In February of 2013, I rejoiced to type “The End” on the manuscript I’d been writing on and off for over twenty years. I spent the next two months editing, proofreading, and preparing the manuscript for the querying ordeal.
Querying, the initial step in the traditional publishing process, is the method by which a writer seeks a literary agent to represent her work to publishers in the hopes of securing a book deal.
It’s a brutal process.
Agents receive hundreds of queries per week, but each agent can only take on a limited number of new clients each year. The query letter is a writer’s one shot at piquing an agent’s interest. The letter must begin with an irresistible one-sentence hook. It must introduce the plot, characters, conflict, and potential market for the book without giving away the ending. It must seduce the most jaded agent scanning her fiftieth query of the day with its wit and charm, while hewing precisely to the submissions guidelines on the agent’s website. It must communicate absolute confidence in the work without boasting. And it must do all this in no more than one page.
Every agent has different requirements. Some want a query letter, synopsis, and sample pages ranging from ten to fifty pages, or three to ten chapters. Some want only a query letter and will ask for samples if they’re interested. Some prefer not to see a synopsis before they read the manuscript. And many make it clear that failure to follow these instructions will result in instant rejection.
Increasingly, rejection itself is a privilege, as a growing number of agents advise writers to assume rejection if they receive no answer within a certain period, usually six weeks. I can’t understand this. If the agent or intern has enough time to read the emailed query, synopsis, and sample chapters in enough depth to determine that the agency isn’t interested, then why can’t she take twenty seconds to bounce back a form rejection email? It’s a small courtesy. When an agency does not use automated email receipts for submissions AND does not send rejections, you have no way of knowing whether the agent received your manuscript and hated it, failed to rescue it from the spam filter, or simply dropped dead without prejudice.
If an agent likes your query letter, she may ask for more sample chapters–a “partial”– and a synopsis. If she likes your partial, she may request the full manuscript. If she likes the full, but not quite enough, she may ask that you revise and resubmit the manuscript in the future. If she likes the full or revised manuscript, she may call to offer representation.
All of these have happened to me, except that last crucial one. I’ve received form rejections and personalized, encouraging ones, and the long silence of rejection by default. I’ve gotten requests for partials and fulls, and a revise and resubmit request. But I’m still waiting for the phone call that every single writing and publishing book and blog assures me will definitely not change my life.
I spent hours reading books and websites, trying to learn as much as I could about the process before sending my first query. I didn’t want to come across as an amateur. Clearly, not everyone does this. Agents periodically tweet tragically funny excerpts from terrible queries, and one has a Tumblr on which he posts queries so patently delusional, ungrammatical, and nonsensical that I don’t know whether to feel more guilt, revulsion, or relief when I read them. I shouldn’t laugh at people this clueless and/or mentally ill. But their queries make my protocol-following, grammatical one look stellar, particularly given its lack of declarations that I am God’s most beloved and potentially top-earning prophet.
By most standards, my query was successful because it inspired several agents to want to read more. After the revise and resubmit request from a lady I’ll just call Dream Agent, I decided to stop querying and focus on revision. I felt her criticisms were valid and her advice excellent, and I no longer wanted to query a manuscript I knew I could improve. I worked on it for eight months. Two weeks ago, certain I could not compress, edit, delete, or invigorate one more word (and uncertain whether or not the novel was still in English), I resubmitted to Dream Agent. Now, I check my email two hundred times a day and contemplate the possibility that I have written the world’s most hideous debut novel, and that my friends, bless them, have been too polite to mention it.
I’ve always been terrible at meditation, but I wish I’d learned, because never would the ability to observe my thoughts like bubbles floating across my consciousness be more useful than it would be now. “Oh, look,” I would comment serenely. “There’s another ‘I am one of the greatest novelists of my generation, but I’m not cool, and I don’t live in Brooklyn, and I didn’t go to NYU or Iowa, and I’m an overeducated suburban librarian mom with wire-rimmed glasses instead of those chunky black plastic ones and ALL THE WRONG CLOTHES, and agents catch the stink of all that on my query, so no one will ever know, and I will die in obscurity, with some rent-a-rabbi reciting the Valiant Woman verses over my corpse instead getting one of those witty, wistful tributes in the Talk of the Town.’ again.”
Or, “Ah, yes. There’s another variation on, ‘I am a talentless fraud.’ There it goes again into the void of all weightless thoughts, lighter than air and far less vital.”
I’m making a point of writing and posting this now, while I’m still desperate and hopeful, still composing unsendable letters to Dream Agent in my journal, still fantasizing about the email, the phone call, the contract, the book deal, the book tour, and everything– all of which, even if it earns me no money at all (and I don’t see how it could ever work out to more than 17¢ an hour over twenty-odd years), would mark the world’s opinion that writing this book instead of becoming an outstanding knitter or a devoted fan of all the terrific HBO series I’ve missed out on was a good decision. I’m telling you all this now, when I don’t know if my querying will achieve its goal, because so much of what I read about this process when I was trying to learn how to do it was written in a fortunate author’s post-book deal glow. The chirpy tone of the recently-signed assures aspiring novelists that if their writing is good enough, if they work hard, and if they truly believe in themselves, then they, too, will live to see their publication date.
This is an attribution error, of course. E.L. James and Stephenie Meyer are terrible writers by any standard. Many gifted writers work extremely hard, but never publish a word. And my belief in myself (or lack thereof) has no power to influence an agent’s or publisher’s business decisions. They will take on projects they believe will earn money, and pass on those, no matter how good, that they don’t think have a chance of returning the investment. That is how people in the publishing industry put food in the mouths of their children.
I may never see this book in print, or my next one, or the one after that. Or maybe I will. I’m going to keep writing, and if Dream Agent rejects my revised manuscript, I will query others. And I would encourage you to do the same.
Next week, Part II of Querying is Hell, Except Your Friends Aren’t There.