s continue with our list of desirata.

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: this is the query’s strength, and what a strength it is! This description is stuffed to the gills with one-of-a-kind details. I’m delighted to see that Dorothy has done such a bang-up job on the single most important section of her query. Good job, Dot!

Again, we have the necessary element in spades, but does this presentation make the most of the story? To someone who reads as quickly as Millicent, cramming the entire story into a single paragraph is likely to result in some details getting lost. And to what does that line about research refer?

See what a difference it makes to break it up a little. And, because I can’t resist, to punch up the punctuation and tighten the phrasing a bit.

The story jumps off the page now, doesn’t it? Yet still I sense you are not entirely satisfied, you picky folks.

“But Anne!” the sharp-eyed among you cry, and rightly so. “It’s longer than a page now!”

Yes, I know. Didn’t I tell you we would be attending to that once we’d made sure Dorothy’s query included all of the requisite elements? Speaking of which, let’s move on.

5. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book : not a sign of one, other than the obvious, the fact that Dorothy did the things she describes so well.

Again, is that enough? Possibly, but probably not. The case being made here should seem familiar by now: she came, she saw, she wrote about it. Or, as she puts it, because I lived in Nepal and speak fluent Nepali, I am able to bring this world alive from the inside out.

The reference to linguistic skills works well, but Millicent already knows that Dorothy lived in Nepal, doesn’t she? So is repeating it the best means of establishing her platform?

The thing is: I have no idea; it may be. As much as I would love to be able to whip up a convincing list of credentials for our Dorothy, I regret to say that I cannot: I don’t know what her platform is for this book. Her query did not tell me.

Sorry about that. I’m also sorry about the high probability that since Dorothy mentions no credentials, previous publications, or other platform elements, Millicent will simply assume that she doesn’t have any. Which I’m guessing isn’t actually the case here.

Again, though, I don’t know; the query does not provide the information I would need to make that assessment. While I could, for the sake of example, engage in some wildly irresponsible hypothesizing, that wouldn’t really help Dorothy improve her query, would it? Let’s proceed.

6. 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: Dorothy did quite a nice job of this, I think. She makes an excellent case that quite a few potential readers travel to Nepal — and, by implication, might conceivably want to read about it before they go. It is a trifle strange, though, that the statistic she uses is two years old; a more recent statistic would have served the query better.

It’s entirely possible, of course, that this was simply the most recent statistic available when Dorothy wrote her query; it’s not unusual for tourism statistics to take a year or two to come out. What do you think, though, of her contention that only people who have made similar trips will be interested in her story? Do you think that’s the case?

Personally, I would be astounded if that were true; in my professional opinion, she’s limiting her target audience unnecessarily. In my experience, world travelers are not the only people who read travel memoirs. Indeed, the armchair traveler tends to read about many places she never visits in the flesh.

Who else might read this book? Well, for starters, presumably, for every person in the English-speaking world who actually makes it to Nepal, there are five, fifty, or a thousand individuals that want to go but lack the resources, time, and/or gumption, right? And would it be trite of me to suggest that some fraction of the already-established readership for books like the aforementioned EAT, PRAY, LOVE might have some interest in picking up a memoir like this?

I leave that one to your good judgment. But if you’ll permit my nudging your thought processes a little, may I remind you that people in the publishing industry tend to think of target audience in terms of who has a history of buying what kind of book?

7. A brief closing paragraph thanking the agent for considering the project: again, the required information is here, but I have to say, the wording feels a trifle abrupt to me.

Why? Well, that bit about the proposal is stating something that Millicent actually will find self-evident. Naturally, Dorothy will send a proposal, if Hawkeye asks for it; Millicent would simply assume that she would not be querying unless she had a completed proposal in hand. So why take up valuable query page space mentioning it?

Especially when, as the eagle-eyed have already pointed out, space is at a premium now. Let’s see if considering our final necessity will show us a way out of that predicament.

8. The writer’s contact information: yes, it’s here, in all of its glory. If only we could fit it on the page!

Happily, there’s a trick to this. Look at how much page space is freed up by the simple expedient of moving the querier’s contact information into the header.

More than enough, as you may see, to tinker with the last couple of paragraphs. The overall effect is pretty compelling, isn’t it?

“Ah,” you will say, “but you have not freed up enough room to add a platform paragraph. What do you plan to do about that, Anne?”

Me? Not a thing: as I said before, I just don’t know enough about Dorothy’s background to whip up a convincing platform paragraph. It’s possible — although, again, I suspect it’s unlikely — that the single best plank in that platform is precisely what she thought it was: that she had lived there.

