Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Thoughtful Tuesday Post

Song Playing: Ain’t That a Kick in the Head by Dean Martin

Okay, sooo I was very busy the last two days doing wedding stuff. The good news is it’s all coming together nicely. The bad news is it’s taking up a lot of my free time. Despite this, I still managed to make some awesome progress with editing. Like 60 pages worth of progress between now and my last progress update. Go me! This might not sound like a lot of progress to you, but the process of editing I am using right now, that’s huge.

Basically, I am reading over my rough draft and looking for story problems, places where the worldbuilding fell apart, places where the character are acting out of character, and pieces that I love (so I don’t edit these out, throwing the baby out with the bath water). Every single page I read over I ask myself these questions. When I encounter a problem, I mark it with a special number and letter code that references a specific worksheet, one worksheet for each type of problem, and write the issue on the worksheet. This gives me the space to write something really long if I need to, and allows me to come back to the same rough draft and edit it more, without it getting too complicated.

So as you might figure, this is very time consuming. I am averaging one or two edits per page for places where I need to tighten up the story, or the character isn’t acting in a believable fashion. This book in particular is very green, so I have a long slog ahead of me. But it’s going to be worth it, because I love this story.

Today I wanted to throw my two cents into a hotly debated topic.

Nathan Bransford posted a question last week: “Does the Query System Work?”

The comments section quickly became rabid sea of people taking sides and wailing about the failings of the publishing industry in general and agents in particular.

The summation of the thoughts was this:

*Signed authors/readers said: “Yes it does, because that’s how I got my agent/because there are books in the store I want to read.”
Personally, I think this is faulty logic. Just because it worked for you, doesn’t mean it’s working for other people.

*People complained the system doesn’t work and that it was “luck” and “being in the right place at the right time”.
I agree with this notion, but…it also seems pointless to complain about it.
Note there’s a difference between commiserating and complaining. We will all commiserate about failed queries at some point in time. But most of us won’t go on angry tirades the minute the word “query” is mentioned.

A LOT of things in life run on either luck or fate, depending on your beliefs. If you’re not fated to get your book published until Agent X sees your query on Day 12 and a bolt of lightening strikes them down, then what’s the use bellyaching about it in the meantime? If you have to get lucky in order to make the same thing happen, why not accept it and move on?

Conversely, I also believe you make you own luck. Sure, there’s a element of chance and connecting with the right agent, but if you keep going, if you keep summiting your queries and improving your craft, and writing books, and taking classes, and doing everything you can to be the best writer you can be, you increase your chances of “getting lucky” and meeting the guy who introduced you to your future agent. Or hearing about the right agency to submit to.

*People complained that writing a query was hard, and they wasted a lot time of finding the criteria to properly compose the query and then the right agent to publish their work.
I do agree we spend loads of time finding the right agent, crafting the perfect query, only to get rejected. I agree this is hard, and we have better things to do with our time. But I also think that this is the model we’re working with at the moment, and just because something is HARD doesn’t mean it’s not working. I think the bit that comes after the query letter is up for more discussion than the letter itself.

The problem here is define “work”. I am not trying to argue semantics, but making a point.

On one hand, yes, the query system works in the sense that agents are signing writers, and books are being published.

On the other hand, there are (presumably) awesome writers not getting their books looked at because they failed to write a query that caught people’s eye. I am going to bypass the complaint that writing queries is “hard”. Writing a book is hard. Writing a query IS hard, it’s like writing a haiku in blood with your big toe. But I don’t think just because something is hard (read: extra work) doesn’t mean the entire system in general doesn’t work.

The real issue is there is we will NEVER have a way to properly quantify the query system, because there’s no way to track the queries that didn’t make it. Sure, we hear stories of authors receiving a trillion rejections (a trillion!) before finding an agent, but there’s also the assumption that during this period of rejection, the writer was getting better. Growing and learning the craft of writing and stuff. You can’t say for sure if this writer should have been published years ago, and therefore the query system failed, or if the writer was published exactly when he was technically good enough to snag an agent.

The main problem I have with a query letter is I don’t feel like it properly conveys someone’s skill as a writer. I mean, it does to a point, but I could hire someone to write my query letter. Also, with the Internet and forums, query letters are becoming more and more polished, and therefore, less indicative of the actual writing prowess of the writer.


It’s not feasible for an agent to read 5 pages each of the hundreds of people that submit to them, even though this gives the agent a better idea of the quality of writing and the style of the novel. We screen books this way at the bookstore. Read the first couple paragraphs. If you’re hooked, then you request a full manuscript. If it’s poorly written or boring, pass.

This is where I think your query letter could come into play. I think query letters should be a stepping stone, and agents should use query letters to screen out the weirdos and the people who don’t know how to write in basic English (or whatever language their country speaks). Less “make or break it” on the query letter, and more on the first five pages you send them. I would also say standardize the query letter guidelines would streamline everything more efficiently, but then again, I can only assume that different agencies have different guidelines for reasons unknown to us peons.

Overall, do I personally think the query letter system is working? No. I don’t. I don’t understand how some books are even published, books that break all the rules and defy all conventions. And by “break the rules” I don’t mean are avant garde a la Cormac McCarthy. I mean, I was writing better in high school. I am not saying that to be mean, but out of honest confusion.

