Sunday, September 23, 2007

A Short Interlude

Some people are very nice. They become kindergarten teachers.
Some people are very snarky. They become movie critics.
Some people are very nice and very snarky. They have to work hard to balance these two sides of their personalities, and eventually become children's book editors.

Certain impressions aside, I do not actually want to hurt people's feelings, and I had hoped that I'd given enough warning about what kind of comments were to be offered in this contest.

It seems to me that there's a great deal of mystery around editors—what happens at our desks, in our meeting rooms, and in our heads. The pain and trouble of writing query letters is that you are trying to write for an audience you do not know.

Thus, this window into my actual reactions as I read these query letters. This is meant to show
  • how editors extrapolate from the writing in the query letter to the writing they may find in the manuscript.
  • how editors may react to various aspects of your plot / summary.

Most of the things I am responding to negatively (whether mildly or strongly) are things that may in fact make perfect sense (both logical and emotional) in the context of your manuscript, and I know this. What I hope to get across is when you are not offering the reader of your query letter the context they need to see your manuscript for what it is.

This is not an opportunity for me to bash strangers. I can do as much of that as I like at work (and whatever you may think, I don't do much of it. It's a waste of time). This is an opportunity to fine tune your understanding of what assumptions readers might make based on your letter, and to fiddle with your letter so that they make the right ones.

It is a fact of life that editors are both loving and judgemental—we must be able to guess what book reviewers will criticize, as well as what children will love. Your editor will try to show you her judgemental side gently, but don't make the mistake of wanting an editor without one. Your writing is worth more than that.

35 comments:

Karen said...

If these would be your actual reactions while looking through slush, and not you dissecting queries purely for snark's sake, I'd assume you're most likely not the right person for me to query. I'd rather have a form rejection.

Also, while I admire your efforts to provide input that's both helpful and amusingly snarky, I do think there's such a thing as too much snark without enough positive feedback to balance it out. Apparently only hardcore snarklings can stomach 95% snark content.

Karen

P.S. It's all too easy to misread tone online, so I'll say that I'm not trying to bitch or bash anyone.

literaticat said...

When most editors and agents read slush or when buyers look at books, there is time for about a .2 second reaction. I will look at a query letter and form a judgement on it almost instantly. Just as when I'm in a buy, I decide whether or not to choose a book for the store almost instantly.

YES you have to present your work concisely, eye-catchingly, amusingly, accurately, and most of all QUICKLY.

Oh, you say need three pages of rambling exposition to explain the delicate nuances of your story to me? Tough titty said the kitty!

In my opinion, Ed. is doing a service by pointing out where these queries are flawed. What makes the reader stop and say "WTF?" - because there is really no room for a WTF? in a query letter. It isn't actually Ed.'s job to tell you what exact words you need to put to make it better - that's YOUR job as a writer. She's just pointing out the WTF! moments and letting you decide what to do with them.

And - authors, it might make you feel better to know that agents and editors are aware that it isn't easy to write a great query, and it isn't ness. indicative of your writing or storytelling skills. Sorta like how the SATs test how well you take tests, not how smart you are.

This is a different skillset from novelwriting. But if you are going to try and sell yourself to agents, editors and eventually the book-buying public, you'll have to know how to express yourself in this way on occasion.

my ten cents.

Angela said...

Literaticat, I think that was well said and worth 50 not 10 cents! The "WTF?" will make a potential reader put your book down and move on. I don't know about you guys, but I want my books read:)

Angela said...

EA are you going to post the "Best" queries by chance? I would like to see what works for you and makes you request more.

Anonymous said...

I don't need sugarcoating and ego stroking. I need to sell a damn book. Please don't change to pacify the quivering masses.

Karen said...

>EA are you going to post the "Best" queries by chance?

Urk. I didn't look at it this way. Mine was one of the "Worst" queries?

Karen

Editorial Anonymous said...

Once I've posted the ones I feel are particularly good learning opportunities, I'll rank them. Karen, you might be surprised where yours ends up.

Big Momma Pimpalishisness With A Cherry On Top said...

The bottom line is if people can't handle criticism, whether "nice" or "snarky", they have very little chance of being successful in this field. EA is only writing the things that editors are thinking when reading the crap that's put on their desks contantly (which some of the things I've sent in have been, I'm sure).

