Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Worst Queries in the World

I am sure that some writers will just breeze by this post after seeing the title. After all, who wants to hear again about the shame of having a three-page query instead of one? Who wants to revisit the same tiring debate about Courier versus Times New Roman fonts or be chastised again for including publishing credits that just don’t count? I can’t say I blame them for that. However, that is not the subject of this post, and I can guarantee, if you are reading this, you have not written one of the worst queries in the world.

This used to happen back in what we like to refer to as the “old days,” which was when we first started out and took nothing but mail queries. It still happens every now and then, even though we haven’t technically taken regular mail queries for years (but that is not the issue here). Robert or I will receive a query from someone who is, for lack of better terminology, barely literate. I am talking here about people who have never, for whatever reason, gained the skills to be able to read or write at a level past maybe second grade. For example, and I can’t remember the exact details here so don’t hold me to specifics, we received a query from an older woman who had grown up on a farm and never attended school past low level elementary. She had been taking care of her parents until they died, and then she was left with a farm to run and few skills to do it with. For girls in her generation and location, education wasn’t a priority. She hadn’t ever had the opportunity to engage in what most people consider a basic American right—to attend school. This person wanted to get published because she needed the money and didn’t know how else to get some fast. Publishing a best-selling novel seemed like a quick and easy way to do it, and besides, the attention wouldn’t hurt either. The basic, heart-breaking fact remained that this woman could barely read. I think she even mentioned she had dictated part of her letter to a person down the road who wrote some of it for her. Heaven knows, and it worries me to this day, what that cost her.

Now, explaining the intricate complexities of publishing to someone with the equivalent of a modest education is nearly impossible. Sometimes this business doesn’t even seem rational, let alone explainable. Sometimes we throw our hands up, too. There is no way any post or article can really, really address everything a writer needs to know. Knowledge has to come from reading a variety of resources, exploring literature, and researching over a period of time. Wisdom comes from being in it, interacting with publishing professionals, and experience. Years of experience. Therefore, how do you respond to someone whose life experiences have never even taken her far enough away from the farm to attend school?

Modern writers write for a worldwide audience. It is impossible to be removed from the world and still be able to write for it. So, the worst queries in the world, to us, are those from people who are barred from the rest of the world by varying degrees of illiteracy and/or circumstance. The people who desperately need help and support, but who don’t even have the skills to be able to take advantage of services available to them…those are the ones who produce the worst queries in the world because there is not a damn thing we can do for them. Those are the ones that tear your heart out and hand it to you, and it really has nothing to do with publishing, but with society in general.

I can read. You can read. You are reading this now. And even if you wake up tomorrow and find fourteen rejections in your mailbox, you can still read them, and you can go to bed tomorrow night with a full tummy secure in the fact that no matter what anyone says about your query letter—no matter how sloppy it is or how many people on writer boards dump on it for being too long or too short or too boring—you still, if you can read this blog, haven’t written one of the worst queries in the world.



joe said...

You got me right between the eyes with that one.

Patrick McNamara said...

I can sympathize with those individuals because I understand the need to make a living despite not being able to handle a regular job, but writing has never been a good way to make quick cash. They would probably be better off creating crafts and selling them online.

ziggy said...

Patrick, the literary challenged don't post on the internet.

Patrick McNamara said...

Yes they do. Anyone who could write to an agent could use the Internet. I've seen many illerate postings, mostly in newsgroups. But I was talking about them selling crafts online, not posting.

Red Pen Pal said...

Okay, I can't post anything (more than this) for a few days...

But, speaking of crafts...there's a documentary online in which I am...making crafts! I put the link with my name. Yep, that's the (big pharma) movie I'm making crafts in.

I found this post really powerful, but I am working again tomorrow, so can't say more than this at the moment. But I think there's an interesting parallel between the changes going on in the publishing industry over the last decade or so...and what's going on with your ordinary "craft show" at the local high school.

Red Pen Pal (Crafty Writer)

MsPsycho said...

Great information. Hope I'm not too damn stupid to write one

Red Pen Pal said...

Making a Space

I had so much I wanted to say (perhaps, ramble on) about selling crafts online, and literacy (or the lack thereof), and the kind of desperation that "takes your breath away" - but I was stopped in my verbose tracks by mspsycho's brief post and photo.

