So you can read my books

Friday, June 18, 2010


Dear Author :

Thank you for thinking of us. Unfortunately, this is not quite right for us. Better luck with it elsewhere. Your day will come. You can watch it from heaven. Your lucky numbers are : 9 - 12 - 21- 35 - 42 -54.

Form rejections.

You hate them. I hate them. We all get them.

Basically, it's silence from the agent's end.

And when you receive only silence from someone important, you're left to guess why. And we guess with our fears. And I've usually noticed from other areas of my life, what I fear usually isn't even in the same galaxy with the truth of the situation.

I would wager that is true with the silence of form rejections. But a wager is just a fancy word for a guess. And we've come full circle.

We've heard the truth before : it isn't personal. And it truly isn't. You're not paying the agent a cent. She is under no obligation to teach you how to write a letter or a novel. We're job applicants. Period.

Play turnabout. What would you want in a query if you had to read hundreds a week? No brainer. Short ones. All right, then. We have our first requirement : make that sucker short.

Short means no fluff. No Hamlet introduction. Just straight to the point. What would you want next if hundreds of queries surged in a rush of cyber-diarrhea into your inbox?

Something different. Something catchy. Written by someone who didn't have a chip on her/his shoulder. And the tone?

Not misleading. Not written in a funny vein if the novel is a tragedy.

O.K. Write the query short, with a hook up front, and in the tone of the novel you're submitting. We've getting a better idea now on how to write our next query.

What else would you want in those thousands of emails a month? Short paragraphs. Well-written ones without errors that grate like nails on the blackboard.

Ones easy to reject in a second :

Ones that are illiterate. Ones that query for genres you don't handle. Ones that query for carbon copies of hit sellers. Ones that whine.

All right. Now, we have an idea of what NOT to do.

What do we do next?

Look at your query. Does it do your novel justice? Would it make a total stranger want to read your novel with "Wow, that sounds neat! I gotta read this."

Is there building tension in your summation? Are the stakes primal : threat to survival, sex, or family? Is your hero likeable, clever, funny? He/she better be.

Even a detailed letter of why your query was rejected would still leave you wondering, without a true direction to follow. One agent's take is not gospel. Trust your instincts.

You are a reader. Try reading your query as an agent would. Try reading your novel as a stranger would. Then, as my friend, Heather, suggests : read it aloud. You'll hear flaws you never would find otherwise.

And now a word from Neil Gaiman {courtesy of }

By now you're probably ready to give up.

You're past that first fine furious rapture when every character and idea is new and entertaining. You're not yet at the momentous downhill slide to the end. You're in the middle, a little past the half-way point.

The glamour has faded, the magic has gone, your back hurts from all the typing. You don't know why you started your novel, you no longer remember why you imagined that anyone would want to read it, and you're pretty sure that even if you finish it it won't have been worth the time or energy.

Welcome to the club.

That's how novels get written.

You write. That's the hard bit that nobody sees. You write on the good days and you write on the lousy days. Like a shark, you have to keep moving forward or you die. What matters right now are the words, one after another. Find the next word. Write it down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

Writing is a continual search for the word that will fit in the text, in your mind, on the page. Plot and character and metaphor and style, all these become secondary to the words.

The search for the word gets no easier but nobody else is going to write your novel for you.

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent.

I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist.

And instead of sympathising or agreeing with me, or blasting me forward with a wave of enthusiasm---or even arguing with me---she simply said, suspiciously cheerfully, "Oh, you're at that part of the book, are you?"

I was shocked. "You mean I've done this before?"

"You don't remember?"

"Not really."

"Oh yes," she said. "You do this every time you write a novel. But so do all my other clients."

I didn't even get to feel unique in my despair.

So I put down the phone and drove down to the coffee house in which I was writing the book, filled my pen and carried on writing.

One word after another.

That's the only way that novels get written and, short of elves coming in the night and turning your jumbled notes into Chapter Nine, it's the only way to do it.

So keep on keeping on. Write another word and then another.

Pretty soon you'll be on the downward slide, and it's not impossible that soon you'll be at the end. Good luck...

Neil Gaiman

Hope this helps in some small way. And here is a beautiful melody in an equally beautiful music video :


  1. You broke down the query in such an eloquent way. You laid everything out in such a brutally honest way that I had to read it twice. Is it weird to say I thought it was kind of beautiful? I'm not at the querying stage yet, but when I am... I'm looking back at this post.

    Okay. I nearly died when I read the pep talk from Neil Gaiman. He mentions elves that will finish our manuscript for us -- I mentioned that sometimes I thought Elves wrote my manuscript late at night for me in one of my previous blog posts.

    This song is positively gorgeous.

  2. Melissa : Thanks for saying my query blueprint was beautiful in a way. As for being brutal, I have to be that way with myself, or I start to mope. And we great authors look silly when we pout. LOL.

    Wouldn't it be great if elves came in and cleaned up our grammar and arranged our metaphors neatly while we slept? I'm glad you found the song beautiful. Have a great weekend, Roland

  3. Us writers all have those days when we don't feel like writing and/or hate even the thought of our work. But as will usually happen, if we just buckle down and get that sucker written, even if it's just a single paragaph, we will eventually surprise ourselves by how well we did! If it takes all day, so be it.

