Pitching 101, part XV: originality, moxie, and other traits exhibited by the successful hallway pitcher

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For the last couple of posts, I’ve been talking about the dreaded elevator speech, a.k.a. the heart of the kind of informal pitch a writer might give for her book outside of a formal meeting at a conference. She might have an opportunity to say it at a luncheon, for instance, when an off-duty agent or editor sitting across the table asks, “So what do you write?” Or just after the agent of her dreams gives a talk, after waiting patiently until the crowds of other informal pitchers die down around her. Or, as I have had to do, at 4 am while fending off the not-at-all professional advances of a senior editor at a major NYC publishing house.

Hey, when one’s agent is at one’s elbow, hissing, “Give him your pitch,” one obeys. Then one gets the heck out of there.

Since informal pitches are generally given on the fly and under less-than-ideal circumstances, they take some guts to give. Let’s face it, not every writer has the pure, unadulterated moxie to stop a well-known agent in a conference hallway and say, “Excuse me, but I’ve been trying for two days to get an appointment with you. I’m sorry to bug you, but could you possibly spare thirty seconds to hear my pitch?” And, frankly, not every conference organizer is going to be thoroughly pleased with the writers who do it.

Allow me to let you in on a little professional secret, though: if you did an anonymous poll of agented writers who found representation by pitching at conferences, most of them would tell you that they’ve engaged in hallway pitching. Statistically, it makes perfect sense: the more agents to whom one pitches, the greater one’s probability of being picked up — in the signed-by-an-agent sense, mind you; stop thinking about that editor at that nameless publishing house — and at most conferences that offer pitch meetings, writers are given only one or two appointments. Simple math.

Next time, I shall be talking about how to make the actual approach for a hallway pitch, because it requires a certain amount of finesse not to end up as the subject of an anecdote about how pushy aspiring writers can be. Today, however, I want to bring up another common trait of the successful hallway pitcher: originality.

As I pointed out a couple of days ago, the first commandment of a winning elevator speech is THOU SHALL NOT BORE. Actually, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb for any pitch, query letter, or submission, but if a hallway pitch is snore-inducing, the results are instantly fatal.

Not boring is a while lot harder than it sounds, you know. I hate to be the one to break it to you, but most 3-line pitches sound a great deal alike, at least to someone who has been hearing them for three days straight. The structure is, as you may have noticed, awfully darned restrictive. No wonder the people who hear them for a living tend to remember my students: the mere fact of their introducing themselves is out of the ordinary.

Add to that all of the pitches for books that sound suspiciously like the big bestseller from two years ago, as well as the ones that lift plots, character traits, and situations from movies, TV shows, pop culture, and good, old-fashioned clichés, and is it still surprising that pitches start to blur together in the hearer’s mind after a startlingly short while?

Hands up, anyone who still doesn’t understand why that agent who requested the first fifty pages of a manuscript last Saturday might not recall the details of the pitch today.

Is that abject terror I’m sensing creeping around out there, or have the trees outside my window suddenly taken up moaning for fun and profit? “Gee, Anne,” the newly nervous pipe up, “I had no idea that part of the goal of my pitch — 3-line or otherwise — was to strike the agent or editor as original. Now I’m quaking in my boots, petrified that the agent of my dreams will burst into laughter and cry, ‘Is that the best you can do? I’ve heard that story 15 times in the last week!’”

Take a nice, deep breath. Remember, no agent or editor can possibly judge the quality of your writing solely through a verbal pitch, so even in the unlikely event that a pro said something like that to your face, it would be a response to your book’s premise or plot as you have just presented it, not to the book itself. As practically everybody in the industry is fond of saying, it all depends on the writing.

And I have even more good news: if you can make your elevator speech resemble your narrative voice, it is far, far more likely to strike the hearer as original.

Yes, you read that correctly: I’m advising you to work with your elevator speech or pitch until it sounds like YOUR writing, rather than like a pale (or even very good) replica of an author whom you happen to admire. Or like a pitch for a book that’s already on the bestseller list.

Was that giant thud I just heard the sound of the jaws of all of you who have attended conferences before hitting the floor? “But Anne,” these astonished souls protest, cradling their sore mandibles, “you’re got that backwards, don’t you? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve heard agents and editors say at conferences, ‘Oh, THAT kind of book isn’t selling anymore.’ Wouldn’t it be better strategy for me to imply that my book is just like something that is selling well right now?”

Well, yes, if your manuscript actually is similar to a current bestseller. Even if you find yourself in this position, though, you’re going to want to figure out what makes your book original — any agent who represents those types of books will have been inundated with carbon copies of that bestseller since about a month after it hit the big time.

Seriously, do you have the slightest idea how many YA vampire books Millicent the agency screener currently sees in any given week?

In the maelstrom of advice aimed at writers trying to land an agent, the issue of voice often falls by the wayside, as if it were not important. Or writers might even — sacre bleu! — derive the erroneous impression that their work is SUPPOSED to sound as if it had been written by someone else — to be precise, by an author on the current bestseller list.

Can’t imagine where so many aspiring writers get this idea. Unless it’s from all of those conferences where agents, editors, and marketing gurus speak from behind the safety of podiums (podia?) about how helpful it is to mention in a pitch or a letter what bestseller one’s opus most resembles.

Listen: fads fade fast. (And Sally sells seashells by the seashore, if you’d like another tongue-twister.) Even after a writer signs with an agent, it takes time to market a book to editors — and after the ink is dry on the publication contract, it’s usually AT LEAST a year before a book turns up on the shelves of your local bookstore. A bestseller’s being hot now doesn’t necessarily guarantee that the same kind of voice will be sought-after several years hence.

If you doubt this, tell me: have you met many agents lately who are clamoring for the next BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY? Or even the next DA VINCI CODE?

In the long run, I believe that a writer will be better off developing her own voice than trying to ape current publishing fashions. As long, that is, as that voice is a good fit for the project at hand.

That’s as true of a pitch as it is for a novel or memoir, you know. A generic pitch isn’t going to show off an honestly original voice, or even a fresh story — it’s just going to sound like two-thirds of the other pitches an agent or editor has heard that day.

See why I so discourage writers I like from embracing the ubiquitous 3-line pitch formula? The way that new pitchers are typically encouraged to do it tends to flatten original stories. Squashes some of ‘em flat as pancakes, it does.

“Wait just a minute,” the chorus of conference-goers pipes up again. “I’m confused. We’ve been talking for a couple of weeks here about making my book project sound marketable. So if I make it sound like something that’s already a bestseller, why won’t that give my pitch the shine of marketability?”

An excellent question, with two even more excellent answers. First, a pitch (or query, or manuscript) that sounds too similar to a well-known publication is going to come across as derivative. Which, in case any of you had been wondering, is why those periodic experiments where some wag tries to query and submit the first five pages of some classic like PRIDE AND PREJUDICE in order to demonstrate that good writing no longer stands a chance are not actually measuring agents’ responses to high-quality writing. At this point in literary history, the first five pages of any Jane Austen novel would strike any literate Millicent as being derivative of Jane Austen.

Not that quite a few authors haven’t made a killing in recent years being derivative of Jane Austen, mind you. So much so that even copying her style has been done.

The second answer is that what is already in print isn’t necessarily indicative of what agents and editors are looking for NOW. (If you’re not sure why, I refer you back to that section above where I talked about the usual lapse between acquisition and publication.) The third answer — I’ll throw this one in for free — is that not all published writing exhibits an original narrative voice, so copying it is going to seem even less fresh.

That “Wha—?” you just heard was from Author! Author!’s own Pollyanna chorus. “But Anne,” these intrepid souls cry as soon as they have regained their gasped-out breath, “I don’t understand. I’ve been going to conferences and writing seminars for years, and unless I wasn’t paying attention, published writing and good writing were used as essentially synonymous terms. At minimum, I’ve always assumed that writing needs to be good to get published. But how is that possible, if not all published work has a unique voice?”

Whoa there, gaspers, take a nice, deep breath. In the first place, I’m going to go out on a limb here and state categorically that not all published writing IS good.

(A long pause while everyone waits to see if a vengeful deity is going to strike me down for sacrilege.)

I still seem to be standing, so allow me to continue: books get published for all kinds of reasons. The platform of the writer, for instance, or the fact that he’s a movie star. (I’m looking at you, Ethan Hawke, not Rupert Everett — although, on the whole, I would prefer to gaze upon the latter, for aesthetic reasons.) An eagerness to replicate the success of a freak bestseller. (Ask anyone who tried to sell historical fiction in the five years before COLD MOUNTAIN hit the big time.) Having been a prominent publisher’s college roommate. (One hears rumors.)

But in the vast majority of instances, a published book without a strong, distinctive narrative voice will be clear. Perhaps not full of insights or phraseology that makes you squeal and run for your quote book, but at least unobtrusively straightforward, informative, and decently researched.

You know, like newspaper writing. Clear, non-threatening, generic, ostentatiously objective.

To have a voice is to take a SIDE. At least one’s own. For some stories, that’s not the best option. In fact, your more discerning professional readers have been known to wrinkle their august brows over a manuscript and ask, “Is the voice the author chose for this appropriate and complimentary to the story?”

Not all voices fit with all material, after all — and if you doubt that, would YOU want to read a novel about a grisly series of child murders written in the light-hearted voice of a Christmas card? Or a bodice-ripper romance told in the vocabulary of a not-very-imaginative nun?

I’m guessing not.

At the moment, I work in three distinct voices: in descending order of perkiness, my blog voice, my fiction voice, and my memoir voice. (My memoir is funny, too, but as a great memoirist once told me, part of the art of the memoir is feeling sorry enough for yourself NOT to make light of your personal tragedies, for there lies your subject matter.)

Why not write everything in my favorite voice? Because it would not be the best fit for everything I choose to write. Nor would it best serve my literary purposes to pitch my fiction in the same voice as my memoir.

For instance, if I used my memoir voice here, to discussing the sometimes-grim realities of how the publishing industry treats writers, I would depress us all into a stupor. Because Author! Author!’s goal is to motivate you all to present your work’s best face to the world, I use a cheerleading voice.

Minion, hand me my megaphone, please.

One of the great things about gaining a broad array of writing experience is developing the ability to switch voices at will; you have to come to know your own writing pretty darned well for that. I’ve written back label copy for wine bottles (when I was too young to purchase alcohol legally, as it happens), for heaven’s sake, as well as everything from political platforms to fashion articles. Obviously, my tone, vocabulary choice, and cadence needed to be different for all of these venues.

Granted, not all of those writing gigs were particularly interesting, and I would not be especially pleased if I were known throughout recorded history as primarily as the person who penned the platitude tens of thousands of people read only when their dinner date left the table for a moment and the only reading matter was on the wine bottle. Yet all of my current voices owe a great deal to this experience, just as playing a lot of different roles in high school or college drama classes might give a person poise in dealing with a variety of situations in real life.

I digress, however. My point is that just as there are millions of different ways to tell any given story, there are millions of different ways to pitch it. Tone, voice, vocabulary choice, rhythm — a skillful writer may play with all of these tools in order to alter how a reader or pitch hearer receives the story.

Speaking of stories, let me tell you one that you may find enlightening.

Right after I graduated from college, I landed a job writing and researching for the LET’S GO series of travel guides. The series’ method of garnering material, at least at the time, was to pay a very young, very naïve Harvard student a very small amount of money to backpack around a given area. The job was jam-packed with irony: I was supposed to do restaurant and motel reviews, for instance, but my per diem was so small that I slept in a tent six nights per week and lived on ramen cooked over a campfire.

You might want to remember that the next time you rely upon a restaurant review published in a travel guide. (See earlier comment about not all published writing’s necessarily being good.)

Let’s Go’s tone is very gung-ho, a sort of paean to can-do kids having the time of their lives. But when one is visiting the tenth municipal museum of the week — you know, the kind containing a clay diorama of a pioneer settlement, a tiny, antique wedding dress displayed on a dressmaker’s form, and four dusty arrowheads — it is hard to maintain one’s élan. Yet I was expected to produce roughly 60 pages of copy per week, much of it written on a picnic table by candlelight.

Clearly an assignment that called for simple, impersonal clarity, right? Not so.

I can tell you the precise moment when I found my travel guide voice: the evening of July 3, a few weeks into my assignment. My paycheck was two weeks overdue, so I had precisely $23.15 in my pocket.

It was raining so hard that I could barely find the motel I was supposed to be reviewing. When I stepped into the lobby, a glowering functionary with several missing teeth informed that the management did not allow outsiders to work there.

”Excuse me?” I said, thinking that she had somehow intuited that I was here to critique his obviously lacking customer service skills. “I just want a room for the night.”

“The night?” she echoed blankly. “The entire night?”

Apparently, no one in recent memory had wanted to rent a room there for more than an hour at a stretch. The desk clerk did not even know what to charge.

(If you’re too young to understand why this might have been the case, please do not read the rest of this anecdote. Go do your homework.)

I suggested $15, a figure the clerk seemed only too glad to accept. After I checked into my phoneless room with the shackles conveniently already built into the headboard and screams of what I sincerely hoped was rapture coming through the walls, I ran to the pay phone at the 7-11 next door and called my editor in Boston.

