Friday, September 08, 2017

Your table of contents will kill you

I've been slurping up queries like an orca at a salmon buffet.
As of 9/1/17 I've requested 72 adult manuscripts and another 40 or so juvenile projects (up from 59 for all of 2016.)

I mention this because I want to show, not just tell, that I am ACTIVELY looking for good material.  In other words, you have to try harder to get a rejection right now.

And some of you are finding some really innovative ways to do it.

For example, today I got a query from a writer who sent (in order of appearance in my email): a query, a synopsis, an author bio (not part of the query, a separate section), the cover page/title page, the table of contents listing all 30+ chapters; a prologue; an epigraph, and then the pages. Of course I had only asked for the pages.

It was the table of contents that just did me in.

It's a simple thing right? The casual observer might be tempted to say "it's just a TOC, get over yourself. Drag the mouse down the page and get to the good stuff."

And that's true, as far as the query goes.

But remember the second purpose of a query? The second purpose of a query is to demonstrate you are someone I want to work with.

This isn't the way to show that.

My guess is this writer simply cut and pasted the first X pages from his novel, and in the copying, sucked up the TOC and the epigraph and the prologue.

And that means the writer both didn't think about what s/he was sending, and didn't proof the email. Those are big red flags for someone who is not meticulous.

Cause it's very clear you do NOT need a TOC if you literally have only the first three chapters. (Or in my case, the first three-five PAGES)

And you really don't need an epigraph to set the tone of the entire book because again: I'm only reading the first couple pages.

And the prologue. I'm not keen on prologues in books unless the serve a clear purpose like we talked about here. A savvy writer asks "does the prologue show the story?" and decides based on the answer whether to include it.

My guess is that you're most often better off sending pages one-five of chapter one.

But back to the TOC.
Sending the TOC isn't a problem, but it's a red flag for a writer who isn't paying attention.

Thinking about what you're sending rather than just cutting and pasting demonstrates you are paying attention.

It's the same thing when I hear "but you told me to put a stamp on this letter" when this particular letter is going to Carkoon, not Chicago. When you look at the address, you realize that one stamp isn't going to do it. Which means you looked at the address, rather than just rotely stamping envelopes.

I like people who are paying attention. A lot of publishing is weird and arcane, and I want to work with people who know that, understand it, and realize rote doesn't really work for ANYTHING.


43 comments:

kathy joyce said...

I love examples like this on days I despair the agenting/publishing process. Maybe the competition is not as dense as the numbers make it seem. (Although some individual competitors apparently are. :)

*Thinks about careless/clueless mistakes I've made. Hangs head.*

Thoughts and prayers for all in the path of fires, floods, hurricanes, earthquakes...

Kitty said...

...the table of contents listing all 30+ chapters...

Were the chapters titled? Just askin'...

Susan said...

And you really don't need an epigraph to set the tone of the entire book because again: I'm only reading the first couple pages.

*stares at recently-sent queries.*

Well, crap.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

It's amazing how helpful repetition is. I think Janet's knowledge is slowly seeping into my brain. As long as I don't catch her painting bug! Oh wait, how many gallons of paint do I have waiting to be used?

Like Kitty I'm curious about titles in table of contents. Using titles helps me with story structure and to easily find the chapters that need work.

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

Wait... waitwaitwaitwait...

A table of contents in a novel? We are talking about a novel, yes? A work of fiction? I'm trying to remember when I last saw a ToC in a novel... maybe they're more frequent than I recall because I'm not paying attention? I don't think so. A ToC is for reference purposes, when you want to look up a particular subject within a book. Looking at a ToC should help give you an idea of the scope of the work. Does this book on Reformation discuss the Lollards, Jan Hus, or Wyclif? I need to quickly read up about using LINQ to query an Oracle database, so I grab the book on LINQ and flip to the appropriate chapter. You don't read novels like that. Why have a ToC in a novel? Maybe I'm wrong. I probably am. :)

Janet: If you want to practice rejections, I'll gladly send you my incomplete novel. I'll even throw in a synopsis and some pretty gifs for good measure. ;)

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Shhhhh, here’s a little insight. Don’t tell you know who.

