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?