The Query – The First Paragraph

Michael Curtis used to be the fiction editor of The Atlantic Monthly back when The Atlantic published fiction. I heard him speak at a writer’s conference once, and I thought he gave the best advice for how to approach a cover letter for a short story submission, which is not unlike the first paragraph of a query letter. Think of the editor (or agent, in our case) as someone to whom you’ve been introduced at a party. Hello, nice to meet you, and a firm handshake. This is what you’re doing in the first paragraph.

While the first paragraph’s content is fairly rote—the agents know, after all, that you’ve contacted them because you’re looking for an agent—there is still some room to shine. I was amazed when Curtis described how many submissions were tossed based solely on a bizarre cover letter.  So my first piece of advice is—don’t shoot yourself in the foot.  Keep it simple:

I am seeking representation for my (genre & Title, and word count if you’d like).

That, or some variation, is a fine place to start.  Next comes an opportunity to separate yourself a bit from the pack.  Why have you chosen this agent?  If you’ve plucked their name out of a book or website, then simply indicate that you think they might be a good fit for the project and move on to the plot summary. There is no shame in this. Agents need writers and you’re a writer.

If, on the other hand, you know some of the authors the agent represents and you think your work is similar—by all means, mention this. It shows you’ve done some research, which shows that you’re serious about your work. Of course, if a writer, especially one of the agent’s clients, has recommended the agent to you, or you to the agent, by all means, say so here.  In most cases, an author recommendation will get you read straight away.

I’ve never been a fan of razzle-dazzle salesmanship. I’m sure there are writers who’ve acquired representation with query letters that started, “You need to represent this book,” but I’ll bet not many. If you like razzle-dazzle, and you feel you’re good at it—go for it. Otherwise, be short and to the point. You want the agent reading your next paragraph, which is where the real salesmanship begins.

Tomorrow: The Plot Summary.

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The Query

My father told me that great mathematicians make the worst math teachers.  Better to have someone who struggled slightly in math class to guide a student through the challenges of logarithms. By this logic, I consider myself an ideal candidate to discuss the query letter. Until very recently I loathed writing them. Why, after spending two years on every detail of a novel, would I want to boil the story down to one paragraph? It was an impossible, odious but necessary evil, so I gritted my teeth, threw fits, dashed off something as intriguing as a technical manual, and then begged my wife for assistance.

That was before The Epiphany, the specifics of which I will get to a bit later. Though I am hopefully at a point in my career where I no longer need to query literary agents, I now consider the query letter a friend, and over the next week, I hope I can convince you to view this odd correspondence similarly.

First, for those of you new to the business of finding a literary agent—a query letter primer. A query letter is a ONE PAGE (never more) summary of you and your project. The letter should be three or four paragraphs long.

  • First paragraph: Polite salutation, name of project, genre of project, length of project, why project is right for particular agent.
  • Second and maybe third paragraphs: Summary of project.
  • Last Paragraph: Your credentials, if you have any.

That’s it. This should be the length of your submission whether you are querying through snail or email. In many ways, one of the objectives of the query letter is to demonstrate to the agent that you are serious about your writing. If your query is neat and professional, then you will have achieved at least that. In general, don’t be fancy. Use a basic business letter format and the most straight-forward language you can. A lot of agents feel busy and overwhelmed—let them know you respect their time.

So that is where we begin. I will deal with the paragraphs one by one and in greater detail throughout the week.  Stay tuned . . .

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You Never Know

I went to a screening of a friend’s film last night. It was a rough cut, which is to say, it wasn’t finished, and once the credits had rolled, my friend the filmmaker got up in front of the audience and asked for feedback.  At first, no one said anything, so I slipped into interviewer mode and asked some weak question about a certain aspect of the film and then sunk into my chair. Public discussions of art, particularly unfinished art, are not my favorite way to spend an evening. Meanwhile, the rest of the audience, which was made up primarily of other filmmakers and actors, was feeling timid. A tiny remark here, a minor question there . . . it was looking like I might be able to make an early night of it.

Not so. My friend kept pressing. What did they think of the film? Did they have any suggestions? He’d handed out questionnaires before the screening, but he was looking for a public discussion. I don’t know if he was hoping for an outpouring of unbridled praise or constructive criticism, but after more pressing, he got the latter and then some.

