Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Check This Box

Ah, the check-the-box query letter. Several short summaries of manuscripts that you have to offer, and all I have to do is indicate which ones I like and mail the sheet back to you.

So tidy, so efficient, so dumb.

I know, you're multi-talented and the muse has you gushing manuscripts faster than you can write letters. Here's the thing about query letters that query more than one thing at a time: I'm going to choose one.
And even more often than that, I'm going to choose none. You're sending the psychological message that none of these manuscripts is worth devoting a whole sheet of paper to.

Just fyi.

I'm also puzzled and amused by the check-the-box response forms some people include with their manuscripts.
  • I've received this manuscript (included in a submission for which there is only the required SASE; response form itself is not stamped)
  • I haven't received this manuscript (think about it)
  • I love it! (Why would I use a form for this?)
  • I hate it! (I'm never going to tell people this.)
  • Try _______________ (name) at _____________ (publisher) (Oh, yeah. I'm ambivalent about you enough to use a form, but I'm going to pass a colleague's name to you. Sure.)
  • Signed, Hotshot editor (or I could just sign it)
  • Signed, Hotshot editor's assistant (or she could just sign it)
  • Signed, Hotshot editor's assistant's intern (or she could just throw it in the trash)


Anonymous said...

I've used the multiple-story query technique for picture books and did OK. Granted some publishers didn't respond at all, but one requested every story (and rejected every story but with helpful comments) and I sold one book this way (after the editor had requested two manuscripts). Both were major publishers.

It's probably not unusual for picture book authors to have more than one polished story. If you consider that the editor may have the query for three months (or more) before replying, then an author with half a dozen stories may be waiting a long time to find out anything. Mind you, I didn't send out 50 of these, just a targeted few to houses that I knew were query-only.

I sent a simple, professional query with no check-mark shtick (and no granny stories!).

annawritedraw said...

I read and enjoy your wisdom often. However, I disagree with you multiple story query concern.

While I have never sent this type of query to an editor, I have sent one to an agent. My reasoning is that I want an agent to see that I am not just a one trick pony, that I have a body of work, or that I write in various genres. I want an agent to represent my career not just a single manuscript.

What do editors think we do when we are waiting for six to twelve months to hear about our queries and manuscripts? We get right back to work doing what we love best. Writing.

Anna Boll

Anonymous said...

Anna,an agent IS a different story. Many (but not all)want your ideas for subsequent mss and WIPs.

Anonymous said...

But aren't the multiple-story queries really only as "dumb," to borrow EA's adjective, as the stories they contain? Yeah, a query outlining four sucky stories adds up to four sucky stories, and it probably doesn't matter if they come in all at once or once every three months for the next year. You're not going to want them.

But to Anna's point, wouldn't an editor be a teensy bit intrigued by a good (emphasis on the word "good") writer who's versatile and clearly in it for the long run?

It's my theory that a lot of the Grandma stories and treacle come from folks who whip off one picture book in their lifetimes based on some quotable little Johnny uttered at bedtime. They have no intention of creating a body of work once their precious picture book hits shelves (yeah right).

In some ways, the multiple-story query is a way for the writer to level the playing field a bit. We try to be patient, yes, we do, but in reality, it could take a house three months to process the query and then another three to five months to consider the requested manuscript. And then there are houses who ask for exclusives.

Put all that together, and a writer with multiple publishable manuscripts could be looking at years to find out where her work stands, never mind actually getting a contract.

I agree that it may not be the best tactic for novels but it does seem to have valid benefits -- for the publisher and the writer -- in the case of picture books.


Welshcake said...

"My reasoning is that I want an agent to see that I am not just a one trick pony, that I have a body of work, or that I write in various genres."

But isn't there a danger the agent will wonder why the author has so many manuscripts that haven't been picked up?

Editorial Anonymous said...

To quote an editorial director, to put multiple queries in the same letter means you're competing against yourself.

(Sorry, Mike. I'm not sure this is coming across.)

Anonymous said...

wc, maybe those mss haven't been shopped or have only been shopped to houses the agent doesn't work with...or editors the agent doesn't work with. Or they are not in good enough shape to shop, and the agent knows it and works with writer to improve writing.

Let's face it, there aren't many trade houses still looking at the unagented writer.

Anonymous said...

