Friday, March 25, 2016

Would you help someone who is a terrible writer?

As an agent but also as a human with a warm heart under a sharkly exterior, would you ever consider giving a repeat querier gentle advice about their prospects of success?

I know of a person who has been querying the same couple of MSs for a lot of years (at least 5) - fake name Alex. Alex is earnest and enthusiastic, but just cannot write. Alex pitches terrible plots that make no sense and can't write even a sentence without an error. Twitter pitches, queries, samples of the MS - they're all riddled with mistakes. The MSs have literally hundreds of rejections (300+) but Alex continues to query the same MSs - their response to a rejection for one is to query the same agent with the second a month later, then wait a few months and repeat the process. Given this, I'm sure at many agents in Alex's chosen genre have received dozens of these queries over time, and some at least must recognise the name and plots by now.

I know a bad query is a form reject. Presumably when you notice it's the same novel, form reject again. But for a clueless but polite serial requerier, would you ever be tempted to write a gentle note back to the author telling them that they might want to think about just shelving the novels?

Obviously it is none of my business if Alex wants to keep doing this. It's not hurting anyone. Dreams are great. But on a human level it just makes me sad that Alex is wasting their life working on these books over and over that no agent is ever, ever going to pick up. The writing is not getting any better. They are just going to keep beating their head against the wall over and over for...ever? Rejections still hurt Alex's feelings so it is just a bit heartbreaking when they seem like a kind, nice person. So sometimes I hope that maybe an agent will gently tell Alex that they should rethink things, and maybe they would listen to someone in publishing? Clearly no-one in their regular life is telling them this (or Alex is not listening if they are). And then if Alex wants to write and publish then self publishing is available 
Is this ever going to happen? Would you or anyone you know ever decide to do that?


One of the hardest things I've had to learn, not just in this business, but in life, is that you can't help people who don't want help, or don't want to learn.

Given that I have devoted EIGHT YEARS to helping people revise their queries to be effective**, I am at peace with the fact I will continue to get terrible, no DREADFUL, queries because some people just aren't going to get it.

The good thing is: it sorts them out from the writers I do want to work with very quickly.

What you and Alex don't know is that after about three repeat queries, I no longer see his emails. They've been flagged as junk, and are diverted by Priscilla, Queen of the Just Desserts, my spam filter long before it reaches my inbox.

I'm sorry for Alex on a general humanitarian level. But if he does the same thing over and over, expecting different results, his biggest problem isn't his writing.

I've seen writers who realize their skills aren't up to par take steps to change. They've enrolled in classes, hired editors, or just worked hard to improve their skills on their own. THESE are the folks I'm willing to invest my time and energy with. Someone who doesn't even realize they need to change? Not so much.

**QueryShark was launched in April 2008


Anonymous said...

Friend of Alex: Have you considered asking Alex yourself, "Hey buddy, I know you've gotten a ton of rejections, have you considered hiring an editor or signing up for a workshop? Maybe someone in a class or with some experience would be able to identify some things you could work on to increase your chances of success?"

Or even, "You know, back when I was querying, someone suggested I sign up for a workshop and examine my writing a bit more, and boy did it help to hear from people whose job it was to help me! And I learned a lot about writing from hearing other writers' work, too!"

InkStainedWench said...

pssst, janet: It's Just Deserts, unless chocolate is involved.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

I follow the agent Laura Zats on Twitter, who is doing #500queries this year (or that's the goal. I think she's broken the 100 mark already), and yesterday at one point, the same author was rejected 4 times. S/he sent a project that Ms. Zats does not rep. Got a rejection. A minute later, sent the next project. Rinse, repeat. I'm not saying this is what Alex is doing, but reading Opie's missive, it sure put me in mind of those tweets.

It's hard to tell your friends if they're bad at something. It's easier (though still hard) to try and constructively support them, perhaps steering them in a better direction. In our gaming group, we've had storytellers who were fair to middling, and still played in their games anyway, because they were our friends, and because player feedback can be important to the right person at the right time. In our group, the storytellers also sometimes compare notes, discuss things like story structure, inciting events, plot points, etc. and so through discussion improve each other. I've been party to those conversations (I play, I do not tell. I write) because I have the ability to both keep a secret and compartmentalize in character and out of character knowledge. It's awesome, a true pleasure, to see people grown in their abilities.

DLM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jason Magnason said...

Hello, good morning and happy Friday. OP I understand your friend's plight, however, Janet is right. In order to improve one's self-worth, one would need to increase the confidence in themselves, to do this they need to succeed.

Success is quite often built on trial and error. In order to succeed ,and continue to do so, you have to fail. History has shown us that the greats of our time knew how to fail, but only because their failures taught them something; they learned what not to do the next time.

Your friend's situation could be improved if they followed the aforementioned ideology. Otherwise, we all know what it means to do the same thing over and over expecting different results.

Good luck with your friend, and may they find their way to success by failing boldly.

DLM said...

Niggling point, we don't know Alex is a male. OP kept this veiled intentionally, it looks like.

I feel so for Alex; this IS heartbreaking. But this is well outside an agent's job description - and, indeed, it may be nobody's job at all. Some help just hurts.

DLM said...

(A nice note on just whatever:

AJ Blythe said...

InkStainedWench - Isn't chocolate always involved?

OP, it must be frustrating for you! I would guess you've tried to hint/explain/force feed the idea to Alex that perhaps it isn't up to scratch. If a friend can't get the point across, I don't think an agent is going to have more luck, especially if the multiple rejections aren't resonating.

