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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(7) One entry per writer, please.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

famous name query

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

referral query

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

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

missent referral query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

That’s right: “NEXT!”

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

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

who the heck query

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

name dropping query

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

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

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

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

angry mob2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right, on to paragraph two:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(17) Does my description use unusual details and surprising juxtapositions to make my story come across as unique or my argument as original? Or is the descriptive paragraph a collection of generalities that might apply to many different books within my chosen category?
What makes a book description memorable, whether it is fiction or nonfiction, is not merely its overall arc, but also its vividly-rendered details. Especially to a reader like Millicent who reads 50 such descriptions in a sitting, the difference between a ho-hum descriptive paragraph and one that makes her sit up and say, “Hey, I’d like to read this book!” tends to lie in the minutiae.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep up the good work!

Queryfest, part VI: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that polyester minidresses are still in style, Barbie?

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Last time, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener, the dedicated and often quite poorly paid individual charged with the awesome task of going through the hundreds upon hundreds of queries a good agency receives each week, deciding what tiny fraction fits closely enough with the resident agents’ interests to warrant requesting pages.

Does that sudden flash of blinding light mean that Millicent’s job description caused light bulbs to appear over some of your heads? Or was it something else? “Oh, I was already aware that it was Millicent’s job to reject over 90% of the queries she sees,” some of the abruptly illuminated call out, “but back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query two paragraphs ago? I was so startled that I almost burned my lip on a too-hot latte, as Millicent always sees to be doing.”

My sympathies on your scalded mouth, campers, but I’m afraid I must make a technical correction: what I described above was a list of the information that absolutely must appear in a query letter in order for Millicent to decide to ask for pages; it wasn’t a formula for how to put it all together. This data could be presented in a million different ways — and should be, because as we have discussed, nothing so bores our Millie as the 5,421rst version of the same ostensibly surefire boilerplate query that’s been making the rounds on the Internet this month.

It would behoove you, therefore, to send her something a trifle more original.

I felt half of you tense up, but you have my permission to relax to the point of lolling: you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends, at least if you have been following Queryfest with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. I have greater ambitions for you than that. You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a relatively pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical leap forward? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would. The first two steps: nailing down a book category and figuring out who your ideal reader is.

A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it. Why? Well, no matter how well-read Millicent and her boss are in your chosen book category, unless you happen to have written a manuscript with exactly the same market appeal as a recent bestseller, neither will necessarily have a clear idea of how many potential readers there are for your book.

The more esoteric your claim to your ideal reader’s sympathies, the more likely this is to be the case, by the way. Let’s assume you’ve written a cozy mystery about a left-handed, redheaded sleuth/clog dancer who breaks her foot by tripping over log while running away from a spider. Now, you could say in your query that your novel will appeal to readers of cozy mysteries — but that’s not likely to come as news to an agent who represents that sub-genre, is it? It’s a tautology: cozy mystery buyers buy cozy mysteries, by definition. You could also claim that your book will appeal to left-handed people, or to redheads, but that would be a hard sell: both of these groups are too large and diverse to render such a claim plausible. You could, however, argue persuasively that there are not at present very many mysteries aimed specifically at clog-dancing enthusiasts, spider-fearers, and/or victims of falling accidents.

That’s not a bad argument — perhaps not the best for the work in question, but certainly a means of demonstrating the possible market appeal of this book. Strategically, you could do worse. However, it would definitely be poor strategy to assume that simply mentioning each of these groups would be sufficient to make your case.

Why not? How likely is either Millicent or her boss to be conversant with the specific demographics of that target audience to be able to say instantly, “Oh, terrific — arachnophobia is one of the most common of all phobias, 1 in 3 Americans over 65 will experience a fall in any given year, and clog dancing has been popular for the last four centuries! That would provide a wealth of different promotional approaches for this book!”

Even if an agency denizen did happen to have that particular array of statistics at her ink-stained fingertips, she’s not going to have the time (and probably not the inclination) to do the math. Although it’s fun to picture, isn’t it? “Let’s see,” Millie muses over your query, “assuming that about 30% of readers will be afraid of spiders, and virtually all of them will know somebody who harbors such a fear (insert adding machine operation sounds here)…and that about 10% of the population is left-handed (click, click, click), although of course that includes the ambidextrous and incompletely dominant as well…and about 13% of the current U.S. population is over 65…carry the three…add that to the national clog sales statistics I have at my elbow…”

Not going to happen. So why make Millicent guess?

In response to the hefty percentage of you who just shouted, “Because tracking down those numbers would be a big, fat pain!”: allow me to suggest that if you do not do that research, it’s terribly unlikely that Millicent will. Even if she happens to be a clogging enthusiast, she’s going to appreciate it if you throw some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is. Not to mention rendering it infinitely easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why, you gasp? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers. No matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given manuscript or book proposal, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too.

So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

I sense some ambient eye-rolling. “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes — if you happen to be a former president of the United States, a movie star recovering from a drug addiction, or a plain, ordinary writer with previous publishing credentials querying a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire and a werewolf, or a middle-grade novel about a young magician left mysteriously to fend for himself, with the assistant of two friends carefully selected to maximize the probability that young readers will be able to identify with one or the other, in the face of ultimate evil that adults are too dim-witted to see. If you are already a household name or have written a clone of a recent best-seller, it is entirely possible that your target market is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “This memoir gives the inside scoop on the White House,” “This is what it’s like in celebrity rehab,” or, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience, and if you’re already a celebrity or an ex-president, you’re probably not writing your own query letters, anyway. If your manuscript is original — it is, isn’t it? — you’re probably going to have some ‘splaining to do.

Still don’t believe me? Okay, here’s a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Aspiring writer Ermintrude has written a charming women’s fiction manuscript about Trudymin, an American woman in her early forties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12, as well as the trauma of having grown up with an off-beat name. Miracle of miracles, since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Ermintrude herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.)

Like the vast majority of queriers, Ermintrude has not thought much about her target market before approaching agent Betheen; she just assumes, and rightly, that she’s written a well-crafted women’s fiction novel. Isn’t it enough to say that it will appeal to women?

Um, no: she’s stunned when Betheen tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Ermintrude comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (A tactic a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER embrace, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is too vague to convince Betheen. What Ermintrude really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters. Would you like to hear the demographics on how many of us had oddball names like Sunshine?”

But Betheen heard what Ermintrude SAID in her query and ill-advised follow-up e-mail, not what she MEANT. As they’ve never met, how reasonable was it for Ermintrude to expect Betheen to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Betheen thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Federico) conclude from Ermintrude’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Ermintrude’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Ermintrude says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents, many of whom will have had an elementary school classmate named Zephyr.”

Agent Betheen thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Betheen pitches it to editor Federico this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of underemployed, recycling-conscientious vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Ermintrude has thought through her readership in advance and approaches Betheen with relevant statistics all ready to leap off onto the query page.

Ermintrude says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Betheen responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Federico thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Betheen, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting tale of woe and uproar: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project repeatedly over several years (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often, anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list already in progress. Take a long, hard look at your letter and ask yourself…

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions last time for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Let’s rectify that right now: basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has, alas, made it much, much easier to be dismissive: never have so many been rejected so much with so few keystrokes. So although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

Most aspiring writers don’t even consider doing this — and frankly, it’s easy to see why. Many approach quite a few agents simultaneously, and with good reason. At this point in publishing history, when many agencies don’t even respond to e-mailed queries if the answer is no, waiting to hear back from one agent before approaching the next is poor strategy. Querying every possible agent one at a time can add years to the agent-finding process.

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

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

What no agency will ever leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So if you heard that most agents prefer exclusive queries, you’ve been misinformed — or have been talking to someone who last queried in the mid-1970s.

Rather than hamstringing your querying efforts by assuming that a relatively rare preference is universal, take the necessary few minutes to check each agency’s querying policies before you send them anything. If you can’t find agency-specific guidelines (and you may not; query with SASE is an exceedingly common agents’ guide listing), it’s safe to assume that (a) they’re not expecting solo queries, so (b) you needn’t even mention multiple queries in your letter. Trust me, (c) if the agent wants an exclusive peek at your manuscript, he’ll tell you so point-blank in the request for pages.

This should, I hope, sound somewhat familiar to those of you who have been querying for a while. If not, I’m more than happy to haul out the broken record player again:

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Fair warning: sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on the agency’s Publisher’s Marketplace page.

I can hear some of you worrying types beginning to gnaw your fingernails down to the elbow, wondering if you sent out multiple queries based upon outdated sets of guidelines, or that the information was coded in a way you did not understand, but again, I would urge you to relax. It’s practically unheard-of for an agent to wake up one fine morning, stretch, and suddenly shout, “Hey, I’m sick of queriers not committing to me from the instant it occurs to them to approach me. I’m going to tell Millicent to dump any query that doesn’t say I’m getting an exclusive look into the recycling bin!”

That’s ridiculous, of course. Many agencies don’t recycle.

Just do your best, and hope for same. If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on how to deal with such a request if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess (and apparently I do), I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time — or Millicent’s.

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

Dear Agent,

I haven’t the vaguest idea who you are or what you represent, but since the big publishing houses don’t accept submissions from unagented authors, I come to you, hat in hand, to beg you to represent my fiction novel, LEFT-HANDED REDHEAD IN CLOGS. It’s a guaranteed hit with tempestuous coppertops everywhere, and a natural for the talk-show circuit. I enclose a pair of clogs as a gift in the desperate, forlorn hope that a huge, heavy box will be mistaken for a manuscript, and thus this query will end up on someone influential’s desk. Please find me charming?

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

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

Which means, Millicent reasons, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency — and unlikely to the point of rolling around in hysterics on the floor that the querier will have bothered to read the agency’s submission guidelines What’s the hope, then, that requested materials would even remotely resemble professional manuscript pages? And, most agency denizens would additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works.

The result: virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash, without bothering to read even the first paragraph. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a notorious agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course. To put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

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

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

The best way to justify your agent choice is by mentioning one of the agent’s recent sales. (Recent, in publishing-speak, means within the last five years.) Remember, agents — like most other people — tend to be proud of their best work: if you want to get on their good side, showing a little appreciation for what they have done in the past is just good strategy. Especially if you can honestly compliment them on a project they really loved, or one that was unusually difficult to sell.

I picked this little trick up not at writers’ conferences, but in academia. When a professor is applying for a job, she is subjected to a form of medieval torture known as a job talk. Not only is she expected to give a lecture in front of the entire faculty that is thinking of hiring her, all of whom are instructed in advance to jump on everything she says with abandon, but she is also expected to have brief, private meetings with everyone on the faculty first. If she wants to get their vote, she had better have at least one pithy comment prepared about each and every faculty member’s most recent article, or she’s toast.

It’s every bit as horrible as it sounds, like going through a series of 20 or 30 interviews with authors who want to believe simply everyone in the universe has read their work. Everyone smart, anyway.

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

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent {fill in recent title here}, I believe you may be interested in my book, TITLE, a {book category} aimed at {target audience}.”

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

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

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. Are you presenting your work in a way that invites Millicent to take a chance?

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be milking for all it is worth.

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

And if you are e-querying, why not mention the conference in the subject line of the e-mail? Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list. Something like this will work just find

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?
Stop cackling, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that routinely accept electronic submissions often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

Double-check the agency’s policy before you e-query. This information will be in any of the standard agency guides, and usually on the website as well. If you’re in doubt, query via regular mail — strategically, it’s a better idea, anyway.

Why? Glad you asked.

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

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

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

I’m afraid intent doesn’t matter much in this instance, but no, these are not necessarily instant-rejection offenses. They often are, though, for obvious reasons.

Oh, it’s not so obvious? Okay, let me ask you: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

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

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

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

Google is your friend, in other words. Take the 5 minutes to check before you query. While we’re on the subject of double-checking, allow me to sneak in one more quick question before I sign off for the night:

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I addressing the agent of my dreams as Dear Ms. Smith, rather than Hey, Amy? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

And yes, an agent with a first name that leaves gender a tad ambiguous is every bit as likely to resent an incorrect salutation as a Rebecca or Stephen would. Often more, because a Cricket, Chris, or Leslie constantly receives queries apparently addressed to someone of the opposite sex. This type of annoying mix-up has led to more agencies posting pictures of their agents on their websites than you’d expect.

If you’re in serious doubt — faced with a grainy photo, no photo at all, an agent with a name like Bo, etc. — call the agency and ask point-blank whether the agent is a Mr. or Ms. (Quick note for those querying US agents from other parts of the world: currently, Mr. or Ms. are the only two polite options, unless the person in question happens to be a doctor or a professor. Unless a woman makes a point of identifying herself as a Miss or Mrs., Ms. is the proper salutation.)