“Jay, I have $8.15 to my name.” The combination of the rain noisily battering the phone booth and the angry mob urging me not to impinge upon their territory rendered his response inaudible. “The banks are closed tomorrow, and according to the itinerary you gave me, you want me to spend the night a house of ill repute. What precisely would you suggest I do next?”

He had to shout his response three times before I could understand what he was saying. ”Improvise?” he suggested.

I elected to retrieve my $15 and find a free campground that night, so Independence Day found me huddled in a rapidly leaking tent, scribbling away furiously in a new-found tone. I had discovered my travel writing voice: a sodden, exhausted traveler so astonished by the stupidity around her that she found it amusing.

My readers — and my warm, dry editor back in Boston – ate it up.

I told you this story not merely because it is true (ah, the glamour of the writing life!), but to make a point about authorial voice. A professional reader would look at the story above and try to assess whether another type of voice might have conveyed the story better, as well as whether I maintained the voice consistently throughout.

How would a less personal voice have conveyed the same information? Would it have come across better in the third person, or if I pretended the incident had happened to a close friend of mine?

Appropriateness of viewpoint tends to weigh heavily in professional readers’ assessments, and deservedly so. Many, many submissions — and still more contest entries — either do not maintain the same voice throughout the piece or tell the story in an absolutely straightforward manner, with no personal narrative quirks at all.

In other words, presenting the story in the same flat, just-the-fact voice that dogs the average conference pitch. You’d be surprised at how many pitches for interesting, imaginative books come across with all of the stylistic verve of a police report.

Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s take a gander at my Let’s Go story, compressed into a standard 3-line pitch:

A 22-year-old woman, soaked to the skin, walks into a motel lobby and tells the clerk she wants a room for the night. When the clerk tells her they do not do that, she responds with incredulity, but the manager confirms the information. Noting the 7’ x 10’ wall of pornographic videotapes to her right and the women in spandex and gold lame huddled outside under the awning, flagging down passing cars, the young woman suspects that she might not be in the right place and telephones the editor who sent her there.

Not the pinnacle of colorful, is it? It’s the same story, essentially, but an agent or editor hearing this second account and think, “Gee, this story might have potential, but the viewpoint is not maximizing the humor of the story. I think I’ll pass.”

Millicent would probably just yawn and yell, “Next!”

I might not garner precisely the same reactions if I pitched this story in the style of a well-known writer, but the end result — “Next!” — would probably be the same.

Which brings us back to the desirability of copying what you admire, doesn’t it? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery (which I sincerely doubt), then bestselling authors must spend a heck of a lot of time blushing over how often aspiring writers pitch and submit books that bear suspicious similarities to theirs.

To an experienced pitch-hearer, the resemblance doesn’t have to be too overt for the kinship to be obvious, if you catch my drift. You wouldn’t believe how many stories were told by the deceased in the years following the success of THE LOVELY BONES, for instance, or how many multiple-perspective narratives followed hot on the heels of THE POISONWOOD BIBLE.

All that being said, I’m not going to lie to you — there is no denying that being able to say that your work resembles a well-known author’s can be a useful hook for attracting some agents’ and editors’ attention, at least on the Hollywood hook level:

My memoir is ANGELA’S ASHES, but without all of that pesky poverty!”

“My chick lit manuscript is BRIDGET JONES’ DIARY set in a rehab clinic!”

“The story is SCHINDLER’S LIST, only without the Nazis or all the death!”

However, as the late great Mae West liked to point out (and I like to remind my readers she liked to point out), while copycats may sell in the short term — as anyone who amused herself in the first half of this year by counting just how many YA vampire novels US publishers acquired in any given week — for the long haul, what is memorable is originality.

That’s as true for a pitch as for a manuscript, you know. Perhaps that is one of the best measures of how effective a pitch is: three days after an agent has heard it, will he remember it on the airplane back to New York? Even if the storyline escapes him, will he remember the interesting way in which the pitcher told it, the narrative voice, the details he’d ever heard before?

In 99% of 3-line pitches, the answer is no. Partially, that’s the fault of the flattening format. Partially, it isn’t.

So at the risk of boring you, allow me to repeat the advice I’ve been hawking for the last couple of posts: the best use of your pre-pitching time — or pre-querying time — is to figure out precisely how your book is different from what’s currently on the market, not trying to make it sound like the current bestseller. A fresh story told in an original manner is hard for even the most jaded pro to resist.

Provided, of course, it’s presented in a professional manner. Next time, I’ll give you some tips on how to give a hallway pitch without impinging upon the hearer’s boundaries. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

“Tell me again — who sent you?”

Autumn’s in the air, which means two things in my line of work: the release this year’s crop of literary fiction likely to be nominated for major awards and Millicent the agency screener, her boss, and the editors to whom the latter likes to pitch getting back to work, digging their respective ways through the piles upon piles of submissions lingering after the annual summer hiatus, not to mention the new, post-conference submissions..

It is, in short, a great time to be querying and submitting.

Since I know that many of you are spending your weekends/spare time/whenever your boss isn’t looking over your shoulder at work pulling together lists of agents to query, this seemed like an especially good moment to answer a question sharp-eyed reader Jake asked a few months back:

Just to be sure, if an agency does say it only accepts clients through recommendations, am I to assume they’re listing off these guidelines, but expecting to see the recommendation in the query? (I don’t actually know anyone who can refer me, but I’m wondering if querying these agents anyway is worth the hassle or a waste of time and money)

Before I answer Jake’s question, let’s define our terms, shall we? In some agency guides, agencies will list themselves as accepting clients by referral . In plain English, this means that a querier who has not either been invited by one of their agents to submit or had the way smoothed by a third party might as well not query at all.

Don’t call us, in other words; we’ll — well, actually, we won’t call you.

A more common notation is accepts clients mostly through recommendations — and here, the unconnected writer need not despair as thoroughly. It’s a simple statement of fact, information a would-be querier needs to know: this agency is more likely to pick up a new client through a referral than via a cold query.

So to whom do such agencies look for these recommendations, referrals, and general good word of mouth — and how does an aspiring writer go about procuring same?

Most of the time, agents receive referrals from their already-signed clients — and not necessarily those who already have books out, by the way — editors who have met writers at conferences, journalists, their college roommates…in short, from the people they know.

Which is why, in case those of you living outside the greater New York City metropolitan area have been wondering, you’re far more likely to hear authors from that part of the country say at book readings, “How did I meet my agent? Oh, networking,” than those domiciled anywhere else.

That is not to say that writers residing elsewhere need write off this means of entrée into an agency. It’s merely a little more work.

Okay, so it’s a lot more work, but often worth it: even at an agency that obtains new clients mostly through querying and conference-trolling, a recommendation from a standing client, particularly one they like, does tend to increase the likelihood of being asked to send pages.

Why? Well, good writers who have been kicking around in the field for a while tend to know other good writers — or, at any rate, know ones who have done their homework about what being a professional writer means, over and above being talented: presenting a manuscript in standard format, the desirability of meeting deadlines without undue whining, and the learned skill of taking intensive feedback without regarding it as a personal attack, to name but three desirata.

How might a professional writer spot these traits in others? By being in a critique group with them, for one thing, or by exchanging manuscripts. A perceptive observer can learn a lot about a writer by how s/he responds to feedback.

Kind of changes how you might think of joining a writers’ group, doesn’t it, or staying in one? One of those people might well hit the big time someday and be in a position to say either, “Clarice? Oh, she’s a great writer, really even-tempered,” or “Well, Clarice is talented enough, but if you suggest changing so much as a comma in her work, she bursts into noisy tears and accuses you of trying to poison her.”

If that last comment seemed like an exaggeration to you, you either haven’t been in many critique groups or have been fortunate enough to be in really good ones.

Most of the time, though, aspiring writers pick up referrals to agents in the most straightforward manner imaginable: by walking up to an established writer IN THEIR BOOK CATEGORY (important; an author in another genre may reasonably be expected to be able to provide a referral to an agent with a track record of selling books in his own book category, but not necessarily in others) at a book reading, conference, or other literary occasion, striking up a conversation, and eventually, asking for a referral to the author’s agent.

It’s the eventually part that tends to be problematic. Too many aspiring writers just blurt out the request right away, with little or no preamble.

To understand why this might land the requester in hot water, let’s take the case of Isabelle.

Referral-farming scenario 1: Isabelle notices in her local paper that Ignatz, a writer whose work is similar to hers and is aimed at the same target market will be giving a reading at a local bookstore. She makes a point of attending the reading, and during question time, asks who represents him – and asks permission to use him as a query reference.

Ignatz laughs uncomfortably, tells an agent-related anecdote, and when she presses for a name, tells her to see him afterward.

Isabelle waits patiently until all those who have bought books have presented them to Ignatz for signing, then repeats her question. “I haven’t read your book,” she tells him, “but from the reviews, our work has a lot in common.”

Ignatz, professional to the toes of his well-polished boots, casts only a fleeting glance at her empty hands before replying. “I’m sorry,” he says, “my agent has asked me not to refer any new writers to him.”

What did Isabelle do wrong? (And, for extra credit, what about Ignatz’s response marks it as a brush-off?)

Isabelle committed two cardinal sins of author approach. First, she did not evince ANY interest in Ignatz’s work before asking him for a favor — and a fairly hefty favor, at that. She did not even bother to buy his book, which is, after all, how Ignatz pays his rent. But since he is quite aware, as any successful writer must be, that being rude to potential readers may mean lost business down the line, he can hardly tell her so directly.

So he did the next best thing: he lied about his agent’s openness to referrals.

How do I know he lied? Experience, my dears, experience: had his agent actually not been accepting new clients, his easiest way out would have been simply to say so, but he did not. And, realistically, most agents rather like it when their clients recommend new writers; it saves the agent trouble, to use the client as a screener.

Hey, who doesn’t like to have someone to blame if a blind date goes horribly, horribly wrong?

So, generally speaking, if an agented writer says, “Oh, my agent doesn’t like me to recommend,” he really means, “I don’t like being placed in this position, and I wish you would go away.”

How has Isabelle placed Ignatz in a tough position? Because she has committed another approach faux pas: she asked for a reference from someone who has never read her work.

From Ignatz’s point of view, this is a no-win situation. He has absolutely no idea if Isabelle can write – and to ask to see her work would be to donate his time gratis to someone who has just been quite rude to him. Yet if he says yes without reading her work, and Isabelle turns out to be a terrible writer (or a terrible pest), his agent is going to be annoyed with him. And if he just says, “No, I don’t read the work of every yahoo who accosts me at a reading,” he will alienate a potential book buyer.

So lying about his agent’s availability is Ignatz’s least self-destructive way out. Who can blame him for taking it?

Let’s hope and pray that Isabelle has learned something from this encounter. Manuscript in hand, let’s send her to another reading.

Referral-farming scenario 2: Isabelle spots another reading announcement in her local newspaper. This time, it’s an author whose work she’s read, Juanita; wisely, she digs up her dog-eared copy of Juanita’s first novel and brings it along to be signed, to demonstrate her ongoing willingness to support Juanita’s career.

She also, less promisingly, brings along a copy of her own manuscript.

After the reading, Isabelle stands in line to have her book signed. While Juanita is graciously chatting with her about the inscription, Isabelle slaps her 500-page manuscript onto the signing table. “Would you read this?” she asks. “And then recommend me to your agent?”

Juanita casts a panicked glance around the room, clearly seeking an escape route. “I’m afraid I don’t have time to read anything new right now,” she says, shrinking away from the pile of papers. “Oh, my phone is vibrating — will you excuse me, please?”

This, believe it or not, happens even more that the first scenario – and with even greater frequency at writers’ conferences. Just as some writers have a hard time remembering that agents have ongoing projects, lives, other clients, etc. whose interests may preclude dropping everything to pay attention to a new writer, so too do established writers – many, if not most, of whom teach writing classes and give lectures in order to supplement their incomes.

So basically, Isabelle has just asked a professional author to give a private critique of her manuscript for free. Not the best means of winning friends and influencing people, generally speaking.

Yes, the process of finding an agent is frustrating, but do try to bear in mind what you are asking when you request help from another writer. Just as querying and pitching necessarily cuts into your precious writing time, so do requests of this nature cut into established writers’ writing time. Other than your admiration and gratitude, tell me, what does the author who helps you get out of it?

This not to say that some established writers aren’t willing to offer this kind of help; many do, and some of them like it. (Others charge a pretty penny for it, but that’s another story.) But even the most generous person tends to be nonplused when total strangers demand immense favors.

Establishing some sort of a relationship first – even if that relationship consists of nothing more than the five-minute conversation about the author’s work that precedes the question, “So, what do you write?” – is considered a polite first step.

In other words: whatever happened to foreplay, baby?

Don’t jump the gun, my friends. Remember, established writers are climbing up the publishing ladder, too, and respect their time accordingly. Make the effort to read, or at least buy, an author’s work before you approach her – and producing a little well-phrased, well-informed flattery never hurts, either.

