Everyone knows that all of us at Writer Beware are saints. This is a given. We unstintingly give of our time to help others, with no expectation of remuneration. We’re unfailingly kind to writers, and only snarl and snap at scammers. (And if it’s a good day, we do worse than that, just ask Martha Ivery, Melanie Mills, George Titsworth and Janet Kay.)
Saints. There is no doubt.
Excuse me if I remove my halo for a second, here. I’m going to blog about something that is a growing trend among aspiring writers, and I’m probably going to sound like Oscar the Grouch. So be it.
I spend a lot of time over on Writers.net. I “patrol” there, looking for posts from hapless aspiring writers who ask questions like, “Why not sign the contract I’ve been sent by WL Literary Agency? Paying a fee for a critique doesn’t sound so bad,” or, “I just signed a contract with PublishAmerica and they’re paying me a whole dollar as an advance! Now I see that PA bashers have negative things to say about them. What’s wrong with these people? Are they jealous because I’m getting published and they can’t make it?”
Despite having been doing this for a whole decade (that’s right, Writer Beware was founded in 1998, this year is our tenth anniversary!) I resist the urge to post snarky comebacks, and am as polite and helpful as I can be.
There is, however, one prevailing topic in the Agents area on Writers.net that I’m going to have to back away from. That’s the practice of critiquing and rewriting query letters when authors post them for commentary.
After much thought, I’ve decided that, while helping a writer “tweak” his or her query letter so that it’s got a good shot at getting the attention of a desirable agent is probably a worthwhile endeavor, I’m going to draw the line at offering major critiques, much less any rewrite suggestions. I’ve come to the conclusion that doing this doesn’t do the aspiring author any favors.
As the veteran of teaching many “Getting a Real Agent” workshops, and workshopping many query letters, this may sound hypocritical, and possibly it is. But when I teach workshops, I’m interacting with the writers who are sitting around that table with me. I’m listening to them speak, I’m gauging their writing level, and I’m able to give them direct, frank feedback on what they’ve done right or wrong. In other words, I’m TEACHING them. In many ways it would be easier to just do it for them. But that wouldn’t help these writers to learn, and improve.
I suspect I could take almost any query letter and rewrite it so it would get the attention of a fairly high percentage of the agents who read it. But if the writer in question can’t produce a well-written query letter, what are the odds that his or her manuscript is well-written? Not very high, I suspect.
When I see a query letter written by someone who obviously never researched how to write one, rife with typos and grammatical errors, full of inappropriate personal ramblings, warnings that the work has been “copywrited,” (so don’t even think about stealing it, Mr/Ms Agent!), one that’s 2 or even 3 single spaced pages long, what’s the point of fixing it for the writer? The overwhelming odds are that the book the query letter is touting is every bit as depressingly bad.
Exit saint, enter curmudgeon. And I’m not going to apologize for it.
With all the information out there on the internet and in various writing guides, every writer who has the skills to write a publishable book should be able to produce a decent query letter. I can understand workshopping it with your writing workshop, or critique group. Or your beta readers. But to post the thing on a board full of strangers, some of whom are kind enough to just rewrite the thing in order to be helpful…well, it’s not doing the writer any favors.
This also applies to “services” that charge writers fees to produce query letters for authors. I don’t believe the writers who use them are doing themselves, or their books, any good.
I once helped a writer extensively with his/her query letter. I critiqued multiple drafts of it, offering suggestions for rewording, reorganization, etc. I had misgivings about doing this, because I’d read the synopsis and first couple of chapters of the book the writer was submitting, and I knew that it was unlikely to sell. Not that the book was awful. The writer in question had fairly good writing abilities. But she/he lacked the ability to tell a story in a way that would keep the reader turning pages. It was, in a word, dull. (I had made some suggestions for improving the writing and the story, but this writer is not someone who is receptive to criticism.)
I heard through the grapevine recently that this writer had hit 200 rejections for that book. The writer had received more than 20 requests for full reads of the book, based on that query letter. Did I do the writer any favors by helping with it? Obviously not.
Now I’m going to wander off in search of my halo. It’s somewhere here on my desk, I know it…
-Ann C. Crispin