So you can read my books

Wednesday, July 4, 2012


Gore Vidal once said, "To call Harold Robbins a writer is like calling a woodpecker a carpenter."

Yet Harold Robbins continually outsold Gore Vidal.

There is art. And then there is marketing.

We writers have to know the difference.

We take months, years even, to finish a novel. Then
burning to see it published, we hurriedly scratch off a query letter in two weeks and send it to six agents found in a dog-eared edition of last year's WRITER'S MARKET.

And you know what happens next.

Query letters are like eyes. You can tell a lot from them. A good agent can look at your one page query letter and tell you things about yourself that would take your breath away at their accuracy.

Harlon Ellison, one of the greats authors of science fiction, said that a good writer can write in any genre. We must consider marketing just another genre -- with its own rules and guidelines.

You could be the next J K Rowling, but if you don't query like Billy Mays, you will never get your novel read.

You must sell yourself first. And what do great salesmen do? They study their target market. See? I rhymed just like Billy Mays. All right, put down the rotten tomatoes.

Our target market? Agents. And with agents think : Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

O.K. They're not in that bad a shape. But close.

1) They have seen an ocean of terrible queries : on scented paper, on colored paper, addressed to their dog or cat, sucking up -- "Oh, wisdom and wit drip from your blog like honey from a comb." Quick! Get me my insulin!

2) They've seen it all, and it has made them : very harsh critics, jaded, and very, very impatient.

3) They are dreamers. Yes, dreamers. You think money got them into this business? They could make more money selling real estate, earth shoes, or unlimited texting to Tiger Woods.

4) They want to discover the next Faulkner or Clancy. Or they wanted badly to be a writer themselves.

5) They are sinking in a sea of bad queries. And when your rowboat is sinking, what do you do? You bail out the invading flood just as fast as you can -- which leads them to do this ...

6) Reading to reject :

No hook? Reject! First three sentences boring? Reject! Addresses it "To Whom It May Concern?" Reject! Calls me by the name of the guy I replaced last year? Reject!

7) They carve a niche in early or late hours to read queries. They read fast. They skim. They're already tired when they begin to hack down the emails or letters. In a few dreary, mind-numbing minutes of root-canal skimming, they are reading with half-listening eyes. YOU GOTTA BE BILLY MAYS HERE! But a smart one.

All right, Mr. "I've got the answers" Roland, what do I do?

A salesman is a hunter. And a good hunter knows his quarry. And it is Agent Season, so be veeery smart and remember these things about agents :

A.) The embers of the dream that got them into the business are still there.

B.) It's up to you to fan them into the fires of renewed hope and curiosity.

C.) Don't give them obvious handholds to toss your query out of their rowboat. Refer to #6 up there for some clues of how to do that.

D.) Remind them why they got into the business in the first place. Spark their sense of wonder at the magic of words. Give them hope that you know your business, that you know them ...

E.) A hunter knows his game's habitat. Go to your target agent's website. Google his recent interviews. Go to conferences where she/he is speaking.

Faithfully read their blog if they have one. Stay away from "the drippling wit and wisdom" bit. But do get a sense of who they are, what they like, what they detest, and what genres they CURRENTLY solicit.

F.) Remember your real goal :

1. not to convey everything
2. not to include the detailed plot, every character, all the themes.

BUT your real goal is :

1.) Get them to want to read more. That's all. Period. The End.

*** Now doesn't that take the pressure off? It crystalizes your focus. Now you can be calm instead of desperately trying to cram 400 pages into a detailed synopsis and thesis of your work. All impossibly in one page.

** You don't want to come across like a used car salesman. No, you want to come across in a calm "Sam Elliot -- Wouldn't you like a steak?" approach.

Another analogy that might help :

Agents are like drug lords. Hold on. Go with me on this.

Imagine you're a poppy farmer in Columbia. You're in front of the lovely new representative of the Drug Cartel. What you say next is literally life or death.

She doesn't want to hear how long you've worked on your crop. She doesn't want to hear how lovely you find her, how witty and charming she is. And what she wants to hear better be quick, to the point, and mighty damn interesting. Or else.

