Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Miriam Goderich's musings on "The Perfect Query Letter."

The perfect query letter does not exist. (Well, perhaps it lives in the fantasy realm of unicorns and dragons, but certainly not in our day-to-day publishing world.) And, yet, everyone seems to be chasing the formula for that elusive, perfect query letter (EPQL) and its pursuit is giving a lot of people agita and heartburn. It's a recurring theme during the Q&A portion of agent presentations at writers conferences. Many internet sites and print publications aimed at writers spend a lot of time on the subject and, in talking with individual authors, it seems that confusion about this subject is universal.

So, I will try to elucidate what makes a query effective -- not perfect, mind you, just effective -- for us here at DGLM:

1. It should be succinct and to the point. The purpose of this missive is to introduce yourself and your project and ascertain if the agent wants to take a look at your proposal/manuscript. It is not the place to go into longwinded detail about the weather, your passion for shell collecting (unless, of course, the book is about shell collecting), or your great-aunt Mary’s faith that you would one day be a published writer. It should, however, be no more than a page long and look and read like a letter not a report.

The first paragraph might mention how you came to query this particular agent and/or agency – perhaps noting that you saw a nice acknowledgement of the agent in a book you admired or you looked on the agency’s web site and identified with the agent’s profile somehow or anything that shows that you did your homework and that this is not just a form letter being sent to 6,000 agents.

The next paragraph should tell the prospective agent what the book is in a couple of sentences. Here is not the place to summarize your entire book. You want to highlight the strongest themes or the elements that make the book distinctive (e.g., “My novel tells the tale of star-crossed teenage lovers separated by their families’ bitter feud.” Not, “Romeo grew up in Verona and was part of the Montague clan. He met and fell in love with Juliet who was a member of the Capulet familiy and who spent an inordinate amount of time on balconies or talking to her nurse….”) Unless you’re very good at writing concise plot summaries, the less said the better. The idea is to get the agent to the actual manuscript.

The final paragraph should tell us anything relevant about you – this is your first novel or you’ve been published in numerous literary journals or John Cheever was your godfather or you’re a neurosurgeon who has an MFA from the Iowa writing program, etc. – and ask if you may send a sample of your project or the complete manuscript.

2. On the technical side of things: Spell check and then carefully proofread the query. We have had instances of great hilarity over a dropped letter in a strategic spot. Someone once queried us for a book about “pubic policy” and, juvenile bunch that we are, we didn’t stop laughing for days. You don’t want the query to go directly to the form rejections pile because of typos, grammatical errors or because you addressed the envelope to one agent and sent it to another.

It’s okay to single space query letters – as you would any other letter – but it’s not okay to make your margins less than one inch wide and your font teeny tiny so that you can fit a three-page description into one page. Ease of reading is half the battle among us bleary-eyed publishing people. (Everything else in your submission package should be double spaced and single sided.)

Finally, unless you’re in prison, type your queries rather than handwriting them. One of my favorite queries of all time was a six-page handwritten saga describing the author’s genealogical connections to everyone from the British royal family to Lassie.

3. Did I mention doing your homework? If the agent you’re querying only represents science fiction and fantasy, don’t send him/her a query for a self-help proposal. That’s a waste of everyone’s time and postage, and there are so many places where you can find information on agents and publishers that it should be relatively easy to identify your target.

4. Use any edge you have. If you met one of us at a conference, lead with that. If your father went to school with one of our spouses, tell us that. Anything that helps us identify yours as something we should pay attention to is fair to include. Ultimately, it’s the actual idea and writing that will determine whether we offer representation, but that won’t happen if your query doesn’t make us request your material.

Caveat: Even if you follow my directions slavishly, there’s no guarantee that your query will be that EPQL we’re all looking for. As with everything else in this quixotic business, you can sometimes do all the wrong things and still end up with an agent and a book contract. And, conversely, you can do all the right things and not get your foot in the door. So, my advice is to better your chances by crafting as good a query letter as you can and then trust that your efforts and the strength of your work will pay off.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tayari Jones balances the writing/publicity act

It has been carefully documented on this blog and on my own, that publishing houses often neglect to publicize the books that they have agreed to publish. It becomes pretty clear to an author that she is going to have to get out there and hustle if she wants her book to reach readers, reviewers, prize committees, etc. Many articles have been written by editors and publicists urging more authors to get out there and HUSTLE.

I’ve done it. I’ll admit it. Many authors of literary fiction feel demeaned by the dirty-hands work of hawking their book. And, though we seldom admit it, it is also pretty depressing work. Literary fiction does not exactly lend itself to the same techniques that work well for urban lit, romance, and mystery novels. One writer friend of mine told me of her dismay at sitting at a book festival next to a romance author who had brought along a troupe of bare-chested policemen to draw attention to her steamy novel. I, too, have appeared with an author of a salacious tale of “interracial sex, drug money, and senseless violence” while I was trying to get the same audience interested in my book about loss of innocence in Atlanta during its infamous child murders case. It was enough to make me want to go knock on J.D. Salinger’s door and see if he wanted a roommate.

But once I got over myself, I had to face the fact that I was going to have to play a role in the publicity plan for my second novel. The real question was what my role should be. Here are a few guidelines that have worked for me:

If you can afford it, hire an independent publicist. Don’t go into massive debt for it, but you should squirrel away some of your advance for this important project. Although I think of myself as having a lot of good ideas, I also have sense enough to know that I am not an expert in literary publicity. Also, keep in mind that reading series, book reviewers, etc., are often more comfortable dealing with an author’s representative rather than the author herself. (Here are some things to think about when hiring a publicist and here is a Q&A I did with Lauren Cerand, the publicist I ended up choosing.)

Do what you do best, WRITE. When my second novel was published, I wrote a few articles about the experience of writing and publishing, and also pieces connected to the themes of my books. Some were published on line and others in magazines. Many writers are more comfortable lounging at home in their pajamas than standing in front of large crowds, giving readings, etc. If this is you, that’s okay. Let your writing represent you. Everything helps when it comes to getting the word out.

Get good at reading from your work. I know I just said you could help yourself without facing a crowd, but you will have to venture outside from time to time. Bookstore readings are helpful even if you only read to an audience of six people. For one thing, those six folks may tell six other folks, but more importantly, the bookstore staff will hear you and their enthusiasm will linger well after you’ve gone back home to the comfort of your pajamas. My advice is to practice reading until you feel confident. You won’t be so nervous once you know what you’re doing.

Use the internet. Blogging is a terrific way to communicate with your readers without running all over the country. Many writers think they will not have time to blog, but once you get the hang of it, it only takes about three hours a week. Also, get familiar with the major lit-blogs and then decide which ones would be a good fit for your work.

Don’t overdo it. Once you start thinking of ways to publicize your book, you will realize that there is always something else to be done. There are always more postcards to mail, more hands to shake, more festivals to visit. Know when to back off. You don’t want your efforts to get the word out to compromise your ability to have a life. Don’t miss important milestones with your family because you were busy signing stock at a major bookstore. And always remember, you are a writer who is trying to publicize your book. You are not a motivational speaker who writes in between reading and speaking gigs (unless, of course, you are). Don’t ever lose that focus. Nothing will help your career more than finishing the next book.