Words for Writers: Queries – You Might Have To Work At It

I have spoken previously about how getting an agent works, and some of my personal largest frustrations about querying, and today I planned to write a bit about why, if your query keeps getting turned down, you might want to consider the possibility that it could be your fault.

But then, Gabrielle Harbowy, my editor, happened to have a better post about it, so I’m just going to link you to hers, and give you a bit of an excerpt:

Authors will often refer to the submission and rejection process as a crapshoot. For those unfamiliar with the term, craps is a dice game of chance. A crapshoot is a roll of the dice, and it’s come to mean a gamble with random and uncontrollable results.

You’ll probably have heard, more than once, that getting a publisher interested in your work is a process that involves a lot of random chance and a lot of luck. That it depends on who happens to pick up your query or your manuscript off the pile, the mood of that reader on that particular day, how many stories like yours have come in lately, what the weather is like, what the person had for breakfast…

You might notice here that responsibility for the success or rejection of your manuscript is attributed to a lot of factors, but that one is conspicuously absent: You.

It’s human nature, I think, to need closure, to need reasons for things, and to ascribe things to chance and forces beyond our control when we don’t and can’t know the real reasons behind them. But, honestly, publishers and editors do have reasons behind their actions, even if those reasons can’t be fathomed from a generic form-letter rejection slip.

Maybe your submission doesn’t fit the flavor of the publication or the press you’ve submitted to. Maybe they feel the market is saturated with your concept already—or, conversely, maybe it’s so far out there that they’re unwilling to take a chance on it.

Notice that I’m not saying anywhere in here that your manuscript must automatically have been bad. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, as the saying goes, and this is true for publishing houses, anthologies and magazines as well. Different people like different things. Different places are looking for different things. What doesn’t fit at one may fit perfectly at another.

Gabrielle’s emphasis is that while, yes, part of the factor that keeps an editor/agent from requesting a partial/full/deal with your book can be attributed to the personal tastes, choices, preferences, and yes, even moods of an agent/editor, but sometimes a bad fit is just a bad fit.

I want to be way less polite, way more honest, and way more critical, so here it is:

Have you ever considered the fact that you writing just might be really, really crappy?

I mean, I hate to be harsh here, people, and goodness knows I’m the last person on the planet who can pretend that I never make mistakes, but ‘fess up… does your manuscript suck?

Do you spend more time pimping it on authonomy than polishing it? Have you read the whole thing through more than once? Has someone, who is not your mother or best friend, read it and offered honest, insightful, and sometimes harsh critique?  Are there red squiggly lines under words when you view it in Word?  Did you rip off the plot from the best-seller du jour? Did you actually read the agent/editor’s submission rules and genre preferences before submitting? Did you write a query letter that sounds like it should be in the next SlushPile Hell edition? Did you craft your novel?

Let me ask that last question again: Did you craft it?

Because, it’s a very important thing, this notion of craft.  Surprise! Writing is WORK. It’s a JOB, and like any other job, it requires training, practice, dedication, and dicipline. Devine inspiration or a ghostly hand will not come down and deliver from on high the next bestseller directly onto your hard drive.  you will have to craft your manuscript once you have written it.

See, there is something that happens in playwriting that I love, and I wish I saw more of it in novel writing. It’s the open editing process.  I won’t pretend that it’s an easy process to endure – as a playwright I have had more screaming matches with directors than I would care to admit to, but each one has made the play stronger, even if it has wounded my pride and artistic ego.  I have learned through it that once you write your first draft, one you’ve let your baby out into the world, you have to admit that it’s never perfect from the very start.

And having other people weigh in on it is actually helpful, if you can put your artistic ego and pride aside.

The way that the open editing process works is this: A playwright will create a play. They will spend hours writing it. And then they will find a venue and a group of professional actors – perhaps independently, perhaps at a festival or fringe – and the play will be performed at a table reading, usually for a group of peers and/or an audience.

And everyone will be taking Notes.  And at the end, the playwright gets these Notes, and they’ll be things like, “I found this line in this act unbelievable, because why would character X do that when she could have just done this?” Or, “as the actor, I just didn’t really feel it when Z happened.”

And the playwright goes away and considers the notes and tweaks until the play is where he wants it to be. And then the playwright finds a director (much like we find an editor or agent) and then the play goes into rehearsals. And then the playwright gets MORE notes; the actors weigh in, and the director, and the stage manager, and sometimes even the seamstress. Everyone has an opinion, and the play is tweaked and tweaked and tweaked. Now, it’s the playwright’s job at this point to maintain and watch out for the integrity of the idea and the themes and points of the play. But it is the job of the other players in this procedure to provide the best show they can.

There is push and pull between the playwright and the director, and then, eventually there is opening night, and the play that sallies forth onto the stage is polished and perfect – it’s crafted.  There is nothing superfluous, everything is where it should be, and it’s all there for a reason.

I think an example of one of the most perfectly crafted texts I’ve read in a while is Plain Kate, by Erin Bow. Every word, every comma, every phrase and thought is right where it should be. The Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson is another example, and so is Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. How To Train Your Dragon is another great example. These pieces are all a perfect opera.

Let’s run with that metaphor for a moment – is your manuscript an opera?  Is the rhythm a tempo? Do your leads have their arias? Does the harmony blend seamlessly, does everyone know where to stand and between which words to breathe? Do you weave together the plot and the melodies?  Operas are hard, man, take it from me.  If one horn player, one diva, one note is late, early, too short, too long, slow or fast, the whole clockwork falls to pieces. I’ve seen professional opera companies stop the show and restart to do a scene correctly rather than muddle through a massive flub that will as a result throw off the rest of the show.

Or is your manuscript something thrown together by a garage band getting ready to perform for the high school talent show with a drummer who’s never picked up the sticks before?

Back to the playwriting analogy:  a published book is quite similar to a performed play, except that you’ll note that a novel has no “table reading” process ingrained in the professional timeline.  There is nobody who weighs in on the novel as a whole BEFORE it is seen by an editor/agent.  It goes straight from the author’s head to his fingers, to his keyboard, to the screen, to the printer, to the envelope.

And if that’s how you do it, then I don’t blame the agent/editor for turning it down.  Because you just vomited into that envelope and mailed it away. If you’re not going to work at making this the best book it can be, why on Earth should an editor/agent bother to want to work with you on it either?

Luckily, we, as authors, have each other! We have the internet! We have crit groups!  We have created a community for and with each other to address this professional deficit.

This is why reading circles and mean, opinionated, awesome friends (Hi Steph!) and places like Query Shark and Miss Snark’s First Victim are important.   Because nobody’s book is perfect the first time it comes out of their head (despite what Anne Rice may claim), and because there is always someone who will see something in your work that you didn’t.  Yesterday, a friend read a segment of my NaNo and commented on the theme of the book – and I went, silly reader! That’s not the theme! This is… wait. What? OMG, that IS the theme. And it’s brilliant. OMG.

So there’s my way harsh judgment. Maybe it wasn’t the planets aligning or the agent/editor having had a bad commute – maybe your manuscript just sucks.

Luckily, writing is something that improves with practice, and learning to craft a manuscript, taking time to massage the text into perfection, is a skill that you can acquire.  You can learn to edit, to revise, to spell check. So set aside the ego, blame not the agent, go buy a fancy ice cream and say “It’s not that they don’t like my manuscript, it’s just that they don’t want to buy it right now,” and then go edit the hell out of it.

Chin up, ego off, and good luck!


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: Queries – You Might Have To Work At It