Vox Newman

New Models | February 15, 2011

When you choose a profession (or a profession chooses you) there’s generally a straightforward path to follow.  This is true in principal and strictly true to some professions more than others.  This may also be decreasingly true over the last century as more and more skills are considered transferable and knowledge is regarded as more fluid.

But one profession that has shown little change in how the layman can enter it is writing: especially fiction writing.  It seems to be purposely mired in the same archaic fog-of-war system that it was two centuries past.  When you read books (or blogs) on how to get published, the frequency of contradictory information increases with each source.  The only thing that remains consistent is the query letter: beyond that, it’s a craps-shoot where, even if you knew where you threw the dice, you can’t read them because a) it’s too dark and b) they don’t have dots or numbers, but alien symbols instead.  Sometimes they aren’t even dice after throwing them: they could turn into doves and fly away.

With me so far?  That’s right, becoming a novelist is analogous to throwing the One Ring into Mount Doom.  This might be why, it seems that speculative fiction writers are more immediately successful and how that ends up as a trap.

So, the query letter: but make no mistake, this is not a form to fill out.  You just happen to end up with form-letter responses in reply (you can see the ones I’ve received so far, HERE).  No one can tell you exactly how to write a query letter and all you’ll get if you search is information on what the person who tells you to do such-and-such would personally prefer to see.  This isn’t helpful because, as you’ll learn from your rejection letters, it’s a subjective experience.

As an example, take a look at three blogs that discuss the query letter THERE, THEIRS and THEY’RE HERE

What does that mean?  Well, it means that the style, diction and flow that you choose for your query letter won’t suit most people because you don’t know what they personally want to see in such a letter.  This means they won’t be ‘turned on’ by your query enough to ask to see the manuscript.  That means they’ll have some intern send you a form-letter rejection (and I suppose in many cases it’s the intern that’s deciding this from the get-go).

But, like I said, not many professions still act like this.  In comparison, you have musicians: they start a band, write some songs, practice those songs and then book their first gig.  After that, they might get more gigs, they might get some fans and if they fill enough space in bars and clubs, they might get a record deal.  That’s a lot of mights, but it’s still a pretty clear path.  Or take any profession that requires a resume: in the anglo-saxon world, they’re all looking at basically the same thing.  The classical meaning I apply to ‘they’ is the hiring managers.  But the modern meaning is computer software and a human resources representative.  The software scourers your resume for key words and if enough of them are present it alerts the HR rep who then looks it over.  They’ve all been pretty much trained the same way: they look down the left side of your work history to see how many years you’ve spent at each job, then they look at the titles and names of companies.  If they’re satisfied with that and your education, they might give your duties at each job a cursory glance.  This all being in order, they’ll call you and set up an interview in which they’ll present you with a standard set of psychological situations and mix in some job-specific questions.  If they think the interview went well, they’ll report to the hiring manager(s) on the specifics and those manager(s) might ask them to call you for another interview.  This interview will be similar to the first but with a more job-specific bent and the hiring manager(s) will be present.  After this, they may or may not call your references.  Once they have compared you to all the other candidates, you might get a call offering you the job.  The above is a relatively slow process filled with redundancy, but it’s also pretty standard in all but a few professions.

So, why does the fiction writing (I separate fiction, because non-fiction, especially journalism is more straight-forward: more akin to the processes above) profession have to be so wildly obscure in relation to nearly everything else?  Probably because someone decided it needed to be that way long ago, for reasons that were or were not valid at the time.

But does it need to remain that way?  I hope not.  It would be nice if there were an industry standard to query letters that removed the subjectivity.  I suspect the reason for said subjectivity is that the person reading it is judging you on your ability to write while reading it.  But I submit that a query letter will never really tell the publisher/agent whether the writer can write fiction well.  Just like reading someone’s articles in a newspaper will not tell you that, nor will listening to a classical trained pianist go at it tell you that they can play bass in a rock and roll band, nor will listening to a scientist explain the physics of a ball in flight tell you if they can themselves pitch a winning game.

What I’m saying is that some people are good letter writers, some people write fiction well but it’s highly probable that those two people are not the same.  Some people can write good resumes, some people are good workers and it’s also highly probable that those two people are not the same.  The difference is that industry professionals are trained to look at the basics of the resume and not necessarily the specifics because, at the very least, the general public in this society knows the basics on how to write a resume.

To bring back the musicians rise to fame, that too has an industry standard.  It’s a very simple one that requires the record executive to ask: does this person draw a crowd with minimal marketing?  If so, how much money can I make if I put resources into marketing this band?  The publishing professional also asks the second question but doesn’t have enough information to answer the first question, so they just ponder it.  They can look at previous publishing of short stories and poems in magazines (which you probably should include on a query); but all that really tells them is that professionals similar to themselves like your writing, not whether the general public or any specific audience/market group does.

If they want to make it easy on themselves, they should ask for standard information to be included in all queries, ignore whether one query letter’s style is better than another’s and encourage self-publishing, either physically or online.  They should also ask that between 1000-5000 words of your manuscript be included with the query.  This would be more in-line with both industry in general and the creative industry in particular and they’d find it easier to determine if and how you can be marketed.

This type of article will be one of the aspects of my blog; from time to time I’ll share, publicly, my quest to be a professional writer of fiction (I’d like to write for various media: novels, video games, movies, television, graphic novels etc.).  Sharing this journey might help others who want to know where to begin: I’m aware that might just create competition for myself, but as I live in a nation born of capitalism, I’ve decided to believe that competition (especially in this industry) is a good thing.


Powered by Facebook Comments

Posted in On Writing
Tags: ,

    Follow newmanlogic on Twitter



    Top Rated