Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Credentials

Dear Rejector,

I understand the importance of following standard formating while writing a query. The problem is, I am a new writer with not much of a biography that would sway the interest of an agent (no literary accomplishments already published). Would it be better to concentrate on the work and let it sell the query? Can't an agent always call or email for more information on the writer later? Or would this be a bad move?

No. You do not need any credentials in the query letter. You only need a good novel. (If you have no published material, just don't mention anything. We'll figure it out, but it's less annoying that someone saying 'I'm an unpublished author)

I've been meaning to talk about credentials for a long time, so let's get down to it.

Every query letter advice site says to list any credentials you may have that would qualify you as a series writer. Problem is most first-time novelists (meaning, this is the first novel they're trying to get published, or the first novel that is good enough to be published) don't have any creditials. They didn't take an MFA program, they didn't publish a bunch of short stories because they don't write short stories, and they haven't written for textbooks. They've just got a novel. That's good, because it's all we really want. The advice, however, often leaves writers scrapping the bottom of the barrel for anything to put down. Good credentials help you (a little). Bad credentials are annoying and just show us you've read some query-letter-writing websites and are desperate to throw something in. We don't care. We just care about your novel.

GOOD CREDENTIALS

1. You have had short stories (any amount) published in a pro-market magazine, meaning they paid you more than .3c a word.

2. You have written one or multiple non-fiction books that were published, whether they have anything to do with your novel or they don't.

3. Your manuscript is about something that was in the national news (and not just the metro section for one day) and you were involved in it.
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4. You have a serious academic background (masters/PhD but from something more elite than an online masters program) in the topics the novel focuses on. If you've written historical fiction this is a big deal.

5. You have been previous published as a novelist by either a major publisher, a small press, or have sold more than 3000 copies of your self-published novel.

6. You've taken an MFA program. (Okay, we're on the fence about that, but you should mention it)

BAD CREDENTIALS

1. You have had one short story published in a non-paying literary journal we've never heard of.

2. You've had 31 short stories published in the same non-paying literary journal we've never heard of (this happened once).

3. You have the same job as the protagonist and it's not a job that would be hard to research, like being a flight attendent or an RV salesman.

4. You write for a local small-town newspaper. We will assume this means you wrote one editorial about how you saw rotten meat in the supermarket or the synagogue construction is making too much noise, because that's what most of these small-town newspapers are about.

5. You say you submitted previous novels, but they were rejected. Some people are even dumb enough to include the rejection letter because it has a few lines of praise between the "we won't want this and won't pay you any money for it because it's bad." Sometimes they highlight the generic praise part so we won't miss it. Look, it's false praise. We know because we give out a lot of it in some attempt to be nice to people.

6. You've written 10 unpublished novels and they're sitting on your shelf.

7. You have a BA in English. Most career writers went for a BA in English or history. I was history.

I hope this clears that up.

29 comments:

bran fan said...

What about contests? Are there good/bad writing contests too? Or are all of them bad? I won one where the judge was an extremely well-known publisher in my genre. Should I mention that?

mominmaking said...

Hey what about working as an editorial assistant for a college literary journal that is published throughout your state.

mominmaking said...

Hey what about working as an editorial assistant for a literary magazine that was published throughout North Carolina

Anonymous said...

Dear Rejecter:

ok, maybe this isn't the best place to post this. But it's the most current. From an agent's (or assistant's) point of view, what is your opinion on pen names? When are they appropriate, and when are they a nuisance? I know there's lots of pen name advice out there, but it's all from writers without pen names. What are your and/or your boss's feelings?

Thanks as always!

Molly said...

Good stuff. Quick follow-up regarding unpublished novels: down the road, with an agent, mightn't that be a selling point? I mean, suppose you wrote one, wrote a second, edited the first, wrote another, edited the second, and so on, and at some point polished the first again and sent queries out. Assuming you're a good writer and find an agent, should you mention this? It seems to me that most writers--even good writers--have one book in them, or variations on one book. Having a bunch with long-term work put into them would, I'd think, be a selling point. Or doesn't it matter?

Anonymous said...

As far as short stories go, should they be relevant to the topic you're querying? Also, articles in magazines relevant to your topic? thanks.

lauren said...

Thanks for this post, Rejecter. I do have questions about some things that I guess would be considered "okayish credits," if you'll allow that term for a moment.

-- An essay / op-ed column published in the daily newspaper of a large U.S. city, though not NY or LA. Include?

-- Other articles / essays published in paying markets?

-- Published textbook material that's in use in classrooms?

