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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) One entry per writer, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

famous name query

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

referral query

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

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

missent referral query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

That’s right: “NEXT!”

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

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

who the heck query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XV: selecting the elements that will grab Millicent’s attention, or was this honestly the most exciting news story of the day?

Since I’ve gone down to posting only once or twice per week — a rate I hope to be ramping up again, perhaps as soon as tomorrow — I’ve noticed something interesting, campers: reality seems to have slowed its rate of tumbling all over itself to provide me with practical or symbolic examples of whatever I plan to discuss next. The last time I delved into the fine art of querying, the world around me seemed to burst into anecdotes every time I looked up from the computer.

I’m glad to report that since Thanksgiving, the Muses have gotten off their collective tuffet and hopped back on the illustrative story bandwagon. This weekend, they provided me with a lulu — and, perhaps to make amends for their lack of productivity throughout the autumn, they seem to have gone out of their way to provide parallels to not just one, but several widely misunderstood aspects of querying. So sit back, relax, and let the girls do their stuff with today’s tale.

One of the more charming (or more trying, depending upon how one chooses to look at it) aspects of having grown up in a small town lies in the ongoing interconnectedness one feels with the playmates of one’s early years. Where the friend options are few, pickiness is a luxury. Even if you happened to loathe a particular nursery school classmate with abandon, chances are that by the time the two of you graduate from high school, you will probably have enjoyed at least a couple of moderately pleasurable collective moments along the way. Or at least having shared the often-underestimated bond of having loathed the same person in junior high and having had the town’s elders shake their heads over your respective coiffure choices in high school.

Oh, you try to find more scintillating entertainment in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard. Bucolic paradises are frequently very dull.

So although I left that delightful small town at a pace that can only be described as a dead run when I was seventeen, when my kindergarten classmate Kevin left a voice mail message last week, saying he had something important to tell me, I called him back with alacrity. We had spoken perhaps five times since we graduated from high school, but hey, we’d learned to play the xylophone together as tots: the least I could do was let him tell me something I had already heard from my mother (who had gotten the skinny via the garrulous grocery check-out clerk who had happened to scan Kevin’s mom’s Froot Loops earlier in the week), that he had proposed to a Lady From Elsewhere and was planning to move her back home.

That he chose to break the news in two short sentences should have warned me what was to come: even in kindergarten, Kev had embraced John Wayne-like levels of taciturnity; in situations both mundane and life-shifting, he has always eschewed wordiness. Nouns and verbs seldom occupied the same breath with him. Now, his sentences were not complete enough to contain his beloved’s name. By five minutes into our conversation, he was answering my polite questions about the LFE and their wedding plans with monosyllables — and seeming to enjoy it immensely.

I, on the other hand, felt as though I were cross-examining a hostile witness, the kind Perry Mason would have decided must be the murderer. “Well, I’m happy for you, Kevin,” I said, hoping to draw the teeth-pulling to a graceful close. “Do give my best to your mother — and, of course, to your lovely fiancée.”

The mention of the LFE seemed to galvanize him into action. “You should talk to her!” he cried, ignoring his beloved’s perfectly audible cries of, “Who, me?”

I’m not particularly given to heart-to-hearts with complete strangers, but sure that if not my mother, then at least the checkout clerk would be dying to hear some details about the LFE, I revved up my interview skills anew. After a startlingly brief set of exchanges, I was perfectly convinced that the LFE and Kevin were made for each other: she must make him feel like a positive chatterbox. Where he might go out on a limb with a yes or no, the lady favored non-committal humming.

I’ve conducted more productive interviews with mollusks. Actually, I’m fairly confident that your garden-variety mollusk bride-to-be might have coughed up a more substantive response to, “Tell me about your engagement ring,” than a terrified blurt of, “Um, it’s gold?” followed by thirty seconds of anxious silence.

Compared to her answers to most of my questions, that was a philosophical treatise. I might be going out on an interpretive limb here, but I suspect that the LFE is exceedingly shy.

If she was frightened to talk to me, however, she was petrified that I might get off the phone before Kevin returned. Or so I surmise, from the fact that my repeated, “Well, I really should let you get back to your evening together,” did not elicit anything that might remotely be interpreted as an invitation to hang up the phone, unless in the Far Land of Elsewhere, whimpering “No, don’t go!” is the standard way to say good-bye. I began timing the silences after her brief answers, just to have something to do.

Shortly after we’d broken the minute-and-a-half barrier, I heard something unexpected in the background: Kevin’s voice, talking to what sounded like a small child. By dint of a torturous game of 20 Questions, I managed to get the LFE to admit that she had a six-year-old (who, like her mother, was apparently devoid of a name), that she was in the room, and that Kev was playing with her. A full five minutes of motherly silence followed, punctuated only by my commentary on what I guessed the child to be saying and doing.

Having quite a bit of time on my hands, I found myself wondering if perhaps Kevin and the LFE were operating under a completely different understanding of the purpose of an interstate phone call than I had encountered before. Many of the requisite elements of a normal telephone exchange were here — two persons on the same phone line at the same time, an ostensibly exciting development to discuss, time in which to do it — but by no stretch of the imagination was this a normal telephone exchange. Was the point here to share time together, even if there was no conversation? Was having me listen to him chatter with the child Kevin’s way of letting me know that he was enjoying his new family, or did was he in another room, happy in the belief that his sweetie and I were enjoying a half an hour of uninterrupted girl talk?

Or — and this seemed increasingly likely as the seconds ticked by — had he simply forgotten that I was on the phone, and she was too meek to remind him?

Eventually, I did what any self-respecting small-town refugee would have done: I positively forced the LFE to listen to my thanking her for having made Kevin happy (“Mmmph,” she replied), wished her luck with the wedding-planning process — and faked an emergency to excuse getting off the phone. I have no idea whether she actually believed a curtain rod had fallen onto my cat, but at least she said good-bye and hung up.

And my readers heave a huge sigh of relief. “That was odd, Anne,” many of you point out, “but am I missing something here? Didn’t you at least hint that this event put you at least vaguely in mind of something having to do with querying?”

Why, yes, it did. From Millicent the agency screener’s perspective, queries that include some or even all of the required elements but seem to adhere to a different logic than she recognizes are not all that rare. Don’t believe me? Take a gander at the kind of e-mail that appears in her agency’s inbox on a regular basis.

Dear Ms. Agentson,

Communication, Garbled tells the story of Ambrosia, a woman trapped between conflicting forces beyond her control. Try as she might, she can’t see a way out, until Greg opens a door for her that she thought had been closed long ago.

Please give me a chance. I have worked very hard on this, and I really, really want to get it published.

Sincerely,

Struggling B. Storyteller

This artless little missive raises more questions than it answers, doesn’t it? “What on earth is this book about?” Millicent cries, rending her garments. “What forces? Why are they beyond her control, and what are the consequences? Who the heck is Greg, and what makes Struggling think a cliché like reopening a closed door conveys any specific meaning? Is Communication, Garbled the title, or is it a review of this letter? Perhaps most perplexingly, why does this writer believe it’s my job to figure out what his? her? book is about, rather than the writer’s job to convey the premise of the story lucidly?”

Why, indeed, Millie: you’re quite right that this vague e-mail does not give you enough information to figure out whether your boss, the agent of Struggling’s dreams, might conceivably want to represent this manuscript. It doesn’t mention the book category, the intended audience, the premise — and because this description could be applied equally well to thousands of wildly different plots, a screener would have absolutely no way of guessing productively on any of these essential points. If Struggling had opened with some indication of why s/he had picked this particular agency (like, say, Since you so ably represented Competent Author’s debut novel, UNCLEAR EXCHANGES, I hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction project…), Millicent might have been able to make an educated guess, but since she has hundreds of queries to screen before lunch, why would she waste time speculating?

Especially for a query that doesn’t even say whether the book it is pushing is fiction or nonfiction. Heck, if it hadn’t landed in the agency’s inbox along with 1500 similar missives, Millie might not even have been able to guess it is a query intended to solicit representation.

In short, it contains some of the elements of a standard query letter, but does not bring them together in a manner comprehensible to a reader who knows nothing about the book in question. From Millicent’s perspective, Struggling has missed the point of this mode of communication.

From the writer’s side of the SEND button, though, it’s fairly clear what happened here, though, isn’t it? Struggling knows what her book is about: concerned with the brevity requirements of a query, she’s generalizing. Millicent’s boss represents books like the one she’s written, so wouldn’t anyone at the agency be able to fill in the blanks about where this book would sit in a bookstore, who the target audience is, and why Struggling approached this agent in the first place?

The short answer is that it’s not Millicent’s job to read the querier’s mind, but the querier’s job to present her work clearly. The long answer is…wait five minutes in silence, then read the first sentence of this paragraph again.

On the outside chance that I’m being too subtle here: Struggling might well have written a stellar book, but her misinterpretation of the requirements of the query letter render the quality of the manuscript a moot point at the querying stage. Most of the time, this kind of query is the result of a writer’s having based the query not upon research about what the agent in question is seeking, or even what a generic query might contain, but rather a vague guess about what a query letter is.

Such guesses mystify the pros, frankly. They believe, and with some reason, that there are enough blogs like this, reputable books aimed at aspiring writers, and writers’ conferences out there that any writer serious about landing an agent should be able to learn the basic elements of a query quite easily. Even if that were not the case — but it is — many agencies go out of their way to list those elements for potential queriers, posting guidelines on their websites. That being the case (their reasoning continues), a writer with sufficient talent to compose a good book should be able to string those elements together in a graceful and coherent style.

So when a screener is confronted with a query that appears to have been written without either a basic understanding of what the requisite parts of a good query letter are or how those parts might be fitted together into a convincing argument to request the manuscript, she generally feels more than justified in rejecting it regardless of the inherent interest of the story. A query like Struggling’s, then, might be legitimately be regarded as self-rejecting: it differs enough from what Millicent has been trained to regard as the minimum standard for a successful query letter that it is instantly recognizable as a non-starter.

Were those shrieks of rage I just heard echoing around the ether, or has my house been invaded by harpies? “Talk about misconceptions!” those of you who have been wading through the mountains of querying advice out there wail. “Clearly, these people haven’t taken a look at the welter of information out there on the subject. I’m perfectly willing to follow directions, but there are literally thousands of sources of advice out there, and half of them contradict one another!”

Of course, they haven’t taken a look at what’s out there — why should they? Millicent already knows what information a query letter should contain. But Struggling and writers like her tend not to be those who have, like you wailers, conscientiously worked their way through a number of different credible sources on how to write a query. No, Struggling almost certainly based her effort upon quite limited research, assuming — wrongly — that she understood what an agent might be expecting to see even though she had never written a query letter before.

That so many queriers don’t recognize that a query must contain certain industry-specified elements, including the imperative to include enough information about the book that Millicent doesn’t have to guess why it might appeal to her boss, is almost as frustrating to those who screen queries for a living as for those who write them and get rejected. To the pros, a query is an application to have an agent or editor take a writer’s work seriously — and part of the case to be taken seriously includes the writer’s demonstrating that she has invested the time in learning how the querying and submission process works.

Frustrating, from the writer’s point of view? Certainly — but remember, aspiring writers tend to be the ones who expect a book to be picked up right away, not agents or editors. People in the industry are well aware that it often takes a good writer years to learn the ropes, but from their perspective, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The overwhelming majority of queriers begin the agent-seeking process before their manuscripts are ready for professional scrutiny, increasing the chances of rejection; to an experienced screener, Struggling’s query above practically cries out, “I typed THE END two weeks ago, so I have not yet had time to revise and polish this manuscript!”

Will that be a valid conclusion in every case? No, of course not, but a best-guess query and a first draft go hand-in-hand often enough that you really can’t blame Millicent for making the correlation. Or for rejecting the query in the hope that Struggling will be prompted to do the requisite homework to write a better letter next time. And if that professionalization process sucks up enough time that Struggling has a chance to do a little revision on her novel, isn’t that actually in her book’s best interest in the long run?

Yes, yes, I know: it doesn’t feel that way when you open a form-letter rejection. But honestly, doesn’t it make you feel just the tiniest bit better to know that form letter was not necessarily saying Give up — this book doesn’t have a chance but possibly, You haven’t given me enough information to assess this project, because you’re not speaking about your book in professional language, but I hope that you will do better next time?

Don’t like that moral? Okay, try this one on for size: it’s very much in your interest to do your homework not only on what elements should be in a query in general, but what, if any, advice any particular agent or agency you are planning to approach has put out there for potential clients. Trust me, if Ms. Agentson took the time to create a page on her agency’s website to explain what she wants to see in a query, she will expect Struggling to be familiar with it before writing the query letter.

If, after scouring agents’ guides and agency websites, you’re still not sure what the protocol is for querying your type of book, I also have a bit of advice for you. It’s short and sweet: find a credible source and ask.

What, you thought successful authors were born knowing this stuff? Would I have had material to blog for more than six years if that were the case?

To encourage the asking of trenchant questions, I shall devote the rest of tonight’s post to an exceptionally sensible question brought up a couple of years back by intelligent and thoughtful reader AM. In the course of a spirited discussion of Point-of-View Nazis and their narrative-limiting ways, AM suggested:

Now what we need is your take on writing a query letter for a multiple POV novel. Or maybe I just need to find an attractive combination of money and chocolate bribe to get your input on mine. Hmm.

There, now — that wasn’t so hard, was it? If I can wade my way through this roomful of bundled dollar bills and baskets of truffles, I’ll get right onto AM’s perfectly reasonable request.

Just kidding. I don’t like chocolate all that much.

And while we’re on the subject of blandishment: no matter how much you want to grab Millicent’s attention, never, ever, EVER include a bribe of any sort in a query or submission packet. It will not garner positive attention for your book project; in fact, it is virtually always an instant-rejection offense.

Yes, even if it’s merely a photograph or two of the gorgeous scenery you have written about in your travel memoir or that business card you had made up for your last foray to a writers’ conference. Agencies have to be extremely defensive about this one: due to how fast rumors about the latest querying trick spread around the Internet, if even a single Millicent accepted a single box of fudge from an aspiring cookbook writer, half the agencies in the country would find themselves up to the top of their cubicles in bribery-aimed cookies, helium balloons, and fruit baskets. Not to mention something most agents have a horror story about already, videotapes of aspiring authors giving speeches about their books.

So what is the best plan for stuffing that query packet to get your work noticed positively? At the risk of repeating myself, checking the website and/or agency guide listing for each and every agent you plan to query, making sure that you are sending precisely what they expect queriers to send — no more, no less — topping it with a professional, well-crafted query letter, and mailing it off with a SASE. Or going through exactly those steps for an e-mailed query.

Given that most agencies with websites are pretty explicit about what they do and don’t want aspiring writers to send them, you would expect that query packets that conform to their various standards — because, lest we forget, every agency is looking for something slightly different — it’s astonishing just how often the Strugglings of this world send, well, something else. Every Millicent I have ever asked about it (and believe me, I ask as many as I can) complains about how often her agency receives query packets with extras.

Or — sacre bleu! — with elements missing. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is almost universally an instant-rejection offense.

Why? Well, the only message such query packets are actually sending to the Millicents who open them is hey, look: here’s a writer who can’t follow straightforward directions! Or possibly, depending upon the clarity of the agency’s guidelines, wow, here’s a writer who doesn’t read very well. (More common than any of us would like to think, alas.) Or, the most likely of all, oh, no, here’s another writer who didn’t bother to do his homework; we went to all the trouble of telling potential queriers what we wanted, yet this guy just assumed that every agency was identical.

All sentiments our Millie is prone to sum up with terse elegance as: “Next!”

So what, out of all of the possibilities a writer’s active imagination could conceive and all of the suggestions for querying techniques flying around out there in the ether, is the bare minimum that MUST be in a query? Glad you asked:

1. The book’s title

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

3. A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent

4. A descriptive paragraph or two, giving a compelling foretaste of the premise, plot, and/or argument of the book.

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

6. A SASE, if querying by mail.

Is it clearer now why Millicent would not even have considered asking for Struggling’s manuscript? Our writer friend’s query included only (1), a vague stab at (4), and, if we’re generous, (5). That’s simply not enough information for Millie to be able to make an informed decision about asking for pages.

All of those elements are required, but that doesn’t mean you can’t include a bit more persuasion. Two other highly advisable, but not strictly speaking required, elements 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. (Optional for fiction, but I would strongly recommend either including it or replacing it with #8.)

8. A platform paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book. (Also optional for fiction, and can be replaced with #7; it’s niftier, however, if you can manage to include both, even for novels.)

Is everyone comfortable wrangling all of those elements? Now is the time to speak up, if not.

Now that we have the notes, let’s talk about making some music. When all of these elements are pulled together into a smoothly-worded piece of correspondence, it reads something like the following. (If you are having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.)

mars query

Now that we’re thinking in terms of constituent parts vs. whole, we can see that what AM is asking about is not how to construct the entire query letter — she couldn’t be, since elements 1, 2, and 5-7 are not concerned with plot or narrative, right? #3 could be relevant here, but only if the agent had a track record of representing multiple-narrator books. (In that case, Since you so ably represented STORY IN FIFTEEN VOICES, I hope you will be interested in my multiple-narrator novel… would be perfectly acceptable.)

You look so cute with your eyes bugged out like a cartoon character’s. “What do you mean, Anne?” flabbergasted would-be queriers everywhere exclaim. “How is it possible that something as important as the narrative structure of the book could affect only a single paragraph of the query? Isn’t the voice choice the single most important thing to know about a multiple-narrator story — or a first-person narrative, for that matter? Or, if it’s not the most important, isn’t it at least the most interesting?”

From a professional point of view, the answer to those last two questions is very short: no. And the answer to the second, the one about why the narrative choice shouldn’t spill over to the rest of the query, is also pretty brief: because how a writer has chosen to tell the story in the book is not a required element in the query.

Oh, scrape your jaw off the floor. You don’t see it on the list above, do you?

Unless an agency’s guidelines specifically ask for information about narrative voice, leave it out, or as we’ve already discussed, you’ll run the risk of producing a query that reads more like a book report than, well, a query. Remember, the query is not expected to provide analysis or review of the manuscript it is pushing: it’s supposed to tell Millicent the premise.

Let’s face it: telling her how many protagonists there are, or whether the narrative talks about their experiences in the first or third person, actually doesn’t give her much of an indication of what the book is about, right? So is it really the best use of scant querying space?

In case you’re waffling on that last question, here’s a peek at what the result might be if a writer’s answer were yes.

book report-style query

Quick: what is this book about? What is the event that all of these narrators observed, and what about it is compelling enough to hold the reader’s interest through 187 changes of perspective?

Beats me. So how can it be an effective query letter? Especially when — and give yourself some extra Brownie points if you caught this — Expansive made the classic Millicent-baiting mistake of referring to his work by the redundant phrase literary fiction novel. (All novels are fiction, right?) Besides, everyone knows that ol’ Pointy is a woman, and thus should be addressed as Ms. McGettoitson.

Equally damning, all of that analysis of structures and themes is going to read like a book report to Millicent. (That’s even the industry’s term for this kind of writing in a query, pitch, or synopsis: high school book report.) In a query, you’ve got one or at most two paragraphs to convince an agent that this is a story she should read. Talking about a novel’s structure is almost never the best means of doing that.

So how would I advise Expansive to go about revising this query? Well, for starters, I would encourage him not to name so many characters in his descriptive paragraph. Not sure why? Okay, here’s pop quiz: without looking, how many can you name?

That’s the maximum he should keep. He could also make the descriptive paragraph more compelling by concentrating on the overall story of the novel, rather than enumerating as many perspectives as he can in that short a space.

Those are the big fixes. While he was at it, I would urge him to make that first paragraph a touch less off-puttingly pretentious in its phrasing. I would also advise him to throw out the second paragraph altogether.

