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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

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

And it may be helpful to include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) One entry per writer, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

famous name query

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

referral query

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

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

missent referral query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

That’s right: “NEXT!”

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

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

who the heck query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

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

First pages that grab: Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better second-place winners in YA: Suzi McGowen’s A Troll Wife’s Tale and Sherry Soule’s Dark Angel (a.k.a. Beautifully Broken)

Suzi McGowen author photoSherry Soule author photo

No, I haven’t taken a look at the daunting task that is Synopsispalooza and abandoned it in terror — I shall be posting again in that excellent endeavor this evening. This morning, however, I would like to press forward with the next of the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Page Made Even Better Contest, the takers of second-place honors in Category II: YA, Suzi McGowen and Sherry Soule.

That’s Suzi on the left, Sherry on the right. Today, they are going to take us into the very trendy worlds of YA urban fantasy and YA paranormal.

Take a good gander at those well-constructed author photos — one of the reasons I asked the A!A!GFPMEB winners to provide them was to start all of you thinking about your author photos well before Authorbiopalooza in October. (It’s a Paloozapalooza this autumn at Author! Author!) Why think begin to ponder it well in advance? Well, two reasons. First, for most writers, coming up with a photo they like takes a few tries. Or a few hundred. Second, when the request for an author photo (or author bio, for that matter), it tends to be rather last-minute.

As in, “Oh, I’m going to start sending out your manuscript to editors tomorrow, Author McWriterly. Can you e-mail me a bio with a photo tonight?”

Trust me, you’ll be a much, much happier camper if you already have that photo — and that bio — in hand. (That’s true of synopses, too, actually, so be sure to tune back in tonight for more guidance on that front.)

Back to the business at hand. One of the problems faced by aspiring writers trying to break into a book category that happens to be hot at the moment — and remember, all publishing trends are temporary; what’s hot today may not be next year — is that, inevitably, there will be greater competition for the admittedly greater number of publishing slots. It’s an industry truism, as predictable as the flowers in spring: 1-2 years after a breakout bestseller appears, agencies will be flooded with queries and submissions with eerily similar premises.

And if there’s a series like TWILIGHT or HARRY POTTER that hits the big time? So many submissions for books like them will appear that entire subgenres may be formed.

In a way, this phenomenon is good for aspiring writers, especially for those who happened to be working on, say, YA paranormal romances when the first TWILIGHT book came out. The nice thing about the ever-changing book market is that it actually does tend to reward writers who keep weeding their own particular patch of it year in, year out: eventually, their chosen category may well become trendy.

That’s important to bear in mind, because there are always plenty of people, including agents and editors at conferences, eager to declare a particular book category dead — or impossible to sell, which in the publishing world amounts to the same thing. Just ask anyone who was trying to land an agent for historical fiction six months before COLD MOUNTAIN was a surprise bestseller.

That’s why they’re called surprise bestsellers: even the pros don’t necessarily see ‘em coming. Then they spend the next two years actively soliciting similar manuscripts, the following two tolerating similar manuscripts, and the next four wondering why in heaven’s name aspiring writers keep sending them similar manuscripts. Don’t they know the market has moved on to the next trend?

Of course, the cycle is longer with a breakout series; one has only to read the daily acquisitions listings on Publishers’ Marketplace or Publishers’ Weekly to see that books similar to TWILIGHT are still being picked up in droves. So naturally, thousands upon thousands of writers continue to describe their YA paranormals in TWILIGHTish terms, their YA fantasies in Potterish language, etc.

That strategy makes quite a bit of sense at the front end of a trend, or even at its height. The longer a wave continues, however, the harder it is to make a case that a manuscript by a writer who has never published before in that book category — like, say, the million or so adult fiction writers who have stampeded into the YA market over the past few years — is adding something new and original to the current offerings. And all too often, queriers abet that difficulty by emphasizing how their work is akin to the iconic bestseller in the category, rather than how it is different.

Which brings me back to today’s winning entries. As those of you who entered the contest may recall, one of the required elements was an identification of the entry’s book category and a brief explanation of what this manuscript would bring to that category’s already-existing target market. As so often happens with the descriptive paragraph of the query letter, most entrants mistook this requirement for either a request for a boasting back-jacket-style puff piece (This book will revolutionize Westerns!) or, you guessed it, an invitation to compare one’s own work with bestsellers.

Both of these approaches tend to sell original writing radically short. No matter how many times agents march into writers’ conferences and declaim, “I’m looking for books like Bestseller X,” the publishing industry has never been very taken with carbon copies. What these agents actually mean is, “Since editors are eager to replicate the success of Bestseller X, I am looking for new writers whose manuscripts will appeal to the same target demographic, those folks who have already demonstrated that they are willing — nay, excited about — buying similar books. So I want to see a manuscript with a fresh voice that nevertheless shares certain selling points with Bestseller X.”

Given that motivation, such an agent is unlikely to tell her agency screener (our old pal Millicent, natch) just to request pages from every querier whose descriptive paragraph says this book is just like Bestseller X, right? If a book category happens to be trendy, 70% of what crosses Millicent’s desk will be able to make that claim; by definition, surprise bestsellers change the expected selling points for new manuscripts in their book categories.

So what’s a better strategy for catching her eye? Assuming that any agency that represents that book category is already aware of Bestseller X’s selling points. Instead of telling her that your book shares them, why not show her how it is different, yet will appeal to the same target audience?

I can feel some of you who write in currently hip categories fighting that last paragraph. “But Anne, you said throughout Querypalooza that a querier has only a few lines to grab Millicent’s attention. So how can labeling my book as one with similar bestseller potential possibly undersell it?”

Glad you asked, conclusion-resisters. A lot of aspiring writers believe that a generic comparison to an established author’s work — which most this is the next Bestseller X! claims boil down to being, right? — is inherently more effective at promoting a manuscript than a specific demonstration of the book’s original elements.

As it happens, today’s winning entries disprove that assumption quite nicely. Here is Suzi’s brief description for A TROLL WIFE’S TALE:

You’ve heard of urban fantasy? That dark and gritty world of modern day cities, where elves and witches roam? My novel is the Young Adult version. Call it a suburban fantasy, where a female troll sets out to right wrongs, save the world, oh, and become a tooth fairy.

And here is Sherry’s for Dark Angel. (Please note: between the time that Sherry entered the contest and when we informed the winners — admittedly, a long time; my apologies — she changed the book’s title to BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN. A good call, I think — BEAUTIFULLY BROKEN is a perfectly marvelous title — but obviously, the judges had to work with the original entry. I hope this does not cause any confusion in future web searches, after the book comes out.)

DARK ANGEL is a twist on the young adult, boy meets girl, supernatural love story. This time the boy is the “normal” one and the girl is the supernatural and attractive teenager.

Both of these descriptions make the books in question sound rather generic, don’t they? The first doesn’t bring up an original element until the last few words. Not the best structure, strategically, as Millicent is likely to find the first three sentences a trifle perplexing: there is already a well-established YA urban fantasy category, so why not just state the book category up front and move swiftly on to what’s fresh, original, and exciting about this book?

Especially since there is so very much that is fresh, original, and exciting about this book. Take a gander at Suzi’s one-page description:

Troll Wife could use a job, so when she finds the poster on the telephone pole that says, “Any fae may apply,” she does. She’s as surprised as anyone when she’s accepted for training as a tooth fairy.

She’s also surprised by the impressive number of injuries she racks upon the job. A broken bone and a concussion? Eh, maybe she should have expected that. After all, learning to fly isn’t as easy as it sounds. But the gunshot wound? That was because she was fighting a monster that she ran into while collecting teeth.

The monster, called Oubliette, was a soldier in the war between the humans and the fae, hundreds of years ago. Now Oubliette wants to start the war all over again. This time, it wants to kill all the humans, not just most of them. The other tooth fairies should be her allies in this war against Oubliette, but Troll Wife doubts that any fae that smells like cotton candy can help save the world.

Troll Wife only has days to learn how to fight the Oubliette, protect the human children from it, and make sure that she collects her quota of teeth. While she’s at it, she needs to find out what dark secret the tooth fairies are hiding, and rescue herself from their tangled web.

Sounds like a genuine hoot, eh? But did you gain a sense of that delightful whimsy in the brief description?

DARK ANGEL’s brief description falls into an even more common querying trap: it presents the story as merely a gender-flipped twist on a bestseller. It also assumes — wrongly, based upon the longer description and the first page — that the similarity to that bestseller’s premise is the most interesting thing about this manuscript.

That made the judges rather sad, since on the page, it’s the least interesting thing about this story. Furthermore, the stories do not seem very similar. Take a peek at her longer description:

A sixteen-year-old impetuous outcast has seen ‘shadows’ for as long as she can remember and they always turn up when something bad is about to happen.

When those dark companions follow, Serenity Broussard to church with her family it begins no differently than any other day, except that she gets her first glimpse of the hot new guy in town. It’s a small town so it doesn’t take long for the gossip to spread about Trent Donavon, especially when he moves into his family’s rumored-to-be haunted mansion.

Trent and Serenity began to date and the seemingly perfect state of their relationship is thrown into chaos after she takes a job as an intern, helping restore his family’s estate. It doesn’t take Serenity long to realize that something is terribly wrong. The mansion is full of ghosts and secrets.

The house awakens latent psychic powers in Serenity, who finds herself being stalked by a ghost who tries to communicate with her in terrifying ways. The shadows lurking around Serenity—ever present and insubstantial are something else. Lacking in the description is one common denominator unifying the different types of shadows entering our world—darkness—malevolence.

Shadows had another thing in common—an attraction to Serenity.

When Serenity finds Trent’s mother’s diary, it sends her on a quest to uncover the mystery surrounding the woman’s untimely death. Except things aren’t as black and white as Serenity thinks. Because not all ghosts want help crossing over, some want vengeance.

Admittedly, a few of the narrative choices here are genuinely distracting from the storyline being presented (are the dark companions in paragraph 2 the same as the shadows in paragraph 1, for instance, and if so, are they individual characters? Why is shadows in quotation marks — and why, for an American audience, in single quotation marks? Why risk Millicent’s wrath with two technically incorrect single-sentence paragraphs, when it would be so easy to form the concepts there into narrative paragraphs with at least two sentences? Why aren’t there spaces at the ends of the dashes, since any synopsis should be in standard manuscript format?), but those would all be quite easily fixed. What I want you to notice here is that the brief description and the longer description could be for entirely different books.

