Friday, June 19, 2009

This isn't horseracing, either

When horses line up at the starting gate, a handicapper has assigned extra weight to the fastest horses. The handicapper's goal is to get every horse across the finish line at exactly the same time, so her goal is to "weigh down" and thus slow down the faster horses.

If the horses are trotters, the slower horses get to start some distance ahead of the faster horses.

These rules do not apply to publishing.

You do not get extra consideration if you have never queried before, or it's been awhile since your last query. You don't get extra consideration if you're 85 or 18. You don't get extra consideration if you've waited your whole life to write a book and now you've got time.

You don't get a pass on making mistakes if you say you might have made some.

I can hear the outraged yelps "not fair! not fair!" but while the query process is many things fair isn't one of them.

I do not give equal consideration to all queries.

Hear that?

I do not give equal consideration to all queries.

What does that mean?

It means if you don't write very well, I reject it in three seconds. Yes, I can tell.

It means if you spend a lot of time telling me about everything but your book, I reject it in five seconds.

It means if you make mistakes like "fiction novel" and misused words, mentioning you've never written a query before carries no weight, and you get a rejection.

If you query me, you're racing against all the other horses, no handicaps, no weight allowances, no special consideration.



Mira said...

I had no idea they did that with racing horses. That's really interesting.

I think your point that you need to put your best foot forward and not expect allowances to be made is a good one.

On the other hand, I'm abit concerned about the issue of innocent mistakes. Is fiction novel not okay? Wow, I had no idea. What's wrong with fiction novel?

Uh oh. What else don't I know? I need someone to make a list of all the things I don't know pronto.

Robin Becker said...

you make me laugh.

Barb said...

Mira, I'm hoping you might be joking, but if not - what else can a novel be, but a work of fiction?

csmith said...

Thank you Janet. A refreshingly clear precis of precisely what querying entails.

As for 'fictional novel', a straw poll of the office shows that even architects realise the inherent fallacy.

I have to say, it is posts like this that really make me want to query you in due course. It is a pleasure to see things spelt out so unambiguously.


Bowman said...


As long as there are many more writers than there are agents, you cannot know enough; that is, agents create reasons to reject queries, because they don't have enough time to read every manuscript in the world. Write to the best of your ability, keep your eyes open, but don't stress about the situation.

Liana Brooks said...

Mira- The phrase "fiction novel" is generally considered redundant. It's preferred that you state the genre and word count.

Since Janet won't take some genres (like science fiction) and won't accept manuscripts under a certain word count it makes her life easier if you come out and tell her if you make the cut. Ditto with every other agent.

The agents want something like this (copied from Queryshark):
A work of women’s fiction, SOMETHING GOOD is complete at 75,000 words. Thanks for your time and consideration.

And Janet's rules apply to 99.9% of agents. She isn't the exception.

Except I still can't convince her to consider sci-fi. It's a major roadblock for me. I can't query her until she changes her mind on that...

Anonymous said...

How about cautionary fiction saga novel tale? Certainly that works. I wonder what percentage of queries hit the trash based simply on "bad writing." If uniteresting story, cliche, not your thing is out of the equation, it can't be more than 50%, could it?


Rick Daley said...

That's it. I'm changing my name to Seabiscuit.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mira,

All novels are fiction, but I think the reason it's become query poison is that every agent's blog I've read mentions it in the "don'ts." Honestly, people get downright nasty about how ignorant you have to be if you don't know that "novel" already means it's a work of fiction.
As for a list, a lot of agents have a "don'ts" in their blogs somewhere, but you may have to dig for it and compile a more comprehensive one for yourself.

CKHB said...

Mira, check out the right-hand column. You'll see a link called "How to Make Sure Your Query Is Instantly Rejected: It's a short but ironclad list".

"Fiction novel" is redundant. All novels are fiction. "Women's fiction novel" is okay, however, because "women's fiction" is the name of a genre, and therefore it's like saying "sci fi novel".

What else don't you know? Start reading all those links on the right! Lots of agents who blog have helpful FAQs to get you educated.

HWPetty said...

This is so great, because I was just talking to a writer friend of mine and describing this moment I had a few months back.