And every multiple-perspective lover’s hand shoots into the air. “But Anne, the first thing almost any aspiring writer will say if asked to describe his multiple-perspective novel, or even first-person narrative, is something like, ‘Well, there are eight points of view.’ Are you seriously suggesting that he should suppress that information in his query?”

In a word, yes. Few professional readers would consider the narrative voice choice the most important thing to know about a book, after all.

Why? Well, think about it: how could voice choice alone possibly help Millicent decide whether a book’s plot might interest her boss? As anyone who has ever read fiction manuscripts for a living would be only too glad to tell you, there are excellent multiple-perspective novels; there are lousy ones, and there are a million different gradations in between.

Ditto with every other perspective choice. At query time, it’s just not a significant issue. It’s not as though agents are very much given to strolling into the office first thing in the morning, yawning, and saying wistfully, “You know what I’d really like to read today? A first-person narrative. Yep, that would really hit the spot. Got any of those on hand, Millie?”

Not going to happen. If the narrative choice works on the page, great, but the only way Millicent can possibly tell if it does is to — wait for it — read the manuscript. Which, by definition, she’s not going to be doing at the querying stage.

So why not let your exciting perspective choices be a pleasant surprise at submission time? Concentrate instead in the query on getting her to ask to see the manuscript.

Which leads us right back to AM’s query-editing problem, doesn’t it? She’s in luck: the only part of a query letter that could possibly require a multiple-protagonist novel to be handled differently from a single-protagonist one would be that pesky descriptive paragraph where the aspiring writer attempts to give some indication of what the book is about.

#4 on our must-include list, in other words.

There’s a reason that lovers of multiple-protagonist stories find constructing the descriptive paragraph frustrating, and a darned good one. Let’s face it: that’s not a lot of space to talk about a perfectly straightforward boy-meets-girl story, let alone one following five protagonists, seventeen subplots, and fourteen generations of bunnies on an epic trek across four continents.

So I’ve got a radical suggestion: don’t try.

I’m quite serious about this. Instead of attempting to force a super-complicated plot into the space of a scant paragraph, just show enough of the premise to intrigue Millicent into asking to see the manuscript. Which is, after all, the actual goal of any query, right?

Right? Hello? Please don’t tell me that we’re heading into another minute and a half of silence.

To be fair, if you didn’t respond immediately in the affirmative, you’re not alone. Many writers new to the game assume, wrongly, that if only their query is good enough, an agent is going to say yes on the spot to representing the book. Since that literally never happens — no agent in his right mind would agree to represent a manuscript or book proposal she hasn’t read, unless it was written by someone who is already a celebrity in another field of endeavor and thus could reasonably be expected to attract book-buyers by name recognition alone — the assumption that it should renders the hard process of coming up with that descriptive paragraph even harder. The sooner an aspiring writer can jettison it, the better.

Is that dangerous notion out of your system? Excellent. Embrace this far more workable principle instead: the point of the descriptive paragraph in the pitch is NOT to distill the essence of the book; it is to convince the agent or editor to ask to READ it. Thus, your job is not to summarize the plot, but to present it in a fascinating manner.

Again, this is a tall order, even for a novel focusing on a single protagonist. Within the space of a paragraph, it’s genuinely difficult to make someone sound like an interesting character in an interesting situation. Generally speaking, your best bet is to focus on what’s most unusual about the protagonist and/or the situation.

Don’t believe me? Okay, if you read as many queries as Millicent, which would intrigue you more:

an accountant confronted with an ethical dilemma , or

a goose-loving accountant forced to decide between betraying his parfait-scarfing boss and being kidnapped by a mob of crazed azalea gardeners?

One’s generic; one’s fresh. As a fringe benefit, the second one is far, far less likely to make Millicent roll her bloodshot eyes and mutter, “Oh, God, not another accountant-in-a-dilemma story. Just once, I’d like to see one of ‘em do the wrong thing.”

Okay, so that’s a pretty jaded response. Also, the second presentation’s details are a little weird. But it caught your attention, didn’t it?

Those of you writing about multiple protagonists are scratching your pretty little heads right about now, aren’t you? “But Anne,” these sterling souls inquire politely, because they know that’s the best way to get me to answer. “That sounds like great advice, but how does that apply to my novel? All seven of my protagonists are interesting people in interesting situations, but there just isn’t room in a 1-page query letter to introduce them all that way. Help!”

Superlative question, head-scratchers. In theory, a good multiple-protagonist novel is the story of LOTS of interesting people in LOTS of interesting situations.

That can make for a great read, but it definitely presents a space-usage problem in a query letter. Take a gander at what the descriptive paragraph of John Steinbeck’s East of Eden would look like if Uncle John were (a) querying it today, (b) not already famous by the time he wrote it, and (c) he didn’t already know that the manuscript’s first 10 pages being almost exclusively concerned with the soil conditions of the Salinas Valley would probably lose Millicent pretty quickly.

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War.

Allow me to pause there for a moment: the story’s grabbed you already, hasn’t he? See what I mean about the hook value of unusual details?

But let’s assume for the purposes of argument that Millicent hasn’t already e-mailed Uncle John and asked to see the manuscript without reading the rest of the letter. (Hey, she’s busy; she already knows she wants to read the manuscript.) See how quickly the energy fades as the description piles on more and more protagonists:

Adam Trask and his brother Charles have a problem — and not just that their father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, insensate rage overcomes Charles anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference for his brother. Sent off to the Indian Wars against his will, Adam loathes killing the innocent; Charles, deserted at home, farms and longs for his brother’s return. Meanwhile, wee sociopath Cathy Ames blithely leads young men to their doom in her home town. After a young teacher kills himself for her sake, her parents attempt to curb her — such a pity that they underestimate Cathy’s familiarity with kerosene. Out in California, Samuel, a family patriarch who bears a suspicious resemblance to the author, proves himself incapable of making money, but is nevertheless the most respected advice-giver in the whole Salinas Valley. Samuel is the first to notice that Lee, Adam and Cathy’s hired hand, loses his pidgin accent as soon as anyone speaks to him intelligently. After Cathy unwillingly gives birth to twins Cal and Aron, she flees to Faye’s house of ill repute. Trusting Faye comes to love Cathy — now calling herself Kate — like a daughter, unaware of how the young woman has historically treated her relatives. The Sheriff of Monterey County worries about Kate and Adam, but can do little as she builds her business. As the Trask boys grow, secure in Lee’s love and Adam’s depressed indifference, three of Samuel’s children have their own individual adventures. Abra, a beautiful young girl visiting the Trasks with her parents, is charmed by eleven-year-old Aron’s comeliness, but repelled by Cal’s rudeness.

That’s not the plot, mind you — that’s just a basic list of the small army of protagonists and their initial conflicts. Had the movie buffs out there noticed that I haven’t yet gotten to the part where the James Dean film version of the book began. That started two-thirds of the way into the book, to make the story fit within the film’s running time, completely excising Lee and transforming Abra into a love-crazed simp.

That’s a shame, because it honestly is a marvelous book — one that any serious novelist interested in handling multiple protagonists might want to read, incidentally, and pronto. Steinbeck was incredibly skilled at weaving perspectives together into a solid, real-feeling world.

Clearly, though, no matter how wonderful the novel might be, focusing upon all of the protagonists isn’t going to work in the query letter. What other alternatives would Uncle John have?

What many writers would choose to do in his place would be simply to select one protagonist and present that character as if he were the only protagonist. This can work wonders, in terms of simplifying the story for querying purposes. Take a gander:

Adam Trask has a problem — and not just that his father has built a career on lying about his experiences in the Civil War. For reasons Adam is powerless to explain, his brother Charles is overcome with insensate rage anytime their overbearing father shows so much as a flicker of preference between them. When a mysterious battered beauty arrives bleeding on their doorstep, Adam abruptly decides to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But is his lovely new wife a craftier version of Charles, only too eager to wreck his hard-won paradise?

Gets right to the point, doesn’t it? Here, Adam’s an interesting character from an interesting family, faced with interesting conflicts.

As a bonus, the description even tells Millie how Adam intends to overcome those conflicts and move toward what he wants. (And did you like how I worked in the word dream? Millicent loves seeing that word in a descriptive paragraph. Other perennial faves: passion, desire, longing, want, love, happiness.)

It does not, however, give a particularly complete sense of the book, does it? Partially, that’s a function of focusing on the premise. As is often the case, restricting the description to merely the set-up means that the query letter virtually ignores two-thirds of the book. (And not the two-thirds ignored by the movie version.)

That’s not a bad strategy for a query, by the way. Borrow a page from Scheherazade’s book: don’t tell too much of the story up front; be detailed, but leave Millicent curious to hear more.

Is concentrating upon only one of several protagonists the only way to produce a query for a complex multi-protagonist novel? Not by a long shot. Here’s an even better suggestion: introduce the story of the book in the descriptive paragraph, not the stories of the various characters.

Why, that’s the advice I gave Expansive, wasn’t it? Allow me to tailor it to this case.

For a novel with multiple protagonists to draw the reader along from storyline to storyline, it must necessarily have an underlying unitary narrative, right? (Unless the chapters and sections are a collection of unrelated short stories — which would make it a short story collection, not a novel, and it should be queried as such.) Even if it is told from the point of views of many, many people, there is pretty much always some point of commonality.

That area of commonality should be the focus of your descriptive paragraph, not how many characters’ perspectives it takes to tell it. Strip the story to its basic elements, and describe that.

Those of you juggling many protagonists just sighed deeply, didn’t you? “But Anne,” lovers of group dynamics everywhere protest, “why should I limit myself to the simplest storyline? Doesn’t that misrepresent my book?”

Not more than most omissions geared toward brevity — you would not, for instance, take up valuable query space with telling an agent that your book was written in the past tense, would you? Or in third person?
The point of the query is not to talk about the novel, as you would if you were reviewing it or analyzing it for a class; you’re there to interest Millie in the story.

So tell the story. Let your narrative choices be a fringe benefit discovered at manuscript-reading time, Expansive.

Before anyone hops onto that nearby soapbox to inform me huffily that in a good novel, the writing is the story — a statement with which I happen to agree, by the way — let me give you another example of why concentrating on the narrative structure seldom sells a story well. I’m certain the wandering spirit of Uncle John will forgive me if I use his story again as an example:

EAST OF EDEN is a multiple-protagonist novel covering three generations of the Trask family, as well as three generations of the author’s own family history. Told from the competing and sometimes factually inconsistent points of view of both fathers and sons, as well as the lover, wife, mother, and madam who alternately rules and destroys their dreams, this sweeping epic tells three different versions of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel — and the bystanders who see the tragedy reenacted again and again. Through the eyes of Lee and Samuel, the less-privileged characters supporting Adam and his sons, the reader gains a clear if limited picture of the casual racism, conflicting cultural values, and philosophies of the period.

That’s analysis, not description. It might get you an A on an American Literature exam, but the publishing industry just doesn’t talk about novels in academic terms. Tell Millicent a compelling story instead.

Has a high wind risen on the horizon, or have some of you been indulging in gusty sighs for the past few paragraphs? “Okay, Anne,” Expansive and his ilk concede reluctantly, “I plan to use the descriptive paragraph to show off my skills as a storyteller, rather than getting bogged down in a general discussion of the structure. But I write character-driven fiction — my story is my characters!”

Pardon me for doubting you, sighers, but in a well-told narrative, that’s almost never true. Even memoirs are seldom solely about their protagonists and nothing else. Protagonists live within contexts; they face obstacles to pursuing their goals; they encounter conflict. If they don’t, it’s hard to envision much of a dramatic arc.

Even in the extremely unlikely event that your book is such pure literary fiction that the characters and plot are irrelevant — again, almost unheard-of — concentrating instead upon experiments in writing style, your book is still about something, isn’t it? The interactions between the protagonists? Their hopes and dreams? The way that plain white wall changes in the light over 400 pages of the protagonists’ staring at it and nothing else?

That something can be the focus of your descriptive paragraph. Why? Because just as any agent is going to have to know what the book is about in order to interest an editor in it, Millicent’s going to have to be able to tell her boss what kind of novel she thinks the agency should consider representing.

Wait, what’s that you say? You’d like to see just how I’d follow this last piece of advice for Uncle John’s notoriously plot-heavy 600-page novel?

I was afraid you’d ask that. Frankly, if I were querying EAST OF EDEN to most agencies, I’d probably use the Adam-centric descriptive paragraph above; it’s a pretty good teaser for the first part of the novel. However, if I were approaching an agent who specialized in lengthy, character-driven epics written in a literary voice, I might try a more theme-oriented approach. For this book, I’d concentrate on the great big conflicts, opening with a wacky, memorable detail:

Invalided half an hour into his Civil War service, Cyrus Trask builds a career on lying about his many battles. He raises his sons, Adam and Charles, as miniature soldiers, but by the time they come of age, volatile Charles is too violent for even the Indian Wars. Forced to shoot at innocents against his will, meek Adam vows to use the rest of his life to create, not destroy. When mysterious beauty Cathy arrives at the Trask farm, nearly beaten to death, Adam abruptly decides to abandon his family to pursue his dream: move across the country with a woman he barely knows to create his own garden of Eden in the most beautiful place he has ever seen. But crafty Cathy longs to escape his hard-won paradise and carve out a safe haven for herself as madam, even if she must murder those who stand in her way. Left to raise his twin sons with only the help of Lee, his quietly scholarly housekeeper, can Adam avoid passing his legacy of violence down to yet another generation?

The answer to that question is, as any American literature major could tell you, is no. But there’s no need to tip Millicent off before she requests to read the manuscript, is there?

But whatever you do, don’t make her guess what your book is about it. As I can tell you from experience, prying basic information out of a recalcitrant conversational partner is just no fun. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

Curse you, Red Baron!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part XIII: showing off your qualifications (over and above the obvious)

“A little brains, a little talent — with an emphasis on the latter.”

Still hanging in there, Queryfesters? Traditionally, this is the part of my annual review of the mysteries of querying that my readers seem to find most challenging: in-depth discussion of that most-dreaded part of a good query letter, the section known as the platform paragraph.

Why dreaded? Because many, many fledgling writers mistakenly hear a professional request for their book’s credentials as, “You have to prove to us that we should take you seriously as a writer, unpublished one, before we will deign to read your work. Dance, fool, dance!” Or as, “We’re not interested in writers who don’t already have arm-length lists of published books, so by all means, doom yourself by admitting that you haven’t published before.” Or even, “Who the heck do you think you are, believing you should write a book at all? You have your nerve, disturbing us with your letter! Begone, and never let your manuscript darken our inboxes again!”

Naturally, writers querying about their first manuscripts would find such expectations threatening — if those were the actual expectations. As we discussed last time, the point of the credentials paragraph is not to give agency denizens the opportunity to laugh at the hopes of the unpublished between bouts of poking submitters of requested materials with pitchforks and feeding innovative manuscripts into large bonfires, lest someone accidentally discover and publish them.

‘Fess up, veteran queriers: that’s not very far from the way you envisioned the inner workings of the first agency that rejected you, is it, on the day you received that form-letter rejection?

The truth is nowhere near that threatening, I’m happy to report. The reason Millicent the agency screener likes to see credentials is that it makes it easier for her to recommend your work to her boss: a previously-published writer is likely to have some experience working with an editor; her manuscript is likely to be formatted professionally and be relatively clean; she might even have some idea how books are marketed. All of these are selling points for a writer, from the agency’s point of view.

But I’m not going to lie to you: if a query mentions that the writer has performed his own essays on NPR, or published a handful of short stories in specific literary magazines, or was a semi-finalist in a prestigious writing competition, Millicent also has some reason to believe that this person can write pretty well. That’s not necessarily self-evident in a credential-free query; the structure tends to render even very talented stylists’ voices dry. A solid platform paragraph is like a row of tap-dancing baton-twirlers, singing in five-part harmony, “Millie! We know you’re in a hurry to get though that waist-high pile of queries you needs to read before you can catch the subway home, but this one will abundantly justify your stopping that process dead in its tracks long enough to engage in the comparatively lengthy process of asking this writer for pages.”

Do I hear some chortling out there? “Oh, come on, Anne,” adherents of the pitchfork-and-tail view of agencies cry. “How much time could that possibly take? All Millicent’s got to do is type a couple of simple lines, requesting materials, and stuff it into the SASE that I provided. Heck, the agency probably has a form letter for that, too, as well as for rejections.”

Why, yes, chortlers, what you describe — and rather well, too — would take only a couple of minutes. However, rejecting the query in front of her would take only about thirty seconds. Less, if it’s an e-mailed query: then, all she has to do is hit DELETE.

Be honest, now: if you had another 150 queries to screen before you could go home for the day, knowing that there would be another 500 waiting for you when you came in tomorrow, wouldn’t you be rather careful about how often you invested the extra couple of minutes?

All the more reason, then, to include previous publications (book-length or short), writing awards, and writing degrees in your platform paragraph. However, if, like the overwhelming majority of first-time novelists agents sign to representation contracts every year, you do not have publishing-related experience to your credit, do not panic, even for an instant. All of these are legitimate selling points for most books, but there are plenty of other possible selling points for your manuscript.

So rather than kicking yourself for not having devoted your college years to interning for a literary journal so its editors would have owed you a few dozen favors, how about not writing off your past non-writing experience? Instead of assuming that there is only one credential that will catch Millicent’s eye, why not devote your platform paragraph to answering the question, “Why are you uniquely qualified to write this book, tell this story, and/or make this particular argument?”

Substantially less stressful to think of it that way, isn’t it? Believe me, your query-writing process will be much, much easier if you try not to get too bogged down in worrying about the standard prestige points.

What should you consider instead? Glad you asked. Today, I shall be going through a long list of potential selling points for your book. But I’m not going to be doing all of the work here, folks. Dig out your trusty pad and pencil; you’re going to be coming up with a list of your manuscript’s selling points.

Why am I urging you to concentrate on your particular manuscript’s specific selling points, rather than simply handing you a generic list of usually-acceptable items to include as credentials? Well, just as there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query template that will please every agent, every time, the elusive perfect platform to sell any conceivable book simply does not exist. Great platforms are seldom the result of multiple choice; they are cobbled together by their authors.

Great platform paragraphs are also not always simply bios of their illustrious authors — they often talk about the book’s appeal to its target audience. Any guesses why?

If you immediately leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because as we discussed yesterday, the purpose of the platform paragraph is not merely to provide a curriculum vitae of the author’s previous publications, but to give Millicent a sense of the already-existing audience clamoring for this book,” take a gold star out of petty cash. You are quite right: while listing your fourteen international bestsellers is one means of demonstrating who might be prepared to ante up some loot to read your next book, another might be to talk about your blog’s extensive and devoted readership. Yet another: a brief discussion of how eagerly the roughly two million Americans who sprain their ankles every year might embrace a novel about a semi-professional tennis player whose ankles alternate swelling to the size of a grapefruit.

See what I just did there? Not only did I establish why the target audience might be interested in this book; I used statistics to alert Millicent to just how big that audience might be.

Remember, a strong selling point consists of more than a vague assertion about why an editor at a publishing house would find your manuscript an sterling example of its species of book destined to set the literary world gasping — that much is assumed, right? Instead, try to come up with reasons that an actual real-world book customer might want to pluck that book from a shelf at Barnes & Noble and carry it up to the cash register. It may seem like a pain to generate such a list before you query, but as we discussed this summer during Pitchingpalooza, it is hundreds of times easier to land an agent for a book if you know why readers will want to buy it.

Trust me, “But I spent three years writing it!” is not a reason that is going to fly very well with anyone in the publishing industry. Nor is the astonishingly common, “But I want to get published so much!” And don’t even get me started on the ever-popular between-the-lines assertion, “Well, it’s not my problem to figure out how to market this darned thing. I’m sure that my future agent will simply intuit who my target demographic is and why my book will appeal to it.”