That wouldn’t be too surprising to Millicent — aspiring writers undersell their manuscripts’ originality this way all the time. Sad, but true. Yet if we’re honest with ourselves, can we really blame Millicent for not being able to look at the first description of either of these books and extrapolate the second description?

That outcome would be a particular shame in the case of TROLL WIFE, because its premise is so darned charming and full of potential. (All of the judges preferred the title shortened, by the way, Suzi, although several of the judges — yours truly included — wondered if young girl readers would be a bit disturbed that the protagonist’s name and her social role are apparently identical.) That charm is apparent on page 1:

Suzi McGowen p1

Now, this page could use some revision — I suspect, for instance, that a hard-copy read-through would have caught that the narrative tells the reader twice that the protagonist is a tooth fairy, once at the end of paragraph one and again at the beginning of paragraph 2 — but is that why Millicent might start reading this with a jaundiced eye? Chant it with me now, campers: because professional readers stare at manuscripts all day, any deviation from standard format will leap off the page at them, distracting them from the writing.

There’s a reason I keep showing you so many before-and-after page 1s, after all. Take a peek at the same page after 2 minutes of cosmetic revision, and see if it doesn’t come across as more professional. For extra credit, compare it to the original revision and tell me what I changed.

Suzi revised

How did you do? I made five changes here: (1) moved the slug line to left margin (not mandatory, but the norm), (2) changed the chapter title from all caps to title case (thus the name: title case), (3) changed the spacing from an odd specific set to double-spaced, (4) changed the font from Courier to Times New Roman (again, not mandatory, but the norm for novel manuscripts), and (5) changed 14 in line 2 to fourteen. Of these five, only #5 — not writing out numbers under 100 in full — might have prompted Millicent to stop reading.

Yes, it really is that serious an offense against standard format — unfortunate, since so many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that the AP style restriction of writing out only numbers under ten applies to manuscripts. It does not: AP is for newspapers and magazines, and not all literary magazines adhere to it.

Having worked with Suzi and Sherry’s entries in soft copy (the better to show you before-and-after formatting, my dears), I suspect that both were relying on some sort of macro for the PC for their formatting — it was impossible, for instance, to alter the paragraph heading without deleting the title and the space above the text entirely and starting again from scratch. I realize that macros that purport to format a manuscript for a writer may be comforting, but actually, the restrictions of standard format are so simple that anyone reasonably familiar with Word should be able to set them up in five minutes flat. (If you don’t know what the requirements of standard manuscript format are, or indeed that there is a specific professional format for manuscripts, it would behoove you to take a peek at the HOW TO FORMAT A MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list located on the bottom right-hand side of this page.)

I hear some impatient huffing out there, do I not? “But Anne,” macro-huggers across the globe wail, “that sounds like a lot of extra work! I want my computer to do it all for me.”

Well, it is a touch of extra work — although not nearly as onerous as writers tend to speak of it as being — but let me put it this way: if a macro is wrong, its feelings are not going to get hurt when the submission gets rejected. The writer’s will. So who really should be in charge of making sure that the formatting is in apple-pie order?

True, one or two minor formatting gaffes are probably not going to be enough to trigger an automatic rejection. But then, it’s exceedingly rare that a first page gets rejected for only one reason. Presentation problems, like wolves, tend to run in packs.

So is it really all that astonishing that an experienced Millicent might open a submission packet, glance at a misformatted page 1, and assume that more presentation, proofreading, or even writing problems await her? Or that her patience for subsequent problems might be lower than for a perfectly-formatted page 1? Or, more to the point at submission time, that the first typo, grammatical error, or missing word in the text might combine in her mind with formatting problems to equal rejection?

See why I harp on formatting so much? To sharpen your eye for presentation, let’s see how the macro treated Sherry’s page 1:

The problems affect the sharp-eyed reader almost subliminally, don’t they? However, there’s one formatting error here that would draw Millicent’s eye as quickly as if the lines containing it were printed in red ink.

Oh, you didn’t catch it? Here is the same page, properly formatted.

Did you catch it that time? If you are already jumping up and down, shouting, “I saw it the first time, Anne! The text uses an emdash instead of the standard format-requisite spacedashdashspace!” give yourself a gold star for the day. (Hey, I told you there was going to be extra credit for the eagle-eyed.) Because manuscripts do not resemble published books in many important respects, the emdash — the Autoformat fix for dashes in Word that transforms them into straight lines connecting the surrounding words with no intervening spaces — is not correct in a manuscript. As you may see in the revised version above, the first word should be followed by a space, then two dashes, another space, then the second word. No exceptions.

Yes, I know that Autoformat will change what I just suggested into an emdash. Change it back, or risk the wrath of Millicent.

Okay, what else did I change? Interestingly, not what Suzi’s use of apparently the same macro might have lead us to expect: (1) moved slug line from the right to the left, (2) removed extra spaces in slug line (why have so many aspiring writers started adding spaces before and after the /s within the last year? It’s not correct, and it was not nearly so common before. It’s not as though standard format has changed in this respect.) (3) Moved the chapter title to the top line of the page, and, while I was at it, (4) changed the single space after the period to two, since that’s still the standard for manuscripts.

Long-time readers, chant it with me now: if the agent requesting your pages prefers the published book-style single-space convention, her agency’s submission guidelines should tell you so. If that’s what she wants, for heaven’s sake, give it to her, because for the agents who feel strongly enough about this to make public statements about it, it often is a rejection-worthy offense. Not only because they dislike the normal spacing, but because violating an individual agency’s stated submission standards just screams, “This writer not only cannot follow directions — he may not even have taken the time to check whether this agency had its own preferences!”

Why might that in itself render Millicent more likely to reject a submission? Because this is a detail-oriented business, writers who neglect the small stuff tend to be substantially more time-consuming for agencies to take on as clients.

“But Anne,” some of you new to the Author! Author! community — specifically, those of you who have not yet worked your way through one of my famous standard format series yet, I’m guessing — protest vehemently, “this is ridiculous. Surely, it’s the writing and the book concept that determine whether a manuscript gets accepted or rejected, not the petty little details. The agent or editor can always fix the small stuff before publication, after all. Even if a bunch of tiny, insignificant gaffes appear on page 1, I can’t believe that Millicent would just stop reading my submission.”

Oh, dear. I wasn’t going to do this, but if it saves even one good writer from undeserved rejection on formatting grounds, it’s worth it. Since Sherry revised her manuscript after the contest winners were announced, she was kind enough to send along the new version — indeed, the entire first chapter — for the judges to peruse. Obviously, it would not have been fair to the other entrants to judge the revised version, or even to provide extensive commentary upon it, but because it contained a couple of formatting problems that the original entry did not, I cannot in good conscience not flag them. One of them is, in fact, a presentation problem that might actually lead to Millicent’s not reading the submission featuring it at all.

So yes, you caught me: I have in fact structured this discussion to lead us to this point, necessitating showing you the revised version. Please, everybody, take these next examples in the spirit they are intended. (Seriously, I don’t want to see any snarky snickering about this in the comments; a tremendous number of aspiring writers make these particular mistakes, and we should all be grateful to Sherry for bringing them to our attention.)

So calmly, respectfully, wiggle your tootsies into Millicent’s moccasins and pretend you have just opened a submission packet to find this first page:

Beautifully Broken title

And this second one:

Beautifully Broken page 1

When you were expecting to find this:

Sherry's title

And this:

Sherry #2

Still don’t believe that formatting makes a difference to how Millicent perceives a manuscript? From the aspiring writer’s perspective, it might not seem to make much of a difference whether the title page is professionally formatted, or if it is in a wacky typeface, or if the first page of text is numbered 2 instead of one. But to her — and to agents, editors, and well-informed contest judges — there’s more than just words on a page at stake.

This is about respecting tradition. The publishing world values its traditions, and even if it did not on general principle, as those of you who have followed my past series on standard format are aware, manuscripts look a particular way for a variety of practical reasons. Every industry has the right to establish and maintain its own standards; most of the assertions that this or that has changed in manuscript format come from the outside.

Also, favoring professionally-formatted submissions a matter of practicality: an aspiring writer who takes the time to learn how to present his writing professionally is usually also one who has found out how publishing does and does not work. Thus, he is more likely than the average aspiring writer (who does not do his homework, as a general rule) to have realistic expectations about what an agent can and cannot do for him, the kind of turn-around times to expect on submissions to publishing houses, the necessity for not pouting when the editor asks for revisions, the imperative to promote one’s own book after it comes out, rather than passively waiting for the publishing house (or one’s friends who happen to be bloggers) to do it for him, and so forth. He’s just an easier client to promote.

What are we to conclude from all of this? Well, first, that I should plan to add a Formatpalooza to this autumn’s festivities; it actually was quite surprising to me how few of this contest’s entries arrived properly formatted. I don’t want any of my readers to get rejected on technical grounds, if a few weeks of my effort every year can help prevent it.

Second, have you noticed that since I’ve had to spend so much time going over the presentation and formatting problems, I haven’t had the luxury of talking about the writing much? That’s a pretty accurate representation of how distracting these issues are for professional readers: if the presentation and formatting are off, it’s awfully hard for good writing even to get noticed.

And that’s a real shame here, because there were some writing choices that we could have discussed productively. The prevalence of the incorrect single-sentence paragraph that we’ve already discussed in this series, for instance — in English prose, a narrative paragraph properly consists of at least two sentences; established authors like Joan Didion began breaking the rule not because they were unaware of it, but because to the hyper-literate, it is genuinely shocking to see a non-dialogue single-sentence paragraph. Thus the emphasis that this narrative choice places on the offset sentence: it shouldn’t be that way without a very good reason.

Unfortunately, in common usage, as well as in both of these pages, single-line paragraphs are used not for emphasis, but for rhythm. To a professional reader, this is not a very sophisticated way to establish beats. Save the single-sentence paragraphs for only that occasion when what is being said in them is going to come as a genuine surprise to the reader.

I would also have liked to talk about the and then convention, a notorious Millicent’s pet peeve. In a written narrative that does not involve time travel, events are assumed to be presented in the order that they happened chronologically. Thus, professional writing typically avoids the and then so dear to aspiring writers’ hearts, because it is logically redundant. The pros reserve it for only those occasions when the then part seems to come out of nowhere.

