The Art of Writing Back Copy:Boiling Your Book to its Essence

By PJ Parrish

Congratulations! You finished your novel! You typed those two sweet words THE END. Right there on the bottom of  your Word doc is that magic line: Words: 96,788.

Okay, now the hard work begins. Now go back and write your book again – this time in 200 words.

Yes, I’m talking about back copy. I know. You don’t want to deal with it. It’s one of those tangential things like publicity, P&L statements, website algorhithms, or finding a good editor, that writers don’t want to think about but know they have to because that’s the way the book business is rolling these days. Writers have become one-man bands. We do it all or we die.

I can hear some of you out there saying, “I can skip this one today.” But you can’t really. Because being able to articulate what your book is about in 200 words or less is really valuable. Why? Here’s five reasons:

  1. If you are self-publishing with Amazon, you have to write your own back copy.
  2. If you are querying agents, you have to have compose a great hook for your book
  3. If you are going to a conference and meeting an agent, you have to be able to give a 30-second elevator pitch.
  4. If you’re doing a speech or a signing, you need to articulate what your book’s about in two or three sentences.
  5. And maybe most important: Being able to boil your story down to its very essence is a great exercise unto itself, one that will help you understand what, in your heart, you are really trying to communicate. 

Both of my traditional publishers, Kensington and Pocket, let us edit our back copy and a couple times we even wrote it. And we write all the descriptions that appear with our self-published backlist titles on Amazon.  I’ve written my share of query letters. I had an unnerving 10-minute pitch session with an editor from Harpers at a writer’s conference. And I’ve sat at card tables in malls trying to talk people into buying my books when all they really want is directions to the Piercing Pagoda.

I’m actually not bad at boiling down a story. I think it is because I made my living for years as a newspaper copy editor and once you get the hang of writing headlines that can be grasped by a guy driving by a newspaper box at 40 miles an hour, well, having 200 words to sum up a whole book doesn’t seem that hard.

But I know it actually is. One of the hardest things to do is to write with both brevity and verve.  As a reporter, I was always way over in my word count and my editor never bought into the Mark Twain quote that I would have written shorter if I had more time. So whenever I see back copy done well, I appreciate the care that goes into. Here’s two off my bookshelf that I really like:

A father and his son walk alone through burned America. Nothing moves in the ravaged landscape save the ash on the wind. It is cold enough to crack stones and when the snow falls it is gray. Their destination is the coast, although they don’t know what, if anything, awaits them there. They have nothing; just a pistol to defend themselves, the clothes they are wearing, a cart of scavenged food – and each other.

   * * *

More than a year ago, mild-mannered Jason Getty killed a man he wished he’d never met. Then he planted the problem a little too close to home. But just as he’s learning to live with the reality of what he’s done, police unearth two bodies on his property – neither of which is the one Jason buried. 

The first is from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s good because it captures not just the plot but also mimics style and mood of the novel. The second is from Jamie Mason’s Three Graves Full. I like it because it is short and very seductive.

On the flip side, I see a lot of bad back copy out there these days. In the New York Times book review today, I saw an ad for a print-on-demand publisher touting its books with the headline: UNFORGETTABLE STORIES. Here are some sample descriptions:

In the summer of 1863, an eighteen-year-old Amish farm boy feels trapped between his religious heritage and his fascination with the world outside his small Pennsylvania town. His solution is to leave home. And so begins his unforgettable adventure that will change his life forever.

[Title redacted] is a highly engrossing work of fiction, set in the north of England, extrapolated from the realities of the world of front line regional newspaper reporters and the sort of situations they they on a daily basis.

Abused and mistreated, Jane grew up in the field of restraints which she calls a prison. And she hopes there is still an ounce of sanity left in her which leaves her with the choice of breaking away from the [title redacted].

[Title redacted] is author [redacted] new novel that looks into the lives of the people who survived the 1998 Nairobi bombings and how they struggle to cope with the pain and loss.

[Name redacted] returns from the war minus a a leg and discovers that his wife has left him and his engineering business has shut down. Forced to re-invent his life, he and his family battle to overcome war’s damage.  

Now, these could be very good novels. But from the blurbs, there is no way to know. None of these entice readers or capture the tone or mood of the books. They are wordy (“feels trapped”), filled with cliches (“unforgettable adventure”) , vague on plot points, filled with generalities (“struggle to cope”), confusing, and devoid of any hint of conflict or suspense.

Writing great back copy is a fine art. It’s nearest kin might be advertising copy in that its form is short and specialized, and its purpose is to seduce, tease, and make us buy into something. It’s no accident that some pretty good novelists emerged from the advertising industry —  Don DeLillo, Fay Weldon,  Joseph Heller.  F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote streetcar sign slogans for $35 a week. Dorothy Sayers made a name for herself writing a mustard slogan before she got hot with crime novels. Salman Rushdie, who wrote ad copy while trying to finish his first novel, recalls taking a test for the J. Walter Thompson agency where, “they asked you to imagine that you met a Martian who mysteriously spoke English and you had to explain to them in less than 100 words how to make toast.” And then there was that guy who started out as a junior copywriter at  J. Walter Thompson, rose to CEO, and turned his ad experience into James Patterson Inc.