Those multiple-story queries never tell me much about a writer, other than that he or she has lots of story ideas. Even if they're GOOD ideas I have no idea what the execution will be like.

I dislike them for the same reason I hate those check-box rejection forms--they presume that I have some clear code of likes and dislikes that they can crack.

Anonymous said...

But does any query REALLY tell you what the execution is going to be like? The writer may have slaved over the query but, in reality, her book falls apart in the end or the plot isn't as original as you initially hoped. Or it's tons better than you ever expected.

And I don't agree about the presumption of a code. Isn't any outreach to an editor essentially trying to determine likes and dislikes? No matter what form the initial outreach takes (query, multiple query, manuscript), the writer and the editor are looking for a match.


Anonymous said...

I don't see the point of arguing with EA. She's telling us what she likes. Might as well argue with a guy who's breaking up with you . . . tempting, but is it actually going to change his mind?

Anonymous said...

Oh, I saw it as more of a discussion. It just seems like to dismiss the multiple query as "dumb" when you have one person here (and maybe others?) who found it worked seems to make this a topic worth exploring. But maybe not.


Editorial Anonymous said...

You're always welcome to argue with me. It may or may not change my mind, but I appreciate the effort. The people I like best have considered opinions and are interested in discussing them.

Kidlitjunkie said...

My personal pet peeve about those queries is the part where you can check the box for "I am not interested in any of these stories because" and then leaves a space where I can explain why I am not interested.

I know it isn't nice, and I never have done this and probably never will, but every single time I see one of those spaces, I have a strong urge to pen in the words "you suck."

I hate those lines, begging for a personal rejection. It doesn't work that way, people. Follow the damn guidlines.

Helen DeWitt said...

I used to play a lot of Texas Hold 'em; serious poker players agree that poker is not a game of pure chance, it's a game of skill. You start out with a couple of cards; you have to decide whether to bet on your chances of improving your hand; cards are dealt, you have to keep reassessing the potential of your hand.

Say I start out with AK of hearts. The flop goes down. If it's 3 hearts, I have a good hand. If it's Q J 10 that's good. If it's A A K that's fabulous. Jesus loves me. But if it's a couple of hearts and a spade, say, it is worth my while to bet, hoping another heart will be dealt, but I can't be as confident of having a winning hand. The amount of money I'm willing to risk depends on how much I know about the strength of my hand.

So let's say my agent is driving me crazy; I'm playing poker online to calm my nerves, drinking Black Jacks, chain-smoking, wondering whether I wouldn't be happier as a professional poker player. Suddenly I remember Roald Dahl's advice to Kingsley Amis: Write for children, that's where the money is. The spirit of Dahl descends, I think of a book about a boy who plays poker online, father arrested for white collar crime, boy runs away with dad's laptop and lives by playing online, gets trapped in an online poker fraud ring... Jesus loves me! Thank you, Roald, thank you!

I then remember that a friend who's a director had endorsed Dahl's view, saying movies for kids were where the money was. I feel that a film about a gang of boys living by online poker (with a moral ending for the sake of decency) would be one the whole family could enjoy. Repeatedly. Thank you, Roald, thank you thank you! Thank you, Jack Daniels!

Thinking as a poker player, I imagine that I should not just write this one book, I should write five. If poker is seen as corrupting the young this will be bad. But if it appeals to the Boy Who Does Not Read, parents will want to buy other books by the same author for BWDNR. If I write only one book, I might fall under a bus or find Jesus or join AA before the rest are written. An editor who is offered 5 books can decide on the best order of publication, given her publishing programme; she has insurance against the ever-present danger that the author may turn to Jesus or orange juice. (You may remember the consternation which greeted Susan Howatch's move to books with deeper, more spiritual themes.)

Anyway, I later discovered, through online research, that editors and agents have a strong prejudice against an author with more than one book on offer. They don't want to know whether they're looking at a flush or a straight or a full house; they would rather bet on imperfect information. They're not serious gamblers.

I thought: OK. OK. OK. We have two choices. Vegas or the Serenity Prayer.

Editorial Anonymous said...

The problem with the last comment is the assumption that each book represents a single card in a hand. It doesn't. Each book is a hand unto itself, and so editors expect good writers to know which hand is the strongest and send us that one first. If it's an Royal Flush, we're going to be curious about the other hands you have... and if it's two pair, we're not.
That said, it was an entertaining comment.

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