The photo made me think of Iraq, and car bombs, and "sectarian violence," and the smell of gasoline and scorched flesh that never quite penerates the TV screen to hit your American TV-viewer nostrils. If you click on the small photo, it takes you to a blog where you get to see a larger version - and there are (I assume computer-generated) spears or poles or some other objects penetrating the legs of this (to me, hapless) woman. I mean, I know this is supposed to be "pornography" of a sexual kind...but it struck me more as "unintentional" stomach-churning pornography of the Iraq war.

To me, the "message in the body" is: You can do anything you want to me, it's okay. In fact, I like it. That's why I exist.

I can't help imagining a big rubber stamp descending out of the sky and inking the same message over the body of Iraq a few years ago. Or maybe it was almost 100 years ago, with the "secret" Sykes-Picot Agreement, divying up control of the Middle East between Britian and France. Or maybe further back, into the Ottoman Empire...not so sexy, eh?

I was struck also by the strange disconnect between the image and the words - mspsycho's words seemed to be casual, off the cuff, spontaneous - but the image accompanying them is studiously artificial, arranged, composed. There also seemed to be a strange disconnect between the tone and message of the original post, which had to do with a lack of access to the experiences and education that would allow one a chance to become a "best-selling novelist" -and that it is heartbreaking that a person wouldn't KNOW they lack this access - and then mspsycho's responds with a self put-down that is supposed to be humorous (LOL?) alongside the studiously artificial, etc. image. And then, voila! it's actually a triple-disconnect - in the "about me" section of mspsycho's blog, she says: "When I hit bottom, I went on line and found people who were willing to listen, people who cared..." But then mspsycho's post made me think she (he?) wasn't listening or caring about the desperation of the uneducated farm woman who wrote "the worst query in the world."

Well, I had to express the above, get it out of the way, in order to post anything about selling crafts online, or about the"inner uneducated farm woman" that perhaps we all carry around inside of us...I know I've got one inside of me!

Just recently in Michigan they found the dismembered body of a woman murdered by her husband...and then there is another woman who has disappeared, and HER husband has been arrested and charged with murdering the PREVIOUS wife...the poet Adrienne Rich: "the refusal to be a victim/we have lived with violence so long/Am I to go on saying/for myself, for her/This is my body,/take and destroy it? (1977). Or if you want to go way back, Shakespeare: "Get thee to a nunnery"...(1600 or so). Or Sylvia Plath, speaking of apples: "I love them/I love them like history" (early 1960s).

Red Pen Pal, history buff, not buff body buff

Rob said...

I have a question totally irrelevant to the subject at hand: how rigid is the 85,000 word minimum? I'm pretty sure I know the answer to that one, but it's frustrating.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


The lower word count is rigid within reason, as is the upper limit. In other words, if a book is 82,000 words and is well written, we would not pass on it because of that. The same goes for the upper limit. However, many large publishers ( I say large publishers because many smaller ones as well as ebook publisher actually prefer lighter word counts) might not be as lenient as we. Word limits are not something that we decided one day to impose on writers. They come to us from the editors we work with. However, faulted stellar characters, unique concept and fantastic writing always surpasses anyone's rules.

Richard Alther said...

Dear Sharene,
When trying to submit on online query to you it reads: "Error 500, Server Error." Does this mean you are no longer open to queries in this format? Kindly advise. Many thanks!

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Thanks, Richard for alerting us to this as this is the first that we were aware of it. For everyone who has tried to query us recently, we are still taking your queries, but are experiencing server problems and are now aware of them, thanks to Richard. The repair is being actuated and we should be up and running soon. Thanks for your patience and continued support.

Red Pen Pal said...

Tastemaker / Laborbuster Duet

This goes back to the idea that, if you don't really have the literary chops to write a best-selling novel...why not sell crafts online?

The problem is, everyone else has had this same idea, and really, why go through the bother of ordering something online, when you can get something Chinese-made at your local "superstore" that costs considerably less – and undoubtedly, is more stylish than what American "crafters" are making in their spare time, to supplement their income...