The best thing to do is continue to be a supportive friend. And when the next rejection comes be there with Just Dessert (aka chocolate).

Robert Ceres said...

I had a cp who provided great line edits. I tried to tell her many times that her writing was always just a bit too out of control. Sometimes it was a good thing, but i suggested she take a more deliberative approach, to control it, to use the out of control as a stylistic tool. She never took my advice, and eventually stopped asking for feedback. Too bad because she could have been really good. Some people are hard to help. Don't think we should expect to get this kind of feedback on a query though.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Opie, as I read your letter about Alex, it reminded me of one of the persons I deal with in my day job who has some type of mental illness. There are times when I'll pick up several phone messages at work from him, same day, same religious theme, and I know his illness is spilling over.

Since you have empathetic feelings for Alex, I'm assuming it's not arrogance on Alex's part that s/he keeps doing this. But if Alex continually does the same thing, is it possible Alex is dealing with some mild form of neurosis or some type of brain malfunction that s/he is not able to learn and change and grow in this particular area? And if so, all you can do is be a supportive friend and re-direct when need be to a doctor or therapist or....? Just my 2 cents worth.

And the other piece we know, from past conversations here, is that there are queriers who take a sympathetic email and barrage the agent with more.

Celia Reaves said...

Oh, man, this strikes my woodland heart with terror. We are taught to persist, to keep submitting in the face of rejection, never give up, never surrender. Just today on Twitter, J. K. Rowling revealed some really harsh rejection letters she got, telling her to go take a writing class. Even our very own Queen reminds us again and again that "No" simply means "Not for me, but keep sending it out." We work so hard not to take rejections personally and just keep going, but the question never goes away. What if I really AM a terrible writer? HOW WOULD I KNOW?

*gasp gasp gasp* *breathing in a paper bag* Okay, I'm all right now. Back to revisions.

OP, thanks for the question. It is such a dilemma. Janet, you are quite right that you can't help someone who doesn't want help, but I also like Whipchick's suggestion (LOVE that name, by the way) to gently recommend an editor or writing workshop. Good luck.

Robert Ceres said...

One thing I always considered when I got a rejection is that I was a terrible writer. It definitely made me a better writer, but at a price in terms of mental health. In retrospect there are better ways to whip a manuscript into shape. we have to be careful with mental health. It's surprisingly easy for our evolutionary survival traits like perseverance to derail our brains in the context of the modern world.

Janet Reid said...

The reason you make sure your spelling on the blog is always right is so when you make a joke like "just desserts" people know it's a joke, not a typo.

This one was intentional.

But I do appreciate the keen eye helping keep the blog tidy!

Now, off to the desserts!

InkStainedWench said...

The OP doesn't say, or may not know, if Alex has sought critiques of his/her writing. If not, Alex may be unaware of the problem.

I have an online friend who has self-published several novels, and posts excerpts from them on the blog where we hang out (it is not a writing blog, so he's not seeking literary input).

To me, the excerpts just cry out, "Look how great a writer I am! I know this because my family and friends tell me my stuff is wonderful!"

There's nothing like a good, bracing critique from a pro. Too many writers try to avoid it, to their peril.

b-Nye said... need a coat of armor, with a thick helmet and a long straw in a bottle of merlot-to be a writer. Period.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I want chocolate. This blog always makes me want chocolate. Where is that darn Easter bunny?

So I feel sad for “Alex”, but as the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.

That said, a terrible writer can become a competent writer, but only if he or she is willing to listen and do the work. Even for excellent writers, first drafts suck eggs and second drafts are generally ugly cousins of the first draft. Revision is the art of great writing, and it does not sound like “Alex” does this part of the job.

Also, revision is not that effective in a vacuum. However, putting your work out there for real, in something like a writing workshop or in the hands of professional editor, is daunting for a young, sensitive writer. Perhaps, Alex is simply not ready yet.

Writing for its own sake is perfectly fine. In fact, it is therapeutic. However, to make a living as a writer, you do have to be willing to do the workshops, have editors stab your baby until it bleeds glory, have honest beta readers tell you what works and what really doesn’t. And then wither all manner of rejection and worse yet, Normans. (Yes, Colin, that should be an industry standard term)

If Alex wants to get his or her writing up to par, perhaps a friend could gently nudge him or her into reading this blog or joining a workshop. Or simply have Alex read more to see what is being published these days.

Alex might learn from all the hard knocks us Reiders go through daily here in the reef. Yesterday, we found that our fellow Robert was close to that finish line. He had agents interested and is still willing to honestly assess his work. Never easy. He will soon be successful I am certain.

Traditional publication is never an easy path. It is like the hundreds of years of pressure on ugly coal that turns it into a sparkling diamond. This is simply what is required out in the query trenches. It takes blood, sweat, and tears to polish something to the point of finding success in a very competitive market. Not everybody is cut out for this journey, and that is ok.

Cheryl said...
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Bethany Elizabeth said...

You learn something new every day! I've gone through my whole life thinking it was Just Desserts. Darn. I guess I got my just deserts for being pedantic on occasion. (ha. Haha!)

Celia, I wouldn't worry too much. In my experience, people who look for advice, revise their work, and visit blogs/read books about their craft can usually get their writing to an acceptable skill level. It doesn't sound like Alex is revising much.

My question is for OP: how close are you with Alex? And how does Alex take the rejection? If they're happy and persistent and just keep trying, that's fine (and gosh, I wish I had that kind of thick skin and courage). However, if Alex is suffering from the rejection, is their any way you could guide them toward resources for writers? Maybe you could start a critique group with a couple of other writer friends?

