Why Writing's Not a Game You Can Win

It's warm today in NJ! England should be a nice escape...

Today's post is aimed at unpublished and submitting writers - that is, authors who are approaching agents and publishers. It's inspired by various comments I see weekly in writers' forums and message boards, and by a general attitude I've noticed there. To be specific, an over-thinking of tiny details, an over-estimation of the finickiness of professional readers, and an almost unspoken belief that there's a Big Secret to Getting Published.  I'll explain...

Being published is more than a goal for authors. It's a dream. It might even be more than that. Though it can be hard to explain to someone with no interest in writing a book, professional validation of your own talent, and the financial freedom (ha!) that would come from a bit of success is the be all and end all for many writers. So, it's understandable that you want to do everything in your power to help yourself along, to stand above the competition and attract the attention of Those In The Know.

Which leads to some fretting and worrying about rather insignificant things. I've seen people asking for advice in the boards (never a bad thing, by the way - writers need community to survive) on weirdly specific matters.

'The agent asked for ten pages, but I sent eleven. Will this count against me?'

'I sent the query, but forgot to say I'll be away from the Internet next Wednesday. What if they reply then, asking for more, and I don't get back, and I lose my chance...?'

'Agent asked me to revise and resubmit. I want to reply to say thank you. How to I phrase the e-mail? What's the correct way to address them if I know their name but they just said 'Hi,'?'

The problem, I think, is that in over-thinking every little detail you do an injustice to agents (making them out to be some pedantic dragons who only need a single excuse to burn your manuscript, laughing maniacally) and yourself (leaving yourself incapable of using common sense or being independent enough to react to normal situations).

The answers to the above three questions, of course, are no, for goodness' sake that's not even a problem, and just write the damn e-mail, you're supposed to be a writer, and an adult.

The other point I wanted to raise is that the undertone of a lot of this fretting is a bit worrying; the feeling that if you can just follow the form letters, just use the correct phrasing, if you can just be professional enough and show you know the tricks, then that is what helps the most.

I'm not advocating ignoring best practice and industry standards. Query letters and pitches have a very specific format used across the industry and you ignore that at your peril. But I am saying that, for most agents still, and most publishers, there's one thing that counts above all. Know what it is? The writing.

Boom. Shouldn't sound shocking, should it? Good writing still makes up 90% of the package you present. Dotting ever i and crossing ever t won't count for anything if your story sucks.

You can't cheat your way in just by following rules.

I just feel bad for authors querying agents who clearly feel like there's this big, organised industry trying to keep them out, with arbitrary rules, strict specifications, and a big REJECTION stamp hovering over their work, waiting for them to trip up. Find the middle ground. Don't be sloppy, but don't be nervous and jumpy and believe that those tiny things actually matter.

It's hard to get an agent. Really, really hard. The kind of hard that, if you finally do, you'll be annoyed when friends and family don't react as they should. So I guess I can see why it's tempting to become a 'literary conspiracy' advocate, and then feel like you help yourself by making sure a request for the first 5000 words means you send 5000 words exactly, lest the agent fume and rage over any extra ones you tried to sneak in.  But agents don't need you to treat them with kid gloves. They sure don't see it that way.

OK, I'm ending now. I just want writers, unpublished or not, to feel happier, more confident, and more professional, and to view agents and standard publishers as colleagues, and not the enemy.

And also, stop asking dumb questions ;)

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