Tuesday 31 March 2009

Query Letters - the Right Approach?

Back on the 6th March I posted about the 'Queryfail debate', where American agents were sharing jolly tales of the worst approaches made to them by writers. It's a guilty pleasure looking at them (my favourite is 'My name is Maya and I'm an elf') - but also, you may find, rather depressing. How to approach, pitch, query the gatekeepers of the industry - it's a scary topic. So you may be interested in this (although daunted too): the agent Noah Lukeman has made his e-book How to Write a Great Query Letter available for free download at http://www.lukeman.com/greatquery/index.htm You can download it once only. He has already written a book some of you may be familiar with, called The First Five Pages (I think the title says it all). In his 95 page e-book he covers formatting, common mistakes, what you should and should not include in your query pitch, so there's a wealth of information there. His take is always this: agents and editors are looking for reasons to turn you down, not take you on. If you make the slightest error of tone or content, you're heading for the wastepaper bin. So it's good to know that you shouldn't tell the agent your family laughed like drains when you read it to them, that you shouldn't use green ink, that you shouldn't use bold or underlining, that you shouldn't drivel on about sub-plots, that you shouldn't be arrogant, that you shouldn't be defeatist either, that you shouldn't ignore the agent's own submission guidelines. You knew all this, of course, didn't you? You would never dream of thinking that the rules are for other people but not your sweet genius self.

There's a wealth of quotable stick-on-the-fridge phrases, starting with 'Writing is an artistic endeavour and the query letter is a marketing endeavour'. He tells us that a query is pointless if you've sent it to the wrong person. That it won't work if it's too fulsome. That its purpose is to get that agent to want to read more. That you shouldn't give up. The whole text is packed with practical advice and an insider's knowledge of the industry. So do download it.

BUT. I do have caveats: because he is part of the American publishing industry, his approach is intensely prescriptive and proscriptive, to such a degree that you wonder whether any originality or individuality can filter through. This may not be such a problem if your work is very genre-specific and you can define your market with some exactness. There are pages and pages of Rules - what to do, what not to do. If I tell you that chapters are devoted to The First Paragraph, The Second Paragraph and The Third Paragraph (because you're only allowed three paragraphs and your letter absolutely must not be more than one side long) I think you'll get the drift. You are told, continually, that this or that infringement is a 'red flag, a sign of an amateur.' He even tells you how many sentences per paragraph: 'The first paragraph should consist of one sentence.''Limit your plot synopsis to three sentences.' Aargh! Not for the first time, I find myself wondering, wearily, how any of us ever get published. It's like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: one miss-step and you're kebabed by a spear or plunging, shrieking, into a pit of snakes.

I do think he means to be genuinely helpful but his tone of encouragement veers towards the platoon-sergeant's 'Pick up your feet you 'orrible shower!' When he tells us to be patient and persevere, that's all very well. I think most of us are quite remarkable in that regard: we keep picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and coming back for more, God knows why. So there isn't much consolation in being told 'most writers dig in for a 6 month battle when approaching the industry. If they are not successful by then, they give up. Dig in for a 10 year battle instead. Or better, 20 years. If you love the craft of writing and are truly in it for the passion of it, then 20 years should not seem like a long time'. Well, Jeez! I suppose that by the time success dawdles up to your door and rings the bell, you'll have decided to use the royalties to buy a Stannah stairlift. Now there's something to look forward to.

In the meantime, some of you may want to hit the bottle. I'm off to crack open another box of Lindors.

Saturday 21 March 2009

Journals, plots and sailing to Byzantium

My blog is coming up to two years old now - which seems incredible. And, as I've said before, during the (non)publishing vicissitudes of those two years, it's been such a comfort to me, an outlet for my thoughts and a way of communicating with some great people. A little while ago the editor of the newsletter of the Writers in Oxford society asked if any of us had thoughts about the usefulness of diary-writing, so I forwarded one of my blog posts (17 April 2008), where I'd discussed what it meant to me. I'm delighted that he's included the whole thing in the current edition of the newsletter, which arrived today. In print again! Yay!