I want to run through a few other examples illustrating the dos and don’ts of approaching an author for a recommendation, but that’s a project for another day. Right now, for the sake of confining the answer to Jake’s question to a single post (the easier to find it in the archives, my dear), let’s address the question of how an aspiring writer lucky enough to garner such a recommendation should USE it.

Jake’s assumption is correct: whatever else an agency says in its listing or on its website still applies when you have a referral. A referred writer should not, for instance, send an unsolicited manuscript or telephone and say, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, told me to contact you.”

A much, much better — not to say more courteous — approach would be to send a query letter beginning, “Your client, Penny Scribbler, suggested that I contact you about my thriller, BODY PARTS…” and proceeding like any other query letter targeting that particular agent.

That way, the agent or her Millicent knows from line 1 precisely why you are contacting her — and that she might want to pay a bit more attention to this query.

Naturally, you should ONLY open a query in this manner if Penny Scribbler actually did refer you — and if Penny’s agency makes it clear in its agency guide listings or on its website that it’s not very open to queries unaccompanied by a referral, think very carefully about whether it is worth your while to approach her agent without one. I have known a couple of writers who have landed agents by cold-querying agents who list themselves as requiring referrals, but it’s extremely rare that someone gets picked up that way, for all of the obvious reasons.

Personally, I would hold off.

However, if an agent that’s listed in a guide as only accepting referred queries seems like a particularly good fit for your book, it’s worth checking its website to see if that policy is still in effect, if every agent within the agency operates that way, etc. Sometimes, guide listings are out of date; unless there’s been a big personnel shift, many agencies will simply use the same listing for years. A new agent at such an agency may well be looking for new clients.

But, generally speaking, when agents set the referral limitation, they mean it.

Another reason to check out their websites, latest listings, etc., is to find out who their clients are and see if THEY have websites, give readings, etc. Many a writer who has written a fan letter has ended up with a recommendation to the author’s agent down the line.

Which brings us right back to Isabelle’s situation, doesn’t it? As I said, that’s a topic for another day. Next time, I shall run through a few more of the common gaffes eager referral-seekers tend to commit — because, after all, it’s far, far better that my fictional exemplars stumble into those gopher holes than my readers, right?

Keep up the good work!

Query letter troubleshooting, part II: more toiling in the literary vineyard

Happy Labor Day, all! I was tickled to find this image from the Book of Hours to gladden our hearts today, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

Oh, right — I was the only writer who felt that way while I was trying to find the right agent. Thanks for clearing up that little misconception.

But on the off chance that I wasn’t the lone writer who ever shivered in the face of seemingly unalterable industry coldness, I feel an obligation to point out from the other side of the Rubicon that even those newest to querying are not as entirely helpless in the face of it as we writers tend to tell ourselves we are. Although much of a writer’s progress along the road to publication is dependent upon factors outside her control — fads in style, fashions in content, and what kind of memoir has garnered the most scandals recently, to name but three — how she presents her work to the industry is in fact entirely under her own control.

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

Why, you cry? Because agents and their screeners read hundreds of the darned things per week: even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, instead of an individual?”

Oh, yes, Dr. Pavlov, there are few epistolary errors that engender a stronger — or quicker — negative response than a Dear Agent letter. But that’s merely the best-known of the notorious query-reader pet peeves…and I’m getting ahead of myself.

Call me zany, but if a query elicits a rejection for any reason other than that the storyline or argument in the proposed book didn’t grab Millicent or her boss, my first question is not, “Oh, how could the screener have made such a mistake?” but “May I have a look at that letter, so see how the writer may improve it?”

Why do I tend to leap straight to that conclusion, you ask? Experience, mostly. If there is a single rule of thumb that may be applied at every stage of any successful author’s career, it’s that it ALWAYS behooves us to look critically at our own writing before assuming that the only possible explanation for frowned-upon writing lies in the eye of the predisposition of the reader to frown.

My, that was a convoluted sentence, wasn’t it? Let me put it more simply: Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy at times, but any writer can learn how to avoid provoking her. As with a manuscript, the writer of a query will virtually always be better off taking steps to improve what she can control than blaming the rejection upon other factors.

It is possible, in other words, to learn from one’s own mistakes, even in the current agency environment, where the vast majority of queriers are never told precisely what made Millicent slide their letters directly into their SASEs with a copy of the agency’s prefab one-size-fits-all rejection note.

In the spirit of trying to avoid that dismal fate, I began running through a checklist of some of the most common query letter mistakes yesterday. Let’s recap, shall we?

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

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

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

(4) Is my query letter polite?

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

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

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

Please do take the time to re-read your query before you answer these questions or the ones to come. Yes, even if some of these points sound a trifle redundant to those of you who have been reading my blog for a while: you would be well within your rights to think, honestly, don’t all of us know by now to avoid sounding bitter in a query letter? Or to be polite while doing it?

Well, probably so — but humor me here, because queriers often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. It’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

In short, it’s worth reviewing what’s going out every once in a while. Which, coincidentally, brings me to the next question on the checklist:

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

Many aspiring writers approach quite a few agents simultaneously — and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. One-by-one queries can add years to the agent-finding process.

Do I hear some restless murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you conference veterans protest, “I heard that some agents will become furious if they find out that a writer is sending out many queries simultaneously. I don’t want to scare them away from my book by breaking their rules right off the bat!”

I’m not sure why this rumor remains so pervasive, because exclusivity requests almost invariably refer to submissions, not queries — and without exception, agencies that prefer to have exclusive looks at either make that fact PERFECTLY OBVIOUS in their listings in the standard agency guides, on their websites, and at conferences. So if you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t.

Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know. Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive, if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

I suspect that the astonishing persistence of the rumor that most agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) is a direct result of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

Since everyone in the room will nod sagely in response, the agent will not unnaturally assume that the entire audience knows that s/he is referring not to the practice of querying several agents simultaneously, but to the astonishing common feat of sending (often via e-mail) an IDENTICAL query letter to, say, a hundred agents all at once. (And if you don’t know why that’s a bad idea, you might want to check out this archived post before you launch a flotilla of your own.)

As we have discussed, a letter designed to please all is unlikely to be geared to the specific quirks and literary tastes of any particular agent — one of the many reasons that this shotgun approach seldom works. The other, believe it or not, is that mass submitters often render the fact that they don’t know one agent on their lists from another by sending out what is known in the biz as a Dear Agent letter. As in one that begins:

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel…

Why, when there is so much to resent in this (probably quite honest) little missive, would the salutation alone be enough to get this query rejected without reading farther? Well, to folks who work in agencies, such an opening means only one thing: the writer who sent it is sending an identical letter to every agent listed on the Internet or in one of the standard agency guides.

Willy-nilly, with no regard to who represents what and consequently who is likely to be interested in the book at hand.

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of laughability that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

Since virtually any Millicent will simply pitch a Dear Agent letter into the reject pile, if not actually the trash (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs), it’s in your best interest to make it quite, quite obvious to whom you are addressing your missive. In fact, the query most likely to succeed is one that is specialized not only in the salutation, but in the first paragraph as well.

How, you ask? Good question.

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

This is a corollary of the last, of course — to put it another way, writers aren’t the the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” Agents scream it, too, albeit with a slightly different meaning.

No, but seriously, agents (and their screeners) wonder about this. Given half a chance and a martini or two, many agents will complain vociferously about queries that read as though the writer simply used a mail merge to address letters to every agent listed on a particular website or in a given guide.

Those of you who have been following this blog for a while may find this question SLIGHTLY familiar, and for good reason: this is a NOTORIOUS agents’ pet peeve.

So it’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

And no, in this context, because she is an agent and I desperately want to sell my book, is not a reason likely to impress Millicent. She hears it too often.

Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

See why I kept urging you earlier this summer to ask those panels of agents at conferences some pointed questions about their favorite projects? I was just looking to help you glean some useful information.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring here, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief private meetings with everyone on the faculty first.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who think simply everyone in the universe has read their work. (Everyone smart, anyway.) If you’re the job candidate, you’d better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or you’re toast.

Gee, I can’t imagine why I didn’t want to remain in academia. But it did teach me something very valuable indeed: pretty much every human being affiliated with every book ever published likes to be recognized for the fact.

And it’s so very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious! If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning: “Since you so ably represented X’s book, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

I had lunch a while back with a writer who used this method in a pitch with triumphant success. The agent was blown away that the writer had taken the time to find out whom she represented and do a little advance reading.

There are many ways to find out what an agent has represented. Check the acknowledgments of books you like (authors often thank their agents), or check the agency’s website to see whom the agent represents. If all else fails, call the book’s publisher, ask for the publicity department, and ask who the agent of record was; legally, it’s a matter of public record, so they have to tell you.

Actually, with small publishers, this isn’t a bad method for finding out what they are looking to publish. I once had a charming conversation with an editor at a small Midwestern press, who confided to me that when she had acquired the book about which I was inquiring, the author did not yet have an agent. Sensing an opportunity, I promptly pitched my book to her — and she asked me to send her the first fifty pages right away.

Moral: sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. As, for instance…

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

I am surprised at how often writers seem reluctant to mention this, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book: the prevailing wisdom goes that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present.

A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, one you should be riding for all it is worth.

If you have heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or even just noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked, mention that in the first line of your query letter. If you have no such personal reason, be polite enough to invent a general one: “Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…”

I would suggest being even more upfront than this, if the conference in question was a reputable one and you did in fact attend it. Why not write the name of the conference on the outside of the envelope, in approximately the same place where you would have written REQUESTED MATERIALS had you pitched to the agent successfully there? And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail?

Oh, and lest I forget to mention it later in this series:

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

Stop laughing, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — it’s far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that accept submissions directly through the website often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic. (Don’t worry, those of you reading this abroad: I’m going to be talking next week about how to deal with the stamp problem.)

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well.

If you’re in any doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Yes, you read that correctly. Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of querying via e-mail, for the exceedingly simple reason that it’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. A truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

Not to mention the fact that the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. (Or at least she did the last time I checked the statistics.) I can’t conceive of any writer who has thought about it actively longing to have Millicent spend less time reading his letter than she already does, can you?

The relative speed of scanning e-queries is why, in case you’re wondering, quite a few of the agencies that actively solicit online queries tend to respond more quickly than those that don’t. Or not at all — which means that it’s also worth your while to check an agency’s policy on responding to e-queries before you approach them; many have policies that preclude responding to a querier if the answer is no.

I sense an unspoken question hanging in the air right now. Go ahead; ask.

“But Anne,” I hear many of you shout, “what happens if I accidentally send an e-query to an agent who doesn’t like them, or a paper query to one who prefers to be approached electronically? That won’t result in an automatic rejection, will it?”

Not necessarily, no. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

I don’t know about you, but given my druthers, I would select the former.

Call me old-fashioned, but I believe that just as it’s polite to address a person the way he prefers to be addressed, rather than by a hated nickname, a courteous writer should approach an agent in the manner she prefers to be approached. Those with strong preferences either way seldom make a secret of it; double-check before you send.

And before anyone out there asks: yes, most agents will assume that a writer worth having as a client will have gone to the trouble of learning something about their personal preferences. If they have expressed a pet peeve in one of the standard agency guides, they will assume that you are aware of it.

While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the evening:

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

I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common all of these gaffes are. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie would constantly be receiving queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex.

If you’re in serious doubt, call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two options; unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

I know, I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should NEVER call an agency until after he has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if he’s polite about it. As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

Have you noticed how many of these tips boil down to some flavor of be clear, do your homework, and be courteous? That’s not entirely accidental: as odd as it may seem in an industry that rejects so many so brusquely, manners honestly do count in this business.

As my grandmother was fond of saying, manners cost nothing. But as I am prone to tell my clients and students, not exhibiting courtesy can cost an aspiring writer quite a lot.

So sit up straight, brush your teeth, and help little old ladies across the street; it will be great practice for working with an agent or editor.

More of the checklist follows tomorrow, of course. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

Query letter troubleshooting, or, no, Virginia, you don’t want to make the same mistakes as everyone else

Happy Labor Day weekend, everybody! This is one of my favorite three-day holidays because, of course, most U.S. workers wouldn’t have weekends at all were it not for organized labor spending decades pushing for a 5-day work week. Seems appropriate, somehow, that so many folks get a day off to commemorate that achievement — and to celebrate child labor laws, OSHA, and other Really Good Ideas that have made workplaces across the country safer for all. (Not to mention less Dickensian.)

I’m sorry to have skipped a couple of days of posting, because I know that, appropriately enough, many, many aspiring writers stateside use this particular long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters and submissions. I like to be checking in often during query-heavy periods, to answer readers’ last-minute questions. However, since Millicent and her cronies will be dragging into the office two days hence, only to be greeted by (in some cases) a month’s worth of queries and submissions, it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a week or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood.

Ask a writer to justify anything, and you’re likely to get a well-stuffed paragraph of response, eh?

