18 September, 2011

The Art of the Query, and the Baseball Interview

Bear with me.  I'll admit it's a tenuous link, but I'm going somewhere with this.

Have you ever seen a post-game interview of a baseball player?  Well, then you've seen them all.  Baseball is a humbling game: roughly two at-bats in three are doomed to failure, and for most teams a season with one more wins than losses is a pretty good year of baseball.  And so a ballplayer with a microphone in his face rarely brags. For one thing even the best player in the league has a good chance of going 0-4 the next day.  For another, pitchers have been known to throw 95 mph heaters at a batter's head for the crime of rounding the bases a little too slowly after a home run.  

This practice, enforced by generations of tradition and the very real possibility of a skull fracture, results in baseball having the most boring interviews in all of professional sport.  Even compared to golf. When a ballplayer has just hit a clutch grand slam to win the game single-handed, you won't be able to tell it from the post-game interview.  If you haven't seen the game, you might think that all the guy did was show up and sort the bats in the dugout.

What does all this have to do with writing?  Well, an author sending queries to an agent is in good shape if he's getting requests on one in ten.  Three requests for manuscripts in ten queries is outstanding... four?  That's Ted Williams numbers, or maybe Walter Mosley.  Same when agents sub to editors, and editors go to the public and hope for a commercial success.

And so, an author writing queries could take some advice from the art of the baseball interview.  Watch enough of them and you'll hear all the following phrases:

"I didn't try to do too much, just put the bat on the ball, get on base."  Even the best home run hitters don'tt usually go to the plate swinging for one.  If so, he's likely to strike out.  Hitting is a Zen art: as Yogi Berra famously said, 90% of it is half mental.  A good hitter knows his job isn't (usually) to win the game with one swing.  It's to not make an out. 

Remember the purpose of the query: it's to show an agent what your book is about and demonstrate that you're a skilled enough writer that reading it wouldn't be a waste of time.  It's not to convince the agent that your book has every possible feature of character, relevance, plot, book-club potential, sparkly movie spinoff, that you, the author are a great person and a generous lover--no.  A successful query gets the agent to request your manuscript.  It gets you on base. Don't do anything stupid to get picked off, and you might score.

 "No, rookie, Janet Reid does NOT want to 
see a picture of your damn cats!"

"I just wanted to help out the team."  There's a reason the author only gets 7% of the book price as a royalty: though nothing could happen without an author, 93% of the labor of making a book belongs to other people.  Agent, editors, printers, publicity, the risk the publisher is taking on, and all that boring spreadsheet stuff that happens so the creator can create and make a living.

"I tip my cap to him...that's the way you play the game."  Even if it weren't for the aforementioned tradition of the disciplinary beanball, I think most players would follow the unwritten rules of the game. Again, it is a humbling game, and one does not tempt the fates lightly. You don't steal bases when you're winning by 10 runs.  You say hello to the first baseman when you get on, ask him about his kids. If you're tagging a base, you put your foot on the side of the bag so the runner can step on it and no one gets hurt.

Know and follow the agent's guidelines. Spell his or her name right.  For the love of George Sand, know whether it's a him or a her. Attach what the agent requested: no more, no less, no different.  No one cares at this point if you're the greatest to put three words together since 'In The Beginning' -- you are writing a business letter to a potential business partner, and who wants a difficult partner?

"It's a long season"   No single baseball game really matters, it's how you finish after playing 162 of them.  You can even lose three games of the World Series and come away champions.  It can take a few years to write a novel, a few months to query it, a year to edit it again, more querying, then a month to pick an agent, months for that agent to pitch and sell it, and a year from then to get into print. It's a long season. Don't get excited too much about today.


  1. I agree with everything you said except the bit about sales. I've read agent blogs where they were specifically impressed because the author had a well-researched idea of their potential for book clubs, their audience, and/or a marketing plan -- accurate enough it didn't come across as grandiose. But that's probably overkill for most of us who'd just like to put on the team's uniform.

    Batter up. ;)

  2. Ah! See, Jan? I tried to do too much there, and hit a foul. My meaning was that while each of those is certainly a good thing to have, trying to squeeze ALL of them into one query is maybe too much. Even if true, I doubt a reader would believe it. I learned long ago that 'You've got all the answers, haven't you?' is not a compliment.