You know when someone is about to announce the winner of an award and begins by saying, "This was such a difficult decision," and you think, "Yeah, yeah, yawn, yawn"? Well, boy, was it absolutely true this time. Virtually every entry to my foolish competition was hilarious and brilliantly awful. You'd made every mistake I'd expected, and a few I'd never thought of. I had a lot of fun reading them and no fun at all trying to judge between them. And I regret that I couldn't give prizes to lots of you. But, a competition's a competition, and a competition needs a winner, and some runners up. Which is what we have.
Right, I'm going to tell you the lucky people now, and then I'm going to quote from lots of your appalling entries, in a didactically-inspired effort to illustrate all the mistakes that people really do make in submissions to agents and publishers. They really do, trust me. Please don't be too disappointed if you are not mentioned - it really was an incredibly high standard.
- Jo Franklin
- Tara Maya
- Neil Waring
- Sandra Patterson (extra point for worst title - The Gore of Edna)
- Andrea Robinson (extra point for over-involvement of pet dog)
- Moniza Hossain (extra point for including home-baking)
- Daniel Hahn (extra point for most exclamation marks)
- Sarah McGuire (extra point for missing the deadline ...)
- Ebony McKenna (extra point for not addressing her submission to agent or publisher but to an author)
Moniza's entry was beautifully controlled, which you might say makes it not bad enough, but I just felt it was really well-crafted awfulness and it got all the features of disaster over perfectly. So, it got my final vote. I hope you'll like it too.
I loved the utter farcicality of Ebony and Daniel's. Ebony's was in horrible pink type, full of shocking spelling and other mistakes, really gloriously tacky. Daniel's rambled wonderfully, and ended with "With literary greetings", except that it didn't end there because there were two PSs, in one of which he admits that although he has lots of ideas and a "great sense of humour" he finds writing quite difficult and would welcome the agent's help with it.
I loved the painful authenticity of Andrea and Sandra's entries, and I thought I'd share their opening paras with you:
(Sandra) Dear Derek, I'm sure you'll remember me from last year's Duffleberry Writers' Conference. I was the one shouting and waving at the back of the hall during your keynote address. Anyway, you may recall advising me to go off and write, or words to that effect, so it is only fitting that I give you first look-see at the fruits of my labours.
(Andrea) To Whom It May Concern, Have you ever wondered what would happen if a star fell in love with a giraffe? IF ONLY YOUR NECK WERE LONGER, my 234,654 word children's novel, answers this timeless question through the use of linked short stories, experimental poetry, and illustrations by my dog, Pepper.
Sarah's was also fabulously authentic, wincingly so, and her story about trolls and Fairyland was as cloying as the worst proposals I've ever heard of, combined with the inappropriateness of exploding trolls and horrible moral messages.
I'm going to put Moniza's full entry at the bottom of the post, but first let's have a look at some of the starring bits by all of those named above. And since this is supposed to be of educational value, here's a list of things to look out for, all things which people do horribly often when approaching agents and publishers:
- Over-familiarity - eg with LOL, !!!!!!, soooooo, u r,
- Being delusional, either by announcing your own brilliance and failing to realise that you are not necessarily the greatest writer who has ever lived, or by comparing yourself to famous authors, often quite impossibly, and always meaninglessly
- Enclosing illustrations (whether by yourself, your child or your dog) when you aren't an illustrator
- Mentioning your fear of someone stealing the idea (and may I say now that I will NOT steal any of the ideas that have been sent to me? If I do ever write a book called the Dragon Fairy Chronicles, it will bear no resemblance to Daniel Hahn's masterpiece. Besides, there is no copyright in ideas or titles ...)
- Being illiterate, with appalling grammar, spelling and punctuation - or having some other symptoms of being useless at writing English
- Doing anything cute with fonts or layout
- Being gushingly complimentary to the agent/publisher
- Mentioning JK Rowling
- Not having written the whole book yet
- Sending/offering anything other than the first pages+synopsis
- Enclosing anything edible
- Mentioning that someone pointless likes your work; eg your physics professor or your relatives or any children at all, even if the book is for children
- Making inappropriate demands - eg asking them to drop everything or pay postage
- Complete inability to make the book sound even remotely interesting, clever or book-like
- Seeming to teach the agent/publisher his/her job
- Failing to understand the boundaries or rules of children's fiction
- Sending it to someone even though they don't normally handle this type of work
- Being completely confused about what genre you are writing in
- Being unpleasant or aggressive to a total stranger who owes you nothing (ie the person you are writing to)
- Being intensely boring
- Showing any other symptoms of insanity
So, which of those classic errors can you spot in my favourite extracts below? (And in case anyone comes across this blog randomly and has missed the point of this competition: these are all deliberately bad and every spelling etc error is intentional ... All extracts are printed with kind permission of the authors, and no payment for their talent and creativity will be forthcoming.)
