Friday, September 16, 2016

Six reasons I said no recently

I've been keeping up with my queries of late, and here are some notes from the incoming mail that may prove useful to those of you in the Query Trenches.

1. Query was ok, but not captivating. It felt like a million things I'd seen before.

How you will avoid this: More vivid language in a query is almost always a good idea. Not MORE words, but more vivid words. If you can't look at your query and think of more vivid words to use, it's time to do some more reading in your category. Really watch for how the masters of the craft deftly convey character and plot with word choices.

2. Query for a book I didn't want to read

How you will avoid this: you won't and shouldn't. You have no way of discerning what I want to read, and if you think you do, you're wrong. You should query me for everything, and I'll figure it out on this end. What's the worst thing that will happen? You'll hear no.

3. Query did not explain any thing specific about what information the book would offer that I would find useful (this was non-fiction.)

How you will avoid this: I can not over emphasize how important it is to be specific, not abstract, with queries for non-fiction. "I will make you glamorous in 30 days" isn't helpful. "Here are ten specific things you can to do to your wardrobe to create a more polished appearance" is. See the difference. Know the difference. WRITE the difference.

4. Query described characters I found unappetizing.

How you will avoid this: Remember, your reader has to be interested in your characters. Make sure you tell us something that will entice us, not describe a sad sack who's made a series of poor choices and now the chickens have come home to roost. Some of this might be my personal impatience with people who are the engines of their own destruction (drug addicts, drunks, people who marry abusers thinking they'll change him/her) but not all.

5. Query had pages with unpublishable writing

How you will avoid this: If you're hearing a lot of NO, or great swaths of silence, it's time to get some eyes on your work. And I don't mean your crit group or your beta readers because presumably, they ok'd the pages you're sending out and thus have failed miserably in helping you understand your work isn't up to snuff. Enroll in a writing workshop, hit a conference, pay for a critique of pages. Don't just keep querying because no one is EVER going to say "your writing isn't up to snuff" in a rejection letter.

6. Query was clearly slap dash effort by someone who had spent no time learning the basics of the publishing industry. Also, nothing about the actual book.

How you will avoid this: you already have, simply by reading publishing blogs and acquainting yourselves with how querying works.


Colin Smith said...

"What's the worst thing that will happen? You'll hear no."

YAY! Because Janet's not a NORMAN. If the answer is no, you'll hear a no. A little thing, but it means a lot. :)

Thanks for this, Janet. Lists like this are very helpful.

Carolynnwith2Ns said...

Six reasons I said no to an agent recently.

1.Agent is okay but about as captivating as Sleepy on a Nyquil overdose.

2.Agent only handles how-to books for preschoolers.

3.Agent accepts only over the transom snail mail queries February, 29th thru 31st.

4.Signing with agent is so unappetizing it requires a celebration party of Saltines and Pepto-Bismol.

5.Agent thinks Merrriam Webster is a New Jersey housewife.

6.Agent’s favorite song is Bruno Mars Uptown Funk and Wagnall.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I can't wait to get my QOTKU shark certified rejection letter.

Thank heavens for this blog to keep me focused. Still have a long way to go on my WIP. I hate being away from the query trenches. That may just be the kale speaking, but now I actually look forward to the rejections and nibbles and possibilities that will come when I descend into the abyss once more. I think my WIP is best thing I have ever written. But I could be wrong. I suppose the workshop will give me a hint as to the validity of this feeling.

Happy Friday everyone.

AJ Blythe said...

More brilliant advice from Miss Janet for my office wall: Not MORE words, but more vivid words.

OT... I received my copy of "Your Book, Your Brand" by Dana Kaye yesterday (it's just been published, but our Queen discussed it here under the heading "Indispensible".

So far it has been a very easy to read and understand book, plus I'm finding it fascinating. Chapters are: branding, traditional media, online media, pitching, social media, in-person branding, additional promotions, sample campaign and the professionals.

