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.