Thursday, March 11, 2010

Too much information?

by Jessica

Reader Laura A. posted the following response to Jim’s slush week round-up:

There were a lot of places where the agents seemed to want more information, and yet we're always advised to keep queries brief. I've also read that agents don't want you to give too much away - just give them enough information to want to keep reading. I realize it's a fine line to walk. Perhaps if you do this again, you could address those types of questions regarding length and how much of the plot-line you should include.”

Laura A. makes a good point, and at Jim's suggestion, I’m happy to address the “Be brief/Not enough information” conundrum. First of all, while I cannot speak for all agents, I have no inherent objections to long-ish query letters. In fact, I just received a terrific pitch letter for a novel in the vein of Donna Tartt’s Secret History. It stretches, beautifully and unabashedly, over the better part of two pages, and I read every word. And just as soon as I finish this blog entry, I will request the manuscript.

On the other hand, I sometime receive queries that are just a few lines long:

Dear Ms. Papin,

I am looking for an agent to represent a work of literary fiction, a coming-of-age story of a young woman who overcomes abject poverty to succeed—both against all odds and on her own terms. Kindly let me know if I may send you my manuscript.

This letter is correct. It is certainly concise. It is also devoid of any detail that might pique my interest. A pitch letter is a space to showcase your talents, and you are well served to take advantage of it. Give yourself some room to maneuver (or enough rope to hang yourself, as the case may be) find an elegant summation of your story, deploy an original turn of phrase. Don’t hide your light under a bushel.

As for the nitty gritty: take a page from journalism 101 and be certain to establish the who, what, when, where, why and how of your story. In prose as clean and effective as you can make it, give me the set up. Lay out the setting, characters, primary conflict, and give me a sense of the pace and the tone. Is the ending a surprise twist? Thereafter, turn your attention to the two additional “w’s” of book publishing, namely: the “who cares?” and the “why you?” Establish your readership—will your novel appeal to fans of Carl Hiassen or Jodi Picoult, Chang Rae Lee or Dennis Lehane? If you are writing non- fiction, who is your target market? Why are you uniquely suited to write the work at hand?

Resist the impulse to describe the book in its entirety. Few things are harder to write than an interesting synopsis—indeed, I’ve read grant proposals that are more compelling. You’re describing events, not the mood or the logic of the story, and asking your reader to accompany characters whom they don’t yet care about on adventures they don’t entirely understand can be deadly.

I tend to agree with Jim that modeling a query letter on flap or back cover copy is a helpful exercise. Jacket copy, like a query, is a selling tool, one that aims to capture the interest of its reader. Flap copy may be written by an in-house copy department or the book’s acquiring editor, in either event, it’s instructive to note the plot points a house chooses to include and those they decide to omit, as well as general the approach they take to selling a given project.

That’s not to say that flap copy is the gold standard. Once you start reading enough of it, you’ll come to spot stock phrases (“Tour de force” is a good example.) Leave these out. Ditto showy phrases that convey little actual meaning—“a story as luminous as it is unforgettable.” In fact, scrubbing your letter of clichés, literary or otherwise, is probably a good idea. And above all, be interesting. Banal is as damning as badly written.

And then bear in mind that even if you do craft a great letter, sometimes it’s the subject—and indeed, the necessary subjectivity of this business--that’s the problem. For example, while I am interested in the history of religion, I don’t represent Christian-themed books. Nor am I the agent to represent any one of the dozens of rebuttals to Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins that I have been pitched. I also like to believe I have a sense of humor, but apparently my taste in fiction runs to the mostly humorless. Madcap and zany are not my cup of tea. So even a well-tuned pitch for a quirky caper novel is unlikely to win me over—though I’ll never say never. In the service of excellent writing, I’m happy to be wrong.


  1. As always, great advice, Jessica. Thanks for breaking it down.

  2. Man, oh man. Woe to the writer who can craft an excellent novel, but can’t master the art of the query. For my WIP, I’m crafting the query and synopsis as I go and I plan to rewrite them with each draft. If nothing else, focusing on a succinct statement of what my novel is about is helping me to keep the rough draft on tract.

    Also, just a general question to anyone who comments here and/or is an agent: is it ever appropriate for an unpublished author and an unpublished illustrator who were each born to collaborate with the other to submit a package middle grade novel?

  3. Thanks, Jessica, for a terrific post! There's much to be learned here.

  4. Middle grade ninja, as a writer of picture books I am told over and over at SCBWI conferences that it is a no-no for a writer and illustrator to team up on their own, especially if unpublished, however, on the flip side it seems to me that the trend for picture books is going in the direction of writer/illustrator books, which makes me wonder if this no-no is still the rule? what are we to do if we don't do both? It is so frustrating, I have these great picture books, text only, and I know some excellent illustrators????

  5. Wise advice to include the "Who cares?" and "Why you?" Do agents want you to provide comps, as in "readers who love So-and-so Author, will love this book"? Does the writer run the risk of naming a comparable writer the agent might not favor or may be tired of hearing about, the newest sensation or the recent best-seller?

  6. 'Does the writer run the risk of naming a comparable writer the agent might not favor or may be tired of hearing about, the newest sensation or the recent best-seller?'

    Yes, is the short answer.

    This isn't about tricking an agent that you share their taste or trying to avoid a faux pas because Marisha Pessl is so last year, it's about knowing your market and demonstrating to an agent that you realize this is a book that you want to end up in a shop alongside thousands of other books.

    You need to be spending 90% of your effort concentrating on coming up with a fascinating story and telling it brilliantly in your own unique voice. Manage that and the rest is relatively easy.

    But if you want to write a novel, you need to be reading novels. If you want to get a novel published, you need to understand what novels are currently being published.

    By the time your book is nearly ready to be sent to an agent, you need to be immersed in it - you need to be in the bookstore two or three times a week, you should recognizing new titles from reviews you've read, you should have a sense of who is representing who and publishing what.

    You need to understand the market and where you'd fit in it. If you think 'hey, I've just come up with something unique: an urban fantasy where a sassy New York professional woman just fell for a [fill in the name of a supernatural creature]', you need to understand that particular barrel's been scraped so hard they've got down to ...

    "the sexy gargoyle ... whose granite-strong touch still haunts her every fantasy"

    And that the book's published by Luna, and represented by Jennifer Jackson at Donald Maass, and someone's doing something right because book four's out next month. This information took me ten seconds to find on Google. None of this is difficult.

    If you want to be a professional author, the author part is the difficult bit, and the bit most people can't do well. The professional side, though, is the easy bit that a lot of prospective writers don't even register as relevant.

  7. Thanks so much for addressing my question. Your comparison to journalism 101 is especially helpful. Hit the salient points, try to bring in some of the voice, and make it enticing. =) I'm really enjoying this blog.