But to quote the author "If you're reading this book but still writing your first book, then put this one down right away. Go sit in your chair, pull up your manuscript on your computer, and get to work. Write the book you need to write, without all the marketing and promotion talk clouding your process. Finish your book, then come back to this one. Without a finished product, you'll have nothing to market, and if it isn't high quality, readers won't keep coming back."

I'm not writing my first book (this will be my fourth completed novel), but for now the book will just have to be my bedtime reading.

Jennifer R. Donohue said...

Lists like this remind me that I have neither continued querying nor revising my novel. Sigh. Maybe in October? I'll submit a story every day, and revise THE LAST SONG? That might be a good plan, actually. Thanks for helping me talk it through!

To be fair, 2NN's, whoever runs the Merriam Webster Twitter account has some New Jersey housewife tendencies, and as a New Jerseyan, I mean that in the best way possible.

DLM said...

Uptown Funk and Wagnall. 2Ns wins Friday, I'm done!

"Happy hour yet?" "It is somewhere ..."

Colin Smith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Colin Smith said...

Since this is on-topic, Sarah Dessen has posted some of the rejection letters she got when she was in the query trenches 20 years ago. She has NOT revealed names of the agencies/agents who turned her down. It's really just to show that she started out in the same place most of us still are in, and got a lot of the same responses most of us hear.

Here's the link:

Unknown said...

Printed and push-pinned onto the cork board of chaos.

Celia Reaves said...

Terrific advice, as usual. My first novel (well, the first one that may have a life outside my drawer someday) is just halfway through its first revision, so I'm a LONG way from needing this advice now, but I'm squirreling it away with the other nuts of wisdom Janet offers us woodland creatures. I pray for the day when I'll be ready to query, and when I get there I'll know the Shark has my back. Paw. Fin. Whatever. And even though I don't write in a genre she represents, my first query will be to her.

Colin Smith said...

BTW, there's another list like this from Janet in the Treasure Chest. I have also added Janet's post on rejection from last Friday to the Chest.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

Love your "how you will avoid this" lists. Thank you!

Cheryl said...

a sad sack who's made a series of poor choices and now the chickens have come home to roost

I wonder how one reconciles this with the advice to have characters who make things happen--even the bad things--not characters to whom things happen.

The difference between what actually happens in the book and what one showcases in the query, maybe? Or maybe the book Janet's talking about is one that starts too early.

*goes back to carefully examine protag who is too proud to accept help when it's offered*

Lucie Witt said...

Kinda off topic but kinda related to No. 1 and the idea of using more vivid words:

Some of you probably remember Janet recommending Spellbinding Sentences some time back. I recently picked up a copy and I love it. My favorite thing is that it really deepens my relationship with words and makes me take my craft more seriously. I've also stated keeping a writing journal for practicing exercises from the book and logging thoughts about my writing process or untangling problems in my WIP. Highly recommend.

Cheryl - I think the main thing about a sad sack character is they are boring. If you're going to be unlikable you damn well better be interesting!

JulieWeathers said...

I love the "how you will avoid this" part.

I know Carolynn was joking, but I'll post some serious reasons I pass on an agent.

1. I know people who have dealt with the agent and had unsatisfactory results. Now, sometimes people just don't mesh. Like the story about Lee and Traveller. He had no fear of anyone wanting to ride that horse because everyone was familiar with his peculiarities. However, Lee knew he would get him where he needed to be and they simply worked well together.

I'm talking about things like an agent not returning emails or never responding to deadlines, or missing set appointments to talk with no apology or explanation. Lack of communication is a killer for me.

2. Complaining about clients in public. Nope, I'm not interested. Unless the complaint is the client didn't share their booze, my Danger-Will-Robinson alarm goes off.

3. Social justice warriors who think their professional social social platforms are the place to denigrate entire groups of people. "They all look like they just got out of a brawl at a recliner sale." To which agent friend replies, "Yes, well, you know, trailer park trash."

I'll save both of them the trouble of having to sully their lily whites and having to deal with this trailer park trash.

4. Condescending attitude. I'm too old to deal with it.

5. Only wants...whatever. Obviously, if they very specifically state what they want and say "only" I'm not going to waste their time.

