Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Good Query

The Good Query

My first book or two had already been published before I began to study in any real depth how a query letter should work. I was lucky – a friend’s editor picked up my first two manuscripts, unagented. That still happens occasionally, but in the years that followed those first books, I’ve been paying a lot more attention to what makes a good query.

The query represents a turning point in the way you think about your project. It’s where your work of art becomes a commodity and where your passion morphs into a business. Query-writing is such a valuable process that even if I were to self-publish, I’d take the time to develop a query to myself as the first step in the promotional process.

When I first began writing queries, I followed the usual formula - why I’m writing, what my project is, who I am – and I didn’t put a lot of time or energy into it. With an ever-tightening market, I spend more time now crafting my queries. I treat them like mini-manuscripts, prewriting and drafting and letting them sit and doing multiple revisions. I pay a lot of attention to my audience and to figuring out what my project is really about, and I make sure my unique voice shines in the letter.

These days emerging writers seem to focus most of their attention on the one or two sentence “elevator pitch” and then build their query around it. I find this backwards. Any project, even a lame one, can be reduced to a sentence or two rattled off on the fly. If you take the time to produce a finely-crafted query, you’ll have all the content and confidence you need to pitch your project to any agent you happen to meet in an elevator.

Though it may sound odd, I often draft the book pitching part of my queries in the early stages of my projects, as soon as I feel them beginning to take shape. Even though it will most certainly change, I find it helpful to consider how a project will appear to potential publishers and readers, in the form of back cover copy, which is how I think of the pitch line or lines.

Despite the grumbling you hear (possibly even from me), placing your manuscript is not a crap shoot or a numbers game. It’s about knowing your book through and through and understanding enough about the market to know where it fits, and it’s about the project earning your conviction that it absolutely must reach its readers.

There’s all sorts of query advice floating around, but the best I’ve found is in a slim little volume called The Last Query by Cindy Dyson. I bought this book not so much because I was intent on mastering the query but because I love Cindy and her writing, and I appreciate the way she engages with and gives back to the literary community. As it turns out The Last Query not only offers great advice but is also a fine example of the type of project that lends itself to self-publishing even though the writer has already published traditionally: a viable topic, a knowledgeable author, and a niche market.

Dyson approaches queries from the agent’s perspective. What will make yours stand out among hundreds and thousands that all follow the same formula? We all like to think our projects are entirely unique, when in truth they’re not nearly as special as we imagine. That’s not to say they’re not worthy of publication, only that we must work hard to figure out how to help our target audience – first the agent, then the publisher and then readers - understand that they MUST have this book.

Consider the fears and desires of agents, Dyson suggests. Ask yourself significant questions about your project, things you might not have considered before, like the metaphorical highlights and the soul of the story. Examine yourself as a writer, including what Dyson calls the “sexy hooks” of your life.

In one succinct, powerful page, the good query merges your best writing with target marketing. In the good query, you leap not just with your best foot forward but with both feet from art into business, a move so smoothly executed that no one will be able to distinguish between them.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Le Mot Juste: The Value and Hazards of Precision

What’s the oldest book about writing that’s still on your shelves? Mine is Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, the third edition (it's now in it's fourth). The cover price (new) of $2.75 gives you some idea of how long I’ve owned it.

“No book in shorter space, with fewer words, will help any writer more than this persistent little volume,” says The Boston Globe. “The work remains a nonpareil: direct, correct, and delightful,” says The New Yorker.

The Elements of Style is a model of precision. Will Strunk was E. B. White’s composition professor at Cornell way back in 1919. White put his professor’s advice to good use, becoming a successful author (to say the least) in his own right. In 1957, Macmillan commissioned White to revise Strunk’s edicts on style.

And edicts they are. “Professor Strunk was a positive man,” White says in his introduction to the third edition, putting a nice spin on it. “His book contains rules of grammar phrased as direct orders. In the main I have not tried to soften his commands, or modify his pronouncements, or remove the special objects of his scorn.”

When I taught college composition, I used The Elements of Style as a textbook. Among the advice I hoped it would impart to my students:

  • Use the active voice
  • Put statements in positive form
  • Use definite, specific, concrete language
  • Omit needless words
  • Avoid a succession of loose sentences
  • Express co-ordinate ideas in similar form
  • Keep related words together
  • Place the emphatic words of a sentence at the end
  • Place yourself in the background
  • Write in a way that comes naturally
  • Work from a suitable design
  • Write with nouns and verbs
  • Revise and rewrite
  • Do not overwrite
  • Do not overstate
  • Avoid the use of qualifers
  • Do not explain too much
  • Make sure the reader knows who is speaking
  • Avoid fancy words
  • Be clear

Never mind that this list includes a few contradictions (as in “Do not overstate” but also “Put statements in positive form”). I took Strunk and White’s call to heart in my own writing, and though as a more mature writer I now qualify some of the advice (“Do not affect a breezy manner,” “Do not inject opinion,” “Use figures of speech sparingly,” “Prefer the standard to the offbeat”) in favor of strong voice, I’m still glad I learned first and foremost to write with precision.

Yes, rules are restrictive, but we must know language, the tool of our trade, and precision tempered with feeling yields beauty. Of course, it’s also possible to take precision a little too far. Known to deliberate for weeks over a single word, nineteenth-century novelist Gustave Flaubert championed le mot juste. I’ve read Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in both English and French, and while it’s a finely crafted novel, there are several that have made a much bigger impression. An emphasis on micro-editing over larger concerns like character motivation and emotional resonance can yield micro-results.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Narrative Pacing: Making a Run for It

Pacing sounds like the easiest thing in the world: speed up, slow down. You know, like an accelerator.

