Yet another typo prone to distracting the professional reader’s eye just a trifle

Okay, I’ll confess it: I find writing for an audience as diverse as the Author! Author! community more gratifying than I would addressing a readership more uniformly familiar with the ins and outs of the writing world. I particularly like how differently all of you respond to my discussions of fundamentals; it keeps me coming back to the basics with fresh eyes.

I constantly hear from those new to querying and synopsis-writing, for instance, that the challenge of summarizing a 400-page manuscript in a paragraph — or a page, or five — strikes them as almost as difficult as writing the book they’re describing; from the other direction, those of us who read for a living frequently wonder aloud why someone aiming to become a professional writer would complain about being expected to write something. A post on proofreading might as easily draw a behind-the-scenes peek at a published author’s frustration because the changes she made in her galleys did not make it into her book’s first edition as a straightforward request from a writer new to the challenges of dialogue that I devote a few days to explaining how to punctuate it.

And then there are days like today, when my inbox is crammed to overflowing with suggestions from all across the writing spectrum that I blog about a topic I’ve just covered — and approach it in a completely different way, please. All told, within the last week, I’ve been urged to re-tackle the topic in about thirty mutually-exclusive different ways. In response to this barrage of missives, this evening’s post will be devoted to the imperative task of repairing a rent in the fabric of the writing universe that some of you felt I left flapping in the breeze.

In my appropriately peevish post earlier this week about the importance of proofreading your queries — and, indeed, everything in your query packet — down to the last syllable in order to head off, you guessed it, Millicent the agency screener’s pet peeves in the typo department, my list of examples apparently omitted a doozy or two. Fortunately, my acquaintance amongst Millicents, the Mehitabels who judge writing contests, the Maurys that provide such able assistance to editors, and the fine folks employing all three is sufficiently vast that approximately a dozen literature-loving souls introduced my ribcage to their pointy elbows in the interim, gently reminding me to let you know about another common faux pas that routinely makes them stop reading, clutch their respective pearls, and wonder about the literacy of the writer in question.

And if a small army of publishing types and literature aficionados blackened-and-blued my tender sides with additional suggestions for spelling and grammar problems they would like to see me to address in the very near future, well, that’s a matter between me, them, and my chiropractor, is it not? This evening, I shall be concentrating upon a gaffe that confronts Millicent and her cohorts so often in queries, synopses, book proposals, manuscripts, and contest entries that as a group, they have begun to suspect that English teachers just aren’t covering it in class anymore.

Which, I gather, makes it my problem. Since the mantle of analysis is also evidently mine, let me state up front that I think it’s too easy to blame the English department for the popularity of the more pervasive faux pas. Yes, many writers do miss learning many of the rules governing our beloved language, but that’s been the norm for most of my lifetime. Students have often been expected to pick up their grammar at home. Strange to relate, though, houses like the Mini abode, in which children and adults alike were expected to be able to diagram sentences at the dinner table, have evidently never been as common as this teaching philosophy would imply.

Or so I surmise from my friends’ reactions when I would bring them home to Thanksgiving dinner. Imagine my surprise upon learning that households existed in which it was possible for a diner without a working knowledge of the its/it’s distinction to pour gravy over mashed potatoes, or for someone who couldn’t tell a subject from a predicate to ask for — and, I’m incredulous to hear, receive — a second piece of pumpkin pie. Garnished with whipped cream, even.

So where, one might reasonably wonder, were aspiring writers not taught to climb the grammatical ropes either at home or at school supposed to pick them up? In the street? Ah, the argument used to go, that’s easy: they could simply turn to a book to see the language correctly wielded. Or a newspaper. Or the type of magazine known to print the occasional short story.

An aspiring writer could do that, of course — but now that AP standards have changed so newspaper and magazine articles do not resemble what’s considered acceptable writing within the book publishing world (the former, I tremble to report, capitalizes the first letter after a colon, for instance; the latter typically does not), even the most conscientious reader might be hard-pressed to derive the rules by osmosis. Add in the regrettable reality that newspapers, magazines, and even published books now routinely contain typos, toss in a dash of hastily-constructed e-mails and the wildly inconsistent styles of writing floating about the Internet, and stir.

Voil? ! The aspiring writer seeking patterns to emulate finds herself confronted with a welter of options. The only trouble: while we all see the rules applied inconsistently all the time, the rules themselves have not changed very much.

You wouldn’t necessarily know that, though, if your literary intake weren’t fairly selective. Take, for instance, the radically under-discussed societal decision to throw subject-object agreement in everyday conversation out with both the baby and the bathwater — contrary to popular practice, it should be everyone threw his baby out with the bathwater, not everyone threw their baby out with the bathwater, unless everyone shared collective responsibility for a single baby and hoisted it from its moist settee with a joint effort. This has left many otherwise talented writers with the vague sense that neither the correct usage nor the incorrect look right on the page.

It’s also worth noting that as compound sentences the length of this one have become more common in professional writing, particularly in conversational-voiced first person pieces, the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, sees paragraph- or even page-long sentences strung together with seemingly endless series of ands, buts, and/or ors , has skyrocketed, no doubt due to an understandable cognitive dissonance causing some of the aforementioned gifted many to believe, falsely, that the prohibitions against run-on sentences no longer apply — or even, scare bleu, that it’s actually more stylish to cram an entire thought into a single overstuffed sentence than to break it up into a series of shorter sentences that a human gullet might conceivably be able to croak out within a single breath.

May I consider that last point made and move on? Or would you prefer that I continue to ransack my conjunctions closet so I can tack on more clauses? My neighborhood watch group has its shared baby to bathe, people.

It’s my considered opinion that the ubiquity of grammatical errors in queries and submissions to agencies may be attributable to not one cause, but two. Yes, some writers may never have learned the relevant rules, but others’ conceptions of what those rules are may have become blunted by continually seeing them misapplied.

Wait — you’re just going to take my word for that? Really? Have you lovely people become too jaded by the pervasiveness or sweeping generalizations regarding the decline of grammar in English to find damning analysis presented without a shred of corroborative evidence eye-popping? Or to consider lack of adequate explanation of what I’m talking about even a trifle eyebrow-raising?

Welcome to Millicent’s world, my friends. You wouldn’t believe how queries, synopses, and opening pages of manuscripts seem to have been written with the express intention of hiding more information from a screener than they divulge. They also, unfortunately, often contain enough spelling, grammar, and even clarity problems that poor Millie’s left perplexed.

Doubt that? Okay, let’s examine a not-uncommon take on the book description paragraph from a query letter:

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty eight year old out of work pop diva turned hash slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself. Fiercely pursuing her dreams despite a dizzying array of obstacles, she struggles to have it all in a world seemingly determined to take it all away. Can she find her way through her maze of options while still being true to herself?

Excuse me, but if no one minds my asking, what is this book about? You must admit, other than that long string of descriptors in the first sentence, it’s all pretty vague. Where is this story set? What is its central conflict? What is Pandora running from — or towards — and why? And what about this story is better conveyed through hackneyed phrasing — running from her past, true to herself — than could be expressed through original writing?

On the bright side, Millicent might not stick with this query long through enough to identify the clich? use and maddening vagueness as red flags. Chances are, the level of hyphen abuse in that first sentence would cause her to turn pale, draw unflattering conclusions about the punctuation in the manuscript being offered, and murmur, “Next!”

I sense some of you turning pale at the notion that she might read so little of an otherwise well-crafted query, but be honest, please. Are you wondering uneasily how she could possibly make up her mind so fast — or wondering what about that first sentence would strike a professional reader as that off-putting?

If it’s the latter, here’s a hint: she might well have lasted to be irritated by the later ambiguity if the first sentence had been punctuated like this.

OPAQUE is the story of Pandora, a twenty-eight-year-old out-of-work pop-diva-turned-hash-slinger running from her past and, ultimately, herself.

Better, isn’t it? While we’re nit-picking, the TITLE is the story of… is now widely regarded as a rather ungraceful introduction to a query’s descriptive paragraph. Or as an opening for a synopsis, for that matter. Since Millicent and her boss already know that the purpose of both is — wait for it — to describe the book, why waste valuable page space telling them that what is about to appear in the place they expect to see a book description is in fact a book description?

There’s a larger descriptive problem here, though. If the querier had not attempted to shove all of those multi-part descriptive clauses out of the main body of the sentence, the question of whether to add hyphens or not would have been less pressing. Simply moving the title to the query’s opening paragraph, too, would help relieve the opening sentence of its heavy conceptual load. While we’re at it, why not give a stronger indication of the book’s subject matter?

As a great admirer of your client, A. New Author, I am writing in the hope you will be interested in my women’s fiction manuscript, OPAQUE. Like Author’s wonderful debut, ABSTRUSE, my novel follows a powerful, resourceful woman from the public spotlight to obscurity and back again.

By the tender age of twenty-eight, pop sensation Pandora has already become a has-been. Unable to book a single gig, she drives around the back roads of Pennsylvania in disguise until she finds refuge slinging hash in a roadside diner.

Hooray — Millicent’s no longer left to speculate what the book’s about! Now that the generalities and stock phrases have been replaced with specifics and original wording, she can concentrate upon the story being told. Equally important, she can read on without having to wonder uneasily if the manuscript will be stuffed to the proverbial gills with typos, and thus would not be ready for her boss, the agent of your dreams, to circulate to publishing houses.

While I appreciate the refreshing breeze coming from so many heads being shaken simultaneously, I suspect it indicates that not everyone instantly spotted why a professional reader would so vastly prefer the revised versions to the original. “I do like how you’ve unpacked that overburdened first sentence, Anne,” some brave souls volunteer, “but I have to say, the way you have been moving hyphens around puzzles me. Sometimes, I’ve seen similar phrases hyphenated, but sometimes, they’re not. I thought we were striving for consistency here!”

Ah, a common source of confusion: we’re aiming for consistency in applying the rules, not trying, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, to force the same set of words to appear identically on the page every time it is used. The first involves learning the theory so you can use it appropriately across a wide variety of sentences; the second entails an attempt to memorize how certain phrases appear in print, in an attempt to avoid having to learn the theory.

