Thursday 12 November 2009


I read an interesting blog post by one of you  -  Catherine Hughes, guest blogging on the Strictly Writing blog. [Well done, Catherine!] And it got me thinking.

Catherine's right: despite constant advice from me and many others to get your covering letter+synopsis+sample perfect before sending it to an agent or publisher, perfection is not always actually necessary. In other words,a beautiful view may still be recognisably beautiful even if seen through dirty windows. [I should know  -  I have some. I really wish the sun wouldn't shine, as it makes them worse.]

There are plenty of stories of writers being taken on despite the fact that they have not yet produced perfection, or anything like it. My own story is a case in point: my agent took me on, then we made the book better and then she sold it. Catherine provides examples of agents who did deign to read and give good feedback even though she hadn't produced [yet] a publishable book.

So, why am I still right as well? How can Catherine and I both be right? Why do I still urge you to clean your windows before inviting an agent or publisher to look through the glass?

  • competition and harsh reality-  every reputable agent and publisher receives many, many MSS every week. Many agents / publishers will very understandably follow their first impressions. [And I mean first, as in first paragraph.] If you have made basic errors which look like carelessness, ineptness or lack of technique, and/or they have just read something else better, yours gets dumped. You want that to happen? So, some may painstakingly read everything (I doubt it); some may have received nothing good that month; but you simply reduce your chances by not getting it right.
  • some sorts of error in covering letters matter much much less than others. Some don't matter at all. Experts make judgements that are much more subtle and powerful than simply noticing an error: they use that error to make detailed analytical judgements about you and your command of language.
  • your book has to be EVEN more brilliant underneath if the dirty windows are to be ignored. Of course, you already think your book is brilliant. And let's hope it is. But there's a Simultaneous Equation going on: for every bit of imperfection, you have to have that much more brilliance in your offering.
  • it is getting harder and harder to get certain types of book published, so the more perfect a state your book is in now, the more likely it is to be taken, because the less structural work it will require during editing, and the less of a risk an agent or publisher would be taking with you. If you think the editor will just do it all for you, read my recent post here.
  • agents and editors are looking for potential as well as an existing state of publishability. This means that yes, they may well take you on if they see huge potential shining through the grubby glass; but, for all the reasons above, you simply lower your chances of looking like a great writer if you get too many things wrong in the first place. Because, frankly, potential is what you should be honing, before they get to it.
On the other hand, there is another way in which Catherine is right. There is, in this business as with so many others, no such thing as absolute perfection. Since there is no such thing as perfection, there's little point [you might say] in aiming for it. One person's idea of a perfect synopsis will not be another person's. [For example, independent publisher Lynn Michell's idea of a synopsis is different from some other UK publishers' ideas  -  see my blog interview with her here. She wants more of a "blurb", whereas some want more detail and chronology. Some agents are happy for multiple submissions; others are not. Some want your CV / writing background; others don't.] So, since your idea of perfection may be rejected as inadequate by someone else, you may wonder why you bother.

In answer to that I'd say that this is not a science but an art. There are several ways of approaching a publisher or agent that work in general and tick the necessary boxes. But there are absolutely some which don't work. Showing ignorance in certain ways will get you rejected; making certain types of error will get you rejected; but most of all, not having a beautiful view through the murky windows will get you rejected.

It's worth noting that Catherine is talking about that very important step of getting an agent / publisher to a) read and b) give encouraging feedback. The question of being accepted comes later and is different. She's right to notice that some agents and publishers will read and respond in unscary ways even if you haven't written the perfect book yet.

But it is also very important to remember that:
  1. An expert reader [ie good agent or editor] can tell within a very few sentences / paragraphs how well you can write
  2. And whether you've written a publishable book
  3. Some of those experts readers have more time and patience than others
  4. You are trying to attract all of them, whether or not they have patience
  5. And you are trying to get published, not only to receive feedback [eg a "positive" rejection]
  6. Therefore, I strongly suggest that you work your socks off to get your whole submission package as perfect as possible
Yes, you can make some mistakes and someone still might say nice things. You might even get published, if you have written an irrestistible book and your talent and your book's worth shine through the mistakes. But do you want to take the risk that your grubby-windowed package lands on the desk of a wonderful agent on the day she's just received a beautiful shiny one, or the day when she's feeling grumpy after too many grubby ones?

Don't get me wrong: I'd LOVE love love it if you all got published despite doing things wrong, but I believe you'd get there quicker if you tried to do everything right. This blog is about doing our very, very best to get it all as right as possible as often as possible. Don't let me down, please!

[Catherine  -  just to emphasise: I'm not disagreeing with you. I thought you wrote an excellent piece and I'm very grateful to you for making me think about it some more.]

Note to all: I'm away in Dublin doing talks from Friday and not back till Sunday so excuse my lack of replying to your comments. Please comment, though  -  you usually produce some very helpful conversations between you.


Catherine Hughes said...

Actually, we're not disagreeing at all.

Because I hadn't discovered this blog - and a couple of other sites that have been of enormous help - I didn't know that my submissions weren't created to an appropriately exacting standard. One of the funny things about there being more to learn is that you often don't realise that there's more to learn until you've learnt it! Hindsight is such a mixed blessing...

As I've said at the end of the piece, I do believe that your submissions should be the pinnacle of your efforts - as mine were, in the context of my knowledge at the time.

What I was trying to emphasise is that the agents I've come across appear to be - contrary to much of what we writers are often told - completely human. And they don't automatically refuse to consider a submission that is slightly flawed.

