Present Tense vs Past Tense
I’m not sure why, but I’d say the use of present tense now surpasses past tense in the submissions in my query-queue. The creative process is subjective and unique for everyone, so I understand if writing in present tense is what kept you going and ignited your creative pilot light during those dark nights. But it’s also something that draws attention to itself, can make it difficult for the reader to suspend disbelief, and often seems a bit pretentious and, dare I say, even cliché — especially 1st person present.
To me, present tense should be reserved for particular projects and seems especially out of place in memoirs and in fiction that takes place in the past. A good writer can communicate a sense of urgency and immediacy just as easily in past tense as in present, and, as a reader, I am less apt to feel manipulated by it. I’m sure that many people can point to some favorite book that was written in present tense, which would have been less intense, even boring, if it was not told the way it was. So I’m not saying that it should never be used. But writers should also be aware that it is no longer considered fresh and new.
5 More Query Fails I Have Seen this Week
- Don’t describe what your cover artwork should be or send cover artwork with your query. While authors have some input into this, and are usually allowed to see and comment on a couple of different versions of the artwork, the publisher has ultimate say.
- Self-published works: Agents receive lots of queries where authors say “I have published [pick a number] books.” But they are all self-published ebooks that only have a handful of reader reviews. There is nothing wrong with self-publishing — and I know some writers doing astoundingly well in this field now — but if you do self-publish, you need to do your utmost to market the works. Editors will interpret a book with a handful of reviews and low sales ranks as the author’s lack of platform. They need authors who can sell books no matter what the challenge is.
- Please include all the information an agent needs to make a decision to see more of your manuscript. If they ask for a sample on their submission guidelines, don’t forget it. Don’t make me click through to your website for more info. A lot of websites contain drive-by malware, so I just don’t click on anything. Everything needs to be in the query. If I absolutely love what I see, I will do my own online search.
- A bit about the Pushcart Prize: I get all sorts of queries from writers who had a story “nominated for a Pushcart Prize,” often years ago. Please understand that every magazine gets to nominate 6 stories per year. That’s hundreds of magazines per year, I would suppose, nominating 6 stories each. Unless the story was shortlisted for the prize, I am very sorry, it just isn’t going to impress that many agents. I’m not saying not to mention it, or if it was nominated from a major magazine that it wouldn’t be important, but if it’s a small magazine, and you base your entire bio around it…. well, just sayin’….
- Social media: Sometimes I request a sample or a proposal, and then get bombarded by all these invites to follow the writer on FB, LinkedIn, Twitter, Google +, Instagram, etc. Don’t do this until you have developed a professional relationship with the agent.
20 Query Fails
Reposting this from my Publisher’s Marketplace Blog
From the questions I receive and the thousands of queries I wrangle every year, this seems to be a subject fraught with mystery and angst. But it’s really pretty simple.
Be yourself… but be your best self. Be confident, yet modest. Don’t be afraid to show some personality without going over the top. Agents want your query, and the project you are pitching, to be wonderful. So, you don’t need to go overboard with self-praise trying to convince them to read it.
Don’t tell me how good your book is. Show me. No one cares if your whole family thinks you are a genius. Make me admire your cleverness for myself.
If the book is a thriller, the query should be exciting. If it is humorous, it should make me laugh. If it is wise and philosophical, make me nod my head in appreciation. And don’t be coy. None of this, “Is the killer Sarah’s own husband, and can she stop him before he murders all his high-school bullies? Read the manuscript to find out!”
Make sure to look up each agent’s submission guidelines. Many, like me, place a lot of importance on a synopsis and writing sample. That’s because I have had terrible queries for really good books that I have sold easily, and great queries for books that turned out to be full of problems. Either the author spent more time on the query than they did on the manuscript, or they paid a professional to write it. So, the query can only tell you so much.
Therefore, I usually scan the query to get a sense of the project, then jump directly to the writing sample. If the writing is promising, then I go back up to the query.
Your work might be excellent, but still being passed on because there will be certain memes and scenarios that may seem fresh or marketable to the author, but which agents have seen, in one form or another, many times. I’ll go into these in another post.
I may well write more posts on this subject, but for now, let’s do a quick rundown about what not to do, in no particular order. These are all things I see multiple times daily.
- No rhetorical questions such as: “Did you ever wonder what it would be like if you woke up and had been transformed into a giant cockroach? Well, that’s exactly what happens to Gregor Samsa.” Queries like this are like scraping your nails on a chalkboard inside my head.
- Do not call your story a “fiction novel.” A novel is by definition a work of fiction
- Likewise, do not refer to your memoir as a “novel.” A memoir is non-fiction.
- Do not write about yourself in third person. Some people who query about a memoir, for instance, go straight into a summary that sounds like they’ve written a work of fiction. “Bob Summers endures three years of torture as a prisoner in North Korea before he escapes through the sewer system. He then evades a search and hikes 500 miles through….” If you are the narrator, this should all be in first person.
- Do not write a bio in third person that reads like a back of the book author blurb: “Susan Smith is a CSI who resides in Minneapolis with her husband, Bob, and their three amazing daughters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne, who, like their mother, simply won’t take “no” for an answer. The family is filled out by two massive fur babies, Fido and Wolf, who are not as ferocious as they look.”
