Query Hell

A robot devil with a top-hat and a pitchfork standing over Bender from Futurama, while Bender holds his hands to his forehead and looks distressed.
I may currently have the robot hell song from Futurama stuck in my head.

It’s January.  I’ve finished a new manuscript, which means it’s time to query on my old one.  Why does it mean that?  Because I’m full of the finished-novel high and it’s a time of boundless motivation and energy.  So I’m putting the to good use to conquer something I dread.

I hate querying.  I hate trying to sell my work, and myself, to people who don’t know me.  I don’t like random contacts and I feel like everything about these interactions is judged, even though I know that in reality there’s probably just some tired agent on the other end shrugging and sending a form rejection.  I invariably screw something up (like the first query, in which I typoed my word count at 77,000 when it’s really 70,000, whoopsie) and it gives me something to beat myself up about for the rest of the day.

But I keep doing it, because I haven’t given up on traditional publishing yet, and if I’m doing traditional publishing, I want a professional to help me sell my work.  I think this is the lawyer in me.  Sure, you CAN represent yourself in court, but you really really REALLY should have a professional do it.  They know all the sticky little rules and procedural stuff.

So here I am, assembling my list and paring it down and sending out my queries to the professional representers in the writing field.

When I hear of authors querying hundreds of agents, it boggles my mind.  This year, my list of agents I’m looking at for Surviving the Plague is… eight.  Eight whole agents in the entire world who I feel like would be a good fit for this manuscript based on their stated interests and the story I’m trying to sell.  Eight letters before I shrug, set aside Surviving the Plague for another year, and wait for the rejections (or hopefully maybe the lucky R&R but I’m not holding my breath but man that would be nice) to roll in.

I have prepared my querying materials, the basic body of the cover letter, the synopsis, the sample chapters, anything they might ask for, long in advance.  Long enough in advance to revise those just like I have revised the story itself, trying to polish until they shine.  So really, Query Hell is just three days of research and querying, while I’m at my highest of novel highs, and then it’s over.

I can do this.

Revise and Resubmit Letters

After last Tuesday’s big news, I’ve had a couple of friends ask me what “revise and resubmit” means, and whether it isn’t just a “soft rejection.” The thought process is that anything that isn’t an enthusiastic yes is a no.  While this is a good guideline for sexual consent, the same guideline doesn’t apply in the world of novel submissions.

Still, it’s not a stupid misconception. I certainly didn’t know what an R&R letter was before I got serious about writing. What nonwriters seem to think (and what I thought when I was a nonwriter) was that stories are either accepted as-is, with no suggested changes, or rejected outright.

This is very far from the truth. Writing is in a sense a collaborative process, and the process involves a lot of feedback and response, from alpha/beta readers, critique partners, and hopefully some day agents and publishers. A huge amount of revision happens between a rough draft and a final product. That’s just the business of writing if you’re going the traditional (or even the indie) publishing route.

As Carly Watters, a super cool agent I met at a writing conference, has explained: agents don’t ask to see more of something that they’re not interested in.  The fact that an agent wants to see more of my work means that she could see herself representing it. If the agent had wanted to reject me, it would have been a lot easier to do that instead of asking for a revised work.

In this case, after reading the suggestions, I agree with the deficiencies the agent identified. So I let her know that I intended to do a revision. Yes, in a sense this is putting a lot more work in without any promise that it will pay off.

But I’ve been writing for years with no promise that it will pay off. The nine months that I already put into the Plague Novel? There was no guarantee that anyone would be interested in it! Even if the agent decides to represent the novel? There’s no guarantee any publisher will want to buy it! At the end of the day, there are no guarantees. Period. There are only probabilities and chances, and the R&R letter makes it a lot more probable that this story will eventually be published.

Besides, regardless of whether she ultimately decides to pick up the Plague Novel or not, this is extremely valuable feedback that will result in me having a better, more sellable work.

So the idea that an R&R is a “soft rejection” is wrong. Understandable, but wrong. This is an “almost yes” that tells me I’m on the right track. My excitement is strong and legitimate.

