Maureen’s Most Excellent Rant

There’s a wonderful rant from the fabulous Maureen Johnson over on her agent’s blog. Maureen’s responding to the notion that a bunch of agents giving free advice on Twitter was unprofessional. Here’s my favourite bit where she responds to a comment upstream that claims that they don’t read street signs so why should they read agent submission guidelines:

Yes, you have to read all the guidelines. I don’t even know what to say to someone (I refer to a comment above) who doesn’t think you have to read street signs and says that likewise, you do not have to read guidelines. This is, I’m sorry, I have to say it . . . perhaps the worst example I have ever read. Not only should you not be writing, you should probably not be driving. I know that’s a harsh thing to say, but it’s not nearly as harsh as the impact of your car as you go careening through stop signs and into school zones. Do you skip all instructions? Do you just stick food in the oven because who has time to read directions and then wonder when it burns?

What Maureen said. Times a billion. So many of the rants I see about agents boil down to this:

Why do I have to follow the rules?

I don’t see people ranting online about the outrageousness of having to go to university and study and pass exams in order to become an engineer/doctor/lawyer/architect etc. Or how incredibly unfair it is that you have to train and play regularly over many many many years in different competitions (high school, college, overseas) and be picked up in the draft in order to play in the WNBA or NBA. Why can’t I just rock up to the New York Liberty unannounced and be their next point guard? Why do I have to jump through all these hoops to prove that I’m talented and smart and disciplined enough to be their point guard? It’s outrageous!

Get a grip.

No one owes you publication. No one owes you a place on the New York Liberty. You have to earn it. AND you have to get lucky.

It took me twenty years to get published. I did many other things during that time including earning a BA, a PhD, living in different countries, as well as writing two novels and a million short stories. No matter where I was living or what I was studying I worked really hard on my writing. But in those twenty years the only success I had were a few short stories and poems published unpaid in university magazines.

Yet it did not occur to me to rail at the system. I was sad and disappointed no one wanted to publish me, upset that they could not recognise my genius,1 but I read the guidelines, jumped the hoops, and submitted as I was asked to. Why would anyone who seriously wants to be published not do the same? There are so many obstacles in the way of getting published why would you set up more for yourself?

I really don’t understand it.

What Maureen said.

  1. I was young, okay? []


  1. Shalanna Collins on #

    Hi, Justine! I always enjoy your thoughtful and informative entries.

    You mention that you don’t understand why some people might have the notion that a bunch of agents giving free advice on Twitter was unprofessional. I took this to mean that you’d like to know, and I wanted to point out that the idea of free advice from agents is NOT the issue–that this is a wonderful thing, and very kind of agents (as well as helpful to the agents, IF and only if it has any effect on the quality of their incoming mail.) The issue was not that at all, nor was it a screed against following the rules at all. (At least not on MY part.)

    I dropped by to say that obviously, professionals and aspiring authors have different views of this “queryfail” thing. I haven’t seen people saying that they don’t want to follow the rules, nor have I seen people who said you can NEVER learn from seeing what not to do (although I explain my take on that in my own journal entries on the subject–I’ve had so many students who, when presented with The Wrong Way To Do This Math Problem, will promptly remember only that and never how we backed out of the situation, sigh). I don’t know that there were or weren’t authors who said those things–it’s just that I am not one of those.

    What was my problem with the queryfail thing? I felt that it was ethically wrong to take excerpts from letters that had been sent as private communications from one individual to another and then quote them online (even if it might be “fair use” and even if the privacy rules have changed all over the place recently)–especially if some of the quoted material was basically, um, mocked. Yes, I saw much of the interplay between participants (not all of whom were agents, mind) as “mocking.” Maybe that’s just my personal problem, but I saw it as disrespectful, bordering on simply Wrong Moral Action. These writers did not send these queries in to Miss Snark for her to critique them. These were just letters grabbed off the stack, sent by people who had no idea that their mistakes were going to be made public, and they should not have been quoted verbatim (IMHO). The examples they chose were so outlandish, for the most part, that it seemed more like the in-crowd sharing their private jokes and bloopers (like a bloopers reel rather than “oh, and don’t mention contest wins or self-published books” lines); it just bugged me that the letter writers had no idea that this could happen, and that one of them might run across his/her mistake somewhere on one of the blogs touting how successful this activity had been and be very upset. I think it might have been better to do this differently . . . because, let’s face it, most of the people who are so clueless as to say things like “Mama loves this book and so does my psychiatrist” or “Here is a file with my book in it–send me money” or whatever will not be the type of person to be hanging around agents to learn what to do, and therefore it wasn’t so much educational (in my view) as it was simply . . . well, I don’t know. I realize it was probably entertaining, and I’m sure I will be said to be too sensitive.

