Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Why Your Query Got 1.5 seconds of eyeball time today

1. Your email is in Courier 19 point. Now, the font and the size aren't a problem right up until they make the email window so large that a scroll bar appears at the bottom and I have to scroll left to right (NOT top to bottom) to read a complete sentence.

Well, I tried. And then I stopped. Form rejection.

Solution: EMAIL your query to a friend before you send it to me. Or mail it to yourself and check it on a different computer, perhaps at your local library.

2. You send an email to Janet@fineprintlit and then say "to whom it may concern." To Whom It May Concern is a perfectly acceptable way to address someone if you don't know their name. If you know my name, don't say "to whom it may concern". It makes me wonder about the wattage in your belfry.

3. There is no such thing as "true crime fiction". True crime is a category in non-fiction. Fiction is not a category of non-fiction. You can have fiction based on a real case; you can have fiction that's ripped from the headlines if you want; you can't have "true crime fiction."

4. Sending an email query with no white space at all. Just a big fat wad of black text. The only thing worse is if you'd sent it in Courier 19.

Big blocks of text are physically difficult if not impossible to read. Short of copying and pasting your email into a word doc and reformatting it, I just can't read it. It's 10:32pm. I still need to finish two novels before tomorrow. You got a form rejection.

If you're throwing down your pen in disgust and saying "that dummy sure missed some good stuff tonight for stupid reasons" well, you may be right. Here's what you need to remember: I turn down more good stuff than I take on. There's ALWAYS more good stuff to choose from than I have space on my list. Always. So, if I can't read your email, or you use words in a lazy way, I'm not worried I'm passing up my only chance at something saleable tonight.

And the truth is I want to work with people who obsess about getting this stuff right. I want to work with people who care a LOT about small stuff.


Just_Me said...

I don't think that's a dumb reason to pass on someone. If they can't format their query, what does the manuscript look like?

Hopefully the authors will get the hint, fix their query, and keep trying. But if they don't there's plenty of other books out there.

Catherine Haines said...

Hearing all these stories about people who fail the first test of "make your query readable", let alone those who don't do a query properly, gives me hope.

If I can send in a legibly formatted query I already seem to be ahead of a chunk of the pack.

JES said...

I turn down more good stuff than I take on. There's ALWAYS more good stuff to choose from than I have space on my list. Always.

Y'know, you seem to work your reputation for wisecracking pretty hard sometimes. But the above is possibly one of the most insistently flat-out kind and generous things I think I've ever seen on an agent's blog. (Maybe it's the context.:) Maybe it's "understood" without being said explicitly but thanks for posting it anyhow.

(And a P.S. to bystanders: no suck-up here. JR's already passed on my submission to her.)

Margaret Yang said...

The truth is, as a writer, I'd prefer to work with an agent who is obsessed about getting the details right too. Wouldn't everyone? For example, I want my agent to scrutinize every last detail of my contract. In that way, I understand what you're saying about getting it right, even in the query.

(And no suck-up alert for me, either. I'm repped elsewhere.)

AC said...

Yeesh. You'd think someone who'd spent the huge chunk of time and effort it takes to write a book (even a "true crime fiction" book) would want to send it out into the world in its Sunday best.

I'm with Catherine; this makes me feel better about my query joining the thousands of others out there.

Lynn Price said...

Say halleluiah, sistah!

the petal falls said...

I've had instances when I've saved a query in plain text, opened it in Notepad to check for formatting issues, sent it to friends, every thing looks fine, send it and...wham! The freaking thing STILL lost its paragraph breaks!

--Oddly, the same process yields a perfectly fine query letter at other times. Shrug.

I suppose the solution is to send snail mail, but some agents don't accept snail. So what to do? Cross my fingers and hope the agent understands some crazy formatting errors happen despite best efforts? Obviously not.

And yes, Just_me, my manuscript is formatted correctly. *s*

Deaf Brown Trash Punk said...

oh my god. If the writer doesn't know your name but typed in your NAME in the email address (JANET@fineprintlit), this person is obviously an idiot.

ChrisEldin said...

LOL @ big fat wad of text!

*searches for triple-spacing function*

Jonathan E. Quist said...

To The Petal Falls:

Word sometimes embeds invisible formatting, even using Save As; when transporting text from Word to other programs (email, non-Powerpoint presentation, whatever) the most reliable method for me is:

1) Select All and Copy in the Word document (Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C)

2) Paste into an empty Notepad window (Ctrl-V)

3) Adjust text as required

4) Select All and Copy from Notepad (Ctrl-A, Ctrl-C)

5) Paste into destination (Ctrl-V or application-specific)

If I want to control line and paragraph breaks in email, I send in plain text, no RTF or HTML, and restrict line length to less than 80 characters. (RTF and HTML were supposed to make this unnecessary, but email often gets chewed by the dog in transit.) Then I preview through a basic, often-buggy web-based email account I have. If it displays well there, I'm usually safe.

I hope this helps someone out there...

Ryan Field said...

I always send important e-mails to myself and check them on my laptop that I don't use very often anymore.

the petal falls said...

Thanks, Jonathan.

I follow the same method you do and still there are random times in which it goes haywire. Someone told me it is because I used Aol for mail and AOL tries to mess with formatting. I've moved on to Gmail and haven't had a problem -yet.

It is upsetting to think that although I've tired my best to prevent such disasters an agent might receive a query with strange formatting and automatically assume I've been lazy.

I'd love to work with an agent who sweats the small stuff, obsesses over details, but also understands that shit happens.

Sha'el, Princess of Pixies said...

Me: Bill, what's this on my manuscript?!

Bill E. Goat: Goat formating! [runs off]

Me: (Shouting) Expect a form rejection, Bill!

Suzanne said...

Actually, I did email you with a query today...luckily it seems that I avoided the mistakes you mentioned. Whew!

M Clement Hall said...

Through my life I've tried to follow Hemingway's "Grace under pressure."
It would be so much more graceful and so much more constructive to write to the uninformed but hopeful author two lines to show where (s)he was wrong and where corrective action can be found. None of us were born knowing the precscribed format.

Janet Reid said...

MCH, I've tried that. You should see the letters I get back in return. Mentioning it on the blog, and keeping is my best effort. If you think I'm graceless under pressure, I'm ok with that.

M Clement Hall said...

Lead the horse to water --- with grace.

Margaret Yang said...

Speaking of query shark... the shark tank looks empty of late. Are there no brave authors who'd like to be chum?

CNU said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
ali said...

I'm so glad that as a literary agent you have taken the time to create a helpful blog. Too many people (newbie and otherwise) do not know how to properly form a query letter or a manuscript properly. If I were them I would rather know ahead of time what not to do so I'm not wasting my time or sending off a bad impression.