Saturday, February 16, 2008

How 2 Rite Qwerry Lettrs

Everyone knows that all of us at Writer Beware are saints. This is a given. We unstintingly give of our time to help others, with no expectation of remuneration. We're unfailingly kind to writers, and only snarl and snap at scammers. (And if it's a good day, we do worse than that, just ask Martha Ivery, Melanie Mills, George Titsworth and Janet Kay.)

Saints. There is no doubt.

Excuse me if I remove my halo for a second, here. I'm going to blog about something that is a growing trend among aspiring writers, and I'm probably going to sound like Oscar the Grouch. So be it.

I spend a lot of time over on Writers.net. I "patrol" there, looking for posts from hapless aspiring writers who ask questions like, "Why not sign the contract I've been sent by WL Literary Agency? Paying a fee for a critique doesn't sound so bad," or, "I just signed a contract with PublishAmerica and they're paying me a whole dollar as an advance! Now I see that PA bashers have negative things to say about them. What's wrong with these people? Are they jealous because I'm getting published and they can't make it?"

(sigh)

Despite having been doing this for a whole decade (that's right, Writer Beware was founded in 1998, this year is our tenth anniversary!) I resist the urge to post snarky comebacks, and am as polite and helpful as I can be.

There is, however, one prevailing topic in the Agents area on Writers.net that I'm going to have to back away from. That's the practice of critiquing and rewriting query letters when authors post them for commentary.

After much thought, I've decided that, while helping a writer "tweak" his or her query letter so that it's got a good shot at getting the attention of a desirable agent is probably a worthwhile endeavor, I'm going to draw the line at offering major critiques, much less any rewrite suggestions. I've come to the conclusion that doing this doesn't do the aspiring author any favors.

As the veteran of teaching many "Getting a Real Agent" workshops, and workshopping many query letters, this may sound hypocritical, and possibly it is. But when I teach workshops, I'm interacting with the writers who are sitting around that table with me. I'm listening to them speak, I'm gauging their writing level, and I'm able to give them direct, frank feedback on what they've done right or wrong. In other words, I'm TEACHING them. In many ways it would be easier to just do it for them. But that wouldn't help these writers to learn, and improve.

I suspect I could take almost any query letter and rewrite it so it would get the attention of a fairly high percentage of the agents who read it. But if the writer in question can't produce a well-written query letter, what are the odds that his or her manuscript is well-written? Not very high, I suspect.

When I see a query letter written by someone who obviously never researched how to write one, rife with typos and grammatical errors, full of inappropriate personal ramblings, warnings that the work has been "copywrited," (so don't even think about stealing it, Mr/Ms Agent!), one that's 2 or even 3 single spaced pages long, what's the point of fixing it for the writer? The overwhelming odds are that the book the query letter is touting is every bit as depressingly bad.

Exit saint, enter curmudgeon. And I'm not going to apologize for it.

With all the information out there on the internet and in various writing guides, every writer who has the skills to write a publishable book should be able to produce a decent query letter. I can understand workshopping it with your writing workshop, or critique group. Or your beta readers. But to post the thing on a board full of strangers, some of whom are kind enough to just rewrite the thing in order to be helpful...well, it's not doing the writer any favors.

This also applies to "services" that charge writers fees to produce query letters for authors. I don't believe the writers who use them are doing themselves, or their books, any good.

I once helped a writer extensively with his/her query letter. I critiqued multiple drafts of it, offering suggestions for rewording, reorganization, etc. I had misgivings about doing this, because I'd read the synopsis and first couple of chapters of the book the writer was submitting, and I knew that it was unlikely to sell. Not that the book was awful. The writer in question had fairly good writing abilities. But she/he lacked the ability to tell a story in a way that would keep the reader turning pages. It was, in a word, dull. (I had made some suggestions for improving the writing and the story, but this writer is not someone who is receptive to criticism.)

I heard through the grapevine recently that this writer had hit 200 rejections for that book. The writer had received more than 20 requests for full reads of the book, based on that query letter. Did I do the writer any favors by helping with it? Obviously not.

(heavy sigh)

Now I'm going to wander off in search of my halo. It's somewhere here on my desk, I know it...

-Ann C. Crispin

18 comments:

Anonymous said...