-- Working in the publishing industry? One of the blogging agents advised using this in the bio section, noting that it would convey to the agent that the writer would understand industry terminology, deadlines, the glacial slowness of publishing, etc. Granted, I didn't work in editorial; I did production and design.

I'd just feel weird omitting the bio section, but then again, I don't want to come off as a desperate amateur by including these "Look! People really have paid for my work!" credits. Thoughts, anyone?

grace said...

I love your site.

Maria said...

Ouch, that's some tough love there. :>) For a second I thought you had Miss Snark looking over your shoulder offering suggestions.

Subservient No More said...

Rejecter, could you please clarify Bad Credential #3, regarding having the same job as your protagonist? I was uncertain what you meant by a job that isn't hard to research. Also, why should an author not create a protagonist with a similar background? Last, if an author has started a novel with a protagonist who has her same job, should the author just scrap the whole project because she will never get her query past other Rejecters?

Anonymous said...

Here's a question that should be near and dear to your heart: if a writer has experience working in publishing, should that be mentioned?

Richard said...

Is that "You sold 3000 self published copies ..." in a year? or ever?

What does an MFA give you? (Sorry, I don't even know what an MBA is good for - except 3 letters after your name).

Scott said...

How about professional writing in another field, such as technical writing. Does it work for me or against me (or make no difference) if I say something like:

Although this is my first novel, I've been a professional writer and editor for 18 years.

dan said...

two things.

Your Good Credential #6: bahumbug, I say. Not to you, just to it. MFA my behind. Woody Allen. Salman Rushdie. Zadie Smith. Anyone born before, like, 1975. No MFAs. Chabon got a Masters in Creative Writing but can anyone tell me with a straight face that he actually *needed* it?

Your Bad Credential #1: lots of very competitive, "real" journals, don't pay. Anything. Or they pay you in a free subscription or a few contributor copies, or a token fee that--unless your story maybe is very short--will not amount to 3 cents per word. They also don't usually pay per word, but that's a whole other thing. Zoetrope or Paris Review, maybe they pay a lot. Agni, which I think is quite 'respected', pays $10 per printed page. Doesn't come out to 3 cents per word. One Story pays $100, regardless of length, and they tend to go for longer stories... and blah blah blah, I'm probably taking your comment too seriously or literally, aren't I? :oP

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure what you meant about the BA in English/History thing, unless you just meant that it is basically irrelevant. I have a BA in English and don't mention it in queries because, well, BFD.

Everyone else had a lot of questions. Here are my own thoughts, in case Rejecter is too busy to respond. But keep in mind I am, obviously, a nobody.

Molly: Your previous polished but unpublished novel is something you'd want to mention after you sign with an agent, sure (though probably your second, the one you queried for, it way better anyway). I think Rejecter meant there's no point in mentioning your stacks of unpublished novels in a query. Once an agent wants you, then you can share all your goods.

I think Scott's line is okay, except it needs to be more specific (about the technical writing market, which is completely different from writing a novel) because otherwise, without pointing to WHAT you professionally wrote or edited, it looks like you're trying to puff yourself up with nada.

Subserviant: I'm guessing Rejecter meant that just because you are actually a flight attendent, this doesn't really give the agent any reason to believe you are super qualified to write a novel about a flight attendent. It's not a big selling point, basically. I've seen queries that say, in the "qualifications" section, "I have been a [insert mundane occupation here] for 20 years and am therefore qualified to write this novel." Um, being an awesome writer who knows how to tell a story makes you qualified to write the novel, not your day job.

Don said...

Under bad credentials, it's not having those is bad, it's just that they aren't worth mentioning in a query letter.

On the minor literary journal, the key phrase there is "we haven't heard of". There's a grey area there, but if you've had 31 stories published in the same minor literary magazine, I'd say that you're looking at a good sign that the magazine doesn't meet the criteria for being a "good" minor literary journal.

Subservient No More said...

Thank you Anonymous! That was very helpful. I think I understand now.

PerpetualBeginner said...

Hmm. I've been on the fence about my one credential. I'm a staff writer for a website that does science/history articles. The negative side is that no, I'm not paid any appreciable amount. The plus side is that over this last year we've averaged more than 100,000 unique hits a day with some days topping 2.5 million.

To mention or not to mention...

Robert said...

Not exactly a 'credential,' but would mention that I'm 17 years old be a good platform for someone writing YA fantasy?

I definitely think it creates strong marketing potential, the whole 'teen writing for teens' thing, but I'm interested if you think so too.

Bill said...

Subservient: there's nothing wrong with the protagonist having the same job as you. It's just not a credential, unless you have a really cool job.