So what’s the secret? Our own Jodie Renner and James Bell laid out some great tips in a post here last year. CLICK HERE to read it.  And if you want some really helpful tips from a real agent on how to write good query letter hooks, CLICK HERE to go to the Miss Snark archives. But I’d also like to offer up some of my own tips, if I may.

Don’t give a plot regurgitation. Give just enough story to hook the reader’s interest while you also hint at the larger picture behind the book. Here’s a great tease:

From a helicopter high above the California desert, a man is sent free-falling into the night . . . and Jack Reacher is plunged into the heart of a conspiracy that is killing old friends.

Reacher has no phone, no address, no ties. But a woman from his former military unit has found him using a signal only the eight members of their elite team would know. Then she tells him about the brutal death of one of their own. Soon they learn of the sudden disappearance of two other comrades. But Reacher won’t give up—because in a world of bad luck and trouble, when someone targets Jack Reacher and his team, they’d better be ready for what comes right back at them.

Know your audience. Make sure the tone is right. Hit the high notes of your genre or the genre’s tropes. Romance or romantic suspense tends to stress the characters and relationships over plot. Thrillers tend toward the opposite. Just like your cover, you have to convey the exact mood of your story. Use language that appeals to the reader’s emotions. You won’t mistake Elaine Viet’s Shop Til You Drop for Lee Child:

Once on the fast track to success, Helen Hawthorne is going nowhere fast. Forced to trade in her chic life for a shabby one, she’s now on the run trying to stay one step ahead of her past. After two weeks as a new clerk at Juliana’s, Fort Lauderdale’s exclusive boutique, Helen still feels out of fashion. But in a shop where the customer’s collagen lips are bigger than their hips, who wouldn’t…

Start with a great headline. If you’re having trouble coming up with the perfect headline, write the body copy first. Later, go back and read what you wrote as if you were a consumer seeing it for the first time. Somewhere, buried in all that copy, you will find your headline. Here’s a sample you can find in our special Kill Zone Zone 99-cent Amazon offering Thrill Ride:

A KILLING SPREE. A MISSING BOY
A PLACE WHERE ONLY THE STRONGEST SURVIVE

A deep freeze is bearing down on the Florida Everglades, the kind of brutal storm the locals call a killing rain. For Detective Louis Kincaid, the coldest night of the year has brought a terrifying new chill — a grisly murder that tightens his every nerve in warning. This is no routine case. It’s the start of a nightmare.

Watch how it looks on the page. Is it too long? Are the sentences too long and hard to digest in one quick reading? Did you break it into paragraphs, if needed? Think about the best advertising copy you see. The block of copy must register in the eye as a fast read.

Tell us who your hero is and where we are. It’s a good idea to work in your protag’s name, profession, and the location(s) of your story. Readers want to be able to tell at a glance if the protag is male or female, what kind of person it is, and where you are going to take them. Geography is important to many readers. Here’s some effective copy from a Steve Hamilton book that does all this and gives us a little backstory:

Alex McKnight swore to serve and protect Detroit as a police officer, but a trip to Motown these days is a trip to a past he’d just as soon forget. The city will forever remind him of his partner’s death and of the bullet still lodged in his own chest. Then he gets a call from his old sergeant. A young man Alex helped put away—in the one big case that marked the high point of his career—will be getting out of prison. When the sergeant invites Alex to have a drink for old times’ sake, it’s an offer he would normally refuse. However, there’s a certain female FBI agent he can’t stop thinking about, so he gets in his truck and he goes back to Detroit.

Don’t give away too much. Good copy writing is a seduction. The back copy should make the reader want more. Think foreplay. One good tip is to pick a spot in the your plot, usually a quarter or a third of the way in, and don’t include anything that happens after that point.

TV reporter Candy Sloan has eyes the color of cornflowers and legs that stretch all the way to heaven. She also has somebody threatening to rearrange her lovely face if she keeps on snooping into charges of Hollywood racketeering. Spenser’s job is to keep Candy healthy until she breaks the biggest story of her career. But her star witness has just bowed out with three bullets in his chest, two tough guys have doubled up to test Spenser’s skill with his fists, and Candy is about to use her own sweet body as live bait in a deadly romantic game – a game that may cost Spenser his life.

Avoid passive voice and weasel words, clichés, twenty-dollar vocabulary. Don’t use big hard to grasp words. Again, back copy is like good advertising copy: It appeals to the senses and emotions. You can pile on the details and pretty writing inside the covers.

Hint at what’s at stake. Go back and read the bad examples I listed above. Each of them has the same core problem: There is no defining of the central conflict or what the stakes are. This is a complaint I hear often from agents about query letters. A successful hook in a good query letter works much the same way as back copy does — it makes the agent want to know more — NOT about plot points but what this all means for the protagonist.

