Before you pop that first query or submission of the year into the mail, may I have a word?

And would you mind very much, New Year’s resolvers, if that word were wait?

I know, I know: you want to get that query or submission out the door. You’re resolved, in fact, that this will be the January that you crack the publication code. And the sooner you launch your plans, the better, right, because otherwise, you might lose momentum?

Admirable intentions, all, especially the last: as the media so eager to urge you to make that resolution — or, indeed, any New Year’s resolution — will be telling you in a few weeks, the average New Year’s resolution lasts only a few weeks. Which means, in practice, that far from being the best time of the year to act upon those laudable plans, the first few weeks of the year are strategically the worst.

Or, at the very least, the time when a query or submission is most likely to be rejected. Why? Every year, literally millions of aspiring writers across this fine land of ours make precisely the same New Year’s resolution — with the entirely predictable result that every year, rejection rates go up in the first few weeks of January.

Was that resounding thunk that just reverberated throughout the cosmos the sound of thousands of first-time queriers and submitters’ jaws hitting the floor? I’m not entirely surprised. For most writers new to the game, the notion that any factors other than the quality of the writing and excellence of the book’s concept could possibly play a role in whether a query or submission gets rejected is, well, new. If a manuscript is genuinely good, these eager souls reason, it shouldn’t matter when it arrives at an agency or small publishing house, right? By the same logic, if a query for a truly well-written book — which is, contrary to popular opinion, not the same thing as a truly well-written query — lands on a pro’s desk, it will be received in precisely the same manner if it’s the only query arriving that day, or if it must howl for attention next to hundreds or thousands of incoming queries.

Meanwhile, tomorrow morning, agents, editors at small publishing houses, and the screeners who read their day’s allotment of queries will open their e-mail inboxes and moan, “Why does every aspiring writer in North America hit SEND on January 1? Do they all get together and form a pact?”

Effectively, you do. You all formed such similar New Year’s resolutions, you see.

So did the tens of thousands of successful queriers from last year who decided that after December 31, they were going to stop fiddling with their manuscripts and send those pages the agent of their respective dreams requested, unfortunately. It doesn’t occur to them, understandably, that each of them is not the only one to regard the advent of a new year as the best possible time to take steps to achieve their dreams.

Instead of, say, February 12th. Or the fifth of May. Or October 3. Or, really, any time of the year that the sheer weight of numbers would guarantee that competition would be stiffer for the very few new writer slots available at any well-established agency or small publishing house.

That made half of you do a double-take, didn’t it? “Wait — what do you mean, very few new writer slots ?” queriers and submitters new to the game gasp. “Don’t agents take on every beautifully-written new manuscript and intriguing book proposal that comes their way?”

That’s a lovely notion, of course, but in practical terms, it would be impossible. Think about it: reputable agents only make money when they sell their clients’ books to publishers and when those books earn royalties, right? There’s more to that than simply slapping covers on a book and shipping it to a local bookstore. In any given year, only about 4% of traditionally-published books are by first-time authors, and those books tend as a group to be less profitable: unless a first-timer already enjoys wide name recognition, it’s simply more difficult for even the best marketing campaign to reach potential readers.

So at most agencies, most of the income comes from already-established clients — which means, on a day-to-day basis, a heck of a lot of agency time devoted to reading and promoting work by those authors. In recent years, selling their work has gotten appreciably harder, as well as more time-consuming, yet like so many businesses, publishing houses and agencies alike have been downsizing. At the same time, since writing a book is so many people’s Plan B, hard economic times virtually always translate into increased query and submission volume. That means agencies have to devote more hours than ever before to processing queries and submissions — an activity that, by definition, does not pay them anything in the short run.

Why should any of that matter to a new writer chomping at the bit? First, high querying and submission volume plus tight agency budgets translate, inevitably, to less time spent on each query and submission. Equally inevitable — and you might want to sit down for this one: the more successful an agent is, the more queries s/he will receive, and thus the greater the pressure on that agent’s screener to narrow down the field of contenders as rapidly as possible.

Why, you gasp, clutching your palpitating heart? Because time does not, alas, expand if one happens to have good intentions, most good agents simply don’t have time to take on more than a handful of new clients per year.

Starting to think differently about the tens of thousands of queries that might be jostling yours in an agency’s inbox tomorrow if you hit SEND today? Or the manuscripts that will be stacked next to yours if you stuff those requested pages into a mailbox later in the week?

To be fair, the overwhelming majority of those queries will be easy for the screener — known here at Author! Author! under the collective name of Millicent, to help us remember that she’s a human being with individual literary tastes working for an agent with personal preferences, as well as literary market savvy — to reject at first glance, and often for reasons that have little to do with the writing. At this time of year especially, new writers often pick agents to query essentially at random. Out comes that logic we saw earlier: if agents represent good books, and a book is well written, any agent could represent it successfully, right?

Actually, no: agents specialize, and it’s very much to both a good book and a good writer’s advantage that they should. The publishing industry is wide-ranging and complex, after all; no one who sells books for a living seriously believes that every well-written book will appeal to every reader. Readers tend to specialize, too.

That’s why, in case you had been wondering, the publishing world thinks of books in categories: fantasy, YA, Western, memoir, etc.; it’s a matter of reaching a specific target audience. While an individual reader may well buy books across a variety of categories — indeed, most do — readers who gravitate toward a certain type of book tend to share expectations, and publishers market categories accordingly. A devotee of paranormals, for instance, would be disappointed if he picked up a book presented as a vampire fantasy, but the storyline didn’t contain a single bloodsucker. By the same token, a lover of literary fiction would be dismayed to discover the novel she’d been led to believe was an intensive character study of an American family turned out to be an explosion-packed thriller.

Acquiring editors also harbor those expectations — and since no editor or publishing house brings out every different kind of book, agents would be less effective at their jobs if their only criterion for selecting which books to represent was whether they liked the writing. They, too, tend to specialize, handling only certain book categories.

Again, why should this trouble a writer longing to land an agent, any agent, as quickly as possible? There is no query easier for Millicent to reject than one for a book in a category her boss does not represent. No matter how beautifully that query presents the book’s premise, it’s a poor fit for her agency. Approaching an agent simply because he’s an agent, then, tends to be the first step on a path to rejection.

Especially, if you can stand my harping on this point, in January. New Year’s resolvers, after all, are frequently in a hurry to see results. Too much of a hurry, often, to do much research on any given agent before sending off a query. You would not believe, for instance, how many aspiring writers will simply type literary agent into Google and e-mail the first few that pop up. Or how many more will enter a generic term like fiction into an agency search, intending to query the first 80 on the list.

Usually without checking out any of those agents’ websites or listings in one of the standard agents’ guides to find out what those fine folks actually represent. And that’s a pity, because not only is an agent who already has a solid track record selling a particular category more likely to be interested in similar books — that agent will also have the connections to sell that type of book. Which means, ultimately, that approaching an agent specializing in books like yours could mean getting published faster.

Yes, really. You don’t just want to land any agent, do you? You want to entrust your book to the best possible representative for it.

I sense some grumbling out there. “But Anne,” the disgruntled mutter, and who could blame you? “All I want to do is get my book published; I know that I need an agent to do that. But I don’t have a lot of time to devote to landing one. Thus my wanting to act upon my New Year’s resolution toute suite: I had a few spare moments over the holidays, so I was finally able to crank out a query draft. I understand that it might be a better use of my querying time to rule out agents who don’t represent my type of book at all, but why wouldn’t sending my query to a hundred agents that do be the fastest way to reach the right one? That way, I could get all of my queries out the door before I lose my nerve — or my burst of new year-fueled energy.”

I’ve written quite a bit on this blog about why generic queries tend not to be received as kindly in agencies as those that are more tightly targeted; there’s a reason, after all, that the stock advice on how to figure out which agents to query has for years been find a recently-released book you like and find out who represented it. Admittedly, that excellent advice was substantially easier to follow back in the days when publishers routinely allowed authors to include acknowledgements — it used to be quite common to thank one’s agent. Any agency’s website will list its primary clients, however, and I think you’ll be charmed to discover how many authors’ websites include representation information.

In case I’m being too subtle here: no recipient of a generic query will believe that its sender had no way to find out what kinds of books she represents, or which established authors. Neither will her Millicent. Small wonder, then, that any screener that’s been at it a while can spot a query equally applicable to every agency in the biz at twenty paces — especially if, as so often is the case with mass-produced mailed queries, it’s addressed to Dear Agent, rather than a specific person. Or, as is even more common, if it is rife with typos, too informal in tone, or simply doesn’t contain the information an agent would want to know before requesting pages.

Given the intensity of competition for Millicent’s attention on an ordinary day of screening, any one of these problems could trigger rejection. During the post-New Year’s query avalanche, it’s even more likely.

Let’s take a moment to picture why. Agents and editors, like pretty much everybody else, often enjoy the holidays; they’ve even been known to take time off then, contrary to popular opinion amongst New Year’s resolution queriers. Since it’s hard to pull together an editorial committee — and thus for an acquiring editor to gain permission to pick up a new book — with so many people on vacation, it’s fairly common for agents and editors alike to use work time during the holidays to catch up on their backlog of reading. (See earlier point about existing clients’ work.) It’s not, however, particularly common to employ that time reading queries.

Why? The annual New Year’s resolution barrage about to descend, of course; they know they’ll be spending January digging out from under it. All through the holiday season, writers across the English-speaking world have been working up both drafts and nerve.

Picture, then, what will greet your garden-variety Millicent when she walks into the office on the first working day of January. Not only will the usual post-vacation backlog await her, but so will the fruits of every New Year’s resolver’s enthusiasm. Every inbox will be stuffed to overflowing; thousands of e-mails will be crowding the agency’s computers; the mailman will be staggering under armfuls of envelopes and manuscript boxes.

Tell me, if you were Millicent, how quickly would you be inclined to read through that tall, tall stack of queries? How much time would you tend to spend on each one, compared to, say, what you might devote to it on March 8th? Would you be reading with a more or less charitable eye for, to pluck an example out of thin air, the odd typo or a storyline that did not seem to correspond entirely with your boss’ current interests?

Before you answer any of those burning questions, consider: working her way through that day’s correspondence clear her schedule, or even enable her to see her desk again. As January progresses, each day will bring still more for her to read. Not every New Year’s resolution gets implemented at the same pace, after all, nor does they have the same content. This month, however, Millicent may be sure that each fresh morning will provide additional evidence that writers everywhere have their noses to the wheel — and each Monday morning will demonstrate abundantly that New Year’s resolvers are using their weekends well.

At least for the first three weeks or so. After that, the New Year’s resolution energy tends to peter out.

Not entirely coincidentally, that’s also when New Year’s resolution queriers tend to receive their first sets of mailed rejections — and when e-mailing queriers begin to suspect that they might not hear back at all. (An increasingly common agency policy, by the way: rejection via silence has been the norm for the past few years.) The timing on those rejections is key to Millicent’s workload, as an astonishingly high percentage of first-time queriers give up after only one or two attempts.

That’s completely understandable, of course: rejection hurts. But as any agent worth her salt could tell you, pushing a book past multiple rejections is a normal part of the publication process. Just as — again, contrary to popular opinion — even the best books generally get rejected by quite a few agents before the right one makes an offer to represent it, manuscripts and book proposals seldom sell to the first editor that reads them.

Translation: it may feel like a rejection from a single agent represents the publishing industry’s collective opinion about your writing, but it’s just not true. Individual agents have individual tastes; so do their Millicents. Keep trying until you find the right fit.

But you might want to wait a few weeks — and if it’s not clear yet why, I ask you again to step out of a writer’s shoes and into Millicent’s: if you knew from past experience how many fewer queries would be landing on your desk a few weeks hence, would you read through this week’s bumper crop more or less quickly than usual? Would you be more or less likely to reject any particular one? Or, frankly, wouldn’t you be a bit more tired when you read Query #872 of the day than Query #96?

Still surprised that rejection rates tend to be higher this time of year? Okay, let me add another factor to the mix: in the United States, agencies must produce the tax information for all of their clients’ advances and royalties for the previous year by the end of January.

That immense sucking sound you just heard was all of the English majors in the country gasping in unison. Representing good writing isn’t just about aesthetic judgments, people; it’s a business. A business based upon aesthetic judgments, of course, but still, it’s not all hobnobbing with the literati and sipping bad Chardonnay at book launches.

It’s also a business run by people — living, breathing, caring individuals who, yes, love good writing, but also can get discouraged at a heavier-than-usual workload. They can become tired. Or even slightly irritated after reading the 11th generic query of the day, or spotting five typos in the 111th.

Imagine, then, what it might feel like to read the 1,100th. Of the day, if one happens to be perusing it within the first few weeks of January.

To repeat my word du jour: wait. You’re an original writer; why would you need to pick the same day — or month — to launch your dreams as everybody else?

I raise my glass to toast those dreams. As always, my New Year’s resolution is to help good writers realize theirs, not just through general encouragement, but also practical advice. Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, of course. Hectic day?”

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

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

“Yes. You?”

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

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A word of caution to the tens of thousands of aspiring writers who resolved last weekend to pop those queries and/or requested materials into the mail at last


Here’s the promised word, New Year’s resolvers: don’t.

Oh, I don’t mean to give up on your estimable resolve to put in the work to land an agent this year, or even to send out queries on a regular basis to any agent at all likely to be interested in representing a book like yours. That’s all quite sensible: if your goal is to land an agent, working up the nerve to query is in fact a necessary step. (Either that, or you are going to have to work up the even greater nerve and financial resources required to pitch at a writers’ conference.) Go forth and query, with my blessings.