Trust me, learning the rules will be substantially less time-consuming in the long run than guessing. Not to mention more likely to yield consistent results. Oh, and in the case of hyphens, just trying to reproduce how you saw a phrase used elsewhere will often steer you wrong.

Why? Stop me if this sounds familiar: anyone who reads much these days, especially online, routinely sees more than his share of hyphen abuse. Hyphens crop up where they don’t belong; even more frequently, they are omitted where their inclusion would clarify compound phrasing. No wonder writers — who, after all, tend to read quite a bit more than most people, and certainly read with a closer eye for picking up style tips — sometimes become confused.

And frankly, queries, synopses, book proposals, and manuscripts reflect that confusion. You’d be amazed at how often aspiring writers will, on a single page, hyphenate a phrase correctly on line 5, yet neglect to add a hyphen to a similar phrase on line 18. Or even, believe it or not, present the same phrase used in precisely the same manner in two different ways.

Which raises an intriguing question, doesn’t it? Based on that page, how could Millicent tell whether a sentence was improperly punctuated because the writer was in a hurry and just didn’t notice a one-time typo in line 18 — or if the writer didn’t know the rule in the first place, but guessed correctly on line 5? The fact is, she can’t.

That’s a shame, really, as this type of typo/rule wobbling/dizzying confusion can distract the reader from the substance and style of the writing. To see how and why, take a gander at a sterling little passage in which this inadvertent eye-attractor abounds.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. ”

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Okay, okay, so Millicent seldom sees so many birds of a feather flocking together (While I’m at it, you look mahvalous, you wild and crazy guy, and that’s hot. And had I mentioned that Millie, like virtually every professional reader, has come to hate clich?s with a passion most people reserve for rattlesnake bites, waiting in line at the D.M.V., and any form of criticism of their writing skills?) In queries and synopses, our gaffe du jour is be spotted traveling solo, often in summary statements like this:

At eight-years-old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Or as its evil twin:

Alphonse was an eight year old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Am I correct in assuming that if either of these sentences appeared before your bloodshot eyes in the course of an ordinary day’s reading, a hefty majority of you would simply shrug and read on? May I further presume that if at least a few of you noticed one or both of these sentences whilst reading your own query IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD, as one does, you might either shrug again or not be certain how to revise it?

Do I hear you laughing, or is Tyrone at it again? “I know what the problem is, Anne!” experienced query- and synopsis-writers everywhere shout, chuckling. “Savvy writers everywhere know that in a query’s book description, it’s perfectly acceptable to introduce a character like this:

Alphonse (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk.

“As you will notice, it’s also in the present tense, as the norms of query book descriptions dictate. By the same token, the proper way to alert Millicent that a new character has just cropped up in a synopsis involves presenting his or her name in all capital letters the first time it appears, followed by his or her age in parentheses. While I’m sure you’d like to linger to admire our impeccable subject-object agreement in that last sentence, I’m sure readers new to synopsis-writing would like to see what the technique described in the first sentence of this paragraph would look like in print, so here it is:

ALPHONSE (8) has harbored a passion for playing water polo since before he could walk — and now that a tragic Tonka Toy accident has left him temporarily unable to walk or swim, what is he going to do with his time?

I’m impressed at how clearly you’ve managed to indicate what is and is not an example in your verbal statements, experienced ones, but we’re straying from the point a little, are we not? Not using parentheses to show a character’s age in a book description is hardly an instant-rejection offense, and eschewing the ALL CAPS (age) convention is unlikely to derail a well-constructed synopsis at submission time. (Sorry, lovers of absolute pronouncements: both of these are matters of style.)

Those are sophisticated critiques, however; I was hoping you would spot the basic errors here. Basically, the writer immortalizing Alphonse’s triumphs and tribulations has gotten the rule backwards. Those first two examples should have read like this:

At eight years old, Alphonse had already proven himself the greatest water polo player in Canada.

Alphonse was an eight-year-old boy with a passion for playing water polo.

Does that look right to you? If so, can you tell me why it looks right to you?

And no, Virginia, neither “Because you said it was right, Anne!” nor “I just know correct punctuation when I see it!” would constitute useful responses here. To hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question.

The answer, I hope you will not be astonished to hear, depends upon the role the logically-connected words are playing in an individual sentence. The non-hyphenated version is a simple statement of fact: Alphonse is, we are told, eight years old. Or, to put it another way, in neither that last sentence or our first example does eight years old modify a noun.

In our second example, though, eight-year-old is acting as a compound adjective, modifying boy, right? The hyphens tell the reader that the entire phrase should be taken as a conceptual whole, then applied to the noun. If the writer wanted three distinct and unrelated adjectives to be applied to the noun, he should have separated them with commas.

The small, freckle-faced, and tenacious boy flung himself into the pool, eager to join the fray.

Are you wondering why I hyphenated freckle-faced? Glad you asked. The intended meaning arises from the combination of these two words: freckle-faced is describing the boy here. If I had wanted the reader to apply the two words independently to the noun, I could have separated them by commas, but it would be nonsensical to say the freckle, faced boy, right?

Applying the same set of principles to our old friend Pandora, then, we could legitimately say:

Pandora is an out-of-work diva.

The diva is a has-been; she is out of work.

Out-of-work has-been seeks singing opportunity.

Let’s talk about why. In the first sentence, the hyphens tell the reader that Pandora isn’t an out diva and an of diva and a work diva — she’s an out-of-work diva. In the second sentence, though, out of work does not modify diva; it stands alone. Has-been, however, stands together in Sentence #2: the hyphen transforms the two verbs into a single noun. In the third sentence, that same noun is modified by out-of-work.

Getting the hang of it? Okay, let’s gather our proofreading tools and revisit Tyrone, Hortense, and Ghislaine, a couple of paragraphs at a time.

“All of this build up we’ve talked-about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the table top buildup of wax at the drive in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed-in on the sign in sheet. “I know she’s stepped-in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick-up my back pack and runaway through my backdoor to my backyard. ”

Hortense revved her pick up truck’s engine, the better to drive-through and thence to drive-in to the parking space. “That’s because Anne built-up your hopes in a much talked about run away attempt to backup her argument.”

Some of that punctuation looked pretty strange to you, I hope. Let’s try applying the rules.

“All of this build-up we’ve talked about is starting to bug me,” Tyrone moaned, fruitlessly swiping at the tabletop build-up of wax at the drive-in theatre. He’d been at it ever since he had signed in on the sign-in sheet. “I know she’s stepped in to step up my game, but I’m tempted to pick up my backpack and run away through my back door to my back yard. ”

Hortense revved her pick-up truck’s engine, the better to drive through and thence to drive into the parking space. “That’s because Anne built up your hopes in a much-talked-about runaway attempt to back up her argument.”

All of those changes made sense, I hope. Since drive-in is used as a noun — twice, even — it takes a hyphen, but when the same words are operating as a verb plus a preposition (Hortense is driving into a parking space), a hyphen would just be confusing. Similarly, when Tyrone signed in, he’s performing the act of signing upon the sign-in sheet. He and his friends talked about the build-up, but Hortense uses much-talked-about to describe my runaway attempt. Here, back is modifying the nouns door and yard, but if we were talking about a backdoor argument or a backyard fence, the words would combine to form an adjective.

And a forest of hands sprouts out there in the ether. “But Anne, I notice that some of the compound adjectives are hyphenated, but some become single words. Why runaway, backpack, and backyard, but pick-up truck and sign-in sheet?”

Because English is a language of exceptions, that’s why. It’s all part of our rich and wonderful linguistic heritage.

Which is why, speaking of matters people standing on either side of the publishing wall often regard differently, it so often comes as a genuine shock to agents and editors when they meet an aspiring writer who says he doesn’t have time to read. To a writer, this may seem like a simple matter of time management — those of us in favor with the Muses don’t magically gain extra hours in the day, alas — but from the editorial side of the conversation, it sounds like a serious drawback to being a working writer. How on earth, the pros wonder, can a writer hope to become conversant with not only the stylistic norms and storytelling conventions of his chosen book category, but the ins and outs of our wildly diverse language, unless he reads a great deal?

While you’re weighing both sides of that potent issue, I’m going to slip the next set of uncorrected text in front of you. Where would you make changes?

At her lived in post at the drive through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick up sticks. “Hey, lay-off. You mean build up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head-on into this head in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned out coworker could tune-out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built-in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the back door logic — it’s the run away pace.”

Have your edits firmly in mind? Compare them to this:

At her lived-in post at the drive-through window, Ghislaine rolled her eyes over her game of pick-up sticks. “Hey, lay off. You mean build-up; it’s before the argument, not after.”

“I can’t hear you,” Hortense shouted. “Let me head into this head-in parking space.”

Ghislaine raised her voice before her tuned-out coworker could tune out her words. “I said that Anne’s tactics were built in good faith. And I suspect that your problem with it isn’t the backdoor logic — it’s the runaway pace.”

How did you do? Admittedly, the result is still a bit awkward — and wasn’t it interesting how much more obvious the style shortcomings are now that the punctuation has been cleaned up? That’s the way it is with revision: lift off one layer of the onion, and another waits underneath.

In response to what half of you just thought: yes, polishing all of the relevant layers often does require repeated revision. Contrary to popular myth, most professional writing goes through multiple drafts before it hits print — and professional readers tend to be specifically trained to read for several different types of problem at the same time. So as tempting as it might be to conclude that if Millicent is distracted by offbeat punctuation, she might overlook, say, a characterization issue, it’s unlikely to work out that way in practice.

With that sobering reality in mind, let’s move on to the next section.

