Heath Sommer's Blog

January 16, 2011

Certainly the only thing more disturbing than knowing one has to write a query letter for literary representation is the notion that one is going to have to accept countless opinions of its merit. There is something almost helpless about the suffocating feelings that arise as email after email and letter upon letter are returned with the range of responses, to include “excellent, yet not publishable,” to “crap, crap, crap, crap …” To this end from one familiar-with-harsh-replies author to another I post a few bullets regarding query letter “yeahs” and “nays” derived from my own historical successes and failures.

1.Axiomatically, the letter must be polished, polished, polished (and polished, polished, polished). After one harried night on the town I sent a few queries out only to notice afterward (yes, infer my post-mailing proofreading neuroticism here) that a last minute insertion contained a subtle syntax error. Wouldn’t you know that once I fixed the letter I had a twenty percent positive response, but zero of the batch I sent with the error replied with interest.

2.Include an intriguing statistic (or parameter for those of you who are mathematically esoteric and if one exists). Statistics are easy to acquire and always relevant to any provocative pitch. A rich, accessible, and valid source available at almost any library of repute is the United States Statistical Abstract.

3.Personalization really is key. I know there are mass query letter services that champion volume over fit, but I have found much better success when sending a personal letter to a specific agent over the flood-and-await strategy.

4.Further, it really does matter that the agent of interest specializes or at least posts interest in the literary domain in which you are writing.

5.Pay better attention to the class of literary fiction you are representing, but don’t try to sell an incorrect typology to an expert who knows you’re full of bull. Even if you already wrote the book, diagnose it correctly after ample research on the subject. For example, is it better to describe it as literary fiction or American literary fiction, and what is the difference?

6.Finally, maybe this reflects my own cognitive deficits more than anything of substance, but always send a query letter first even if the submissions page doesn’t explicitly state this. I got some bad advice from a dear seasoned author who indicated that in his early days he’d just send a few chapters with all his queries. Well, frankly, gone are the days of the unencumbered literary office (if they ever existed). To restate the point, if the site is vague about whether a query should precede a submission, QUERY, QUERY, QUERY first.

Now this is obviously one of endless tidbits on querying, but it is the kind of point-by-point I wished I understood better from the get go. Would’ve saved a lot of time wasted deleting rejections …
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Published on January 16, 2011 08:45 • 242 views • Tags: author-helps, heath-sommer, query-letters, writing
Over the course of the years a number of patients have asked “how do you do it? I don’t see how you [therapists] can do this stuff day in and day out. It’s a great question, and one that is actually relevant to all people. Parents, how many of your children’s requests do you respond to before you finally just start ignoring? Employees, how many extra minutes do you work unnoticed before you stop caring that “it just has to be done?” Teachers, how many more students do you tutor after hours before you give up on feeling you must save another displaced student in a fledgling educational system? It’s like a friend once said, “I often think to myself as I hold the door for someone, and to my surprise I am stuck holding the door for an endless flow of incoming people; I think to myself, on which person do I discontinue holding open the door?”

It’s a struggle I have every day, if I am being honest. There is just no end to the number of patients who need help, and I genuinely care about all of them. Every last one is a father, mother, sister, brother, son, daughter, and human being. But letting go is really important. To answer the metaphorical question “how many people will let you hold the door open for them” I answer, “Much more than any one person can handle!” We simply all have needs, and because of that the demand for things to do is infinite and thus beyond anyone’s control. I guess what I am saying is that balance is important. It’s important for the mother or father who shouldn’t have to hold their bathroom needs until naptime. It’s important for the employees who should be able to get home by 5:30 instead of six every night. It’s important for the teacher who is already paying back his or her social debt by becoming a teacher and shouldn’t therefore have to forfeit his or her own life to fill the deficits of others. And it is important for the therapist who may have skills to save others, but shouldn’t have to lose himself or herself in the process. Of course I am not against charity. That is a healthy part of life, and we should all seek to employ it. I am just saying that even charity can become an unhealthy obsession at some point, if it impinges on other virtuous issues (like family connection, for example?). Now, easy to say, but the next step is to let my fingers off of the handle. Maybe after just a few more people enter in …
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Published on January 16, 2011 08:43 • 115 views • Tags: altruism, blog, heath-sommer
So it seems to me that people, maybe all of us don’t really get what a protagonist is. The protagonists that I meet in fiction, contemporary or classic are usually, for instance, one-dimensional, bland, predictable. We don’t think of the protagonist as someone who is also a villain. Some stories, such as the hero of Shmayalan’s Unbreakable, have supposed flaws and weaknesses, but really not so. It is clear from beginning to end that the hero will emerge, that the audience will fall in love with the dedication of the hero, and that some form of resolution will occur.

For me, that is not how protagonists really function. For me, protagonists are also villains—people with mean, deep prejudices. People who cheat the government in taxes while spanking their kids for being dishonest. Who argue for purity while subtly evading it.

I don’t know, for me that is more interesting in storytelling and in life. To have a relatable, meaningfully genuine protagonist rather than the president of the boy scout association. But then again I’ve always been about the real. The tangibly intangible. The knowing the limitations of our own selves, and not using such axioms as an escape but also not over expecting our own repertoire.
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Published on January 16, 2011 08:39 • 108 views • Tags: protagonist, writing