Monday, March 30, 2009

Writers Are People Too

While I did not participate in #queryfail, a few weeks ago I did follow some of the feedback/fallout in the aftermath. Much of which can be read here in Nathan Bransford’s comment section. I am not going to get in the middle of the discussion of whether or not those who participated in #queryfail were wrong or what their intentions were. What I do want to address is something that’s stuck in my head since first reading the many discussions on the topic, and that’s that writers are people too.

What seemed to resonate most with me from those who objected to #queryfail was the feeling that agents were not considering the feelings of writers. Now let’s take this fully out of the context of #queryfail, please, because again, I refuse to discuss that. So when looking at the idea that agents don’t think of writers as people, you are, to some degree, entirely correct. When reading queries, proposals, or submissions of any kind I cannot think of the face behind the page. That’s not my job and can’t be my job. It’s my job to think of the words on the page and what they do for me and to me and whether or not I think they translate into sales.

When I first started out as a young editor and later as an agent I remember being touched and confused about how to handle the vast number of queries I received (and still receive) from authors looking to write a memoir based on their own experiences of sexual abuse, cancer, or death of a loved one. For me the toughest ones are always those writing about the death of a spouse or child. But the truth is that I can’t treat those people any differently than I treat the author who has written a romance novel, SF, or business book simply because I know their past.

I don’t think any agent will deny that writers are people and each writer deserves respect and serious consideration, but submissions aren’t people. When considering submissions we don’t think of the people and, to some degree, don’t care about the people behind the page. All we care about, all editors care about, and all your readers are ever going to care about is whether or not you’ve written a good book. And yes, sometimes that blinds us a bit, but I suspect it also protects us from the depressing job of rejecting hundreds upon hundreds of people each week. Because we aren’t rejecting people, we’re rejecting the words on the page.



Rod H said...

There is no other way you could do your job. Writers are people, but they're usually people you will not know.

Anonymous said...

For some people, writing is therapy and perhaps should remain private. As a journalist, I've been asked numerous times to write people's memoirs--but I always decline and encourage them to purge their own past. Some of that pain is best left to a diary.

But as for genre fiction, it's frustrating to wait FOREVER for any kind of response from an agent--esp on a REQUESTED ms.

That's why Twitter, etc, annoys me--it's just one more way for all of us to waste time. Queryfail seemed like a bunch of smug, sarcastic agents who ganged up on clueless writers to point out how pathetic and lame their queries were--and how superior they are. Not my kind of agent.

Litgirl01 said...

Beautifully put! :-)

Anonymous said...

Yes, writers are people but the only way an agent or editor can do their job objectively and effectively is by remaining emotionally detached (to a degree). In other words, agents/editors are like doctors. I know you're thinking "whoa!" but let me explain. Doctors are taught to not get too emotionally involved with patients. That doesn't mean they don't see patients as people or that they don't means that they need to remain objective in their treatment of that individual. There's a reason surgeons don't operate on family members. A doctor must do their best to insure the health and survival of a patient regardless of race, sex, criminal background etc... Likewise, and agent or editor wants to insure the health and survival of whatever manuscript they represent. Their focus is the writing...not the writer. Okay, so unlike editors/agents, doctors don't pick and choose which patients live and which die. But editors/agents do read all queries which, in essence, is giving the writer a chance. Just imagine the issues and lawsuits that would be born out of writers submitting queries/manuscripts with a photo, demographics and personal info attached! On that note, since doctors must respect patients and their privacy, editors/agents should do so for writers...unless they want a bad name for themselves and a drastic reduction in submissions to their agencies.

Sharon A. Lavy said...

I am pre-published and I appreciated query fail as educational. I know as a parent we share our children's misunderstandings and cute word choices and in no way are we putting our children down. We know they will grow. So for me we who are pre-published are like children who do "cute" laughable things until we learn how not to fall down.

We just can't be so thin skinned if we ever hope to "grow up" from writers to authors.

Anonymous said...

You know, I can understand perfectly the need to remain detached so that you can have a purer view of the actual work.

That works.

