Nathan Bransford, Author

Monday, September 24, 2007

The Common Sense and Decency Rule

As you may recall from the MATSUTAKE!! post (I was just itching for an excuse to say that again) I've lately been trying to do a little pushback on the blog about the way in which the query "rules" and things like that will be bent or broken for the right project.

I'd like to take that one step further. I think we blogging agents may have helped create a query and client acquisition culture where people are twittering with abject fear that they are going to break one rule or another in the query process and look like a rube or worse. I don't think it's quite fair to people, particularly since every agent has their own set of preferences and there are no rules written anywhere -- how can someone really be expected to follow every rule out there when everyone has a different rule?

Sure, I have as many biases as the next person, but when dealing with me, there is only one rule that matters: have some common sense, use your good judgment, show consideration for me and my time, be polite, and you'll be fine. I'm not going to cast ye out of the garden of publishing for breaking a rule, unless it's the common sense and decency rule (which, actually, is broken astonishingly often)

Can't we all just get along?

Tomorrow's post will be about how I absolutely loathe it when people refuse to single space their query letters I mean WHAT ARE THEY THINKING???

Just kidding. Actually tomorrow's post will be about the publication of my wonderful client Kim Longs' THE ALMANAC OF POLITICAL CORRUPTION, SCANDALS & DIRTY POLITICS. Get excited!!

UPDATE: Marti was decent enough to point out that I misspelled "decency" in the blog title. Whoops.


original bran fan said...

And don't forget the "don't start your query with a rhetorical question" rule. That's unbreakable.

Seriously, great post. Some friends and I have been discussing the slickness of both queries and published prose lately. We'd like a little bit more looseness.

In queries, one can be both professional and conversational. In novels, there is room for some interesting details that don't further the plot but go a long way toward explaining character/world. Or that just make you sit up and go "Wow. Cool."

Kimber An said...

Excellent post. Trying to accomadate the preferences of every agent out there can drive an aspiring author to drink way too much Pepto Bismol.

Dayna_Hart said...

oooh the Wrong Font Psychosis. *shaking head* been there, done that.

Dave said...

I just sent our host a query (yes it was single-spaced) which was promptly and politely rejected.

The truth of the matter is while I would have loved a partial or full request I'm more than satisfied with his response. He was polite and professional, (I hope I was too) and to be honest if my query didn't wow him he probably isn't the agent I want for this project.

I don't believe in rejectomancy, and am not worried about the reason. The project didn't excite him and that's good enough for me.

Wish me luck with other agents :)

urbansherpa said...

Good luck, Dave!

Dave Wood said...

The quirk that used to strike me as odd was the warning never, ever to mark your partials or fulls as copyrighted because it's "unprofessional." As a staff medical and technical writer responsible for producing our publications, I learned that not including a copyright notice on everything I put out was unprofessional and dangerous.

That difference in standards sure caused me some mortification in my first two or three submissions! Now, I mark my mistake down to various publishing careers having different definitions of professionalism. I can certainly see how that copyright notice might seem an insult to agents. But I don't suppose many agents have had software consulting firms try to sell them white papers stolen straight off the Internet, as I have.

P.G said...

Sadly alot of people do not have common sense. To me reading a book with clean hands is common sense but the numbers of people that eat sticky/BBQ/cheetos while reading a library book just astounds me.
I do believe I could lift fingerprints from some of those cheeto marks.
I actually find following the rules comforting. I know what font to use, what size font, if and when to put the title on the header or footer.
I feel that if an agent goes that far in a query then they must be very picky about the contracts sent to them. Attention to detail is what I want to see in an agent.
But that's just me.

V L Smith said...

I'm new to this game so I was grateful to find all of the information on the querying rules, especially in Nathan's archives.

However, in researching agents to query, I have seen some that give the impression that if you leave out a comma, query too many agents in New York or fail to put your left foot in before hitting the send key on your email, you will automatically be rejected regardless of how great your query was. It's intimidating!

Southern Writer said...