I agreed with all the criticisms. The movie, in my opinion, still needed a lot of work. But I did not envy him standing up there alone while one by one the audience felt emboldened to speak their mind. Eventually the helpfulness reached a merciful end, I patted him on the back and told him he’d done good work (which, despite the film’s problems, he had), and flew out of there.

By the time I got home, I was in a minor funk. His sins were mine. I am wading through the murky middle of my own sprawling story, and being reminded of how easy it is to become lost in a narrative maze pushed me closer to that death spiral of self-doubt. And just as I was ready to fall back on an old and treacherous habit—reciting all my past successes as proof to my present self of my future glory—I stepped back and remembered the safest place to rest is in not knowing. I did not know what would happen with my book or his movie or anything else, and more to the point, I didn’t need to.

Always a little surprising to find peace there, but I did, and that is how I fell asleep last night.

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On We Go

I have just finished editing two of articles for next month’s issue, both of which deal in one way or another with the importance of persistence. Almost every writer I interview mentions persistence somehow, and writing magazine after writing magazine is filled with pages of writing professionals encouraging new writers to persist, persist, persist. Problem is, as a writer you can hear this advice so often that it can cease to mean anything. Yes, yes, I need persistence—but what I really need is an agent!

In truth, you need persistence more. Yet persistence can mean different things to different people. Some people are tough—I call them survivors. For them, persistence is the embodiment of their toughness. Do not bother knocking them down, they will only rise again. Tough people, however, expect to be knocked down, I think. It is a kind of proof they are actually doing something. If you stick your chin out it will get hit, but the alternative to not sticking your chin out is unacceptable, so swing away, Life, I’m a survivor. Tough people get a lot done and can be fantastic allies—just don’t cross them.

I am not tough. In fact, if you’ve read my blogs you may have gleaned a certain antipathy for the very notion of survival. Yet I believe just as strongly in persistence, though it means something slightly different to me. To me, persistence is the rejection of the idea of failure. Persistence is not about taking my lumps, or toughening my skin, it is about viewing life with the greatest compassion possible. Nothing wants to hurt me, and everything is trying to help me. Failure is the belief that something is finished. Nothing is ever finished, it is only on its way to becoming something else.

This may sound airy and theoretical, but for me it is the most grounded and stable place from which to launch any venture, from a novel to a magazine to a relationship. If I live or write or love in fear of something ending or being taken from me, I am always unstable. Nothing can be taken from me that I do not give away, and no one on earth can tell me what I have done or written or thought or sung was worth writing or thinking or singing. It is no one else’s business.

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The Writing Group Trap

I wrote yesterday about the benefits of blogging, especially for the beginning writer. Another popular tool is the writing group. Many of you probably already belong to one or have belonged to one. Most of the working writers I talk to do not use writers groups, though primarily because they are on tight publishing schedules and they have editors whose job it is, theoretically, to read and improve their work.  There are exceptions to this, however, most notably Wally Lamb. A bestselling novelist twice chosen for Oprah’s Book Club, Wally belongs to no less that three writing groups.

Just as writing a blog can build your confidence by forcing you to write for an audience of strangers, joining a writing group can toughen your skin for the inevitable feedback you will one day receive from the publishing world. There is a danger with the writing group, however – namely, not everyone who wants to write is a good critic of other people’s writing.

Giving useful feedback on a work in progress is not a simple thing. To do so, you must divorce your own aesthetic from what the author is trying to achieve. That is, just because you do not like how a story is being told, does not mean it should not be told that way. Therefore, when someone hands you a story or a chapter and asks, “What do you think?” don’t tell them. Don’t tell them what you really think of it unless you really love it. Everyone wants to know if you love what they’ve written because everyone wants to reach another person and it’s good to know when you’ve done so.

But the question you should be asking yourself is, “What is the writer trying to do?” Then, “What can I say to help them do it?” This is not always easy, and I must confess I am not that good at it. I become irritable and impatient with stories I don’t like. But then I sit across from the writer whose work I have read, and I look into his or her face, and I see someone just like myself, someone trying to tell the story they most want to tell. So I reach for a writer’s best friend, compassion, and come up with something.  It is not always useful, but if nothing else maybe I let them know that everything they risk is worth doing.