Seriously, though, I’m glad to devote the week to come to diagnosing and treating some of the ailments from which query letters and SASEs commonly suffer. (Yes, believe it or not, queriers often misunderstand the proper function of the SASE or leave it out altogether.) I’d much, much rather spend an extra week on the topic than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Do I see some hands being thrown skyward out there? “But Anne,” I hear those of you with query letters on the point of being stuffed into already-addressed envelopes, “isn’t this a trifle redundant? After all, you’ve been talking for the last few posts about big problems to which query letters are prone, so aren’t you preaching to the choir here?”

You’ve got a point there, hand-flingers: I, too, would dearly like to believe that all of my bright, brilliant, talented, and undoubtedly gorgeous and civic-minded readers already know to avoid the major pitfalls. In fact, over the course of the last three years (can you believe I’ve been posting for that long?), all of us here at Author! Author! have worked pretty hard to produce that outcome.

Go, Team Literate!

I must confess, though, that I worry about the reader who found this blog only a week ago, my friends, as well as the one who started reading faithfully, say, last April. These fine folks have not yet lived through one of my troubleshooting series — and, hard as it may be to imagine, not everyone has the hours — or, at this point, days — to spare to troll my archives. (Helpful hint to those in a hurry: the HOW TO categories on the list at right contain the briefest sets of explanations of a number of basic writerly skills, like query-generating; lengthier, more detailed accounts lurk under other category headings.)

I’m not going over this material again only for the sake of new or archive-shy readers, however. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers savvy enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent the agency screener’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. So please, even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of common query turn-offs.

Why? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their missives themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record, because I honestly do think the misconceptions around rejection are harmful to good writers: unfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

But how is this possible, without a level of mental telepathy on the agency screener’s part that would positively stun the Amazing Kreskin?

Are the rejecting agents seeing past the initial packet to the book itself, decreeing from afar that the writing is not worth reading — and thus that the writer should not be writing? Do they have some sort of direct cosmic connection to the Muses that allows them to glance at the first three lines of a query and say, “Nope, this one was last in line when the talent was handed out. Sorry,” before they toss it into the rejection pile?

No, of course not. Only editors have that kind of direct telephone connection to the demi-gods.

Yet this particular fear leaps like a lion onto many fledgling writers, dragging them off the path to future efforts: it is the first cousin that dangerous, self-hating myth that afflicts too many writers, leading to despair, the notion that if one is REALLY talented, the first draft, the first query, and the first book will automatically traject one to stardom.

It never – well, almost never — turns out like that: writing is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned, as we’ve seen over the last few posts.

But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want? Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying.

Today, we’re going to begin to learn the fine art of diagnosis.

Word to the wise: even if you have already run your query through the wringer of my last set of diagnostic posts, you might want to cast your eye over these as well. Because the querying market is tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue — read: it’s as competitive now as it has been in my lifetime, and I’m not nearly so young as I look — I have beefed up the questions this time around. If you have already gone over your letter with an eye to my earlier advice, you should be able to sail through most of these questions; if not, you may have a few surprises in store.

Before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, read over everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, and, if you’ve been submitting it, first chapter. Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. The best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine.

Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable: as much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing. Look to them for support and encouragement, not for technical feedback. Find someone whose opinion you trust – such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters – and blandish her into giving your query letter and synopsis a solid reading.

(Lest you think I am casting unwarranted aspersions upon your mother, your spouse, or your best friend, let me add that my own fabulous mother spent her twenties editing the work of Philip K. Dick and others; fifty years later, she is one of the best line editors I have ever seen, in my professional opinion, but as she is my mother, I would never dream of using her as my only, or indeed even my primary feedback source. Naturally, that doesn’t stop her from line editing while she reads my work, as I do for hers — years of professional editing causes a particular type of myopia that prevents one from ever reading again without brandishing a vicious pen that attacks margins with the intensity a charging rhinoceros — but I respect my work enough to want first reader feedback from someone who was NOT there when I took my first toddling steps.)

Make sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier – and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy. And I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute, because it’s too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry..

Once you have cleared out any grammatical or spelling problems and made sure your submission pieces say what you thought they were saying (you’d be surprised how many don’t), sit down with yourself and/or that trusted first reader and ask yourself the following questions.
Ready, campers? Let’s proceed.

(1) Is my query letter longer than a single page in standard correspondence format?
I covered this earlier in this series, but it bears repeating: even e-mailed queries longer than a page are seldom read in their entirety. I know it’s hard to cram everything you want to say to promote your work into a single page, but it’s just not worth it to go longer.

And please, for your own sake, don’t take the common escape route of shrinking the margins or the typeface; trust me, any screener, agent, editor, or contest judge with even a few weeks’ worth of experience can tell. (For a quick, visually-aid-assited run-down on why their being able to tell is bad news for the querier who does it, please see my last post.)

For those of you unclear on the difference between correspondence format and business format (or, to put it another way, those who are coming upon this checklist in my archives, rather than reading it as today’s post), please see my earlier post on the subject.

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter, am I trying to do too much here?
Specifically, is your query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?

Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Don’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page; just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

(3) If my query letter is too long, am I spending too many lines of text describing the plot?
The attempt to force the query to serve the purpose of the synopsis or book proposal is, of course, the most common letter-extender of them all. All too often, the plot or argument description overflows its alloted single paragraph so dramatically that other necessary features of the query letter — why the querier has selected THIS agent and no other, the intended readership, the book category — get tossed overboard in a desperate attempt to keep the whole to a single page.

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph. Remember, your job here is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 30 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But Millicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

And even if they had plotted in dark, smoke-filled rooms about how best to make writers’ lives more difficult, pointing it out either explicitly or implicitly would not not the best way to win friends and influence people. In my experience, lecturing a virtual stranger on how mean agents are is NOT the best tack to take when trying to make a new friend who happens to be an agent, any more than cracking out your best set of lawyer jokes would be at a bar association meeting.

I know — shocking.

I’ve seen some real lulus turn up in query letters. My personal favorite began, “Since you agents have set yourself up as the guardians of the gates of the publishing world, I suppose I need to appeal to you first…”

A close second: “I know that challenging books seldom get published these days, but I’m hoping you’ll be smart enough to see that mine…”

Remember, even if you met an agent at a conference (or via a recommendation from a client; I’ll be talking a bit about that next week) and got along with him as though you’d known each other since nursery school, a query is a business letter. Be cordial, but do not presume that it is okay to be overly familiar.

Demonstrate that you are a professional writer who understands that the buying and selling of books is a serious business. After hours staring at query letters filled with typos and blame, professional presentation comes as a positive relief.

Speaking of which…

(5) Is it clear from the first paragraph on what precisely I am asking the agent to represent?
This may seem like a silly question, but you wouldn’t believe how many otherwise well-written query letters don’t even specify whether the book in question is fiction or nonfiction. Or, as I mentioned earlier in this series, the book category. Or even, believe it or not, the title.

Why is it so VERY important to make absolutely certain that this information is clearly presented in the first paragraph? Because, as I mentioned last week, the vast majority of queries are not read in their entirety before being rejected.

Or, to put it another way: the first paragraph of your query is one of the very few situations in the writing world where you need to TELL, as well as show. If your first paragraph doesn’t tell Millicent either that the book in question is in fact the kind of book her boss is looking to represent or another very good reason to query her (having spoken to her at a conference, having heard her speak at same, because she so ably represented Book X, etc.), she is very, very likely to shove it into the rejection pile without reading any farther.

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

In a word, yes — and generally speaking, it’s better strategy to query one book at a time, for precisely that reason. If you like (and you should like, if you have a publication history in another book category), you may mention the other titles later in your query letter, down in the paragraph where you will be talking about your writing credentials.

But in the first paragraph, no. Do you really want to run the risk of confusing Millicent?

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

Which, unfortunately, can translate on the page into sounding apprehensive, unenthusiastic, or just plain tired. Understandable, absolutely, but not the best way to pitch your work.

A query is not the place to express querying fatigue. Try to sound as upbeat in your seventeenth query letter as in your first. No need to sound like a Mouseketeer on speed, of course, but try not to sound discouraged, either.

While it is a nice touch to thank the agent at the end of the query for taking the time to consider your work, doing so in the first paragraph of the letter and/or repeatedly in the body can come across as a tad obsequious. Begging tends not to be helpful in this situation.

Remember, reading your query is the agent’s (or, more likely, the agent’s assistant’s) JOB, not a personal favor to you. No, no matter HOW long you’ve been shopping your book around.

By the way, if you have already pitched to an agent at a conference and she asked you to send materials, you do not need to query that same agent to ask permission to send them, unless she specifically said, “Okay, query me.” Many conference-goers seem to be confused on this point. In-person pitching is a substitute for querying, not merely an expensive extension of it.

And yes, this remains true even if many months have passed since that pitch session: if it’s been less than a year since an agent requested pages, there is absolutely no need to query, call, or e-mail to confirm that she still wants to see them. (If it’s been longer, do.) To the pros, being asked over and over again whether they REALLY meant that request is puzzling and, if it happens frequently, annoying.

(7) Does my book come across as genuinely marketable, or does the letter read as though I’m boasting?
In my many, many years of hanging out with publishing types, I have literally never met an agent who could not, if asked (and often if not), launch into a medley of annoyingly pushy, self-aggrandizing query letter openings he’s received. As I mentioned earlier in this series, they’ve already seen a lifetime’s supply of, “This is the greatest work ever written!”, “My book is the next bestseller!”, and “Don’t miss your opportunity to represent this book!”

Trust me, they don’t want to hear it again. Ever. (And if that’s news to you, please see my most recent post on the subject.)

So how do you make your work sound marketable? By identifying the target market clearly, and demonstrating (with statistics, if you can) both how large it is and why your book will appeal to that particular demographic.

Why, that sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Why, it’s almost as though I had been thinking ahead.

Perhaps that’s because figuring out how to identify your book’s target market and a few reasons that your book would appeal to that demographic were exercises we did earlier in the summer. (If you missed that part of the Book Marketing 101 series, I have carefully hidden the relevant posts under the obscure monikers IDENTIFYING YOUR TARGET MARKET and YOUR BOOK’S SELLING POINTS in the category list at right.)

Which means that all of you out there who have been following this series the whole time should give yourselves a big ol’ pat on the back: you’ve spent the summer assembling a serious writer’s bag of marketing tools, a collection that will, I hope, serve you well throughout the rest of your writing life. Learning to figure out a book’s ideal readership, how to identify a selling point, coming to describe a book in the manner the industry best understands — these are all skills that transcend the agent-finding stage of a writer’s career.

So well done, everybody. Tomorrow, I shall move on with the red flag checklist. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part IV: the good, the bad, and the shrunken

I’ve been talking for a few days about the goals of the query letter and how to achieve them without sounding as though you’re trying to sell the agent vacation home land in Florida. In that spirit, I thought some of you might find it useful to see what a really good query letter looks like. Not so you can copy it verbatim – rote reproductions abound in rejection piles – but so you may see what the theory looks like in practice.

To make the example more useful, I’ve picked a book in the public domain whose story you might know: MADAME BOVARY. (And if you’re having trouble reading it at its current size, try clicking on the image a couple of times.)

That’s an awfully good query letter, isn’t it? After the last few days’ posts, I hope it’s clear to you why: it that presents the book well, in businesslike terms, without coming across as too pushy or arrogant. Even more pleasing to Millicent’s eye, Mssr. Flaubert makes the book sound genuinely interesting AND describes it in terms that imply a certain familiarity with how the publishing industry works. Well done, Gustave!

(The date on the letter is when the first installment of MADAME BOVARY was published, incidentally; I couldn’t resist.)

For the sake of comparison, let’s assume that Mssr. Flaubert had not done his homework; what might his query letter have looked like then?

Now, I respect my readers’ intelligence far too much to go through point by point, explaining what’s wrong with this second letter. Obviously, the contractions are far too casual for a professional missive.

No, but seriously, I would hope that you spotted the unsupported boasting, the bullying, disrespectful tone, and the fact that it doesn’t really describe the book. Also, to Millicent’s eye, the fact that it was addressed to DEAR AGENT and undated would indicate that ol’ Gustave is simply plastering the entire agent community with queries, regardless of individual agents’ representation preferences. That alone would almost certainly lead her to reject MADAME BOVARY out of hand, without reading the body of the letter at all.

Setting aside all of these problems, there are two other major problems with this letter that we have not yet discussed. First, how exactly is the agent to contact Gustave to request him to send the manuscript?

She can’t, of course, because Mssr. Flaubert has made the mistake of leaving out that information, as an astonishingly high percentage of queriers do.

Why? I suspect it’s because they assume that if they include a SASE (that’s Self-Addressed Stamped Envelope, for those of you new to the trade, and it should be included with every query and submission), the agent already has their contact information. A similar logic tends to prevail with e-mailed queries: all the agent needs to do is hit REPLY, right?

Well, no, not necessarily; e-mailed queries get forwarded from agent to assistant and back again all the time, and SASEs have been known to go astray. I speak from personal experience here: I once received a kind rejection for someone else’s book stuffed into my SASE. I returned the manuscript with a polite note informing the agency of the mistake, along with the suggestion that perhaps they had lost MY submission. The nice agency assistant who answered that letter — very considerately, as it happens — grew up to be my current agent.

