Feb 24

 

Loyal readers of this blog (if you've cheated on me by reading some other blogs recently I forgive you, but don't let it happen again… :) ) may remember that I was recently working on my second book; I've completed it now, and am in the process of querying agents.  For the uninitiated this may seem like a relatively simple process: send a letter telling an agent about your book, if he/she is interested he/she asks to see more, and if all goes well you get representation and everyone has a Merry Christmas.  Ah, grasshopper, how much you have to learn.  Because the truth is that while technically it is more or less like that, in actual practice it's a long, long way from reality (even the rewritten kind).  No, in fact the process of finding an agent tends to be a long and arduous lesson in patience, humility, and a whole lot of gnashing of teeth, sackcloth and ashes optional–and it all starts with the sacred Query Letter, the key to agent bliss.  Having been through this process several times now I think I've started to get the idea–er, ideas–about how this all works, and so at the risk of stealing the thunder from my friends over at LROD, I now present the Five Steps to Writing the Query Letter of Righteousness (I considered "Justice" instead of "Righteousness," but decided that the latter term has got a touch more religious fervor).  Feel free to use this plan if you like, so long as you credit me once you've landed your agent…and, uh, so long as you put me in touch with that agent.  No reason, just would like to talk to him/her.

1.  YOUR QUERY SHALL BE SHORT.

Really.  Short.  If you think you've already made your query short, you're wrong.  Make it shorter.  No matter that there isn't any conceivable way to communicate what your story is about in two sentences; do it, or there's something wrong with you as a writer.  The agents say that this is necessary because of the hundreds, thousands, or millions (the numbers keep shooting up every time I look, so I'm extrapolating on the fly a bit) of queries they receive every week; if you can get things down to a few sentences, they might have a chance of getting through the query backlog by the fall, if all goes well.  They also claim that this demonstrates your ability as a writer, and there's something the matter either with you or your work if you can't distill your magnum opus into a few simple, easily remembered phrases.  And I'm really not making this up:  on Colleen Lindsay's blog, she quotes Shelly Shapiro's (editor-at-large for Del Rey) advice:  "I tell people that I want to see your plot summed up like a TV Guide entry:  three sentences.  No more.  If a writer can't do that, I know there's something missing."  (Such as the ability to compress a complex novel into a Powerpoint presentation, I suppose, but I digress.)  So I've taken up the challenge and have written a few sample queries for famous novels using this advice.  How many can you get right?

A.  "White whale.  Wooden-legged weirdo.  Want manuscript?"

B.  "Big-watered river.  European cannibals–the horror, the horror!  Like more?"

C.  "Guy bites necks, lives a long time.  Gets bored, does interview, keeps on un-living.  Whaddya think?"

D.  "Guy meets girl.  Girl seduces guy.  Girl's twelve.  Thoughts?"  (I cheated a bit on this one, but I'm still working on it.)

These probably wouldn't get picked up today–they're still too long for our overworked agents–but at least it's a start!

2.  YOUR QUERY SHALL BE DIFFERENT.   

Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack?  One that makes an agent say "now THIS book, different from any other one I've seen described in three or fewer sentences, is one I can sell!"?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 2.

3.  YOUR QUERY SHALL NOT BE TOO DIFFERENT.

Fine, you can write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack.  But can you write a TV Guide entry that stands out from the pack without convincing the agent that you're a lunatic ("Come on, now, who the hell is going to want to read a book about a talking Xerox machine that plays a mean game of golf?  Get real!  Where's a good vampire book when you need it?")?  If so, you're well on your way to completing step 3.

4. YOUR QUERY SHALL GIVE MAXIMUM INFORMATION IN MINIMUM SPACE, EXCEPT WHEN IT WON'T.

Much of the time agents want to know a lot about you–your credentials, background, awards, that sort of thing.  It's important that they know this so they can understand the kind of person they're dealing with.  Much of the time agents don't want to know anything about you.  It's about your book, not the workshops you've enrolled in or the pieces of paper you have hanging on your wall.  What the hell would make you think that you should tell them about all of that stuff?!

Oh.  Right, yes, there is the first part of that paragraph.  Hmm.

5.  YOUR QUERY WILL REFER TO AGENTS FORMALLY, EXCEPT WHEN IT WON'T.

Most agents prefer a personalized letter with a formal mode of address:  Mr. Kleinman, say.  Calling them by their first names is juvenile and unprofessional.  But try that on other agents and you will get not only rejected but laughed at en route:  

    "Thanks so much for bringing it up in the first place, Ms. Lindsay."

    "Oh, GAWD!  Don't call me 'Ms.'  It's the most ridiculous thing ever."

Well, of course it is!  Who would even dream of calling an agent by her last name, with a professional honorofic attached?  Where would they have gotten that…oh.  Yes.  Hmm.