Nor would I even dream of dissuading those of you who, having queried or pitched successfully in the past six months or so, have decided that it’s about time that you stopped revising feverishly, screwed your courage to the sticking place, as Shakespeare would have it, and try your luck with the agent(s) that requested manuscript pages. Again, this is a sensible, requisite step to getting published: since no agent in her right mind would sign a writer without having read any of her work — contrary to popular opinion amongst pitchers and queriers — obviously, if you want an agent to offer to represent you, you are going to have to let her read the manuscript in question.

I’ll even stretch the point further: since the only manuscript that has absolutely no chance of getting published or landing an agent is the one that just sits in a drawer or on a hard drive, without the writer’s ever exposing it to professional scrutiny — something that requires quite a bit of guts, by the way; queriers and submitters don’t give themselves enough credit for that — I would actively applaud your efforts to get your work under professional eyeballs.

I just would advise against doing it anytime within the first three weeks of the year. The first three weeks of any year.

Why? Look to your left in those starter’s blocks, New Year’s resolvers, and to your right: you’ll find aspiring writers who made precisely the same New Year’s resolution you did. And since the whole point of a New Year’s resolution is that the resolver puts it in motion practically as soon as that shiny ball drops into Times Square, what do you think happens around this time every year?

That’s right, campers: pretty much every agency in the country gets swamped with queries — and with the submissions that the agency requested months ago.

How swamped, you ask, turning pale with horror? Well, let me put it this way: I usually run a caution about this on December 31 — or, at the latest, January 1. Since some of my readers chafed at the bit last year, insisting that my advice was delaying their querying efforts unnecessarily, my New Year’s resolution was that in 2012, I would not issue my yearly warning about the dangers of joining the annual early January lemming run until I had observed another annual phenomenon: the barrage of wondering complaints from people who work in agencies about why their mail bags are suddenly thrice as heavy. At agencies that accept e-mailed queries, inbox input roughly quadruples.

I heard the first of those complaints today. It’s January third — and in the U.S., post offices were closed yesterday.

Not sure why? Okay, here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her New Year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this coming weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Starting to get the picture, are we?

Unless some of you wanted to ask a question? Yes, eager beavers? “But Anne,” those of you who have already sent out a query, two, or seventeen this year protest, “what’s wrong with that? Because there are so many people who want to get published, well-established agents at reputable agencies are constantly overwhelmed with queries, aren’t they?”

Before I answer that, beavers, was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a highly laudable New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries, or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria.

At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If any or all of that seems like an oddly disrespectful way to treat the Great American Novel, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries the agency needs to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

“While we’re waiting for those new to the game to recover,” my previous questioners ask impatiently, “can we get back to my question? No matter how many queries might stack up in the early weeks of the year, Millicent will just answer them in the order received, right? Ditto with any backlog of queries that might have come in while she was home for the holidays. So it might take a little longer for me to hear back; big deal.”

Actually, timing in sending a query or submission is a big deal, beavers of eagerness. It’s not as though agencies typically hire additional staff to handle the January onslaught, any more than they call in temps to deal with the increased querying and submission volume immediately after Labor Day, Memorial Day, or any federally-mandated three-day weekend. So our old pal Millicent is faced with a radically increased workload, but the same amount of time with which to deal with it.

I appeal to your sense of probability, campers: if you were Millicent, would you be more likely than usual to reject any given query in that morass, knowing that you had another 10,000 to read, or less? Would you be more inclined to turn from page 1 to page 2 in that submission in front of you or less?

I have an even better question: why on earth do aspiring writers do this to themselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning (and, let’s face it, a hefty proportion of media outlets) encourages us to believe that it’s inherently easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year.

We buy this, interestingly, even though our bodies tell us the opposite, Not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spent yesterday, today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine, well-intentioned people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript’s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

But why must that much-anticipated day be just after the New Year — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1? Or on the Wednesday following any long weekend, rather than on Saturday, Sunday, or Monday, when everyone else will be diligently stuffing Millicent’s e-mail inbox to overflowing?

Yes, yes, I know: weekends are when a lot of writers have the time to query, and the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. That last is particularly true: although the NYC-based publishing industry does not shut down as completely between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day as in years past, things still do slow down. So many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again.

Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it. For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to that earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “You were just kidding about that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing, right? I thought that good writing was always welcomed, whenever it arrived at an agency. Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’

At the risk of making those of you new to the game hyperventilate, I’m going to ask those readers who followed last autumn’s Queryfest to chant the answer along with me: with any query or submission, an agent must weigh more factors than the quality of the writing. Because agencies are profit-seeking entities, not charitable institutions devoted to the promotion of literature (as much as writers might like them to be the latter), she can only afford to take on manuscripts and book proposals she is relatively certain she can sell in the current literary market.

That means, in practice, that plenty of good writing and good book concepts get rejected. And that in considering which queries and submissions her boss is likely to wish to represent, Millicent has to look not only for good writing, but book category-appropriate voice and storyline, appeal to readers already buying similar books, freshness of book concept, and many, many other factors.

Including — and here is where the statistical probability thing rears its ugly head — the sheer volume of queries and submissions.

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than one might expect: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since Millie’s desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog (or even close readers of this particular post) are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 4!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although a goal of ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right?) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions. Had I mentioned that the average one lasts less than three weeks?

Let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Let her dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

Ditto with Monday mornings — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated ants, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 17. It would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off thereafter, though. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So, you may well be wondering, why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1?

Two reasons. First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It’s probably safe to assume that this year’s mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry, despite the fact that book sales for both e-books and traditional books have been on the rise lately.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes — yet another annual phenomenon.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that agency denizens tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might well be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, not: every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Or maybe you don’t know: aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, you will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter. Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the manuscripts and book proposals they worked so hard to convince Millicent or her boss to request. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks. Every year, good writers with good intentions fling themselves into huge expenditures of energy, only to find themselves burnt out with distressing rapidity.

If you must make a writing-related New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one you can reach in sensible increments. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off for the evening. Next time, I shall be examining another reader-generated query and talking about how to increase its probability of impressing Millicent.

Hey, we’re all about beating the odds here at Author! Author! Keep up the good work!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) One entry per writer, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

famous name query

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

referral query

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

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

missent referral query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

That’s right: “NEXT!”

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

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

who the heck query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

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

The dawning of a new day, or, a word of advice to queriers and submitters who make New Year’s resolutions

change of day on the beach

Happy New Year, everybody! I’ve logged in bright and early on this very first day of 2011 neither to add another entry to our ongoing Formatpalooza series (although what could be a better way for an aspiring writer to start off a new year of querying and submitting than learning how to format a manuscript professionally?) nor to urge you to invest a bit of time in entering the Author! Author! Rings True Writing Competition (ditto, and the deadline is a mere week away). No, I set finger to keyboard today in a last-ditch effort to talk you out of kicking off the year with a querying and submission mistake that literally millions of aspiring writers make every January 1.

I’m referring, of course, to the formulation of New Year’s resolutions.

Oh, there’s nothing wrong with making yourself a promise or two about writing more — or writing more often — in 2011 than you did in 2010. Or in committing yourself to finishing that book or book proposal you have been meaning to complete for eons now. In fact, that would be laudable: forming a practical, incremental plan to work toward a much-desired goal is a reasonable way to move toward it.

But those are not the kind of New Year’s resolutions most aspiring writers make, are they?

Here’s a pop quiz for those of you who spent some or all of the recent holiday season hobnobbing with kith and/or kin who happened to be aspiring writers: hands up if you bumped into at least one who confided that that her new year’s resolution was to get those long-delayed queries out the door, preferably within the first two weeks of January. Raise a hand, too, if a friendly soul astonished you by swearing that come January 1, that postponed-for-months submission was finally going to be making its way to the agent who requested it. Or that this was the year that novel was going to make its way out of that drawer and onto bookshelves everywhere.

And don’t even dream of dropping those hands if you know — or are — a writer who is spending today, or this weekend, cranking out query letters so they can go out in Monday morning’s mail. Or sending e-mails to arrive even faster.

Okay, legions with your hands in the air: keep ‘em up if you had ever heard these same writers make similar assertions before. Like, say, December of 2009, 2008, 2007, or any year before that.

I’m guessing that very few of you dropped your hands. Why on earth do we writers do this to ourselves every year?

The scourge of the New Year’s resolution, that’s why. Despite the fact that we’ve all spent our entire lives watching people make and break these resolutions, social conditioning encourages us to believe that it’s easier to begin a new project on January 1 — or at any rate, in January — than at any other point of the year. We buy this, even though our bodies tell us the opposite: not only are people exhausted from the holidays, but in January, not even the sun appears to interested in doing its job with any particular vim.

Yet millions of aspiring writers all across North America are going to spend today, tomorrow, and the next few weeks rushing those queries into envelopes, hitting those SEND buttons, stuffing those requested materials into envelopes, and forcing themselves to sit in front of a keyboard at a particular time each day. Successful queriers and pitchers of months past will also be springing into action, feverishly printing out or e-mailing requested materials. And every single one of these fine people will feel downright virtuous while engaging in this flurry of feverish early January activity.

Again: nothing wrong with that. The problem is, a good third of the aspiring writers in North America will be embracing precisely the same temporally-limited version of virtue.

The predictable, inevitable, and strategically unfortunate result: for the first three weeks of January every year, agencies across the land are positively buried in paper. Which means, equally predictably, inevitably, and unfortunately, that a query or manuscript submitted right now stands a statistically higher chance of getting rejected than those submitted at other times of the year.

So again, I ask: why do writers impose New Year’s resolutions on themselves that dictate sending out queries or submissions on the first Monday of January — instead of, say, the far more practical February 1?

Oh, I completely understand the impulse to rush those queries out the door, especially for aspiring writers whose last spate of marketing was quite some time ago. Last January, for instance, immediately after their last set of New Year’s resolutions.

I don’t say that to be judgmental: it can be genuinely difficult to work up the momentum to try, try again. Plenty of queriers and submitters take some time to lick their wounds after their last set of rejections — or, as is getting more and more common, their last round of sending out a query or even requested materials, waiting patiently, and just never hearing back. If a writer has pinned all of his hopes on a particular agent’s falling in love with his writing (or, in the case of a query, with his book concept; contrary to popular opinion, it’s logically impossible for a manuscript‘s writing style to get rejected by an agent who has seen nothing but a query letter), selecting an arbitrary date to pick himself up, dust himself off, and move on to the next agent on his list is not the worst of ideas.

Although were I advising in any individual case, January 1 — or 3, since that’s the first business day of this year — would not be the day I would pick.

Then, too, the holidays are actually quite a sensible time for even queriers who send out those letters like clockwork to take a breather. The NYC-based publishing industry more or less shuts down between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day; with so many of the fine people who work within it on vacation and/or celebrating various holidays, it just doesn’t make sense to query or submit then. Your missive might reach a Bob Cratchit working late on a holiday eve, but frankly, even ol’ Bob tends not to screen his e-mail very closely over the holidays.

So I have nothing but sympathy for those of you who are trying to get back into the swing of querying and submitting. Just like every other kind of writing, it’s easier to maintain momentum if one is doing it on a regular basis than to ramp up again after a break. Just ask anyone who has taken six months off from querying: keeping half a dozen permanently in circulation requires substantially less effort than starting from scratch — or starting again. Blame it on the principle of inertia. As Sir Isaac Newton pointed out so long ago, an object at rest tends to remain at rest and one in motion tends to remain in motion unless some other force acts upon it.

For an arrow flying through the air, the slowing force is gravity; for writers at holiday time, it’s often friends, relatives, and sundry other well-wishers. And throughout the rest of the year, it’s, well, life.

But you’re having trouble paying attention to my ruminations on physics, aren’t you? Your mind keeps wandering back to my earlier boldfaced pronouncement like some poor, bruised ghost compulsively revisiting the site of its last living moment. “Um, Anne?” those of you about to sneak off to the post office, stacks of queries in hand, ask with quavering voices. “About that whole statistically more likely to be rejected thing — mind if I ask why that might be the case? Or, to vent my feelings a trifle more adequately, mind if I scream in terror, ‘How could a caring universe do this to me?’”

An excellent question, oh nervous quaverers: why might the rejection rate tend to be higher at some times than others?

To answer that question in depth, I invite you yourself in the trodden-down heels of our old pal Millicent, the agency screener, the fortunate soul charged with opening all of those query letters and giving a first read to requested materials, to weed out the ones that her boss the agent will not be interested in seeing, based upon pre-set criteria. At some agencies, a submission may even need to make it past two or three Millicents before it lands on the actual agent’s desk.

Was that giant sucking sound I just heard an indication that some of you who are new to Author! Author! — perhaps reading it for the first time as the result of a New Year’s resolution to learn more about marketing your writing? — were unaware that typically, agents are not the ones screening queries — or even submissions? As nice as it might be for agents to cast their eyes over every query and submission personally, a successful agent simply doesn’t have the time. In order to get through the monumental volume of queries and make sure the agent has the time to read requested materials that have made it past the first cut, agencies employ professional readers like Millicent. That way, the agent can concentrate upon what actually supports the agency, selling already-signed clients’ work.

If that seems like a cop-out, let’s get practical for a moment: a reasonably well-respected agent might receive in the neighborhood of 1200 queries in any given week — and you can triple or quadruple that this time of year. If Millicent’s boss wants to see even 1% of the manuscripts or book proposals being queried, that’s 10 partial or full manuscripts requested per week. Of those, perhaps one or two will make it to the agent.

