I was going to blog about something else today but this morning came across a debate going on on Twitter in America, where agents are sharing their experiences of 'Queryfail' - i.e. the worst approaches would-be clients have made to them. If you've completed your work and are thinking of submitting your book to an agent, the debate is both informative and horrifying. It's so easy to trip over it's a wonder any of us ever find the nerve to approach these 'gatekeepers' to the publishing industry. For a brilliant summing-up of all that's emerging on the Queryfail front, go to http://taralazar.wordpress.com/2009/03/05/queryfail/ - you'll laugh (it's very witty). Very possibly you'll cry. Hopefully you can plead innocent to some of the ploys to which desperate writers have resorted.
I can feel sympathy with agents who have to deal with the arrogant ('Easily the boldest novel so far written in this fresh century of ours'), the hopeless ('The book isn't written yet, and I can't write it') and the plain barking ('My name is Maya and I'm an elf') - but at the same time it's another reminder of how harsh the industry is, how prescriptive and proscriptive it is. It needs to be, as a functioning business - but books are not beans. They're people's aspirations and dreams and needs given verbal form, whether competently or incompetently. The writer identifies self with work - we all of us find it hard to accept criticism, even when well-meant, or rejection, because it strikes at the foundations of who we are. Louis XIV said 'L'etat, c'est moi.' The writer says 'L'oeuvre, c'est moi.' And W.B. Yeats said 'Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.'
Another useful link in connection with this is: http://dianapeterfreund.wordpress.com/2007/03/27/perseverance/. This is a lucid, sympathetic analysis of when is the best time to submit your manuscript. Of course the answer is this: when it's ready. And that means, first of all, when it's written. This is scary. I think we'd love to be able to contact an agent and say 'I'm thinking of writing this, what do you think?' or 'Which of these ideas is most worth pursuing?'. It doesn't work that way: you have to invest a truly scary amount of time and energy writing a novel, in the hope it will be liked and bought. If not, well, tough. You just wasted a year or two. Or did you? You have to try to cling to the notion that it was time well spent. You were learning and refining your craft. You will have to move on now, with lessons learned, and tackle something new. You can, I suppose, hope that one day you'll make it big and that that overlooked book can be sent out, blinking, into the now-welcoming sunlight of editorial approval. You can hope.
Hopes and dreams, knock-backs and bounce-backs - that's what this writing business is. Keep writing, keep dreaming, keep coming back for more - but maximise your chances with a well-turned pitch and a polished, completed manuscript - and never, never, in your wet-behind-the-ears, puppyish, needy enthusiasm, fall into the trap of premature submission.