- More about your bio: Unless this is a book about your family life, your bio should contain only subjects that pertain to your platform, expertise and experience that makes you qualified to have authored this book. Sorry, but all the adorable pets, rambunctious kids and wonderful spouses in the world are not going to move me an inch towards taking a book about a galactic war.
- If an agent passes, but gives you some advice or kudos, you may certainly send a thank you. In most cases you shouldn’t ask follow-up questions about what they liked or didn’t like, or ask for referrals to another agent. If that is information or advice that an agent feels comfortable giving, they will do so without prompting. We actually do wish you the best.
- You do not need to reply to a stock “rejection.” (Though, I don’t like the word “rejection,” as I may pass on a project for any number of reasons.)
- “No” means “no.” Don’t plead.
- Agents aren’t always “right.” When we say things like, “Another agent may well have a different opinion…” we usually mean that. I have not liked some books that have won major prizes, and vice-versa. Everything is subjective.
- I buried what could well be my most important point in #10 above. The statement that everything is subjective is one of the most important points in this post. Don’t bury your “lede.”
- Writing Sample: If an agent asks for a writing sample, either as part of your initial query or afterwards as a partial, always make sure to include the first chapter. This is the entry to your book. If you are not confident enough to send the first chapter… rework it.
- Obvious shotgun queries should be avoided. No “Dear Sir/Madam” style salutations. No “I am querying you because of your well-known list of great titles…” Try not to include anything generic that you would say to a hundred agents.
- Research appropriate word-counts for the genre in which you are submitting. I will write a longer post about this, but it’s amazing how many queries I read for “novels” under 50k words (I have seen as low as 38k words recently) or for other projects that are well above 125k words…. I’m talking 200k-400k words. Most works for the adult trade market should be no shorter than 65k words and no longer than 125k words, and that’s pushing it. Certain genres may be more lenient in either direction. Some publishers are experimenting with novella length and even serial ebooks these days. But it is still not the norm.
- Proofread your material. Agents will look past obvious typos, but please be careful about the correct usage of the words “their,” “there” and “they’re; “your,” “you’re” and “yours;” “whose” and “who’s,” “its” and” it’s,” “peak” and “pique,” etc. especially if you’re an English or Creative Writing professor or hold any kind of higher degree!
- Confidence vs. modesty. You should resist claiming that your book is going to be a “runaway bestseller” that will interest millions of readers around the world and will make us both rich. Neither should you be a mouse, saying, “I hope my humble effort will pique your interest…” Or, “I wrote this over a couple of weeks during my vacation and thought, ‘what the hay,’ let’s see what some agents think…”
- It is unprofessional to post a copyright notice on your work. Almost all work that has been created since 4/01/1989 is considered to be copyrighted whether or not it has a printed notice or has not yet been officially registered. Look up more about it on the interwebs if you don’t believe me. For the purposes of a query, it is not necessary to post a copyright symbol or a notice. By doing this you are basically telling your prospective agent that you do not trust them.
- It’s amazing how many people submit a query at 4:30am on a Saturday during a three-day weekend. By the time I get to my email queue on Tuesday, it will be buried under a hundred other queries. Likewise, please rethink sending me a query at 5:00pm on a Friday. My personal opinion is that it is best to submit during business hours, and not right before or during a normal holiday. I understand that there are many people who work during the week, and are not allowed to send out personal emails from their place of employment, so this may be impossible for some authors. But it is something to consider.
- If you have sent out your query to a dozen agents, let’s say, with no response or just form rejection replies, then consider reworking your query.
- If you have received requests for manuscripts, which are then passed, consider doing some rewriting.
WRITING IS EDITING!
The road to hell is paved with adverbs.
I’ve been receiving a lot of queries pitching manuscripts that can only be described as massive — 300,000-400,000 words! — from first time novelists, at that. It can be tough to trim the fat. When Faulkner was asked what the hardest thing about writing was, he answered, “Killing all my little darlings” (or something to that effect — I’m paraphrasing). I would have to agree with him. My best articles have all been written to space, where I had to carve, shave and whittle the piece down to the bone. My advice is to cut, cut, cut, as selling a novel over 125,000 (preferably less, depending on the genre) words is going to be tough for any new author these days. Yes, there are examples of epic novels being published every year, but they are the exception.
Here is a link to a post by Chuck Sambuchino about word-counts.
Below is a tongue-in-cheek example of what Dickens may have gone through!
A Story about Two Kites… A Story of Two Sites… A Story of Two Sights …. a Tale of Woe… A Terribly Tall Tale of Two Critics… A Saga of Two Cities….
A Tale of Two Cities…
An incredible story of about France and England… about Paris and London…
It was the best day, but the night was dark and stormy, greatest of times, it was the nastiest worst of times, it was an the age of innocence, but also of great wisdom mixed with a little skepticism and certainly a lot of, it was the age of stupidity foolishness, it was the era epoch without rain during the day, but it rained a lot at night… of skepticism, mixed with a bit of belief, but certainly a lot of incredulity, it was the epoch of insight incredulity, it was the parsley of Night… the sage of Light… the seasoning of Light, but, on the other hand, it was also the seasoning of Darkness, it was the summer of Woodstock… the summer of anticipation… the spring of anticipation the spring of hope, it was the fall of desperation… the autumn of desperation… the winter of anguish… winter of dispare…dispire despair… we had everything done for us…. we had everything for us before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going directly to Disney World… direct to Disney… direct to Heaven, we were all going to walk down, down down that long hot spiral of flames, going the other way….