Querying Process – Mise en Place

My archery coach said that shooting is all about the process.  In the same sense, sending out queries for me was all about the process.  In cooking, the process of gathering all of your ingredients and prep work together to turn into a final dish is called mise en place.  The whole idea is that having yourself organized in advance is going to save you time and headache in the long run. When I was getting ready to query, it was imperative to me that I have all of my ducks in a neat little row on my desk so that I could call on the ingredients I needed at will.

The ingredients consisted of:

  1. My polished manuscript.  This might be a “duh and/or hello” type of thing, but it was there, ready to be partitioned into smaller parts if agents wanted samples.
  2. My one-page synopsis.
  3. The body of my query letter.
  4. My organized excel spreadsheet of agents.

A few preparation notes: The query letter and synopsis were both polished in the sense of I had a critique partner look at the drafts before I did a “final” draft for sending out to agents.  The excel spreadsheet of agents were all agents I had previously researched and thought would be a good fit both for my desires and my manuscript, organized in descending order, with color-coding to indicate which agents worked at the same agency (to avoid accidentally sending to two agents from the same agency), and which agents would not be interested in my work (to avoid sending my book with an asexual MC to an agent who was really interested in romance in LGBTQ YA, for instance).

Once I had everything set up, the process of actually assembling and sending out queries to my top five agents only took about two hours.  I double-checked the agent’s requirements, tweaked my query letters accordingly, made sure I had assembled exactly what they were looking for, double-checked all the attachments, and sent out the emails.  Tweaking included things like emphasizing my LGBTQ focus more for agents who were interested (but never excluding it, because that’s a big part of who I am as a writer), emphasizing things they were looking for on their site or MSWL that were present in my story, and adjusting how much of my manuscript I sent them (some wanted none, some wanted 1 chapter, some wanted 3 chapters, some wanted 10 pages, some wanted 20 pages, etc).

By the end, I was so wrung-out and shaky that I’m glad I assembled everything in advance.  I can only imagine the kind of garbled mess Agent #5 would have received if I didn’t have the process down.  I will almost certainly follow this process when I do my second round of queries to the next five agents.

Querying Process – Traditional, Indie, or Self Pub

When I wrote about deciding whether to find an agent, I mentioned that my decision to go the traditional publishing route was a topic for another post.  This is that post.

I’ve had to explain to more than one friend, some of them very successful self-published authors, about why I decided to go the traditional publishing route.  My decision really came down to two basic considerations: (1) writing is a second career for me, and (2) it’s a lot easier to decide to go indie or self-pub after you’ve attempted to go traditional and failed than it is to do it the other way around.

Writing as a second career.  This is the main reason why I’ve decided to go the traditional publishing route.  This is not a hobby for me.  Yes, I started as a hobbyist writer, as lots of writers have.  But as I went from writing when I felt like it, to writing once a week, to writing on lunches at work days, to writing every day, I discovered that I have a real passion for writing.  It’s become such a part of my life that I dream about characters and plots when I’m walking the dog, when I’m in the shower, when I’m trying to get to sleep.  I get out of sorts when I’m not doing writing and dream about the day I’ll be able to write full-time.  Maybe that won’t come until I’ve retired, but you know what?  That worked for David Feintuch, the first author who ever signed books for me, who talked to teenage me like a potential future writer and said this is something you can do if you want it badly enough and put in the work.

Is it realistic to dream of being a New York Times bestselling author?  Maybe not.  But I don’t think the dream is silly.  It’s something attainable; people attain it all the time.  And the only way to attain it is to go for it.  If you don’t ask, the answer is no.  I have three things going for me–I’m smart, I’m a hard worker, and I’m persistent.  I’m not going to stop trying until I get there.

The possibility of later going indie or self-pub later.  If I can’t make it on the traditional publishing route in the way I want to do it, I can always decide to look at indie or self-pub later.  I have a full time job that I enjoy and find rewarding.  I have the luxury of not hurting for money, so I’m able to devote hours a day to something that isn’t paying me right now.