If so, I would be reluctant to tinker further with this query; Millicent may well be willing to wait until she reads the proposal to learn the ins and outs of Dorothy’s platform. But see how a relatively small number of changes maximizes the argumentative impact of the case she was already making?

If she did decide to add a platform paragraph — and I’m hoping you do, Dot — she could free up the requisite lines in a couple of ways. In a pinch, she could get away with only three skipped lines, rather than four, for the signature (although a classically-trained Millicent would prefer that she didn’t). She could also lose a line of empty space between the date and Hawkeye’s address; there’s some extra space here.

There’s a final expedient that would free up even more room. Any guesses?

I’ll do better than tell you the answer to that question; I shall show you. Heck, I’ll even make up a platform paragraph from whole cloth, just to show you it’s possible to shoehorn one into this letter. Watch me:

Oodles of room, isn’t there? I could even add a reference to EAT, PRAY, LOVE, if I so chose.

Notice, please, that only two of the credentials in the faux platform paragraph are publications — and those are online. They also happen to be credits that Dorothy could self-induce, if you catch my drift.

Hey, if anything is stopping her from starting a blog to begin to attract an audience for her memoir, I certainly don’t know about it. Ditto for any insurmountable impediment to her contacting bloggers and webmasters of sites devoted to travel and asking them if they would be willing to host a charmingly-written guest post.

In case I’m being too subtle here: not having a boatload of previous publications in one’s dock does not mean a writer is platform-free. Be creative, and remember, these days, many writers don’t get paid for their first publication. The goal is to get people to read your writing — and to let Millicent know that they have.

But maybe a list of publications isn’t the best platform for your book, anyway. There’s more than one way to storm a castle, right?

Please join me in thanking Dorothy for her generosity in sharing her query, and in wishing her the best of luck in both her querying and continued travels. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXVII: the ring of truth that helps Millicent separate the compelling factual storytelling from the bull (with apologies to Ernest Hemingway, but not to Mark Twain)

We all know, because Mark Twain was kind enough to tell us, that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes.” It always comes as a shock to writers, however, that an anecdote can become someone else’s property before the person who lived it has had a chance to turn it into one heck of a story.

You would think that I would be used to it by now, wouldn’t you? Actually, blogging makes story-migration much more annoying. Since my usual excuse for not posting here as often as I would like — which is to say: as often as I did in the bad old days, when I occasionally posted as often as twice a day, as self-editing and marketing advice struck me; hey, there’s a reason that this site contains thousands of pages of posts — is not particularly exciting, I sometimes find myself longing for more thrilling justifications. It’s not that I actively yearn to be kidnapped by pirates, or drafted by the State Department to write a constitution for an emerging nation, or see my studio overrun by blue wildebeests intent upon retarding the forward course of American literature, of course; as a memoirist, I simply like to work with better material than hey, an editing client’s publishing house just asked for a last-minute revision.

And yet in the last week and a half, when life has kindly provided me with the stuff of gripping narrative nonfiction, I’ve been too bushed to take full literary advantage of it. When my chiropractor asked incredulously, “How precisely did you dislocate a rib while lying flat on your back by yourself?” the answer made him choke with laughter. He’s been dining out on the story for a week, and I still don’t have the requisite energy to do it justice in print.

As Uncle Mark also had the foresight to inform us, “the trouble ain’t that there is too many fools, but that the lightning ain’t distributed right.”

Speaking of misplaced anecdotes, my friend Belinda has led a fascinating life, stuffed to the gills with the raw material of memoir. She’s climbed mountains (yes, because they were there, now that you mention it), run with the bulls in Pamplona disguised as a man (because they usually aren’t there), outrun riots in Southeast Asia (because the timing of her arrival was bad), observed meteor showers from the top of a tall tree in Canada (because the timing of her arrival was good), embraced lion cubs (because she knew the right keeper to be welcome), backed away from an angry grizzly (because she knew how to tell when she wasn’t welcome), cooked with M.F.K. Fisher (because she knew a thing or two about fresh truffles) and mistakenly ordered a mushroom omelette in the late 1960s in Thailand that made her hallucinate that the restaurant owner’s goat had grown to the size of Godzilla (okay, I haven’t the faintest idea what she was thinking here).

I’ve been trying for years to cajole her into writing a travel memoir, but every time we sit down to talk about it, I can’t help but notice that her anecdotes occasionally suffer from a rather serious narrative problem: it’s not always clear at first what they are about. Or even about whom.