I am going to be selling items at craft shows this fall, that tie in with my (as yet unpublished) novel – last fall I attended a craft show at a local high school, just to scope out the competition...they had items with "made in China" tags on them, for sale at this craft show! And some of the stuff for about culture wars...besides jewelry and quilts and baby bibs (literally hundreds of baby bibs piled on a table – US women have on average two children, WHO is going to buy all these baby bibs????), there were crocheted "doll" toilet paper covers – you know, a plastic doll's head and torso, and then a big crochet skirt, that you put over the offending roll of toilet paper...and then these elf things, with superlong cloth arms, that you were supposed to tie around a pole or something, so it looks like the elf is hanging on for dear life...the elves had awful giant mawkish "teardrop" plastic eyes – like the eyes on "Precious Moments" figurines, only worse.

Well, right in front of the "hanging elf" table, I saw an elegantly dressed, gray-haired woman, late 50s or 60s, in a tasteful lavender suit, her arms folded – she looked like a school administrator, something like that – she said: "A lot of this stuff is outdated." Right in front of the woman selling the hanging elves! A rather hurtful remark – but true.

The combined forces of Martha Stewart "tastemaker" and Communist China "laborbuster" have almost...I hate to use the word 'obliterated' – but have definitely "upped the ante" as far as selling crafts to make money in the US. In Sharene's post she wrote: "Modern writers write for a worldwide audience." In a way, modern crafters CRAFT for an worldwide audience as well. No one cares if you make something by hand for $15 if they can buy it for $3.99 at CVS Pharmacy. I think this is similar to the novel's situation, when it is competing with iPod's, DVD, cable, magazines, etc., for an audience's attention. Modern writers aren't only competing with other writers – they're competing with musicians, filmmakers, web designers, etc. "Modern writers write for a media-wide audience," I guess. Problem? Or opportunity? For me, that would depend on whether I sell anything this fall...

Red Pen Pal said...

The Jingle Bell Principle

(Obviously I have a very difficult piece of writing I am avoiding getting started on, that is why I am posting so much here now!)

But: Here's another craft/writing tie-in – I decided to add jingle bells to one of my craft items. The item just seemed a bit too static – soft and touchable, but once you picked it up, it didn't DO anything – a bit boring. So I thought I'd add jingle bells, give it a little shine and sound.

Instant nightmare – I don't really know anything about attaching jingle bells to anything – because jingle bells need to be loose, in order to jingle properly (I discovered). So finally after trying a number of different and unworkable solutions, I figured out to get some "jump rings" (that's what they are called, I learned, after numerous searches on Google), to attach the jingle bells to a wire, and then the wire to the item. But then – I had to have some way of hiding the wire so it wouldn't show (spoiled the "soft" effect of the item).

What a hassle! And I thought: Geez, this is just like finishing a piece of writing, the last stanza of a poem, the last three chapters of a novel (oh, don't get me started!) – this is the "craft" part – being "crafty" – having an idea (add jingle bells) and then figuring out how to accomplish it in a way that appears seamless, natural, "inevitable." There really is such a thing as "putting on the finishing touches" – although I prefer to think of it as "applying the jingle bell principle."

Oh well, I am rambling on here, but I wonder if anyone has an opinion, as to whether the first three chapters, or the last three chapters, of a novel are the hardest. I am revising the last three chapters of my novel – they just seem so bouyant and happy, even frantic, compared to the rest of the novel. Or to put it another way: The wire's showing, and the jingle bells aren't jingling.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

OMG, you are so right "Red Pen!" This is where writing is today. Entertainment is entertainment and competition is conpetition and it's all for those same dollars. It is very hard for the modern writer to understand this because they see writing as it has always been. But this modern world, this 21st century world and a world mareket. Nothing is static--if it has ever been. If you write you are in competition not only with the novelist or journalist but also with all those who write-period and even with all, possibly at a lesser extent, with art in general. However, this has always been the case. Wasn't Poe in competition with those who proformed in the burlesque?

Red Pen Pal said...

Thanks For the "Acorn"

WM wrote:

"Wasn't Poe in competition with those who performed in the burlesque?"

You know, I never really thought about this question - how one form of media competed with another in the past. A hard nut to crack (acorn) - what instantly comes to mind is some of the "multimedia" cooperation between the arts in the creation of ballets.

But I haven't thought about it the other way around - competition for those entertainment dollars (or pennies, or pence, or whatever it was) in days of yore.

I'll have to look into this - it's bugging me (in a good way) that I haven't really thought of Poe and burlesque before, as competing art forms.