Au contraire, my dear writers. Pacing is hard. Let’s start with the fact that as readers we take it for granted. We know when an essay or story or book pulls us along, when we can’t put it down. We know when it drags and we set it aside. But even in literature classes, we don’t analyze pacing the way we do characters or themes or syntax, unless it really falls flat, as in the second half of Twain’s Huck Finn. Yet it’s one of the most crucial considerations for the writer.

Pacing is often mischaracterized as having to do only with plot or excitement. It’s actually about tension, which has as much or more to do with character and emotion as with plot. Pacing also has to do with arcs and how we move forward and back within time, sustaining disbelief, interest, and empathy. And it has a whole lot to do with summary and scene and with set-up and backstory as well as withholding and the way we set up endings.

I learned about pacing while revising my first novel for publication. “It feels like you’re racing to get to the end,” my editor said. And I was. I was excited to see that there was an end, that it was all coming together in a satisfying way, and I couldn’t wait to get there.

Pacing is like driving into a curve - you slow down as you’re approaching the important parts, where the action, the characters, the ideas will turn. You accomplish this through finely wrought details, engaging description, and syntax – longer sentences with multiple clauses. But that’s only the beginning.

“Pacing and progression are the most cumulative, most far-reaching elements of writing and thus demand the greatest long-term concentration,” says literary agent Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel. You have to be able to see whether the big building blocks of your project are working right, and often you’re simply too close to the project to be able to judge this for yourself.  A reliable reader can identify problems with pacing, and your own ability to spot problems will increase with some time away from the manuscript. You have to be able to pick out the major milestones in the narrative, Maass points out. “When one goes by, things ought to feel different.”

With regard to pacing, Maass warns of two major traps: set-up and backstory. “So fatal is the business of ‘setting up’ something in a novel that I believe the very idea should be banned,” he says. Backstory must be held for the right moment, when the readers care deeply. Another bit of helpful advice from Maass: the scene after a high point is a good place for subplot action, because it provides a change of page.

“A manuscript must give us a satisfying sense of progressions – but not too easily,” says literary agent Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages. “It must make us work - but not too hard. It must keep us turning pages – but not leave us feeling it is too much of a breeze.” Lukeman likens pacing to the central nervous system of a book. It’s difficult, he notes, because in order to fully assess the pacing of a project, you have to maintain the whole book in your head at once; in fact, you might find you have to re-read it all in one sitting.

Where you find it’s moving too slowly, Lukeman suggests there may be not enough at stake, or you may be using scene where summary would be more appropriate. Where it’s moving too fast, ask yourself – as my editor asked me with that first novel – what’s the rush? 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Flexible Writer

When I first began publishing, I coveted the qualities of a real writer: persistence, diligence, tenaciousness, enthusiasm, confidence, humility, patience, and of course a thick skin. But one was rarely mentioned, and I believe it’s among the most vital: flexibility.

By flexibility, I don’t only mean “kill your darlings,” though that’s great advice, and I'm not talking about managing as the revolving doors of publishing slap you with changes in staffing, distribution, and marketing. I’m talking about the kind of flexibility that allows you to rethink, rework, and even start over on a project, whether you’ve written 100 words or 100,000.

It may be that I appreciate flexibility because I’m not especially good at getting things right the first time. But recently I completed a series of revisions on a novel that is, save the title, unrecognizable from its earliest versions. I’m glad I stayed flexible. It made all the difference in the end result.

Commenting on his process in writing “Mrs. Kelly’s Monster,” a terrific essay anthologized in Literary NonfictionJon Franklin affirms the value of flexibility. He began the project as one in a series of “practice pieces” in which he applied the Chekovian story form to journalism. In particular, he wanted to do something highly paced. Since he’d already earned a reputation as a science writer for the Baltimore Sun, he was able to follow Dr. Thomas Decker into brain surgery. But on this particular day, Dr. Decker wasn’t the hero Franklin was expecting to feature. His patient died.

“I had somehow assumed that the operation would work out okay and have a happy ending,” Franklin says. “Now I had this terrible feeling that I had lost my story. It was an awful day. Here a woman had died and I was feeling sorry for myself because I didn’t have a story and, yet, that’s how I felt. I went over it and over it, and it wasn’t until seven or eight that evening that I realized I did have a story. It was just different than I thought. It was, in fact, a better story, one in which Dr. Ducker, not Mrs. Kelly, was the protagonist. Of all the lessons I learned on that story, the most powerful was that stories change…and a good writer lets them…When a story changes on you, always let go of your hypotheses and follow the story. What you find will be much better than what you abandoned.”

Featured in a recent issue of Poets and Writers, fiction writer Ben Fountain learned a similar lesson about flexibility. Two years after the debut of his 2006 prizewinning story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevera, Fountain’s editor turned down the novel he’d been working on for ten years. He didn’t suggest a revision – Fountain had already done several – he advised him to scrap it. As you might imagine, this came as a big blow to Fountain. Although six weeks earlier Malcolm Gladwell had called him “a genius-level literary autodidact with unlimited promise,” there was the small fact that he’d been writing for two decades and had only the one published story collection. Fountain says he went through all the stages of grief, from denial through depression, before he landed on acceptance. He decided he had other things to write. A few weeks later he started a short story that became the novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, released this year with a blurb from Madison Smartt Bell that says it’s “as close to the Great American Novel as anyone is likely to come these days.”

Here’s the thing about Fountain: he never gave up. He proved himself tenacious and persistent in the long haul. But with individual projects, he learned what to believe in and when to let go. In a word, he proved himself flexible.