I don't know the relationship between you and Alex, so obviously take whatever I say with a grain of salt. However, if Alex is suffering from the constant push of 'no' from agents, it's their friends'/family's job to give them a dose of reality, not an agent's job. And the reality is that it's easier to revise a novel (or write a brand new one) than hear 'not for me' twenty times a day.

Cheryl said...

Bethany, OP doesn't know Alex at all. "I know of a person," "seems like a kind, nice person."

Sherry Howard said...

It's sad that there are people who want something so much they plunge into the deep water without learning to swim first. An agent can't own that problem. A friend or CP can't even own that, since these people usually can't take constructive criticism--that's the crux of the problem.

In one of my critique groups a writer, with decent skills, continues to re-write her first pages--for the third year in a row!We can't figure out why she can't *hear* suggestions for improvement! And after a while you get worn out trying to help.

Empathy we all have. Help we can't give. (A little Yoda)

Donnaeve said...

I would say that Alex gets an "A" for effort and an "F" on self-assessment.

Learning from mistakes (IMO) is key for improvement. If you can't learn from mistakes, you will never, and I repeat, never improve - no matter what you do.

Let's face it. Some folks can't write. They just can't. I'd love to sing. I know I can't - I sound like a bird being strangled - and even with voice lessons, it's unlikely I'd ever be able to. I'm not saying Alex can't learn to write better, but s/he has to recognize what's not working and address it. If s/he won't, what else is there to do/say? OP seems to be on the perimeter of Alex's world, maybe not close enough to offer suggestions, and if not, I'd probably just chalk it up to letting Alex do what s/he wants to do, and not worry about what you can't change.

Panda in Chief said...

I feel for friend of "Alex" more than I feel for Alex him/herself. It is really hard to be a friend to someone engaged in the same pursuit when you are at differnet ability levels, or maybe just different levels of consciousness in the pursuit. From what Opie says, it sounds like "Alex" is immune to suggestion, and while Opie desperantly wants to be kind, any kind of suggestion (all of which have probably been gently made already) is going to roll off like butter on a warm croissant.

Sometimes I wish I dwelled in sublime obliviousness instead of immediately going to the "my work is shit" place when I get rejected. But that's what makes some people strive to do better when some people keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

You are a good and kind friend to Alex, Opie. But for your own mental health, you might want to try to not help so much. Just smile and be sympathetic while saying in your head, "not my circus, not my monkeys."

I'm here early today because I caught a case of "travel flu" and am giving myself permission to play a little before easing into a gentle work day.
Hello to all the fellow Reiders from the soggy Northwest.

Mister Furkles said...

A fellow at work, call him Fred, who loves role-playing fantasy games, wrote a book. He's an intelligent guy, works hard, and produces some innovative solutions. A coworker bought his book, not realizing it was self published.

Fred doesn't get English syntax. His writing is so convoluted that it can not be read but must be analyzed, deciphered, and translated into English. It's a flaw that cannot be fixed. I once read about a fellow who had a genius IQ and dyslexia so bad that he could not read road signs. Fred is like that but with syntax.

Fred, like Alex, cannot recognize grammar errors or usage errors. The first page of his book has three usage errors and two grammar errors. Fred knows a lot of words but can't keep the definitions straight. He's not to blame because his mind is not wired the same as yours.

You cannot cure this any more than you can cure autism. No amount of study or hard work will do it. Likely, you could not explain this to Fred or Alex any better than you could explain autism to an autistic child.

Stephen Kozeniewski said...

Celia - Whenever I'm speaking at a writing event, I always say, "The fact that you're here at all means you're doing better than 90% of the people out there because you're seeking advice and being open to it." I'd say the same thing here - the fact that you're on an industry blog commenting means you're probably not unwittingly terrible.

For the OP - one of the things that Janet doesn't mention is that an agent giving personalized advice is a Pandora's box. When you start telling people "This was bad and made no sense" or even let them down easy like "This was good but the MC didn't pop enough for my tastes" an agent opens themselves up to potentially:

a) baffling verbal abuse no matter how nice the letdown was
b) endless puppy dog requests for more help

This is why I don't even mind form rejections. Just a few weeks ago a guy told me that humor is fickle maiden and my manuscript just didn't work as a comedy. I like to think I'm a pretty savvy, hard-to-rattle guy, and even so I was just a hair's breadth away from writing back and saying, "That's all well and good, but what did you think of the non-comedic sci-fi novel I ACTUALLY sent you, YOU CLOD!" So you can imagine how someone with less impulse control would react to something like, "Man, you can't write, just give it up."

nightsmusic said...

Perseverance is one thing. Stupidly persevering is something completely different. Look at Robert Kearns. His patent for intermittent wipers systems on vehicles was filed in 1964. He didn't win his first lawsuit against the car companies who infringed on the patent, even though he'd offered them a licensing agreement until 1990 for the first one and 1992 for the last, though the Big Three had started using intermittent wipers in 1969. That's perseverance. He had a case. He knew he did. He went after what he knew he was owed and finally won.

Writing however is an subjective thing. There are no true set standards to measure it by other than the grammar. You can't measure a person's voice, their cadence or the brilliance of their story. It might take one or all three to make your story sing. Alex hasn't figured that out, but it also sounds like no one has told him/her in a blunt enough way to help. Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. Whether it's flat out telling Alex they simply can't write or telling them the only way their story will ever see paper is to publish it themselves doesn't matter. Someone needs to be cruel enough to say, Your stories stink, you can't write, find a different pursuit. Perseverance is one thing, in this case, it's turned to blind stupidity.

