Sunday, March 22, 2009

Respect my Objectiviteh

We should get something straight before I launch into my next tirade. Simply put, I’m not a mean person. I do, however, suffer from frustration. This frustration usually begins when I see a great letter ruined by what I consider a gimmick. For example, I’m wending my way though queries this morning when I come upon this letter’s opening:

“Admittedly, I’m a better fiction writer than a query writer, but I am going to approach this letter from the heart.”

Let me understand this. You’re saying it’s wrong to open a query letter this way? What’s wrong with showing this person’s struggle with something this complex—the writing of something he or she wouldn’t normally write?

That’s what I’m saying. Sure this query’s opening is heartfelt and very nice. I did feel good when I read it—a letter from a caring person like this. The problem was that just below this apparent pitch for understanding was a perfect paragraph expressing what this writer’s novel is about. I wondered why the writer didn’t use that instead of almost begging for forgiveness, because that’s what I needed to see. This doesn't give me a lot of confidence in a writer's ability to judge his audience, which is paramount to succeeding in this industry.

So a writer shouldn’t play in an agent’s sympathy then? But what does it hurt if it gets the job done?

Who wants to get an agent because he felt sorry for him instead of because he had a great product? That sets up a bad dynamic from the beginning of the agent/client relationship. Also, I guess it’s because the Internet makes me wary of letters of this type; it's filled with sharks, filled with those trying to get over by being nice. For instance, this letter also arrived this morning:

“My name is Steven Morgan and I work with the finance house here in the Netherlands. I found your address through my countries international Web directory.” … and the letter went on to say that I had millions in a bank there and only needed to give them my checking account number. . . blah blah blah. You get the idea. Isn’t the tone of the letter from Steven pretty much to same as the one above it? Isn’t this also a play on making one feel at ease or making an overture of friendship? Possibly not a play on sympathy, but friendly, none-the-less.

Why not try to be friends? Lord knows, from what I hear, agents could use a few.

Your still not getting it, so let me ask this question. Don’t you want someone to be objective about your writing? Will a good friend tell you that what you’ve written sucks?

Well, some will…

Yes, but most won’t. As an agent, I won’t look at my friends’ writing. Why? Because I have in the past and that ended a very long friendship. Good friends won’t ask me to evaluate their work because they understand I cannot grant special favors to friends and I won’t represent their work because of our friendship. This is a taboo for me because I might not be able to find someone willing to publish him or her and that would end our friendship. I treasure my friends, so I won’t take that risk. It’s a fine line we walk. To do our work properly, we must remain objective; we must be able to judge every piece of work on its individual merits—and that includes query letters.

So you if a writer tries to signal friendship in his or her query letter, you look at it as a gimmick?

Possibly. Many times it’s hard to differentiate feel good letters from spam, especially when they all come in through the same doorway. Wouldn’t you be wary?


Scott Jensen said...

In other words, be a professional, act like a professional, and present yourself as a professional.

Anonymous said...

And in other words, any agent is looking for good writing in the query letter itself, period. Which famous writer had above his desk 'Just tell the story; no tricks'? Good writing is efficient, nothing more/less than needed. The only 'heart' that might go into a query letter is later, expressing why you write. An agent wants to know if you'll stay the distance, or you're just another passing tourist. Took me a long time to 'get' this. Query letters, like synopses, are a tough format, they are a craft that has to be learned the same as any other form of writing. The query letter that finally got me an agent was version 30 over a period of eighteen months of rejections.

Tanya Eby said...

Query pitching is an impossible task. You have to present yourself as professional, warm, inviting, different, possibly brilliant, and do so in less than a page. I hear your frustration as an agent, and I can echo it as a writer. At least this guy got you to pause, got a reaction from you. That's got to count for something. I'd rather just send a note that says "Trust me. My book is funny, and you'll make money", but that probably won't work either.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Maybe it's just me, but I've never seen such a simple process made so complicated. Let's blame it all on Miss Snark, okay. Wasn't she the first to take just about every type query imaginable and tear it apart. Possibly because she was so snarky about queries, everyone now thinks the query letter must be some kind of mysterious, complex instruments on which all hope of success or failure rests. Not so!!

Yes, you do have to know how to write to write a query letter. But isn't it a given that writers are suppose to know how to write? But complex queries are not.

So I guess that prompts the questions, "What's so complicated about a query letter?" You tell me and maybe when we're on the same page, I can help.

Scott Jensen said...

I think authors that have written books about how to write query letters are the cause of all this confusion. And the reason why they have messed things up is that if they didn't, their books on how to write a query letter would be pamphlet length. So they add fluff upon fluff, scare story upon scare story, and try to make something really simple seem very complex.

From what I've read on your blog, I think the query letter is a simple thing. One side of one page and only three paragraphs on that one side.