I think the problem with #queryfail (or maybe it's salvation) was giving authors the ability to gain their own detached perspective of agents. It allowed any of them who were watching the ability to detach from their own work and see the agents from another viewpoint. It was very easy for them to see which agents were childish and unprofessional and snarky.

Life is too short to be a jerk, and honestly it's too short to deal with any more than you absolutely have to, either.

Being objective about a submission is not the same as going into a public forum and mocking people.

You guys at Bookends are lovely, Nathan is lovely. I just have to say that the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth, and if I were ever to submit a book, I would now have a very clear view of who I would not want to work with because of #queryfail.

The First Carol said...

Managing people in the real world (as opposed to the fiction realm) requires that we set aside employees' personal struggles and communicate that they still must accomplish their job. While we can empathize with their experiences outside the office, and offer programs to assist, we still need performance 8-5. There is no other way to maintain and propel a career. Writing isn't any different. It's art, but it is work. Thanks for the reminder we're only interesting if our production is worthy.

spyscribbler said...

I didn't see queryfail, but I've listened to a session of RWA Idol. Snark is hard to do as caringly as Miss Snark managed it. It doesn't give the best of first impressions.

But it's like anything else. There are plenty of people who don't mind and will query those agents. There are some who will be turned off by that sort of public mocking, like me. And that's how it should be. It's about finding a match, not making everyone attractive to everyone.

Leigh Anna said...

Anonymous 8:50

Considering most of these agents are getting hundreds of queries a month, a serious reduction probably isn't a threat. :)

But I like what you said about the doctor bit, because it is true. I was going to use ambulance, because that is what I have experience in. Let me tell you, the EMTs are laughing at you. Usually not if it's something small: a fall, a minor injury, etc. But the big ones--strokes, serious car accidents, etc.--they're standing around joking about it later. Because laughing is a form of crying. Because there is only so much we can do. Because we need to separate from the people and the trauma so we can be ready and going for the next one.

Agents know they hold writer's hopes and dreams in every query. And they also know there are only a certain number of clients they can responsibly take on and still be a good agent. That means a lot of good queries get rejected for no other reason than, it's just not right. I'm betting those are the ones that make agents cry at night.

Besides, the moment you send off your query, you are essentially saying that your writing is ready for the public. This is not like medical results that can cause you to lose your job or various other personal things. This is not discussing that rash in a private place. These are words you sent out to a business person (not a friend and last I saw, agents don't have confidentiality rules like doctors, lawyers, or clergy) because you think you and your writing are ready for the world. You better be ready or be able to take the heat. Getting an agent is the beginning.

Nancy Kress, who has won pretty much every SF award imaginable, talks about winning a Nebula (I think it was the Nebula) and getting a rejection on the same day.

It's a rough business. Bring a helmet.

Judy Schneider said...

It's astounding how many of my writing colleagues and clients take rejection personally. My advice to them is to suck it up, revise (because often they've sent out the work at least one draft too soon), and resubmit.

Anonymous said...

This is why Professional Courtesy is such a wonderful thing. Professional Courtesy can stay emotionally detached from the person being shown courtesy to. Professional Courtesy is all about how the Professional conducts him or herself and nothing to do with whether the person receiving the courtesy deserves it. Professional Courtesy reflects directly on the person who has it, or doesn't have it. I was glad not to have a query with any of the editors or agents who participated in QueryFail and they can be certain they will never have a query from me in the future.

jimnduncan said...

Queryfail was fine. We've been listening to agents snark on the craft of queries for years now, but suddenly when it's agents doing it with other agents in a more public atmosphere people get their feathers ruffled. And somehow we figured agents never talked about horrible queries with other agents? Pfft. Most of us know that agents have respect for most writers. They'd be out of a job without writers, and who is going to willingly get into a job where you have no respect for those you represent? We aren't talking lawyers here. This isn't big money. It's love of books and the craft of writing, and if you can't have a sense of humor about the fact that some who try the craft are laughably poor at it, then too bad I say. This industry is too full of stress as it is to not be able to make light of a few things. It goes on in pretty much any industry on some level, so those writers who took issue need to get a little thicker skin. It's not like we saw anything new with this. It was just new technology for doing what has been going on for a long time. I hope they do it again actually, though it still wouldn't get me to sign up for twitter.

