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Lessons from the Query Trenches

Before I go any further, I need to make something very, very clear.  The rules for actively querying a book are roughly equivalent to the rules for Fight Club.  Rule #1: You do not talk about Querying.  Rule #2: You Do NOT talk about Querying.

I could go on.  Now that I think about the Rules of Fight Club, it makes me wonder if Palahniuk didn’t adapt them from his own experience as a querying author.  You did know that Fight Club was a novel back when Brad Pitt was still being all wrathy in Se7en and twitching and mumbling to himself in Twelve Monkeys, right?  Well, whatever. I guess that’s not really the point here.

Anyway, it’s generally conventional wisdom that when you’re sending out queries on a regular basis, it’s a good plan to avoid talking about the whole process.  I guess the thinking is that since most of querying is rejection, if you start talking about it you’re just going to end up dwelling on the bitterly acidic hatefulness that can leach the light and joy out of one’s very soul.  And then, when agent-with-piqued-interest comes looking at your blog to find out if you’re Reasonable Person or Raving-Spittle-Flinging-Lunatic, it’s best they not find out you’ve just written a 2300-word blog post about how every “No” email that pings in your inbox makes you go all HULK SMASH on a meticulously arranged platoon of pink ducky marshmallow Peeps.

Luckily, despite the images conjured by the previous paragraph, I’m not at all embittered by the process.  I’m also not planning to talk much about the particulars of the querying I’ve done so far.  Seriously, that’d be about as entertaining as listening to a traveling life insurance salesman Willy Loman talk about his house-to-house stops in Concordia, Kansas.

All that said, I have learned quite a bit about querying in the somewhat short amount of time I’ve been at it, and since some of you have asked me about it, I figured, hey, blog post!

Lesson 1: Writing a Query Letter is Hard

You know it’s going to be hard before you even start, but it’s not the kind of hard you think.  I imagined it would be pulling-teeth-hard, the kind of thing where you just suck it up and yank and the pain comes in sharp, acute spikes but leaves you with a glorious, warm sense of accomplishment when you’re done.  You know, like writing a book report for Mrs. Merryweather in 3rd grade.  But, yeah, guess what?  Nuh-huh.  Querying is adult-level hard, especially when you’ve never done it before.  I mean, maybe the next time it’ll be more like the teeth thing, but this time it was like wandering blindfolded towards a precipice over a 10,000-foot fall spanned only by a foot bridge the width of a circus tightrope.  Luckily, though, if one listens carefully, every time you’re just about to put a foot over the edge, you can just barely hear a quick whistle of warning.  And that’s when you revise the thing and try again.  Lather, rinse, repeat until your query letter doesn’t suck.

Lesson 2: (Most) Agents are Awesome

Let me be clear: I added the “most” quantifier there because I haven’t had direct contact with all of, or, hell, even most of the literary agents in the world.  Admittedly, my sample size is small, and I have heard anecdotes that there are some pains-in-asses out there.  But in my experience, between both actual queries and several email/twitter exchanges with agents, more than anything else, they want to love your query.  They want to love your book.  They hope to be absolutely compelled to stay up all night reading it.  They want all of us to be successful and have best-selling novels because, almost universally, they love awesome stories.  And if they had time, they would happily give all of us deluded, half-drunk, blindfolded word-slingers detailed feedback on how to improve our queries, hooks, plots, characters, etc.  But, sadly, there are more writers in the world pushing books, some of which are nothing more than 50 pages of gibberish hastily scrawled in applesauce and Crayola’s Burnt Sienna, than there are trolls leaving online comments at news websites.  Which means agents barely have time to brush their teeth in the morning let alone give you an in-depth critique about why your 200,000-word discourse on the rise of word “poop-weasel” in modern society isn’t quite something they want to represent.  But if you are genuinely trying to produce the best work you can and interact with them like they’re, you know, real, actual people and not just the infamous Corps of Black Knights selfishly guarding the Holy Bridge to Publisherton, they will, in fact, do everything they can to help you get on, and across, said bridge.

Lesson 3: Querying is NOT like trying to get a Prom Date

So, when I first started this whole querying business, I wrote this post suggesting that sending out a query was kind of like asking out a date for the Prom.  You know, you don’t want to be creepy, or sweaty, or well, you get picture.  Best foot forward, don’t oversell it, etc.  But see, the thing is, someone going to the prom is probably going to say yes so long as you’re a reasonable, non-ax-murdery, human being and no one else asked first.  Getting an agent, however, is nothing of the sort. See, because there are so many writers out there and so many books, and so few hours in the day, in order for a writer to really really represent you well, they have to love your work just as much as you do.   Because if they don’t, they aren’t going to be able to successfully advocate for it when you finally get to Publisherton.  See, if that happens, the Publishers will eat your lunch, strip the clothes off your back, and stuff you, penniless, into a barrel before rolling you out of town.  You want to avoid that, so you absolutely need someone to work with you who sees you as the goat’s knees, or the bees tits or, wait, whatever.  In that sense, prom dates are great, but aren’t special.  I myself had three different ones back in the day.  What?  No, for three different proms, you weirdo.  Seriously, do I strike you as Polyamory Man?  No way, one relationship is enough work, thangyouverymuch.  Anyway, as great as each of my respective prom dates was, I didn’t marry a single one of them.  Sure, we had a good time – I even splurged for the high-end corsages! – but there wasn’t ever any love in it.

Lesson 4: Querying is like selling your house

I know, I know. What with the previously paragraph being all love-struck and romantic, it seems a bit of a hard right to suddenly delve into real estate.  But, just shush, you.  I swear it makes sense.  See, if you’ve ever sold a house, you’ve more than likely had a real estate agent tell you, “It just takes the right person to walk through that door and love your house so much they can’t live without it.”  And that’s exactly how it goes when it comes to scoring an agent.  When they read your query, it has to give them the same, “this looks interesting” sensation of tummy butterflies that a house hunter gets looking at the flyer for your cute-as-a-button three-bedroom Cape Cod.  When they read your first chapter or two, your words have to glitter and twinkle like a recently remodeled kitchen with all granite counter tops and brand new stainless appliances.  And that twist in your book has to make an agent go, “Oh!” the same way your freshly-tiled master bath with the dual pedestal sinks will kindle dreams of bon-bon noshing, Calgon-soaking wonder in the right potential buyer.  So when that one someone walks through and truly loves with you’ve done with the place, they’ll have to have it, as soon as possible.  In the same way, you’ve got to find that one agent that loves what you’ve done with your book, and just “kind of liking it” doesn’t work in either case.

So what does all this blathering mean for my novel?  Simply that I’m making progress along my personal path to publishing, but I’ve yet to find that one someone who loves Famine as utterly and completely as I do.  Admittedly, it took some time and lot of blindfolded stumbling to get my query letter hammered into something that works, but it’s come a long away and I’m quite happy with it now.  And overall, I have gotten a good deal of positive feedback about the work itself, which makes me happy as little girl with a new pony and a red balloon.

I’m just waiting to find that someone who loves it.

What about you? Are you down here in Query Trenches with me?  How’s it going on path?

More importantly, what lessons have you learned along the way?

Pud’n

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One comment on “Lessons from the Query Trenches

  1. A very, very good post. Thank you. I was beginning to get a little bit overwhelmed by mustard gas.

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