To head off some rejection at the pass: none of these is likely to prompt Millicent to miss her usual train home so she can shoot you an e-mail, asking for the first fifty pages of your manuscript. Think about it: pretty much everyone who queries has expended scads of time, energy, and heart’s blood on his book. Contrary to what practically every movie involving a sports competition has implicitly told you, a writer’s wanting to win more than one’s competitors is not going to impress the people making decisions about who does and doesn’t get published.

I’m bringing this up advisedly. Sad to report, a disproportionately high percentage of queriers make the serious marketing mistake of giving into the impulse to talk about how HARD it was to write this particular book, how many agents have rejected it, at how many conferences they’ve pitched it, how many times they have revised it, and so forth.

In case you are tempted to follow suit: don’t. I’m quite certain that all of these things are true, and believe me, I understand the urge to talk about them. Allow me to suggest, however, that a query — your first contact with the agent of your dreams, potentially — is not the most strategic place to air these concerns.

Over coffee with a fellow writer, feel free to vent. But when you have such a limited amount of space to impress Millicent with the inherent strength of your book’s plot or argument and your great qualifications to write it, is it really the best use of a few lines?

First-time pitchers are even more likely than queriers to tumble down this rabbit hole, alas. The more disastrously a pitch meeting is going, the more furiously many pitchers will insist, often with hot tears trembling in their eyes, that this book represents their life’s blood, and so — the implication runs — only the coldest-hearted of monsters would refuse them Their Big Chance. (For some extended examples of this particular species of pitching debacle, please see my earlier post on the subject.)

Sometimes, both pitchers and queriers will get so carried away with the passion of describing their suffering that they will forget to pitch the book at all. (Oh, how I wish I were making that up.) And then they’re surprised when their outburst has precisely the opposite effect of what they intended: rather than sweeping the agent or editor off her feet by their intense love for this manuscript, all they’ve achieved is to convince the pro that these writers have a heck of a lot to learn how and why books get published.

In other words: “Next!”

Why is this an instant-rejection offense? Well, I hate to be the one to break it to these self-revealers, but this is not the way to gain an agency screener’s sympathy, or even her attention. Even in a business that tends to regard writer and hyper-sensitive as essentially synonymous terms, such emotional outbursts in a first approach to an agency are almost universally considered a waste of Millicent’s time.

Why? Well, you tell me: what, if anything, could a litany of complaints about how difficult it is to break into the biz possibly tell Millicent about the book being queried that might encourage her to conclude that she should request the manuscript?

I’ll answer that one for you: nothing. But it does give her some indication of whether the querier has done any homework about how agencies work, or how books get published.

A writer who melts down the first time he has to talk about his book in a professional context generally sets off flashing neon lights in an agent’s mind: this client will be a heck of a lot of work. Once that thought is triggered, a pitch would have to be awfully good to wipe out that initial impression of time-consuming hyper-emotionalism.

The same holds true, of course, for queries. Sadly, queriers who play the emotion card often believe that it’s the best way to make a good impression. Rather than basing their pitch on their books’ legitimate selling points, they fall prey to what I like to call the Great Little League Fantasy: the philosophy so beloved of amateur coaches and those who make movies about them that decrees that all that’s necessary to win in an competitive situation is to believe in oneself.

Or one’s team. Or one’s horse in the Grand National, one’s car in the Big Race, or one’s case before the Supreme Court. You’ve gotta have heart, we’re all urged to believe, miles and miles and miles of heart.

Given the pervasiveness of this dubious philosophy, you can hardly blame the writers who embrace it. They believe, apparently, that querying is all about demonstrating just how much their hearts are in their work. Yet as charming as that may be (or pathetic, depending upon the number of teardrops staining the letter), this approach typically does not work. Millicent simply sees this strategy used too often to experience even the slightest qualm in rejecting it.

Which is why, counterintuitively, figuring out who will want to read your book and why IS partially about heart: preventing yours from getting broken into 17 million pieces while trying to find a home for your work.

Aspiring writers’ hearts are notoriously brittle. Why else would anyone query only once, or twice, or a small handful of times, then give up altogether, assuming (wrongly) that if his book were really meant to get published, it would have been snapped up instantly?

The common misconception that good writing will inevitably and immediately attract an agent, regardless of how unprofessionally it is presented, can be even more damaging at query-writing time: when believers in the Agent-Matching Fairy sit down to write their queries, they often become depressed at the very notion of having to make the case that their manuscripts are worth reading. Frequently, these poor souls mistake the need to market their books for critique, hearing the fairly straightforward question, “So, why would someone want to read this book?” as “Why on earth would ANYONE want to read YOUR book? It hasn’t a prayer!”

Faced with what they perceive to be scathing criticism, many writers shrink away from this perfectly reasonable question. So much so that they become positively terrified of querying at all. “They’re all so mean,” such writers say, firmly keeping their work out of the public eye. “It’s just not worth it.”

This response makes me sad, because — feel free to sing along with me now, Queryfesters — the only book that hasn’t a prayer of being published is the one that sits in a drawer, unqueried. There are niche markets for practically every taste, after all.

Did that little diatribe fill you with heart, miles and miles and miles of heart? Good. Let’s start generating your list of selling points, so you may comb through it for ECQLC to decorate your platform paragraph.

Before I start making suggestions, let’s be clear on what you’re going to want on your list. A selling point should show (not tell) why you are the best person to write this book, what about your book is likely to appeal to readers in your target market, and/or that the intended audience is larger (and, ideally, demonstrably more interested in your subject matter) than Millicent might have previously been aware.

To be most effective, you won’t want to make these arguments in a general, “Well, I think a lot of readers will like it,” sort of way, but by citing specific, fact-based reasons that they will clamor to read it. For instance, while “This book will appeal to every woman in North America!” is far too vague to be a convincing argument, “Although the PGA estimates that there are 26.2 million golfers in the U.S., there have been relatively few novels that portray the steamy behind-the-scenes realities of the golf cart repair shop.”

It helps, of course, if there actually have been very few novels published recently on the subject. It’s worth your while to check — you’d be astonished at how many makers of such claims evidently don’t.

“What does this querier mean, this is the first novel ever written about shark attacks?” Millicent exclaims, reaching for the ever-present stack of form-letter rejections. “I seem to recall a small, little-known book called JAWS.”

Don’t skimp on the brainstorming stage; the more solid reasons you can give for believing that your book concept is marketable, the stronger your platform paragraph will be. Remember, no agent is going to ask to see a manuscript purely because its author says it is well-written, any more than our old pal Millicent would respond to a query that mentioned the author’s mother thought the book was the best thing she had ever read with a phone call demanding that the author overnight the whole thing to her.

“Good enough for your mom? Then it’s good enough for me!” is not, alas, a common sentiment in the industry. (But don’t tell Mom; she’ll be so disappointed.)

It’s worth including on your list any fact that will tend to boost confidence in your ability to write and market this book successfully — and that includes references to major bestsellers on similar topics, to show that there is already public interest in your subject matter. Why? Because it will make your query look professional — and, I must say it, better than the 134 queries Millicent has already seen today that did not talk about their books in marketing terms.

Not to mention that dear, pitiful person who whose entire query was devoted to how frustrating it is to try to find an agent for a cozy mystery these days. Especially when it’s the first novel ever written about an old lady who spends her retirement years wandering around, solving murders.

Everybody got those pencils sharpened and ready? Okay, here goes: why are you the best person in the universe to tell this story or make this argument, and why will people who are already buying books like yours want to read it?

Other than, obviously, the great beauty of the writing. Because absolutely the only way to demonstrate that to Millicent is by getting her to read your manuscript, right?

Literary fiction writers, why have you flung your pencils down? “But Anne,” literary novelists protest in dulcet tones, “you astonish me. I always thought that the primary benefit of writing fiction was that I wouldn’t ever have to sully my art with sordid marketing concerns. Surely, if any book category should be exempt from being marketed on anything but the beauty of the writing, it’s mine. Yes, aspiring nonfiction writers have to produce book proposals, and thus are forced to brainstorm about marketing, but until fairly recently, fiction writers could concentrate on storytelling, craft, and, of course, lovely writing. I’ve been nervously watching as more and more, genre fiction writers are being expected to market their own work, but gosh darn it, I write for a relatively tiny target audience deeply devoted to beautiful writing. Please, please tell me that I can just leave the platform paragraph out of my query, and thus don’t have to let you drag me kicking and screaming toward the list below!”

Here, borrow my handkerchief. Hadn’t I mentioned that emotional outbursts aren’t adequate substitutes for well-reasoned selling points?

Seriously, literary novelists, I think you’re missing the point here. No Millicent can possibly be bowled over by the beauty of your writing unless she reads it. And she will only read it if she is impressed by your query.

There’s just no way around that. So it behooves you not only to craft your descriptive paragraph to be as lyrical and moving as humanly possible, but also to use your platform paragraph to make your book sound different — and easier to market — than all of the other literary fiction books Millicent will see queried that day. It will cause your query to jump out of the stack at her: your tribe’s collective reluctance toward thinking about marketing virtually guarantees that if you do it well, your letter will shine out as preeminently professional.

In other words: no, I’m not willing absolve you of the necessity to include a platform paragraph in your query, no matter how many times or how nicely you ask. It’s just too likely to help you.

Where should a literary fiction writer start in coming up with selling points? Precisely where every other writer does: the subject matter. As I’ve said before and will doubtless say again, even the most abstruse literary fiction is about something other than just the writing. So ask yourself: why will the subject matter appeal to readers? How large is the book’s target demographic?

Or, if you prefer to put it in highbrow terms: if you were the publicity person assigned to promote the book, what would you tell the producer of a television show in order to convince her to book the author?

For fiction, the subject matter you choose as the focus of your platform paragraph need not be the central issue of the book, by the way. Even if your novel is about post-apocalyptic government restructuring, if a major character is the gardener charged with replanting the White House’s Rose Garden in newly-toxic soil, and you’ve been a landscaper for a decade, that’s relevant. (It informed what you chose to have that character plant, didn’t it?)

Some prompts to get you — and everybody else — brainstorming. Some effective selling points include…

(1) Experience that would tend to bolster your claim to be an expert on the subject matter of your book.
This is the crux of most nonfiction platforms, of course, but it’s worth considering for fiction, too. If you have spent years on activities relating to your topic, that is definitely a selling point. Some possible examples:

Conan the Barbarian has been a quilting enthusiast for thirty-seven years; all of the stitches described in his Civil War romance are historically accurate.

Napolèon Bonaparte’s extensive travels around Europe have equipped him to provide unique insights into his travel guides.

Tammy Faye Baker originally came to public attention by performing in a show featuring sock puppets, so she is well identified in the public mind with puppetry.

Actually, I think this last one is at least partially true. But I should probably state up front that otherwise, my examples will have no existence outside my pretty little head, and should accordingly remain unquoted forever after.

While I’m on the subject of claims that shouldn’t be taken at face value, this seems like a dandy point to repeat a piece of general Internet wisdom: just because a statistic appears online doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. It’s not as though the Fact-Checker Genie whirls his way through every website every day, cleaning up inconsistencies and correcting misstatements. Heck, even the Spelling Fairy fails to make her rounds on a regular basis.

So while you are looking for statistics to decorate your platform paragraph, make sure you are lifting them from a credible source. Remember, to people who create books for a living, a ten-second Google search does not constitute research; they will expect you to have taken the time to track down verifiable facts.

(2) Educational credentials.
Another favorite from the platform hit parade. Even if your degrees do not relate directly to your topic, any degrees (earned or honorary), certificates, or years of study add to your credibility.

Yes, even if you are a novelist writing about something unrelated to your field of study: a demonstrated ability to fulfill the requirements of an academic program is a pretty clear indicator that you can follow complex sets of directions. (Believe me, the usefulness of a writer’s ability to follow directions well will become abundantly apparent before the ink is dry on the agency contract: deadlines are often too tight for multiple drafts.) Some possible examples:

Elmer Fudd holds an earned doctorate in particle physics from the University of Bonn, and thus is eminently qualified to write on the effects of atomic bombs upon wascally wabbits.

Charlton Heston was granted an honorary degree in criminology from the University of Texas, in recognition of his efforts to further gun usage.

Cleopatra completed a certificate program in neurosurgery at Bellevue Community College. She also claims descent from the goddess Aphrodite.

Okay, so that last bit isn’t really a selling point for a cookbook. But you must admit, it would make Millicent do a double-take when reading Cleopatra’s bio.

(3) Honors.
If you have been recognized for your work or volunteer efforts, this is the time to mention it. Finalist in a major contest, in this or any other year, anybody?

And it need not be recognition for your writing, either: the point here is to demonstrate that there are people (translation for Millicent: potential book-buyers) who already have positive associations with your name. Some possible examples:

Sweeney Todd was named Baker of the Year four years running.

Keanu Reeves won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1990 for his research on THE MATRIX.

Fatty Arbuckle was named Citizen of the Year of Fairbanks, Alaska. As a result, newspapers in Fairbanks are demonstrably eager to run articles on his work.

(4) Your former publications and public speaking experience.
Yes, yes, I know: I spent the top of this post convincing you that you needn’t despair if you had no previous publications. That doesn’t mean that I’m not going to urge those who do to bring them up in the platform paragraph — are you crazy? Millicent has a reverence for the published word the borders on the devout.

So if you have any previous publication whatsoever, list it, EVEN IF IT HAS ABSOLUTELY NO RELATION TO THE BOOK YOU ARE CURRENTLY QUERYING. If your last book in another genre sold well, or if you were affiliated somehow with a book that sold well, mention it.

And please, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only fiction credentials count if you’re pushing a novel, or that your published short story won’t help you get your memoir past Millicent: a publication is a publication is a publication. Some editor took a chance on you; Millie needs to know that in order to assess your query properly.

If you have ever done any public speaking, mention it, too: it renders you a better bet for book signings and interviews. If you have done a public reading of your work, definitely mention it, because very few first-time authors have any public reading experience at all. (And if you doubt that, you aren’t going to enough author readings. You’d be amazed at how many of ‘em never lift their eyes from the page, or who read in a drab monotone, or seem unfamiliar with the words on the page.)

Some possible examples:

Bigfoot writes a regular column on hair care for Sassy magazine.

Marcel Marceau has a wealth of public speaking experience. His lecture series, “Speak Up!” has drawn crowds for years on eight continents.

I’m going to hold off on the rest of the list until tomorrow, to give everyone a chance to ruminate on the possibilities we’ve discussed so far. While you are pondering, try not to talk yourself out of listing any particular selling point: remember, this list is for you, a tool to help you construct your platform paragraph, so don’t over-edit here. And don’t invest too much energy in phrasing; we shall be talking later in this series about how to work these points gracefully into your query.

Oh, and keep up the good work!

Queryfest XI: who, me? Inconspicuous? When I’m tap-dancing and waving sparklers?

Yet another unplanned hiatus, campers: my server went down like a glass-jawed boxer, taking my blog access and e-mail with it. If you were picturing me taking advantage of my suddenly net-bereft existence by curling up on the nearest chaise longue with a stack of new releases, you underestimate the shrillness of my telephone. How on earth did so many curious people — and I mean that in both senses — find out that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the 1934 San Francisco General Strike? Is there some sort of database for academic work the author never tried to get published? Or are there merely very few people who have written on the subject, since, say, Franklin Roosevelt was president? I’m not complaining — I’ve gotten some awfully interesting conversations out of it, enough to prompt me to dig out my long-buried notes on a novel set in the 1930s — but if anyone’s gearing up to come knocking on my studio door to ask questions about my fifth-grade history paper on the Bonus March, the professor’s out for the weekend. I want to get back to that stack of new releases.

My literature-minded parents, you will be either amused or appalled to hear, made me type that history paper in standard format, because professional presentation of a book manuscript was not the kind of thing they wanted their little girl to traipse into middle school not being able to do. I had to explain to my teacher what a slug line was.

Speaking of documents that must adhere to the rigors of standard format, I hope you’ve been whipping those manuscripts into shape for submission: after so many days away from you fine people, I’m longing to kick Queryfest into overdrive. In celebration of my newfound vim and the ostensible cooperation of my server (hang in there, baby!), I anticipate polishing off the infamous troubleshooting checklist this very evening. I’m going to be tackling readers’ burning questions on the subject in the days to come, 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.

Oh, don’t pretend you haven’t devoted a midnight or two to worrying about your querying prowess. Writers have magnificently creative minds, gifted at manufacturing huge, complex structures entirely out of angst.

I’m also going to be taking my infamously sharp editing pencils to a randomly-selected few readers’ queries as illustrative examples. If you would like to toss yours into the mix, submit it exactly as you would to the agent of your dreams — but send it as a Word attachment, please, so I may take a peek at your formatting — to contest@annemini(dot)com. (You thought I would set up a separate address for non-contests?) Naturally, I shall change contact information if I use it as an example; please give some indication in your e-mail whether you would prefer that I use your actual name or a pseudonym. Oh, and do include a positive statement that I have your permission to use your query as an example.

To our muttons. As those of you with unusually good memories may perhaps recall, before the connectivity imps dragged me temporarily from your presence, I had asked — nay, demanded — that those of you who had already drafted queries print them up, plant them firmly by your doubtless attractive elbows, and ask yourselves an array of trenchant questions about them.

Time again to whip ‘em out. Our last batch of questions will focus upon means of conveying that your book is interesting, in addition to being marketable under current literary conditions. Contrary to popular opinion amongst queriers, it’s not necessarily self-evident in a plot description for even the most fascinating book how or why it is likely to pique readers’ interest. Or whether it is exciting. Or even vaguely original.

Blessed are the Millicents, for they shall be plowing through it all.

Of course, some of the queries passing under her weary eyes must be for books that are neither interesting, exciting, or original in any way, but you’d be astonished at how many query letters for genuinely, gob-smackingly compelling books fail to make them sound even remotely 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 — and sufficient reason for total strangers to mob bookstores, clamoring to read their books.

I hate to be the one to break it to those of you who have spent the last few years polishing the latest iteration of the Great American Novel, but that’s just not how it works. Few readers march into the corner bookstore and announce to the nice person manning the cash register, “I want to buy a book. Not on any particular subject matter, mind you, and I have no strong literary preferences of my own. No, I want to purchase some volume of prose simply because someone was enterprising enough to write it. Lead me instantly to such a tome, my good man.”

“That’s going to present a bit of a problem,” the clerk would be forced to say. “By definition, every book in here was written by someone enterprising enough to write a book. Unless, of course, it’s a celebrity memoir, in which case it was written by someone enterprising enough to get paid for writing in someone else’s voice.”

Doesn’t happen much, I’m afraid. And that’s why, in case anyone had been wondering, agents and the Millicents who screen queries for them seldom cast their eyes over a query that makes a book sound mundane and exclaim, “Oh, it doesn’t matter that this story doesn’t sound very exciting, or that I think it will not appeal to any currently-established group of readers. The author clearly worked very hard on it, and that’s good enough for me. Let’s request the full manuscript!” Not being in the business of seeking out the best in new literature on a not-for-profit basis, they harbor a prejudice for books they believe they can sell.

Then, too, the ability to produce complete manuscripts is the beginning of the professional writer’s job description, not the end. Literally everyone who sends off a fiction query has done as much — or should, if she is playing by the rules. (You did know that agents assume that any novel being queried or pitched will be not only completely drafted already, but fully polished, right?) And every nonfiction book proposer is at least planning to sit down and write a book.

So in order to catch Millicent’s eye, your query is going to need to make the book sound like it has more going for it. An original and thrilling plot, for instance. An intriguing narrative voice. A set of facts not presented in that particular way before, or an argument the nation would be better for having heard. That sort of stuff.

It may seem strange that I feel compelled to point that out, but you would be astonished at how many queries don’t make a good case for any of these. 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 book being queried at all. It is, however, a damning indictment of the effectiveness of the query letter in question.