“Oh, pickup your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick up truck’s backdoor behind her — a good trick, as she had previously e sitting in the driver’sseat. “We’re due to do-over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste-on the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed-up! “Just give me time to back-up out of the room. I have lived-in too many places where people walk-in to built in walk in closets, and wham! The moment they’ve stepped-up, they’re trapped. “

I broke the excerpt there for a reason: did you happen to catch the unwarranted space between the final period and the quotation marks? A trifle hard to spot on a backlit screen, was it not? See why I’m always urging you to read your work IN HARD COPY and IN ITS ENTIRETY before you slip it under Millicent’s notoriously sharp-but-overworked eyes?

And see what I did there? Believe me, once you get into the compound adjectival phrase habit, it’s addictive.

I sense some of you continue to shake off the idea that proofing in hard copy (and preferably by reading your work OUT LOUD) is more productive than scanning it on a computer screen. Okay, doubters: did you notice the partially deleted word in that last excerpt’s second sentence? Did you spot it the first time you went through this scene, when I presented it as an unbroken run of dialogue?

The nit-picky stuff counts, folks. Here’s that passage again, with the small matters resolved. This time, I’m going to tighten the text a bit as well.

“Oh, pick up your spirits.” Hortense slammed the pick-up’s back door behind her — a good trick, as she had previously been sitting in the driver’s seat. “We’re due to do over a million dollars in business today. It’s time for us to make back-up copies of our writing files, as Anne is perpetually urging us to do.”

Tyrone gave up on the tabletop so he could apply paste to the back of some nearby construction paper. If only he’d known about these onerous duties before he’d signed up! “Just give me time to back out of the room. I have lived in too many places where people walk into built-in walk-in closets, and wham! They’re trapped. “

Still not precisely Shakespeare, but at least the punctuation is no longer screaming at Millicent, “Run away! Run away!” (And in case the three times this advice has already floated through the post today didn’t sink in, when was the last time you backed up your writing files? Do you have a recent back-up stored somewhere other than your home?)

The text is also no longer pointing out — and pretty vehemently, too — that if her boss did take on this manuscript, someone at the agency would have to be assigned to proofread every draft of it. That’s time-consuming, and to be blunt about it, not really the agent’s job. And while it is indeed the copyeditor’s job to catch typos before the book goes to press, generally speaking, agents and editors both routinely expect manuscripts to be thoroughly proofread before they first.

Which once again leads us to different expectations prevailing in each of the concentric circles surrounding publishing. To many, if not most, aspiring writers, the notion that they would be responsible for freeing their manuscripts of typos, checking the spelling, and making sure the grammar is impeccable seems, well, just a trifle crazy. Isn’t that what editors do?

From the professional reader’s side of the equation, though, it’s practically incomprehensible that any good writer would be willing to send out pages — or a query — before ascertaining that it was free of typos. Everyone makes ‘em, so why not set aside time to weed ‘em out? You want your writing to appear to its best advantage, right?

Hey, I’m walking you through this long exercise for a reason. Let’s take another stab at developing those proofreading skills.

“Can we have a do over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign up above her head-on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in-line for in line skates to escape if we run overtime. At this rate, our as-yet-unnamed boss will walk in with that pasted on grin, take one look at the amount of over time we have marked on our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay off list.”

Did you catch the extra space in the last sentence, after the comma? Wouldn’t that have been easier to spot in hard copy?

Admit it: now that you’re concentrating upon it, the hyphen abuse is beginning to annoy you a bit, isn’t it? Congratulations: that means you are starting to read like a professional. You’ll pardon me, then, if I not only correct the punctuation this time around, but clear out some of the conceptual redundancy as well. While I’m at it, I’ll throw a logical follow-up question into the dialogue.

“Can we have a do-over?” Ghislaine begged, glancing at the DO NOT ARGUE ABOUT GRAMMAR sign on the ceiling. “None of us have time to wait in line for in-line skates.”

“What do skates have to do with anything?” Tyrone snapped.

“To escape if we run into overtime. At this rate, our boss will walk in with that pasted-on grin, take one look at our time sheets, and we’ll be on the lay-off list.”

Hey, just because we’re concentrating on the punctuation layer of the textual onion doesn’t mean we can’t also give a good scrub to some of the lower layers. Let’s keep peeling, shall we?

Hortense walked-in to the aforementioned walk in closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut rate social analyst, is the loungewear where we lounge in our lounge where? I’d hate to cut-right through the rules-and-regulations.”

“Now you’re just being silly.” Tyrone stomped his foot. “I refuse to indulge in any more word misuse, and I ought to report you both for abuse of hyphens. Millicent will have stopped reading by the end of the first paragraph.”

A button down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “Don’t forget to button down to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grabbing you a jacket with a burned out design, but only because you burned-out side all of that paper our boss had been hoarding.”

“I’m beginning to side with Millicent,” Tyrone muttered, buttoning-down his button down.

Quite a bit to trim there, eh? Notice, please, how my initial desire to be cute by maximizing phrase repetition drags down the pace on subsequent readings. It’s quite common for a writer’s goals for a scene to change from draft to draft; to avoid ending up with a Frankenstein manuscript, inconsistently voiced due to multiple partial revisions, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of rereading every scene — chant it with me now, folks — IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and, ideally, OUT LOUD after each revision.

Here’s how it might read after a switch in authorial agenda — and an increase of faith in the reader’s intelligence. If Hortense is able to walk into the closet and stay there for paragraphs on end, mightn’t the reader be trusted to pick up that it’s a walk-in closet?

Hortense vanished into the closet. “If you’re so smart, you cut-rate social analyst, is the lounge where we lounge in our loungewear? I’d hate to cut through the rules and regulations.”

“Has she gone nuts?” Tyrone whispered.

“That’s what you get,” Ghislaine muttered under her breath, “for complaining about Anne’s advice. She’s only trying to help writers like us identify patterns in our work, you know.”

A button-down shirt flew out of the closet, landing on his face. “I don’t think the build-up for Anne’s larger point is our greatest problem at the moment. Right now, I’m worried that she’s trapped us in a scene with a maniac.”

“Don’t forget to button your shirt to the very bottom,” Hortense called. “Ghisy, I’ll grab you a jacket.”

“Tremendous,” she called back. Scooting close to Tyrone, she added in an undertone, “If Anne doesn’t end the scene soon, we can always lock Hortense in the closet. That would force an abrupt end to the scene.”

“I vote for a more dramatic resolution.” He caught her in his arms. “Run away with me to Timbuktu.”

She kissed him enthusiastically. “Well, I didn’t see that coming in previous drafts”.

The moral, should you care to know it, is that a writer needn’t think of proofreading, much less revision, as a sterile, boring process in revisiting what’s already completely conceived. Every time you reread your own writing, be it in a manuscript draft or query, contest entry or synopsis, provides you with another opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t. Rather than clinging stubbornly to your initial vision for the scene, why not let the scene evolve, if it likes?

That’s hard for any part of a manuscript to do, though, if its writer tosses off an initial draft without going back to it from time to time. Particularly in a first book, storylines tend to alter as the writing progresses; narrative voices grow and change. Getting into the habit of proofreading can provide not only protection against the ravages of Millicent’s gimlet eye, but also make it easier to notice if one part of the manuscript to reflect different authorial goals and voice choices than other parts.

How’s the writer to know that if he hasn’t read his own book lately? Or, for that matter, his own query?

This is not, I suspect, the conclusion any of the fine people who suggested I examine hyphen abuse presumed my post would have. But that’s what keeps the conversation interesting: continually revisiting the same topics of common interest from fresh angles. Keep up the good work!

Before you send out that query, will you do something for me? Please? Or do I need to call out the kraken?

As those of you who have been hanging out here at Author! Author! for a while are, I hope, already aware, I’m no fan of one-size-fits all querying advice. Or generic writing rules allegedly applicable to all writing everywhere, for that matter. While there are indeed some standard expectations hovering above the querying process — keep it to a single page; be polite; include your contact information; tell the nice agent what kind of book it is, and so forth — I have for seven years now been a tireless advocate of the notion that there’s no such thing as a query that will appeal to every agent, every time.

Certainly not one that will withstand mass mass-mailing to every agent in Christendom with no more fine-tuning between strikings of the SEND key than a change in the salutation from Dear Mr. Representativeson to Dear Ms. Choosemenow. Yet as someone who regularly blogs about querying, teaches classes on it, and offers one-on-one consultation to writers trying to improve their querying chances, I regularly encounter would-be queriers absolutely outraged at the mere suggestion that learning enough about an agent’s sales record and client list to be able to personalize the missive might conceivably be more effective than simply sending the same thing to everyone.

The personalized route is demonstrably more effective, incidentally, but try telling that to an eager would-be author determined to send out 200 queries within the next week and a half. There’s no one so sure of what he is doing than someone that’s learned only the bare minimum requirements for a query and thinks that any old agent will do.

Also not true, by the way: agents specialize by fiction vs. nonfiction, book category, and often by writing style or narrative worldview as well. Narrowing their sales focus enables them to pitch their existing clients’ work more effectively to their already-established network of editorial connections.

But try explaining that to a determined writer who’s promised herself, her kith and kin, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy that she’s going to land an agent for her novel, darn it, before Easter or perish of exhaustion in the attempt. No matter how gently those of us who handle manuscripts for a living break the news that in practice, there’s no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for even the best-written book in a category her boss simply does not represent, she’ll cling to the belief that while there’s a stone left unturned, she hasn’t yet given it her best shot.

I have also not been particular quiet about my belief that, contrary to online popular opinion, it does not make either creative or strategic sense to approach people looking for original writing and innovative ideas by lifting a prefab query template, plugging your book’s information into it as if it were a Mad Lib, and merrily send the result to the agent of your dreams. Usually, all that achieves is causing Millicent the agency screener’s eyes to glaze over, because, let’s face it, the 712th reading of a stock phrase like my novel is complete at XX,XXX words is no more likely to strike anyone as startlingly beautiful writing than the 12,453rd.

But try explaining that to someone cranking out Query No. 84 out of a projected 217. “But I saw it in an example online!” these well-intentioned souls will shout, wiping the sweat from their eyes as they lick the next envelope — or, even more often, pound the SEND key yet again. “If it didn’t work, why would it be posted to help people like me?”

