Monday, December 14, 2009

Querying: In Hindsight

It's been a while since I was in the trenches, but recently I've been thinking a lot about querying. Some of my friends are still there, and watching them go through that process has brought the memories (aka: nightmares) back.

Querying is just hard. The next phase may not be any easier, but I sure don't miss the ups and downs of trying to get an agent's attention. It's such a soul-crushing process (at least for me it was). It feels like all your dreams are riding on one little letter. Yeah, no pressure.

Looking back, I kind of laugh at myself. I started out so green. I made so many mistakes. I took it all so...personally. I think much of it was inevitable, but I still feel bad for my poor, querying self. She nearly broke in half. I wish I could go back and tell her to freaking chill out, though she probably wouldn't have listened.

So here's my little bits of Querying Hindsight Wisdom, mostly as a reminder to myself:

1. The Query is about the Big Things.
And the Big Things would be: Your Story and Your Personality/Style. It feels like there are so many rules to follow—and it doesn't hurt to have a grammatically clean letter—but it really comes down to being YOU and showcasing your story.

There are a lot of sites out there that offer query crits. These are good places to start, but ultimately they can't help you where it counts. Sure, strangers can help you clarify things that don't make sense, but they don't know your story! They can't tell you if you're selling it from the right angle. They don't know if you've put your unique style and personality into it.

It took a while to figure out, but I discovered my queries were the most successful when my Crit Group helped me with them. Not strangers. My Crit Group could tell me I wasn't highlighting the plot right or that the letter didn't sound like me. They know my books; they get me. It's their opinion that matters most.

Before you make sure your letter is snappy or clean or whatever, make sure it really gets at the heart of you and your book. That's what will make it stand out.

2. As Important as The Query is, it's still about your book.
Okay, so you write a fantastic query that gets you tons of requests. Yay. The hard fact is that it means nothing if you haven't written a stellar book. I think sometimes we forget that the query is just the teaser. If you can't deliver, it's useless.

I personally spent too much time on my letter and not enough on editing. I paid the price in bushels of frustration.

My most successful query got me many exciting requests from super awesome agents. Since I was getting so many requests, I was sure I'd get an agent for that book. But I didn't. I never got a request off the initial partial. I'm sure I don't have to explain how much that stung. I couldn't see it at the time, but my writing wasn't there. I kept querying with a too-rough manuscript, when it would have been wiser to stop for a few months and hone my skills.

3. It's Not Personal...Kinda.
Agents are human beings, meaning they are all unique and have vastly different tastes. Querying isn't as much a game of "Is Your Book Good?" as it is "Does Your Book Resonate With This Particular Agent?" (I say that making the assumption that you've reached the appropriate writing skill to make your talent shine.)

I queried four projects total before signing with Nathan, and you want to know something interesting? The same agents would often request my next project. Something about my overall style clicked with them—not necessarily that particular project.

There's this "x factor" that you just can't escape in querying. Even if your project is absolutely fan-freaking-tastic, it's not going to stick with some agents. There's nothing you can do about that. It's both maddening and reassuring, depending on the day.

So while rejections do hurt, you can't forget that querying is more like "match-making" than we want it to be. A project not clicking with one agent doesn't mean the next will hate it ,too. In fact, they might love it so much they want to marry it. And you can never really guess who that agent might be. Take my dear friend Kiersten, for example. Her agent Michelle mentioned on her site that she didn't really dig "paranormal" stuff. Well, Kiersten sure changed her mind on that one!

4. It only takes One.
We all hear about those people with multiple offers. It sounds so special and awesome on paper, but I think the reality is pretty stressful. And besides, it really just takes one agent who gets your work. One who is willing to take a chance on you. One who loves your book.

5. Your Road to Publication is Yours Alone.
Comparing your road to other publishing stories can be so damaging. It's natural, of course, but when I finally pulled myself out of that cycle I felt much better about myself. Every road is different, and no one's will be quite like mine. (Frankly, I hope yours isn't like mine because it involved learning most everything the hard way.) My road is nothing like my friends'. Theirs are all unique and come with their own trials I'm not sure I could handle.


Good luck to all those who are querying or about to start. It's a rough road, I'm not going to lie. But it is kind of the only road, in my opinion. I couldn't imagine trying to publish without an agent who knows all the things I don't. Keep that end goal in mind when you get down—it's worth all the struggles.

33 comments:

  1. Natalie,

    Thank you for posting this! I appreciate your perspective on the whole process, and you make some great points that I'll try to remember when it's time for me to query. I agree with you that it's especially important to remember that everyone's road is different and comparisons are useless.

    More posts like this, please :)

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  2. What a great post. I've shared it at #Yalitchat's ning community and hopefully our members will come here and check it out.

