Saturday, March 7, 2009

Living in a half-assed world

I'm going to rant a little bit, and I suspect for many of my friends who read this blog, I'm preaching to the choir...but here we go. I get tired of living in a half-assed world. So many people out there are willing to do the absolute least amount of work and then gripe about not being successful or about the horribly mean people willing to point out that they are half-assers. I see it EVERY day at school. Some students do little to nothing and wonder why they are failing. After determining that it couldn't possibly be their fault, they blame the teacher or the system. Even worse, their parents often support them in this attitude.

This isn't new in my day job, but what set me off was evidence of this same trend in the second career I am fostering. As you know, I've written a novel I am shopping around to agents. In the publishing world this is known as querying. There is a process involved, and if you do your homework, the steps in the process are readily available to anyone interested. On Thursday, one of the agents I've queried hosted an event called #queryfail on Twitter. Several literary agents and editors posted failed queries live as they read and responded to them. They did not identify authors or titles, just bits and pieces of the query that made it clear why the author was not being asked for more. Sometimes the idea was just wrong. I remember one about a relationship based on mutual vomiting practices. Ugh...don't expect to see this in your local bookstore anytime soon. But most of the time, the query failed because of someone being half-assed about their query letter. They didn't follow clearly posted submission guidelines. They queried a genre the agent explicitly states she doesn't rep. They didn't hit spellcheck or edit for nuts and bolts errors in their letter. STUPID stuff...easily fixed stuff...stuff that keeps the agent from even considering asking for your manuscript.

Yesterday, another agent posted a blog in which he commented about his lack of participation in #queryfail. In what I can only attribute as a monumental suck-up to this agent, a long list of comments ensued lamblasting the agent who hosted queryfail (and the 8 or 10 others who participated) for her "lack of professionalism" and "snarkiness."

GIVE ME A FLIPPIN BREAK, PEOPLE!!! If you don't want to be called out for being a half-asser, then DON'T BE A HALF-ASSER! Why do we put our arms around these people and coddle them when they didn't do the work necessary to be successful? One commentor said, "It takes just as much effort to write a bad novel as a good one." Really? Really??? I don't think so, but just for kicks and giggles, let's say that's true. The author tried hard, and we should reward that. Anyone out there ever read Kurt Vonnegut's short story, "Harrison Bergeron?" It's about a world that has completely lowered the bar so that no one fails or feels bad about failing. It's enough that people tried hard, so let's reward them. Are you willing to take that attitude about your surgeon? Your airline pilot? Your kid's teacher? I hope not.

It's not mean to point out that someone did a half-assed job. If you really care about the person, it's necessary to help them succeed. In the business world (and publishing is most definitely a business), then it's instructive to the rest of us to see what not to do. My query letter isn't perfect, and I'm still honing it. I want to be published, so I'm meticulously doing my research on each agent I query. What do they rep? What are their submission guidelines? I don't feel sorry for the half-assers. I'm glad I have a leg up on them.

34 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for posting this. I'm happy that you found #queryfail useful; we hope to do this on a regular basis, every other month or so.

    All the best,

    Colleen

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  2. This was a great rant! Can you post some of the agents twitter ID's so I can start to follow them and #queryfail? Thanks!
    -@PurpleCar

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  3. You go girl!! I am in total agreement. And the biggest problem is, that Vonnegut short story? It's already here...

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  4. My kindred spirit! As a teacher and writer, I agree completely and then some.

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  5. YES! Very well written. A+. :) Besides, queryfail was HILARIOUS!

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  6. Love Query Fail day!Great Rant!

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  7. Thanks for writing this passage: "Sometimes the idea was just wrong. I remember one about a relationship based on mutual vomiting practices. Ugh...don't expect to see this in your local bookstore anytime soon."

    This is the essence of what I found so repellent about #queryfail. I'm willing to agree that it is a failure -- an objective failure -- to disregard an agent's clearly posted guidelines when querying. But devoting (perhaps) years of effort to writing a novel with a premise than ONE agent finds yucky is not a failure in any objective sense.

    Put another way, running a red light in your car is #drivingfail. Driving a red car in the presence of someone who hates red is not.

    Let's just agree that a "relationship based on mutual vomiting practices" is gross. But gross subject matter does not disqualify a novel from being published. It doesn't even disqualify a novel from greatness. "Lolita" has a premise that is fundamentally more gross than a couple of people who get together and barf.

    Just now, for perspective, I typed "incidence of bulimia" into Google. Google came up with this:

    http://tinyurl.com/6adk9n

    The link includes this statistic: "The incidence of bulimia in 10-39 year old women TRIPLED between 1988 and 1993."