I know, I sound horrible but sometimes, honesty is.

SiSi said...

Reading about Alex made me think not just about the art of writing but the art of living. How do you find the balance between accepting criticism and sticking to your guns? Where's the line between bravely persevering in the face of adversity and foolishly banging your head against a brick wall? What's the difference between having confidence in your talent/opinions/beliefs and being obnoxious about your talent/opinions/beliefs?

No answers from me today, just questions. I think the gray rainy days have gotten to me! Which brings me to another question--am I being philosophical or am I just whiny?

Lydia D. said...

(I feel awkward joining in the conversation without justifying why I've popped out of nowhere, so allow me to add a quick note of explanation for myself: I've been a Reider for a pretty long time now, even delving into the archives a fair bit, but this is only my third comment.)

That's certainly a rough position to be in. Kudos to Opie for caring about Alex's success and feelings. Perhaps opie could try suggesting a specific craft book or writing blog to Alex? That takes less investment than a workshop, so maybe Alex would be more likely to try that. Ultimately, though, a workshop would probably do a world of good.

@Mister Furkles, oi, that's unfortunate. Poor Fred.

It reminds me of one time when a fellow member of my writers' group on facebook self-published her novel and was trying to get people to buy it. The book had no cover, not even a homemade one, but moreover, I read the "Look inside" excerpt and saw that the book seriously needed some work--the pacing and character reactions made no sense, and the whole thing was riddled with punctuation errors (possibly caused by issues with Amazon's Kindle formatting?). I tried to suggest that she consider working on it a little more and then re-uploading it to Amazon, but alas, that ship had set sail. She tried one or two more times to advertise her ebook, but as far as I remember, I was the only one who didn't ignore her.

Speaking of self-publishing, how many of y'all have been in the position of trying to convince a friend to not self-publish a book that isn't ready?

Dena Pawling said...

Most of the attorneys who practice in my area of law know each other and we help each other. If I'll be in courthouse A on Monday, and someone I know has a hearing or trial on a case in courthouse A on Monday but he also has to be in courthouse B on Monday, he'll ask me to take his case for him on Monday. I can agree or decline. If I agree, he pays me. It's how my area of law works. In fact, I started out by only taking cases from other attorneys, I didn't have my own. I graduated into working for a firm and having my own cases, but I still sometimes help others with theirs.

On the other hand, a common saying among all of us is “I have enough problems with my own cases today, I don't need yours too.”

I can only help another attorney who wants me to help. And I'm free to decline anything I don't want to do. I think this applies here. If Alex doesn't want your advice, there isn't much you can do. And who knows? Maybe he's on to the new, big thing. On the other hand, if you want to help him and/or steer him in the right direction, please do, but be prepared for responses similar to what an agent must hear when offering a personalized rejection – (1) silence, (2) much gratitude for the help, (3) constant requests for more help, (4) flaming response requiring purchase of new computer, (5) stalking, and/or (6) broken heart.

Sometimes it's sad to sit on the sidelines and watch. But Alex is an adult and responsible for his own mistakes, his own improvement, his own destiny. And who are we to say we know better about that destiny than he does?

BJ Muntain said...

Opie: It really sounds like your friend Alex would do well with a writing course of some sort. I honestly think that would be the best thing for them. They obviously really want this, and some professional guidance along those lines (plot, exposition, etc.) would probably help them immensely.

And if it's about not wanting to hurt their feelings because they might think you don't like their work... tell them that writers need to keep learning all the time. Even the best writers find ways to improve their writing.

If Alex is sensitive to criticism, I suggest that a brutal professional critique is not what they need. A class with inspirational, interesting people, where - at least, at first - it's about learning craft, not critiquing work, might be a good start. Give Alex a chance to learn some things and use them, and improve that way, before subjecting this person to harsh critiques by pros or non-pros.

I got the same idea from the post - that Alex may have some learning difficulties - so a gentler beginning would be great. Also, a good writing conference, where there's a current of creative energy and a lot of good advice... and the ability to meet some of the presenters in person in a non-class situation.

And I think if Janet wants to call her spam filter Priscilla, Queen of the Just Desserts, then that's perfectly fine. Because desserts are always appropriate. Sometimes before, between, and instead of the main course.

I'd like to thank Donna, John Frain (and Robert Ceres for providing the source) for the laughs yesterday. I needed them. My dad passed away early yesterday morning, and I desperately needed to laugh and forget for awhile.

Amanda Capper said...

Mister Furkles, your comment is very interesting. Explained well, thought-provoking, and educational. Thanks.

Colin Smith said...

I believe I am a competent writer. Not great, not bad, but good enough not to make myself cringe. But am I publishable? Would the people who like my occasional 100 words of fiction read 80,000 of them? This is a very important question for me, and one I struggle with DAILY. Life is short. I don't want to waste time on things that are just stoking my own vanity. If I'm going to write, I want it to be for more than just me, otherwise it's a big world and there are other things I could be doing. I need what "Alex" needs: a Simon Cowell. Someone who will look at my writing, long and short, and say, "You've got something. Yes--keep at it!" Or will say, in no uncertain terms, "You suck, mate. Concentrate on teaching Sunday School." The sting would bite, but the wound would heal, and I would be better for it.

Opie and "Alex" don't need my advice. They need advice from someone qualified to give it. So, please excuse the long quote, QOTKU, but it is, I think, totally on-topic:

"[W]hile it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.