Why so few? Well, even very high-volume agencies don’t add all that many clients in any given year — particularly in times like these, when book sales are, to put it generously, slow. Since that reasonably well-respected agent will by definition already be representing clients — that’s how one garners respect in her biz, right? — she may be looking to pick up only 3 or 4 clients this year.

Take nice, deep breaths, campers. That dizzy feeling will pass before you know it.

Given the length of those odds, how likely is any given submission to make it? You do the math: 10 submissions per week x 52 weeks per year = 520 manuscripts. If the agent asks to see even the first 50 pages of each, that’s 26,000 pages of text. That’s a lot of reading — and that’s not even counting the tens of thousands of pages of queries they need to process as well, all long before the agent makes a penny off any of them, manuscripts from current clients, and everything an agent needs to read to keep up with what’s selling these days.

See where a Millicent might come in handy to screen some of those pages for you? Or all of your queries?

Millicent, then, has a rather different job than most submitters assume: she is charged with weeding out as many of those queries and submissions as possible, rather than (as the vast majority of aspiring writers assume) glancing over each and saying from time to time, “Oh, the writing here’s pretty good. Let’s represent this.” If she did that, her boss might end up with several hundred submissions to read in any given week. Clearly, that’s just not logistically possible. Fortunately for Millicent, most submissions, and definitely most queries, contain problems that render them fairly easy to reject — or have simply ended up in an agency that does not represent the kind of book in question.

A good writer should be happy about that, actually. Since her desk is perpetually covered with queries and submissions, the more quickly she can decide which may be excluded immediately, the more time she may devote to those that deserve a close reading.

Yes, I know that this is a lot for those of you brand-new to the process to absorb. Keep taking those nice, deep breaths.

Given the imperative to plow through all of those queries and submissions with dispatch, is it a wonder that over time, she might develop some knee-jerk responses to certain very common problems that plague many a page 1? Or that she would gain a sense (or even be handed a list) of her boss’ pet peeves, so she may reject manuscripts that contain them right off the bat? As in on page 1 — which is where, incidentally, the vast majority of submissions get rejected — or within the first paragraph of a query letter?

You don’t need to answer those questions, of course. They were rhetorical. (But if you’re new to this blog and are curious about common query, synopsis, and manuscript red flags, you might want to invest some time in going through the Querypalooza, Synopsispalooza, and Formatpalooza series.)

Now, the volume of queries and submissions conducive to this attitude arrive in a normal week. However, as long-term habitués of this blog are already no doubt already aware, certain times of the year see heavier volumes of both queries and submissions of long-requested materials than others.

Far and away the most popular of all: just after New Year’s Day.

Why, I was just talking about that, wasn’t I? That’s not entirely coincidental: this year, like every year, Millicent’s desk will be piled to the top of her cubicle walls with new mail for weeks, and her e-mail inbox will refill itself constantly like some mythical horn of plenty because — feel free to sing along at home — a hefty proportion of the aspiring writers of the English-speaking world have stared into mirrors on New Year’s eve and declared, “This year, I’m going to send out ten queries a week!” and/or “I’m going to get those materials that agent requested last July mailed on January 3!”

Again, I have nothing against these quite laudable goals — although ten queries per week would be hard to maintain for many weeks on end, if an aspiring writer were targeting only agents who represented his type of book. (And everybody is aware that querying agents who don’t have a proven, recent track record of selling similar books is a waste of an aspiring writer’s valuable time, energy, and emotion, right? If not, you might want to take a gander at my recent How to Find Agents to Query series.) My only concern is that you implement those goals in a manner that is likely to get the results you want, rather than merely leaving you discouraged before Martin Luther King, Jr., Day rolls around.

Which is, incidentally, the fate of most New Year’s resolutions: the average one lasts less than three weeks.

But let’s try to imagine what it would be like to be Millicent during those three weeks, before all of those poor revisers run out of steam. If you were a screener who walked into work, possibly a bit late and clutching a latte because it’s a cold morning, and found 700 queries instead of the usual 200, or 50 submissions rather than the usual 5, would you be more likely to implement those knee-jerk rejection criteria, or less?

Uh-huh. Our Millicent’s readings tend to be just a touch crankier than usual this time of year. Do you really want to be one of the mob testing her patience?

This is the primary reason, in case I had not made it clear enough over the last couple of months, that I annually and strenuously urge my readers NOT to query or submit during the first few weeks of any given year. Let Millie dig her way out from under that mountain of papers before she reads yours; she’ll be in a better mood.

She’s particularly likely to be in a take-no-prisoners mood on Monday mornings, by the way — and not just for the reason that most people who work a Monday-Friday week are grumpy then. All weekend long, busy queriers and submitters have been toiling away like unusually dedicated aunts, filling her e-mail inbox to bursting with messages; regular mail also arrived on Saturday. So the next few Mondays — particularly the coming one, if she has been on vacation — will see her frantically trying to clear out that inbox and read through what’s on her desk as quickly as humanly possible.

Again, do you think that will make her more likely to reject any individual query or submission in that pile, or less?

For this reason, if you feel you absolutely must query or submit via e-mail during the next month, avoid doing it on either a Monday, Friday, or a weekend. Actually, that’s not a bad rule of thumb for e-querying and e-submitting in general: January is not the only time when most aspiring writers have more time on the weekends than mid-week.

Some of you have had your hands in the air for the last three paragraphs, have you not? “But Anne,” those of you chomping at the bit ask eagerly, “if you’re advising me against taking action now, when can I reasonably begin querying or sending off that requested manuscript? Martin Luther King, Jr., Day? I have a long weekend then.”

Well, that wouldn’t be a bad choice to start stamping those SASEs — although, like after holiday weekend, Millicent’s inbox will be stuffed to the proverbial gills on the morning of Tuesday, January 18. The average New Year’s resolution lasts about three weeks, so it would be fair to expect queries and submissions tend to drop off around then. Yes, that would make quite a bit of sense.

So why am I urging every aspiring writer within the sound of my voice to hold off until February 1? Two reasons.

First, over the past few years, the statistics about how many electronic readers and e-books sold over the holidays, vs. the number of traditionally-published books, have tended to come out around mid-January. (Oh, a few estimates will be available before then — there are probably some figures out now — but it usually takes a few weeks to verify the actual totals.) This year, the news is likely to depress folks who work in traditional publishing.

Yes, even more than last year. As you may have heard, 2009 was the first year that e-books outsold hard copies at Amazon on Christmas. Those sales figures were just for Christmas Day itself, an occasion when, correct me if I’m wrong, folks who had just received a Kindle as a present might be slightly more likely to download books than, say, the day before.

But that’s not what the headlines screamed immediately afterward, was it? I assure you, every agency and publishing house employee in North America has spent the intervening days fending off kith and kin helpfully showing him articles mournfully declaring that the physical book is on the endangered species list. Or ought to be.

It was also the first year that there were roughly the same number of self-published and print-on-demand books published as those produced by traditional publishers. Admittedly, the average self-published book still sells less than a couple of hundred copies, but in terms of sheer volume, that was a hard blow to the publishing houses. My sources tell me that in 2010, three times as many books were self-published or produced via print-on-demand than by traditional U.S. publishing houses.

It’s probably safe to assume that the mid-January statistics will not leave the denizens of agencies and publishing houses very happy. Or receiving any fewer calls from kith and kin, once again predicting the demise of the publishing industry.

Now, naysayers have regularly predicted the imminent death of the publishing industry every year since the mid-19th century, but that doesn’t make it any easier to hear, does it? Tell me, if you were Millicent and kept hearing all of those harbingers of doom, how cheerful would you be when screening?

She’s been hearing such dismal prognostications as often as the rest of us — and she’ll probably be hearing even more once those statistics come out. When she steps across the agency threshold the next day, too-hot latte clutched in her bemittened hand, the Millicent in the cubicle next to hers will be complaining about how his (hey, Millicents come in both sexes) kith and kin has been cheerfully informing him that he will be out of a job soon. So will half the people who work in the agency — including, as likely as not, Millicent’s boss.

It’s only reasonable to expect, of course, that through the magic of group hypnosis, the more everyone repeats it, the more of a threat the news will seem; the scarier the threat, the more dire the predictions of the future of publishing will become. By lunchtime, half the office will be surreptitiously working on its resumes.

Given the ambient mood in the office, do you really want yours to be the first query she reads that day? Or the fiftieth? Or would you rather that your precious book concept or manuscript didn’t fall beneath her critical eye until after everyone’s had a chance to calm down?

There’s another yet reason that people who work in agencies tend to be a mite stressed in January: by law, US-based agencies must issue tax documentation on royalties by the end of the month. That won’t be Millicent’s department, but it might be her boss’ — it’s not at all unusual for one of the member agents at a good-sized agency to be entrusted with handling most or even all of the royalty paperwork.

So can I guarantee that everyone at the agency of your dreams will be working away happily like the dwarves in Snow White by early February? Obviously, every agency is different, and I regret to say that I don’t have a crystal ball: there’s really no way of foretelling. Perhaps a freak bestseller will catch everyone by surprise — hey, it happens — or there might be an abrupt flurry of economic bad news.

Publishing is very trend-dependent, you know. Aspiring writers who hang all of their hopes — and predicate their New Year’s resolutions — on the belief that the only factor determining whether an agent will pick up a book, or a publishing house will acquire it, is whether it is well-written are setting themselves up for disappointment. Plenty of other factors may well go into a rejection — up to and including Millicent’s simply having to plow through more queries than usual that week.

In other words: try not to take it personally. But don’t query only one agency at a time, do your homework about who represents what — and maximize the probability of your query’s hitting Millicent’s desk at the right time by holding off until the beginning of February.

By then, those of you who each year stubbornly reject my annual admonition to eschew writing-related New Year’s resolutions will have had a nice, long chunk of time to see if you could, say, up your writing time by an extra hour per week. Or per day. Or prepared a contest entry for that literary contest you’d always meant to enter.

Far be it from me to discourage keeping that kind of resolution, whether you choose to put it into action on New Year’s Day, the fourth of July, or St. Swithin’s day. Only please, for your own sake, don’t set the bar so high that you end up abandoning it within just a couple of weeks.

Doesn’t your writing deserve a more consistent effort? Or at least some recognition that pumping up the nerve to bundle up your baby and hand it to someone who has a professional obligation to judge it is one of the hardest, scariest endeavors a person can embrace?

Be proud of yourself for being ready and able to do it — believe me, only a very small percentage of aspiring writers ever work up that nerve. You’d be astonished by how many successful queriers and pitchers never submit the requested materials. This is hard stuff; the writing part is only the beginning.

But you can do it — if you go about it in a reasonable manner. Don’t be one of the millions of New Year’s resolvers who starts out in a glow of good intentions, only to be feeling weak-willed three weeks hence because the resolution was simply too big. Or too much of a commitment to maintain for longer than just a few weeks.

If you must make a New Year’s resolution, resolve to set an achievable goal, one that you can pull off without burning yourself out quickly. In the long term, asking yourself to write two extra hours per week is more likely to become a habit than eight or ten; committing to sending out one query per week is much easier to do consistently than twenty.

Remember, if Millicent resolved to get through those masses of queries and submissions currently completely concealing her desk from the human eye, she’d fling her latte in disgust within the first hour. Steady, consistent application is the way to plow through an overwhelming-seeming task.

Okay, if I’m sounding like Aesop, it’s definitely time to sign off.

Next time, I shall be talking about the ins and outs of formatting nonfiction proposals — but if you have more general manuscript formatting questions, please keep posting them in the comments. I’m far from done talking about how to get the best out of a manuscript.

Just let me get all of these New Year’s resolutions out of the way first. Keep up the good work!

How to find agents to query-palooza, or, hunting and gathering the smart way

hunter cave painting

I had planned to move away from practical marketing issues today, campers, and back to the nitty-gritty craft issues that we all so love. After a quick barefoot run through some of your comments in the earlier ‘Palooza series, I realized with the proverbial shock that I had entirely forgotten that I had promised another: a how-to on how to come up with a list of agents to query.

That would render all of those beautifully-written queries quite a bit more useful, wouldn’t it? I was stunned to discover that I hadn’t done an in-depth series on generating a query list since 2007. (How time flies when we’re talking craft, eh?) And there’s no time to lose if I’m going to ‘Palooza on the subject this fall, because savvy queriers aiming for the New York-based agency market will, naturally, be aiming to get the rest of the season’s queries out before Thanksgiving week.

That’s the fourth Thursday in November, for those of you reading this in foreign climes. Try to crank those queries out before then. It’s even a good time to send out a few additional queries for those of you already on the query-a-week plan.

Why treat this as a general querying deadline for the year, you ask? Well, not a lot goes on in the U.S. publishing industry between Thanksgiving and Christmas; I know many, many agents who, as in August, simply do not bother to send submissions to editors between mid-November and the New Year.

It’s a time for merrymaking — and for catching up on all of that reading that’s been piling up over the preceding 10 1/2 months. Given that the average agent’s office is well enough insulated with as yet unread piles of paper to allow him to survive the next ice age in toasty comfort, the comparatively great time to read is universally regarded as a boon.

What does that mean from the aspiring writer’s perspective? Chances are good that a query or a manuscript sent during these yearly doldrums would languish unopened for a month — or more.

Why more? A couple of reasons. By law, US-based agencies have to produce tax information for the previous year’s earnings by the end of January: paperwork central. And since agenting tends to attract former English majors, rather than accounting majors, this deadline can result in a few weeks of rather frayed tempers.

