For the past month and a half, I’ve been in the query trenches. If you’re not familiar with the term, it is what it sounds like: writers armed with meticulously revised, polished manuscripts venture into the battle of finding representation for their books by writing hopeful letters to literary agents. The query trenches are an interesting place to be, and while some folks really dread them, I’m one of those strange creatures who sees some light amidst the struggles. This post is about surviving the query trenches by gleaning the positive aspects of querying, so if you’re there currently and need a bit of encouragement, read on!
First of all, if you don’t have some kind of supportive writing network, I can’t suggest enough that you find one. Look for critique partners, writer meet-up groups, online or in-person writing communities, even a local library book club: any and all of these are critical to your emotional health as you venture through this process. And if you’re scared to commit, don’t be: this doesn’t have to be a marriage in any sense of the word. Some people keep their critique partners for years and years, while others cycle through groups that fit each stage of their own writing evolution. Some writers are in constant conversation with their Twitter community, while others meet for a write-in once a month and keep it to that. But if you’re planning to query and eventually market your work, you need people around you to support you and help you keep your patience, humility, and sanity.
Having friends who are also in the query trenches means you’ll have people to turn to when you get that crushing form rejection from an agent you were dying to work with; it also means you’ll have someone to jump up and down with when you get your first full manuscript request. Furthermore, you’ll learn the industry better if you have more people on it. My critique partners and I keep careful track of our respective querying processes, and we share our resources with each other (and I’ll say here that if you are going to be a part of writing communities, adopt an attitude of generosity. Not everyone can contribute in exactly the same way, but you’ll have something to offer, so don’t be stingy with it: if you want help, you’ve got to give help, in turn).
This post is titled “Flying into Windows” because that’s kind of what the querying process is, at least in my experience (my thanks to Kristen Kieffer whose Story Social Twitter chat last week inspired me to think up this analogy). To send out queries is to be a bird who sees a fascinating living room that maybe has some enticing food sitting unguarded on a coffee table. You flap your wings, gracefully glide towards the coffee table, and just as it really comes into sight, BAM! You smack into the closed window you didn’t even know you were gazing through.
When you’re a writer who aims to publish, you fly into a lot of these windows. The trick is to keep flying at them relentlessly, even though the outcome doesn’t seem to change and your head is really hurting from the impact. Learn from those efforts; if you’re lucky enough to query an agent who graciously offers more than just a form rejection and actually provides you with why they’re rejecting your book, take notes! That’s a moment of generosity that will allow you to query (and maybe write) smarter and more effectively in the future. When I start to query my work, I’m never really anticipating a “yes” from the outset; like many writers, I find that to be getting my hopes a little too high. However, I actively hope for specifics in the rejections that I know are coming. If I can get a handful of agents who explain why they’re passing on my work, that’s a victory. I’ve always left such rejections with useful information, and have never felt like I walked away empty-handed.
Maintaining hope and determination while fielding disappointment is a difficult balance, but an important one. You have to keep believing that one day, the window won’t be closed at all, and you’ll fly right into that beautiful living room and claim the leftover turkey sandwich that’s wasting away on the coffee table. Persistence is critical, and that’s why a good support network is so necessary. Some days, you’ll be able to rally yourself, but in those moments where you can’t muster up the heart to do so, you can turn to those other writers in your life and they’ll offer you their faith in what you can do. That’s how you get your belief in your writing back when it’s slipping.
The reason I don’t hate querying is twofold: first, as I’ve mentioned, I always learn something from the process. Maybe this is because I’ve come out of a brutal decade in academia, but learning through failure helps me. I think it’s important to fail, and to fail with your eyes open, so to speak. Failure is a phenomenal teacher; the lessons hurt, and they stay with you, as such. But the second reason I’m okay with residing in the query trenches is a little brighter: as long as I have work out on submission, I know that I’m doing something. It really helps for me to know that there is a part of this process that I’m in control of, and that part is making sure that I’m never dead in the water. If I have nothing out on submission, then there’s literally nowhere for me to go; even though most queries result in rejection, sending work out there creates a possibility that didn’t exist before. It’s that possibility that keeps me going and makes me feel strong in spite of the rejections. I can’t control who says “no,” but I can make sure that I keep going until someone finally says “yes.”
I hope that this post has offered some useful insights, especially to those of you beside me in the query trenches. Until next time, I wish you many victories in your writing journeys, whatever form they may take!