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Blog Away

I have become a great proponent of the blog. To blog you must write after all, and writing is writing, however informal. On a purely professional level, the benefits are many. First, it’s free. It’s also easy. Blogger, Google’s free blogging site, is quick. You can be blogging ten minutes after logging on.

If you’ve already got a book you’re promoting, a blog is one way to keep in touch with your readers. Blog about where you’ll be reading, about where you have read, about where you’ve been interviewed. You can have contests to give away free books, and you can interact with your readers through the blog’s message board. Blog’s are also handy if your book has been bought but the publishing date is still a year away. If you start blogging ahead of time, you might be able to generate a little interest in your project before it hits the shelf. I don’t think a blog is going to necessarily make a book a bestseller, but I do think it’s one more valuable tool in a writer’s publicity tool kit.

But I also think the blog is just as important to the unpublished writer. In fact, it may be more important. When you blog you are deciding to be read. It is very important to be read if you want to be a writer, and not just for the paycheck readers generate. I have wanted to be a writer since I was a boy. When I was a teenager, I wrote story after story and showed them to my parents, my teachers, sometimes even my friends. This was a very forgiving audience. I never felt I was trying to communicate something with them. Rather, when I showed them my stories I was merely showing them what I was capable of. They read the stories out of love for me, not the stories themselves.

Then my high school’s principal died during my senior year, and we dedicated our yearbook to him. Since I was editor, it fell to me to write something commemorative to read at the graduation when we presented his widow with a special copy of the yearbook. Suddenly, what I would write would not be for my friends and loved ones—it would be heard by hundreds of strangers. For me, that changed everything. It was like the difference between singing in the shower and singing on a stage. I wrote the best two paragraphs on my young life.

This is what the blog can do for the beginning writer.  By publishing yourself you begin to feel the charge of writing for an actual audience. At first the audience might only be your friends and family, but eventually strangers will find their way to your blog. Because it’s one thing to ask, how do I get published? It is another thing altogether to ask, what would I write if I knew I was going to be read?

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The Block

I have now had three writers who worked in the newspaper or advertising industry prior to becoming fulltime novelists say virtually the same thing about writing as a daily discipline: you can’t tell an editor or a creative director you’ve got writer’s block. And yet in his book Adventures in The Screen Trade William Goldman, one of the most successful screenwriters Hollywood has ever produced, describes suffering with a long and agonizing bout of writer’s block. Apparently this bugbear can visit the best of them.

I’ve certainly never had writer’s block the way Goldman described it. From him, chemotherapy would be preferable to a prolonged case of writer’s block. But who can say that they have never been blocked on anything?  Unfortunately, being blocked is virtually a human condition. That is, questioning yourself; that is, believing you can get it wrong.

So here then are a few quick tips if you are feeling blocked, which I have culled from my own experiences and my conversations with other writers:

  • Free write. Write anything and everything that comes to your mind as quickly as possible without judging it. This gets you back into the flow.
  • Keep a journal. Write down everything you’re afraid of in it. Get it out of you. Look at it and see how silly it is.
  • Write something different.  Move to a different part of your story that you are interested in.
  • Step away. I’ve learned that if it’s not coming this day, it might come the next.
  • Write on a different project. Move to poetry, blog, write a letter.
  • Talk to someone. Find a friend and unload.

Finally, and most importantly, be kind. Be as kind as you can possibly be. Even if you can’t write anything, be kind. The whip will get you nowhere. It’s only fear that’s ever blocking your way, after all, and fear is always an illusion, a nightmare we’ve chosen to believe.

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We Are Not Alone

Ernest Hemmingway described writing as the loneliest profession. Ivan Doig told me the first thing a new writer must ask him or herself is if they are willing to be alone for long stretches of time. True enough, I suppose. As I write this blog I am alone at my desk, and must remain so if I hope to finish it. And it is easy to look out at the other arts, at the filmmakers, the musicians, the dancers, to say nothing of carpenters, businessmen, waiters, bankers, teachers, and lawyers who practice their living every day in the company of other people and feel a tinge of longing for a friendly face to toil beside.