"I'm afraid this idea is rejected by a lot of critics and writing teachers, as well. Many of these are liberal in their politics but crustaceans in their chosen fields. Men and women who would take to the streets to protest the exclusion of African-Americans or Native Americans (I can imagine what Mr. Strunk would have made of these politically correct but clunky terms) from the country club are often the same men and women who tell their classes that writing ability is fixed and immutable; once a hack, always a hack...

"Critics who try to rise above this intellectual hardening of the arteries usually meet with limited success. Their colleagues my accept Chandler into the company of the great, but are apt to seat him at the foot of the table. And there are always the whispers: Came out of the pulp tradition, you know... carries himself well for one of those, doesn't he? ... did you know he wrote for Black Mask in the thirties... yes, regrettable...

"[I]f you're a bad writer, no one can help you become a good one, or even a competent one. If you're good and want to be great... fuhgeddaboudit... [I]f you don't want to work your a** off, you have no business trying to write well--settle back into competency and be grateful you have that much to fall back on."

-- Stephen King, ON WRITING, pp. 142-144.

No wonder I love this book, and read it every year.

Karen McCoy said...

Love "On Writing." Mr. King is so right about so many things.

My grandfather (a salesman) also had two sayings:

"When you stop getting better, you stop being good."

"There are two ways to climb to the top of an oak tree. One is to climb the tree, and the other is to sit on an acorn and wait."

E.M. Goldsmith said...

BJ-I am so sorry to hear about your father. Praying for you and your family in this time of grief. We laid my aunt to rest yesterday. It is tough for those left behind. I hope you find peace and healing in the days to come.

Megan V said...

Oh man this is a tough one. I think I know the Alex that Opie refers to. Thus, I know that Alex has sought out various critiques, editing suggestions, and so on. I know that Alex regularly revises Alex's manuscripts based on feedback Alex receives.

I know this because I was one such supplier of feedback. I regularly offer to beta-read manuscripts on Twitter; I agree to read between 5-10 manuscripts when I have a 'free weekend' and give basic feedback the following week. I am fairly sure Alex is one of the plethora of people who took me up on this offer over the years.

The trouble isn't that Alex is not willing to change. Alex seeks help from many sources. Alex revises on a regular basis. The trouble is that Alex continues to query Alex's manuscripts while making repeated revisions instead of letting the manuscripts simmer.

I'm pretty sure Alex has a new WIP. Alex should probably move on to the WIP and set aside Alex's current MSs.

Colin Smith said...

BJ: *BIG HUGS* So sorry. :(

Dave Rudden said...

I have learned a lot about my skills as a writer as well as the business of writing since I started I started writing my first book. The first thing I learned is to listen to what people are saying about my writing. I know I can't make everyone happy, but if people as telling you the same thing, you need to listen. This lead me to ensuring my books are edited by a professional even after I have gone a few rounds of edit with my proof readers.

The second thing I learned is that I need to continue to evolve as a writer to improve my skills and I am getting better as I continue to learn and develop my skills. This has resulted in my creating story line for books that I would have never even considered trying to write when I first started.

The best advise I have for "Alex" is to take a break and assess he or she is doing wrong. Learn from the mistake made and try again. Also make sure to add the line "I want to be a paper back writer" to ever other line in a query letter.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Aw BJ. I'm so sorry to hear about your father. Prayers lifted for you and your family that you find comfort and peace and strength.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

A coworker of mine, some years ago, was very much like your Alex. My opinion was very important to him and even though his work was awful I always found something positive to focus on. It wasn't up to me to dash his dream.
I did that to someone a long, long time ago and I have never forgiven myself. It's not for me to sit in judgement of anothers abilities.

I have a hard enough time keeping my head above the waters of my own tears, let alone someone elses.

My co-worker eventually self-published.

John Frain said...

I think Opie IS Alex. And they're using the same 1989 Smith-Corona typewriter.

Both use sans serif type. And note the disfiguration in the letter Z as if it's rarely used. Opie and Alex each have four letters in their name, common among forgers. Also, both appear to have an aversion to the number nine, German for No.

Wait a minute. I have a 1989 Smith-Corona upstairs. I have to hurry out of my hou

nightsmusic said...

Oh, BJ! I'm so, so sorry. You and EM both are in my prayers. What a tough time to go through.

S.D.King said...

The "Strengths Finder" book talks about the movie "Rudy." Disclaimer: I love that story.

The idea is that Rudy put his whole life and all his strength and effort toward a task for which he was not well-suited and certainly never going to fully succeed (college football).

The book's author makes the point that if Rudy had found his true strengths, all those years of sacrifice and determination may have resulted in being the very best at the thing for which he is best suited. (Hence: find your strengths.)

I pretty much agree, but still love the Rudy story. Anyway, perhaps Alex would benefit from identifying his strengths - sounds like he is treading water at best as a writer. I feel for him.

S.D.King said...

BJ - so sorry! Please know that all your Reider friends are thinking of you and many of us praying for you at such a difficult time.

I hope you have many happy memories and the support of local family and friends.

Adib Khorram said...

I have so many thoughts on this. I hope I will be coherent.

In my line of work, we have people come in sometimes who are not good at their job, and who resist all attempts to help them. They never get better and eventually they get fired.

It's always made me a little sad, because it is my belief that everyone can be helped to grow, if only you can find the right way to reach them. But sometimes the way to reach them is to allow them time to grow up some. Even if they're an adult, they may simply need time to learn some more lessons about life.

I've always resisted the urge to tell people that they're "not ready" or that they shouldn't do something, whether in writing or in other spheres of life—certainly not without being solicited for advice.