Hey, where have I heard that logic before?

Then, too, there’s the trailing off with an ellipsis… trope. Quite a few Millicents, especially the classically-trained ones, will have a knee-jerk negative to a narrative sentence or paragraph that ends in that manner. It’s fine in dialogue, where those three dots are expressing an audible phenomenon (the speaker’s voice trailing off or the effect of being interrupted in mid-thought), but the practice of borrowing that dialogue convention to make a narrative voice seem more conversational is, again, considered a not very sophisticated writing trick.

Because, really: aren’t there thousands of ways a narrative paragraph could generate suspense without resorting to punctuation?

Oh, how I wish I had time and space to talk about all this. In lieu of that, I’ll have to content myself with just posting the marked-up versions. (And mailing them to their authors, of course, but I do that routinely, so those brave enough to submit their work for critique here do not have to squint.) Here’s Suzi’s:

Suzi edit 2

And here’s Sherry’s:

Sherry edit 2

Moral: there’s no such thing as a detail too small to escape a professional reader’s notice — and no such thing as a first page that could not use one last going-over before being submitted. Join me at 7 pm PST for the resumption of Synopsispalooza, everyone, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXV: homework — gotta love it? Must I?

dog_ate_my_homework_shirt

It’s going to be a comparatively short one this evening, I’m afraid, campers: the apprehensions I expressed in this morning’s post about the length of the recovery time I would need after today’s physical therapy session turned out to be exceptionally well-founded. (For those of you new to the Author! Author! community, my car was the meat in a pile-up sandwich at the end of July: thus the PT. But also thus my having the enforced leisure time to post several times per day during Querypalooza. The accident giveth; the accident taketh away.) I’m just exhausted; thus the later-than-usual posting.

On the bright side, that puts me in precisely the right frame of mind to appreciate how most queriers feel when they’re trying to work up energy to send out Query #19 right after Rejection #18 arrives, doesn’t it? My sympathies on how hard it is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and proceed to the next name on your agent list right away, but trust me, the longer that rejection sits on your desk, the harder it will be to work up energy to do it at all.

Don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of sending the next one. Keep pressing forward. Remember, the only manuscript that stands no chance of interesting an agent and getting published is the one that sits in a drawer, perpetually unqueried.

Speaking of pressing forward, as we have been moving through this long series on querying and submission — which admittedly, probably feels longer to me than to you; writing 25 posts in 11 days has caused me to wilt a trifle — you may have noticed that I keep re-using a key phrase. I have been encouraging savvy writers to do their homework on individual agency guidelines before they send off a query; I’ve pointed out that this or that faux pas just screams at Millicent the agency screener that the queriers who commit them have not done their homework; the single best means of figuring out a book’s marketing category is — wait for it — for writers to do their homework about what similar books are currently on the market.

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

Were all of these people kids who just adored homework, begging their teachers for more and more of it? Well, I can picture Millicent begging her English teacher for more of those nifty extra credit assignments (as I did growing up, I must confess), but otherwise, most of these homework-pushers were probably not all that fond of it themselves.

What makes me think so? Listen to the way this advice is almost invariably phrased: the aspiring writer should do the homework, not the person giving the advice. The advice-giver doesn’t have to: he already knows the ropes.

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

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

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

Often, unfortunately, with missives like the charmer below. Like so many present-day generic queries, this one has the agent’s name and address mail-merged into the top, to give it the appearance of a personalized letter.

terrible query

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

I would hope that by this late point in Querypalooza, I would not need to elaborate on what’s wrong with this query. (Arial Black 14 point type? Please!) Obviously, it contains none of the required elements but the title, so its chances of charming Millicent into reading so much as a syllable of the attached manuscript are approximately nil. (And she wouldn’t even read the query to know how bad it was if she worked at one of the many, many agencies that does not accept unsolicited submissions — Resentme is really racking up the instant-rejection points here, isn’t he?)

Clearly, this writer has not done his homework: he doesn’t know what a query letter is supposed to do, other than act as an introduction to a stack of paper. Yet even if by some miracle Millicent decided to look past this query’s complete lack of requisite information, writing style, and professional presentation, this writer still could not possibly receive any benefit from having sent this query. Any guesses why?

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

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

Well, technically, yes, puzzled masses — if she happens to make up her mind while the e-mail is still on her screen. (Oh, your finger has never slipped while you were scrolling through e-mails, accidentally deleting something you wanted to keep?) And if she is empowered to ask for pages without consulting a higher-up — which may not be the case yet, if she just started her new screening gig, say, immediately after Labor Day. If she is required to forward the queries she liked up the ladder, her supervisor’s hitting SEND would shoot the missive back to her, not to you.

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

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

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

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

Why does the very sight of a generic query make Millicent’s fingertips itch to clutch a form-letter rejection? Well, for starters, they make her job more difficult: generic queries virtually never give her any hint about (a) the book in question’s category (so she will have to guess whether it falls into one that someone at her agency actually represents), (b) why the writer thinks her boss would be a good fit for it (since a generic query is intended for every agent’s eyes, it cannot afford to be specific), and/or (c) what might make this book marketable (because that would require the querier to do a bit of, you guessed it, homework).

So can you really blame her for leaping to the conclusion that the sender just didn’t do his homework? Or for assuming, as most professional readers would, that a writer who didn’t do his homework about how to write a query probably didn’t do his homework about how to format a manuscript, either? Even in an agency already resigned to explaining how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work to first-time authors, a non-homework doer would stand out an unusually energy-sapping client: he doesn’t even know enough about the ropes of the industry to know that he should learn how to climb them.

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

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

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

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

The result: it takes more time to screen queries now — and if you think that those of us who give online advice on the subject haven’t caught some heat for that, think again.

Oh, the truly bad generic queries are as bad as they ever were; there are, fortunately for Millicent’s desk-clearing rates, still many, many aspiring writers who evidently do no homework at all. However, they now make up a lower percentage of queries, since there are so many passable prototypes floating around the Internet. Pretty much anyone can find a template into which he can simply plug his information instead of writing a truly unique query letter from scratch.

So what ends up on Millicent’s desk on any given is 150 letters rather like this:

mediocre query

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

nearly good query

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

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

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

In short, it would be pretty obvious to a careful reader which writer had done her homework and which hadn’t.

However, if Millicent happened to be having a bad day — and who is more entitled, really? — both of these writers would have ended up holding a form-letter rejection from this agency. Did anyone happen to spot the notorious agents’ pet peeve in Competent’s first paragraph that might have caused our Millie to choke irritably on her too-hot latte and reach gaspingly for the form-letter pile?

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

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

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

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

Why the last one? Literary history, my dears: science fiction and fantasy had a hard time getting taken seriously as literature. That prejudice extends practically to this very moment: the first science fiction author to be included in the prestigious Library of America series was my old friend Philip K. Dick. In 2007, more than 25 years after his death.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Normally, I would take issue with that last statement, energetically pointing out the many potential pitfalls into which a one-size-fits-all querying strategy is likely to lead a writer who — chant it with me now — hasn’t done his homework. But I’m very tired.

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

good query2

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

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

Tomorrow morning, I shall wrap up our discussion of simultaneous submission, followed by a few more illustrative examples of query dos and don’ts tomorrow evening. Keep that dog far, far away from your homework, campers, and keep up the good work!

PS: t-shirts bearing the cute image at the top of this post are for sale at Fashionably Geek.

Querypalooza, part XXI: querying memoir, or, appealing to the many Buddha-like qualities of Barney Fife

donknotts2donknotts1donknotts3

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: we’ve covered a heck of a lot of material over the course of Querypalooza; I wasn’t kidding when I teased the series by calling it querying boot camp. Judging from reader comments I’ve been seeing in the comments and e-mails, as well as verbally, people seem to be enjoying the specificity of these posts, so I’m going to devote yet another evening to going over some examples of the sometimes subtle differences between a query that grabs and one that just lies on Millicent the agency screener’s desk.

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

As always, my apologies if these page shots appear a trifle fuzzy on your browser. If you’re having trouble reading specifics, please try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + until the image is large enough to read easily.

good query memoir

Everyone clear on why this is a good query? It contains all of the required elements (book’s title, book category, why the writer picked this agent, book description, mention of target audience, platform paragraph, polite sign-off), as well as a prudent reference to the enclosed synopsis (so Millicent will know it’s there before she makes up her mind whether to reject the query).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, it’s prudent to make explicit mention of any unsolicited materials you include in a query packet, if only to clear yourself of the implication that you might be trying to sneak additional pages under Millicent’s radar. Another means of making this particular point is to use the old-fashioned enclosures notation:

good memoir query 2

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

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

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

Nor is the fact that the story in the memoir happened to you, the writer, likely to render anyone who doesn’t already know you personally (or is a friend of a friend of your kith and kin) to buy this book. After all, unless you’re a celebrity, Millicent probably has positively no idea how popular you actually are. So if you come up with a platform that will make you and your memoir visible to a larger circle of potential book buyers, by all means, talk about it in your query.

As you no doubt noticed, Ataraxia has been very explicit about her platform here — and has done so without the benefit of either movie stardom or a single publication to her name. How did she manage to pull that off? By making the dual case that (a) she already has professional (indeed, authoritative) contact with members of her book’s target audience and (b) she already has a marketing network in place to reach them when the book comes out. Probably an extensive mailing list as well.

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

Remember, there is no such thing as a generic platform — platforms are specific to the target audience for a particular book.

That’s why, in case any of you inveterate writers’ conference-goers had been wondering, agents and editors often look so puzzled when a roomful of aspiring writers groans at statements like, “Well, obviously, the first thing we want to know about a nonfiction book is: what’s your platform?” To them, it’s just another way of saying who is the target audience for your book, and what in your background will enable you to reach them?

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

That is most emphatically the wrong conclusion to draw about any as-yet-unpublished memoir — and frankly, even the briefest walk through the memoir section of a well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that plenty of non-celebrity memoirs are published every year. How does that happen? By memoirists making the case that their books offer their target audiences something that no other book currently on the market does.

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

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

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

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

Are those questions starting to become less threatening with repetition?

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

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

memoir query panicky

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

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

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

If you would the attached synopsis, I would be grateful

Read it, presumably, but Panicky apparently can’t bring herself to say it. Sounds too much like an order to her hypersensitive ears, probably. Agents like Barney take offense so easily; she doesn’t want to step on any toes.

