You probably know the old fable, The Boy who cried Wolf:
Once there was a shepherd who was bored out of his skull. He slept most of the day and daydreamed the rest of it. Once in a while, he counted the sheep. The boy suspected that the villagers considered him a dullard. He suspected the sheep considered him a dullard. And sometimes he wondered himself.
One day, the boy looked at the quiet field and thought, “A wolf could really liven things up around here.”
It’s possible that the boy honestly mistook the black sheep for a wolf. However it happened, he ran into the village screaming, “Wolf! Wolf!” The villagers grabbed their weapons and rushed out to defend the flock. But there was no wolf in sight and every sheep was accounted for. The villagers went home grumbling.
Three days later, the boy had done nothing but count sheep, and he craved attention even worse than before. He ran to the village lying through his teeth, “Wolf! The biggest wolf you’ve ever seen!” The villagers raced to help. But there was no wolf in sight and every sheep was accounted for. The villagers went home angry.
The boy thought about spending the rest of his life in this field where even the sheep ignored him, and he just couldn’t stand one more second. He began to cry.
While he was crying, the sheep began to bleat. A pack of huge hungry wolves headed straight for the field! The boy raced to the village shrieking, “Wolf! They’re eating the whole flock!”
“We’re sick of your lies,” the villagers said. “Go back to the sheep, you dullard.” And so the sheep were eaten, the villagers felt stupid, and the boy became a minstrel known far and wide as Lying Larry with his Singing Lambs.
And the moral is: Once you’re known as a liar, no one will believe you even if you’re telling the truth.
That is a good old tale. But if Aesop were a modern slave to the written word, he might have called his story, The Writer who cried Bestseller:
Once there was a writer who barely wrote anything. He drank coffee and scribbled ideas on notepads. Once in a while, he drafted something, but mostly he wrote blog posts about the difficulties of writing. The writer suspected that editors considered him a lame ass. He suspected other writers considered him a lame ass. And sometimes he wondered himself.
One day, the writer checked his empty inbox and thought, “A bestseller could really liven things up around here.”
It’s possible that the writer honestly mistook his first attempt at a children’s story as a potential bestseller. However it happened, he wrote in his query, “My easy reader is like Elephant and Piggie meet Frog and Toad. Dyslexic kids especially love to read it. I have a Ph.D. in Early Literacy and I’ve published 47 picture books under the pseudonyms Frank Asch and Margaret Wise Brown.” A gullible intern requested the manuscript. The writer fired it off with a post-it reading, “Better snap this up soon!!!” When the story arrived, it was wordy, clunky, and dull. The intern rejected it with a form letter.
One year later, the writer had written only 125 new words (plus 365 blog posts), and he craved attention even worse than before. He resurrected a novel he’d written in his teens, though he knew it was badly conceived and poorly executed. “It’s Harry Potter at the Hunger Games,” he wrote in his query. “Hilarious, gripping, with a love interest that will ignite your shorts. I have two offers from other houses, but I’ve always wanted to work with you guys.” The gullible intern, who had since become a gullible editor, requested the manuscript. The writer fired it off with a post-it reading, “You have a two-week exclusive!!!” When the story arrived, it was idiotic and unreadable. The editor rejected it with a form letter.
The writer thought about spending the rest of his life alone in the blogosphere writing endless analyses of his few lousy first drafts, and he just couldn’t stand one more second. He began to cry. Then he began to write. He cried and he wrote for an entire year, then he cried and revised for another year. Finally, he polished his words and thought, “Holy smokes, this is really good!” He asked a few established authors for comments, and they offered suggestions and endorsements. The writer fired off a query saying, “Margaret Atwood calls my novel “moving and insightful” and Paul Auster says, “I wish I’d written it myself.” (And it was really true this time.)
The editor wrote back, “I’m sick of your lies. Go back to your blog, you lame ass.” And so the writer got an agent who sold his novel to another house, the editor felt stupid, and the book was a great success.
And the moral is: Work your lame ass off and write a good book, not an ad campaign.
And on the off chance you can’t get Paul or Margaret to endorse your book, write a decent honest query letter to go with it.
If you want a second opinon on your query letter, consult the blogosphere for help. One of the awesome writers in my picture book critique group, Ishta Mercurio, has begun a weekly Wednesday query critique on her blog, Musings of a Restless Mind. It’s tailored exclusively to picture book queries, so if you write for young minds, send Ishta your draft query letter and she’ll give you her advice. For novel queries, Ishta suggests consulting the Quintessentially Questionable Query Experiment.
But write a decent book first. Honestly.