Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Give Good Query

George: Since we began our new agency a couple of months ago, we've gotten a few dozen queries, but there seems to be little consistency in how authors present themselves. Basic information about writing a query letter is all over the Net. While I appreciate creativity and can be pretty tolerant of unorthodox queries, sending an email saying essentially "hi, would you read my fabulous book" is a not much of an incentive to do so.
Joan: Think of a query as a way to present yourself and get your foot in the door. This is the first thing an agent will see about you. Be sure to do your homework. If an agent says, I don't represent short stories or children's books, then why waste your time querying about your short stories and children's books to that particular agent? Spend the extra time it takes making sure there are no grammatical or spelling errors in your query. Would you go to a job interview with your resume loaded with errors? Of course, you wouldn't. When an agent asks you to include information in a query letter, be sure to do so. When you write a query, remember that no matter how good your query is, the manuscript still has to stand on its own. If you say something in a query such as, "This is the world's greatest book" or "I chose you out of thousands and you are being given a once in a lifetime oportunity to represent my book, the next Harry Potter," an agent is immediately going to react and probably not in a positive way. 
George: For me, it's ultimately about the manuscript, although Joan's right that if you can't get a query letter correct, it casts some doubt on your seriousness. It's true that the formal process required for publishing is not exactly the same as the creative process you use when you're writing a novel. It's more like the research process you do for a novel: you check your dates and facts and figures, and you try to get the time period details right.  In any case, all a good query does is to get an agent to look further.  A book still succeeds or fails on its own.
Joan:  I think a book about queries is a good investment; however, you can find on the Internet, with a little research, lots of examples about how to write a good query if you don't want to buy a book. To me, this business is a food chain. You write queries, and you get rejected. I write queries, and I get rejected. I know what getting rejected feels like. I write the best query I can so I know I am getting rejected for another reason than not writing a good query. I do my very best at what I know I can control: the quality of my presentation. That way, if I get rejected, I know I did my very best, and the rejection had nothing to do (I hope) with a poor presentation of my product. Most important, I look on websites and make sure that no matter where I am sending my material, I provide exactly what the agent, editor, or publisher requested. I follow the guidelines like they are specs for a military technical publication.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Pass Up Passive?

Joan swept George away => George was swept away (by Joan)?

George:  As a linguist, I'm always curious about the negative press that passive voice gets.  In genres of non-ficition writing, especially in technical or legal writing, it certainly has a place. In fiction, it's not as clear an issue to me. Why do you think it's so unacceptable in fiction writing, Joan, or is it true just for certain genres of fiction writing?

Joan: In legal writing, passive voice has a place. Sometimes an event is more important than the subject. But in fiction, the passive voice should only be used in rare occasions, IMO. The biggest part of the problem is that writers aren't always in control of their writing and use passive "to be" forms way too often. If you use passive voice it needs to be intentional. Here is an example of an intentional use of passive voice: The wedding gown was thrown across the floor with great force. I am stressing that the wedding gown was thrown rather than who threw it.

George:  Well, I'm sorry that someone was unhappy with her (or his) wedding gown—was this a reject from Project Runway?

Joan:  No, I was thinking about a friend who recently divorced. She had a divorce party. The wedding gown toss was part of the amusement.

George and I have argued about passives because I call "to be" forms that precede description "passive description." Here are some examples: It was a nice day, There were trees on the hill, There was a problem. First, this form is wordy, and if you're writing fiction, you don't want to slow your reader down with words that don't add anything and that make your prose slower and sloggy. A sentence with an active verb is more powerful and concise.

George: "Passive description" is confusing because it's not necessarily passive voice grammatically, but you're right that what they all have in common is using some form of the verb "to be." In fiction writing, especially modern fast-paced fiction, action verbs have a higher value than static verbs. The problem is that real "passive voice" sentences are not of the same category as sentences such as It was a nice day. A passive voice sentence like The bank was robbed is not static in the same way as the non-passive voice sentence There were trees on the hill.  For one thing, the main verb "robbed" is still an action. Nor is the passive voice sentence shorter than its active version Someone robbed the bank.

The difference between active and passive is focusing and emphasis, as Joan points out. Since many writers don't understand that, I suppose that it's easier to say "Don't Use Passive Voice." Still, I think the prohibition is a bit obsessive.  Anyway, how else do you say It was raining without using a so-called expletive subject ("it") and a form of BE?

Joan: You don't, in your fast paced, cliche-free fiction. Expletive deleted.


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Welcome to our Weblog

Welcome to the weblog for Timberlake-Oliver Literary Services, LLC. We're a new literary agency located in West Virginia, and we're excited about finding new talent that we can represent to publishers. With Joan's law degree and interest in literary contract law, and with George's linguistics degree and experience in editing, we're confident we can help writers get their manuscripts ready and get good contracts negotiated.

We'll be blogging about our experiences with writers and the publishing industry, with an eye to helping writers understand more about what we do as agents and what writers can do to move their publishing goals along.

We'll be carrying on conversations between the two of us, which can sometimes get pretty contentious, but don't be fooled—we enjoy our debates. Sometimes they are even funny, and they are always good natured. We don't always agree, and we often have to talk our way through an issue, but we think you might enjoy eavesdropping.