Friday, 12 September 2014

Personalised querying and rape culture

A question about my queries came up in the Ubergroup:

I've been wanting to get some input on querying agents and how you personalize your queries. I hear of people researching for hours before they even query, yet my sort of personalization requires only about 20 minutes.
I have to admit that the idea of personalizing my query makes me a bit queasy. It feels so much like sucking up. I mean, I'm all for doing my homework, etc, but I dunno - it feels icky.  Then I heard of your success is getting personalized rejections....

My philosophies for querying come from this:

I have very high success rates at Okcupid (not just "getting dates," but using it for social networking. I've gathered platonic groups with common interests without sounding like some creeper with ulterior motives.) It's something I learned to do in person working at Renaissance Faires.

Fundamentally, in that job, I'm 'that big loud crazy actor, approaching you suddenly and starting a conversation.' People, accustomed to screens and recorded media, are wigged out by live actors who can hear and see them, too. "How to approach people in a friendly way without triggering an automatic 'NO' and subsequent avoidance as if you have leprosy" is my most important theatrical skill.

I also spent years as a nightclub bartender. I've watched THOUSANDS of men try and fail to pick up women... and thousands of others succeed. There's a distinct pattern to what works and what doesn't. And I've protected many women from said creepers in nightclubs and on buses because I  know how to give off a "non-creeper" vibe.

Remember: agents are people... frequently young and attractive women who are jaded to being approached. My philosophy to approaching anyone is "Smile, be polite and non-creepy, and promptly explain what you want in such a way that does not come off as spam." "DEAR ANONYMNOUS AGENT READ MY MANUSCRIPT PLZ." is about as appealing as door-to-door salesmen, Jehovah's witnesses, and bums with sob stories asking for change.

Ladies (assuming heteronormativity here, because that's where defences are traditionally highest): if a guy walked up to you in a bar and was like "HAY BEBE CAN I BUY U A DRINK," without even looking at your face, after you watched him do it to every other woman in the room, would it work?

By contrast, if you saw the same guy around in the coffeeshop you usually write in, also working and minding his own business, and he generally came off as cute and non-assuming, and like the fourth or fifth time he was standing in line at the counter behind you he smiles and strikes up an intelligent conversation about the book you're holding... you'd be at least likely to answer his question in a friendly way instead of being like UM NO GET AWAY, right?

Yeah. That. That's why adding agents and other authors on twitter and blogs and being active but not annoying is like hanging out in the same coffeeshop to honestly do your own work and not be annoying or creepy. I tweet a combination of funny links and writing-related ones, talk about the ubergroup a lot, and absolutely NEVER spam "BUY MY BOOK PLZ PLZ PLZ" (like most new-author twitter accounts do.) I write blog posts on writing theory always take the time to answer people's questions about history or writing stuff to the best of my ability.

I want agents, publishers, other authors and potential new readers to have seen me around legitimately doing my own thing and find me to be a decent fellow, With querying, like the "how to write/talk to women" thing, I try to actually start a real conversation instead of being like "no shit, every dude on the planet wants to fuck you, so I'm TOTALLY ORGINAL HERE. I give exactly zero damns about your personality BUT PLZ LETS FUK PLZ PLZ PLZ PLZ OMG PLZZZZZZZZ."

So yeah. I pretty much rewrite my query every single time. I look at my template as a "rehearsal." When I speak to someone in person I'll bring up the same topics I've practiced (if it's someone I wanted to take out, it would probably be the fact that I want to take her out. In the query it's that I'd like her to read my book) and I might mention the same selling points (funny stories that I know most people like/my pitch and comp titles) but I'm not literally just copy-pasting my template. Can you imagine walking up to a girl, unrolling some notes, and robotically reading aloud "HI UR PRETTY WILL U PLEAZE GO ON A DATE WITH  ME?"

No. Personal. From scratch. Every time.

You are clearly using twitter/online presence to create a rapport with agents/publishers before sending off your work - thereby setting up the: I'm sitting in the same coffee shop and recognize the book you're reading. But, in terms of personalization - what if the agent I am interested in doesn't have that personal twitter account (the agency company does) or those interviews from which I can glean information?
Granted, that's just the case for a couple of agencies I'm interested in. Thankfully the publisher I prefer does have an online presence. But in the above situation, how would you personalize?

