Friday, January 05, 2018

Should I mention my impending demise in a query?

Recently someone asked me if I thought they should query their novel even though they know they're dying. Honestly, I didn’t know how to answer them. I couldn’t.

I wanted to say, “You’re not dead yet, you ninny! Go for it!" After all, writing is what they love and they, like so many of us woodland creatures, dream of receiving that offer of rep and being traditionally published. Plus, they have no interest in self-publishing.

But…

A rotten, practical side of me reared its ugly head and reminded me that publishing moves at a glacial pace and this person has been given a short, cruel timeline. And while IMHO people do not have and should not be given expiration dates, their question has forced me to wonder whether an agent would take on someone they knew wasn’t long for this world? Is dying something that should to be brought up in a query letter?


First, let's make sure  everyone reading this understands the asker isn't the person dying.


If the person who asked this wants to query, and feels like querying will make what could be their last months or years here happier and more fulfilled then absolutely go for it.

But leave it out of the query. Of course it would give us mercantile minded agents pause. That's why you leave it out of the query.

What's important is that this writer, facing down what sounds like a very difficult diagnosis,  do things that give them purpose and fulfillment.


I still mourn the loss of a writer named James Farmer. He had a terrific concept for a novel and we wrote back and forth over a couple of years working and revising his book. The last time I spoke to him he was in the cardiac ward for some surgery. The next email from his account was from his brother letting me know James had passed away.

His brother of course was keen to find out if there was anything to be done with the manuscript, and sadly there wasn't.  Unlike brand name authors who pass on to the book store in the sky, publishing a writer who is a debut and dead is pretty much impossible.

I'm glad I didn't know James was going to die. I'm glad he had the opportunity to talk about his work, and work toward the goal, even if unrealized, of publication. I would not change a thing we did, other than work a LOT faster.

None of us are promised tomorrow.
Do what  brings you joy.

36 comments:

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Absolutely do what brings joy, as much as possible, when life is going to be cut short.

But if the person lives long enough to receive rejections, as rejections are the norm, how to keep that person's spirits up.

Does OP prepare their friend for the possibility of rejection? Does the friend need to send off their query and then tell a family member to take over the email designated for responses to that query? And the family member can receive the rejections but doesn't need to let dying person know?

Lots of thoughts niggling my wee critter brain as I think of further down the road.

Sherry Howard said...

Writers write, and death is the final page written. For most writers, it’s as natural to nurture your soul with pen to paper as it is to put food in your mouth. I loved to hear Janet’s words about no regrets working with a writer who didn’t make it to see his words in print—hopefully, the journey helped him along his path in his last years. This was a sad but hopeful post today.

Kitty said...

What can a family do if they find a complete manuscript their dearly departed had written?

Should writers write 'wills' concerning the custody of their work? None of us know when we'll die, even if we get a stage-4 diagnosis. My mother was given "3 months to a year...tops" when she received hers. She died 44 days later.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Meaning no disrespect to someone facing such a heartbreaking challenge, this is why I do not mention my age in a query. My time-stamp is a bit closer to being punched than most agents need to know.
Our DONNA is on my ass about my sense of ageism so I query like a thirty-something, even though, because of my writing experience agents are savey to me being an older broad.

As I have read here before, and is a great way to live regardless of the challenges which may befall us all, "...do things that give you purpose and fulfillment."

QUERY LIKE A ROCKSTAR and enjoy the ride even if you don't get to bow or do an encore.

Have a great day boys and girls. I'm about to trudge to my snow covered car in 5 degree weather.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Yeah, we should all live like we’re dying because we are. Query away. Pray for longer days.

Lennon Faris said...

Well I just love this answer. Wishing your friend the best, OP.

Here's to writing well today! *toasts to all Reiders*

Colin Smith said...

Speaking for myself, while I would love to be published, I don't live to be published. There are much greater things to live for. As has been pointed out already, we all have a terminal diagnosis--such is life. And even if a medical authority hands us one that checks us out much sooner than we anticipated, these are best guesses based on experience. Sometimes they are right on the money, and sometimes, as Kitty pointed out, they are way off the mark. So I agree, in the case of Opie's friend, if querying is on your "bucket list," then go for it.

To answer Kitty's question, I would also advise Opie's friend to be sure their literary endeavors are included in their will. Make explicit who owns their work, and, in the event of agent interest, who has the authority to make editorial decisions/changes to that work. Decide ahead of time who gets any advances/royalties.

