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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
Her 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.