Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fail: #queryfail

by Raelene Gorlinsky

A couple days ago, several agents and editors (nope, none of us here) decided to have a day on Twitter of trying to help aspiring authors write better query letters by tweeting examples from really bad queries. A good goal, supportive of authors. But warning bells rang in my head as soon as I heard about it, and unfortunately the project went the way I had feared.

Reality: Many authors don't want to hear bad news, don't want to be told they are doing something wrong. A huge percentage react very nastily to rejections, and do not take advice well. It isn't because they are writers - it is because they are people; you'll find the same characteristic in any profession.

It helps if the editor/agent can clearly explain the problem, give supportive suggestions, and include encouragement with the bad news. Which made the venue of Twitter, with its max 140 character messages, not the best place to get into this. Posting out-of-context sentences from query letters, and follow-up very brief comments, does not necessarily provide the needed explanation. It seemed to some like the examples were being posted for entertainment effect, as humor rather than for education. And that can be hurtful to those who may recognize that they made a similar error in a query letter. People started feeling the editors and agents were mocking authors, were being mean-spirited, when I'm sure that was not how they intended it.

The goal and intent were admirable, the actual application was flawed, the results were mixed. Some aspiring authors got a very negative impression of the participating editors/agents, and of the industry as a whole. This is not good for any of us.

You can search for a number of blogs summarizing the #queryfail experiment. You can also find lots of online advice on how to write query letters. There is a list of excellent links at http://jillcorcoran.blogspot.com/2009/03/how-to-write-query-letter-advice-from.html . One of my favorites is the fun "madlib" style letter at http://nathanbransford.blogspot.com/2008/03/query-letter-mad-lib.html (agent Nathan Bransford).

Aspiring author Tara Lazar put a positive spin on the experience with a summary of what she learned about query letter errors, and more importantly, what makes a "Query Win".
http://taralazar.wordpress.com/2009/03/05/queryfail/
First sentence hook
Wordcount/genre
One- or two-paragraph blurb
Relevant writing credits/background
Polite closing
Solid writing sample

4 comments:

Nobilis said...

I think there was a lot of value in #queryfail. Sometimes you have to see people doing things in order to understand not to do it.

taralazar said...

Thanks for mentioning my post regarding #QueryFail. I got a lot of value out of it, but I also understood how some people got upset. I did try to put a positive spin on it. Besides the blog post, I posted several links to successful query letter examples via Twitter.

Anonymous said...

What I don't like about it (or wouldn't like about it if one of the queries were mine) is that the agents are in effect publishing intellectual property which doesn't belong to them. Couldn't they be sued for that? When you send your book ideas to a literary agency, your ideas are between you and the agent to which the letter is addressed. The material is not meant for any pubblication, including Twitter, prior to signing a contract.

I wouldn't want my book ideas published without my permission, even if they are held up in a good light.

AliceAnderson said...

I'm going to have to agree with anonymous here. Ordinarily, I'm all for helping writers out. I write articles frequently, round up links and give examples. But the idea of editors and agents taking queries from their stack and copying and pasting portions to twitter makes me cringe.

I've tried to go back and read the hashtag (as I was actually putting together an article on writing a dynamite query earlier this afternoon) but can't seem to find more than ten unrelated posts on twitter. So I'm not sure how it went down exactly but my thought here is this. Authors sent those queries privately, with the idea they were going to sell the book or gain an agent. The alternative, get a rejection. All fine and dandy and the way it's meant to work.

Having those editors and agents plaster chunks onto twitter with comments (positive or negative) seems, dare I say, unprofessional to me, unless of course they asked for the query author's permission to do so, beforehand. Having asked for permission, something like this would be an incredible learning experience and I'm all for that.