She, like any agent we query, wants to know the answers to four questions :

1) What is your product exactly? {What genre is it. Fantasy. All right, is it urban or classic? You get the idea.}

2) What is its quality? {Do you have a suspenseful story with a definite beginning, middle, and end?}

3) How large is the market for your particular product? {The love life of clams may tickle your fancy, but mostly it is a dead topic to the rest of us.}

4) And will her bosses be impressed with her buying your product for them? {If you're dealing with a large agency, chances are your agent will be lower-rung. She wants to keep her new job, so she doesn't want to hit them in the face with a cold fish.

And if she is a lone wolf agent, her bosses are the publishers to whom she has to take your novel. If they gag at the sight of it, her next meeting with them will be tainted with that memory -- if they agree to see her at all.}

We have to be Billy Mays before we get to be J K Rowling. We have to concentrate on what the agents want and need from our query letter. If we can do that successfully, we have a shot at scoring an agent.

Sigh. Which is only the first step in the thousand mile journey of getting our novel published. But it is a very crucial one. Without it being accomplished successfully, our novel and our dreams will stay unborn.

But if we stand our ground, continually grow, then we will succeed. The Texas Rangers had a saying : "There is no stopping a man who believes he's in the right and keeps on coming."

Lastly {no applause at that -- you'll just depress me}, this entire post has been a blueprint for your query letter. A title that grabbed your attention. The first sentence that made you laugh. The meat of the post which gave you hope.

And that is the blueprint for your query in a nutshell. Eye-Catching Book Title. Hook at the beginning. Make them laugh or smile. And briefly tell them why they can't let another agent make off with your great writing. Oh, and let them know how they can get back into touch with you.

And here is something stirring for your ears ...


  1. Ghost of George Bernard Shaw here. I read Roland's quaint article and thought: "The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

    Call me a pessimist and Roland an optimist. Still both optimists and pessimists contribute to society.

    The optimist invents the aeroplane, the pessimist the parachute.

  2. Excellent advice! The query letter is easily as important as the first page of the novel. For without a good query letter, the reader will never make it to the novel.

  3. All of these are so true!

    I used to edit a zine and the most received unsolicited items were poems. I guess that is why I detest most poetry today.

    Writing a good query letter isn't about perfumed paper, thinking you have the next Bible that everyone wants, or even wording it in pig Latin.

    I so agree with this blog. Great job putting it together!


  4. Ha, so true and well said. Query letters need time to get right. Why are we always in such a rush?

  5. We must impress and we must impress fast.

  6. Anything with a Calvin and Hobbs cartoon is going to catch my attention. It's a shame most agents aren't that easy. Excellent post.

  7. Great post and I just deleted my real response because this makes me very emotional.

  8. I like Harlon Ellison's take, personally.

  9. Great post! I love the analogy between agents and drug lords. When you put it like that, you're absolutely right. ;)

  10. Heather:
    You're so right: we take months to write our novel and then take minutes to hastily churn out the all-important query letter!

    Thanks for the gracious words about my blog. I do not envy you that time spent as an editor. I was a Creative Writer teacher for a time -- and those memories are enough!!

    I think we are in such a rush because we have labored months to finish our novel, and we burn to get it out into the world!

    Experts say we have 10 seconds to impress a prospective agent or editor. Ouch!!

    I love Calvin and Hobbes, too. You're right about agents being tough these days. Publishing has changed, making agents skiddish of unknowns.

    The Desert Rocks:
    Aw, c'mon now. I'll be wondering for days what you wrote. Thanks for liking this post though!

    Yes, I like Harlan's essays the most of his writings. I just obtained his autograph was happy to do so!

    You're the first to mention my drug lord/literary agent analogy! I thought it was a fun spin on things. Thanks for thinking so, too! ;)

  11. So don't email them a query telling them they have a super cool new haircut, and that I'm secretly stalking them on all the social medias sites? Yeah, that would be bad, wouldn't it? :P

    Great post, as always. ~C

  12. Candy:
    If it wasn't, then it might be bad for YOU! :-)