It’s not that Belinda’s memories have become confused over the last ninety-one years. Far from it: her tales of going door to door on election days during the Great Depression, cajoling the lonely and the shut-in to visit local polling places to vote for her candidate of choice with vague promises of hitting the town afterward, are so vividly rendered that they border on the illustrated. (Hey, she was a big fan of F.D.R., even at 15.) Nor does she sketch the background or secondary characters too lightly, a standard autobiographical pitfall: all too often, memoirs fail to provide either enough of a sense of place for the reader to picture where the narrator is, or enough character development for anyone but the narrator.

As Millicent the agency screener would be only too happy to tell you, there are an awful lot of memoirs out there apparently by authors wandering around uninhabited planets with no scenery to speak of. Or so she must surmise, from how little those memoirists seem to comment on anything or anyone around them.

That’s not necessarily a drawback in spoken storytelling, of course; many a good cocktail party yarn contains no character development or sense of place at all, but it’s often death to a memoir submission. Why? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, long-time readers of this blog: what works in a verbal anecdote will not necessarily fly in a written memoir. Telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

Nor does Belinda over-rely upon pronouns, another common bugbear of anecdotalists. We’ve all found ourselves in the clutches of a storyteller who doesn’t specify, right? In a story with a lot of hes running around — say, on a street in Pamplona — it’s helpful if the hearer knows which one is which: They chased him down the street as he ran alongside, screaming, and they cheered from the windows above is not, let’s face it, particularly clear narration.

Yet as any Millicent screening memoir submissions on a regular basis can attest, that particular species of verbal confusion turns up on the memoir page all the time. Chant it along with me now, veteran readers: what doesn’t work in a verbal anecdote often will not work in a memoir, either. And why? Shout it out: because telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

Sensing a pattern here, or do I need to trot out another Mark Twain quote? Okay, if you insist: ““It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

So you would think that Belinda would have it made as a memoirist, wouldn’t you? Even better, perhaps because her storytelling style has been developed over decades of chatting with relative strangers, often in languages with which she was not altogether familiar, she steers clear of the ubiquitous tendency to assume that anyone who might be interested in her stories would necessarily side with her in a tale of conflict. Her villains are well drawn enough that her hearers do not need to be told whom to hate, and her heroes’ exploits speak for themselves.

Why might that be unusual in a memoir submission, you ask? Because, alas for literary achievement, most would-be memoirists are used to telling their life stories to their kith, kin, and folks they might happen to meet at a party — in other words, to folk predisposed to think well of them. (Oh, you’re hostile to fellow partygoers who tell anecdotes well?) As listeners, most of us lean on the kind side: if a storyteller entertains us, we will root for him as we listen.

Quoth Twain: “in all matters of opinion, our adversaries are insane.”

That’s why, I’m told, world-famous raconteur John Steinbeck used to change which character he was each time he told an anecdote: no matter who he said he was, that person was the hero of the current version. You might want to try it as a narrative exercise: not only is it good practice in perspective-shifting, but a canny way to suss out what story elements create more or less sympathy for a protagonist.

It also, rumor has it, allowed Uncle John to glean valuable feedback about which character he should pretend to be when he next told the story in front of a pretty woman. I’m sure ol’ Mark said a thing or two about that, but I prefer Anita Owen’s 1894 poem as a retort: “O dreamy eyes/they tell sweet lies of Paradise;/and in those eyes the love-light lies/and lies — and lies– and lies!”

Credibility, you see, is largely in the eye — or ear — of the beholder. We’ve all been swayed by a persuasive speaker. An audience’s tendency to side with the narrator does not necessarily manifest on the printed page, though, where the memoirist is conveying her story to total strangers — and not face to face. Readers are significantly less likely to give a memoir’s narrator the benefit of the doubt than hearers are, possibly because it’s a whole heck of a lot harder to roll one’s eyes and mutter, “Yeah, right,” while one’s boss is telling a story in a bar after work than over a book in one’s lap.

That’s vital to recognize, if one wants to write memoir well. In fact, let’s go ahead and add it to the day’s list of aphorisms: on the page, readers expect a narrator to win their empathy, not assume it. Which, again, is another way in which telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

I hate to depress you further, but truth compels me to say that Millicent is even less likely to jump on the narrator’s bandwagon. She is paid not to cut a memoir query or submission any slack.

Why bring that up in a series on querying — or, for that matter, within the context of the discussion of memoir voice and story structure I seem to have been sneaking into the last half-dozen posts? Because so few memoir queries’ book description paragraphs convey the impression that the querier is a particularly talented storyteller.