End with a question.  We see this device a lot in back copy but for good reason. It works. It creates suspense.  (“What will John do when he discovers Jane’s deception?”) It hints at future complications (“When their investigation leads them to a city hall conspiracy, can their love stand the test?”) It sets up possible suspects, like in this back copy:

On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick’s beautiful wife disappears. Husband-of-the-Year Nick isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but passages from Amy’s diary reveal the alpha-girl perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer?

Go for the Big But. This  is a cliche construction in back copy writing, but hey, it works. First you set up a scenario of normality for your protagonist then you use a conjunction bridge to a new development in that person’s life (ie a crime) that has sent them on a new course. Go back and look for all the BUTS I have highlighted in blue and you’ll see how common this is. Here’s a sample from John Creasey’s Parson With a Punch:

The Reverend Ronald Kemp came to the East End of London with definite ideas of right and wrong, which was only fitting for a minister of God. But the people of the East End had a few ideas of their own and the Rev. Kemp quickly finds his world torn asunder…

From Michele Gagnon’s Bone Yard:

FBI agent Kelly Jones has worked on many disturbing cases in her career, but nothing like this. A mass grave site unearthed on the Appalachian Trail puts Kelly at the head of an investigation that crosses the line…Assisted by law enforcement from two states, Kelly searches for the killers. But as darkness falls, another victim is taken and Kelly must race to save him before he joins the rest…in the boneyard.

From Michael Connelly:

Mickey Haller gets the text, “Call me ASAP – 187,” and the California penal code for murder immediately gets his attention. Murder cases have the highest stakes and the biggest paydays, and they always mean Haller has to be at the top of his game. But when Mickey learns that the victim was his own former client, a prostitute he thought he had rescued and put on the straight and narrow path, he knows he is on the hook for this one.

Hyperbole? Heck, why not? It’s not uncommon for back copy prose to get a little purple, especially in crime fiction. We see a lot of this kind of stuff: “Time is running out…”  “As the nightmare increases…” “Even as danger mounts…”the shocking truth is revealed.” You can use this — but in small doses, please. Readers will turn on you if they sense you’re just throwing a bunch of adjectives at them like “dazzling” or “breathtaking.” CLICK HERE to read a bookseller’s take on how hyperventilating blurbs turn readers off.  And if you’re writing humor, please be careful tossing around stuff like “hilarious” and “side-splitting.”

Here’s back copy for Sherrilyn Kenyon that’s corny as all get out but hey, it works for me:

He is solitude. He is darkness. He is the ruler of the night. Yet Kyrian of Thrace has just woken up handcuffed to his worst nightmare: An accountant. Worse, she’s being hunted by one of the most lethal vampires out there. And if Amanda Devereaux goes down, then he does too. But it’s not just their lives that are hanging in the balance.  Kyrian and Amanda are all that stands between humanity and oblivion. Let’s hope they win.

A few final things to consider as you put together your back copy:

  • When you’re done, read your blurb out loud.  
  • Prune out all unnecessary words. See if you can cut out 30 percent.
  • Go into Amazon and read some blurbs in your genre for good books. Read the backs of paperbacks. Mimic the ones that work. 
  • Run your blurbs by beta readers and see if they salute.
Whew. Long post today. Sorry about that. I would have written shorter if I had had more time.

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Rejection: A little chin music

By P.J. Parrish

This isn’t going to be news to most of you who are regular readers of The Kill Zone but it’s good advice for anyone who is trying to get published. Heck, it’s good advice if you are trying to STAY published. And we all need to be reminded of it once in a while. Here it is:

You have to be tough.

How tough? You have to have the hide of a

The tenacity of a

And the drive of a

But even with all those qualities, you are going to get rejected. It happens to all of us. And it never stops. Even after you sign your first contract, you will deal with it. Your editor will make you rewrite. The marketing department will veto your title. (Heck, one of ours got nixed by the buyer at Walmart). Barnes & Noble will stock you but Costco won’t. You won’t get reviewed or worse, you’ll get panned. You work like a dog to put your ebook on Amazon and you sell four books…three of them to your mom. And someday, you will be stalking some poor reader in the bookstore, see him pick up your book [YES! THEY LIKE ME, THEY REALLY LIKE ME!] and he will put it back on the shelf [NO! WHY DO YOU HATE MY BOOK?]

Rejection is a staple of the writer’s life, so no matter where you are on your path, you might as well begin to come to grips with it. Even after you are published with a decent track record, you can still get dumped on.

Rejection begins, of course, with query letters. This is a painful thing, the query process, because the agents who are rejecting you are usually maddeningly oblique about why they are giving you the thumbs down. Here’s some examples of coded rejections I have seen:

1. “This doesn’t fit my needs at this time.”
2. “Your writing is strong but I don’t feel I can be enthusiastic enough to fully get behind this project.”
3. “I’m afraid I will have to take a pass. But I am interested in seeing other projects…”

What they really mean:

1. You can’t write.
2. I already have four authors who write zombie Lesbian detective series.
3. DaVinci Code rip-offs are yesterday’s news. Have you considered paranormal YA?