I heard through the grapevine recently that this writer had hit 200 rejections for that book. The writer had received more than 20 requests for full reads of the book, based on that query letter. Did I do the writer any favors by helping with it? Obviously not.

That writer is an idiot, but I'm stating the obvious. They should've been rewriting that book rather than continuing to query with the awesome query letter.

I have to disagree with you that getting online help with a query letter is a bad idea. Not everyone has a writing group, for starters, so that may be the only outside help they have available. My query letters have improved just by having someone say they couldn't understand what the plot was.

Rewriting someone's letter entirely isn't a good idea, but critiquing, just as one would a first chapter or a paragraph, can help a writer see where their problems lie. The Query Letter section of SYW on Absolute Write is one of the busier and harsher areas of that subforum, and good books have landed agents because of the help they've received there. I don't know if I would've gotten an agent myself if not for the query letter help I received.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for addressing the 500-lb. gorilla in the room! Someone had to say this, and I guess it took Writer Beware to summon both the guts and the credibility.

Kristi Holl said...

I applaud the stand you took. I spent years doing the same thing for writers--with the same results. Critiquing a book or query for someone often DOES help, but the writer herself needs to take the critique/advice back to the drawing board and do the revising herself. (How else did any of us learn?)

pjd said...

Personally, I love Evil Editor's site, which is a place people can submit queries to get feedback and suggested rewrites.

Partly I love this site because it's a lot of fun. But as with any form of feedback/critique, the author must learn how to gauge what's useful and what's not. And to read between the lines and be self-critical.

My experience has been very good, but I think that's in part because I've kept with the site for its entire two years, and I've paid attention to the broad diversity of drafts, rewrites, and comments. Anyone who thinks a good query will sell a bad book is simply foolish. Yet a good book can be missed if shopped with a bad query. And, if you can't write a good query for your book, maybe it's not a very good book.

So, I would caution against chucking out the baby with the bath water. EE's site is really the only query facelift site I've seen. Sure, what you've said is true if the experience is done as a one-off. But over time, it can be treated like a self-paced course.

Full disclosure: I have yet to make practical use of what I've learned as I am only now ready to begin shopping my MS. So I don't have a success or failure track record with the query/MS. I'll be damned if I get to 200 rejections without rewriting or abandoning the book, though!

Cheryl Pickett said...

I totally understand your point about doing too much as far as review and critique vs. rewrite. However, you state that you try to help writers who think it's okay to pay for a critique.

I'm new to your blog so I'm wondering if you're referring to paying agent reading fees, or using critique services in general?

I offer such services because anyone who wants to be published has to have their work reviewed by a third party. They might need editing, concept review, etc. Sometimes people know someone who can help, but sometimes they don't as has already been mentioned.

Interested in your thoughts.

Wendy Withers said...

At your most curmudgeonly, you are still much nicer than I am. While I haven't finished the final draft of my first manuscript and therefore haven't submitted any queries, I often field questions from aspiring bloggers and journalists and am asked to critique articles and essays quite often. When they come from people who find me on the internet, the requests are often misspelled and grammatical nightmares. I usually tell the writers to rewrite their request, so I'll consider helping them; I've never had anyone submit a second request.

I have found that professional networking sites are much better, because the people there are already published and more often than not are just asking for small tweaks to their work.

Gregory Ludwig said...

I couldn't agree with the basic gist of this entry more. I think young people nowadays are incredible moochers looking for more favors or help (or "enabling") from teachers and the like than students, or budding writers, used to. And I certainly have not looked for help with writing query letters, for jobs or for publishers or agents. Is there no sense of honor regarding carving out your own identity from your own experience?

Anonymous said...

I have heard numerous writers complain about query letters and how writing a query is not the kind of writing they do...in other words, this is promotions type work. If an agent can't see how great my book is by reading it, then what is the point? Why should I have to 'sell myself' to an agent?

Lord, the ignorance.

Yes, it is difficult to switch on the 'promo' portion of your writing brain. But you know what? If you can't succinctly summarize your book and make it sound interesting, you have no business writing. Period.

Writing a query is a learning process. You have to train yourself to write 'marketing' type stuff. Sell yourself and your book. Because that is what the publishing industry is all about...sales.

And most published authors must continue to promote themselves in this way in order to write and sell more books. Many writers end up with contracts by writing proposals, and proposals are most certainly a sales pitch.

