March 28th, 2016

5 Tips to Sustain You in the Query Trenches

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

Writing bestows faith. It’s easy to believe we might succeed when with each draft we can see our work improving. So it makes sense that we unravel a bit when we must trust that we have done enough, and it is time to query.

It is such an exciting time.

It is such a vulnerable time.

It is such an anxiety-producing time.

Because stampeding all over your dream for your novel is an army of Orcs that arose from the black slime of Factors Outside Your Control: Assessment of your talent or preparedness. Response to your hook. Perception of salability. Hidden personal tastes. Shifts in trends, shake-ups at publishing houses, bad news from Barnes & Noble, another Amazon feud.

The potential worries are legion. But it isn’t the things you can’t control that cause the black slime. It’s your reaction to them.

“Sometimes, despite our best efforts and positive thinking, health, fortune, and/or peace elude us. But the one thing we do have absolute control over is the quality of our days. Even when we’re grief stricken, racked with pain, sick from worry, deeply depressed, squeezed by circumstances—how we greet, meet, and complete each day is our choosing. We hate to hear this.”

—Sarah Ban Breathnach

We hate not knowing. But letting fear get the best of you can cause you to turn on the very people whose support you are seeking: the agents. I have heard so many aspiring writers whine about the very agents they hope will foster their careers—in public and on social media—that I can only hope karma has turned a deaf ear.

Here are five tips to help you rise above the slime when living in the query trenches.

  1. Divorce your effort from the product you’re selling.

No one will ever be able to repay you for the years you spent honing your craft, whether that was in preparing one novel, writing eight novels, or getting an MFA. You chose your internship, it is now behind you, and no one owes you anything for it. With any luck you spent less than what a doctor paid for his training, and no one will pay him back either. For every decision you make from here on out you need to be facing toward your future career, not toward the past.

  1. Assume your ideal agent is looking for you, too.

If you can get this notion inside your marrow you will come across as a confident partner instead of a desperado. Cast from your language words like “gatekeeper” and “rejection,” or a phrase like “I lost out on my dream agent”—they bestow way too much power on someone who doesn’t even share your vision. When you hear “not for me,” thank these people silently for stepping out of your way so you can find your work’s best advocate.

  1. Accept that your submission package is all they’ll need.

You’re an avid reader—how do you make purchasing decisions? You read the back cover copy (similar to a query pitch) and if it doesn’t suit your tastes you set it down. If it intrigues, you read the first couple of paragraphs to see if you respond to the style and voice and situation. That’s it—you’re ready to either buy or put it back on the shelf. Why ask more of an agent’s reading decision than you’d invest in yours?

  1. Adjust your attitude with industry knowledge and empathy.

Waiting is never easy. But you need to know that reading queries is not an agent’s full-time job. After tending to agency duties and the needs of current clients, your query and dozens more like it will be what stands between that agent and a good night’s sleep—will yours be enough to keep her up, wondering what happens next? When tempted to whine that you did not receive a personalized rejection, or that an agent doesn’t read her own slush, ask yourself if you’d volunteer to wait another few months for your query to be read.

Acquiring an agent with query #113 over the course of eight years, I am proof that the query trenches can be survived with your soul intact—but every step of the way requires extraordinary faith. And what is the easiest way for a writer to connect with her faith?

  1. Write another story.

The agent who finally connects with your work is going to ask about what else you’ve written anyway, so you’d better get cracking. Writing will help you believe that the effort you expend on these adjustments of attitude is worthwhile. If you want to be an industry insider, act like one by building bridges to the professionals who can help you.

And if feedback suggests your beliefs were premature, writing will help you believe that if you go back and prepare some more, you’ll be successful.

Do you have any questions about query strategies? What was/is the most challenging aspect of your time in the query trenches? How did you make it through?

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About Kathryn

art-of-falling1.jpgThe Far End of HappyHer work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads workshops, and speaks often about writing.

Kathryn lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor

40 comments to 5 Tips to Sustain You in the Query Trenches

  • Kathryn, as you and I know, the rejections don’t end when you get an agent, or even after you sell! The only thing that works for me, is focusing on something I DO have control over – the writing! Your #5.

    Be of good heart, people!

    • I learned so much watching you go through the query trenches, Laura. I cannot thank you enough for sharing the journey and letting me see that bizarre balance of personal/not personal that must be mastered.

  • Yes Laura, the query trenches are the place to learn coping mechanisms that will gird your loins for soul survival in a tough industry, so time spent on attitude adjustments now are well worth the energy expended. You know!

  • This is where I am now.

  • I really appreciate your comments about finding a partner rather than just getting an agent. It’s taken me much longer than it should have to realize that I want someone who is as excited about my writing as I am about it (or at least close) otherwise how could that agent possible pitch (and sell!) my writing to an editor? I’m testing out the waters in a new genre (for me) and once again querying for a new agent. I’m trying to set aside time each day to keep working at it, but not let it rule my days. Not easy and rejection still hurts. But it’s birthing pains – they will disappear the moment this manuscript finds a home.