True story.

The moral: don’t depend on the SASE or return button alone. Include your contact information either in the body of the letter or in its header.

Gustave’s second problem is a bit more subtle, not so much a major gaffe as a small signal to Millicent that the manuscript to which the letter refers MIGHT not be professionally polished. Any guesses?

If you said that it was in business format, congratulations: you’ve been paying attention.

Any other ideas? Okay, let me infect the good query with the same virus, to help make the problem a bit more visible to the naked eye:

See it now? The letter is written in Helvetica, not Times, Times New Roman, or Courier, the preferred typefaces for manuscripts.

Was that huge huff of indignation that just billowed toward space an indication that favoring one font over another in queries is, well, a tad unfair? To set your minds at ease, I’ve never seen font choice alone be a rejection trigger (although font size often is; stick to 12 point). Nor do most agencies openly express font preferences for queries (although a few do; check their websites and/or agency book listings). However, I can tell you from very, very long experience working with aspiring writers that queries in the standard typefaces do seem to be treated with a touch more respect.

I know; odd. But worth noting, don’t you think?

Let’s take a look at another common yet purely structural way that good query letters send off an unprofessional vibe:

Not all that subtle, this: a query letter needs to be a SINGLE page. This restriction is taken so seriously that very, very few Millicents would be willing to turn to that second page at all, few enough that it’s just not worth adding.

Why are agencies so rigid about length when dealing with people who are, after all, writers? Long-time readers, chant it with me now: TIME. Can you imagine how lengthy the average query letter would be if agencies didn’t limit how long writers could ramble on about their books?

Stop smiling. It would be awful, at least for Millicent.

Fortunately, the one-page limit seems to be the most widely-known of querying rules. So much so, in fact, that aspiring writers frequently tempt Millicent’s wrath through conjuring tricks that force all of the information the writer wishes to provide onto a single page. Popular choices include shrinking the margins:

or shrinking the font size:

or, most effective at all, using the scale function to shrink the entire document:

Let me burst this bubble before any of you even try to blow it up to its full extent: this sort of document-altering magic will not help an over-long query sneak past Millicent’s scrutiny, for the exceedingly simple reason that she will not be fooled by it. Not even for a nanosecond. The only message such a query letter sends is this writer cannot follow directions.

Nor will an experienced contest judge, incidentally, should you be thinking of using any of these tricks to crush a too-lengthy chapter down to the maximum acceptable page length.

Why am I so certain that Millie will catch strategic shrinkage? For precisely the same reason that deviations from standard format in manuscripts are so obvious to professional readers: the fact that they read correctly-formatted pages ALL THE TIME.

Don’t believe the tricks above wouldn’t be instantaneously spottable? Okay, glance at them, then take another gander at our first example of the day:

Viewed side-by-side, the differences are pretty clear, aren’t they? And in the extremely unlikely event that Millicent isn’t really sure that the query in front of her contains some trickery, all she has to do is move her fingertips a few inches to the right or the left of it, open the next query letter, and perform an enlightening little compare-and-contrast exercise.

Just don’t do it. But avoiding formatting skullduggery is not the only thing I would like you to learn from today’s examples.

What I would also like you to take away from this post is the fact that, with one egregious exception, these were all more or less the same query letter in terms of content, all pitching the same book. Yet only one of these is at all likely to engender a request to read the actual MANUSCRIPT.

In other words, even a great book will be rejected at the query letter if it is queried or pitched poorly. Yes, many agents would snap up Mssr. Flaubert in a heartbeat after reading his wonderful prose – but with a query letter like the second, or with some of the sneaky formatting tricks exhibited here, the probability of any agent’s asking to read it is close to zero.

Let’s not forget an important corollary to this realization: even a book as genuinely gorgeous as MADAME BOVARY would not see the inside of a Borders today unless Flaubert kept sending out query letters, rather than curling up in a ball after the first rejection.

Deep down, pretty much every writer believes that if she were REALLY talented, her work would get picked up without her having to market it. C’mon, admit it, you’ve had the fantasy: there’s a knock on your door, and when you open it, there’s the perfect agent standing there, contract in hand. “I heard that your work is wonderful,” the agent says. “May I come in and talk about it?’

Or perhaps in your preferred version, you go to a conference and pitch your work for the first time. The agent of your dreams, naturally, falls over backwards in his chair; after sal volitale has been administered to revive him from his faint, he cries, “That’s it! The book I’ve been looking for my whole professional life!”

Or, still more common, you send your first query letter to an agent, and you receive a phone call two days later, asking to see the entire manuscript. Three days after you overnight it to New York, the agent calls to say that she stayed up all night reading it, and is dying to represent you. Could you fly to New York immediately, so she could introduce you to the people who are going to pay a million dollars for your rights?

Fantasy is all very well in its place, but while you are trying to find an agent, please do not be swayed by it. Don’t send out only one query at a time; it’s truly a waste of your efforts. Try to keep 7 or 8 out at any given time.

This advice often comes as a shock to writers. “What do you mean, 7 or 8 at any given time? I’ve been rejected ten times, and I thought that meant I should lock myself away and revise the book completely before I sent it out again!”

In a word, no. Oh, feel free to lock yourself up and revise to your heart’s content, but if you have a completed manuscript in your desk drawer, you should try to keep a constant flow of query letters heading out your door. As they say in the biz, the only manuscript that can never be sold is the one that is never submitted. (For a great, inspiring cheerleading essay on how writers talk themselves out of believing this, check out Carolyn See’s Making a Literary Life.)

There are two reasons keeping a constant flow is a good idea, professionally speaking. First, it’s never a good idea to allow a query letter to molder on your desktop: after awhile, that form letter can start to seem very personally damning, and a single rejection from a single agent can start to feel like an entire industry’s indictment of your work.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: one of the most self-destructive of conference-circuit rumors is the notion that if a book is good, it will automatically be picked up by the first agent that sees it. Or the fifth, for that matter.

This is simply untrue. It is not uncommon for wonderful books to go through dozens of queries, and even many rounds of query-revision-query-revision before being picked up. As long-time readers of this blog are already aware, there are hundreds of reasons that agents and their screeners reject manuscripts, the most common being that they do not like to represent a particular kind of book.

So how precisely is such a rejection a reflection on the quality of the writing?

Keep on sending out those queries a hundred times, if necessary. Because until you can blandish the right agent into reading your book, you’re just not going to know for sure whether it is marketable or not.

More querying tips follow anon. Keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part III: suspense novel seeks LTR with agent

Throughout this latest barefoot run through the often rocky field of query letters, I have been thinking a lot about querying fatigue, that dragging, soul-sucking feeling that every querier — and submitter, and contest entrant — feels if and when that SASE comes back stuffed with a rejection. “Oh, God,” every writer thinks in that moment, “I have to do this again?” Unfortunately, if an aspiring writer wants to land an agent, get a book published by press large or small instead of self-publishing, or win a literary contest, s/he DOES need to pick that ego off the ground and keep moving forward.

That’s just a fact. So I hope that my last post, about the very, very short amount of time a writer has to grab an agent’s attention in a query letter, did not discourage anyone from trying.

Yes, querying is a tough row to hoe, both technically and psychologically. But here’s a comforting thought to bear in mind: someone who reads ONLY your query, or even your query and synopsis, cannot logically be rejecting your BOOK, or even your writing; to pass a legitimate opinion on either, she would have to read some of your work.

I’m quite serious about this — aspiring writers too often beat themselves up unduly over rejections, and it just doesn’t make sense. Unless the agency you are querying is one of the increasingly rare ones that asks querants to include a brief writing sample, what is rejected in a query letter is either the letter itself (for unprofessionalism, lack of clarity, or simply not being a kind of book that particular agent represents), the premise of the book, or the book category.

So, logically speaking, there is NO WAY that even a stack of rejection letters reaching to the moon could be a rejection of your talents as a writer, provided those rejections came entirely from cold querying. Makes you feel just the tiniest bit better to think of rejections that way, doesn’t it?

The sole goal of querying, as of pitching, then, is to generate a request to read some of it — not, as many queriers and pitchers seem to believe, to sell the book per se.

Why am I bringing this up in mid-series, you ask, other than to be a ray of sunshine on a rainy Seattle day? Well, it’s all part of a longer-term plan: earlier in the summer, if you will recall, I promised that learning how to pitch would help make you a better querier; last week and this, I have discussed how a savvy pitcher might apply those lessons to constructing a query letter; yesterday, I broached the often-neglected subject of the difference between query letters that claim to be the next bestseller, and those that provide an agent with some reasons to believe it.

Beginning to descry the outlines of my evil plan? I don’t want any of you to follow my querying guidelines blindly, but to UNDERSTAND the goals and pieces of the query letter well enough to write one that is actually original. I would like to see my readers not merely sending out professional-looking query letters, but ones that shout, “Hey, I’m not just a writer who has slapped my ideas into a boilerplate query — I’m a smart, thoughtful person with a good idea for a book who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.”

Overkill? Perhaps. But in my experience, more effective than just changing the words in the same template half the aspiring writers in North America are using this week — and believe me, fashions in querying change almost as often as fashions in hemlines.

All of which brings me back to a question thoughtful reader Jake wrote in to ask earlier in the summer, in the middle of my rhapsodies on pitching:

I’ve been applying this series to query writing, and I think I’ve written a pretty good elevator speech to use as a second paragraph, but there’s something that bothers me.

We’ve been told countless times not to write teasers or book-jacket blurbs when trying to pick up an agent. (”Those damned writer tricks,” I think was the term that was used)

I’m wondering exactly where the line between blurbs and elevator speeches are, and how can I know when I’ve crossed it. Any tips there?

Jake, this is a great question, one that I wish more queriers would ask themselves. The short answer:

A good elevator speech/descriptive paragraph of a query letter describes the content of a book in a clear, concise manner, relying upon intriguing specifics to entice a professional reader into wanting to see actual pages of the book in question.

whereas

A blurb is a micro-review of a book, commenting upon its strengths, usually in general terms. Usually, these are written by someone other than the author, as with the blurbs that appear on book jackets.

The former is a (brief, admittedly) sample of the author’s storytelling skill; the latter is promotional copy. As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, many, if not most, queriers make the mistake of regarding query letters — and surprisingly often synopses, especially those submitted for contest entry, as well — as occasions for the good old American hard sell, boasting when they should instead be demonstrating.

Or, to put it in more writerly language, telling how great the book in question is rather than showing it. From Millicent’s perspective, the difference is indeed glaring.

So how, as Jake so insightfully asks, is a querier to know when he’s crossed the line between them? As agents like to say, it all depends on the writing, and as my long-term readers are already aware, I’m no fan of hard-and-fast rules. However, here are a couple of simple follow-up questions to ask while considering the issue:

(1) Does my descriptive paragraph actually describe the book, or does it pass a value judgment on it?

Generally speaking, agents and editors tend to be wary of aspiring writers who praise their own work, as I mentioned yesterday. To use a rather crude analogy, boasts in queries come across like a drunk’s insistence that he can beat up everybody else in the bar, or (to get even cruder) like a personal ad whose author claims that he’s a wizard in bed.

That’s at MAKING the bed, naturally, children.

My point is, if the guy were really all that great at either, wouldn’t otherpeople be singing his praises? Isn’t the proof of the pudding, as they say, in the eating?

The typical back-jacket blurb isn’t intended to describe the book’s content — it’s to praise it. And as counter-intuitive as most queriers seem to find it, the goal of a query letter is not to praise the book, but to pique interest in it.

See the difference? Millicent does.

(2) Does my query present the book as a reviewer might, in terms of the reader’s potential enjoyment, assessment of writing quality, speculation about sales potential, and assertions that it might make a good movie? Or does my query talk about the book in the terms an agent might actually use?

Does this question sound eerily familiar? It should, at least to those of you who followed me through the pitching series earlier this summer.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll no doubt say it again: an effective query or pitch describes a book in the vocabulary of the publishing industry, not in terms of general praise.

(3) Are the sentences that strike me as possibly blurb-like actually necessary to the query letter, or are they extraneous?

I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the average query letter is crammed to the gills with unnecessary verbiage. Just as your garden-variety unprepared pitcher tends to ramble on about how difficult it has been to find an agent for her book, what subplots it contains, and what inspired her to write the darned thing in the first place, queriers often veer off-track to discuss everything from their hopes and dreams about how well the book could sell (hence our old friend, “It’s a natural for Oprah!”) to mentioning what their kith, kin, and writing teachers thought of it (“They say it’s a natural for Oprah!”) to thoughtfully listing all of the reasons that the agent being queried SHOULDN’T pick it up (“You probably won’t be interested, because this isn’t the kind of book that ends up on Oprah.”)

To Millicent and her fellow screeners, none of these observations are relevant.

A successful query letter has ALL of the following traits: it is clear; it is less than 1 page (single-spaced); it describes the book’s premise (not the entire book; that’s the job of the synopsis) in an engaging manner; it is polite; it is clear about what kind of book is being pitched; it includes a SASE, and it is addressed to an agent with a successful track record in representing the type of book it is pitching.