Yes, outraged masses banging on the door of my studio? “But Anne,” purists everywhere shut, “I’m a novelist/memoirist/narrative fiction writer/political essayist looking for the skinny on the Bonus March, 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 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 is not particularly likely to interest readers in a specific target demographic, rather than leaping to that conclusion based on the query alone?”

The short answer: time.

The long answer: our Millie has a heck of a lot of queries to get through on any given day. Since her boss, the agent of your dreams, could not possibly read every manuscript queried, it’s her job to leap to that conclusion as speedily as possible for the overwhelming majority queries. She was specifically hired to weed out the ones that don’t seem like good fits for the agency, are not well written, are not likely to do well in the current market — and yes, Virginia, the ones that just don’t make the book sound especially interesting.

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.

Stop seething and 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), that letter is going to have to make her believe that the book is fascinating.

Why, yes, that is a pretty tall order, now that you mention it — and virtually impossible to pull off when a writer forgets that the query is a writing sample, just as much as the manuscript is. Long-time readers of this blog, please open your hymnals and sing along:

broken-recordRealistically, every English sentence a writer 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.

Again, this is where adhering to a pre-set formula for query letter perfection can really harm a manuscript’s chances. By definition, cooking-mix prototypes are generic; you really don’t want to add your title to one of the many templates 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 screener forget that you are listing the basic points that a solid, professional query letter hits.

Yes, cramming all of that info into a page is an annoying exercise — but your job is to make it look easy. A good writer, the theory runs, should be able to make even relatively ho-hum matters read well. If you are talented enough to make a paragraph about your writing credentials sound like a gripping saga (or, at the very least, as though all of human history up to yesterday had been specifically arranged to render you the best possible writer for the book you are proposing), imagine how stirring a descriptive paragraph you could construct about your plot or argument.

You must have found them fascinating, mustn’t you, to devote all of that time to writing a book about them?

Not entirely coincidentally, the next couple of items on our query checklist are intended to help you sound like the good writer you are — and your book like the great read it is. Who could have seen that coming?

(31) 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, the doctor who can’t heal himself, the protagonist in a high-risk job who cannot commit romantically, the man whose family is slaughtered within the first scene so he has an excuse to embark upon a festival of revenge, 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 Millie exclaim, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before.” Or at least, “Wow, that’s a magnificent turn of phrase about a fairly predictable plot point.”

How? Remember what I was saying earlier in this series about how much Millicent likes 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. This is the place to air 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 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 this:

Ambrosia (a not-so-sweet 16) is 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:

Ambrosia (16) is a ditsy cheerleader — or is she? She has spent her first three years of high school carefully cultivating a reputation as a nitwit, 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

Does that chorus of groans mean you’re getting the picture?

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

(32) Is my query letter free of catchphrases?
Sometimes, writers will include hackneyed phrases in an effort to be hip — a notoriously common tactic 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. 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 she 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 adolescent ear. He was also prone to shouting, “TWAIN!” at students who failed to spell proper nouns correctly, presumably in reference to Mark Twain’s assertion that he didn’t care what was printed about him, as long as they spelled his name right. (Several public figures have disputed his claim to have said that first; Dorothy Parker certainly said it most often.)

Sure, my teacher’s DTs occasionally caused him to see Edgar Allen Poe peering at him menacingly from dark corners, but the man knew his way around a sentence. Like him, 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 complain, “not somebody else’s.”

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

(33) 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 who will acquire the book. 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, professors (or ex-professors, like yours truly), 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 — quoth they: “But these people 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.) And honestly, if a writer can’t make it through a paragraph-long plot description without resorting to jargon, why shouldn’t she assume that the manuscript will be peppered with the stuff?

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, not an integral part of them.

Wow Millicent with your expertise in your book’s subject matter, by all means — but in the query, be sure to cast them in layman’s terms. Speaking of writing talent…

(34) Does the sentence structure vary enough to show off my writing talent?
Writers tend not to think about sentence structure much in this context, but remember, Millicent is reading a whole lot of these missives in a row. The fact that your garden-variety query letter is stuffed to the brim with simple declarative sentences — or with four-line beauties with two semicolons in each — is bound to make those queries start to blur together after a while. Take a peek at this fairly typical gem:

I have written a book called Straightforward Metaphors. I hope it will interest you. It is about two sailors who go to sea. They get wet. They catch a fish. It gets away. Life is strange.

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, and thus probably not reflective of the narrative voice in this particular narrative. Despite the current popularity and burgeoning innovation of the YA market, 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 — poor grammar and/or spelling are far more common prompts. (Chant it with me now, campers: reread that query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before you pop it in the mail or hit SEND.) However, even subtle structural repetition can set off some red flags.

I have written a novel, Straightforward Metaphors, and I hope you will be interested in representing it. Two sailors put to sea in a pea-green boat. 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 narrative writing, 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 impress Millicent with your writing acumen.

(35) Have I avoided the passive voice altogether in my query letter?
Eschewing 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…

broken-recordPretty much every professional reader in the U.S. has been specifically trained to regard the passive voice as inherently poor writing. At minimum, it’s less vibrant than more direct and active sentences. If you want to impress a pro with the quality of your writing, you should avoid the passive voice as much as possible.

Have you been left in doubt by me as to why? (Yes, well might that sentence make you cringe, campers. It is incumbent upon me as your querying coach to be brutal in my application of the passive voice in this example.) It is designed to avoid mention of who is actually doing what in a sentence. It makes it look as though things are making themselves happen, rather than things being done by protagonists. Characters seem to be acted-upon, rather than acting. The plethora of subordinate clauses to which writers fond of this indirect style appear constitutionally drawn to as if they were being pulled by a giant magnet is bound to result in sentences to which there appears to be no end, just going on and on without ever seeming to reach any point or satisfactory conceptual conclusion, perhaps because due to lemmings a lack of proofreading by them in order to free their text from incursions by older draft remnants. Or maybe they are just being glowered at by E. Allen Poe. In any case, there are even instances where so many passive-voiced sentences appear in a row that it becomes quite confusing for the reader of the page in front of him to be impressed with a clear view of what is happening in the story.

Had enough of that reader-abusing structure? Millicent has — and frankly, so have I. After years of yanking such sentences out of query letters, synopses, and manuscripts, I actually found it mentally painful to construct that last paragraph.

Because the literary world’s disdain for the passive voice is so close to universal, most of you probably already take active steps to avoid using it in your manuscripts. Surprisingly few queriers seem to realize that the norms of good writing apply to query letters as well, though. In a way, that’s understandable: 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 had 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. Everybody knows that seraphim are the ones that wield rulers.

Just between us, there’s another 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…

(36) Does my descriptive paragraph make my protagonist come across as the primary actor in an exciting drama? Or simply a character acted-upon by forces swirling around her?
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. They receive even more queries that imply that their protagonists are not active.

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 — and what do you know? The villain spontaneously confesses. 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. Even then, those lips don’t actually make contact until flooding wafts the rocking horse across the room to push him into her.

As I’ve explained at length in the past about why first novels with passive protagonists tend to be harder to sell than ones with strong actors (for evidence of same, see the PURGING PROTAGONIST PASSIVITY category, right), I shan’t belabor the point on the manuscript level. In the course of trying to summarize a complex premise in a query, though, many writers present their protagonists as mere pawns buffeted about by forces beyond their control, rather than interesting people in interesting situations. Particularly, I’ve noticed, if those protagonists happen to be female.

So can you really blame Millicent for drawing the conclusion that the protagonists in these books are passive, when these queries present her as so? 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 her job description.

Don’t risk it. It’s not enough for your protagonist to be the heroine of her own story; your query has to make her sound like the heroine. And no, just having her name be the only one that appears in the descriptive paragraph isn’t necessarily sufficient to pull that off.

(37) For fiction and memoir, does my query (particularly the descriptive paragraph) make the stakes in the book’s central conflict seem high enough for my protagonist that readers will care about the outcome? Does the conflict come across as both plausible and compelling? For other nonfiction, have I made the problem or issue I’m addressing appear important?
There’s a truism in editing: if a dialogue scene is dragging, raise the stakes for one of the speakers. The more the characters care about the outcome of a conflict, the easier it will be for the reader to care, too. By the same token, a fine revision tactic for keeping the reader turning nonfiction pages is to make a strong and continual case for why the subject matter of the book is vital — to the individual reader, to the society, to the world.

The same principle holds true for queries: if Millicent understands what a protagonist stands to gain or lose from confronting a clearly-defined problem, she’s more likely to find the story compelling. Similarly, if the query makes it pellucidly clear why she should care about its central question — and, more importantly, why readers in the target audience will care deeply about it — the argument is more likely to grab her.

Or, to cast it in #36′s terms: it’s not enough to impress upon reader over the course of for your manuscript or book proposal that your subject matter, characters, and/or situation is gripping enough to justify reading an entire book about it; your query has to make it sound gripping, too.

Memoir queries are especially prone to underselling the importance of what’s at stake for the protagonist. After all, from the memoirist’s perspective (and frequently for writers of autobiographical fiction as well), the primary significance of the story may well be that (a) it’s a true story and (b) it happened to the writer. Shouldn’t the very truth of the story, combined with the single person most able to give an inside perspective, be enough to captivate readers?

That’s certainly an understandable point of view, from a writerly perspective, but from a professional viewpoint, the answer is usually no. No one buys a non-celebrity memoir simply because the events described in it happened to the author; there are far, far too many truthful memoirs out there for that to be the sole criterion for book buyers.

Don’t believe me? Okay, plunk yourself down in front of the memoir section of any well-stocked bookstore. Remain motionless until you overhear a browser in that section murmur, “You know what I’m looking for? A true story. Preferably one that really happened, if possible in real life. It would be nice if the author were the person to whom it happened, and I would be absolutely in heaven if that character never stirred so much as a fingertip to alter her ambient conditions. Yep, that’s the book for me.”

When you’ve stood still so long that bookstore patrons have begun to use you as a coat rack, perhaps you will admit I have a point here.

Readers always weigh other factors into their choice of a memoir. So does Millicent in evaluating a query to decide whether she should request pages. Just as it’s the writer’s job to construct a manuscript or book proposal’s narrative to render the story compelling not just for herself, it’s incumbent upon the querying memoirist to give a screener plenty of reason to say, “Wow, this sounds not only like the narrator is an interesting person in an interesting situation — the conflict he faces comes across as one that will fascinate many readers in the already well-saturated memoir market.”

Yes, her thoughts honestly are that prolix. Our Millie is a complex reasoner.

Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard in making your case for your story or argument’s importance: implying that resolving the burning issue of leaf droppage on your lawn is the single most important factor in attaining world peace is only going to provoke peals of laughter. The line between conveying importance and self-importance can be distressingly thin.

That’s the beauty of raising the stakes: ideally, you won’t have to make positive statements about the importance of your subject matter at all, at least for fiction. (For nonfiction, go ahead and explain why the world should care. Or at least a niche audience of readers.) Your sterling description of the dynamic tension in the narrative will allow the reader to draw her own conclusion. You are just leading her toward the conclusion you wish her to draw.

You’re also, I would like to remind you, leading her away from drawing unflattering conclusions about you and your book. Which is why you should ask yourself…

(38) Is my query letter in correspondence format, with indented paragraphs?
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. Ahem:

broken-recordFor a paper query, it’s absolutely imperative that the paragraphs are indented. No exceptions. Business format is simply inappropriate for a query letter.

(39) Does my query letter read it is talking about a book in my chosen book category?
Well might your jaw drop. It is unbelievably common for queries in general, and book description paragraphs in particular, not to sound like what they are, promotion for a specific type of book aimed at a specific target audience who will look for it on a specific bookshelf in any old bookstore. Thrillers often aren’t described as remotely thrilling; mysteries fail to mystify, and heartwarming tales of romance and personal fulfillment leave Millicent’s cockles downright icy.

Can you really blame her, then, for assuming — perhaps wrongly — that the manuscripts in question will not provide the experience readers of thrillers, mysteries, or heartwarming tales have come to expect?

Even if the plot comes across as genre-appropriate or the argument is presented well, the language used in queries frequently leaves Millicent wondering if their authors have even read widely in their chosen book categories. Queries for YA dotted with three-syllable words, like descriptions of books purporting to explain the mysteries of particle physics in which no word exceeds four letters, imply a manuscript that does not, to put it mildly, take its target readership’s vocabulary levels into account.

Remember, Millicent is trained to think in terms of book categories — and to make her mind up fast. Just as it would be poor strategy for the first page of your novel or book proposal to leave her in doubt about your ability to write well for your target audience, your query’s word choices, particularly in the book description paragraph, should reflect the book category in which you hope to publish.

(40) 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, isn’t it?”

I beg to differ. A cookie-cutter query is like the man without a face we were discussing last time: 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, to employ an often misused term, unique. Your book actually isn’t like anybody else’s — so why should your query read like 57 of the last 72 that crossed Millicent’s desk? 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.

Of course, if you spent your twenties and early thirties as an international spy and man of intrigue, you might want to bring that up in your query, too. 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 at the very beginning of Queryfest, 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 rise exponentially.

Next time, I shall be tackling that perennial bugbear of query-constructors: figuring out is and is not a credential worth including in your platform paragraph. Or, as we like to say here at Author! Author!, we’re going to be celebrating Halloween by handing out some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy.

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part IX: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Since we began our last post with an image of a crowd storming a castle, I thought it might be nice to open tonight’s Queryfest post with an image of an un-stormed one. I like to yank this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? It may have felt like that back I was trying to find the right agent way back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerned feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — I guess I can end Queryfest here and now.

On the off chance that I wasn’t the only aspiring writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are.

Stop rolling your eyes; it’s true. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in writing style, fashions in content, and what species of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how an aspiring writer presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

That’s a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between, due to problems that the writers who sent them could have fixed fairly easily. Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question in the current market, or even the quality of the writing.

Yes, yes, I know — the form-letter rejection you got implies otherwise. But form letters rejections are, by definition, sent to everyone an agency is rejecting, regardless of the reason. Because a good agency genuinely does not want to discourage writers on the way to perfecting their craft and professionalizing their presentation, their prefab rejections are usually geared toward the best of the rejected manuscripts, the near-misses for whom it’s actually true that the book sounds intriguing, but publishing houses just are not buying that sort of manuscript right now.

That is not, however, your garden-variety rejected query. A hefty percentage of them all contain the same 10 or 15 stripes of mistake. And that repetition has serious implications for even otherwise good queries that happen to stumble into the same pitfalls.

A forest of hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” conscientious queriers everywhere moan, “that’s absurd! How could anyone else’s querying habits, or even the querying habits of every single other aspiring writer in the nation, possibly have any effect upon my query’s reception at an agency? They’re all judged individually, aren’t they?”

Well, yes and no, moaners. Because agents and their screeners read so many of the darned things, they inevitably develop pet peeves and start identifying common red flags. And because our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, often spends hours on end scanning queries, even if only 20 of them share the same basic error — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. That’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-readers’ pet peeves.

In response to that giant collective huff of indignation I just out there: you’re probably thinking that Millicent is hypersensitive, far more eager to reject a query than to accept it, and perhaps even downright mean. Heck, judging by the expressions on your faces, you probably wouldn’t be remotely surprised to learn that she regularly eats live kittens for breakfast, snarls at babies, and honks her horn when Boy Scouts assist people on crutches across the street.

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car. What’s she going to do, honk like a goose?

True, she rejects writers for a living, but that doesn’t mean that rejections are necessarily her fault: many, many, MANY query letters just scream from their very first paragraph, “Reject me! I have no idea what I’m doing on your desk, much less what book category the manuscript my rambling prose professes to promote might best fit into, so why not put me out of my misery right away?”

The ubiquity of such self-rejecting queries — yes, they’re really called that — means that the all-too-common writerly practice of blaming the rejecter is not the best strategy for landing an agent. Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question would be not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, please, to assess how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. Out comes the broken record again:

broken-recordIf there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing, rather than assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

To put it more simply, offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy — it’s her job to reject 98% of what she sees, recall — but any writer willing to put in the time and effort can learn how to avoid provoking her.

I know — it’s tempting just to assume it’s her problem and press on. It’s a pain to revise a query letter, after all, or indeed, to write one in the first place. But it’s my considered opinion that the overwhelming majority of frustrated queriers radically underestimate the amount of energy they habitually put into resenting the necessity to query at all. Is that honestly the best use of a writer’s time?

As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what he can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors out of his control. It is possible to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current insanely competitive agent-seeking environment, where most rejected queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s one-size-fits-all rejection note. Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply.

I just saw some of your faces fall: hands up, everyone who has ever wasted hours — or days — in trying to read some specific feedback into a rejection platitude like I’m sorry, but I just didn’t fall in love with this, just because it appeared in a letter with a personalized salutation or in an e-mail. While Millicents and their bosses do occasionally break their rejection pattern to add a personal note to a rejection, it’s rare enough these days that you should be flattered if you receive one.

But that’s far from the norm; the advent of the copy-and-paste function has been a positive boon to agencies, much as photocopy machines were a couple of decades before. It’s not hard to see why: honestly, if you were Millicent, would you be willing to type I’m sorry, but this manuscript just doesn’t fit our needs at this time hundreds of times per week if it weren’t absolutely necessary?

In the spirit of trying to avoid being on the receiving end of such stock let-‘em-down-easy phrasing, let’s plunge back into our ongoing efforts to elevate a merely okay query letter into a really good one. At this point, we’ve moved far past the most basic mistakes; now, we’re well into the more sophisticated problems.

That’s good news, by the way. You should be proud of yourself for taking your own writing prospects seriously enough to make it this far — believe me, Millicents everywhere will applaud you for it. As a reward for virtue, I begin tonight with a few exceptionally simple problems to fix.

(18) If I am querying anything but a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the third person and the present tense?
Regardless of the narrative perspective of the manuscript itself, descriptive paragraphs in queries are always written in the third person. So if your description of your first-person fantasy begins I had just landed my dream job when the aliens landed on the roof, change it right away: to Millicent’s eyes, it will read like a description for a memoir. Ditto for pitches and synopses, by the way.

Don’t you wish someone had mentioned that little tidbit to you before you sent out your first query?

The proper tense choice, too, may strike some writers as counter-intuitive: one-paragraph book descriptions, like pitches and synopses, are always written in the present tense. Yes, even when the author is describing events that happened before the fall of the Roman Empire.

And apparently, writers are supposed to know both of these things because the Query Fairy descends from the heavens when one reaches a certain level of craft and bops one on the head with her magic wand. Or because they have attended an expensive class or conference that told them so. Or so I surmise from the fact that this particular piece of advice isn’t given much these days.

I’m not a big fan of keeping expectations like this secret, so let’s shout it to the rooftops: YOUR DESCRIPTIVE PARAGRAPH SHOULD BE IN THE THIRD PERSON AND THE PRESENT TENSE.

The only major exception is, interestingly enough, memoir. Which leads me to:

(19) If I am querying a memoir, is my descriptive paragraph written in the present tense and the first person?
All too often, memoirists refer to themselves in the third person in query letters, pitches, and synopses of their books, puzzling Millicents exceedingly. If your memoir is about you, go ahead and use the perpendicular pronoun.

The logic behind describing memoir in the first person doesn’t really require much explanation — the book’s about you, isn’t it? — but the tense choice might. It simply doesn’t make sense for an adult to say:

Now I am six, and my father tells me to take out the garbage. But I don’t want to take out the garbage, and in a decision that will come back to haunt me in high school, I chose to bury it in the back yard instead.

You must admit, this is more than a little at odds with a sane person’s sense of time. (But then, so is the turn-around time for queries and submissions, frequently.)

