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Why Didn’t You Say So?

January 28, 2010

Let’s face it.  If an agent or publisher is looking for a book like what you’ve written, it doesn’t matter how good or bad your query letter is—except that he’s going to read it first.  Your query letter is like the first five minutes of a blind date: if it goes badly, it goes quickly.

When I sent out the stone tablets with my first novel, all I knew was that people kept returning it.  My concept of a submission was “If you write it, they will buy.”  I’d never even heard of a synopsis or sample chapter.

So much to learn.

It never gets easier, but you get better.

What does the agent like?  How does he want it?  Do your homework and check the website or literary market publications before you waste everyone’s time querying an agent about your western erotica—especially if he only represents cookbooks.

I still struggle with a synopsis and I cringe at outlines, but I now have three polished one-page templates for my query letter.  They present the same information in different order to match the preferences on those aforementioned websites.

One paragraph, the hook, gives the place, problem, and protagonist in three sentences of active verbs and concrete nouns.  Another paragraph gives my credentials for writing the book in question and tells why I chose that agent (Writers Market, AgentQuery.com, recommendation, whatever).  Now that I have a few stories in print, those credits and the possible audience make up the third paragraph.

Thank you for your attention, signature, enclosures (SASE, synopsis, samples).

Keep it short and clear.  Most agents have a 98 or 99% rejection rate, and they’ll decide by reading your one-page query.  Maybe your first sentence if it’s bad enough.  They’re busy.

I wish I knew back then how long it takes those busy agents and editors to reply.  Online submissions don’t guarantee a faster response than snail mail, and the average hovers around three months.  My personal record is a form rejection postcard that arrived seventeen months after I sent my short story.

If you watch the calendar, your hair will turn white and you will turn weird, so start writing something else right away.

That slow turnaround leads to another lesson somebody eventually gave me.

To find a prom date, you ask one person at a time. To sell a book, you send out queries in clusters like grapes, eight or ten every few weeks.  Although they don’t always say so, some agents only reply if they’re interested.  I figure that out after about six months.

Rejection makes you a better writer.  Rejection makes you strong.  Uh-huh.  I’m on my way to the Nobel Prize and being hard as a diamond.

Rejection hurts, but beyond a certain point it’s subjective.  Polish your writing until you can shave in its reflected glow, but once it’s perfect, someone still has to want to buy it.  You have no control over some factors.  Chances are, nobody will tell you about them, either—“Sorry, not for us” take less time to scribble than why it isn’t for them.  Agents and editors almost never give feedback because they don’t have time.  If you actually get comments or advice instead of a form letter, FOLLOW IT.

Some agents hate a prologue.  Some hate cats.  Some editors don’t want stories written in present tense.  It doesn’t mean your story is bad, but you need to remember these things next time and send your story elsewhere.

Maybe your book kicks serious tush but the agent already has two clients writing similar stuff.  What if the publisher already has a book on the same topic coming out in three months, or the editor who would love it just got downsized?

OK.  Now you know.  Sweep up the shards of your shattered life and send your baby out again. As I post this, I have nine rejections for different writing projects this month—and twenty-six queries still outstanding.

Quality may be Job One, but knowing the market is Job One A.  I hate to do research to write a story, but I HAVE to do research to sell it.

I’m still learning to do that.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 28, 2010 10:09 am

    Ah, an excellent blog, as usual. I love your witticisms, Steve. It’s like when I was a sports writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and had to translate Texas Tech football coach Spike Dikes into English.

    But, the words were true — if you don’t connect with a blind date in the first five minutes, you don’t connect at all (and you definitely won’t connect over McDonald’s dollar menu, no matter how many times they play that stupid commercial).

    And 17 months for a rejection letter? Wow. I think I might have one to match it. A submissions editor rejected me twice – 18 months apart (he was cleaning out some files, found my stuff, read it again and then rejected it again; nothing says “crap” like being read twice and rejected twice so I can’t say my story didn’t get a fair shake).

    Anyway, some good insights into writing. By the way, I hope you’ve advanced beyond sending stone tablets. You have got to be killing your mail carrier.

  2. January 28, 2010 1:16 pm

    I like your systematic approach, Steve. I can do systematic and organized. But this might be one of those things that until you’ve been there and done it (and received your first dozen or two rejections), you can’t really say you know how it feels. I’m going to write my first query letter in February, so I’ll keep you posted.

  3. January 28, 2010 2:58 pm

    Supriya,

    Good luck (Actually, I know you’ll keep us posted).

    I actually have two separate spread sheet files I use to track my submissions and rejections. Excel is a wonderful program.

    Greg, yes, I’m beyond the stone tablets. There’s this great new company I just heard about. They call themselves the Pony Express.

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