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

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

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

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

The logic behind the SASE, or, how to be prepared for something falling on you from a zeppelin

Last time, I broached the subject of the infamous and ubiquitously-requested SASE, industry-speak for the Stamped, Self-Addressed Envelope (get it?) that should accompany every mailed query letter and/or submission packet. (E-mailed queries and submissions cannot include them, obviously, as these forms of communication have no temporal heft to them.) There’s no such thing as a Get Out of Thinking About It pass on this one, I’m afraid: forgetting to include a SASE in a query is an instant-rejection offense at virtually every agency in North America.

Or, to put that in terms even Narcissus could understand, no matter how gifted, talented, and/or beautiful a writer or his work may happen to be, neglecting this small piece of industry etiquette effectively assures that Millicent the agency screener will not spend enough time with ol’ Narcissus’ query packet to find out that he and his work display any or all of these delightful attributes. The packet will simply be rejected unread.

And not merely because Narcissus’ nasty habit of assuming that the rules that apply to ordinary mortals could not possibly apply to him is darned annoying to anyone who has to deal with him professionally. If the agent decides to pick up the manuscript, the writer’s having included the expected SASE demonstrates a pleasing ability to follow directions — and if the agent decides to pass, s/he may return rejected pages at the writer’s expense.

Yes, I know: it’s trying to be expected to underwrite one’s own rejection, but there actually are some benefits for the SASE-provider in this arrangement. To name but one: actually finding out that your query has in fact been rejected, rather than gnawing your fingernails in perpetual worry for a year or two.

Oh, you would prefer to be left to wonder whether (a) the agency has a policy of not informing rejected queriers if the answer is no (quite common), (b) the agency has a policy of not reading incomplete query packets (like, say, those that omit a SASE), or (c) your packet got stuck sideways in the mailbox, and never reached the agency at all?

The expectation that an aspiring writer will always include a SASE with any kind of paper query or submission is universal, at least among U.S. agencies and publishers, so much so that I’ve noticed that many agencies don’t even explain what it means on their websites or listings in the standard guides anymore. It’s become one of those secret handshake things, a practice that the industry just assumes that any writer who is serious about getting published will magically know all about without being told.

Call me zany, but as those of you have been reading this blog for a while are already aware, I’m not a big fan of unspoken assumptions; they place the writer new to the game at a serious strategic disadvantage. So I hope those of you who have been at this for some time will forgive my taking a second post to explain to those new to querying what a SASE is and why, to put it bluntly, the writer is expected to pay the postage for a rejection letter or returned manuscript.

SASE logic seems to be counterintuitive for many aspiring writers. Contrary to popular opinion, a SASE shouldn’t always take the form of a business-size envelope; it varies according to what was sent in the first place. To accompany a single-page query, it’s letter-sized, but should you happen to be querying an agency whose guidelines call for writers to include more than five pages of additional materials (e.g., writing sample, synopsis, author bio, book proposal, a chapter or two), you’d be sending that in a Manila envelope, right? In that case, the SASE would need to be a second Manila envelope, stuffed inside the first, carrying sufficient materials to ship all of those additional materials back to you.

Oh, you hadn’t been thinking of the SASE in those terms? Or was that giant whoosh I heard not a collective gasp, but a whole bunch of eyebrows out there hitting the ceiling?

Probably the latter, I’m guessing, because I’m constantly meeting aspiring writers who are unaware that a SASE should also accompany a manuscript submission. That tends to come as a great big surprise to even writers who have been querying and submitting for a while: since the prevailing wisdom is that the point of the SASE is ease of getting back to a writer to say yes or no, it’s far from uncommon for submitters of 500-page manuscripts to include a simple business-size envelope as a SASE. While certainly understandable, this misses the primary goal of the SASE: ensuring the safe return of whatever a writer sends to an agency.

Thus, you should always include enough postage on your SASE that everything you submitted may be popped into it and mailed with a minimum of effort on the sender’s part. That means, in practice, including a shipping container (second envelope, box, or a shipping label to affix to the box in which you sent the manuscript) already addressed to you with enough postage to get all of those requested pages back to you in one piece.

Since all of that will need to be tucked into the same envelope or box that contains your query, any materials the agency’s submission guidelines request, and/or requested materials, it can get cumbersome, once the time comes to pack it all up. Not to say expensive, especially for writer submitting to US-based agencies from outside the country, who not only have to figure out what the return postage would be in dollars instead of their local currency, but have to wrap their eager fingertips around some US stamps.

Don’t worry, foreign readers: there’s a trick to it. I’ll be getting to that.

I’m constantly barraged with questions from readers about why, in the age of fairly universal paper recycling and cheap, high-quality printers, a writer shouldn’t just ask an agent to recycle a rejected manuscript. Quoth, for instance, clever reader Melospiza:

Why on earth would you want your manuscript back (after it has been rejected)? It won’t be pristine enough to send out again. Why spend the money? And any parcel over one pound can’t be dropped in a mailbox, but must be taken to the post office, not something an agent will appreciate. Let the agent recycle the paper and enclose a (business-size) SASE only.

Oh, would only that were possible, Melospiza, but there’s a rather basic, practical reason to include the SASE for safe return of the manuscript. Chant it with me now, campers: as with a SASEless query, not including a SASE in a submission is usually an automatic-rejection trigger.

Yes, you read that correctly: leaving a SASE out of the submission packet can, and often does, result in a submission’s being rejected unread; ask about it sometime at a writers’ conference. The vast majority of agents will be perfectly up front about the fact that they train their screeners accordingly.

The owners of all of those eyebrows are clutching their heads now, aren’t they, thinking of all of those SASEless submissions — or, more likely, submissions accompanied by only a #10 SASE, rather than one with sufficient postage for the manuscript’s return — they sent out in the dark days of yore. “Okay, I can understand why Millicent would reject SASE-free queries without reading them,” the head-clutchers cry, “but why, in heaven’s name, would an agent who asked to see pages reject them unread?”

Good question, retrospective panickers. The short answer: because it’s obvious to Millicent that a writer who submits without a manuscript-size SASE doesn’t know the secret handshake.

The longer answer is hardly more comforting, I’m afraid. In the publishing industry, it’s considered downright rude for a writer not to include a SASE both large enough and loaded down with enough pre-paid postage to send — wait for it — EVERYTHING enclosed back to the sender. If the SASE isn’t tucked into the packet, or if the postage is not sufficient, and if the agency is going to keep its side of the tacit agreement allowing it to read a writer’s unpublished work, it is going to have to shell out the dosh to mail the rejected manuscript back. Ditto with a query letter that arrives unaccompanied by a SASE.

The result in both cases is generally a form-letter rejection — which costs the agency not only the price of the return postage, but also an envelope and Millicent’s time to address it — or, as is increasingly popular, no response at all. Yes, even for a submission. Pages often go bye-bye, because it would be expensive for the agency to ship back the whole shebang.

I implore you, no matter how little you want to see that manuscript again, do not omit the SASE for the return of the manuscript. Unless, of course, the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says specifically that they will recycle rejected manuscripts. (Practically none of them do, but check anyway.)

“You must be pulling our collective leg, Anne,” I hear some of you muttering. “Okay, maybe SASEless queries do tend to get rejected unread, but I can’t believe that it happens to submitted manuscripts or book proposals. By the time an agent is sufficiently interested in you to want to see actual chapters of your book, your foot is too firmly in the door for your submission to be tossed aside unread for a reason as unrelated to the quality of the writing as not including a SASE. I mean, really, what purpose would being that touchy serve?”

A fairly tangible one, actually: it would be one less manuscript for Millicent to read.

Remember, it’s her job to reject 98% of what crosses her desk; even a very successful agent at a giant agency seldom picks up more then 5 or 6 new clients per year, even including ones poached from other agencies. (Which happens all the time, by the way. It would astonish most aspiring writers to know just how many of us agented writers are unhappy with our current representation. As I say early and often, you don’t want just any agent to represent you — you want a well-connected, fully engaged agent who loves your writing and will defend it to the death.) Every submission that disqualifies itself on technical grounds is another step toward that ongoing goal of thinning the pack of contenders.

Do you really want to volunteer your precious manuscript for that particular kamikaze mission?

Admittedly, from the submitter’s point of view, a good argument could be made that this practice inevitably leads to, as Melospiza rightly points out, a big ol’ waste of money, not to mention trees, without really providing much benefit to the gentle, tolerant souls who actually pay for the return postage. After all, from the writer’s perspective, a SASE included with a submission is only going to be used if the news is bad. If the agency likes a partial, they’re going to ask to see the entire manuscript — which means your initial submission will get filed, you will send another packet (with another SASE), and your first SASE may well end up in the trash.

Or, if you’re really lucky, you’ll never see it again, because it will end up in a file drawer in your new agent’s office. Fingers crossed!

If, on the other hand, the agent of your dreams does not like it, all you are doing by providing the postage is paying to get the news that they’re turning you down in a way that will make your postal carrier’s back ache, rather than via a nice, light #10 envelope. So why not just send the manuscript along with a business-size SASE, and be done with it?

Because that’s not how the industry works, that’s why. (See commentary above re: secret handshakes.)

If you’re willing to risk it, you could always include a line in the cover letter, politely asking the agency to recycle the manuscript if they decide not to offer representation and mentioning the business-sized SASE enclosed for their reply. Do be aware, however, that this strategy sometimes backfires with screeners trained to check first for a manuscript-sized SASE: it’s not unheard-of for the Millicents of the world to toss aside such a manuscript without reading the cover letter.

As I believe I may have mentioned before, I don’t make the rules of submission; I only try to render them comprehensible. Let’s all pray that when Millicent does engage in the summary rejection of the SASEless, she flings that precious ream of paper into a recycling bin.

Originally, the whole paper-wasting arrangement was set up this way in order to protect writers. The logic behind this one is so pre-computer — heck, it’s pre-recycling, if you don’t count Abe Lincoln’s scrawling the Gettysburg Address on the back of a used envelope — that it’s likely to be counterintuitive to anyone querying or submitting for the first time today.

Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when books were widely read, writers didn’t need agents because publishing houses still read through their slush piles, and the photocopier had not yet been invented. Prior to the advent of personal computers (and nice laser printers in workplaces that might conceivably be accessible after the boss goes home for the day), you could not print out spare copies of your precious manuscript to submit to every Tom, Dick, and Random House in the biz, obviously. Nor could you attach a Word document to an e-mail and send it off via Pony Express. Or even pop down to the corner copy store to run off half a dozen copies.

Equally obviously, no sane human being would entrust her only copy of a manuscript to the vagaries of the mails. So how did writers reproduce their work to submit to several publishing houses or agencies simultaneously?

They retyped it, that’s how. Every single page, every single syllable, every single time.

Think those hardy souls wanted to get their rejected manuscripts back? Darned tootin’. It might save them weeks of retyping time.

My long-term readers will have heard my favorite concrete example of how these returned manuscripts helped writers before, but it’s such a terrific illustration of just how much the SASE used to assist the average aspiring writer that I have no qualms about trotting it out again. Back in the far-away 1950s, my mother, Kleo, was married to Philip, a struggling science fiction writer. While she toiled away at work and went to school, Philip spent his days composing short stories.

Dozens of them. Type, type, type, week in, week out. She would come home and edit them; he would type a revised version. One or the other of them would get a good idea, and they would collaborate in writing the result: one dictating, one typing. She would take them to writing classes and the magazine editors who were already publishing her brother’s SF short stories, returning with still more feedback. Off he went to type another draft.

From scratch. Every single time either of them wanted to change a word. Hard for those of us who write on computers even to imagine, isn’t it?

As writers did in those dark days prior to e-mail, Philip and Kleo stuffed each of those short stories into gray Manila envelopes with a second envelope folded up inside as a SASE and sent them off to any magazine that had evinced even the remotest interest in SF or fantasy. (Except for the ones that Kleo hand-sold by taking to a magazine editor, which is actually how Philip got his first story published. She was, in effect, his original agent. But I digress.)

Each time a short story was rejected — as, in the beginning, all of Philip’s and Kleo’s were — and landed once again in their mailbox with the accuracy of a well-flung boomerang, they acted as professional writers should act: they submitted the rejected story to another magazine immediately. To minimize retyping, they would iron any pages that had gotten bent in the mail, slip the manuscript into a fresh envelope (yes, with a fresh SASE), and pop it into the mail.

Since there were not very many magazines that accepted SF or fantasy back then, they had to keep impeccable records, to avoid sending a rejected story back to a magazine that had already refused it. But Philip kept typing away, and kept as many stories in circulation at once as possible.

How many? Well, no one knows for sure anymore — since occasionally the only copy of a story got sent by mistake, some inevitably got lost.

(Which reminds me to nag those of you sending out manuscripts in the computer age: when was the last time you made a back-up of your manuscript? If, heaven forfend, a gigantic anvil fell from one of those anvil-toting zeppelins we’re always seeing overhead these days onto your main writing space, would it crush both your computer and your back-ups? Do you really want to be crawling about in the ashes, frantically trying to find the remnants of your hard disk?)

