I’m so excited to introduce this week’s interviewee. Rather famous on AW for his critiquing skills, he prowls the query forum, fondly known as Query Letter Hell (QLH), to poke and prod our shapeless messes of words into things that resemble query letters. Today, he talks about his own journey to publication, his “results-oriented” approach to critique, and the best way to craft a perfect query. Thanks for dropping by, Jim!
Screen Name: jclarkdawe
Post Count: Somewhere around 5k. About 80% of them in QLH.
Favorite Forum: You need to ask?
What’s the best lesson AW has taught you? It’s hard to separate out. Most things are learned from a variety of sources, combined with past knowledge, to form a new whole.
In real life, you are… You mean AW isn’t real life? I’m going to have to talk to Mac about that.
Book title(s): EQUINE LIABILITY, published back in 2001. It’s sold through and my publisher and I discussed a reprint about two years ago. However, in looking at the market and economy, we decided it probably wouldn’t be a good idea. Unfortunately for the nation’s economy, our decision turned out right.
You’re AW’s query king. All of us (including myself) have been in your debt at some point or another for tearing our query to shreds — and making it lots better. What’s your best advice for a stunning query?
A stunning book. It’s that simple. A query isn’t going to be much better than the book, unless you fake it. Most people are trying to query their first novel, and they’d do better putting it in a trunk and starting a new one. Then again, I tried selling my first book. Query sucked, book sucked. When you’re ready to start sending out queries, put your manuscript to one side and ignore it while you write your second book. It’s going to be a lot better than your first one.
Meanwhile with your query, just keep sending it out. You’re either going to sink or swim, and most likely sink. But you try drowning enough times, you’ll probably learn how to swim. Or give up.
On the flip side, what are the most common query mistakes you see in Query Letter Hell — or, excuse me, the Query forum?
Thinking that 200 words is easy. A lot of people have a schedule where they allot time to edit their book, then figure 200 words, maybe a week, then query, and in three months they’ll have a publisher. It’s not likely to happen, although it can. If you are writing commercially, as opposed for your own amusement, you need to start thinking about marketing from the beginning.
On average, how many drafts do you see writers working through before their query is ready for submission?
Absolutely no idea. And most people don’t post all of their versions, which is a good thing. Some people do it in a couple, others can be back and forth for a year or more.
Any encouragement for writers who are struggling through the millionth one?
Queries come when they’re ready. The more you try to force them, the less likely they are to come. As with most writing, queries involve a mixture of conscious and subconscious thoughts. But people in QLH are usually trying to force it, and that doesn’t work.
How has critiquing others influenced and improved your own writing?
Simple answer is when you look at someone else’s writing and think something is crap, you realize the same thing in your book isn’t going to smell any better.
It’s hard to distance yourself from your own writing. But analyzing someone else’s work can help you learn how to do it to your work. As you critique someone else, and see something that isn’t working, you have to ask yourself why. And then when you look at your own work, you can apply it.
Parts of editing can be easily taught and learned. Grammar, sentence structure, and POV are rather mechanical and have certain rules to guide you. Pacing and voice though are difficult concepts to explain, and even harder to figure out. Until you start criticizing someone else because the author had an inconsistent voice, or you tell someone that something is dragging, do you start to develop the ability to see that in your own work.
Talk about your own query letters. Are you on your own quest for representation? If so, how’s it going? If not, what stage are you in right now?
With EQUINE LIABILITY, I didn’t use an agent. There were only five publishers who would have been interested in it, and all were small. The numbers generated from it weren’t going to be amazingly high and there was no possibility of foreign sales. So the contract was very straight-forward.
After that, I tried writing a couple of novels, even finishing one. About the only positive thing I can really say about it was it got finished. About three years ago, I started writing THE NEXT STEP, which I felt had some serious potential. Queried it to about 130 agents, and landed Irene Kraas. She submitted it to editors at Penguin, Warner, Harper, Holt, and a few others. Response was consistent that the writing was good, but the lack of plot would make it hard to sell.
So last August, we stopped submitting it, and I started rewriting it. I took the 48k in THE NEXT STEP, sliced another 8k from it, and then added another 38k and renamed the sucker ASHES TO ASHES. Right at the moment, I’m getting comments back from betas. By mid April, those suggestions will be incorporated into the manuscript. At that point, I’ll be running through it at least twice, including reading it out loud and another time having the computer read it to me.
I figure in May it will be going back to Irene. I’m hoping and expecting that her changes will probably be minimal, and that it will be back on submission in June. I think it’s going to be different enough to go back to the editors who liked the writing, and the plot problems are solved.
Net result of all this rejection is going to be what I think is a much better book.
When you critique a query, you get to the bottom of the problem — without sparing any words. This snarky, definitely blunt technique works, but it’s not the “compliment sandwich” that many people recommend. Firstly, why this method?
I tend to prefer results-oriented approaches. Bottom line is no matter how nice or mean I am doesn’t matter. A poster is going to get a lot more satisfaction from an agent requesting a partial than anything I can provide them with. And rejections are going to be a lot meaner than I’ll ever be. QLH should be all about results, not how good you feel.
Secondly, QLH gets a wide variety of critiquing methods, ranging from yours to the nicest compliment sandwich kind. What do you think works best, and in the end produces the best query?
Depends. But the depends is more about the writer than the style of the critique. People should focus on the message, not the presentation, of any critique. My way you have to focus on the negative, and there’s not much room to hide. Sandwiching can cause the person to focus on the positive and hide the negative. The net result should be the same, but it isn’t. But for some people, without the positive reinforcement, the negative overwhelms them.
My assumption, however, is that anyone entering QLH is ready to be professional. And although some agents and editors are good at hand-holding, many are not. Most of them are results-oriented people, looking to get through editing as quickly as possible. I can do an entire query’s line-editing in under five minutes, and most of that time is spent typing. Spending time to make a person feel good is frequently not in my schedule, and it’s the same thing with agents and editors.
Interestingly enough, when you talk with results-oriented people, like top level athletes, musicians, business people, and other people at the top of their professions, they recall the person who didn’t worry about how good they felt, but kicked their butt from here to there.
For a writer, especially with commercial interests (i.e., they want to get paid for their work), satisfaction should only come from seeing their work in print. And the satisfaction you get from seeing your words in print, and receiving an actual check, will quickly reduce to meaningless the comments on an online forum that your writing is the most wonderful thing they’ve seen.
But I’m well aware that for some people, anything negative is devastating. For these people, some of them do succeed through their natural abilities. However, they need to develop some sort of security blanket from the world. When a review gets published in PUBLISHER’S WEEKLY that your book is the worst piece of crap the reviewer ever read, not only is it going to hurt, but it’s going to kill your career. If you have the internal ability to pick yourself up, great. If you have a security blanket to pick yourself up, great. If you lack both, then you’re just going to roll over and play the dead cockroach.
Without naming names if necessary, share a story from your time in QLH…
That would require that I actually remember something. That’s not likely to happen. Most of the amusing things in QLH occur off stage, in the comments and private messages (PMs) that are exchanged. And those are private. Mostly, QLH is just sad. Success is few and far between.
But I love it when I get a PM that says, “I cried when I read your critique, but thanks to QLH, I’ve now got an agent.” That’s the positive side to QLH.