Please note, though, that other than this shift in tense and person, the same basic structures we applied last time to describing novels will work perfectly well for memoir: your goal here is make yourself sound like an interesting person in an interesting situation overcoming obstacles to your happiness. For example:

Back in my days as a silent movie star of the 1920s, women ruled the silver screen. I was paid more than my male counterparts; I had my pick of projects (and extras for my private pleasures); my dressing room’s cushions were trimmed in mink. But once the talkies came, I was faced with an impossible choice: take a massive pay cut or allow my public to be told that my beautifully resonant opera-trained voice was too squeaky for the new technology. If I was going to make the films that I wanted, I realized I would have to start writing and directing for myself.

See? By describing herself as the protagonist in a story, rather than just a person talking about herself, our starlet has made a compelling case that both she and the challenges she confronted would make for fascinating reading.

(20) Is the tone and language in my descriptive paragraph representative of the tone and language of the manuscript?
Yes, yes, I know: I’ve just finished telling you that the tense and perspective choice in the description should not be dictated by the voice of the narrative in the book, unless it’s a memoir. But just as a stellar verbal pitch gives the hearer a foretaste of what the manuscript is like, so does a well-constructed descriptive paragraph in a query letter. Just bear in mind that nice writing is not the only aim here: you’re also trying to demonstrate that you are aware of the types of voices considered stylish in your chosen book category — and that you can in fact write in a voice that the already-established readers of that category will like.

Stop laughing. Query letters do so have narrative voices. It’s just that most of the boilerplates we see are so businesslike in tone and generic in content that you’d never notice.

It’s definitely possible, though, to construct a query that gives Millicent a foretaste of your manuscript. If your book is funny, go for a laugh; if it’s scary, make sure to include at least one genuinely frightening image; if it’s sexy, make Millicent pant in her cubicle.

Getting the picture?

Some of you find this suggestion a trifle wacky, I’m sensing. “But Anne,” a scandalized few protest, “didn’t you say earlier in this series that part of the goal here was to come across as professional? Won’t making the descriptive paragraph sound like my surly protagonist/whiny narrator/a lighthearted romp through the merry world of particle physics make me seem like a grump/annoying to work with/like I don’t know what I’m talking about?”

Good questions, scandalized few. Your concerns are precisely why I’m advising that only the descriptive paragraph match the tone of the book, rather than the entire letter.

Surprised? Don’t be. You’re entirely right that Millicent might well draw the wrong conclusions if your letter were written primarily for laughs. Let’s face it, it’s kind of hard to turn the credentials paragraph of a query into much of a chucklefest. Even if you happen to have taught comedic theory for 52 years at the Aspen Institute for Gut-Busting, it would hard to turn that fact into a giggle line.

Although I just did, didn’t I? In a query, though, that would have been a risk: jokes that fall flat are a common screeners’ pet peeve. So unless you’re positive that your joke is (a) original — almost impossible, if it’s related to some standard query element like SASE inclusion — (b) doesn’t detract from the clarity of your letter, and (c) is funny enough that a Millicent bleary-eyed after seven hours of straight screening will chuckle, save the one-liners for your stand-up act.

But in the part of the letter where you’re supposed to be telling a story, why not let your manuscript’s voice come out to play for a few lines? Can you think of a better way to demonstrate to Millicent how your narrative voice is unique?

(21) Am I telling a compelling story in my descriptive paragraph, or does it read as though I’ve written a book report about my own manuscript?
All too often, aspiring writers will construct their descriptive paragraphs as though they were writing high school English papers. There’s usually a pretty good reason for that: writers tend to have been excellent high school English students. So were most agents and editors, as it happens, and certainly most Millicents.

But collective nostalgia for one’s happy days in Intro to American Literature doesn’t mean that a descriptive paragraph demonstrating that glorious past too clearly is smart book marketing at the query stage. Analysis-based descriptions distance the reader from the story being told.

How so, you ask? They tend to rely upon generalities, in a context that cries out for one-of-a-kind specifics. Take a gander at a representative sample:

MIXED MESSAGES is a nuanced slice-of-life tale of interpersonal and intergenerational misunderstanding set against the backdrop of turbulent social change. The protagonist is a troubled man, an employee caught up in a realistic conflict with his boss while his fantasies of perfect love are constantly thwarted by a lackluster family life. Told in alternating first person voices and the present tense, character is revealed through slice-of-life episodes before reaching the denouement.

Doesn’t exactly draw you into the protagonist’s world, does it? This description could be applied equally well to hundreds of thousands of wildly different plot and voice.

As a result of trying to sound analytical, this description presents the protagonist as a man without a face. While all of these things may well be true of the book being discussed, what is this book ABOUT? Who is this troubled man? Where does he live? What kind of work does he do? What’s the central conflict, and what is at stake for the protagonist in overcoming it?

As a rule, Millicent is eager to know the answer to those questions. Faced with a description like this one, though, she is also likely to roll her eyes and mutter, “English term paper,” and swiftly move on to the next query.

Why apply that particular epithet? Because this kind of description talks about the novel, rather than telling its story as a story.

Because Millicent’s job is to spot great storytellers, not great textual analysts, she would have preferred it if the querier simply presented the story directly. Then, too, the writer’s choice to concentrate upon the themes and construction of the novel, rather than who the protagonist is and what conflicts he wants or needs to battle in order to fulfill his dreams decreases the reader’s incentive to care about what’s going on.

Indeed, we’re left wondering what is going on. Here’s the same plot, presented in a manner Millicent is far more likely to find pleasing:

Troubled Harry (47) can’t seem to make it through even a single work day at the squid ink pasta factory without running afoul of his boss, chronic aquatic creature abuser Zeke (52). Since the pasta factory is the town’s only employer, Harry has little choice but to stomach the flogging of innocent carp — until Zeke’s merciless sarcasm at the expense of a dolphin cracks his stoic veneer. After an unsuccessful attempt to unionize the squid, Harry must face the truth: Zeke has been just stringing him along for the last seventeen years about that promotion. But now that he is cast adrift in a rudderless sailboat, what is he going to do about that?

I spy some hands raised out there, do I not? “But Anne,” some terrific English essay-writers point out, “doesn’t the second version leave out a couple of pretty important items? Like, say, that the book is written in the first person, or that it has multiple protagonists?”

Actually, I left those out on purpose, A students; as important as those facts may be to the writer, they would only distract Millicent at the querying stage. Or in a synopsis.

Do you English majors want to know why? Cue the music department.

broken-record Neither the point of view choice nor the number of protagonists is germane at the query stage: the goal of the descriptive paragraph is to show what the book is about, not how it is written. Let the narrative choices come as a delightful surprise.

Remember, your goal here is not to provide a substitute for reading your manuscript, but to describe the book’s premise and central conflict or argument intriguingly enough to prompt someone at the agency to ask you to send pages. At the submission stage, you can let your narrative choices speak for themselves.

Which is, of course, as it should be. As Millicent’s boss, the agent, likes to say, it all depends on the writing.

(22) Does my descriptive paragraph emphasize the specific points that will make the book appeal to my target audience?
Since a query letter is, at base, a marketing document (I do hope that revelation doesn’t startle anybody, at this juncture; if so, where oh where did I go wrong, I had such high hopes when I raised you, etc.), it should be readily apparent to anyone who reads your summary what elements of the book are most likely to draw readers. Or, to put it another way, if you printed out your list of selling points and read it side-by-side with your query, would the summary paragraph demonstrate that at least a few of those elements you identified as most market-worthy?

I said demonstrate, mind you, not just assert. If the answer is no, is the descriptive paragraph doing your book justice as a marketing tool?

Don’t look at me that way: there is absolutely nothing anti-literary about making it clear why habitual readers of your book category will be drawn to your work. Remember, no matter how beautifully your book is written or argued, Millicent isn’t going to know you can write until she reads your manuscript — and if your query does not convince her that your book is potentially marketable, as well as nicely written, she’s not going to ask to see the manuscript.

That’s likely to be the case, incidentally, even if she happens to work at one of the increasingly common agencies that allow aspiring writers to send pages of text along with their queries: just because the agency’s guidelines say that a querier can include other materials doesn’t mean that everything in the packet is going to be read thoroughly before acceptance or rejection. Millicent simply doesn’t have time for that, if she’s going to get through hundreds of queries before lunchtime.

Translation: the query is going to determine whether she reads anything else.

So just in case any of you have been receiving form-letter rejections based upon query + pages agent approaches: I know that it’s tempting to assume that the problem is in the text itself, but strategically, the first place you should be looking for red flags is your letter. In a query + approach, it’s the gatekeeper for your pages.

I’m going to take that chorus of great, gusty sighs as a sign that I’ve made my point sufficiently. If it’s any consolation, contemplating your book’s selling points is great experience for working with an agent: when their clients bring them fresh book ideas, the first question they tend to ask is, “Okay, who needs this book, and why?”

(23) Even if Millicent skipped my opening paragraph, would the descriptive paragraph that followed prompt her to exclaim, “Oh, that story is perfect for {fill in my target audience here}? Or have I forestalled that spontaneous cry by describing my book in back-jacket terms?
This is a corollary of the last one, obviously, but still worth considering as a separate question. One of the most common mistakes in descriptive paragraphs is to confuse vague statements about who might conceivably buy the book with specific, pithy descriptions of what in the book might appeal to the market you’ve already identified in your first paragraph. Compare, for instance:

CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS is designed to appeal to the wild, romantic adventurer in every woman. Set along the scenic Snake River, well known to whitewater rafters, the story follows two women in their journey through fast water and faster men. It belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America.

With:

Caroline Bingley (26) and Elizabeth Bennet (20) are floating down a lazy river, the sun baking an uneasy outline around their barely-moving paddles. Suddenly, the rapids are upon them — as is a flotilla of gorgeous, shirtless, rapids-navigating men on generous inner tubes. When a violent hailstorm traps them all in a dank, mysterious cave redolent of recently-departed grizzly bear, shivering in their thin, wet clothes, tempers flare — and so does romance.

The first sounds an awful lot like the summary a publisher’s marketing department might construct for a book’s back jacket, doesn’t it? It’s all breathless hype and promotional persuasion, leaving the reader thinking, “Um, I know nowwhere this story takes place, but what is this book about?”

As you may have already gathered, that’s not a question Millicent is fond of muttering in the middle of reading a query. Which is a shame, really, as so many queriers give her such excellent provocation to mutter it.

By contrast, the second version answers that question very directly: CANOE PADDLING MAMAS is about Caroline and Elizabeth’s trip down a river, where they meet some sizzling potential love interests and perhaps a grizzly.

“Now that’s what I like to see,” Millicent cries, reaching for the seldom-used Yes, please send us the first 50 pages boilerplate. (Oh, you thought that she wrote a fresh letter for every acceptance, too?)

Unfortunately, as we saw earlier in this series, most aspiring writers are so used to reading marketing copy that they might well regard the first version as inherently more professional than the second. In fact, it’s far from uncommon to see this type of marketing rhetoric in synopses, or even in contest entries.

To clear up this misconception once and for all, I’m going to ask you to join me in a little experiment. Scroll down so those last two examples above are hidden, please.

All gone? Good. Now take this multi-part pop quiz.

1) What do you remember most from the first summary paragraph?

The title? The Snake River? The bad cliché? Your speculation that my reference to “every paddle-wielding woman in America” might cause this blog to spring up in some unlikely Internet searches from now until Doomsday?

2) What do you remember about the second?

As a writer, I’m betting that the image that popped first into your mind was that floating phalanx of nearly naked hunks.

3) If you were an agent handling romances, which image would impress you as being easiest to market to outdoorsy heterosexual women — or to indoorsy women who like to fantasize about adventurous encounters with outdoorsy men and/or bears?

I rest my case.

Except to say: in the first summary, a reader is unlikely to remember the story, rather than the query. And in the second, the query-reader is encouraged to identify with the protagonists — who are, like the projected reader, contemplating all of those inner tube-straddling guys.

Okay, try to shake that image from your mind now, so we can move on. No, seriously: stop picturing those floating bodies. We have work to do.

The other reason that the second summary is better is that it presumably echoes the tone of the book. Which brings me to…

(23) If my descriptive 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?
This question often makes even seasoned queriers do a double-take, but actually, it’s closely related to #20, is the tone and language in my description representative of the tone and language of the manuscript? Most query letters elect to adopt one of two tones: unprofessional or serious, serious, serious. The first is never a good idea, but the second is fine — if you happen to have written the 21rst century’s answer to MOBY DICK.

Which I’m guessing no one currently reading this actually has. If, however, you’ve written this year’s answer to BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, a super-serious summary paragraph is probably not the best marketing tactic. Quite apart from the fact that it’s hard to make a lighthearted romp seem either lighthearted or like a romp if it’s described in a turgid manner, a deadpan presentation is probably not the best strategy for convincing Millicent that you can write comedy.

So why not use the description as a writing sample to demonstrate that you can? In fact, why not embrace the opportunity to show how well you understand your target readership by including images, wording, and details likely to appeal to them?

The same logic can be applied to any category of book — and it’s a great way to figure out whether a plot point is worth mentioning in your summary paragraph, actually. If you have written a steamy romance, choose the sexy detail over the mundane one. If it’s a western, make sure there’s at least one line in the summary that elicits a feeling of the open range. If it’s a horror novel, opt for the creepy detail, and so forth.

The sole exception to this rule is if you happen to have written a really, really dull book on a mind-bendingly tedious topic. Then, and only then, do you have my full and enthusiastic permission to construct a descriptive paragraph that doesn’t sound anything at all like the tone of the book.

Hey, you have to pique Millicent’s interest somehow.

(24) Wait — have I given any indication in the letter who my target audience IS?
Despite my utmost efforts in spreading advice on the subject, most queries include no reference whatsoever to the target audience. It’s as though their writers believe it’s in poor taste to suggest to an agent that somebody somewhere might conceivably wish to purchase the book being pitched.

Call me mercenary, but I think that attitude is rather market-unwise, don’t you? If Millicent is going to spend only about thirty seconds on any given query letter before deciding whether to reject it or not, is there really time for her to murmur, “Hmm, who on earth is going to want to buy this book?”

No extra credit for guessing the answer to that one: no.

As those of you who went through the identifying your target market exercises in last summer’s Pitchingpalooza series already know, figuring out the ideal readership for a book is not always a simple or straightforward task, even for someone who knows the text as intimately as its author. Don’t expect its appeal to be self-evident, therefore, to Millicent.

Yes, even for a book like CANOE-PADDLING MAMAS, where the appeal is pretty darned close to self-evident.

Structure your query to make it as easy as possible for folks in the industry to recognize your book’s worth. Write it well, yes, but also show why readers in your chosen book category will find it appealing. You want Millicent to cast her eyes over your query and go running to her boss, the agent, saying, “Oh, my God, we have to see this manuscript,” don’t you?

To that end, it is a far, far better thing to induce the screener to exclaim, “This book belongs on the bookshelf of every paddle-wielding woman in America!” than to have the query tell her that it does. Even if it’s true. Just a little something to ponder while our heroines explore some wild, largely unexplored river with scantily-clad men who obviously spend a suspiciously high percentage of their time at the gym.

Since I’m not going to be able to wrest that image from your mind anytime, this seems like an excellent place to stop our list for the evening. Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, Part VIII: Millicent! Let us in! Millicent!

angry mob2

A quick announcement before I launch into today’s installment of Queryfest, aimed specifically at writers between the ages of 18 and 30 seeking some Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy (ECQLC). The deadline for Narrative Magazine’s annual 30 Below Story Contest is October 29th. Entry is limited to young adult writers — that’s writers who are themselves young adults, folks, not YA writers — and delightfully, there are some actual cash prizes not only for the top few entries, but for the finalists as well.

They will also consider all entries for publication, and my, is the range of what they are opening to publishing broad. Quoth the contest’s organizers:

Narrative is calling on writers, visual artists, photographers, performers, and filmmakers between eighteen and thirty years old, to tell us a story. We are interested in narrative in the many forms it takes: the word and the image, the traditional and the innovative, the true and the imaginary. We’re looking for short stories, short shorts, essays, memoirs, photo essays, audio and video stories, graphic stories, all forms of literary nonfiction, and excerpts from longer works of both fiction and nonfiction. The editors of Narrative have published the works of many new and emerging writers, who have gone on to become household names, and we continue to look for and to encourage the best new talent we can find.

So you might want to consider checking it out, ECQLC-seekers. Fair warning, though: there is an entrance fee.

Back to the topic at hand. Every time I devote a few weeks to a serious examination of all things query-related, I hear from many, many would-be queriers whose first (or at least second) reaction is to glance at the sheer number and length of the posts and back away quickly, clicking hastily away to another, less challenging writerly forum.

So if you have stuck with it so far, congratulations. Queryfest is not for the faint of heart, but then, neither is querying. Currently, it’s as hard as it has ever been for a first-time writer to catch an agent’s eye. The combination of a rise in home computer ownership, coupled with a slow economy, have caused the tide of queries pouring onto Millicent the agency screener’s desk on any given day to swell from its usual flood to something akin to a tsunami.

Hey, it’s tough out there. The why I have been urging you to take a hard, critical look at your query letter, to make sure that you are projecting the impression that you are an impressively qualified, impeccably professional writer waiting to be discovered.

As opposed to the other kind, who in agents’ minds swarm in legions like the mobs in Frankenstein movies, wielding pitchforks, pitch-soaked flaming torches, unbound manuscripts, and, of course, query letters, chanting endlessly, “Represent my book! Represent my book!” (Alternated with, of course, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) It’s like a bad horror film: no matter how many of those manuscripts Millicent rejects, they just keep coming, relentlessly, pouring into the agency seemingly through every crack and crevice, appearing magically from some ever-renewing source.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of your query as part of an implacable daily onslaught on Millicent’s defenses? It’s no accident that she keeps burning her lip on lattés — her task can be so repetitious, so seemingly endless that even Sisyphus occasionally glances up from that immense boulder the unkind gods sentenced him to roll up a hill for all eternity, only to see it roll down again as soon as he reaches the top, mops his weary brow, and murmurs, “Wow, am I glad that I don’t have Millicent’s job.”

Contemplating how many queries she might have read prior to yours — not to mention the mountainous piles she may have to peruse between the thirty seconds she can devote to your letter and when she can go home for the day — can either be deeply depressing for a querier. Yes, it’s a bit intimidating to consider that the chances of a randomly-selected query’s leading to the book in question’s being picked up by a great agent and sold to a good publishing house fall somewhere between getting accepted to a top medical school and being hit by lightning while holding an umbrella. I remember thinking when I sold my memoir, gee, I’m about to get published, I’m a woman with a doctorate, and I’m ambidextrous. Statistically speaking, I’m about as likely to exist as a purple gorilla.

Just because something is unlikely, however, doesn’t mean that it can’t happen; there’s a vast difference between difficult and impossible. As I like to tell discouraged aspiring writers early and often, the only manuscripts that have no chance of getting published are those that just sit in a drawer or on a hard disk, unqueried, unsubmitted, and unseen by the literary establishment.

In case I’m being too subtle here: don’t let the intense competition keep you from trying. You might just end up being the gorilla with the all-over mauve highlights.

Don’t underestimate how much doing your homework about what a good querying entails improve your changes, either. Just think of what a high percentage of queries either do not contain all of the necessary information, or are improperly formatted, or are downright rude, mistakes you intrepid souls working your way through Queryfest are unlikely to make. Nor are your queries likely to be among the unfortunate many that substitute hard-sell tactics for description, picking an agent’s name out of a hat for serious research into what the query recipient represents, or a vague, rambling paragraph about what the book is about for the one- or two-word book category already in use by the U.S. publishing industry.

Feeling luckier already, aren’t you, Jungle Jim?