Spades said...

Well put. As a writer I don't want to be laughed at nor do I want my query to be part of a race to the bottom of a pile. With that said, I do want to be professional. A query is like an initial interview for a job -- accent your skill and leave your personal life at home.

DebraLSchubert said...

I wasn't involved in queryfail and have only heard folks talk "about" it. My two cents would be that we (as in everyone on the planet) would be better off if we refrained from gossip and making fun of people. Of course, that's like asking teenagers not to have sex. It's a good idea, but it's not going to happen. I think there are many agents who wouldn't be rude and insulting to writers in public or in private because they have dignity and respect for all.

Or maybe I'm just dreaming... (Where did I leave my damn helmet??)

Anonymous said...

For God's sake! It's not about having thicker skin's about professionalism. Yes agents talk and laugh amongst agents and doctors laugh about cases with other doctors...but we don't do it in the waiting room around other patients! (yes I speak from experience) That's the point. I expect professionalism and courtesy from any professional I hire or do business with, be it a lawyer, doctor, secretary etc...If I found out they acted like a bunch of gossipy teenagers I wouldn't work with them. Yes...we all do it. Laughter brings fun and a way to cope with the stresses of any business. We can still be discreet and pass good judgement about who we do it around. That's what distinguishes the agents that participated in #queryfail and those that didn't. It's the difference between maturity and immaturity. I guess new technology (ie twitter, blogs etc...) poses us with some new ethical dilemmas that we need to be keenly aware of. And trust me...I have thick skin.

E. J. Tonks said...

I think it sad that you even had to write this--that you had to defend your professional actions in this way.

I love my manuscript (call it my baby!) but I'm not bawling my eyes out over rejection!

I can thank grad school for that ability--when professors trashed on my writing, it was an invitation to improve, not an excuse to have a temper tantrum.

Too many whiners out there, I say!

Dara said...

I completely understand remaining detached. I actually never thought that an agent would get attached with just a query.

And queryfail doesn't bother me at all. I suppose it's a personal opinion.

magolla said...

Depersonalizing queries is a simple matter of survival and retaining your sanity.
I worked in a hospital for over 20 years. Patients aren't Sally and Joe, they are room numbers.
Sometimes that is the only way you can do your job by removing the human factor. Those who are unable to manage it burn out and quit.
Does it piss the patients off? You bet it does. Do we start calling patients by their names? Only to their face, they are still room numbers to the rest of the world.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I missed the queryfail event, and, even when it was referenced on blogs, I didn't quite clue in to what it was. After you mentioned it, I had to go looking for information. People seem so profoundly entrenched in their camps on this one, with plenty of righteous indignation on both sides. It reminds me of heated conversations I have had with friends who love reality shows/American Idol. I can't stand them (the shows, not the friends). Watching the auditions in which performers are torn apart publicly makes me feel ill. I confess base human behavior leaves me cold. The counterpoint to my opinions is unfailingly, "but they signed up for it." And I say, fair enough. My lasting opinion of queryfail then becomes, "well, they didn't sign up to be publicly discussed." I was a bit horrified to realize that I have a query out with one of the participating agents. I've never hoped for a quick rejection so much in my time of querying (since it appears queryfail 2 is on the schedule).

One other comment I have is that I always think people are brave to submit their queries to QueryShark, or your invitation to submit queries in December (which was profoundly helpful to me). I admire those who enter, though I do not personally wish to be publicly critiqued. It is actually only in the past couple weeks that I have shared my query (outside my group of friends) with a wonderful writer I met on your blog, who has provided invaluable help. Seeking out help in a public or private context is one thing. Becoming a punch line of agents and editors in a public forum is an entirely different thing.

L.C. Gant said...

Very well said. To be honest, I wouldn't want agents or editors to think too hard about who I am when evaluating my writing.