    That's gross. I'd rather not think about it. But is it possible that, at minimum, the girls and women represented by that statistic might connect with a novel that (according to the original #queryfail Tweet) is "about a friendship based upon mutual vomiting practices in high school"? Is it possible that parents watching their kids kill themselves one purge at a time would grasp for any book that helps them understand the mind of a bulimic?

    To me, the answer is clearly yes.

    The novel mentioned in #queryfail might not be the novel to do that. I haven't read it. I don't know the author. But I just totally reject the idea that its premise alone makes it worthy of the same #queryfail label that would be applied to a guy who submits an illegible, hand-written query using grocery bags for stationery and dog shit for ink.

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  8. Good stuff, oh and what nightsmusic wrote. Yah. I had the same thought and it is deeply deeply troubling.

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  9. Wow! I have officially entered the fray.

    Colleen...Thanks for your comment and the shoutout on Twitter.

    Purplecar...follow the link in the blog labeled #queryfail. It will take you to Colleen's blog and a list of the agents' Twitter IDs.

    David...I agree that having a "wrong" idea is not an objective failure, and my rant was primarily aimed at those who refuse to do the work necessary to get past those objective failures. At the same time, why is a subjective failure "repellent"? I've received several form rejections, and they all say something to the effect that publishing is a subjective business, and I should keep looking for an agent who can get behind my work enthusiastically. So that's what I'm doing. Reading is subjective. I don't care for Nicholas Sparks (see my Happily ever After post), but that is certainly no reflection on Nick or his ability to entertain someone else. Queryfail illustrated the many reasons a writer gets rejected, and some of them are subjective. The writer/reader relationship is transactive...it goes two ways. Just because you have a valid idea doesn't mean you're going to get published or that you should get published. The reader on the other end has to see it as valid. If one agent doesn't see it that way, query another one (after researching the genres they rep). Shaking your fist at the unfairness/mean-spiritedness of it all isn't productive.

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  10. Ya know, I definitely agree that writers need thick skins, and I also agree that the people who take the time to learn the rules of the business put more effort into their work than the ones that don't.

    But I'm afraid I take issue with the idea that people who didn't care for queryfail and stated their opinion on my blog only did so to suck up (presumably to me). Even setting aside that a lot of these people posted their comments anonymously and thus there would really be no purpose to the sucking up, and also setting aside that the implication that I might be swayed by such sucking up, I don't think it's necessary to demonize the other side of the argument in order to make this point.

    Some people just didn't like it, in good faith, just as you did like it in good faith. No one is accusing you of sucking up to the agents who participated, nor should they. If they did I would defend you. You hold your opinion just as honestly and dearly as they do. But to attribute their opinions solely to sucking up is, I think, extremely unfair.

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  11. i like you. we should be friends.

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  12. Yeah, it's hard to accuse anyone of sucking up when they don't even post their names.

    As for the "mutual vomiting practices" - I won't apologize for my reaction to that query. It was a terrible idea, and yes, publishing is a highly subjective business. Lolita also suffered a disturbing plot and if it had come across my desk, I probably would have rejected it. That's why there are so many agents in the world: we all have very different taste in reading.

    Best,

    Colleen

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  13. Nathan...my intent was not to demonize everyone who didn't like queryfail. My intent was to demonize people who don't put in the effort to succeed and then get upset when someone points that out to them. It's a pet peeve of mine because I live with it every day in my day job. It struck a nerve, and I ranted.

    Accusing folks of sucking up was maybe not the best choice of words, and I'm willing to own up to that. I tend to be more of a lurker on blogs than a commentor, and while I often find insightful, reflective posts in the comment section, a lot of times the comments seem sycophantic. People seemed particularly worked up Friday. Having very much enjoyed the comments on my post (both positive and negative), I may change the way I view comments on other blogs.

    Thanks for your comment. :-)

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  14. Thanks moonrat! I'd love to be your friend. :-)

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  15. Nathan, you should be a diplomat! Love your blog and rational comments. I'd def query you if you weren't already so popular!

    My issue with queryfail is that it was done in public for everyone to ridicule. American Idol contestants know what they're getting into. Clueless new writers are just ignorant or misguided, and shouldn't be victimized or mocked for laughs.

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  16. Anon...the thing is...and this is my whole point...no one has to be clueless. I just hopped on the query-go-round last fall. I didn't have the first clue about the process. I had lots of questions, but I discovered that the answers are not a secret. I read widely, spent a lot of time on my query (still working on it) and carefully followed the rules very clearly stated on almost EVERY agent's website.

    It was time-consuming, but ultimately worth the effort. An agent may not like my idea, but I'm not worried about showing up on queryfail as one of the half-assers.

