Monday, April 30, 2012

Monday Musing: The "I's" Have It

The kids needed a ride into school this morning. On the way I tortured them by listening to NPR. Depending on the show, I can get away without too much eye-rolling. Car Talk sometimes makes the Catbird laugh, because those guys just have so much fun. Neither of them likes Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, and NOBODY but me likes A Prairie Home Companion. Anyway, I heard something this morning and kept turning it up to hear over my increasingly-loud car, because I thought it was interesting. To my surprise, the kids thought so, too.

They interviewed James Pennebaker, author of The Secret Life of Pronouns, What Our Words Say About Us. The part that interested me in particular was Pennebaker's discussion of language related to positions of power. In short, people in the power position use the word "I" less. Pennebaker quoted some of his e-mails in which a grad student approached him (or responded to his approach to her) about working on a project. In a forty-word e-mail, she used "I" or "me" 5 times. In Pennebaker's response? None. Similarly, Pennebaker's e-mail to an esteemed colleague used "I" as many times as his grad student. The Famous Professor used "us" once, but no "I".

Now, it could be that in both cases, the 'underling' was trying to sell something. The grad student was trying to sell her services, Pennebaker was selling a colleague on a conference. It's sort of like a cover letter for a job, where you have to talk about yourself, thus you are going to use "I" more frequently. Pennebaker's website, The Secret Life ofPronouns, includes an I-Test. I scored a four, even after hearing this story on NPR. It was an interesting story for a Monday morning, and may well be something to think about while writing.

On another note, I took a bit of a slap over at An Agent's Inbox contest on Mother. Write. (Repeat.) last week. One of comedy's great set-up lines is, "What's the worst that can happen?" Well, for me, the worst that can happen did happen, as Ms. Shea wrote, "This query didn't engage me further than the first paragraph."


Actually, the worst that can happen would have been for Ms. Shea to say, "I didn't even have to read your query to know you are the worst writer ever! Do us all a favor and cut off your hands so you can never type another word!" Even in my worst nightmares, I didn't expect that to happen, but this was pretty bad, at face value.

But then again, how bad can it be? Had I queried Ms. Shea through normal channels, what would I have gotten? Either a no reply or a form rejection, neither of which would have told me anything. Once the initial sting wore off, I realized even a tough, blunt response like Ms. Shea's is better than a standard rejection, because it does help me understand where I messed up. So, yes, it stings, but it's part of the great learning experience, and I will be the better for it. Thanks again to Krista for running the contest, and for Ms. Shea for participating. That's about it for now, see you at the end of the week.


  1. Ouch. But that's just the query and we all know queries are dang hard!

  2. I KNOW how good of a writer you are. You query just needs to reflect that. Achieving it can take a long time. I've copied your query and will send you some feedback, if you don't mind. I think it's all a matter of starting in the right place and getting down to the heart of the conflict. Simple? No, but your book is absolutely amazing and your query should, and eventually will, show that.

  3. Query letters are tough and they're not easy to do well! You probably just need a bit of shine and polish!

    Now off to check out that I test...

  4. I'm sorry you got stung in that (I did wince for you a little bit), but it is actually great to get some kind of feedback so early in the process-you just started your first round of queries, and already have at least one tip on how to edit for next time. And it's great you can see that. Good luck with the revision!

    1. Thanks, Robin. It was a bit of a shocker, but that's okay. It's a good lesson, and motivational, too!

  5. That's disappointing, but you're right. It's better than a form rejection. (And it puts you one step closer to rhino skin!)

  6. I'm sorry to hear about the rejection. But at least it illuminated something about your query, right?

  7. Ouch is right, but I applaud your attitude to her response. There are many growing pains as we work to become better at all the aspects of this writing life. If we can learn from the stings, they may end up being worthwhile.

  8. Ouch is right but is she an agent who normally represents your genre? I don't know, that's why I am asking. If she's not then of course the first paragraph isn't going to engage her. If your book IS a genre she normally represents and didn't engage her . . . that doesn't necessarily mean it doesn't work, it just means it didn't interest HER. I got at least 150 of those if not similar--this doesn't engage me, I didn't connect with this, this doesn't seem like a good fit. Generic responses which to me mean this is fine but I personally didn't get excited about it. That's more a reflection on the reader/agent's taste than it is on your query. I mean is that all she said? I don't even know what you could really take from that if that's all she said. It could mean anything. I averaged one request for every 20 queries I think. That said, if you're going to revise, you really should see what Nancy has to say--she has great instincts for these kinds of things--short blurbs,hooks, reordering your pitch to make it more salacious and she is way more up to speed than I am with writing kick-ass queries. Anyway, I know it sucks but really, truly, do not be discouraged. You're an amazing writer and that will get you through this sh*tty process. I really don't think this means anything except POSSIBLY--and that's a big possibly--you might need to punch up your first paragraph. You're still going to find a great agent and you're going to find a great publisher.

  9. And by the way, I went over to that site and I cannot find the entries anywhere, I wanted to read the comments on yours but I can't find any evidence of any agent inbox activity other than the post that tells you what it is. I must be missing something!

  10. Never mind, I found it. I see what she's saying. You need a powerful all-encompassing opening line. I think Nancy calls them taglines. For Finding Claire Fletcher mine was something like, "Connor Parks unwittingly spends the night with a woman whose family reveals has been missing for ten years" or something like that. The very basic premise all in one sentence. So you may want to rework it doing something like that. On the other hand, your book really is literary fiction and I think if you focused too hard on the plot in your query, an agent is going to feel like he or she was misled when they read your book. I think an agent who regularly represents literary fiction which is typically big on internal events and short on traditional plot, they will "get" your query. As far as the other commenters go, quite honestly, people who are not agents tend to overthink the query. You just can't possibly tell the query-reader every single tiny little thing that goes on in your book. Your query is not the place for long, drawn-out explanations. It's a short pitch. You're saying here's my premise and this is why you will want to read my book. Although the agent's response here is disappointing, I really wouldn't lose much sleep at all over this. You can easily rework the first paragraph to make it more engaging or just add a logline (yeah, logline, I think that's what Nancy calls it, not tagline) before you start the first paragraph you already have. Either way, I think you're going to be fine. Believe me you're going to get a buttload of conflicting advice/responses on the query journey. Trust your instincts.


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