Jessica Faust’s great post re: editing/queries/synopses aren’t fun, but they’re your job: http://bit.ly/1aI0XF
Life and getting published is not about easy. It takes work and I’m willing to do the work to help you build a successful career. Since it’s your career I would think you’re willing to do the work too.
Now, I don’t know what you think about a literary agent dressing writers down in public, but I’m not sure Ms. Faust is exhibiting the kind of professionalism that lends credibility to her advice about professionalism. I say this because one of the things agents have to deal with is the fact that writers come in all shapes, sizes, neuroses, flavors, vintages and intellectual capacities. It’s baked into the business.
If they don’t know it in advance, all agents learn this during their first full business day. So when I see an agent go off the deep end about how writers make that agent’s life difficult, or about writers being inept, or about writers being vain, or whatever else an agent might appropriately bitch about over drinks with other agents, that rant sounds like someone telling the world to be different from the way the world is.
Even your average agent knows that a good part of their job is trying to take feral square-peg writers and hammer them into trained round-peg authors that fit the publishing pigeon holes of the day. That’s the whole game from an agent’s point of view: connect products with markets, and massage both until they fit. Unfortunately, writers themselves are notoriously uncertain about how all this works, so they either do the wrong things or write the wrong things or ask stupid repetitive questions until the agent goes mental.
And I have no problem with that, as long as the agent does it in private. If they want to put up a dartboard with an author’s picture on it, fine. If they want to shoot up their office in a crazed fit of rage, okay by me. And of course they’re always free to quit the business if they’re simply burned out. (Given that responsible, compliant writers are apparently in such short supply it amazes me that more agents don’t go into the writing business and make a killing by leveraging their institutional knowledge.)
When I think of a professional agent, however, I think of someone who looks at all this insanity as an inevitable part of the process — particularly with regard to new writers. Yes, it’s maddening. Yes, you would think writers would do a bit of research. Yes, you would think people would follow guidelines. And yes, the odds of finding a good writer or manuscript are always long — but again, every agent knows this. And railing against it is never going to do any good. (Non-hostile attempts at educating writers are always welcome.)
Given that agents know all this, and given that they know things are never really going to get better, and particularly so given all the new writers entering the marketplace via the wide-open cultural portal we call the internet, I’m left wondering what these postings and rants are really about. Are these agents simply blowing off steam and/or trying to elicit sympathy from fellow agents? Are they trying to even the score somehow? Are they hateful of writers because of what writers can’t do? Because of what writers can do? Or are they just shallow, mean spirited people who find themselves in a position of power without the emotional maturity to resist flaunting that power in public?
While frustrated, grouchy agent posts like the one mentioned above seem to be more common on the internet these days, I’m seeing the same on Twitter. For example, here are a number of tweets from agent Janet Reid, who, on November 21st, 2009, was working through a healthy backlog of query letters:
- In my query letters today a “positive alternative” to Harry Potter. I’m not sure what that even means.
- another one decrying the lack of sweet simple stories for young readers. whoa! I can think of 15 books like that, and its not even my area!
- why anyone sends a query in 8 point blue font is beyond me.
- godawful query, hackneyed plot…and the writing is fabulous. ok, I’m reading the full, but clearly I need an intervention.
- a query letter written in the second person–that’s a new one. A rejected new one (gimmick!!) but a new one.
- when you misspell “bowels” as “bowls”, I’m laughing too hard to read further.
- a series of events do not a plot make. I know the difference. You should too.
- ok, I gotta stop. I’m under 100 unanswered queries right now. Down from 250+. That’s a good morning’s work, right? (if you disagree: quiet!)
Is that the voice of someone teaching or someone taunting? Is this a professional agent doing her job, or a bored (or worse) agent cracking jokes for her own amusement, at the expense of writers who took the time to contact her? And what about the writer who has convinced this agent to read her full manuscript? Does that author know that this agent just posted, in full view of the entire planet, that the author’s plot is “hackneyed” and her query “godawful”? Should that author know?
More to the point, is this what agents who rant about a lack of professionalism in writers think of as professional conduct for agents?
Now, I’m not trying to pick on Ms. Faust or Ms. Reid (who, it should be noted, uses a grinning Great White shark for her Twitter image). Again, you can find agent rants and gripes like this everywhere on the web and on social-networking sites like Twitter. (It took me less than an hour to collect over fifty examples of agents bitching about query letters and other writer failings.)
My point is that this writer-bashing seems to be both common and increasing. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing for anybody. Yes, writers need to know more. But unless an agent is being forced to do their job at the point of a loaded gun, I think agents — or should I say, professional agents — should keep this stuff behind closed doors, as opposed to hanging it out in public so other agents can pile on like a giggling bunch of cliquey high school cheerleaders (of either gender).
Not surprisingly, the focal point of these agent gripes is often the query process, and the sundry failings of query letters that agents receive. Again, I have no doubt that it’s a nightmare sifting through all of those notes, and I’m sure many of those queries fail in absurd ways. But it’s one thing to roll your eyes at your desk and another to hold someone up to ridicule in public. And in the case of both Ms. Faust and Ms. Reid (as well as many other agents maintaining an online presence), they included examples in their rants that were sent to them by writers.