I think The Rejecter said it to dissuade people from submitting stuff like this.

wonderer said...

Here are my best responses to the questions. I am also a nobody. ;)

Bran fan: Winning contests is good. Being a runner-up is also good, AFAIK. Entering contests is not a credential. There are probably bad contests (i.e., ones that aren't worth mentioning), but if you already knew they were bad, you wouldn't have entered them.

Molly: I agree with Anon 9:00 PM's view.

Second anon: Short stories don't have to be related in topic. I'm not sure about articles.

Dan: I think Rejecter was being facetious. Some well-known literary journals and online markets don't pay anything or don't pay much. The point is that, as Don said, she has to have heard of it.

Robert: I've heard mixed opinions on mentioning your age if you're a teenager. If you do, you can't help but be associated with Christopher Paolini, who has very successful books that many people think are very badly written. (Not having read them, I reserve judgement.) Also, be aware that if you're under the age of majority, your parents will need to get involved in anything you sign.

I'm also interested in hearing what Rejecter has to say on non-fiction writing, editing, and working in publishing.

Rachael said...

I have to take issue with the comment about newspaper jobs. I worked at a mid-sized daily newspaper for seven years, so I know the crap you're talking about that can come out of those smaller papers. But you know what? These people are writing for a living. Most have a basic understanding of grammar, mechanics, spelling, etc. (I have firsthand knowledge that this isn't always the case, unfortunately). Working at a newspaper--no matter its size-- demands organization, time management, and respect for deadlines. I've always thought those would be good qualities an agent would like to see in an author.

Colorado Writer said...

Well, great. Being a former technical writer, having a BA in English and getting some "articles" in my published in my local newspaper (YOURHUB.COM) in THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN NEWS) was all I had to go on.

Anonymous said...

I’m also nobody, but here’s my 2 cents. I have one published novel by a major NY house. I have an agent (a good one whose name you would recognize). I had no previous credentials, other than ones similar to Rejecter’s “bad” list. BTW, I don't even have a college degree (I dropped out of a very prestigious fine arts program - go figure). You can get a good, reliable, AAR agent and get published without "good" credentials. As Miss Snark would say (still sobbing over her retirement) - write well.

BTW, Rejecter, I love your blog. This entry in particular was very nice. :)

jfc

John S said...

You mentioned writing for textbooks.

I wrote a number of scripts for what then were VHS supplements for a series of reading textbooks from a top publisher.

Is that worth mentioning?

Gee, I wonder if kids are watching those things on DVD or online today...

Termagant 2 said...

I would think an agent would be interested that you had 3, or 7, or 12 finished novels. My ex-agent was. She claims that proves you can put out the work and are disciplined enough to finish a story.

My $0.04 (inflation),
T2

Issendai said...

I'm not an agent, but when I hear that an unpublished author has X novels in the trunk, it doesn't make me think, "That's dedication!" It makes me think, "...and not a one of them was good enough to sell?" It's like advertising your failures. Some agents, like Termagant 2's, might like to hear how many novels you have in the trunk, but I suspect others would be put off by it.

Susan said...

Honestly, unless somehow your sample pages aren't very good or you're writing for a really tough market, I can't see how most agents or editors would even care about most of these things. How much does an MFA really mean in terms of whether your big fat fantasy novel is going to sell? If you work in the field your main character is in, that's helpful at least in terms of the agent having some reason to believe you're not just making it up, I suppose, but anything which exists only to prove that you can write well would seem to be better replaced with actually writing something that the agent in question wants to read. :)

Anonymous said...

I really dislike booksnobs .. actually, I hate them. Not to the point where my blood pressure is up and I lose sleep at night. What is the big deal about the details of submitting a draft to an agent? If you have a great novel, isn't that enough? If you want to write under a pen name, so what? Last time I was in Chapters, I had asked the sales associate if she had read a particular series, and did she like it. Her answer was disturbing and what it boiled down to was that she couldn't praise the author because the author didn't have a load of credentials. This associate was a literal literary snob ( or maybe a poser, since her career is ringing in sales at Chapters ). The point is, the series I was referring to made a LOT of money for all involved and was sincerely popular with the "common folk" of the world. I'm a writer who has not yet even attempted to be published. The more I research online, the more I find it to be a headache, and disheartening. I've stopped researching any advice. I have the basics and when it comes time to find an agent and if my novel(s) get to the point of being promoted to a publisher, that would be fabulous. If not, screw it. I'm not going to brown nose my way through a bunch of sucking up in method for a nod of approval from the elite. A good story should be able to sell itself, whether or not certain professionals agree with me.