I don’t mean to make light of your woes if you are going through any phase of rejection now. But believe me, I have been there. My entry into this business took place during the Ice Age when it was possible to still submit to editors without having an agent. (ie the Slush Pile). But the rejections were still as awful. I used to have all of them — kept them in an old manila envelope in a desk drawer. Then when we moved a couple years ago, I finally threw all the rejection letters away. Except for the first one I ever got, which I keep framed above my desk:

It is a classic. It doesn’t reproduce well here, so let me point out some really nifty things about this particular rejection letter. First, it’s a form letter. Second, there is no date. Third, there is no signature. But someone WAS kind enough to pencil in my last name and even take a moment to cross out “Sir.” I think this rejection letter is circa 1980. But you’ll notice the language has not changed since. The inserts are how I felt at the time:

Dear Ms. Montee,

We thank you for the opportunity [yeah, right!] to consider your proposal or manuscript. [what, they can’t figure out WHICH?]. We are sorry [I’ll bet!] to inform you that the book does not seem a likely prospect [how elegant!] for the Dell Book list. Because we receive many individual submissions every day [you think I care how overworked you are?] it is impossible for us to offer individual comment [I’d say so since there is no human being attached to this letter to begin with!] We thank you for thinking of Dell [insert sound of raspberry here] and we wish you the best of success [ie don’t darken our doorstep again with your crap] in placing your book with another publisher. [you’ll be sorry some day!]

Sincerely, [you’re kidding, right?]
The Editors [aka the evil Manhattan cabal trying to keep me unpublished]

So why did I keep this one? Well, with the passage of more than two decades I have gained a certain perspective about it. The manuscript I sent to Dell was really really bad. It had no business going out in the world in the state it was in. I know, because I kept it. Like this rejection letter, I kept it to remind me that this is a learning process. It still is. It always will be.

So if you are feeling blue today about rejection, just know this one thing: You are not alone. Pearl Buck’s novel “The Good Earth” was rejected on the grounds that Americans were “not interested in anything on China.” A editor passed on George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” explaining it was “impossible to sell animal stories in the U.S.A.” And let’s not forget the agent who dumped Tony Hillerman and told him to “get rid of all that Indian stuff.”

Keep plugging away at your craft. Grow a tough hide, be brave, don’t give up, don’t be too timid to send your book out there for scrutiny. You can’t hit a home run — or even a blooper single — if you never step up to the plate. And even if you are in the batter’s box, don’t keep backing out because you’re afraid of getting beaned. Derek Jeter’s been hit by a pitch 184 times in his career. You think he’s afraid of a little chin music?

And lastly, have a little faith. Shoot, have a lot of faith:

Because it only takes one “yes” to make all the no’s bearable.

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Paperback Writer

By Joe Moore

“Dear Sir or Madam, will you read my book?”*

Paperback Writer, the 1966 hit by The Beatles, is a great example of a finely crafted query letter (in musical format) that lays out pretty much all the elements of a solid manuscript pitch. It covers a summary (. . . based on a novel by a man named Lear), conflict (. . . his clinging wife doesn’t understand), characterization (It’s a dirty story of a dirty man), motivation (it’s a steady job but he wants to be . . .), length (. . . a thousand pages give or take a few), author flexibility (I can make it longer if you like the style), the writer’s acceptance of reality (If you must return it you can send it here), and a heartfelt closing (But I need a break).

Chances are your query letter won’t become a smash hit on its own, although the hope is your book will. But there are some basic elements that all strong manuscript query letters must have.

It’s important to realize that the query letter is probably the most important letter a writer will ever compose. Unlike correspondence to a friend or family member, you must spend a great deal of time molding and shaping your query into the same caliber of perfection as your manuscript. So here are a few points to keep in mind before mailing it or click “send”.

Length. Agents and editors are busy professionals. They have little time to read long query letters. It’s important that you make your case in one or two pages, tops. If you can’t, the agent might assume you won’t be able to grab a reader in the first few pages of your book, either. So don’t ramble, just cut to the chase.

Attitude. Don’t come across as arrogant or condescending. Humility can go a long way to gaining respect. You should give the impression that you would be easy to work with. Listing your credentials and credits is part of the query process, but it should be done in a business-like manner and only the ones that contribute to your writing qualifications. In addition, if you have an established writer’s “platform”, include the info. A platform includes a website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, and other Internet and traditional lines of communication with significant numbers of potential readers.

Poor punctuation, grammar and spelling. Check, check and re-check your letter. Let someone else check it. Let 5 people check it. Bad grammar and misspelled words are not a sign of a professional writer. If your query contains mistakes, you’re just making it harder on yourself to gain the attention and respect of an agent.

Unprofessional presentation. There are countless reference guides and writing manuals on how to compose a proper business letter. Query letters are business letters. Showing a lack of knowledge on how professionals communicate will not score you any points.