    However . . . I didn’t want you to believe that the only reason people might object to the queryfail Twitterfest would be that they don’t want to follow the rules. I started out when I was just a kid, with back issues of Writer’s Digest from the 1970s and 1980s that I’d gotten out of the library, and I patterned my queries and business communications after the ones I saw there. I guess I just sort of knew not to put in bits about how I was a baton twirler (when the book has nothing to do with twirling) or whatnot. I have always followed all the rules, even the one that says “it is rude to take a private email public without the sender’s permission or knowledge.” (I know they only quoted parts without giving much detail, but still, what if that had been your letter and you had seen this stuff . . . would you have been embarrassed? Sure, we have to develop thick skins to be rejected all the time, but do I have to be part of the crowd who is poking fun at someone for an honest mistake? No, I think their skins will leather up just fine without me joining in the pile-on. It’s just my personal philosophy that doesn’t have to be shared by anyone else, but I don’t believe it is cruel to be kind.)

    I still say it’s different for my published book to be reviewed badly or made fun of, because I knew the book was to be made public, and not the same as having parts of my private business letter made public. My queries must be fairly good, as I get a lot of requests, but I can put myself in the shoes of the unwary person whose letter was quoted and say, “Whatever the people learned from this wasn’t worth hurting someone. What have the people learned from seeing this–was it really what was intended to be taught?”

    Anyway . . . the only reason I posted about it on my journal in the first place was so that those who hold similar beliefs to mine BUT who had not thought through their participation in the activity might realize and have a change of heart. I don’t have a problem with the fact that some agents or professionals still believe that this is a helpful thing and that they’re going to do it again, because obviously they HAVE taken into consideration what I have said here, and have dismissed it. That’s fine. We are different. It may be that I am seeing it as an artist and they are seeing it as businesspeople.

    Still, I didn’t want you to think that ALL of the objections to the activity were based on “I’m a speshul snowflake and I should not have to follow Da Rulze” kind of thing. Because they weren’t. I may be a special snowflake (half melted . . . asymmetrical . . . etc.), but that doesn’t mean that I don’t follow all the rules and make my business communications as much as possible like the examples that are held up as good. It doesn’t mean I don’t go wrong, of course. But I have my beliefs, and they’re going to color whatever I do in this world. That’s just a function of “it takes all kinds to make a world.” I can’t help it if I’m blackballed for believing what I believe, even though that thought makes me sad; if I have made even one person realize that doing what he/she did was against his/her own personal beliefs if only he/she had thought it through, well, it was worth it. (Man, that’s a lot of he/she stuff, but I didn’t want either gender to feel underrepresented.) *grin*

    Hope you understand now the reasons why I would not be excited about the queryfail thing, even if everyone else doesn’t agree. Even though you don’t know me, I felt it was important that my reasons be heard alongside any other reasons. . . .

  2. Justine on #

    Shalanna: No, I was not talking about the QueryFail thing at all. I was expressing my bewilderment at the oft-expressed “Why do I have to follow the rules” comment. Which I just don’t get and never will. But have heard and read gazillions of times.

    I did not follow the QueryFail thing. I don’t do Twitter. Sorry that was unclear from the post.

  3. Tara on #

    Excellent post.

    Queryfail agents mentioned that many of the query examples posted were from folks who did not bother to follow directions.

    Writers want people to read their work–that’s why they seek publication. If they don’t want the public to read their query letters, the very thing that is designed to sell their book, then they should think about writing better ones.

  4. Justine on #

    Tara: Good point. Successful query letters often wind up being used in other guises. Part of Scott’s query letter for his first novel wound up in the jacket copy. I’ve heard of other query letters providing the book or series tag line and so on.

    Another reason why it’s so important to write a good query letter.

  5. angharad on #

    Justine, I don’t think your argument about following directions holds together very well because my uber-special b-ball value vision tells me that you would be an AWESOME point guard. Go! Go now to the New York Liberty! You are in the wrong profession, and it’s a tragedy, I tell you!

  6. Justine on #

    Anghard: Fine. Mock me. But don’t think I’ll forget! You are so on the naughty mat!

  7. DoyceTesterman on #

    Shalanna: I followed the #queryfail tweetstorm pretty closely, and I’d like to quickly cover a few points.