I was looking at the client list of an agent I wanted to query and for the first time I felt completely intimidated. I mean her list is ridiculous, filled with amazing writers who I have idolized my whole life. And my first thought was, if she gets to read all of their stuff all the time, how the hell is my book going to measure up to that?!?

And then it hit me... it HAS to measure up to those books to make it in the marketplace. That's the whole point, right?

We can't settle for "good enough," telling ourselves that we'll never be as good as AMAZING WRITER OF LOVE AND AMAZINGNESS. We should always be striving to not only meet their level but to exceed it, with every sentence and paragraph we write.

Really, when we finish a fantastic novel, we should be saying to ourselves, "I could do that. I could do that better!"

... and then do everything in our power to work toward that goal.

Eric said...

I didn't know that about horseracing either. This is a good post though. I'm surprised that anyone would expect "special" treatment, but I guess I shouldn't be. It seems sometimes people don't truly get the concept of "good writing". Either it's there or it isn't.

Stacy said...

"Fiction novel" is redundant. If you say you've written a novel, by definition it is fiction. There's no such thing as a nonfiction novel. There are nonfiction books that read like novels, such as Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes or Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but they still aren't novels.

Kristin Laughtin said...

Liana: I'm in the same boat as you re: science fiction.

Since I first realized the redundancy of "fiction novel" (I had never thought of it before I started reading agent blogs), it's made me paranoid even about "science fiction novel"! Luckily there are ways to work around that wording.

Wow, I learned something new about horse racing today.

Mira said...

Thanks everyone for clarifying the phrase 'fiction novel.' I now know it's a no-no.

I also appreciate the advice about checking agents blogs; I should clarify though I do understand that. I frequent agent's blogs, and I thought I knew the basics. Thus, I was really surprised to find a new one.

No offense, Janet, but can I take a wistful moment to wish agents would standardize these. It is hard to keep track.

I hate to think that an innocent mistake could cost me representation.

Aimlesswriter said...

Poor horses!
Your's has got to be a frustrating job.

BJ said...

Deer Janet

I have sucky life an I think being righter will make life better. I tell you my hole life story, you buy it, rite? An giv me lots of mony. I need to pay bank coz I lost all mony on hors rase. Never new day hannicapt horss. Dam.

I by u beer. Kay?


DeadlyAccurate said...

I'm playing The Sims 3 (not literally at this moment; like a good little writer, I'm furiously working on my book). I have yet to let one of my characters become a writer, because your choices are to let them write a "fiction novel" or a "non-fiction novel." And I can't bring myself to look at those words on the screen. It causes a physical pain not unlike being flayed alive (don't ask how I know that).

Doug said...

A minor correction: they don't add extra weight to the horses based on speed; they add extra weight to the jockeys so that each horse is carrying the same weight.


Margaret Yang said...

As a reader, when you want to buy a few books to read on the beach, do you give special consideration to debut novels that are full of errors? How about if the writer really, really, really needs you to buy her book so that she can get out of jail/pay for cancer treatment/eat something other than ramen for dinner? How about buying a book that you know you won't enjoy but it's an "important" book with a message? No?

When you go into the bookstore, your only consideration is to buy a book of great quality that you want to read.

If you think things are tough in queryland, think about how tough it's going to be for your novel on the bookstore shelves. In queryland, your queries only have to compete with the current queries. On the bookstore shelf, your book has to compete with all the books published this year AND all of the backlist AND everything on the buyer's shelf that she's already read but might want to re-read.

It's tough. But the end result--more good books for everyone--is worth it.

Rick Daley said...

Look up redundant in the dictionary. It says "See: redundant"

Melissa Alexander said...

Actually, only in handicap races have the horses been assigned weights the way Janet described. The goal in a handicap race is to make all members of the field equally likely to win. Statistically, there aren't many handicap races these days.

There are many different types of races. In a stakes race, which is what is typically shown on TV, elgible horses are usually determined based on sex, age, or class. (The Kentucky Derby is for 3 year olds, for example.) Some races assign weight according to age, and in others all the horses carry the same weight.

dylan said...

I think it's precisely guys like Truman Capote and Norman Mailer (Executioners Song) who muddied-up this water with their heavily researched, true-story-based crime fiction.

