WORDS OF WISDOM
Reprints from Rhode Island Writers’
Circle Anthology: 2007,2008,2010.
Mark Patinkin, Columnist:
“Good writing often comes
not from hearing some muse
in your head, but feeling in
a workman like way, that
you have to produce. Write
like you talk. Good writing
isn’t just what you put in, it’s
what you leave out. Oh, and
the most important rule: never
force excitement; understate-
ment always beats melodrama.”
Lisa Starr, RI Poet Laureate
Emeritus: “Now, More than ever,
the collective hearts call out for
poetry. For now, the collective
heart of the planet is hurting
and weary. Which Is not to say
that poetry is the antidote for a
world that has seemingly gone
mad, but it might be one. Thus
it is the poet’s job to bear witness
to life. It is the final proof that
what we did really mattered.”
Robert Leuci, Novelist.
“All writers have a fantasy
about how their life will be
and what it will be like once
they devote all their time to
writing. In the best of cases
it turns out exactly the way
they always dreamed it would.
It is an ennobling life—reading,
learning, and writing. It is no
easy trick, this exquisite act of
putting on the page words that
will give pleasure, inform, and
uplift the spirit. For writers,
the published, the unfulfilled,
it will always be the work that
binds us. It’s a love affair, and
writers understand what it is to
live the magnificent obsession.”
By Molli Nickell
Heart pounding, you open the mailbox. Your throat feels desert dry. Your mind races. "Will this be the day?"
Digging through bills and letters, you spot something familiar. It's the SASE (self-addressed-stamped-envelope) that had been enclosed with your query. Your heart dances with the possibilities. You rip open the envelope and yank out the letter. Oh no!
It's that letter.
Crookedly copied, coffee-stained, unsigned, offering the same sappy platitudes, "blah blah blah, not right for our list. Best wishes for placement elsewhere."
"Gimme chocolate now!" is the understandable reaction.
Or, if you’ve submitted your query or manuscript to an agent/editor/publisher via email, the reject letter, also delivered by email, conveys the same message. “Thanks, but no thanks.”
It may be of some comfort for you to understand that your feeling of rejection is common to all writers. Your manuscript is unique, a product of your heart and soul. You created it, putting your BIC (butt in chair) for the required hours, days, months, or years to bring it to life. Then, the time arrived to turn the fate of what you'd created over to someone else. You sent your manuscript out into the world, unsure if the world will love it as you and your friends do.
The feeling is similar to how you might have felt the first time you left your precious child at day care. However, and here's where the situations differ. You probably never retrieved your child and found a crooked, photocopied note pinned to their little shirt. "Dear Parent, thank you for bringing us your child. So sorry, but he/she is not a good fit with the other children in our program. Perhaps another school will feel differently."
Nobody likes rejection. It’s feels personal . . . even though, in truth, it really isn’t. However, some writers (maybe you) jump off the deep end and turn non-acceptance into vindictive rejection. You decide the person returning your query or manuscript hates you, your ideas, your writing skills, your family, your dog, your haircut, your grandmother, and so on. You expand your "reject-itis" to include your entire world. Fine, go ahead. Get it out of your system, with or without chocolate. Wash windows, vacuum the car, run around the block or pump away on the treadmill until you can tread no more.
To jolly yourself out of rejection depression, imagine the person who sent the "thanks but no thanks" letter sprouting a nose wart or developing a rash in a place where it's not polite to scratch.
Then, consider this basic truth about publishing. It's a business. When your query or manuscript is returned, it's a business decision. The "no thank you" simply means, for one or more reasons, what you offer is not what they're looking for at the moment.
Or, and here’s another possibility: you have not made the case that what you offer is worthy of publication. In fact, based on my 35 years of experience in the publishing biz, I can tell you that at least 80% of all query letters fail because they don’t sell the story.
This happens because writers have not learned to make the mental adjustment from “telling” to “selling.” Blinded by the light of their creations, they are clueless to the fact that they must shift gears and become the chief salesperson for their work.
The query letter, whether delivered by snail mail or email, has evolved over the years, but continues to be the primary sales document writers must use to present their manuscripts to people in the business who are looking saleable projects.
But, there’s a new twist. Most agents today prefer queries to be delivered by email. You simply cut and paste your query letter into an email and zap! it's gone. Quick and quicker.
However, there is a downside to this element of speed. Your email subject line (which had better be compelling) must motivate the reader to scan the next five to ten lines of your query on the screen of their computer, tablet, or smart phone. The decision to keep reading your entire presentation is made instantly. Obviously, this makes your opening sentences vitally important. They gotta sizzle!
Agents/editors/publishers read hundreds of queries a week. None of them will take the time to figure out 1) if your story is saleable, and 2) if you are a skillful writer. You have to show them, right up front. And you better be quick about it!
The person reading your query has a finger poised over the delete key. If you don’t make your case immediately . . . Zap! Your query flies off into cyber oblivion. (If your submission has been made via snail mail, it will fly into the circular file almost as quickly.)
One hard and true fact: you must learn to write opening sentences of your query letter as if your writing future hangs in the balance . . . which it does.
Your query letter first paragraph is called the “hook” or “sales pitch.” You write it to entice the reader and arouse their curiosity so they'll want to know more.
This is why I teach my clients to craft a first paragraph which includes:
• who wants what
• why they want it
• what/who stands in their way
• the possible outcome, including the terrible "or else" that will occur if they don't succeed.
This structure enables you to reveal the bare bones of your plot in the very first paragraph, often the only portion of the query letter ever read.
The query letter second paragraph expands on the first. You describe more fully what your protagonist wants, what action they're taking to achieve that goal, and what major obstacle (s) stands in their way. Forget the "and they all lived happily ever after" ending. End with a tease. Why? You want the reader to wonder, "and then what happens" so they'll request a manuscript submission.
Dear writer, getting published is not rocket science. But, it requires smart thinking. A well-crafted query letter addresses the need of the agent/editor/publisher who want to know WIIFM (What's In It For Me?). Is your project something they can sell.
Writing and submitting query letters are vital parts of the process that will carry you from being a writer to becoming a published author. It is also true that the process can take a while. This requires you to make the decision to stick with it and never give up, like the writer in the following story.
Once upon a time a writer invented a story-telling technique using made-up words and unusual illustrations. After completing his first book, he began the query process. Twenty-seven rejections later, he was ready to quit. Family and friends offered encouragement, "you can do it, you can do it." He continued to submit his manuscript. The list of potential recipients dwindled until he had only a few publishers left to approach. Then voila! He received a "yes." His first book was published and sold well. Then came a second book, then a third, then books bazillion! Today, millions of Dr. Seuss books are sold worldwide. In fact, he continues to be one of America's best-selling authors. The last week of May, 2013, his book, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” placed 8th on the New York Times best-sellers’ list.
So take heart. Stick with the process. You can become the writer who succeeds if you remain focused on your goals of agent/publisher/shelf space at Barnes and Nobel.
So, if and when your receive those disappointing “no thank you” letters, grab the chocolate if you must, but keep on keeping on. I wish you every success.