Queryfest, part XXX: is it a mirage, or do I spy the finish line at long last?

No, you’re not seeing things, campers: this is indeed the last Queryfest post. It’s been a long time coming, as the song would have it, and we’ve wandered down a few side paths along the way, but this is, as they say, it.

Yes, I’m relieved, too. Of all the unpleasant tasks that fall to the lot of the aspiring writer, composing query letters is perhaps the most universally-resented necessity. (Synopsis-writing would be first by a mile, but not all aspiring writers are aware that the more successful they are in getting published, the more often they will to have to churn out synopses.) Not only do most writers of book-length works feel, justifiably, that if their talents leaned in the direction of one-page documents, they would have gone in for writing brief epistolary novels, if not short-form poetry — they believe, and not entirely unreasonably, that the ability to write an engaging letter is not the best proof that one can write a novel. Or a memoir. Or a book proposal.

While that may well be true, there’s a pretty good reason that agencies expect anyone who intends to work with them to learn how to write a professional-sounding query: it’s quite an efficient means of assuring that the writers they pick up will have gained at least a minimal working knowledge of publishing. Think about it: as we have seen throughout this series, in order to whip up a solid query letter, a writer must figure out her book’s category, do a bit of research on what agents represent that type of book, come up with a 30-second pitch of the book’s premise or argument (try timing a dramatic reading of the descriptive paragraph sometime), ponder the book’s selling points and/or one’s own platform, and include a SASE.

Honestly, would you have known to do any of that just because you had the inspiration and persistence to write a book? Indirectly, the agent of your dreams has prompted you to take a crash course in many of the skills you will need to become a happily-published author.

Oh, you thought I had lingered on the constituent parts of the query for months on end because letter-writing fascinated me?

To demonstrate just how far we have all come over the course of Queryfest, here is one final example, written by yet another brave, generous, and naturally creative member of the Author! Author! community, A. Verage Reader. I was delighted to see A’s query pop into my inbox: not only does her book sound like a real page-turner, but she has also, like so many well-meaning, talented aspiring writers across the globe, submitted a query that presents our hypothetical agent, Hawkeye McAgentson of Picky & Pickier Literary Management, with a quandary: should she base her decision to request pages upon the story A is telling in her query, or upon how she presents it and herself?

And already, the intrepid few who have been following this series from the very beginning fling your hands into the air. Yes, thoughtful, sharp-eyed, and faithful readers? “But Anne,” you point out, “realistically, would Hawkeye be the one making this decision? Yes, her staff might pass the most successful queries on to her, but Hawkeye is usually busy selling her clients’ books to read every query personally, isn’t she? So wouldn’t the first-round weeding out be performed by our old pal and nemesis, Millicent the agency screener?”

Quite right, Queryfest stalwarts, and since this often comes as a gigantic surprise to first-time queriers, how glad I am that you reiterated it. Contrary to popular opinion, most well-established agents simply do not have time to read the thousands of queries they receive, much less to narrow down those thousands to the three or four manuscripts they can reasonably take on per year. That’s why agencies employ Millicents, to reject the overwhelming majority of queries and submissions. That way, the agent can concentrate upon reading the tiny percentage of manuscripts and book proposals that Millie deems well-written, written well for the target audience (not always the same thing), market-ready, something the market is ready for (see last parenthesis), and a storyline or argument likely to interest Hawkeye.

I know, I know: having to make it past Millicent’s notoriously nit-picky scrutiny can seem like an insurmountable barrier. Most queriers would prefer that Hawkeye read every single query and submission herself — or, better still, just allowed potential clients to send the first 50 pages instead of a query. Honestly, though, when yours is one of the dozen or so on Hawkeye’s desk, you’ll be deeply grateful to Millicent for freeing up her boss’ schedule enough to read your work closely.

In that spirit, let’s slip into Millicent’s reading glasses and take a gander at A’s query. If you could request manuscripts from only a couple of the several hundred queriers who contacted Hawkeye this week, would you say yes to this one? (As always, if you are having trouble seeing the details, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

Actually, that was sort of a trick question, wasn’t it? Naturally, Millicent could not have said yes to this query: I don’t employ a Millicent, for the exceedingly simple reason that I am not an agent. I am a freelance editor. And even if I were an agent, I would expect my Millicent to be aware that the proper formal salutation for a lady with a Ph.D. is Dear Dr. Mini.

Actually, the only people I make call me Dr. Mini are medical doctors. It bugs them to such an astonishing degree that as both a trained social scientist and a writer of comedy on serious issues, I feel an intellectual duty to try to find out why.

So had A. sent me this query, I would not have been in a position to give her the answer she wanted. By the terms of this contest, though, she did not send it to me — she sent it to Hawkeye. While the address (or, in this case, non-address) at the top clearly indicates that she intended to mail it to me.

This, I’m afraid, is usually an instant-rejection offense — and far more common than any of us would like to think. Oh, it’s a completely understandable faux pas: A. was probably printing out several queries at once, and the one for this Mini person accidentally ended up in the envelope addressed to Picky & Pickier. Happens all the time. Yet you can hardly blame Hawkeye’s Millicent from taking umbrage at being expected to read a paragraph about how much A. admires somebody else’s blog.

Not that somebody else isn’t flattered, of course. Heaven help A., though, if Hawkeye happens also to blog.

I’m harping on this not only because it is one of the most common (and least-often acknowledged) reasons queries get rejected, but also because about a third of the brave, generous souls who volunteered their query letters for scrutiny here stumbled into precisely the same trap. So, reliably, do between a quarter and a third of the entrants of any writing contest: the rules call for one thing, and the entrant does something else. Care to guess what that means for the contest entries in question?

Uh-huh: “Next!”

Actually, the response should be closer to, “Hey, thank you for saving me some time!” In practice, queries, submissions, and entries that do not conform to expectations, especially when the recipient has taken the time to list those rules for all to see, are a positive boon to overworked professional readers. Millicent, her Aunt Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge, and Maury, their cousin who works as an editorial assistant in a small publishing house, can simply reject all of those documents at first glance. That takes much, much less time than reading them in their entirety — and leaves extra time in their respective days to devote to the queries, submissions, and entries that did follow the rules.

In case I’m being too subtle here: read any submission guidelines carefully before you seal that envelope or hit SEND. Assuming that you know what they call for — or, as many aspiring writers presume, wrongly, that every agency or contest out there must necessarily want to see precisely the same things — can be exceedingly costly. Invest the time in double-checking.

Do I hear some tender-hearted souls out there sighing? Yes, I feel sad for all of the good writers with fine books who get rejected on the basis of simple mix-ups, too. Tell you what: let’s pretend that I gave A. the pep talk in that last paragraph before she sent in her query. Let’s further assume that Hawkeye actually does write a blog aimed at helping potential clients, because, honestly, it’s less work for me that way.

Here’s what the query might have looked like in that alternate reality. Again, if you were Millicent, how would you respond?

Do I sense some hesitation out there? “Gee, Anne, I want to read this query with the attention it deserves, but having read so many similar letters throughout the course of Queryfest, I’m afraid I find the presentation here a trifle distracting. Why, for instance, is the date located in the bottom margin, rather than the top, where it belongs? Why, too, is it in a different font? Speaking of fonts, this doesn’t look like 12-point in either Times New Roman or Courier, the standard fonts for the U.S. publishing world. If I had to take a wild guess, I would say it was Calibri 11 point. While I am nit-picking about format, why are the closing and contact information tabbed to 2.5″, rather than halfway across the page? And shouldn’t A. have left room for a signature?”

Congratulations, hesitators: you have begun looking at pages like a screener. Yes, the formatting is off here; the type is indeed too small for any writing intended for submission to an agency. While neither will necessarily present a reading problem — the content of the letter is perfectly clear here, right? — both would raise some reasonable concerns about whether the manuscript being queried would be in standard format. Millicent would have some legitimate reason to expect that it wouldn’t.

And why is that a problem, long-time readers? Chant it with me now: even the most talented writer unfamiliar with the norms of publishing will be more time-consuming for an agent to represent than a similarly-talented writer who has done his homework. The single quickest way for Millicent to judge this is to check how closely the submission adheres to standard format for book manuscripts.

So, again, Millicent may have a reason to say, “Thank you for saving me some time!” That’s sad, because an easily-fixed set of presentation problems have prevented a reading of A’s query on its content.

On the bright side, the choice of typeface was probably not what put Millicent off this version. While not adhering to the industry-standard fonts is seldom a deal-breaker in a query (as it can be in a submission), it’s undeniably true that to the pros, a query in those fonts just seems more professional than one that isn’t.

Don’t not sure why? Okay, here’s A’s query again, with nothing changed but what the hesitating many pointed out. If you were Millicent, would you feel more confident that the writer of this version would be able to send you a manuscript in standard format, or the writer of the original?

Ah, that looks more familiar, doesn’t it? But now that the non-standard formatting no longer distracts your eye, Millicent-of-the-moment, do you notice anything else? Here’s a hint: the overwhelming majority of queries exhibit this problem to a greater or lesser extent.

If, after you perused A’s query carefully, you flung your hand into the air and cried, “There are quite a few typos here — missing commas, misspelled words, and a misused semicolon. Oh, hey, there’s also a dropped word or two. And is it me, but is there an extra space in the non-standard sign-off?” give yourself a gold star for the day. Millicent is constantly astonished at how many queries are apparent neither spell-checked nor proofread.

And no, in response to what half of you just thought very loudly indeed, performing the former does not obviate the necessity of performing the latter. Spell-checkers are not infallible; neither are grammar-checkers. (For some reason that surpasses human understanding, mine is constantly urging me to use the wrong form of there, their, and they’re and telling me that reflexive pronoun use is always wrong.) There is, I’m afraid, just no substitute for good, old-fashioned proofreading.

Why? Well, now that we know that conclusion-jumping is part of Millie’s job, what do you think she might reasonably assume about a manuscript if the query for it contains misspellings and typos?

Yep. And since an unproofed submission is likely to get rejected, anyway…

Given the grave importance of getting the small details right, how does one maximize the probability of catching small problems before sending off that query, campers? That’s right: since every syllable an aspiring writer submits to an agency is a writing sample, it’s worth your while to re-read your query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD. It’s simply the easiest way to catch typos, spacing problems, and missing words.

Yes, your neighbors may think you’re a little strange, but hey, no one said the path to publication was easy.

Before I show you A’s query again with that array of minuscule problems corrected, there’s another element in that last draft that might raise Millicent’s delicate eyebrows, as well as her doubts about the manuscript’s being in standard format. Any guesses? There’s another gold star at stake.

If you leapt to your feet and cried, “Why, I had not thought about it on earlier read-throughs, but the numbers under 100 are presented in this query as numbers. In standard format for book manuscripts, those numbers would be written out in full: eighteen, not 18,” help yourself to a gold star out of petty cash. As counterintuitive as it may seem, queries are frequently judged as though they were manuscripts; not doubling a dash would be a red flag, too.

Yes, really. Millie’s boss is not going to have time to proofread her clients’ work before submitting it to a publishing house.

So let’s take this query seriously as a writing sample and buff away those little problems, shall we? While we’re at it, let’s change that closing to something more traditional for a formal letter. Do you want to ask for a partial now, Millicent?

Stronger, but I have to say, this version still feels a bit minimal to me. Not merely because there’s quite a bit of room left on the page — a temptation to add plot elements that most queriers would not be able to resist — but because the wording in the opening paragraph and the target audience paragraph are a little, well, ungraceful. Almost as if providing this information were not a compositional pleasure, but an irksome requirement.

Imagine that. Why, an innocent bystander might almost think that writing a query is just an annoying hoop through which aspiring writers have to leap in order to gain a fair reading of their manuscripts.

Surprisingly often, queries make that pervasive attitude quite apparent — and that’s never helpful to a book’s chances. Even if the querier in question happens to phrase distaste for the entire process beautifully, it’s not Millie’s fault that the system is set up this way, is it?

Besides, a flat telling does not show off anyone’s writing to its best advantage. That is, alas, the case here: the writing in those informational paragraphs would not match the tone or writing style of the book description. Based on them alone, Millicent would have a hard time figuring out what A’s writing style was.

Another problem: the importation of generic elements. As we have discussed many times throughout Queryfest (although, in fairness, after A. sent in her query for critique), Millicent sees that line about the word count in about half of the queries that cross her desk: apparently, it’s in quite a few boilerplates floating around out there. That doesn’t mean it is well-written, or that including will, as so many new queriers evidently believe, make your letter sound professional. At this point in querying history, it just sounds like someone else’s writing — and not very interestingly-phrased writing at that.

