Should Have Learned My Lesson

From time to time, I receive requests from near or complete strangers to help them in their quest for publication.

(Also, occasionally to help them in their quest for college admissions, since, you know, my first series was set in college and that somehow makes me an expert into how to get in?)

Most often, these requests come from folks I know peripherally through one of my writing organizations, like RWA, or from a reader of my books. (It is very difficult to say no to a person who starts off their emails with “I love your books!”)

Now, it’s pretty easy to say no when a complete stranger asks me to introduce them to my agent (my agent accepts queries at her website), or to read her manuscript, or to critique her first chapter. It’s a lot harder to say no when they are asking for help on their query letter. It’s just a few hundred words. This person is such an earnest young aspiring writer! I remember being an earnest young aspiring writer, and how much it meant to me when a published author (in this case, Julie Leto — HI, JULIE!) offered to read my query for me.

And these requests have become rather ubiquitous lately, as the story about how I helped Carrie Ryan (HI, CARRIE) with her query letter made the rounds on the internet. (What this story does not seem to include is the information that Carrie and I had been critique partners for over six months at that point, which means I’d READ HER ACTUAL BOOK.) And now, they are not necessarily coming from fans of my books (HI, READERS!) or even people I may have had drinks with once at a conference. They are coming from random people who stumbled on this story somewhere on the internet or at one of Carrie’s events and somehow came away with the impression that I run a free query-writing service.

And despite having received these requests for six years, and despite them ALWAYS TURNING OUT THE EXACT SAME WAY, I have not learned my lesson. Because I keep saying yes.

So I’m writing this post as a lesson to you, future requester of my assistance, after the latest effort in which I spent several hours assisting a perfect stranger with her query and received absolutely no response whatsoever.

You may certainly ask me to read your query letter. I will not necessarily say no, but I will not necessarily say yes. And if what you mean when you ask me to “read your query letter” is not, in fact, “read your query letter” but instead “tell me that my query is brilliant and you’re handing it off straightaway to your agent” then you can go jump off a bridge.

Perhaps if you knew me at all, instead of just having heard my name associated with the writing of a query of a big debut novel that hit the bestseller lists and got a movie option — perhaps if you’d spent five minutes reading my blog, you’d know that it’s not all puppies and unicorns around here. (Well, it is, but the unicorns? Not so nice.) I do not believe in some glittering representation of the publishing industry. I am a realist. Selling a book is hard. Writing a query is hard. It’s not pretty, it’s not art. It’s business. And though you slaved over your precious manuscript for who knows how many months or years, realize that the agent or editor who looks at it is going to give it approximately 90 seconds of attention over a tuna sandwich on their lunch hour.

And when I read your query, I’m putting myself in that agent or editor’s shoes. I’m not going to spend much time worrying about whether or not you’ve started with a rhetorical question or saying thank you at the end or whatever randomly specific thing some blogging agent (who may or may not be even agenting anymore) says to do — because I promise you, if the rest of your query is compelling, this is all just window dressing. And I’m not going to dress it up in soft language for you. If it’s a mess, I’ll tell you so. If you packed it with cliches or 70-word sentences or managed to completely neglect mentioning one of your main characters — I’m going to tell you so.I’m not going to couch it in pretty soft sell language. If you want someone to fawn, ask your friends or your mother or your significant other. I don’t know you. We aren’t friends.

If this hurts your feelings, well, you’ve now been warned that it might. If you are so astonished by the idea of me not blowing smoke up your ass about your query, then please do not send it to me. (Personally, I’d rather have my feelings hurt than a ton of rejection letters, but hey, your mileage may vary.)

And, if you ask anyone I actually know, anyone I am actually friends with and have critiqued with, you’ll find that I shoot straight. It’s constructive criticism, not bashing. But it certainly ain’t flowery. If I see something that’s a problem, I tell them. They are free to take my advice or leave it, and I don’t care. I often do not take the advice of my well meaning critique partners. My opinion about the query is just one opinion. But you asked for my opinion for a reason. Presumably because you think that I, having written a few successful queries, somehow know what I’m doing.

So if you, perfect stranger, do ask me to read your query, and I do give you advice, even if you think it’s traumatizing that I tore apart your little darling, remember that I took time out of my day –time I cold have spent working on my own books, time I might have been spending ACTIVELY PAYING A BABYSITTER, time I DEFINITELY could have spent hanging out with my baby — to give you, perfect stranger advice on your query letter.

And you disappeared. I never heard from you again. I didn’t hear “thanks” or “wow, that helps a lot” or even “you unholy bitch, how dare you say that about my darling little baby query letter!” I heard nothing.