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

Laudable goals, all, but here, she honestly does go overboard. See the relevant statistics for yourself:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result, unfortunately, is that well-qualified Panicky comes across not as courteous, but insecure. A real shame, because that descriptive paragraph is a genuine winner.

So would Barney’s Millicent ask to see Panicky’s book proposal or not? It all depends on whether she made it past that initial apology, doesn’t it? Remember, even a terrific selling point won’t help a query if Millicent stops reading before she gets to it.

The rather depressing moral to this story: how a writer presents himself on the page counts.

The best thing you can do to bolster your ability to sound credibly psyched about your book’s marketing prospects is, well, to be justifiably psyched about them. If writerly fears render that difficult, the next step is to invest some time thinking about what benefits readers will derive from your work, researching your target market (both its members and what books have been aimed successfully at it within the past five years), and coming up with at least a couple of believable selling points.

Then center your query around them. After all, even the best ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy) can’t impress Millicent if she doesn’t know about it.

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

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

Tomorrow around 10 am Pacific, I shall be revisiting the practical issues of partials. Then it’s back to another evening of examples Monday night.

Never a dull moment here at Querypalooza, eh? Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XIX: pulling all of those disparate elements together into a harmonious whole, or, may I see those principles in practice, please?

West Seattle beach

Around this time yesterday (forgive my slightly squirrelly posting order, campers; there’s a lot of territory to cover in Querypalooza), we were talking about how narrative voice does and does not play a role in a strong query letter. Yet even as my much-beleaguered fingertips were typing a spirited defense of a narrative paragraph that tells the book’s story, rather then just discussing it the way one might in an English term paper, I found myself murmuring, “You know, I’ve been talking about each of the requisite elements of a query — as well as a couple that are merely helpful and stylish to include — as if they were building blocks: stack ‘em up, and you have yourself a query. I’m pretty sure that we’ve covered the constituent parts sufficiently, but have I given enough examples of how those parts fit together into a harmonious whole?”

And my significant other, who happened to be sitting on the far side of the room, looked up from his book and said, “What are you muttering about now?”

Well might he ask. Although the overall impression a careful reader might derive from Querypalooza is a coherent whole, we’ve mostly been talking about individual parts, paragraphs, or even sentences. It’s been sort of like asking you to form a mental picture of the beach above by showing it to you like this:

detail of West Seattle beachdetail 2detail3

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

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

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

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

I’m here to tell you: it gets easier with practice. At least it does if you understand what’s supposed to go into the darned thing.

To quadruple-check that all of you do in fact understand what’s supposed to go into the darned thing, let’s recap what’s required, and what merely advisable to mention:

1. The book’s title

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

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

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

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

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

These are, as we discussed yesterday, the absolutely indispensable elements of a successful query letter. Without each and every one, rejection is more or less inevitable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

good query

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

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

good query gone bad

I like to call this the Good Query Gone Bad: it contains all the basic elements (although not done very well); the querier has clearly given some thought to the market appeal of his book (but not presented the results very convincingly); the story itself sounds rather interesting (despite being poorly described).

So if you were Millicent the agency screener, would you ask to see the manuscript? Or would you be too put off by the tone?

I sense some furrowed brows out there. “But Anne,” brow-knitters across the land protest, “this second version looks okay to me. Not nearly as good as the first one, of course, but still, it does everything I’ve always heard a query needs to do. The tone may not be professional, but it’s hardly insulting, and you said yourself that the plot still sounds interesting. So mightn’t it get past a Millicent who happens to be in a good mood?”

Well, I suppose it might, oh furrowers — but do you have any idea how mood-deflating reading a hundred queries before lunch can be? And this is one of the better ones. Also one of the more polite, believe it or not.

Now do you want to risk taking your chances on Millie’s mood saving this one, Savvy?

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

Let’s go through our list of required elements one by one, to see what a difference attitude and thoroughness make:

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

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

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

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

Not nearly so specific, is it? And call me old fashioned, but I don’t approve of people asking favors giving orders: while I believe you may be interested in is polite speculation, you absolutely must read implies that the agent has no choice in the matter.

From orders, Not-so-Savvy escalates by the end of the letter to threats:

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

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

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

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

Can’t you think of better ways for a querier to use that precious page space?

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

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

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

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

Um, since he said what?

Actually, this was an honest-to-goodness typo in my hastily-constructed example, but as it’s an extremely common species of typo, I didn’t correct it. Did you catch it the first time? Millicent would have.

Had I reminded you lately to proofread every query every time?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay, so the joke in the first sentence is actually rather funny (if I do say so myself), but what a lot of unsubstantiated claims! Even if they are true — and it’s starting to be hard to remember that these two queries were for the same book, isn’t it? — why should Millicent believe them?

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

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

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

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

Oh, Not-So. I’m genuinely worried about your self-esteem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trust me on this one; I’m a doctor. Book doctor, that is.

Tune in tomorrow at 10 am PST (or thereabouts) for some insights into how to handle a request for a partial manuscript. Good night, sleep tight, don’t let the bad examples bite — and, as always, keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part XI: what do you mean, you want me to talk about my writing credentials?

Janet Leigh shower
You know how I’m always talking about how I glean some of my best ideas for posts from readers’ questions and comments? Quite recently and in our very midst, it happened again. Earlier in this series, thoughtful readers Gayton and Anni were kind enough to bring up an issue that troubles many a conscientious would-be querier and book proposer: what kind of credentials are literary enough to constitute a legitimate platform?

Or, to put it a bit more practically: other than previous publications, what’s going to impress Millicent the agency screener?

This is a terrific question, I think, one that looks deeper than the mere what-might-you-conceivably-include-in-your-pitch list I ran in this summer’s Pitching 101 series (conveniently gathered under the heading of that same name in the archive list at right, for those of you who missed it). And, conveniently enough for my evil plan for the weeks to come, it’s also a fabulous way to get all of you thinking about the author bio that I’m going to be nudging you to write later in the month. (Yes, really — it’s an increasingly-common part of a query packet.)

More to the point of our current series, the question also speaks to an incredibly common insecurity: plenty of aspiring writers — novelists in particular, I notice — become abashed when asked about their platforms, and downright depressed while trying to write the credentials paragraph for their query letters. Even for a writer crammed to the gills with self-esteem tend to wilt a little when confronted with that seemingly hostile agency guide notation, prefers previously published writers.

That’s the kind of statement that makes those talented souls trying to break into the biz wander down the street, grumbling and kicking the nearest tin can. “What credentials do I have?” they murmur mournfully. “It’s a Catch-22: I have to be published in order to get published.”

A not-unreasonable argument, oh can-kickers, but I can’t help feeling that as a querying concern, it’s a trifle misplaced. I ask you: when would you rather learn that an agency would rather represent writers who already have a book or article out, after you queried — or before, when you could save yourself a stamp by not approaching such agents at all?

It may not be nice to hear, but let’s face it: in terms of stamp-consumption, agencies willing to state in print or on their websites that they only want to hobnob with those with clippings are actually doing aspiring writers a favor.

Besides, even the quickest flip through the rest of that agency guide that drove you onto the streets, abusing recyclables, will abundantly demonstrate that there are plenty of wonderful agencies out there that represent first-time writers. Why not start with them, instead of wasting your energies resenting the others?

I hear that can rattling against the curb again, don’t I? “Fine, Anne,” the credentials-impaired reluctantly concede, “I won’t fritter away my time dwelling on the others. But I still have to write a platform paragraph for my query letter, and I have no idea what to say.”

Again, a fair worry. May I make a couple of suggestions for alleviating it? What if you thought of that paragraph as dealing with your book’s selling points, rather than yours personally? And while we’re on the subject of your personal credentials, is it possible that you’re thinking too narrowly?

Those got you to stop kicking that can, didn’t they?

Let me take the second suggestion first, the one about expanding one’s conception of platform. Technically, any fact about your background or the book’s appeal could conceivably be a legitimate platform plank. As long as it might spur readers to buy the book, it’s fair game..

So if you have previous publications, and thus a readership, you’re definitely going to want to mention it — yes, even if those publications don’t happen to be books. Articles are great, as are online publications and even blogs: what you are proving here is that you have an existing audience, one that might conceivably recognize your name enough to pick up a volume in a bookstore.

That, in case you had been wondering, is the primary reason agents harbor a preference for working with previously-published authors, as well as why self-published books don’t tend to work well as platform credentials unless they’ve sold a ton of copies: a previously-published author has already demonstrated that somebody out there is interested in what s/he has to say.

That’s a perfectly legitimate selling point, isn’t it?

But that’s not the only reason that you might want to list any previous publications — and I do mean any — in your query letter. The previously published tend to have an edge because, presumably, they have experience pleasing an editor.

Why might that conceivably be important to an agent? Well, for one thing, that experience implies that the writer in question has met at least one deadline — a perennial concern of agents and editors alike. It shows that the writer can follow directions. It also implies that the writer has at some point in his or her checkered existence successfully accepted editorial feedback without flying into bits — again, something about which agents and editors worry, because a writer unable or unwilling to handle feedback professionally makes their jobs harder.

Getting the picture? Previous publications of ANY sort silently signal that you are a pro. Why wouldn’t you mention any and all that you might have?

The can just bounced off the lamppost again, didn’t it? “I can think of one might good reason, Anne: I wasn’t paid for my past publications.”

The professional response to that is complicated, of course, but here goes: so what?

Seriously, why should it matter, as long as readers got to see your work? Admittedly, Millicent is probably going to be more impressed if you can legitimately state that you have published three short stories in The New Yorker than if you were the periodic book reviewer for your community’s free newspaper, but you had to meet a deadline, didn’t you? You had to conform to submission standards without throwing a tantrum, didn’t you?

Don’t you want the agent of your dreams to be aware of that experience?

Ditto with contest wins and placings, incidentally: since they are tangible proof that others have liked your writing, you’re going to want to mention them in your query letter.

Yes, even if the writing for which you received recognition is completely unlike the manuscript you’re querying. In the first place, what makes you think Millicent has the time to check whether the Edna St. Vincent Millay Award was for poetry, plays, or prose? Even if she made an educated guess that you won for a poem and you are marketing an urban vampire fantasy, she’s still going to regard it, rightly, as a sign that you might conceivably know how to write.