    • Hi Cara, I agree that it can hurt. But the sooner you can tease apart your disappointment that “this isn’t the moment you’ll move forward” from results with any specific agent, the better. There’s just too much you can’t know, such as a “dream agent” automatically discounting stories with missing children or eating disorders or whatever. But it sounds like you have your head on straight. Good luck and report back!

  • I got my first rejection letter for a book I wrote in 1990. I put that manuscript away (it’s now lost) and never resubmitted. I regret that. I’ve just submitted my query and manuscript for my brand new story and while I wait I’ll reread this post a few times. And then get to work on my next idea. Thanks for your wise words.

    • Mary that reminds me of when my aunt told me that my deceased uncle, an English teacher, had given up his publishing dream after “papering the back of his bedroom door with rejections.” I laughed heartily. Bedroom door? I could paper the walls of my whole house with my rejections. Times have changed! I approve of your new strategy. Good luck. 🙂

  • Thanks, Kathryn. Journey doesn’t seem so lonely with friends along the way. 🙂

  • Ach. Querying right now. It really makes you question whether your novel is as good as you think it is. /sigh/.

    Thank you for the post. It was the encouragement I needed today. 🙂

    • Lisa, oh don’t I know it! Don’t have enough fingers for the number of times I went on Facebook with a teary thank you to everyone who helped me get to the finish line—only to learn after a few submissions that “doneness” was a temporary state of being! But testing the professional waters is the only way to know for sure. It’s all part of the process, which is why it’s good not to submit to a hundred agents at a time, lol. It’s only partly a numbers game. It’s also a learning game. Wishing your manuscript will get you exactly where you need to go!

  • sfreydont

    The voice of reason, Kathryn. I wish everyone who was querying or planning on querying had access to your advice. Having been around for a while (and I hope I stay that way) I like to help out in the “holding room” at conferences, where people are waiting to pitch to agents and editors. To remind them that they aren’t begging for a handout or even for a job. They’re looking for a partner. And so is the agent or editor. They want you to be good, their careers depend on you as much as yours does on them (if you’ve decided to pursue that route). And as Laura pointed out it doesn’t end there. You change agents , get dropped by publishers, make a move, have an option book to pitch. When I hear someone say how much they hate writing queries I shudder. They don’t go away , might as well embrace them.

  • Susan

    I remember the querying days all too well. Shared this on my author page.

  • Anna

    Thanks, Kathryn, great advice about letting go of the things we can’t control. Or more importantly, changing our reaction. Makes sense.

  • Hi Kathryn,
    Thanks for the advice. I’m querying now. One of the things I keep in mind with each query sent is that it doesn’t matter whether this one particular agent says yes or no or something in-between. And a no-reply or a rejection doesn’t mean that my story or my writing stink. Believing this allows me to query with confidence. And just how a smile can be heard over the telephone, confidence comes through in the query. Next step….get better at writing pitches.

  • Oh, in light of Stephanie’s concern – I’ll be teaching a month-long submission class in May, at Lawson Writer’s Academy. For anyone who’s interested. Just Google it!

    • Oh that’s great, Laura! Your students will benefit greatly from your insight.

      And Stephanie I couldn’t agree more about the effects of confidence, which affects everything from word choice to sentence structure to the overall way the pitch represents your project.

  • Thanks for pulling me out of the black slime today, Kathryn, and for reminding me that each rejection is not a step backward but a step closer to finding the best advocate for my work. Really needed this today.

  • I loved the whole post, Kathryn, but I think this was my favorite line: “You chose your internship, it is now behind you, and no one owes you anything for it.”

    That is so very true and I see people forget it all the time.

  • Excellent article. The voice of experience, pragmatism and all round commonsense. I shall keep this and refer to it regularly just to keep my ego in check.

  • This is such a great post, just what I needed to hear. Thank you for the insights and encouragement!

  • This is so encouraging! Thank you!

  • I’m a bit behind on my reading of posts due to being chin-high in my writing, as of late. And I agree with what you say about continuing to write – it has lifted my spirits over a series of rejection letters on my last project. What really hit me in the gut worst of all was not the query rejections, but the one that came after an agent read my full work. With the query, I could say, “I need to get better at writing a query letter.” Having a full work “rejected” is like standing in front of a crowd during a break-up (you know, “it’s not you, it’s me…”). Ha! Your words were beautiful ones to have before me at just the right time. Thank you! 🙂 -jody

    • You’re welcome Jody. I feel you–harder to reframe rejections of the full ms if only because we allowed our hopes to soar. As you should! Getting eyes on your ms is exactly what you need to be doing, so good for you! May all these tips see you through to the agent you were meant to find.

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