I think there must be a better way for agents to find writers who not only write good books, and have good ideas, but are willing to work with the system. Who want to make writing their career. Nothing against the hobby novelists, either. To each his own, but I know agents want to find writers who aren’t just good at spinning a tale, but are also a good match. I think the agent-writer relationship could be a wonderful partnership, and there could be system with less trial and error. You hear about writers who find agents who want to “nit pick everything I do” and conversely, agents who “never call me back.” Some writers want a partner in the publishing business who will listen to their woes, but other writers just want someone they can chuck their next masterpiece at and go back to writing.

Guess what? Agents are the same way. Agents want writers who not only write book they can sell, but they want a write that is a good match for their work style. Some agents don’t want to have to hold an author hand while they have their eleventh meltdown. Some agents prefer to have a more formal, business relationship with their authors. Other agents want a personal connection with their clients, who want to find a writer who matches their drive and ambition, and will build a career with them.

Now, what else does this sound like…

Dating! This sounds exactly like dating.

And guess what? There are dating websites out there.

What I really think would be cool if there was some sort of dating type website for authors and agents. That both sides—agents and authors—could make a profile. Genre, interests, projects, credits, etc. Agents would make a profile that reflects what genres they represent, and writers make a profile selected the genre they write in. Both profiles could link back to your website and blog. This would weed out people who submit to the wrong agent based on genre alone, saving both writers and agents time.

When a writer has a finished project, they could post a letter, sort of like a query letter, that states the basics of their book, like plot, word count and genre, and agents could search these letters for books that sound interesting. The time agents spend answering queries now could be spent looking through this data base (or bases).

Conversely, writers could also contact agents with finished projects, but now it’s a two way street. Agents could connect us when we write something that sound like something they would want to represent, and vice versa.

There could be forums were people post writing questions, and agents woes, and it could streamline the entire process for both writers and agents.

Agents have complained/mentioned recently that they are swamped with queries. I know agents don’t want to close themselves to submissions, just to catch up. This seems counterintuitive to their objective to get more clients.

Writers spend a lot of time looking up information on agents and publishing companies, and crafting the perfect query for each person. What if it was all in one place?

It wouldn’t solve ALL of the problems, of course. You would still get rejected, you would still not always connect with the agent you had your eye on, but it seems like it could cut out the middle man and get right down to the heart of the agent-author relationship: Do you want my book? Did you write a book I would want to represent?

I want to storm the publishing gates now, but there are no gates to storm. *sigh*

So clearly what I am talking about is just an idea. Do you think this would work? Am I missing something obvious?

It’s a day for pie-in-the-sky dreams anyway.

Nathan Bransford is following up with his question by holding a little contest to be an agent for a day. He’s going to post query letters and you can vote on which letter you would ask for a partial from. It should be interesting experiment to say the least.


  1. I voted in Nathan's poll, but I did not comment. By the time I voted, there were a good fifty comments already and my opinion of what was said is adequately summarized above. I voted that it did work, even though querying is the most frustrating part of the process. I've written a good manuscript, and now I'm subject to condensing it into a page and throwing it to the whims of an agent?

    Well...yes. How the hell else should it work? Everyone thinks they've written a great manuscript. If you've been reading a blog like the Query Shark, you'll see some of the absolute crap people think are worth publishing. Querying keeps out the crap. It keeps out some good stuff too. I have yet to see a better proposal.

    And as for your revision process. Holy hell! That amount of revision work scares me. :)

  2. OMG ELIZABETH!!!! That is the BEST idea only EVA!!

    I completely agree with you about querying. From what I've read and heard it's not the most brilliant system but on the otherhand it's unlikely to ever be perfect. And life does have an element of chance in it. When you apply for a job the system can sometimes have the same hap-hazard way of working.

    So, an agent-writer "dating" site sounds perfect! That way the weirdos really could be screened out and wonderful matches could be made :~D

    p.s. If you do find some gates to storm I'll totally come with you. I'll try to represent a large crowd as I hold up a flaming torch and everything :~) Seriously, I LIKE this idea

  3. @ Joe: I didn’t comment for the exactly same reason. There was no need. There’s no way to really judge the query system, and it’s working well enough for the time being. I think in the future the agents are going to have more problems because of how easy it is to send someone an email. Which is why I was trying to think of another step in the process, to screen out the chaff and give the people who actually wrote a competent query more of a fighting chance.

    Yes, my revision process is BRUTAL. My manuscript looks like it’s been savaged by a pack of rabid wolverines after I am through with it, but if I am thorough enough, I don’t have to worry about plot problems after that one pass through. Just the actual words and grammar itself.

    @Mia: I will let you know when I plan on storming the gates. The problem with setting a site up like this is: it requires money. Not every agents would sign onto such a site so you would still have to fight the query slush for many of them, we’d have a figure out a way that only agents could see your query letter, and so on…the list is endless. It might be before it’s time, at the moment.

  4. D'oh! I wasn't trying to be a jerk. When I said I hadn't seen a better proposal, I was focused pretty intention on the list of responses in Nathan's blog post. I wasn't thinking of your own suggestion.

    I will now go get a crowbar and try to pry my foot from my mouth.

  5. @Joe: No, you're all good! You weren't being a jerk. My idea isn't better because we'd have to get all the agents to use the "dating site" the way they all use queries now. And we'd still have to write query letters, and how to make it so only agents could read our query letters, and so on. I just thought it could be a good filter for the crappy queries/genres that agents don't represent.

    So you're fine. My suggestion isn't viable at the moment. When I become rich and famous, I might impliment such a thing though. ;)

  6. I think that sounds like a great idea! I had something more witty to say, but it ran away. Excuse me while I fetch my brain.