We've talked before about the need for all writers to make a will that clarifies ownership/rights issues, both over published works and unpublished mss. Neil Gaiman offered a will template for writers to use.

Kitty said...

Thanks, Colin, for the info and link.

french sojourn said...


Once published, a writer should have documents in place that set up a perpetuity to a family member, organization, etc.

This post reminded me of "Go set a watchman", and what surviving family members can then do. Harper Lee must have been doing horizontal pirouettes in her coffin after that tragic fiasco. (Truman Capote couldn't have been too happy either.)

Kathy Joyce said...

I'm helping my aunt "edit" her book. She's 92, and this involves typing hundreds of handwritten pages, and translating microsoft *works* into usable files. A year ago, I set up an appointment with a lawyer, for her, and flew to South Dakota to help her get affairs in order. After an hour, the lawyer emerged from the meeting, harried. "All she's talking about is what happens to her book when she dies!"

You can't imagine the pressure on me to get that book finished!

Kathy Joyce said...

Ann Bennett, replying to your question from yesterday: Reiders are folks who participate in this blog. You're one, welcome! The treasure chest is a set of links to important archives from the blog. A lot of the blog does not appear in mobile applications. It's worth checking out on the web when you get a chance. There's a list of terms that's helpful. So, when people start talking about carkoon and the reef and other strange things, it will make sense. Well, maybe not make sense, but at least you'll understand the vocab. Welcome! This is a lovely and supportive place for writers.

mythical one-eyed peace officer said...

"publishing a writer who is a debut and dead is pretty much impossible."

I wonder why that is. Nobody to do the publicity thing?
I immediately thought of John Kennedy Toole whose work was published after his death, Pulitzer worthy. That was decades ago. Publishing has changed, of course. That much? Too bad.

Casey Karp said...

The original asker should absolutely go forth and query. Doing what you love and having a goal to work toward can add years to your life ("can", not "will", unfortunately).

And, Lisa, how to keep the person's spirits up in the face of rejections? Same way the rest of us keep our spirits up: encourage them to work on the next book.

wanderlustywriter.com said...

I am also wondering why publishing a debut author who has passed is an automatic no. What if it's an amazing manuscript that's already complete? Sure, you don't get a career novelist out of the deal but if it's a great book that could sell, why not sell it?

Sam Mills said...

Not to be morbid, but any of us could be hit by a bus mid-querying, or aghhh launch day. Go for it like you'll be there. Make sure rights are covered in the will. Make sure a trusted family member or friend has your email login and the wherewithal to answer postmortem pings.

CynthiaMc said...

My grandfather was still tending his 2 acre garden and mowing his lawn with a push mower when he was 98.

My dad dropped dead of a heart attack at 48.

My oldest brother lived for a day.

We could be hit by a bus tomorrow or replace the Guinness oldest person ever.

Live your whole life.

Wahoo!

Julie Weathers said...

I have a friend from the Lirforum who several years ago was having medical problems. She also had a wonderful historical novel we had read bits and pieces of because it had been posted in the workshop and in exercises. She kept writing even though she was in terrible physical distress at times. The days she was kind of cranky, we forgave her and she'd come back later and apologize and say her tin foil hat wore out and please forgive her. She bought heavy duty tin foil for her new one.

After umpteen tests, they diagnosed her with MS. She worked feverishly to finish the book and we weren't sure she'd survive long enough to get it finished. Her doctor husband divorced her as he didn't want her medical bills ruining his finances. (And promptly remarried a pretty, healthy young thing.) That almost finished her. We propped her up and she finished the book.

I was one of her beta readers.

She got it finished, but we agreed she didn't have the strength to fight the query process. So, she published indie. It didn't hurt that Diana Gabaldon gave her a blurb and a great review. She's happy. She's beat the odds on the disease so far, but there will only be one book.

If I were dying and I believed in my work, I'd do exactly what she did. Even if you have a great book, there's no guarantee anyone will pick it up. Rodeo cowboy detectives may be a saturated market by the time you finish.

RosannaM said...


Best line of the day goes to CynthiaMc.

"Live your whole life."

I think I am going to post that somewhere I can see it many times a day.

Claire Bobrow said...

Having lost a sibling to a tragic accident when we were both teenagers, I wholeheartedly agree with Janet's last two sentences.