Tomorrow I'm teaching on the University's Diploma in Creative Writing course. After this blog I have to boil down a course which usually takes a whole day to under two hours - and why is this difficult? Because it's about plot, that's why! It's a challenging but exciting topic which many a new novelist feels daunted by.

I've also been doing some writing coaching/mentoring, so the techniques of plotting are very much on my mind, as the writer I'm working with is brimful of promising ideas but needs to knock them into some sort of shape. In these cases, you often have to take a deep breath and write your way into the structure of the book - if you wait for it all to be architecturally polished, you'll never get the thing done. Certain scenes - the opening, the ending, the showdown, the betrayal - these may be present in your mind in utter clarity: it's the bits in between the showboating scenes, the areas where vision can fail and pace can flag - that's where you need to trust the process. You need to grind on, keep writing, be prepared to dispense with what doesn't work, believe that it will all bed down in the end. It will. Honestly! One of the joys of writing is that, as you write, you find yourself writing what you never expected to write: serendipitous connections are made, exciting developments come to you - and you could never, at the start, have foreseen they would come along. If you keep turning up and putting pen to paper, the Muse thinks - hey, I think I might join in. It's that old chestnut: inspiration plus perspiration. The yin and yang of the creative process.

On Thursday I went up to London to meet my friend Anna and visit the Byzantium exhibition at the Royal Academy. There were certainly some very gorgeous items there, as you'd expect. Jewellery to die for, sweetie. A Fayum-style coffin-lid portrait of a young girl with lustrous dark eyes. Beautiful embroidered textiles, taffeta and silk and gold thread. Silver chalices, ivory reliquaries. A chest full of the bones of saints (or are they?), all wrapped and labelled in little bundles. A child's linen tunic (this was very touching): a little seventh century hoodie. Finally a gorgeous golden painting on wood of holy aspirants climbing a long ladder to heaven - some of them being pulled off it by spiky, black, malicious devils.

However, the exhibition was very crowded (it closes tomorrow) and one had to shuffle past glass cases at a snail's pace, often stopping, in the human traffic-jam, in front of the items of least interest. The exhibits were described in black script on small silver plaques in each of the cases - and in the dim lighting you had to be right in front of the plaque in order to read it. This was intensely frustrating, expecially when the thing wasn't all that informative. I suspect this was because they wanted you to hire an audio guide which would give you more of a spiel. Well, I balked at this, true Scot that I am. Having paid £12 to go round the show, and with a pair of eyes in my head in reasonable functioning order, I'm quite happy to read information if it's there for me and refuse to hand over another three quid to know more. Anna had no such qualms, so learnt a lot more than I did - there you go.

Sated with drooping saints and painted vellum, we emerged out onto Piccadilly and treated ourselves to afternoon tea, dahling. And Anna treated me to a sharp talk about my current lack of productivity. Thanks, Anna ...

Wednesday 18 March 2009

The Yellow Room Magazine competition

It's pretty late in the day (apologies, Jo!) but if you have any spare stories hanging about, the second short story competition for the Yellow Room magazine is about the close on the 20th. It's run by Jo Derrick who used to edit QWF magazine. If you're interested, check out the website www.theyellowroommagazine.co.uk and have a go - if you're too late (sadly she doesn't take entries by email) then wait for the next competition she'll set. It's worth also taking a look at her blog, where she recently talked about criticism - what it's like, as an editor, to give it, and how writers receive it. (I think you can guess!)

I have lots more to talk about but am pretty rushed currently. Back soon (ish!).

Thursday 12 March 2009

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The gorgeous Karen at Get On With It (see blogroll to the right) has just given me this blog award - thank you so much Karen!

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I'm afraid I'm so useless at this technical stuff it's come up here as a link rather than a picture - oh God what am I doing wrong now! You can see it in all its glory in the righthand column though. I'm immediately passing the award on to the lovely Lane http://laneswrite.blogspot.com/ and the excellent Sally Zigmond, who tells it like it is and pulls no punches. She's at http://theelephantinthewritingroom.blogspot.com

And they're both far better at this technical stuff than I am ...

Friday 6 March 2009

The Queryfail Debate

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.