Oh, where do I even start with that one? Perhaps by keeping it simple: despite the apparently astonishingly pervasive belief that all of the writing/querying/submission advice online is equally credible, it isn’t. Furthermore, there’s no Ambrosia, the Good Agent or Euphemia, the Good Editor floating over the ether, whacking incorrect or, even more common, insufficiently explained online guidance with their magic wands, transforming misguided self-described words of wisdom into something actually useful.

Believe it or not, the ideas put forth in that last paragraph reliably generate controversy in querying classes, in the comment section of post on querying, and, indeed, in pretty much any writers’ conference in North America. Which is funny, because often, the very aspiring writers most vehement about a particular theory on querying success tend to be those most irritated by the diversity of opinion they’ve turned up online. It’s hard to blame them, really: if you want to hear fifteen different views on querying, each presenting itself as the authoritative last word, all you have to do is traipse into a class, conference, or online forum and ask to be told what to do.

I accept all that, after all these years. That’s why I always provide such extensive explanations for any querying — or submission, or writing, or editing — strategy I urge you to embrace: as an established blogger, I’ve learned from experience that savvy writers new to the game are often juggling conflicting advice from multiple sources. I would never dream of asking smart people to take my advice just because I say so.

It may come as a surprise, then, that today, I’m going to give you some querying advice that I do in fact expect everyone within the sound of my fingertips tapping on my keyboard to take as much to heart as if Ambrosia, Euphemia, and the New Year’s Resolution Fairy all appeared above your writing desk, chanting it in three-part harmony: never, under any circumstances, send out a query letter without having both spell-checked and proofread it.

I hear some of you chuckling, thinking it would never occur to you to hit SEND or pop a query in the mail without double-, triple-, and quadruple-checking that it was free of typos and grammatical errors. Would you still think it was safe to shrug off this rule if I added and you should do this every time, even if you’re sending out essentially the same query letter ?

Ah, you’ve stopped laughing now, haven’t you? At some point in his checkered career, virtually every aspiring writer has just churned out two or more query letters that closely resembled each other. With the entirely predictable result that the Millicent working for agent Sharpeye McNitpicker at Literary Giants Literary Management has frequently opened an envelope to find an opening like this:

Selectivity Exclusiveberg
Seldompicksupanewclient & Jones Literary Agency
1234 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10000

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg:

Well might you gasp, but honestly, when you’re mailing off a lot of queries all at once, it’s pretty easy to shove one into the wrong envelope. And, lest those of you planning to query via e-mail be feeling smug, it’s even easier to copy an earlier query and forget to change the salutation. Imagine Sharpeye’s Millicent’s facial expression upon finding this in her inbox:

Dear Mr. Exclusiveberg,

Since you so ably represented Rookie T. Neophyte’s MY FIRST NOVEL, I am hoping you will be interested in my mainstream novel…

It wouldn’t take the proverbial rocket scientist to figure out what happened here — clearly, our querier had just sent off a query to the excellent Mr. Exclusiveberg. Millicent would realize that, of course. Think about it, though: if you were Sharpeye’s loyal screener, wouldn’t you be just a trifle annoyed at this querier’s lack of attention to detail? Wouldn’t you be inclined to leap to the conclusion that a writer this overwhelmed by the querying process, however understandably, would also feel flummoxed by the often-intimidating submission process? Or the sales process, or the publication process? Wouldn’t you be likely to suspect that this querier might be just a trifle more time-consuming for your boss to represent than someone who took the time to make sure the right query went to the right agent?

And while I’m asking rhetorical questions about your feelings about a job you don’t currently have, wouldn’t you also feel the urge to hit DELETE the 926th time you saw a query addressed to your nice female boss like this:

Dear Mr. McNitpicker:

Congratulations on your continued success in representing Bigwig Z. Bestseller’s thrillers. My thriller, DERIVATIVE? YOU BET! is very much in the same tradition.

Here, our querier has correctly identified one of Sharpeye’s clients, but has obviously not bothered to read her bio — which, as any true admirer of Ms. McNitpicker would happily tell you, repeatedly and correctly refers to her agenting triumphs via the feminine pronoun. Because her name might conceivably refer to someone either male or female, her Millicent has also rolled her eyes over many an otherwise well-crafted query that has tried to hedge by using both names:

Dear Sharpeye McNitpicker,

Or by embracing a too-familiar tone in the query overall, presumably to justify dispensing with the honorific altogether in favor of the first name:

Dear Sharpeye,

I love your blog! And while we’re talking about great writing, why not take a look at my memoir, REMINISCENCES OF A NARCISSIST? It’s so fantastic, it’ll blow your mind.

Now that you’ve been toddling along in Millicent’s moccasins for a few examples, it may not completely astonish you to learn that all of these are usually instant-rejection offenses. If a screener saw any of them only once in the proverbial blue moon, she might be amused enough to let it pass, but if she toils at a large agency or screens for an agent that represents a bestselling author, she might well see each of these several faux pas crop up several times per week.

If not per day. But try telling that to a querier who thinks he’s cleverly avoided the Scylla of gender misidentification by steering straight for the Charybdis of unprofessionalism.

Oh, you thought I chose today’s opening illustration at random? Would that be in keeping with my notoriously close attention to detail?

The strong likelihood of misaddressing the agent of your dreams, or at any rate, his hardworking Millicent. is not the only reason that I would urge you to read your queries — feel free to sing along with me here, long-time readers — EACH TIME IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and preferably OUT LOUD, however, even though we all know that’s the best way to catch any mistakes. Beautifully-addressed queries frequently run afoul of yet another beastie haunting agency waterways.

Instead of just warning you of the monster’s existence, let’s see if you can spot it in its natural habitat. To give it a sporting chance of escaping, I’ve allowed it to swim freely around a hard-copy query. If you’re experiencing trouble reading the individual words, try holding down the COMMAND key and pressing + to enlarge the image.

Not the world’s easiest missive to read, is it? But just try explaining that to the lover of fonts who is absolutely convinced that choosing an off-the-wall typeface will make her query stand out from the crowd. And she’s right: it will — for the font and nothing else.

Remember, part of what a writer demonstrates in a query is a reasonable willingness to conform to the expectations of the publishing industry. In that spirit, here’s that query again in 12-point Times New Roman, the industry standard. Notice how much more room Wacky has to make her case with a smaller font.

How gratifying to see so many hands flung skyward. Yes, eagle-eyed readers? “But Anne,” those of you conversant with my HOW TO WRITE A QUERY LETTER FROM SCRATCH series bellow triumphantly, “there are quite a few things wrong with this letter! It doesn’t contain a date, for one thing, and Wacky’s e-mail address appears in blue, a Word AutoFormat correction that’s notoriously annoying to screeners. Nor does it include Wacky’s phone number. Shouldn’t a savvy querier be making it easier, not harder, for an agent to contact him? Her? What kind of a name is Wacky, anyway?”

You’re quite right, bellowers: I had asked you a trick question — this query does contain several red flags, even with the more legible font. Any of you bright people want to tell me why not including a date on a regular mail query might trigger rejection?

Help yourself to a gold star from petty cash if you instantly leapt to your feet, shouting, “Because an undated letter might have been sent anytime! That makes it seem as though — sacre bleu! — Wacky has been reusing the same query for every agent she’s approached, changing only the address, salutation, and work to be praised!” This is a notorious agents’ pet peeve, dating from the pre-personal computer days when aspiring writers would write what were known as Dear Agent letters, photocopy a hundred of them, and mail them to every agency in New York.

Today, the personal computer renders the same tactic much easier to disguise, but still, why advertise it? While writing a basic query letter and personalizing parts of it for each agent is in fact quite a clever strategy, it defeats the purpose if the letter’s lack of a date indicates that it’s a multi-purpose document. Maintain the illusion; even though Millicent knows perfectly well that with the current practice of not answering queries if an agent does not want to request a manuscript, she’ll appreciate the courtesy.

Did you happen to notice, though, the dead giveaway that Wacky had not proofread this query — and thus, Millicent might be within her rights to extrapolate, might not have proofread his manuscript, either? If you didn’t catch the repeated problem, try going back and reading the query out loud.

Did you spot the multiple dropped words that time? Whenever text is composed quickly, there’s a danger of the head’s moving faster than the fingers, resulting in skipped words, punctuation, and even sentences. And perhaps I’ve been misinformed, but when writers are composing something they don’t really want to write — like, say, a query letter or synopsis — they do tend to rush the job.

That’s not the only reason this problem has become ubiquitous in queries in the home computer age, however. As you may perhaps have heard, savvy queriers often compose a basic query letter, then personalize it for each recipient. With every cut, paste, and added word, the chances of cutting a necessary element without noticing it rise.

I sense a few more raised hands out there in the ether. “But Anne, even with the missing elements, it’s perfectly clear what Wacky wanted to say here. His story sounds like an interesting one, although like many readers, I may well be thinking of it rather differently now that I know it to have been written by a man than a woman. That’s a topic for another day, however. At the moment, what I really want to know is if Millicent is reading Wacky’s query very quickly, anyway, isn’t it possible that she might, you know, overlook the missing words?”

It’s possible, I suppose, remotely so. It’s also remotely possible that by the time we wake up tomorrow, the literary world will have decided that sentence fragments are much, much cooler to read than complete sentences.

And then. We’ll all. Be writing. Like this.

Even if the world changes so much that cats develop opposable thumbs and begin turning up as dealers at poker tables, though, the possibility that dropped words, repeated phrases, misspelled words, clich? use, and other line-level red flags will fall off Millicent’s to-scan-for list within our lifetimes remains so remote that we should probably stop speculating about it and start worrying about those kitties.

The publishing world appreciates good writing, and that means preferring clean, polished prose to, well, the other kind. But just try explaining that to a writer that believes, as so many aspiring writers apparently do, that agency denizens will be willing to look past problematic writing in a query. It’s only fair to judge a writer on the writing in the manuscript, right?

