Handling the Querying Trenches

My characters! Art by the amazing morgana0anagrom (IG)

Hello hello! Since my last post, I am so excited to announce that I’m officially querying my YA light fantasy adventure novel! Crossing all my fingers for good news, and sending positive vibes to anyone else on a similar road.

Querying, or pitching a novel to literary agents with the goal of gaining representation, reminds me of applying to college. You have a bunch of wonderful colleges on your list, each with different strengths or focuses. And as you apply, it’s easy to imagine what it would be like to attend, to get lost in the idea of it. You can picture wearing the college sweatshirt, attending the football games, the new friends you’ll make—if you’ll only get in.

Eventually, the inevitable rejections roll in, and you’re not sure why. Was it my GPA? Was it my SAT score? Damn it, I knew I should’ve joined French club. Or should it have been English? You’re left wondering, and more likely than not, you won’t get a real answer as to why you weren’t chosen.

With querying, if you’re anything like me, you really start to picture it all falling into place. The joy of getting a full request or a partial, imagining what that phone call for representation might be like. You imagine the agent truly getting your work, your vision, and having it be a massive step in your writing career.

And then, like college applications, the rejections roll in. I’m convinced that no writer out there hasn’t experienced some level of rejection at the query phase if they chose the traditional publishing route. It is inevitable. It must be accepted. 

Yet it can be hard to let go of the ‘why.’ It’s hard not to try and come up with a reason when no direct reason is given. Was it my query? Were my opening pages not exciting enough? Is my writing craft not up to par? Am I not ready yet?

I’m a perfectionist for better and worse, and not letting myself obsess over rejections is one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in my writing life so far. Yes, there’s a chance it’s my writing, or my query. But it might have very little to do with my work at all.

The agent might simply have too many works with a similar type of protagonist. Perhaps they just sold a book that sounds a lot like my own, a book I’m completely unaware of, and they can’t sell something so similar again. Maybe they hate books set in the desert, or space, or the future. Maybe they’re about to have a big personal life event that prevents them from having the time to consider my work. Maybe they just weren’t feeling it quite enough.

The incredibly smart iWriterly, a former agent-now-writer, just put out a video about how to deconstruct certain rejections to better understand what they mean. I highly recommend this if you’re querying, because it helps demystify some of these rejections and gives a sense of when it might be time to go back to revisions: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aVhW5wD5zWg

From what I’ve learned, many (perhaps most) agents only make money if the author makes money. That means they have to see the potential in you and your work when you likely don’t have any previous sales, sign you, help you work on your manuscript for free, attempt to broker a deal to a publishing house and likely spend a ton of time doing so (again for free), and FINALLY, IF they sell it, they’ll get a small portion of that deal. Once more when it releases, and then a small percentage IF the book earns out its advice.

Being an agent is a huge amount of work that doesn’t guarantee making money. By signing you, they’re not only deciding to take a chance on you making money possibly YEARS from now, but they’re also willing to spend hours helping you improve your book, and THEN fight for that work to be published. So they can ultimately get a small percentage. You can learn more about this from iWriterly, who breaks down what it’s really like to be an agent: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n2g6fwukFfU

When you see it that way, it’s easier to understand why agents would only choose books they love, can see themselves fighting for, and will hopefully make them money down the road. Agents need to eat, too! And have lives and families and time off.

But when you’re the writer, it can be hard to remember the other side of the coin. When you’ve spent years working on a story you adore, countless hours poured into your craft so you can get it right, nights crying over your keyboard because you don’t know if you ever will…it’s hard to let go of those feelings.

And that’s the other big part of querying: patience.

I fully admit that, once I have queries out, I check my email an unholy number of times. I mean, WOW, it’s thrilling to imagine what could happen! I might have just emailed the agent who will sign me! This book I’ve loved and cherished is finally going into the fray, and I’m fighting for it every step of the way. Querying is such an incredibly exciting time. It feels like anything can happen. Like I might get into any of those colleges.

Then comes the waiting. With my first novel, I didn’t understand why it took agents so long to respond. I assumed they’d see my BRILLIANCE and love it immediately, and the emails would fly in as quickly as I’d sent them out. Hahaha, oh young me, you would LEARN.

Truth is, querying takes a while for most people, and there are no guarantees for success. It’s another hard truth to realize in the moment, but agents aren’t just sitting around waiting for my query to come in. They’re working with their already signed writers! They’re pitching publishing houses! They’re preparing for book launches! And probably doing a million other things I barely know anything about. Handling queries is only a portion of an agent’s job. 

But when it’s YOU querying, it’s hard to remember that. It’s hard not to imagine getting insta-responses of praise and the offers flying in. It’s hard not to see your phone email notification and want to shout at Taco Bell’s Friday night special for not being an agent response. It’s hard not to wonder *why* you’re not getting answers quickly.

I’ve learned a couple things since my last go at querying. One, agents aren’t trying to torture or trick you with their time estimates. If they say it’ll be 4-6 weeks for a response, believe them. Yes, there’s a chance you’ll get a response sooner, but don’t expect it. Don’t see 4-6 weeks and think “they mean that for most people, not me.” They do mean you. They mean me.

Two, I consider querying like being in line for Space Mountain at Disneyland. There are a ton of people in front of me, and it’s not fair to cut the line or expect to be cut. It doesn’t matter if you’re a great person and you think you should go first because you love Space Mountain the most. Lots of people are probably great and are waiting their turn too! And while I’m positive agents don’t go quite in chronological order (this is where I imagine Fast Passes coming in, which I have no control over), it’s a decent way to remind myself that I am in line. I am waiting my turn. I won’t be skipped, but I also won’t randomly get called to the front of the line when there are hundreds ahead of me.

But I’m still human, and I’m excited, and I’ll check my email a million times anyways. At least in the beginning of querying. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s fun for a bit, and I indulge myself for a moment before reminding myself to be patient.

And when (not if, when) the rejections come, I’ll remind myself not to read into absolutely everything. I do think it’s worth taking a moment to examine the rejection and see if there’s something to learn from it, especially if it’s specific feedback and/or you’ve gotten that feedback from more than one agent (I’ll again point to the first video linked above).

At the same time, though, it doesn’t help to question every single thing about my work. There are so, so many reasons an agent may choose to pass, reasons I’ll probably never learn about. But so many agents will tell writers how subjective it is, that they weren’t quite feeling it or it wasn’t the right time for them. I can’t change everything about my book because of that, and I trust that I’ve gone through the ringer to revise and improve this story as best I currently can. My book is what it is, and I hope to find an agent who says, “This is a story I love and want to fight for with you.”

I’ll be keeping my querying journey pretty quiet, but I’ll wrap up the advice here: do not take rejections personally. Bask in your victories, because one person’s rejection might be another person’s excitement over your same work. Do your best not to read into every rejection and assume something’s wrong with your work, but learn what you can from it. Try not to check your email a zillion times — your answer will come. It’s great to be excited and hopeful, but don’t let the weight of this crush you, either. Stay patient.

Now that I’m querying, I’m thrilled to be working on the first tidbits of a brand new story. It’s a little strange working on something new, but the idea is thrumming through me now. I’ll be sharing more about that process from start to finish in future posts!

Hugs and warm cookies,
Valerie

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