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  17. The fact is, those new writers SHOULDN'T be ignorant or misguided. They should do their homework before submitting. That, and I don't feel that anyone was really victimized or mocked for queryfail. No names were given. The agents simply expressed their opinions about the queries and why they rejected them. If anything, it's helpful. If those writers happen to have followed queryfail and happened to see their query on there, they're getting much more than a form rejection. They're getting something to build on for the next time.

    Honestly, I think that writers need to stop complaining about queryfail and see it as the truly invaluable resource that it is. We can look at practical examples of what doesn't work, and then craft our own queries so that they don't end up the next queryfail.

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  18. What bothers me about queryfail is the snarky comments people made after certain queries in a PUBLIC forum. It makes sense if they were studied in a private workshop or class. The idea of these smug agents sitting around joking about "stupid writers" makes me mad.

    Yes, as an editor, I get impatient w/ wannabes whose mss. are filled w/ bad grammar, typos and poor punctuation, etc., but it's not fair to publicly humiliate these people. Not evveryone has a natural talent or gift for writing, and a polite rejection should be enough. OK, rant over.

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  19. I hope that Miss Snark (http://www.misssnark.blogspot.com/) was somehow involved. I miss her.

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  20. "Mutual vomiting practices" as a story premise is at best appealing only to a very narrow audience. OTOH, "friends struggle with conflicting societal expectations" as they, I dunno, fight crime or whatever, has a bit more going for it. Puking, solo, relay or tandem, is no more interesting or entertaining than is drinking coffee or weeding a garden or opening mail. Activities are not goals, they're vehicles. They're the things you use to get where you're going.

    Pitching a story as being centred on mutual vomiting anywhere outside the fetish market is total queryfail. If that is what your story is about, for real, then you're in the wrong place. If it's not what your story is about, fix your query. Either way, it's not the agent's problem.

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  21. Anon @ 11:05 "it's not fair to publicly humiliate these people"

    No people were hurt in the making of queryfail.

    Words taken from ineffective query letters were displayed for the edification of the audience.

    It's not personal. It's not personal. It's not personal. Can it be said enough?

    Anyone who takes query rejection as a devaluation of their worth as a human being has made a very poor choice to pursue publication. If they ever actually do get into print, Amazon reviews will devalue them right out of existence.

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  22. First, I absolutely LOVE that you mentioned "Harrison Bergeron." Totally appropriate in this case!

    As for the rest, BRAVO! That's right!! I love the half-asser rant. Truly.

    I see you're seeking representation, as am I ... and I know I learned a lot from #queryfail.

    I wrote a blog on it, too. Although, it's not nearly as entertaining as yours :-D
    I'm going to be talking about it on BlogTalkRadio tonight.

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  23. Like "mutual vomiting practices" is anonymous enough the author wouldn't know it was their book? Or their family, friends or followers? Did they give permission for their query letter to be used in this manner?

    Why are the agents and other writers so angry that people would disagree with this? That's what I don't understand. That's where I see people "sucking up", jumping on the queryfail bandwagon because a percentage of them are probably scared that if they don't drink the Kool-aid, they'll piss off all the agents and never have a chance at getting published.

    Just once, I'd like one of the snarky people (and there were several) to stand up and say, you know what? I crossed the line and I'm sorry. A name was mentioned -- by an agent. How nice.

    I find it sickening that people found this to be actually FUNNY, when by all accounts and purposes it was supposed to be "educational". While I agree "half-assers" need to be educated, the truth is there will always be people who don't do their homework, and people who do. IT'S PART OF THE JOB. Maybe agents need to stop bitching and bellyaching about how difficult THIER job is and "just suck it up."

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  24. I'm still waiting to hear of a writer who did indeed recognize his/her query letter in #queryfail (I asked on Twitter, have not gotten a response yet).

    Yes, ONE agent mentioned a name, even though the rules had been clearly laid out, and he was reprimanded for using the name. Another Twitterer, who had that last name, did post "I am #queryfail", but if you read everything else that person wrote, he implied that he was talking about himself in general -- that he saw mistakes in the query he was writing and preparing to send out.

    So many people have their panties in a bunch about these hypothetical writers who suffered all this shame and humiliation -- does anyone know if they exists?

    As several people pointed out, the people who followed #queryfail are the choir; the ones who wrote those letters and needed to hear the sermon were far, far away from this event or any agent's blog, which is why they made the half-a$$ed mistakes they made.

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  25. Criss, I think you're probably seeing a person who recognized their query posting just ahead of you here. Not that the rest of us would be able to read snippets from any of the #queryfails and be able to point a finger.

    I missed the 'name' one of the agents posted. I'm sure many others did too. And I don't want to know it. That agent made a mistake and was reprimanded for it. But I have to say, the few whiners that I've seen that keep posting about how horrible awful it all was...well, if I was an agent, I wouldn't want to work with them. What happens when someone reviews their book on Amazon and says "your book sucked and you do too!" because it happens. A lot!