Why is that problematic? Pull out your hymnals and sing along, Queryfesters: contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, a query is a writing sample. Since stock phrases are, by definition, not original writing, it’s a better use of page space to write your letter from scratch.

At the risk of repeating myself, I always advise against including word count in a query unless an agency’s submission guidelines specifically ask for it. Fortunately, A’s word count is well within the expected range for her chosen book category, but being much under 60,000 words (estimated at 250 words/page in Times New Roman x the number of pages in the manuscript) or over 100,000 provides Millicent with, you guessed it, a legitimate reason to reject the query.

“Why, thank you!” she exclaims. Or she should.

Since a query is in fact a writing sample, I hesitate to rework the phraseology in order to encourage Millicent to spend more time with this letter: after all, she wants to know what A. sounds like on the page, not me. Far be it from me, too, to compound the already widespread problem of generic query phrasing by adding a new prototype to the mix.

Were I A., however, I might express these sentiments rather differently. A great start: being more specific about why this book is right for Hawkeye. This is something you might like to represent does, you must admit, does beg the question, “Okay, why?” (And what, Millicent wonders, prevented A. from querying her boss before?)

And a forest of hands sprouts in the ether. Yes? “You’ve lost me, Anne,” weary queriers the world over protest. “I get that it’s worth my while to personalize each query slightly, but A. has already done that: she brought up Hawkeye’s blog. Since she’s a long-time reader, does she honestly need to paraphrase the agent’s expressed protagonist preferences, too?”

It’s not strictly necessary, perhaps, but why pass up the opportunity to help Millicent gain a sense of what’s special about this storyline — or a dandy opportunity to say, essentially, “Hey, Hawkeye, I’ve not only read your blog — I have absorbed what you have been saying. Here I am, demonstrating that. Wouldn’t I be good at incorporating your feedback as my client?”

Sound like a tall order for a non-obsequious first paragraph? Not at all: the key lies in specificity, combined with a professional tone. And speaking of creating a professional impression, since the YA market is aimed at readers from 13 to 17, is it really necessary for A. to point out that her book is geared toward that age range?

Seems less forced now, doesn’t it? In this version, the reader’s focus is right where it should be: on the story.

So let’s talk about how A. might render that more appealing to everyone’s favorite screener. To get us started, let’s take a few steps back. Remember a few minutes ago, when I mentioned the desirability of reading one’s query IN HARD COPY, IN ITS ENTIRETY, and OUT LOUD before sending it off? Give that a try now, please.

It’s not always clear to whom they refers, is it? That’s quite common in book description paragraphs, I’m sorry to report: because queriers are so eager to cram as much of the storyline as possible into the letter, they frequently include so many plot twists and introduce so many characters that Millicent can’t follow what’s going on.

That’s a real shame here: A. has worked in some delightfully unexpected specifics into this description, but they are getting lost. While that line about the father’s body and the mother’s mind is quite nice, the book description leaves us guessing why going to Poland will remedy the situation; indeed, the phrasing of that third sentence could be interpreted to mean that the mother is left with only one choice, not Meghan. Why Poland, and not, say, Belgium? While we are speculating, what is a Holy Apprentice, and why is it capitalized?

I have no idea; I’m merely asking what Millicent would. Not having read the manuscript in question — which sounds awfully darned exciting, I would only be guessing on these points. So please forgive me, A., if I get the plot wrong as I polish out the question-raisers.

I’m going to begin by highlighting those thus eye-catching bits about the parents and the possessed teddy bear. And while I’m at it, I shall to remove the impression, created by the repeated use of to be, that this is a story that’s told, not shown. More sentences in the active voice will also convey the subtle impression — and, I suspect an accurate one — that this is a fast-paced book.

Ha! If you were looking for additional evidence that it’s significantly more difficult to catch typos on a backlit computer screen than in hard copy, seek no more: as I was tinkering with the text, I noticed that I had missed that problematic punctuation and structure in the last sentence of the fourth paragraph. I shall go ahead and correct it now; let this be a lesson to us both. While I’m nit-picking, I’ll move A’s e-mail address to beneath her phone number. Millicent is more likely to look for it there.

Again, I don’t know if this is how the plot progresses; I have not read the book. Neither has Millicent, though, and she can judge its potential only by what is actually in front of her: the query. Best of luck with it, A!

Now that we have applied Queryfest principles to a wonderfully broad array of readers’ letters to agents, let’s turn our attention to the bigger picture. What have we learned on a larger level about querying?

Six things, I hope — no, make that seven. And just to keep things interesting, the first few may on the surface appear to be mutually contradictory.

First, a successful query letter must contain certain elements, elements that are surprisingly often absent in the prototypes one finds floating around the web. The most frequent omission: a polite opening that gives the agent at least some vague sense of why you picked her, out of all of the agents currently treading the earth’s crust, to approach.

Or, indeed, giving her some clue of what you think she represents. Millicent’s constantly asking herself, “What makes this querier think my boss would be remotely interested in this type of book? As far as I know, she has never sold anything like it.”

I think we all know why that query showed up on her desk: someone did not do his homework well enough to learn that agents specialize. Or to understand why it’s in any querier’s best interest not to make an agent guess why his manuscript would be a good fit for the agency.

Oh, there are some good reasons explanations on these points tend to turn up in prototypes: it’s not a one-size-fits-all feature. A writer would have to do some actual research, not only investing time in learning about each agent he approaches, giving some serious thought to what kind of book he has written, and figuring out the best matches. That’s a far cry from the extremely limited plug-your-book-category-into-a-search-engine research from which most first-time queriers derive their query lists.

Which leads me to Overarching Lesson #2: Because the single easiest kind of query to reject is one for a type of book an agent does not represent, personalized queries tend to work much better than generic ones.

“Oh, great,” I hear the masses mutter. “I’ve been working for months, even years, to get my basic query letter down to a single page without cheating on the margins or font. Are you gearing up to tell me that I will need to write an entirely fresh missive for every single agent I approach?”

Not entirely, no: as we saw in today’s extraordinarily fruitful example — thanks again for volunteering, A! — only the first paragraph would have to alter, in most instance. Unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox, you should be able to use the bulk of a well-written query repeatedly. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Do I hear sweet music in the distance? Like any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, I have devoted so many months to Queryfest: my aim has been not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these people are not generalists.

What? Still too subtle? Okay, I shall hoist a brick through the nearest window: while Millicents share common pet peeves, each agent, and thus each Millicent, is looking for slightly different things in a query letter.

Stop groaning; it wouldn’t have made good strategic sense to send an identical letter out to everyone, anyway, for reasons we have been discussing for months now. Besides, there is no such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It honestly is as simple as that sometimes. Coming to grips with that — and doing the research necessary to avoid knee-jerk rejection — will make you a much, much happier querier than if you cling to the unfortunately ubiquitous belief that the only reason queries ever get rejected is due to some fundamental flaw in the book.

That can happen, of course, but the vast majority of the time, other problems send Millicent’s hand flying toward the form-letter rejection pile. Even if your query side-steps all of the usual pitfalls, however — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if your letter is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask with fear and trembling? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive this week to even the best knitting book in recorded history. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation; even the query that wins most will lose some. Don’t squander your precious energies worrying about it.

That being said, a strategic-minded querier can avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, Labor Day, or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then.

Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street. Since you probably will not be the first to know if any of those things happens, though, you can’t possibly plan your querying schedule around them. I feel another aphorism coming on: as there will inevitably be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

To be brutally honest, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had taken the time to hand-write at the bottom, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll still have to pass. As if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

Can you wonder that this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me? Like so many queriers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting, due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or had gotten engaged five minutes, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve had some very nice chats with this agent at conferences since.

Whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, recipes for infallible love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that — ready for Overarching Lesson #3? == a writer has no way of affecting when any query (or manuscript, or published book) is going to hit an agent, editor, contest judge, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

Admittedly, as an agented writer, I do have some control over when my agent sees my manuscripts — but even then, it’s up to him when to read them. You can lead a horse to water, etc.

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you can control. Like, say, the matters we have discussed today. Or the writing in your query.

Why? We have only to consult Overarching Lesson #4: since every syllable of a query packet is a writing sample, it makes sense to regard the descriptive paragraph not just as a super-fast plot summary, but as an invitation to show off your storytelling skills.

As we saw in today’s example, in an otherwise laudable attempt to try to place as much of the plot or argument in front of Millicent, many queriers simply try to do too much on the querying page. Honestly, all that’s required at this stage is a lively, book-category-appropriate description of the premise, presenting your protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for fiction), you as an interesting narrator of your experiences as an interesting person in an interesting situation (for memoir), or your credentials as the world’s best person to argue about an important issue or event (for nonfiction).

Piece o’ cake, right?

Not really, but truly, it’s not as hard as most queriers make it for themselves. Just tell your story in your own voice, rather than in generic-sounding summary statements: it’s the best way to convince Millie that you are one heck of a storyteller.

Above all, be original — and yes, I’m aware that’s not very common querying advice. Consider, however, overarching Lesson #5: as tempting as it may be to make your book sound like a recent bestseller (or to claim it’s the next one), hard-sell techniques do not work in queries or pitches. Since you have so little time to impress an agent, it’s better strategy to use it not to sound like everybody else.

Or, to put it bit more bluntly: if your query does not make it plain how your book is unique, it’s probably not going to impress Millicent. Trust me on this one.

But don’t beat yourself up if your best efforts doesn’t hit a home run every time. Recall, please, Overarching Lesson #6: because of OLs Nos. 1-5, queries get rejected all the time for reasons that have nothing to do with the writing quality or marketability of the book in question. It does not follow logically, then, that if a query gets rejected, the book is necessarily not ready for publication — or, as many disappointed queriers assume, that a rejection from one agency equals a rejection from the industry at large.

Yes, I know: it doesn’t feel like that when you’re trying to work up energy to send out Query #19 right after Rejection #18 arrives. It can seem almost impossible to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and proceed to the next name on your agent list right away, but believe me, the longer that rejection sits on your desk, the harder it will be to work up energy to do it at all.

Please, for your own sake, don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of sending the next one. Keep pressing forward, and bear in mind Overarching Lesson #7: the only manuscript that stands no chance whatsoever of interesting an agent and getting published is the one that sits in a drawer, perpetually unqueried.

I wouldn’t kid you about that. So try. And keep trying. Your writing is worth it.

Oh, and pat yourself on the back for being serious enough about your writing career to have plowed all the way through Queryfest; it has been a long, hard road. But you don’t come to Author! Author! just to pass the time, right? Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXIX: I’ve just arrived via air mail, and boy, are my arms tired

As some of you may recall, I put out a call last autumn — seems so long ago, doesn’t it? — to Author! Author! readers, asking for fearless volunteers willing to subject their query drafts to our collective scrutiny toward the end of Queryfest. Yes, I had been including many, many — some might say too many — concrete examples of what does and does not work in a query, generally speaking. Since the vast majority of queriers new to the process tend to make the same fifteen or twenty missteps, that made sense. Still, I wondered: were there other up-and-coming query problems floating around out there that I had not yet addressed?

We’re now within a couple of posts of wrapping up this series, and I must say, I think the results have bordered upon magnificent. Largely, that’s thanks to the bravery and generosity of readers having volunteered their queries for discussion, offering a truth to which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, can easily attest: querying is not only a learned skill, but often a counter-intuitive one.

Perhaps the most counter-intuitive element of all: no matter how strong a query’s book description is, if it’s not presented in the manner Millicent has been trained to expect, it’s likely to trigger rejection.

Even now, I sense a few jaws hitting the floor out there, do I not? We would all like to believe that a great book’s chances could not be stymied by a less-than-great query — which would mean, by extension, that contrary to the publishing truism, good writing does not always find a home — but as this series has repeatedly demonstrated, it’s actually not all that hard to turn off Millicent.

And not just via the classic red flags, either. The recent run of readers’ queries only confirmed what we had already discussed in theory: time and again, we have seen how quite interesting-sounding books can be undersold by queries that could use some punching up.

So punch them up we have. On the assumption that it is a far, far better thing for me to call out a query for a problem here, in this writer-friendly forum, than for even a single precious one of you to risk tumbling into the same trap at the agency of your dreams, I’ve been running readers’ queries through the wringer, going after them with a fine-toothed comb, blue-penciling them, and engaging in every other stock euphemism for taking ‘em apart so we could rebuild them better, faster, stronger.

That’s why I was especially delighted to see a query from reader P. Gaseaux (not his real name, of course) drop into the entry box. Not merely because his story sounds, somewhat unusually for thriller descriptions in queries, actually thrilling, but also because it is a query addressed to a US-based agent. In this case, my fictional Hawkeye McAgentson, Millicent’s hard-nosed employer.

