Today I welcome Mary Louise Wells to Terry's Place. Do you have the chops to succeed in the writing business? Let's see what she has to say:
As a writer still camped on the canyon rim across from PublishedLand, I’m very lucky to have landed a fabulous agent. A combination of research, timing, and luck managed to part the clouds and let the angels sing for me, and I assume that any writer still looking for an agent would be serious about making the right match. That means researching what they represent, reading their contracted authors, following their blogs, meeting them in person (if at all possible), and then sending in a query, crossing your fingers, and praying for the heavens to open for you, too. Then I heard about #queryfail.
In case you’re unaware, last month two brave literary agents, Colleen Lindsay and Lauren MacLeod, hosted #queryfail on Twitter. All day long they, and several agents who tweeted separately, posted snippets from queries they’d received that pretty much guaranteed their authors a “no” response. The stated aim of #queryfail was education. Learn what not to do and improve your chances of success.
The agents conducting #queryfail waxed a bit silly during the discussion. Who wouldn’t? When authors inform you the Almighty ordered them to submit, or that their work amalgamates every trend currently burning up the NYT list into a ghastly literary train wreck, or that Oprah would love it if she ever got off her high horse to read it, or it’s so good I couldn’t stop writing and now it’s 700,000+ words, you’ve gone on beyond passion. It’s a simple business fact that publishers cannot buy your work, no matter how unique or transcendent or whatever you believe it to be, if that publisher does not sell that kind of book. Period. This appears to be simple logic to me, but then again, when creative passion and logic collide, logic is often left bleeding by the side of the road.
Writers, no surprise, were hurt and angry from hearing the truth. They wanted to hurt back the way they’d been hurt. So when Jessica Faust offered to host an #agentfail day on her Bookends blog, hundreds of authors took her up on it.
Let me just say, my tent on the canyon rim got much more comfortable after reading some of those posts. Although I’d agree with some of the more reasonable advice—the “no response means no” policy could use a look, if for no other reason than courtesy—I also learned that some writers, frankly, don’t have what it takes to become published. I’m not talking about the quality of the storytelling; I’m talking about the modicum of professional behavior necessary to swim, or even float, in the shark tank of publishing.
An agent’s job is to glean the wheat from the chaff, measure the wheat properly, then find exactly the right bakery to turn that wheat into wholesome, or nourishing, or guilty-but-sinfully-tasty bread. That’s it. They don’t owe authors anything except that they live up to their stated policies regarding submission times. Whether the “I’ll pass” comes on a postcard, a note scribbled in the margins of your query (I’ve gotten one of these), a form rejection, or something personalized, that’s the answer—even if it’s not the answer you want to hear. Agents don’t have to explain why. Have you ever read the back cover copy of a book in a genre you like and decided immediately that it wasn’t going to be your cup of tea? Agents do the same whenever they tackle the next towering batch of unsolicited queries. Unlike we readers and writers, however, they have to do this several hundred times a week on occasion—not including the work they have to do to market their current client list. You think response times are ridiculous now? Imagine how long they would take if every single query, no matter how nutso, required a personal “It’s not you, it’s me” response carefully crafted to let the author down easily, without any bruising of tender egos.
I have a pretty keen imagination, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around that concept. If you’re a writer who is serious about a career in publishing, you will get criticized. If an agent doesn’t do it, an editor will (assuming your work makes it that far). If your book is published, trust me, some reader will hate it. And probably explain why in dripping, sarcastic detail on Amazon. To paraphrase egregiously from Dennis Miller, the publishing world is tough. Wear a cup.
Unfortunately, it seems many writers just don’t understand that concept. If you read some of the anonymous #agentfail comments, you could convince yourself that agents were bloodthirsty, amoral prima donnas who wake up every morning determined to develop new recipes for fricasseed baby author. If you’re in that camp, my question to you is, Why would you want one of those evil harpies repping your work? Yegods.
After reading pretty extensively on agent blogs and writer blogs and publishing blogs (I told you I did my research) on the #queryfail/#agentfail dynamic, I’ve come to this conclusion. Some writers will never be published simply because they just don’t get it.
Hurt by a rejection, so you badmouth the rejector, her taste, her agency, and every author she ever bought? #writerfail
Posting vicious personal comments on an agent because you didn’t like the form of the rejection she sent? #writerfail
Publicly questioning in blogs and on email loops the professionalism of an agent or editor because she lacks the vision to understand your unique gift to the world in the form of your current WIP? #writerfail
Criticizing an agent for revealing a personal life beyond the work day in which she keeps up a blog, tweets on Twitter, spends time with her family on vacation, or takes pictures of her dog instead of chaining herself in her office cave to mine for your gem of a manuscript? #writerfail
The point of writing, folks, is to write. You don’t instantly become more of a writer because someone publishes your work. Your knowledge base won’t suddenly increase when you get the call. Your talents won’t blossom into something different. You’ll be the same you, working in the same pajamas, nibbling on the same chocolate. Your outer circumstances change if you get an agent, or the call, but your inner writing life will be just as fraught with doubt and anxiousness and soaring days of wonderfulness as they are now.
If your whole writer identity centers on getting published, you can make that happen. There’s fanfiction and internet posting—one site called Publetariat looked interesting—and POD and self-publishing that will guarantee you exposure and maybe some readers outside your circle of trusted friends and family. If you’re focused on selling to a professional publishing house, whether electronic or print, get in line. Do your research, submit to the right people, cross your fingers, and pray. The right project needs the right time and the right place, folks. If you’re not doing the work to pinpoint what those are, you can’t rail at the publishing world for thwarting your dreams. At that point, you’re the biggest roadblock you have. #writerfail
Mark Twain said, “We can secure other people’s approval if we do right and try hard; but our own is worth a hundred of it, and no way has been found of securing that.” And he’s exactly right. Your opinion, your love for what you do, is the thing that should bring you joy in this, your chosen art. You are a writer because you write. If nothing else, remember that.
Are you still here? The post’s over! Wasting all your writing time infosnacking on the Internet? Classic #writerfail! Get back to your manuscript!
At various times, Mary Louise Wells has called herself a teacher, an editor, a server, a sales clerk, and a soda jerk. But she’s always been a writer. Find out more about her humorous Southern women’s fiction at her blog.