Given their propensity for shyness, plenty or writers, I’m sure, can only grouse—good riddance. Give me my solitude, my quite desk, and my imagination. All else is distraction. Except that nothing you do you really do alone. Even this blog required my webmaster to construct this wonderful environment, to say nothing of those men and women I’ll never meet who created HTML, and java, and all else stretching back technologically to Gutenberg and his Bible, the Greeks and their alphabet, and the first cave man to understand that by scraping one rock against another he could leave a mark for future cave people to live by.

And more to the point, this blog did not spring out of a literary void. I’ve learned, I’ve borrowed, and I’ve stolen from all the writers I’ve read, from Tolkien to E. E. Cummings. My mother told me stories, my father told me stories, my sister and brother and friends and teachers and co-workers, everyone told me stories, and when I sit down to write, conscious or not, I am reaching back through all those stories I have heard to cobble together one of my own.

Small comfort perhaps, when the quiet is closing in on you and your blank page. Where are all those stories now? Well, they can’t have gone far. They can’t be any further away than they ever were. Must be that in those dark hours that some name writer’s block we are keeping those other helpful voices away, because we have convinced ourselves we are alone and must remain so to do this supposedly solitary work.

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I’ll Know When I Get There

I believe I have been thinking about outlining so much of late because I am right in the thorny middle of a new novel.  This is a big novel (big for me at least), much bigger than anything I’ve written recently.  As I have said, I don’t use outlines, and so, while it is chugging along and taking shape and I think I know where I’d like it to go, there is no denying it is a beast at the moment with a dozen dangling tentacles waggling nowhere. 

So it must go for me, apparently. Jonathan Evison, who, like myself, doesn’t do much outlining, advised me to, once I know something I have written must be changed, go back and change it immediately. “All right,” I told him. “By Jingo, I shall.” But I couldn’t. I simply must get to the end to know why I started writing the book in the first place. And though I only just told you that I think know where this book is going – I don’t. I never do until I get there. But when I get to the end I think, Yes, this is where I wanted to go. And then I go back and change everything around so the story actually leads where it’s supposed, namely in one direction. 

This is why my advice to new writers is always – finish the first draft. Even if you do outline, you won’t know what the book is really about until you get to the end. Even if it’s a murder mystery, you might get to the end, only to realize the cat burglar didn’t kill the heiress’s cousin, it was the heiress’s cousin’s cousin. You never know until you get there. 

As if you ever can with anything anyway. I’m as guilty as the next fool of trying to plan out my future.  I am always wrong, and, like it or not, the future is always surprising.  All the better, I say.  Would you buy modeling clay that came pre-shaped? What would be the fun in it?  No, the blank page of our books, of our days, of our lives, is as it should be.  The nothingness, the absolute entirety of possibility, is the wellspring of all creativity. 

Dive in. 

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Andre, Pooh, and Me

First of all, I had a fantastic interview with Andre Dubus yesterday afternoon. He’s touring for the paperback release of the of The Garden of Last Days, and we had great chat.  Look forward to it in our July issue.

One thing he and I talked about was outlining. Like myself, he rarely plans out where he’s going, and we had a fine time agreeing that it was good not to have everything laid out ahead of time.  However, I do not want to give the impression that I think people who do outline are going about it all wrong. Indeed they are not. Indeed there is no right way. Jeffery Deaver writes 200 page outlines. Alan Jacobson also outlines in great detail, so much so, that he finds himself writing his novel in the outline.

What is interesting is this penchant for outlining does not always bleed over into a writer’s life. For instance, in this month’s issue I spoke to YA bestseller D. J. MacHale. He outlined the entire arc of this ten book series in one shot. And yet, if he goes on vacation with his wife, she plans everything, and he wants to go wherever the wind takes him.

It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you trust. If you outline meticulously because you don’t trust that your imagination will be there for you in your hour of need, then in all likelihood it will not be. Your imagination would like nothing more than to help you all it can, but it needs all the latitude you can grant it.  Likewise, you can’t feel constricted by structure.  Sooner or later, your book, story, or poem is going to have to take some kind of shape. Here you’ll have to be less of an artist and more of a craftsman. Enjoy it. Give your right brain a rest and let your linear left brain do what it does best – organize. 

But trust, trust, trust. A central theme of my interview with Andre Dubus circled around this very subject. He agreed that one must let the book happen. As A. A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh notes: A hum must come to you; Rabbit, on the other hand, never let anything come to him and would always go out and fetch it.

Embrace your inner Pooh.  

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