Be brief. As stated earlier, the agent or editor has a few seconds to devote to your query letter or email before moving on to the other hundred she received that day. Get to the point, and do it fast. Identify yourself. What is your desired outcome of the letter? Why did you choose that particular agent? What is your book about? Why would someone want to read it? Why are you qualified to write it? Close with a thank-you and offer to send more. All of the above can be stated in one or two sentences each.

Be ready for the follow-up. Are you prepared to supply the agent whatever she requests; full manuscript or sample chapters, short synopsis or complete outline? If not, you may not be ready to start the query process. And assume that each agent will ask for something different, so have all variations ready to go.

Identify your genre. You must know what genre your book falls into. Know the difference between a thriller or mystery, cozy or procedural, hard boiled or medium or soft, or any of the other dozens of sub-genre. And please don’t refer to your work as a fiction novel. ALL novels are fiction. Using terms from the department of redundancy department screams amateur.

Billboard. Your query letter is a single-page billboard advertising your book. It very well could be the only shot you’ll get at SELLING yourself and your manuscript. It must be perfect. Every word has to count. You may not get a second chance. And just like that billboard on the highway you see as you speed by, the agent has just about the same amount of time to devote to your query letter. Give yourself a fighting chance and make it perfect the first time.

Now let’s take a listen to one of the best query letters ever written: Paperback Writer by The Beatles.

*Paperback Writer, © 1966 Lennon & McCartney

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The Stress Free Query


The writing game is tough enough without stressing about minor things. Like how to structure a query.
“But,” you shout, “a query is something worth stressing over, because there are four hundred things that can go wrong with it! I know, because I just read a blog titled ‘The Four Hundred Most Common Query Mistakes.’ So I have every reason to stress out!”
Okay, let’s sit back in our chairs and take a nice, deep, relaxing breath. You would think from all that is out there that query writing is like the cave at the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You know, one false move and a dozen arrows ventilate you, or you get impaled by spikes, leaving you as a rotting carcass with no agent and no prospects.
Instead of focusing on all the things you can do wrong, why don’t we just look at the simple basics of a query and how you can get them right—every time?
After the salutation which addresses the agent or editor by name (i.e., not Dear Sir or Madam or To Whom it May Concern), three paragraphs are all you need.
The Opening Paragraph
Your plot, starting with the Lead character’s name:
[Lead character] is a [occupation or vocation] who [life situation].
Now write four to six lines which give the ka-ching factor of your plot. Write this paragraph as if it were a 30 second movie spot.
Here’s an example taken from the back cover of Side by Side by TKZ’s own John Ramsey Miller:
Winter Massey is a former U.S. marshal who has made too many enemies on both sides of the law. Lucy Dockery is a judge’s daughter who’s never had to fight for anything in her life. But now Lucy and her young son have been kidnapped and sentenced to die-unless her father agrees to set a vicious criminal free. Massey is the closest thing to salvation they have, but he doesn’t know that the beautiful FBI agent who brought him into the case may be playing a chilling double game — and that a circle of treachery has begun to tighten around him. For Lucy, the time has come to scratch and claw for survival. For Massey, it’s time to stop trusting the people he trusts most. Because in a storm of betrayal, there’s only one way out.
Train yourself to write this way be reading the back cover copy of books in your genre (or the editorial descriptions off amazon.com).
I advise starting off with the plot paragraph because you want to show the agent you can grab readers from the start. Most queries agents see start off with some meet-and-greet stuff. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but since agents see this all the time, why not stand out from the crowd?
The Background Paragraph
Now give a paragraph with the title, genre, word count, and relevant parts of your background. Writing credits are good if they are “weighty” credits. By that I mean a reputable publication. Something a bit more than your local grocery store newsletter. It’s better to err on the side of no credits than a string of flimsy ones. There’s no hard rule here, just put yourself in the reader’s place. Does it truly indicate anything about your writing chops? If you got an award or grant that’s prestigious, or earned an MFA, by all means mention.
Experience in the field you’re writing about is good. Where you were born and how much you love writing is not good. How well you think you’ll do on TV interviews is horrible. Worst of all is saying your book is the “next” anything [James Patterson; Harry Potter] or is definitely going to be on the big screen as a major motion picture, and don’t you, Ms. Agent, want to get in on that action?
Don’t waste any time on how you came to write the story, what your grandmother and critique group think of it, or how you the publisher should market you.
If you had some interaction with the agent or editor at a conference, or heard them speak, or read something good on their blog, you can mention that. Briefly.
[Title] is a 95,000 word thriller. I’ve been a practicing lawyer for fourteen years. This is my first novel. I heard you speak at the Greater Downey Writers Conference and think this project would be a good fit for you.
And please, don’t get cutesy with this paragraph, as in:
Your blog post on queries was almost as good as Dave Barry, LOL! He makes me laugh, you made me laugh, and I’m sure we’ll have both a lot of laughs when that first contract comes in! 😉
You get the idea. Here’s why you don’t have to stress about your bio. The thing that’s going to sell you in the query is your plot paragraph. Let your background paragraph do its work and get out of the way.
The Thank You Paragraph
This is tricky:
Thank you for your consideration.
Then put your name and contact phone number.
Now that wasn’t so hard, was it?
Since most queries are now electronic, and agents don’t generally want attachments, put the query in the body of your email, using the default font and block paragraphs (no indents; single spaced). Put two spaces between the paragraphs.
The subject line should have QUERY in it. There have been reports of none-too-clever attempts to stand out from other emails by putting in fake headlines, e.g., End of the World Clues Here!
Don’t do that. It’s unprofessional. While it might not scuttle your chances of getting a request for you manuscript, it’s a bit of a turnoff. Why make it harder on yourself?
There you go. No stress, no strain. Now you can concentrate on your writing. 
(For more on queries and proposals, see The Art of War for Writers).  
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The Curse of Hubris

