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.