I think it’s important for a writer to always be looking for new challenges. If the thing you’re working on isn’t teaching you something then how are you going to grow?

My current challenge is the Writeathon challenge over on Royal Road. Writeathon has some similarities to NaNoWriMo, which I’ve done every year since 2004. In both cases the challenge is to write a set amount according to a fairly tight deadline. NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words of a first draft in 30 days. Writeathon is 55,555 words in 5 weeks but the words have to be published to a single fiction on the website. The daily writing total is lower for Writeathon but you have to edit as you go, which is very different to the “Writing with abandon” atmosphere of NaNoWriMo.

The thing I love about NaNoWriMo is the permission to suck. Nobody ever has to see the bullshit you come up with at three in the morning when you’re desperate to just keep the story going, and so a bunch of ninjas jump out, and menace your romantic leads who’ve been stubbornly refusing to kiss for three fucking chapters.

Writeathon does not come with permission to suck. It comes with permission to care what other people think about your writing. A lot of writing advice boils down to “Write to please yourself.” This is true and important. If you’re not enjoying the story then writing it just isn’t sustainable in the long term. It is possible to write stuff that you hate but writing it will destroy you eventually. The temptation is to avoid that by forgetting about the audience completely.

However, if you never think about the audience then you end up writing stuff that no audience will be able to enjoy. At some point you need to consider clarity and coherence for readers who don’t live in your head. I think it’s perfectly valid to leave that consideration until it’s time to edit but there’s something to be said for cleaning up your messes as soon as you make them.

Ray Bradbury is often quoted as saying “Throw up in your typewriter every morning… – Clean up every noon.” I’m a night owl, and also incapable of sticking to any routine for long, but throwing up story into my laptop for a bit and then cleaning it up when I run out of steam might be sustainable. I’m going to spend five weeks finding out if it is.

Back to the Query trenches

I think I can now officially say that I’ve been querying too long.

Last night I was preparing a query package and double checking the requirements on the agent’s website and I discovered that I’d misread one of the requirements. I thought they wanted a synopsis of under 500 words. No problem, I thought, I’ve got mine under 400. However, on checking I realised that was the requirement for nonfiction queries. For fiction they want the synopsis under 300.

Well, shit.

The standard advice on synopsis length is that it should fit on a single page. That’s around 600 words with single line spacing. Writing a sub 600 word synopsis is hard enough. If I could tell my story in 600 words I wouldn’t have spent months writing 110,000 words. After a week or so of struggle I got a presentable synopsis. I left it a week, went back, realised it was trash, rewrote it entirely, decided it would do and then queried with it a few times. Synopsis version 2.

Then I learned some more about querying and realised that part of the job of the synopsis is to entertain and entice. I took a couple of days to rewrite it completely – to better reflect the journey of the central character. Synopsis version 3.

Then I queried an agent who required a synopsis of under 400 words. I spent a day complaining about that to all my writer friends. I got the word count down to just over 400 without dropping any of the plot. One of my writer friends volunteered to edit it (thanks Vanessa) and she came up with an elegant version that was just under 400. Synopsis version 3.2.

So how do I know I’ve been querying too long? This time I didn’t even bother complaining. I dumped the entire existing synopsis apart from the first and last paragraphs, rewrote the rest, ditched a huge chunk of plot, got it down to 265 words. Took me just over half an hour.

Now. I’m not saying it’s a good synopsis. I’m saying that it fits the requirements and that’s good enough for me.

What my query letter would say if I wasn’t a coward

Query letters. 

Bane of the unpublished writer’s existence. They’re supposed to be professional business letters because you’re trying to enter into a business arrangement with the agent. A query must also be entertaining in order to prove that you can actually write. You have to enthuse to prove that you have faith in your book and you can be trusted to self promote. Entertaining and enthusiastic are not words I’d normally associate with a professional business letter.

Then there’s the other consideration which is the sheer investment of time and effort that is a novel. The general advice is to query widely so you could get the idea that each rejection doesn’t mean much but you only get one chance per novel with each agent. There’s a finite number of agents and not all of them are capable of representing any given book. 

Agents are busy and the publishing industry as a whole is in trouble. You may lose the one agent who could have got your book into print because you made a stupid error in the letter and they didn’t have time to read past that error. That’s not the fault of the agent. It still sucks, though.

So here it is, my moment of catharsis, a look at what my query letter would look like if I wasn’t a coward.

Dear Agent,

I am seeking representation for my novel [REDACTED]. It is 110,000 words of supernatural espionage and features sexy spies and celtic gods. Yes I know that’s too long for a thriller but I’m giving you two genres for the price of one and I’m not cutting out the sex scenes. Something’s got to give somewhere and it turned out to be the word count.

 [REDACTED] also contains a strong vein of dark humour that is laugh out loud funny in places. What do you mean people don’t like funny sex scenes? Have you seen sex? It’s hilarious.

Please reply with a standard rejection email at your earliest convenience. I’m sure you are an excellent agent and I’d love to work with you, but experience tells me that you don’t want to represent either me or the novel (possibly both). The last thing you want in the current crisis is a book in Frankenstine’s genre written by a broke idiot from the frozen north/wrong side of the atlantic. 

At this point I’m just querying every agent I can find because, apparently, rejections don’t count until you’ve collected at least 100. It’s also a displacement activity because I can’t afford to hire a professional editor and a cover artist so I can publish it myself and I’m trying to avoid learning anything new about spreadsheets.

I am fat, poor and from an unmarketable bit of Scotland. I’ve done fuck all of interest with my life and I have no connections. I’m also older than you but I somehow have not accumulated enough money to be able to pay in order to have talked to you face to face at a convention, back when conventions were still a thing. I am not even slightly famous.

I look forward to hearing from you soon (in an obvious form reply about how you’re not passionate enough about my novel which doesn’t fit into your agency and isn’t right for your list).


A carefully selected pseudonym that could be any gender because sexism is not dead.