Sunday, 7 February 2010

A POINTY POINT ABOUT QUERIES

I know I'm focusing on craft rather than querying for a while, but every now and then I come across a post on **querying which I'd like you to see.

Apologies, btw, for any glitches in this post: I'm going to be away when it goes out, and it's so much easier to proof it once it's published. So, bear with me and don't tell me about typos.

[**I seem to have gone all American in my use of the word "querying". I mean it to include the various processes of approaching an agent or publisher on any side of any ocean and with any type of writing. Let's say that querying has become a generic word for "approaching" and that it incorporates the chosen method/s of your country.]

Anyways. Here is the post I want you to see. When you've read it, please come back, because I want you not to focus so much on the detail but on three general principles obliquely raised:
  1. The agents and publishers whom you are querying have usually seen far more query letters than is good for them. They can read between the lines and judge your level of knowledge and readiness from the things you say and the things you don't say. They are often cynical, glazed and pessimistic about the basis of your enthusiasm. Don't push your luck: just be confident about your one best project, even if you mention the existence of others in passing. [Which is a good idea, but do keep that bit brief, unflaky and sedate. No gushing from the fount of your enthusiasm.]
  2. If you are a beginner or otherwise unpublished writer, your work is likely to have many faults, faults that make it more or less unpublishable, and faults of which you are horribly unaware. So, if one of your ongoing projects has these faults, they all probably have. Therefore, just present one piece, and make it your best one. If the best piece is an early piece, ask yourself why you're not improving. Because an agent sure as hell will be wondering.
Clearly, there are exceptions to this rule. Genius is one. But it is better to allow your genius to shine through in this one piece of writing. Leave 'em wanting more.

3.  The third point to take from the Kidlit post is this: agents know what they're looking for and they know how to find it. Or if they don't know, it's not up to you to tell them. Don't mess around by trying to give them what they've not asked for. Like the tea-bag my agent friend just received. Last week she also got a letter which started by calling down a curse on her, and then went on to ask if she'd like to read a manuscript. You couldn't make it up.

A couple of you have asked if we could have another bad query competition. I think that's a very good idea and should be a reward for good behaviour in a few weeks' time. Meanwhile, to remind you of how bad queries can be, go and read the winning entries from the last one.

Soon I will be hitting you with a post especially for aspiring children's and YA authors. It will be about pitching your work appropriately for age. Kids' books follow all the same rules as grown-up books, but there are extra rules. There are also extra pitfalls, as this true story shows.

Early on in my career as a YA author, I was doing an event for middle grade / upper primary kids. [I'm going all American again - dang you yankee critturs]. I was not talking about my first and at that time only YA novel, but about Being A Writer. The teacher happened to mention to the kids that I'd written a book called Mondays are Red. Here's what followed:
A grubby boy, whom we shall call Liam, interrupts to say: I've read that, Miss.
Teacher [looking somewhat surprised, as Liam had done nothing to indicate a tendency to read unless forced]: Really, Liam? Did you like it?
Liam: No, Miss. It was pure shite.
Shite or not, it was my first baby and Darren was not worthy.

Now, I am away in London for a few days, for some school talks and meetings. [Watch out, London.] Please don't misbehave while I'm away. a) I will be able to read your comments even if replying is tricky and b) that scary Jane Smith is going to be policing you and de-spamming me. She is donning her weaponry as we speak.

16 comments:

Pageturners said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DanielB said...

Heh-heh. You should have done a James Patterson. "There may even be dozens of people who agree with you, Liam. Thankfully, many thousands do not."

Fran said...

I'll add a link to this delightful post next Friday on my own. Tea bags? I hadn't thought of that. It might work on the British, but not here in Canada.

behlerblog said...

Nicola, darling, word on the street is that Jane will also be rifling through your closets and dumping your shoes. If you see a stray dog wearing red boots and a scarf, don't be alarmed...

Jane Smith said...

Bah. Mr Pageturners deleted his comment before I could read it, so I am deprived of the chance to wave my moderating light-sabre around. Never mind. I suspect that Nicola has already used it on Liam, and that I won't need to exercise it at all while she's away.

Jemi Fraser said...

LOL! Kids are always fun. Well, mostly :)

Marshall Buckley said...

Just one thing... are Darren and Liam the same person?

steeleweed said...

It may sting, but thank God for the Liams of the world.

Anonymous said...

Heh-- Liam or Darren? I think Liam's secret identity has been outed.

Shelley Sly said...

Thanks for the helpful link to the KidLit post, and for your own advice on queries.

So, if one of your ongoing projects has these faults, they all probably have.

That was something I needed to hear, because I've written 2 novels in the past 2 years, and even though they're as different genres and styles, I can't be ignorant to the fact that the faults in the first one may very well have carried over to the second. They have the same author, after all.

I'm always glad to read a post on queries. Always helps.

Sarah said...

Yay! Another query contest! I'm looking forward to it.

catdownunder said...

I think Nicola took the shoes with her...but I am wondering whether she took her wellies.
I still want to write, "Dear Agent, I have written my first book. It is the very best I can do but I know that it is likely to have many faults. I am very willing to listen to advice. Please may I send you the first ten pages? Your sincerely, Cat." (At this point I see Nicola tearing at her hair and saying to herself, "Haven't I managed to teach that wretched cat anything at all?" It's all right Nicola I promise I won't do it. I am listening, yes really!)
At this point the query letter is still in the distance - but it does look like a very high hurdle. Is there any chance at all you can crawl carefully over this hurdle or is taking it at a run and jumping the only option?

behlerblog said...

Ah, Cat, that tears it; that was YOUR query letter I read yesterday!

catdownunder said...

Oh bother! I suppose the stray cat hairs gave me away?

Janet O'Kane said...

Have only just caught up with this blog, but will visit regularly from now on. Out of curiosity I visited the 'awards' website and was particularly amused by the statement "We have taken great measures to run a green company, and as such, paper will be used to a minimum, including the absence of winner’s certificates"

Janet O'Kane said...

Doh! Has anyone come up with a name yet for posting a comment into the wrong blog? Surely I can't be the first. Please ignore the comment above, which will make absolutely no sense.