A shame, really, as plenty of extremely talented storytellers’ queries get rejected on this basis. There’s a reason for that: the overwhelming majority of memoirists tell their tales on the page — both query and manuscript — as though the reader already knows them personally, and thus is predisposed to like them and their stories. On the manuscript page, that’s just not true. So from Millicent’s perspective, memoir openings that neither grab the reader from line 1 nor convince the reader to start liking the narrator and his writing style enough to root for him by the bottom of page 1 to want to follow him through three or four hundred pages are ample reason to reject most of the submissions she sees.

Unfortunately, that’s not how memoirists tend to think of their stories. You know the tune by now: because telling a story well aloud is simply a different art than recounting it well on paper.

Because Belinda’s storytelling style steers clear of all of these common memoir shortcomings, I think her life story would translate well to the page. My one qualm about what she might import from conversation: her anecdotes frequently suffer from the assumption that the hearer will have begun following the story at some point prior to when the words began coming out of her mouth. Presumably via some sort of telepathy.

It’s not that her stories are unclear; she merely does not always begin them at the beginning. Quite frequently, she will start somewhere in the middle, as the first part of the tale had already to been going strong in her own mind. Or even somewhere near the end: “And so I said to Henry Miller,” she suddenly said the other day, “if he wanted to write about what had just happened, he would have to arm-wrestle me for it.”

Admittedly, that’s a pretty great teaser, but aren’t you just the least bit curious to what this intriguing conclusion refers? Millicent would be, but being forced to judge a memoir only by what’s on the page in front of her, she would have no way of finding out. Memoirists are all too prone to forget, unfortunately, that the reader cannot tug upon the author’s sleeve and pipe, “Hey, Ambrose, what were you talking about here?”

“Get your facts first,” Uncle Mark tells us, “then you can distort them as you please.”

As I was actually in the room with Belinda, I enjoyed a luxury Millicent does not: the ability to ask follow-up questions. If only my rib permitted my conveying the rest of the anecdote — or if I shared my chiropractor’s willingness to abscond with other people’s stories — you’d be rolling in the proverbial aisles.

But the inherent humor of the story simply wouldn’t matter if Belinda made the same mistake in telling it on the page as she did out loud — which Millicent sees all the time, incidentally. Steam-of-consciousness reasoning abounds in memoir submissions, synopses, and even, believe it or not, queries. Yet no matter how amusing, instructive, or entertaining a story might be in the teller’s mind, if its facts are not clear on the page, it’s not good memoir storytelling.

Or at any rate, not a narrative style that’s ready for publication. Clarity is, after all, the minimum requirement for professional prose, not an optional extra.

Do my finely-tuned antennae pick up some ambient disgruntlement? “I get why Millie might regard hard-to-follow storytelling as a red flag in a submission,” memoirists everywhere concede, “but I don’t get how she could reasonably use it as a criterion in judging a query. As you have pointed out several times in the course of this series, the book description paragraph in a query should not tell the entire story of the book, merely introduce Millicent to its premise. So as long as my memoir query presents me as an interesting person in an interesting situation…”

Pardon my interrupting, disgruntled disembodied voices, but an astoundingly high percentage of memoirists who are in fact interesting people faced with interesting conflicts do not present themselves that way in their queries. All too often, talented autobiographers talk about their stories, rather than using their perhaps formidable storytelling skills to spin their legitimately fascinating yarns. The result, alas, tends to read something like this:

Pardon Millicent’s asking, but what the heck is this book about? It sounds exciting, whatever it is, but why not give some general indication of the story’s central conflict, where it takes place, and who the narrator is? Hey, while you’re at it, Montecristo, why make a secret of the book’s title? And why oh why is it printed on such funky-sized paper?

While we’re asking rhetorical questions, forgive my bringing it up, but is this story fiction or nonfiction?

Oh, you laugh, but you would not believe how often memoir- and fiction-representing agents alike receive queries that leave them guessing on that last point. They even more frequently see queries that make them guess who the narrator is, what her story is about, and/or why memoir readers would be interested in learning about it.

None of these things are foregone conclusions for a memoir — but that’s not what a writer of the real tends to think about when sitting down to write, is it? Implicitly, almost all of us (yes, I started here, too) conceive of our memoir narratives with an eye to how those who already know us — and, by extension, at least the bare bones of our stories — will react to our telling the truth about it.