It's a much longer shot. You're effectively walking up to a beautiful stranger on the street and praying like hell this turns out like it does in movies.

I've had one or two of those and I've sent the best cold-call I can come up with. It's the equivalent of walking up, standing a very careful and non-threatening several feet away and saying, "I apologise for interrupting, but I just had to say: you are stunning. Would you possibly be interested in a cup of coffee?" and on the very very likely chance she says no, smiling and saying "No worries. Have a lovely day," and backing the fuck off before I come off as threatening or stalkery.

I mean, hell could freeze over she could say yes, it happens. Best you can do is be confident but inoffensive and very prepared to handle rejection politely.

So basically I need to suck it up and use my twitter account.

Cold-calling DOES work if you're willing to do enough of it.

One of my good female friends (a cocktail waitress at aforementioned nightclub) is constantly letting asshole dudes get away with unbelievable shit. For example, a guy she wasn't interested in kept badgering her every day for six months until she finally said yes and started sleeping with him "to get him to leave her alone." She was uninterested and harried the whole time they half-assedly dated, but would let him badger her into going places and doing things after work and on her off days. It ended when he finally got a long enough prison sentence that she got badgered into dating someone else in the meanwhile. I can't believe she caves to these guys instead of, you know, filing a restraining order. I keep telling her that she is the part of the problem: men like them think they can get away with that shit because some women eventually give in, and the positive reinforcement makes them keep using the tactic.

Yeah. Anyway. What I think of guys like him notwithstanding, extreme persistence with cold calls does eventually work. That's why you see all that stuff on the internet about "just suck it up and get used to rejection, a yes will come through eventually!" To me that reads kind of like creepy rape culture, but it is true. Rape culture does work.

You don't have to suck it up and use twitter if that strikes you as so false you're going to look false doing it--just like chicks can see if you're kind of stalkerishly ALWAYS SHOWING UP AT THE SAME COFFEE SHOP AS THEM HA WHAT A COINCIDENCE. Or fake-trying-to-be-friends when it's really obvious you want to sleep with them.

I'm just saying, be social in a genuine way for your own sake. I always think men who are several years or more out of college and can't get dates just need hobbies. I don't mean "fake show up to the club meeting with a sleazy grin on your face and try to get a number" I mean ACTUALLY get involved in stuff for it's own sake and gradually, naturally meet people. Because I think people are way more open to conversations with people they've seen around who have been genuine and non-creepy the whole time.

The guy who badgered my friend would never have gotten away with the coffeeshop tactic. He doesn't read. If he hung out in coffeeshops fake holding a book and staring at women the insincerity would be obvious. So he uses what is available, that is, cold calling. If you hate it enough you'd sound annoying an insincere on twitter, don't trouble yourself. It's worse to have a lurking ulterior motive in the room. Just cold call.

Me? I'm typing this from a coffeeshop.


  1. Excellent advice. I just got a partial and I think it was due, in large part, to my interactions with her on twitter.

  2. How do you interact with agents on twitter? How do you find agents to interact with on twitter? where is this giant list of "agents who like fantasy novels that come from a different angle than the usual medieval white folks"? (This is Jennifer McGinnis from Ubergroup. I love to knit. No guy has ever been interested in me because of that particular fact. But neither have I ever bothered to knit a guy a sweater, except my son)

    1. Who totally did not notice this comment until now? THIS GUY.

      The giant list you speak of exists and is a real thing. It is #mswl, which is "mansucript wishlist." It's also syndicated at I love it.

      Margaret Bail does a pretty cool thing called #tenqueries in which she explains her slushpile thought process (you'd be amazed at HOW MANY PEOPLE don't read submission guidelines) and many agents answer useful questions on #askagent. There's also a lot of cool people (agents and published authors) involved in Brenda Drake's #pitchwars. Generally, I add any agent I might ever consider submitting to, and any agent that tweets helpful stuff. Start with those hashtags and you should find a lot.