Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Know the Reasons, Rule the Rules

Disclaimer: so maybe I'm not qualified to pontificate on what makes for successful submissions, since I don't have an agent. Maybe I'm totally wrong. I don't usually post about submissions, or queries, or anything of the sort. But I'm going to go out on a limb and post this anyway. Because this is something I see a lot, and it frustrates me every time. And please indulge me, even though I've written about this before.

Today's post is brought to you because I had an interesting discussion on twitter with Dahlia Adler about query etiquette and read someone on AW asking about how to have the "perfect query" within a half hour of each other. Together, those events got me thinking. (A dangerous pastime, I know.)

Navigating the land of submissions is pretty crazy and hectic and there's a lot of information out there about how you should write your book, how you should pitch your book, what your query should say, what it should look like, who it should be sent to, when it should be sent, when you should follow up and to whom...

The list goes on. And on, and on, and on. And the problem is, you can hear both sides of the coin. One industry professional might say, "Never send pages." Others will say, "Always send." Some will say, "Nudge after six weeks." Some will say, "If I haven't replied, it means I'm passing."

But out of this, people say there are hard-and-fast rules to querying, rules to writing query letters, rules to writing the manuscript itself. How can that be?

I'm reminded of a misstep I made in my writers' group maybe two months back. I was critiquing one members' overuse, in my opinion, of speech tags, particularly of the "he muttered" and "she shrieked" variety. I offered this advice: "The rule I've heard is, if you can make it silent (i.e., have no speech tag), that's better than 'said;' if you need a speech tag, 'said' will go unnoticed, and if 'said' won't do the trick, then reach for the extravagant tag."

One of the other members said, "You know, I don't like rules. I think writing rules often aren't true. I don't think we should tell people what they have to do."

I was sort of hurt. As far as I was concerned, I hadn't just told the writer that he had to do things my way, yet that was how the other group member interpreted it.

Then I realized that the problem is the word "rule."

We think of rules as things to be adhered to at all cost. The things that get your name on the board in elementary school (if teachers still do that). The rules of law.

But in writing, and even in querying, I find the "rules" to be something very different.

For example: can you open a query with a rhetorical question? Well, here's the thing. Many agents will hate it. Some may auto-reject. Some may begrudgingly read the rest of the query and decide based on the rest of the query they don't like the book. A few may read the rest of the query and decide to ask for pages.

Now the "many agents will hate it" part makes it maybe not the best idea to include. It's risky. "Don't open your query with a rhetorical question" is a fabulously smart guideline. But does that mean that no query ever ever ever should have a rhetorical question, and every one that does will never find an agent? Absolutely no. Just check out any archive of successful queries, and you'll see a few with just such a device.

Same thing with the speech tags. As we sat at the table in Caribou Coffee, I tried to figure out how to explain what I'd meant. A few minutes later, I offered, "You know, I tend to use that rule at the revision rather than the composing stage. I don't sit and go, 'can I remove the speech tag here' while I'm writing. But if I look over a manuscript and see a lot of 'he muttered' and 'she sighed,' it's a sign that I can probably make the text smoother."

Not a rule. Just a sense that, hey, this way tends to work better than that way. But the gods of writing are not going to smite me (or my writing group pal) for the occasional "he muttered."

The rules of the land of writing, even professional writing, are far from absolute. And more important than knowing "the rules" is knowing why they exist. Rhetorical question queries often cause the agent to answer the question, "No" or "I don't know" and then you've lost momentum, and the agent's attention, after the first sentence. Extreme speech tags affect the rhythm of the page and draw the reader's attention to the tag rather than to the speech.

Know the why, and the rule becomes something you can use to your advantage. My current query doesn't open with a rhetorical question, not because I've heard that's "the rule," but because knowing exactly why those are often disliked, I find there's a more effective way to draw a reader into my query. I rarely use speech tags because if I can just get the characters zipping back and forth, the reader hears their dialogue rather than sees me trying to explain how they said it.

The "rules" aren't absolute, but they exist for reasons. Know the reasons, and you rule the rules.

Which is why I offer this: my one hard and fast rule for writing and selling your book. The only rule I live by. It works if you want an agent, it works if you have a giant contract from the Big 6, it works if you write for small presses, it works if you self-pub. It's the closest thing to a universal rule I can think of, and for me, it covers all the necessary bases.

Write a great book. And then be professional about how you pitch it.

That's it. As far as I'm concerned, nothing else is set in stone.

Do you find yourself breaking rules? Do you think about them? Is there a rule you live by, but because of the why rather than the what? Is there a rule that you feel is set in stone? Drop me a line in the comments.

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