Don’t let the title fool you. I enjoy mentoring. Not today. Today, mentoring sucks.
I have an over-helpful personality. I am sometimes too quick to jump in and offer help, which can get me into trouble. This comes from an honest desire to help people, not from some wish to be perceived as a superhero of some sort. I emphasize a little too much with others. That’s great for a writer, but can be difficult as a human being entrenched in society. That scene in Dumbo, when his mom in in jail, makes me cry every time. I try not to step on ants outside, and have been known to rescue bugs from a swimming pool. I’ve gotten better through the years. I’m not a crier, unless I’m watching Dumbo. But I see, and I notice, and I emphasize.
You know where a great place for people who are over-helpful is? Online forums! Over on Absolute Write, my fav writer forum, there’s a whole section where people show their work and ask for help and opinions. I was resistant to helping out at first. I was insecure about knowing enough to help others, but after some awesome people there helped me with my own query letter, I got very pro-active about helping others with their queries. It’s my way of giving back to the community, and I get to try to help people. Win-win, right?
Mostly it is. Query Letter Hell is a great place to get feedback from multiple people with varying opinions. Then the writer can choose which advice speaks to them, and adjust their query letter as needed. As with any forum thread, the opinions come from people with a wide range of experience, so one has to pick and choose a bit. But hey, even the less experienced writers tend to be avid readers, and can give one good advice about whether the meat of your query is coming through clearly. It’s a good system, one that helped me greatly, and I’m glad to give back a little. There’s just one problem.
Some people don’t want to be helped. Why would someone post in a forum for getting help if they don’t want help? — you seem to ask. The biggest reason seems to be that they are looking for appreciation not help. If you’ve spent any time in any forum, you’ve seen these people. They post things as if they are a question, but when others respond, they become defensive and even argue against any advice given.
They weren’t looking for help, they were looking for accolades.
“Why, Bob, you’re so silly! That query is awesome just the way it is! You are so awesome, Bob! You don’t need any help at all!”
The problem with these people is that egotism is often a poor substitute for skill and experience. If you go into any project with the attitude that you are already awesome, you aren’t going to learn much. I’ve been working on my own query letters for a couple of years now, as well as helping others with theirs. I write a decent query letter. Am I a query guru? Don’t be absurd! I’m still learning new tricks and tips, and I enjoy that. I like to learn.
Some people don’t. Some people can’t. Going into a forum that’s focused on getting help and learning things with an attitude that one already knows everything is an exercise in futility. You aren’t getting the help you need, and you are wasting other people’s time.
Let’s talk about Bob. Bob is a fake name of course, and a favorite stunt name of mine. Bob’s first post asking for help was telling. It mentioned the query workshops he’s been too, and the real live agent that liked the query. It went so far as to mention that Bob has followed advice that went against the standards of the online community, because a real agent told them to. Bob started out with a veiled criticism of the community, and then pretended to ask that community for help.
The busy squirrels of Query Letter Hell took the insult in stride, and tried to help anyway. That’s the way they are. There are always people there willing to stride into the fray and try to help the poster. And Bob needed help. His query is not good. It’s dry and wordy. It has so many things in it, that when I read it to my fiancé, he asked “But what’s the story about?” Sometimes squirrel-help leads to a huge success story. Sometimes the poster is able to make that connection the helpers are talking about, and realize that he can still learn something new. He adapts his query accordingly. The squirrels cheer and everybody is happy.
Then sometimes there’s Bob.
Not only is Bob unwilling to make major changes in his query, Bob doesn’t seem to even understand what the posters are talking about. Bob has gotten multiple people trying to tell him that his query description reads like a plot summary. That it needs voice, a sense of urgency, and dynamic language. After reading Bob’s responses, it’s obvious that he doesn’t really understand what anyone is talking about. I read this post four or five times without responding. It seemed pointless to me, to waste my time trying to help this person. If they didn’t understand, they didn’t understand. One can’t talk calculus to someone that hasn’t learned how to multiply and divide. They have no frame of reference.
After deciding five times not to help, I went and did it anyway. I’m a dedicated Query Hell Squirrel, and over-helpful to boot. I couldn’t let it be. In the end, I was willing to waste my time on the off chance that it might make a difference. I gave Bob an example of a first draft of what I would write if it was my book. It wasn’t a complete query, only a hundred words, and I said so. I wanted to show Bob a query snippet using the three big questions: What does the MC want? What do they have to do to get it? What happens if they fail (also known as the stakes)? All of the biggies in 100 words. Not brilliant words, but dynamic and attention getting language instead of a dry plot summary. I knew that no matter how politely worded my post was, it was going to make defensive Bob mad. I started my post by saying this, in fact. I was hoping that once Bob got over the mad, he’d be able to see the difference in style between his plot summary and my three questions with dynamic language.
He didn’t. He either can’t see the difference, or isn’t interested in learning. I’m leaning towards can’t see the difference, and if that’s the case, I wonder how his book reads. It might be awesome. Good novelists can be wretched query writers. However, Bob’s string of dry query attempts make me wonder if the book is that dry and uninteresting? Unfortunately for Bob, if I’m wondering that, so will the agents he submits this query to. If the query isn’t written with style, voice, urgency, and dynamic language, then it’s easy to assume that the book isn’t either. That assumption might be wrong, but if the agents can’t get past your query, they aren’t going to read your book.
Today, Bob has tried version 312.5 of his query. It’s slightly shorter. It’s also dry and somewhat dull to read. There’s lots of information in there, but it is not written in an engaging way. He doesn’t get it. No matter how I try to explain it, he isn’t going to get it. In fact, he’s gone into another thread to complain about the squirrels in Query Letter Hell. That’s the ticket! Complain about the people trying to help you! That’s bound to get you more people to help…oh, wait…not so much.
So, my gentle readers, if you go to AW’s Query Letter Hell to get some advice on your query (and I suggest that you do) remember to be gracious. Whether the advice given is useful to you or not, the query squirrels are there because they want to be of assistance. And if I make you mad, sorry, I was just trying to help.
I just spent five minutes in QLH trying to figure out which one Bob’s thread was. 😦
I didn’t want to say. Doesn’t seem fair if I do. I comment on quite a lot of QLH posts, so it isn’t obvious. It’s more about the trials of mentoring than giving Bob a hard time.
That’s true. I just happen to be insatiably curious. Come to think of it, there are probably several dozen Bobs who have come and gone in QLH over time.
Not heard of this type of forum before but interesting observations and amusing post.
Thanks! A ‘share your work” forum can be a very useful tool, but it isn’t for everybody.
Maybe not but sharing your work and being open to comment is the lifeblood of work, to me. I was a terrible writer before I showed my stuff anyone else. I’m not saying I’m brilliant now, but the first thing I was advised was, “You must read some books on how to structure.” It hurt at the time, but if I’d continued thinking I could just absorb the techniques by reading fiction, I’d still be terrible.
It’s really sweet of you to volunteer to give up your time to help others.
Thank you again, and that sounds a lot like my story. I needed help when I started out. When I realized that, I was disappointed. Who wouldn’t be! It’s a little like being told that your baby isn’t pretty. After sharing my work, and working with some talented beta readers, my writing improved by leaps and bounds. It was just what I needed to improve, and I was lucky to find it. Now I try to give back by doing the same thing.