….or maybe this only happened to me. But in grade school there were always specific rules for things. An established order for going from the classroom to the gym. Locations of various objects in the classroom, or areas designated for certain activities (we only paint in this corner of the room). And so forth. And invariably there was some joker who wanted to resist all the rules, if not outright break them. It was funny the first time, right? What a clown. But before they were through, they made it that much the worse for everyone else. They wasted recess time. They caused the teachers to invent new and more oppressive rules in an attempt to restore order in the classroom. They made the teachers tired, cranky, and impatient. Remember?
Fast forward to today. Those clowns are now writing query letters. And there’s only one of them in, say, every couple hundred received, but they make you occasionally want to throw the whole pile across the room. Just yesterday an agent of my acquaintance was asking me what I thought of people who ignored guidelines. Answer: Not much. They slow me down. They make my job harder. Today jaylake was grinding his teeth over unprofessional submissions, alg was giving out advice about common sense and courtesy that on the surface sounds pretty obvious to me, and Miss Snark was talking about someone who had a brush with author entitlement.
Over and over, I see editors and agents give advice on their blogs, at conferences, in articles, etc. about submissions and first impressions — why do these topics get so much space and attention? And why do these questions seem to reappear so consistently? It could be that we’re just trying to help those who haven’t yet heard the message. But somewhere in there, there appear to be a number of people who feel (1) the rules don’t apply to them, or (2) if they ignore the rules, they’ll stand out. It’s very popular marketing advice. You know, don’t be a number. Be an individual. But, there’s a time and a place for such gestures. Believe me, that’s not the kind of attention that a person wants to get. Being obnoxious will not get me to read your novel. Putting it on colored paper will make me roll my eyes. Giving me the hard sell about how it is destined to net a seven figure offer and a movie deal… yeah, I’ve never heard that one before.
Here’s what needs to stand out: your book.
I am reading thousands of queries, samples, manuscripts a year because I am looking for the next publishable book that I can fall in love with and hopefully sell for a great deal of money, thereby making both the author (and myself by association) well-known and keeping us in the style to which we would like to be regularly accustomed. It’s really that simple. Make it easy for me to find it. And not by printing it in a larger font. By making it professional and easy to read. The only way we can find it is to sit and read it. Make us want to. Lure us in with a compelling/intriguing description on white paper with one inch margins in a readable font. And then sit back and let the words do the rest. It is in the text that you bend the rules (just enough, mind you — don’t actually break them unless you’re sure you know what you’re doing), that you stand out, that you are an individual.