You’re also, if you follow my advice, going to separate yourself from the crowd by not forcing your book concept into a boilerplate that a third of the aspiring writers out there happen to be using at the moment. You wouldn’t believe how many query letters read virtually identically. And that’s bad for aspiring writers, because generic queries are among the easiest to reject: not only are they comparatively unmemorable — a boilerplate account of even a thrilling plotline tends to fall a bit flat — but your garden-variety Millicent finds them somewhat insulting.

And not merely because so many cut-and-paste operations intended to update old queries for reuse end up in disaster. Even when the address and salutation match AND end up in the right envelope, recycling the same query for every conceivable agent renders it effectively impossible to make sure your query ends up on the right desk.

Oh, it could happen, but so could Millicent’s coffee cup being hit by a meteor. Want to wait around to see if it happens, or would you prefer to make the effort to improve the odds?

No, but seriously, folks, the way that most first-time queriers approach figuring out whom to query is close enough to random that it’s surprising that they ever hit the right target. It just doesn’t make sense as a strategy for making a decision vital to the success of your writing career: if you don’t do individual research on each agent’s likes, dislikes, and placement record, how can you possibly know that any given one will be the best fit for your book? You don’t want just any agent to handle it, after all — your manuscript deserves the professional assistance of an agent with a proven track record of (and concomitant connections for) selling books like yours.

Agents are not generalists, any more than writers are: they specialize. That means, in practice, that a writer is unlikely to find such an agent by the simple (and unfortunately common) means of doing a web search on agents + {insert book category here}. Or by the formerly most popular alternative, snatching one of the standard agency guides off the shelf at the nearest bookstore, flipping to the index, and making a list of every agency that lists itself as representing that category.

While neither is a bad first step toward tracking down the ideal agent for a particular book, you must admit that neither is exactly a fine-tuned agent-seeking instrument. Yes, limiting your efforts to only those agents who represent manuscripts in your category is a necessary first step toward finding the best agent for your work — chant it with me now, campers: one of the most common reasons queries get rejected is being aimed at an agent who doesn’t represent that kind of book — but as many a query-fatigued aspiring writer can attest, it can result in a long, undifferentiated list. How does one decide whom to approach first?

Based on the comparative popularity of agencies whose names begin with A, B, or C, as well as those beginning with W, Y, or Z, my guess would be that most queriers simply proceed alphabetically — or in reverse alphabetical order. The fact that the D-V agencies tend to see fewer queries would indicate that embracers of this approach often give up in frustration before they get very far into their lists.

In the face of this undeniable reality, you can’t really fault Millicent for regarding the lack of a clear statement of why a writer selected her boss off a list of agents representing that book category as evidence that he might not have done his homework, can you? Most of the mob beating on the gate at any given moment is made up of homework-avoiders, after all.

Which brings me to the other primary reason for striving for an individual voice in your query letter: to Millicent, a well-written, personalized letter that describes a manuscript in clear, enticing, market-oriented terms is — wait for it — professional. As in exhibiting the minimum level of performance for getting her stamp of approval.

That means, in practice, being specific. And yes, I know that’s hard, in a document must contain a an extremely brief summary of your book.

Therein lies the problem, often. The first thing most aspiring writers learn about a query is that it should contain a description of the book it is hoping the agent will represent. (Okay, the second thing: the requirement that a query be a page or less is quite widely known.) To the first-time querier, that can sound an awful lot like you have only a page to summarize a 400-page manuscript!

That’s ridiculous, of course — a querier has only a paragraph (or two, at most) to describe her book. Less, if the description isn’t particularly interesting or doesn’t make the book seem like a good fit for either the agent to whom the query is addressed or the current literary market.

A 1-page synopsis is where that writer has to summarize her 400-page book. Note the distinction, please: it’s vital to your sanity while composing a query — or trying to keep it under a single page, for that matter. In fact, I feel an aphorism coming on:

broken-recordA query’s descriptive paragraph describes the manuscript; a synopsis summarizes it. The query presents the premise and central conflict (or, for nonfiction, the subject matter and central question), while the summary gives a complete, if brief, overview of the plot, including some indication of its resolution.

Why is being aware of this distinction vital for a savvy querier’s sanity? Because if you try to summarize the entire plot of your book in a query letter, you will drive yourself mad.

And, frankly, you will annoy Millicent. We may see why all too clearly manifested in the generality-fest that is average descriptive paragraph:

THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL tells the story of boy meets girl set against the turbulent backdrop of the type of war aptly described as hell. Although Dwayne and Mimette initially don’t click, circumstances throw them together and they fall madly in love. Through confronting numerous obstacles, they come to know themselves better and learn important life lessons before finding their very own happy ending.

Quite the a cliché-fest, isn’t it? That isn’t always the case with a too-general descriptive paragraph, of course, but the two often go hand-in-hand. As far as Millicent is concerned, they can keep on walking hand-in-hand right into the sunset, just like Dwayne and Mimette: her job is to look for original stories.

Which THE SIMPLEST PLOT OF ALL might be, for all we know. But how on earth could Millicent tell, given the vagueness of this description?

Aspiring writers with a bit more knowledge about how agencies work may veer off into another type of generality, the lit class description. It tends to run a little something like this:

THE NUCLEAR FALLOUT WITHIN is a classic political thriller written in a literary fiction voice. Told in the first person from four different and conflicting points of view: a handsome protagonist (Senator Lance Manlison, 38), a brainy yet uninhibited love interest (Dr. Bambi-Pearl Dignityfree, 23), an odious antagonist (Snarly Weaponwielder, 52), and a deaf-mute unrelated bystander (Cheapdevice Smith, 13). Deftly alternating between these distinct voices, the narrative draws the reader into a beautifully-described world of intrigue, power, and intense introspection.

Both of these examples are probably factually correct statements about what occurs in the book, but that’s really beside the point at the querying stage. “What specifically are these books about?” Millicent is left muttering. “And why aren’t either of these writers using the scant space afforded in a query to demonstrate that they know how to tell a story? Are they under the impression that how they write doesn’t matter?”

I can answer that one, Millie: at the querying stage, that’s precisely what most aspiring writers do think; many regard the query as little more than an annoying-but-necessary piece of busywork, rather than an opportunity to show that they can write. But they’re wrong: the goal here is to stand out from that teeming population of queriers by coming across as a good writer with a good, marketable story.

The idea of your writing being judged solely by how you construct a single-page letter is making some of you squirm, isn’t it? “But Anne,” wiggle worms everywhere protest, and with good reason, “I’m a novelist. My gift lies in expressing myself at length. Why would any agent who represents book-length works allow, much less instruct, his trusty Millicent to make snap judgments about books without reading them?”

I sympathize with your feelings, but that agent cannot afford to: remember that tsunami of queries washing over Millicent’s desk? If she had to read even the first few pages of every single one of those manuscripts before ruling out those that are out of the question, she would constantly be swimming through an ocean of required reading.

Can you honestly blame her for draining the pool a little by rejecting the vague and the publishing world-inappropriate book descriptions on sight?

Most descriptive paragraphs don’t go to either of these extremes, of course; many are combinations of both, with perhaps a sprinkling here and there of detail. That’s not all that astonishing, given the comparatively scant attention most query-writing classes/seminars/online discussions seem to devote to the part of the letter where Millicent is most solidly within her rights to expect your writing to shine.

Hey, every writer can talk compellingly about his own manuscript, right? It’s the rest of the query that really matters, doesn’t it? And if the query reads just like what the writer has seen online, it has to be fine, doesn’t it?

Apparently and unfortunately, no, on all counts. I feel an aphorism coming on: the overwhelming majority of descriptive paragraphs are not sufficiently descriptive — a real shame, because the descriptive paragraph is the querier’s single best opportunity to make the case that her manuscript is unique. Preferably in the a voice similar to the narrative voice of the book.

Does that gargantuan gulping sound I heard out there in the ether mean that two-thirds of you with queries already circulating just realized that they did not do justice to the storytelling magic of your manuscript? Or did you think the point of the description was to make your book sound identical the most recent bestseller? Or — and I suspect that this is going to be the more common gulp-generator — were you previously unaware that the descriptive paragraph (and the query in general) is a writing sample?

On the off chance that it was any of the above, I’m going to drag out the broken record player again:

broken-recordEverything an aspiring writer submits to an agency is in fact a writing sample. Since the agent of your dreams is new to your writing, it’s only reasonable to expect that he will use your query letter, your synopsis, any requested pages, and even your e-mails and cover letters for submissions as bases for evaluating your writing ability. These are literate people; they expect good writers to express themselves well 100% of the time.

At minimum: spell-check everything before you hit the SEND key. Proofread everything — preferable in hard copy, as it’s easier to catch typos and logic problems that way. If you don’t know the difference between its (belonging to it) and it’s (a contraction for it is), or how to make a word plural (hint: almost never by adding an apostrophe + s), learn it. And if you have any doubts about your own grammar or proofreading abilities, run, don’t walk, to someone whose skills are impeccable.

But most of all, use your query as an opportunity to demonstrate to Millicent that, in addition to being charming, literate, and creative enough to come up with a great premise, you can tell a story well. Specifically, the story of your book.

Generally speaking, summary statements are not the best way to pull this off. Too many aspiring writers mistakenly believe that a generic query filled either with overly-broad generalities (my protagonist is Everyman struggling with quotidian life’s most common challenges.), promotional copy (this is the most exciting book featuring childbirth since GONE WITH THE WIND!”), or just plain one-size-fits-all rhetoric (This is a fiction novel with great writing based on a true story.) will be sufficient to pique an agent’s interest. All of these tactics are problematic, because a vague query will sound just like a good two-thirds of the query letters Millicent’s seen that week, and thus hardly likely to stand out amongst the forest of torches storming the castle.

Or, as she likes to put it: “Next!” But the news is not all bad here, campers: our Millie has a pretty good eye for spotting the rare purple gorilla.

When a query is simultaneously unique and yet professional, the result can be semi-miraculous. That means, in practice, that for a talented querier, the ubiquity of poorly-constructed queries is actually helpful.

How so? Call up that angry mob in your mind, the one that’s casually dropping by en masse to ask Dr. Frankenstein if that undead thing that’s been lurching about Geneva lately could possibly be his houseguest. Now picture yourself pushing through that crowd, impeccably dressed, to knock on that castle door. For Dr. F’s assigned gate-keeper, Igor, to open the door, he’s going to have to believe that you’re not merely a cleverly-disguised villager intent upon destroying the secret laboratory where his master dabbles in revivifying the dead, right?

So, too, with Millicent: a politely-worded, grammatically impeccable, well-written query is going to leap off the page at her, simply because such a low percentage of what crosses her desk meets those criteria. And frankly, that fact is very useful to her, because she can quickly reject the vast majority of the angry mob’s attempts to knock down that door.

Okay, so maybe that analogy was a trifle forced. Very few of the agents of my acquaintance actually make a habit of prying open those well-known doors that mankind is not meant to open, and not all rejections are that knee-jerk. But you can’t deny that picturing Millicent triple-bolting the castle door made a change from imagining her burning her lip on yet another too-hot latté, right?

broken-recordA good agent typically receives in the neighborhood of 800-1500 queries per week — more, if the agency makes it easy for aspiring writers to submit pages online with their queries or happens to fall at the beginning or end of an alphabetical listing. In the face of that constant barrage, even the most prose-loving Millicent is going to have to reject the vast majority that cross her desk, if only in self-defense. The generally-accepted figure is 98%.

Starting to make more sense that I’ve been pushing you to concentrate this hard upon a page of writing that isn’t even in your manuscript? I’m just trying to save you some time, and some misery — and a whole lot of rejection.

So print up your latest query letter draft, please, and ask yourself a few more probing questions before you pop that puppy in the mail. To prepare yourself properly for this level of analysis, take a moment now to read your current draft in its entirety and aloud, so it is clear in your mind — and to catch any lapses in logic or grammar, of course.

To stop the protest already halfway out of your mouth: I don’t care if you reread (or wrote) it yesterday, or already today, or fifteen minutes ago. Do it again, because now you’re doing it in hard copy, where you’re significantly more likely to catch itty-bitty errors like missed periods.

Why aloud? Because it’s the best way to catch a left-out word or logic problem. Haven’t you been paying attention?

Don’t feel bad if you find a few: believe me, every successful author has a story about the time that she realized only after a query or a manuscript was in the mailbox that it was missing a necessary pronoun or possessive. Or misspelled something really basic, like the book category.

Yes, it happens. All the time. Millicent has good reason to regard queries as miniature Frankenstein manuscripts.

And if you don’t read it ALOUD, IN HARD COPY, and IN ITS ENTIRETY one final time between when you are happy with it on your computer screen and when you apply your soon-to-be-famous signature to it…well, all I can do is rend my garments and wonder where I went wrong in bringing you up.

Now that you’re thinking of your query as a writing sample, let’s take a quick foray back up the page before we move on to that pesky descriptive paragraph.

(15) Does the first paragraph of my query show that I am a good writer, as well as convey the necessary information? Does it get to the point immediately? Or, to but it a bit more bluntly, if I were an agency screener with 200 other queries on my desk or in my inbox, would I keep reading into the descriptive paragraph?
This may seem like draconian questions, but think about it from Millicent’s perspective: if you had to get through all of those queries before the end of the afternoon, would you keep reading the one in front of you if its first paragraph rambled? Or if, heaven forfend, it contained a typo or two?

Oh, you say you would. But honestly, would you?

It’s worth revisiting the first paragraph of the query letter because — oh, it pains me to be the one to tell you this, if you did not already know — countless query letters are discarded by agents and their screeners every day based upon the first paragraph alone. That’s another reason I favor paper over e-mailed queries, incidentally, except in the case of agents who specifically state they prefer them over the paper version: it’s too easy to delete an e-mail after reading only a line or two of it.

Take a good, hard look at your first paragraph, and make sure it is one that will make the agent want keep reading. Does it present the relevant information — why you are querying this particular agent, book category, title, etc. — in a professional, compelling manner?

Cut to the chase. All too often, when writers do not make their intentions clear up front — say, by neglecting to mention the book category — the letter simply gets tossed aside after the first paragraph.

All right, on to paragraph two:

(16) Is my descriptive paragraph short, clear, and exciting to read? Have I actually conveyed what the book is ABOUT?
Frequently, aspiring writers get so carried away with conveying the premise of the book that they forget to mention the theme at all. Or, as we discussed above, they try to cram the entire synopsis into the query letter. Given that the letter should never be longer than a page, that strategy tends to result in a missive that neither presents the book’s story or argument well nor leaves room for the necessary other elements of the query.

So what should you do instead? Limit the scope of what you are trying to achieve to making the book’s premise or argument sound fascinating.

How might one go about that? Well, for starters, buy yourself some space by axing the lit class terminology: this is not the place to talk about protagonists, antagonists, or plot twists, at least not using those words. Ditto with introductory statements like ALTERED REALITIES is the story of… or SIMILAR FANTASIES tells the tale of… If the opening paragraph has done its job properly, these kind of clauses are never actually necessary.

Second, concentrate upon presenting the protagonist as an interesting person in an interesting situation. A time-honored one-paragraph descriptive structure demonstrates why the lead is special in the first sentence or two (utilizing parenthetical age references to save space), devotes the second sentence to the plot’s central conflict, and the third to what’s at stake for the protagonist. As in:

Photojournalist Nana Angelopoulos (27) is far from an inexperienced traveler: her passion for documenting vanishing wildlife has brought her face-to-face with more charging rhinos, furious rattlesnakes, and irate, weapon-brandishing game wardens than even her worried mother (Irene, 56) can remember. Yet now that her favorite preserve is going to be sealed off from human contact forever, she has abruptly begun having panic attacks the moment she steps on a plane. Has the shutter come down permanently on both Nana’s career and the endangered red pandas she loves?

For a character-driven plot, you can focus even more closely on the protagonist. Try opening with your main character’s hopes and dreams, moving on to the primary barriers to his achieving them, and then wrap up by telling Millicent what he stands to win if he overcomes those obstacles — or what he stands to lose if he doesn’t. For example:

All retired paleontologist Sven Olafson (87) wants is a little peace and quiet, but who could relax with intrepid junior explorer Tammi Butterfingers (11) constantly digging for dinosaur bones in his back yard? Or twin grandsons borrowing in his stone tool collection to reconfigure the neighbors’ treasured marble birdbath? Or, worst of all, a malignant postman (Marvin, 62) determined to drive Sven from the only settled home he has ever had outside of a dig site?

Either structure will work for memoir, of course: treat yourself as a character in the book, change the pronouns to I, and tell Millicent what happened to you. Easy as the proverbial pie.

For other nonfiction, just set out the central problem of the book and give some indication of how you plan to address it. If you want to get fancy, toss in a sentence or two making the case that the problem is important, and to whom:

Sasquatches once roamed North America freely, but thanks to human overpopulation, few living children have ever even seen one. Once-mighty herds are now reduced to just a few square acres next to a Bigfoot preserve in southwestern Oregon. Ironically, just as human needs have nearly wiped out these magnificent beasts, human needs may save them from total extinction: new research indicates that molted sloth hair may be the long-sought cure for male pattern baldness. Begging the question: is the recent establishment of megalonychid-shaving factories a triumph in the fight against extinction, or merely vanity-induced animal abuse?

Reads like a well thought-out argument, does it not? What you’re doing here is not generalizing — you’re winnowing down the story to its essential elements. That’s doable, even in just a few lines.

When in doubt, err on the side of brevity over completeness. Remember, you honestly do have only — chant it with me now, long-time readers — 3-5 sentences to grab an agent’s interest, so generally speaking, you are usually better off emphasizing how interesting your characters are and how unusual your premise is, rather than trying to outline more of the plot.

But do make sure it sounds like a great story or fascinating argument on an important subject. As in a pitch, the first commandment of querying is thou shalt not bore — and believe me, nothing is more boring to someone who reads for a living than seeing the same kind of descriptions over and over again.

One of those torches waving in the night might be pretty, but when everyone in the village is brandishing one, it gets old fast.

Hark! Do I hear an angry mob beating on my battlements, chanting, “How may we both brief and interesting simultaneously?” In a word: juicy details.

Okay, so that was two words; it’s still a great strategy. Why not spice things up with details that only you could devise, described in lovely language? If you’re feeling even bolder, why not try waking Millicent up a little?

(17) 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?
What makes a book description memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not merely its overall arc, but also its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

Not in a superabundance of minutiae, mind you: just a few careful-selected details she’s not likely to have seen before.

Unsure where the line between too many generalities and too much detail lies, flaming torch-bearers? When in doubt, stick to the central conflict; subplots, while perhaps integral to the book as a whole, tend to water down the storytelling impact of a descriptive paragraphs.

Why, you ask? Okay, let’s step into Millie’s shoes for a minute. Read these three summaries: which would make you ask to see the first fifty pages of the book and why?

Basil Q. Zink, a color-blind clarinetist who fills his hours away from his music stand with pinball and romance novels, has never fallen in love — until he meets Gisèle Démodé, the baton-wielding conductor with a will of steel and a temper of fire. But what chance does a man who cannot reliably make his socks match have with a Paris-trained beauty? Ever since Gisèle was dumped by the world’s greatest bassoonist, a sociopath prone to torturing innocent kittens in his spare time, she has never had a kind word for anyone in the woodwind section. Can Basil win the heart of his secret love without compromising his reputation as he navigates the take-no-prisoners world of the symphony orchestra?

Quite a few unique and unexpected quirks packed in there, aren’t there? I’d ask to read that book. Contrast this description with the far more common style of entry #2:

Clarinetist Basil Zink has fallen hopelessly in love with his conductor, temperamental and beautiful Gisèle Démodé. She’s emotionally unavailable, however: on the rebound from a ten-year marriage with sociopathic bassoonist Serge, she scarcely casts a glance in Basil’s direction; she hardly seems to be aware that he’s alive. Menaced by an ultra-competitive co-worker, Basil must overcome his fears to capture the woman he loves and save his orchestra.