One day, the young couple opened their front door to find 17 rejected manuscripts spread all over their minuscule front porch. Their tiny mailbox apparently hadn’t been able to hold that many emphatic expressions of “No!”

So what did the aspiring writers of yesteryear do when faced with that many rejections on the same day? Did they toss all of that paper into the recycling bins that had not yet been invented? Did they rend their garments and give up writing forever? Did they poison their perfectly nice mail carrier for bringing so much bad news all at once?

No, they did what professional writers did back then: Philip had his wife iron the pages so they could be sent out again and resubmitted.

Lest you find the story depressing, the science fiction writer was Philip K. Dick, and one of those stories was THE MINORITY REPORT. Which a director who shall remain nameless (because he changed the ending in a way that would have caused any author’s resentful spectre to dive-bomb LA, howling) made into a rather lucrative movie, decades later.

Which only goes to show you: contrary to the common writerly fantasy/daydream/self-flagellation-after-rejection theme, even the best writers generally have to brazen through quite a bit of rejection before hitting the big time. As my mother likes to say, the only manuscript that stands NO chance of getting published is the one that sits in the bottom drawer, unseen by human eyes.

Admittedly, it was not the most comforting lullaby to have sung above one’s cradle, but she knew whereat she spoke. It’s as true today as it was six decades ago, when there were no photocopying machines, no computers, and no guarantee that the copy you sent would ever be retrievable if it went astray in some publisher’s office.

For our purposes today, the important thing to take away from this story is not the warm glow from the implied pep talk (although that’s nice, too), but the understanding that agencies don’t ask for SASEs in order to inconvenience, annoy, or impoverish aspiring writers. They do it today for precisely the same reason that they did it in the 1950s: to get your work back to you as expeditiously as possible, so you may try its fortunes elsewhere.

You’re welcome.

Also, as I mentioned last time, the practice was intended to protect the writer’s copyright. Just as an e-mailed attachment could conceivably end up, through the magic of multiple forwarding, anywhere on the planet, a loose manuscript that isn’t either in an agent or editor’s office, safely tucked away in that proverbial bottom desk drawer, or being conveyed through sleet, snow, and/or dark of night between one and the other could in fact be stolen.

I know; creepy even to consider. But think about it: is it more or less likely than something pointy falling on your house from a zeppelin?

I’ll answer that one for you: it does happen from time to time, so a savvy writer keeps very, very good track of who precisely has his manuscript when. (If this prospect tends to keep you up at night, please see the SHOULD I WORRY ABOUT MY WORK BEING STOLEN? category on the list at right for tips on how to protect your work.)

Three other things of which a savvy writer keeps very good track: which agents she has already queried (and with what unsolicited-but-permitted extra materials), which already-queried agents have requested materials (and what they requested; every agency asks for the submission packet to contain different components), and which agents are still waiting for her to send them those materials. If an aspiring writer is querying and/or submitting to multiple agents at once — and she should, unless the agent of her dreams has a no simultaneous submissions policy — she had better maintain excellent records; otherwise, it’s just too easy to mix things up.

Or not to know where to send Query #18 when the first 17 SASEs turn up in her mailbox. Or her inbox.

Speaking of minding the details, a savvy writer also takes care when applies postage to her SASE. Let’s take a gander at what postage-related fears were keeping intrepid reader Rachel up at night:

I have a question about the SASE that you put in with your materials. I understand it was always better to use stamps so that the agent can just toss it in the outgoing mail bin at the agency. But I was talking to the postal clerks yesterday and they said that post-911 rules are now in effect: any stamped package over 13 ounces has to be brought to the post. I asked to get metered mail instead, and they said it wouldn’t work because it would have that date (yesterday) on it. A dilemma!

I explained my situation to them and the clerks suggested just using a priority stamp (and the same shipping box), because if a SASE were expected, then stamps are really the only way to go. Is that how they’re doing it now?

Good question, Rachel. Before I answer it, let’s clarify the situation by reiterating the difference between a query packet’s SASE (a missive containing the query letter + any unsolicited materials an agency’s website said were permissible to send with it) and one tucked into a submission (requested materials).

When sending a query, SASE use is pretty straightforward: the writer takes a second envelope, writes his own address on it, adds appropriate postage, folds it, and stuffs it — neatly, please, as becomes a Sanitary Author — into the query envelope. (Oh, like you’ve been able to get the SA out of your mind since yesterday’s post.)

When sending a submission packet, the process is similar, but the packaging is different. If the agent only asks to see limited number of pages, few enough that they could be comfortably placed in a Manila envelope without wrinkling them (the Sanitary Author deplores crumpled pages; so do many agents), all you need to do is take a second Manila envelope, self-address it, affix the same amount of postage you’re going to use to send the whole packet to the agency, fold it, and place it neatly within the submission envelope.

Don’t worry; I shall be devoting some of our collective time in the week to come to explaining how to handle a request for a partial. I wouldn’t leave you hanging.

SASE-wrangling becomes a bit trickier if you’ve been asked to send the entire manuscript, because that generally entails using a box. (For a detailed explanation of what types of box should and shouldn’t be used, complete with glamorous photographs of cardboard in its various manifestations, again, tune in tomorrow.)

Obviously, it’s going to be unwieldy to stuff a second box inside the first, so it’s completely acceptable just to include a self-addressed mailing label and postage. Be sure to mention both in your cover letter, so they won’t get lost on the agency end. (Again, don’t panic: I’ll be talking about how to pull off including such necessary-but-prosaic details gracefully early next week.

If you have already submitted a partial, and then the agent asks for the whole manuscript, don’t just send the rest of the pages: by the time they arrive, Millicent probably will not have a clear enough recollection of the partial just to pick up the story where your initial submission left off. (Heck, by then, Millicent may already have moved on to pastures new; the turnover amongst screeners can be pretty remarkable.) Send the entire manuscript, in the aforementioned box.

Equally obviously (but I’m going to mention it anyway, just in case), the stamps on the SASE need to be US stamps, if the agency is US-based. That requirement means that SASEing is invariably a great deal more challenging — and expensive — for writers in foreign climes querying or submitting to US agencies. The far-flung are not exempt from the SASE expectation, I’m afraid, which can make e-mailed querying a more attractive option.

Good news for the far-flung: the US Postal Service’s website sells stamps at face value, rather than at the exorbitant mark-up one frequently finds for them abroad. The USPS more than happy to ship ‘em to your doorstep in exotic climes so you may stick ‘em onto your SASE before popping your submission into the mail.

But let’s get back to the crux of Rachel’s question: has the post-9/11 alteration in post office policy altered what agencies expect to see on a SASE?

The last decade has indeed seen some changes in how agencies handle packages, but actually, most of them date from before 9/11, back to the anthrax scare. Before that, virtually no agency accepted electronic submissions. A few scary mailings later, and suddenly, agencies all over New York were opening e-mail accounts. Hey, they may not pay their Millicents much, but the average agency certainly doesn’t want its screeners to get sick from opening a poisoned query envelope.

E-mailed queries and submissions don’t carry the risk of that sort of infection (and I think we can all guess how the Sanitary Author would feel about that). They do, however, occasionally contain computer viruses, so few agents will open an attachment unless they have already specifically requested an electronic submission from a writer.

That’s why, in case you’d been wondering, most agencies have policies forbidding e-queriers from sending unsolicited materials as attachments. Too much risk of computer contamination. Instead, they will usually ask queriers to copy any permissible additional materials and paste them into the body of an e-mail.

Rachel’s clerk was quite right about heavier packages having to be physically carried into the post office by human being, rather than blithely dropped into a mailbox or dumped in a mailroom — a policy shift that would affect virtually any submitted full manuscript, since they tend to be heavy little critters. However, that most emphatically does not mean is that the agent is going to be taking a rejected manuscript to the post office herself, or even that the Millicent who screened it will. Some luckless agency intern will be toting a whole mess of them there every few days.

Or not; since the USPS changed its regulations in this respect, many agencies have side-stepped the return mail problem by ceasing to return submitted manuscripts to their writers at all. (Sensing a pattern here?) Check policies before you submit.

Interestingly, agencies that operate this way virtually always still expect submitters to include SASEs with their submissions. Go figure. The moral: unless you are querying or submitting electronically OR an agency specifically says it doesn’t use SASEs, you should always include one.

And always use actual stamps, rather than metered postage. It’s called a STAMPED, self-addressed envelope for a reason, you know. The goal here is not merely convenience in mailing, but the submitter’s paying for his own manuscript’s return. Regardless of whether that means tossing it into the nearest mailbox (which would still be possible for most partial manuscripts) or assigning Millicent to do it, stamps have always served the purpose best.

That being said, I must confess that I don’t quite understand the clerk’s recommendation to Rachel to affix Priority Mail postage to the SASE, unless he was either lobbying her to use a flat-rate Priority Mail envelope as a SASE (not a bad idea, especially if the submission is just a few chapters; they fold nicely into a submission envelope) or simply trying to hawk a more expensive stamp. The distinction between Priority Mail and regular mail is the speed with which it arrives; the ease of mailing is identical.

Buying a more expensive stamp or a cheaper one to affix to the SASE is entirely up to the writer; coughing up the dosh for speedier return is not going to impress Millicent. Like overnighting requested materials vs. sending them regular mail, whether a submitter elects to pay a shipper extra money to convey a manuscript from point A to point B is generally a matter of complete indifference to the agent receiving it, as long as it gets there in one piece.

(“And looking pretty,” adds the Sanitary Author. “None of those pesky wrinkles. Print your manuscript on nice, bright-white, 20-pound paper while you’re at it, please. It’s aesthetically more pleasing than the cheap stuff.”)

To be blunt about it, the agent has absolutely no reason to care how quickly a rejected manuscript reaches its submitter. All she’s going to care about is whether you’ve included the means to mail it back to you at your expense, not hers.

And that, my friends, is the logic that most agencies’ listings in the standard agency guides and websites compress into the terse advice Include SASE. Apparently, somewhere on earth, there lurks a tribe of natural-born queriers who realize from infancy precisely what that means, so it requires no further explanation.

I’ll bet our old pal, the Sanitary Author, is one of that happy breed. For the rest of us, learning how agencies work requires a bit of homework — and the asking of trenchant questions. Keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part XXV: homework — gotta love it? Must I?

dog_ate_my_homework_shirt

It’s going to be a comparatively short one this evening, I’m afraid, campers: the apprehensions I expressed in this morning’s post about the length of the recovery time I would need after today’s physical therapy session turned out to be exceptionally well-founded. (For those of you new to the Author! Author! community, my car was the meat in a pile-up sandwich at the end of July: thus the PT. But also thus my having the enforced leisure time to post several times per day during Querypalooza. The accident giveth; the accident taketh away.) I’m just exhausted; thus the later-than-usual posting.

On the bright side, that puts me in precisely the right frame of mind to appreciate how most queriers feel when they’re trying to work up energy to send out Query #19 right after Rejection #18 arrives, doesn’t it? My sympathies on how hard it is to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and proceed to the next name on your agent list right away, but trust me, the longer that rejection sits on your desk, the harder it will be to work up energy to do it at all.

Don’t give yourself time to talk yourself out of sending the next one. Keep pressing forward. Remember, the only manuscript that stands no chance of interesting an agent and getting published is the one that sits in a drawer, perpetually unqueried.

Speaking of pressing forward, as we have been moving through this long series on querying and submission — which admittedly, probably feels longer to me than to you; writing 25 posts in 11 days has caused me to wilt a trifle — you may have noticed that I keep re-using a key phrase. I have been encouraging savvy writers to do their homework on individual agency guidelines before they send off a query; I’ve pointed out that this or that faux pas just screams at Millicent the agency screener that the queriers who commit them have not done their homework; the single best means of figuring out a book’s marketing category is — wait for it — for writers to do their homework about what similar books are currently on the market.

I’m not the only querying guru fond of this phrase, as it happens. You can’t throw a piece of bread at a writers’ conference without hitting an agent, editor, contest judge, or writing coach loudly deploring just how few of the aspiring writers they meet seem to have do their homework before querying, submitting, pitching, entering a contest, or anything else that would require putting ink on paper and handing it to somebody in a position to evaluate it professionally.

Were all of these people kids who just adored homework, begging their teachers for more and more of it? Well, I can picture Millicent begging her English teacher for more of those nifty extra credit assignments (as I did growing up, I must confess), but otherwise, most of these homework-pushers were probably not all that fond of it themselves.

What makes me think so? Listen to the way this advice is almost invariably phrased: the aspiring writer should do the homework, not the person giving the advice. The advice-giver doesn’t have to: he already knows the ropes.

Why is this phrase so ubiquitous in professional reader circles? Well, not being a mind-reader, I can’t say for certain what each and every speaker who spouts it is thinking, but I can hazard a guess: it probably stems from the fact that a good half of the queries any agency receives are so unprofessionally put together and worded that they might as well be billboards declaiming THIS ASPIRING WRITER DID NOT TAKE THE TIME TO LEARN HOW AGENCIES WORK BEFORE POPPING THIS INTO THE MAIL.