    * To the best of my memory, no one’s query was quoted verbatim. Twitter only allows 140 character posts – verbatim quotes are, perforce, impossible in that format (which was at least partly the point).
    * Names of authors were never used. Come to that, the summary of any query was paraphrased to the point that I sincerely doubt any author could have spotted their query in the pile.
    * If you searched Twitter for #queryfail on the day it was happening, you DID see queries being accepted (‘winning’). Based on my viewing of same, I’d say the ratio was about one success to a dozen failed, which is pretty much what I’ve found to be the case in the industry. Sturgeon’s Law and all that.
    * If you don’t see authors saying “Why should I have to follow the rules”, then you didn’t actually read the post Justine linked to, because MJ was specifically replying to a previous poster who said exactly that. Angrily.

    The advice gestalt from #queryfail was pretty straightforward: read submission guidelines, follow them, don’t be a jerk, and don’t be a freaky weirdo.

    Frankly, if a person who styles themselves a WRITER can’t manage those four simple things for the length of a one-page query, they require a share of mockery. My personal opinion.


  8. Justine on #

    Doyce: Thanks for the summary and saving me from having to figure out how Twitter works.

  9. Shalanna Collins on #

    Oh . . . sorry about that (or, as Roseanna Roseannadanna would say, “Never mind.”) When you wrote, “Maureen’s responding to the notion that a bunch of agents giving free advice on Twitter was unprofessional,” I went down the link and somehow connected that with the Twitter queryfail activity. I did follow the link given to Maureen’s rant at , but when I got there, it seemed to be a post about queryfail and not about whoever it was who said they didn’t need to follow the rules. I actually haven’t seen people saying they don’t want to follow rules; maybe I should find them (and spank them). I feel it’s fortunate that there is still a venue for submissions at all, as most publishing houses closed their transoms to unsolicited subs and queries years ago. Agents could go referral-only, and some have. So I really don’t get that concept of not following rules (maybe I went to the wrong link??) I think I’ll just have to politely agree to disagree with Tara when she writes, “If they don’t want the public to read their query letters, the very thing that is designed to sell their book, then they should think about writing better ones,” because I figure those writers DID think they’d done their best (even if it stank) and they DIDN’T know the public had a chance of reading it, which usually doesn’t happen–and I’ll have to disagree with the notion raised by Doyce that anyone for ANY reason requires a share of mockery, even people in the other political party. But of course I’ve been outvoted before (grin), and everyone will continue to feel the way they feel. So it goes. Cheers, and thanks for the great blog!

  10. Maureen Johnson on #


    The comment about the rules is there. It quite specifically asks why rules need to be followed. It’s also not an uncommon comment.

    Also, queryfail isn’t mockery. If you followed it (which you can by searching for #queryfail), you’ll see that it’s agents showing masked examples of the mistakes that they saw that day. Queryfail represented ONE DAY’S WORK, live, off the pile. That was the point—to show just how common these mistakes are.

    And no one is going to copy these mistakes. No one is going to go out of their way to spell an agent’s name wrong or send the wrong materials because they heard about it on queryfail. Nothing was quoted to mock the writers. The writers aren’t even identified.

    I stand by my opinion that queryfail was an excellent source of solid information. There’s a lot of really bad stuff out there . . . stuff that’s just WRONG and WILDLY INACCURATE . . . and here are some agents giving you advice and examples you can use to further your career. And people complain! Because . . . from what I can tell . . . some people don’t like that there is a filter to strain out BAD WRITING! People who want to WRITE!

    And yes, they do! (Scroll up! Read for yourself! See the complaint about how agents should just suck it up if queries are poorly written!

    I stand by it all! And I agree with Justine in ALL WAYS! (But that is always true.)


  11. Judith Ridge on #

    I do think that the ethical issues Shalanna raises about queryfail are important. Regardless of the 140 character limit, many of the tweets appeared to be direct quotes and while the writer wasn’t named, they would surely be able to recognise themselves. And there certainly was mockery, if not from the original tweeters then certainly from the comments/responses. (And I’m not so pure that I didn’t enjoy #queryfail, but then I wasn’t on the receiving end… I’ve seen plenty such dire submissions in my time and I have never once directly quoted them in public. Shared with publishing/writing friends over a vat of red, sure, but never in public!)

    There’s also clearly a difference between your private business correspondence being republished, whatever the medium, without permission, and quoting from the author’s original submission once the book has been accepted for publication. I mean, come on, there’s clearly a huge difference.

    As for the comments that suggest inexperienced writers deserve mockery, well, that’s just smug and superior. For the record, I warn my own creative writing students in general terms of many of the errors made by people quoted in #queryfail, but I would never direct them to the thread. It’s intimidating enough for new writers to submit work without the fear that their errors may be made public, and publicly mocked.