Interesting how different it is from the first, isn’t it, considering that both describe the same story? Yet since #2 relies so heavily on generalities and is so light on unusual details, it comes across as a tad generic, not to say cliché-ridden.

How does a writer know when to say when on the specifics? Let’s take a gander at version #3, where a love of detail has apparently run amok:

BATON OF MY HEART is a love story that follows protagonist Basil Q. Zink, whose congenital color-blindness was exacerbated (as the reader learns through an extended flashback) by a freak toaster-meets-tuning-fork accident when he was six. Ever since, Basil has hated and feared English muffins, which causes him to avoid the other boys’ games: even a carelessly-flung Frisbee can bring on a blistering flashback. This circle metaphor continues into his adult life, as his job as a clarinetist for a major symphony orchestra requires him to spend his days and most of his nights starting at little dots printed on paper.

Life isn’t easy for Basil. Eventually, he gets a job with a new symphony, where he doesn’t know anybody; he’s always been shy. Sure, he can make friends in the woodwind section, but in this orchestra, they are the geeks of the school, hated by the sexy woman conductor and taunted by the Sousaphonist, an antagonist who is exactly the type of Frisbee-tossing lunkhead Basil has spent a lifetime loathing. The conductor poses different a problem for Basil: he has never been directed by a woman before. This brings up his issues with his long-dead mother, Yvonne, who had an affair with little Basil’s first music teacher in a raucous backstage incident that sent music stands crashing to the ground and left two dozen musically-minded six-year-olds agape in horror. Basil’s father never got over the debacle, and Basil…”

Okay, ersatz agency screener: how much longer would you keep reading? We’re all the way through a second descriptive paragraph, and we still don’t know what the central conflict of the book is!

Contrary to popular belief amongst queriers frightened by the prospect of having to talk about their manuscripts in marketing terms in Paragraph 1, what makes a descriptive paragraph great is not its ability to show how similar the book is to what is already published, but rather how it is different.

Oh, I don’t mean that a querier is likely to get anywhere with Millicent by claiming that his manuscript is like nothing she has ever seen before — that, too, has been said so often in queries that it has become a cliché — or that it’s a good idea to ignore the current literary market. You won’t, and it isn’t.

In order to sell any first book, however, a writer needs to be able to demonstrate that (a) it fits into an existing book category but (b) offers readers who already buy books in that category something they can’t already get by just walking into a bookstore.

Or, to cast it in grander terms: what will your book add to the literary world that it hasn’t already got, purple gorilla? Why will the reading world be a better place if your book is published?

Deep questions, eh? I leave you to ponder them. But as you do, don’t lose sight of the fact that part of what a writer is marketing is her unique voice. How could a query letter that sounds just like everyone else’s possibly do justice to that?

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part V: is this my best side?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wrong names query

When he intended to send this:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quoth Millicent: “Next!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel a golden oldie coming on:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest 2011 is open for business — and the masses rejoice!

At long last, I am proud to cut the ribbon on Queryfest, this year’s intensive foray into the ins and outs of all things query-related. I had intended to kick off the festivities on Monday, but as I may have mentioned last weekend, this walking on two legs thing is a whole heck of a lot more tiring than it looks. No wonder toddlers take so many naps.

That image seems appropriate, given how many aspiring writers spend any given day scratching their heads over that most basic of submission guideline requests: query with SASE. While that phrase might not seem particularly remarkable to those of us who deal with manuscripts for a living — or, indeed, to those of you who have been agent-hunting for long — to a writer brand-new to the quest, it can be downright mystifying.

“What is a query, other than a question?” these brave souls wonder. “What does that acronym stand for, and what about a SASE is too horrible to describe in fully fleshed-out English words?”

Perfectly reasonable questions, all — and surprisingly difficult to answer conclusively with even a rather thorough Internet search. As clever and incisive reader Elizabeth commented in our discussion last fall,

My queries are getting better as I go, but each expert I follow has different advice. How to choose which will work best for me and my book? It’s a quandary.

An excellent question, Elizabeth, and one I’m quite positive that many of your fellow queriers share. There’s certainly no shortage of how-to guides for would-be queriers out there; there are almost as many formulae out there for sure-fire query letters as there are professional givers of writing advice. Heck, substantial numbers of amateurs seem to post their notions, too, mostly phrased as though the advice in question were, if not actually something that any truly talented writer should have been born knowing, at least a precept to which any sane person seeking publication should adhere or risk being laughed out of literate society. Not to mention so self-evidently true and easy to follow that no explanation is required: simply stating the rule seems to be sufficient.

But they tend to be one-size-fits-all propositions, don’t they? Often, these doubtless well-meant query guides are simple lists of rules, light on explanation but heavy on dire warnings about what will happen to the unwary writer who does not follow them down to the last period.

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but better that you hear it from me than learn it from agonizing experience: the perfect query applicable to every set of agents’ eyes is as mythical as a unicorn and a centaur hitched to Apollo’s chariot. Frankly, generic queries don’t work, and even a relatively good boilerplate is going to start looking like a carbon copy to agents and their screeners within just a few months of its becoming popular with queriers.

I know, I know: that’s not what you’ve been hearing elsewhere. It’s true, nevertheless: no one, but no one can give you a fill-in-the-blanks query template that will work every time. Nor will following any given set of rules — yes, even mine — produce a query that will wow every single agent in the country.

How do I know that? Well, experience: the publishing world just doesn’t work like that. It values originality and individual writing style — why on earth would it even want to see identical (or close to identical) verbiage in every query letter?

But that’s not the only reason following a template is not a good idea. Because every book — and every category of book — is different, there is no such thing as a foolproof query formula into which any aspiring writer could simply plug her own information and hit SEND. And even if a query blueprint appropriate to any book, fiction or nonfiction, actually did exist, it wouldn’t necessarily be in your best interest to use it: literary agents are, contrary to popular opinion amongst aspiring writers, not automatons programmed to respond identically to everyone else in the publishing industry, but individual people with individual tastes.

Each of ‘em likes what they like, in short. That may seem like it makes your task harder, but actually, it can be empowering: you will be a much, much happier querier if you don’t fall into the exceedingly common querier’s trap of believing that any single agent’s response to your query is necessarily (a) the response any agent would have to it, (b) proof that the publishing industry’s rejecting your book’s concept, rather than the query letter that presents it, and therefore (c) just a handful of rejections means you should give up on the book.

Because the agenting world is diverse — and needs to be, in order to get the job done — (b) and (c) cannot be true. Even if agents did not harbor personal tastes (but they do), no one agent speaks for the entire industry. Furthermore, no agent in the world represents every kind of book, so the widespread belief that sending even the best-crafted query letter to any ten randomly-selected agents will engender ten identical responses is misguided. If nine of those agents don’t have solid track records representing books in your category, that never-fail boilerplate will, I can tell you now, fail with all nine.

And it may well fail with the tenth as well, if she’s just broken her heart by investing a year or two in fruitlessly trying to sell a book like yours. Or if she did sell that book three years ago, but the market has shifted. Or if she happened to have had a terrible honeymoon in the island paradise in which your story is set.

See earlier comment about individuals’ having individual tastes. Which is why (a) is unlikely to be true as well — but I’m getting ahead of myself, amn’t I?

That doesn’t mean, though, that those diverse-minded potential agents for your work don’t share certain expectations for what a query should be — or that there are not queries that would in fact be rejected by most of the agencies currently operating in this country. A professional query looks a certain way, contains specific information, and is, above all, a compelling argument for paying attention to both the book being queried and its author.

Which is why, as those of you who have been surfing the net in search of definitive answers may well have been wondering, agents, editors, and even freelance editors like me tend to be a trifle impatient with the oft-heard (but completely understandable, from a new writer’s perspective) complaint that it’s impossible for aspiring writer to tell what to do because there isn’t a single standard how-to list out there to which every authoritative source subscribes. From a professional point of view, the expectation underlying this complaint doesn’t even make sense: queries should be individuated for the book they are pitching, period.

So how could there possibly be a one-size-fits-all boilerplate? Or even a single list of rules? Every book — and every book category — is different; every agency has its own guidelines, and every agent has his own personal likes and dislikes. That being the case, why would it even be in agents’ best interest to subscribe to a single set of querying rules?

And where would they do it, the National Agency-Oppression Convention? The Society for the Simplification of the Deliberately Complex Field of Publishing? The Association for the Destruction of Opinion-Expression on the Internet?

Another commonly-held belief amongst aspiring writers that the pros tend to find mystifying: the notion that it’s the publishing industry’s job to track down every query advice-giving entity out there and bully it into conformity. It’s not as though the Internet Fairy is out there enforcing advice standardization across the Internet on any subject, or even fact-checking, for the most part.

Like everything else you find online, querying advice should be taken with a grain of salt. Yes, even mine.

Which is why, as those of you used to barked orders on what to do may well find surprising throughout Queryfest, I shall make a point to explain not only what your querying options are, but the pros and cons of each. With concrete examples, whenever possible. (And in case any of you missed last weekend’s announcement: if you would like to have your query letter used as an example in this series, here is how to go about submitting it. Who doesn’t like free professional query critique?)

So fair warning: what I’m going to be offering in Queryfest is not a one-size-fits-all boilerplate for querying success. That would be a waste of your time. Instead of just telling you what to say and how to format it, I’ve designed this series to help you create your own individualized query letter, perfect for your book and no one else’s.

How is this possible? For the same reason that agents and editors tend to be dismissive of the notion that it’s hard for a first-time querier to figure out what to do. From a professional point of view, it’s kind of surprising that even someone who believes every piece of advice he reads, from any source, wouldn’t pick up eventually that any query needs to contain the same basic elements: title, book category, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, brief description, credentials/platform for writing that particular book, polite sign-off, SASE if querying by mail.

Don’t worry, acronym-fearers; we’ll be defining that. I shall also be going over all of these requisite elements in enough detail that you can juggle them the manner best suited to present your book.

That’s going to require learning how agents think about books — and learning to talk about your manuscript in the terms that will make sense to them. Not to mention learning how to address your new and improved query to the right people. No query gets rejected faster than one pitching a book that the agent to whom it is addressed doesn’t handle.

If more than one statement in that last paragraph came as a surprise to you, you’re not alone. The overwhelming majority of queriers don’t learn nearly that much about how the publishing industry actually works before trying to capture its interest — and that’s a pity. In today’s hyper-competitive literary market, intelligent agents are not merely looking for good manuscripts by talented writers; they are seeking good manuscripts by talented writers who have rendered themselves easy to work with by having taken the time to learn how the publishing industry — wait for it — actually works.

In my experience, the most effective query letters are the alchemical effect of a combination of a well-written, professional letter, a writer who has taken the time to learn to talk about her manuscript in terms meaningful to the publishing industry, a book concept that happens to be appealing to the current literary market, and an open-minded agent with the already-existing connections to sell it successfully. Such a confluence doesn’t occur all that often — and it virtually never happens by accident.

“Heavens, Anne,” some prospective query-writers scoff, “if that’s your standard of good querying, I’m not surprised that you believe it doesn’t happen very often. As Elizabeth Bennet told Mr. Darcy after he listed his criteria for a genuinely educated woman, I do not wonder at your not knowing many; I wonder at your knowing any at all.”

Touché, skeptics, but not entirely true. As a matter of fact, I know scads of writers who produced such query letters by dint of persistent and intelligent effort.

How did they manage to pull off that difficult high dive? By coming to terms with the fact that there is no such thing as a single query letter ideal for every conceivable agent. There is, however, such a thing as a perfectly wonderful query letter specialized to appeal to a specific agent, as well as a slightly modified version personalized for another.

For the next couple of weeks, we’re going to be talking about cobbling together such a letter. Once you have the tools in your writer’s toolkit, you can use them to construct a whole flock of such letters, each tailored to an individual agent’s likes and dislikes and the expectations of your chosen book category.

Already, I hear martyred sighs rising across the English-speaking world. “But Anne,” easy-fix advocates protest, “that sounds like a whole heck of a lot of work, and I already resent taking time away from my writing to query agents. Couldn’t I, you know, just recycle the same letter over and over again?”

Well, you could, protesters. You could, I assure you, stop reading this right now, invest less than 20 seconds in a Google search of writing the perfect query letter, and come up with literally hundreds of one-size-fits-all templates that would make your life easier in the short run.

But I don’t think you should. Candidly, I think that the literally thousands of sources out there telling writers to follow this or that fool-proof formula are doing a serious disservice to those they advise, even when the actual elements of the advice they are giving is pretty good.

Why? Writers’ notorious aptitude for unwarranted self-blame, mostly; it’s driven literally millions of talented people into giving up on their books prematurely. The cycle usually runs a little something like this:

(a) Aspiring writer (let’s call him Ambrose, for the sake of storytelling convenience) finds an allegedly sure-fire query boilerplate online, in a book, in a class, and/or on the street somewhere.

(b) Rejoicing at the apparent ease of querying, Ambrose hurriedly copies and pastes his own information in to the template and sends it off to 1/5/127 agents.

(c) Since Ambrose’s query gives an accurate picture of neither his book nor his writing — how could it, when it consists almost entirely of one-size-fits all phrasing? — it gets rejected 1/5/127 times, usually via a form-letter rejection. (Hey, agents use templates, too; they’re real time savers.)

(d) Since Ambrose believes that the template he is using cannot possibly be the problem (it’s utterly foolproof, right?), he concludes that the only possible reasons he could have been rejected are:

(1) The book was lousy; somehow, the agent managed to sense that the writing was poor without reading any of it, or,

(2) The book was lousy, because the agent read the materials her website or agency guide listing said he could include with his query, or,

(3) The book’s concept was lousy, because that’s all the agent could possibly have judged from the query itself, but regardless,

(4) Rejection can only mean that he shouldn’t have queried with the book in the first place.

(e) Ambrose gets depressed for hours/weeks/months, far too much so to risk rejection again by sending out more queries, at least not anytime soon.

Recognize the pattern? Not from your own querying history, I hope, but from one or more of your writer friends?

What renders it sad is not solely the fact that Ambrose was rejected, but that his logic has a hole in it. He has not seriously considered the many, many other reasons an agency might have chosen to reject his query.

Such as, you ask? Well, the individual taste issues I mentioned above, of course. The culprit could also be having made the right case to the wrong agent, for instance, or having made the wrong case to the right agent. Or even having made the right case to the right agent at the wrong time; market demands — and thus agents’ needs — change all the time.

Rejection at the query stage can also be the result of the writer’s having formatted the letter oddly, or having failed to follow the directions on the agent’s website, agency guide listing, or Publishers’ Marketplace page. It could even have been a matter of having adhered to the standards set forth on one of these sources after the agency has changed its rules, or because the targeted agent no longer represents one or more of the types of book one of those sources says she does.

Rejection may, in short, come flying at an aspiring writer from any number of sources. As I think would be quite apparent if querying writers talked amongst themselves more about both rejection and the nuts and bolts of querying, rejection is not always the querier’s fault.

Nor, necessarily, is it the fault of the manuscript being queried. Most queries fail on a few very basic levels that don’t have much to do with the writing quality of the manuscript.

Yes, really: the vast majority of queries are rejected on the query letter alone. There’s a good reason for that: most of the query letters currently floating through the US Mail or flying via e-mail actually do deserve to be rejected by professional standards, but not because the books they are pushing are poorly written, poor concepts, or any of the million other reasons a manuscript might not be up to publication standard.

The most popular: unprofessional presentation, non-standard spelling and/or grammar, omitting to mention necessary information, hostile tone (again: yes, really), being sent to an agent who does not represent the kind of book presented, and, most notorious of all, the query’s obviously being a generic letter designed to be sent out indiscriminately to every agent currently operating in North America.

Agents have a pet name for the latter: they’re called Dear Agent letters, because some of them are so generic that they are not even addressed to a particular agent. Virtually without exception, US-based agents simply reject Dear Agent letters unread.

Also destined for the reject pile: queries sporting overused tricks to attract an agent’s attention — strategies, it may not astonish you to learn, often borrowed from one of the zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively infallible query letter. Perhaps it is unfair, but nothing says generic query like the hip new lead-in that some hugely popular marketing guru was advising two years ago.

In my experience, simple works better than gimmicky — and certainly better than a boastful hard sell. Quite possibly because it is significantly rarer.

Although I am confident that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls that plague the average querier, the overwhelming majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or (and I suspect you will have seen this coming. obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits-all pattern. We can do better than that, I think.

So let’s start at the basement and work our way up, shall we?

For those of you absolutely new to the art of approaching publishing professionals, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced, with 1-inch margins) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest in the manuscript it describes. It is also, contrary to what most aspiring writers believe, a writing sample, so if it is poorly written, it’s toast, regardless of the strength of the book being offered.

It’s equally important to talk about what a query is not. A strong query should not be, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly, professional writer who has done her homework. Nor is its goal to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!”

So what is its goal, you ask? To prompt the agent or editor to request pages. Period.

Let’s face it: no agent worth his 15% is going to sign a writer without reading any of her work. The sooner an aspiring writer accepts that, the sooner she can stop setting herself up for Ambrose-level disappointment. Going into the querying process with realistic expectations makes the process much, much easier on the ego.

So how does one go about eliciting the admittedly less dramatic but ultimately more respectful of your writing result, a direct request to read your manuscript? Without bells and whistles: an effective query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

It is, in essence, the manuscript’s personal ad, intended to attract a compatible agent or editor to ask for a first date. To put it in terms more familiar to those of you followed my recent Pitchingpalooza series, the query is a written pitch, intended not to prompt an instantaneous offer to represent the book, but a request to read some or all of the manuscript or book proposal.

Ah, I just scared some of you with that comparison to pitching, didn’t I? “That’s all very easy to say, Anne,” point out those of you who find the prospect of sitting down face-to-face with a real, live agent about as appealing as hand-feeding a hungry wolf marshmallows by balancing them on your nose, “but you just got finished telling us that there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all formula. So how does a writer trying to break into the biz pull it off without a prescriptive plan that tells him precisely what to do at every step?”

Well, for starters, don’t feed wild animals that way. Are you trying to get mauled?

Once you toss aside the twin preconceptions that there is only one kind of perfect query letter and you are being expected to guess what it contains, constructing a good query letter introduction for your manuscript or query letter becomes quite a bit easier. It just requires a bit of advance preparation.

I felt you tense up again, but trust me, this is prep that you — yes, YOU — are uniquely qualified to do: figuring out what your book is about, who might want to read it, and why. Once you have figured out those elements, writing the query letter is a matter of constructing a document with elements you already have on-hand.

And that’s a comparative breeze, because instead of trying to chase an elusive wraith of an ideal or copying what worked for somebody else, you’re talking about a book you love. What’s more natural to a writer than that?

I hasten to add: being natural does not mean presentation doesn’t count. Your query needs to be businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry), discussing your book project in terms that an agent might use to describe it to an editor.

Keep taking those nice, deep breaths; you are already well prepared to do this.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at the information you would need to include, so you may see for yourself just how much of it you probably already have at your fingertips. Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why you are approaching this particular agent
Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place — or putting it as bluntly as, “I did a web search under Literary Agents, and your name popped up.”

*The book’s title
Self-explanatory, I should hope, but you would be surprised how often queriers leave it out.

*The book’s category
Where your book would sit in a bookstore? Most queries omit any mention of book category, but as in a pitch, it’s essential; no agent represents every type of book on the planet.

*Word count (optional)
Actually, I never advise including this, unless the agency states specifically in its guidelines that it wants to see word count in queries. If they don’t ask, don’t include it.

Why not? Because including the word count makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre — for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words (estimated)– it won’t do you any harm include it, usually, but if it is longer, it’s not worth your while. (If you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category on the archive list at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.
This is the part that stymies most queriers. Relax — we’re getting to it. For now, just bear in mind that this section should not be a paraphrase of your dedication page or a preview of the blurb you’d like to see on the jacket. Don’t praise your book; describe it.