Often, there’s a good reason for that: if Aunt Madge ordered you at age 8 not to tell anyone about the exploding peach preserve debacle, it’s safe to assume that she might become slightly irritated when you reveal it to an admiring public when you are 47. It’s not safe to assume, however, that Millicent, her boss, or the editor to whom your future agent will be shopping your memoir proposal will be just fine with your being vague about what happened because you don’t want to offend good ol’ Madge.

Nor, alas, should a savvy querier presume that the fact a story really happened will render it inherently interesting to total strangers. If you want to provoke eye-rolling and moaning in a Millicent that works at a nonfiction agency, by all means, include one of the following phrases in your memoir query: true story, really happened, real-life tale, my own story.

I hate to be the one to break it to you (but better you hear it from me than not know why your query got rejected, right?), but in a memoir query, all of these phrases are redundant. Of course, a memoir is a true story, based upon something that really happened to the author: that’s the definition of memoir, is it not?

Trust the Millicent opening your query to be aware of that. But — I feel an aphorism coming on — don’t presume that the fact you lived your own life story will be enough to interest agents and editors in your book.

At least not all by itself. As anyone who works with memoirs for a living could tell you, just because something really happened does not necessarily mean it will make a good book. As the agents who represent memoir like to say, it all depends upon the writing.

I sense the agent-seeking memoirists out there shifting uncomfortably in their desk chairs. “But Anne!” you protest, and with what excellent justification! “I would love to toss my manuscript, or even just the sample chapter from my book proposal, at Millicent, so she could judge my book by, well, my book. But the agent of my dreams’ submission guidelines specify that I should query without any supporting materials. That means, horrifyingly, that I have only that 1-page query letter to convince her that I’ve got a great story on my hands and that I can write it well. Help!”

I appreciate your panic, chair-shifters. Happily for us all, it is indeed possible for a good storyteller to convey enough of a memoir’s story arc in a paragraph (or, at most, two) to grab our Millicent. The trick lies in conveying the premise vividly enough to make it apparent what is happening, who the memoirist is in the story, and what is at stake in the conflict.

Does the clang of a thousand jaws hitting a thousand desktops mean that some of you wish you’d known that was the goal before you first wrote a query for your memoir? If so, you’re not alone; as Twain tells us, “I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.”

Fortunately, today’s brave reader-exemplar did see the opportunity to present Millicent with one heck of a premise — and make it clear why readers will find it both original and compelling. And I, for one, could not be more tickled to see her pull off this difficult challenge, as I (and regular readers of this blog) already know from past exposure to this writer’s work that the memoirist in question can write.

So join me please, in appreciating long-time Author! Author! community member and generous volunteer Betsy Ross’ (not her real name, of course, nor her real contact info) missive to Millicent. As always, if you find you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

Doesn’t leave much doubt as to what the book is about, does it? That descriptive paragraph makes it abundantly clear what happened, who the author was in the story, and what was at stake for her. Even more unusual, she has, unlike most memoirists, taken the time to figure out what her platform for telling this story is over and above having lived it! Beautifully done, Betsy!

But are that genuine grabber of a description and the platform as presented enough to wow Millicent? Possibly — yet I think we can improve the odds a bit. First, let’s make a few cosmetic changes, to polish away a few eye-distracters. Compare the touched-up version with the original: can you spot the subtle differences?

Comes across as a trifle more professional already, does it not? Yet the changes I made were quite minor: I moved Betsy’s contact information into the header (it had been on the first line of text), added a necessary comma in paragraph 2, line 1, made paragraph 2, line 4 conform with a grammatical expectation, and added a hyphen to e-mail in paragraph 4, line 2. All tiny stuff, but the result is closer to what Millicent will expect.

For the same reason, I changed trial to case in paragraph 2, line 5. I haven’t read the memoir, so I don’t know if the trial lasted 17 years, but as a matter of storytelling, the original word choice raised that question.

Is it me, though, or is the transition between the descriptive paragraph and the platform paragraph a bit more abrupt than it needs to be? And are those thoughtfully-constructed credentials presented in the most effective manner?

Again, I think we can make some improvements. Although I’m flattered that Betsy would present her abundantly justified win in an Author! Author! competition as her primary credential, for this story, it’s not.

How do I know that? Because she has buried a humdinger of a credential later in that paragraph. She’s also cast unnecessary doubt upon her delightfully apt professional credential by saying that she is trained to do her job. Isn’t that assumed? And isn’t the assertion that she can be reached via her listed contact information self-evident?

