Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Tales from the Editor's Desk - Query Letters, part 2

From the Desk of Barbara Ardinger

Let’s revisit that awful query again.

ive written three fiction novels. … i am looking for a literality agent, as i’m in this for the long hall.

Not only do we need to use the spell checker and not write in text-speak, but we also need to use the right words. Words are a writer’s most basic tools. To use a cliché, just as a cook starts with a good sharp knife, just as an artist starts with conte crayons, just as a mechanic starts with a wrench that’s the right size for the job, so do we start with words. We are required to use them correctly. We can spend our lives learning to do so.

As far as I know, all novels are fiction. Fiction is something that is invented, rather than something that actually occurred. The word “fiction” comes from the Latin fictiō, “a making or fashioning,” via Old French and the Middle English ficcioun, which means “invention.” When we write a novel, we’re making it up. Some novels are, of course, very close to nonfiction (Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood comes to mind, as do the novels of Dominick Dunne), but when this guy uses the words “fiction novel” in his email to a literary agent or acquisitions editor, it shows that he probably doesn’t know what he wrote. A query should not be a ficcioun.

Next, when this guy writes that he’s looking for a “literality” agent, he’s not just misspelling the word. My guess is that he has faulty hearing and maybe conflated “literary” and “literal.” Or maybe he’s a sloppy thinker, or he’s too lazy to look in the dictionary to double-check a word he thinks he knows. This reminds me of an ad I once saw in a college newspaper: “Looking for a doctrinal hood.” If we want to be taken seriously, we need to use the right words. I don’t know what a doctrinal hood looks like. I can’t help but wonder what reality a literality agent lives in. And if said agent could sell a book in the current publishing marketplace. And, finally, yes, there are long halls, often found in dormitories, hotels, and hospitals. But I’m pretty sure that’s not what the writer of this query intended to say.

“I’ve written three novels.” I am looking for a literary agent.” “I’m in this for the long haul.” If you want the agent or acquisitions editor to whom you want to sell your novel or nonfiction book to pay attention (and not just laugh at you), every word in your query must be used and spelled correctly. Creative people invent words, of course, and the meanings of words change, but in a query letter, it’s useful to be as correct as possible.

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