I sent my query and pages (non-fiction) to our most esteemed Queen.
No prologue. (She doesn’t like prologues)
No introduction. (Unnecessary but I often think I have to explain myself)
No TOC. (Gee-willickers, I actually got something right)
My 10 pages, plus a few, became pgs. 11 to 23 of the manuscript. I added the extra sauce because I wanted to finish my point and I figured QOTKU would cut me some slack because she loves me...um...she loves me not...she loves me...throws dead daisy on the floor.
Anyway, I did it right, drum roll...reject city.
Oh well.
Rejection doesn’t hurt as much if you do it right. Part of me thinks it should be the other way around.

kathy joyce said...

E-pub novels do use TOC. I use them (with good descriptions, not just titles) when writing/editing. Helps me keep track of what's where, who's who, and whodoneit when. A synopsis also has to be written in chapter order, so the TOC is huge for that. I'll change to just chapter #s for submission.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yeah. I actually had a question about TOC. I don't include a TOC ever. Not ever. Even for requested fulls. They take up word count, and I have observed, at least in fiction, not all publishers include a TOC - even with named chapters. Most do but some just let the reader go happily along on their own.

So I figured let the publisher decide what to do about the TOC. I also never include any supplemental materials- appendices and maps and all that garbage that accumulates when writing epic fantasy. I figured once sold, a publisher will decide how much print space to devote to this kind of thing. At least, I hope that is the case. Am I wrong? I could be wrong. I am often wrong.

And sending something to Carkoon - that takes a Hell of a lot more than stamps. Blood and flatulence are involved. So be damn sure about those care packages going that way.

Kitty said...

Lisa: Using titles helps me with story structure and to easily find the chapters that need work.

That's why I began using them, and I like to read novels which have titled chapters.

Sharyn Ekbergh said...

I don't like prologues either and I especially dislike books that start with a prologue from within the twisted mind of the villain, (and then plenty of scenes in italics with more of the same). I can see why authors feel a prologue is needed but I admire a book that figures out how to avoid it.

A book I liked a lot, Beartown, starts with a prologue that has the sound of a shot going off in the forest. So of course you have to read the whole book to find out what happened. It's a way of starting off with an intriguing action scene and then holding our interest to backtrack and keep us reading.

I'm thrilled that Janet is requesting so many fulls. It means there are good books coming our way. And even though I love writing, I could happily spend the rest of my life reading.

Off to the library to pick up Louise's latest.

Sherry Howard said...

It never ceases to amaze me how easy it is to attach the wrong thing accidentally. I date my files, keep good track of them, and STILL have problems sometimes. Several times I've wanted a delete button for an email already swooshing through the airwaves. Every time that happens I learn something, but a few minutes too late. ( ;

Kitty said...

Elmore Leonard's #2 rule is "Avoid prologues": They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck's "Sweet Thursday," but it's O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about.


And then there's this from that prologue in "Sweet Thursday": "Suppose there's chapter one, chapter two, chapter three. That's all right, as far as it goes, but I'd like to have a couple of words at the top so it tells me what the chapter's going to be about. Sometimes maybe I want to go back, and chapter five don't mean nothing to me. If there was just a couple of words I'd know that was the chapter I wanted to go back to."

Btw, it's the hooptedoodle prologue.

Megan V said...

Ah. I see. In other words, writers shouldn't reveal their plans for writerly world domination until after they've won you over.

Colin Smith said...

Sherry: I create a folder with all my submission docs. I have a query doc containing the text of the query (adaptable to each agent, if necessary) ready to copy-and-paste. Also separate docs for the 1 page, 3 page, and 5 page synopsis, as well as a doc containing the first five pages of the novel. Oh, and the most current version of the novel, of course. This helps me make sure I don't send the wrong version of something, or have to spend ages hunting for things.

As a wise person once said, "Organize early, and often." ;)

Kitty said...

Colin... Organize Early and Organize Often
If you don't, in as little as five years you're going to need professionals like me to cleanup your multiple content platforms.

Robert Ceres said...

Phew! Another querying mistake I haven’t made. That’s number two. Wish I had discovered this blog earlier.

Who knew that Janet was considering so much juvenile fiction? I’m thinking juvenile fiction includes the sub-category of YA?

Colin Smith said...

Robert: Janet has said that, while she has her category/genre preferences (which do not include PB, MG, or YA), she'll take a query for just about anything. She'd rather reject a bunch of things she can't rep than miss out on that gem.

Here's how I translate that: You are more likely to get a request from Janet if you send her something within her preferences. Those are the categories she knows best and believes she can best sell. However, sometimes a query crosses her desk that is so compelling, she thinks its worth the risk and the investment even though it's outside her usual preferences. There's no way to ask for those, so she invites queries for all categories, knowing she'll turn away 99% of those not in her preferences, in the hope of finding that one.

