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.

--Sharene