3a. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book
What an agent will have in mind is an already-established target market of readers with a demonstrated interest in books like yours. Keep it realistic. Speculation that every woman/man/fly fisher in America will want to read your book will fall flat, for the exceedingly simple reason that any agent will already have seen this claim literally thousands of times.

3b. and why your book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does.
If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller. You want your work to come across as unique.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book
Or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have pulled off this daunting task well. Here is where you present your platform — or, to put it in a less intimidating manner, where you explain why the agent should take you seriously as the author of this book.

Actually, this paragraph is not optional for nonfiction, and it’s a good idea for everyone. Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist listings, etc., and academic degrees. (Don’t worry: we shall be talking in depth about what degrees will and will not strike an agent as relevant for a fiction writer.)

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, don’t panic: just omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (It need not have been paid work.) Or any public speaking experience — that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or even ongoing membership in an established writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the publication like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief, polite closing paragraph
Here is where you thank the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, or whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve enclosed a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope), if you are querying via regular mail, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not impossible to pull off in a single page, is it?

Oh, dear, you’re tensing up again at the prospect of sitting down and writing it, aren’t you? Don’t panic: again, you may already have constructed — mentally, anyway — some or all of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter. You merely have to pull them together into a polite missive personalized for each agent you plan to approach.

A good way to start is to work on each element of the query individually, then snapping the pieces together. Trying to write the entire thing from beginning to end in one sitting, as most aspiring writers do, is not only more stressful than doing it piecemeal; it also tends to end in a rushed, panicked note tossed off quickly, just to have it done.

Don’t look at me that way; I know you’re in a hurry to pop that letter in the mail, but in the long run, taking the query piece by piece can save you time. Take a gander at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin — and if you’re having trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

I see quite a few lit-up eyes out there. “Um, Anne?” some wily sorts murmur, jotting down hasty notes. “What you’ve just shown looks suspiciously like a template. Mind if I borrow it wholesale and use it as such?”

Actually, I do, but not because I’m especially proud of having penned a sentence as immortal I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon. You should eschew copying anybody else’s query letter for the very simple reason that it is important that your query letter sounds like your book.

Not my book, or the creation of any of the small army of writing gurus out there, but yours. After all, you’re not seeking representation for a generic volume; you’re looking for the best agent for your particular manuscript.

So why on earth would you waste your time — and your manuscript’s potential — on a generic query letter? By the time we’re finished, the very suggestion that your book’s chances would be improved by utilizing boring, one-size-fits-all query copy is going to make you laugh out loud.

At least, I hope it will. Tune in tomorrow, campers, and keep up the good work!

Building a query list-palooza, part XI: what to do when your list starts to thin out

kite competition

Why, no, the photograph above doesn’t have a whole lot to do with our topic du jour, now that you mention it. But come on, admit it: it cheered you up just a little bit, didn’t it?

Good; we’ve got a heavy topic for today. I’m taking a small breather from polishing off the winning entries in the Author! Author! Great First Pages Made Even Better Contest to return to the topic we were discussing with such vim before Thanksgiving: nifty ways to figure out which agents would be most productive for you to add to your first-choice query list, which you might want to place farther down on the list, and which might, to put it indelicately, a waste of an investment in stamps to query with your particular book.

As I argued the last time we broached the subject, it behooves a savvy querier to recognize that agents specialize; it honestly is in your — and your book’s — best interest to employ more specific criteria than, “Oh, I’d settle for anyone who represents authors for a living.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that the definition of an agent, period?

Seriously, being an agent and having a delightful propensity for saying yes constitutes the beginning and end of most aspiring writers’ representation wish lists. Allow me to suggest a few other criteria: being eager, equipped, and able to get your manuscript under the right set of bloodshot editorial eyeballs, as demonstrated by a successful track record selling books similar to yours. Oh, and it really, really helps if this sterling soul not only thinks your book is marketable, but truly well written as well.

So it’s an excellent idea for a querier to find out, if at all possible, what the candidates for this enviable position like to read — or at any rate, what they like to read professionally. As I may have mentioned several dozen times earlier in this series, the single best indicator of an agent’s taste in representation at the moment is to find out what she’s been selling lately.

Some weary brainpans beginning to gyrate out there, aren’t they? “But Anne,” some of you who have been treading the querying road for a while whimper, “I’ve already done a boatload of research, combing the agency guides, searching the web, and tracking down the fine folks who represent my favorite authors. But frankly, I’m starting to run out of faves who write anything remotely like my work, and I don’t have unlimited reading time. Help!”

I feel your pain, weary query veterans, and it’s an excellent question: how does one go about generating future querying prospects after one has already gone through one’s ten or twelve favorite living authors and tracked down their agents?

Here’s a radical notion: how about taking a gander at agents who habitually represent books aimed at you as a reader? Who is representing the books that are being marketed to people like you these days?

Stop chortling; successful authors in a particular book category very frequently spring from its devoted readership. Who knows the norms, conventions and expectations of the category better, after all? It’s also far from uncommon for authors and readers in a particular adult subcategory to share certain demographic characteristics: gender, for instance, or general age group.

Oh, you weren’t aware that literary fiction is written primarily by college-educated writers for college-educated readers?

Don’t be afraid to get specific here. While the people who write in a particular subgenre and the people who read it wouldn’t necessarily have gone to high school together, they often do share substantial life experiences — or, in the case of YA, have in the past. A funky Gen Xer with relationship woes, a Baby Boomer who took care of ailing parents, a survivor of life-threatening illness or someone who just lost a loved one to same: all of these have subcategories of fiction aimed at them.

So I ask you again: who is writing for readers like you these days — and who is selling those books?

As those of you who happened to have been female, under the age of 45, and trying to market an adult novel with a female protagonist to a US or UK agent or publisher during the brief-but-pervasive reign of chick lit have probably experienced this phenomenon in reverse, right? A few years back, a female writer born during or after the Johnson administration pitching even high literary fiction about a mute woman who lived alone for 25 years in a damp cave in Antarctica could practically count upon being cross-examined about how she expected to market such a book to the readers of BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY, as if it were actually impossible for the pre-menopausal set to pen fiction for any other audience.

This phenomenon has subsided to a very great extent, thank goodness, since the passage of chick lit’s heyday, but actually, it still could be turned in your favor: if you fall into that demographic, you might be able to interest a chick lit-heavy (I know; that seems like a contradiction in terms) agency in your non-chick lit novel. After all, they’re already set up to deal well with authors and readers in your demographic, right?

How might you go about finding agents who represent people like you? Here’s an inexpensive and highly effective way to identify agents with a solid recent track record of selling books in your area: reading book reviews, particularly those published in periodicals that cater to the same demographic as your intended readership.

Don’t tell me magazines are a dying art form; they still exist now, and you should be checking the mastheads and editorial pages of your favorites. (Preferably after purchasing them, if you are able. They rely on their readerships, too.) If any of their staff writers or columnists has written a book, take a serious look at her agent, on the grounds of similar worldview and target audience.

For example, if you are a Gen X or Gen Y woman who writes books aimed at college-educated women — which is pretty much synonymous with the aforementioned literary fiction market, lest we forget — you might want to take a good, hard look at the last year’s worth of issues of BUST, which is aimed squarely at your demographic.

Naturally, it’s not the only publication intended for those eyes, but BUST has something very definite to offer a young female writer: in every issue, their book review pages tout work by writers affiliated with the magazine. By definition, those books are being marketed to the same demographic as the magazine.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I would imagine that every single one of the authors of those reviewed books is represented by a literary agent. And that can add up to a hefty handful of queries beginning Since you so ably represented Book X…

The same technique could easily be applied to any book-reviewing periodical — which are, alas, getting rarer all the time — designed to appeal to any group of target readers, right? If you’re not certain which publications to choose (or which review books), trot on over to your local library and strike up a conversation with the lovely person in charge of the periodicals section. Chances are, s/he will be able to tell you precisely who reads which magazine.

A word to the wise, from someone’s who’s spent a lot of hours blandishing assistance from a lot of librarians: you’ll get a better response to this question if

(a) you are polite,

(b) you have already identified your book’s target market (for tips, please see the IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET category at right), and

(c) you don’t approach the librarian either five minutes before closing or when the joint is jumping. And don’t forget to jot down this helpful person’s name for later thanks in acknowledgments.

Obviously, you could work similar wizardry with magazines that publish your kind of writing — it’s often worth searching to see if article-writers are agented. An author does not necessarily need to have a book out to prove a good lead for you, either: a lot of magazine writers are aspiring book writers, and many of them already have agents.

(Before you literary fiction writers out there get too excited, I should probably add: THE NEW YORKER very seldom publishes fiction by any writer who isn’t already pretty well-established, so these authors tend not to be represented by agents over-eager for new blood, if you catch my drift. Starting with a less prestigious short story-publishing magazine might be a more efficient use of your research time.)

The other big advantage to checking out periodicals with book review section is that — brace yourselves — that they will give you insight into what is coming out now in your book category. Since so many books come out in any given year (yes, even in this economy), it can be very helpful to have somebody else — the editorial staff of the publication in question — essentially do your market research for you, pointing you toward the agents who are good at selling books aimed at your target demographic.

Think about it: the average magazine receives review copies of hundreds of books every month; they obviously cannot review all of them, right? Someone is making a choice about what does and does not get reviewed in any given issue. Ostensibly, a magazine will pick a book for review for one of only three reasons: either the book is being marketed to the same target reader as the magazine (who will, we hope, be your reader, too, in time), the book was written by someone who writes for the magazine (who by definition is writing for your target market), or because the author is a crony of someone on staff.

Oh, you thought those college-educated editors did not have roommates who aspired to write books?

So essentially, in the process of selection, a review editor at a well-respected magazine geared toward your book’s target market is telling you what current books are being marketed best in your book’s area. Why turn up your nose at such well-informed advice — even if it does mean you occasionally end up querying the agent who represents the editor’s college roommate?

I hear faint plaintive cries from those of you who have been paying especially close attention. “Excuse me, Anne?” I heard you saying. “Wouldn’t books coming out right now necessarily be a reflection of what agents were selling at least a year or more ago, rather than now? What about your passionate diatribe earlier in this series about how agents live in the now, so we should strive to be as up-to-the-minute in our research as possible?”

If you thought this, or some reasonable facsimile of it, give yourself a gold star for the day. Because, you see, you are — as you so often are, you clever person — quite right.

For those of you new to the publishing game: with very few exceptions, the time lapse between when a book is purchased by a publisher and the date it appears in bookstores is at least a year. Often longer, depending on how far out a publisher establishes a print queue and what season the marketing department believes would be most advantageous for a particular book to appear.

Yes, yes, we’ve all seen books hit the shelves at Barnes & Noble more quickly than this, but those tend to be nonfiction, books about current events or celebrity meltdowns. Your garden-variety novel, however brilliantly written, is unlikely to do much leap-frogging within the print queue. Besides, it is far from uncommon for editors to request that authors make changes to book between acceptance and publication.

That’s one reason, in case you’d been curious, that advances are generally paid in installments, rather than in one lump sum — typically, a third on signing, a third on manuscript acceptance (i.e., after the author has made all those aforementioned requested changes), and a third upon publication. That way, the publisher has a stick as well as a carrot to induce authorial compliance with editorial demands.

Not a bad motivational strategy, admittedly, but often a bit inconvenient for writers who have been dodging student loan payments and living on Top Ramen while they were writing their books.

This lag time renders keeping up with publishing trends significantly more difficult than simple perusal of the bestseller lists, which necessarily reflect what an agent was able to sell to an editor quite some time ago. And that’s potentially problematic for writers trying to find agents to query, because professional opinions about what will and won’t appeal to readers a year or two from now can fluctuate wildly, sometimes with remarkable speed.

Those of you who attend writers’ conferences regularly know what happens when trends begin or end overnight, right? The about-faces can be pretty darned abrupt. Some of the same agents who were roundly declaring historical fiction dead as the proverbial doornail before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time were actively soliciting it from the conference podium after. On the flip side, some of the same agents who once clamored for memoirs like A MILLION LITTLE PIECES were telling writers a year later that memoir was impossible to sell.

And, of course, six months from now, some other book category will be pronounced permanently dead, too. The only thing that is constant is change.

Oh, except for the facts that gravity generally makes things fall down instead of up, generic queries don’t work, and women readers purchase roughly 80% of the fiction sold in the U.S., and pretty much all of the literary fiction. All of that’s been true for an awfully long time.

Other than that, bet your bottom dollar on the malleability of the market. Since it takes substantially longer to write a book than for a bunch of people in Manhattan to decide what the next hot thing will be, all we writers can do is monitor the squalls from afar and hope we’re ready when our time comes.

As I have been pointing out in various ways all autumn, keeping up-to-the-minute on who is selling what now requires vigilance. You could, if you had the time and the resources, subscribing to one of the standard industry publications, such as Publishers Weekly (which runs book reviews, people) or Publishers Marketplace.

As a dispenser of free advice myself, though, and someone who began blogging in the first place because there was at the time a dearth of inexpensive means for aspiring writers to learn how the biz works, I am very much in favor of highlighting any free resources that are available. (Like, say, Publishers Lunch.)
Most aspiring writers are already struggling to make time to write, and for those with the spare cash to spend, there is a whole industry devoted to producing seminars, conferences, books, and magazines devoted to helping them become better and more publishable writers — often for a rather stiff fee. Not to mention freelance editors like me, whose services typically do not come cheap.

So if I can save my readers a few shekels from time to time, I like to do it. Unfortunately, this is one of those cases where if you do a cost/benefit analysis, weighing the value of your time against the difficulty of obtaining free yet up-to-the-minute information, you might want to shell out the dosh.

Although the book review method only tracks current publications, rather than sales to editors, it is undoubtedly cheap: if you go to a public library, you don’t even have to buy newspapers or magazines to read book reviews. Reading book reviews will also tell you, by implication, how good the agent is at placing work with publishers who promote their authors’ books well.

How so, you ask? Well, as you have undoubtedly noticed, the vast majority of books published in North America are not reviewed in the popular press; it is no longer sufficient simply to send a bound galley with a polite cover letter to a publication to get it reviewed. (For those of you unfamiliar with the term, a bound galley is a low-cost print of a book cheaply packaged, without a hard cover, for circulation to reviewers. They look a little bit like thick scripts for plays.)

Talk to anyone who works at a large-circulation magazine, and they will tell you: they receive hundreds of bound galleys every month, but unlike an industry publication like Library Journal, they simply do not have room to review them all. Out of all those submissions, a publication might review perhaps a dozen per issue.

To narrow the probability of any given book’s being reviewed even more, some print media outlets have a policy to review only books released in hardcover — although since it has gotten so common to release fiction in trade paper, other reviewers have dropped this policy — and only books released through traditional publishing. Self-published and electronic books are almost impossible to get reviewed, alas, unless you’re Stephen King. In fact, most newspapers and magazines have a standing policy against it.

Thus, if you see a book reviewed in a major publication, it is because it is either expected to be a big seller, is by an author already well recognized, or someone (usually the publicity department at the publishing house, but with increasing frequency, the author or the author’s press people) has been a shameless nagger. Since even a poor review in a major publication will equal more book sales than no review at all (remember when John Irving’s last book got savaged by THE WASHINGTON POST?), it is very much in your interest to find an agent who is good at bullying publishers into nagging reviewers on behalf of her authors’ books.

If reading through weeks and months of reviews seems like a lot of work, well, it is. But bear in mind the alternative: not targeting agents specifically, or, heaven help us, adopting a mass strategy where you simply blanket the agenting world with generic pleas for representation.

Yes, I know: I’ve been reiterating that particular sentiment quite a bit this autumn, but it honestly is the single best piece of advice an agented writer has to pass along to the aspiring. Just as trial attorneys learn not to ask questions whose answers they cannot anticipate, literally every agented writer I know learned not to query agents who are not demonstrably interested in their kind of writing — or their kind of writer — at that very moment.

Trust me on this one, please. Invest the time. But do it strategically.

Finding well-reviewed first-time authors in your genre should be your first goal in review-scanning, as their agents will probably be most open to taking a chance on another first book. Once you start reading the major book reviewers on a regular basis, however, you will probably notice that first-time authors receive only a very small share of their august notice.

Odd, isn’t it, considering that ostensibly, a book reviewer’s primary job is to alert his readers to the existence of good books they might not otherwise read? But no: the vast majority of reviews are of well-hyped books by already-established writers.

Personally, I would find it a bit redundant to keep on informing the world yet again that Toni Morrison can write up a storm or that J.K. Rowling has a future in children’s literature, when I could be telling the world about an exciting new author’s first novel. But as I have mentioned before, I do not make the rules governing the miasma of publishing; I merely tell you about them.

For this reason, you might want to move beyond the major book review sources in your search for representation pastures new, If you have read several issues of a publication without finding a single author whose work sounds similar to yours, move on to another publication.

The easiest way to do this is to check back issues: here again, the public library is your friend. (But when isn’t that the case?) Librarians, dear souls that they are, often shelve current magazines so one does not even have to move three steps in either direction to find a year’s worth of back issues.

To save yourself some time, don’t bother with issues more than a year and a half old; longer ago than that, and the agents’ book preferences may well have changed.

Why? Chant it with me now: because the book market is malleable.

It’s also sensible to start with the smaller publications aimed most directly at your target audience or demographic, not the broader-based publications. After all, if you write anything at all esoteric, you could easily spend a month leafing through the last two years’ worth of The New York Times Review of Books and only come up with a handful of books in your genre.

Don’t forget to search the web for sites that habitually review your type of book. Yes, the Internet is wide and vast and deep, but if you narrow your search focus enough — how many habitual reviewers of werewolf books could there possibly be, after all? — the task should not be terribly overwhelming. Remember, part of the point of this exercise is to find the smaller books by first-timers, and no one is faster than your garden-variety blogging reviewer at discovering those.

If you find it difficult to tell from the reviews whose work is like yours, take the reviews to a well-stocked bookstore and start pulling books off the shelves. I’m sure that you are a good enough reader to tell in a paragraph or two if the agent who fell in love with any given writer’s style is at all likely to admire your prose flair.

Or –- and this is particularly important if you are writing about anything especially controversial –- if the agent is brave enough to take a chance on a topic that might not, as they say, play in Peoria.

Often, though, this is not necessary, as many book reviewers have the endearing habit of rushing to compare new authors to immensely well-established ones, often within the first few lines. Let’s say you found a review of Stephanie Kallos’ work that mentioned her John Irvingesque plotting. A statement like this in line 1 can render reading the rest of the review superfluous. If your work resembles Irving’s, but you despair of hooking his agent (who, if memory serves, is also his wife), you would be well advised to try Kallos’.

Get it?

Sometimes, the ostensible connections between the writers cited may be rather tenuous, admittedly, rendering them less than helpful for our purposes. Again, taking a gander at the actual books in question will help separate the true analogies from the bizarre.

For example, Layne Maheu’s amazing literary fiction debut SONG OF THE CROW is told from the point of view of a bird along for the ride on Noah’s ark, several reviewers automatically compared the book to Richard Bach’s 1970s megaseller JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Actually, apart from the sheer flesh-to-feathers ratio in these two books, they don’t have a lot in common. But sure enough, the merest flutter of feathers, and the reviewer had a conceptual match.

Some things are beyond mortal comprehension.

I’m not going to lie to you, my friends: pulling together a solid, appropriate, well-researched querying list is not just a lot of work; it involves quite a bit of creativity. And no, I have absolutely no idea why writers are not given credit for that more often.

Next time, I’ll be wrapping up this series — then, I devoutly hope, the Great First Pages contest. As the year fades, I like to tie up loose ends.

We wouldn’t want those kites to go flying off into the ether, would we? Keep up the good work!