Thanks for the intriguing question,

Red Pen Pal

Red Pen Pal said...

12 Million Copies Harry Printer, I mean, Potter

A bit off topic, didn't know where to post this exactly.

Interesting choice of words: "celebration of the Harry Potter MOVEMENT."

"A record number of 12 million copies of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" have been announced by Scholastic, the American publisher of the Harry Potter series, to be printed for the summer release.

The seventh and final book in the Harry Potter series of novels by J. K. Rowling, which features the adventures of the famous wizard as he attempts to bring an end to his nemesis, Lord Voldemort, will be released in English-speaking countries around the world at 00:01 British Summer Time on 21 July 2007.

In the USA, however, the book will be released at 00:01 local time.

"This is so much more than the publication of a single book. It's a true celebration of the Harry Potter movement and of the joy of reading," said spokeswoman Lisa Holton.

The book reached the top spot on both the Amazon and Barnes and Noble best-seller lists just a few hours after the date was announced."

invisible man said...

What about the writer who spends weeks carefully crafting a professionally-written query, frequently exercises his spellcheck option, then sends the results to a friend who happens to be a professional editor for her final approval? I've been doing this for years and I still haven't heard from an agent. Is anyone really out there? Do agents actually read anything from someone they've never heard of? Or have I been hallucinating - or worse, lied to - for the last thirty-odd years?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Invisible Man:
I've been doing this for years and I still haven't heard from an agent. Is anyone really out there? Do agents actually read anything from someone they've never heard of? Or have I been hallucinating - or worse, lied to - for the last thirty-odd years?

Yes, we read every query sent us. However, some queries are rejected flat out, and there are many criteria we use to evaluate it before doing so. For example, this morning I received at least three queries in which the writer had attached either chapters or the actual query. Anyone who has been on the internet more than a day knows that viruses are sent through attachments, so if we receive an unsolicited attachment (one we didn't ask for) we delete it. But even then, I inform the author that it has been rejected and why. We did also have a form on our site and during that time we didn't respond to queries: however, on the same page that you'd use to bring up the form, it stated that if you didn't hear from us in seven days you were to consider your query a rejection.

So, what are you doing wrong? It could be that you haven't followed the instructions for querying, or it might be that the agents were using the method described above where you wouldn't get a response. Or you may be doing nothing wrong. This is a subject business and maybe the description of your work hasn't clicked with anyone yet.

I would have to see your query to know for sure. Please feel free to send me a copy to my e-mail address, which is listed on our Web site, or you can post it here as a comment for feedback (although I can't guarantee other people won't comment on it). I won't look at it in regard to taking on your project, but I will let you know what I think of it. Fair enough?--Robert

Stevekay said...

For some writers, writing is a means, for others it is an end. The beauty of writing is when you write because you have a story to tell and you want to tell it to the world. Those who see writing as a means to fast cash and quick fame have somehow miss it.

Anonymous said...

So, wouild your agency be interested in a 60,000 word light comedy novel about marriage: both opposite and same sex?

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


I wish I could say yes to this, but 60,000 words is very light and humorous fiction, for us, has kind of hit the wall--I don't know why exactly. Humor in non-fiction is doing well, but, unfortunately, not humorous fiction, at least not for us. It sounds like it has a good angle, but, again, we just don't have any editors looking for something this light. I know it's hard to add, but if you could do so without detracting from your original idea, then I would suggest that you give it a try.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your considerate reply to my query.
As they say: there are always exceptions to the rule.
I'm now in the process of choosing a cover for my soon to be published 60,000 word 279 page movie script-novel.
Thank you again: hope to see you at the movie.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

And I'm assuming that you didn't need an agent to sell this property, right? So what's the problem? Sounds like a win-win to me.

Anonymous said...

It was " over the transom" as they used to say.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Anonymous what does over the transom mean? What was over the transom, your novel to the publisher who published your work or your query to us? Who published you btw. Was it a small publisher or Publish America?

Anonymous said...

"Came in over the transom" means unsolicited. The transoms ( Windows on hinges ) over the office doors in the old days were being referred to.
I really can't talk about it right now because I still havn't signed the contract yet, but they were one of the first ones I sent the manuscripts to,and they quickly took the time to read them.
Lucky us!

Anonymous said...