“Half?” a good quarter of you ask, gulping. “Seriously, that many?”

Actually, most of the agents I know place the percentage closer to 60% and rising. Why might it be going up? Again, I don’t profess to be a mind-reader, but I’ll take a crack at an answer: with the rise of the Internet, it’s not only become much, much easier to generate a list of who represents what kind of book; with the relative ease of e-mailed queries, it’s become substantially less expensive and time-consuming for an ambitious non-homework-doer to query 75 agents in a weekend.

Often, unfortunately, with missives like the charmer below. Like so many present-day generic queries, this one has the agent’s name and address mail-merged into the top, to give it the appearance of a personalized letter.

terrible query

Don’t believe that this is a representative sample? Actually, you’re right: this letter is spelled far too well.

I would hope that by this late point in Querypalooza, I would not need to elaborate on what’s wrong with this query. (Arial Black 14 point type? Please!) Obviously, it contains none of the required elements but the title, so its chances of charming Millicent into reading so much as a syllable of the attached manuscript are approximately nil. (And she wouldn’t even read the query to know how bad it was if she worked at one of the many, many agencies that does not accept unsolicited submissions — Resentme is really racking up the instant-rejection points here, isn’t he?)

Clearly, this writer has not done his homework: he doesn’t know what a query letter is supposed to do, other than act as an introduction to a stack of paper. Yet even if by some miracle Millicent decided to look past this query’s complete lack of requisite information, writing style, and professional presentation, this writer still could not possibly receive any benefit from having sent this query. Any guesses why?

If you immediately cried out, “For heaven’s sake, Anne, the guy forgot to include his contact information!” you have more than earned your extra credit points for the day. Even homework-doing writers forget to include these salient details all the time — a genuine pity, because when Millicent unearths a truly professional-looking query for an interesting book of the variety her boss typically represents in a day’s mail, she gets excited about it. How sad, then, if she has no way to convey that excitement — or a request for pages — to the person who wrote it.

A small forest of raised hands just sprouted out there in the ether. “But Anne,” the puzzled masses shout with one voice, “I only query via e-mail. So I don’t have to worry about this contact information stuff, right? All Millicent has to do to contact me is hit REPLY.”

Well, technically, yes, puzzled masses — if she happens to make up her mind while the e-mail is still on her screen. (Oh, your finger has never slipped while you were scrolling through e-mails, accidentally deleting something you wanted to keep?) And if she is empowered to ask for pages without consulting a higher-up — which may not be the case yet, if she just started her new screening gig, say, immediately after Labor Day. If she is required to forward the queries she liked up the ladder, her supervisor’s hitting SEND would shoot the missive back to her, not to you.

But none of that is the primary reason every query, every query packet, and every submission packet should include the sender’s full contact information, including phone number, mailing address, and e-mail address. You should do it because you don’t want Millicent to have to waste even a moment thinking, oh, didn’t this writer remember to tell me how to get ahold of her? Didn’t she do her homework?

Speaking of the perils of not doing one’s homework, did you catch the other omission that would instantly cause Millicent to grind her teeth and cry, “This is a form letter! Resentme has probably sent this to every agent in North America within the last 24 hours. Next!”

Any guesses? How about the fact that the letter is not dated, presumably so the sender can reuse it in perpetuity?

Seriously, this is a classic agents’ pet peeve — precisely because it’s an extremely common time-saving technique for all of the Resentmes out there. Or at least it was back when lazy aspiring writers had to rely upon Xerox machines, rather than just hitting the print key repeatedly or SEND, to wallpaper New York with completely generic queries.

Why does the very sight of a generic query make Millicent’s fingertips itch to clutch a form-letter rejection? Well, for starters, they make her job more difficult: generic queries virtually never give her any hint about (a) the book in question’s category (so she will have to guess whether it falls into one that someone at her agency actually represents), (b) why the writer thinks her boss would be a good fit for it (since a generic query is intended for every agent’s eyes, it cannot afford to be specific), and/or (c) what might make this book marketable (because that would require the querier to do a bit of, you guessed it, homework).

So can you really blame her for leaping to the conclusion that the sender just didn’t do his homework? Or for assuming, as most professional readers would, that a writer who didn’t do his homework about how to write a query probably didn’t do his homework about how to format a manuscript, either? Even in an agency already resigned to explaining how the publishing industry does and doesn’t work to first-time authors, a non-homework doer would stand out an unusually energy-sapping client: he doesn’t even know enough about the ropes of the industry to know that he should learn how to climb them.

The second reason that obviously generic queries tend to engender such universally negative reactions amongst screeners — other than the fact that they’re often phrased as demands for attention, rather than requests for assistance, that is — lies in human nature. No one likes to be treated as if she were a service-providing machine. Good agents have a right to be proud of what they do: they help bring great writing (and great writers) to publication.

So what’s wrong with their appreciating queriers who have taken the time to find out about what they have sold in the past more than those who address them as though any agent were as good as any other? Or preferring queriers who phrase their requests politely, in a query that deliberately speaks to the agent’s individual interests, over those who are quite clearly just trying to hit as many agencies in as short a time as possible?

Why should we blame them, in short, for preferring writers who have obviously done their homework to those who equally obviously have not?

The problem is, it’s getting harder to tell the difference. Ten years ago, there was a lot less querying advice available upon demand. Today, anyone with the minimal technical ability to perform a Google search of the word query might well find within just a few clicks a prototype that avoids the faux pas above entirely.

The result: it takes more time to screen queries now — and if you think that those of us who give online advice on the subject haven’t caught some heat for that, think again.

Oh, the truly bad generic queries are as bad as they ever were; there are, fortunately for Millicent’s desk-clearing rates, still many, many aspiring writers who evidently do no homework at all. However, they now make up a lower percentage of queries, since there are so many passable prototypes floating around the Internet. Pretty much anyone can find a template into which he can simply plug his information instead of writing a truly unique query letter from scratch.

So what ends up on Millicent’s desk on any given is 150 letters rather like this:

mediocre query

with perhaps one like the following somewhere in the middle of the stack:

nearly good query

Both are generally passable by prevailing wisdom standards, right? Millicent actually does have to read a bit closer in order to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Please tell me, though, that it was clear to you why the second was better. Competent told Millicent why she picked this particular agent (complimenting a current client’s book is always a classy touch), described her premise well, and listed a couple of legitimate credentials for this particular book. Perhaps her book’s title was a trifle derivative of the existing client’s, but overall, this query did what it needed to do.

The first example, sadly, did not. True, Sadie did open the first with an eye-catching hook statement (and not a bad one, either), but she made Millicent guess the book category — probably because Sadie wasn’t sure of it herself. She’s also left Millie to guess what her qualifications are to write this particular book. And what on earth does a collection of insights mean, anyway? It isn’t even clear from this query whether what’s being offered is a how-to book for living with a food restriction, a quote book, or an illness memoir.

In short, it would be pretty obvious to a careful reader which writer had done her homework and which hadn’t.

However, if Millicent happened to be having a bad day — and who is more entitled, really? — both of these writers would have ended up holding a form-letter rejection from this agency. Did anyone happen to spot the notorious agents’ pet peeve in Competent’s first paragraph that might have caused our Millie to choke irritably on her too-hot latte and reach gaspingly for the form-letter pile?

No one could blame you if you missed it, because it’s quite subtle: Competent referred to her book as a fiction novel. Technically, this is redundant; all novels are fiction, by definition.

Which is why, in case anybody had been wondering, professional writers often take a moment or two to answer the ubiquitous question, “Oh, you’ve just finished a novel? Fiction or nonfiction?” Like everyone else even vaguely affiliated with the publishing industry, we have to tamp down our knee-jerk response: there’s no such thing as a nonfiction novel, silly!

Actually, the epithet at the end of that thought is usually quite a bit harsher, but this is a family-friendly site.

As I mentioned in passing earlier in this series, fiction novel is not the only phrase likely to provoke this reaction. So is true memoir. Or, perversely, sci-fi novel instead of science fiction novel.

Why the last one? Literary history, my dears: science fiction and fantasy had a hard time getting taken seriously as literature. That prejudice extends practically to this very moment: the first science fiction author to be included in the prestigious Library of America series was my old friend Philip K. Dick. In 2007, more than 25 years after his death.

The literary world’s slowness to embrace one of the great literary genres frequently used to take the form of insults aimed at SF writers. As late as the early 1980s, literary-voiced science fiction and fantasy was still routinely being dismissed in mainstream literary circles as just sci-fi. As in, “Oh, I never read sci-fi; that’s kid’s stuff.”

Historically, then, it’s been a matter of respect to refer to the category either by its full name, science fiction, or SF. So from the perspective of a Millicent who works at a science fiction-representing agency, an aspiring writer who refers to his own writing as a sci-fi novel clearly hasn’t done his homework about his own chosen book category.

Competent did do something clever, though: for an agent whom one has not had the opportunity to hear speak at a conference, read an article or blog authored by, or come up with some other excuse for picking him out of an agents’ guide, bringing up a current client’s most recent publication is a dandy justification. As a bonus, up-to-date client lists are almost always available on agency websites.

I just mention that for the benefit of those of you who might not have time to do much homework.

Let’s face it, these days, many, not most, aspiring writers decide whom to query not through extensive market research about who is selling what in their chosen book categories, but by plugging a book category into a search engine and sending a query to the first name that it spits out. Or first 25 names. Or, in some cases, all of ‘em.

I’ve already spoken enough about the advantages of personalizing one’s query to match each individual agent’s expressed preferences, literary tastes, and sales track record that I shall not take up blog space today by commenting again upon the strategic wisdom of this method of query list generation. Suffice it to say that I hope those of you who have followed Querypalooza from the beginning looked at that paragraph above and immediately muttered, “Wow, 25 agents. That’s going to be days of background research,” rather than, “There’s a search engine that would spit out more than 25 names for my list? Great — I’ll send out another 50 generic queries tomorrow.”

Normally, I would take issue with that last statement, energetically pointing out the many potential pitfalls into which a one-size-fits-all querying strategy is likely to lead a writer who — chant it with me now — hasn’t done his homework. But I’m very tired.

Besides, you’re intelligent people: you already have the tools to analyze the qualitative difference between a generic query and a well-personalized one yourself. Compare the following, for instance, with the examples above. All were written to be sent to the same agent, and all of the queriers had access, via the Internet, to precisely the same information about her.

good query2

Notice anything as you cast your eyes over these examples? Perhaps that what elevated the last two’s opening paragraphs was a single reference each to work the agent had done in the past? Just how long do you think it took either of those writers to dig up those tidbits on the agency website?

Word to the wise: the amount of homework required to personalize an already-solid draft query is not particularly extensive. Nor is the imperative to check each agency’s website or guide listing for specialized submission instructions especially onerous. It honestly is worth every second it takes.

Tomorrow morning, I shall wrap up our discussion of simultaneous submission, followed by a few more illustrative examples of query dos and don’ts tomorrow evening. Keep that dog far, far away from your homework, campers, and keep up the good work!

PS: t-shirts bearing the cute image at the top of this post are for sale at Fashionably Geek.

Querypalooza, Part VII: pretty is as pretty does, or, what makes you think that bell bottoms are still in style, Barbie?

Barbie ad

Still hanging in there, campers? Last night, I threw all of you queriers a bit of a curve ball: in the midst of talking about how to polish a basic query letter — polite salutation, title, book category, brief description, writing credentials/platform for writing the book, courteous sign-off, your contact information, SASE if you’re going to send it via mail — I insisted ordered blandished you into suggested that you write it not in your own good prose, but in the language of the publishing industry.

Why might you want to invest the time in doing that? To elevate a ho-hum query that features just the basics into one that veritably leaps off the incoming mail stack at Millicent the agency screener.

That made your eyes pop open this fine morning, didn’t it? “Wait,” some of the bleary-eyed call out, “back up a little. Did you just give a formula for a bare-bones query in the middle of that paragraph? Before I was fully awake? Is that fair?”

Never mind that — you’re beyond basic querying now, my friends. You’ve even, if you have been following Querypalooza with an open heart and inquisitive mind (or even vice-versa) moved past the quite good query letter we discussed in Part I of this series. (Was that only 48 hours ago? This weekend has, I must confess, been a lengthy one for me.) You’re ready to become so conversant with the logic of querying that you could toss out future queries in a pain-free hour or two, instead of an anguish-filled week or month.

And what’s the magic wand that’s going to enable you to make that radical transformation? Learning how to describe your work as an agent or editor would.

The first two steps: nailing down a book category for it and figuring out who your ideal reader is. A savvy querier needs to do more than assert that such a reader exists, however; she must provide some evidence of it.

Which is to say: once you’ve identified your target audience, it’s greatly to your advantage to do a bit of research on just how big it is. Throwing some concrete numbers into your query, demonstrating just how big your target market actually is, will make it MUCH easier for Millicent to talk about your book to higher-ups — and, in turn, for an agent to pitch it to anyone at a publishing house.