Am I right?

Timothy Lowe said...

Too much thinking will kill you. Not enough will leave you for dead.

(I am loving the recent blog content about publicity! Gives me something to dream about as I keep trying to write something that will take flight.)

Dena Pawling said...


A while ago Janet put out a call for MG narrative nonfiction / history/biography ms. Maybe that's what she's requesting.

One thing I tend to notice when critiquing for folks is sometimes the chapter title (and TOC) will give away the surprise. Like "the dragon speaks" or "johnny finds the ring". Don't give away the fun of discovery in your chapter title.

Sherry Howard said...

Colin, I switched to a MacBook and I'm still struggling with organization! I need to watch a YouTube video on using folders on the Mac I guess. I did fine before I switched, but find myself stumbling now. Plus, I'm only now starting to have a better system for keeping better track of revisions. Honestly, I didn't expect the volume I now have. Not complaining, I LOVE that I've had to work smarter!

John Davis Frain said...

If it weren't for pesky plagiarism problems, I'd just repeat Timothy Lowe's comment in its entirety.

I won't even attempt to restate it cuz his was clever. Nicely done.

Thanks for this blog, Janet, in case I haven't mentioned that lately. Wow, the knowledge.

Ashes said...

I am writing and not actively querying right now, but it occurs to me that my shelved MS does not have a TOC.

Is it standard to include one in a requested full? Partial?

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Sherry I just switched to a Mac myself. I am having a bit of a learning curve myself in trying to get organized with all my projects and revisions there of. We should hire Colin to make it all better.

Janet Reid said...

Juvenile NON-fiction. Middle grade history, biography and other cool things.

Also, picture books, but only rarely. I love them, but we have a lot of agents here doing them already.

And still looking hard for adult non-fiction, history and biography.

But the last five requests were things that didn't fit ANY of those categories, so you know I'm serious about query me for anything. I may not take it on, but there's no downside to asking.

kathy joyce said...

Dang, I am spending the *entire weekend* finishing my editing. Query is written. This invite is too good to pass up! Get writing chums. Er, friends.

BJ Muntain said...

The first thing I thought, when I read all that, was 'this is self-published'. Or at least, it's prepared to be. Maybe they're all ready to self-publish this baby, but they're going to try a few big-time agents first, just in case they can get a great deal. The rejections are just going to prove to them that self-publishing is better.

Or maybe they're reading the wrong submissions instructions. After all, for non-fiction you include a table of contents in your proposal... although all that other stuff? Not so much...

Now I want to query our Queen again. But I'll contain myself.

BJ Muntain said...

Ashes: Fiction does not need a table of contents - ever, really. If a publisher wants it, they've probably got a better system for developing it than we do. A TOC may seem simple in Word, on the face of it, but it can get complicated, it's more work than we need to do, and many publishers hate Word formatting. Can you imagine how much Word formatting goes into a TOC?

And if you're just going to do a simple text list of chapters, then you have to keep that up-to-date when revising, so the chapters and pages all work out.

All that to say, don't worry about it.

Colin Smith said...

Sherry & Elise: I'm a PC guy, but I totally understand your Mac experience. I bought my wife a MacBook some years ago (she really wanted one for some reason), and it took me a long time to figure out how to do things I could do without thinking on the PC. It's not a matter of one being better than the other; it's simply what you get used to. People who have been using Macs for years can create folders and organize their way around Tigers, Snow Leopards, and Mountain Lions until the Sierra comes home. Stick with it. You'll figure it out. And don't forget, there's always YouTube. :)

Robert Ceres said...

Sometimes the table of contents is a wonderful and enticing alternative summary of the story. Anyone recognize this one?
1. Marseilles-The Arrival.
2. Father and Son
3. Catalans
4. Conspiracy
5. The Marriage Feast.
6. The Deputy Procureur du Roi.
7. The Examination.
8. The Chateau D’If
9. …
When I was 13 I saw this table of contents and really wanted to read the book, so I did, not really realizing how long it was (369 thousand words) until I was half-way done.
As to sending a table of contents to an agent, well, I would rather be asked for a table of contents over getting asked for the dreaded and dastardly synopsis.

Lynne Main said...

Funny, I was always under the impression one sent a TOC with their full (definitely not with a query). Maybe that's because I've always gone by the book "Formatting & Submitting Your Manuscript" from the folks at Writer's Digest. Granted, my copy is from 2004, so maybe things have changed in newer editions?