If an agent accepted my work simply because she felt guilty or sorry for me, she wouldn't be passionate about it, which means she wouldn't bring her best to the table when it came to shopping it. I don't want that. No writer should. We want you guys to do your best work as much as you want the same from us.

So I'll take the rejection. Happily, in fact. It just means that when my work is accepted, it's because it really deserves to be.

I think too many writers are thin-skinned about these things (#queryfail is a perfect example), and that's too bad. There are a lot of industries out there that are much crueler in their rejection than writing.

Anonymous said...

I'm always puzzled when I hear writers complaining about their "Dear Author" rejections (they didn't have the decency to use my name?!). Or the rejection letter that arrives on a half sheet of paper (I didn't warrant a full sheet of paper?!). Writing and submitting is hard enough without looking for reasons to get upset.

I'd rather save my energy for my writing.

Leigh Anna said...

Anonymous 10:07

You have a point. Queryfail still doesn't bother me, but you make a good argument.

Dawn said...

I read a bit of queryfail...just for educational purposes. If one of the queries had been mine, I would have been mortified, ashamed, and done better the next time.
"Bring a helmet." -- That was priceless.

Sooki Scott said...

This is very much as it is for physicians and nurses. They must separate themselves from the pains of the job, or be consumed by them.

Professional detachment is necessary to be effective in many occupations.

Confucius says; man who sits on tack gets point.

Anonymous said...

Since agents reject 99% of queries anyway, posting the worst examples for a cheap laugh doesn't really help most writers. If agents and editors REALLY wanted to help writers, why not post query letters that actually WORK?

Here's an idea: How about QUERYPASS for a change?

Kristan said...

I agree with this completely, but there's one thing I'd like to add (that I don't think changes anything you've said, as it is more relevant later in the game than the submission stage):

My impression is that nowadays it DOES matter what kind of person the writer is. For promotional purposes, basically. Agents, editors, and publishers have to ask not only "Can I sell this book?" but also "Can I sell this author?" At least if they're looking for longevity.

A temperamental diva (even in male form) vs. a kind and sincere person with a tortured past are going to appeal to the public very differently. (Although I suppose it would be wrong to assume people wouldn't prefer the diva... We are kind of strange that way sometimes.)

Like I said, I don't think that changes what you've said -- basically a lot of people who submit don't have thick enough skin to do so, I'm guessing -- but I think it's an interesting addendum.

Sheila Deeth said...

I like the doctor analogy. Of course, I don't like going to the doctor, but if I want to be published I'll have to keep on going to the word doctor.

Nikki Hootman said...

I am thankful you (and other agents) don't see submissions as "people." I don't want you judging me by my past, my demographic, my age, or ANYTHING other than my ability to take words on a page and make them reach into your heart.

Anonymous said...

I can't imagine how you could be a successful agent or publisher (or be any good to the business) if you EVER tried to sell or agreed to publish something just to make the writer happy or because you felt sorry for him or her. This doesn't show a lack of feeling on your part, it's simply your job. And I know from personal experience that you do it with professionalism b/c I received a query rejection from you and found it altogether polite and professional despite the fact that it seemed to be a sort of form rejection. You simply weren't interested but you said it nicely and responded very quickly. I respect that and my writing life goes on. Life is full of disappointments, large and small and learning to make the best of them is part of being not just a writer but a healthy human being.

Heather said...

I really can't believe all the uproar about queryfail.

What do writers think is going to happen when their actual book goes out to the public?

No amount of public ridicule on a query (which, for those of us who actually took the time to READ the queryfail tweets know, there was very little, if any, ridicule) can compare to the media and blog reviews that will rip the actual book to shreds.

There will be people who outright despise your book, and will say so publicly in front of large groups of actual readers who may decide not to purchase the book.

In those reviews, you won't have the benefit of anonymity. You also won't have the opportunity to take the criticism and fix things before it's too late.

And guess what? That's all part of the professional life of an author. Being a critic is part of the professional life of an agent. They CHOOSE to make things public so that we as writers can learn the ropes and one day become actual authors.

