Reader John Askins pointed me to an interview with Benjamin LeRoy, the publisher of Bleak House books, who offered quite a bit of awesome, quotable wisdom.
In particular, I’d point you to this fantastic nugget:
“As soon as I see awkward prose on page one, I reject a book. You wouldn’t trust a clumsy surgeon with a scalpel. I don’t trust authors who aren’t in complete control of their environment. Sloppy work is sloppy work. Doesn’t matter the profession, I don’t want it.”
This is very true, and perhaps the number one reason I reject queries and partials: awkward prose.
Allow me to use a basketball metaphor. LeBron James (who should win the MVP award this year without a contest and frankly if Kobe Bryant wins I might hurt someone) might dribble the ball off of his foot from time to time, but he’s not going to miss the backboard when he shoots a free throw. He’s not going to overthrow a pass to a teammate by 30 feet. There are certain mistakes he’s just not going to make in an NBA game because he’s an NBA caliber player.
The same goes for writing. There are some mistakes and awkward phrasing that a publishable writer just isn’t going to make — it wouldn’t even occur to them to make the mistake in the first place because it just wouldn’t look right. I’m not talking about typos, which are like turnovers, but repeated misuse of its/it’s, confusion of homonyms, run-on sentences, poor word choices… these are the equivalent of LeBron James missing the backboard.
This is also why I’m skeptical when people tell me they can write a compelling novel but not a query letter. Do you have a command of words or not? What if you need to craft a short, wonderful scene in your novel? You can’t marshal the words to write it because it’s too short of a space? You can’t convey a great deal of information with an economy of words? (And sure, Shaq can’t shoot free throws, but…. um…. did I say this was a perfect metaphor that would stand up to scrutiny?)
And then of course there is the fact that published authors have to write blurbs about their work and describe their work in a few compelling sentences all the time. I mean, when you go on Fresh Air and talk to Terry Gross about your novel and she asks you what your book is about, are you going to tell her that you can’t describe it in a few sentences but totally swear it’s a great novel and she should just read the first page instead?
Should I ask rhetorical questions the rest of the afternoon or should I stop now?
I’m sure there are instances when someone wrote a great novel but really did just lack the knowledge about how to go about writing a query letter (because if there’s anything I’ve learned in publishing it’s that there is an exception to everything), but this is all still hearsay to me and I haven’t personally seen it.
But most importantly, your command of words is what you’re banking on. It’s like musical ability to a musician, athletic ability to an athlete, swinging on trees to a monkey. If you got it you got it.