Why? Well, sales and marketing departments expect agents and editors to be able to speak in hard numbers — and no matter how much the editors at a publishing house love any given book, they’re unlikely to make an actual offer for it unless the sales and marketing folks are pretty enthused about it, too. So doesn’t it make sense to make sure the agent and editor fighting for your book have that demographic information at their fingertips, when it’s relatively easy for you to put it there?

Some of you are still not convinced that it would behoove you to go to the additional effort, aren’t you? “But Anne,” I hear those of you writing for some of the bigger markets protest. “Surely, everyone with a pulse is aware of how big my particular target audience is and why they would find my book appealing. Wouldn’t it be, you know, a little insulting if my query assumed that the agent wasn’t sufficiently aware of the world around him to know these things?”

Well, yes, if you happen to be pitching a YA book about a teenage girl’s relationship with a vampire or another book whose appeal to a recent bestseller’s already-established readership is so self-evident that any agent with a brain would pitch it as, “It’s basically TWILIGHT, but with twist X…”

But the fact is, few books that aren’t really, really derivative of current bestsellers have that obvious a target audience. Let me tell you a parable about what can happen if a writer is vague about her target market’s demographics.

Aspiring writer Suzette has written a charming novel about an American woman in her late thirties who finds herself reliving the trauma of her parents’ divorce when she was 12. Since the book is set in the present day, that makes her protagonist a Gen Xer, as Suzette herself is. (“It’s sort of autobiographical,” she admits, but only amongst friends.) Like the vast majority of queriers, she has not thought about her target market before approaching agent Briana.

So she’s stunned when Briana tells her that there’s no market for such a book. But being a bright person, quick on her feet, Suzette comes up with a plausible response: “I’m the target market for this book,” she shoots back in an e-mail. (Something a rejected querier should NEVER, EVER do, by the way, but necessary here for the sake of drama.) “People like me.”

Now, that’s actually a pretty good answer — readers are often drawn to the work of writers like themselves — but it is vague. What Suzette really meant was:

“My target readership is women born between 1964 and 1975, half of whom have divorced parents. Just under 12 million Americans, in other words — and that’s just for starters.”

But Briana heard what Suzette SAID, not what she MEANT. Since they’ve just met, how reasonable was it for Suzette to expect Briana to read her mind?

Given this partial information, Briana thought: “Oh, God, another book for aspiring writers.” (People like the author, right?) “What does this writer think my agency is, a charitable organization? I’d like to be able to retire someday.”

And what would an editor at a major publishing house (let’s call him Ted) conclude from Suzette’s statement? Something, no doubt, along the lines of, “This writer is writing for her friends. All four of them. Next!”

Clearly, being vague about her target audience has not served Suzette’s interests. Let’s take a peek at what would have happened if she had been a trifle more specific, shall we?

Suzette says: “Yes, there is a target market for my book: Gen Xers, half of whom are women, many of whom have divorced parents.”

Agent Briana thinks: “Hmm, that’s a substantial niche market. 5 million, maybe?”

Sounding more marketable already, isn’t it?

But when Briana pitches it to editor Ted this way, he thinks: “Great, a book for people who aren’t Baby Boomers. Most of the US population is made up of Baby Boomers and their children. Do I really want to publish a book for a niche market of vegans with little disposable income?”

So a little better, but still, no cigar. Let’s take a look at what happens if Suzette has thought through her readership in advance, and walks into her pitch meetings with Briana and Ted with her statistics all ready to leap off her tongue.

Suzette says (immediately after describing the book in her query): “I’m excited about this project, because I think my protagonist’s divorce trauma will really resonate with the 47 million Gen Xers currently living in the United States. Half of these potential readers have parents who have divorced at least once in their lifetimes. Literally everybody in that age group either had divorces within their own families as kids or had close friends that did. I think this book will strike a chord with these people.”

Agent Briana responds: “There are 47 million Gen Xers? I had no idea there were that many. I want to see the manuscript; this has market potential.”

And editor Ted thinks: “47 million! Even if the book actually appealed to only a tiny fraction of them, it’s still a market well worth pursuing. Yes, Briana, send me that manuscript by your new client.”

The moral of this exciting fairy tale: even the best book premise can be harmed by vague assertions about its target audience; it can only helped by the query’s talking about in marketing terms.

There is one drawback to using up-to-the-minute demographic statistics, of course — if you end up querying the same project over a long period (not at all unusual for even very well-written manuscripts, at this point in literary history), you may have to go back and update your numbers. Actually, it’s not a bad idea to reexamine your query’s arguments every so often anyway. it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

Speaking of which, let’s return to our ongoing query-improvement list.

(10) Have I addressed this letter to a specific person, rather than an entire agency or any agent currently walking the face of the earth? Does it read like a form letter?
Some of you just did a double-take, didn’t you? “But Anne,” you cry in unison, and who could blame you? “I’m experiencing déjà vu. Didn’t we already cover this in #5, Is it clear from the first paragraph that I am querying the appropriate agent for my work?

Well, yes and no. Yes, I made some suggestions in Querypalooza VI (was that only last night?) for some tried-and-true reasons for explaining why approaching a particular agent makes sense for your book. But no, we didn’t discuss how to fix a generic-sounding first paragraph.

Basically, you fix it by not using the same first paragraph in every query.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in this series, experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each agent on their list. Less experienced serial queriers, though, often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has made it much, much easier to be dismissive. Although it may seem needlessly time-consuming, it’s worth reviewing every single query to ascertain that the opening paragraph speaks specifically to the recipient’s tastes and placement record.

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

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

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. The differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

broken-recordThere is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Admittedly, sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on Publisher’s Marketplace.

What no agency will EVER leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time — if it has one, which is exceedingly rare. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess, I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

In other words, don’t send out generic queries. They’re just not worth your time.

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

Dear Agent,

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

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

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

Which means, they reason, that it is unlikely to the point of mockery that the book being proposed is going to fit the specific requirements and tastes of any of the agents currently domiciled at the agency. And, most will additionally conclude, the writer hasn’t bothered to learn much about how the publishing industry works. Virtually any Millicent will simply toss it into the reject pile, if not actually the trash. (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs, alas.)

Since this is such a NOTORIOUS agents’ pet peeve, I’m going to trouble you with yet another question aimed at making that first paragraph a beautiful case that you — yes, you — are the best possible fit for the agent you happen to be querying at the moment. And to make that case pellucidly clear even to a Millicent who has only 30 seconds or so to devote to each query.

(11) Do I make it clear in the first paragraph of the letter SPECIFICALLY why I am writing to THIS particular agent — or does it read as though I could be addressing any agent in North America?
This is a corollary of the last, of course — to put it another way, writers aren’t the only ones screaming at the heavens, “Why me? Why me?” (Agents scream it, too, but with a slightly different meaning.)

No, but seriously, agents (and their screeners) wonder about this. So it’s worth taking a look at your query letter and asking yourself if it answers the question: there are hundreds and hundreds of literary agents in the United States alone — why did you choose this one, out of all others, to query? What specifically about this agent’s track record, literary tastes, and/or bio led you to say, By gum, I would like this person to represent my work?

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent book, {TITLE}, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

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

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

Sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. For instance…

(12) If I met this agent or editor at a conference, or am querying because I heard him speak at one, or picked him because s/he represents a particular author, do I make that obvious immediately? If I picked him purely because he represents my book category, have I at least made that plain?
Queriers often seem reluctant to mention bring up having heard an agent speak, but since such a low percentage of the aspiring writers out there attend conferences (under 4%, according to the last estimate I saw), attending a good one that the agent you’re querying also attended is in fact a minor selling point for your book.

broken-recordThe prevailing wisdom dictates that writers who make the investment in learning how to market their work professionally tend to have more professional work to present. A kind of old-fashioned notion, true, but if you’re a conference-goer, it’s one you should be riding for all it is worth.

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

And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail? (Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.)

If you have not heard the agent speak at a conference, read an article she has written in a writer’s magazine or online, or noticed that your favorite author thanked her in the acknowledgments of a book you liked — all fair game to mention in the first line of your query — don’t give in to the temptation not to personalize the first paragraph. Be polite enough to invent a general explanation for why you added her to your querying list:

Since you represent such an interesting array of debut fiction about women in challenging situations, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

(13) Am I sending this query in the form that the recipient prefers to receive it? If I intend to send it via e-mail, have I quadruple-checked that the agency accepts e-mailed queries? If I am sending it via regular mail, have I checked that the agency still accepts paper queries?

Stop laughing, hard-core web fiends. The publishing world runs on paper — even as I write this, it’s still far from unusual for a prestigious agency not to accept e-submissions at all. Even agencies with websites (which not all of them maintain, even today) that accept submissions directly through the website often employ agents who prefer paper queries, even from writers residing in foreign countries for whom getting the right stamps for the SASE is problematic.

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

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

broken-recordit’s far, far less work to reject someone by the press of a single button than by stuffing a response into a SASE. Also, the average reader scans words on a screen 70% faster than the same words on paper. Thus, a truly swift-fingered Millicent can reject 50 writers online in the time that it would take her to reject 10 on paper.

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

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

Not necessarily, but often. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

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

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

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

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

(14) Am I absolutely positive that I have spelled the agent’s name correctly, as well as the agency’s? Am I positive that the letter I have addressed to Dear Mr. Smith shouldn’t actually read Dear Ms. Smith? Heck, am I even sure that I’m placing the right letter in the right envelope?
I hear some titters out there, but you wouldn’t BELIEVE how common each of these gaffes is. The last is usually just the result of a writer’s being in a hurry to get the next set of queries in the mail, and tend to be treated accordingly, but the first two constitute major breaches of etiquette.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Think we’re at the end of the query-refining questions? Not by a long shot. Tune in at 6 pm for my next installment, and keep up the good work!

Querypalooza, part V: before you pop that missive in the mail…

Anne Mini and the mail slot

We’ve just been zipping through the diagnosis and treatment of the ailments from which your garden-variety query letter tends to suffer, haven’t we? There’s a good reason for that: many, many aspiring writers stateside are using this long weekend to prepare their next barrages of query letters, and I wanted my readers to have freshly updated advice on hand for the beginning of the autumn foray.

It’s not only the queriers who are feeling autumn in the air these days; it’s prime polishing time for submitters, too. Labor Day marks the dividing line between the summer writers’ conference season and the fall conference season, so pitchers who received requests for materials over the summer are starting to feel antsy about sending out those submissions. Another week’s worth — or month’s worth — of proofreading won’t harm their books’ chances, actually, but still, most savvy manuscript-owers feel that they should send out summer-requested materials by the time school starts.

The cumulative result, naturally, is that when Millicent, her fellow agency screeners, and their boss agents come dragging into the office on Tuesday, they will be greeted by a month’s backlog of queries and submissions. Inboxes both literal and virtual will be stuffed to overflowing.

So it’s probably not the world’s worst idea to hold off for a couple of weeks or so before you mail yours off, if only to wait until Millie’s in a better mood. At minimum, do not even dream of e-mailing a query until at least Thursday, when the into-the-agency flood will have subsided a little. (You already knew not to e-mail queries on weekends in general, right? Monday morning always greets Millicents and their agents with overloaded inboxes.)

All of which is to say: just because we’re devoting this weekend to all things query-related does not mean that you absolutely have to send something off by the end of the weekend, or even the end of the week. I’d much, much rather see my readers spend an extra week or two on drafting a really good query letter than to have any of you kicking yourselves a month from now, wishing you’d queried differently.

Especially if the difference between popping it in the mail on this Tuesday a.m. and next means being able to have someone whose literary (and grammatical) opinion you trust read your query draft. Even if a writer’s been at it a while, it can be pretty hard to see the flaws in one’s own query letters — and for some reason I have never been able to fathom, even aspiring writers professional enough to be routinely soliciting feedback on their manuscripts often guard their queries jealously from any human eyes other than Millicent’s.

Whose peepers, as those of you who have been visiting this blog for a good long time are already aware, are not generally charitably-oriented. And that’s as much of a problem for writers accustomed to the querying process as for those new to it: since most experienced queriers will tweak their basic query letters to personalize them for each (don’t worry; I’ll be getting to that), there tends to be a lot of cutting, pasting, and general rewriting going on between mailings and/or strikings of the SEND button.

And what is an extremely likely outcome when any piece of writing is constantly being revised over time? Shout it out, those of you who were hanging around this blog earlier in the summer: it can turn into a Frankenstein manuscript, an unholy mish-mash of half-completed revisions.

The single most common type of Frankenstein query, as we saw last time, is the mismatched salutation and address. Nothing screams out I’m doing a mass mailing of queries, and you, sir, are palpably on the bottom of my wish list! like a letter that runs thus:

wrong names query

See the problem? In the stress of sending out multiple queries — a smart strategy in its own right, by the way; with sometimes months-long turn-around times at some agencies and no-reply policies at others, waiting to hear back from Agent A before querying Agent B is a sure-fire strategy for wasting years of your life — Mssr. Flaubert copied the address of one agent onto a letter personalized for another.