You would not BELIEVE how few query letters that agencies receive actually have all of these traits. And to be brutally blunt about it, agents rather like that, because, as I mentioned in my last, it makes it oh-so-easy to reject 85% of what they receive within seconds.

No fuss, no muss, no reading beyond, say, line 2. Again, sound familiar?

A particularly common omission: the book category. Because, you see, many writers just don’t know that the industry runs on book categories; it would be literally impossible for an agent to sell a book to a publisher without a category label. And other writers, bless their warm, fuzzy, and devious hearts, think that they are being clever by omitting it, lest their work be rejected on category grounds. “This agency doesn’t represent mysteries,” this type of strategizer thinks, “so I just won’t tell them until they’ve fallen in love with my writing.”

I have a shocking bit of news for you, Napolèon: the industry simply doesn’t work that way; if they do not know where it will eventually rest on a shelf in Barnes & Noble, they’re not going to read it at all.

Yes, for most books, particularly novels, there can be legitimate debate about which shelf would most happily house it, and agents recategorize their clients’ work all the time (it’s happened to me, and recently). However, people in the industry speak and even think of books by category – trust me, you’re not going to win any Brownie points with them by making them guess what kind of book you’re trying to get them to read.

If you don’t know how to figure out your book’s category, or why you shouldn’t just make one up, please, I implore you, click on the BOOK CATEGORIES section of the list at right before you send out your next query letter. Or pitch. Or, really, before you or anything you’ve written comes within ten feet of anyone even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry.

But I’m veering off into specifics, amn’t I? We were talking about general principles.

I find that it often helps aspiring writers to think of their query letters as personal ads for their books. (Oh, come on: everyone reads them from time to time, if only to see what the new kink du jour is.) In it, you are introducing your book to someone with whom you are hoping it will have a long-term relationship – which, ideally, it will be; I have relatives with whom I have less frequent and less cordial contact than with my agent – and as such, you are trying to make a good impression.

So which do you think is more likely to draw a total stranger to you, ambiguity or specificity in how you describe yourself?

To put it another way, are you using the blurb or demonstration style> Do you, as so many personal ads and queries do, describe yourself in only the vaguest terms, hoping that Mr. or Ms. Right will read your mind correctly and pick yours out of the crowd of ads? Or do you figure out precisely what it is you want from a potential partner, as well as what you have to give in return, and spell it out?

To the eye of an agent or screener who sees hundreds of these appeals per week, writers who do not specify book categories are like personal ad placers who forget to list minor points like their genders or sexual orientation.

Yes, it really is that basic, in their world.

And writers who hedge their bets by describing their books in hybrid terms, as in “it’s a cross between a political thriller and a gentle romance, with helpful gardening tips thrown in,” are to professional eyes the equivalent of personal ad placers so insecure about their own appeal that they say they are into, “long walks on the beach, javelin throwing, or whatever.”

Trust me, to the eyes of the industry, this kind of complexity doesn’t make you look interesting, or your book a genre-crosser. To them, this at best looks like a rather pitiful attempt to curry favor by indicating that the writer in question is willing to manhandle his book in order to make it anything the agent wants. At worst, it comes across as the writer’s being so solipsistic that he assumes that it’s the query-reader’s job to guess what “whatever” means in this context.

And we all know by now how agents feel about writers who waste their time, don’t we?

Don’t make ‘em guess; be specific, and describe your work in the language they understand. Because otherwise, they’re just not going to understand the book you are offering well enough to know that any agent in her right mind — at least, anyone who has a substantial and successful track record in selling your category of book — should ask to read all or part of it with all possible dispatch.

I know you’re up to this challenge; I can feel it.

Don’t worry, though — you don’t need to pull it off within the next thirty seconds, regardless of what that rush of adrenaline just told you. More discussion of the ins and outs of querying follows in the days to come, so take a nice, deep breath and keep up the good work!

What should a query letter look like, anyway? Part II: the inevitable effects of competition at the feeding bowl

As you may see, this summer’s litter of wee raccoonlets (I’d call them cubs, but the term fails to convey the relevant cuteness) have found our outdoor cat’s food bowl. In broad daylight, no less, with the kitty in question regarding them with singular disfavor from a few scant feet away. Since we fed the babies’ mother when she was a cub, and her parents when they were, I suppose I would be unreasonable to expect them to be shy. They scratch on my door when they’re hungry.

I don’t have a whole lot of leisure to watch them, unfortunately, because I’m still on relative hiatus (read: I’m writing this propped up on a couch, nearly buried in blankets, cats, and Kleenex, not the healthy person’s choice for stylish summer apparel), but by gum, I’m on the job. The task at hand: helping those of you new to constructing query letters learn to build a good one — and giving those of you who have been at it for a while some tips on making yours better.

To that end, my last couple of posts have been re-runs (yes, a bit lazy of me, but you try moving the cat who likes sleeping on top of my mousing arm) on what a query letter is and isn’t. For the rest of this week, I’m going to continue this trend — mostly, like today, combining some material from different past posts into fresh ones, then folding in some visuals. After we’re all good and clear on the basic concepts, I’ll move on to how to spot trouble spots in existing query letters. Sounds like fun, eh?

Well, okay, maybe not fun, but doesn’t it at least sound bearable?

At minimum, it should be exceedingly useful. Honest. Think of it as taking your query letter to the gym.

Now would be a great time to work on its muscle tone: for those of you who don’t know, most of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day. Throughout that sleepy, humid period, mail rooms back up and desks disappear under as-yet-to-be-read query letters and manuscripts, threatening to bury the lone, pale intern left behind to answer e-mails and phones (or, alternatively, the agent who likes to work uninterrupted, and thus took his vacation at some other time of year).

It’s not the best time to query or submit. Nor is immediately after Labor Day, when Millicent and her cronies return, groaning, to sort through that pile — if you picture the look on her face when she reappears in the office after the winter holidays, wincing at the sight of the thousands of envelopes sent by well-meaning keepers of New Year’s resolutions, you’re feeling the mood correctly.

Take a couple of weeks to polish your query or submission. Trust me, Millie will be in a better mood after the 10th or so.

Why — what a remarkable coincidence! I have a couple of weeks of query-burnishing posts planned. Why so many? Well, plenty of aspiring writers find the querying process quite intimidating.

And who can blame them, considering how short a query letter is supposed to be? “My God,” the little voice in the back of my head which I choose to attribute to you is saying, “how is all of that possible within the context of a single-page missive? How can I cram all I need to say to grab their attention in that little space?”

Um, are you sitting down? You don’t actually have the entire page to catch their attention; on average, you have about five lines.

Yes, you read that correctly.

While you already have the heart medication and/or asthma inhaler at the ready, it seems like a good time to add: most query letters are not even read to their ends by screeners.

Why? Because the vast majority of query letters disqualify themselves from serious consideration before the end of the opening paragraph.

Hey, I told you to sit down first.

Unfortunately, Americans are so heavily exposed to hard-sell techniques that many aspiring writers make the mistake of using their query letters to batter the agent with predictions of future greatness so over-inflated (and, from the agent’s point of view, so apparently groundless, coming from a previously unpublished writer) that they may be dismissed out of hand. Some popular favorites:

“This is the next (fill in name of bestseller here)!”
“You’ll be sorry if you let this one pass by!”
“Everyone in the country will want to read this book!”
“It’s a natural for Oprah!”
“This book is like nothing else on the market!”

I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but to professional eyes, these are all absurd statements to find in a query letter. Yes, even if the book in question IS the next DA VINCI CODE.

Why? Because these aren’t descriptions of the book; they’re back-jacket blurbs, marketing copy, equally applicable to (and equally likely to be true about) any manuscript that crosses their desks. Even in the extremely rare instances that these statements aren’t just empty boasts based upon wishful thinking, consider: whose literary opinion would YOU be more likely to believe in Millicent’s shoes, the author’s vague claim of excellence about his own book or another reader’s recommendation?

Hitting too close to home? Okay, let me put it this way: if someone you’d never met before came up to you on the street and said, “Hey, I bake the world’s best mincemeat pies, the kind that can change your life in a single bite,” would you believe him? Would you trustingly place that total stranger’s good-looking (or not) slice of God-knows-what into your mouth? Or would you want some assurances that, say, this hard-selling Yahoo knows something about cooking, had produced the pie in a vermin-free kitchen, and/or hadn’t constructed the mincemeat out of ground-up domestic pets?

Oh, you may laugh, thinking that this isn’t really an apt parallel, but what is agents and editors’ desire to hear about a new writer’s past publication history — or educational background, or even platform — about, if NOT to try to figure out if that pie is made of reasonable materials and in a manner up to professional standards of production?

That’s why, in case you’ve been wondering, a good query letter includes what I like to call ECQLC, Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy. Not because agencies are determined to seem exclusionary toward previously unpublished writers (okay, not merely to seem exclusionary), but because specific references to specific past literary achievements are signals to a quick-scanning screener that this is a query letter to take seriously.

As will an opening paragraph that states clearly and concisely why the writer decided to query this agent, as opposed to any other; a well-crafted single-paragraph elevator speech for the book; some indication of the target market, and a polite, respectful tone — the same basic elements, in short, as an effective verbal pitch.

Did some light bulbs just flicker on over some heads out there? That’s right, campers — the difference between a vague boast and solid information about your book and why THIS agent is the best fit for it is actually a show, don’t tell problem, at base. Your goal in the query letter is to demonstrate through your professional presentation of your project that this is a great book by an exciting new author, not just to say it.

As in, “My friends say this is the greatest novel since THE GRAPES OF WRATH. It’s also a natural for Oprah.”

“But Anne,” I hear some of you protest, “my book really is a natural for Oprah! I’m going on her show next week!”

Well, congratulations — go ahead and open your query letter with the date of your appearance on the show, and the best of luck to you. For the vast majority of you who have not already heard from her production staff, I wouldn’t suggest mentioning your book’s Oprah potential at all, either in the query letter or, if you write nonfiction, in the book proposal.

Why? Because, conservatively speaking, at least 40% of book proposals will mention the possibility of appearing on Oprah. As will most marketing plans, a hefty percentage of verbal pitches, and a higher percentage of query letters than I even like to say.

What’s the result of all of that repetition? Usually, Millicent will simply stop reading if a query letter opens with an empty boast, because to her, including such statements is like a writer’s scrawling on the query in great big red letters, “I have absolutely no idea how the industry works.”

Which, while an interesting tactic, is unlikely to get an agent or her screener to invest an additional ten seconds in reading on to your next paragraph.

That’s right, I said ten seconds: as much as writers like to picture agents and their screeners agonizing over their missives, trying to decide if such a book is marketable or not, the average query remains under a decision-maker’s eyes for less than 30 seconds.

That’s not a lot of time to make up one’s mind, is it?

Even the best-meaning Millicent might conceivably, after as short a time as a few weeks of screening queries, might start relying pretty heavily upon her first impressions. Consider, for instance, the English major’s assumption that business format is in fact not proper formatting for either query letters or manuscripts.

Again, think about it: it’s true, for one thing, and let’s face it, improper formatting is the single quickest flaw to spot. Let’s take another gander at what Millicent expects to see, a letter formatted observing standard English rules of paragraph-formation:

Now let’s take a look at exactly the same letter in business format:

Interesting how different it is, isn’t it, considering that the words are identical? In an e-mailed query, of course, the latter format would be acceptable, but on paper, it’s not the best strategic choice.

Which may, I gather, come as a surprise to some of you out there. Unfortunately, a lot of aspiring writers seem not to be aware that business format tends to be regarded in the industry as less-than-literate, regardless of whether it appears in a query letter, a marketing plan, or — heaven forfend! — a submitted manuscript. (If you don’t know why I felt the need to invoke various deities to prevent you from using business format your manuscripts, please run, don’t walk to the STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED category at right.)

In fact, I am always meeting writers at conferences and in classes who insist, sometimes angrily, that a query letter is a business letter, and thus should be formatted as such. They tell me that standards have changed, that e-mail has eliminated the need for observing traditional paragraph standards, that it’s the writing that counts, not the formatting.

I understand the logic, of course, but it just doesn’t apply here: not all businesses work in the same way. As anyone who works in an agency or publishing house would no doubt be delighted to tell you, there are many, many ways in which publishing doesn’t work like any other kind of business. One does not, for instance, require an agent in order to become a success at selling shoes.

If you’re looking for evidence of the biz’ exceptionalism, all you have to do is walk into a bookstore with a good literary fiction section. Find a book by a great up-and-coming author that’s sold only 500 copies since it came out last year, and ask yourself, “Would another kind of business have taken a chance like this, or would it concentrate on producing only what sells well? Would it continue to produce products like this year after year, decade after decade, out of a sense of devotion to the betterment of the human race?”

Okay, so some businesses would, but it’s certainly not the norm.

Yet almost invariably, when I try to tell them that publishing is an old-fashioned industry fond of its traditions, and that agents and their screeners tend to be people with great affection for the English language and its rules, I receive the same huffy reply from writers who dislike indenting: some version of, “Well, I heard/read/was told that a query/marketing plan had to be businesslike.”

