Sunday, 27 June 2010

Slush Pile Hell and Query Letters

A new blog has started called Slush Pile Hell. Each day it takes an extract from a query letter and gives the anonymous agent's true response - one suspects that a simple 'thanks but not for us' letter was sent. Some people have said it's unfair to mock would-be writers, others have said it's doing a service in showing what not to write. Me? Okay, it's funny, but the joke wears thin. There are some complete no-hopers out there, but that's hardly news.

At about the same time, someone posted on a forum that they'd been offered help with writing their query letter for a mere £250. Someone else posted of another service that cost only £100. £100 to help write a query letter? I'm in the wrong business.

My problem is that I don't see how anyone else can write your query letter. It's supposed to be about you and what you've written. It's giving a brief impression of who you are and your writing style, and telling a little bit about your novel. Only you can do it. I can - and have many a time - given feedback to students on their query letters, but it's really not much more than common sense. Anyone could do it. So hang on to your money and ask a friend to have a look. Here are some questions you could then ask them:

- Can you tell what I'm offering? (Yup, I've seen covering letters that omitted to say it was a novel/children's book.)
- What three words would you choose to summarise what I'm offering?
- On the basis of what's written, what three words would you choose to summarise the person behind the letter?
- Do you think the letter reflects me, as you know me?
- If you were receiving this letter, how would you feel?

The idea of asking questions is to stop them saying something like, it's fine or seems OK to me, which is what they'll probably do if they're not a writer.

Above all, don't get too hung up on it. It's a letter for heaven's sake, not rocket science! Be straightforward, be direct, don't make daft claims or be pushy. Tell them who you are, and what you're offering, thank them for their time and that's it.

Still not enough? There's more about covering letters in these previous posts.

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Jenny Haddon said...

Very helful, as always, Sarah.

You can certainly feel the frustration of Slush Pile Hell's author. I see he describes himself as Supervillain on Twitter, so maybe he has a twinge of conscience, too

I have to admit I sympathise with some of his comments. Anyone describing their book as a fiction novel gets me reaching for the nearest carving knife, too.

But what occurs to me is that a lot of the stuff he is complaining about isn't really about the author's writing, it's about social clumsiness or naivete - like the unfortunate who told him to take their book to Penguin and Random House. And sometimes the socially clumsy and naive are fabulous writers and make squillions, like Harlequin Mills & Boon's Violet Winspear in the 60s and 70s. A really clever agent would be keeping an eye out not to miss someone like that.

There have always been best sellers who aren't super cool or clued up, and you wouldn't want them as a house guest. But, hey, they make you money, guys!

Lizzie said...

Interesting and helpful, Sarah. Especially after a talk I went to yesterday at Winchester.

I've always thought that a covering letter is how you describe it – straightforward, informative and concise. But during this talk we were advised (by someone who was neither an agent or editor) to sell yourself, tell an agent why they need you, where your ms would fit in their lists (I wondered if she meant other clients here), the reasons why you should be published and quote what other people (friends, etc) say about your work. I think that doing all that would push you dangerously close to being quoted on Slush Pile Hell.

However, a lovely commissioning editor who I met during my one-to-ones described what she'd read of my ms as 'Katie Fforde does rock'. Do you think that without mentioning her name, obviously, I could quote that in a covering letter. It just made me laugh but it does position the book well. She also gave me the name of an agent to try.

Violet Winspear sounds interesting, I shall have to find out more about her.

Sarah Duncan said...

Jenny - yes, I agree we shouldn't judge someone's writing skills on the basis of their social skills, but...surely someone like Violet Winspear is an exception? Plus, when she was writing, there were fewer 'how to write' books.

Nowadays the information is easily available in books, on line, writers groups etc, not showing any awareness of how publishing works is a comment on how your attitude. I think some of the extracts from slush pile hell illustrate arrogance rather than naivete. Anyway, I've certainly met people like that!

Lizzie - I can't believe that someone was recommending you quoted your friends. It's such a no-no - unless your friend is eg the book buyer for Tesco, in which case, quote away. But would I quote the commissioning editor?

My opinion is, no, don't quote. Because she hasn't bought it, and anyone can say anything nice verbally, but it doesn't mean much in practical terms, and especially so if you're not going to name her. I think it would come across as a bit desperate.

However, I would think about using it in a pitch line as it v quickly summarises the feel of the book (if, of course, you agree with it) eg the book will appeal to readers of X and Y and has been described as Katie Fforde does rock.

Hope you enjoyed Winchester!

Lizzie said...

You're right – I'll use it as a pitch line.

Winchester was good but very hot. Sophie King was very flattering and helpful. I'm quite taken aback by her response.

Sarah Duncan said...

Don't be taken aback, bask in glory! Glad you had a good time.