Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Mumble-Jumble a Query is Not

I wish I had to power to sit on the shoulder of every new writer who was about to query me and whisper, “Learn how to write an effective query letter before querying,” in his or her ear.

That’s smug and the exact answer I’d expect from an egotistical literary agent. Didn’t you recently state on a writers’ board that you rejected 99.9% of the queries received? I hate writing queries, so why should I spend so much time on something I hate doing when my effort is going to be deleted anyway?

Maybe you have a point. But then why even try to get published in the first place if it’s such a chore? Maybe you should answer that one.

Sure. That’s easy. Why does publishing need gate-keepers? Why can’t I just send a novel or book to an editor and let him/her decide. How come I’ve got to jump through hoops to get published?

I’m biting my lips here. I want to say I don’t make the rules, but that’s what you’d want me to say, right? Isn’t that what everyone says when they get backed into a corner? But instead, I’m going to answer by saying, why don’t you just bypass us gate-keepers and query an editor directly? Whoops, I said the word, “query” didn’t I? Sorry, it just slipped out.

No—no query! I just want to send my manuscript to someone and let them judge if I can write or not. I don’t what to have to write a dumb query too. Just tell me how to do that and I’ll leave you alone.

Okay. Just put the manuscript in a box and send it. No one’s stopping you. Publishers’ addresses are listed in market books. Just put it in a box and send it.

Can’t you be more specific? You think I could do that? And get that smirk off your face.

Now you’re asking questions? I thought you had all the answers—that you didn’t need anyone—that you just wanted to deal directly with publishing with no dumb query, no dumb agents, and no dumb hassle?

Okay, okay. I’m going to do it and I’ll let you know how it turns out.

Don’t bother. I’m already about 99.9% sure how it will turn out.

Man, are you going to be ticked when I get a contract.

No I won’t be ticked. There’s always that .1%. But if you'd just spend a little time and learn how to write a simple but effective query letter—do it the right way—the odds suddenly lengthen.

Come on. I wrote my query, sent it to you and you rejected me. Now you’re telling me to do it again and I’ll lengthen my odds? That’s dumb and stupid.

No, it’s not dumb or stupid. Besides, you weren't rejected, your query letter was, and it got rejected because it didn't do its job.

Then why didn’t you say that in your rejection letter? How come you didn’t say my query wasn’t effective? How come you didn’t give me some tips? All you did was send the same canned, form rejection that you send to everyone else.

It's pretty much standard to send form rejection letters, but at least we add a link to information that might help. In our modern age, information is key to just about everything, so we've filled our blog with information. If you had gone there and spent more time, you might have found an example of two query letters—one that’s not effective and one that is. The effective query contains a very simple, but effective, one paragraph synopsis that describes the author's novel being offered for review. Failure to express a novel in a few words is why at least 90% of all queries fail. So my advice is, if you learn nothing else, learn how to break your novel down into one short and simple paragraph, just like the ones on book covers, DVD boxes and just about everything where advertising is displayed.

Don't feel bad about this, however. Because the norm receive in queries, which most writers launch right into, is paragraph after paragraph of jumble-mumble wandering around, saying much about the author and little about the actual novel. It seems most who query have no clue what he or she has written. It's almost like there’s hope against hope that if enough verbiage is thrown at the page that somehow something might stick long enough to enough make enough sense that an agent will want to see a writing sample. However, I use a writer's query letter as an example of their writing expertise; an example of organizational skills, of a firm grasp of grammar and spelling, and the ability to tell a story. What I normally receive, however, is a representation of a novel that wanders, is over-written and contains spelling and grammatical errors, just like the query. What I also see in many query letters is arrogance, stubbornness, and sloppiness--possibly someone who might be a future problem client. It's all right there in that simple query letter if you know where to look.

Put yourself in my shoes for a moment. If a writer can’t explain in a few words what his or her novel is about, hasn’t the query failed the job it was intended to do? Bluntly put, if I can’t figure out what you’ve written, how can I make an intelligent decision. If you cannot write an effective, intelligent paragraph of around 40 words, how can I assume that you can write an intelligent, effective novel of 85,000?

The excuse heard most often is that a query letter is non-fiction and I write fiction so writing a query letter is difficult and foreign to me. Yes. Possibly the first and last paragraphs are kind of foreign. But you can copy that part off our example. The paragraph that explains your novel, however, is creative and very right brain. It’s actually a mini-novel, a short story, micro-fiction, a quick read, or whatever you want to call it. So the non-fiction excuse doesn’t hold water.

The bottom line is you must learn to express your novel in a few words sooner or later so that anyone who asks you what you've written will know exactly what you’ve written without having to listen to an hour of you trying to explain your creation. Your query will be a winner and will have done its job, which is to make whoever want to read your novel, if you can express it in a few words. There’s no magic here. After all, a query letter is in all actuality a business letter between two professionals. It's just an inquiry to see if an agent might be interested in what you write and would like to see more writing.

You might also consider that your query is fine, it's just not what I'm looking for at the time. If you're really curious about this, you have but to write and ask me.

Monday, February 16, 2009

When the Muse is Refused

We just got another one, one of those nasty notes sent as a comment, the crux of which states that we should just suck it up, don’t post any guidelines, just read, represent and shut the *&^% up. When we get something like this we imagine disgruntlement. A writer, red-wrinkled face, throwing a tantrum because he/she spent a year writing a novel and wasted yet another year trying to get it published to find that no one wants it.

Unfortunately, this is the nature of the writing life. All real writers know this, as do artists of all kinds. A person can work for months or years on something that just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. There are waiters in NYC who went to Juliard and haven’t been able to perform in the profession for which they trained. This also goes for all those songwriters and singers in Nashville and those models and actors in LA working in bars and cafes. The arts and all related muses are cruel masters sometimes, but those born under their rule would have it no other way. A lifetime of toil with little, if any, appreciation and a lot of people questioning your judgment. Until the big break comes, what do you do? Give up? Writers just keep writing. They can’t do anything else.

I think everyone in publishing should be given a magic wand so we could wave it over queries, partials and manuscripts we receive and fix all that’s wrong with them. I know my job would be easier, but even at that, it wouldn’t fix a problem that was brought on by the fact that everyone wants recognition and writing something seems the quickest way to get recognized. It’s not.

I wish disappointment could be assuaged by simply lashing out at something or someone. But all this does is to show those who receive a person’s wrath that you don’t understand the profession to which you aspire. Maybe you aren’t an artist or writer or performer, and maybe you just want the glory. In today’s society, everyone seems to want to their fifteen minutes of fame with no effort. Is it so we can be immortalized and worshiped forever? Is it about money and providing for loved ones after you’re gone? What is it then?

At WMLA, we never started this business with visions of undue glory. We wanted to work with books because that’s who we are. We were born this way, dammit. We know that nothing lasts forever, and that’s okay. Immortality is highly over-rated…just ask any vampire.

Heh heh heh.