Why did spotting a query from foreign climes excite me so? Well, we American writing advice-givers don’t talk all that much, as a group, about the special problems confronting the writer querying from abroad. The difficulty in obtaining US postage for the SASE, for instance: while foreign post offices and copy centers do occasionally stock US postage for this purpose, they often sell them at a substantial mark-up. Rather than limiting themselves only to e-mailed queries, however, frugal far-flung writers can purchase US stamps at their face value directly from the US Postal Service.

Then, too, there’s the terminology difficulty: while US English, Canadian English, and UK English are mutually comprehensible, they do not have identical vocabulary or grammar. That can lead to problems at international submission time; what would be perfectly acceptable in London might well strike an American Millicent as improper, and rightly so.

Before anyone starts fuming, let me hasten to add: it’s an agency’s job to flag problems in clients’ manuscripts before even considering submitting them to editors at publishing houses. American books are typically written in American English. So would it really be in a London-based writer’s best interest if Millicent or her boss did not alert him to what would not read right to New York eyes?

Speaking of what would not look right to New Yorkers, I hope that my international readers (at least those planning to submit to US agencies) are aware that the standard paper size is different here than everywhere else in the world: 8.5″ x 11″ paper is called US letter for a reason. Why should a querier from afar care? Well, although A4 (8.26 x 11.69 inches) and US letter (8.5 x 11 inches) may not seem all that off at first glance, naturally, estimating word count would be quite a different proposition on each. Equally naturally, but often surprising to writers submitting from abroad, no US-based agency could possibly submit a manuscript printed on A4 to a US publisher.

That means, in practice, that if Millicent’s agency accepted submissions, or even query packets, on A4, they would be signing on for the difficulties of reconfiguring the text for US letter. While that’s actually not that big a deal in MS Word — all one really has to do is highlight the entire document, pull down the FILE menu, select PAGE SETUP…, and change the PAPER SIZE from US letter to A4 — it will, alas, take both time and explanation to pull off. And we all know what Millicent has been trained to say to potential clients who might be the teensiest bit more time-consuming to represent than others, right?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

Don’t let that depress you into a stupor, far-off writers. Plenty of good foreign writers are represented by US agencies; there are a heck of a lot of readers here, after all. Also, in some genres, such as SF and fantasy, there are so many more agent options here than elsewhere that if you write in English, domestic or otherwise, sheer probability dictates that taking a swing at the American market might be very prudent move. For a lot of reasons, then, it can be very worth your while to query from abroad.

But in order to do so successfully, it’s vital to be aware precisely how and why standards here are different. Let’s take a look at what our valiant far-flung friend P. Gaseaux is planning to send to a New York-based Millicent, to see if we can help him punch it up a little.

The book description is intriguing, but I’m afraid that’s not what would catch Millicent’s eye first here. Sadly, many of these would not be apparent to eyes not born and bred in the good old U.S.A.

So let’s all pull together, those of us who were weaned on 8.5″ x 11. Any guesses about what eight — yes, you read that correctly — non-content-related factors would distract Millie here? Hint: not all of the formatting issues are related to paper size.

Oh, that wasn’t a broad enough hint for you? Okay, here are a few more.

1. Since many, many writers new to querying have never had the opportunity to see a professionally-written query — an oversight that Queryfest has been working, if not overtime, at least at great length to rectify — a hefty percentage of queriers would not have any idea that the first eye-catcher here is a red flag. In fact, we’ve seen it in earlier Queryfest examples.

2. We’ve also seen the second: like the first, it would be hard to catch at the composition phase, but quite obvious in a printed version. And, like the first, while it might not prevent Millicent from reading on to the body of the letter, it would raise enough doubts about the sender’s Word-wrangling acumen to cause her to assume, rightly or not, that P’s manuscript would not be in standard format.

Yes, really. Had I mentioned that it’s Millie’s job to draw conclusions about manuscripts based solely upon the contents of the query packet?

3. We’ve also talked about this one before. Because it is different in one significant respect than everything else on the page, it’s probably the first thing your eye hit. Considering that it’s not information likely to interest Millicent until after she has read the query in its entirety, that’s a misplaced emphasis.

4. This space-saver would be an instant-rejection offense in a manuscript or book proposal, but a surprisingly high percentage of aspiring writers do not think of it as even a misdemeanor in a query. To Millicent, though, it just looks like cheating. Still worse, it probably caused Problem #2.

5. A deviation from standard format for manuscripts — and a classic Millicent-irritator.

6. Another space-saving tactic, this time at the bottom of the page. Again, most queriers would consider this acceptable, but to anyone who reads queries for a living, it merely looks like an attempt to get more words on the page. The sad thing is, if Problem #1 were not in evidence, #5 probably would not be, either.

7. A savvy stateside aspiring writer would probably have to draw this one as a conclusion from the problems above. It would be apparent to Millicent, however, as soon as she lifted the letter from its envelope and held it in her hand.

Have those clues whipped your brainstorm up to hurricane levels? I certainly hope so. To help that squall along, here’s P’s query again, with those eye-distracters corrected. For those of you who would like another hint, #7 will become substantially more apparent if you compare these two examples.

Let’s go through the changes one at a time, shall we? In the original:

1. The writer’s contact information begins on the first line of text, not in the header.

We’ve seen this one before, have we not? If the contact information is going to appear at the top of the page, mimicking pre-printed letterhead, it should be printed exactly where it would be on letterhead: in the header. Not only does placing it in the body of the page limit how much room P. has to describe his book, writing credentials, and so forth — its placement also implies that he’s unfamiliar with how the header function works.

And why might that prove problematic at query time, campers? Because Millicent must base her best guess about the professionalism of the manuscript upon what she has before her, no more, no less. For that reason, she would be within her rights to presume that P’s manuscript would place the slug line — the author’s last name/title/page # designation at the top of each and every manuscript page — on the top line of text, too, rather than the header.

Remember what I was saying above about how agencies feel about time-consuming clients? Consider it reiterated here.

2. The contact information was not centered on the page.

Rather than using Word’s centering function, P. has elected to hand-space his contact information. For some reason best known to himself, he has taken it only about a third of the way across the page, rather than half. It doesn’t look bad there, aesthetically speaking, but to Millicent, it will not look right.

This one may seem minor, but again, each individual presentation element adds up to an overall impression of professional seriousness. And think about it: would you rather have Millicent devote her often quite limited time — as in 30 seconds or so per query — with your missive to speculating about why the spacing is so funny, or to pondering what you have to say?

I thought as much. Let’s move on.

3. The writer’s e-mail address was printed in blue, not black, and was underlined.

Again, we’ve seen this one before in reader-submitted queries, and with good reason: Millicent sees it all the time. Recent versions of Word will, left to its own devices, automatically switch any e-mail address or URL into a link, underlining it and changing the color.

Change it back. Just as passively going along with what Word dictates will not yield standard format in manuscripts, its color and underlining preferences are not proper in a query, either. Chant it with me now, long-time readers: every word in a document sent to the publishing industry should be printed in black ink on white paper. No exceptions. And just as nothing should be underlined in a manuscript, nothing should be underlined in a query, either.

You wouldn’t want Millicent to leap to the conclusion that you don’t know how to format a manuscript, do you?

4. The left and right margins were not 1 inch in depth.

There’s a reason for this (and we shall discuss it below, never fear), but trust me, any experienced professional reader would notice that the right and left margins are not even. At the risk of making her seem eager to assume the worst — which is, after all, her job — Millicent is likely to place a negative construction on this.

Why? Well, since so many aspiring writers chafe against the one-page length restriction, she’s used to queries that tinker with the margins and typeface in order to cram more words onto the page. I don’t think that was P’s intention here, actually, but since neither he nor I are going to be there when Millie reads this letter, let’s not give her the excuse to malign his motives.

5. The dash in the last sentence of the second paragraph was single, rather than doubled.

To Millicent’s swift eye, as well as any well-trained professional reader’s, the dash should be doubled in this sentence: A showdown is imminent – crisscrossing Asia and careering out of control towards a bloody climax in the frozen valleys of West Virginia.

Oh, you didn’t catch that the first time around? Most queriers wouldn’t, for the exceedingly simple reason that most aspiring writers don’t know that in a book manuscript, dashes are always doubled, with a space at either end, rather than single. (Not to be confused with a hyphen, which separates compound words. That should be single, with no spaces between the punctuation and the word on either side. If the distinction remains unclear to anyone, drop a note in the comments, and I’ll show you some examples.)

6. The bottom margin was much under the requisite 1 inch.

Again, this is going to strike most Millicents as an attempt to force her to read more words than the 1-page limit allows. While that is indeed the case here, this tactic is completely unnecessary: as we may see in the revised version, simply moving the contact information to the header will free up more than enough space on the page to permit a standard-sized bottom margin.

7. The query was printed on A4 paper.

We discussed this one above, right? Simply switching the paper size will obviate this objection.

Judging by the hoots of derision out there in the ether, I sense that some of you reading this abroad don’t believe that this would be a particularly simple switch. “Darned right, Anne,” those of you who have never actually clapped eyes upon a piece of US letter-sized paper grumble, and who could blame you? “It’s not as though I can just march down to my local stationer’s and find stacks of your kind of paper waiting for me. And in those rare instances when I have found it, it’s been awfully expensive. Since Millicent must be aware of that, why should I go to the trouble and expense of tracking down odd-sized paper before I have any sort of a commitment from you bizarre paper-lovers on the other side of the Atlantic/Pacific?”

That’s a fair question, A4-lovers. Let me ask you an equally fair one in return: if a US-based writer were soliciting representation in your country, would an agent there expect her to submit a manuscript on your country’s favored paper size?

Of course he would, and for precisely the same reason that Millicent would expect submissions and queries on US letter here: it’s standard. It’s also, not to put too fine a point upon it, the size that would be in photocopiers — you didn’t think that your future agent was going to send out the only copy of your book she had, did you? An A4 original copied onto US letter would be missing quite a few words per page.

Don’t believe that would make an appreciable difference over the course of a manuscript? Okay, here is the first page of John Steinbeck’s CANNERY ROW (a great read, by the way) in standard format on US letter. As always, if you are having trouble reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + repeatedly to enlarge the image.

And here it is again, formatted for A4. Notice, please, how much more of the text appears on the page. My apologies for the poor image quality; my Yankee Doodle-humming computer, obviously took exception to the odd format.

And don’t think this issue doesn’t concern you if you submit only via e-mail, either. It’s not all that unusual for agents to print out electronic submissions that have already successfully run the Millicent gauntlet. How do you think a manuscript formatted for A4 paper is going to look printed on US letter?

Oh, you thought I was going to leave that one to your fertile imaginations? No such luck.

Looks like Uncle John is trying to sneak in some extra text, doesn’t it? Entirely inadvertent — just as it was when our friend P. used this format for his query. Their intentions were pure, but just try telling that to Millicent.

To be fair to her, in all probability, she’s the one who is going to have to figure out how to fix what she’s going to perceive as a printing problem. Given that she doesn’t have a whole lot of extra time in a day, how do you think she is going to feel about having to tinker with your squirrelly manuscript, P?

Remember, one of the best ways to convince an agency denizen that you’ll be a great client to handle is to require as little gratuitous time investment as possible at the querying and submission stages. Recognizing that in Rome, it might behoove one to do as the Romans do is thus pretty darn good strategy.

Now that we’ve fine-tuned P’s query so it just screams, “I may hail from Australia, but I’m hip to U.S. submission standards,” how else might we improve its chances with Millicent. Let’s take another peek at it, to refresh your memory.

Let’s start with that undoubtedly truthful, but nevertheless not particularly eye-catching opening paragraph. As we saw last time, an opening paragraph can contain every requisite element, but if it is written in a flat manner, it’s probably not going to make the best possible case for the book. That’s especially true in this case, where all of that useful information is crammed, wily-nilly, into a single sentence — and missing two necessary commas to boot. That’s like a neon sign hanging over the query, blaring I’m just trying to get through this as quickly as humanly possible.

Of course you are, P — no sane person actually likes writing queries. But trust me, reading thousands of them back-to-back is often no thrill fest, either. So why go out of your way to make that opening generic?

Yes, yes, I know: since P’s taken the trouble to seek out a similar book by one of Hawkeye’s clients, this opening actually isn’t generic. However, the purely market-based compliment — highly successful is nice, but it’s hardly high literary praise, is it? — doesn’t convey anything about why P. believes Hawkeye might be a good fit for his book.