Once you go self-pub, it’s difficult to go back.  My research tells me that you’re about as likely to win the lottery as you are to to get an actual publisher to pick up your book that you’ve already indie- or self-published.  Yes, I could make money doing self-pub.  I could have my name on a written work that people could read right now and make money at it.  But it’s not about the money and it’s not even about having something for my friends and family to read.  It’s about that dream I have, where I have a career as an author.  I just don’t think self-pub is going to get me there.

That isn’t to denigrate people who self-pub.  I have friends who self-pub and love the freedom it gives them to have total creative control over their work, who are actually able to make most of a living with writing.  And that’s fine–they have a goal and they’re pursuing it and succeeding and loving life.  My goal is different, and that’s okay too (even if sometimes I really envy them, that they’re doing it while I’m still trying to do it).

That said, self-pub is something I’m looking at for my short stories.  Unlike with my first novel, which I just started querying, I’ve been trying to sell short stories since 2012.  Four years of trying to sell short stories is getting me to the point where I don’t care about doing it the “right” way.  I’m getting impatient.  But I’m not going to make a decision on this until, because, again, once you go self-pub, you can’t sell that particular short story to a magazine.  And I have magazine dreams, too.

Querying Process – To Agent Or Not To Agent

This is going to be the first in a series of posts about the querying process.  Much like the revision process I started early last year, the querying process is something that’s completely new to me.  I have only tried to sell short-form works, I’ve never tried to sell a long-form work.

The first question was the “self publish or not” question, which I’ve clearly answered in the negative.  But since it has nothing to do with querying, that’s food for another post.

On the traditional publishing route, there are a few paths you can take.  The two that I know are the most common are (1) marketing your manuscript directly to editors or publishers, or (2) finding an agent, who is going to take a cut of the proceeds to market the book for you.

Some of my non-writer friends absolutely do not understand why I would want to give a significant percentage of whatever I might make from the book to someone who “only” has to sell it for me.  For me, the logic is pretty simple: the service should pay for itself.

A good agent is going to have access to a network and relationships that I do not have access to.  It’s an agent’s job to know who is currently trying to buy what and for how much. They’re going to know how to present my story in the best light to the people who might be interested in it.  Sure, I could probably find that information for myself.  But how much of my precious writing time am I going to waste doing that?  Would it be an efficient use of my time?  And most importantly, would anyone give me the time of day?  I don’t think so.

If I wanted to get paid right now, then I’d self-publish and see how I do.  That isn’t and has never been my goal.  Writing is basically my second job that I love the crap out of but don’t get paid for.  Yet.  I enjoy it all on its own, but if I’m going to get paid for it, I want to get paid what I’m worth.  A good agent seems like the best way to maximize that.  So that’s why I’m going this route.

Progress Update

The querying process and book preparation process are both less numbers-intense than the editing process.  I can’t say that I got X pages done, which is Y % of where I want to be.  Instead, I have to treat you to a laundry-list of things that I did for you to get a feel for the kind of motion I’m seeing on my end.

Plague Novel–I received a second full manuscript request and another rejection.  This puts me at two full manuscript requests and two form rejections.  I chalk this up as an overall success.  I intend to do agent research and then tweak and sent out my query letter to my second set of possible agents on Monday.  I want to try to emphasize my writing-relevant skills a little more, but I also don’t want to come off as braggy.

I keep getting little tiny ideas on the possible sequels.  I’ll have to do an entire other blog post on why I decided to write other things when I have three books semi-outlined out for the Plague Novel.

Flight Novel–this one is burning a hole in my brain.  Every now and then, things pop out at me that I want to do on revision.  I just keep noting them down in the Scrivener file so that I don’t lose them.  At some point, the desire to revise it will reach a critical mass and my attachment to the story as it exists will wane, and then and only then will it be time to pull out the proverbial red pen.