I'm assuming since people obviously read the rules, which clearly state
"... so only those with thick skin, thick egos, or deliberately bad entries should submit... This is meant as a learning exercise, after all. A snarky, sarcastic learning exercise.", that the people who are offended are the ones who submitted letters, thinking they'd be chosen as the best and instead were chosen as the worst. Honey,deal with your hurt feelings and move on, brush it off, and damn it, write a better query letter next time!!!!

Anonymous said...

Anyone who's been reading this blog would have seen the funny comments coming and not take them as insults. EA has a sense of humor. That's one reason people read the blog. Her/his comments are off the wall at times and quite witty. Those thoughts probably do run through her mind when she's reading queries and manuscripts). I think it's great to have such a sense of humor. Otherwise, this blog would be just another blah, blah, bland blog.
EA also offers a lot of good suggestions in the mix.
And, Karen, you're right about misreading the tone of a comment online, and that's true with EA's comments, too. You do need a thick skin to be a writer. Just keep on keepin' on and don't dwell on the negative aspects of writing. We all know it's a rollercoaster ride. What one editor likes, another might hate. That's the risk of submitting. Good luck with your writing.

Karen said...

> Karen, you might be surprised where yours ends up.

Oh, really? Now I've got to keep reading. :)

> Honey,deal with your hurt feelings and move on, brush it off, and damn it, write a better query letter next time!!!!

I believe I (a) dealt with my hurt feelings, (b) brushed it off, and (c) am in the process of rewriting my query. No need to yell.

I also don't like the assumption that because writers should be able to take critiques, that gives people the license to be nasty.

If you want to impale me for dissenting, snarklings, go ahead.

Karen

ae said...

I hope there will be some good picture book queries coming up.

I'd love one to be from a writer/illustrator but I guess that would be a stretch since you can't post art or dummies or postcards or storyboards. Sigh.

Angela said...

Karen!!!!!!! I just want to see which ones she would request to see more from. Don't you? That's how I learn. It seems like you're intent on milking this to incite some more sympathetic ego-stroking for yourself. Let it go. Your query is better because of all this snarkiness whether you want to admit it or not. I challenge you to post the changes you made to that first paragraph and show everyone, including EA what a huge difference it made to your query. End of story

Karen said...

I don't think I should keep posting here. It's not worth it.

Karen

LindaBudz said...

Karen, FWIW, I liked your query ... and I'm not even a fantasy fan. Also, I have a fairly thin skin, which is one reason I did not enter this. While I like honest feedback, this type of forum would be too much for me! So I know where you're coming from.

That said ... I can see where EA was going with each of her comments. If you take out the "entertainment factor" (aimed at her readers) and translate each of them into less colorful advice (aimed at you), I think you'll get a lot out of it.

For example: "Holy crap, it’s a fairy land cornucopia" becomes, "You're introducing too many crazy characters for a query letter."

Helpful stuff! It's just presented in a funny manner. (I laughed out loud at the "holy crap" sentence ... easy for me to do, since it wasn't my letter!)

Important note: I want you to feel that I am laughing WITH you, not at you. Your letter is good. But we can all identify with how hard it is to write a good query and how tempting it is to introduce every single crazy character, etc., and so that makes it all the funnier. We see a bit of ourselves in some of these mistakes.

Heck, I even saw a little of myself in a couple of the ones that were SUPPOSED to be bad. If it weren't for that grain of truth, they wouldn't be funny.

Good luck with your letter and with your novel!!

Karen said...

Must. Have. Last. Word. (deranged laugh) Honestly, I'm not pissed or wailing in agony. I'm satisfied with the input I'm got, especially from the commenters. Check out the last comment on my query, see? I should just keep my mouth shut on the subject of what percentage of snark becomes toxic to me.

Best of luck with all your writing,
Karen

P.S. Mmm, ego-stroking feels SO good. Keep it coming. ;)

Karen said...

Uh, that should be "the input I got." Stupid tiny font and lack of rapid spelling ability...

Karen

lynne said...

EA, I'd also love to see more queries that were purposely bad & funny. Or at least the ones that seem to be, that you hope are bad on purpose.

Anonymous said...

Karen, be honest with yourself. You sent your query in because you thought ea would praise it as being one of the "best". Anyone reading this blog knows she is famous for her bite. Her critique was harsh but honest. You can't ask for more than that unless you're willing to pay someone for ego-stroking. Sugarcoating costs extra.

Karen said...

(ego purrs contentedly, then hisses and lashes out at random comments)

Karen

ae said...