Beyond, of course, the fact that she might be able to sell it. But since that’s an agent’s job, again, that hardly implies an admiration of her literary tastes.

The other element that makes this opening come across as a bit generic is the inclusion of the word count — and such a very round one, too. As we have discussed at length earlier in this series, the pervasive Internet rumor that every agent wants to see word count included in a query is flatly untrue; if they want it, they will ask for it in their submission guidelines. And if they do, it’s almost certainly because they like to use too-high and too-short estimates as reasons to reject queries on sight.

See why I don’t advise including it if it’s not requested? In this country, the accused have the right to eschew self-incrimination.

Hawkeye’s agency’s submission guidelines are both basic and standard (in their totality: query with SASE, far and away the most common in agency guides), so P. could easily omit this information. In fact, my sources at Picky & Pickier — oh, my spies are everywhere — tell me that would be an excellent idea for another reason: a query that claims its word count in such round terms, and precisely in the middle of the normal range, is slightly suspect. Any guesses why?

No takers? “Well, of course not, Anne,” those of you quick at doing math in your heads huff. “So P’s manuscript is precisely 360 pages — 250 words/page in Times New Roman x 360 pages = 90,000. What’s eyebrow-raising about that?”

Nothing, necessarily — provided that’s actually how P. arrived at that number. Even estimated, word counts seldom hit those big, round numbers precisely. Which might perhaps lead a jaded Millicent at the end of a long day of query-screening to wonder, fairly or not, whether the number here is accurate. Or — brace yourself; this is going to be a nasty one — if, like a surprisingly hefty percentage of first-time queriers, P. has taken the liberty of querying before he has finished writing the manuscript. 90,000 might then be his goal, not what’s already on paper.

I know, I know: I don’t think that’s what P’s doing here, either. But is including the unrequested information that the manuscript falls within standard length range for this genre really worth risking this kind of speculation? Especially when that opening paragraph could be used to make a better case for this book?

How, you ask? How about by complimenting the parallel book in terms that might also be used to review P’s novel? Or by mentioning why both books will appeal to the same audience?

Before I attempt either (or perhaps even both!) of those strategies, may I add yet another to that long list of rhetorical questions: why include the information that this is a debut novel? To Millicent, that would be self-evident from how this query is written — P. doesn’t list any previous publication history, nor does he mention previous representation. The implication, then, is that this book is a first novel.

That’s not a selling point — it’s a description. And since virtually every other query Millicent will have read this week will be for a first book, it’s a description that could be applied equally well to all of them.

Instead, why not use that valuable page space to highlight what’s legitimately unique about P’s story? How about emphasizing that genuinely remarkable authorial background?

Come on, admit it: even those of you who adore writing for writing’s sake find this query more compelling now, don’t you? It certainly reads as more professional. Instead of treating that opening paragraph as a necessary bit of business, dull but unavoidable, P. now comes across as a serious writer well-versed in the conventions of his genre. Even better, he has the real-world experience to inform his protagonist’s worldview.

But wait — who is the protagonist here? The very lengthy book description paragraph leaves Millicent to guess. Yes, the original query did mention after the description who the two protagonists are — phrased as such, a tactic those of us who read for a living tend to find a bit clumsy — but as the fact that the book is the first of a pair actually isn’t relevant here, it would show off P’s storytelling abilities better simply to present the plot in the book description as the story of those two characters.

I sensed some of you doing a double-take in the middle of that last paragraph. As we have discussed at length earlier in this series, while many aspiring writers believe that using English class terms to describe their work — protagonist, antagonist, climax, etc. — will make their work sound professional, but actually, these terms are academic and review-based. The publishing industry will just want you to tell the story.

Actually, Millicent will want P. to do more in the descriptive paragraph: she will want him to show what’s thrilling about this story via the inclusion of vivid details she has not seen before. Given P’s background, that shouldn’t be a tall order at all.

I wish I could show P. how to pull that off, but the description simply has not given me enough information to revise this. At minimum, the broad generalities leave quite a few questions unanswered. Draws what response from the strike team, for instance? Why does Washington send a bumbling agent, instead of a competent one? What is the agent’s name? What is the other guy’s name, and are the two mentioned in the second part of that sentence the other guy plus our hero? Where in the Far East do they travel, and what is the name of the woman they encounter? For what country is she prepared to give her life? Is the honest cop mentioned late in the description the same person as the bumbling agent — who, if he works for the FBI, isn’t technically a cop? Or is he a policeman that was recruited by the FBI? Does the showdown careen across Asia, or do the characters?

Yes, that’s a lot to want to know from a query, but honestly, including a few telling statistics, perhaps in the space cleared by omitting character analysis like The honest cop will never back down until he has solved the case. and The victim’s father…is disillusioned and approaching the twilight of his life , would go a long way toward making this legitimately exciting story seem unique. Which, come to think of it, is another argument for showing, not telling, the character development points: generally speaking, using stock phrases is not the best means of impressing Millicent with one’s one-of-a-kind writing style.

Not having read the book, though, I can’t answer any of these questions; I leave that to P’s no doubt talented revision pen. However, just breaking up that huge descriptive paragraph will help make the story come across as even more exciting. Take a gander:

Stronger now, isn’t it? Still, as a reader, I long to see more of the story. Fortunately, editing out the summary statements about character development has freed up quite a bit of page space for adding vivid details. Have at it, P!

Did you notice, though, that in my haste to rework this query, I messed up some of the spacing? Symmetry, my dears, symmetry: since there’s a skipped line between the salutation and the body of the letter, there should be a skipped line between the final paragraph and sincerely.

Before I correct that, though, were those of you reading this under the flag of Francis Scott Key — a forebear of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s, by the way; that’s what the F. stands for — struck by anything in that otherwise quite charmingly polite final paragraph? Like, say, that some of the probably perfectly-reasonable-in-Australia statements it contains don’t really make sense stateside?

Something’s getting lost in translation here, clearly. Let’s all chip in to bridge the trans-Pacific divide. To aid in that effort, take a gander at that paragraph up close and personal:

I wish to thank you for reviewing this proposal and do hope the enclosed synopsis is suitable for your perusal. Please find enclosed a US Postal SASE and my employment credential if required.

First, let’s start with the terminology. In U.S. publishing circles, a query is not a proposal — in fact, a proposal is something quite different. It’s the collection of marketing materials, competitive market analysis, and sample chapter(s) that nonfiction writers put together to sell their books to publishers.

Also, by definition, a SASE in this country carries U.S. postage. And what, may I ask, is an employment credential, and why would it be beneficial to provide at the submission stage?

Which I suppose is another way of saying: no, it’s not required, P. — and please don’t send it. Believe me, Millicent won’t know what to do with it, and frankly, it’s radically premature. When your agent sells your manuscript and needs to process payments for you, she will tell you what information she needs.

There’s also something a trifle odd — to American literary eyes, at least — about the phrase I…do hope the enclosed synopsis is suitable for your perusal. First, it raises a question that it honestly isn’t in P’s interest for Millicent to ponder: is the enclosed synopsis suitable to be read, or is there something about it that may prompt her to reject it unread? Second — and this impression is abetted by the use of the word review earlier in the sentence to talk about something a screener is likely to read only once — the phrasing draws attention to the repeated use of the word enclosed. Since Millicent, like all professional readers, finds word and phrase repetition eye-distracting, this wording would tend to cause her to focus on what is in fact a standard polite closing, rather than the story being offered.

Third, I suspect this isn’t what P. actually means here: he probably hopes that she finds the synopsis acceptable — or, better yet, enjoyable. I’m guessing, too, that he wants to find a graceful way to bring up the fact that she’ll find a synopsis tucked into the envelope.

So why not say both directly? And while we’re at it, why not include some information that she’ll find useful if she wants to see his manuscript: the fact that contacting him by e-mail would be far faster than stuffing a let’s-see-pages missive into the SASE.

Here’s that query again, streamlined so as to render that ending quick, clean, and businesslike. That way, Millie’s attention can remain where it best serves the book’s interests: squarely upon the plot and P’s excellent background for writing this story.

One last nit-pick, then we’ll send P. on his merry way. I get that he would prefer to have an initial, rather than a first name, grace the cover of his books. It’s not a bad choice, either: it would indeed look rather good in print.

I have a practical concern, however: should Hawkeye the agent want to pick up the phone and call this exciting new author, to whom would she ask to speak? You must admit, even the bravest among us might harbor a few trepidations about calling a complete stranger and quavering, “Hello. May I speak to P., please?”

Oh, you may laugh, but queriers place poor Hawkeye and her cronies in this uncomfortable position all the time. It makes sense from an authorial perspective, of course: if one has decided a pen name is preferable to one’s own, one is naturally anxious to start using it. But as anyone who has written professionally under a pseudonym, like yours truly, could tell you behind closed doors, one’s identity remains a secret only from the reading public; the agent handling the writer knows her real name. So does her publisher.

There’s a very, very good reason for that: a writer doesn’t sign representation or publication contracts under her pen name; she signs with her real name. And wouldn’t all of us prefer to have advance and royalty checks made out to us in the name by which our banks know us?

(Never you mind what I’ve written under my noms de plume — yes, I’ve used several. Not at all uncommon for authors who write in more than one genre, or both fiction and nonfiction. But don’t shatter the illusions of the aforementioned reading public, please; let it be our little secret.)

So if I were toddling around in your shoes, P., I would go ahead and query with a full first name — and your real one. Neither of which, naturally, I am going to divulge here.

Hey, the pseudonymous need to stick together. We and Anonymous are going out for coffee later.

Join me, please, in offering profound thanks to P. for helping bring the special challenges of the far-flung querier to our attention — and please, international readers, chime in with the difficulties you have faced in querying and submitting to US-based agencies. As we have seen, sometimes chatting with a native can help iron out any lingering translation problems.

Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A query letter must contain:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Speaking of which…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does: this explanation is spread across a couple of paragraphs, invading the space typically reserved for a description of a NF book’s argument, but Pippi makes a believable case.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XXIV: how to format a query, or, directions for those who have gotten lost in the tall grass of competing querying advice

After so many white and gray Seattle winter images in a row, campers, I thought everyone might be refreshed by the sight of a little green. As I like to tell the students in my writing classes, hitting the same note over and over again, even in the name of realism, can get a little old. Breaking out of the mold occasionally can be very refreshing for the reader.

Speaking of getting set in one’s ways — or, at any rate, in one’s worldview — do you remember how at the beginning of this series, I mentioned that one reason that there’s so much conflicting advice out there about how to write a winning query letter is that to the people who handle them all the time, it honestly isn’t a matter that deserves much discussion? To an experienced agency screener like our old pal, Millicent, as well as the agent for whom she works, the differential between a solid, professional-looking query and one that, well, isn’t could not be more obvious. In addition to any content problems the latter might have, it just feels wrong to a pro.

There’s an excellent reason for that: despite continual online speculation on the subject, there honestly isn’t much debate in agency circles over what constitutes a good query letter. Nor is there really a trick to writing one: you simply need to find out what information the agent of your dreams wants to see and present it simply, cleanly, and professionally. And if the agency’s posted submission guidelines are silent about special requests — or, as still remains surprisingly common, those guidelines consist entirely of a terse query with SASE — find out what the norm is for your type of writing and gear your query toward that.

Piece of cake, right?

Actually, from an agency perspective, that’s a pretty straightforward set of directives. Because there are so many sites like this that explain what to do, as well as quite a few books, many a Millicent just can’t understand why so many aspiring writers complain that the process is confusing. They enjoy an advantage the vast majority of queriers do not, you see: they have the opportunity to see hundreds upon hundreds of professional queries for book projects. The good ones — that is, the ones that stand a significant chance of garnering a request for pages — all share certain traits. So what’s the big mystery?

Yes, yes, I know that you would never be able to tell that was the prevailing attitude, judging solely from the constant barrage of competing advice floating around out there on the subject, but frankly, the overwhelming majority of that is not written by people who have practical experience of the receiving side of the querying experience, if you catch my drift. An astonishingly high percentage of it seems to be authoritative statements by people who want to help writers, but are merely passing on what they have heard. And not always originating from a credible source.

And what’s the best way to deal with competing advice, Queryfest faithful? Chant it with me now: don’t believe everything you hear or read on the Internet, no matter how authoritatively it is phrased. Consider the source before applying the rule; if you don’t know who is recommending it, check another source. Don’t assume that a single agent’s expressed preference is applicable to the entire industry; check every single agency’s guidelines before querying or submitting. And never, ever follow a template or ostensibly must-do set of guidelines unless you are positive you understand why you need to do it that way.