Stay tuned for part two

JulieWeathers said...

1. "More vivid language in a query is almost always a good idea."

I cannot agree more. Having said that, I get irked when I think authors are deliberately throwing five-dollar words out there to try to impress people. Faulkner and Hemingway had a tiff about big words and though I like precise words and sometimes unusual words, I tend to side with Hemingway.

When I was working on the scene where the spy slips through the window into Lorena's room I could see it very clearly in my mind's eye. The window wasn't raised very much, so he was wriggling back and forth to get in. At first I wrote "slid" into her room and then decided, no, he was "eeling" in. Just changing that one word meant I didn't have to do a lot of description.

I keep a notebook and also a document and jot down words I find intriguing when I run across them. Then, like a word pack rat, I make them mine by using them enough they would come to mind at the appropriate time.

2. Even though Janet Reid the fire brand is in The Rain Crow, I don't think Janet Reid the agent will be interested in it. I'm still going to query her. She, of course, get Cowgirls when it's done. Yes, I know, we've got a potential mess brewing.

I prefer not to think about it.

4. I have such a hard time feeling sympathy for characters who consistently make poor life choices. I don't want to read about it for entertainment.

Not every character has to be a hero to be interesting. Several agents commented on my pirate in Far Rider. He's a villain. One wanted to know more about him.

5. I'm not sure the pages even went through a critique group. We've had more than a few new people post things on Books and Writers, usually as they're getting ready to query, that really needed work. When the forumites give some honest critiques it's invariably met with, but "My friends (or family) loved it". Family and friends are not a good critique group.

If published, and often award-winning, authors as well as some very talented not yet published authors give you valid advice why would you not take it? Not all the advice is the same, but when several people say the same thing, it's usually an indication.

Having said that, every author knows their own story. You have to be the master of your own fate.

6. Yup. It never fails to amaze me at the, "Can someone tell me the best agent to query" posts I see. If you're asking that question, you're not ready to query. The best what?

Drinker? Janet Reid

Advice Giver? Janet Reid

Reef dweller? Janet Reid

Surprise birthday party giver? Janet Reid

Dungeons and Dragons expert? Not Janet Reid

Joseph S. said...

I know these entries on querying are meant to be helpful. But all they do is feed my fear the subjectively excellent novel I’m pouring all my time and energy into writing and revising won’t overcome the querying barrier.

P.S. I didn’t know Merriam left New Jersey. Where did she move?

BJ Muntain said...

Cheryl - I think that Janet's advice about 'sad sacks who made bad choices' reconciles perfectly with the advice about 'characters who make things happen'. The character Janet's describing seems to be suffering for prior poor choices, and doesn't seem to be doing anything now. In other words, the character is no longer making things happen. Things are happening to the character. If you want to start with a character who's made bad choices, then you have to create a character who's going to do something to overcome them. And there has to be an inkling that they will begin their 'doing something' pretty darn soon. "A life of alcoholism has put Jim in the pits of despair. He's going to have to dig himself out quickly, though, if he's going to survive the zombie apocalypse."

Julie: You're right. Big words aren't necessarily more vivid. Especially if they're unusual big words - if someone has to stop to figure out what it means, it's not bringing a vivid picture to mind. Some people don't mind looking up words they don't know, but it can pull a person out of a story. Your choice 'eeling' is wonderfully vivid without making one reach for a dictionary.

Joseph: Query Shark. Or other forums, critique groups, or professionals. Get help with your queries, to overcome these problems. And Janet says specifically how to avoid the problems she lists. :)

Cheryl said...

BJ: Yeah, that's kind of what I meant about the story starting too soon. It's one thing to have a book about a person putting their life back together, quite another to have to hear about the endless slog of problem after problem. I've read that book. I didn't like it.

JulieWeathers said...


I wish we lived closer. I would happily beat you.

You've successfully published and get wonderful reviews. You still have students telling you what a difference you made in their lives and you taught a difficult subject.

Build on the confidence that you are already a success. A query is simply another document, a letter. Finish the revising first. Worry about the query later.

