How’s the querying?
Family and friends ask this question with joyful expectation. Experienced writers are more subdued.
I’ve spent much of my life trying to appear competent while feeling terrified that I’m not smart enough or good enough.
But I committed to being transparent about this process. If success came easy, it would inspire fellow writers. If I struggled, I’d model perseverance and the power of AGFOs (another fucking growth experience).
So far, I’ve queried twenty-five agents. For those of you who’ve never done this, twenty-five is a small number. A few still haven’t acknowledged my email. Several requested additional pages. Six requested the full. Two of the six declined. I’m waiting to hear back from the other four. Requests for the full are always a good sign but they’re not a guarantee. While most agents will at least respond with a nice rejection, they can still ghost you.
My rejections have been variations on the following theme: “You’re a talented writer with a compelling story, but I’m not sure how to sell this.” Often, these statements are coupled with phrases like I’m sure you’ll get an agent, or this is just one opinion.
Two agents sent more personalized responses. One was exceptionally generous, and while she passed, she told me to send her my next project.
Rejections are always disappointing no matter how thick your skin.
Two really stung.
Agent one: “I’m sorry for your tough life. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry for everything you’ve ever been through. But I don’t feel like this rises to the level of the universal.”
I’m sure this agent (who read a partial) was trying to be kind, compassionate, and helpful, but the repeated apologies felt more like commentary on my brokenness than a critique of my project.
And then there was The Doozy written by an agent who’d read the full.
Agent two: “I really thought this would be more fully cooked. The first eleven pages were electric, but the story quickly fell apart. Put it away and work on something else.” This person said a couple of semi-nice things and probably believed their feedback was a gift. And really, all feedback—even the tough stuff—is a gift.
What I heard: “Yep, your book sucks. And you call yourself an editor? Quit your project and your day job.”
Talk about a hot poker to my ego!
Fortunately, I’ve been on a healing journey long enough to call bullshit on those shadow remarks.
Here’s the truth: It’s easier to find flaws in someone else’s writing than to identify them in your own. As a writer, I’m in the trenches just like you. I get too close to my story or overly invested in certain things. Sometimes my impatience causes me to rush through the process, because damnit, I want to freaking publish this book.
Part of the querying process is learning to decipher the meta-message embedded in agent responses so you can decide whether to query more or return to your manuscript.
First, I had to tend to my wounds.
I journaled about my feelings then checked in with mentors and query friends who listened, shared rejection tales, and cheered me on.
I returned to my “why” and made a list of things I loved about this book. I got clear about how this will help my readers and why I am willing to see this through.
I checked in with beta readers and questioned whether something could be missing, read craft books including my advanced copy of Allison William’s soon-to-be-released masterpiece Seven Drafts: How to Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. (Pre-order your copy STAT!)
In the Story Draft section, Allison shares the following exercise: Give a fresh reader pages 50 – 70 of your manuscript, but tell them it’s the beginning. After they read the excerpt, ask if anything’s missing. If their answer doesn’t refer to most of your first fifty pages, it’s likely they need to be scrapped.
As soon as I finished reading this exercise my stomach dropped past my toes.
A few days later I received The Doozy.
Once I regained my sense of self-worth, I knew I needed to see whether agents one and two had a point. So, I spent Memorial Day weekend at The Porches, a writing retreat in nearby Nelson County. I took a printed copy of my manuscript and Seven Drafts.
In the three-act structure, act one is the place where you establish your ordinary world, or the world the narrator inhabited before something launches their journey. For many books, act one is around sixty pages. My first fifty pages established the world before my brother’s death.
An invitation to join my husband’s heavy metal tour is the inciting incident that launches act two of my book. This event takes place three weeks after my brother’s death.
As I reread the first seventy pages, it was clear some events were essential, but most could be condensed and repurposed as flashbacks. The ordinary world of my story was the grief-stricken first few weeks after my brother’s suicide. It was a world where some people die tragically, others behave erratically, and hope is a chip of soap sliding toward the bathtub drain. Rereading took me back to the drawing board, but it also showed me how close I am.
Querying, like most milestones in the writing life, is not a point of arrival, but an opportunity to test your creative experiment.
Sometimes the results delight you.
Other times, they launch another experiment.
This doesn’t make you a fraud, a bad writer, or someone who should give up.
So, how’s the querying? I’m persevering and so should you.
What obstacles have you faced in your writing life?
How have you picked yourself up when you felt like quitting?
Your projects are worth fighting for. Keep showing up and keep writing on.