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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

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

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

“Yes. You?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Queryfest, part 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.


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 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.


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!