What he intended to send (and probably didn’t ever notice he didn’t send) was this:

Our Gustave fell victim to query fatigue, in short. Quite understandable, of course, but how do you think Ms. Marketer is likely to respond not only to being addressed by the wrong name and with the honorific for the wrong sex, but being congratulated for her speech at a conference she never attended?

That’s right, campers: “Next!”

So please, proofread every single query every single time . Yes, even e-queries. Many a Millicent has been left shaking her head regretfully over a dropped word or misspelling in an otherwise admirable query.

Better yet, have a first reader you trust go over it. This is an excellent contribution to your writing career for any significant others, family members, or friends whom you, in your great wisdom, have deemed too fond of you to be trusted to provide critical feedback on your manuscript. (Trust me, “But my mom loved it!” is not an argument that flies well in the publishing industry.)

Whatever you do, don’t fall into the oh-so-common trap of getting complacent about your basic query. Just because a letter has garnered chapter requests in the past does not mean that it couldn’t use a bit of punching up. Even if you are a querying veteran, at least cast your eye over this list of garden-variety query turn-offs.

That’s right, campers: it’s another of my famous faux pas check-lists.

Why should a writer who has been querying a while take the time to go through a do-not list? Well, for most aspiring writers, it takes quite a bit of rejection to open their eyes to the possibility that their query letters themselves might be problematic. Okay, out comes the broken record:

broken-recordUnfortunately, writers all too often automatically assume that it’s the idea of the book being rejected, rather than a style-hampered querying letter or a limp synopsis.

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

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

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

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

It never –- well, almost never — turns out like that. Out comes the broken record player again:

broken-recordBeing a professional writer is work, and what gets the vast majority of queries rejected is a lack of adherence to professional standards. Which can, my friends, be learned.

As, indeed, we’ve seen over the course of Querypalooza. But what if you already have a query letter that meets all the technical criteria, and it’s still not getting the responses you want?

Pull up your chairs close, boys and girls: it’s time for the master class on querying. Today, we’re going to concentrate on fine-tuning the delicate art of query diagnosis.

Why? I feel another broken record coming on:

broken-recordThe querying market is even tighter than it was the last time I visited this issue. It’s as competitive now as it has ever been in my lifetime.

And I’m not nearly so young as I look. (Nor is my hair always as wild as it appears in the photo at the top of this post, but that’s another story.)

Seriously, it’s a jungle out there, to coin a phrase. But before you begin to feel for your submission’s pulse, please (wait for it):

broken-recordRe-read everything in your query packet IN HARD COPY and OUT LOUD: your query letter, synopsis, author bio, and ANY pages the agency’s website or agency guide listing has asked queriers to include in a querying packet.

Better still, read them over AND have someone you trust read it over as well, checking for logical holes and grammatical problems. For any attached pages, the best choice for this is another writer, ideally one who has successfully traversed the perils of the agent-finding ravine. Let’s slap another broken record on the turntable:

broken-recordAs much as you may love your mother, your spouse, and your best friend, they are, generally speaking not the best judges of your writing.

Look to these fine folks for support, encouragement, and the occasional spot-check for salutation-matching, not for technical feedback on your writing. Find someone whose LITERARY opinion you trust — such as, say, a great writer you met at a conference, or the person in your writing group who keeps being asked to send sample chapters — and blandish her into giving your query packet materials a solid reading.

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

As excellent as this advice is, I sense that some of you are already merrily making plans to disregard it. If you are planning to be the only pre-Millicent peruser of your query packet…

broken-recordMake sure that you read all of the constituent parts of your submissions in hard copy, not just on a computer screen. Proofreading is far easier –- and more likely to be accurate — in hard copy.

I’m quite serious about treating this a final flight-check: don’t leave rooting out the proofreading and logic problems until the last minute. As Gustave knows to his sorrow, it’s just too easy to skip them when you’re in a hurry.

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

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

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

Remember, if you are sending a paper query or any pages at all (even if the agency’s guidelines ask you to imbed them in an e-mail),

broken-recordYou must indent your paragraphs in a mailed query letter — or, indeed, in any writing sample of any length intended for agent-dwelling eyes. No exceptions; business format is not acceptable in this context.

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

(2) If my query letter just refuses to be shorter than a page, am I trying to achieve too much in it? Specifically, is my query trying to do more than get the agent to ask to see the manuscript?
Is it perhaps trying to convince the agent (or the screener) that this is a terrific book, or maybe including the plot, rather than the premise? Is it reviewing the book, rather than describing it? Is it begging for attention, rather than presenting the book professionally? Is it trying to suit the tastes of every agent to whom you might conceivably send it, rather than the one to whom it is currently addressed?

All of these are extremely common ways in which query letters over-reach. Like pitches, queries often turn into litanies of summary, rather than convincing, professional presentations of a book’s category, premise, and selling points. As I have advised before,

broken-recordDon’t try to cram a half an hour’s worth of conversation about your book into a scant page. Just present the information necessary to interest an agent in your manuscript, then STOP.

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

The simplest fix for this, in most instances, is to reduce the length of the descriptive paragraph.

broken-recordRemember, your job in the query is not to summarize the book (that’s what the synopsis is for), but to pique enough interest to generate a request for pages. Keep it brief.

How brief? Well, let’s just say that if you can’t say the first two paragraphs of your query letter — the ones where you say why you are approaching that particular agent, the book category, and the premise — in under 20 seconds of normal speech, you might want to take a gander at the ELEVATOR SPEECH category at right.

(4) Is my query letter polite? Does it make me sound like a professional writer it might be a hoot to get to know?
You’d be amazed at how often writers use the query letter as a forum for blaming the agent addressed for prevailing conditions in the publishing industry, up to and including how difficult it is to land an agent. But (feel free to sing along; you should all know the words by now)

broken-recordMillicent and her ilk did not create the ambient conditions for writers; treating them as though they did merely betrays a lack of familiarity with how the industry actually works.

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

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

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

And third: Before you dismiss this query without reading it, just let me point out…

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

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

The checklist shall continue in my late-night (2 am Pacific) Querypalooza post. Keep plowing forward, everyone, and keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part V: home is where…your book will sit in a bookstore?

gentleman hanging his hat3gentleman hanging his hatgentleman hanging his hat2

Remember how I was telling you that some of my best ideas for posts came from readers’ questions. Well, it’s happened again: after yesterday’s post on the various possible outcomes of a query or pitching effort and the advisability of querying more than one agent at a time, sharp-eyed reader Elizabeth asked a very important follow-up question:

Anne, ?I’ve always heard you should query one agent at a time. If they don’t want simultaneous submissions or queries, would they say so on their website or guidelines? … So far I haven’t seen anyone requesting exclusive inquiries.

I’m so glad you brought this up, Elizabeth — I’m sure that you are not the only writer who has heard that old chestnut. It’s one of the most wide-spread pieces of aspiring writer mythology. In its extended form, it runs a little something like this: agents like to get a jump upon other agents, so they insist — not just prefer — that writers query them one at a time; if a writer dares to send out multiple simultaneous queries and one of the agents decides to make an offer, he will become enraged to the point of losing interest in the book project.

Unagented writers have been whispering this one to one another for decades. It’s never been true for queries, and it’s seldom true for even requested materials today.

There’s a practical reason for that: sending out a query, waiting to hear back, getting rejected, and starting afresh would add years to most agent-searching efforts. Agents make their living by discovering new writers; they don’t want the truly talented to give up in despair. Which is what would happen, in many cases: in an environment where many agencies state on their websites that if a querier does not hear back, that means they are not interested, expecting writers to query one at a time would be downright cruel.

Now, the opposite assumption prevails: if an agency does not explicitly state on its website or agency guide listing that it will accept only exclusive queries, its member agents will generally assume that every aspiring writer who queries them are also querying other agents. Which means, in practice, that aspiring writers who have heard the pervasive rumor to the contrary are effectively granting exclusive reads of their queries unasked.

The same holds true for submissions: all too often, aspiring writers will believe that they have no choice but to wait until they receive a reply from a single agent, but most of the time, the agent does not expect such a break. (For an in-depth look at why this is the case, please see the archived posts under the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category at right.)Unless an agent asks point-blank for an exclusive look at a manuscript, or her agency has a policy requiring non-competitive submissions, the writer is free to continue to query and/or submit until she signs a representation contract.

In fact, many agents actually prefer multiple submissions, as long as the writer tells them that others are reviewing the manuscript; to a competitive mind, something others covet is inherently valuable. Heck, I’ve known agents who wait for others to make an offer before even skimming the manuscript on their desks.

To be fair, there are a few — very few — agencies out there who do prefer to have solo peeks at queries, but they usually make this fact ABUNDANTLY clear on their websites and in their listings in the standard agency guides. Quite a few more like to be the only ones looking at requested materials, but again, they don’t make a secret of it; the requests for pages generally include this information. (If you’re curious about what happens to a multiply-submitting writer who already has a manuscript with one agent when another asks for an exclusive peek — a more common dilemma than one might think — please see either the EXCLUSIVES AND MULTIPLE SUBMISSION or WHAT HAPPENS IF MORE THAN ONE AGENT ASKS TO SEE MY MANUSCRIPT category on the archive list at right.)

So never fear, Elizabeth: as long as conscientious queriers like you do their homework, you’re not going to run afoul of the vast majority of agents. But it always, always pays to check before querying or submitting.

Everyone clear on that? Please ask follow-up questions, if not.

In the meantime, let’s get back to yesterday’s hot topic: how Millicent the agency screener can tell almost instantly whether a queried or submitted book is a potential fit for her agency. As it happens, it has a lot to do with whether the queriers or submitters have done their homework: the single most common rejection reason is that the agent approached does not represent that type of book.

True of queries; true of verbal pitches; true of manuscript submissions. If an agent doesn’t already have the connections to sell a book within the current market, it doesn’t make sense for him to consider representing it. (Unless, of course, it’s a type of book so hot at the moment that he believes a trained monkey could sell it.)

I can already feel some of you gearing up to equivocate. “But Anne,” wheedle those of you who believe your book is so inherently marketable that you are eager to learn that trained monkey’s address, “I’m not silly enough to try to interest an exclusively nonfiction agent in my novel, or a fiction-only agent in my memoir. But surely beyond that, a good book’s a good book, right?”

Um, no. At least not to the pros. Where a book sits on a shelf in a well-stocked bookstore is integral to who will be willing to consider representing it — and which editors will be willing to consider acquiring it.

I’ll go even farther: to an agent or editor, there is no such thing as a generic book. Every traditionally-published book currently being sold in North America falls into a book category.

Book categories and why they are your friends
As I brought up earlier in this series, no single agent represents every kind of book there is: like editors at publishing houses, they specialize. While this may seem frustrating or confusing to an aspiring writer new to the agent-seeking process, in the long run, it’s actually in the writer’s interest.

Why, you cry, clutching your pounding head at the apparent paradox? As we saw a few days ago, agents sell their clients’ work by taking it to editors they know already to be interested in the subject matter or genre — and because they make money only if they can sell their clients’ work, it isn’t to their benefit to show a book to anyone who isn’t likely to publish it.

Rather than relying upon vague impressions about who likes what kind of book or time-consuming descriptions of every single book on offer, everyone in the publishing industry uses specific terms when discussing them. Each type of book has a one- or two-word description known in the publishing industry as a book category.

The people an agent knows at publishing houses who she is positive will be interested in the types of books she sells AND respect her opinion about writing enough to take her calls are known as her connections. The better an agent’s track record of selling a particular type of book, the better and more extensive her connections will be. Similarly, if an agency has a long history of selling a certain type of book, even junior agents there may reasonably be expected to have pretty good connections for it.

Thus the frequent appeal of a large and/or well-established agency over a small or newer one: when the agents enjoy good connections, it’s easier for them to slip a first-time author’s manuscript under the right pair of eyes. Everyone benefits, potentially.

However, good connections require agent specialization. The publishing industry is immense and complex; it would be impossible for even the best-established agent to have connections for every conceivable type of book. By concentrating upon just a few kinds of manuscript, then, an agent can concentrate upon his established areas of strength.

What does this mean for the average aspiring writer? Glad you asked.

Writers, too, are specialists — even peripatetic ones like me, who write several different types of book. However broad one’s interests and capacities might be, no one is going to write in every conceivable book category, right? Therefore, it’s in each writer’s interest to have his work represented not by just any old agent, but by one who shares his interests — and, more importantly, who already has the connections to sell his books.

In other words, specialists of a feather should flock together.

Agents are well aware of the substantial benefits of flockery, which is why they are seldom reticent about the kinds of books they want. They will state the book categories they represent right on their websites, in their listings in the standard agency guides, and often in their biographical blurbs in writers’ conference brochures as well.

So there’s no mystery to finding out who represents what: it’s usually as easy as a straightforward Google search or opening a book.