Which tend to be exacerbated by the positive avalanche of queries they receive within the first couple of weeks of the new year. It’s not uncommon for Millicent to greet a gray January morning by seeing 4 or 5 times the usual volume of mail dumped upon her desk.

That’s enough to make anyone burn her lip with a too-hasty sip on her latte.

Does Santa Claus bank down the reindeer engines from his Yuletide travels by bringing good little agency screeners buckets of additional queries? No, it’s a phenomenon of group think: virtually all of the aspiring writers of North America make it their New Year’s resolution to query the heck out of their books.

The result: the first few weeks of January finds Millicent the agency screener overwhelmed, her bosses stressed, and everyone concerned in an even more rejection-happy mood than usual.

I know; hard to picture. But true. I always advise my clients to avoid querying, or even submitting requested material, before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — or, to translate that into European terms, before Federico Fellini’s birthday on January 21.

Hey, if we’re taking nominations for a patron saint of aspiring writers, Fellini isn’t a bad choice. An enhanced appreciation of the surreal, the advent of the miraculous in modern life, and the value of sitting around in cafés, brooding and looking fabulous, is actually very helpful for those of us trudging the long path to publication.

So let’s talk hunting and gathering. Specifically, hunting down names of agents who might be interested in your work and gathering that information into a list that will carry even the most intrepid querier through the end of the year. Or at least until Thanksgiving.

But where, as writers everywhere routinely cry to the heavens, does one FIND agents to query? Opening the Manhattan Yellow Pages and sticking a pin randomly on the page? Tracking down the four biggest agencies and querying every agent in them? Just querying every name listed in the Herman Guide?

The short answer, of course, is no. (The long answer is NOOOOOOOO.)

Bear with me, long-time readers, while I repeat an underappreciated truth of the industry: not every agent represents every kind of book, or even every stripe of book within a particular genre.

Instead, agents specialize; they nurture connections primarily in their areas of interest. And they uniformly tell their screeners — our old friend Millicent and her ilk — to reject outright any query that falls outside those parameters.

Yes, you read that correctly: agencies typically reject ANY query about a book category they do not represent, regardless of quality. Even if it’s the most marketable idea for a book since Helen Fielding said, “You know, I think I’m gonna rewrite Pride and Prejudice in a modern setting, with more sex.” This is the primary reason that agents prefer queries to state the book category in the first paragraph, if not the first line: so they may weed out the kinds of books they have no experience representing.

Ready for another hard, oft-overlooked truth? It is simply a waste of an aspiring writer’s time, energy, and resources to send a query to an agent who does not specialize in that writer’s type of book. No matter how well-written a query may be or how inherently marketable a book concept is, it is futile to query an agent who has devoted her life to promoting bodice-ripper romances with a futuristic fantasy where bosoms remain unheaved, and vice versa.

Oh, the misery that would be averted if more aspiring writers were aware of this salient fact! Every year, hundreds of thousands of hours are wasted in both writing misdirected query letters and summarily rejecting them, causing needless depression on one end and habitual chagrin on the other. Although, really, Millicent should be grateful that so many aspiring writers make this mistake: queries sent to the wrong agent are self-rejecting, after all.

To heighten the wails of woe even further, it isn’t even enough for a writer to target an agency that represents his kind of book: he needs to target the right agent within it. One of the classic agency screener pet peeves is to see the same query letter sent simultaneously to every agent on staff at a particular agency a query in the hope of hitting the right one.

To all too many queriers, the necessity to do some homework on who represents what comes as a gargantuan surprise — and an annoying inconvenience. After all, it just seems efficient to write to every member agent listed under an agency’s listing. “Who’s going to know there’s overlap?” these busy souls mutter to themselves, industriously stuffing envelopes. “The average agency receives 800-1500 queries per week!”

Actually, it’s fairly likely that someone will notice: Millicent is often opening the mail for more than one agent. And although I hate to be the one to break it to you, but the vast majority multi-member agencies have a policy that they will reject such blanket queries outright.

Not that an agency will usually tell writers that they’re being rejected for this reason, mind you; blanket queriers almost invariably get the same form-letter rejection as everyone else. Which is why, in case you were wondering, there are invariably so many blankly dismayed faces in the audience after an agent casually mentions from a conference podium that he and his colleagues won’t even consider a project proposed to everyone in the agency simultaneously.

Before anyone jumps to any conclusions: this pervasive practice of rejecting multiple queries to the same agency is often mistakenly confused with the writers’ conference circuit myth that agents uniformly become incensed if they learn that a particular writer is sending out queries to agents at different agencies simultaneously. The former is a common pet peeve; the latter is most emphatically not. To drag out my broken record player yet again:

broken-recordUnless an agency states SPECIFICALLY in its agency guide listing or on its website that it insists upon an exclusive for any submission it considers, these days, it is assumed that a market-savvy writer will be sending out simultaneous queries.

Why would they presume any such thing? For one very simple, very practical reason: querying agents one at a time, waiting weeks (or even months) to hear back from one before sending out the next, can add YEARS to the agent-finding process.

Trust me, agents understand this. They tend to be impatient people by nature.

So why would they find a writer’s querying every agent in a particular agency simultaneously annoying? To insider eyes, it’s a sign of inexperience, an indicator that the querier has not sufficiently researched who represents books in a given category sufficiently — and is thus unlikely to be a very industry-savvy client.

Why? Chant it with me now, ‘Palooza followers: writers who don’t do their homework are likely to need more of the process explained to them, and are thus significantly more time-consuming to represent than those who already know how the process works. (Than, say, aspiring writers who had invested the time in reading through the posts in the HOW THE PUBLISHING INDUSTRY WORKS — AND DOESN’T category on the archive list at right. Conveniently placed, is it not?)

Realistically, there is another, more practical reason for the one-agent-per-agency policy: if 5 of the 150 envelopes Millicent slits open tomorrow morning have the same name on the letterhead, or sport the same title in the first paragraph, she can save many valuable minutes by rejecting #2-#5 as soon as she spots the repetition.

And she may not even get as far as the first paragraph of an e-mailed query that lists half a dozen agents on its recipient list.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you cry, “that isn’t fair! How on earth is a writer new to the industry to learn who represents what?”

Glad you asked, disgruntled mutterers. My project for the rest of the week shall be to answer this question.

Yes, readers who have had your hands in the air since the beginning of this post? “I know how to solve this one, Anne!” you announce proudly. “I would go to one of the many online agent search engines, plug in my book’s category, and query everyone whose name comes up!”

Well, yes, you could do that, proud hand-raisers. You could also pick up one of the standard agency guides, turn to the index, and see who is listed as representing your book category. Either would be a terrific first step toward generating a query list.

Yes, I did say first step, now that you mention it. Neither method is likely to give you the information you need in order to prioritize which agents you should query first. That’s problematic, as it tends to prompt writers brand-new to the querying process to produce a single generic query letter to send to all 50 — or 70, or 212, depending upon the popularity of one’s chosen book category — who are listed as being interested in their type of book.

Three months later, they find themselves saddled with 21 rejections, 29 non-responses, and a query list with no more names on it. Since one of the unspoken-but-universal expectations of agency life is that a writer may query a particular agent only once with the same project, where is the disappointed mass-querier to turn next?

Hold that horrifying thought, please. I have another few species of query-list nightmares with which to frighten you.

Some aspiring writers query only one agent at a time — so by the time they hear back (or not) from the first ten, the information upon which they based their initial agent-ranking preferences may have become obsolete. This can happen for a lot of reasons: the market for in a particular book category may have changed; individual agents may have changed what they are looking to represent; editors who had bought reliably an agency in the past may have been laid off. Then, too, agents move from agency to agency all the time, not to mention taking maternity leave, getting fed up with a difficult literary market, or even dying.

Oh, you may laugh, but do you really want to be the writer who queries the agent who died six months ago? To be useful over years of querying, a query list should be updated and its facts rechecked about twice a year.

Is all of that groaning I hear coming from those of you who had been querying one or two agents at a time? “But Anne,” you protest, and who could blame you? “I’ve been querying slowly because I didn’t have the time to do extensive research on many agents at once! I have a general list, of course, but I only look up the person I am planning to query next. Are you saying that I also need to check that general list that I gleaned from the index of Guide to Literary Agents three years ago, to check that the agents on it represent what they did back then?”

In a word, yes. (In several words: yes yes yes yes yes.) Agencies are very fluid places these days.

But let’s pause a moment to consider this practice of querying one agent and waiting to hear back before moving on to the next. If you’re intending to approach agencies with a we-will-only-respond-if-we-are-interested policy (sometimes stated openly on agency websites and in guide listings, but not always), it’s just not realistic. Unless you have your heart set on an agency that demands an exclusive look at queries — extremely rare, by the way — it’s disrespectful to your own time not to continue to send queries out on a regular basis while you’re waiting to hear back from your first choice.

I suspect that is an argument that will resonate with some of you one-at-a-timers, not necessarily because you believe the old saw about agents’ expecting querying exclusivity (although many who embrace this practice do), but because, let’s face it, it takes a heck of a lot of work and emotional energy to send out even one query, let alone keeping six or ten out at any one time. It will probably make less sense to the ilk of one-at-a-timers who have such high expectations for their books’ prospects that they just assume that the first agent they query will snap the manuscript up immediately.

For each of these rather disparate initial rationales, the subsequent reasoning is surprisingly similar: why should I bother to send out more queries? If the first agent on my list says yes, it will just be wasted effort. And once a writer starts thinking that way, the reasoning seems just as valid for one’s 85th query as one’s second.

I understand exhaustion, hubris, or just plain lack of time, but in these days of months-long turnaround times and not hearing back at all if the answer is no, what usually ends up happening to queriers who reason this way is that they wake up one day a year into the querying process to discover that they have barely made a dent in their querying lists — and thus have to research them all over again. Or, even more common, they simply have given up by a year into the agent search.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll send it again: because the object here is not to land just any agent, but the right one for a specific book, even the most talented writers often have to send out dozens or even hundreds of queries before finding the right one. It honestly is in your manuscript’s best interest, then, to keep pressing forward. The only book that has NO chance of getting published is the one that no agent or editor ever sees.

You’re going to want to keep sending out those queries. Yes, even if the best agent in the known universe has the full manuscript of your novel sitting on her desk even as I write this.

Was that loud crash a multitude of jaws hitting floors across the English-speaking world? Believe me, you will be a much, much happier camper if you already have queries, or even submissions, in other agents’ hands if — heaven forfend — the one who asked to see a partial or full turns you down.

Think of keeping the query flow going as insurance: if something goes wrong with your top prospect, you will have possible alternates waiting in the wings. Or at the very least will be spared the effort of having to come up with a new prospect from scratch. Besides, contrary to pervasive belief amongst aspiring writers, being sought-after by more than one agent is a GOOD thing — after all, nothing speeds up reading turn-around like the news that another agent has already made an offer.

I know it’s tempting to rest on your laurels while waiting to hear back on a partial or a full, but The law of inertia tells us that a process already in motion tends to remain in motion; as anyone who has done serious time in the querying trenches can tell you, it takes quite a bit more energy to restart your querying engines again after they have gone cold than to keep plowing forward.

I know you’re tired of querying; it’s a whole lot of work. You have my sympathy, really. Now go out and send a couple of fresh queries this week. And next, and the week after that. Repeat until you’re picked up — although if you wanted to take a break between Thanksgiving and Martin Luther King, Jr., day, that might save you some effort.

As my long-time readers are well aware, I’m of the keep-querying-until-the ink-is-actually-dry-on-the-contract school of thought. But to keep that flow going, you’re going to need to generate a hefty list of prospects of agents who represent writing like yours.

And by writing like yours, I don’t mean books along vaguely similar lines — I’m talking about books in the same marketing category. Those of you who worked your way through Querypalooza should already have a fairly clear idea of which categories come closest to your work — and if you do not, please run, not walk, toward the posts under the aptly-named HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY listing at right.

Why is nailing down your marketing category so important? Because it is the language agents and editors use to describe books. Until you know in which category (or categories; many overlap) your baby falls, you will have great difficulty not only understanding agents express their professional preferences at conferences, but also deciphering their wants as stated in agency guides and on their websites.

As you may perhaps have gathered from how often I have said it in this post, I cannot overstress the importance of targeting only agents appropriate to your work, rather than taking a scattershot approach. (See? I even put it in boldface that time.) There’s a reason I’m hitting the point so hard: if you’ve ever heard a successful agent talk about the business for five consecutive minutes, chances are you’ve already heard four times that one of the biggest mistakes the average aspiring writer makes is to regard all agents as equally desirable, and thus equally smart to approach.

As a rule, they don’t like being treated as generic representatives of their line of work, rather than highly-focused professionals who deal in particular types of books. This is true, incidentally, even of those agents who list every type of book known to man in the agency guides, because they are loath to miss out on the next bestseller, regardless of whether they typically represent that type of book or not. Go figure.

So as those of you Querypalooza survivors may recall, the single best thing you can do to increase your chances of acceptance is to write to a specific person — and for a specific reason, which you should state in the letter. Agents all have specialties; they expect writers to be aware of them.

Later in this series, I will go into why this isn’t a particularly fair expectation, but for now, suffice it to say that it’s expected. Respecting the agents’ preferences in this respect marks the difference between the kind of writer that they take seriously and the vast majority that they don’t.

This is probably old news to most of you, right? If you’re taking the time to do research on the industry online, you have probably encountered this advice before. Although perhaps not its corollary: it’s not an efficient use of your querying energies to approach agents — at conferences, via e-mail, or through queries — unless they have a proven track record of representing your type of writing successfully.