Doesn’t, in short, something about the wording and presentation of these perfectly fine credentials imply that Betsy is not as sure of her platform as she should be?

Look how much more persuasive this query can be if we alter the running order of the platform paragraph and phrase her credentials a bit more assertively. In order to heighten Millicent’s sense of Betsy’s professionalism, I’ve also changed the rather confusing second magazine name to the way it would turn up in a Google search and removed that logically unnecessary sentence in the last paragraph. I also seem to have tightened the wording in the descriptive paragraph a little; I’ve never been able to resist adding the Oxford comma.

Her platform seems better-grounded this way, doesn’t it? Yet it’s all the same facts; they are merely set forth in a manner that aligns more closely with how Millicent is accustomed to seeing such good credentials show up in a query. They’re also, to be blunt about it, harder for a skimming eye to miss.

If I were most querying teachers, I would leave it at that: this query is likely to fly with many Millicents now. Yet to an experienced Millicent or her boss, Betsy’s query still might raise eyebrows in two respects. Any guesses why?

No? Would it help if I quoted Twain again? “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”

Okay, so that clue was a trifle opaque. I’m going to go ahead and remove the first of the red flags. Compare this version with the last, and we’ll meet again on the other side to discuss why Millicent will like it better.

Did you catch it? This is one of those secret-handshake things, I’m afraid: to a professional reader, statements like my book will not only answer the initial question, but will also detail… would seem a trifle heavy-handed in a book description. They distance the reader from the tale, decreasing its impact. It’s also, let’s face it, perfectly obvious in a query that the description is talking about what’s in the book.

Instead, why not just tell the story directly? It provides a much better opportunity for Betsy to show off what a talented storyteller she is — in a query that, frankly, has enough space left on the page to add a few more specifics. I just mention.

There’s another red flag here, though, that might actually discourage some Millicents from reading as far as that compelling descriptive paragraph. Want a hint? We turn again to Twain: ““All generalizations are false, including this one.”

Giving up so soon? I can’t say as I blame you; this one is purely a matter of how the publishing industry thinks of books. Take a gander at a more Millicent-friendly target audience statement.

Goosebump-inducing this time around, isn’t it? That’s true for a couple of reasons. First, the appeal of the book is shown this time around, rather than told: by immediately leaping into the ultra-personal perspective appropriate for a memoir, that opening paragraph makes the stakes absolutely clear — and startling.

Let’s face it, it would be hard to be that surprising in the distant, analytical voice of the original target audience description. Betsy’s probably right about to whom this book is likely to appeal, but leaping straight to the conflict is just better storytelling. Especially since it allows both the first and second paragraphs to shout at Millicent: “This is a story you’re not going to hear anywhere else!”

Better than just telling the old girl that Betsy’s uniquely qualified to share this story, isn’t it? Not to mention more emotionally powerful.

For Millicent, though, there’s another reason this last version would be more convincing: true crime and memoir are quite different book categories, appealing to overlapping yet not overall very similar readerships. Again, Betsy is probably correct that her book would draw upon both of those audiences, but by stating it so baldly — and so early in the query — she’s inviting Millicent to leap to the conclusion that this is a writer that doesn’t understand how book categories work. At minimum, that’s going to water down the impact of Betsy’s MBA, from a publishing perspective.

As, you guessed it, Mark Twain observed, “Life does not consist mainly, or even largely, of facts and happenings. It consists mainly of the storm of thought that is forever flowing through one’s head.” That’s also true of memoir. What makes a story unique, in the proper sense of being one of a kind, is the memoirist’s perspective.

In Betsy’s case, that perspective is genuinely jaw-dropping. So why shouldn’t she make Millicent’s jaw drop as soon as she possibly can? And why shouldn’t she bring all of her storytelling talents to the task, drawing her future agent right away into that 13-year-old’s fragmented world?

Life is crammed to the gills with the unexpected, my friends: ribs don’t just leap out of their natural habitats by themselves. But as the agents like to say, it all depends on the writing. The miracle of talent, not just the content of the story, provides the difference between a second-hand anecdote about it and a memoir so vivid that the reader feels the she is the one whose rib has been displaced.

I have a feeling that readers are going to be reaping the benefits of that particular miracle in Betsy’s case. Many thanks to her for volunteering this quite strong query, so we could experiment with making its strengths shine still brighter. Best of luck finding the right agent for this startling story, Ms. Ross, and everybody, keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

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

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

“Yes. You?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

good query memoir

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

good memoir query 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

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

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

memoir query panicky

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

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

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

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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