During the past several weeks my son (Frank), husband (The ToolMaster), and I schlepped our way from one high school open house to another in an effort to find my kid’s best educational match. I don’t know about you, but I find those events to be simultaneously boring, repetitive, and stressful.
However, at some point I had a realization which made me sit up straight in my chair: I was being pitched a story. It happened to be about the schools’ ability to guide a young man on a quest for grades, self-concept, and social opportunity – through a land dotted by lockers and pep rallies – but it was a story nonetheless.
Open houses are like a school’s query letter. By my calculation, that puts me in the role of editor or agent.
So I asked myself, given that paradigm, what lessons might a writer learn about querying while seated in a school gym? Here are my conclusions:
1. All Hail Organization and Brevity
The most compelling stories were told by schools which demonstrated mastery of the evening’s structure. They began on time, gathered us for a brief presentation to answer universal questions, and then dispatched us to stations to have individual concerns addressed.
One school tried a more folksy approach. We wandered from room to room, having our passports stamped. In principle, it was a sweet idea; in practice, a sprawling effort in which we missed key information.
Query Lesson: A nice “voice” cannot make up for poor organization and low-quality information. Nail the structure of your query letter. Keep it relevant and brief. (For tips on how to do that, check out this post on How to Write a Query Letter in Five Easy Steps.)
2. Serve All Your Masters
This seems an obvious point, and critical, but not every educator spoke to both student and parents.
Mr. M, a drama teacher, made a notable exception. To my husband and me, he vowed to give Frank public speaking skills and excellent marks in a college-eligible elective. To my son, he pitched fun. (Namely, the “extremely high” female to male ratio.)
Query Lesson: Agents are both readers and business people. Show you have a unique story and voice. Entertain. But do not forget to address marketing potential. (For an example of a query letter which does this well, read agent Diana Fox’s analysis of the query letter for The Second Duchess.)
3. Keep the Temple Well-Swept and No One Will Care about Dust on the Rooftop
Surprising to me, the educators who related best to the students were often fifty or older. In fact, I’d say the “kids” were more taken by the sincerely young-at-heart than the teachers who coasted on their un-greyed hair.
Query Lesson: Unless you are either so youthful or advanced in years that it becomes part of your platform, no one cares about age. Stay relevant and genuine. If you suffer from ageism, get over yourself.
4. Know Your Niche
Like an artist’s palette where too many colors are mixed, forming the color “mud”, we had schools that tried to be sophisticated-intimate-leading edge-traditional-hands-on-kid-led blends. The contradictions became confusing. The best schools provided their core identity in the main presentation, then left it up to individual spokespeople to explain nuance.
Query Lesson: Err on the side of minimal genre descriptors rather than articulating every element. Intrigue with your letter. Let your pages provide depth.
5. Queries Should Be a Sneer-Free Zone
One school cautioned us against a local competitor. Among other fearsome things, we were advised not to be “duped by a performance or fresh paint job because a good evening can’t make up for a bad year.” Three problems with that tactic:
a. If kids don’t get to be disrespectful to one another – a school policy you’ve taken great pains to explain – you don’t get to passive-aggressively snipe at your peers.
b. You’ve insulted my judgment. Kind Jan would gently tell you her daughter attended that evil school – to good result. Snarky Jan would say, “Oh em gee! Until now, I thought my locker-cramming humiliation stemmed from its taupe color. You mean I would have been just as embarrassed if it were painted chartreuse?”
c. Before you label it “sizzle”, be sure it’s not steak: The “glitzy” presentation you demeaned was 95% created and presented by the studentship. Exactly how are those skills irrelevant in today’s world?
Query Lesson: Showing is more powerful than telling, especially when it comes to claiming an ethical or humorous voice. It might be tempting to bond with an agent by denigrating another professional they dislike, but don’t succumb. You’ll only undermine yourself.
6. Chocolate Chip Cookies Get Stale Very Quickly
When every school has cheerleaders and baking, they become irrelevant in the decision-making process. If the presentation is too frenetic, it smacks of desperation.
Query Lesson: No fancy paper, no gifts, no prose gimmicks. Rely on your competence as storyteller and businessperson to make your case.
7. Rationality Helps, but Only to a Point
In the end, after an exhaustive process of gathering references, scouring websites, and attending open houses, “soft” data can tip the entire decision-making process into right-brain territory. (And probably should).
In Frank’s case, that would be his father, leaning in with a significant gaze, eyebrows waggling like mad. And the sage words that made all the difference?
Query Lesson: Some decisions will be made by an agent’s head and some by their…heart. Good luck getting around chemistry.
Now, how about you? Any other parallels you see between school open houses and querying? Any lessons I overlooked? If you haven’t been to a recent open house, what about the last sales encounter in which you bought the seller’s story? How did they entice you to ask for a full?