I just spent a weekend at Mystery Florida, a conference for writers at all stages, from rank beginners to best sellers. Some of them had big time agents and editors and were published by major houses, others were going it alone with self-published books or PODs or self-published e-books. Unless their names were familiar, I could have separated the best-sellers from the hopeful beginners even if they hadn’t told me. That’s because writers who have been at the game long enough to establish a track-record approach their craft in a totally different way than beginners. All too often, the beginners are waving red flags that announce that they’ll never be among the ranks of the best sellers. At least not unless they change some misguided ideas.
One woman told me with some indignation that an agent had returned a manuscript to her because it had too many typos. “I knew they were in there,” she said, “but that’s the kind of thing a publisher takes care of.” Translated, that means, “I’m too lazy or too arrogant to polish my work before I submit it.” No editor or agent will work with that kind of writer.
Another said that she never followed instructions that agents gave on their sites when she sent query letters. “If they ask for one page and it takes me two or three, they’ll just have to read what I send.” I had mental images of agents receiving her three-page query letters and tossing them in their waste baskets unread. Professionals follow the instructions given by agents and editors. Amateurs expect special consideration just because they want it.
Over and over, I heard hopeful writers explain that they didn’t bother with researching for their novels because they were creating fictional worlds. If they were writing fantasy, they were mostly right. But I often had the uncomfortable feeling that they were justifying sloppy writing habits by claiming that they were, after all, just writing fiction.
Perhaps the biggest red flag of all was waved by beginners who have the idea that agents and editors are people who can be tricked into reading a manuscript by a really, really hot query letter. They have studied how to write them, they know about opening hooks and about showing their voice, and all the other so-called rules of query letters. The truth is that agents and editors read gazillions of query letters every week, and they can tell from the first sentence whether the writer has a compelling story and the ability to tell it. Whether it’s a query from a many-times published author or a beginner, a successful query has to be based on a manuscript with a good story. Forget the clever word tricks, is there a story that anybody would want to read? If there isn’t, no agent or editor will be impressed by the query.
It all boils down to doing the work. And taking as much time as the work needs. If a story is episodic and jumpy, it will be episodic and jumpy no matter how much a writer pimps up the query letter. And if an agent or editor declines to read the manuscript, it isn’t because he or she is too dumb to recognize genius, it’s because the story needs fixing.
That said, I’m now going back to work on the places in my own manuscript that need fixing.