Then, take a look at Miss Snark and Query Shark. You can dissect the process there of how the query letter progresses from no to yes. When you think you have it, we'll get some critiques going. There are places to do it and I will be happy to help, not that I am an expert, but I'm a pair of eyes.

RosannaM said...

Julie, eeling is a perfectly vivid and much better word than sliding, slipping, slithering, shimmying, weaseling, creeping, crawling, wriggling or wiggling to describe how one can make it through a very narrow opening.

And therein lies the struggle we face with the 75-100 thousand words we are throwing all over the white screen in front of us. They need to resonate.

Then when it's time to query, the real work begins. The words must be the worm that reels in the shark. Enticing morsels, not oversized chunks of confusing, boring drivel. Pity the poor fool who dashes one of these off in minutes. You may as well take your manuscript, tack it to the side of a building and throw darts or shoot arrows at it.

When I get to this stage, I plan on agonizing over every, single word.

Ly Kesse said...

Today's blog is great! It's the next best thing to the chum bucket, I think.

Right now, I am revising a full-scale ms; I did pay someone published to look at it. I got 40 pages of comments back on what I had done wrong. That was great; it gave me something to work with,

Deadly silence is so non-specific that inferring the rejection feels like climbing out on a dead limb. Or walking on thawing ice.

This ms is now being read by a professor of literature that I know. The bit about caring about the quality of the critique I have taken to heart. Plus, this is a friend of mine.

But what I really need to do next is go to a conference for historical fictions.

So, thank you again. I now know why you are called the Queen of the Known Universe, isn't that the phrase for the acronym?

John Davis Frain said...

I have a friend Miriam from New Jersey and now I can't wait to see her next. C'mon c'mon c'mon...

Julie, I love the efficiency of "eeling." So many words covered in that one. I wish you lived nearby me as well. A happy flogging can be the best motivator sometimes. AVOIDING a flogging might even be more motivating.

These posts are so enlightening, especially "How You'll Avoid This." Thank you, Janet.

I'm at a happy place outlining a new project. It feels like spring training when everyone is a contender for the World Series. This has best seller possibilities in the outline!

Lennon Faris said...

Thanks, Janet! I find these posts very helpful.

Julie- I love that. When a book is riddled with huge words, I just get annoyed. When it has words or metaphors that are used in an unusual way but get the point across succinctly, I'm intrigued.

EM - that's awesome. Hope you finish soon.

I'm glad others answered Cheryl's question because it was mine, too :)

Claire Bobrow said...

Great list - thank you, Janet!

I was relieved to see number 6. Unlike learning how to write scintillating prose, it seems entirely within my control to learn the basics of the publishing industry. I'm not saying I can execute, but at least I know what I'm supposed to do. The QueryShark archives were an invaluable introduction to that piece of the puzzle.

Panda in Chief said...

Information packed post! Huzzah!

In some ways finding the precisely right word is not so much the problem in a graphic novel, except that it is. The challenge of making the visual action just right, particularly in a static medium (as opposed to animation) is...well, challenging. I am starting to realize finding the right words to describe what is happening is part of the process of creating it in a visual format. Who knew? I thoughht I just had to draw cool pictures.

Scott McCloud's books on creating comics have been indispensible to me. They might be valuable for text based fiction as well, because if you can visualize what is happening, it may make choosing the right word easier. Not that any of this stuff is easy.

OT: hope you are getting closer to getting a new house, Colin. Pseudo thumbs crossed that the inspection goes well or that the seller will adjusts the price accordingly.

Joseph S. said...

BJ and Julie

I’ve been to QueryShark, read all the entries including the comments, analyzed the queries, took pages of notes. I found out about this website through that one. It’s a valuable resource and a great service to writers. But I’m still no good at query letters.

I’ve visited at least a dozen other websites on queries including several where agents explain what they liked about certain queries. I’ve paid for a query critique. But I’m still no good at query letters.

The whole process feels artificial. I’m not good at artificial, and don’t want to be good at artificial.