Agents don't have to do any of that. They could sit silently in their offices and go about their business. But the good agents--the best agents--see educating writers on the industry as part of their jobs. They run blogs and Twitter and make themselves available for questions and discussion.

Maybe we shouldn't discourage that generosity?

Just sayin'.

catie said...

If I had my druthers, every writer aspiring to publication would spend at least three to six months working in some editorial capacity. The time I spent as an editor for a small literary journal at a local junior college was invaluable. As you said, it helped me realize agents/editors/publishers aren't summarily dismissing writers as people, they're simply looking at words on the page and saying: "Not right for our needs," "Not quite there yet," etc.

Miss Lily said...

I have to say, Queryfail didn't bother me. Mostly because I don't twitter. I just don't get the point of having another place to waste time when I could be writing or doing something a bit more productive. Besides, a lot of the twitter posts I've seen make me think people have lost the ability to use the English language.

I think both sides raise a good point. To add to the professionalism though, as a teacher you don't ridicule a student's writing in front of the entire class. Not only would you probably kill any desire that student had to write ever again, but you'd also get angry phone calls and things from parents. You talk about funny papers and bad writing of students to other teachers and use nameless examples to show the class what not to do, unless they sign up for it. I think it's about constructive criticism and not about how bad you can make someone feel. Faceless or not (Which is how is should be, yay Jessica!)

I know I won't be submitting to any of the agents who do queryfail. For me, it's about professionalism. Do I really want an agent who's going to talk about how bad query letters are in a public setting without much constructive criticism, selling my book? Does that look good on me, and do I really want an agent like that in my corner? If I write something bad on an off day, will it be ridiculed in public by the agent who is suppose to support me?

The point was made that if your book's published, you'll hear stuff like this. Yeah, that's true and we need thick skins regardless. It's the job of critics to tell you their opinion and readers are going to do it based on their taste. However, they aren't the ones trying to sell your book. You can't control those and you aren't paying those guys to vouch for your book. The author, the Agent, and the Editor are. So do you really want an agent and/or an editor that's willing to jump on the public bashing ban wagon? An agent/editor that’s willing to look bad professionally, representing your book?

Some people do. They mesh well with those types of personalities. I’m not one of them. I love Queryshark because those people sign up for it, and I love the straightforwardness of it. It’s constructive criticism and done extremely well. Bashing people for their effort or knowledge level, which is what I’ve seen from queryfail, isn’t. It’s about the level of professionalism you want out of your agent. Me, if I’m going to be a professional writer, I want a professional agent.

Elissa M said...

I majored in commercial art (illustration). Every assignment was put up in front of the entire class and torn to shreds... er, critiqued, with no anonymity whatsoever.

It wasn't about US, it was about the work. And we learned how to improve the work much faster than if we'd been coddled. The added bonus was that armadillos and tortoises could not compete with the thickness of our hides.

I have absolutely no sympathy for writers who don't get that it isn't about THEM. The publishing business is not about stroking anyone's precious ego.

Anyone who cannot take public ridicule of his or her writing best not seek publication. Period.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for todays post!

I went to Nathan's comments. Read just past the 'hissy-fit' Coleen Lindsay got into with a critic. I was disappointed in her behavior as a professional. When I went to her blog to say so I couldn't because it doesn't accept anonymous input. Guess she wants to limit free speech. Not like you or Nathan. Course free-speech doesn't mean 'anonymous' comments aren't edited. Just means you're open to those of us who haven't yet established a web presence.

I did learn on her blog that a second queryfail is planned. Didn't 'tune in' to the first; don't plan to for the second. Why should I? There are so many blogs and websites that show the right and wrong ways of writing a query, including yours.

Makes me wonder whether she's doing what she is for the educational aspects or for the attention. And, whether her clients would be better off (however many they may be) if she spent that time on their behalf rather than antagonizing the ones she's not about to get.

Regardless, your blog ROCKS!

It's always educational and professional. Something that obviously takes time on your part. And, makes you an agent I would want to represent me.

Anonymous, But Not Without a Voice.

Anonymous said...

"Anyone who cannot take public ridicule of his or her writing best not seek publication. Period."