Find the joy. Find the wonder. Share it with others whenever possible. Live to the fullest every single day!

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

"Do what brings you joy..." Love this. And I love reading the comments, as always.

Going through my brother's things, who recently passed away, I discovered he was a prolific writer of short stories. He never shared them with anyone - that I'm aware. Some were written by hand. Others were typed out on his old Smith-Corona, as evidenced by inky smudges and white-out. More recent ones were printed off his computer. I sat on the floor of my bedroom, his words spread out all around me, reading these hilarious tales and laughing through my tears. I can only he assume he wrote for the shear joy of writing.

Even the titles were funny: "The Monster of Bonster" by Matt Foster. UGH! Missing my Matty.

Do what brings you joy...

Lisa Bodenheim said...

Melanie: bless those memories.

I remembered reading as a child, Dad's short story about his time in service (Korean conflict). Typed up on a manual, single-spaced, on both sides of the pieces of scrap paper. And then he hid it away. During his last month at home, he put it in a place for Mom to find it, that and his diary of his journey home from Korea, which we had not read. So precious.

Janet Reid said...

Melanie Sue Bowles Organizing and editing those stories into a collection would be a terrific thing. Selling it as a fundraiser for the horse haven you wrangle would be terrific. I'd buy a copy.

Susan Bonifant said...

What a great response to a really intriguing question.

Craig F said...

I see so many memoirs that are published posthumously that there must be a way to query that way. Would it be possible to query from a revocable trust and have the agent deal with the administer?

Mean while spend time with things you love. If one of those loves is writing, do that. If you love what you have written, then try hard to get it to the masses. They need a little beauty in their lives.

So many of our more sensitive writers have had untimely deaths, maybe something written from near the edge has a closer touch to what makes human.

Steve Stubbs said...

You wrote: "I would not change a thing we did, other than work a LOT faster."

Words to live by.

We are not living next year. We are living NOW.

The reality of mortality does not make me want to give up. It pushes me to want to get things done NOW.

As for getting a prognosis that someone will be moving on: I am not a doctor, but I am confident in saying in 200 years we will all be dead - except I. I have an intense curiosity about the future and intend to stick aroumd. So with one exception we all have the same prognosis. The time frame varies. The prognosis is the same.

Don't do what you can when you want. Do what you want while you can.

I am mystified why the surviving brother could not publish the book using the original author's name as a pseudonym.

Kathy Joyce said...

I'd buy one too. If you don't have time to do it all, I'll bet a university student could make it a great class project.

Judy Moore said...

Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air.

GREAT book.

Claire Bobrow said...

Judy Moore: I agree.

Timothy Lowe said...

A great spur to "just do it" - query while you can, live while you can, love while you can, write whatever you can.

Happy 2018, everyone!

Dotti said...

Linda Smith died of breast cancer before seeing the majority of her picture books in print. When someone asked if she’was sad not to ever hold those books, she said, “I’m sadder not to be holding my children.” I still wonder how many wonderful books got lost with her passing.

Adele said...

Only sort of on topic - this reminds me of the time a major American entertainment network (to remain nameless) was going to put money into a major UK production of "Pride & Prejudice" - and then the executives found out the author would not be available for promotional appearances, and they cancelled. The people who did put up the money laughed all the way to the bank on that one.

It may be that generations to come will love the work that is slighted now. But as I understand copyright laws, if you die without specifying whether or how your work can be sold or developed and by whom, then your heirs can cry for bread in the streets but they can't exploit your work for the 100 years that your copyright lasts. Or do I have that wrong?

Ginger Mollymarilyn said...

Lovely personal stories Kathy, Melanie, Lisa and Julie. Thank you for sharing.

Megan V said...

Thank you Janet. For this post. For this blog. And for the reminder to do what provides purpose and fulfillment. I'm taking this advice to heart and I know others will to.

Thanks to everyone willing to share there personal stories. Melanie, I'm with the QOTKU about putting together that anthology.

John Davis Frain said...

What a neighborhood this is! I only wish we could throw a barbecue and swap stories till the cops come around to ask us if we have homes to go to.

Panda in Chief said...

I really do need to go back and read all these comments.

The truth is, we might any one of us die at any minute. The husband of a facebook acquaintance died in a motorcycle crash on his way to the store. He was not old.

Look for joy every day. We none of us know how many days we have left.

Ann Dominguez said...

I love your response to this question. Do what brings you joy. Yes.