Limiting your queries by past sales records is for your protection, as much as to increase your probability of querying success. Think about it: do you really want to be your new agent’s FIRST client in a particular genre?

Of course not; it will be twice as hard to sell your book. Just expressing interest in your type of book may not be sufficient; you want an agent who already has connections with editors who buy your type of work on a daily basis.

Which brings me to the most logical first step for seeking out agents to query.

1. Agents who attended the same conference(s) you did
If you attended a conference within the last year, now is the time to send letters to the agents to whom you were not able to pitch. However, be smart about it: don’t bother to query those who client lists do not include books like yours.

I’m serious about this. No matter how much you may have liked the agent personally at the conference: the second easiest ground of rejection — after a generic “Dear Agent” salutation — is when the query is for a kind of book that the agent does not represent. Like “Dear Agent,” an agency screener does not need to read more than a couple of lines of this type of query in order to plop it into the rejection pile.

Allow me to repeat: this is true, no matter how much you may have liked the agent when you met her, or how well you thought the two of you clicked, or that the second agent from the left on the panel bears a startling resemblance to your beloved long-ago junior high school French teacher. Deciding whom to represent is a business decision, not a sentimental one, after all — and it will save you a tremendous amount of time and chagrin if you approach selecting your querying list on the same basis.

So do a little homework first. If you didn’t take good notes at the conference about who was looking for what kind of book (and didn’t keep in touch with the person sitting next to you, scribbling like a fiend), check out the standard agents’ guides, where such information abounds. Or the agency’s website.

Then, when you find the right fits, go ahead and write the name of the conference on the outside of your query envelopes, and mention having heard the agent speak at the conference in the first line of your letter; at most agencies, this will automatically put your query into a different pile, because conference attendees are generally assumed to be more industry-savvy, and thus more likely to be querying with market-ready work, than other writers.

If you went to a big conference, this strategy might yield half a dozen more agents to query. Where do you go after that?

This is a serious question, one that I have argued long and hard should be addressed explicitly in seminars at writing conferences. Far too many aspiring writers abandon their querying quests too soon after their first conferences, assuming — wrongly — that once they have exhausted the array of attending agents, they have plumbed the depth and breadth of the industry.

This is simply not true. The agents who show up at any given conference are just that — the agents who happened to show up for that particular conference, people with individual tastes and professional preferences. If you didn’t strike lucky with that group, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you would have the same luck with another.

But obviously, conferences are expensive; few writers can afford to attend an unlimited number of them. So how else can you find out who is eager to represent what?

2. Agents who represent authors you respect within your chosen book category
The common wisdom on the subject, according to most writing guides and classes, is that you should start with the agents of writers whose work you like, advice predicated on the often untrue assumption that all of us are so myopic that we will only read writers whose work resembles ours.

Me, I’m not so egocentric: I read books by a whole lot of living writers, most of whose styles are nothing at all like mine; if I want a style like my own, I read my own work.

However, especially if you write in a genre or nonfiction, querying your favorite authors’ agents is not a bad idea. Certainly, the books already on your shelves are the easiest to check the acknowledgments page for thank-yous.

Actually, you should get into the habit of checking these pages anyway, if you are planning on a career in this business: one of the best conversation-starters you can possibly whip out is, “Oh, you worked on Author X’s work, didn’t you? I remember that she said wonderful things about you.”

Trust me, there is not an agent or editor in the business who will not be flattered by such a statement. You would be amazed at how few of the writers who approach them are even remotely familiar with the average agent’s track record. But who doesn’t like to be recognized and complimented on his work?

So, knowing this about human nature, make an educated guess: would an agent would be more or less likely to ask to see pages from a writer whose well-targeted query began, “Since you so ably represented Author X’s GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, I believe you will be interested in my work…”

You bet your boots, baby.

So I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “But Anne,” I hear some of you call out, “I already knew about querying agents I saw at conferences and checking acknowledgement pages. (Which, due to the rising costs of paper and binding, aren’t nearly so common in newly-published books as they used to be in the past.) Aren’t there more creative ways to expand my query list?”

As a matter of fact, there are — but that’s a topic for next time. Hang in there, campers, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part X: it’s been a hard day’s night. Several in a row, actually.

ringo and the clean old manringo and the clean old man2ringo and the clean old man3
ringo and the clean old man4ringo and the clean old man4aringo and the clean old man5

As promised, we’re nearing the end of Querypalooza, our high-speed crash course on how to write a better-than-average query letter — if, by the end of Labor Day week, your query letter is not polished to a high gloss, I shall not be to blame. But oh, as the old joke goes, are my arms ever tired!

You know how much I enjoy being thorough. Let’s turn our attention back to query letter diagnostics.

And already eyes across the English-speaking world roll. “Isn’t there an easier way to go about this?” the time-strapped cry. “No offense, Anne, but you’ve been making me concentrate so intensely on a single piece of paper for three days straight. Now, on day 4, every fiber of my being ties itself in a sailor’s knot at the very mention of a query. On top of everything you’ve pointed out here, I’m also going to have to do some research on each of the agents to whom I intend to address my highly-personalized queries. PLEASE tell me that I won’t need to write an entirely fresh missive for each one.”

Not entirely, no: quite a few paragraphs will probably be recyclable, unless you plan to gain a new credential or two between the time you send Query A and when you pop Query B into the mailbox. However, it’s never, ever, EVER a good idea to use an entire query letter again wholesale.

Why not, you ask? Do I hear sweet music in the distance?

broken-recordLike any other reader, individual agents have individual likes and dislikes. As a logical result, there is no such thing as a query letter that will please every agent currently in practice.

Thus Querypalooza: the goal here is not to help you construct a generic letter that will work for every agent to whom you might conceivably decide to send it, but to assist you in ferreting out problems with the personalized missives you’re constructing for each one. Yes, you may well reuse sentences and even entire paragraphs from letter to letter, but as anyone who has had much contact with agents can tell you, these are not generalists.

Which means, to put it bluntly, that while Millicents share common pet peeves, each is looking for slightly different things in a query letter.

Stop groaning; it wouldn’t have made good strategic sense to send an identical letter out to everyone, anyway, for reasons we have been discussing for days. Besides, there is no such a thing as a universally perfect query letter, one that will wow every agent currently hawking books on the planet. It is logically impossible: agents represent different kinds of books, for one thing, so the moment you mention that your book is a Gothic romance, it is going to be rejected by any agent who does not represent Gothic romances.

It honestly is as simple as that.

More fundamentally, though, I do not accept the idea of a magical formula that works in every case. Yes, the format I have been going over here tends to work well; it has a proven track record across many book categories. However — and I hate to tell you this, because the arbitrary forces of chance are hard to combat — even if it is precisely what your targeted agency’s screener has been told to seek amongst the haystack of queries flooding the mailroom, it might still end up in the reject pile if the screener or agent is having a bad day.

What factors might produce that outcome, you ask? A million and one that are utterly outside the querier’s control.

If the agent has just broken up with her husband of 15 years that morning, for instance, it’s probably not the best time to query her with a heartwarming romance. If she slipped on the stairs yesterday and broke both her wrists, she’s probably not going to be all that receptive to even the best knitting book today. And if he has just sprained his ankle in tripping over that stack of manuscripts he meant to read two months ago, it’s highly unlikely that any query is going to wow him within the next ten minutes, even if it were penned by William Faulkner, Toni Morrison, and William Shakespeare in an unprecedented show of time-traveling collaboration.

No writer, however gifted, can win in such a situation; even the query that wins most will lose some. Don’t squander your precious energies worrying about it.

A strategic-minded querier can, however, avoid sending e-mailed queries or submissions over the weekend, the most popular time to hit the SEND button: Millicent’s inbox is pretty much guaranteed to be stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. Ditto with the first few days after her boss has returned from a writers’ conference, Labor Day (hint, hint), or, heaven help us, the single heaviest querying time of all, immediately after January 1.

Trust me, all of those New Year’s resolution-fulfillers will provide her with more than enough reading material to keep her cross and rejection-happy for a few weeks. Best to avoid slipping anything you want her to approve under her nostrils then. Unless, of course, she’s just fallen in love, or her college roommate just won the Pulitzer Prize in journalism, or she’s found a hundred-dollar bill on the street.

broken-recordThere will always be aspects of querying success that you cannot control, and you will be a significantly happier writer in the long run if you accept that there is inevitably an element of luck involved — as well as writing talent, marketing savvy, and query-construction skill.

Frankly, the luck part took me quite a long time to accept myself. I once received a rejection from an agent who had hand-written, This is literally the best query letter I have ever read — but I’ll still have to pass in the margins of my missive — as if that was going to make me feel any better about being rejected.

To tell you the truth, this compliment annoyed me far more than it pleased me, and like so many aspiring writers, my mind flooded with resentful questions. Had the agent just completed a conference call with every editor in the business, wherein they held a referendum about the marketability of my type of novel, voting it down by an overwhelming margin? Had she suddenly decided not to represent the kind of book I was presenting due to a mystical revelation from the god of her choice? Or had the agent just gotten her foot run over by a backhoe, or just learned that she was pregnant, or decided to lay off half her staff due to budget problems?

Beats me; I’ll never know. Which is kind of funny, because I’ve had some very nice chats with this agent at conferences since.

The important thing to recognize is that whatever was going on at that agency, it was beyond my control. Until I am promoted to minor deity, complete with smiting powers, love potions, and telepathic control of the mails, I just have to accept that I have no way of affecting when any query — or manuscript, or published book — is going to hit an agent, editor, reviewer, or reader’s desk.

(Okay, so I do have more control over when my agent sees my manuscripts — but even then, it’s up to him when to read them. You can lead a horse to water, etc.)

My advice: concentrate on the aspects of the interaction you CAN control. Like, say, the matters on our troubleshooting list.

(25) If I intend to submit this query to agents based in the United States, have I used ONLY US-spellings throughout my query packet? Or UK spellings, if I am sending it there or to Canada?
This is true of submissions as well. While honour, judgement, and centre are perfectly correct in some places in the English-speaking world, they are technically incorrect in the US, just as honor, judgment, and center are on the other side of the pond, or even north of the border.

Tailor your query and submission to what will look right to your intended audience: the agent. You don’t want Millicent to think that you just don’t know how to spell, do you, oh centred, honourable person of sound judgement?

(26) When I mentioned the book category in the first paragraph of my query, did I use one of the established categories already in use by the publishing industry, or did I make up one of my own?
Queriers new to the game often believe, mistakenly, that claiming that their books are so completely original, so unlike anything else currently for sale to the English-reading public, that even trying to squeeze them into one of the conceptual boxes provided by the industry would undersell their originality. Instead, these well-meaning souls just make up their own categories with names like Hilarious Western Romance Travelogue or Time-Travel Thriller.

They think — again, mistakenly — that such names are helpful to agents. How could being more specific than the average bookseller’s shelving system be bad?

In quite a number of ways, actually. To name but two, mythical book categories are unprofessional, and using them betrays a misunderstanding of why agents want to see them in query letters: to figure out whether the book presented is the kind that they currently want to sell. Also, an aspiring writer who clearly knows that he’s supposed to name a book category but tries to wiggle around it is playing rules lawyer, not a strategy likely to convince Millicent and her boss that he’s the type who just loves following directions without a fight.

Do it because they say so. If you’re at a loss about how to go about narrowing down the choices, please see the HOW TO FIGURE OUT YOUR BOOK’S CATEGORY section on the archive list at right.

“Can’t make me!” some rebels shout. “No one’s going to put MY book in a conceptual box.”

That’s quite true: no one can force an aspiring writer to commit to a book category — at least before she’s signed with an agent, of course. Agents make their clients commit all the time; in fact, it’s not all that unusual for an agent to accept a new project as one category, ask for targeted revisions, then pitch it to editors as a different category.

A book category is nothing but a conceptual box, after all, merely a marketing label used to get a manuscript to the people who represent and sell similar books. So a categorical (so to speak) refusal to allow your work to be labeled at the query stage isn’t going to impress anybody familiar with how books are sold in this country.

Especially not Millicent — and especially if she happens to open your query at an inopportune moment.

Don’t believe me? Okay, picture this: Millicent’s subway train from her tiny apartment in Brooklyn that she shares with four other underpaid office workers has broken down, so she has arrived at work half an hour late. There’s an agency-wide meeting in an hour, and she needs to clear her desk of the 200 query letters that came yesterday, in order to be ready for the 14 manuscripts her boss is likely to hand her at the meeting. After she has speed-read her way through 65 of the queries, a kind co-worker makes a Starbucks run. Just before Millicent slits open your query (#126), she takes a big gulp of much-needed caffeine — and scalds her tongue badly.

Your query with its fanciful pseudo book category is now in her hand. What is she more likely to do, to humor your reluctance to place your book in the traditional conceptual box, as her boss will require her to do if she recommends picking you up as a client, or to shrug, say, “Here’s another one who doesn’t understand how the business works,” and move on to the next envelope?

Blistered tongue or not, do you really want to bait her?

If you’re absolutely, positively convinced that it would be an outrage upon the very name of truth to commit your novel to any one category, PLEASE don’t make up a hyphenate like Western-Fantasy-How-to, in order to try to nail it with scientific precision. In a pinch, if your novel doesn’t fall clearly into at least a general category, just label it FICTION and let the agent decide.

Provided, of course, that you are querying an agent who routinely represents fiction that does not fit neatly into any of the major established categories. I definitely wouldn’t advise this with, say, an agent who represents only romantica or hard-boiled mysteries.

