Monday, May 8, 2017

To gong or not to gong: writers beg to be dissed

The timing seemed auspicious for the 2017 edition of the DFW Writers Conference version of the Gong Show. For those too young to remember the format of that cringe-worthy 1970’s TV show, here’s the basic format: wildly improbable amateur entertainers demonstrated their often questionable talents until fed-up judges dismissed them by striking an enormous gong. Cruelty abounded, hearts were broken, tears shed. Did the unlucky performers learn anything from their humiliation? Unlikely.

image: wikimedia
The DFW Writers version is more civilized, and educational, although possibly no less heartrending. Conference participants are invited to submit their anonymous sample query letters to (generic) agents in a closed box during the conference.

A panel of agents attending the conference – in this case, Christopher Rhodes, Eric Ruben, Barbara Rosenberg, Stephanie Evans, Quressa Robinson, Laura Zats, and Brent Taylor – seat themselves at a long table before the audience of attendees, and mellifluously-voiced DFW Writers Workshop member, George Goldthwaite, pulls letters randomly from the pile and reads from each until (or if) three agents signal their displeasure by striking the small gongs placed at their table.

At a few conferences, Goldthwaite has been able to read an entire query before being gonged out. This year’s conference wasn’t one of those.

At this point, I’ll insert a brief explanation of what a “query letter” is, in the literary sense. It’s intended to be a business-like introduction from a writer to an agent asking whether the agent would be interested in representing the writer’s work. Discussions of how to write query letters, and examples of such letters, abound at innumerable sites, including such usually reliable sources as Writer’s Digest.

The basic format includes a brief description of why the writer chose to contact the agent (“your website. . . ”, “met you at a conference. . . ”, “you represent my favorite writer. . . ”, etc.); the title, genre, and word count of the author’s manuscript; the story’s “hook” (attention-grabbing sentence), and a brief summary; and the author’s credentials (if any). The entire letter typically occupies no more than one page (approximately 300 words in email format).

Note that “brief summary” part. Instead, what query after query of the 10 read at the conference included were page-long descriptions of the plot.

Typical agent reactions: “I was unsure whether this was a query or a synopsis,” and “a lot of repetitive description, and still not at the story.”

Of another, Zats’ explanation for her gong strike was: “This was a plot summary, not a pitch.” Ruben and Rhodes agreed. “I call it the book report query,” Ruben said. (“Book report,” in fact, was a term he used more than once during the readings.) Rhodes added hopefully, “I thought it would get to the pitch eventually,” but he couldn’t wait for eventually to arrive.

Of another query, Taylor noted, “A lot of plot, but I need to connect with the character. You need to strike a nice balance between character and plot.” And of still another, Rhodes said, “You need to be able to encapsulate.”

I felt sure Robinson, the only African-American agent on the panel, would object to a query about a “creole” character with occult skills, but she saved her gong for another query whose slave protagonist who relies on her wealthy lover to save her. “I try to steer clear of slavery (stories),” Robin said, “but once you started talking about falling in love with a non-slave, it meant you’re not familiar with the power dynamics of slavery.”

Zats also gonged the story, in her case, as too simplistic. “The primary motivation of this female character is a guy. That’s not enough.” And to his characteristic “book report” note, Rubens added his aversion to “victim” stories.

Other gripes about queries included: “couldn’t relate to the character” from Evans; a word count that didn’t seem to match the genre, from Rosenberg; and “cliched logline” from Zats. “I thought it was a Nicholas Sparks story and then it turned out to be an eco-thriller.”

On a hopeful note, another agent liked the “eco-thriller” and invited the writer to contact him, which, as I heard from her later, she did. And most hopeful of all, both writers and audience members got reminders – or first introductions – to the art of query writing. For more on this art, one of my favorite sites is QueryShark. (And for my own real-life adventures with query letters, see “Spawn of the QueryShark,” parts I & II at this site.)

(So much information from the DFW Writers Conference, I’ll be blogging about it all week. Tomorrow: inspiration from blogger turned memoirist turned television writer, Stephanie Klein.) 

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