Striking a balance

Authors can sometimes go to one extreme or another in their attitude to their work, as evidenced by two types of query letter.

Type 1:

Dear Agent,

Rejoice! It’s your lucky day! I have chosen you to represent me and my new manuscript. This book will shortly be an all-time bestseller, is sure to win many literary prizes and will make us both rich. When the inevitable auction breaks out between publishers for the rights to this book, you will make it clear to them that no editing will be permitted to sully the perfection of my words.

And so on. Amazingly, the agents don’t take the author up on this incredible opportunity.

Type 2:

Dear Agent,

I apologize for taking time out of your busy day to ask you to consider my manuscript. It’s probably not your kind of thing at all. I don’t have any previous publishing credits or special qualifications for writing, so this book – if I dare to call it that – probably needs a lot of work. I hope I’d be up to doing that. I’m not sure what the readership of this book would be. There’s no obvious market and the genre is hard to pin down. Really I shouldn’t be bothering you or anyone else with this worthless mess of words. I apologise again for wasting your precious time. Just forget I even mailed you. Sorry.

Yes, some writers are enormously confident in their work, which they think it timeless genius. Others think everything they’ve written is awful. Usually neither is correct.

There is an effect – and we’ve all see it in action on TV talent shows – where the least competent people think they are the most able and talented. Less often seen – unless you’re English of course – is the person who thinks whatever they’ve done is rubbish and apologises for even asking you to look at it.

A writer certainly needs some confidence in their work. I’ve said on Twitter before that to write a book you need to have the unmitigated gall to believe that you can and should write one. It’s a self-confident act by anyone to think that they have something worth saying, a story to tell that’s worth writing down, and that they’ve got the skills to at least take a crack at doing it.

But they must resist falling into one of the two traps waiting on either side of the road then. There’s over-confidence, where they are so thrilled with themselves for writing something they think it’s a work of genius and they refuse to be critical of it, or to allow others to do so. They have unreasonable expectations of how well it will do out in the world. So when it fails to be picked up by a publisher, there’s clearly some kind of conspiracy to stifle brilliant new voices in publishing. They need to calm down and realise that as well as being their book’s biggest fan, they have to start out as being its biggest critic. And even once they’ve worked on making it better, maybe even publishable, they must adjust their expectations to the more realistic. It’s probably not going to outsell all seven Harry Potters put together, okay?

On the other hand, they must not fall into the ditch of despair on the other side. Maybe when they first start writing their work isn’t very good. But if they keep writing and paying attention and learning, it will usually improve. The writer must learn to see that it’s improving. They must learn to see when it actually has some merit. When it may even be ready to send off to an agent or publisher. Of course they should still be aware it’s not perfect – perfect isn’t possible in the arts – but that it’s at least as good as and maybe a lot better than many of the books in the agent’s or publisher’s slush pile.

When they do send it off, they should try not to make their query letter a pre-emptive apology and basically an invitation to reject the book. The agent or publisher will most likely agree if told it’s rubbish upfront.

Having the right amount of confidence in their book means that they’ll have a better chance of recognising when it’s at least close to being ready to send off. And will give the writer the nerve to actually do so, because wallowing in how terrible their writing is becomes a good way of avoiding ever letting someone else see and, thereby risking rejection. It becomes a self-defence mechanism. Their own avowed hatred becomes a suit of armour that means anyone else’s rejection of it bounces off – because hey, they knew it was awful anyway.

Find the balance. Avoid both traps.

5 thoughts on “Striking a balance

  1. Or you can just be very direct about it and not waste anyone’s time with either posturing or grovelling. I wouldn’t want an agent if one knocked on my door and offered me chocolate, but when I’m subbing to editors, this is the basic format of my cover letters:


    Dear editor, [pr I use the name if I can find it without going on a major Easter egg hunt]

    Attached is, “Title,” a [genre] story about [number] words long. Thank you for reading; I hope it meets your needs.

    [My Name — whichever, depending on which genre-pseud I’m using for that story]


    And that’s it. If they want to see publishing credits, I’ll include some. I think once or twice a market has wanted your author bio attached, so I include that. But in general I’m not going to waste my time or hers/his with a lot of unnecessary verbage.

    Marion Zimmer Bradley, who when she was wearing her editor hat didn’t particularly want to see cover letters at all, used to say, I’m an editor, you’re a writer, you just sent me a story — I think it’s pretty clear what you hope will happen. Makes sense to me. Electronic subs pretty much require a cover letter if they’re going in via e-mail, just so you don’t have a completely blank letter with a file attached, which Gmail at least won’t send anyway, so I use the one above. Some markets that use electronic submission services, either their own or a third party, specifically state that you don’t need to put anything into the Cover Letter box, and if you don’t have to then I don’t. Very convenient.

    I completely agree that writers should put at least some energy into Ego Management, whether it’s deflating a dirigible-sized ego or pumping up an ego that’s laying there like a popped party balloon. Not stressing out over submissions, one way or the other, is a good habit to cultivate. You sub a manuscript, then get back to working on another one. When the first one gets bounced, you send it right back out to another market, and go back to working on your WIP. Both the Ego+ writer who wastes time gnashing their teeth about stupid editors and publishing conspiracies, and the Ego- writer who wastes time angsting over how much they suck and how useless it is and how they should just quit writing, are wasting time, that should be spent writing and learning and getting better. Both approaches are just self-sabotage.


    1. Great comment, Angie, thanks! People do seem to spend an inordinate amount of time on queries. I see that on writers forums like Absolute Write, where there seems to be a fear that if every word of it isn’t as finely tuned as a poem it will be rejected out of hand. If in doubt, keep it simple, I think. I’m sure the constant editing of a query letter is a kind of submission avoidance.

      1. If an editor is going to reject me just because my cover letter isn’t a finely turned piece of poetry, then I’d just as soon not work with that person anyway, so I suppose that works nicely for everyone to the extent that it might be occasionally true. 🙂


  2. Great post. Sorry I haven’t popped by in a while. I think Angie has given the best example of a cover letter possible. Keep it simple really.

    If anything, editors really don’t have a lot of time, so you’re better off keeping that cover letter as short and as sweet as possible, so that they actually read your first chapter. If the letter is too long, you’ve probably just lost your allotted time with the editor to read your manuscript.

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