It’s been a year since I began querying with my first novel, Bring Me Back. I don’t blog much about the query process (trying to get a literary agent). The need to bitch is great and it’s a disaster waiting to happen for an unpublished author to go around spouting her opinions of the gatekeepers. The temptation has been there though. A bunch of times. I got around it by sitting on my hands and waiting for the mood to pass. Here are the rules I learned to live by while querying over the last year. If I help one writer, my work is done. P.S. There’s good (ahem, awesome) news at the end.
#1 Learn to get real comfortable with rejection.
The people who say that they sent out four queries and just happened to land an agent the first week are not only freaks of nature, they are highly annoying. Bully for them, but there’s nothing like one of those stories to make me want to cozy up to some railroad tracks. Seek rejection. Become one of the downtrodden, let the publishing world beat you up. Then, when you’re Kathryn Stockett, you can brag about your 67 rejections (which is nothing, but more on that later) and your fellow writers will hold you as a shiny example of the system working. It helps you grow a thicker skin and man, do you need some crocodile scales. The entire publishing world is based on rejection. The sooner you learn to live with it, the better.
#2 Play with the other kids in the sandbox.
You need support through this process and an understanding spouse or cat can only get you so far. They have no concept of what it’s like to spend countless hours obsessing over a query letter that you decide days later should be lining the hamster cage. It’s also not fair to talk endlessly about it and you will have a compulsion to do that. Find people who understand what you’re going through, either in your own backyard or online. If you can find people who write in the same genre or have compatible writing styles, all the better. They can pick you up on the days when you’re ready to pack it in and in turn, you can do the same for them.
#3 Criticism is a gift. It just doesn’t feel like it.
This goes with #1, but it has to do with the writing. (Something else to learn: rejection doesn’t always have to do with the writing.) Your primary goal should be to get better as a writer. Getting published is gravy. To improve, you’re going to need to let someone put your words under the microscope. You should trust this person. This person should be smart and ideally also a writer. This person should not be your mom or anyone you have ever had sex with. This person should not have an agenda beyond helping you. I have an incredible critique partner whom I met online. I can say with 100% certainty that I would not have accomplished everything I have in the last year without her. She and I rip each other’s work to shreds. We are often snarky. We criticize openly. We still adore each other at the end of the day. That’s the way to do it.
#4 Whatever you do, don’t stop writing.
It makes you better. It keeps you sane. It helps you see the future rather than always looking back. It gives you something else to think about other than the last piece of pie sitting in the fridge. I wrote two novellas in the last year and am nearing completion on my second novel. I have learned a lot. I have been productive while crying over unreturned emails and the occasional literary agent who wants to know if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you be?
#5 The road less traveled has fewer people on it.
If you think that all you need to do to land an agent is send out queries, I hate to be the person to tell you that you have spinach in your teeth, but, hey, you have spinach in your teeth. If you’re going to compete with every other yahoo out there who managed to string together some half-decent words, you’re going to need to find your own road and psst, that’s not the road everyone else is on. Look for the small publisher who’s seeking writing like yours. Talk to the brand new agent at the writer’s conference while everyone else is standing in line waiting for the hot-shot with the swagger and suspiciously thick hair. Write a sincere fan letter to a writer you love, even if they’ve never published a book that sold a lot. E-pub a novella or some short stories to get your name out there.
In parting, I thought I could share my query statistics, but that makes my left eye twitch when I think about it. Let’s just say that I stopped shy of sending 100 queries. I had a lot of rejections. I had a lot of non-responders. I had some manuscript requests that later turned into rejections. I had some amazing referrals that also, well, yeah, that too. In the end, I’m still trying to find the right place for my novel and that’s okay. It’s my baby. You wouldn’t have a baby and let some random person babysit.
Alas, this story is not all about despair and my sometimes grumpy disposition! I’m happy to announce that I signed my first publishing contract for a novel I co-authored with my critique partner. It’s coming out through indie publisher Ellora’s Cave either late in 2011 or early 2012.
There are opportunities out there. You have to look for them. You have to be open to them. If you don’t take them, someone else will.
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