Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Most pointless workshop ever.

A couple years ago I shelled out the money to attend the San Francisco Writer’s Conference, figuring if I was serious about being a novelist I should attend such things. I made sure to attend the workshop on How To Write a Query Letter, although I’m sure it had a far catchier title. I’m sure if I hunted through my old notebooks I could find what that catchy title was, but let’s say it was “How to Write a Query Letter That’ll Make an Agent Want to Sell Your Book to Millions of People and Make Sweet Sweet Love to You All Night Long.”

The workshop was run by an author who’d written something of a legendary query letter and the agent who represents her. Query letters are something of an art form, but they’re also governed by strict rules of etiquette. You must include certain things and must no include others, and the lists of those things often contradict each other depending on whose opinions on query letters your reading. So I was eager to hear some opinions from what I would consider a couple of bona fide experts.

The author was somewhat eccentric and had compiled a list of her most wanted agents. Then she cyber stalked them and learned as much as she possibly could about each of them so she could tailor her queries for each. Then she read her query letter: a query letter that broke every rule of query letter writing. She said things she wasn’t supposed to. Her tone was all wrong. It was more than 1 page. She included sample chapters when they said not to do that. Of all the various things I’d read about what to do and not do in a query letter, she’d done or not done all of them, somehow, even the ones that contradicted each other. And it was hilariously funny.

Wow. Ok, this is good stuff. Just take the rule book on query letters and throw it away. I was getting all excited. After all, she got an agent and a book deal and a huge advance, right?

She sent her queries out and within days she had several offers for representation.
At this point the agent who signed her spoke up and confessed that she’d never actually seen the query letter.

Never seen it.

As the query made its way through the various gate-keepers at her office, somewhere along the line the query had gotten separated from the sample, or perhaps hidden by some well meaning admin who liked the sample pages and didn’t want to see them scuttled by the horrendously wrong query. The agent had only seen the sample. And signed her based on that.

She wrote a query that broke all the rules and got an agent anyway… who never actually saw the query. I’m supposed to learn from this what exactly? As long as the work is strong, queries don't mean a damned thing? Great. Useful workshop.

I think what I learn is that there’s no one way to get published. You can’t learn it in a book or in a workshop. You can get advice and ideas. You can listen to what smart people say. But in the end you have to find your own random path to publication. Here’s hoping I’m on mine.

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In 1789, the governor of Australia granted land and some animals to James Ruse in an experiment to see how long it would take him to support himself. Within 15 months he had become self sufficient. The area is still known as Experiment Farm. This is my Experiment Farm to see how long it will take me to support myself by writing.