A tad bit black and white, don't you think? To take/endure public ridicule on a published work is to be expected. A query letter sent to an agent doesn't (at least in my book) constitute a published work. It is a professional (hopefully) correspondence between a writer and another professional, an agent.

I, for one, am glad that we have available in the nearest bookstore published works by those who couldn't handle public mockery... or couldn't handle it without excessive addictions. The world is better for the works of Emily Dickinson or the myriad of other geniuses who lived peculiar lives.

There is a business here; no one is arguing that, but there is artistry here as well. And public mockery of a query is unnecessary bloodletting in an already difficult process.

Let's look for a few shades of grey, shall we?

Elissa M said...

I stand by my comment. If you are unable to accept public commentary, critique, ridicule, or mockery, you had best not seek publication. There is no gray area here. If your work is published, it will be commented upon, often in the harshest tones. You will probably not have the luxury of already being dead before the snarking begins.

There is no reason to query an agent if you are not seeking publication. If commentary on one or two lines in your anonymous, unidentifiable query is too much for you, then you are not ready to have your work made available to the public's slings and arrows.

I am not saying this to be nasty. I am pointing out a fact. Publishing is not healthy for those who are stressed by criticism.

Miss Lily said...


Yes, in some classes, you are ripped apart for your work (As you should). But usually you sign up for those classes because you want the work ripped apart and go in knowing that your work is going to be ripped apart and comments for improvement.

My problem with Queryfail is that most of the authors who sent in the queries didn't know they were going to be used as fodder for this. They were ripped apart by agents, editors, and fellow writers (Really though, isn't writing hard enough? Do we really have to rip each other up for stupidity too?).

Some of the agents even used names, pen names and details...without permission. I think this makes queryfail a lot less "educational" then something like Queryshark (Again, Awesome!). Doing something like that, is just unprofessional. It's not about being nice, there's a level of professionalism you expect out of agents, editors, and writers. (And that's not to say a lot of writers need to learn professionalism as well. If you can't follow guidelines, you really do deserve to be rejected. Though publicly blasted, I think not. I think a rejection should be enough, or an automatic delete.)

I do agree that if you can't take critism, you probably shouldn't want to be a published author. But should you have to take public ridicule by the same people your looking to "hire" to be in your corner when you do publish? I don't vent my frustrations in a public forum, because I know that eventually it may come back to bite me.

Yes, maybe some of the query letters deserved it, but it's not just those authors the agents/editors are advertising how they handle things to.

If your going to be a professional in any field, you need to keep in mind that anything you say or do in public forum can bite you in the butt. Look at Jessica and Nathan. They didn't participate and their blogs are extremely professional. Which is why they probably have so many readers, and people who love their blogs. It's educational. I know I learn more reading their blogs, then reading snarky comments on bad Queries that I've seen a thousand times and know better then to do.

Heather said...

Those who describe QueryFail as "public mockery of queries" are people who did not read or follow queryfail. Because that does represent more than a few of the hundreds of QF posts.

Those who claim that Agent Lindsay had a "hissy fit" on Nathan's blog are again misrepresenting.

The truth is, the writing life is all about criticism. And if you can't handle an anonymous critique, I have to agree with Elissa, you don't belong in the business.

In Journalism writing and editing classes, my stuff was projected in front of the entire class and shredded in front of everyone. In every single fiction and non-fiction class I took, our work was distributed out and we had to sit there quietly while our work was ripped apart. It's more like "decimated" and "destroyed" in grad school.

It's part of the game in writing and no one is immune.

Of course little kids aren't critiqued like that in elementary school, but we're grownups now, and we need to be able to take it to compete in the grownup world. College writing classes prepare you for that appropriately.

Anonymous said...

I was a minister for twenty-five years and query fail was child's play compared to the abuse my colleagues got from parishioners. Writing feels pretty safe to me!

Kimber An said...

The solution is simple. If the participants in Queryfail have a business style incompatible with your own, *don't query them.*

And stay away from Queryfail.

There are plenty of publishing professionals who did not and will not take part.