I’m always glad when they bring this up — because I strongly suspect that this particular notion is at the root of the surprisingly pervasive rumor that agents actually prefer business format. I can easily envision agents stating point-blank at conferences that they want to receive businesslike query letters.

But businesslike and business format are not the same thing. Businesslike means professional, market-savvy, not overly-familiar — in short, the kind of query letter we have been talking about for the last couple of posts.

Business format, on the other hand, doesn’t dictate any kind of content at all; it’s purely about how the page is put together. There’s absolutely nothing about this style, after all, that precludes opening a query with the threat, “You’ll regret it for the rest of your natural life if you let this book pass you by!”

All of these negative examples are lifted from real query letters, by the way.

All that being said, there’s another reason that I would strenuously advise against using business format in your query letters — and a comparative glance at the two letters above will show you why.

Take another look, then put yourself in Millicent’s shoes for a moment and ask yourself: based upon this particular writing sample, would you assume that Aspiring Q. Author was familiar with standard format? Would you expect Aspiring’s paragraphs to be indented, or for him/her (I have no idea which, I now realize) NOT to skip lines between paragraphs?

Okay, would your answer to those questions change if you had a hundred query letters to read before you could get out of the office for the day, and you’d just burned your lip on a too-hot latte? (Millicent never seems to learn, does she?)

No? Well, what if it also contained a typo within the first line or two, had odd margins, or began with, “This is the best book you’ll read this year!” or some similar piece of boasting? Wouldn’t you be at least a LITTLE tempted to draw some negative conclusions from the format?

Even if you wouldn’t, Millicent would — and perhaps even should. Why? Because although most aspiring writers seem not to be aware of it, every sentence a writer submits to an agency is a writing sample. Even if the writer doesn’t treat it as such, a screener will.

After all, when that stranger comes up to sell you a meat pie, you’re going to be looking for whatever clues you can to figure out if he’s on the up-and-up.

Quick rejections are not about being mean or hating writers — they’re about plowing through the mountains of submissions that arrive constantly. The average agency receives 800-1000 queries per week (that’s not counting the New Year’s Resolution Rush, folks), so agents and screeners have a very strong incentive to weed out as many of them as possible as rapidly as possible.

That’s why, in case you were wondering, that agents will happily tell you that any query that begins “Dear Agent” (rather than addressing a specific agent by name) automatically goes into the rejection pile. So does any query that addresses the agent by the wrong gender in the salutation. (If you’re unsure about a Chris or an Alex, call the agency and ask; no need to identify yourself as anything but a potential querier.)

So does any query that is pitching a book in a category the agent is not looking to represent. (Yes, even if the very latest agents’ guide AND the agency’s website says otherwise.)

And you know what? These automatic rejections will, in all probability, generate exactly the same form rejection letter as queries that were carefully considered, but ultimately passed upon. Again: how precisely is an aspiring writer to learn what does and doesn’t work in a query?

By finding out what agency screeners like Millicent are trained to spot — and learning what appeals to her. So go to conferences and ask questions of agents about what kind of queries they like to see. Attend book readings and ask authors about how they landed their agents. Take writers who have successfully landed agents out to lunch and ask them how they did it.

But do not, whatever you do, just assume that what works in other kinds of marketing will necessarily fly in approaching an agent. After all, almost universally, they specifically ask aspiring writers not to use the hard-sell techniques used in other types of business: writers seeking representation are expected not to telephone to pitch, send unrequested materials, or engage in extracurricular lobbying like sending cookies along with a query letter.

Instead, be businesslike, as befits a career writer: approach them in a manner that indicates that you are aware of the traditions of their industry. And, of course, keep up the good work!

A few more thoughts on boilerplate query letters

Hello, campers —

I’m still a bit under the weather, I’m afraid, but I wanted to post something today, to kick off our week of talking about query letters with, if not a bang, at least not with silence. In that spirit, I am re-running a pertinent post from last year below.

Don’t worry; new thoughts on the subject follow shortly.

In the meantime, bright and generous reader Memoirista has been kind enough to post as a comment some formatting advice for those of you who were stunned to discover that standard format calls for two spaces after a period or colon, instead of just one. She’s figured out a way to effect this change throughout an entire manuscript in just a few easy steps; I suspect many of you out there will find it useful. Thanks for being so public-spirited, Memoirista!

And now return with me to that most tortured of topics, the construction of a winning query letter. Lest I confuse anyone, let me state up front that there is no connection between the picture above and the post below. I just happened to be struck by something the landscaper was doing. (And yes, they’re STILL here. Or, rather, are here again after having vanished like Houdini for weeks at a time, in that mysterious manner so dear to the hearts of all those in the throes of home improvement.)

Enjoy!

In my last post, I set out a very basic structure for a query letter, using the skills and tools that we’ve been working on all summer during the Book Marketing 101 series (for those of you who missed it, please see the appropriately-named category on the list at right). I had fully expected to post a follow-up the next day, assuaging the fears of the nervous, adding nuances to the prototype, and generally spreading joy and enlightenment abroad.

Then there was a HUGE racing event at a certain track located more or less exactly halfway between my mother’s current home and the town where I grew up. So basically, I spent Saturday zigzagging all over Northern California, trying to get from one to the other without sitting for hours in racing-enthusiast traffic, to get to a minor class reunion.

I say minor, because it was not commemorating one of those nice, round year markers that professional event-organizers keep insisting that we all should celebrate like clockwork. (Or like calendar-work, even.) We’re two years from one of those, and frankly, the guy voted Most Likely to Succeed had to give the crowd a passionate pep talk on Saturday night to generate any enthusiasm at all about the next.

Which is funny, because I’m from the Napa Valley, and we tend to hold our reunions in wineries. As we did our prom, our jazz choir fundraisers, our Girl Scout cookie sales…you get the picture. Not the kind of places that one typically needs to use much blandishment to cajole people to visit.

It’s not that we’re averse to seeing one another — actually, it’s a pretty nice group of people, on the whole; the halfback who used to tease the small and the meek (speaking of clichés that turn up all the time in fiction…oh, wait, weren’t we talking about those?) was going around apologizing to people, even. It’s that going from kindergarten all the way through high school with the same 111 people (and I went to nursery school with 40 of them) can get a MITE claustrophobic in a town where the primary activities for teens are watching grapes grow (in answer to the question urbanites’ minds just shouted: slowly) and trying not to be run over by tourists who have over-sampled at the wineries.

I’m fairly confident that I set some sort of land-speed record when I left at 17.

I dreaded going to the reunion, but how could I stay away? One of the organizers, my best buddy during those dark days of Browniedom when our troop leader had what I suspect was a well-earned nervous breakdown — compounded, no doubt, by both the minor coup that we girls staged one day when we simply refused to cut up yet another set of aluminum cans to make decorative Christmas ornaments for the indigent elderly at the county home while little Roseanne ravished us with selections from her new accordion primer, and the dramatic reenactment of the troop leader’s hysterics that we staged for our parents’ benefit shortly thereafter (not my best writing, certainly, but it got the point across, and isn’t this a long sentence? Henry James would be so pleased) — ruthlessly described her 8-year-old daughter’s school year in precisely the same classroom where we had spent the third grade.

She continued in this vein until I threw my hands over my eyes and cried, “Enough! I’ll go!”

Once I got there, I was genuinely glad she’d blandished me. Because, of course, while pretty much everyone hated high school — since those who didn’t tend not to become writers, I feel fairly confident about making such a sweeping generalization here — it’s kind of hard to hold a grudge against the kid who spilled hot chocolate on you in the second grade much past your mid-thirties, isn’t it? And while reunion-goers tend to dread running into old nemeses and look forward to greeting old friends, it’s the folks one hasn’t thought about in a decade or two who often present the most delightful surprises.

All of which is to say: despite some pretty dangerous-sounding pre-reunion rumblings, Most Likely to Succeed was neither tarred nor feathered, run out of town on a rail, nor burned in effigy. No one was mean to anyone else; no one cried, and everyone seemed to have a pretty good time.

What does all this have to do with querying, you ask? Plenty.

(You thought I was just rambling about my weekend? Au contraire, mes braves.)

Querying, I think we can all agree, is a necessary evil: no one likes it; it generates a whole lot of inconvenience for writer and agency alike, and to engage in it is to put one’s ego on the line in a very fundamental way. Rejection hurts, and you can’t be rejected if you never send out your work, right? So you can either try to lie low, keeping your dreams to yourself, or you can attempt to approach those high-and-mighty gatekeepers of the industry, asking to be let inside the Emerald City.

Sounds a lot like high school, doesn’t it?

Just as many people stay away from reunions because they fear exposing themselves to the judgment of people whom past experience has led them to believe to be, well, kinda shallow and hurtful, many, many writers avoid querying, or give up after just a handful of queries, because they fear to be rejected by folks they have heard are kinda shallow and prone to be hurtful.

There are a variety of ways to deal with such fears. One could, for instance, not query at all, and resign oneself to that great novel or brilliant NF book’s never being published. One could query just a couple of times, then give up.

Or — and if you haven’t guessed by now, this would be my preferred option — you could recognize that while some of the people at the reunion may in fact turn out to be kind of unpleasant, you really only need to find the one delightful person who finds you truly fascinating to make the entire enterprise worthwhile.

You’ll be pleased to hear, though, that unlike gearing up to attend a reunion, there are certain things you can do before querying to increase the probability of a positive reception. Certain elements mark a query letter as coming from a writer who has taken the time to learn how the industry works.

Agents like writers like that. Ask ‘em.

The structure I proposed last time — which is, I assure you, NOT the only one possible by any means, or even the only one that works; it’s just what has worked best in my experience — also frees the writer from the well-nigh impossible task of trying to cram everything good about a book into a single page.

Which is, I have noticed over the years, precisely what most aspiring writers tend to try to do.

No wonder they get intimidated and frustrated long before they query the 50 or 100 agents (yes, you read that correctly) it often takes these days for a good book to find the right fit. To put this in perspective, a truly talented writer might well end up querying the equivalent of my entire high school class before being signed.

It’s no reflection on the book; it’s just the way the industry works. The only way that I know to speed up that process is to make the query letter itself businesslike, but personable.

Do keep in mind that the SOLE purpose of the query is to engender enough excitement in the reader that she will ask to see a representative chunk of the book itself, not to reproduce what you would like to see on the book’s back jacket or to complain about having to work through an agent at all.

If either of the last two options made you chuckle in disbelief, good. Believe it or not, I’ve seen both turn up many, many times in unsuccessful query letters. Boasting and petulance both abound, and both tend to discourage positive response.

Now, I know that my readers are too savvy to do this deliberately, but isn’t it worth sitting down with your query letter and asking yourself: could an exhausted agency screener like Millicent — in a bad mood, with a cold, having just broken up with her boyfriend AND burned her lip on that over-hot latte again — possibly construe that letter as either?

Yes, querying is a chore, and an intimidating one at that; yes, ultimately it will be the agent’s job, not yours, to market your work to publishers, and an agent or editor probably would have a far better idea of how to spin your book than you would.

Agents and their screeners (it is rare for agents at the larger agencies to screen query letters themselves; thus Millicent) are in fact aware of all of these things. You don’t need to tell them.

Your query letter needs to market your book impeccably anyway, in a tone that makes you sound like an author who LOVES his work and is eager to give agent and editor alike huge amounts of his time to promote it.

As I said: not a walk in the park, definitely, but certainly doable by a smart, talented writer who approaches it in the right spirit. Sound like anyone you know?

I shall overwhelm you with tips and tricks of the trade tomorrow, I promise. But for now, start thinking, please, about how to make your query the one that waltzes into the reunion with a positive attitude, not the one who storms in with a chip on its little shoulder, gunning for Mr. Most Likely to Succeed. Or, heaven forefend, the one that doesn’t stick its nose through the door at all.

Keep up the good work!

Okay, I get it about standard format for manuscripts. Now what does a query letter look like?

Hello, campers —

No time for a long-winded missive today, I’m afraid, but I’m anxious to start fulfilling a promise I made earlier in the summer. Cast your mind back to those thrilling days of yesteryear, way back in mid-June, and you’ll find that when I first began talking about how to pull together a verbal pitch, I promised that doing so it would help you crank out a stellar query letter.

Well, now’s the time to prove it.

In that spirit, I’m going to be re-running a few posts (edited) from last year’s interminable-but-useful Book Marketing 101 series. Today, we’re going to talk about how to construct a query letter from the building blocks of the pitch. (And if you’re not clear about what they are, check the category list at right — each has its own category, for easy reference.)

This is a perfect time of year to be working on polishing a query — as I’ve mentioned before, the vast majority of the publishing industry goes on vacation from mid-August until after Labor Day, so waiting until early-to-mid-September (after Labor Day, but before the Frankfort Book Fair, to be precise) makes good strategic sense.

Enjoy!

Here’s a startling statement for an online writing guru to make: I wish writers talked amongst themselves about the nuts and bolts of querying more.

