Poring over your first five, and why you should

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The air was thick with a tiresome tone last Sunday, the final day of the Agents and Editors conference in Austin. Most of the crowd had been pursuing the people on the dais for days. We listened to three editors and 17 agents. One panelist after another, with few exceptions, told stories of what not to do while querying them. A query is opening a business relationship, so there are preferences and protocol to observe.

Don’t write your cover letter on a half-sheet of legal paper, longhand. Don’t address your letter to another agent (a failure of Word’s mail-merge). “Don’t tell me you’ve written a fictional novel,” said Mike Ferris of a Dallas agency named after him. “Unless you expect a fictional reply from me, one I don’t have to send.”

Be sure to get the honorifics right, one added: “Don’t address me ‘Dear Beth,’ ” said Beth Vesel. A few of us looked puzzled at that one, looking down at the program where she was billed as “Beth Vesel,” also of a literary agency named after her. Oh, I get it. The correspondence to the leader of the Beth Vesel Literary Agency should be addressed “Dear Ms. Vesel:” Or “Ms. Vesel:”

Beth (sorry for the familiarity, but now I feel like I know you better) said she won’t read unsolicited e-mail queries. Put your unsolicited paper query in the mail and send it to her Fifth Avenue office in New York City. (Not to be put off by that address. The office is at 50 Fifth Avenue, a few blocks from the Village and Union Square in NYC.)

She said she wants writers to look at her Web site to see how to submit a manuscript. (Doesn’t appear to be a listing for her agency’s site in my searches via Google or Yahoo.) After 15 years of work at another agency, Vesel started her own in 2003, and according to a 2004 listing at the Agents Actively Looking Web site

is actively looking for new clients. Beth handles serious psychology, cultural criticism, narrative nonfiction and literary fiction. For non-fiction please include a query letter, CV, proposal, and SASE. If a finished proposal is not ready please supply a synopsis, full outline, and related clips.

For fiction please include a query letter, synopsis (with word count), sample chapter and SASE.

Why query her? Because she’s been an agent since 1988. Because she specializes in psychological thrillers, among her interests listed in the conference program. Most important, because she’s hired to get your manuscript in the running for a deal with a major publisher, if she or her readers can get through the first five pages of your writing.

Vesel was blunt and funny. She said she thinks that “literary fiction” is a genre created out of “bullshit,” to quote her term. (She was the only agent to use that word to describe the habits of an industry full of it.)

If it sounds challenging to get a open-minded read from Ms. Vesel, well, that’s the nature of the publishing game at a New York level. You don’t want to think that bright, accomplished people like the agents at that conference would dismiss a work of art in less than 10 pages. The truth is that they do, all the time. And that’s a fact that Noah Lukeman built a book upon: The First Five Pages.

This book’s subtitle is “Staying out of the rejection pile,” and Lukeman begins by saying his book might not be a good use of your time.

Most people are against books on writing on principle. So am I. It’s ridiculous to set down rules when it comes to art.

Of course, he goes on to set down not rules, but a chapter-by-chapter examination of where to go wrong while you try to stay out of the recycle bin; how to get past the MFA grad student or under-published writer who reads for an agent. Lukeman’s first chapter deals with presentation, and offers this advice, only partly in jest:

Don’t try to contact an editor or agent between 12:30 and 3. They will be lunching with other editors or agents. Don’t contact them before lunch, because they will be settling in for the day. Don’t contact them between 3 and 4, because they will be recovering from lunch and returning calls from those who called during lunch. Don’t call them after 5, as Hollywood is finally waking up about then, and they are also preparing to leave for the day. So — if you absolutely must call — then call at exactly 4:30.

Or 3:30 if you live in Texas. I do see another opening there, by calling during lunch.

You can read a few basic chapters of that kind of advice in the early part of Lukeman’s book, but the bulk of it is much better than that. He says it’s not a book about publishing, but a book about writing. Face it, there’s not much you can do about the habits of business people focused on honorifics, the color of your paper, who they believe you shouldn’t call, or how you refer to your work. (Self-published already? Don’t hide it, they advise. Open your kimono and tell them about your sales, they say.)

What you can do something about is your writing — and like Lukeman says, that’s a very different subject than publishing. Agents are all about publishing, and whatever they suggest about your writing will always have this motive attached to it: Do this, and it will help me sell your book. That is the outcome a writer wants, after months or years of creative work. Expect requests for change to get a deal done. So it’s better to have your writing done well enough, early enough in your piece of art, to be able to proceed to the “we need these changes” conversation with a professional reader, editor or agent — some of whom revealed sometimes picayune requirements with relish.

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