And the down side is?

Successful contest entries also demonstrate — out comes the broken record again — that the writer who won them can, you guessed it, follow directions and meet deadlines. In case the sheer number of times I have brought up these laudable traits hasn’t tipped you off yet, these are surprisingly rare abilities in writers, especially those new to the publishing process.

Why? Well, you didn’t hear it from me, but all too often, neophyte writers are under the impression that they should be concerned with only the artistic side of getting their books published. Artsy writers chafe at deadlines, because they want to write only when inspiration hits; they become enraged at editorial suggestions, because after all, who is the publishing house that bought their manuscript to interfere with their artistic vision? And, if you believe the horror stories agents and editors like to tell in that bar that’s never more than 100 yards from any writers’ conference in North America, plenty of art-loving writers simply throw a fit if anyone at all suggests at any point in the publication process that they should change a sentence or two.

Such writers are, in short, a pain to the agents and editors unfortunate enough to work with them.

But you’re willing to be reasonable, right? And if you’ve published before, in any context, you worked and played well with the editorial staff, didn’t you?

Any particular reason you don’t want Millicent to know that when she’s considering your query?

“Okay, Anne,” the can-kickers admit, “that makes some sense, in theory. But my previously-published writing has nothing to do with my current book! Won’t Millicent just laugh at it?”

Probably not, for precisely the reasons I mentioned above: those publications tell her that you already have an audience (albeit in a different field), that you can follow directions, that you can meet deadlines…need I go on?

Perhaps I do, because the question implies that the asker is unaware that many, many professional authors write in different genres. So if the Millicents of the world discounted journalists who had never written memoirs before, or nonfiction writers who have just produced their first novels, what would we prefer working with previously-published writers even mean, in practice? That they were only interested in reading work by those who already had a book out from a small press — or authors with larger presses already represented by other agents?

Okay, so that is what some of them mean. But most of the time, they’re just looking for writers who have worked with an editor before, have an existing audience…

You know the tune by now, right?

“Back up a minute,” some of you are saying. “What do you mean, many pros write in different book categories? Why on earth would they do that?”

Finances, usually. Most aspiring writers seem unaware of it, but since it’s gotten pretty hard to make a living solely by being a novelist — or from a single book in any category, unless it sells awfully well — authors often supplement their incomes with other writing. Magazine articles, for instance, or nonfiction books. They might even develop another voice and write books in their own genre.

Which is why, in case you had been wondering, Millicent is going to want to hear about your educational degrees and certificates, even if they have nothing to do with your writing.

Yes, really. While an MFA certainly makes for some ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy), so does a master’s degree in anything else, especially to a Millicent whose boss happens to like nonfiction book proposals. While an exciting new novelist is, well, exciting for Millicent to discover, she knows how the business works: if that particular book category’s sales slow, a writer with an unrelated degree might be able to write a book about something else.

If that argument doesn’t appeal to you, try this one on for size: in order to make it through most degree programs, somebody generally needs to be able to follow directions, met deadlines, etc. And you never know whether Millicent or her boss shares an alma mater with you — it shouldn’t make a difference, of course, but occasionally, it does.

Try not to think of it as nepotism. Think of it as the industry’s liking demonstrably smart people.

Speaking of nepotism, Is that a much-dented can I see hurtling in my general direction? “I’m totally confused, Anne,” an aspiring writer with remarkably good aim calls out. “You asking us to cram an awful lot of argument into just three or four lines of letter. Or had you forgotten that this missive must be only a page long?”

No, I hadn’t, oh can-thrower: you’re going to have to be brief.

And that, in case you’d been wondering, is why agents and editors who talk about platforms at conferences so often use celebrities as examples: the market appeal of their names may be described very briefly — not an insignificant advantage in a context where only a 1-page argument is permitted.

It takes only a couple of words to explain that an author had been a Monkee, after all.

The more visible one is, the higher one’s platform, generally speaking. Try not to get huffy about that: it’s purely a marketing reality. (If you are puzzled about why Millicent might believe that already-existing fame might prove useful in moving some books, all I can say is that maybe you should get out more.)

Yet fame and platform are not synonymous, as many aspiring writers depress themselves by believing: fame is just one of the better-known ways to construct one. Another way is by establishing one’s credibility as the teller of a particular story.

Again, nonfiction book proposers have been expected to do this for quite some time, but it often doesn’t occur to novelists or even memoirists that their credibility might be a factor in how Millicent responds to their queries. Obviously, one’s 9 years as a marriage counselor, would add credibility to one’s self-help book for couples experiencing problems sharing the medicine cabinet — so why wouldn’t that same experience add credibility to a memoir on the same subject, or even a novel?

Don’t believe me? Would it surprise you to learn that although my doctorate has absolutely nothing to do with the subject matter of my memoir, my agents mentioned it every time they pitched the book? Or the novel she pitched after it?

Why? For the same reason that any skilled lawyer would establish my credentials if I were called as a witness to a crime: my Ph.D. would certainly not make me a better observer of a hit-and-run accident, but it would tend to make the jury believe that I was a reasonable human being.

A personal platform, I have been known to say over and over again like a mantra, is like a pitch for oneself, rather than one’s book: whereas a pitch makes it plain to people in the industry why the book is marketable and to whom, the platform demonstrates why people in the media – might be interested in interviewing the author.

So while your extensive background as a supermodel might not be relevant to your credibility if you are writing the definitive book on weevils, for instance, it would most assuredly mean that you would be a welcome guest on TV shows. Perhaps not to talk about weevils, but hey, any publicity you can garner is bound to be good for your book, right?

Which is yet another reason that celebrities enjoy a considerable advantage in marketing their books. Case in point, as gleaned from the original Publishers’ Marketplace announcement of the sale:

Jenna Bush’s ANA’S STORY: A Journey of Hope, based on her experiences working with UNICEF in Central America, focusing on a seventeen-year-old single mother who was orphaned at a young age and is living with HIV, with photographs by Mia Baxter, to Kate Jackson at Harper Children’s, for publication in fall 2007 (Harper says they’ll print about 500,000 copies), by Robert Barnett at Williams & Connolly (world). Her proceeds will go to UNICEF, where she is working as an intern.

Hands up, anyone who thinks that the phrase First Daughter appeared nowhere in the query for this book.

I haven’t read the book in question, but I find this listing a miracle of platform-raising, both for what it says and what it doesn’t say. Plenty of people write books based upon time living and working abroad, and a YA book of this sort is certainly a good idea. However, this is an unheard-of run for such a volume, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation of what made the publisher decide that this particular YA book is so very valuable: the author is, of course, the President’s daughter, presumably following in the well-worn footsteps of Amy Carter, the author of a YA book herself.

Amy Carter, however, was not summarily ejected from any major Latin American country for hardcore partying at any point in her long and colorful career, unlike Ms. Bush and her sister. (How much carousing would one have to do to be declared undesirable in Rio, one wonders?) Ms. Carter did occasionally turn up chained to South African embassies next to Abbie Hoffman during the bad old days of apartheid, though, if memory serves.

It just goes to show you: when you’re building a platform, any kind of fame is a selling point.

Some cans have started their forward motion again, haven’t they? “All that sounds great, Anne — for folks who happen to have previous publications, degrees, or presidents for fathers. All I have is 27 years volunteering in a hospice, which provided the inspiration for my novel, HOSPICE HA-HAS. What am I supposed to use for a platform?”

Um, how about those 27 years of experience directly applicable to the book?

Again, it doesn’t matter whether you were paid or not — ANY experience that makes you an expert on your topic is worth including in your platform. Extensive interviews you’ve done on the subject, for instance, or years of reading.

Seeing where I’m going with this? If you do not already have a platform that makes the case that you are an expert in your subject area, you can go out and get some.

I’m quite serious about this — constructed platforms can be every bit as convincing ECQLC as professional ones. So why not spend the fall making a wise time investment or two?

Think about it: if you’re writing about wild animals, what’s a better use of your time, sitting around for six months regretting that you don’t have a doctorate in zoology, or spending every other Saturday volunteering at your local zoo? I’m betting that Millicent is going to want to read the manuscript by the lady who fondles juvenile tigers in her spare time.

Or if your subject matter is not conducive to practical application, why not approach your local free paper with an article idea? Heck, with the current level of layoffs in journalism, you might try the local not-free paper, too — good unpaid labor is hard to come by.

You’re an expert in something, right?

If you’d rather not beard an editor face-to-face, the Internet is rife with writing opportunities. Fair warning, though: Millicent is unlikely to regard a blog as a writing gig per se; if it’s going to impress her, it will be due to its potential as a promotional platform for your book and your understanding of the Internet, whose promotional potential the major publishing houses have been slow to exploit.

Conference goers, are those statements from the dais about how agents now expect to see some sort of writing credential in a query letter making more sense now? The folks who spout those sentiments almost certainly were not thinking only of books; they meant the kind of credential that a good writer with persistence can manage to get.

Think of it as DIY ECQLC.

Ready to stop abusing that can yet? No? “Okay, Anne,” some impatient souls say, “I can see where this would be very good advice for a writer who was halfway through her first novel, or even someone who is still a few months away from being ready to query. But I’ve been querying my book for a few years now — perhaps not many agents at a time, but I’ve been persistent. As much as I would love to take a season or two off to build up some ECQLC, I barely have time to get out a query a month and still write. Any advice for me, something that I can apply to my already-existing query letter to beef up my platform paragraph?”

This kind of question drives those of us who teach querying nuts, just so you know; asking something like it is not typically a particularly good way to become teacher’s pet in a conference seminar. Basically, my straw man is saying, “I’m not willing to put in the time to follow the advice you’ve already given — how may I get the same results with less work?”

Shame on you, straw man. Go ask the wizard to give you some brains.

But I have to say, I understand our stuffed friend’s frustration: good writers who have not yet cracked the query code often send out letters for years without landing an agent. So I’m going to go ahead and answer the question.

The quickest way to upgrade a manuscript’s apparent marketability in Millicent’s eyes is to add statistics to the platform paragraph, demonstrating that your target market is larger than she might think. For this tactic to work, though, you’re going to have to make the case that the target market you identify is likely to be interested in your book.

This advice should sound a bit familiar to those of you who hung out here at Author! Author! during this summer’s Pitching 101 series, as well as to anyone who has ever written a nonfiction book proposal, yet it often seems to come as a shock to novelists and memoirists that the market appeal of their manuscripts is not self-evident.