But as to the conundrum with Alex: guiding them to writing conferences, to good critique partners, to this very blog (though maybe wait a week or two so this post becomes less prominent)—these are steps that, one hopes, will be helpful sooner or later, once Alex has grown up some and is receptive.

Donnaeve said...

BJ, I'm very sorry for the loss of your Dad. Everyone out here knows I rarely talk about my blog - but I think you and E.M. might enjoy the post I just did, called "Finding Pennies."

If you choose to read it, I hope it offers you a little comfort.

Thoughts and prayers to you both.

JulieWeathers said...

I love that the OP cares about Alex. I've found myself getting very irritated with me lately. I know a LOT (sort of like Alot without the cute) of struggling writers just like myself. My inner circle are pretty top tier writers, so they don't cut me much slack. I have no idea how I was fortunate to drift into these waters, but thank you Lord Jesus.

I participate in different workshops and forums where we do critiques, plus I have others who ask me to critique. I try to sandwich the good with the not so good. There's usually something positive to point out. I feel I owe this to the writing universe because I've had so much help over the years.

There are some people I do gently recommend get an editor or attend some classes for professional feedback. I'm not talking about you, Joe. I took the class also. At some point you realize the person needs more than what you have to give.

I certainly wouldn't tell anyone to stop writing. Zane Grey was told he had no business being a writer and should give up. I look back on some of my old stuff and cringe. Holy moly. I have no idea why people tried to help me. They must have felt terribly sorry for the little drowned rat that landed with them.

Even so, there are some people who refuse to change, improve, or make an effort. If they won't take that step, there is nothing I can do to help them. We all of us must grow. Anyone who thinks they can't get better is already stagnating.

JulieWeathers said...


I am so very sorry. My father's anniversary of his death comes up April 1 and I've been in a funk thinking about him. I don't know your circumstances, but even if you expect it, the finality is never easy.

You know you have friends here and we certainly are with you.

Jeremiah 29:11 (KJV) For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

Celia Reaves said...

BJ and E.M. - I'm so sorry to hear about your losses. Sending you strength and peace. It's always hard to say goodbye to the people in our lives.

Bethany and Stephen - thanks for the supportive comments. I can certainly hope that seeking out advice from places like this (and my critique group, and all the other reading I do) means that if I'm a total failure, someone will tell me. Therefore I will put that thought out of my mind. Really.

SiSi said...

BJ, so sorry to hear about your father.

Take care.

JulieWeathers said...

It's a pensive day, perhaps one suited for a bit of soul searching. However, I wanted to make sure and wish you all a Happy Easter if I miss the opportunity later.

In the meantime, a bunny.

Adib Khorram said...

B.J., I'm so sorry to hear about your father.

Ardenwolfe said...

Here's a bit of insight: Writers who use QueryTracker also recognize 'Alex' because he posts his attempts in the comment section with each agent. Yes, the same two manuscripts over the last four or five years.

Writers say, "Never give up." But we also know if you invest more time in the same two projects, with the same results for over five years, you're not helping to advance your career. It's time to regroup and see what's wrong with the projects. And his friend, it's time to tell him.

Persistance is the key to success, but please don't be stupid.

Mark Thurber said...

A great reminder of how hard it is to help -- and the trap of trying to "fix" others (especially friends and family). I suspect the story resonates because we're all terrified that we have our own blind spots around our writing. So maybe we project ourselves onto Alex and then try to fix Alex.

I like Janet's approach: kindness + minimizing unproductive effort. If I were close with Alex, I would only give more feedback if/when I sensed a genuine opportunity. Otherwise I'd try to just enjoy Alex's company.

More good wishes made in CA are heading north and east for you, BJ and EM!

Jason Magnason said...

To all those who are going through a tough time, I hope you find peace in your time of grief. Best wishes to you all.

Did anyone catch this: **QueryShark was launched in April 2008

Given that I have devoted EIGHT YEARS to helping people revise their queries to be effective**

Now here is something I received from Janet earlier this year she said to me and I quote:

"Remember, the QueryShark is not the QueryBunny. The focus is on what
needs to be fixed/changed/revised/discarded NOT what works."

With resources out there like Janet, Stephen Kings, "On Writing", "Elements of Style, just to name a few; there is no reason for someone to be stagnant if they really want to do well as a writer.

I can hands down tell you right now, I kept going because Janet posted my Query on QueryShark. If Janet would not have taken my extremely awful query and posted it, critqued it, and gave me advice on what to fix, I would have just been dust in the wind; wondering why I was stuck in a rut. For that Janet, I thank you most of all. Your simple act of wanting to show people what not to do, inspired me to do better, to feel that I had a chance to do better.

I believe to succeed you have to have ambition, gumption and most of all, you have to be willing to listen to/filter good advice.

I am sure Janet has helped us all out in one way or another, and even though I sometimes forget how much she does for us,(thus the reason I am writing this from Carkoon), the fact is she does.

I will tell you all right now, that I have zero support from my wife or children, they believe this is just another one of my many, many new hobbies and that it will just go away like the rest of them.

However, I really like writing and from what I have heard from all those I have spoken too, I am actually pretty good at it. That's just from a group of writers and readers thought.

I want an agent and their editor to say the same, and that's why I am going back to school to sharpen my craft, (even though I already have a day job).

When querying, the key to getting better is knowing when your doing it wrong. If you don't know when your doing it wrong then you need to find the resources that can help you determine that.

I am still learning, I am still trying, and I am still writing.

Writing is the lifeblood of the world.

Janice L. Grinyer said...