And I didn't think Janet was taking YA novels (damn). Since I've already sent my query to another at New Leaf who does take YA, I can't query Janet anyway (yes, I read the website, only send query to one agent!).

So, I'm in the queue...and working on my next book while I wait.

Robert, I'm thinking "The Count of Monte Cristo". Can't forget the Chateau d'If...ever.

Robert Ceres said...

Lynne, YES!

Lynne Main said...

Robert, do I get a gold star? Love that book. Read it as a kid, and I now have it as an e-book (downloaded from Project Gutenberg). Dumas was an awesome writer.

S.D.King said...

Wait one second....did you say Juvenile? Since when? Can a middle grade spec fic adventure - are you taking MG queries?

* Head on knees. Fists clenched. Eyes pinched tightly closed. Repeating "pleasepleaseplease"*

Lennon Faris said...

Like a few others here, I think my eyes popped out when I saw the 'juvenile' category, thinking Janet's list was expanding... I forgot about non-fiction. Bummer!

I've never even thought about having a TOC, but it's always good to know these things before they occur to me. I used to resist the "NO PROLOGUES!" because I thought mine was so cool. Now I know that it was not, so I recently did story surgery to make the story really start at Chapter 1. Just like a reader in a book store. Made it much stronger!

Joseph Snoe said...

It amazes me how many things can go wrong in preparing and emailing queries.

I've sent five queries this week and new gremlins appear with each new one.

I've sent one to the wrong email address, sent one from my wrong email account, found a period where a comma should be in the sample pages and an "i" out of nowhere to change "he" to "ihe," saw two paragraphs merged to create gibberish, was shocked to see a truncated sentence, and somehow my moving pages from Word to email double indented a paragraph.

I don't know if I'm more afraid or curious as to what I'll do wrong on my next query.

Oh, and I have no idea how an agent will react to the query itself.

Lynne Main said...

Joseph, I like to add a complaint about formatting issues between Word and email. Just recently, I prepared a query. As I copied and pasted the query, the pages, and the synopsis into the body of the email, I found symbols and question marks showing up at the bottom of each item. Every. Single. Time. I did not put those marks in said items when I typed them up in Word. Yes, I checked for hidden text and such. Nothing showed up until I did the transfer.

Sometimes, I believe Word is the work of the devil...and it probably wears Prada too. Of course, it's a necessary evil when one writes their literary masterpieces ;)

BJ Muntain said...

Lynne: Janet doesn't take juvenile fiction, just non-fiction.

But Janet has also said elsewhere that the guideline to only send to one agent at New Leaf means AT A TIME. So if the agent you sent to doesn't love your book enough (though they'd be a fool not to), you can send to another agent there. But don't send Juvenile fiction to Janet, anyway.

And that's comment #3. Have a great weekend, folks!

Colin Smith said...

Lynne: Tip--copy to Notepad first. Notepad is a basic text editor, so it doesn't store special formatting characters. Perhaps even save your query, synopsis, pages as a .txt file from Notepad, and copy-paste to email from there.

[Quick way to find Notepad in Windows 10: Right-click on the Windows icon in the bottom left corner, click on "Run", type "Notepad" in the box, and click "OK"]

Lynne Main said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynne Main said...

BJ, I knew Janet didn't take juvenile fiction. But the way I worded things in my previous post probably didn't reflect that (me and my caffeine-induced speed typing...). What I meant was that I sent my YA query to another agent at New Leaf, one who does take juvenile fiction. I hadn't intended to query Janet with this book, because I knew she didn't do YA. Thank you for clarifying the "at a time" info with the agents--I'll keep that in mind as I keep on querying.

Colin, thanks for the tip about Notepad--which I have on my computer. Didn't even think about that. Actually, with my symbol problem, I just watch for it before I hit "send" as I re-read my email a few times before launching into cyberspace.

Since this is post #4, I'm outta here, before our Queen has my limbs for dinner...

Timothy Lowe said...

Frain: I love you. And not just for posting back to school flash fiction on your blog during the week when back to school is kicking some of our asses. You can rip off any of my comments, anytime!

Kitty said...

Speaking of TOCs... Have you noticed Janet's post titles?
Your table of contents will kill you
How to NOT be a bone-head promoter
4 reasons asking for blurbs before you query is a BAD IDEA
And who could resist Idiots in the email (part N +1)?