Monday, May 6, 2013

Wordcraft -- Beating the gong

It was an historic moment at the closing of this weekend’s DFW Writers’ Conference, in Hurst, Texas. The finale was the loved and dreaded gong show -- a panel of agents and editors hitting gongs to signal the moment they’d stop reading anonymous query letters from writers. It was three gongs and they’re out for every query, except one. For the first time in the contest’s history, official reader George “The Voice” Goldthwaite got all the way to the end of a letter without being gonged into silence.

Winning writer Seth Skorkowsky of Denton doffed his anonymity to accept the audience's applause for the query about his novel, Damoren.  (There's an umlaut over the "a" in the title, but I haven't figured out how to get my laptop to write umlauts yet.) 

And whether from second thoughts or the charm of reading the query read in Goldthwaite’s mellow baritone, an agent who had previously rejected the writer announced his willingness to reconsider.

The show’s grim discipline may be paying off. None of the other twenty-two chosen queries beat the gong test, but after hearing them panelists asked even losing authors to send them material for consideration.

Panel members were Lou Anders, editorial director of Prometheus imprint Pyr; Uwe Stender of TriadaUS Literary Agency; Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Agency; Katelyn Detweiler of Jill Grindberg Literary Management; and Alice Spielburg, representing her own agency. Agents in the audience also were allowed to gong as they wished.

Reader Goldthwaite and moderator Russell Connor were members of the DFW Writers Workshop (DFWWW) which sponsored the conference.

Query letters are written inquiries from writers trying to gain representation from literary agents. The letters typically include information about a story’s genre and word count and a brief synopsis to demonstrate the writer’s style and degree of craft. Even a successful query doesn’t guarantee an agent will represent a writer, only that she’s willing to look at extended samples of his work.

Query faults that repeated turned agents and editors off was vagueness -- the lack of specific information about the plot, its protagonist or conflict; as well as failure to pinpoint the story’s genre, that is, which shelf it would occupy in a bookstore. “A book marketed toward everyone is an automatic gong,” one agent said. Others gonged a story that claimed multiple genres -- mystery, young adult, and science fiction.

Panelists also disliked overwriting -- “fifty adjectives in ten lines,” one agent said. Anders added, “one hyphen plenty, two hyphens too many, three hyphens left the building.

They also gonged queries felt to be “gimmicky,” such as the metafictional concept of a story about a writer writing a story; implied threats (“it‘s childish -- if you want to threaten me, do it in person”, Stender said); clichés; and stories that simply didn’t grab them.

“People read to be transported out of the ordinary,” Anders said, “and so many pitches are telling me how bored (the characters) are.”

On the other hand, “it’s possible to be a good writer but a bad query writer,” a panelist said, noting that she’d heard a particular query directly from the author and found it much better than it came off in the letter.

Moderator Connor also said he’d heard the novel behind one of the queries and it was much better than the query implied (and no, he said, it wasn’t his own).

For those of us who may be better at writing stories than at summarizing them in query letters, one hope for finding an agent is to meet more of them in person. And DFWWW has a deal for us -- discounted registration for its 2014 conference next May, available through May 31. For details, see


Favorite incentive one author gives herself for writing regularly: “I tell myself, if this sells, I can get another tattoo.”

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