But whatever you do, avoid cluttering up your query letter, synopsis — or indeed, any communication you may have with an agent or editor prior to clutching a signed contract with them in your hot little hand — with explanations about how your book transcends genre, shatters boundaries, or boldly goes where no novel has gone before.

Even if it’s true. Perhaps especially if it’s true.

Yes, such a speech makes a statement, but probably not the one the writer intends. Here’s how it translates into agent-speak: “This writer doesn’t know how books are sold.”

(27) Have I listed my credentials well in my platform paragraph? Do I come across as a competent, professional writer, regardless of my educational level or awards won?
I’m going to be revisiting the platform paragraph in more detail in a future post, but here’s the short version: if you have any background that substantially aided you in writing this book, you need to make sure you mention it in your query. Period. Even your camp trophy for woodworking can be a selling point, in the proper context. Ditto with any publication, anytime, anywhere, regardless of whether you were paid for writing it.

But truthfully, unless you are writing a book that requires very specific expertise, most of your credentials will not actually be relevant to your book. But do say where you went to school, if you did, and any awards you have won, if you have. To professional eyes, these too are what I like to call ECQLC (Eye-Catching Query Letter Candy).

If you are a member of a regularly-meeting writers’ group, feel free to mention that, too: anything that makes you sound like a serious professional is appropriate to include. But if you don’t have anything you feel you can legitimately report here, don’t stretch the truth: just leave out this paragraph.

Unless, of course, you happen to be trying to find an agent or editor for a nonfiction work. Which brings me to…

(28) If I am querying nonfiction, have I made my platform absolutely plain? Would even a Millicent in a hurry understand why I am uniquely qualified to write this book, if not actually the best-qualified person in the known universe to do it?
A platform, for those of you unfamiliar with the term, is the background that renders a nonfiction author qualified to write a particular book. Consequently, “What’s the author’s platform?” is pretty much always the first question either an agent or an editor will ask about any nonfiction book.

Which means — and I do seem to being blunt quite a bit today, don’t I? Blame it on lack of sleep — that a nonfiction query that does not make its writer’s platform absolutely clear and appealing will practically always be rejected.

And yes, you do need to satisfy this criterion if your nonfiction field happens to be memoir.

I know, I know: it’s self-evident that a memoirist is the world’s leading authority on his own life, but as I’ve mentioned before, a memoir is almost invariably about something other than the author’s sitting in a room alone. If your memoir deals with other subject matter, the platform paragraph of your query letter is the ideal place to make the case that you are an expert on that.

(29) Have I made any of the standard mistakes, the ones about which agents often complain?
I like to think of this as a primary reason to attend writers’ conferences regularly: they are some of the best places on earth to collect massive lists of the most recent additions to agents and editors’ pet peeves. I’ve been going through most of the major ones throughout this series, but some of them can be quite itty-bitty.

Referring to your book as a fiction novel, for instance, is invariably on the top of every agent’s list; in point of fact, all novels are fiction, by definition. A nonfiction memoir, a real-life memoir, a true memoirand nonfiction based on a true story, as well as permutations on these themes, are all similarly redundant.

Just don’t do it.

Waffling about the book category is also a popular choice, as are queries longer than a single page, including promotional blurbs from people of whom the agent has never heard (Chester Smith says this is the most moving book about trout fishing he’s ever read!), or — chant it with me now, folks — ANY mention of the book’s potential for landing the author on Oprah. Any or all of these will generally result in the query being tossed aside, unread.

Especially the last; the average screener at a major NYC agency could easily wallpaper her third-floor walk-up in Brooklyn seven times over with query letters that make this claim — and I’m talking about ones received within a single month.

Is this the last of the query checklist, since it’s now officially after Labor Day? Not quite, but close. I can’t absolutely promise that my arms are going to be up to posting again today — I’m due to drag myself to the physical therapist in a few hours, and he’s bound to frown at least a little on how much I’ve been typing this weekend — but I really would like to polish off Querypalooza as soon as possible.

So tune in this evening at our usual Querypalooza time — and, of course, to keep up the good work!

First pages that grab: Normal Is What You Know, by 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner Jennifer Lyng

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Is everyone getting excited for Querypalooza this coming weekend? I hope so; although I frequently teach query letter-development boot camps, I’ve never before done a weekend seminar here on Author! Author! The timing really couldn’t be better, however: as we had discussed early last month, most of the NYC-based publishing world goes on vacation from the end of the second week of August through Labor Day. So there really wasn’t much point querying recently.

Especially for those of you devoted to querying via e-mail. I’m not a big advocate of electronic querying in general, unless the agent of your dreams absolutely insists upon it: it’s significantly less time-consuming to reject via e-mail. That’s especially important to realize around this time of year, for just as e-queries sent between Thanksgiving and Christmas tend to pile up, to be read in droves when Millicent the agency screener is back from vacation, August-sent e-queries usually end up being read in an unusually great hurry (even by Millie’s standards). And since the quickest way to clear an e-query out of her inbox is to reject it…

Human nature, I’m afraid. Who doesn’t rush through the backlog on one’s desk after a few days out of the office?

What wisdom may we derive from this set of depressing observations? Well, for starters, it’s a safe bet that our Millicent is going to be pretty swamped right after Labor Day — so whatever you do, campers, do not send out an e-query between now and then.

Trust me, you do not want your query to be the 512th in her inbox. If you must e-query, wait a few days, until her inbox no longer looks like it was the RSVP site for Chelsea Clinton’s wedding.

So much for today’s cautions. On to the fun part: awarding a prize.

Today, I shall be discussing the 2010 Author! Author! Award for Expressive Excellence in Memoir winner, Jennifer Lyng’s NORMAL IS WHAT YOU KNOW. As with the three other A!A!AEE winners this year, Jennifer also won the Grand Prize in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest.

After yesterday’s very technical discussion on the merits and liabilities of the A!A!AEE winner in Adult Fiction, I thought it might make for a nice change of pace to discuss this entry on a more visceral level — which is, not entirely coincidentally, the level at which the judges most enthusiastically responded to it. And, while we’re at it, to talk a little bit about how differently memoir tends to be evaluated from fiction at the submission and contest-judging stages.

For starters, as I hope most of you memoirists are already aware, the vast majority of memoirs currently acquired by publishers in the United States are sold via a book proposal, not an entire manuscript. That means, in effect, that a memoirist not have to have a complete draft in hand before beginning to query; technically, all that’s required is a book proposal and a beautifully-polished sample chapter or two.

Does that giant collective gasp mean that some of you had heard otherwise? I’m not entirely surprised; misinformation on this subject has been circulating rampantly around the writers’ conference circuit for at least a decade. But as an author who has successfully garnered publication offers for two memoir book proposals, I’m living proof that the you-must-write-the-whole-thing rumor just isn’t true.

For those of you who are already sprinting toward the archive list at right, you’ll find the guidance you’re seeking under the aptly-named HOW TO WRITE A BOOK PROPOSAL and HOW TO FORMAT A BOOK PROPOSAL categories. You’re welcome.

To be fair, though, one does encounter memoir agents who state categorically in their submission guidelines that they will only read the work of first-time memoirists, but that certainly is not an industry-wide preference. Prudently, these agents want to make sure before they sign a new writer that (a) she has a gripping book-length story to tell (not always apparent in the first draft of a proposal), (b) she has the writing chops to tell it well (ditto), and (c) she is already aware that writing a truly revealing memoir is awfully hard work, emotionally speaking.

Obviously, it is a whole lot easier to tell whether any or all of these thing are true if the writer has already produced a full draft. No imagination required: the potential of the book may simply be evaluated on the manuscript page, like a novel.

But even after a manuscript proves itself on (a), (b), and (c) levels, the acquiring agent will probably expect the by-now-exhausted writer to toss off a book proposal, anyway. That’s how memoir is sold in this country, you know.

(a), (b), and (c) are not the only reasons a cautious agent might want to see the whole thing right off the bat, though. Many a promising memoir heralded by an excellent book proposal has never seen the light of day as a book. And not just because first memoirs by non-celebrity writers have become significantly harder for agents to sell in the post-A MILLION LITTLE PIECES literary world. As I mentioned above, the darned things are emotionally draining to write.

Even for those lucky memoirists whose books’ publication is not stymied by threatened $2 million lawsuits. (Long-time readers, can you believe that as of last month, my A FAMILY DARKLY has been on hold for FIVE YEARS?)

The trouble is, a memoirist may not realize just how draining the process can be until he’s well into the writing process — which is to say, for a memoir sold on a proposal, perhaps not until after he’s penned the proposal or even sold the book. It can take a while to reconstruct one’s own past substantively enough to be able to write about it, after all. Unfortunately for personal happiness, but fortunately for the emotional truth of memoir, the brain and the body do not always make a strong distinction between a vividly-recalled event and one that is actually happening in the moment.

Please think about that, the next time you pick up a beautifully-written memoir on a searingly painful subject. The author had to walk through fire twice in order to tell you about her experience.

Which brings me back to Jennifer Lyng’s powerful entry. Frankly, the judges had not originally planned to have a separate memoir category in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest; when I set up Category II: Adult Fiction and Memoir, I had anticipated simply including any winning memoirs in the general adult category.

Then we read Jennifer’s entry. It was clear right away that memoir deserved its own category.

Actually, I probably should have designed the contest that way in the first place: after all, as we discussed above, memoirs are not usually submitted in the same manner as novels. Yes, grabbing Millicent by the bottom of page 1 is still important, but let’s face it, if she has to plow through 30-50 pages of marketing material before she gets to it — sample chapters are placed at the end of proposals, typically — she’s probably not going to make it to page 1 if she is not already at least slightly interested in the subject matter.

That’s why for this contest, the judges read the memoir entrants’ brief book descriptions prior to turning to the first page, instead of the other way around. The result was a reading that more closely resembled how Millicent would approach the first page of a memoir.

Happily, Jennifer’s description was a lulu. So much so, in fact, that one of the judges immediately suggested, “Maybe you should run this on the blog to show queriers that it is actually possible to intrigue a reader with a one-paragraph description.”

Good idea, judge. Here it is, in all of its glory:

How does a child live with the man she believes killed her mother? My book, a combination of memoir and true crime, will answer that question, as well as detail the murder trial that took 17 years to unfold — one with no body, weapon or eyewitness.

Wow. You already want to pick up that book, right?

It also — and this is remarkable in a blurb this short — answers one of the first two questions the pros invariably ask about a non-celebrity memoir: is this a story that only this author could tell? If not, why is this author uniquely qualified to tell it in this particular way? Jennifer addresses these salient issues even more fully in her one-page description:

Normal is synopsis

Sends chills up your spine, doesn’t it? If you were Millicent, wouldn’t you run, not walk, to the first page of the sample chapter, to see how well the person who lived through this remarkable set of events can write?

As it happens, quite well. Here is Jennifer’s first page, precisely as the judges saw it.

Lyng entry page 1

What do you think? More importantly for submission purposes, if you were Millicent and basing your decision whether to read on solely upon the descriptions above and this first page, would you? And if you were Millie’s boss, what conclusions would you leap to about (a), (b), and (c)?

The judges felt (and I concur) that this first page has a lot of promise — but not for the same reasons that a similarly-written novel opening might. Remember, the single biggest way in which fiction and nonfiction first pages are read differently is that it is ASSUMED that the nonfiction manuscript will be rewritten to the acquiring editor’s specifications. It is still to be written: the proposal is in essence the job application the writer submits to the publishing house in hopes of being paid to write it. A novel, on the other hand, is expected to be print-ready by the time the writer submits it to an agency.

Admittedly, agents often ask novelists for significant revisions after the representation contract is signed. So do editors, either before or after they acquire a manuscript. That may seem odd, given that they expect fiction to be polished to a high shine before they see it, but it makes abundant sense from a professional point of view: a writer who has the skills to perfect a submission, they reason, is the best candidate for making good revisions.

Part of the point of selling a memoir — or any nonfiction book, for that matter — via a book proposal, rather than a manuscript, is that the publisher will be able to tell the writer how it should be written. Although book proposals always include an annotated table of contents, it’s not at all unusual for an acquiring editor to ask for different chapters to appear in the finished book, for instance. It’s not even all that uncommon for the editor to request slight changes in authorial voice.

I mention all this in part because I suspect some of you novelists are going to be a smidge shocked when I show you how Millicent might respond to this first page on a sentence-by-sentence level. She’s expecting it to be revised between now and publication, so why not go to town on the feedback?

Lyng p 1 edited

(If you’re having a spot of trouble reading the comments, try enlarging the image by holding down the COMMAND key while pressing the + button. And no, I hadn’t realized that the light in this room was so very golden.)

Most of these points are pretty self-explanatory — beginning the page with the moment of dread, for instance, rather than showing a moment of normalcy first for contrast — but I want to take a minute to talk about the ones that turn up most often in memoir. I would have flagged the percussive repetition of my mother on any first page, but does anyone have a wild guess about why this redundancy is especially dangerous on the first page of a memoir?

Give up? It’s because virtually every first-time memoirist consistently refers to relatives as my mother, my father, my sister, and so forth, just as they would in a verbal anecdote. That’s fine in speech, but on the printed page, a constant reminder of characters’ relationship to the narrator quickly becomes tedious for the reader.

“What’s wrong,” Millicent fumes, “with referring to all of these people by NAME? They’re characters in a book, for heaven’s sake!”

That objection is relevant even in a case like this, where the single most likely name to replace the relationship marker is Mom. Believe it or not, simply changing two of the three my mothers to Mom would make most Millicents like it better.