Well, at least, Alex is querying. I'm not even there yet. *sigh*

Janet, congrats on QueryShark's upcoming 8th Anniversary- thank you for sharing your wisdom with us! Reading every query posted has taught me what NOT to do; such valuable information for all writers who query.

Opie's question reminds me of the cheating spouse dilemma; do you tell your friend you saw their spouse snookering with someone else, or do you keep your mouth shut? If you tell, you could lose a friendship. If you don't tell, you could lose a friendship. All in all, it's amazing what humans want to do in the name of empathy. "What would you want someone to tell you?"

Since I am a Buffalo at times (totally unaware, lumbering around) "PLEASE TELL ME!" comes to mind. Educated decisions help me change and be a better person. Even if I can be full of myself like a pufferfish *don't touch me, IM POKE-Y*

Uh-oh, I think I see where my problem is...

DeadSpiderEye said...

I might know Alex, in fact I think I might've run into him every morning, before the mirror fell of the wall in the bathroom and I had to give up shaving. What you do in this circumstance, an insistent no-hoper, with a boundless tolerance for rejection? That's a tough question, not least because, I see some of those no-hopers, not just in print but shifting pulp out the door apace. And how would you frame your advice, talk about craft issues would be redundant if his efforts are being waylaid by the spam filter but telling him to use a new identity, runs the risk of instilling cynicism.

Truth is, I don't really feel that sorry for Alex, to me he's not so much a pathetic figure but I think of him has someone who has the conviction and energy to continue with that thing he loves to to do. So success has alluded him so far, maybe it always will but as I once tried to explain to friend, there's always at least one moment, during the wait for the rejection notice, when you experience the absolute assurance of success. That moment, for ever how long it lasts, is the best feeling in the world, good luck Alex.

John Frain said...

Oh Janice, your comments are always so filled with wisdom. No wonder your name is so closed to Janet.

I read your 2:08 post and the Bob Seger lyric pinged through my head: "Wish I didn't know now what I didn't know then."

Wish I'd written that.

stacy said...

"One of the hardest things I've had to learn, not just in this business, but in life, is that you can't help people who don't want help, or don't want to learn."

Me too. There's also no helping people who just want to be enabled.

Karen McCoy said...

Thinking of you, B.J. So sorry for your loss.

Marie McKay said...

I'm a little freaked out by this, if I'm honest. The constant worry that I'm deluding myself is never far from my mind. I guess when there are enough signals that are telling you you need to change, you have to take notice. I suppose the problem lies in not learning and therefore not improving. Hope you all have a good Easter.

Marie McKay said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Panda in Chief said...

BJ and EM, so sorry to hear your sad news. Just because we know that everyone has to go sometime, it doesn't make it any easier when they do. And it doesn't matter if you had a good relationship with the departed or a bad one. It still rocks you to your core.

I doubt there is a single writer or artist in the world who doesn't think that they are "Alex" some days. But the fact that we are here learning from Janet and each other makes it that less likely that we are quite so clueless. That doesn't mean we will all get agents, get published, have successful careers and houses in the south of France. But as long as I can drag myself out of bed each day, I will keep trying to do what I want to do, and to do it better than I did yesterday.

And then I will have cake.
Bring on the chocolate bunnies!

Mark Thurber said...

Well said, Panda!

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

BJ, so sorry, Thinkin' 'bout ya.

Lennon Faris said...

8 years! Wow, congratulations for that Janet. Since I began querying, with this place in mind I always look for agents who 'help' writers, either through blogs, interviews, truly informative websites, etc. That is the kind of agent I hope to get. Here is to many more years as an awesome agent! *raises toast of my McDonald's coffee* *it would be alcoholic if Janet were actually here*

Can't think of anything else to add to poor Alex's situation that others haven't already mentioned... And yes there have been many times when I've wondered if I'm an "Alex." I think the difference is moving ahead. If you're taking steps to improve yourself, you still may not (ever) be successful, but you're not an Alex.

WElcome, Lydia D., to the Shark infested waters!!

BJ - very sorry to hear about your dad. That is how I grieve, too - I want others to take my thoughts away for a while. Praying for your & your family's peace. On a much less somber note, thank you yesterday in the comments for giving me the SCBWI pointer. My power/ internet went down last night with a storm till this morning. Now it seems a bit trivial to mention it but I did want you to know I appreciated that.

Brigid said...

@Mr Furkles, I will say the autistic kids I know understand autism quite well—including strengths, weaknesses, and differences. Depends on the individual, of course. Just a note, since we're writers, and we like reflecting stories accurately.

I can't imagine telling Alex, "Your stories stink and you need to stop this." I can imagine telling Alex (if he were a friend) something like, "Buddy, you have to stop re-querying, it's rude to the agents." Or, "You may want to pay a professional editor, since it turns out agents really value grammar and syntax in querying."

I often say, "Oh hey, it turns out..." or "so I just learned..." or "I came across a cool thing! Did you know..." when correcting my mother.

- - -
Oh, BJ. May his memory be eternal. I hope you write your favorite parts of him into a book one day.

Jason Magnason said...

Hey you guys...... I did it.... I just queried my first agent!!!

I want to query peter but I am so scared that my query is crap and oh gosh what if he showed it around and Janet saw it.
Janet might say:
"He's one of my woodland creatures and he sent you that awful query? Oh he is banished beyond Carkoon.

There is a special place for former woodland creatures that send out awful queries to my fellow co-workers.

And boom I'd be lost in space forever.

Oooo if only I knew if I were ready yet. What do I do. WHAT DO I DOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.........?????

S.D.King said...


SCBWI is a great resource and even if you are not a member, you can still take part in the discussion boards.