You know what that comes across as?

“Hi, writer. I know this is your living, but I don’t care. In fact, I have so little respect for you as a fellow writer that I’m not even going to PRETEND that I’ve read your books before I ask you for help. All I care about is what you can do for me, and I heard that you wrote a query letter for a bestselling author. Please read and rewrite mine, or better yet, tell me it’s brilliant just as it is. And no matter what, don’t ever expect to hear another word from me again.”

I am not some google translator that you plug your query gobbledygook into and out spits something (hopefully) more coherent or helpful or even just a different perspective. I am a person. You asked me for a favor. I am not expecting a freaking parade. But an acknowledgment of receipt might be nice.

So, now you have been warned. Feel free to ask, with no expectation that I might say yes. And if I do say yes, feel free to send, with no expectation that I’m going to like the darn thing. And when I do write back to you with my thoughts, please give me some common human decency, or next time I’ll call you out by name.

Posted in rants, writing advice, writing life

13 Responses to Should Have Learned My Lesson

  1. Tiff says:

    And again, I say…preach it, sister!

    You’re really being too kind, Diana – if I were you, I wouldn’t bother with a Perfect Stranger’s Query Letter. A friend? Yes. A fan? Maybe. But a PS? Grr.

    (Having said that, I spent many hours helping a PS with her very long application for the internship I now have…mostly because someone else helped me out, and I feel the need to pay it forward as well…but that does not necessarily mean that I endorse her as a candidate for the internship. Sigh.)

  2. Diana says:

    Yes, I do feel the need to pay it forward. It’s just the same as your situation, Tiff. Also, I *like* reading and working on queries. I find them fun. Books are monstrous, unwieldy things and queries are so cute and bouncy, so full of potential.

    BTW, I have read Anna and the French Kiss. It’s the only novel I’ve read since having the baby as a matter of fact. Loved it!

  3. Shanella says:

    whew … So Diana, you don’t know me but could you … kidding =)

    I’m sorry that some folks don’t know how to be polite, it surprises me daily the amount of people around the interwebs that seem to think common courtesy does not apply to online interaction … but that’s another rant all on it’s own.

  4. Barb Ferrer says:

    No. Just… no.


    You’d think after so many years I’d cease to be shocked by, well, pretty much anything, but a lack of common courtesy gets me, every single time.


  5. Diana says:

    Hi, Barb! How are you? Long time, huh?

  6. Barb Ferrer says:

    Heh– yeah, hasn’t it? I suspect we’ve both been rather busy, you with bringing a great new little human into the world (and YAY, on that!) and me moving cross-country. 🙂

  7. PurpleRanger says:

    Seeing as how John Scalzi wrote on the subject of cover letters a couple of days ago, I have to ask: Did you see his entry?

  8. Carrie Ryan says:

    You really are rather brilliant with queries 🙂

  9. JulieLeto says:

    HI, DIANA!!!

    You are really much nicer than I am. I only read for people I know…and even then, only if I’m actually friends with them FOR THIS EXACT REASON. I’ve been burned too many times by people who don’t have the common decency to say thank you. I don’t even talk to groups anymore unless they pay me, and not with a cup of coffee. (Though I did speak to a LOVELY women’s club recently and all they paid me was lunch, but it was a GREAT lunch and the ladies also bought a lot of books, which they didn’t even have to. Very nice experience.)

  10. Amanda Sowa says:

    Wow! i can’t believe how rude some people can be. I mean to not even say “thank you” when you took the time to read and critique and HELP them with something even thought you’ve never met them! It truely amazes me how ungrateful people can be. I’m sorry that this happened to you. I know how it feels to be used (not neccessarily in the same way you have been, but it hurts just the same). I admire that you wrote about it and spoke out, because I didn’t and it’s something I regret. Bravo on speaking (or I guess writing) out. I hope your week gets better.

  11. Celeste says:

    Needed to be said… You are very generous with your time and talent. Mentoring can be a real pleasure, but being taken for granted stinks any way you look at it!

  12. alaska says:

    my old critique group had a saying, “wield the machete, but wield it wisely, and remember: the jungle is vast.”

    as in: we’re blunt, and we’re honest, but it means more to be constructive than picking every little thing. also, it’s your jungle, take it or leave it.

    the final rule of the group? acknowledge the group. this is not fight club. appreciate the time other people took to help YOU, even if you don’t want to cut that particular little darling.

    oh writing. sometimes i miss having the time to sit and write and write and plot and construct, and then i read things like this and think maybe i’m just a better consumer than a creator.