Thursday, October 01, 2009

We Interrupt Our Regular Programming

Like most published writers, I get a number of emails a week from newbie writers asking questions . . . a few want to know where I get my plot ideas, more want to know how to find an agent and still others ask about things like promotion and marketing.

By far, the most emails I get are from writers whose first novel has been repeatedly rejected. They are depressed, uncertain and asking me what they should do next.

On my journey to being published, I was helped by many kind people. Because I was completely unfamiliar with the publishing industry when I began, I spent a fair amount of time on the Internet, reading and trying to learn the ropes. I sent emails to people like Jodi Picoult and Miss Snark, asking questions for which I had been unable to find answers anywhere else. I don't recall an instance when I did not receive a courteous and helpful response.

Now I am trying to pay it forward by offering the same help to newbies.

This post is prompted by a couple of emails I got this week from newbie writers.

The first was a pretty common occurrence. I received an email from a woman I don't know, including her forty-one-page first chapter and asking for a critique because she has received over twenty rejections.

I did what I always do in such cases: glanced over the entire chapter and then gave her a critique on the first three pages. I always start with the good comments first. Her manuscript pages were articulate, and she had a nice way with descriptive phrases, using out-of-the-ordinary analogies that fit the tone of her manuscript.

But then I had to tell her the other stuff: her opening pages were pure backstory, and the rest of the chapter was bloated with unnecessary information dumps. In addition, she "told" more than she "showed." I pointed out that these were common newbie mistakes, which could be corrected easily and suggested she find a critique partner. All told, reading her email/chapter and responding took me about thirty minutes.

I was dismayed to receive an email back, arguing with my comments. She essentially said, "Thanks for nothing."

I resisted the urge to respond and simply deleted her two emails.

The second encounter was a 1,652-word email from a man I do not know. If the email had been in manuscript format, it would have been seven double-spaced pages.

The man started out complimenting me and saying he'd like answers to some basic questions. He is still in the process of writing his first novel and working with a freelance editor to get it to a manageable length. Based on his email, I immediately pictured a 175K-word manuscript.

He wanted to know about the industry, agents, how to write a query letter, and what promotional tools he needed to use. In addition, he sent me his 50-word pitch and asked me to critique it.

Normally, I would have commented on his pitch and referred him back to this blog and others for the answers to the rest of his questions. I'm not looking to take anyone on to raise. Nor am I looking to write customized handbooks on publishing for strangers.

But what really bothered me was his running commentary on the industry. He'd found agents hostile to newbie writers, he believed a one-page query letter would be unable to capture the richness of his manuscript, and he railed against publishers who would not provide promotional support to first-time writers. The overall tone was his concern that his "genuine talent" (yes, he described himself with those words) would not be appreciated by the industry.

He may be a very nice man, but he came across as a pompous, arrogant jerk.

As a public service, here are some tips for newbie writers:

1) Remember: Publishing is a business. Your communications with agents/editors should be in the form of business correspondence. That means brief and to the point. In general, a query letter should be one page. (And that doesn't mean with half-inch margins and a 10-point font).

2) If an agent/editor is kind enough to offer you specific comment beyond a form rejection, do not assume that response is an invitation to open a pen pal relationship.

3) If you write an author or agent with a question, limit it to one question. And limit your response to "thank you." Better yet, ask the question on their blog so that others can benefit from the response.

4) There are no shortcuts. Don't expect anyone else to supply you with a list of agents, a list of likely publishers who would be interested in your genre or a list of promotional tools. There are enormous amounts of information on the Internet. Do your own homework. If there are specific questions you cannot find the answers to, feel free to ask. But don't ask for material that you are simply too lazy to look for yourself.

5) Agents use the query letter to cue them as to what kind of a client the writer would be. They are looking for positive, hungry-for-success people who are willing to do whatever it takes. No matter how good the manuscript is, no agent wants a pain-in-the-ass client. Agents will suggest writers make manuscript changes . . . just to see how the writer responds. Over time, each agent has honed his/her screening mechanisms to eliminate those writers who are going to be problems. It may seem incomprehensible to you, but their methods have proven surprisingly effective in separating the wheat from the chaff.


Sharon said...

I like when you write about writing. I don't always comment, though I enjoy your blog. This is a positive post that says to me that getting published is up to the writer, that it's hard to get published but it is possible.

Kaz Augustin said...

I think all writers start out as jerks. After all, it takes some major (metaphorical!) testicular propulsion to motivate you to write something and then -- gasp! -- submit it to utter, utter strangers in the belief they'll throw money at you.

Having said that, I think the ones most likely to succeed are those who repeatedly get whacked by the clue stick (publishing is a bit like a relentless metal stamping machine in that respect) AND actually take some lessons to heart. Hopefully, I'm moving in the right direction, but you never know. ;)

Liane Spicer said...

You'd be amazed (actually, you wouldn't) at how otherwise intelligent people turn into naive babes in the wood when they are seeking publication.

I have a brilliant friend who signed a contract with a bogus agent without even researching the man. When I Googled his name I was appalled at what turned up in the very first search. My friend, I'm sure, would never approach any other business transaction in such a cavalier manner.

I get those letters too, the ones that really want me to give the location of the magic wand. Is it my agent? My publisher? I point them to resources it's taken me years to collate, but that's not what some of them want. If they're serious they'll learn, like we all had to.