by Tess Gerritsen
Last year, I received an email from an unpublished novelist who had been sending out query letters, plus the first fifty pages of his manuscript, to literary agents. None of the agents had asked to see the entire novel. "What's the problem here?" he asked. "I have Hollywood writing credits. I have a background in story analysis. But all I get back from these agents are form-letter rejections." He wondered, was the New York publishing world such a closed shop that you have to know someone just to get your foot in the door?
His background did indeed sound impressive. He'd worked as an executive in the film industry and had been associated with some major names. Just based on his work experience, I would think that a literary agent would have been very interested in this man's novel. So why was he getting only rejections? I told him I couldn't read his manuscript, but I offered to look at his query letter.
And that's where I found the answer.
The letter starts off well enough, describing the writer's extensive experience in Hollywood. He certainly seemed like a man who'd be able to recognize a great story when he sees it. Were I a literary agent, I would definitely have sat up and paid attention.
But then he commits a fatal mistake: He says, essentially: "This novel is superbly written and bound to be a success."
The letter doesn't offer even the barest description of the plot. Instead, it commands: "Read these first three chapters, then call me for the rest. What you'll find is a great plot and amazing twists. Read it, and then let's get down to business."
Finally, he closes by saying that he's sending this material out simultaneously to some big-shot agents. The unspoken message is clear: you'd better get your ass in gear if you don't want to miss out on the book deal of a lifetime!
I stared at that letter for quite some time, debating whether or not I should tell this writer the painful truth. I could have taken the easy and cowardly way out and written back: "Gee, it beats me why it's not selling! Good luck and see ya!" But I must have had a few glasses of wine that night, because I ended up telling him exactly what I thought: If I were an agent, I wouldn't take you on in a million years.
I explained that his letter was a turn-off in so many ways. First, he announces to the agent that he is a brilliant writer. (Oh yeah? Says who?) Second, he doesn't provide a synopsis (because synopses are for the common folk?). He expects the agent to read his chapters and immediately recognize his genius. Third, he tells the agent how she's supposed to react to his work. He tells her how to do her job. I can almost hear what the agent is muttering as she sits at her desk reading this letter.
And she's not saying nice things.
Maybe this outrageous display of overconfidence is something you learn if you work too long in Hollywood. Maybe it's part of doing business in a town where everyone is striving to be skinnier, richer, and on the covers of more magazines than anyone else, where everyone has a personal publicist whose only job is to tell the world how bodacious you are.
I don't think this sort of noisy chest-beating goes over well in the more sedate publishing world. Yet unpublished authors, whether or not they come from Hollywood, often seem to commit the same sins as this man did. In query letters, they'll describe their manuscript as "well-written," or "sure to be a hit" or "as thrilling as The Da Vinci Code — only more literary!" Way too many of them will tell you that "my mom loves it! And she knows a good book!"
Literary agents don't give a damn what your mother thinks about your book. They don't want to be told that your book is wonderful and that you're the next John Grisham. They want to know what your story is about, who your characters are, and why readers should care about them. They want to know that you're cooperative and willing to work hard. They want to know that you're not a jerk.
And sending them an arrogant query letter doesn't help your cause.
Published novelists who've been in the business a while know that the writing profession is far more likely to breed humility than arrogance. We're forced to live with uncertainty. No matter how well your last book sold, your next one could be a flop. You could be a bestselling author today, and a few years later be unable to land a book contract. It took me ten years and ten books before I hit the bestseller list. During those first ten years, I wondered if I'd ever make a living at the craft. Even now, I never stop worrying that I've lost my touch, that people will stop buying my books, that I'll never write another good one. I never forget that my success is built just as much on sheer good luck as it is on my talent. It's hard to be arrogant when I know how easily it all could have turned out differently.
After I wrote back to that aspiring novelist, telling him how much I disliked his query letter, he took it very well. He said that I was right, that he could see how his query letter would turn off agents. I told him to take out all the chest-pounding, include a synopsis, and stop talking about what a great book it is. He said he would re-write the letter and send it out again.
Only a few weeks later, he happily told me that an agent had just taken him on, and publishers were already expressing interest. Clearly the man has talent; it was his attitude that got in the way of making the sale. But he was able to step back and re-evaluate his approach and see where he'd gone wrong. And he was willing to fix it.
I look forward to reading his book when it's published. I hope it's a hit.