I can see why a writer might feel that way: a query, like a synopsis or a book proposal, calls for a different kind of writing than a novel or nonfiction manuscript. But just try explaining that to Millicent, whose job is predicated, at least in part upon the assumption that it is not only possible but probable that someone who can write a book well can also produce a graceful letter. Or synopsis. Or book proposal.

Oh, dear — should I have told you to sit down before I mentioned that?

Writers trying to break into the biz seldom think about it this way, but at the querying stage, the only basis Millicent has to judge writing quality and talent is, you guessed it, the query letter. If that doesn’t strike her as well-written — or if, as we saw in that last example, it doesn’t seem to have been either proofread or put together with the level of care her agency expects from its writing clients — she will reject it.

And no, in response to what many of you just thought very loudly, she’s not allowed to treat a query like our last example as her own Mad Lib, filling in the spaces with words of her own. That would be judging her writing, not yours.

To be fair, though, she might not have noticed all of the dropped words here, for the exceedingly simple reason that she might not have kept reading after the first or second gap. Once she’s noticed a red flag or two, she’ll generally stop reading and move on to the next query. That’s often the case, incidentally, even if the agency in question’s submission requirements allow queriers to include a synopsis, book proposal, or the first few pages of the book in the query packet. Since the query will be the first thing Millicent reads in it– remember how easy it is for her to reject a type of book her boss does not habitually represent? — if its not well-written, she’s unlikely to peruse anything else. Next!

Which comes as almost as great a surprise to most first-time queriers as the majority of manuscripts’ being rejected on page 1 comes to most first-time submitters, I’ve noticed. Why ask for pages, both parties wonder, unless someone’s going to read them?

Good question, and one with a good answer: so they will be handy. If the screener likes the query, why, she can turn immediately to those opening pages; if she finds the first few pages of the manuscript gripping, she doesn’t have to e-mail the writer to get to read the rest of the book.

While that’s sinking in, let me call on the disgruntled souls that have had their hands in the air since I first broached the subject of Millicent’s eye for sentence-level detail. “But Anne,” they mutter, and can we really blame them? “I get why Millie might have taken umbrage at that last example — she would have had to fill in the missing words herself, and that’s not really her job. As you say, she can only judge the writing by what’s in front of her. But you mentioned typos. Surely, we all see enough of those even in published writing these days that she’s going to see them for what they are, slips of fingers in a hurry, not as deliberate mistakes.”

I’d urge you to try to make that case to someone who reads hundreds of queries per day, but frankly, I don’t think you’d have a chance of convincing a professional reader. Agents, editors, contest judges, and Millicents are specifically charged with noticing the small stuff, after all; it’s part of their job not to look past textual errors. And realistically, given only a page of writing, how on earth could a screener tell whether the writer used the wrong form of there, their, and they’re because he was in a hurry, or because hadn’t learned the rules governing their use?

Or, almost as serious from a publishing perspective, if simply thought it didn’t matter, because someone else would be proofreading his work down the line? Wouldn’t that mean that if the agency signed that writer, they could not ever send out so much as a page of his writing without reading it first? Wouldn’t that prove problematic if an editor asked for a quick revision?

Then, too, it doesn’t pay to underestimate how distracting those of us that read for a living find small gaffes. How distracting, you ask? Well, let me put it this way: since I’m fond of you fine people, I’m not willing to run the risk that even a single one of you might not be aware of how to decide when to use some of the more commonly mixed-up words. Just for the record, then:

There = in that place
Their = belonging to them
They’re = they are

It’s = it is
Its = belonging to it

Mom = the name one might conceivably call one’s mother
her mom = the lady in question’s mother
her Mom = an improper use of capitalization. Generally speaking, only proper names should be capitalized — and if you mention a city, country, or named institution in your query, make sure it is spelled correctly.

Speaking of institutions, person graduates from a school, not graduates college.

Whew, I feel better for having gotten all of that off my chest. Oh, what a relief it is. Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and all’s well that end’s well. While we’re at it, where’s the beef?

Sick of it yet? Millicent is — and to be completely honest, she’s puzzled. Why, she finds herself wondering over query after query, would a talented writer waste perfectly good page space by including even a single stock phrase, rather than original phrasing? Isn’t the point of any writing sample — and make no mistake, every syllable a writer sends to an agency is indeed a writing sample — to show how you would phrase things, not how any random person on the street might?

I’m sensing some nervous shifting in chairs, am I not? “Gee, Anne,” those of you gearing up to send out a few queries murmur under your respective breaths, “all of this is making me self-conscious. I feel as though my query is going to be examined under a microscope.”

Not the most original of concepts, murmurers, but I understand the feeling. I have to say, I’m rather pleased to hear that you’re getting antsy — it means you have an accurate understanding of just how important the writing in your query letter is to your chances of interesting an agent in your work.

Had I mentioned that you might want to invest a little time in proofreading?

To give you some practice, and to help convince the few of you out there who I can feel trying to shrug off this advice, here is Wacky’s query again, with the problems we have been discussing cleaned up.

Not a bad little query, is it? Now here it is again, after having come down with a severe case of the typos. Do you find the addition of the gaffes distracting? If you were Millicent, would you read it all the way to the end? (My apologies about the spacing at the bottom; there actually is a margin there, but my pesky finger slipped while I was capturing the image. And yes, I know that excuse wouldn’t fly with a screener.)

Ooh, that was painful to produce. I could have sworn that my fingertips were about to burst into flame when I typed their instead of there. I had meant to use — ow! — an apostrophe + s form a — it burns! It burns! — plural, but my weak frame wasn’t up to it.

Be honest, though: you had only seen that last version, wouldn’t you have assumed that Wacky wasn’t the world’s best writer? And if you’d been sitting in Millicent’s chair, wouldn’t you have been tempted to call, “Next!” even though the book sounded like it might be fun to read?

Or didn’t you notice that the story seemed like a hoot, because your eye kept flying to those typos? And if so, would you like to try explaining that to Wacky, or shall I?

Proofread, people. In your query’s entirety, preferably in hard copy and out loud. And, as always, keep up the good work!

“Thanks for the cookies Millicent,” “What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” and other easily-averted holiday faux pas

This time of year, the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver sees it all the time: a reason to move otherwise good girls and boys from the Nice to the Naughty list. Yet often, as both he and our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, know only too well, the difference between a properly-punctuated sentence and one that is, well, not, lies in a simple slip of the writer’s finger — or lack of one. Take a gander at the type of hastily-scrawled note that often greets our St. Nick.

Hello Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy. Wow do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

No wonder the otherwise jolly elf weeps at the sight: clearly, the Punctuation Vacuum has beaten him to this household. Either that, or Janie has really, really lazy fingers. The note he had expected to see nestled next to a plate of cookies would have read like this:

Hello, Santa. Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy. Wow, do I ever appreciate it.

– Janie

Let me guess: to many, if not most of you, these two notes are essentially identical: the words are the same, right, so the meaning must be? That’s an understandable interpretation, given how often we all now see direct address and exclamation commas omitted all the time. Indeed, some modes of electronic expression, such as news program bottom-of-the-screen crawls and Twitter, seem actively to discourage proper punctuation.

But that doesn’t make it right. Santa’s a stickler for rules.

As it happens, so are Millicent and those of us who edit for a living. Punctuation matters to us — and, frankly, folks in publishing tend to laugh when aspiring writers express the astonishingly pervasive opinion that it doesn’t.

Why the ho, ho, ho? Well, leaving aside the perfectly reasonable proposition that one of the basic requirements of a professional writer is the consistent production of clearly expressed, grammatically correct prose, in some cases, improper punctuation can alter a sentence’s meaning.

And that, boys and girls, can only harm self-expression. Take, for instance, the two faux pas in the title of this post.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Most readers would assume, as those of you who didn’t notice that commas had been purloined from Janie’s original note probably did, that what she actually meant to say was this:

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof? Reindeer?

That’s not what the first versions actually said, though, was it? Basically, Janie operated on a presumption evidently shared by an amazingly high percentage of queriers, literary contest entrants, and manuscript submitters: that it’s the reader’s job to figure out what the author probably meant, not the writer’s job to express it so clearly that there would be no question.

In practice, most of us are perfectly willing to translate casual communications into more comprehensible prose, at least mentally. People often tap out or scrawl notes in a hurry, or, since the advent of mobile electronic devices, under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s relatively safe, then, to presume that your third-best friend will understand if that text message you sent while hanging upside down from the monkey bars omitted a comma or two.

Writing intended for publication is expected to adhere to a higher standard, however: even an editor wowed by the sentiments expressed in that last set of examples would not seriously consider publishing them without revision. Although the rise of on-screen editing has increased the number of punctuation, spelling, and grammar errors that slip through editorial fingers and onto the printed page — nit-picks are significantly harder to catch on a backlit screen than in hard copy — no one who reads for a living would believe for a second that clarity and proper punctuation don’t matter. A manuscript that seems to imply that the writer believes they are unimportant not only is unlikely to impress a pro — to an experienced agent or editor, it simply screams that this is a writer who will require extra time, effort, and, yes, proofreading.

Why might that harm your submission’s chances? Think about it: if the agent of your dreams already has 127 clients, who is his Millicent more likely to regard as a viable candidate for #128, the writer who expects her to guess whether What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer? means what it literally says, or the writer whose prose is so clear that she’s not left in any doubt?

Remember, too, that your garden-variety agency screener or contest judge has very little of a writer’s prose upon which to judge talent and facility with language. How on earth could Millicent possibly know for certain whether the speaker of that first sentence was simply sliding back up the chimney while he was writing, and thus was too busy to devote the necessary thought to the beauty and rigors of proper punctuation, or simply was not aware of the relevant rules? She’s not allowed to base her reading upon what she guesses a writer meant, after all; she can only evaluate what’s actually on the page.

All of which is a nice way of saying: don’t expect her to cut you any slack. A writer familiar with the rules of punctuation and conscientious about applying them is simply less time-consuming for an agent to represent than one who believes that the fine points of how a sentence looks on the page doesn’t really matter. Someone at the manuscript’s future publishing house will take care of the copyediting, right?