Benefiting from knowledge so obtained, however, requires that an aspiring writer be aware of the book category into which his book most comfortably fits. If you’re not sure how to figure this out, you’ll find some guidance in the aptly-named BOOK CATEGORIES archives on the list at right.

Okay, now you’ve freaked me out. How on earth do I figure out what my category is?
Generally speaking, aspiring writers agonize far too much over making the right choice: just pick one. Remember, the goal here is not to cover every topic in the book, but rather to give your future agent and editor some indication of who is likely to buy your book and on which shelf at Barnes & Noble a reader might eventually find it.

It’s a technical designation, after all, not a summary.

Select one that already exists, if you please, rather than just making one up. You should also pick just one, rather than stringing a few together into an unholy hyphenate like Mystery-Women’s Fiction-Western-Nature Essay. Committing is in your interest, not Millicent’s, after all: if she receives a query for a Science Fiction-Chick Lit – Urban Vampire Epic, and her boss agent represents only chick lit, it’s not a very tough rejection choice.

I know — I would like to read that last one, too.

Do be aware, too, that many categories overlap (mainstream fiction, women’s fiction, and literary fiction, for instance, share quite a bit of common ground), so you may not find a perfect fit. That’s fine; as long as you’re close, your future agent will be able to tell you how to categorize it more accurately.

A great place to start: figure out who is already writing the kind of books you write.

Figuring out the category of already-published books
If you live in the U.S. or Canada, an excellent first step toward committing to a book category is to track down a recently-released paperback or trade paper book similar to yours and examine the back cover. Many publishers will display the book category in one of two places, in the upper-left corner:

sarah-vowells-back-cover-ii

Actually, now that I’ve posted it, I notice that Sarah Vowell’s ASSASSINATION VACATION (a terrific book for anyone interested in political history, by the way; she’s a very funny writer) is listed in two categories: biography and travel. That makes perfect sense, because the book both talks about the lives of various murdered American presidents and follows Ms. Vowell’s journeys to their assassination sites. (Seriously, it’s funnier than it sounds.)

The other common locale for a book category is in the box with the barcode:

jonathan-selwood-back-cover

Okay, so that last photo was a trifle askew. However, since Jonathan Selwood’s THE PINBALL THEORY OF APOCALYPSE (six rows’ worth of passengers on an airplane thought I was having some sort of fit because I was laughing so hard at one point; once I had fended off medical assistance and read the passage in question out loud, the flight attendants came running to find out what was wrong with all of us) partially concerns the aftermath of a major earthquake, being akimbo seems rather appropriate.

I’m not sure if the photo will reproduce clearly enough for you to see it, but Mssr. Selwood’s book is designated merely as fiction. Counter-intuitively, this general-sounding moniker refers to something quite specific: novels for adults that do not fit into a genre designation. For all of you whose first thought upon my telling you that you would need to narrow down your complex 400-page book into a one- or at most two-word category choice, this might be a good selection.

Admittedly, it can be rather a pain to decide which category is right for your work, but once you have determined it, the hunt for an agent to represent it becomes substantially simpler: don’t even consider approaching an agent who doesn’t represent books in your category.

Like granting an agent an unrequested exclusive, it’s just a waste of your time. Unless, of course, you genuinely don’t care if your book gets published next year or forty years hence.

Next time, I shall give you a bird’s-eye view — or, more accurately, a Millicent’s-eye view — of what happens to requested materials after they arrive at an agency. In the meantime, keep up the good work!

The getting-a-book-published basics, part IV: what happens AFTER a successful query or pitch?

smiling-rock

Still hanging in there, campers? I know, I know: there’s a LOT of information in this basic overview series, but if you start to find it overwhelming, just try to concentrate on the big picture, the broad strokes, rather than feverishly attempting to memorize every detail.

Even if you are not new to the business side of art, it’s good from time to time to distance yourself from the often-trying process of trying to get your writing published. And if you doubt that, do me a favor: rise from your chair, take two steps away from the monitor, and take a gander at the photograph above.

If you don’t see the rock smiling at you, you may be focusing too much on the small picture.

Besides, you can always come back and refresh your memory later. Seriously, it’s easy, if a bit time-consuming. One of the many charms of the blog format lies in its archives: as long as I am running Author! Author!, these posts aren’t going anywhere, and the archives are organized by subject. So please feel free to use this series as a general overview, delving into the more specific posts on individual topics grouped by topic for your perusing convenience on a handy list on the lower right-hand side of this page. There is also a search engine in the upper-right corner, so searchers may type in a word or phrase.

And, as always, if you can’t find the answer to a particular writing question, feel free to ask it in the comments. I’m always on the look-out for new subjects for posts, and readers’ questions are far and away my best source.

Last time, I went over the three basic means of bringing your book to an agent’s attention: querying, either by sending a letter via regular mail (the classic method), approaching by sending an e-mail (the newfangled method) or through the agency’s website (the least controllable), and verbal pitching (far and away the most terrifying. Today, I’m going to talk about the various possibilities of response to your query or pitch.

Which, you may be happy to hear, are relatively limited and very seldom involve anyone being overtly mean. Or calling you and demanding that you give a three-hour dissertation about your book on the spot. Not that these are unreasonable fears, by any means: given how intimidating the querying and pitching processes can be but I find it hard to believe that the possibility of an agent’s being genuinely rude in response hadn’t occurred at least once to all of us before the first time we queried or pitched.

I heard that chortling, experienced pitchers and queriers; I said overtly mean, not dismissive or curt. There’s a big difference. Dismissive and/or curt responses are not personal, usually; overt meanness is.

So to those of you who have never queried or pitched before, I reiterate: the probability that an agent will say something nasty to you about your book at the initial contact stage is quite low. S/he may not say what you want him or her to say — which is, of course, “Yes! I would absolutely love to read the book you’ve just queried/pitched!” — but s/he is not going to yell at you. (At least, not if you’re polite in your approach and s/he is professional.)

At worst, s/he is going to say “No, thank you.”

You can handle that, can’t you? I hope so, because any writer who is in it for the long haul just has to get used to the possibility of hearing no. Because hear it you almost certainly will, no matter how good your manuscript is.

Yes, you read that correctly, newbies: pretty much every writer who has landed an agent within the last decade heard “No, thank you,” many, many times before hearing, “Yes, of course.”

Ditto with virtually every living author who has brought a first book out within the last ten years. At least the ones who were not already celebrities in another field; celebrities have a much easier time attracting representation. (Yes, life is not fair; this is news to you?) That’s just the way the game works these days.

Translation: you should not feel bad if your first query or pitch does not elicit a positive response. Honestly, it would be unusual if it did, in the current market.

Some of your hearts are still racing at the prospect anyway, aren’t they? “Okay, Anne,” a few of you murmur, clutching your chests and monitoring your vital signs, “I understand that it may take a few nos to get to yes. But if an agent isn’t likely either to go into raptures or to fly into an insult-spewing rage after reading a query letter or hearing a pitch, what is likely to happen? I’d like to be prepared for either the best or the worst.”

An excellent plan, oh ye of the racing heart rates. Let’s run through the possibilities.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been successful?
As we discussed last time, the query letter and pitch share a common goal: not to make the agent stand up and shout, “I don’t need to read this manuscript, by gum! I already know that I want to represent it!” but rather to induce her to ask to see pages of the manuscript. These pages, along with anything else the agent might ask the writer to send (an author bio, for instance, or a synopsis) are known in the trade as requested materials.

So figuring out whether a query or pitch did the trick is actually very simple: if the agent requested materials as a result of it, it was. If not, it wasn’t.

Enjoying this particular brand of success does not mean that a writer has landed an agent, however: it merely means that he’s cleared the first hurdle on the road to representation. First-time pitchers and queriers often get carried away by a provisional yes, assuming that a request for materials means that they will be able to bypass the heart-pumping, nerve-wracking, ego-shredding, and time-consuming process of continuing to query and/or pitch.

And then, a week or a month or three months later, they’re shattered to receive a rejection letter. Or, still worse, they’re biting their nails six months later, waiting to hear back from that first agent who said yes. Shattered hope renders it harder than ever to climb back onto the querying horse.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: writers who walk into the querying and pitching process armed with a knowledge of how it works can avoid this awful fate through a simple, albeit energy-consuming, strategy. Send what that first agent asks to see, but keep querying other agents, just to hedge your bets.

In other words, be pleased with a request for materials, but remember, asking to see your manuscript does not constitute a promise to love it, even if an agent was really, really nice to you during a pitch meeting; it merely means that she is intrigued by your project enough to think that there’s a possibility that she could sell it in the current publishing market.

How can a writer tell whether a query or pitch has been unsuccessful?
If the agent decides not to request materials (also known as passing on the book), the query or pitch has been rejected. If so, the writer is generally informed of the fact by a form letter — or, in the case of e-mailed queries, by a boilerplate expression of regret. Because these sentiments are pre-fabricated and used for every rejection, don’t waste your energy trying to read some deeper interpretation into it; it just means no, thanks. (For more on the subject, please see the FORM-LETTER REJECTIONS category on the archive list.)

Whether the response is positive or negative, it will definitely not be ambiguous: if your query has been successful, an agent will tell you so point-blank. It can be a trifle harder to tell with a verbal pitch, since many agents don’t like watching writers’ faces as they’re rejecting them — which is one reason that a writer is slightly more likely to receive a request for materials from a verbal pitch than a written query, by the way — and will try to let them down gently.

But again, there’s only one true test of whether a pitch or query worked: the agent will ask to see manuscript pages.

Let’s get back to the happy stuff: what if I’m asked to send pages?
If you do receive such a request, congratulations! Feel free to rejoice, but do not fall into either the trap I mentioned above, assuming that the agent has already decided to sign you (he hasn’t, at this stage) or the one of assuming that you must print off the requested pages right away and overnight them to New York (or wherever the agent of your dreams may happen to ply his trade). Both are extremely common, especially amongst pitchers meeting agents for the first time, and both tend to get those new to submission into trouble.

Take a deep breath — and realize that you have a lot of work ahead of you. You will be excited, but that’s precisely the reason that it’s a good idea to take at least a week to pull your requested materials packet together. That will give you enough time to calm down enough to make sure that you include everything the agent asked to see.

How to pull together a submission packet is a topic for another day, however — specifically, the day after tomorrow. Should you find yourself in the enviable position of receiving a request for submissions between now and then, please feel free to avail yourself of the in-depth advice under the HOW TO PUT TOGETHER A SUBMISSION PACKET category on the list at right.

In the meantime, let’s talk about some other possible agently reactions.

What if a writer receives a response other than yes or no?
If you receive a response that says (or implies) that the agency requires writers seeking to be clients to pay for editorial services or evaluation before signing them to contracts, do not say yes before you have done a little homework. In the US, reputable agencies do not charge reading fees — for a good list of what an agent may charge a client, check the Association of Authors’ Representatives website. It’s also an excellent idea to look up an agency that asks for money on Preditors and Editors to see if the agency is legit. You may also post a question about the agency on Absolute Write; chances are, other aspiring writers will have had dealings with the agency. (The last has a lot of great resources for writers new to marketing themselves, by the way.)

Why should you worry about whether an agency is on the up-and-up? Well, every year, a lot of aspiring writers fall prey to scams. Call me zany, but I would prefer that my readers not be amongst the unlucky many.

The main thing to bear in mind in order to avoid getting taken: not everyone who says he’s an agent is one. The fact is, anyone could slap up a website with the word AGENCY emblazoned across the top. Some of the most notorious frauds have some of the most polished and apparently writer-friendly websites.

Scams work because in any given year, there literally millions of English-speaking writers desperate to land an agent and get published, many of whom don’t really understand how reputable agencies work. Scammers prey upon that ignorance — and they can often get away with it, because in the United States, there are no technical qualifications for becoming an agent. Nor is there any required license.

Yes, really: it’s possible just to hang up a shingle and start taking on clients. Or in the case of many scams, start asking potential clients to pay them fees, either directly (as in the notorious We don’t work like other agencies, but we require a paid professional evaluation up front dodge; to see a full correspondence between an actual writer and such a business, check out the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right) or by referring writers to a specific editing service (i.e., one that gives the agency kickbacks), implying that using this service is a prerequisite to representation.

Reputable agents decide whether to represent a manuscript based upon direct reading; they do not require or expect other businesses to do it for them. Nor do they charge their clients up front for services (although some do charge photocopying fees). A legitimate agency makes its money by taking an agreed-upon percentage of the sales of its clients’ work.

If any so-called agent tries to tell you otherwise, back away, quickly, and consult the Association of Authors’ Representatives or Preditors and Editors immediately. (For a step-by-step explanation of how others have successfully handled this situation, run, don’t walk to the FEE-CHARGING AGENCIES category at right.)

Heck, if you’re not sure if you should pay a requested fee, post a question in the comments here. I would much, much rather you did that than got sucked into a scam.