I think major flaws are a different matter, probably.

My whole post was inspired by the lovely agent that I have now mentioned a fair few times, in a fair few places! She who reached out to encourage me, even though there was no practical advantage for her in so doing. It's the kind of thing I would do, and it restored my faith in human nature.

So I do agree - do everything you can to make your submission not just perfect but especially sparkly. I will be, when the time comes to submit my next novel. But, if you do slip up, despite your best efforts - then my feeling would be: don't panic!

Donna Gambale said...

Great points, both of you! Definitely writers should do their very best. And then learn more and upgrade their best. And then maybe send it out to agents in the hopes that they'll overlook any remaining imperfections.

Jemi Fraser said...

Great posts! It always pays to work hard and learn as much as you can :)

Susan Wallman said...

Catherine I really liked your post. It felt really honest, and it reminded me of the importance of encouragement (in any aspect of life).

Catherine Hughes said...

Thank you Seymour!

JaneF said...

Yes, Catherine, very thought-provoking.

When I started sending out queries for my first attempt at a novel, I had no idea that there was a format you were meant to stick to, and wrote to the publishers (yes, that's how clueless I was) and agents as I would to anyone else. As if they were just normal people. I made some horrendous mistakes, like telling them the thing wasn't finished and going into all the details of the series of which this would be the first book. I even said that I wanted readers to fall in love with my main character (cringe). But from a total of three publishers and three agents, I had three requests for fulls - one from a big publisher. Of course the manuscript I sent out was a mess and no one wanted it. But my awful query did generate a lot of initial interest.

This time round I've gone with the conventional approach and, although I've now had a request for a full, it's taken a lot longer.

Your post has made me wonder about that first query letter. Maybe it had a kind of 'natural' quality to it that people responded to, despite all its flaws. Or maybe it was just beginner's luck!

Harry Markov said...

I am not exactly at that state yet to think actively of agents, so I am not sure that I have a fully formed opinion with my strategic insight, but from the posts I have read here and elsewhere, it's a highly individual process of submission and an art form on its own. I would say that is as hard as completing and refining your novel.

David John Griffin said...
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David John Griffin said...
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David John Griffin said...

njoyable and though-provoking post, Nicola.

If it wasn't for this article, I would even still have "let some of my darlings live'. My first three chapters have now been finally, finally edited, and I like to think I have "squeeky clean windows" now. (Whether an agent will think the same is another matter...)

If I may add my tuppence worth to the sub-discussion (!) concerning query letters, I've recently read some advice stating that I should include my understanding of the marketplace, why my book will fit into the agent's current list, why my book will sell enough copies to make it worthwhile printing (???) , and how, as an author, I can support and promote my book. Someone else recommended telling the agent about published novels which yours would fit under the same umbrella with. (I'll rewrite that sentence another day!) ; )

After much musing, my conclusion is: it's just too much info. Apart from some of these things impinging on the agent's/publisher's work (although that's not to say I won't be promoting my own book), I already have a full page query.

As Harry Markov pointed out, "it's an art form on it's own" when composing a query letter. I guess this must include not taking note every piece of advice read on the internet.

Sarah said...

Catherine, I did enjoy your post, and I agree that both you and Nicola are right. We need to get our work to its very best before we submit it. We also need to know that editors and agents can see beyond our mistakes.

They should just be looking past the imperfections we missed- not the ones we deliberately overlooked.

David, I was at a (US) writing conference this weekend, and the editors there stated that a query should 1) pitch the story, and 2) briefly introduce the author. That's consistent with everything else I've read/ heard about queries for fiction.

Janet Reid's Query Sharkis a great resource of what one should and shouldn't do in a query, even if it isn't for the faint of heart.

I think that only nonfiction queries are supposed to include market and platform information. But again... I'm coming from a US perspective.

David John Griffin said...

Hi Sarah, thank you for info; I'm thinking it's generally the same for UK agents as well. I'll check out Query Shark.


Rebecca Knight said...

What a great discussion! I agree that it should be a balance between us cleaning our windows the best we can, and then not worrying about dust we may not be able to see once we've invited agents to look at them.

If we worry about our perfection after the fact, we'll just make ourselves crazy (er?). As long as we've put our best foot forward, we can let go more easily.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sarah - yes, you're coming from a US perspective and although some UK people are moving in that direction it's still quite different. On the other hand, the thing we need to remember is that actually everyone wants the same: a way to know that your book is a great book, well written and sellable, by a sellable author. So, wherever we live, if we give that info we can't really go wrong.

Jane - good points but we also need to remember that nowadays the market is tougher and agents and publishers are evn more inundated, so they are often even tougher and less giving of their time. Beginner's luck can often work out, but really it's luck, rather than being a beginner!

David - interesting questions and (without seeing the detail) I'd guess you came to the right conclusion. Thing is, you'll hear general advice about what to include but it really boils down to what's right for THIS author and THIS book and THIS recipient. Which is one of the reasons why I decided that an individual advice service like pen2publication was the best way to help in those circs. But it sounds as though you're thinking along the right lines anyway.

For example, to "introduce the author" (Sarah's phrase which echoes one of yours) can mean many different things, some of which would be apt and others not. "Showing not telling" comes into play too - the agent/publisher can read a lot more into what we say than you'd think...

Sorry not to have been blogging for the last few days - have been away on more hectic speaking engagments. Am now back!

Melinda Szymanik said...

Always find what you have to say amazing, interesting and relevent. Hope you don't mind but i have nominated you for a blogging award