    Cheers-
    Georgia McBride

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  3. Thank you for posting this. This is awesome! I, currently, am letting my query sit because there are a couple of agents sitting on my query and, hey, it's Christmas.

    I'll start bugging them in January. GAH! *note to self* Insert more personality...

    Frankie

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  4. This is a wonderful post, and thank you for sharing it! I'm delicious-ing and keeping it for re-read during the querying process. :)

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  5. What a great perspective for sharing - thank you! I always appreciate the reassurance to be found in posts like this. ;-)

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  6. This is a FREAKING FANTASTIC post, Natalie. I'm going to reccomend it to everyone I know.

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  7. Thanks for the post as I'm about to send those queries out.

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  8. Thanks everyone! I'm glad you found this helpful. And thanks to Geogia for the link love:)

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  9. This is a wonderful post. Thanks so much for it. I've been in the trenches a while and your perspective and guidance are very welcome. I actually posted on my blog today about one of the things I do to keep myself going in the querying process that might be helpful to others. If you want to take a look, here's the blog

    http://literaryjules.blogspot.com/2009/12/good-day-for-writing.html

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  10. Great things for us all to keep in mind when we query. Elizabeth said to tell you hi.

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  11. Thanks, Lois! And I Elizabeth! Genki desu ka?

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  12. Amen sister!!
    Thanks for a great post.

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  13. Thanks for the words or advice. I on the "just about the query" phase.

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  14. Natalie, thanks for the perspective!

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  15. Fantastic post. I think all of your posts are spot-on. I also think "soul-crushing" is particularly appropriate.

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  16. I meant all of your "points" are spot-on, but your posts are too!

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  17. I like #5 the best. And IMO, that's the hardest one to get about querying.

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  18. I'm getting ready to start querying agents on behalf of a book my husband wrote. I'm nervous as heck. it's not fun to start again, even if it's not your book!

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  19. Thanks for posting this! I'll need to mark it for future reference :)

    Thank goodness querying is at least six months or more off for me--I'm not looking forward to this process at all!

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  20. Thank you for this post. I appreciate the assistance around those pitfalls and the reminder to be sure your book is done before focusing on the query.

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  21. Thanks for the awesomely helpful post! Definitely tagging this one a "favorite" to come back when I'm ready to query.

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  22. Ditto what Susan Quinn said.

    THANK. YOU!

    If only current-sight were as 20/20 as hindsight...

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  23. I totally get what you've said about the frustrations that go hand-inhand with querying. And I agree with the points you've made about the process.

    One thing I don't think can be stressed enough is to do your homework! Check out the agents editors and publishers to whom you plan to query. See what their product line is like, ask yourself what are they missing from it (and why). Look at how you fit into their roster or catalogue.

    In many cases, a rejection comes because you're just not what their looking for (i.e. we've published four romances in a row, so we're looking for a mystery now... or we're trying to build our YA titles...)

    See what they have on their lists and try to determine if your work complements their existing line-up.

    Cheers, Jill
    "Blood and Groom" is now in stores!
    www.jilledmondson.com

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  24. Insightful and encouraging as always!

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  25. Thanks for a wonderful post. And you landed a pretty incredible agent, Nathan, whom I secretly call "Dream Agent" (not so secret anymore).

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  26. You just reaffirmed why I'm not ready to query. I totally understand why you queried too soon though; we get so excited about our projects, and we want them to be ready. Writing and revising take such a long time! Unless you're a robot ;)

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  27. This is just what I needed to hear. I'm going to start querying Jaded at the beginning of the year. Wish me luck!

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  28. So true, Natalie...such great advice. I would add to keep REALLY good records of who and when you query and with what. I think that's the only time in my life I've ever used an excel spreadsheet and, dang, it's a good long spreadsheet.

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  29. #2 is my problem--they love the query, but they don't love the ms! So that's what I'm working on now.

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  30. Thanks for the insight, Natalie!

    I'm currently neck-deep in the query process (for the second time) and finding it still the same dreaded landscape I did the first time around - perhaps even more so because I should know a LITTLE more about what I'm doing!

    The rejections keep coming in, but no truer words have been spoken: "It only takes One." We all have to keep that in mind.

    So thanks again!
    Geoff

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  31. I'm so glad I'm out of the trenches too. Just reading about them again makes me cringe. But your points are right on and very good advice. Especially the point about not comparing your journey to someone else's. I still do that. I need to stop.

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  32. Fantastic post, thanks for writing it. I'm definitely going to have to re-read it before (and probably during) my querying stage if I ever finish editing. Thanks again for taking the time to look back and help others out, you're pretty amazing like that!

    Also, I gave you an award on my blog the other day. :)

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