I recently judged a competition which required a partial manuscript and a query letter. I was in the somewhat unusual position (for me, anyway) of being an entrant in one category and a judge in another. There was a query letter example for entrants to use if they chose to – and I did. I used the query letter example as a basis because hey, it seemed like a pretty solid query example to me! I didn’t mark down anyone who used that example. I marked that section based on what seemed to me to be the most important criteria: did the writer hook me with their brief blurb about their ms and make me want to read more? There were some brilliant ones, and some not-so brilliant. I learned a lot in the process of judging both the query letters and the partials. All good stuff for a wannabe published author.
Anyway, as a judge, I had access to the judges’ email loop. And I found some of the discussions around the dos and don’ts for query letters rather startling. One of the discussions centered around the following phrase:
“I have been writing for x years, during which time I have completed numerous (whatever genre) manuscripts and I am actively pursuing publication.”
At first glance this seems a relatively innocuous phrase. But I was soon to learn it is fraught with difficulties and utterly angst-inducing. Evidently, this phrase could mean the entrant writes heaps but obviously sucks because they’re not published yet after x number of completed mss. Therefore one should never admit this sort of thing in a query. On the other side of the fence, it could mean the complete opposite: the entrant is obviously dedicated and passionate about writing – evidenced by the number of years he or she’s been writing and the number of mss he or she has managed to complete. Thus, an editor or agent might be happy to know they’re not dealing with a ‘one-horse pony’.
But wait… Surely an editor or agent would be concerned by the sheer number of mss and the fact there’s been no contract forthcoming, so don’t admit this in a query. But one should tell the truth. No, one should skirt the truth and not admit how many years one’s been writing/ how many mss one has under one’s sorry unpublished belt. Surely agents and editors would prefer to ‘discover’ someone fresh and unsullied by years of rejection. Hang on, surely they’d prefer to discover a seasoned writer who’s proven he or she can last the distance. One should never admit blah blah blah… One should leave out blah blah blah… And so it went on. And on. And on.
Egads! Who knew an unpubbed writer could so utterly ruin her chances with an agent or editor by the inclusion of such a phrase???
Now I’ve actually had a couple of requests for fulls based on my query letters – yes, it has happened. So I figure, even if I’ve committed the ultimate faux pas by admitting the truth i.e. that I’ve been writing since 2003 and I’ve completed mmmm, how many is it now? Oh yeah, 8 full manuscripts (two 3-book series and two other single mss) plus 1 novella, what ultimately counted with the agent or editor in the end was my writing.
Yeah: the writing. Now isn’t that a strange concept? So goodness gracious me, could this mean as long as I can write a professional, succinct query with a pretty compelling blurb for the book, ultimately it will be my writing that hooks them? Or in the case of the rejection I’ve just received, they had plenty of great things to say about the writing, but the story just wasn’t right for the line – darnit! That’s what happens when you can’t seem to write a normal story without twisting it.
(And I’m sending the editor a thank-you card to show my appreciation for her taking the time to inform me what she liked about my ms and why it honestly wasn’t right for them. It was a great rejection!)
So in my humble opinion, don’t try to skirt the truth or hide things. Lies always come back to bite you in the bum. Or ass, if you prefer the Americanism. Rightly or wrongly, I’m an advocate of tell it like it is: I’ve been writing since (whenever) and have completed X manuscripts… So there! (Well, not ‘So there!’ in the query letter, of course, coz that would be dumb!)
IMHO, only the individual agent or editor truly knows what he or she is looking for in a query or submission.