Sugarcoating causes cavities. Not just in ones teeth.

2readornot said...

I definitely like seeing the instant reactions of an editor...even knowing that all editors are different and will have different opinions -- reading the opinions of one has already given me a clearer idea of how to direct the information in my queries...however, I did not subject my own query to the firing line, so it's easy for me to say!

valiantmauz said...

I wouldn't be surprised if Karen's query turned out to be one of the ones that, with a little tweaking, would actually catch an editor's eye.

Good luck, Karen.

K.B. said...

There's this aura about children's books. It starts when we're little pre-readers sitting in mummy's lap, enjoying a cuddle and a story. It gathers steam when we have little pre-readers of our own, and we cuddle and read to them. Children's books -- how cozy, how sweet, how wonderful.

Ooh, one thinks, I could write one of these! Wouldn't that be fun?

And so we do. We write a sweet rhyming tale, complete with naughty bunnies who learn their lesson. We package it up and send it off, with visions of cozy little sugar-editors dancing in our heads.

Some weeks later, the reality of the publishing industry hits like a half-brick to the face.

This shattering of illusions sends some people scuttling off to the shadows, swearing never to try to get published again. Or worse, scuttling off to the vanity publishers "just to show them all!" Others, however, use the experience as a valuable lesson and learn all they can about the industry as they try, try, and try again.

Olga Lintowinsky wrote a wonderful book called It's a Bunny-Eat-Bunny World. I highly recommend it to anyone who is unsettled by the honest opinions of editors who spend their day in metaphorical hip-waders, slogging through the slush.

Anonymous said...

I still want to know what arch phrasing is.

ae said...

Arch phrasing to my knowledge means too lofty and abstract in terms of language and/or ideas, therefore perhaps too clever or poetic for your audience.

I am sure EA could expand on this.

I also think this is one of those subjective things.

Adrian said...

Oops, AE answered while I was typing this, but I'll post it anyway...

Anonymous 7:27, since this is the second time you asked and I'd hate for you to feel ignored, I'll take a shot at it. Wikipedia defines "arch" as:

Adjective: knowing, clever, Example: "I attempted to hide my emotions, but an arch remark escaped my lips."

My guess would be in this instance that it might be similar to "coy" or "teasing", maybe too much implied story line and not enough in the way of detail.

But if EA meant something else, I'm sure that she'll correct me! ;)

Karen said...

There's been all this talk about hurt feelings. At this point, I'm feeling pretty good about the input I got, but I can't help thinking of a certain anonymous someone who called EA a "mean bitch," which I thought was uncalled for. EA isn't an evil robot. EA also has feelings, even if they're well-protected by snark armor.

I certainly don't want anyone to think I'm so hypocritical and selfish I'd wail about my own query booboos and then whip around to bash EA. I tip my hat to EA, even if her (or possibly his) snark is some potent medicine that I spat out at first taste and won't leap to try again.

Please play nice, everybody.
Karen

Editorial Anonymous said...

Thanks for your good sense and kind words, K.

Anonymous said...

Okay, crab-cakes.
Some wise person once posted something like this,
"write a good book and success will follow."
Period.
Make your query simple. You want the editor to read your first few pages.
Period.

nw said...

I have to say, I really don't think EA is harsh or biting or particularly snarky, though she is often clever and amusing. Her comments on the queries seemed pretty restrained to me; I'm guessing in real life, most editors wouldn't read that far or give it that much thought. Editors are not your high school English teacher. They're not there to correct you, teach you, or grade you. They're also not your critique buddies, who do need to offer a balance of useful criticism and support. EDITORS are there to find something they can publish, and I'm sure nothing would make them happier than to love everything they get, instead of having to wade through stacks of writing that is boring, confusing, or totally crazy.

If you queried EA in real life, you probably would get a form rejection, if she didn't ask to see your manuscript. Editors might send a personalized note when rejecting a manuscript with promise, but why would they critique a query? EA is offering a fantastic service here. It's the only way you'll ever know how your query came across--unless the query works.

A. B. said...

Yes indeed, NW. I'm rather looking forward to seeing what is said about mine. I'm sure there's room for improvement, and seeing someone's genuine reaction, good or bad, is extremely useful.

I've come across some things here and there to give me some idea of where past queries and ones sitting in store for rewrites to be completed have gone wrong.

Anonymous said...