Better yet, check out any agent or agency before you query. It’s not very hard at all: the standard agency guides (like the Writers Digest GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS and the Herman Guide, both excellent and updated yearly) and websites like Preditors and Editors make it their business to separate the reputable from the disreputable.

Fortunately, such scams are not very common. Still, it pays to be on your guard, especially if your primary means of finding agents to query is trolling the internet.

What if a writer receives no response at all?
More common these days is the agency that simply does not respond to a query at all. Agencies that prefer to receive queries online seem more prone to this rather rude practice, I’ve noticed, but over the last few years, an ever-increasing number of queries — and even submissions, amazingly — were greeted with silence.

In many instances, it’s actually become a matter of policy: check the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides to see if they state it openly. (For tips on how to decipher these sources, please see the HOW TO READ AN AGENCY LISTING category on the list at right.)

A complete lack of response on a query letter does not necessarily equal rejection, incidentally, unless the agency’s website or listing in one of the standard agency guides says so directly. Queries do occasionally get lost, for instance. The single most common reason a writer doesn’t hear back, though, is that the agency hasn’t gotten around to reading it yet.

Be patient — and keep querying other agents while you wait.

Seeing a pattern here?

I certainly hope so. There’s a good reason that I always urge writers to continue querying and pitching after an agent has expressed interest: as I mentioned last time, it can take weeks or even months to hear back about a query, and many agencies now reject queriers through silence. A writer who waits to hear from Agent #1 before querying Agent #2 may waste a great deal of time. Because agents are aware of this, the vast majority simply assume that the writers who approach them are also querying other agents; if they believe otherwise, they will say so on their websites or in their listings in agency guides.

For some guidance on how to expand your querying list so you may keep several queries out at any given time, please see the FINDING AGENTS TO QUERY category on the list at right.

What should a writer do if her query was rejected?
Again, the answer is pretty straightforward: try another agent. Right away, if possible.

What it most emphatically does not mean is that you should give up. Contrary to what virtually every rejected writer believes, rejection does not necessarily mean that the book concept is a poor one; it may just means that the agent doesn’t represent that kind of book, or that she just spent a year attempting to sell a similar book and failed (yes, it happens; landing an agent is no guarantee of publication), or that this book category isn’t selling very well at the moment.

The important thing to bear in mind is that at the query or pitching stage, the book could not possibly have been rejected because the manuscript was poorly written.

The query might have been rejected for that reason, naturally, but it’s logically impossible for an agent to pass judgment on a manuscript’s writing quality without reading it. Makes sense, right?

One piece of industry etiquette to bear in mind: once a writer received a formal rejection letter or e-mail, it’s considered rude to query or pitch that book project to the same agent again. (See why it’s so important to proofread your query?) At some agencies, that prohibition extends to all of the member agents; however, this is not always the case. Regardless, unless a rejecting agent actually tells a writer never to approach him again — again, extremely rare — a writer may always query again with a new book project.

Contrary to an annoyingly pervasive rumor that’s been haunting the conference circuit for decades, being rejected by one agency has absolutely no effect upon the query’s probability of being rejected by another. There is no national database, for instance, that agents check to see who else has seen or rejected a particular manuscript (a rumor I have heard as recently as last week), nor do agencies maintain databases to check whether they have heard from a specific querier before. If you’re going to get caught for re-querying the same agency, it will be because someone at the agency remembers your book project.

You really don’t want to tempt them by sending the same query three months after your last was rejected, though. People who work at agencies tend to have good memories, and an agent who notices that he’s received the same query twice will almost always reject it the second time around, on general principle. In this economy, however, it’s certainly not beyond belief that an agent who feels that he cannot sell a particular book right now may feel quite differently a year or two hence.

I leave the matter of whether to re-query to your conscience, along with the issue of whether it’s kosher to wait a year and send a query letter to an agent who didn’t bother to respond the last time around.

If your query (or manuscript, for that matter) has been rejected, whatever you do, resist the temptation to contact the agent to argue about it, either in writing or by picking up the phone. I can tell you now that it will not convince the agent that his rejection was a mistake; it will merely annoy him, and the last thing your book deserves is for the agent who rejected it to have a great story about an unusually obnoxious writer to tell at cocktail parties.

In answer to what you just thought: yes, they do swap horror stories. Seldom with names attached, but still, you don’t want to be the subject of one. In an industry notorious for labeling even brilliant writers difficult for infractions as innocuous as wanting to talk through a requested major revision before making it, or defending one’s title if the marketing department wants another, or calling one’s agent once too often to see if a manuscript has been sent to an editor, writers new to the game frequently find themselves breaking the unwritten rules.

The no-argument rule is doubly applicable for face-to-face pitching. Trying to get a rejection reversed is just not a fight a writer can win. Move on — because, really, the only thing that will genuinely represent a victory here is your being signed by another agent.

It’s completely natural to feel anger at being rejected, of course, but bickering with or yelling at (yes, I’ve seen it happen) is not the most constructive way to deal with it.

What is, you ask? Sending out another query letter right away. Or four.

Something else that might help you manage your possibly well-justified rage at hearing no: at a good-sized agency — and even many of the small ones — the agent isn’t necessarily the person doing the rejecting. Agencies routinely employ agents-in-training called agency screeners, folks at the very beginning of their careers, to sift through the huge volume of queries they receive every week. Since even a very successful agent can usually afford to take on only a small handful of new clients in any given year, in essence, the screener’s job is to reject as many queries as possible.

Here at Author! Author!, the prototypical agency screener has a name: Millicent. If you stick around this blog for a while, you’re going to get to know her pretty well. And even come to respect her, because, let’s face it, she has a hard job.

Typically, agents give their Millicents a list of criteria that a query must meet in order to be eligible for acceptance, including the single most common reason queries get rejected: pitching a type of book that the agent does not represent. There’s absolutely nothing personal about that rejection; most of the time, it’s just a matter of fit.

What is fit, you ask, and how can you tell if your book and an agent have it? Ah, that’s a subject for tomorrow’s post.

For today, let’s concentrate on the bigger picture. Finding an agent has changed a lot over the last ten or fifteen years; unfortunately, a great deal of the common wisdom about how and why books get picked up or rejected has not. The twin myths that a really good book will instantly find an agent and that any agent will recognize and snap up a really good book are just not true anymore, if indeed they ever were.

I’m not going to lie to you: finding an agent is work; it is often a lengthy process, even for the best of manuscripts. More than ever before, an aspiring writer needs not just talent, but persistence.

I know you have it in you. Keep up the good work!

How to write a really good query letter, part VI: toiling productively in the vineyards of literature, or, would Pavlov’s doggie like a biscuit?

Those of you who have been hanging around Author! Author! for a while may well recognize this gorgeous image from the Book of Hours. I like to yank it out of the mothballs every now and again, because it is such an accurate depiction of how so many aspiring writers view the work of querying these days: a long, toilsome effort aimed toward impressing the powerful folks in the white castle on the hill — who may or may not be paying attention — under a sky that (we hope) conceals at least a few minor deities rooting for the underdog’s eventual success.

What’s that you say, campers? That’s what it felt like back I was trying to find the right agent back in the dimly-remembered mists of the Paleolithic era, but everyone concerns feels perfectly marvelous about the process today? Whew, that’s a relief — thanks for clearing up that little misconception.

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

Which is a really, really nice way of saying that from a professional reader’s point of view, scads of query letters traject themselves like lemmings straight from the envelope into the rejection pile with scarcely a pause in between.

Sadly, the vast majority are rejected for reasons that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the potential personality fit between the author and agent, the agent’s ability to sell the book in question, or even the quality of the writing. Because agents and their screeners read hundreds of the darned things per week, even if only 20 of them share the same basic mistake — and trust me, more of them will — the 21rst query that carries even a shade of similarity is likely to trigger a knee-jerk reaction so strong that even Dr. Pavlov would shake his head and say, “No kidding? Just because the letter was addressed to Dear Agent, rather than to an individual?”

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

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

Don’t be ridiculous. Millicent lives in New York City; she doesn’t drive a car.

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

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

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

My, that was a convoluted sentence, wasn’t it? Let me put it more simply: offense does not always lie in the propensity of the affronted to take umbrage. Millicent may indeed be a bit rejection-happy at times, but any writer can learn how to avoid provoking her.

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

Or, in the case of e-queries, to hit the REPLY key, sending the prefab rejection reply. (You didn’t honestly believe that Millicent or her boss actually re-typed those platitudes every time, did you?)

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

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

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

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

(4) Is my query letter polite?

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

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

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

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

Well, probably so, but humor me here, because it’s quite easy to fall into the habit of pumping out those queries without really pondering their content — or whether this particular letter is the best means of marketing to that particular agent.

In fact, serial queriers often do not change anything but the first paragraph, address, and salutation between each time they sent out their mailed letters, more or less insuring that a mistake made once will be replicated a dozen times. Copying and pasting the text of one e-mailed query into the next guarantees it.

And those of you who habitually did this were surprised to receive form-letter rejections? The electronic age has made it much, much easier to be dismissive.

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

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

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

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

I agree with the general principle imbedded in this cri de coeur — it’s only prudent to check an agency’s website and/or its listing in one of the standard agency guides to ascertain that you know what precisely the agent you are addressing wants to see in a query packet. If you haven’t been agent-shopping lately, the differentials can be astonishing: some want queries only, others want synopses, many ask for pages to be placed in the body of an e-mail, a few ask queriers just to go ahead and send the first 50 pages unsolicited.

The moral: there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all query packet. In order not to run afoul of these wildly disparate expectations, a querier must be willing to do a bit of homework and follow individualized directions.

Admittedly, sometimes an agency’s listing in one of the standard guides, its website, and what one of its member agents will say at a conference are at odds. In the event of a serious discrepancy, don’t call or e-mail the agency to find out which they prefer. Go with the information that appears to be most recent — in my experience, that’s usually what’s posted either on the website or on Publisher’s Marketplace.

What no agency will EVER leave off any of its expressions of preference, however, is mention of a policy forbidding simultaneous querying, the practice of sending out queries to more than one agent at a time. Some do have policies against simultaneous submissions, where more than one agent is reading requested materials at the same time, but believe me, the agencies that want an exclusive peek tend to be VERY up front about it.

So If you have checked to ascertain that the agent of your dreams — or at least the next on your list — does not have an exclusivity policy, you should assume that s/he doesn’t. End of story. Trust me, if an agent who does prefer an exclusive peek doesn’t want other agents seeing it, s/he will let you know.

Until then, it’s a waste of your valuable time to grant a de facto exclusive to someone who hasn’t asked for it. (For some tips on dealing with an actual request for an exclusive, if and when it comes up, please see the EXCLUSIVES TO AGENTS category on the list at right.)

So why does the rumor that that most agents secretly crave exclusives (and thus penalize queriers who don’t read their minds and act accordingly) remain so pervasive? Beats me. If I had to guess, I would say that it is an unintended side effect of agents’ standing up at writers’ conferences and saying, “For heaven’s sake, don’t send out mass queries — if I see a query that’s clearly been sent to every agent in the book, I send straight it into the rejection pile.”

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

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

Dear Agent,

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

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

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

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

Yes, yes, I know: I’ve talked about this phenomenon before in this series, but I live in terror that even one of my readers will make this fundamental mistake in the interest of saving time. Since virtually any Millicent will simply pitch a Dear Agent letter into the reject pile, if not actually the trash (Dear Agent letter-writers seldom know to include SASEs), it’s in your best interest to make it quite, quite obvious to whom you are addressing your missive. In fact, the query most likely to succeed is one that is specialized not only in the salutation, but in the first paragraph as well.

How, you ask? Good question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fortunately, it’s very easy to work a compliment into a query letter without sounding cheesy or obsequious. If the agent you are querying has represented something similar to your work in the past, you have a natural beginning:

Since you so ably represented X’s excellent book, {TITLE}, I believe you may be interested in my novel…”

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

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

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

Moral: sometimes opportunities are hiding in some unexpected places. For instance…

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

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

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

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

Since you represent literary fiction, I hope you will be interested in my novel…

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

And if you are an e-querying type, why not mention it in the subject line of the e-mail? (Also a good idea to include: the word QUERY.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not necessarily. But let me ask you this: who would you prefer to read your letter, an agent calmly going through a stack (or list) of queries, or an agent whose first thought upon seeing your epistle is, “Oh, God, not another one! Can’t any of these writers READ? I’ve said in the last ten years’ worth of Herman’s Guides that I don’t want to be queried via e-mail!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know, I know: you’ve heard 4500 times that a writer should NEVER call an agency until after he has a signed representation contract in hand or the agent has left a message asking him to call back, whichever comes first. While it is quite true that allowing the agent to set the level of familiarity in the early stages of exchange is good strategy, most offices are set up to allow a caller to ask a quick, anonymous question, if he’s polite about it.

As long as you don’t ask to speak to the agent personally and/or use the occasion to pitch your book, you should be fine.

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

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

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

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