I ran across an agent's website yesterday whose rule is that you may only query her if your initials match those she drew from a hat that week (except I couldn't find the letters where they were reported to be); I think that rule was replaced with another that you could query her if you entered a writing contest she created for her website or newsletter or some such. I can't decide if the whole thing is fun, or she's as quirky and temperamental as the heroine of a romance novel.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Good luck, Dave! (rejectomancy--heh, good one.)

Sitting on editor's side of the table has made me lighten up when it comes to submissions. For instance, a magazine story just requires the very basics: length, genre and credits. (And don't forget your name--yeah, you'd be surprised...)

Some people tell me all about their cat and how this is their first submission and how they only get to write while sitting on the toilet because they've got six kids. It's still not a dealbreaker (though I may be glad I only take email submissions). The dealbreaker is if the story doesn't work for me. As for credits, I don't care if you won the Hugo--it's all about the story and the writing.

It's one reason I follow the esteemed Miss Snark's advice and always send a few pages along with queries. I've been asked for partials off those pages by agents whose guidelines clearly state THEY ONLY WANT THE LETTER.

Agents are people, just like soylent green.

Dwight's Writing Manifesto said...

Dave Wood,

After the Berne Convention of 1979, everything you write is copyrighted to you or your corporation the moment the ink hits the page.

The copyright symbol has zero legal weight. Zero. Seriously, Zee-row. Throughout the known world: zero.

There are three Latin American hamlets where the words "all rights reserved" are legally required to ursurp piracy.

But, if it makes you feel better, circle that C! (It makes my boss feel better, and her reality is my reality.)

I'm not a copyright lawyer, but I did attend a workshop presented by a rights and aquisition lawyer who was pretty adamant about that.

Danette Haworth said...

One editor's guidelines have you writing a silly word on the outside of the envelope. I felt foolish doing it, but then I thought maybe she wants to see who reads her website.

Who knows?

Dave Wood said...

Dwight's WM,

Yup, I've heard something to that effect too.

Now pick up any book on the bookshelf, or any magazine, and hunt around in the first few pages. You'll find the copyright notice, despite any thirty year-old international agreements. But that's the point, really. So many of these little rules we pick up have to do with habit, tradition, or personal taste -- not a specific, current reality. I'd gotten into the habit of putting the little copyright mark on my documents because it was part of the template I'd developed for our publications. I didn't even think of it. On reflection, I can see how it might be a flag for an agent that the author could be a little paranoid and might make for a difficult client. But the certainly wasn't my case. (I'm totally easy going and promise to listen to my agent's advice and never, ever to bug my agent with call after call, hourly, day after day...really!)

It was just an anecdote, anyway. Looking at it now, I know my mss. got rejected for much better reasons than what was in the footer.

Precie said... "set in stone" is the "don't query until you're manuscript is finished" rule?


Church Lady said...

Sex Scenes--Soylent Green?! Ewww! Don't want any of the agents I'm querying served up in a salad, thank you very much! :-)

Danette, is it still (sshhh, don't want others to know the secret code)....SQUID?! hahaha just kidding (about the 'shh' part, not about the 'squid.')

'drew said...

I think (speaking as a teacher) that these attitudes come from the way we perceive grades in school. Generally, when a teacher gives an assignment or test, there is a list of criteria that the student is expected to meet. If the student fulfills 100% of the criteria, the assignment gets an A+, and if the student fulfills more than half of the criteria, the student generally passes. It's a teacher's job to tell us how to get 100% right.

So as adults, we expect the world to run by the same system. We expect to be told how to write an A+ cover letter and manuscript, and that guarantees we'll "pass." When we don't pass, we assume it must be because we did some percentage of the task incorrectly.

So while it's good to learn the rules, nothing trumps a great manuscript, one that the reader really falls in love with. You could get a double-spaced query letter that starts with a rhetorical question and ends with (c) 2007, and if it was a great read, you'd want to read more. And you could get a perfectly tidy by-the-book query letter, but if you didn't enjoy reading it, you wouldn't ask for more.

Anna Maria Junus said...

Maybe there is hope for that other query I had that I'm told is unprofessional because it's just too silly (although it does reflect the book better).

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