EA is providing a really good service here, helping to take the mystery out of what is happening on the other side and providing a real counterpoint to all the books and media images that sell people false hopes and unrealistic ideas about the publishing business. Not only is getting published hard, but staying published is hard! And furthermore, if people think critical remarks at this point are hard to swallow [I am not saying they aren't, I know full well they are], imagine a critical review for a published book when it is too late to fix anything! And if you think that won't happen to you, even really successful and respected authors can get reviews criticizing their work. Reviewers can be brutal, and 'kid's book' don't get any kinder handling. Carefully read the NYT's book review children's edition from beginning to end [next one in November], and see the possibilities for yourself.

I'd also like to comment that I think Karen has been a really good sport in her responses, and I really wish her luck with her work. She took the hits, felt bad [of course! who wouldn't! ] and seems determined to learn and keep going. As an author, I'd say that that is exactly the attitude one needs to make it. Taking criticism doesn't ever get pleasant, but you may get to a point where you are mainly just really thankful to get it even though it means going back and reworking. And don't forget, editors too feel the pain of criticism too, when books they have put their hearts into get bum reviews or go out of print early, etc.

Wendy said...

I appreciate everything EA takes the time to write about in here. I've learned so much and have more of a realistic view of what goes on in the publishing world.

I can't wait to see what EA says about mine, good or bad. If it's bad, okay, my query sucks and needs to be improved. That's why I took her up on her offer. Of course, waiting for it is sort of like getting the visa bill after Christmas. You know it's coming and you know you want to open it but part of you cringes at the thought of what it's going to say. LOL Just kidding EA. I'm tough. I can take it.

Anonymous said...

I greatly appreciated the comments I got on my query letter (mine was #4, "The Reader Ducks"). I was actually rather startled that Editorial Anonymous found the query to be promising a preachy story, because that wasn't my intent at all -- and now I'm rethinking whether the story comes off that way, despite the fact that I never intended it to!

Of course, I submitted my query in the hopes that it would be one of the "best" (laugh), but truthfully, I didn't send one of my query letters that I thought of as my very best: I sent one that I suspected had problems, but couldn't figure why. Now I have some good ideas about that, and that advice is extremely valuable.

Editorial Anonymous, thanks for providing this service for us. Of course, it made my face flush a little bit when I read those comments the first time ("AAAA! My writing wasn't perfect?! NOOOOOO!"), but that's just fine -- my ego's healthy enough that it can use a bit of realistic puncturing sometimes. :P

I think one of the best experiences I've had, in the field of publication attempts, happened to me while in college: I became a volunteer editor (a.k.a. "slush reader") for my university's science fiction and fantasy magazine, which took submissions from around the world. After reading a great deal of slush yourself, it's much easier to not take offense to other people banging their heads on their desks about your stupid mistakes!

Karen, I totally sympathize with you finding the critique uncomfortable, at least your first time through -- it takes a pretty healthy ego (and a fair amount of experience!) to be able to laugh off criticism, especially the snarky variety. But fortunately, I was expecting no less, so mostly all I feel now is gratitude for those comments, even if I might not wholly agree with all of them.

Yay for our beloved snarky editor, who took the time to read EXTRA slush queries in her free time, specifically to help all of us improve!

Kidlitjunkie said...

If these would be your actual reactions while looking through slush, and not you dissecting queries purely for snark's sake, I'd assume you're most likely not the right person for me to query. I'd rather have a form rejection.

Karen,
(And this is not meant to bash you at all!) what you are missing here is that if those are the editor's actual reactions when looknig through slush, the likelihood is that you WILL be getting a form letter. Only an editor with very little to do can spend the time to send personal rejections to everybody. Most of the time, while these reactions will run through the editor's head, all you'll hear (all she has time to send you) is a form rejection.

These posts here, they aren't usually what you'll be getting back from the editor who reads your slush. These posts are what runs through the mind of the editor reading your slush as she reaches for the form rejection.

If you see it that way, you'll see that this is not meant to hurt people--I rarely say ANYTHING mean or snarky in a personal rejection--but just to help make your stuff better.

(And FYI, if I'm taking the time to write you a personal rejection, it's because I read your story more than once. It made me smile. I enjoyed it. But I didn't enjoy it enough to ask for more. I am not inclined to be snarky to you. It takes only a moment to send a form rejection, and a lot more time to send a personal rejection. If I send a personal rejection, it's to make you feel good. Why would I bother wasting time making you feel bad?