Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Queries, Synopses and the Assorted Perils of Submission

My editor blogged recently about query letters--how and how not to write them--and it got me thinking. Well, that and the recurring Twitter #queryfail. See, I really hate writing query letters--maybe not quite as much as I hate synopses, but it's close--and I'm not alone in this. I know a lot of writers who feel the same way.  It really doesn't matter that both queries and synopses are short and somewhat simple things--hardly on the same scale as, oh, let's say, world building; something at which many writers excel. But faced with writing either a 100K book filled with complex characters and set in a time and place that's purely imaginary or a fairly straightforward three page synopsis--I'll choose the book. Every time.

Here's a few reasons why I think that might be the case.

#1. I'm not naturally concise. If I really believed the story could be adequately told in a couple of pages or a handful of paragraphs, well there'd be no reason to spend weeks and months writing something considerably longer, now would there? Boiling an entire novel down to a few sentences is not as easy as it looks. 

#2. I'm not objective. I laugh when I hear people (editors and agents, for the most part) tell authors "no one knows your book as well as you do." Because that's both true and false. Sure, by the time I'm done writing, rewriting, editing, polishing and everything else one must do to a book, I can generally recite huge blocks of it verbatim. I've lived with the characters in my head--talking to me--for days at a stretch. I know them inside out. I've seen the locations in my mind, walked myself through each scene, but what that really means is I've gotten too close to the subject.   I've spent too much time, I've invested too much emotion. So, don't ask me what I think of my book because half the time I'll be convinced it's brilliant and the other half I'll be sure it's nothing but a big ol' mess.

#3. Copy writing is an art onto itself. You wanna know how similar ad copy is to a novel? Not very much. Just 'cause I can do one, doesn't mean I can do the other. Since the Olympics are on so many people's minds, let me give you an Olympic metaphor. Take ice dancing and speed skating. Sure they've got ice and skates in common but you only have to look at the thighs on the speed skaters to know how very different they are as sports and how unlikely it is for there to be a lot of professional level cross-over. 

#4. I want you to like me. Sure we can fool ourselves into believing there's nothing personal about a query letter. It's about selling the book--nothing whatsoever to do with the author. For that matter, we can pretend that the book doesn't reflect on us much either. But deep down inside we know we're lying. We know we're Sally Field. And the fear that we might write something in our letter that will keep you from liking us can be downright paralyzing at times.

#5. Love me, love my book. You know how, every once in a while, you run into really horrible, overbearing, parents who seem to want to smother their kids with their attention? Parents who can't let go, who can't separate themselves from their kids? That's authors with their books. Well, at least part of the time it is, anyway...and it's usually at its worst right after the letter's been sent.

#6. Rejection is never pretty. Even so-called 'good' rejections hurt. 'Nuff said. 

All right. That's what's on my list. Whaddaya got on yours?


Meg Benjamin said...

Oh man, I'm wincing as I read. And then there's the ever-popular "I sound like such a jerk" reaction to the query letter. You want to come off as confident (if you don't believe in your book, who will) but not delusional (you have nightmares about them posting your letter on the bulletin board for giggles). Torture, pure torture.

PG Forte said...

Or worse yet--posting it on Twitter. Don't they realize authors are paranoid enough to start with? :)

Kelly Jamieson said...

Oh I am so with you on this! I truly believe writing a good query letter is a different skill than writing a good novel, and being able to do one doesn't mean you can do the other. I cringe when I think how many great stories might miss getting published because the other couldn't sell it with the query letter. And I know agents and editors will always say they can tell from a query letter, but...really?