Your Rhetorical Questions, Answered

If you’re a writer who’s ever queried an agent, let me salute you. It’s not very fun, I’d imagine. As you’ve noticed, agents tend to have different submission guidelines and some of us are quite militant about them. I hope you all have spreadsheets to keep everybody straight.

However! I’m here to make your lives slightly easier. While I don’t have the power to create a universal submission guideline, there is one thing that 99.9% of agents agree on when it comes to your actual query:

We hate rhetorical questions.

Now, to be fair, some agents don’t mind when you begin your query with a rhetorical question. Some just skip it and move on. But no one likes them, which I think it a notable distinction. They’re awkward to read, wastes precious query-reading seconds, and can even get you a very quick rejection. Agents read hundreds of queries – sometimes hundreds of them a day (!) – and your rhetorical question is not going to hook us the way a direct, unique description of your book will.

Here’s why rhetorical questions fail:

Have you ever wondered… ? Nope.

What would you do if…. ? Whatever your character does.

What if you… ? I’d be living in the premise of your book, whatever that is.  

Remember when… ? Maybe, but you shouldn’t assume I come from the same background or generation as you.

Do you ever wish… ? Probably not, but hopefully my enjoyment of your novel doesn’t depend on my inner desires. 

In short, the answer is never a simple “yes.” Even if by a miracle you pick the one agent who has been waiting to hear that question all day, chances are he or she will prefer to have heard what your book is about instead. What’s worse is that if the answer is a very plain “no” (which it usually is), then all you’ve done is given us permission to stop reading your query. 

You will never be rejected based on a rhetorical question alone, so don’t worry if you’ve already sent out a bunch of queries littered with them. But, for me, if I’m on the fence about a query or I know my reading my pile is getting too large to add to, I may take that rhetorical question as a testament to your writing style. It may not always be fair to the writer in question, but it’s an easy way to filter out material when I just don’t have the time for new things. 

Queries are hard, but there is no magic formula to them either. The only thing agents want to know is what your book is about. Note: your book. Rhetorical questions say nothing specific about you, your story, or your characters. They’re like movie taglines, meant to entice a potential audience without giving anything away. Agents, however, are not your potential audience. We’re the ones who will help you find your audience. But first, we need to know what your book is about. 

When Bad Books Happen to Good Writers

I recently sat on an “Ask the Agent” panel in which a writer anonymously asked, “Why do so many bad books get published while so many good ones get rejected?”

My first thought after hearing this question was “whoa, someone is bitter.” Then I quickly realized it wasn’t an unreasonable question. In fact, it was a pretty good question. Being on the business side of things, I sometimes forget how certain book deals must look to the writers struggling to get their work noticed. The thing is, I roll my eyes as often as you do when I see celebrity book deals, bestsellers in dire need of editing, and mediocre work from popular authors who no longer worry about “building their audience” (not naming names, but we all know they exist).

What’s important for writers to remember is that the publishing industry, at least a large percentage of it, is full of book people. We studied English lit, think of authors as rock stars, and have a deep appreciation for the written word. So why do we (sometimes) allow mediocrity to take precedent over masterpieces? The answer I gave on the panel was that the terms “good” and “bad” are subjective – which they are – and that literary writing does often get overlooked for more commercial writing, but it doesn’t necessarily make commercial writing bad. 

All of that is true, but the longer version of that answer is…

Good and bad don’t mean the same on the business side as they do on the writer’s side, but more on that later. For the purpose of this blog post, I’m going to focus only on commercial and genre fiction because the success of literary fiction is always dependent on the quality of the writing. Commercial fiction isn’t. Not always. Which is why seeing what becomes a bestseller can be frustrating to writers trying to publish their first novel. 

In our insular world of publishing blogs, author Twitter feeds, and writer’s conferences, it’s easy to forget that we are a minority. Reading anything off the bestseller list has long-been considered “for nerds.” If we could only sell books to people like us – the book people – then I think writers wouldn’t have as many complaints about “bad” books.

But publishing is a business. Like any business, we need to look outside ourselves and find a product that will sell to a wider audience. Most people just want to be entertained. Sometimes that means sacrificing stylized prose. Other times it means you get to have high quality writing and the type of story that hooks a majority of consumers. When the latter happens, we do a happy dance.

Big blockbuster novels are like big blockbuster movies – high concept plot, not a whole lot of character development, and maybe some sexy times. It’s “entertainment for the masses,” but is it bad? Not even a little bit. It’s actually the opposite, and this is where writers – like the one from that panel – can get confused.

In the publishing world, “good” doesn’t always mean “well-written.” We want it to, and it’s what we always look for first, but it’s not the only thing. It can’t be the only thing. We’d all be out of jobs. Well-written books are well-written books, but “good” books have a broader definition. In publishing terms, “good” means that a book connected with its intended audience, and maybe even crossed over to reach a wider audience. Or, put more simply, good = successful.

A “bad” book can still be well-written. Bad is when a novel fails to find an audience, even if everyone involved in producing that book believed in it. Some books just don’t hook an audience, and to the publishing industry that can mean some pretty bad things, such as:

1) The publisher took a loss by not earning back the advance it gave the author.

2) The publisher may not invest money in the author’s next project to avoid the same results.
3) The book gets poor reviews, which hurts not only the author’s reputation, but also their agent’s, editor’s, and publisher’s.
4) Too many “bad” books in a row may lead to an editor not wanting to work with that agent anymore, or a publisher not wanting to take chances on that editor’s projects.

In other words, a lot is riding on your book finding an audience and being liked.

Don’t worry though. The pressure gets taken off of you because of what the outside world calls “bad” books. When we give Snooki a book deal instead of an up-and-coming debut author, do we sell out? Of course. Integrity can’t always pay the bills, unfortunately. Super Big Commercial Bestsellers are often, as their name suggests, publishing’s version of commercials. They bring in enough revenue to pay those bills and give us enough leftover to take on the smaller, beautifully written projects you bring us. We call these our passion projects because we love them and need to bring them into the world, but we know it’s unlikely that book will be discussed on Dr. Oz (you know, for example…).

The writer on that panel wasn’t asking about well-written commercial novels, but I want to take a minute to recognize that not all commercially successful novels are poorly written. Most of them are very well-written! Creating entertainment for the masses is still an art form, and being able to write commercially is a hard skill to acquire. Not all talented writers are able to hit all the right notes in their market the way a commercial writer can. A few of these Big Novels aren’t well-written though. I won’t pretend they are. Those are the ones that author was referring to, and I understand the frustration.

The publishing industry never looks for poorly written books, but for various reasons we do allow them to slip through. If your novel was rejected or didn’t sell well, don’t get angry at the bestseller list or blame the publishing industry. Instead, look at why those other books are selling. Books never sell because they are poorly written. There’s always something else that readers are connecting with. Find out how to bring those elements to your own writing, but stay true to your own writing style, and never think for a second that in order to be big you need to be bad.