Book 3–I’m trying to come up with a working title for this.  Right now, it has two different titles in my head: that generation ship story, and “Touchdown,” which is the name of the Scrivener file on my computer.  The second one makes it look kind if like a sports story, though, so I’m not sure if it’ll stick around.

I’m eyebrows-deep in research on exoplanets, space travel, and Russian culture.  The characters have started forming in my head.  I went back and read Characters and Viewpoint, but I still have no idea if the right voice for this book is third-person limited or first-person.  I do only have one main-character.  That tends to push me toward a first-person voice, but I’m not really sure if the trade-off in immediacy is going to be worth the more intimate emotional connection to the character.  Writer problems.

Other projects–I’ve received one short story rejection.  I need to make this a pair before I send them out again, since the short story submission process is so draining for me.  I’m thinking about opening up a Patreon and putting my short stories there instead.  It’s extremely difficult to break into the short fiction market because space is extremely limited and lots of established authors also write short fiction.  I haven’t made a decision on this yet.  It’s something I’ll need to give some serious thought to before I decide whether to make a move, and in the mean time, I’m going to keep going with submissions.

I’m also going to be a contributor for Queer Girl Cafe.  My internal editor is screaming at me not to fill this space up with empty words, but… I’m very, very, very, excited about this project.  There are some amazing queer writers lined up to contribute.  I have a tiny bit of impostor syndrome even thinking about having an article in the same space as some of these women.

Progress Update

Not much to report this week. I’ve received two rejections from agents (I do appreciate quick responses) and one short story rejection. The decision to start working on book three was the right choice. I’m only in the research phase right now, but having something creative to do keeps me focused on why I enjoy writing. Hint: it isn’t the constant rejections.


Edit to add: I don’t know why this disappeared. I thought it went up as scheduled, but maybe not, because it was still sitting in my queue this morning.

Plague Novel Update: Queries Sent

As with everything else writing-related, the process of querying agents took a lot more time and energy than I ever thought it would when I decided to be a real writer.  Just like submitting short stories, querying agents is a series of mini-tests of reading comprehension and concentration skills.  Every agent wants something different; submissions guidelines range from a bare-bones query letter to “please include the first three chapters in plain text.”

I’ve spent the past two weeks drafting and redrafting and revising and re-revising my query letter, cutting it to the bone and polishing that bone until it shines.  I’ve spent the rest of my writing time researching to find agents who are interested in what I like to write, assembling them into a spreadsheet, going back to agents for second and third looks, organizing them by wish lists that seem to meet what my manuscript offers, researching them some more to make sure they aren’t super shady, revising my query letter some more, and trying not to mix up tiny details of who is interested in what.

As of 4:30 p.m. today, the process culminated in sending out queries to my top five agents, not including the agent who requested my full manuscript at the writing conference last weekend (who was on my top five list already, technically making it a top six list now).  My top five list consists of four solid agents that I think I have a good shot with, and one agent that’s my version of shooting for the stars.  Frankly, I’m exhausted.

But I’m also very excited.  My body doesn’t understand that this entire process is “hurry up and wait.”  Fortunately, I have lots of other places that could make good use of my high writing energy.  Unfortunately, I have a hard decision to make for my writing time tomorrow: do I start revising the Flight Novel, do I start seriously sketching out the third novel idea that has been coalescing in my head, or do I write the short story that has also been coalescing in my head?  I’ve been doing so much administrative stuff that my impulse is to “write, write!” but I’m not going to hang all if my hopes on the Plague Novel.  I want to get the Flight Novel ready to market in case the Plague Novel falls through.  Decisions, decisions.

Progress Update

This is a little late, since Friday was spent at a writing conference (more on that later!) but this week I mostly worked on my synopsis, query letter, and agent spreadsheet.  I expect query work to continue into next week.  This is probably the least exciting kind of writing work but it’s extremely important.

I also received a rejection from Clarkesworld.  Even though they’ve rejected every single thing I’ve sent them, I love Clarkesworld.  When they say two days, they mean two days.  I’m going to try to get that story back out again tomorrow.