The single best thing you can do for your querying prospects is to assume that it isn’t.

Why? Well, among other things, it may prompt you to do a spot of market research. Who is your target reader, and why does s/he need your book? Not in general terms, but specifically: what in particular will appeal to him or her? What will she learn? Why will she enjoy it?

Yes, yes: the beautifully-written summary paragraph that presents your premise or argument intriguingly will go a long way toward answering that last question, but a well-argued platform paragraph can only bolster the book’s appeal. Don’t go overboard and claim that everyone in the continental U.S. will rush out and buy your book; instead, give a couple of interesting (and truthful) selling points that would render your book attractive to your target reader.

Again, why? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but if Millicent gets to the end of your query letter and doesn’t still doesn’t know what your manuscript’s appeal to an already-established market is, she is very, very unlikely to ask to see the manuscript.

Yes, even if the query letter is very well written. Remember, she’s on the business side of the business; you’re on the artistic side.

No cans seem to be flying at my head this time, but I do spot a few raised hands. “Okay, Anne,” some ECQLC-seekers murmur wearily, “I can understand how each of these types of platform might appeal to Millicent. But heavens, woman, make up your mind! You’ve told us to put two very different things in a single paragraph: a statement of our credentials, up to and including our possibly irrelevant academic degrees and any years we might have spent on television, and an argument for why the book is marketable, complete with supporting statistics. Can’t I just pick one and be done with it?”

You could — and should, if that’s the best way to produce an intriguing, brief platform. However, for most aspiring writers, a composite paragraph pulling from several different types of selling point makes the most credible case.

In other words, you’re the one who is going to have to make up your mind. I’m just the advice-giver here; it’s your book. Which is the most important reason why the query should make your credentials shine.

Your mother is not the only one who should be proud of you, after all; let Millicent know why she should be as well. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part X: making the book sound like a real page-turner

Did everyone have a delightful Labor Day weekend — or, even better, one filled with productive writing and/or querying time?

I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission, because this week, I’m going to be wrapping up my ongoing series on writing a compelling query letter. In fact, I anticipate polishing off the infamous checklist today. I’m going to be tackling a few readers’ questions on the subject later in the week, so now would be a great time to leave a comment with any lingering concerns on the subject that might be troubling your mind in the dead of night.

Hey, it happens. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at creating angst.

The last batch of questions focus upon conveying that your book is INTERESTING, in addition to being marketable. Contrary to what most aspiring writers seem to think, that’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for an interesting book, or even an exciting one.

You’d be surprised at how many query letters for genuinely interesting books fail to make them sound so. It’s as though half the aspiring writers out there believe that the mere fact of having completed the manuscript is in itself a merit badge of fascination.

Just not true, I’m afraid. Truth be known, an astonishingly high percentage of the query letters that fall onto agents’ desks make the books sound dull as the proverbial dishwater.

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

Some of you are already annoyed, aren’t you? “But Anne,” a few purists protest, “I’m a NOVELIST/MEMOIRIST/NARRATIVE NONFICTION WRITER, not an ad copywriter. If everything I had to say could be summarized in a single-page letter, I wouldn’t have much material for a 400-page book, now would I? Surely Millicent the agency screener must be aware of that — and if she isn’t, why doesn’t she have the intellectual curiosity/open-mindedness/common decency to take a gander at my manuscript before deciding that it and I are dull, rather than leaping instantly at that conclusion?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to plow through on any given day. Since her boss agent could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, the dull ones.

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

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

Which is a pretty tall order — and virtually impossible when a writer forgets that the query letter is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is.

Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along: realistically, every English sentence a writer looking to sell a book places under an agent or editor’s nose is a writing sample: the query, the synopsis, the bio, the book proposal. Every paragraph is yet another opportunity to show these people that you can write.

And that your book — and you — are interesting enough for them to want to be embroiled with for the next couple of years.

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

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

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — your job is to make it look easy. Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on the query checklist speak to these very issues. But first, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far, shall we?

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?

(4) Is my query letter polite?

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?

(6) Does my letter sound as though I am excited about this book, or as if I have little confidence in the work? Or does it read as though I’m apologizing for querying at all?

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?

(8) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?

(9) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?

(10) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him/her speak at one, or picked him/her because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately?

(11) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I double-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries?

(12) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?

(13) Is the first paragraph of my query compelling? Does it get to the point immediately? If I were an agency screener, would I keep reading into the next paragraph?

(14) Is my brief summary of the book short, clear, and exciting? Have I actually said what the book is ABOUT?

(15) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?

(16) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my summary paragraph in the present tense?

(17) Is the tone and language in my summary paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?

(18) Am I telling a compelling story in my summary paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?

(19) Does my summary paragraph emphasize the SPECIFIC points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?

(20) Does my summary paragraph read like a back jacket blurb, full of marketing-talk and generalization, or like a great elevator speech, grounded in details that will appeal to my ideal reader?

(21) If my summary paragraph were the only thing a habitual reader in my book category knew about my manuscript, would s/he think, Oh, that sounds like a great read? Or would s/he think, I can’t tell what this book would be like, because this summary could apply to a lot of different kinds of books?

(22) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?

(23) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?

(24) Have I mentioned the book category within the first paragraph of my letter?

(25) When I mentioned the book category, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?

(26) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?

(27) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a reader in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?

(28) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?

Anyone being kept up at night by any of those, or experiencing any difficulties in putting one or more into practice? If so, please speak up — my goal here is to be helpful.

While you’re framing your questions, let’s get back to the imperative to be interesting.

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

Yet clichés turn up with surprising frequency in query letters, synopses, and even author bios.

There are some pretty good reasons for that, actually: generalities are the next-door neighbors of clichés, and anybody who has ever had any contact with marketing copy, particularly for movies, might easily fall into the mistaken belief that using the usual shorthand (boy meets girl, doctor who can’t heal himself, protagonist in high-risk job who cannot commit, etc.) is just the way that creative people talk about their projects amongst themselves.

It isn’t. So don’t. Use the space instead to make her exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.”

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

The other way that clichés often creep into queries and synopses is when writers invoke stereotypes, either as shorthand (that descriptive paragraph can’t be very long, after all) or in an attempt to put a spin on a hackneyed concept.

News flash: the first almost never works, especially for fiction.

If you’re wondering why, please see my earlier comment about how the industry wants to see YOUR ideas, not the common wisdom.

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

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

she’s a ditsy cheerleader who dominates her school, but learns the true meaning of caring through participation in competitive sport

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

she’s a ditsy cheerleader, but in reality, she’s young-looking nuclear physicist acting a role so she can infiltrate the local high school to ferret out the science teacher bent upon world domination.

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

Get the picture?

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

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

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

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

When in doubt, leave it out, as my alcoholic high school expository writing teacher used to hiccup into my cringing ear.

Why? Well, many people in the publishing industry have a hatred of clichés that sometimes borders on the pathological. “I want to see THIS writer’s words,” some have been known to pout, “not somebody else’s.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laudable goals, both — but if Millicent can’t understand what either is saying, this strategy is not going to work. (The same holds true with contest judges, by the way.)

Remember, one of the things any successful query needs to demonstrate is that the sender can write; since jargon is by definition shorthand, it tends to be a substitute for evocative descriptions.

Wow Millicent with your vivid descriptions — in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(31) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context: your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences (or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in them). As in,

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope you will be interested in representing it. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet.

Sorry, writer-who-loves-simplicity, but THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA has already been done. There’s a reason that book is taught to 15-year-olds: the sentence structure is definitely YA. Today, using YA language is not the best way to pitch adult fiction.

Too-simple sentence structures are not the only reason Millicent might draw unflattering conclusions about a writer’s skill level from a query letter — far more common reason is poor grammar and spelling. However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags, as in this example.

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

Did you catch the problem?

As I have argued about manuscripts, it’s tiring for a reader to scan the same sentence structures back-to-back, line after line. Mixing it up a little is a relatively painless way to make your writing seem more sophisticated and lively without altering meaning.

After all, that single-page letter is your big chance to wow Millicent with your writing acumen.

(32) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Avoiding the passive voice in every piece of writing you submit to an agency or a publishing house is an excellent idea because — not to put too fine a point on it — most professional readers have been trained to believe passive voice equals poor writing, inherently.

Yes, I was aware that you already knew that. I bring it up, though, because when a writer is in the throes of trying to sum up the appeal of a 400-page book in the space of a single paragraph (or a 3-5 page synopsis, even), it can be awfully tempting to trim some space by letting the sentence structure imply that actions happened entirely of their own accord.

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

And the Millicents of this world roll their eyes, just like the teenage characters in so many novel submissions.

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

(33) Does my summary make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama?
As I have pointed out before, agents and editors see a LOT of novel submissions featuring passive protagonists, stories about characters who stand around, observing up a storm, being buffeted about by the plot.

We’ve all read stories like this, right? The lead watches the nasty clique rule the school, silently resenting their behavior until the magic day that the newly-transferred halfback notices her; the amateur detective goes to the prime suspect’s house and instead of asking probing questions, just waits to see what will happen. The shy couple is madly in love, but neither will make a move for 78 pages — until that hurricane forces them to share the same cramped basement.

I’ve ranted at length in earlier posts (see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right) about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors. My point at the moment is that in the course of trying to summarize a complex premise, many queriers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations.

Yes, it’s unfair to leap to conclusions about an entire book’s writing choices based upon only a paragraph’s worth of summary. But lest we forget, that exercising that particular bit of unfairness forms a crucial part of Millicent’s job description.

Don’t risk it.

(34) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
For a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

Yes, yes, I know: I brought this up in question #1, but enough queries get rejected every year on this basis alone that I couldn’t resist an end-of-list reminder.

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

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

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like a man without a face: he may dress well, but you’re not going to be able to describe him five minutes after he walks out of the room.

The fact is, the various flavors of perfect query are pervasive enough that a relatively diligent agency screener will be familiar with them all inside of a week. In the midst of all of that repetition, a textbook-perfect letter can come across as, well, unimaginative.

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

Your query letter should sound like you at your very best: literate, polished, and unique. You need to sound professional, of course, but if you’re a funny person, the query should reflect that. If you are a writer whose prose tends to be quirky, the query should reflect that, too.

