Thursday, August 11, 2011

Adventures in Queryland

Querying has never been easy—at least, not for me, or for anyone else I know. You spend six months or a year—or in some sad cases, ten—and now you have a novel. You write it, you revise it, you polish it, you agonize over it. It’s the very best work you are capable of producing—at least, at this point in your life. If you’re lucky, it sings. But now can you just send your baby off into the publishing world, hoping its song will cast a spell over some lucky agent or editor?

In a word, No. With rare exceptions, nobody today will so much as cast a hairy eyeball in the direction of an unsolicited manuscript. These keepers of the gates seem indifferent at best, and at worst, hostile. (Think of the old Snoopy cartoon where his novel is returned along with a dire warning to the effect that any future submissions will force them to come throw rocks at his dog house.)

I don’t know about you, but I’d sure like to publish this book. I’m afraid, though. What if rogue gangs, comprised of Atheneum, Knopf, and Harper Collins editors, were to shanghai a Megabus and drive by my house, just to hurl rocks at the windows?

Or what if they just don’t like it? What if they don’t like me? Will I get the “this does not meet our needs at this time” brush-off? Will they say something snarky and cruel? Or will they just ignore me till the aluminum siding on my house expires, and I actually wish somebody would throw rocks at it, so I could report it to my insurance company?

The only way ever to publish anything is to swallow down the fear and ask. At least, these days many agencies and publishing houses will accept queries by email. In the old days of snail mail and SASEs, you could go broke on postage and literally wait a year to hear something from the overwhelmed recipient, because of course nobody wanted simultaneous submissions, either.

It’s hard to write a novel—full of pungent dialog, throat-clenching action, exquisite characterization, and snort-milk-out-your-nose humor—and then try to distill that into a one-page query. Whine all you like about the unfairness, but nobody cares. In fact, many will tell you they only need to read a couple lines to know if they’re interested in more.

Commenters on the Query Tracker website sometimes make a game of “how fast can the agent reject me.” I thought overnight turnarounds were insulting, before I read others who’d gotten the boot after only minutes. One writer, laughing through the tears, asked if one minute was a record!

The good news here is that I’ve also gotten requests for a partial or full manuscript submission after just three hours or overnight. I’ve learned you just have to keep enough queries out there that no solitary rejection will ever seem like the end of the road.

As I’ve gone through the query process lately, with both FLOATING and a much older manuscript I recently pulled from the drawer and revised, I’ve found a few helpful blogs and websites, as well as an entire community of my fellow suffering souls. I’ve learned (at least a bit) not to take rejection so personally. I’ve taken a moment to consider the fact that we have an economy on life support here, and more specifically, the thermonuclear fireball that’s gone through our industry with the crash of Borders, leaving their creditors (the publishers I and my peers are trying to woo) millions of dollars in the hole.

I’ve learned to continue to tweak and rewrite as I go, trying to make a better, stronger query—and novel. I’ve learned to personalize my queries. I try not to put all my eggs in one basket. I have five novels in various stages of construction and I no longer send queries out one at a time. I’ve discovered writing itself is my joy and purpose, and that desperation is pointless.

Writing is what I do; it’s who I am. Whether or not someone ever buys it, my job is to write it, and to write with all I’ve got. Some theologians think the Red Sea didn’t part until the Israelites set foot in the water. So I’m starting to wade.

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