Paragraph #1: What is the book. In the first sentence, tell its title, fiction genre/non-fiction category, and word count. If it is fiction, distill its main character and story down to two to three sentences. If it is non-fiction, tell ... hmmm ... I don't think you've ever told us what you think should be in this paragraph for non-fiction books. I'll take the guess that it should tell what level of reader the book is for (novice or professionals in the field) and what they'll learn by reading the book.

Paragraph #2: Tell your credentials. Biggest of these is if you've already published a book(s) before. Secondly, what makes you the right one to write this novel or non-fiction book. If your novel is based in Alaska and you live in Alaska, tell this. If it is a marketing book and you're a professional marketer, condense your marketing resume down to three sentences.

Paragraph #3: Tell where the book fits in with those that have already been done. Tell of any marketing idea you think would help sales.

How is that? Did I get you right? A blog post with the title "The structure of a good query letter" might be a good one to do. ;-)

Bill Greer said...

While my novel is in the hands of my first beta reader (read faster, then tell me it's great, then tell me how it could be even greater!), I've been working on my query and synopsis. I've been doing a lot of research about queries, and what I have is the following:

Paragraph 1: Introduce my novel title, it's genre, it's word count, and a one-sentence hook.

Paragraph 2 and 3: Novel pitch with eight sentences total describing the story arc and suspense hook.

Paragraph 4: My limited writing credits.

Then a thank you and contact information.

I'm guessing that's all I need, and if I've written it well enough, then it's done its job. I'll let you know in a few months.

Anonymous said...

Sounds pretty much direct. I see your point. I also agree with it. Writers should be precise and to the point.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


You’re close. Paragraph #1 should contain the novel’s title, its word count and genre and one sentence that best describes the novel (or book if non-fiction) you’ve written. If you’re querying about non-fiction, is your proposal complete and ready for submission?

The #2 paragraph should contain the novel’s overview or jacket copy or blub. If the writer doesn’t know what a novel (or book) overview (blurb) looks like, visit your local bookstore, or where ever books are sold, and study the inside flap of a hardcover novel (or book) or the back of a trade or mass market novel (or book). Writing these short overviews is the author’s responsibility so get used to it. You must learn this skill because the four and five paragraph blurbs I receive won’t fit into the places allocated for them on your published works.

The #3 paragraph is where the writer shows me how successful he or she has been thus far as a novelist or writer of books. Publishing credits go here with who published the work and its publishing date. If you’ve received your MFA, have a BA in English or creative writing, put it here. If you have a technical degree and didn’t minor in English, I don’t want to know about it. If you’ve written a number of novels for practice, it goes here—anything pursuant to prepare yourself for a career in publishing goes here. If you’ve done nothing to prepare yourself to write a novel or non-fiction book, then you are a hobbyist or beginning writer so say that here. If you fall into hobbyist or beginning writer category and this is your first novel, ever, then you should have already hired an editor or ghost writer to help you, in my opinion.

I don’t care if you think you can write like everyone or anyone else in the history of literature, I don’t want to know about it, because it’s your opinion, is an arrogant assumption and probably not true—so don’t include it.

*** To see other posts about queries, click on queries on right the side below the Twitter tweets.

Anonymous said...

I've been sending out query letters regarding a book I just finished, but after reading your blog, I'm a little stunned to see the kind of drama and silliness involved.

If it's good material, I would think and agent would want to represent it, and a publisher would want to publish it. The End.

I didn't realize I needed to psychoanalyze every syllable in my query letter so that some pompous literary agent’s third eye would be mystically entranced by it.

Give me a break, and I thought writers were supposed to be ego maniacal.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...


This may come as a shock, but we have little control over what publishers publish. There is nothing dramatic about the process. There’s no need to psychoanalyze any part of your query. It may come across as pompous to some, but what we are trying to say and have repeatedly said is simply give us the information we need so we can determine if we can possibly find someone to publish your book. If you don’t want the answer to that question, then don’t query agents. Oversimplifying the publishing industry into “good books will get published” and that’s it, is really doing a disservice to writers. There’s a little more to it than that. Not every writer needs an agent, but if you think you are one who does, you should understand that professional behavior begets professional relationships, and that starts with the query.

It might sound like a flimsy excuse to you, but all an agent has to go by is what you put in your query letter. We have nothing except your query letter on which to base the decision whether to pass on the project or ask for a reading sample.

Usually, we don’t get far enough into queries to psychoanalyze every syllable. It’s normally quite apparent after reading a sentence or two whether the novel or book in question is something with which we might have success (MIGHT being the key word). Since we are working for nothing until we make a sale, this is a very important decision for us. If we think we can sell a book, we represent it. And as we are the ones who work for nothing until a project is sold, we are very careful about what we select.

Wylie Merrick Literary said...

Those of you who think our blog is harsh, jump on over to this one for a read and while you're at it, give her some static and see what happens. Heh-heh!!

Scott Jensen said...

Robert and Sharene,

The link you gave in your reply to Anonymous linked back to your own blog. ;-)