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

As I mentioned earlier in this series, I firmly believe that there is no 100% foolproof formula, my friends, whatever the guides tell you. But if you avoid the classic mistakes, your chances of coming across as an interesting, complex person who has written a book worth reading goes up a thousandfold.

Keep up the good work!

Pillory This, by guest blogger Flavia Alaya

under the rose alaya coverPhoto:  Ellen Denuto

Hello, campers –

Yes, I know: we’ve been trying to polish off our ongoing series on polishing up a query letter, but now that the holiday weekend is upon us, I thought we should pause, take a breath, and celebrate just how much work all of you have done throughout this series — or, depending upon your reading habits, give some of you time to catch up. Hey, query-writing is hard stuff.

Which is why I am so delighted to bring you my promised reward for virtue: a fascinating post on dealing with having one’s book reviewed by memoirist and nonfiction writer Flavia Alaya, author of the incredibly brave and revealing UNDER THE ROSE: A CONFESSION, among many, many other works. (Seriously, her bio will astound you — see the end of this post.) From the publisher’s blurb:

Beneath its “scandalous” surface, Flavia Alaya’s story goes to the heart of women’s struggles for independence, self-definition, and sexual agency. When she first met Father Harry Browne, Alaya was a vibrant but sheltered young woman on a Fulbright scholarship to Italy. When the attraction that began in a cafe in Perugia became too compelling to resist, they embarked on a love affair that violated some of the deepest taboos of society, the Church, and her Italian American family, yet endured for over two decades, through years of shared dedication to social activism and through the birth of three children.

Intriguing, no? From the slightly more revealing Library Journal review:

At 22 years of age, in a cafe in Italy, Alaya met fellow Fulbright recipient Harry Browne, 16 years her senior. Raised in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, Browne was a social activist, a historian — and a Catholic priest. Their relationship endured for over 20 years, producing three children and seemingly sustaining both extraordinary parties quite well. Not a martyr to love, Alaya was able to hold onto independence and self-possession while experiencing a profoundly passionate attachment to a fascinating human being. Through the bonding of social activism, Browne and Alaya weathered many civil rights storms, the 1960s antiwar movement, and a grass-roots campaign against a New York real estate grab. Browne championed the poor and fought to better their housing situation; Alaya wrote scholarly articles on 19th-century literature. The relationship’s secrecy (it was hidden “under the rose”), its continual trials and stress, and the ousting of Browne as priest when it was discovered pull the reader along for the ride with elegiac style.

And the still more descriptive ForeWord review:

She was a twenty-two-year-old Fulbright scholar from New York fleeing her immigrant Italian family’s claustrophobic love, he was a thirty-eight year old Catholic priest from the city’s Irish tenements of Hell’s Kitchen, researching Church archives. They met in a Perugia café in 1957: a thunderbolt, opera’s grand coup de foudre of destiny.

Their affair, shamelessly shameful, was to be sub rosa, under Cupid’s rose of secrecy. In small rented rooms, in the fervid, emotive culture, Italy itself seemed to become their duenna and collaborator. They returned to New York, she to an apartment on the Upper West Side, he (as fate would have it) to a parish blocks away, the fiction of their friendship so carefully maintained that not even her own family knew the father of her children. Ironically, their private war against the Church’s conservative patriarchy augured the decade’s larger battles of civil disobedience and feminist freedom. With their own adopted neighborhood soon slated for massive urban renewal, which would displace so many working poor, Father Harry Browne moved quickly into political activism. (It was in Father Browne’s office that the FBI arrested Father Berrigan, notorious for burning Pentagon draft records to protest the Vietnam War.) Thus, as in opera as in life, love and politics are ever held close, one of the many paradoxes Alaya so lovingly, so wisely ponders in Under the Rose.

Those asking for theology or psychotherapy may be disappointed, but those asking for well-written honesty will be handsomely rewarded. In a poignant, lucid language that combines the pace of fiction with the intimacy of a love letter, her “memory-ghosts” bring private and social history to full circle, the story of an immigrant’s search for freedom of expression. Under the Rose is the very model of memoir writing, of a woman’s voice finally finding perfect pitch.

Why am I showing you three different plot summaries, you ask, rather than just the usual publisher’s blurb? For a couple of reasons, one pertaining to our series-in-progress, one to today’s topic.

First, did you notice anything about those three descriptions of the same book? The first two were of reasonable lengths to use as the summary paragraph of a query letter — 99 and 162 words, respectively. So what makes the first strong back jacket copy, but the second a better bet for a query or pitch?

If you immediately cried, “By gum, Anne, the vivid details in the second!” give yourself a gold star for the week: you’ve been paying attention. The specifics really make a difference in the storytelling department, don’t they, even in so short a piece?

If you also shouted, “The blurb reviews, while the second demonstrates why a reader might be interested in the book,” award yourself a second gold star. Heck, take yourself out for an ice cream sundae: that was an astute observation.

But wait; today’s pop quiz is not over yet. Since the first two descriptions illustrated my ongoing point so beautifully, any guesses about why I saw fit to include the third?

Hint: the answer lies in the word count.

Okay, I’ll just give you this one: at 302 words, it would make a pretty good 1-page synopsis. You know, the kind that agencies’ websites and agency guides’ listings keep asking writers of 350-page books to send with their queries and/or pages. True, the last paragraph is pure review, as is the last sentence of the second.

But it just goes to show you: it is indeed possible to give the contours of a story in that number of words without resorting to blurry generalities. No matter how many times you re-checked that requirement on the agent of your dreams’ website, hoping you had misread it, it’s actually not all that unreasonable a request.

The second reason to walk you through all of those reviews was even more straightforward: Flavia’s going to talk to us today about what it’s like to get a book reviewed. And not necessarily nicely.

One of the classic writerly fears, right? Flavia is going to tell us how to confront it straight-on, instead of running away screaming.

I’m very excited about this guest post, and not merely because, as those of you who have been dropping by Author! Author! for a while are no doubt already aware, I’m a huge fan of wrestling those big, bad writerly fears out into the open, examining them thoroughly, and talking about how to deal with them practically. There’s been a lot of talk on the conference circuit lately about career writers, the kind who have more than one book in ‘em.

Career writers’ work used to be considered the backbone of the publishing business, you know. A blockbuster may sell a million copies on a fluke, but authors whose established readerships kept returning for subsequent books provide publishers with consistent, relatively predictable income. With the decline of the multi-book contract, however, many agents in recent years had become less interested in hearing about a prospective clients’ other book ideas than in whether the manuscript in front of them might be the next breakout hit.

With the economic downturn, however, the phrase career writer has been turning up on more and more lips. It’s not even all that unusual these days for agents to ask newly-signed clients to come up with one-paragraph descriptions of their next three or four projects, just to have at the ready in case an editor impressed with a manuscript asks.

Don’t tense up; start brainstorming.

As this trend has been heating up in recent months, I’ve been eagerly blandishing career writers to come and share their insights with our little writing community. You want to know what a long-term career strategy looks like, don’t you?

So please join me in welcoming Flavia Alaya, career writer and memoirist extraordinaire. But before I hand you over to her, let me add: UNDER THE ROSE is available on Amazon and, of course, directly from the publisher. Oh, and that lovely photo of Flavia above was taken by Ellen Denuto.

Take it away, Flavia!

under the rose alaya covermilk-of-almonds-cover-alayareconciling-catholicism-coverunder-the-rose-alaya-cover-2

Under the Rose is memoir as collage—less in style than in process. When it began its manuscript life, the book was the relatively brief and tidy account (with a few flashbacks) of my first 13 or so years with Harry, in Italy, then in New York—essentially our secret life together…sub rosa, or “under the rose.” When the manuscript (which was sold three times over 16 years of writing and rewriting—long story!) was finally acquired by The Feminist Press and positioned for their Cross-cultural Memoir Series, publisher Florence Howe asked to see the core theme in the context of a “life.” This meant weaving two or three more complex narratives into the original—the back-stories (what was it in both our early lives made us able to tolerate, maybe even need, that kind of secrecy?) and the post- and post-post-scripts: how we both met the critical test of going public, and then how I faced life without him when he died.

A challenge. Many challenges. First, unpacking more hard truths about my family—and his—than I’d ever intended to. Then (harder) untangling the sticky weave of that final public decade together in the ‘70s, when we struggled to float the flimsy raft of a “liberated” partnership—with three small kids nailed to it—through virtual tsunamis of academic and ecclesiastical politics. Not only did I have to tear the book apart and reassemble it. I had to back off from it. I had to take the entire project (which had seemed so obvious and simple, once) more seriously…and myself less. Much less.

Which is one reason this review struck me as so baffling:

What is the point of her ‘confession’? That she’s a good and put-upon person? If so, it is better left to others to make the point for her; none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness.

A bite, a mere rebarbative nine-year-old mouthful of what used to be standard Barbara Grizzuti Harrison agita in The New York Times Book Review…except that it was directed at me and my memoir.

Baffling. Because if I’d had my way, Under the Rose would have been subtitled, with obvious irony: “A Life in Six Operas.” Even the present “Confession” has its edge—absolution was the last thing I was looking for! But here was the Press again, hoping a more salty subtitle might trump their off-putting imprint and win them some new readers. Inside, however, opera names still define the book’s six parts (Tosca, Gioconda, Traviata, etc.), and adjust the tone (or so I thought) in two self-satirical ways, denoting the spectacular Italian American family culture I grew up in, first, and then caricaturing the over-the-top romanticism I’d internalized with it. Maybe it was a complex way to suggest, as a part of the theme, why my inner diva took so very long to outgrow, and why it cost so much tearing of heart muscle. But I didn’t think it inaccessible, especially to a Times reviewer.

On the other hand…

Well, on the other hand, Harry was a very funny man. You couldn’t take him anywhere—not without pulling a crowd that would quickly be doubled over in bodily pain. No invidious comparisons with great Italian literature are intended, but maybe Under the Rose should come with a warning label: if clerical sex doesn’t make you laugh, close the book. Or burn it.

I girded myself to reread the review for this blog, but I was sure I could deal with it. I was way too sensitive then. And besides, she’s dead. And besides, nine years is long enough.

But no, the bloody thing still had its ghoulish way with me, like a Dracula lover. Be objective, I tell myself. And I am. Objectively, it must be one of the most venomous reviews of a memoir ever to appear in The New York Times Book Review. OK, limit the sample to ex-editor Charlie McGrath’s wrathful-God Book Review universe, where there were body-counts. The citation still stings.