By John Gilstrap
www.johngilstrap.com

I received this in an email the other day from a writer who is frustrated in his efforts to find an agent:

“. . . I couldn’t get anything other than a form rejection letter, if that. My perfectly-spelled, perfectly-punctuated and personalized cover letters would earn me a form rejection from a flunky I’d never even written to. . . I know I’m not at fault here. My cover letter’s been tweaked (I even read your essay on JohnGilstrap.com to make sure I covered all my bases), I’ve written four different synopses for [redacted] and I know the fault’s not with the writing.” [Hotlink added.]

I feel his angst when I read this. The email vibrates with frustration. It also showcases astonishing hubris.

He spells and punctuates perfectly and is clearly not at fault when his work does not resonate with a prospective agent. Hmm. I’ve been in this publishing game for going on 15 years and I can’t think of a thing I have done in my work or in my life that I executed perfectly (trophy wife and perfect kid excepted). Perhaps his claims are true–I have no frame of reference–but even if they were . . . well, they couldn’t be, could they?

Writing is a two-way communication that requires an author to put words on the page and then a reader to appreciate them. I’m not even sure that spelling and punctuation count all that much. Think about it: while a chemical dictionary may be perfectly spelled and punctuated, it will never become a runaway bestseller in the trade fiction market.

If a query or manuscript receive consistent rejection, the fault must, by definition, lie with the author, mustn’t it? Is it reasonable to blame a reader for not liking the book he’s reading? It doesn’t mean that the author is untalented–I understand that Herman Melville was a terrific writer, but you’d never prove it by me–it just means that the writing, when judged by its own merits, didn’t seal the deal. It could be plot or characterization or voice, or any one of a thousand other causes, but the only solid, readily identifyable data point is that the audience rejected the offer. Absorb it. Deal with it.

But please don’t claim perfection.

This curse of hubris seems to be gaining wide acceptance on Internet boards where like-minded, frustrated writers-to-be rally around the fiction that the publishing establishment is united in excluding newcomers. They’re not being rejected because their work is substandard or unmarketable, you see. It’s the conspiracy. Given this widely-accepted “fact”, wouldn’t you know that there is an ample supply of publishers and editors and fee-agents who are more than willing to help introduce these people to the wild and wooly world of “alternative” publishing?

I guess for some people, anything is better than facing the truth. (And yes, I understand that there are a number of circumstances where self-publishing is the best way to go for certain nonfiction. Vanity publishing, not so much.)

Receiving criticism is hard. Rejection is even harder. As the market for novels continues to shrink, I’m dismayed that the ranks of published authors will shrink along with them. I just pray that I continue to make the cut. If one day I don’t, though, it will ultimately be my fault for not having provided the right story to the right marketplace at the right time.

The instant that anyone in any business begins to fancy himself a victim of his customer base, it’s time to change professions.

What do y’all think? Everyone knows that the industry and the marketplace are changing at a dizzying rate, but is it ever the reader’s fault when a writer does not “succeed”? (Succeed is in quotation marks because in a creative field, success is a word that defies definition.)

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How Not to Query

by Michelle Gagnon

Recently there was a query letter discussion on one of the lists that I frequent. Everyone chimed in with differing opinions about what works, and what almost guarantees one of those soul-crushing form letter rejections. It made me reflect back on my own letters (and yes, you read that correctly: letters, plural).

Out of curiosity, I asked the multi-talented Luc Hunt from my agency (the Philip G. Spitzer Literary Agency) to dissect two of my query letters. The first was for a book that was roundly rejected (rightfully so, I must say) by every agent I queried.

The second was the letter that got me a nibble for a full manuscript, which eventually led to representation.

So here’s the good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy. Luc’s analysis is below each letter:

Dear Mr. Hunt,

I am looking for an agent to represent my book.