I have learned how to improve my queries by looking around online, reading as many examples as possible, and just going with the 'hit or miss' theory. Send out a query, if you get little-to-no response, something is wrong with the query. Tweak and try again.

If writers aren't willing to do the research and the work, then I don't think they will be successful writers.

Lindsay Laird said...

Hi, my name is Lindsay, and I'm an aspiring writer. I read through your posts, and laughed out loud quite a few times :D
I added you as a friend to my blogspot, hope that's okay :D

Michele Lee said...

So Ann, what is a good ratio for positive (requests) responses to query letter?

Pam Halter said...

Thank you, thank you, Ann. I can't begin to tell you how many writers need to hear what you said and they probably don't read your blog. I'm sure you are aware of that. :)

Sure, most of us hate to write a query letter. We hate writing a synopsis even more. But I've learned to think of it as just another creative venture. Make the letter/synopsis "taste" like the novel. It's hard, but it can be done.

I think if we are serious, we'll dig in and learn this part of the craft. I feel sorry for the editor/agent who thinks they've found a treasure only to discover it was really fool's gold.

Ulysses said...

A number of years ago, I attended a writer's workshop at which Mordecai Richler taught. He'd never been to a workshop before, and I doubt he ever went again. He made it plain he didn't like them. During the question period that followed his evening reading, one of my fellow hopefuls dared to ask why. Richler said, "I think that some people. . . shouldn't be encouraged." His comment startled everyone, puzzled a lot of us and offended a fair number. Even so, no one in the room thought, "he means me."

But, y'know? After glimpsing (though blogs, web pages and e-mails) the kind of messes that come across magazine editor desks and through agent mail slots , I'm starting to understand just how right he was. . . about everyone but me, of course.

Janny said...

Ann:

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'Nuff said.

Janny

Katie said...

Bravo!

I'm a younger aspiring writer, but I came to this same conclusion as I saw more and more "critiqued" queries. They all start sounding the same! And doesn't that defeat the whole purpose of a query letter?

I do not yet know whether my query-writing skill or novel-writing skill is publishable, as I still haven't completed a book that pleases my own standards, but I came to the conclusion that both must be MY writing. All of the queries out there that are more-or-less written by people other than the author are a waste of both the author AND the agent's time! How many times are agents now saying that "such and such a query broke all the 'rules' but it snagged them because the author's style came across." Or something like that. If that writer had let query-critiques have their way, they might never have sold the book!

Anyway, I totally understand what you're saying, and I hope that more and more in the writing community begin to see how the over-abundance of critiquing is hurting everyone involved. Critiquing for the purposes of learning is one thing... but if you can't write another story, or chapter, just as well as the critiqued one, WITHOUT needing the critique, then you haven't learned.

Lori said...

For me, this is timely post. I was bumming around AW's query letter critique section the other day, procrastinating, and I offered some serious help on a couple of letters. The thought crossed my mind that if they received a request based on the query that I assisted with or largely wrote, would that really be fair to the agent? Of course, then there was the other problem that they then wanted me to read and comment on their manuscripts, which I just don't have time to do anymore. It forced me into the position of having to say, "No. Sorry. Don't have time." I really didn't have time to be in the query letter section, but that's the nature of procrastination.

I guess the stage of my life where I can freely comment on other people's work is well and truly over.

Low Power Radio Guy said...

Very similar to having a resume written for a job seeker during an employment search. Maybe it can help, but probably not. To borrow from the CIA, both a query letter and a resume need "plausible defensibility."
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James Goodman-Horror Writer said...

That was a great post. While I'm sure there are several MSs out there that are truly great stories being misrepresented by crappy query letters, I would think this to be the exception to the rule. If one can't write a gripping query letter, what hopes do they have of writing a gripping novel?

Anonymous said...

LOL - I'm currently having fun writing my own query letter while the first draft of the book marinates for a couple of weeks. "Query letters are hard. They're hard work."

I often critique queries on another board. A few weeks ago I read the third draft of someone else's query I'd been helping them with and realized that over half of the letter was made up of my words rather than the author's. (And some darn good words they were.)

So from now on, I'll make specific (hopefully helpful) comments, but if they can't take feedback and do their own rewrites ... who am I to help pull the wool over some editor's eyes?

Great post (and good reinforcement for me.)