And also, I suppose, Gore Vidal and Jean Plaidy and such with their biographical fictions.

I can see where innocents might think it necessary to include this annoying specification.

Leona said...

Mira your brave to have put that question to the forefront. When going about learning about our craft's business end, we tend to get stuck looking for information on things we know we don't understand (ie query letters or a synopsis) but forget to look deeper and understand other details of the 'business' language that goes with our craft.

As for all those who don't know about handicapps - must not read Dick Francis LOL

JS said...

It's really better to avoid "women's fiction novel" and "science fiction novel" and instead say "COSMOS FOR BREAKFAST is an 80,000-word work of women's fiction" or "BREAKFAST FOR THE COSMOS is science fiction; the novel has 80,000 words" or similar.

The thing is that "fiction novel" gives so many people in the publishing industry the squicks, you want to avoid doing it even subconsciously.

laughingwolf said...

every writer is up against the best and the brightest, if your work is sub par, why should anyone care, much less a busy agent?

none said...

Someone who thinks it's necessary to create reasons for rejection obviously hasn't read any slush. Most days I try to concoct reasons to keep at least one of the little darlings instead of rejecting it instantly along with the rest.

Helen DeWitt said...

Sorry, I can't see how this is not like horseracing.

If you read Dick Francis, he talks about how the horses that place are handicapped for the next race. So it is not always an advantage for a horse to place, and a good jockey takes that into account.

Say you're a writer, and you get a biggish advance for your first book, and your publishers, who have world rights, take the book to Frankfurt and everyone unexpectedly goes wild. Your biggish advance doesn't get you ANY time to write your next book; your time is sewn up for up to four years dealing with the business of seeing a book into print, plus publicity, in 20 countries, which is never done to a timetable, the money people have paid entitles them to book time and then cancel at the last minute and book another time. But you're supposed to write a second book at least as good as the first. Huh. When you wrote the first, you had a clear 8 hours a day, plus weekends, to write; now you've just got non-stop crap. And meanwhile there are writers out there in the position of Faulkner, who wrote As I Lay Dying in 6 weeks while working as a night security guard. This is unlike horseracing how, again, exactly?

To put it another way, if there were agents who offered to line up jobs as night security guards / hotel receptionists / and so on, rather than talking about big advances and publicity campaigns and foreign rights sales, a writer who cared about writing good books would not have to think very hard about where to look for representation.

For some reason this reminds me of a sitcom of my childhood. A horse is a horse, of course of course, and no one can talk to a horse, of course, unless, of course, the horse, of course, is the famous Mr Ed! The hapless writer, maddened by 20 publishers, staggers into an agent's office. Visions of 6-figure-deals dance in the agent's head. But the fuck of it is, the horse can talk, and the horse talks about wanting to, um, write books. Quelle horreur!

David Alton Dodd said...

Ms. Reid,

Respectfully, I'll never attempt to explain publishing if you can refrain from explaining racehorses.

Some points:

"When horses line up at the starting gate, a handicapper has assigned extra weight to the fastest horses."

This is actually done in the conditioning book, which is far in advance (weeks) of the races, in order to give the trainers and owners time to decide which race might fit their horse. Also, it isn't according to speed. There are several reasons (depending on the type of race) that jockeys are sometimes weighted or not weighted, none of which include speed. It mostly includes the winning record of the horse (in certain class conditions), and sometimes the age of the horse, and sometimes other factors.

But it never has anything to do with speed.

"The handicapper's goal is to get every horse across the finish line at exactly the same time, so her goal is to "weigh down" and thus slow down the faster horses."

No. HER (ugh) goal is to attempt to produce races that are competitive, and set weight conditions that SHE (ugh) feels will be able to draw horses in to fill the race and satisfy the betting public.

"If the horses are trotters, the slower horses get to start some distance ahead of the faster horses."

Again, this isn't correct. Trotters and pacers line up behind a moving gate, in line, unless the race has a larger field than the length of the gate allows.

The reason that your blog is on my reading list is so I can learn about the process before I am ready to query. In other words, I'm attempting to do my homework. All I ask is that you do the same. Here, you're exactly guilty of the same mistake that you accuse writers of making.