From Jo F: "I ain't got round to typing it yet. Me and computers don't get on. I don't know how many words it is but it's two whole exercise books of gripping action."
From Tara M: "This fiction novel will be transforming your sole and make you glad to be life. This is a novel of the triumph of love and beauty and hope and goodness and the importance of friendship over an evil appliance of governments, religions and corporations, to control your brain and make you do what they want."
From Neil W: "'John, the roses look really good this year.' Then Mary said, 'It must be the fertilizer,' then she winked at John and he smiled.' Not every author can right good dialogue but as you can see from the above this novel will be filled with some good dialogue."
From Andrea R: "I think this innovative technique will appeal to the millions out there who hear voices." and "Don't be the agent who passes on the next JK Rowling. I've attached a cute photo where I dressed Pepper up as a giraffe and pasted a star made out of construction paper on her head."
From Sandra P: "The Gore of Edna is my debut novel of 250k words. (I know you don't normally handle fiction but this sci-fi/detective/romcom/thriller is bound to change your mind). I would say it sits somewhere between Agatha Christie and AA Milne."
From Ebony McK, in huge pink type: "Dear author, I know u r not an agent or and editor, but I am sooooo tired and frustrated at getting 20+ rejections per day." and "I know I was born 2 b a writer. Eva since I was 3 my mom said I had a wonderful imaginashun" and "My storey is a book for children from 2 to 102" and "I know allot about the industry because I have loads of riting and publsihing credits from Lulu and inunivers and publish america and I know I am on my way."
From Sarah McG: "The last 46 pages of my book show Bob the fairy in many different social situations. Every time he is nice to a troll, it explodes, making Fairyland a kinder and cleaner place. Finally, on the last page, all the fairies follow Bob's example and explode the remaining trolls. Children will love this book so much they will hardly notice their being taught a lesson. Plus, the mixture of fairyland and exploding trolls should be exciting for both boys and girls."
From Daniel H: "You also say 15% but I presume this is negotiable?" and "My new book, Dragon Fairy (The Dragon Fairy Chronicles vol 1) is just the book you need to make your little agency a world-wide success - it's exciting, it's funny (if I say so myself! Lol!) and perfect for any readers aged 8 to 108" and "So far I've only written two 'chapters' ... I will send you what I've written so far and also some ideas I had about how you might want to go about selling it (I'm very creative ... so I thought it wouldn't do any harm to help you a bit)"
And here is Moniza's wonderful entry in its entirety:
To whom it may concern,
Even though you are a very busy agent, I would be eternally grateful if you would take some time out of your extremely busy day to consider my query. This is my first attempt at getting published, but I have written for many school magazines and my friends and extended family love to read my stories! My debut novel has been described as "Jane Austen with sex!" by Dr. Roger Lim, my physics professor. I personally feel my writing style is a combination of Audrey Niffenegger and Charlotte Bronte with a touch of Stephen King.
My fictional novel is about the pathos of love and the tragedy of an indomitable attraction that can never come to fruitation. It is called "Love in the Pulpits", a heady tale of love and deceit featuring a Dashing Catholic Priest and a Virginal Protestant Girl. Tom Hammy, a quietly handsome priest falls irresistably in love with the blonde and stunning Genna Gables when he sets eyes on her. But there's is a love that can never be, in a society torn by religious strife and prejudice. Like two moths to a flame, they are drawn to each other though they must burn and perish. Melinda Striufe, an austere widow observes their story from afar and harbours a deep and dark secret.
The town is ravaged by an earthquake that throws their lives into turmoil and leaves them unable to cope with the impending death of their loved ones. Can they overcome the evil machinations of Melinda Striufe and her lesbian lover? It is a question they MUST answer before the earthquake hits and irrevocably DESTROYS everything.
Love in the Pulpits is a 607 page fictional novel, set in 18th century England. I have attached the last three chapters to this query because the first few are not as enjoyable. Please note that chapter 27 takes place after the earthquake has hit and trapped Glenda under a statue of Baby Jesus. I am also willing to send you a hardcopy of my manuscript (including sketches of my characters). I'll include a home-baked muffin free of charge :)!! I hope to hear from you very very soon!
Well done, Moniza! Please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know which one of my books you'd like and an address to post it to. I have a feeling you're in Singapore ...
Thank you so much to everyone who took the trouble to enter. You've brilliantly absorbed all the horrible mistakes that unpublished authors make. Trouble is, there are far too many aspiring authors out there who simply aren't getting the message about the crappiness of submission standards. So, your mission, should you choose etc etc etc, is to go out into the world and spread the word. Getting published means getting it right - right book, to right publisher in right way.
I was quite disappointed by one thing, though. No one wrote their query in rhyme. Maybe you think no one would be so stupid, but as readers of this blog know ... I once, er, did.