Query Trenches

I’m in the query trenches again. This is what it feels like:

happyscared

Most days I’m feeling pretty good about my manuscript, then suddenly I’m hit with the thought that I sent it out and it’s wrong.  IT’S ALL WRONG!

Of course, the panic passes, but boy does it feel real in the moment.

I’m not sure why it’s called the query trenches. That phrase conjures up images of war, guns, and olive green clad soldiers either clinging on for life or lobbing ammunition. Querying doesn’t have to be as bad as all that.

I’m approaching querying a little differently than I have in the past. Not in the process itself, as that has stayed the same for me, but in the way I’m thinking about the process.Going with the soldier theme, there are a few things I’ve discovered that writers must have in their arsenal when querying.

  • Belief in your manuscript. It may seem strange to say that, but I’ve known writers who’ve queried with the idea it isn’t really good enough yet, but I’ll take a shot. I will even go so far as to say I did that myself several years ago just moments I typed THE END. That didn’t get me anywhere. Now, I spend as long polishing as I do writing the first draft. I make sure that what I have is the best it can be. That doesn’t mean that some future agent or editor won’t have ideas for change. It means that I’m no longer revising scenes, substituting words, or throwing new ideas in. I believe my manuscript is good, it’s fresh, and is high concept. I’m not bragging, mind you. I’m believing in the story I’ve told. I’ve enlisted in this army of writers and I think my campaign will be a winning strategy.
  • A thick skin. Rejections aren’t fun. But you will get them. It doesn’t mean your manuscript is bad or that you’re not talented. It means you haven’t found the right agent for your manuscript. It took me a while to get to this point. In the past, I would sink into a depression with every rejection I got. Now, I’m a little bit better about it. Continuing with the theme, I’ve tried to adjust my attitude and look at finding the right agent as a game of Battleship. You know, the one where it was Blue vs.Red and the little plastic ships? ( Totally showing my age there. I think they’re actually electronic now.) But when I’m querying, I’m firing missiles at the board. The rejections, are misses.  Requests are hits.  From there, it’s just a matter of picking a few strategic shots to sink the Battleship. (Partial request, hit. Full request, hit. Phone call, hit.) YOU SUNK MY BATTLESHIP or YOU ARE MY AGENT!
  • Patience. This is tough. I am not a patient person by nature, but I’ve learned that Publishing is a long process and while some things can happen very quickly, the majority of the business doesn’t. I’ve found the best way to handle this is to keep writing. I’ve already started another project and that’s taking up a lot of my brain time. It keeps me honing my craft while I wait to hear back from my queries.

And now, off to practice some of that patience… and read a good book.

 

 

The Yin and Yang of Conferences and Retreats

This past weekend, I went to my Regional SCBWI retreat. Well, I went to part of it as I am still recovery from the surgery. I’m so blessed to have a husband who was willing to drive me two hours away and stay close in case I needed him. And so thankful to belong to a group of writers who were willing to do whatever they could to make things easier as I strolled around with my walker, Daryl.

Writer retreats and conferences are awesome. And scary. And informational. Potentially hopeful. Potentially devastating.  This retreat was that and a whole lot more.

Most importantly I got to spend time with my writer friends. I have some wonderful friends in my life who love me and support my writing. They listen to my ideas, read my manuscripts, give me feedback. I love them dearly and they are so important to me. But they are not writers.

Sometimes I just need to spend time with other writers—people who think like me, know the publishing business, have felt the same immense joy of creation that I have and the same crushing defeat of rejection that I have.  My tribe, so to speak.

So I got to do that and it was the awesome part. I could tell you some stories, but one day I think our little Regional chapter might publish an anthology of the spooky/creepy things that happen to us on retreat, so I’ll save those for the book.  But what a wonderful boost t was to visit with my writer pals, especially right after having spent SO MANY DAYS lying in the bed. I left there feeling so encouraged because of my friends.

Retreats and conferences go beyond the personal connections, though. There are professional connections as well. We were lucky this year in that we had an agent and an editor as guests at this retreat. They both gave us valuable information in their sessions on world building, character, the publishing industry, etc… I came away with a lot of helpful tips.

(The tip that made me go hmmm:  “Look at the last line of every paragraph. You’ll find that you probably don’t need it. –Bethany Strout, Little Brown Editor.  She was right. I didn’t cut EVERY last line, but I found a few that were pretty much summarizing what had already been said in the paragraph! So simple, but so effective.)

Of course, part of the conference/retreat purpose is getting one-on-one feedback with these professionals. We got that from both professionals, so two for the price of one I suppose. As nerve-frying as writing query letters can be, personal pitches can be just as hair raising. We sent our materials ahead of time so they could read and be prepared with comments, so it wasn’t THAT bad, but still there is this element of fear that comes with meeting with them. Will she like my manuscript? Will she like me? Will she tell me I suck at writing and need to give up now? Will she hate my story because it isn’t contemporary? Will she love it and want to offer me rep today?