Believe it or not (ah, good: you’re reading even my advice with the requisite grain of salt now), following those simple five guidelines will help remove almost all confusion. The fact is, a startlingly high proportion of the advice out there is presented both anonymously and without explanation. It’s just rules, often accompanied by dire threats aimed toward those who do not follow them. And, as I have mentioned earlier in this series, most aspiring writers instinctively quail before such threats, believing — wrongly — that credible agents feverishly crawl the web, making sure that no incorrect querying advice remains posted.

Except that doesn’t happen — frankly, there’s no reason it should. People who work in agencies already know what does and doesn’t make a good query letter, after all. Why on earth should they waste their time finding out what people outside their industry believe they want?

Especially when, let’s face it, the query they have in mind contains all of the information most agencies need in order to make a determination whether its inmates will be seriously interested in requesting pages of the book in question. Just so the list from which we’ve been working throughout Queryfest will be easily accessible to folks who (shudder!) expect to learn everything they need to know about querying a book or book proposal — again, not anything else — in a single post, please sing along, those of you with the laudable patience to have worked your way all the way through this series.

A query letter must contain:

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

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

That all sounds at least a little bit familiar, I hope? If not, you will find extensive explanations — with visual examples! — earlier in this series. Moving on…

Optional elements it may prove helpful to include in your query:

7. A brief marketing paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. (P.S.: before you claim that it’s literally the only book on your subject matter, do some checking; unsubstantiated sweeping generalizations are often rejection triggers.)

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

Despite this being review, I still sense some raised hands out there. Yes, those of you joining us toward the end of this series? “Okay, I can see where there’s some overlap between your list and what I’ve seen elsewhere. Since there is, why shouldn’t I just follow the templates I’ve seen posted elsewhere?”

That groan you hear rattling around the cosmos, questioners, is the cri de coeur of the conscientious: they’ve been listening to repetitions of this particular question from late entrants since this series began. Like so much of the solid, professional development advice out there for aspiring writers, what is aimed at the crowd that longs for quick answers often bounces off its intended target and hits those who have been doing their homework diligently. So while well-meaning agents tend to formulate both their agencies’ submission guidelines and statements they make at writers’ conferences at the good 90% of queriers who do not take the time to find out how agencies actually work, the frustrated tone of some of those comments strikes the professionally-oriented 10% right between their worried eyes.

Which is to say: you’ll find the answer to that issue earlier in this series, first-time questioners. Because I believe so strongly that it does a disservice to serious aspiring writers — that 10% with the crease rapidly becoming permanently etched between their thoughtful eyes — to provide only glib how-to lists, I would be the last to discourage anyone who wants to make a living writing books from learning the logic behind what Millicent expects her to do. (See earlier comment about this perhaps not being the blog for those who prefer short, simple answers to complicated questions.)

That being said, there is a short, simple answer to that particular question: because not all of the query templates out there are for books, that’s why. As I’ve mentioned before in this series, much of the query advice out there does not mention explicitly whether the query being described is for a book, a magazine article, a short story, an academic article…

Well, you get the idea, right? Contrary to popular opinion, not every entity dealing with writing carries the same expectations. Or desires the same type of query. Or expects identical formatting. Pretending that because a query designed to propose an article or short story was posted online, marked query, must necessarily be equally appropriate for a book proposal, despite the fact that the two would be read by completely different professional audiences, does not make it so.

Yet that is precisely what many of the templates out there do, frequently without telling those who stumble across them that the formula or visual approximation is geared toward a particular part of the writing industry. Because writing is writing, right?

Not to those who handle writing professionally, no — which is why, in case those of you confused (and who could blame you?) by competing querying advice had been wondering, the argument but I saw it done this way online!/in a book of advice for writers/in what a friend of a friend of a professional writer forwarded me! will cut no slack with Millicent. Why should it? In fact, why on earth would an agency that represents books and book proposals care at all what the querying norms are for any other kind of writing?

So let’s add a sixth simple rule, while we’re at it: don’t follow generic advice. If you read through querying advice carefully and still cannot tell whether it is intended to help writers of books, poets, short story writers, or those trying to break into journalism, move on to another, more specific source.

To make sure we’re all on the same page, so to speak, let me make it pellucidly clear: the advice in Queryfest is intended only to assist writers of book-length works querying agencies or small publishers within the United States. It is aimed at helping aspiring writers produce a solid query that will look and feel right to that specific group of readers. I make every attempt never to ask my readers to follow a rule without explaining it, and I encourage all of you to ask questions if anything remains unclear. (Do take the time to read the relevant post first, though, huh? Every advice-giving writing blogger I know positively hates it when commenters ask for a recap of questions already answered in that post.) As always, though, I would urge any writer following this advice to double-check any submission guidelines a particular agency might have taken the time to post or list in one of the standard agency guides.

Everybody okay with that? If not, may I suggest that Queryfest may not be for you, and wish you luck finding the answers you seek elsewhere?

The same train of logic applies, I tremble to tell you, to how a query is presented on a page. And that’s unfortunate for many queriers, for although neither the requirement that a query be limited to a single page nor the rules for correspondence format have actually not changed at all since the advent of the word processor — it’s merely easier to center things in Word than on a typewriter — fewer typing classes in schools have inevitably led to a lower percentage of the population’s being familiar with how a formal letter should look on a page. Which is, should anyone be wondering, like this:

Or like this:

Either will look right to Millicent, either in a paper query or via e-mail; for reasons I have explained at great length and with abundant visual examples earlier in this series, at a traditional agency, these are the only acceptable query formats. (Yes, yes: younger agents, ones who went through school after typing classes became rare, are less likely to care deeply, but business format has for so long been despised in the publishing industry as only semi-literate that it honestly isn’t prudent to use it in a paper query.)

Judging by the hundreds of queries I’m asked to evaluate every year (I’m currently running a limited-time special on it, should anyone be interested), correspondence format does not seem to be familiar to many aspiring writers, at least not in its typed form. So let’s pause for a moment to go over what will strike Millicent as right about both the letters above, shall we?

A paper query in correspondence format should feature, from top to bottom:

1. Single-spacing, with 1-inch margins on each side. The only acceptable exception to the latter is

2. The sender’s contact information, either centered in the header or appearing directly under the signature, never both. If you choose to use the centered at the top option, you may use boldface or a slightly larger font for this information. Otherwise,

3. Everything in the letter should be in the same font and size. For a query, the industry standard is 12-point Times New Roman or Courier. (More on the importance of that below.)

4. The date of writing, tabbed to halfway or just over halfway across the first line of text. In Word, that’s either 3.5″ or 4″.

5. The recipient’s full address. That one is borrowed from business format, actually, but it’s a prudent theft: it maximizes the probability that your missive will end up on the right desk.

6. A salutation in the form of Dear Ms. Smith or Dear Mr. Jones, followed by either a colon or a comma. Stick to one or the other, in both cases. In the U.S., unless you know for a fact that the recipient either (a) holds an earned doctorate, like your humble correspondent, (b) is an ordained minister, or (c) is a married woman who actively prefers being called Mrs., the only polite option for a female recipient is Ms. And no matter how gender-ambiguous an agent’s first name may be of the recipient’s sex, never address a query to Dear Chris Brown; check the agency’s website or call the agency to ask.

7. In the body of the letter, all paragraphs should be indented. No exceptions. In Word, the customary paragraph indention tab — which is to say, the one that’s expected in a manuscript, as well as a letter — is .5″. If you like and space permits, you may skip a line between paragraphs, for readability, but it is not mandatory.

8. In a query, titles of books may appear either in ALL CAPS or in italics. Choose one and be consistent throughout the letter; it drives a detail-oriented soul like Millicent nuts to see both on the same page. If you cite a magazine or newspaper in your query, its name should appear in italics.

9. A polite sign-off, tabbed to the same point on the page as the date. No need to be fancy; sincerely will do.

10. Three or four skipped lines for your actual signature.

11. Your name, printed, tabbed to the same point on the page as the sign-off, with your contact information below, if it has not appeared at the top of the page.

Those are the rules that would apply to any letter in correspondence format. For a paper query, observing other guidelines are also advisable.

12. A query should be printed in black ink on white paper. While it’s not mandatory to print your query on bright white paper, 20-lb. weight or better (I always advise my clients to use 24-lb; it won’t wilt with repeated readings), black ink shows up best upon it.

13. I mean it about the white paper: no exceptions. No matter how tempting it is to believe that your query will stand out more if you print it on, say, buff, gray, or ecru, it’s not a good idea. Yes, it will not look like the others, but this is a business that prides itself on uniformity of presentation. Don’t risk it.

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

15. Sorry, queriers-from-afar, but if you plan on sending a paper query to a US-based agency, their Millicents will expect it to be printed on locally-standard 8.5″ x 11″ paper, not A4. On the bright side, they’ll expect your manuscript to be printed on that US paper, too, so you might as well stock up on it.

If you have trouble tracking down that size outside North America, try asking at your local FedEx (it ate Kinko’s, whose foreign branches almost always carried at least a few reams of our-sized paper, for the benefit of traveling business folk) or a hotel that caters to business travelers. You could also just go for broke and order a few reams of paper online from a US-based company — or an American-owned one like Amazon UK. Because I love you people, I’ve just checked the latter, and I found the proper size at a fairly reasonable price.

If you are querying via e-mail, of course, you should skip a few of these niceties: because it is difficult to ensure that spacing will remain intact in transit (it’s strange how much a different e-mail program can mangle an otherwise perfectly acceptable letter, isn’t it?), it’s safer not to skip lines between paragraphs. While indentation is still nice, it isn’t mandatory here, and as e-mails inherently contain a date marker, you need not include the date line. For the same reason, you may omit the recipient’s full address, beginning the e-mail instead with the salutation. Contact information belongs at the bottom of the letter, and most e-mailed correspondence features a left-justified sign-off and signature.

Having a bit of trouble picturing those differences? Here’s that letter again, as it would appear in an e-mail.

Looks quite different, does it not? That’s purely a matter of necessity, not of industry-wide preference: since many e-mail programs force users to opt for business format (no indentation, a skipped line between paragraphs, date, sign-off, and signature all lined up with the left margin), Millicent has, like her bosses, reluctantly come to accept non-indented paragraphs. But that doesn’t mean the purists in the industry like it as a trend.

They saw the slippery slope from a mile away, you see: because both the Internet and e-mail programs disproportionately favor (ugh) lack of indentation, an ever-increasing segment of the otherwise literate population has come to regard that format as (double ugh) perfectly proper. So although I wince even to bring it up, Millicent has also been seeing more and more actual manuscript submissions devoid of indentation, instead skipping lines between paragraphs.

Which is, incidentally, not the right way to format a book manuscript or proposal, as I devoutly hope those who read my Formatpalooza post on the subject already know. (And if any of that’s news to you, please run, don’t walk, to the HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.) In fact, business format so different from how agency denizens expect text to appear on a page intended for submission to a publishing house that Millicent typically won’t even begin to read it.

Why, those of you who write that way habitually scream in terror? Well, can you think of a better way for her to tell at a glance whether the submitter has taken the time to learn how book manuscripts and proposals are submitted to publishing houses? It’s not as though an agent could possibly submit an unindented manuscript to an editor, after all.

Was that resonant thunk I just heard the sound of thousands of writerly jaws hitting floors, or do I need to explain the direct implication for queries? “But Anne,” many of you moan, clutching your sore mandibles, “now that I see correspondence format in action, I realize that I have been borrowing elements from across a couple of styles for my regular mail queries. If I may borrow your last example for a moment to show you what I’ve been doing, can you tell me how Millicent might respond to it? And should I be sitting down before you answer?”

Of course, jaw-clutchers — and yes, a chair might be a good idea. Perhaps even a fainting couch, because I suspect what you have on your hands is a good, old-fashioned Frankenstein query.

Comfy? Okay, let’s take a gander — and to render this better practice, try slipping into Millicent’s spectacles for the duration. If you were she, what would strike you as incongruous, and thus distracting from the actual content of the letter?

Quite a contrast with what our Millie was expecting to see, isn’t it? Let’s start at the top of this discolored page — would you have read that, in Millicent’s desk chair? — and work our way down. First, in a charmingly archaic but misguided attempt to mimic casual letterhead (traditionally reserved for handwritten notes, by the way), the Frankenstein querier has chosen a truly wacky typeface to showcase his contact information. Doesn’t look very professional on the page, does it?

From there, the mish-mosh of styles becomes less visually distracting, but comes across as no less confused. While the left-justified date, lack of indentation in the body of the letter, and skipped lines between paragraph would lead anyone who began reading, as those zany screeners like to do, at the beginning of the letter and proceeding downward to presume that the letter is in business format, the sign-off and the signature are not in the right place for that format. Nor are they in the right place for correspondence format: they are too far right. Muddling things still further, the RE: line is appropriate for a memo, not a letter.