“Adventures of the Almost Wed” tells the story of Alexandra, a young woman attempting to rebuild her life after a failed engagement. The novel takes place over the course of a year, opening with the break-up of the central relationship, and concluding on what was to be their wedding day. In the interim Alexandra confronts obstacles ranging from long-distance maternal disapproval to the challenges of dating a movie star. At the end Alexandra faces the future with a renewed sense of self-worth, and the knowledge that there’s more to life than love and marriage. Written in the first person, the style is similar to that of Helen Fielding in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and Melissa Banks’ book “The Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing.”

Although this is my first novel, my non-fiction articles and columns have previously been published on numerous websites, including Chickclick.com and Asimba.com.

Thank you for considering “Adventures of the Almost Wed.” I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Michelle Gagnon

LUC HUNT:

This starts off with an all too obvious statement. No one queries an agent unless they are looking for representation. Personally, I respond best when the author gets right to the story. Michelle then goes on to tell about the plot, but does so in a way that overly simplifies the trajectory of the character’s development. She goes so far as to point out the moral. A more engaging summary would reveal an exigency latent in the narrative, and leave out the didactic conclusion. Michelle also compares her work to others, which can be positive, but is a matter of interpretation, and possibly tenuous. It is good to identify both what is familiar and unique about your manuscript. She concludes with an almost apologetic mention of her publishing credits. Politeness is welcome, but if you have little history or are not confident in the prestige of your previous venues, then just state that you are a first time author. There’s nothing wrong with not having a record.

And here’s query letter #2:

Dear Mr. Hunt,

I’m hoping that you’ll consider representing my novel “The Tunnels,” a suspense thriller set at a small East coast university. A serial killer is ritualistically murdering the daughters of powerful men in the tunnels below campus. Special Agent Kelly Jones, a jaded Clarisse Starling ten years into her career, is called in to investigate.

Kelly confronts a daunting list of suspects ranging from tweedy professors to one-armed janitors. Complicating matters further, a grief-ridden father pulls strings to get an investigator with his own agenda assigned to the case. Together, they must find a madman obsessed with pagan sorcery before he claims another victim.

My non-fiction articles have appeared in Glamour, San Francisco Magazine, and CondeNast Traveler, among other publications. The book is set on the campus of Wesleyan University, my alma mater. I researched Norse mythology and neo-paganism extensively before writing “The Tunnels.” All of the rituals outlined in the story are based on fact. I’m planning a series of books featuring Agent Kelly Jones and her continuing efforts to track down serial killers.

I’ve included a brief synopsis and the first chapter of my manuscript. Thanks for considering “The Tunnels.” I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

Michelle Gagnon

LUC HUNT:

Michelle’s second query is immediately compelling. She begins with a journalistic statement of the facts that quickly answers the who, what, why, and when of the proposal. Due to this introduction, it is easy for me to be drawn in by the action of her story. She follows the opening with an interesting communication of some of the particulars, grounding her query in what makes it unique. Michelle also gives a more developed biography of herself as an author, and provides us with details of her personal connection to the setting of the novel. This leads me to believe that not only is she an authority on her subject, but that her perspectives are likely to be well researched and credible. The query closes with a brief mention of future projects, and that a synopsis and sample chapter follow. Well done.

LUC’S FINAL COMMENTS:

In conclusion, one could certainly make too much of a query letter. It is essentially a one page introduction of the work and author to their prospective agent. The nature of the thing is surely subjective, yet I hope to have shown at least a few helpful parameters.

Luc wanted me to mention that sadly, the Spitzer Agency is currently not accepting submissions. But his comments apply to most agents, in terms of what they’re looking for and what gets tossed aside.

He also said that recently, the agency has been experiencing a blitz of “spam queries.” Apparently there are companies that will assemble a query letter for you, then send it out en masse to every agent in the business. He recommended against using one of these companies-the deluge has been such that it’s off-putting. The next Da Vinci Code could be buried in that pile, and they probably wouldn’t bother reading the query.

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Oh, and by the way…look what I found when I dug through my files. That’s right, a form rejection letter. From my current agent (boy, did we have a good laugh about this).

So if you’re at the querying stage, take heart. Never underestimate the power of persistence. If your letter doesn’t seem to be garnering a good response, take another look at it. Show it to a few people whose opinion you trust, or sign up for a workshop that teaches you to hone it, then send it out again. It might take a few years (it sure took me that long) but in the end, persistence pays off.

For more query submission tips, check out John Gilstrap’s last post here.

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Playing Fair is Overrated

By John Gilstrap

No, I know it’s not my usual day, but Michelle and I are switching blog dates this week . . .

At the Midwest Writers Workshop last week, I taught a session called, “Quit Whining and Send Another Query,” in which I shared what I know about the mechanics and emotions of finding an agent and dealing with rejection along the way.

Students expressed huge frustration with the snail’s pace at which the process unfolds. You submit a query and you wait weeks for a response. Sometimes the response never comes, so the wait stretches out interminably. I suggested that they just forget about that one and send another query. Oh, no! they cried. At a previous conference a visiting agent said that when agents request sample chapters or an entire manuscript, they expect exclusivity; they expect that no other submissions will be made to other agents until the requestor makes up his or her mind. If you send out other queries during the exclusive period, you’d be breaking the rules.