Why? Well, although I know that my readers are too savvy to fall into the pitfalls of the average writer, the vast majority of query letters agents receive are either uncommunicative, petulant in tone, just poor marketing — or obviously copied from a standard one-size-fits all boilerplate.

We can do better than that, I think.

For those of you absolutely new to the process, a query letter is a 1-page (single-spaced) polite, formal inquiry sent out to an agent or editor in the hope of exciting professional interest.

It is not, contrary to popular practice, an occasion for either begging or boasting; you will want to come across as a friendly professional who has done her homework. (Or his, as the case may be.) A good query introduces the book and the author to a prospective agent in precisely the terms the industry would use to describe them.

This should sound familiar to those of you who have stuck with me all the way through Book Marketing 101: this was the purpose of the Magic First Hundred Words, wasn’t it? (For those of you new to the concept, please see a category on the list at right entitled, straightforwardly enough, THE MAGIC FIRST HUNDRED WORDS.)

And, like the hallway pitch, your goal here is not to make the agent fall down on the floor, foaming at the mouth and crying, “I will die if I do not sign this author immediately!” but to prompt a request to submit pages.

That’s a much less formidable goal, isn’t it?

How does one pull that off? By being businesslike without using business format (long-time readers, chant it with me now: documents without indented paragraphs appear illiterate to folks in the publishing industry).

There are a zillion guides out there, each giving ostensibly foolproof guidelines for how to construct a positively stellar query letter, but in my experience, simple works better than gimmicky. (Possibly because the former is rarer.) Typically, a query letter consists of five basic elements:

1. The opening paragraph, which includes the following information:

* A brief statement about why the writer is approaching this particular agent (Hint: be specific. “I enjoyed hearing you speak at Conference X,” “Since you so ably represent Author Q,” and “Since you are interested in (book category), I hope you will be intrigued by my book” all work better than not mentioning how you picked the agent in the first place.)

*The book’s title

*The book’s category (i.e., where your book would sit in Barnes & Noble. Most queries leave this off, but it’s essential. If you don’t know what this is, or are not sure where your book will fall, please see the BOOK CATEGORIES section at right).

*Word count. (Optional. Actually, I have never included this, because it makes many novels easier to reject right off the bat, but many agents to have it up front. Because, you see, it makes it easier to reject so many queries off the bat. If your work falls within the normal word count for your genre – for most works of fiction, between 80,000 and 100,000 words – go ahead and include it. And if you don’t know how to estimate word count — most of the industry does not operate on actual word count — please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

2. A paragraph pitching the book.

3. A BRIEF paragraph explaining for whom you have written this book (that’s the target market, mind you, not a paraphrase of your dedication page) and why this book might appeal to that demographic in a way that no other book currently on the market does. If the demographic is not especially well-known (or even if it is; agents tend to underestimate the size of potential groups of readers), go ahead and include numbers.

Don’t make the very common mistake, though, of having your book sound like a carbon copy of a current bestseller: you want to show here that your work is unique. If you can compare your book to another within the same genre that has sold well within the last five years, this is the place to do it, but make sure to make clear how your book serves the target market differently and better.

4. An optional paragraph giving your writing credentials and/or expertise that renders you the ideal person to have written this book — or, indeed, absolutely the only sentient being in the universe who could have. Actually, it’s not optional for NF, and it’s a good idea for everyone.

Include any past publications (paid or unpaid) in descending order of impressiveness, as well as any contest wins, places, shows, semi-finalist lists, etc., and academic degrees (yes, even if they are not relevant to your book).

If you have no credentials that may legitimately be listed here, omit this paragraph. However, give the matter some serious, creative thought first. If you have real-life experience that gives you a unique insight into your book’s topic, include it. (Again, it need not have been paid experience.) Or any public speaking experience – that’s actually a selling point for a writer, since so few have ever read in public before their first books have come out. Or ongoing membership in a writers’ group.

Anything can count, as long as it makes you look like a writer who is approaching the industry like a professional. Or like a person who would be interesting to know, read, and represent.

5. An EXTREMELY brief closing paragraph, thanking the agent for her time, mentioning any enclosed materials (synopsis, first five pages, whatever the agent lists as desired elements), calling the agent’s attention to the fact that you’ve sent a SASE, and giving your contact information, if it is not already listed at the top of the letter. (If you can’t afford to have letterhead printed up, just include your contact information, centered, in the header.) Say you look forward to hearing from her soon, and sign off.

There, that’s not so impossible in a single page, is it?

Before you tense up at the prospect, here’s the good news: if you have been prepping your pitch, you’ve already constructed most of the constituent parts of a professional-looking query letter.

Don’t believe me? Look at how easily the building blocks snap together to make a log cabin:

Dear Ms./Mr. agent’s last name (NEVER just “Dear Agent”),
I enjoyed hearing you speak at the Martian Writers’ Conference. Not many New York-based agents take the time to come to Mars to meet the local writers; we really appreciate the ones who do.

Since you so ably represented BLUE-EYED VENUSIAN, I hope you will be interested in my book, {TITLE}. It is a {BOOK CATEGORY} that will appeal to {TARGET MARKET} because {#1 SELLING POINT}.

{ELEVATOR SPEECH}

I am uniquely qualified to tell this story, because {the rest of your SELLING POINTS, including any writing credentials}.

Thank you for your time in reviewing this, and I hope that the enclosed synopsis will pique your interest. I may be reached at the address and telephone number above, as well as via e-mail at {e-dress}. I enclose a SASE for your convenience, and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Aspiring Q. Author

Or, to show it as it might appear on an actual piece of paper (white, please; this is not the time to break out the solar yellow in an misguided effort to grab Millicent’s attention), like this:

You can pull that off without breaking a sweat, right?

Don’t worry; this structure isn’t my last word on the query, by any stretch of the imagination, and I’m going to be showing you precisely what a properly-formatted query letter looks like on the page. For today, however I’m going to leave you to ponder the possibilities. A big part of staying in this business for the long haul is knowing to pace oneself, after all.

Keep up the good work!
PS to those of you who are reading this post for the first time in the archives: this is my basic how-to post for query writing, but there is a wealth of further information located in the QUERY LETTER 101 category on the list at right. For tips on technical formatting, please see the QUERY LETTERS ILLUSTRATED category. Best of luck!

More quotable courage, and some practical uses for all of that reading in bed

Last time, I was touting the virtues of getting into the habit of reading every (or as close to every as possible) first book published in your book category this year — and next year, and the year after that. Not only will adherence to this sterling practice give a writer a very solid sense of how editors and agents conceive of the category — thus making it easier to tell whether one’s work genuinely falls within it — but it will help convey a sense of the target readership as well.

While this may seem like a very large task to set oneself, most book categories actually sport relatively few first-time authors in any year’s harvest of publications. For years, I made a practice of reading every first literary or mainstream novel written by an American woman under 40 published by a major publishing house each year. Care to guess how long that took?

I wish I could report that it was a full-time job, but in truth, it wasn’t all that time-consuming. There were few years where more then 25 books answered that description; one year, there were only 7.

And those 7 were represented by only 3 agencies, I discovered. Guess who I queried the instant I uncovered THAT unsavory little fact?

The realization could have made me despair — but instead, it convinced me to sit down and take a good, hard look at the novel I was shopping around, to see if there was any way that I could make it more mainstream, because that opened up so many more querying possibilities. And sure enough, after I had taken most of the semicolons out of the text and readjusted the thought/action ratio a little, I found that my novel was about equally welcome to agents who represented adult fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction — which makes some sense, as there is considerable overlap amongst the readers of all three.

Heck, literary fiction aimed at women is considered downright redundant in the industry. But unless a writer became awfully darned familiar with the book market, how is she to know that?

There is another, more immediately practical reason to get in touch with one’s submarket and remain so, of course: it’s a great way to identify agents to query. As I mentioned many, many times throughout my Book Marketing 101 series, every agent on the planet is flattered by queries that begin, “Since you so successfully represented Unknown Author’s recent novel, FIRST BOOK, I hope you will be interested in my novel, PROJECT I’VE BEEN WORKING ON FOR A DECADE…”

They are far likely to be buttered up, in my experience, by mentions of novels them may have struggled to sell than by similar references to their better-established clients. (Because, presumably, as Edith Sitwell tells us: “The aim of flattery is to soothe and encourage us by assuring us of the truth of an opinion we have already formed about ourselves.”)

Use this quirk to your advantage.

To slather on the butter with a more lavish hand, go ahead and say something nice about the book in your query letter to its agent. (Quoth Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach in APHORISMS: “We are so vain that we even care for the opinion of those we don’t care for.”) Naturally, nice-saying is going to be a whole lot easier if you have actually read the book in question.

Although truth does compel me to say that if you are in a hurry, you can’t go far wrong with something along the lines of, “As the agent who so ably represented Keanu Reeves’ BRAIN SURGERY FOR EVERYBODY, I believe you will be interested in my book…”

That being said, on conscientious grounds, I really should reiterate that you ought to read, if not actually buy, all of the books you are using as launching pads for query letters to agents. Buying them is ideal, of course: after all, the sales of an agent’s current clients subsidize hiring Millicent to screen submissions from new writers.

Not to mention the good karma factor. The world would be a substantially better place for writers if we supported one another by purchasing books by first-time authors early and often. Because, after all, who can forget Glückel of Hamelyn 1719 pronouncement, “Stinginess does not enrich; charity does not impoverish”?

However, good old Glückel aside, books ARE expensive, and I know that some of you will be in too much of a hurry to check all of the relevant books out of the library. So here are a few tips on how to expand your reading list without buying out Borders.

First, you don’t need to until a book is actually published before complimenting it agent on the achievement of selling it. Given predictable lag times between book contract and actual publication, you may be able to spot a relevant sale as much as two years before it turns up in a bookstore near you.

So in a sense, even a very hip bookstore is a graveyard of passé contracts. (As Mary Webb informed us in PRECIOUS BANE, “We are tomorrow’s past.”) What you are seeing in bookstores today, then, is not an infallible guide to what is selling NOW.

And as I am probably not the first to point out, the early bird catches the worm. By querying the agent BEFORE the book comes out, you will beat the crowd of writers who inevitably swamp the agent of any commercially big book. (Sorry, no quote for that one. This is harder than it looks, people.)

Also, your promptness will tell the agent indirectly that you are a savvy writer familiar with market trends — and you will become one, if you become a regular reader of book sales. It is surprisingly addictive, and you will quickly learn a great deal about what is and is not being sold to publishing houses right now.

Those of you who stuck with the Book Marketing 101 series already know how to pull this off, right? Start reading the trade journals, such as Publishers’ Weekly, or subscribe to Publishers Lunch, which lists pretty much every sale to a North American publishing house, by title, author, agent, and often a one-line description of the book as well.

Fringe benefit: many times, these sources will give a general indication of the advance offered, too, so you can start getting some idea of what your writing is potentially worth. (Hint: pretty much every aspiring writer believes that the average advance is exponentially larger than it actually is.)

To quote my former agent, “We don’t really have any idea of a book’s market value until we start to shop it around.” (Come on — you expected me to have a famously relevant quote ready for that one?)

If you are a novelist, pay particular attention to the debut novels, which are often broken off into their own section in industry listings. Again, there is no better way to tell which agents are willing to take on new writers than to find out who is putting that inspiring level of openness into action.

(As George Eliot told us in ADAM BEDE, “It you could make a pudding wi’thinking o’ the batter, it ‘ud be easy getting dinner.” So true, George, so true.)

Keeping abreast of who is selling what will also allow you to target your queries more effectively as agents’ (and agencies’) tastes change over time. (As Zora Neale Hurston liked to put it, “research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prodding with a purpose.”)

Since a pre-publication query is a situation where you could not possibly have read the book before querying (unless you happen to be a member of the author’s critique group), you need not worry about complimenting the book; by noticing the sale, you will be complimenting the AGENT, which is even better.

In fact, you should make sure NOT to compliment the book, since anything you say is bound to come across as insincere. Has not Pearl S. Buck taught us that “Praise out of season, or tactlessly bestowed, can freeze the heart as much as blame”?

A good all-purpose opening, to steer clear of the slightest hint of misdirected flattery: “Congratulations on your successful sale of BOOK X! Since you so skillfully represent (BOOK X’s type of book), I hope you will be interested in my book…”

Yes, being this talented an agent-butterer does take time, as well as quite a bit of work. But unlike so many of the mundane tasks we writers need to perform to attract an agent’s attention, forming the twin habits of reading what’s newly in your area and keeping abreast of what editors are acquiring right now for your future reading pleasure will not merely be helpful in blandishing the agent of your dreams into taking a gander at your work. These are habits that will help you in later years be a more marketable — and perhaps even better — author, well versed in all of the pretty things writers in your category can do to enchant their readers.

“Unhappiness,” Bernadin de Saint-Pierre wrote in THE INDIAN HUT, “is like the black mountain of Bember, at the edge of the blazing kingdom of Lahor. As long as you are climbing it, you see nothing but sterile rocks; but once you are at the peak, heaven is at your head, and at your feet is the kingdom of Cashmere.”

Try to think of all this self-assigned reading as continuing education for your dream profession. And, of course, keep up the good work!