Right now, you know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking it would be really nice if you’d take my word for it, but I bet you feel double-dared to go and read it. Well, damn you, go ahead. But come back afterward, because that review never should have been the end of it—not for me, but not even for her.

Here it is.

OK. Agree with me on this, that what Harrison’s maundering few-hundred words are unleashing is disgust, a given, a natural response to the book’s basic and objectively revolting premise, that I actually had an underground career as a priest’s “wife.” Well, it is objectively revolting, isn’t it? For an Opus Dei sort like herself, of whom it could be said—and was—that the Curia was kindlier and less Roman? Please.

And now, seeing as Roman is the only form of Catholicism to demand a pretense of lifelong eunuchry in its priesthood, channel the fair-minded editor of the Book Review assigning the book to her: who could be more qualified to review a challenge to the ideal of Catholic celibacy? Let her rip! “Fortunately Alaya loves herself sufficiently, {sic} to relieve the reviewer of any obligation to protect her ego.”

Ah, what fortress faith, what crusading passion, to crush the nano-flash of pity that inspired that line. I still find it hard to get past it.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #1:
A brutal review goes straight to your voice. For a while it’s as if somebody has carved out your larynx with a bread-knife and you keep on trying to make the breath you still push through the replacement tube sound like you.

For years I’ve twitched whenever people said they’d come across that review on the web. Sure, I was onto Grizzuti’s rap-sheet as hitwoman, but what was I supposed to say? That she’d slashed the likes of Joan Didion and Spike Lee too, and look at the company I’m in?

There are some reviews you should never read twice, unless you have another larynx to turn. No, nine years are not enough. And now Google can serve up Grizzuti’s little murder, on demand, to me or anybody looking for me, almost always at the top of the hit-list. Maybe forever—all the forever that matters to a writer.

There’s a silly analogy to Keats’s urn in here somewhere. Instead of those lovers forever yearning toward each other to the sound of a silent flute, there’s this worthless writer forever pinioned by this bloody reviewer’s disgust, somehow never able to “love herself sufficiently” to get outside that shell of ego-protecting denial.

But…

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom # 2:
You don’t stop talking just because you get told to shut up. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, just that you don’t. And, yes, you probably shouldn’t.

Maybe stories like this don’t end till you really go silent. As self-writing goes, let’s just say I’m probably at the end of the middle of whatever story this is, where I gravitate to scholars of autobiography and reflect on their wisdom. Lauren Berlant is one. She says in pretty good academy-speak that to write the self is to try to create “a spectacular interiority worthy of public notice” (The Queen of America Goes to Washington City, 1997).

I love the compression of this. Right at the top it says that you’re making a spectacle of yourself, which I admit I have done, and still do.

But the “worthy of public notice” part? That’s the paradox for Berlant to unfold. If the interior self you’re exposing isn’t normative, if it’s different in a way not embraced by the larger culture, or if what you’re exposing—maybe a hidden truth or reality, an injustice—is something the majority culture (or somebody in its service) would rather not see exposed, then it’s difficult to make it “worthy” of public notice, isn’t it.

Except perhaps over time, and in this sense, to write the truly “spectacular” self is to write to the future. Because as you write it, in that time, it must be by definition unworthy, and by somebody’s standards even shameful, or better, shameless. Something to be pilloried, in service to the spectacle of your shamelessness.

Pillory this. Grizzuti and the Times did, bless ‘em, and I guess from that perspective there‘s an edge of flattery in it. Otherwise, why me? Under the Rose, my first non-academic book, had come out of CUNY’s Feminist Press, so minor and semi-academic a publishing house by Times standards that not one of its best books had yet had a single dedicated review within their pages. Mine should have been an equivalent non-event, yet they gave it a full-page that Sunday, with artwork, no less, page 9.

John Updike was there a week later.

Maybe BGH hated my book for good literary reasons, but I doubt it. Her deft surgical skills were simply at the service of a special version of the normative—hers, of course, but also the Times‘ then, before the scandals that made Catholic pretensions to purity fair game. You and I know that if it were true that “none of us can afford the luxury of publishing our questionable righteousness,” there’d be a lot fewer book reviews than memoirs.

This is good to remember, to score up there on the wall (as one of my writer-friends does) with other great self-help mantras. It also self-helped (it still does) that Under the Rose went to press with the imprimaturs not just of Marilyn French but of Nuala O’Faolain and Sandra Gilbert, both brilliant memoirists, both sometime Catholics, and both household saints in my calendar. I wonder by my own litmus test whether I really was “writing to the future” if some pretty testy other reviewers said some pretty nice things about Under the Rose in some pretty good places.

But back then, of course, in the fresh wake of Grizzuti, it didn’t matter who liked it. Behind that thick bark of ego she gave me there was barely a trickle of self-love left for savoring praise. Only weeks before that review was published my father had died—the patriarch who’d figured so huge in my story that I’d once actually thought of calling it Father—and the very Sunday it appeared I was in flight to California to help empty his house.

For a while, I’d say his death probably silenced me more than Grizzuti. Remembering it now makes me wonder what else I lost, or had to lose? Well, some things I thought I wanted, like the respect of my academic colleagues, the more careerist of whom instantly smelled Times roadkill and cut me off. It took awhile for me to see that academic cachet was something I’d already begun to de-value—otherwise why write a memoir in the first place? Maybe they’d known that before I did.

Could be, then, whatever else I lost, whatever still hangs somewhere in that vague .alt universe, was some of the same stuff—stuff I only thought I wanted.

Pearl of Writerly-Wisdom #3:
We have more than one life to live, and more than one voice to give.

I had a lot of possible voices from the beginning. So it could be that the right analogy for that review was not a laryngectomy but a stink-bomb. It emptied the building. But it didn’t take long to hear the riot of squatters rumbling up the stairs to fill the place. All those voices! They may have been attached to the same maimed name, but they had something, spectacular or not, still left in them to say.

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I was nearly immediately invited to contribute to two anthologies, one a group of Italian American women writing on food and culture (a short story, “Love Lettuce,” to The Milk of Almonds (Feminist Press, 2002); and an essay for a gathering of mostly Catholic feminists on their complicated attachments to the Church (“The Elephant is Slow to Mate” in Reconciling Catholicism and Feminism?, the University of Notre Dame Press, 2003, a publication that, by the way, merits a special little Grizzuti-star).

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But my favorite re-gift came from an Italian scholar with a passion for sex and the sacred, Serena Anderlini-D’Onofrio, who trumped the grimly silent Academy (and it must be my formidable ego that makes me LOVE to repeat this story) by making Under the Rose a cameo text at a conference session of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York. (Serena is a serious trip: see her own memoir, Eros: A Journey of Multiple Loves, 2006, and her website.)

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And then, as you know, the future—or one of the futures—I was writing to came maybe sooner than anybody expected, and what is fondly termed the Priestly Pedophilia Scandal burst on the culture scene.

Almost immediately, a Dublin publisher (New Island Press) contracted to do their own edition of Under the Rose.

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Whereupon the Irish—who live in such an intimately conflicted family relationship with the Church, bought it, read it, reviewed it (quite soberly and generously), eventually made a half-hour TV movie about it, and seemed generally delighted to deflect attention away from the boys, and in the direction of my consensual, heterosexual, and mostly cavorting relationship with an utterly charismatic, brilliantly political, and howlingly funny Irish-American person who was, as it happened, also a priest “to the bone.”

Still, I have never published another book. Those “squatter” voices, a half-dozen or so like this one, slip in and slip away. Some are quite true, not ringers, slowly reclaiming the place now that the furniture in the apartment is a bit ratty but less odiferous.

I keep telling myself I have to get some new furniture. Or a whole new apartment—my ever recidivist self-love certain that there’s an absolutely brilliant historical novel in me…or maybe a series of murder mysteries, a theme on which I’ve become more expert with time.

But I cannot tell a lie. I was probably never meant to tell anything but true stories, truly. I regret that I didn’t devote more craft to making my one big book three smaller and better ones. And now I’d love to pull together a collection of hilariously picaresque true tales about my rogue of a lover-husband on this, my second time around.

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FLAVIA ALAYA, who dubs herself “a writer of all work,” professed cultural history at Ramapo College of New Jersey and helped found its original School of Intercultural Studies. (Sub)versions of infamy and secrecy attract her: her first book, a Harvard Press biography of Anglo-Scot writer William Sharp, is the still-standard account of his masquerade as a female poet (“Fiona Macleod”). Later work pioneered a feminist revaluation of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the disparaged English poet who was, of course, also a consummate (if more discreet) memoirist.

But a little like Elizabeth, Flavia has always been too love-struck for the perfect feminist, and when her partner, star labor and immigration historian—and Roman Catholic priest—Harry Browne, died of leukemia in 1980, the project of writing about him—about them—seemed a way to prolong their life together. The adventures detailed inside this memoir made for a rocky manuscript adventure outside it that didn’t end (as you’ll see) with its publication by the Feminist Press in 1999.

But the “writer of all work” scrubs on, maybe more in the kitchen than the front parlor. As a civil rights advocate post-9/11 she wrote immigration detention exposés (and recounted anti-detention street activism) for the online journal CounterPunch. But always under the spell of city life and culture, her skills have turned not just to preservation activism but to “scripting the (local) landscape” as a form of community resistance to change, a vaguely subversive culture underground. From New York’s West Side to Paterson, New Jersey, small books—hidden histories revealed—like Gaetano Federici: The Artist as Historian, Silk and Sandstone, and Bridge Street to Freedom (a multi-layered account of the landmarking of a station of the Underground Railroad) have become a favorite medium. In collaboration with a local sports maven, she recently unpacked the lively story of Paterson’s Depression-era Negro Leagues stadium into a successful National Register application and a website.

Two Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation writing fellowships at the Vermont Studio Center helped complete her memoir and then carry forward a draft novel on the life and amazing disappeared career of Joseph McDonnell, once-flamboyant Fenian, cofounder of the First International, editor of the long-lived Paterson Labor Standard, and pioneer author of the first progressive labor legislation in New Jersey. She has paused in this unfinished business to script narratives of industrial, labor and women’s history into the landscape of Bridgeton, New Jersey, her new base, as well as home of the largest historic district in the state.