Monday, 21 January 2013

Query Shark Hunting Minnows?

Lately I have been on something of an anti-orthodoxy kick.  It's never a good idea to become too comfortable in your surroundings and complacent in your ideas.  Unfortunately, I fear that is something that is becoming more and more common as we socially catalogue ourselves based on increasingly rigid criteria.  The Facebook and Twitter generation knows how to tag people, and once you're tagged you're either in or out.  Pretty soon you can be comfortably hearing nothing but the sound of your own thoughts rattling back at you in a noisy echo chambers.

In an online game I enjoy, I was part of a league where I was a big fish in a small pond, so I jumped ship.  Mixed metaphor?  At least both involve water.  And as I mentioned on Twitter, after spending a lot of time on a writing project lately (more on that in an upcoming post - it's a pretty interesting concept, and it could well be a new novel!), I've kind of burnt out my usual writing music.  I'm not that old, despite the cane, but I've always liked what this generation might call your dad's rock and roll - REM, Pink Floyd, Bowie, along with some of the British greats from the 90s - Manic Street Preachers, Oasis, Radiohead.  Unfortunately there's only so many times you can listen to classics before you start to miss the magic of hearing something exciting and new.

Writing can be like that - working on a novel can leave you aching to be done, no matter how passionate you first were about the idea, leading to a rushed finish.  I really feel this happened with Harry Potter (yes, I read it, and I liked it, so sue me).  I may even discuss why in a later post.  And later in this post, you'll see where all of this actually ties in to writing.

Part of my thirst for new things and re-examining old ones comes from my travels across the Internet.  Repeat visitors will have probably noticed my occasional rant about politics and religion.  Don't fret, I'm not going to get into that right now, but in the kinds of places I frequent to talk about these issues, I've noticed a sudden up-tick in the intolerance of unorthodox ideas.  I've seen one person float solipsism only to be vigorously attacked and treated like a child, which was clearly more of a response to the same person earlier daring to mention Bigfoot on an atheist forum.  Oh dear.  I'm fairly agnostic toward Bigfoot - it seems distantly plausible but there's scant evidence and much of what is available isn't particularly credible.  It's not exactly a harmful idea, though, but it's an unusual one in secular circles, and that really got a lot of backs up and wound up with both sides bickering.  In another instance, I saw someone suggest that a very rude word associated mostly with women be used less because of the potential for misunderstanding its context (though admittedly they did not express this particularly carefully), and they were swiftly rounded on for daring to try to control people who really want to use that word for some reason.  The suggestion that reason be used to look at the real issue raised was greeted with unreasonable hostility.

Surprise, surprise, some people got mad over nothing on the Internet.  You didn't have to be the sole being in the universe whose mind was projecting all things to figure that one out.  I'm not writing to whine about it, just to observe it.  Consider this entry a form of Mindfulness.  What really concerns me, though, is that the anger erupted from people being asked to challenge their preconceptions, to step outside their comfort zone just a little bit.

Doing this seems incredibly difficult for humans, and I worry that it's really getting in the way of a lot.  In politics, that's probably rather evident.  Whatever your stripes, you'll likely be mad at all the other people not opening their minds.  For writing, I'm concerned that authors are not simply hurt by their own complacency, but that of the publishing media and readers.  Readers only have so much time, energy and funds, so naturally they're going to be judicious about what they purchase and read.  We can't really fault them for it, much as we might love for them to try something different (especially Last Confession, where a former priest follows his daughter into death and hears the confession of God's sins). 

It's our job to appeal to readers, and it's our job to appeal to editors and agents.  That's part of the game, but sometimes I worry that the other side may not be paying so much attention.  When I read a blog like Query Shark, where Janet Reid mercilessly critiques the query letters of hopeful writers (they volunteer), I see an unsettling pattern emerge.  Frequently she cites reasons to automatically reject a query, often within the first glance.  Agents obviously do not have a lot of time to weed through queries, but if they are simply looking for the first reason to reject something, what are authors to do?

Write the perfect query, obviously, but nobody's perfect, especially not starting out.  Also, authors generally concentrate more on writing the perfect story, not the perfect letter.  If we were perfect at selling ourselves and our work, we wouldn't need agents.  Now, many of us don't.  With the publishing industry continuing to slide into oblivion, one would think they would be willing to take risks.  But complacency, and comfort, appear to reign.  Every excuse is found to say no to a writer.  Every barrier and hurdle is held up as the gatekeepers continue to bar the doors to keep the unwashed out of the castle walls.  And there are a lot of unwashed out there - authors who are struggling to keep their ideas coherent long enough to compose a letter never mind a novel, writers of glorified fan fiction who unfortunately are not aware of intellectual property, and those who somehow think it's not necessary to spell-check a query.

Yet is that enough reason to scan every approaching author with an eye toward what to toss, rather than what to keep?  Is it a disservice to aspiring writers to be met with what amounts to a hostile gauntlet, where they dare not put a comma out of place in case that's the one thing the agent needs to reject their years of hard work?  What do you think?

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