In the face of all that visual inconsistency, I wouldn’t blame you if you missed some of the subtler missteps, but I assure you, a well-trained Millicent wouldn’t. The missing comma in the date, for instance, or the fact that while one book title is presented in all capital letters, the other is in italics, for no conceivable reason. (Unless our querier is laboring under the false impression that published books’ titles should appear one way, and unpublished manuscripts another? Agencies typically make no such distinction.) Then, too, the oddball subject line appears in boldface, as well as The Washington Post. Again, why?

So while this query does indeed stand out from the crowd — doubtless the intent behind that horrendous yellow paper — it doesn’t leap from the stack for the right reasons. And what does it gain by the effort? By eschewing a more traditional presentation, all it really achieves is buying a little extra time for Millicent: this is not, apparently, a query she needs to take particularly seriously.

Shocked? Don’t be. Just as Millicent and her cronies have a sense of what information does and does not belong in a query, over time, as they process thousands of queries, she begins to gain the ability to tell at a glance which queries simply don’t have a chance of succeeding at her agency. The ones that don’t mention a book category, for instance, or those that present a book or proposal in a category her boss does not represent. The ones with typos, or the ones that are one long book description. The ones filled with typos. And — brace yourself — the ones that are formatted as though (and this is Millicent talking here, not me) the writer had never seen a letter before.

Oh, that last one isn’t always an automatic-rejection offense, but inevitably, odd formatting affects a pro’s perception of a writer’s professionalism. How? Well, just as agents and editors develop an almost visceral sense of whether a manuscript is in standard format or not, their screeners learn pretty fast what a good query looks like. And just as they often will automatically begin reading an unprofessionally-formatted submission with an expectation that the writing will not be as polished as that in a manuscript that looks right, Millicents frequently will read an oddly-presented query with a slightly jaundiced eye.

Especially, as it happens, if the query in question appears specifically designed to generate unnecessary eye strain. To someone who reads all day, every day, the difference between a query in the publishing industry’s standard, 12-point Times New Roman or Courier:

and precisely the same query in 10-point type:

could not possibly be greater, unless the latter were printed on that bizarre yellow paper from our previous example. The first utilizes the font size in which Millicent expects to see all manuscripts, book proposals, queries, synopses, and anything else its denizens ask to see; the second, well, isn’t. But that’s not the kind of thing an agent is likely to blurt out at a conference, mention on his blog, or even — you might want brace to yourself, if you’re new to the game — list as a required query attribute in the submission guidelines on his agency’s website.

Why, those of you surveying the difference for the first time ask in horror? Because 12-point is used universally for book manuscripts and proposals (in the U.S., at least), it would never occur to anyone who screens for a living that any other size of type was acceptable. Anything else simply looks wrong on the page.

To be blunt about it, most Millicents — heck, most professional readers — would consider the second example above not only strange; she’s also likely to regard it as rude. After all, from her perspective, all the smaller type means is greater eyestrain for her: clearly, the writer of the second version hadn’t considered that there might be a human being with tired eyes on the receiving end of that missive.

Seriously, if you were Millicent, how would you respond if a query with minuscule type appeared on your desk? Would you invest the extra minute or two in trying to make out what it says, or would you just move on?

For most Millicents, there’s just no contest: move on, and swiftly, just as she would if the query in question were a badly-smudged photocopy. Given that it’s her job to narrow the field of queries down to the 5% or less that her boss might conceivably have time to consider, why would she bother to give more than a passing glance to a missive that simply screams, “The person who wrote this is either unaware that manuscripts are supposed to be in 12-point type, or just doesn’t care how difficult he is making your life, screener!”

And yes, before anyone asks, she is equally likely to reach that unflattering conclusion regardless of whether Millicent is reading that query on a printed page or on a computer screen. Just because our Millie can increase the size of the e-mail in front of her does not mean that she will take — or even have — the time to do it, after all.

Especially when — again, you might want to brace yourself, neophytes — the single most logical explanation for why a querier would select the smaller type size would to be to commit the following instant-rejection offense; see if you can catch it. As always, if you are having difficulty reading individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image; just because Millicent doesn’t have the time to avoid eyestrain in this manner doesn’t mean you should tire out your peepers.

Awfully hard to read, isn’t it? Any guesses about why this version would set off rejection red flags, even if Millicent happened to be unusually fresh-eyed and in a good enough mood to try to make it out?

To someone as familiar with the standard one-page query as she, it would be perfectly plain that were these words in ordinary-sized type, this letter would be longer than the requisite single page. Which, as I hope we all already know, would automatically have resulted in rejection, even had Tricksy been honest enough to use a 12-point font.

And yes, in response to what half of you who favor e-querying just thought very loudly indeed, Millicent probably would also have caught the extra length had this query been sent via e-mail, where page length is less obvious. But whether Tricksy decided to avoid the necessity of trimming by typeface games or by just hoping no one would notice an extra few lines, trust me, she’s not likely to pull the wool over an experienced query reader like Millicent. Fudging is fudging, regardless of how it is done.

Remember, the one-page limit is not arbitrary, a mere hoop through which aspiring writers are expected to jump purely so Millicent can enjoy the spectacle; queries are also that short so she can get through even a quarter of the missives that arrive in a day at an even marginally established agency. It’s also, let’s face it, the first chance the agency has to see if a potential client can follow directions.

You would be flabbergasted at how many queries just bellow between their ill-formatted lines, “Hey, Millie, this one didn’t read the agency’s submission guidelines!” or “Hey, you’re going to have to explain things twice to this writer!” Or even, sadly, “Wow, this querier either has no idea what he is doing — or he is actively trying to circumvent the rules!” Is that really how you want the agent of your dreams (and her staff) to think of you as a writer?

Perhaps it is a bit counterintuitive, but to many Millicents, obvious attempts to cheat — yes, that’s how they tend to think of creative means of reformatting a too-long query so it will fit on the page — are every bit as off-putting as missing elements. Had querier Tricksy altered the margins, removed the date, and/or compressed the contact information in order to achieve the illusion of shortness, the result would probably have been instant rejection. Let’s nip any tendencies in that direction in the bud by showing just how ridiculous the hope that Millie wouldn’t notice this actually is.

Doesn’t stand a chance of passing as normal, does it? The sad thing is, had Tricksy put half as much effort into fine-tuning this query as she did trying to fool Millicent with fancy formatting tricks, she probably could have trimmed it to an acceptable length. As it stands, her formatting gymnastics are just too distracting from the letter’s content to be anything but a liability.

The moral of all this, should you be curious, is fourfold. First, rather than wasting time and energy resenting having to learn what Millicent and her ilk expect to see, or complaining that the pros have not, do not, and have no future intention of sifting through all of the competing querying advice out there — why should they, when they already know the rules? — why not invest that time and energy in researching what precisely it is the individual agents who interest you actually do want? That’s far more likely to bear fruit than searching for a single, foolproof, one-size fits all template to fit all of your querying needs. And no matter how much queriers would like it not to be the case, there’s just no substitute for checking every agency’s guidelines, every time.

Second, when you do that research, consider the source of information: is it credible, and is it specifically aimed at writers of your kind of work? If, after reading through the offerings, you can’t comfortably answer both of those questions, start looking for more information and asking for clarification. Before you take even the most authoritative-sounding advice — yes, even mine — it’s in your interest to make absolutely certain you understand precisely what you are being advised to do, and why.

Which brings me to the third moral: as nice as it would be if every agency currently accepting new clients posted a step-by-step guide to writing precisely the query letter it wants to see, the overwhelming majority of US-based agencies do not get very specific about it. Even those that do list requirements often leave them rather vague: give us some indication of who would want to read this book and why or tell us about your platform is about as prescriptive as they ever get.

And, let’s face it, when many writers new to the game read such requests, they feel as though they are being told that no one will ever want to read their books unless they somehow manage to become celebrities first. Which, for someone who was planning to attain celebrity by writing a terrific book, that impression can be terribly off-putting.

It should cheer you to know, however, that such statements are only rarely intended to scare newbies away. Indeed, agents often truly believe those admonitions to be helpful; remember, those directives are typically aimed at preventing the faux pas commonly made by the 90% of queriers who don’t do their research, not the 10% that do. And if submission guidelines tend to be a bit on the nebulous side, it’s just that to people who read queries and submissions for a living, sheer repetition has made the basic structure of a solid query seem to be self-evident. They’d no more think of explaining the difference between an unsuccessful descriptive paragraph and one that sings than they would undertake to explain to you how to walk. No one is born knowing how to do it, of course, but once a person has learned the mechanics, it becomes second nature.

Just how obvious do the elements of the query appear to the pros, you ask? Well, at the risk of seeming myopic, until this afternoon, it hadn’t occurred to me that any of you fine people might actually want a category on the archive list entitled HOW TO FORMAT A QUERY LETTER. After all, I had discussed formatting early in Queryfest; throughout the course of this series, I’ve posted dozens of visual examples. Yet when a reader asked me about it this afternoon, I was stunned to realize that I’d never done a post like this, one that listed all the requisite elements and the formatting requirements in one place.

I grew up surrounded by agented writers, you see; I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know what a properly-formatted query looked like. Or a properly-formatted manuscript, for that matter. Or that other kinds of writing called for different iterations of both.

Which leads me to the fourth and final moral of the evening: even the best-intentioned and most credible query advice-givers, the ones with actual professional experience to back up their opinions — who are, as we have discussed, usually in the minority online — may not always be able to second-guess what a writer brand-new to the game wants to know. Or even what he needs to know, because advice-dispensers like me are not always aware of what advice-takers don’t know.

Could you explain the pure mechanics of walking? Or of snapping your fingers? No, you probably just do both. That unthinking fluency is a product of practice, of long experience.

If you want to benefit from someone else’s experience, though — and isn’t that what seeking out advice is all about? — don’t expect the advisor either to read your mind or to tell you spontaneously what you want to know. Oh, I try; quite a few of us do. I hear from writers all the time who have landed agents following the advice I’ve posted here, and without ever having posted a question in the comments. But I can do a better job teaching you the ropes if you ask questions.

I don’t know what all of you do and don’t know, you see. It’s just a different perspective.

So as we wend our way through the last few Queryfest posts and back toward the more creatively-exciting pastures of craft and self-editing, I would strongly encourage you to post questions in the comments. Actually, I welcome questions all the time, but I’m especially interested in knowing if anything about the querying process remains fuzzy to those of you who have been following this series. I shall also, while we’re finishing up our examination of readers’ queries, be trotting out some well-founded readers’ questions that I’ve been intending to address at length for quite some time.

Many thanks to the reader who asked me for this post, and everybody, keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part XXIII: Grace is in the details. So, today, is Catherine.

Have you been finding the real-world examples we’ve been examining of late constructive, campers, or have you been twiddling your thumbs, tapping your fingers, and wishing with all of your might that Queryfest might end, so we might get back to discussing craft? Or — and I must admit, I would have begun suspecting this, had I been on the reading end of Author! Author! for the last couple of months — have you begun speculating that I’ve been stretching our discussion of querying out as long as possible in order to discourage all of you from sending out letters to agents before the Great New Year’s Resolution Paper Flurry of 2012 roars to a close?

Okay, I’ll admit it: I have been dragging my feet a trifle, but I honestly have been extremely busy. I’m running an editing special on query packets this month and next, and honestly, I’ve been swamped. (There are a few slots still available, should you be interested, but they’re booking up fast.) I have been enjoying showing you just how big a difference a few relatively minor revisions in a query letter can make to how it strikes the weary, over-taxed eyes of our old pal, Millicent the agency screener.

For those of you new to the mysteries of querying, Millicent is the collective moniker of the legions of sharp-eyed, hard-working, literature-loving (yes, in spite of everything) assistants employed by agencies large and small to process the thousands upon thousands of query letters they receive each year. At most agencies, Millicent is also the first reader of requested manuscripts, winnowing the hundreds of submissions down to the few that her bosses, the agents to whom aspiring writers address their queries, have time to read. In a very real sense, then, Millicent is the audience at whom a savvy querier or submitter should be aiming his efforts.

Most aspiring writers are a trifle shocked to learn of Millicent’s existence; pretty much every writer tends to assume that the agent of his dreams has time to peruse, if not each and every query sent to her attention, at least one’s own. That’s the agent’s job, isn’t it, to seek out exciting new literary talent?

