You Can't Please Everyone
The last time we did a Fifty Queries Club here, we got into a discussion in the comments about where your comp titles should go in a query letter. The answer is unfortunately as hand-wavy and imprecise as much query and publishing advice, which I know is not very helpful to those of you out there swimming in the query letter morass. I have shown writers a pretty specific outline on how to write a query letter (don’t worry this whole entry is not about query letters) but there are going to be agents out there who disagree with me. Many stress the personalization part of query letters more (I kinda don’t care as long as you are sending me a genre I actually rep) and have strong feelings about comps (I also don’t care much at the query stage). It’s easy for me to say just do what’s best for your book!!!! because I am not the one writing the query and also I’ve been reading queries for 20 years. It’s all easy to me at this point.
What do you do when you see conflicting advice? What do you do when one agent says your query must contain this thing and another says eh it’s no big deal? What do you do when one beta reader says your main character isn’t believable and another says they were 100% realistic? What do you do when one agent gives you feedback that says your book is too slow and another says it needs to be longer? Can’t someone just tell you HOW TO FIX IT ALREAY DAMMIT??
Yeah, that’s how I feel when I get conflicting feedback. (I get conflicting feedback from editors, too! It’s not just you!) When my writer brain says one thing and my agent brain says another, who’s right? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ There is no right. Right isn’t important here. The quest for “right” is getting in the way of editing your work in whatever way you want to edit it. I know that is 100% absolutely complete and utterly unhelpful. But that’s the way it is.
You want to know the “right” way to do something out of desperation. You want it to be “right” so you can do whatever is next: send out your work to betas or agents or editors, so you can get that agent or book deal or publication day. You want to complete this set of tasks so you can reach your goal (whatever that is) so you can be DONE with WRITING this thing because writing is painful and hard and awkward and it is nice to be DONE. Writing is never done just like it is never right. I am sorry! I know this sucks!
You also want to know the “right” way to do things when one of the ways you are told or know you have to change something is particularly hard. Wouldn’t it be great if the “right” way to edit your novel was to ignore the person who said this big thing needs to be edited out???? Yeah, I’ve been there, too. Unfortunately, the more you don’t want to do something because it’s big and hard, the more it probably has to be done.
Even when a book is published it is not done or right or perfect. It’s just finished! Everyone just decided it is done so they stopped working on it and sent it to the printer or whatever! That’s it! It’s not even guaranteed to be typo-free because books are made by humans and humans make mistakes sometimes! My goal here is to burst every bubble you’ve ever held onto about publishing and writing so you can start with the absence of expectations and preconceptions. I know that’s impossible, too, but I’m trying.
Why? Because every reading experience, whether it’s a query letter or a published book, is individual to the reader, and you cannot account for the infinite breadth of reactions each of your readers will have. You cannot account for the agents who want comps in the first paragraph of a query letter and ones who think they must go at the end. You cannot account for the readers who hate epistolary novels and the ones who love them. Who want to read post-apocalyptic novels about plagues and ones who never want to see that again. You just can’t. You cannot be all things to all readers.
You can only be yourself. You can only write the book you can write. Writing the book someone else tells you to write (unless you’re a ghostwriter, I guess) isn’t as fun as you think it will be, trust me, even if it is a sure thing. You want readers who get you for who you are and what you write and no one said it would be easy. The way you do that is to put yourself out there the best you can: write the clearest query letter, make sure the barriers to entry in your novel are as low as possible for what you’re trying to do, invite your reader in the best you can. Will some not get it? You betcha. That’s their problem.
That doesn’t mean that you’ll get published for being you. It’s possible publishing won’t get you at all. It’s possible that may be for reasons that aren’t fair, that are based in systemic sexism, racism, and bigotry of all kinds. I am sorry. I think publishing is trying to fix that as best it can, if slowly. It’s bullshit, I know. Capitalism is not fair. But no one is owed publishing just because they wrote a book. There are other ways than traditional publishing to write and publish a book. Those aren’t equitable either, or easy, but then again, what is?
One of the things I think contributes to a lasting writing career is making peace with these things early on. You are not going to please everyone. The people who disagree with what you’re doing aren’t automatically right or wrong. You are not owed directly in proportion to your hard work, unfortunately. There is not going to be one, single, guaranteed way to fame and fortune in writing. When you make peace with these things, it can be freeing. At least I hope so. Because the alternative is trying to please everyone else all the time, and that just leaves you, yourself, empty.
Writing advice, here and everywhere else on the internet and in books, is meant to be a lifeline, a rope in the water when you’re struggling against the current. Grab it. Let it pull you in. And when you’re safe, you just may realize the water wasn’t so deep to begin with, and you could stand on your own two feet this whole time. It takes a long time and a lot of writing and usually a lot of failure to realize that, and that’s just how it goes. I have seen so many successful and not query letters, books, writers, and ideas. I have sent out things that were GENIUS that didn’t find a home. I have had what I thought were SLAM DUNK ideas that flopped. What was the thing that eventually worked? Persistence in the face of rejection. That’s it.