Were I a cynic, I might think that all of the above contradictory and sometimes whimsically arbitrary edicts were indicative of a larger problem in the agenting business–say, a tendency to substitute one's ego for common sense, and a belief that most of the people submitting manuscripts to agents–manuscripts on which these agents depend for their livelihoods, by the way–are cretins who don't know any better than to ignore "obvious" directions.  But of course I haven't gone down the cynic's path quite yet.  In truth there are a number of excellent and well-meaning agents, who live normal lives and are solid, good-hearted types; I know some of them, and they're good people.  And it's obviously true that a lot of writers have a sense of irritating entitlement, believing that it is the world's responsibility to publish their work regardless of its perceived or real artistic worth and value.  But I must admit that there are some times when it's hard not to get annoyed at the attitude expressed by some of the "gatekeepers" who seem stunned ("Oh GAWD!!!") by and dismissive of authors who just don't get how to do a query letter "properly"–and would be equally stunned at the idea that any of their fellow guardians of the publishing industry might be demanding things in direct opposition to them.  To those agents, a simple request: a measure of compassion would be much appreciated.  You really aren't the only one reading queries, and it isn't always easy to jump through your particular hoop at your particular time.  And while we sympathize with your workload, we must respectfully point out that it's one you freely chose to take on.  At the point that you make that choice, I think a measure of kindness blended with the savvy business sense necessary for your profession becomes a major part of your job description.  And remembering why you got into that profession in the first place might help you place those rules in their proper perspective.

In the meantime, I'm looking through every TV Guide I can find to get some pointers.  I may accidentally still use the "Ms." term again…but at least I'll have a super short description of my book to compensate for it, and who knows?  I think "Raft.  River.  Racism.  Read?" has got promise…even if it takes me some time to work out the details.

You think? 

5 Responses to “First, you must destroy the hideous ogre. Then, you must climb the Mountain of a Thousand Sorrows…”

  1. La Gringa Says:

    AS I made pretty clear on the blog, every agent has different preferences, which is why the most respectful thing you can do is to research each individual agent as to his or her own preferences.

    Re the Shelly Shapiro quote: You failed to mentioned that it says “tongue-in-cheek”

    Re MS: I have never liked anyone using an honorific with me ever, especially that one which neither stands for nor is short for anything. I am an informal person; I prefer to have people call me by my first name whenever possible.

  2. Golf » Blog Archive » First, you must destroy the hideous ogre. Then, you must climb the Mountain of a Thousand Sorrows… Says:

    […] Rewritten Reality wrote an interesting post today on First, you must destroy the hideous ogre. Then, you must climb the Mountain of a Thousand Sorrows…Here’s a quick excerpt … o read a book about a talking Xerox machine that plays a mean game of golf? Get real!… […]

  3. A Writer Says:

    Wow, Colleen…I’d heard you were the fastest draw on the Internet, but this speed of reply is truly impressive. Welcome. You’re quite right that researching each individual agent is the most respectful thing to do, and I (and most other authors, I suspect) always do so. But the real question is why any agent would object to things which are commonly accepted practice in other venues–like Ms. Lindsay, say.

    When teaching my students usually call me “Professor,” but if someone calls me “Doctor” or “Mr.” instead I’m not going to react poorly to it–it’s a common appellation of respect. Yet some agents find being called Mr. Jeff Kleinman, say, to be ridiculous, arguing that it’s just “not what you call someone.” You, on the other hand, find being called “Ms.” ridiculous. Okay, that’s your prerogative and I respect it. But your personal opinion is not the hard and fast rule that many agents (perhaps not you) seem to think it is, ridiculing well-meaning writers for “violating” that rule–which shifts from agent to agent. I’ve seen nasty notes to that effect. I’m happy to call him Mr. Kleinman and you Colleen. I’m NOT happy to call someone Mr. Frank, say, and get my head bitten off for being so stupid as to use that term instead of “Agent Frank of the X Literary Agency,” for instance. I think that’s a basic level of respect which the agent owes the author–indeed, which any human being owes any human being–and so we’d like the same level of respect in agents’ dealings with us as we try to give them.

    As for the tongue in cheek business, the entry actually says “SLIGHTLY tongue in cheek,” in fairness, and I’ve heard much the same line (delivered in all seriousness) from lots of agents and editors. Maybe it’s actually a double or triple TV Guide entry, then; it still doesn’t make it a very likely method of communicating a much more complicated work, as my slightly tongue-in-cheek examples demonstrate. “Short” is one thing, but the advice has now shifted to “ridiculously brief,” and that’s not a positive trend for anyone, in my view.

    In any case, I appreciate the comments and your blog–you’re an excellent writer and will be I’m sure an excellent agent (and that is not meant to be tongue-in-cheek in the least). Just don’t forget about the human beings on the other end of the query letters, that’s all! In return, I promise to continue to ridicule writers who give you and other agents unreasonably hard times for doing your jobs. Deal?

    A.W.

  4. La Gringa Says:

    I never said that other people shouldn’t like honorifics. I just despise them myself, and especially in the setting of what is – essentially – just a goofy personal blog. :-)

    I have always hated the term “Ms.” however; even when it was first introduced. For some reason I have never been able to stand it, much the same way that the grammar nazi in me gets cranky when I see people spell women as “womyn” or “wimmin”. As a feminist, I believe there is a point when we become parodies of ourselves, but that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother blog.

    In the mean, please just call me Colleen.

  5. A Writer Says:

    Well, since the last thing I want to do is make you into a parody, welcome to our humble site, Colleen. Please stick around–we’d love to hear more from one of the good agents out there, grammar Nazi or not. :)

    A.W.

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