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  26. Comical. Like someone is going to step up and say, "Oh yes, that query about vomiting practices was mine," after being lambasted.

    Did they give permission for their query letter to be used in this manner?

    No answer.

    Why are the agents and other writers so angry that people would disagree with this?

    No answer.

    Yes, ONE agent mentioned a name, even though the rules had been clearly laid out, and he was reprimanded for using the name.

    I'm sure that was great comfort to the writer.

    So many people have their panties in a bunch about these hypothetical writers who suffered all this shame and humiliation -- does anyone know if they exists (sic)?

    You're missing the point. It's the inherent disrespect by the snarky comments that accompanied some (not all) of the examples. In a VERY public forum.

    Some people are going to think this is the greatest thing to hit the 'net, and some people aren't. To be vilified for having an opposing opinion is just...disturbing. And disappointing.

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  27. For the record, nightsmusic, I do not have a query making the rounds. Incorrect assumption.

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  28. ::Sigh:: As I've said before the only folks I intended to vilify are the half-assers. Perhaps I need to define the term. A half-asser is someone who rushes through something too fast with minimal effort and then gets upset when they don't get the results to which they seem to feel entitled.

    You found the agent's email address...why didn't you take ten more minutes and read the submission guidelines and the genres they rep? You wrote a novel. Why didn't you click the mouse one more time and hit spellcheck? You wrote a freakin' novel...presumably that took a little time. Take a little more and find out what a query letter should contain. That info is NOT secret. It's all out there. Go back and reread the #queryfail transcript. Almost ALL the fails were boneheaded, half-assed mistakes.

    I teach writing, and I routinely use models. I use positive models as a prewriting tool. I show them what a successful piece looks like. After the first draft, I throw a negative model on the overhead and we break it down...why doesn't it work? Nothing...and I mean NOTHING is more effective in helping a kid have an ah ha moment than seeing someone else's boneheaded mistake. They get to make revisions before I ever read it.

    This is what the agents were doing with queryfail. I learned from it (see my susbsequent post on The Teachable Moment). I know others learned from it.

    I'm not going out on other blogs and vilifying those who disliked the process. I'm merely stating my opinion on my blog. My advice to those who are still upset is stop reading blogs like mine and don't tune in to the next queryfail. I, however, will be there with bells on.

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  29. First and foremost, I apologize for my typo.

    When you post as Anonymous anyway, what's the problem with saying, "Yeah, that was mine"? Or, "I saw my query in that list" -- you don't even have to say which one was yours. I'm still waiting for someone who suffered this "public humiliation" to come forth. Why? Because I'm proving the point many of us have made: the people sending in these bone-headed, half-a$$ed queries were not following #queryfail because they are too lazy to do the research and follow agents and editors.

    Did they give permission for their letter to be used in this manner? Did the email contain one of those confidentiality clauses saying the information in the email could NOT be used? These people want their novels published; they are asking to be read. Well, we read them.

    Why are agents and writers so upset that people disagree with this? I assume agents are upset because some of them are receiving hate mail in their personal email inboxes. That would tick me off, too.

    As a writer (and as a teacher), I'm upset that we are coddling the half-a$$ers. That we are excusing the lazy. And that those who disagree with #queryfail, instead of just not reading it, are whining so loudly and telling agents not to do it again; I learned from this experience, and I look forward to the next one.

    The writer's last name mentioned was an extremely common name. On another blog someone did a search for the name, and gave the number of people in the US with that name -- I want to say 800,000? I doubt the guy or girl who saw "Quackenbush" really felt targeted. Especially since that agent ended up looking stupid, since there is a famous author with that last name (the agent made a disparaging comment about the name, implying it was not "sellable"; nothing about the writer him/herself).

    "The inherent disrespect"? THAT IS WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT. I am disgusted by the disrespect of these people, who write these half-a$$ed queries and take up the agents' time with queries for unwritten books, questions Google will gladly answer, and "mustard courage." Refusing to read the submission guidelines. You want to talk about disrespect? That's disrespect.

    I'm not vilifying the people who have an opposing opinion. I'm vilifying the half-a$$ers, and the people who are defending the half-a$$ers. Also, those who are attacking #queryfail when they didn't even follow it (and don't even Twitter). People who talk without knowing what they're talking about have always bugged me.

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  30. So true. We've been raising a generation of children by placing the highest importance on self-esteem. If the praise "good job" accompanies everything a child does, regardless of effort, how are they supposed to learn to strive harder, reach higher? Excellent post.

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  31. I heard about your blog on the Christine Rose show on BlogTalkRadio. I've enjoyed reading it and agree with you 100 percent. I plan to mention this blog in my post on Friday.

    Jane Kennedy Sutton
    http://janekennedysutton.blogspot.com/

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