Tuesday, April 14, 2009


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.

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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.


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hundreds of my articles, short stories,and poems have been published by reputable publications including eight books and I've never had an agent. I'd love to have a first-rate agent, but I don't think it's necessary to getting work published. So railing at agents who won't represent a writer seems foolish to me. I agree: there's only one way to become a writer. You have to work at the craft. It has to be something you really want to do.

Jacqueline Seewald
new release: THE DROWNING POOL, Five Star/Gale--check it out on Amazon, B&N online or ask for it at your local library!

Terry Odell said...

Thanks for stopping by. As with everything else in life, there's no 'magic potion' for success other than persistence and hard work. And a professional attitude.

kristybock said...

Great blog.I enjoyed it, there's a lot to be said about personal accountability. I teach my children "Only you are responsible for your actions"... it's easy to forget that as an adult and blame someone else for your shortcomings, or lack of proper knowledge.

Kathy Otten said...

Terry, great blog. I don't have an agent either, but not from lack of trying. But all the rejections, while briefly painful, were not that big a deal. They haven't stopped me from writing, or selling things I write. I live in a small town and you have to be careful about what you say to people, because everyone is a friend or relative of the person. Agents and publishers move around in their small community. If I bad mouthed someone who rejected my mss, everyone will know about it, and they won't forget my name. Where as, if I go to a conference an meet an agent who rejected my mss. three years ago, they aren't going to remember that, they'll base their decision on the mss. I pitch, bias free. You're your own worst enemy if you bad mouth people.

Terry Odell said...

Kristy, Kathy -

Mary Louise works all day, but I'm sure she'll be stopping by when she can to see your comments - and thanks for taking the time to share them.

CatherineKean said...

Great post, Mary Louise! With your determination and talent, I'm sure it won't be long before you're published.
Best wishes,

Mary Ricksen said...

I am sorry I missed the twitter thing. Knowing what is not acceptable is a plus. But I don't know if I will ever have an agent.
I wish you the best of luck Mary Louise. Determination is the key.

Lisa Logan said...

Great post, and after the glut of people taking #queryfail far too personally it's nice to see someone put this spin on it. This wasn't about picking on poor authors. It was about teaching the craft of the query--by seeing how NOT to do them.

There are a ton of how-to's out there, but I can't think of one that made such an impression. Whether you liked the approach or hated it, behold their success in getting the point across.


mimi said...

Thanks so much for the positive comments, ladies. I agree--the writing is paramount. So much of what we writers spend time obsessing over is completely out of our control, we often neglect the thing that is: our writing. Good luck!

Melynda Beth Skinner said...

Hear-hear, Mimi! Yea verily!

Show me a writer universally adored, and I'll show you a writer whose work has only been read by her mum.

We all write to draw reaction from our readers. What some don't get is that, inevitably, that reaction will fall over the full range of the bell curve. Some will love our work, and some will detest it, no matter how good (or truly awful) it is.

If you cannot handle that grim fact gracefully, if a lack of worship of your work automatically qualifies your reader (in your mind) as an insipid Philistine, then you're banging your head against the wall--and probably making everyone close enough to hear you whine and rant miserable. Some will suffer in silence, and some will rightfully let you have it, exposing you as the anathema you are--and those will be the kind ones, the ones worth cultivating as friends or professional associates.

Sounds like these agents were kind to themselves and to the poor, ignorant legion of wannabe authors out here who perpetrate gaffe after gaffe never knowing what it is they're doing to themselves.

"Brava!" I say.

Terry Odell said...

Well, well, a voice from the past. Hello there, Melynda Beth Skinner. Glad you stopped by. Great advice.

Nancy Robards Thompson said...

Mary Louise and Terry, just popping in to say, "Hello!" and great post, ML! I enjoyed it.

Terry Odell said...

Hi, Nancy - thanks for popping in.

Mark R Hancock said...

Hi, thanks for the great read. Professionalism at all times is definitely the thing. It's bitter tasting when someone doesn't want your stuff, but if you're getting rejected it also means you're getting work out there for people to see, so that's half the battle.
Also, if some of those who don't understand the business end of receiving all that writing, they should try running a website for a few months. Literary or otherwise, it's hard work!

Maryann Miller said...

Nice post. I remember that exchange on Twitter. Reminded me of some of the horrible queries I received when I was editor for a magazine. Some people just don't get "professional."

Nathan Bransford has an interesting thing going on his blog where folks can be agent for a day. I participated and gained new respect for what agents see on a daily basis, although the queries were not as bad as some mentioned by Colleen and Lauren.

Marilyn Brant said...

Thanks, Terry and Mary Louise!

An excellent post and so, so true. Thank you for bringing some solid reasoning to one of the more bizarre writer/agent controversies this year :).

Cindy Procter-King said...

Great post, Mary Louise!

The only thing I have issue with is the "no response means we're not interested" thingie. I've had both email and snail mail queries go awry, only to find out four or six months later. With the advent of email queries (which I love), I wonder why more agencies don't adopt an automatic reply just to let the writer know her query has arrived? You know, like the note you can get your email addy to send out when you're on holiday. That would solve the issue. The writer knows the query was received. After that point, no response really does mean "We're not interested." Otherwise, it's a guessing game. Has my query been rejected, or is it lost in spam-land?