Well, no. Not if Millicent or her boss, the agent of your dreams, stops reading after the second missing direct address comma on page 1.

Yes, really. Since this particular rule is pretty straightforward, it’s fairly common for screeners and contest judges to regard non-adherence — or, equally pervasive in submissions, uneven adherence — as an indicator of, if not necessarily poor grammar in the manuscript as a whole, then at least an authorial lack of attention to detail. Any guesses as to why detail-orientation would be a desirable trait in an agency’s client?

Slap a great, big gold star on your tree if you leapt to your feet, shouting, “By gum, a detail-oriented writer could be trusted to produce clean manuscripts!” You’re quite right, shouters: since few agencies employ in-house editors (although some agents do like to edit their clients’ pages), signing a writer who had already demonstrated that he regards the world as his proofreader would inevitably be a more time-consuming choice than snapping up one that could be relied upon to spell- and grammar-check his own manuscripts. On a revise-and-resubmit deadline too short for anyone at the agency to proof pages, that could be the difference between selling a book to a publisher and rejection.

Comma placement is starting to seem a trifle more relevant to your life, isn’t it? Fortunately, the rules governing direct address and exclamations are quite easy.

Hey, wake up. Were you aware that you were snoring, Janie?

There — that wasn’t so difficult, was it? Hey is an exclamation, so it is separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma. And because that second sentence was directly addressed to Janie, a comma appears between the rest of the sentence and her name.

Armed with those valuable precepts, let’s revisit the punctuation choices that made the Furtive Non-Denominational Gift-Giver choke on his milk and cookies — or cognac and truffles, as he always insisted on being left for him in the Mini household throughout my childhood. (My parents said that he deserved the upgrade for shinnying down our unusually small flue.) How do they look to you now?

Hello Santa.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave old boy.

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Thanks for the cookies Millicent.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

Now that you’re looking for those commas, the paucity of them — and, I hope, the extra one in that last sentence — is distracting, is it not? Let’s talk about why. Sentences 1 and 4 are aimed at Santa and Millicent, respectively, right? The names are a tip-off that each requires a direct address comma.

Hello, Santa.

Thanks for the cookies, Millicent.

Sentence #2 is a bit trickier, since what Janie is calling the reader (old boy) is not a proper noun. If we don’t apply the direct address rule here, though, the most logical interpretation is actually this:

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave for the old boy.

Yet Janie’s household does not contain any old boy, or indeed any boys at all — and if Santa knows when they are sleeping and knows when they are awake, he must logically be aware of where said boys are sleeping, must he not? He might be forgiven, then, for finding this sentence perplexing. Fortunately, all it would take is a single stroke of the pen to render Janie’s intended meaning crystal clear.

Thanks for any presents you might see fit to leave, old boy.

No question that the reader — Santa, presumably, if Janie’s been a good girl this year — is the old boy being addressed, right? Now that we’ve cleared up that cosmic mystery, what should we note-proofers do with this?

Wow do I ever appreciate it.

Wow is an exclamation — and we have a rule for that, do we not? Let’s try applying it. While we’re at it, why not allow Janie’s punctuation to reflect the intensity of her gratitude?

Wow, do I ever appreciate it!

If you’re ever in doubt about whether an expression is sufficiently exclamatory to require separation from the rest of the sentence, here’s a nifty test: vehement exclamations can stand alone. As in:

Wow! Do I ever appreciate it!

Oh, my! What a beautifully-wrapped present!

Heavens! What an enormous cake! You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge!

What a difference a punctuation choice can make to a sentence’s meaning, eh? (See what I just did there? Eh is an exclamation, albeit not a particularly intense one.) A detail-oriented punctuator could become even more creative, depending upon context. Let’s have some fun.

Wow — do I ever appreciate it? I would have thought my reaction to your having given me a rabid wolverine last Christmas and the Christmas before would have told you that.

Oh, my, what a beautifully-wrapped present…if you happen to believe that bacon is an appropriate wrapping medium for a desk lamp.

Heavens, what an enormous cake. You shouldn’t have gone to all of that trouble, Madge: as much as we all enjoyed seeing your immediate family leap out of that enormous pie at Thanksgiving, that’s really the kind of surprise entrance that works only once, don’t you think?

Speaking of how punctuation can alter meaning, our remaining example presents some difficulties, doesn’t it? Let’s take another peek at it.

What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?

At first glance, this may appear to be a proper use of direct address: the narrator was simply speaking to a reindeer that happened to be lingering nearby. In today’s incredibly rich fantasy novel market, it’s not at all difficult to imagine a context in which that comma use would make sense.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie shouted. “Your ears are better than mine.”

Blitzen shook his antlers in annoyance. “Ceilings are opaque, you know. I can only fly; I don’t have X-ray vision.”

However, being an intimate friend of the writer’s — we could hardly be closer — I know that the original sentence was tucked within a thriller. I ask you: does a direct address interpretation make sense here?

“What’s that I hear on the roof, reindeer?” Janie whispered.

The Easter Bunny did not bother to stop stuffing presents into his basket. “Oh, stop jumping at every sound. Santa’s not due for an hour.”

“I still say that we should have hidden in a closet,” the Tooth Fairy hissed, “and waited until after ol’ Kris dropped off the swag.”

“And let Fat Boy snag all the cookies?” The rabbit snapped off a small branch from the tree to use as a toothpick. “I’m in it for the sugar, baby.”

“Then we should have gone to the Minis,” the fairy grumbled. “They have truffles.”

Blitzen’s hoof poked into the small of Janie’s back. “Move, sister, and you’ll find yourself with a face full of tinsel.”

Since the reindeer doesn’t enter the scene until five paragraphs after Janie’s speech, it seems unlikely that she’s addressing him. What the writer intended to convey by that comma was not direct address, but something closer to my original suggestion:

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Reindeer?”

In fairness, though, you can see why even a meticulous self-proofreader might not have caught this one. If Janie had speculated that the sounds were caused by an inanimate object, that comma might have passed muster.

“What’s that I hear on the roof, falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Unless this is a book about a madwoman or a psychic whose ability to cajole roofing substances into telling her Santa’s whereabouts, direct address doesn’t make sense here, does it? Even a skimmer is unlikely to fall into that interpretive trap. Several alternate constructions would obviate the possibility entirely, though. The first option should look slightly familiar.

“What’s that I hear on the roof?” Janie whispered. “Falling shingles?”

“What’s that I hear on the roof — falling shingles?” Janie whispered.

Am I sensing some growing excitement about the possibilities? “Hey, Anne,” some of you exclaim, beautifully demonstrating your grasp of how a comma should offset an exclamation, “something has just occurred to me, you sneaky person.” (Direct address!) “Since the natural habitat of both direct address and exclamations is conversation, wouldn’t it make sense to zero in on dialogue while proofreading for these particular faux pas? If I were in a hurry, I mean, and didn’t have time to read my submission or contest entry IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD?”

Not a bad timesaving strategy, exclaimers — they do tend to congregate in text written in the second person. (Hey, I’m talking to you, buddy!) You might be surprised, though, at how often direct address and exclamations show up in first-person narratives, or even chattier-voiced third-person narratives. For instance:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly, searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove, I was in a pickle.

Before anyone suggests otherwise, may I hastily add that the rookie strategy of attempting to make first-person narration sound more like common speech (as opposed to what it’s intended to represent, thought) by eliminating necessary punctuation and grammar has become awfully hard to pull off in a submission, at least for adult fiction or memoir. You wouldn’t believe how often Millicent sees text like our last example submitted like this:

Oh God I was afraid she would say that. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Or even — sacre bleu! — like this:

OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat. My brain spun wildly searching for an answer that would not make me look like the schmuck I actually was. By Jove I was in a pickle.

Yes, yes, we all understand that both versions could arguably be regarded as conveying breathlessness. So could this:

Oh, God, I was afraid she would say that. I felt every last oxygen molecule being sucked out of my lungs.

While style choices vary, naturally, from book category to book category — there honestly is no adequate substitute for reading recent releases of books similar to yours, particularly those written by first-time authors, to gain a sense of what is considered stylish these days — generally speaking, relating what’s going on via actual words tends to be considered better writing than offbeat presentation choices. All the more so if those words show what’s going on, as we saw in that last version, instead of telling it — or requiring Millicent to perform a dramatic reading of the text in order to grasp the fully intended meaning.

Oh, you thought that OhmyGodIwasafraidshewouldsaythat didn’t convey an expectation that the reader would try saying it out loud? Isn’t the sound of this sentence spoken as a single word the point here?

Style is not the only reason that you might want to give careful thought to whether non-standard presentation choices would be more effective than other means of narration, however. While they may seem like a shortcut, they can actually mean more work for you. Not only must any such punctuation and grammar voice choices be implemented with absolute consistency throughout an entire first-person narrative– quite a bit harder than it sounds, if one happens to know the rules or wants to be able to use Word’s grammar-checking function — but honestly, it’s really only clever the first few times a reader sees it done.

Trust me, any experienced Millicent or contest judge will have seen this tactic crop up too often to find it original at this late date in literary history. And how could either of them tell on page 1 whether the omissions were the result of a manuscript-wide authorial choice or the writer’s not being conversant with proper comma use? Heck, are they even sure that the writer of that last version even knows where the comma key is located?

Judgmental? You bet. If Millicent, a literary contest judge, and Santa’s job descriptions have anything in common, it’s that they are tasked with separating those who make an effort to follow their respective spheres’ recognized standards of niceness from those who do not. Rejection is the literary world’s lump of coal, available year-round.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that, unlike so much of the manuscript submission process, proper comma use lies entirely within the writer’s control. Personally, I find that rather empowering — unlike style judgment calls, which must necessarily rely in part upon Millicent’s personal reading tastes, punctuation is governed by rules. And rules can be learned.