Actually, it isn’t, at least not primarily. A traditional agent — as opposed to the kind that makes a living not by selling books for authors, but by other means such as charging for manuscript feedback or taking kickbacks for referring aspiring writers to editing services — makes money only when he sells his existing clients’ manuscripts or book proposals. He takes a percentage of the advance, as well as any royalties. (If you’re not sure of the difference or how published authors get paid, you might want to check out the ADVANCES and ROYALTIES AND HOW THEY WORK categories on the archive list conveniently located at the bottom right-hand side of this page.) Going through queries and submissions, then, as well as working with clients in order to get a work ready for submission to publishing houses, is essentially done on spec in anticipation of future earnings.

That means, in practice, that while landing an exciting new voice or great book concept (or, even better, both in the same work) is potentially lucrative for an agency, getting paid in the short term depends mostly upon hustling to promote the manuscripts and proposals it currently has under contract, making sure that the publishers of existing clients’ books deliver advances and royalty checks on time (not a foregone conclusion in every instance, alas), and, ideally, helping already-established clients crank out more books for eager audiences. Because all of that is awfully darned labor-intensive, even a very successful agency typically takes on only a handful of new clients per year.

Which means, to be blunt about it, that a good agent usually doesn’t have nearly enough time to screen all of the queries aimed at him — and the more commercially successful his clients are, the more likely that is to be true. (Oh, you think Stephanie Meyers’ agent doesn’t receive a significantly higher volume of queries than your average bear?) Thus Millicent: while her boss concentrates on near-term profits, she performs the long term-oriented task of sifting through the mountains of queries and hills of submissions to come up with the happy few most likely to — pardon my being crass about it — rake in some dosh down the line.

Her efforts — and they are often substantial — free the agent of your dreams to concentrate on his current client list. That may be a touch frustrating when a writer is first trying to catch an agent’s eye, but believe me, you’ll be grateful for it once you’re gracing that client list.

I always like to remind aspiring writers of that around this time of year, when so many creative minds first tackle (or re-tackle) the daunting, lengthy, and often soul-compressing task of approaching agents with a first book. The Millicents of the world do not, by and large, enjoy rejecting writers, nor do they generally make the rules that determine what is and is not a rejection-worthy offense in a query, but it is in fact their job to reject virtually everything that comes across their desks.

That’s just how the system works, I’m afraid. An aspiring writer can waste a lot of time and energy in resenting that, without doing herself or her book any good.

In fact, most do. As any talented listener who has ever spent more than forty minutes at a writers’ conference knows, it’s not at all uncommon for even very ambitious writers to devote a far greater proportion of her oomph to complaining about how difficult it is to land an agent than to walking up to agents to pitch or sending out queries. Indeed, it’s not unheard-of for a genuinely gifted writer to send out only one, two, or twelve queries, then give up entirely, switching all of the energies previously expended in trying into seething and feeling hurt.

I’m not judging that response; I would be the last to deny that rejection hurts. It’s hard not to take personally. However, as a professional writer, I’m here to tell you that frequent rejection isn’t the exception for successful writers; it’s the norm. It often takes an agent dozens of submissions to sell a client’s book; agented writers pitch book ideas to their agents and editors all the time, only to see them shot down.

They don’t stop trying, you see. Nor should you. Yes, you’re probably going to get rejected a few times, but you can’t succeed if you don’t try. And keep trying, even if it takes a hundred queries. (Not at all an unusually high number for first-time authors these days, by the way.)

Chant it with me now, long-term readers: the only manuscript that stands no chance of getting published is the one that the writer, sometimes for excellent reasons, has stopped sending out. Or never worked up the nerve to send out in the first place.

It also helps to be humble enough — and professional enough — to be open to the possibility that the query itself, and not the book it presents, is what is tripping Millicent’s infamously sensitive rejection response. As we’ve seen throughout this series, it isn’t always the big faux pas that send her reaching for the form-letter rejection pile; it’s frequently the small gaffes.

Or, more commonly, a collection of them. Query red flags, like manuscript problems, are as sociable as ants: Millie rarely sees one traveling alone.

Bearing that in mind, I’d like to present you with another quite good querying effort by a brave and generous Author! Author! reader, a clever, creative soul I shall dub Catherine T. Great. From a writerly perspective, what I’m about to show you is not only good; it’s borders on the superlative. Just you wait and see.

Yet to Millicent’s finely-honed eye, the query that follows suffers from a number of small maladies. Not a single one of these problems would necessarily constitute a severe enough pneumonia to make us despair of the patient’s chances, perhaps, but taken together at the end of a long, tiring day of querying, the symptoms might well prove fatal to the chances of what genuinely sounds like an interesting book.

Our goal today, then, will be to ferret out and clear out those minuscule ailments, so that the patient may thrive.

So dig out your reading glasses, please, and see if you can diagnose the problems, as well as the strong points of this letter. As always, I apologize for the bizarre blurriness my blogging program lends to page shots (as opposed to photographs, which it passes along to you in loving detail); to try to ease it, I shall try making the pictures a little bigger this time around. If you are still having trouble seeing individual words or formatting specifics, please try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Pretty darned persuasive, is it not? Let’s pause for a moment to consider why. It’s upfront about why Catherine decided to query Hawkeye — the reference to one of her client’s books is professionally flattering without coming across as at all obsequious — makes the book category clear, and goes above and beyond in providing a second parallel published book. Obviously, this is a writer who has done her homework (although I, for one, would have liked to know why the book would appeal to Ms. Revis’ readers, I must confess). It’s properly formatted, polite and professional in tone, and includes credentials relevant to publishing. The book’s description is a trifle on the long side, but it presents a compelling story arc.

Heck, she even came up with a title for Brilliant Author’s work that elicited a bona fide chuckle from me — and believe me, after six and a half years of coming up with querying examples for aspiring writers, I welcome a query effort that makes me chuckle. Well done, Catherine!

Yet despite all of these very positive elements, it contains two common problems — one structural, one creative — that might well give Millicent pause. Hint: we talked about one of them at fairly great length last time.

Hark! Do I hear a fairly hefty percentage of you leaping to your feet, exclaiming vigorously, “I see it, Anne! Catherine included that unnecessary cliché about the manuscript’s being complete,” you’ve already earned your gold star for the day. Chant it with me, recent post-rememberers: since a US-based agent could not possibly sell — or even submit to editors at publishing houses — an unfinished first work of fiction, agencies do not accept partial novel manuscripts. Therefore, any query for a fiction manuscript is assumed to be for a completed manuscript.

How I — and everyone currently working at any agency in North America — wish that logic were more widely known. The Internet, however, has an intriguing habit of making bad examples and ill-informed advice at least as pervasive as good examples and expert advice. Trust me, “But I saw an example online that did it that way!” carries precisely no weight with Millicent — or, indeed, anyone who reads for a living.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you. But while I’m at it, may I caution against the utterance of any sentiment that remotely resembles, “But my mom/husband/wife/best friend/writers’ group loved my book!” in the presence of anyone who has ever set foot in a literary agency? Not to cast aspersions upon those who love you, but from the pros’ point of view, non-professional assessments of literary quality tend not to be worth the paper they are written upon.

I have some bad news about the Easter Bunny, too, as well as George Washington and that cherry tree. I don’t want to shatter too many of your illusions in one day, though, so I’ll hold off on those.

Do I spot some raised hands out there? “But Anne,” Catherine’s well-wishers across the globe call out, and with good reason, “I’ll fess up: I thought that complete at X words was required verbiage for a query, too. How else would one work in the information about length gracefully?”

Oh, I don’t know — how about by constructing a graceful, original sentence, rather than lifting one somebody else wrote? English is a marvelously complex language that permits a great variety of sentence construction, after all, and part of the writer’s task in the query letter is to convince Millicent that he can, you know, write.

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s a myth (and, since the rise of the Internet, an astonishingly pervasive one) that every agent currently treading the earth’s crust demands to see a word count in the query. Some do, of course, but they tend not to be particularly shy about expressing that preference: if its inclusion is important to them, they will mention it in the agency’s submission guidelines.

And if they do not bring it up specifically — or if, as is more often the case, the agency has not posted guidelines for queriers more prescriptive than please query before sending materials — it’s honestly not going to help you to include the word count unless it falls smack dab in the middle of the normal range for your chosen book category. If it’s much longer or much shorter, including it could provide Millicent with an additional reason to reject the query.

Which, naturally, is why agencies that ask for this information want to know: because so many first manuscripts are in fact quite a bit longer or quite a bit shorter than the norms for the category (usually the former, for fiction), having this information handy in the query can save Millicent quite a bit of time — and the agency an entire step — in the rejection process. That’s just common sense: instead of being charmed by the query, requesting the manuscript, and waiting until it arrives to discover it’s a five-pound behemoth that would be astronomically expensive to print (or a six-ounce novella not long enough to hold hard covers apart), a Millicent at a word count-requesting agency can simply glance at those numerals and reject the project immediately.

Lucky for her that she didn’t have a chance to fall in love with your writing first, eh?

In Catherine’s case, even though her word count isn’t large enough to risk knee-jerk rejection, the book is on the longer end for YA. So if Hawkeye’s agency didn’t insist in its guidelines upon seeing those digits, is it really the best strategy for her to include them?

Check those guidelines carefully. It’s in your interest to verify the querying requirements of every single agent you plan to approach, anyway, to ascertain that they don’t want you to send additional materials — an author bio, for instance, or some special length of synopsis.

I know, I know: the let’s-use-a-template mentality would prefer that every agency in creation did in fact expect precisely the same elements in a query, or in a query packet, for that matter. A simple perusal of any fifteen agency websites featuring submission guidelines, however, will abundantly demonstrate that’s not the case.

And before anyone out there bellows, “But I saw something on another website that said my query would be doomed if I didn’t include the word count,” remember, folks, the vehemence with which a piece of querying advice is presented is not a particularly good indicator of how helpful that advice will be in practice. Especially, as in this case, when literally millions of queriers have taken the same piece of advice, rendering screening annoyingly repetitious for Millicent. “What on earth,” she mutters over the 78th iteration of complete at X words she’s seen in a morning, “makes them think they need to tell me something this obvious? And why oh why do 99% phrase it exactly the same way?”

This is not, of course, the intended effect. Quite the opposite, in fact. Like many aspiring writers, Catherine almost certainly included this stock phrase because she saw — although not here at Author! Author! — a template that featured it, and concluded, not unreasonably, that it was just necessary industry-speak that would elevate her query from the intriguing to the intriguing and professional.

Instead, it tells Millicent something completely different: despite Catherine’s genuinely impressive magazine credentials — did you catch that glorious platform paragraph? — she probably doesn’t know very much about how book-length fiction is sold or how agencies work. Perversely, that perception might actually make that magazine background work against Catherine at the query stage. Millicent might well conclude that her boss, or at any rate someone at the agency, would have to invest additional time in training such a client in the differences between what the magazine world expects in a manuscript and what book publishers do.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? Contrary to popular opinion, not every piece of writing intended for publication should be formatted identically, nor is all publishing one big industry. What’s appropriate in a submission, or even in a query, depends entirely upon the venue. Agents deal with book publishers, by and large, so they expect their clients to adhere to the norms of that industry: reasonable, right? It’s equally reasonable for magazines to expect submitters to adhere to short story format, newspapers to look for A.P. format, and academic journals to adhere to their own esoteric standards.

So while Catherine’s extensive experience working with text intended for publication and producing print-ready work under deadlines undoubtedly constitute fine arguments for snapping her up as an agency client, presenting that information to Millicent immediately after having used a phrase that she has come to associate with those brand-new to book publishing might create an unintended effect. Specifically, the impression that while this is a writer accustomed to adhering to an industry’s writing expectations, she might experience some difficulty switching to Millie’s boss’ expectations.

Especially, as in this case, when that phrase appears at a rather odd point in the letter. Does anybody see a problem — from Millicent’s speed-reading perspective, that is — with where the information in that paragraph falls?

In case that last sentence was too subtle: why might it be to Catherine’s advantage not to make Millie read almost to the end of the query — or, if it’s an e-mailed query, to force her to scroll down — before conveying that information?

If you have been jumping up and down for the last few lines, exclaiming, “I know! I know! Millie won’t necessarily read that far to find out the book category,” feel free to raid the gold star cabinet again. Remember, a screener at an agency of any stature has to read through a LOT of queries in a day, and it’s her job to reject as many as she reasonably can, as fast as humanly possible.

And what’s the single simplest ground upon which to reject a query? Shout it out, Queryfest faithful: if the query appears to be for a book in a category Millicent’s boss doesn’t represent.