(Maybe it’s just me, but if I was an agent I would be mortified at the thought that someone who sent me a query might find me ridiculing that query online. No matter how bad it might be, I would always wonder if the person who sent the query was struggling at the limit of their capacity. I’m quite sure I would have days where I wanted to go after authors of inane queries with an axe, but I honestly can’t imagine doing so in public. I’m also not sure, again, how ridiculing communication from a writer or prospective client reinforces the professionalism and credibility of an agent. If you’re willing to trash others in public, are you going to do that to me? Or will I only get the behind-closed-doors knifing you reserve for people you sign?)
Here, for example, is Ms. Faust’s breaking point:
And just so you don’t think I’ve gone off my rocker, here’s what caused today’s little rant: “I can’t write a synopsis, summary, or blurb to save my life. My mind simply doesn’t work that way. For this reason I will save you the trouble of reading the drivel that would be my traditional query attempt. Here are the first few pages of my novel.”
I really do sympathize with Ms. Faust here. But even after reading this paragraph multiple times I sympathize with the writer more.
Why? Because despite the writer’s excuse, I think the writer is telling the truth about not being able to write a synopsis, summary or blurb. Because I’m the same way, as are many other writers I’ve known.
How can this be? Well, in my case it’s because storytelling is, to me, a search for truth. That’s what I think about whether I’m writing a literary short story or some interactive craziness featuring psychotic monsters. I’m trying to invent, discover and control things like plot and character, and stay true to those things, no matter how fanciful or loony they may be.
I do understand that writing a synopsis or summary or query is part of my job, and I don’t fault Ms. Faust for pointing that out. But there seems to be an assumption on the part of agents that just because someone can tell a story (assuming they can, in fact, tell a story), they should be able to bang out all this other stuff with no problem. And I’m here to tell you, as someone who’s been writing and telling stories for over twenty years, that that assumption is wrong.
The difference between telling a story and writing a query is, to me, the difference between climbing a mountain with a well-stocked refrigerator strapped to by back and whittling small animals out of bars of soap using an oyster shell. Which is to say that from the point of view of execution they literally have nothing in common. Text that is meant to tell a story is not the same as text that is meant to sell a product, and I’m going to stick to that no matter how an agent defines ‘story’ and ‘product’.
I know good marketing copy when I read it. I know I don’t write it. I know good queries when I read them. I know I don’t have those instincts. I know good summaries when I read them. I know I struggle like hell to summarize things. I know this and I hate it about myself. Yet agents seem to do this kind of thing all day, breezing, as if they were born to it. The fact that they’re more than happy to rub my nose and the nose of other writers in the dirt about it isn’t particularly helpful, but I readily admit that they can do this stuff almost reflexively, while I have to kill myself to come up with a halfway passable pitch.
In fact, agents who openly rant against incompetent writers have convinced me that they really do know how to do this stuff. So I’m offering the following competition as a means of helping writers learn from these savvy industry veterans.
In your capacity as an aggressive and in-the-know agent, you have caught wind of the fact that fictitious author Agnes Savant is about to finish a mind-blowing new novel. Agnes is a well-respected writer, an eccentric, and a bestseller in both North America and Europe. Landing this new title would be a plum for you personally and professionally, to say nothing of an almost certain windfall for you and your company.
Unfortunately, like the writers querying you on a daily basis who are blind to the needs of the markets you serve, you are in the unfortunate position of not knowing exactly what the product is. You have heard from reliable sources that the book is killer, you know the author is bankable (think Stephen King, if not Dan Brown), but the specifics are murky.
Your challenge, then, is to write Agnes a query letter explaining why your agency is the right place for this new book. Pitch yourself as you would like authors to pitch themselves to you. Pitch your agency as you would like authors to pitch their manuscripts. Sell Agnes on you, despite the fact that you are blindfolded and shooting in the dark, at a target you cannot define.
As the sole judge of the Ditchwalk Agent Query Challenge, I will read all entries and choose the winner. When I will get to this is anybody’s guess, because I’m completely swamped. But you can be sure I will be professional in my delinquency.
As to the judging criteria, I will throw out entries which contain typos, poorly-constructed sentences, or words that are pet peeves of mine. I will also reject letters that cross the clearly-defined line between being forthright and being too direct, that confuse enthusiasm with earnestness, or that make me feel as if you are playing me like a cheap ukulele. (Hint: be yourself, unless I won’t like who you really are.)
For the edification of other writers, I may post excerpts of queries that fail to meet the basic requirements or that otherwise irritate me. Some of these excerpts may cause people to laugh, but my aim is not to entertain. (That would be shallow.)
I may judge entries on days when I have a headache, when I haven’t eaten, or when I am drunk.
Anyone can enter, but this challenge is particularly geared toward agents who rant about lazy good-for-nothing writers in online posts. (Agents who don’t have the sense to write online rants about writers probably wouldn’t enter the contest anyway.) Feel free to point me to some of your best zingers as a means of proving you meet the test.
Important: all entries must be sent to querychallenge at ditchwalk dot com. Entries in any other ditchwalk email box will be rejected and trigger a deleting fee.
The prize is pure glory, and the thrill of being able to show those idiotic writers how easy it is to write a winning and professional query even when you don’t know what you’re aiming at.
— Mark Barrett