Part of a series of articles for the new writer
So begins the response to that fragile carrier of your hopes and dreams—the query letter.
We’ve all been there, and it hurts. It hurts a lot. But it’s how the writing game goes, so we shrug, hone the query, and fire off another batch… and another—while depression deepens and self-worth hovers one notch above absolute zero.
Then it happens, you discover the ad in the back section of Writers’ Digest: Agent accepting new clients. And best of all they’re looking for unpublished authors! Sure, your daddy told you that if something sounds too good to be true it probably is. But hell, if we had an ounce of brains we wouldn’t be writers, would we?
With trembling fingers you stuff a query into an envelope, cross your fingers, and hurry to the post-office. A week later back comes amazing news. They like you! They like your work enough to want to see more. They like you so much that your brain turns off, and you never question that terribly reasonable explanation of why you should also send a shovelful of money along with the manuscript. “The sample chapter was wonderful,” they gush. “But since so few unpublished authors have it exactly right the first time, we need to see the entire manuscript, just to make sure the loose ends are tied up.” And surely you can’t expect a busy agent to give up precious time without charging you a teeny little service fee, can you? Well can you?
You sure as hell can. The simple truth is that an agent or editor who makes a living through selling other people’s writing can recognize writing skill in a paragraph and marketability within a page. You prove that true each time you take a book from the rack at your local bookstore. When was the last time you read more than a few pages before you decided not to buy? The difference between you and an agent or publisher is only that they shop from the comfort of their desk.
No reputable agent charges a fee for reading. Engrave that statement in stone above your desk. They’d love to charge, if for no other reason than in retaliation for having to spend so much time wading through crap submissions. But they don’t, because the rules of The Association Of Authors’ Representatives, the AAR, forbids that.
And reputable agents don’t, as a rule, recommend a specific editor to an unknown writer who’s making a submission, though they may suggest editing. Edit Ink*, the most notorious example of abusing that suggestion, paid a commission to the agent or publisher who recommended a client. A submission to one of their shill agencies (never a member of AAR) was likely to bring a letter suggesting that they might be interested… after editing. And, “oh yes, we’d suggest you use our good friends at Edit Ink.” The insidious part of that is that the agency—who made a fifteen percent commission if you took the bait—and Edit Ink are in different parts of the country. There couldn’t be an unsavory connection there, could there? There were millions of dollars charged for editing work done by college students and new grads working at minimum wage rates, money that will never be recovered.
Book-doctors are another thing to avoid if you write fiction. Why? Use your brain. If someone could take your book and fix it so it would sell, they’d be selling their own work and making a lot more money. And forget the idea of giving your manuscript to a published author in return for cover credit for supplying the story idea and rough draft. All new writers lust after that one, but any competent writer can fire off ideas faster than you can record them. It’s writing well that’s hard. That author would have to know your story as well as one they wrote, in order to meaningfully rewrite it. Starting from scratch is easier and more profitable.
Read those advertisements carefully for the scam tip-offs, like the mention of representing poetry or short stories. No reputable agent represents poetry. The fifteen percent agent’s commission on what the average poet makes on a sale won’t pay postage for the submissions. And no reputable agent is interested in short stories because the effort of selling a three-thousand word short is exactly that of a selling one-hundred-thousand word blockbuster. Any agent who claims to sell either poetry or short stories is to be avoided, and those who request a “one time reading fee” or money in advance for reproduction and mailing, are to be laughed at.
So how can you tell if you’re ready to submit your work professionally?
• Study writing. Craft is invisible, but necessary, and as I mentioned a few issues ago they didn’t teach it in grade school. Some of my personal favorite books on the subject are: Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain; GMC: Goal Motivation and Conflict, by Debora Dixon; Sol Stein on writing, by Sol Stein; and Writing the breakout Novel, by Donald Mass. And if you’re broke, look for Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones in your library. It’s an older book, but a good solid introduction to writing technique.
But, those are just a few. Everyone has their own favorite, and there are many available.
• Do your research. Don’t submit a two-hundred-thousand word family saga to Precious Gems, or fiction to an agent who specializes in cookbooks.
• Join a critiquing group—one composed of writers whose work you respect—people with skills matching (and hopefully, exceeding) your own. Your local library is a good place to find notice of what’s available. Almost nothing is as useful as the feedback you get from a writer of greater skill.
• Find a grammar fairy to touch your manuscript with stardust. You want nothing to distract the editor’s eye from your glorious prose.
• Study under the masters. Once you know what you’re looking for, analyze your favorite authors to see what made you like them. Look at how they handle dialog and characterization. Do they favor long sentences or short? Rewrite one of their scenes in your own style, and then compare the two for content and readability. Did you tell as much in as few words? Did you stay as focused? Do your words flow into the reader’s mind as smoothly?
The odds are against us succeeding. That’s a given. The success rate for manuscript sales by a new author is less than one in one-thousand—with good reason. No one is searching the stores for a book with your name on it other than your mother, so editors are looking for something extraordinary, not a “good enough,” novel. They already have more “good enough” writers than they need.
But in spite of those odds, lightening does have to strike, so it could well be you. That kid shooting baskets in the playground could wind up stuffing them in as part of a professional team, and you could be the next great author to be discovered. So keep on studying and keep writing. If nothing else it keeps us off the streets at night.
Just keep your eyes open and your wallet closed.
* Now out of business. To see a history, visit http://www.sfwa.org/beware/cases.html
These articles are not presented with a, “Do this and you’ll be a published author,” attitude. Anyone who tells you they can provide success via a few words on a blog page is scamming you. Instead, they’re one writer’s view of the ideas put forth by the writing teachers I admire and respect. I’ve done the series as part of what’s sometimes called a Benjamin Franklin debt. If some of what I say seems to make sense, I urge you to seek the teachers themselves, people like Dwight Swain, Debra Dixon, and a host of others, and read their advice directly.