Friday, August 27, 2010

Getting a Thicker Skin

[Author's Note: I have officially broken my hiatus and am returning, slowly, to blogging.]

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Inspiring Me Today: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

This is not a Mockingjay post. In fact, I'm still reading Mockingjay, so I'd just as soon avoid the subject. Thanks.

Anyway, the impetus for my return to the literal blogosphere was a need to respond to a recent rash of complaints. I've seen them everywhere, but two very recent examples were an entry on Nathan Bransford's (in)famous blog and a semi-fight on Intern Amie's twitter feed (her blog reacting to the incident here).

I guess my greatest annoyance was the use of the term "mean" in response to Amie's query postings. First, some background. Amie Cortese is not her real name. The person styling herself Intern Amie is a literary intern for an agent, and keeps herself anonymous so that all comments are free of context and she can give advice without being inundated with queries. I like this plan. It's safe and helpful for everyone.

Now, Amie does something many agents and interns do, which is critic queries live as she reviews them, giving her honest opinion of the query without giving any details/specifics. She does this on twitter using her own hashtag, #queryslam. Now, there is little doubt that the name is a big source of the frustration when it comes to Amie's posts. However, as she has said repeatedly (at least once a week), the intent was something akin to a "poetry slam." It was not meant as "slamming on queries." In fact, she often finds things she likes, or at least wants to like, and we get the good, bad, and ugly all together. It's very real and honest. I love it.

Here are some samples from her last #queryslam:

"This WWII historical has a great query, but opening pages were so expository that it reads slow & heavy. Pass. #queryslam"

I like this, because it shows how VERY important it is to have great opening pages, and how slow, expository openings can get you a quick pass.

"This nonfiction has a stellar, concise query and a compelling, no-nonsense pitch. Love it! Now on to the sample pages . . . #queryslam"

Here, she has one that works, and tells us why. The pitch is concise, compelling, and no-nonsense. That helps. So not everything is negative. A lot get passes, but then, that's life. That's how reading through queries goes. We can't all get deals, can we?

"Now a thriller, whose opening pages tell me too much about the mc's drive home from work. Uh, where's the story? Pass. #queryslam"

Perhaps this is a bit snarky, but it's also honest. There's nothing wrong with a little snark. It's not like she said, "Joe Bob's Insert Generic Book Title Here has a stupid and boring opening." No one knows who Amie even is, much less whose book it is.

After the recent hubbub, Intern Amie has now changed her hashtag to #queryfest. Hopefully this clears things up, and people will cut her some slack.

Now, in some ways juxtaposed to this (and one source the prejudice people had against the hashtag going in) are things like Slush Pile Hell. Slush Pile Hell is from another anonymous person, an agent in this case, but is wildly different in its content and purpose. Rather than going through all queries, good and bad, and explaining why one gets a pass or request, Slush Pile Hell simply posts some of the most ridiculous quotes from bad queries I've seen.

Here's a great example:

"I want an agent who’s confident to get me a 7 figure book deal or high 6 figure deal, not some bull crap deal."

The agent's response:

Funny, that’s exactly what I say to editors when I send them a proposal. Works every time."

Now, I subscribe to Slush Pile Hell and read it every day. It makes me laugh. I admit it and am not at all ashamed of myself. If you have the arrogance to say the things in these letters, I... well, I don't know what to say about that. It's just... I can't imagine anyone actually doing these things. And if you do... then read up, because this is how agents honestly react when you do them. It makes you look unprofessional, and what makes you look unprofessional is information you need to know.

I guess my general annoyance with this issue is that there seems to be a mindset that agents and editors should be holding your hand and playing nice. Here's a wakeup call for you.

Agents are business people. Book selling is a business. Yes, writing is art and books are fun and the publishing industry is full of fun people who love books, but it is still a business. Agents are generally nice people, but they are not in the business of hand holding.

But what does this have to do with sites like Slush Pile Hell? Well honestly, it's a matter of having a thicker skin. Getting upset that the agent didn't say, "You poor thing. I'm sorry. I'll try my best to make you rich, but it might not work out," is unhelpful. The truth is that honestly, the likelihood of getting a 6 or 7 figure advance is so extremely remote as to make the entire email insulting. In general, Slush Pile Hell is focused on queries with a tone or intent that is hostile or insulting to the agent: implying that the agent is going to steal the work, declaring that anything other than a huge advance is a result of a bad agent, or overt and terribly unprofessional butt-kissing. That the agent responds with a hint of "snark" or even annoyance to these is to be expected, and isn't a sign of overall "meanness."

This is the same sort of indignance people express at agents not responding, or else sending form responses. This indignance is natural, but is unhelpful. They are professionals that are in the business of selling books. If they don't want to rep your book, move on and find someone else that does. Be courteous. Be professional. And please, please... get a thicker skin.
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