    None of this is to disagree one iota with Justine and Maureen’s original comments about ignoring guidelines. That’s just unprofessional, arrogant and idiotic. But that person outed themselves as such by their comment, so in this case, public denunciation serves them jolly well right!

  12. Shalanna Collins on #

    Hi, Maureen! I read the eleven comments at as linked, and still didn’t find a comment that specifically asks why rules need to be followed. Maybe that’s not the right link? I did see that someone wrote, “People don’t even read street signs and you want them to read every word of your guidelines before they submit. So this gives you the right to act equally unprofessional by Twittering about submissions?” Is this the comment that you are both talking about that says rules don’t have to be followed? Because I don’t read that as meaning “rules don’t have to be followed.” I read this as more of, “Even if people don’t read or cannot comprehend your guidelines, that doesn’t justify your singling their submissions out.” (I don’t know why that commenter seemed angry, nor do I see why lots of people are angry with me and other dissenters when we say we feel differently about the queryfail twitterfest.) I agree that we should follow guidelines as closely as we can figure out how to. I suspect that some of the people who don’t follow the guidelines simply don’t have good reading comprehension and never can be straightened out; I’ve worked with a few co-workers who simply could not figure out what was being said to them sometimes and just never did Get It. The poor are always with us, and I suppose these uncomprehending types always will be, as well.

    I said earlier that I can appreciate that we’re going to agree to disagree. I see that there’s quite a bit of consternation about everyone’s slush piles being filled with stuff that wastes their time, and I understand that it must be frustrating to explain over and over and STILL get so many junk queries. The problem is that there are always going to be people who don’t do their research–and they likely aren’t the ones reading queryfail (they don’t do research!), so it didn’t help them, alas. It’s just that I haven’t run across anyone who bemoans having to follow the rules. Most writers I know are eager to find that magic any way they can.

  13. Shalanna Collins on #

    Dear Judith Ridge,
    I feel so relieved to read your remarks here . . . I was beginning to doubt my mind and think that there’s yet more that I’m not seeing in the situation. You’ve summed up what I was trying to say in my two posts on the topic: that I think private mail should be kept private unless permission is granted for its use, and that I never feel that someone is deserving of mockery (especially when they’re sincere, as I believe those bad-query writers must have been when they sent their letters), even to teach. I know that people will continue to disagree. I’m just feeling a little better now that I know someone else sees it this way.

  14. Justine on #

    Shalanna: Here is the comment:

      I can’t believe the unprofessionalsim of the agents who participated.

      You have chosen a profession where you are going to get requests for your services. Not all of them are going to be well-written requests–nature of the beast.

      Get over yourselves.

      People don’t even read street signs and you want them to read every word of your guidelines before they submit. So this gives you the right to act equally as unprofessional by Twittering about submissions?

      And all of you, stop complaining about the number of queries you have to go through. If the queries suddenly dry up–your business dries up.

    Like I said we’ve all seen similar comments over and over again. The subtext being: Why should I follow directions? Agents are unreasonable to expect us to follow their directions.

    Here’s the direct link. That’s what Maureen and I were responding to.

  15. angharad on #

    Oh noes, don’t be mad! It was the boots, the boots! I keep imagining you out there on the court in your beautiful boots. They are magic, and you could do anything in them.

  16. JuJu on #

    Shalanna, and Judith – I think your comments on how private mail should be private are very valid. I myself would be very embarrassed if a personal e-mail of mine that held value of any sort, and may have had many of mistakes in it, was made public without my knowledge or consent. In that respect, I applaud you both for holding your own.

    But the sad truth is, that if Colleen Lindsay made an event called #querySUCCESS that featured all of their letters, then not only would they proudly own up to having written those letters, but they would also denounce people such as yourselves that would question the privacy in this kind of thing; destroying the keys: j,e,a,l,o,u and s on their keyboards in the process.

    Heck, I would (well, the second part not so much).

    It’s still enjoyable to read people’s whose posts go against the grain though.

  17. Amber on #

    I didn’t even know people felt like they could not read guidelines. Those comments are SERIOUS?? Wow. What kind of world do we live in. That has never even crossed my mind.

    And, um, I totally agree that that person probably shouldn’t be driving.

  18. Amber on #

    Oh, I really came here to tell you that I finished the book Magic’s Child last night, and I totally could NOT put it down! Which was why I was up until 3 in the morning. Reading. Which, on the one hand, made if very hard for me to get up, but on the other hand, it just shows how great a writer you are. Even when I was tired my mind woke up because of what was happening in the book. I want to read your How to Ditch Your Fairy book next. I really enjoyed Magic or Madness, it is a great series! So, thank you for writing them and for writing them well! 🙂

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