Friday, July 17, 2009

Ultimate Query Fail - A.K.A. Something to help you feel smarter

I am an idiot. Please bear with me as I give a little back story that will illustrate the full magnitude of my stupidity.

In the summer of 1997, I had an idea for a story. I jotted down the idea that continued to improve and expand with every ink mark on the page. It wasn't the right time in my life to write a novel, so I forced myself to wrap it up and promised myself that I would write the book tentatively titled 'Moonfire Movement' in two years.

In late 2008, I finally finished my manuscript. After eleven years of thinking, writing and further developing the original idea, I typed word 170,177. (Figuring 250 words per page, my novel was a hefty 681 pages.) Pleased with myself for finally completing the monster that had randomly consumed my attention for over 1/3 of my life, I went online to figure out how to get it published and be lavished with awards, accolades and of course the riches that only science fiction authorship can bring. Sixty plus queries were sent to any and all agents I could find that accepted science fiction submissions and over two months, sixty plus form rejection emails filled my inbox.

I tried to take it in stride. I really, really tried to be understanding. Rejection is just part of the publishing world. Everybody collects rejection letters at the start of their career. But I still felt like I had in the seventh grade when the basketball coach called me into his office on the last day of tryouts and told me that I needed to work on my physical conditioning, my left hand dribbling, my right hand dribbling and my shooting. I walked out of the locker room that day thinking, “What else is left?”

None of the agents gave me any details of what I needed to improve but by the speed of rejection, it was apparent to me that my whole ‘game’ needed to improve.

So, I researched the writing industry and agent practices. I became a regular reader of the linked blogs (to the right) and a contributor to small writing exercises and contests. I sat down with my 'Moonfire' manuscript and a red pen, slashed it to pieces and threw the whole thing in the trunk of my car after deciding rewriting was more expedient than revising. I found peace in telling myself that I was improving as a writer and had a solid story that just needed better story telling.

Then, Wednesday night, July the 15th, knocked my optimistic work off line. It was late evening, my wife was painting and I was drooling in the corner with the flu, mindlessly clicking around I found an article about ten science fiction books that should be made into movies. (Here’s a link to the article for anyone interested.) I gave it a look. I’d read several of the books and had most of the others on a ‘must read’ list. But one in particular caught my attention.

Before I tell you what that book was, let me give you a synopsis of 'Moonfire', a bullet point version of what I’d sent in my query letters.

The story takes place in re-activated volcanic chambers under the surface of the moon.
Our hero escapes from his slavery in the mines and once free, he leads a revolt against the government of Earth and the shadow organization behind the government to put an end to the prisoner/slave mining of Moonfire.

(That’s it in a nutshell. I’m sure all of you are now desperate to read more.)

Back to Wednesday night, book number two of the writer’s top ten books to be made into movies is Robert Heinlein’s 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' and the synopsis of the story is…

“…a future penal mining colony on the moon decides to rebel and declare independence, with plenty of talk about government leavened by tough, tense scenes of armed revolution as the moon's residents fight back against Earth's jailers and governments.”

If my wife had not been in the room and my children had not been sleeping peacefully upstairs, I would have screamed a string of profanities so obscene that a new level of hell would have been created as a punishment for my outburst.

Eight months of telling myself I just needed to improve as a writer, needed to work harder, needed to evolve my style went out the window. Twelve years of writing, adjusting, studying and thinking were completely destroyed. This was so much worse than believing my entire ‘game’ needed to change. I now knew why agents had been so quick to reject. It wasn’t just because I couldn’t write or had written a manuscript far too long to be published as a first time novelist – It was because I was querying a novel that had been published in 1966 by one of the greats of science fiction. I was querying a story that was over FORTY years old and was a Hugo award winner. (If you don’t know what the Hugo Award is, here’s a link but let me throw out some other titles for comparison – Dune, Ringworld, Neuromancer, Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.)

Imagine some idiot sitting around in 2050 and sending out query letters that reads something like this:

Dear Superstar Agent,

Larry Plotter is a wizard but doesn’t know it…

That’s what I did SIXTY TIMES!

That’s me.

Dan. The idiot.

I wish that I had written my queries in crayon and sent them on the back of post cards with a return address to ‘Wee Britain’. I wish that I had been content to print my manuscript and wait another ten years to start rewrites in the hope that I might read more of Heinlein’s work between now and then. I wish at the very least that I had used a pen name and had worn a fake moustache when querying just to throw the agents off my trail of ignorance. I wish for so many things right now that if I listed them all, this blog post would never end.

Who knows, maybe the agents I queried didn’t equate 'Moonfire' with Heinlein’s book. Maybe they really did reject Moonfire because my writing is horrible and the story is pedestrian and boring. Maybe nobody passed my email around the office so everyone could have a good laugh at the idiot querying a forty year old award winning novel. Maybe…

That being said, I have a copy of 'The Moon is a Harsh Mistress' now and will begin reading tonight. Based on some book summaries I’ve read, it appears that Moonfire has very little in common with Harsh Mistress. At this point, all I can do is read and hope that I really, honestly and truly just stink at writing and that nobody else made this connection. But, if a dimwit like me can make it, odds are somebody else has already.

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