Huh? When did business become such a genteel sport? When did it become one party’s responsiblilty to make the other party comfortable during a negotiation? “It’s only polite,” a student told me. Okay, I can buy that. It’s certainly more polite than waiting five or six weeks to finally send a form rejection letter that might or might not have a hand-written signature. If the manuscript is rejected, how has the writer benefitted from losing momentum on his submissions? It it’s accepted, how has he benefitted from not knowing if there’s another agent out there who’s even more passionate about his work?

Sorry, folks, but this is business; an “implied exclusive” means as little as an “implied million-dollar advance.” Implications, like assumptions, have no place in a competitive marketplace.

Please understand that, as I told the class, my word is my bond. I unfailingly deliver what I promise. I never lie. I’m a terrible liar anyway, and I jealously guard my integrity. That said, where there’s silence in a business negotiation, there’s also a poker game in progress. Agents know that, and publishers know that, and they play the game accordingly in every negotiation.
So where is it written that the writer is supposed to sit politely and observe implied exclusivity? Did I miss a meeting? A memo?

Maybe—maybe—if the implied arrangement included a 5-day turn-around, I could buy into it; but I’ve heard too many horror stories of eight-week responses and year-long silences to see anything but a woefully stacked deck.

“But publishing is a small community,” someone said. “If you break the implied rule and submit partials to more than one agent, won’t they get angry?” In a perfect world, hell yes someone will get angry. Well, maybe not angry, but at least disappointed. That’s what happens when you’re rejected. Welcome to our world, Mr. Agent.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that three prospective agents have requested manuscripts from you. There are only three ways for the scenario to play out, and all of them are either neutral or they play to your benefit:
1. All three reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
2. One accepts you, the others reject you. No one’s the wiser, so no harm, no foul.
3. More than one accepts you. Woo-hoo! Now you get to go shopping. You get to decide which agent is your preferred choice. You accept one, reject the others. You don’t have to tell the losers why they lost, but even if you do, and the rejected agents get pissed, what do you care? You got the agent you wanted.

Let me emphasize that I am not talking about deception. If an agent asks for an exclusive and you agree, then you honor your word, pure and simple. Short of that, I think you’re free to submit at will. Want to really play hard ball? Consider this: if the prospective agent tells you outright that he expects an exclusive and you say nothing, he might assume that the deal is closed, but there’s still no contract. There has to be an offer and an acceptance. One does not guarantee the other.

I would love to hear from people who think my position is unreasonable. What am I missing? Are we writers truly honor-bound to play politely in an industry that fights dirty?

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The Query Quandary

By John Gilstrap
http://www.johngilstrap.com

Before getting to this week’s real topic, I thought I’d preen with a bit of shameless self promotion. A while ago, I revealed that I had optioned the film rights to my nonfiction bestseller Six Minutes to Freedom. I can now announce officially that I have signed on to write the screenplay as well. Hoorah! For details, please visit my website (see above). I am thrilled beyond belief.

We now return you to our originally scheduled blog . . .

I was chatting the other day with a writer-in-waiting who was distraught that “no agent wants to represent me.” Ah, the angst. She moaned, “I’m never going to be published.”

At that point, she’d collected 7 rejections. Seven. As in one less than eight. And they’re just cold-hearted form letters to boot. Can you imagine? Oh, please.

I wager most of us have a collection of blistering rejection stories. My favorite of the 27 rejections I accumulated before I finally landed an agent was the New York publisher whose rejection consisted of my own letter sent back to me with a stamp—you know, one of those rubber things that you pound on an ink pad—that said “No.” As if it would have broken her hand to actually hand write those two words.

Okay, I have another favorite, too: the one who sent me my rejection letter two months after my book had been published.

Rejections are a constant in this business. I know more than a few authors whose rejections numbered in the triple-digits before they finally made a connection. It’s just the way it is.

During this rejection stage, you often hear dejected writers complain, “Nobody wants my book.” Self pity aside, such is never the case. Nobody’s rejecting your book; they couldn’t possibly be. That’s because nobody’s seen your book. They’re rejecting your query.

In my experience, the vast majority of query letters suck.

They’re flat, lifeless bits of business correspondence that get lost in the shuffle of the hundreds of other bits of flat, lifeless business correspondence that litter an agent’s desk or email inbox every day. It’s astonishing, really, when you think that after spending months or years crafting a novel, a writer would quickly pound out a query letter and launch it into the world where creativity and originality of voice means everything.

At the moment when a query letter matters, it is the most important document of your creative life. It’s the only tool you have. It needs to be carefully nurtured. Carefully crafted. If you’re interested, I wrote an essay on query letters a few years ago. You can read it here: http://www.johngilstrap.com/essayqueryletter.html .

What about you? Have you got any inspiring (or frightening) rejection stories you’d like to share? C’mon, spill. We’re all friends here.

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