Julie is right. I’ve had two academic books published by for-profit publishers and I had to write letters to get them published. I did it before I knew there were such things as query letters, or requirements for query letters. They were for books geared toward law students, not novels.

Julie, I don’t take well to beatings or scoldings or pep talks (though I love praise for my writing). I withdraw to dark corners to hide from the world. Even reading the comments here put me off revising my latest chapter.

I’m blowing off the rest of the day. A friend is “seething from serving on jury duty” so we’re going for dinner and to a concert at Moonlight on the Mountain to get rid of our grumpiness.

Joseph S. said...

Panda in Chief

Back in the day I was really into Scott McClould's "Zot!"

Just seeing his name cheers me up. I wish I knew where I put those issues so I could read them again.

Beth Carpenter said...

Julie, eeling is the perfect example of vivid language. Like snaking but more slippery. Lovely.

Craig F said...

But it took years to make that query look so slap dashed. Oh, wait, I haven't queried yet.

Joseph Snoe: Relax. You are going to make us even crazier. Yes a query is an odd duck. One day you will see the truth of it and then it will be a simple thing. But you have to relax a bit before you can get there. When you get there you can tell me how.

Build a story arc that covers the four C's of a query and then put down a few roots that feed the details.

On a personal note: I had to cry today. A neighbor and friend was buried. It is a shame that stories about the really good people of this world don't sell.

Colin Smith said...

Panda: Taking words and putting them in pictures is a whole other art form and discipline. That's why you can't expect movies to be verbatim representations of novels. Script writers and directors have to find creative ways to depict inner dialog and tensions that the writer can describe with words. I assume the graphic novelist faces similar kinds of challenges.

I talked to our realtor today about scheduling inspections. I'm not sure when that will happen. He says home inspectors get booked up quickly so I'm not sure how long we'll be waiting. Hopefully not too long. For those who want the full scoop, see my blog post for today! (Hey, maybe I can do this self-promotion thing!)

Claire Bobrow said...

Craig: I'm sorry for your loss. It's hard to lose a friend and neighbor. I hear you about the good people of this world. Their tales may not be thrilling in the telling, but they are the solid bedrock that supports us.

MA Hudson said...

AJ - thanks for the heads-up on 'Your book, your brand' . My copy arrived the other day and I was just wondering what level I should a sign it in my reading pile. Now I can put it aside without any guilt until I've finished my first WIP.

MA Hudson said...

Craig - I'm sorry to hear about your neighbour. It's such a unique relationship, in many cases much more than friendship. My neighbours have become as close as family and as fun as our best friends. We chose to go through the stress of renovating our house so we wouldn't have to move away. It would be a huge loss in my life if something happened to them. Best wishes as you adjust.

BJ Muntain said...

Craig: (((hugs))) I'm so sorry.

Steve Stubbs said...

Re the explosion in Chelsea, you might like this story. It is old, so you won’t see it in the newspaper.

One day when I lived in NY I came home early for some reason and settked down in front of the boob tube. To my surprise, not ten minutes before I got in the police shot and killed a sniper on Lexington Ave, (my street) a few sidewalk squares downtown from my address. I mean, that is like staring into your own grave and not knowing you were in the cemetery.

Anyway ...

There was an active shooter incident not long befoe that in California in which the police begged the shooter to stop snuffing hostages, and only took action when it became apparent he intended to continue racking up kills. Their touching sensitivity to the emotional needs of the shooter and the publicity he got guaranteed lots of me-too crimes afterward.

Slight cultural difference.

In New York they did not say anything to the sniper. They sent a sharpshooter up in a helicopter. He put two between the sniper’s eyes, and they hauled off the body – probably to the dump. I doubt he got a wake and an eulogy at City expense. There was no glory in Gotham for this clown that day.

The sniper could not see well enough to actually kill anyone because the buildings were so tall. He just bounced a few off the pavement.

There were no copycat crimes in New York.

New York’s Finest know how to handle jokers like that.

That’s your New York story for today.

Damn, I wish I had enough money to come back.