(So, that last one rarely happens, but writers would be lying if they tell you at least some kind of similar fantasy hasn’t crossed their minds prior to a professional crit session!)

Our retreat is held in an old Monastery that has partially been turned into a retreat facility. There is beautiful artwork and pictures of Jesus everywhere. Believe me when I tell you, I was talking to him before I went into my crit sessions! Have you heard of Schrodinger’s Cat? You know, where there is a cat locked in a box with a vial of poison. Until you open the box there is no way of knowing if the cat is alive or dead, therefore he is both and he is neither.

Going into a crit session is exactly like that. Hopeful that it will go well, fearful that it won’t. Until it happens both are possible.

My sessions went well and I got some advice from both professionals that I will put into my manuscript, some I won’t. I may not have landed MY AGENT FOREVER AND EVER with this retreat, but the perspective I gained is so valuable and I’m so thankful for a professional evaluation of my work. All feedback is good feedback. Remember that kids.

Early on in my writing career I read something that said most writers have this weird condition—at times suffering from crippling self-doubt that anyone will like their work versus times of extreme confidence in your words and ideas that there is NO WAY that this story will not be published.

I suffer from this condition, whatever its name. And now that I’ve experienced these retreats and conferences, written several different manuscripts, spoken to other professionals, I think I understand that this is a necessary part of writing.

Writers have to doubt sometimes. They have to care enough to want to make their stories the best they can be. Without doubt, there would be no growth. Without growth, there would be no improvement. Every writer, even the biggest and baddest among us, should want to improve with every story, every line and every word.

On the flip side of that, writers must believe enough in their stories to finish them, to have the drive to revise them again and again and again if necessary. And they have to have the bravery and the confidence to write that first query, attend that conference, put that manuscript out in the world and KNOW that someone else will “get it.”

It’s like Yin and Yang—can’t have one without the other. No dark without light. No good without bad. No reward without risk.  Retreats and conferences are like that too. Friends and critiques. Tips and rejections. Hope and disappointment.  Without all of those things, I would not be a better writer today than I was on Friday. And I am. And I am thankful for that.  For the retreat and every experience that came with it. (Even the scary one on the elevator.)

Agent Buffet

Yesterday was another fabulous winter weather day for me. Meaning –  the day job was closed so I got to spend the entire day writing.

Only, I didn’t write one single word. I shopped online.

I’m not talking about browsing for shoes, deciding what to read next or hunting down kitschy Sci-Fi t-shirts. (Although that does sound like fun now that I think about it.)  I spent a good portion of my weekend and my Monday morning researching literary agents.

I’ve polished my manuscript as much as I can, so it’s time for me to find an agent who wants to partner with me to sell my work to a publisher. It’s not as easy as that one sentence can make it sound.  I sat down at the laptop with my SCBWI Publishing Guide, my spreadsheet at the ready, QueryTracker.com opened and loaded, and I kind of had this “now what” moment.

It turns out that finding an agent isn’t as easy as clicking a few links.  In fact, finding for an agent is much like going to the longest all-you-can-eat buffet you can find on an empty stomach.  The choices are mouth-watering and endless. You just have to decide what you’re hungry for.

Do you really want the fried chicken –  the seasoned vet who requires exclusive queries and only replies when she requests pages? Or are you hungrier for the spicy shrimp of an agent with a smaller client list who responds within a week?

Authors have to be careful –  choose the wrong dish and you could wind up with a case of rejection indigestion.

I did my research. I used QueryTracker and Publisher’s Marketplace. I read blogs and twitter feeds. I considered other writer’s comments and opinions, looked at notes from meetings and conferences.  I used almost every color highlight that Excel has to organize my choices into one big tasty menu spreadsheet.

Next I worked to hone my query to the individual agents on my list. I even found a few tweaks to make in the query based on agent wish lists. It took some time, but in the end, I believe it will pay off. My top choice agent – the prime rib of the bunch – may end up passing on my manuscript, but at least I know I’ve sent her my best effort tailored specifically to her.  And now I have a list, a smorgasbord if you will, of other agents I can query if she passes.

The author/agent relationship is vitally important in the publishing world.  Each author has to find the agent that will be as excited about the manuscript as they are. Each agent has to find the authors that will commit professionally to make the manuscript as polished and professional as it can be.  I believe there is someone out there that will be perfect for me and vice versa.  Working together on a manuscript we both are excited about will produce a delicious combo. You might say that I’m “Mac” looking for my “Cheese.”