The moral, should you not already have shouted it toward the sky: the little stuff matters. Especially on page 1.

It’s also both common and dangerous for a memoir to open with a sentence in the passive voice. As this one does: It was a crisp, overcast fall day… Any guesses why this simple statement of fact might raise Millicent’s hackles?

If you immediately cried, “Because it’s in the passive voice, by jingo!” give yourself a gold star for the day. As we have often discussed, the overwhelming majority of professional readers have been trained to regard the passive voice as poor writing. While that’s not quite fair — plenty of very good established authors use the passive voice all the time, after all — it is a belief worth noting.

In fact, I’m going to lay it down as an axiom: never, unless you are actually quoting someone else, use the passive voice on page 1 of a submission. And never, ever, EVER use it in the first sentence of a manuscript, or in the first sentence of any paragraph within the first few pages.

Why is the use of the passive voice more likely to make Millicent’s molars grind if they occupy those particular positions within the text? The first sentence of any paragraph is the one most likely to catch a skimmer’s eye. And if Millicent reads nothing else on page 1, she will take a gander at the first sentence.

The third common first memoir characteristic I’d like you to notice is much subtler than the first two: the emotional distance between the narrator and what is going on. On the first page of a memoir — and in memoir-writing in general — the more the reader can feel that he is observing the action from within the narrator’s body and psyche, the better.

Didn’t expect another axiom so soon, did you? Hey, I was on a roll.

Are some of you having trouble spotting the emotional distance, given how nicely Jennifer has set up the suspense here? A professional reader would appreciate the tangible sense that something awful is about to happen, but would note that while we’re seeing the narrator’s thoughts and reasoning in detail, the narrator is not telling us much about her own feelings, fears, or even physical sensations.

Yes, she mentions needing to go to the bathroom, but is that honestly the most character- or situation-revealing physical sensation the narrative could bring up here? At the risk of overloading this post with axioms, I would like to see this narrative be the protagonist’s head a bit less and in her body and emotions a bit more.

Jennifer’s in luck here: as she has presented this situation, it is particularly rich in opportunities for working in this kind of telling detail. The narrator could have a visceral reaction to the unexpected sensation of the doorknob fighting her hand, or to the sight of the “Sorry we missed you” sign. She could feel a rush of comfort when the dogs bark. Heck, she could even feel the cold coming through her jacket as she stood outside longer than she had expected.

Or — and this would be my first stop, revision-wise — the narrative could give us a peek at the most awful thing that 13-year-old could have imagined resulting in the door’s being locked. Given what the book description has led us to expect, the contrast between the normal fears of a kid and what is about to become her new reality would probably be quite poignant.

But you want to turn the page to find out, don’t you?

That, my friends, is the best possible evidence that a first page is a grabber — and yes, what constitutes a grabber does in fact often vary between fiction and nonfiction. Already, in just this page and her one-paragraph description for her query letter, Jennifer has made it clear that she has a fascinating story to tell, has the writerly tools to tell it well, and is ready to embrace the memoir-writing experience.

It’s as clear as (a), (b), (c), right? Congratulations on a job well done, Jennifer — the judges can’t wait to read the rest of the book.

In future posts, we shall continue apply what we’ve been learning all summer to the great first pages of more contest winners. (You did realize that’s what we’ve been doing, right?) Think of it as a master class in seeing submissions from Millicent’s perspective.

That noble effort will have to wait, however, until after Querypalooza — after so much craft, we’re all ready for a marketing weekend, right? Keep up the good work!

Speaking of dialogue revision, part IV: sins of excess, prose that flushes purple (or at least mauve), and the effect of all of that caffeine on Millicent’s reading sensibilities

St Therese at Albi 2St Therese at Albi 3

I think that revisiting some of our well-beloved (and much-hated) list of reasons agents give for rejecting submissions on page 1 is being very fruitful, but it’s a mite depressing, isn’t it? I’m re-posting only selected ones, moving through the dialogue-relevant ones, as swiftly as I can, but still, it feels a bit like wading through mud. Thick mud, the kind that doesn’t come off easily in the wash.

Not to nag, but I suspect it feels that way in part because folks have been chiming in less than usual in the comments. That could mean one of three things: you don’t have anything to say, you’re all off madly pulling together queries and submissions in anticipation of the annual Return of the Literary to New York-based agencies and publishing houses after Labor Day , or even this limited dip back into the dreaded rejection list has stunned and shocked half of you into a coma.

Present-day Anne here: the comments on this post the first time I ran it indicated that the coma option was the most popular response, followed closely by manuscript-shredding despair. As honest and incisive reader Reba pointed out:

Having spent the afternoon reading this entire series, I am struggling to not permanently trunk everything I’ve ever written. Fortunately, that whinging reaction triggered my stubborn streak and I have come to accept that what is necessary is a good, hard look at what I’ve written and, I shudder to say, an enormous amount of actual WORK before I subject the poor Millicents of the world to my prose.

I find this attitude very healthy, truth be known. Naturally, it’s annoying to hear that professional standards for breaking into the biz are quite a bit higher — as well as quite a bit more specific — than the average aspiring writer has been lead to believe, or even than what that same writer may have seen done in books published ten years ago or by already-established authors. Those of you who have poured your heart, time, and intellect into producing a manuscript have every right to find that news irritating. Have a good, old-fashioned tantrum about it, then do what Reba did: take a critical look at your own work and move on.

Why am I bringing this up just before we launch into today’s blast from the archived past, you ask nervously? Well, I’m hoping to be winding up out trip down memory lane fairly soon — before Labor Day, we’ve got contest-winning first pages to discuss at length and a truly exciting guest blog (more on that later). In this interval, I also hope many of you are busily preparing your entries for the Author! Author!/Hard Time Words Across the Water literary contest; deadline for entries is midnight (in whatever time zone you happen to be occupying) on September 6.

Why the rush to get through all of that before Labor Day? Well, that’s when the NYC publishing world’s annual exodus ends. While it might be a bit much to expect dancing in the streets, it will once again make sense to send queries and submissions in Manhattanite agents’ general direction.

Not entirely coincidentally, I like to mark the occasion with an intense discussion of what does and does not make a good query letter. Heck, we’re close enough to this exciting time of the year that I have punched up today’s revisited post, to alter its original January-specific submission advice to some that’s more applicable to this time of year.

So why are we sitting around gabbing? We have a lot to do this hot August evening. As the saying goes (or should, at any rate), no rest for the weary, the wicked, and the agent-seeker.

One caveat about the post to come: although some of the points below are not directly related to the construction and the revision of dialogue per se, all of them could be applied to dialogue scenes. In their rush toward reproducing dialogue realistically, aspiring writers often overlook opportunities to use dialogue for character development. But shouldn’t interesting characters say interesting things?

Worth pondering, at least. Enjoy!

Does that large-scale collective whimpering I’ve been hearing over the last week, a sort of humanoid version of a slightly rusted machine cranking gears in stasis back into unaccustomed action, mean that many of you have leapt back into action and are laboring feverishly to prep those queries and long-requested submissions with an eye to popping those materials into the mail in a couple of weeks? If so, good thinking: early to mid-September is a grand time to be getting those marketing materials out the door.

Since some of you are probably planning to labor toward that laudable goal during the upcoming (and aptly-named) Labor Day weekend, this seems like an apt time to remind everyone of something I haven’t mentioned in a while: if you’re planning to query or submit electronically, either via e-mail or through an agency or small publisher’s website, don’t do it between Friday afternoon and Monday at noon.

Stop laughing; I’m quite serious about this. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that rejection rates are higher for queries and submissions sent over the weekend.

I’m not talking merely about this particular weekend, mind you, but any weekend, especially those that contain a national holiday on either end. Trust me, you don’t want your e-query or e-submission lost in the just-back-from-vacation backlog.

Why avoid weekend e-submissions, when it’s usually the most convenient time for the writer? For precisely that reason: because weekends are far and away the most popular time for contacting agents, their inboxes are almost invariably stuffed to the gills on Monday morning. If you wait to send off your missive until after lunchtime in New York, you will probably be dealing with a less surly and thus easier to please agent.

Or, more likely, a less overwhelmed screener, a Millicent who has had time to let her scalding-hot latte cool — or possibly be on her second or third — before reading what you sent. That increase in caffeine and concomitant decrease in grumpiness gives your query or submission a slight competitive edge over those that she finds stacked up in her inbox first thing Monday morning, when all she wants to do is weed through them as quickly as humanly possible.

Admittedly, this is often her goal, especially with queries, which routinely arrive at any well-established agency by the truckload. But as the Carpenters so often whined back in the 1970s, rainy days and Mondays always get her down.

So tell me: if you were she, would you be more or less likely than usual to shout “Next!” over the first submission or query that happened to run afoul of one of your pet peeves?

On a not entirely unrelated note, shall we get on with the many, many reasons Millicent is likely to reject a submission on page 1, so you can continue prepping to send out those submissions? As you may have noticed over the course of this series, most of the professional readers’ pet peeves we’ve been discussing are at the larger level — paragraph, conception, pacing, choosing to include a protagonist with long, flowing red hair, etc. — but today’s subsection of the list falls squarely at the sentence level:

55. Took too many words to tell us what happened.

56. The writing lacks pizzazz.

57. The writing is dull.

58. The writing is awkward.

59. The writing uses too many exclamation points.

60. The writing falls back on common shorthand descriptions.

61. Too many analogies per paragraph.

Most of these are fairly self-explanatory, but I want to zero in on a couple of them before I talk about sentence-level red flags in general. Objection #55, took too many words to say what happened, is to a great extent the offspring of our old friend, the thirty-second read-prior-to-rejection, but to professional eyes, text that takes a while to get to the point is not problematic merely because Millicent has to wait too long to see the action in action. To an agent or editor, it is a warning signal: this is probably a book that will need to be edited sharply for length.

Translation: this manuscript will need work.

Why might that in and of itself raise a raise flag for Millicent? Well, as we have learned over the course of this series, your garden-variety NYC-based agent would much, much rather that any necessary manuscript reconstruction occur prior to their seeing the book at all. Rather ironic, considering that same agent may well ask the producer of that 1-in-10,000 camera-ready manuscript for some fairly hefty revisions after signing her, but hey, the pros reason, an aspiring writer capable of producing a clean, compelling draft might reasonably be expected to produce a clean, compelling revision, too.

The reverse expectation applies as well, of course — and that can be most unfortunate for a Frankenstein manuscript that needs only one more solid revision pass to be market-ready. While the writer might well ( and with good reason) regard such a manuscript as close enough to perfect that it’s worth starting to submit, it can be pretty hard for a swiftly-scanning Millicent to differentiate between a voice that’s uneven because the writer was in a hurry to get it out the door and a voice that’s uneven because the writer has not found the proper narrative voice for the book yet.

Why might that difficulty be problematic for a submitter? Because Millicent’s boss would have to invest a great deal more time and energy in giving guidance to the writer still experimenting with voice; by contrast, all the agent would have to do for the writer who just hasn’t ironed out the kinks yet is make a few generalized revision requests. By the same token, when faced with writing that’s not polished, our Millie is left to guess whether the writer just hasn’t had a chance to go back and buff it up a bit (and thus might be relied upon to do so without much coaching) or if — heaven forfend — the writer simply isn’t experienced enough to be able to tell which sentences flow well and which do not.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, even a quite beautifully-written submission that takes a while to warm up will often find itself in the rejection pile. Millicent does not want to risk running into her boss’ office, exclaiming, “Here’s one that you’ll really like — but fair warning, the writer doesn’t seem to realize that the book doesn’t start until page 17. You don’t mind explaining that to her, do you?”

Chances are that he will mind. Quite a lot, actually.

Which is a pity, especially for the large contingent of writers enamored of either most books written before 1920 or quite a lot of the literary fiction still being published in the British Isles, which often take pages and pages to jump into the story proper. Many’s the time that I’ve picked up a volume that’s the talk of London, only to think, “This is lovely, but Millicent would have been tapping her fingers, toes, and anything else that was handy four pages ago, muttering under her breath, ‘Will you please get on with it?’”

This should sound at least a trifle familiar, yes? US-based agents tend to prefer books that start with action, not character development for its own sake, even in literary fiction. And I’m not necessarily talking about CGI-worthy fireworks, either: for the purposes of literature, conflict is action.

Which means, in practice, that even an unquestionably gorgeous 4-page introduction that deftly situates the protagonist with respect to time, space, social status, costume, dialect, educational level, marital status, voting record, and judgment about whether ice dancing is too harshly judged in the Olympics is less likely to be read in its entirety than a substantially less stylistically sound scene that opens, say, mid-argument.

The same principle applies to a dialogue scene that dwells on the same argumentative point for too long — or, even more common, consists entirely of people being polite and pleasant to one another. Remember, the point of good dialogue is not to hold a tape recorder up to actual speech; it’s a tool to show interpersonal conflict, develop character, and move the plot along.

What should a reviser do when confronted with dialogue that does none of these things? Well, I don’t know about you, but I find it warms up my editing shears wonderfully to imagine Millicent muttering, “Get ON with it!”

I know; it’s limiting to have to think in these terms. But being aware of the pacing imperative prior to submission enables the talented writer with the 4-page opening to move it later in the book, at least in the draft she’s marketing, and open with an equally beautiful conflict, right? As I’ve said many, many times before: a manuscript is not set in stone until it’s set in print — and not always even then.

Translation: you can always change it back after the agent of your dreams signs you, but that can’t happen unless you get your book past Millicent first.

