Thursday, October 04, 2007

On Crushing Dreams

It happened again last week. I received an email requesting HELP in all caps.

I'm always ambivalent about opening this kind of email. Most of the time, it's someone from Nigeria who has heard that I'm trustworthy and wants my help sneaking money out of the country. They'd have better luck enlisting my help if they wouldn't call me "Dearest Madame," which leaves me feeling like the owner of a brothel.

But, every once in a while, one of these emails will turn out to be a newbie writer wanting advice. Since Bad Girl came out and I did interviews everywhere in the world, I've been getting more of these kind of emails.

Sure enough, it was a young writer asking for help finding an agent. Like all such inquiries, it was infused with a tremendous sense of urgency.

Sometimes I think the formula is: The younger the writer, the greater the impatience. This is interesting to me because, of course, the young have more time available to them than anyone else. Why are they so frantic?

This is not verbatim, but it's close to the email's content: "I just finished my manuscript. I wrote a terrific query letter and sent it to fifty agents last week. I've gotten two rejections already. What did I do wrong? Can you send me the names of more agents?"

I winced. My first reaction was, "Do you want the list of mistakes alphabetically or chronologically?"

Of course, I didn't say that. I said that I wasn't sure he'd done anything wrong, but I did wonder what all the urgency was about.

Over the course of two or three email exchanges, he brushed off my suggestion that a just-finished manuscript might need editing, and that he might want to wait a little while to get some distance from the story before jumping in to edit it. He said he'd paid "a professional editor" to look at the manuscript and was confident it was fine.

By then, I doubted whether he was actually open to feedback, so I ignored his request to review his "terrific" query letter. Instead, I suggested that he relax and wait to see the results of his query letter blitz. In the meantime, I encouraged him to continue writing.

Although he remained polite, I could sense his disappointment in my fuddy-duddy response.

The real shame is that he may be a terrific writer, but his impatience is working against him. I'd be willing to bet that he didn't personalize those fifty queries; he just wrote "Dear Agent" as his salutation.

The agents I've encountered have been pretty savvy people. They can tell from a query letter whether someone has photocopied and sent it to every literary agent in the book instead of carefully researching available agents and selecting the ones most likely to be interested in the specific manuscript in question.

Why does it matter? Your query letter is the equivalent of an interview for a job. Which candidate would you hire? The one who tells you, "Yeah, I'm filling out applications everywhere. I just need a job," or the one who says, "I really want to work for your company. I've researched it and like the idea of working for someone who's listed in Forbes as one of the hundred best places in the U.S. to work."

If I had to bet, I'd wager, by the twenty-fifth rejection letter, my young friend will be exploring self-publishing, and--by the time the fiftieth rejection arrives--his wallet will be $2,500 lighter and his dining room table will hold one hundred unsold, self-pubbed books.

I've recently been criticized for what self-pubbed writers see as my "crushing of young writers' dreams" when I warn of the poor probability that a self-pubbed book will be successful.

I find this a really interesting response. Are these writers better served if they spend their hard-earned cash in what is (likely) a fruitless endeavor? How will losing several thousand dollars be more helpful to them?

There are no shortcuts of substance. Sure, you can shave a bit of time by sending a couple of pages with every query letter instead of waiting for permission to send a "partial." But that only cuts a few weeks off the process. Most people (not all) still have to pay their dues.

If you wanted to be a real estate broker, you'd first have to study and take the tests and then serve time as a real estate salesperson under a licensed broker.

If you wanted to be a physician, you'd first have to go to college and then to med school and then serve time as a resident.

In almost every profession from electrician to teacher, there's a learning curve and an apprenticeship of sorts. Why, then, is it that people who want to be published authors think all they have to do is write a manuscript and...Voila...they'll be published?

Losing several thousand hard-earned dollars to a vanity press is hard for anyone; however, the blow can be devastating to a young person earning little more than minimum wage. Every time I get an email like the recent one, I want to say, "I'm thrilled you have a dream. Now let's put some effort into taking your dream from Cloud Cuckoo Land to reality."

If you're biking through Europe and need to be in Denmark in ten days, it's not a shortcut if, instead, you end up in Greece in eight days.


B.E. Sanderson said...

I've run into a few of these myself - the writers who ask for help and then don't bother listening to it. Or the ones who beg for input and then look at you like you're insane when you give it. Feh.

It seems more like they're looking more for justification than for knowledge, and that's just sad.

Heather B. Moore said...

Great advice, Maya. This young writer will learn the art of patience and rewriting soon enough ;) Much to my surprise I was contacted by an "agent" today by the name of Michele Rooney. It was strange because I'd never sent her a query . . . and she used an email address that I never give out to agents. Suspicious, I googled the name and found out that she is in list of Top 20 Worst Agents.

Maya Reynolds said...

Heather: Good for you for being suspicious. Suggest you visit Jonathan Lyons' website at and add Michele Rooney to the list he started on September 24th.