Go to their website and click on "resource library" then scroll down to "blue boards". You can create a profile and then connect with thousands of others and follow the discussions. There are always lots of updates on agents and publishers and also lots of info on magazine publishing.

Best wishes. Glad to know there are some other kid-lit writers among the Reiders.

Pam Powell said...

"No" is sometimes the kindest thing to say. It is as important to know what isn't your job as it is to know what is your job.

Kae Ridwyn said...

"Priscilla, Queen of the Just Desserts" - and there went breakfast over my keyboard!
Love love LOVE this blog!

InkStainedWench said...

Oh, BJ. May his memory be eternal. I hope you write your favorite parts of him into a book one day.

Brigid, that's the loveliest wish for a bereaved writer I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

BJ, I'm so sorry for your loss. Sending big virtual hugs your way.

I have nothing to add on topic, other than to say Janet's response to this OP was gracious and sensible. As are the comments. Me, not so much (this one provoked the surly, snarly beast I try to keep leashed).

I had to look up "just deserts" (I sort of vaguely thought "desserts" was correct) and was surprised by the archaic meaning of "deserts." I knew the meaning of the phrase, from context, but I'd never really thought about the origin. So I learned something today.

Craig said...

Thank you my Queen for all you do for us. I know that you have and still do enrich me by sharing your wealth of knowledge in the writing industry.

My condolences to all who feel the pain of loss at this time. If you wish to talk I will listen. Especially those with fresh losses.

On Topic:
In many ways I too could be Alex. When I was young(er) and dumb(er) I toss out some horrid queries for project that where halfassed. Then I found salvation in this blog. Sing a hallelujah for me. I learned that I had more (a lot more) work to do. That caused me to refrain from querying. It is almost time though.

If you look at any writing forum you will find six or eight like Alex. Some have boring story lines, some have bad grammar and some can't carry a thought through a whole plot. Many of them know that they have no hope but they do keep trying and that is admirable.

Christina Seine said...

I am just going to point out that deserts and desserts are two differnt words, and leave it at that. ;)

*don't worry, I already have my ticket for the Carkoon red-eye.

Christina Seine said...

BJ, I just read your earlier post. I'm so, so sorry for your loss. May your father's memory be eternal. (((((hugs)))))

Lennon Faris said...

Thank you, S.D.!

Dave Rudden said...

Sorry to hear about your dad BJ.

Dave Rudden said...

Sorry to hear about your dad BJ.

Megan V said...


So sorry for your loss. May your father's memory be a source of comfort during the hard times and may his life be a story that is everlasting.

Barbara Martin said...

It's a sad thing to learn about an aspiring writer whose grammar and plots are not up to par; and not realize it after many rejections. I understand Janet's situation where the bare truth may not be appropriate, but what, exactly will happen to the agent who lays down the bare truth?

Kae Ridwyn said...

BJ, so sorry for your loss. Sending *virtual hugs* your way. EM, too. Hang in there, you two.

Congratulations Jason for your first query! You can breathe easier now :)

Re the autism comments: my seven year old is autistic. High functioning, but still. He's now verbal, too, and is communicating with more and more ease each day. And although we initially tried keeping the idea that he was 'autistic' a secret from him, he now knows it and claims it.

How much does he understand of what it means? Hard to tell. We tell him that his brain, his thinking, is different from the way that others work.

Does he comprehend the ins-and-outs of what that means for his life, now and into the future? Of course not - he's seven. No seven year old could; autistic or not.

Will he when he's older? Who knows. All I can do as his mum is to gently expose him to different situations, experiences, and ideas as I can, in ways which are safe and that he can cope with, age-and-stage appropriate. And really, that's the same with my Miss11 and my Miss8 as well, neither of whom have autism.(Kind of like how we treat our characters, really, exposing them to different situations to see how they cope.) Build resilience in them so that when they eventually encounter difficulties in the big wide world, their personalities are strong enough to handle it.

I can't speak for Alex, or for Mr Furkles' Fred, and I dare not say that these people ARE autistic, but for my own boy, I would say that honesty is always the best policy. A gentle explanation, using examples and analogies that my boy can understand, always helps him to identify with how the other party (in Alex's case, the agents in question) are feeling.

Just my two cents.

Sam Hawke said...

BJ, I'm so terribly sorry about your Dad. xox

BJ Muntain said...

Thank you all for the thoughts, prayers and support, EM, Colin, Lisa, NM, SD, Donna, Julie, Celia, SiSi, Adib, Mark, Jason, Karen, Panda, 2Ns, Lennon (and you're very welcome!), Brigid, KD, Christina, Dave, Megan, Kae, Sam, and all you wonderful people. I truly appreciate them. This place is a very special place, full of kind and supportive people. Thank you.

Julie, that's a beautiful verse. And the bunny! The bunny! Thank you.

Jason: So inspirational! Good for you! Like you, I didn't have a lot of support from family... although, once I proved I could make money writing (technical writing), my Dad got more interested. Even a week before his final illness, he was asking me what was happening with my book. And congrats on your first query!

Brigid, that really is beautiful. Yesterday, the family was talking about him (of course) and it came out that he was a stubborn shit-disturber who was good at getting people pissed off at him. Not because he was grumpy or anything, but because he knew what was right and he would stick by that (and he often wound up in leadership positions, where that quality often is and often is not appreciated, by different people). We're proud of our stubborn shit-disturbers in our family. And I realized then that the main character in my series has that very quality and, in his case too, it's made him enemies and friends. I'd never put the that character together with my Dad before. I have a whole new appreciation for both of them now.