To be fair, her get on with it, already! attitude doesn’t emerge from nowhere, or even the huge amounts of coffee, tea, and Red Bull our Millicent consumes to keep up with her hectic schedule. Just as most amateur theatrical auditions tend to be on the slow side compared to professional performances, so do most submissions drag a bit compared to their published counterparts.

Sorry to be the one to break that to you, but the tendency to move slowly is considerably more common in manuscript submissions than an impulse too move too fast. As in about 200 to 1. Millicent often genuinely needs that coffee.

Yes, even to make it through dialogue scenes. When a reader sees as much dialogue as our Millie does, it’s genuinely rare that a character says something that simultaneously makes sense for the ongoing scene, adds to character development, AND surprises her.

But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Especially on page 1.

Also, because so few submissions to agencies come equipped with a professional title page, most screeners will also automatically take the next logical (?) step and assume that a prose-heavy first page equals an overly long book. (Interestingly, they seldom draw the opposite conclusion from a very terse first page.) See why it’s a good idea to include a standard title page — if you are not already aware of the other good reasons to do this, please see the TITLE PAGE category at right — that contains an estimated word count?

In short, it is hard to over-estimate the size of the red flag that pops out of an especially prolix first page.

And in answer to the question that half of you mentally howled at me in the middle of the last paragraph about how long is too long, it obviously varies by book category and genre, but for years, the standard agents’ advice to aspiring writers has been to keep a first novel under 100,000 words, if at all possible.

Again, in case you’re wondering: that’s 400 pages in standard format, Times New Roman.

Before any of you start rushing toward the COMMENTS function below to tell me that you asked an agent at a recent conference about your slightly longer work, and she said rather evasively that it was fine, 60,000 – 110,000 words is fairly universally considered a fine range for a novel. (This is estimated word count, of course, not actual; if you do not know why the pros figure it this way, or how to estimate the way they do, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.)

Shorter than 60,000, and it’s really a novella, which would usually be packaged with another work (unless the author is already very well-established); longer than 110,000, and it starts becoming substantially more expensive to print and bind (and yes, they really do think about that as soon as they lay eyes on a novel). Do check, though, about the standards in your particular genre and sub-genre: chick lit, for instance, tends to be under 90,000 words, and a quick romp through any well-stocked bookstore will demonstrate that many romances, mysteries, and humor books weigh in at a scant 40,000 – 60,000.

If your manuscript falls much outside that range, don’t despair. Or at least don’t despair until you’ve worked your way step by step through this checklist:

(1) Double-check that it is indeed in standard format

If you’re not positive, please see the MANUSCRIPT FORMATING 101 and STANDARD FORMAT ILLUSTRATED categories on the archive list at right. If the margins are too wide or the font too big (Times New Roman is one of the most space-efficient), those choices can apparently add specious length to a manuscript.

(2) Make sure that you are estimating correctly

Actual word count is typically quite a bit higher than estimated. (Again, if you’re unsure, please see the WORD COUNT category at right.) If actual and estimated are wildly different, use the one that’s closest to the target range.

(3) If your word count is well out of range, don’t include the word count in your query letter or title page.

I heard that great big gasp out there; I know that I’m one of the rare online writing advice-givers that recommends this. But frankly, since agents routinely have their clients leave the word count off too-length manuscripts, I don’t see an ethical problem with an omission that will help your work get past the querying stage so it can be judged on the merits of the writing.

(4) Consider editing for length.

If it’s too long to render that feasible, consider chopping the storyline into a pair of books or a trilogy, for marketing purposes. (What was that I said earlier about the possibility of changing it back later?)

(5) If 1-4 fail to solve the problem, you have my permission to panic.

Well, that took us rather far afield from sentence-level red flags, didn’t it? Let’s get back to those proverbial brass tacks.

Like taking too long to come to the point, #59, too many exclamation points and #61, too many analogies are also sins of excess, but the uncharitable conclusion screeners tend to draw from them are more about their perpetrators than about the books in question. What is that conclusion, you ask? The writer doesn’t think this story or these characters are interesting enough to retain a reader’s attention, and thus relies on punctuation and/or writing tricks to compensate.

Hey, I warned you that it was uncharitable.

To a professional reader, a manuscript sprinkled too liberally with exclamation points just looks amateurish. In much the same way that an insecure comedy writer will depict characters rocking with laughter in order to convey that a situation or speaker is supposed to be funny, a barrage of exclamation points reads like an artificial attempt to make prose exciting through punctuation.

Since these particular prejudices are shared by most of the writing teachers in North America, agents and editors will automatically assume that such a manuscript was produced by someone who has never taken a writing class. Not a good one, anyway. And while that is not necessarily a bad thing (professional readers often complain that they see too much over-workshopped writing), they tend, as a group, to eschew writers whom they perceive to still be learning their craft, because — wait for it — such writers are more time-consuming clients.

Yes, yes: of course, we’re all still learning our craft as long as we live, but to be on the safe side, save the exclamation points for dialogue.

That made some of you dialogue-revisers sit up and take notice, didn’t it? Generally speaking, exclamation points are far more comfortable in dialogue than in narrative paragraphs — but even then, take care not to go overboard. Punctuation is not really designed to take the place of description, after all; if a character is excited, there are a million ways to show it over and above simultaneously hitting the SHIFT and 1 keys.

If you suspect that your dialogue is exclamation point-heavy, try this experiment: select a chapter and circle all of the exclamation points. Then pick up a highlighting pen (you knew I wouldn’t let you keep ‘em in the drawer for long, didn’t you?) and mark every non-dialogue sentence that ends in one of the pesky things. Take another color and highlight every piece of dialogue spoken by the protagonist that ends in an exclamation point. Using different colors for each speaker, repeat.

Now flip back through the chapter. What color predominates? How many pages between highlighting? How many paragraphs? How many lines?

Once you have identified patterns, you can begin to make strategic choices. If you find, for instance, that exclamation points tend to congregate in scenes between particular characters, ask yourself: am I using punctuation as a substitute for character or relationship development here? If you are using the exclamation points primarily for younger characters (a rather common unconscious authorial choice, by the way), are there speech patterns or vocabulary choices that would make the same point? What would happen if you picked the most exclamation point-using character, and removed the exclamation points from other characters’ speech, to make the emphasis a character trait?

And so forth. There is no formula for how much exclamation point use is too much, but as with semicolons, norms vary from book category to book category. For most adult fiction and memoir, though, you should seriously consider removing most or all of the exclamation points from narrative sentences.

While over-use of exclamation points is often a mark of inexperience, #61, too many analogies, on the other hand, is often the result of having been exposed to too much writing advice. Most of us, I think, had similes and metaphors held up to us as examples of good writing at some point in our formative years, and I, for one, would be the last to decry the value of a really good analogy.

But too many in a row can make for some pretty tiresome reading. An amazingly high percentage of first pages are feature narration positively peppered with as if, as though, and our old friend like. While all of these analogy-introducers are perfectly acceptable in moderation, a too-heavy reliance upon them is one of the classic birthmarks of a first manuscript.

Why, you ask? Well, descriptive flights of fancy are by definition deviations from what’s going on in the moment, right? As such, they can slow down a nice, dramatic scene considerably — and can weigh down an opening so much that it can’t get off the ground. Take a gander at this lightly lavender-tinted passage, for instance:

Like a rat in a maze, Jacqueline swerved her panther of a sports car through the Habitrail of streets that is Nob Hill as if she were being pursued by pack of wolves howling for her blood. Her eyes were flint as she stared through the rain-flecked windshield, as reflective as a cat’s eye at night. She had left her heart behind at Roger’s apartment, bloodied and torn; she felt as though she had put her internal organs through a particularly rusty meat grinder, but still, she drove like a woman possessed.

Now, that’s not a bad piece of writing, even if I do say so myself. The prose isn’t precisely purple, but still, the analogies are laid on with a trowel, not a tweezers.

Taken individually, of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with any of the clauses above, but all in a row, such writing starts to sound a bit evasive. It reads as though the author is actively avoiding describing the car, the streets, or Jacqueline’s feelings per se. To a screener who is, after all, in a hurry to find out what is going on in the book, all of those things that are like other things could provide distraction from what the story is ABOUT.

#60, writing that falls back on common shorthand, could be interpreted as a subsection of the discussion of clichés earlier in this series, but actually, you would have to read an awful lot of manuscripts before you started identifying these as tropes. Still, tropes they are, radically overused in submissions as a whole.

There are far too many stock phrases to list here, of course, but the agents on the panel specifically singled out She did not trust herself to speak, She didn’t want to look, and a character thinking, This can’t be happening — all of which are, from a writer’s POV, are simple descriptions of what is going on.

But then, so is the opening, It was a dark and stormy night, right? Many a night has been devoid of significant light, and a significant proportion of those see storms. However, that doesn’t mean It was a dark and stormy night isn’t the champagne of clichéd first lines.

Or that Millicent doesn’t see pointlessly resentful teenagers rolling their eyes, protagonists sighing as the sole indicator of disgruntlement, children growing up too fast, women pressuring men to get married, and men wanting more physical contact than their partners (possibly with those half their partners’ ages) dropped into every third manuscript she sees. To a professional reader, such overused phrases and hackneyed concepts represent wasted writing opportunities.

Yes, they convey what is going on concisely and clearly, but not in a way that hasn’t been done before. Remember, you want an agent to fall in love with YOUR unique voice and worldview, so using the phrases of others, even when apt, is not the best way to brand your work as your own.

Ultimately, though, you should tread lightly around all of today’s objections for strategic reasons, because they imply something to a professional reader that you might not want to convey: because virtually any good first reader would have called the writer’s attention to these problems (well, okay, perhaps not #60), they make it appear as though the screener is the first human being to read the submission. (Other than the author’s mother, spouse, lover, best friend, or anyone else who has substantial incentive not to give impartial feedback, that is, but of that, more another time) To the pros, these mistakes make a submission read like a work-in-progress, not like one that is ready to market.

Uh-oh. Did that red flag just mean that this submission needs further work?

Remember, it’s not all that uncommon for any given agent or editor to perceive him/herself to be the busiest human being on the planet. (Try not to dwell on the extremely low probability of this being true; it will only confuse the issue.) Your chances of impressing them favorably rise dramatically if your work cries out, “I will not make unwarranted inroads onto your time! You can sell my work as is!”

Please, I implore you, do not make an agency screener the first impartial reader for your work. Frankly, they just are not going to give you the feedback you need in order to learn how to bring your book to publication. They simply don’t have — or believe they don’t have– the time.

Acknowledging that you need feedback to bring your work to a high polish does not make you a bad writer; it makes you a professional one who recognizes that there is more going on in a submission that your expressing yourself. It makes you a savvy one who knows that a book is a product to be sold, in addition to being a piece of art.

It also makes you, if I may be blunt about it, a better self-marketer than 98% of the aspiring writers who enthusiastically fulfill their New Year’s resolutions by licking stamps for SASEs on January first, or who will be blithely hitting the SEND button on their electronic queries and e-mails just after Labor Day.

Don’t worry, weary first page-revisers: we’re very close to being done with the rejection reason list. Hang in there, and keep up the good work!

An update…and a suggestion

Hello, campers –

First, the less-good news: I have not yet been medically cleared for two-handed typing (one of the annoying after-effects of my recent car crash, but I hope to be soon. On the bright side, MRI technology has improved beyond all recognition in recent years.

This means (we’re back to less-good news now) I’m not going to be up for generating brand-new posts for a while. This really irks me, not only because we were in the throes of a great ongoing discussion on dialogue revision, but also because I’m very eager to share the fabulous first pages that took top honors in the Author! Author!/WHISPER Great First Page Made Even Better Contest. There is much rich material there for productive discussion; obviously, my right hand would very much like to be involved in the feedback-giving.

Are you about ready for some good news, after all that? Excellent: the annual August vacation period has begun in the New York-based publishing world; in most cases, it will extend until after Labor Day.

What does that mean for aspiring writers, you ask? Well, since so many publishing house denizens are and will continue to be out of the office, it would be practically impossible to pull together an editorial committee to consider acquiring a new manuscript or book proposal. That means, in turn, that it’s not a very efficient time for agents to be approaching editors, at least if they would like their calls and e-mails to reach something other than the Millicent or two left behind to mind the store. Being practical-minded souls, agents often choose this literarily fallow period to take their own vacations.

Translation: if you have a query you were intending to send their way, or even requested materials, it probably will not be read until after Labor Day. So savvy writers use these weeks not for submission, but for revision and the necessary research for productive queries in September.

See why I’m so irritated not to be able to compose lengthy, detailed posts right now?

So here is my proposal for handling this period productively. While you’re going back over your manuscript (yes, AGAIN) and compiling query lists, please feel free to post questions here. (One hand is usually sufficient for question-answering.) Please also comment early and often on posts; trust me, if you have a concern or difficulty, another member of the Author! Author! community will have it, too.

To facilitate discussion until my right hand is up and running again, I’m going to re-run a few provocative older posts over the next few days — specifically, those on dialogue revision — interpolating additional advice whenever I cannot bear, well, forbearing. That’s definitely left-hand doable.

Also, would folks like me to go over how to put together a submission packet and/or query letter before Labor Day? Please speak up, if so. My instinct is to spend August on craft and revision issues, but if there is strong support for devoting some serious post time to how to get your project in front of an agent or editor’s nose in a professional manner, I’m always up for that.

Thanks for the many kind messages, and try not to worry — my will to communicate is far too intense to keep me off the blog for long. Be well, be safe, and, of course, keep up the good work!