Does that huge thunk of jaws hitting the floor reverberating throughout the ether indicate that some of you had been thinking about acceptance vs. rejection purely in terms of writing style? If so, you’re hardly alone: why do you think so many submissions and even queries turn up on Millicent’s desk apparently unproofread? Or spell-checked? Obviously, there are a heck of a lot of aspiring writers out there who think punctuation, spelling, and grammar just don’t matter — or that it’s an agent’s job to see past rule violations to story and talent.

Had I mentioned that to the pros, these things matter very much? Or that in publishing circles, providing error-free manuscript pages containing only sentences whose meanings are clear on a first reading is considered the minimum requirement of professional writing, not an optional extra?

Frankly, every writer who has taken the time to learn her craft should be rejoicing at this. Imagine how hard would it be to get on Santa’s Nice list if you had no idea what he considered nice.

While I’ve got you pondering the hard questions, here’s another: is resting your book’s future on a manuscript draft that does not consistently apply the rules you already know people in publishing expect to see respected really any less of a stab in the dark? Wouldn’t it be a better long-term strategy, as well as a better use of your scant writing time, to invest in making sure that the factors you can control are tweaked in a manner more likely to land you on Millicent’s Nice Job list?

Ah, that suggestion got under some skins, didn’t it? “But Anne!” bellow those who find thinking about rules a barrier to the creative process — and you are legion. “I understand that it’s the writer’s job to make a story come to life on the page, not the reader’s job to decipher convoluted text, but to be absolutely truthful, I don’t feel completely comfortable wielding all of the various rules of grammar and punctuation. I had kinda hoped that once I landed an agent and sold a book, the kind folks who handle books for a living would walk me through all of that.”

I’m glad you brought this up, wobbly rule-appliers — this is one of the greatest divides between how the publishing world thinks of what constitutes a well-written manuscript and how most aspiring writers tend to envision it. To a pro, the technical side of writing is not separable from the overall writing quality; to a new writer, though, punctuation, grammar, spelling, and even clarity are primarily sentence-level issues, easily fixed down the line.

No wonder, then, that it comes as such a shock to most first-time queriers and submitters to learn that the overwhelming majority of manuscripts get rejected on page 1. While the pros see a book’s opening as a representative writing sample, writers regard it as a minuscule fraction of a larger work, each page of which is entitled to its own assessment.

“What do you mean, a couple of punctuation, spelling, or clarity problems on page 1 could have triggered rejection?” they wail, and who could blame them? “Shouldn’t a book be judged by — wait for it — the writing in the whole thing?”

Perhaps, in principle, but very, very few readers wait until the end to come to conclusions about a book, even outside the publishing industry. A Millicent at a well-established agency will read literally thousands of submissions every year. If she read each in its entirety, she would have time to make it through only hundreds.

Believe it or not, this way actually provides a writer with a fresh idea and original voice with a better shot of impressing her. It means fewer book concepts are weeded out at the querying stage than would be necessary if agencies routinely assigned Millicents to read every single syllable of every single submission.

And, lest we forget, to a professional reader, a hallmark of a fabulous new literary voice is its consistency. The Great American Novel should read as lyrically on page 1 as on page 147, right? And shouldn’t it all sound like the same author’s voice?

See why I always encourage writers to read their manuscripts IN THEIR ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD before submitting them? All too often, aspiring writers new to the game will start sending out their work practically the moment after they type THE END on a first draft, without double-checking that the voice, style, and — as an editor, I must ethically add this — story are 100% consistent throughout the manuscript. It’s completely normal, however, for a first-time novelist’s voice and sense of the story to develop throughout the writing process; going through, figuring out what you like best about your own writing, and revising the whole so it sounds like that (to use the technical term) before you submit can increase your story’s chance of winning friends at an agency by leaps and bounds.

Or, to put it another way, are you the same writer you were the first day you sat down to work on your book? Aren’t you better at conveying your intended meaning now? And, if you take a long, hard look at your objection to Millie’s rejecting manuscripts on page 1, isn’t part of your chagrin that she might not read long enough to get to your best writing?

Heavy thoughts for a holiday, perhaps, but the Literature Fairy’s annual gift to those of us who work with writers is an awareness of just how many of you lovely people spend the last few weeks of December kicking yourselves for not having landed an agent or gotten published in the previous year. If the past is prologue, a phenomenally high percentage of you will translate those feelings into a New Year’s resolution to be a more active aspiring writer next year — to send out a barrage of queries, for instance, or to come up with a really solid list of agents to query. Perhaps you’re going to finish that manuscript, or get the one an agent requested eight months ago out the door. Or maybe, finally, you are going to rearrange your schedule so you can write a specified number of hours per week, rather than the more popular method of trying to squeeze it in whenever you can find the time.

All of these are laudable goals — don’t get me wrong. I would like to suggest, though, that while you are shuffling through the resolution possibilities, you consider adding one more: promising yourself that this will be the year that you spend January sitting down and reading your manuscript from beginning to end, in hard copy, as a reader would, to gain a sense of what is best about your own writing.

Because, really, wouldn’t you have an easier time presenting your work professionally if you didn’t just know that it’s good, but also why? And wouldn’t you be happier if Millicent judged your page 1 if it actually did represent a consistent voice and style throughout the book?

Just a thought. While you’re reading, of course, you could always humor me by keeping an eye out for omitted commas.

Hey, nobody ever said that making it onto Millicent’s Nice Job list was going to be easy. Who did you think she was, Santa?

Enjoy the holiday, everybody; try not to run afoul of any reindeer. I hear that you wouldn’t want to run into Blitzen in a dark alley. Keep up the good work!

Getting possessive

The Author! Author! community is seldom far from my thoughts, but at moments when I pass a sign like this, I must confess, I find it difficult to think of anyone else. Especially of those of you brave souls that regularly put yourselves — and your manuscripts — through the literary contest-entry wringer.

Why contest entrants in particular? Because in recent years, contest judges have found themselves doing double-takes at the type of punctuation currently blaring at you from that otherwise rather straightforward piece of advertising above in ever-increasing numbers. So, too, has the frequency with which our old pal, Millicent the agency screener, found herself shaking her head over manuscript submissions, murmuring, “I wonder if this is what the writer here actually meant, or if this is yet another instance of the sad decline in punctuation plaguing our society in these decadent days.”

Millie’s mutter was a mighty big hint, by the way, to those of you who did not erupt in merriment the instant you first clapped eye on today’s guest image. See it now?

Chances are, if you were a contest entrant frantic to get your entry postmarked by a deadline, you would not see it; it’s the type of typo that writers in a rush often overlook. And that’s a real shame, if the entry’s well written: I’ve never encountered a writing contest that allowed its judges to assess an entry by what its writer probably wanted to say, rather than what’s actually on the page.

Nor does your garden-variety agency typically permit its screeners to correct punctuation, even mentally, while reading submissions. That, too, is a shame, for many a successful querier or pitcher aglow with the first burst of adrenaline that comes with hearing that a real, live agent or editor wants to see MY WORK has simply glossed over this kind of punctuation as well. Strategically, that’s a mistake: even if it ever were desirable to leave Millie guessing at your intended meaning — and it isn’t, ever — it’s fairly standard for screeners to be told to stop reading at the second or third typo.

And what’s the best preventative medicine for skirting that dreadful fate, campers? That’s right: taking the time to read every syllable of your contest entry, requested pages, and/or book proposal IN ITS ENTIRETY, IN HARD COPY, and OUT LOUD.

Does that chorus of groans mean I’ve poked some of you in a sore spot? Or merely that you wish the Submission Fairy would wave her magic wand and grant six extra hours to writers on deadlines, purely for proofreading purposes? “But Anne,” the time-strapped moan, “I see typos in published books all the time! Surely, that must mean that little punctuation gaffes, misspellings, misplaced quotation marks and the like are no longer taken as seriously as in days of yore, when mistake-free writing was considered the mark of the literate person?”

In some contexts, you’re quite right about this, proofreading-avoiders: thanks in part to a decline in hard-copy proofreading (it’s much, much harder to catch small gaffes on a backlit screen than on a printed page), we do all see more faux pas in print than even ten years ago. Spelling- and grammar-checkers have caused a general decline in proofreading, and not only amongst published writers. E-mails are notoriously typo-prone, as are texts, and Twitter practically demands leaving out otherwise essential words, letters, and punctuation. Given the choice between speed and graceful presentation, most opt for the former.

Then, too, most of us also scan a heck of a lot more unedited writing than would have been imaginable to those whose primary reading experience was before the rise of the Internet. And don’t even get a professional reader started on how much more frequently advertising copy — like, for instance, the sign depicted above — contains typos.

All of which means, in practice, that pretty much all of us have gotten almost as accustomed to seeing writing presented badly as we have to seeing it done well. So often do signs shout things like BOBS’ LIQUORS at us (spot it yet?) that even the most grammar-savvy writer might be forgiven for occasionally placing an apostrophe in the wrong place when she’s in a hurry.

Driving past ads like this all day, it might not even look problematic at first glance. So why, as our short-on-time discussants above asked, should a deadline-facing contest entrant or excited submitter lose any sleep over a questionable apostrophe or two? Won’t it be some copyeditor’s job to catch such problems before the book is published, anyway?

Yes, but that doesn’t mean that a typo like this won’t jump off your pages at Millicent, if she’s been properly trained — and if she works at an agency you would want to represent you, she has. It would also look odd to Mehitabel, the veteran contest judge. And, frankly, it would drive me nuts to spot on the page.

Or, as in this case, the sign. To any of us, and almost certainly to the agent of your dreams, the very sight of BOBS’ LIQUORS immediately begs the question: just how many Bobs are there in that liquid-filled emporium?

Shall I take the resounding splat of eyebrows against hairlines as an indicator that this particular question has not been dogging some or all of you since this post began? I’m not entirely astonished: although it would make Millicent, Mehitabel, and their confreres choke to hear it, a stunningly high proportion of talented aspiring writers seem never to have learned the rules about creating possessives — or plurals, for that matter. Or at least to have been schooled in them so long ago that misuse of one or the other no longer causes their eyebrows to twitch at all.

