I’m coming to the end of my sixth annual read-through of King’s classic work ON WRITING. For any aspiring writer, I consider this book to be must-read material. There is much in this book I could quote, discuss, and speak about in glowing terms. But instead, I’m going to pick on its weakest point. In fact, worse than a weak point–it’s flat-out wrong, misleading, and will give today’s querying writer no end of trouble if he or she actually follows King’s advice.
To be fair to the maestro, ON WRITING was written in a different age. By that, I mean it is 18 years old, and 18 years ago, publishing was still very much a paper-and-ink affair. Most agents accepted queries by snail mail, and few accommodated email submissions. These days the reverse is true, and, the rules of the road have changed. Also, bear in mind that Stephen King hasn’t had to write a query letter in over 45 years.
The section in question, near the end of the book, asks how one goes about getting a literary agent. On more than one occasion, King states that one really ought to get an agent if one desires to be published. That advice is generally true today, though we would now make the distinction between traditional publishing and independent, or self-publishing. Self-publishing was a much shadier and riskier business back in 2000. These days, done properly (i.e., with a good editor and quality cover design), it’s a perfectly respectable approach to getting your work in print (paper or digital–an option that wouldn’t have crossed King’s mind back then).
Assuming, therefore, you want to be traditionally published, which means you want to have an agent represent your novel to publishers big and small, and for your publisher to handle seeing your work in print and in stores, here’s King’s advice, and why you shouldn’t follow it.
1, His fictional author, Frank, submits short stories to magazines so he can build a resume that would be attractive to an agent. This is not necessary. You don’t need a prior publishing history to get an agent. Of course, if you have a good publishing history, you will pique an agent’s interest. Three or four published short story credits will probably persuade an agent on the fence to take a look at your work. However, the agent’s ultimate concern is whether or not the novel you’re querying is any good. If the agent doesn’t like what you’re offering, or doesn’t think she can sell it, no amount of previous work will help you.
2. Frank’s short story submissions are made on a “good grade of white bond paper” with a cover letter on top. Again, most magazines take electronic submissions these days (though there are a few old-school hold outs that only want mail-in submissions).
3. Frank sends queries for his novel to agents before the novel is complete. This is a major no-no. When you query an agent, your novel had better be ready to go. And by “ready to go,” I mean complete, beta read, revised, revised again, and revised even more. If an agent asks to see your work, she will either ask for a partial (maybe the first fifty pages), or a full (the whole thing). You need to be ready to send the whole thing.
4. Frank’s query letter is a disaster. Let’s see if I can QueryShark it (apologies to Janet Reid):
Dear _____________ :
I am a young writer, twenty-eight years old, in search of an agent.
The agent doesn’t give a flying fig whether you’re eight, twenty-eight, or eighty-eight. Don’t even mention your age. This is only relevant when it comes to signing the contract. And she already knows you’re searching for an agent–that’s the point of the query letter. This is a waste of words.
I got your name in a Writer’s Digest article titled “Agents of the New Wave,” and thought we might fit each other.
This is actually good. Many agents like to know why you’re querying them. It elevates your query from a form letter to something more personal.
I have published six stories since getting serious about my craft. They are:….
As I mentioned, this is not necessary, but if you do have publishing credit, it’s good to provide it. Make sure you’re listing work that has been published by reputable magazines. They don’t have to be widely-known (e.g., The Atlantic, or The New Yorker), but she should be able to track them down and find your stories without too much difficulty. The line about “getting serious about my craft” is unnecessary and should be cut. And you don’t need to list how much the stories sold for. The agent doesn’t care. The value of the story is in the fact it was published, not how much you got paid.
I would be happy to send any of these stories (or any of the half dozen or so I’m currently flogging around) for you to look at, if you’d like. I’m particularly proud of “A Long Walk in These ‘Yere Woods,” which won the Minnesota Young Writers’ Award. The plaque looks good on our living room wall, and the prize money–$500–looked excellent for the week or so it was actually in our bank account (I have been married for four years; my wife, Marjorie, and I teach school).
King has now left query mode and is in story-telling mode, which is to say, most of this is a waste of space. The only useful piece of information is the fact that one of the stories won an award. That could be included with your listing of the story above. By now, if the agent is still reading the query and hasn’t hit “form reject,” she is yawning and wondering when we’re going to get to the story. You know, the novel. The whole point of the query letter.
The reason I’m seeking representation now is that I’m at work on a novel. It’s a suspense story about a man who gets arrested for a series of murders which occurred in his little town twenty years before.
At last! And… that’s it? The first sentence can be cut since, again, it states the obvious. Also, “I’m at work on a novel” means the novel is not finished. Automatic form rejection. If the novel is not finished, you are not ready to query. And how many suspense stories are there about a man arrested for past murders committed in his small town? Answer: lots. Where’s the conflict? Is the man innocent and needs to prove his innocence? What’s at stake? What entices the agent to read this novel over and above all the other murder-suspense stories in her slush pile?
The first eighty pages or so are in pretty good shape, and I’d also be delighted to show you these.
Again, don’t bother. No agent wants to consider an unfinished manuscript. Finish the novel and try again.
Please be in touch and tell me if you’d like to see some of my material. In the meantime, thank you for taking the time to read my letter.
I doubt any agent read this far. “Thank you for your time and consideration” is sufficient for those few who did.
If you’ve been following Stephen King’s querying advice, I hope I’ve persuaded you not to. I would like to think this portion of the book will receive a much-needed update sometime in the near future. But after 18 years, it’s unlikely.
My advice: if you want to query well, check out the websites/blogs of the people who read the queries–i.e., literary agents. They are your audience, and they know better than anyone what they’re looking for. I recommend, for starters, Janet Reid and BookEnds. A quick Google search will pull up many more.
Questions? Thoughts? Comments? Objections?