    And why and how does this happen? Because we love it!

    You always write so eloquently, Roland, that it can be hard for me to think of what to say that's at least a fourth as eloquent as what you put forth. :D

  4. Amanda : Yes, you know you're a writer when you just have to put on paper or cyberspace, or the words will burn inside you.

    And thanks for the praise. But you're talented and skilled as well. You don't see it because you're too close to your words. Have a great Friday, Roland

  5. You're a blood courier? Aside from the fact that you sound like either a vampire or a vampire's minion that sounds fascinating. I've never heard of a blood courier before. But now that I think of it...seems like one of those necessary occupations.

    I need to be brutal with myself as well -- that's why I appreciate your query blueprint so much and why I will be coming back for it.
    We do look silly when we pout. Actually, everyone looks silly when they pout.

    I don't think elves do the work for me, I just sometimes feel that way because I do my best writing when I've been up for hours and am in a sleep-deprived state. I hardly remember what I write during these moments and am always so surprised when I read them back. I have insomnia so I have a lot of sleep-deprived moments/days.

    I do wish elves would clean up my manuscript while I did sleep. That would be fantastic.

  6. Melissa : Hospitals only carry a small portion of the blood they need. As Ft. Knox is to banking, blood centers are to hospitals.

    And there are certain rare blood products like platelets (they help control bleeding) and fresh frozen plasma that our center carries that are needed as well.

    I keep hoping for a pretty vampire to strike up my acquaintance. But she would probably hate the taste of the additives we put into the blood to prolong its usefulness and bite me!

    And yes, it would be great for elves to clean up my writing -- or give me ideas for new stories. Have a great evening. Rats, there went the phone. Another blood run. Watson, the game's afoot!

  7. Whew, that was inspiring! Nice post. Neil Gaiman has to be at the top of my list when it comes to authors . . .

    Too bad elves don't come and fix manuscripts, and Voila! Finished and perfect writing. But I suppose we have to be our own personal elves.

  8. Oh gosh, queries! I both love them and hate them with equal passion. You broke that down very well. Thanks for this :)

  9. I hate query letters. It's taken me longer to perfect my first query letter than it has for me to write my second MS.

  10. Thank you for giving me the courage to continue my novel that has been sitting for months neglected from those previous query rejections. I'll write it now for myself.

  11. LOVE this post!! I am weary of the time I get back out there and query precisely for this reason--I get all sour and bitter, yuck!

    The silver lining? I'm making sure I've done EVERYTHING I possibly can to make my MS shine!!!

    Thanks for the tips--I'm gonna remember 'em when it comes time to polish my query letter.

  12. That was a great lesson on how to write a query. I always cringe when I read queries on the helpful agent blogs, and they are long. Plus, the first paragraph does nothing to hook me into reading the rest of it. Sure, that last paragraph (of five) might be great, but I've given up before then.

  13. That's a great way to consider one's query letter.

  14. Thanks for the shot in the arm. Guess I will send a few more queries out. (=

  15. One word after another...that is what I try to do when I'm feeling rejected and ignored. Actually, I'd rather be rejected because at least I know someone -- even if its an assistant, read my work.

    Great post.

  16. Oh, thank you, Roland, but I'm not trying to beat myself up or anything. :)

  17. Haha, I love this line: "I didn't even get to feel unique in my despair."

    Good advice and fun too!

  18. You are always so encouraging! Thank you!

  19. I've always liked tight writing - more so since I started blogging. Now I just have to get the query to be tight. I wonder why they're so much harder than the novel?? :)

  20. Thank you so much for posting this information. If I ever actually learn how to funnel what's in my brain through to my fingers/keyboard, I'll need it!

  21. Wow, even Neil Gaiman has those moments! Gosh, I'm glad he didn't give up on Anansi Boys. It's one of my favorites!

  22. You have an award at my blog, Roland! And even if you hadn't deserved it before (which of course you did), you certainly do after this post :)

  23. This is some of the best advice on queries I've ever seen. What a brilliant idea, to put ourselves in the intern's place with a pile of queries on our desk as high as Mt. Everest, then think about what catches our eye. That makes so much sense! I'm sending everyone I know over to read this!

  24. Great post, thanks for sharing. One word after another. Yep. I have a ways to go before I get to the query process, but in reading posts like this one, and on blogs like Matthew's, I'm getting mentally prepared. And who knows, maybe by the time I get there it'll just roll out.

    One can only hope, Olivia

  25. I think that's excellent advice, and something that we, as writers, often forget to look at it from the agent's POV. I hate form rejections, too. I just always try to remind myself of the number of submissions that come across an agent's desk and that sometimes it's just impossible for a personal response to even a small percentage of queries.

  26. That's a fantastic post! (And I see why Neil has such a following) I love your point about guessing with our fears - why can't we guess with our hopes and dreams? Too scary, I suppose. But we have to keep going, like the sharks. I've been in that middle muddle; I know exactly how that feels.

    Thanks for the inspirational post! :)

  27. Hi, Roland! Thanks for cheering me up today (missed you, too :D For a good reason, I see.). Really needed those words of encouragement - and Gaiman is, as ever, spot on. Fantastic way to break down the query process, by the way. Good stuff all around. How come you never whine on your blog like I do?? :D