Yes, sometimes even if it doesn’t appear from the first paragraph that the letter’s been correctly targeted. Remember, if Millicent finds a rejection trigger early in a query, she’s not necessarily going to have the time to read on for others. In the midst of a busy day, she’s far, far more likely simply to stop reading and stuff a form-letter rejection into the enclosed SASE. (Catherine’s been redundant here in mentioning the SASE in the body of the letter and writing Enclosure at the bottom, by the way; once would have been sufficient.) Or, as is even more common these days, just to hit the DELETE key or toss the query into the recycling bin.

Fortunately for Catherine and her book — which, again, sounds like a good read — this dreadful fate is not all that hard to avoid. As is, alas, all too often the case with good writers who have just taken advice from too many sources, ironing out the wrinkles to present the book more pleasingly to Millicent’s eye can be done with very few keystrokes.

Stop laughing; it’s true. Just a few very minor revisions would make an immense difference here. Even just altering what we have talked about so far — taking out the stock phrasing and the word count, making it easier for Millicent to tell the book category from the get-go, removing the redundancy about the enclosure — would improve this query’s chances. Take a gander:

Stronger, isn’t it? That took less than a minute’s worth of keystrokes to accomplish.

I sense some nervous shifting in desk chairs out there in the ether. “But Anne,” YA writers across the globe point out, “I recognize that this version is tighter — it did seem a trifle conceptually redundant in the first to mention the book category twice. In Catherine’s defense, though, she did tell Millicent right off the bat the first time around what the book category was: YA. So why not just say that in the first paragraph, rather than specifying that it is YA science fiction?”

Good question, chair-shifters, and one that deserves a direct answer: because just as not all science fiction is aimed at a YA audience, not all YA appeals to science fiction readers. Nor do all YA-representing agents handle SF or fantasy aimed at that demographic. I must confess, though, from the description in the query, I’m not entirely sure why she has labeled this story as YA science fiction, rather than placing it the more capacious umbrella of YA fantasy. It’s entirely possible that this story contains elements that would make it fit more comfortably into the SF world — like, say, the cryogenically frozen space travelers featured in Across the Universe – but as the lengthy description doesn’t bring up any SF-specific elements, I suspect Millicent might be perplexed by the category choice.

And while we’re at it, the king’s answer lies within what? The garden, or Matty?

To be fair, since Catherine has clearly done her homework about this agency, she knows that Hawkeye does indeed represent YA fantasy and adult SF, so she probably could have gotten away with this particular ambiguity in her query were it not for a storytelling choice in the descriptive paragraphs. Any guesses why Millicent needed to know before the description that this book was SF or fantasy?

At the risk of running out of gold stars, help yourself to three if you bounded from your chair to cry, “Because while the first descriptive paragraph reads like YA, it does not read like either SF or fantasy!” For some reason that defies Millicent’s understanding, writers aiming at YA subcategories stumble into this pothole all the time: in their laudable attempt to present the premise in an engaging YA voice, they tend to give short shrift to the specialty elements.

I hear you giggling, but you’d be astonished at how many YA romance queries omit the romance (one of the reasons I didn’t transplant the with romance elements part of the original science fiction justification, incidentally), how many YA paranormals neglect to bring up the werewolf until the last sentence of the description, how many YA fantasies neglect to mention any fantastic plot points, and so forth. It’s as though these queriers believe that there’s just one big YA category that covers every single literary possibility for readers aged 13-17, and that a commitment to representing YA means swearing off the ability to specialize in certain voices or subject matter.

If that last paragraph made you gasp in terror, clutch your writhing entrails, and wish devoutly that you’d done a touch more research on what those agents you just queried had sold recently, well, you’re not alone. YA-screening Millicents are constantly overwhelmed with masses of queries that betray a belief that YA agents don’t specialize.

See now why I was so adamant about Catherine’s stating the subcategory in paragraph 1? Even if Millicent happened to be intimately familiar with both Brilliant Author and Beth Revis’ excellent efforts to entertain the youth of this part of the universe, it isn’t her job to guess that despite the fact that Matty’s story is presented at first as straightforward YA — it isn’t hard to imagine this story set in any strict school, is it? — he’s living in a fantastic world. It’s the descriptive section’s job to demonstrate it, and to do it right away.

Not having read the manuscript in question (which, again, sounds like a hoot, Catherine) and having no idea what the Hill is (when it first appears in the description, it seems to be Matty’s school, but by the end of the paragraph, it appears to be a regional designation), I’m reluctant to make up SF or fantasy elements to add to that paragraph. I can suggest a revision strategy, though: why not just beef up the initial description of Matty to include some off-world tidbit? Like, perhaps, this:

Sixteen-year-old Mars resident Matty Ducayn is a disappointment to everyone who knows him. As the son of The Hill’s commandant, he is expected conform to a strict, unspoken code of conduct. Small acts of defiance over years—like playing in the dirt and walking on the grass—have earned him a reputation for being unruly, but it’s his sarcastic test answers that finally push his masters over the edge. After his preparatory school expels him, he’s summoned by his sponsor…the king…to answer for the offense.

Doesn’t leave Millicent in suspense for long, does it? Again, that’s a huge improvement, given that this change required precisely six keystrokes.

While we have that excerpted paragraph in front of us, though, may I ask you a favor? Will you rise from your chair, back up an additional few feet from your computer screen, and take another look at that paragraph, please?

Tell me, what was the first thing that struck your eye? If it was those two rather perplexing sets of ellipses, you’re not alone. Yes, YA is on the whole quite a bit more open to what columnist Herb Caen used to call three-dot journalism than adult fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter), but here, those dots just don’t make sense. What, Millicent is left to wonder, is Catherine trying to say that could not have been adequately conveyed by the grammatically-correct commas:

After his preparatory school expels him, he’s summoned by his sponsor, the king, to answer for the offense.

Since the query is peppered with other, correctly used ellipses, what Millicent is most likely to conclude is twofold: first, Catherine really likes herself an ellipsis — and that the manuscript being queried is stuffed to the proverbial gills with ‘em. While neither would necessarily strike someone reading the book itself as problematic, if Catherine has used them discreetly and effectively throughout, repeating a stylistic trick several times within a space of text as short as a query implies that the author may use them that frequently on the manuscript page.

And if you’re not sure why that might present a problem, back up again and take a peek at the previous examples. That many ellipses on any given page of a published book would be mighty eye-distracting, wouldn’t they? Like most literary slight-of-hand, a device like this works best if it is used sparingly; indulge in it too much, and the reader’s eye begins to skim past it.

Again, though, not having read the manuscript in question, I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions whatsoever about how it is written. Millicent, I need hardly tell you, is not so shy. So let’s, just for the sake of appeasing her, limit the ellipsis use to once on the page, where removing it would make the greatest difference.

While I’m removing eye-distracters, I’m going to go ahead and excise the extra s in the possessive in that first paragraph. Yes, recent changes in journalistic practice have rendered forming a possessive by adding ‘s to — shudder — any noun, regardless of whether it happens to end in an s or not, but to most of us who read for a living, it still looks wrong. (Mostly because it would have been considered flatly and unquestionably wrong 20 years ago.) To us, the rule change just seems like a concession to those incapable of understanding a rule containing more than one element.

I was, fortunately for the Author! Author! community, brought up to exercise kind forbearance toward those wolf-raised miscreants who objected to punctuation that could not be applied identically in every instance. Millicent might, too, if she did not enjoy the good luck of being trained by a grammar rule-hugger, and her boss might well be too busy to care.

When people do object to rule-flattening, however, they tend to object to it pretty violently, so why take a chance in a query? Or, for that matter, tempt Millicent’s ire by adopting the AP style of capitalizing the first letter after a colon, as if it were the beginning of a new sentence? (See earlier section on different types of publishing embracing different standards.) For the sake of Millie’s blood pressure, I’m going to alter that, too.

That little peroration out of my system, let’s turn again to the query page. What jumps out at you now?

It was the dashes, wasn’t it? (And wasn’t it amazing how little difference removing those ellipses made to the actual meaning of those sentences?) This time around, it’s not just the frequency with which Catherine uses them here that would strike Millicent as odd, but the fact that she does not present them consistently. Half the time, they show up as emdashes, those long lines stretching from one word to the next, but the other half, they consist of two dashes, with no spaces between them and the words on either side.

In a book manuscript, neither would be correct: in standard format, dashes are doubled, with a space at either end. Care to extrapolate what Millicent’s assumption about the manuscript might be, based upon how dashes are used here?

Uh-huh: it would require proofreading, something not all agencies are willing to invest time in doing for their clients. So let’s go ahead and make those dashes both manuscript-friendly and consistent, shall we? Since the book’s title contains an unexplained-and-offbeat punctuation choice, Catherine will be best off if it’s the only one in the letter.

I’m also, for the sake of consistency, regularize the number of spaces after periods and colons: in the original query, sometimes it was one, sometimes two. While I’m at it, I shall correct the incorrect article in the platform paragraph, add the missing one, and introduce some clarifying commas.

Ah, that’s better: without the visual distractions, it’s easier to concentrate on the content of the letter. As a fringe benefit, the offbeat punctuation in the title now comes across as a definite authorial choice made by a rule-savvy writer, rather than — and I’m sorry to put it this way, Catherine, but it is how many Millicents might have seen it before — as a typo.

And speaking of typos, did you catch the one that I missed last time around? I’ll add the missing preposition in the next version.

Own up, now: you’re surprised that a query this good from the get-go could benefit from this much tinkering, are you not? That’s the difference between how Millicent — and any well-trained professional reader — looks at a page and how most people do. To those with the eye, these small changes make a world of difference, elevating the query several notches up the professionalism scale.

Believe it or not, I could tinker with this more — personally, I think that including a few vivid, one-of-a-kind specifics would make this letter even better, but lacking those, I’m not going to impose my guesses upon Catherine’s plot. A dandy place to start: how about adding a sentence showing Millicent how Matty’s world differs from ours?

Ah, you will say, but how would Catherine find the space to include her unique details? To an editor’s eye, the answer’s simple: since including so much of the plot here renders causation a trifle unclear, cut a bit of it out. Remember, the point of a book description in a synopsis is not to summarize the plot, but to present the premise and central conflict, preferably while depicting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation.

Here, the description not only achieves all that, but goes considerably farther, suggesting how the central conflict gets resolved. While that’s not inherently problematic, Millicent’s expecting this part of the query to run only 3-4 sentences long. She seldom objects to queries on the ground that they are too short, if you catch my drift. She also tends to prefer descriptive sentences in the active voice to ones whose structure implies that things happen to the protagonist, rather than the protagonist’s propelling the plot along.

So despite the fact that I suspect the cuts I am about to make will cause Catherine to clutch her heart and murmur, “Sacre bleu! But it’s an essential twist, I tell you,” I invite the rest of you to consider whether tightening the lengthy description genuinely sacrifices much of this query’s original charm. In order to sweeten the trade-off a little, I’m going to use a bit of that freed-up space to show Millicent why I think, based upon what I know of this storyline, this book might appeal to readers of Beth Revis’ work.

Oh, and before I show you the revised version, allow me to ask: had you noticed that title of this book appeared in capital letters (one acceptable means of designating a title), while the other titles appeared in italics (a different means of same)? Millicent would have. Again, consistency is the querier and submitter’s friend: professional readers’ eyes automatically zoom in on the unexpected.

What, you may be asking, is the mystery of the vanished Januaries? Beats me; I was merely searching for shorthand for that rather confusing (for someone who has not read the manuscript, anyway) bit about the search. It’s a nice phrase, though, isn’t it, and one that whets your appetite to read the manuscript?

It just goes to show you: sometimes in a query, less actually is more, as long as it is clearly presented. It’s not the book description’s job, after all, to depict the central conflict in its entirety, after all; that’s the manuscript’s job. All the query has to do — and it’s a tall enough order without adding requirements, thanks — is intrigue Millicent enough that she will ask to see pages.

After that, Catherine, your story and voice will be able to grab her even more thoroughly, right? So why give away so much in the query?

Please join me in thanking Catherine for helping me illustrate yet again something that Millicents know only too well: to a professional reader, the details of a query can do as much toward demonstrating the writer’s professionalism and writing talent as the broad strokes of description can do to convey the plot. A savvy querier can use that to her advantage: since the overwhelming majority of queries have red flags imbedded in their details, if not also in the larger points, a query whose details are selected with care can shout from even the very bottom of Millicent’s daily reading allotment, “Hey, take this one seriously.”

Remember, Millicent doesn’t have much upon which to base her opinion of your writing. Make sure that every syllable of what she does see works to your advantage.

Thanks again, Catherine, 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 XXI: all right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up, or, that pesky credentials paragraph revisited