A Little Trickery

Here is the epiphany that finally cracked the query letter code for me. At a certain point I took a look at my query letter and asked myself honestly, “Do you think this would entice anyone into reading your book?” The answer was, No. The problem was, I took the query letter very, very seriously. I hated them, but I took them seriously. Without a good query letter, it seemed to me, I would never find an agent and without an agent I would never publish my novel. The query letter, unfortunately, had become too important.

There’s a great story about a Zen master watching an archery contest. The master sees the archer, who is very skilled and expected to win, and comments, “His need to win is interfering with his ability to win.”

So it was with the query letter. There was too much pressure on the query letter.  It had to be too good. So I tricked myself.  I said, “What if this were an assignment for school? How would you write it then?” I never took school particularly seriously. I wanted to do well and get decent grades and so on, but I never felt that my entire future hung in the balance. This, it seems to me, is a healthy approach. My imagination does not function well with a gun at its head.

I imagined myself being given the assignment of a query letter for a class, and I wrote the best query letter I’d ever written. So take the pressure off. Remember that you are smart, you have a good imagination, and that you care deeply about the book you have written. That will help you write a good query letter. The tips I outlined last week are useful guides, but that is all. The real guide is your own desire to share your work, and you don’t need how-to book to understand that.

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The Query – The Final Paragraph

You’ve written your polite, professional salutation, you’ve carefully crafted an intriguing summary filled with character and conflict, now there’s only one more bit of business—your credentials.

What are credentials for a writer?  First of all, if you’re writing a non-fiction book, you don’t necessarily have to have any writing experience if you’re already an expert in the field around which your book is centered. Your job is easy. List your degrees, your profession, your speaking engagements, and you’re off.

If, on the other hand, you are writing fiction, credentials are any writing you have ever done that has seen the light of print.  If you have published short stories, a novel with a small press, poems, had a play produced at a local playhouse—list these, of course.  If you’ve ever written for a newspaper, no matter how small, list this. Let the agent know if you’re a technical writer, a copywriter, or a lyricist.  If you edited your college newspaper, if you majored in creative writing, list these as well. If you have a popular blog, this can also be listed. Anything at all that shows you have a working knowledge of the English language is worth mentioning.

Also, if your novel deals with, say, a murder in an upscale restaurant’s kitchen, indicate that you worked for five years as a sous chef. If you are writing a crime procedural you might want to mention how you are a retired homicide detective. Anything to lend credence to your authority with a given subject.

But if you have not published anything, if you don’t have a degree in fiction, or have never written for a newspaper or made a living as a copywriter—if, in short, all you’ve done is sit down and worked as hard as you could on your first novel—don’t despair. Everyone starts somewhere.  Thank the agent again, perhaps drop a line about being hard at work on your next novel, and say good-bye. It’s possible there will be agents who won’t consider your work because you haven’t proven yourself yet, but if you have a good story to tell, someone somewhere will recognize this and give you chance to prove it.

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The Summary Continued

I addressed the plot summary of a query letter in brief yesterday, but as this is such a critical part of the query, I thought I’d dive in a little deeper today.

The summary serves two purposes. One, it tells the agent what sort of story you’ve written. Fiction has become a compartmentalized business, for good or evil, and many agents and editors think in terms of what section of Barnes & Noble a book will be stocked. (As a side note, if you have an idea of your target audience, you might want to mention that somewhere in the opening or closing paragraph. If nothing else, it reinforces that you are serious about both the creative and business sides of the book trade – something most agents and editors appreciate)

Secondly, the summary gives you an opportunity to reveal a bit about yourself as a writer. Give it some personality. This goes for non-fiction writers as well as fiction writers. It’s pretty hard to bring much oomph to a greeting or a list of your credits, but a summary of a plot or even a non-fiction project is about grabbing the reader’s attention. It is impossible to emphasize too much how important your ability to grab and hold a reader’s attention is, whether in a letter or a novel.

So as you reread your summary, ask yourself this: Does this sound like the book I’ve written? It was when I asked myself this question, and answered, No, that I knew I’d been going about the query all wrong. And it was when I loosened up, took a few chances, and allowed myself to write the query just as I’d write anything else that I started getting more positive responses.

Think of it this way. Would you want to read 20 query letters a day? I don’t think I would. But agents often do, God bless them. So entertain the agent a little. When I was in college I had a few professors confess that they’d given me good grades on my papers despite poor spelling and skimpy research simply because I amused them. Trust that you are an entertaining writer. In this way the query letter becomes a great opportunity to practice trusting yourself, your voice, and the value of what you’d like share with the world.

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The Query – The Summary

You’ve written your greeting. It’s short, professional, and explains why you have chosen to approach this particular agent. Now it’s time for the meat of the query letter – the summary.

To begin with, remember this: It is not the job of your query letter to make every agent want to read your book. The job of the query letter is to help the right agent recognize your book as a project he or she is capable of representing with enthusiasm. No one likes everything and nothing has ever been liked by everyone. Therefore, when summarizing your book, attempt to reveal what it actually is, and even, to some degree, what it is not.  Be honest. It’s the best way to find the right agent.

I am now going to deal more with fiction and not non-fiction. Non-fiction is typically sold more on the idea of the book and the author’s credentials. A professional query letter is still important, but requires a bit less finesse. For fiction, you’ve got to reveal the nature of your book without having to tell the entire story.  How to do that?

First, if you’ve got a hook of some kind, lead with that. If your detective is a one-armed midget, if your story is told backwards in Farsi, if your protagonist falls in love with a cat—get it out of the way. Such distinctions will probably go a long way in determining if your book is right for an agent. Otherwise, make sure you establish right away when and where the story is taking place, and whom the story is about.

Next, conflict. Somehow, your summary must describe conflict.  In fact, beyond defining who and when and where, conflict should be the whole of your query. If your story revolves around one central conflict – the hero must return the Crown of Reckoning to the Tomb of Earth; your heroine is looking for love after losing her husband and daughter in a plane crash – then your job is made somewhat easier. Here is my protagonist, here is his or her conflict, here is how it is resolved.

Not all stories are so simple, however.  Mine never managed to be, and so I learned to choose a variety of conflicts that gave a feel for the entire story. It didn’t matter so much whether the agent understood the plot or not; it was only important that the flavor of the story and nature of the conflicts be expressed.

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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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