So let’s embark on a quick refresher course, not only to revivify those complacent eyebrows, but so you have some guidelines on hand during any future moments of doubt. And if that means alerting everyone within the range of my keyboard to the genuinely puzzling nature of that provocative sign, well, so be it.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do not end in -s or -z — which is to say: most nouns — just add ‘s. If Ambrose happened to own a leopard, then, Millicent would expect the text to refer to Ambrose’s leopard; by the same token, the spots decorating Ambrose’s pet would be the leopard’s spots.

To form a possessive for singular nouns that do end in -s or -z — Gladys, a spaz, a passing ibis — the apostrophe goes after the s or z. So if Gladys’ pet ibis happened to become friends with Gladys’ brother Glenn, whose business partner happens to be a spaz, the ibis’ buddy’s business’ interests might be endangered by the spaz’ annoying ways.

I was expecting a certain amount of resistance to that one — and already, a forest of hands have sprouted out there in the ether. I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most of you hand-wavers are fond of the ways of journalism. Yes, newspaper-huggers? “I can go along with Rule #1, Anne, and I remember when Rule #2 used to be common, but I see #1 applied all the time to nouns ending in -s and -z. Doesn’t that mean that Rule #2 is obsolete, and I may simply form possessives by adding ‘s to any old singular noun?”

I take your point, journalism-lovers: rarely do I pick up a magazine these days without having some well-meaning reporter inform me that the ibis’s buddy’s business’s interests might be endangered by the spaz’s annoying ways, and quite firmly, too. There’s a reason for that: in recent years, A.P. style, the style favored by newspapers and magazines, has indeed reverted entirely to Rule #1 for singular possessives. So you may expect those sources, along with online media, to slap ‘s indiscriminately on any noun. It has also become quite common for publishers of books by journalists to throw literary tradition to the winds in this respect.

And, to be fair, Millicent probably would not stop reading if you did the same: she, like the rest of us, has seen the ibis’s and similarly ungraceful possessives running amok across newspaper pages for years now. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the language in its most polished form — American English as it might appear in literary fiction, for instance — must drop one of the nicest punctuation rules we have.

To quote your mother: if everyone else jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, would you? And if half the people you knew evidently thought — at least strongly enough to put the theory into practice — that it was correct to form a plural in English by adding ‘s, instead of just an s, would you throw the rules that say otherwise off the aforementioned bridge, simply because you’d seen plurals formed incorrectly so often?

Many, many aspiring writers would, as Mehitabel and Millicent could tell you to their sorrow; judging by what’s submitted, they either do not know the rules well enough to apply them consistently or have been rendered unsure enough by the sight of rule variation that they don’t notice when their texts lapse. Even if a contest entrant or submitter is made of stronger stuff and is familiar with the rules for constructing plurals and possessives, if she does not proofread closely, she might as well be unsure of the rules.

Why? Think about it: an agency screener or contest judge can only assess a writer’s talent and skill based upon what’s on the page, right? If none of the possessive usages on page 1 are correct, obviously, Millicent is likely to conclude that the writer needs a crash course in punctuation, which is not any agency’s job to provide its clients. Fair enough. That being the case, though, if two of the six possessive uses on page 1 are incorrect, in addition to the plural of fence being printed as fence’s instead of fences, could you really blame her for drawing the same conclusion?

While you’re still shuddering over the implications of that one, let me add hastily that the logic also tends to hold true in reverse. If your punctuation and grammar are impeccable, not only will the effort win your manuscript or entry Brownie points — always good in a competitive situation — but your pages will also enjoy the not inconsiderable advantage of novelty. To be blunt about it, so many contest entries and submissions contain incorrect possessives and plurals that those that don’t shine by comparison.

If, in addition to the virtues of solid grammar, the pages also manage to apply the elegant, old-fashioned rule of possessive formation in nouns ending in -s or -z, professional readers will usually like the writing even better. Seriously, literate old-schoolers just love seeing this old-fashioned punctuation used correctly. Indeed, amongst ourselves, we tend to complain that the only benefit of adding the extra s to words that do not logically require it is that those who have difficulty with complexity need memorize only one rule.

Hey, I didn’t say we were funny; I said we were literate. But seriously, folks, does it come as a great surprise that contest judges, especially in the early rounds, tend to be culled from the ranks of the conspicuously literate?

So your rhinoceros favors a particular pond, you might want to consider making Mehitabel happy by referring to the rhinoceros’ watering hole. (If there was more than one rhino, it would be the rhinoceri’s watering hole, but that’s a horn of a different color.) If Chaz were the rhinos’ keeper, they would be Chaz’ rhinos.
If you preferred A.P. style, however, you could also render it as Chaz’s rhinos. They would sound the same spoken out loud.

Getting the picture? This one is legitimately up to you, as long as you don’t mind causing Mehitabel to sigh nostalgically. Just make sure that the text is 100% consistent about whether a -z noun takes an apostrophe in the possessive or not.

Even if you decide to get modern on the -z question, I would urge clinging to tradition on the -s front. If the creatures that frequented that pond were flamingos, you would say that it was the flamingos’ favorite place to drink. I feel a rule coming on:

To form a possessive for a plural noun, the apostrophe goes after the s. Thus, the spots belonging to more than one leopard would be the leopards’ spots. Contrary to popular belief, the Thus, if the entire Anderson family owned a leopard ranch, it would be the Andersons’ leopard ranch.

Let me state that another way, because Millicent and Mehitabel see family names and possessives mismatched all the time, for some reason. If the leopard in question belonged to just one person — let’s call him Ambrose Anderson — both Ambrose’s leopard and Anderson’s leopard would leave M & M’s eyebrows mercifully unraised. However, if the leopard were so lucky to belong to both Ambrose and Antoinette Anderson, it would be the Andersons’ leopard.

Is the BOBS’ LIQUORS conundrum starting to make more sense now? Let’s take a gander at why: if it belonged to just one guy named Bob, it should be BOB’S LIQUORS, right? While it would be gracious to give the sign-painter the benefit of the doubt, neither of the two remaining possibilities seems particularly likely. The place could belong to a person named not Bob, but Bobs, in which case BOBS’ LIQUORS would be perfectly correct. It’s also not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the store’s owners may well have intended the literal meaning here; we may well be looking at a two-Bob situation.

But if either of these turns out to be the case, I feel the inhabitants of Lake City are entitled to a full explanation, don’t you? The vast majority of passersby would read this sign as it was probably meant to read: as BOB’S LIQUORS.

Good old Bob may well be counting upon that; he may well believe, and with some reason, that it doesn’t really matter whether his potential customers walk in expecting one Bob or several. It’s not wise, though, for an aspiring writer to play similarly fast and loose with Millicent or Mehitabel’s sense of what’s going on.

Oh, you don’t think Mehitabel will dock your entry points if your punctuation choices imply that there are more Bobs running around your short story than there actually are? Or that Millicent might stop reading if the text seems to indicate a lack of familiarity with the rules governing apostrophes — if, say, a manuscript falls into the pervasive habit of forming plurals by adding ‘s, instead of just s?

To calm the nerves of those of you currently clutching your hearts and hyperventilating: possessive misuse all by itself is not necessarily an instant-rejection offense all by itself (although it can be, if Millicent is in a bad mood). It’s not uncommon, though, for it to combine with one or two other small gaffes to add up to rejection. Heck, I’ve known Millicents to reject a manuscript after the first malformed plural, if it fell within the opening page or two. Contest judges seldom have that luxury, thank goodness, but you’d be astonished at how often an otherwise well-written entry will knock itself out of serious finalist consideration by a typo or two on the first page. Or even — sacre bleu! — the first paragraph.

Why? Well, are you sitting down? I hope so: professional readers are paid to presume that everything on the manuscript page is there because the writer intended it to be. If the text consistently misapplies a rule, then, or simply does not apply it consistently, they tend to assume that the writer simply does not know the rule at all.

Well might you turn pale, time-strapped submitters and contest entrants. What might have started life as a typo actually can transmogrify at entry time into a reason to consider a submission less than literate — and to send the message to an agency that this talented writer would be more work to represent than someone whose work did not include such gaffes.

Why? Well, tease out the reasoning: either the writer is not aware of the rule (and thus the agency would have to invest time in teaching him something any professional writer would be expected to know), the writer is not sure enough of the rule to apply it consistently (so the agency would have to waste time proofreading his work before submitting it to publishers), or the writer knows the rule, but was simply too lazy (or, more likely, too rushed) to reread his own writing before submitting it. Whichever turns out to be the case, it means that it would be inadvisable to trust him to submit clean manuscripts, especially on a short deadline — and short deadlines crop up in the publishing world all the time. The agent of his dreams wants his work to sell, after all: it’s really in no one’s interest for her to submit his work to a publishing house if it’s peppered with typos.

She wouldn’t want to run the risk of the acquiring editor’s assuming he just didn’t know the rules. Or that he wasn’t serious enough about his own writing to proofread.

With those imperatives in mind, let’s try applying the theory to one of the great American apparent exceptions to the possessive formation rules: why is the Oakland A’s correctly punctuated?

If you immediately leapt to your dainty feet, shouting, “Because that’s what the team calls itself — and proper names are spelled the way the people bearing them say they are,” give yourself partial credit. The team does in fact use the apostrophe in referring to itself. And grammar, I’m pleased to say, is on its side in that respect.

But not, I’m even more delighted to report, because the A is rendered plural by that ‘s. It couldn’t be, right? Adding an apostrophe is not how plurals are formed. That is, however, how contractions indicate that some letters are missing. In this instance, seven of ‘em: thletic. Thus, it’s perfectly acceptable to abbreviate the Oakland Athletics to the Oakland A’s.

Yet another cosmic mystery solved. Now if only we could crack the case of The Possibly Multiple Bobs. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks again, Catherine, and everybody, keep up the good work!

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