Coping with Querying

It’s been mentioned elsewhere that writing a book and selling it require you to be two completely different people in the same body: one an introverted observer of the world, the other an extrovert, actively seeking attention and acclaim. Perhaps that’s why so many of us who can’t wait to throw ourselves into drafting our manuscript then recoil in dread from querying agents and publishers for that same book.

The stress of querying is much like the stress we see in job and college applicants, with similar psychological stakes, and with similar boundaries and coping skills needed. We see querying as a referendum on us as writers, and even as people. Every rejection letter feels like a rejection of the months or years of effort and love we’ve put into our MS, and a final judgement on any hope we have to ever become a published author.

But unless you’re self-publishing, querying is a necessary step to becoming that published author. So how can we make the process less stressful?

Do Your Homework

Nothing triples the stress of a final exam like not being prepared for it. Read all the query letter critiques on the Query Shark blog and do query and synopsis critique swaps with anyone you can get to agree.  Follow the #amquerying hashtag on twitter and the feeds of literary agents to get advice. Put together a list of agents whose interest closely matches your book. Maximize your chance for success.  You cannot guarantee an A in querying, but you can go into it as prepared as you can be, and that creates confidence.

Set a Limit

To combat the feeling that you will be querying this book until the earth tumbles into the sun, set yourself a limit (e.g. 100 queries).  Once you reach that limit, if all agents reject or fail to respond (soft rejection), then decide whether to table the book for a time and focus on the next one, or consider alternatives like self-publishing. This leads to the next point, which is…

Avoid Scarcity Thinking

One of the pitfalls we create in querying that first book is putting all of our hopes and dreams in one basket. In reality, many first novels never get published. Many more only get published after the author publishes later work and goes back to polish up the first attempt. We only get better as writers as we go, and it is a long game, not a lottery ticket. So remind yourself that you have more than one good book in you, and the response to this book is not a final judgement on you as a writer. Which leads us to….

Write the Next Book

Querying is short intense flurry of action followed by an agonizing wait of weeks or months for a response. Don’t chew your nails off and obsessively refresh your inbox. Instead, start working on the next book. Having a new project you’re excited about really helps with the high-stakes feelings about querying the first one. If it doesn’t go well, you have this new exciting project that will do better. You have a plan B. That means that a rejection is not catastrophic; it is just one more step. And that means…

Learn from Rejection

If you’re lucky enough to find an agent willing to offer the coveted personalized rejection with feedback, cherish it and thank them for their time.  If not, then every rejection is still practice. Writing is all about self-expression. Publishing is all about rolling with the punches. Even the most beloved writer gets rejections and bad reviews. This is your chance to actively figure out how to accept that rejection without it negatively impacting your mental well-being. For instance…

Set Good Boundaries

Publishing, like dating, is very subjective. The right person (or book) for one agent is not going to be a good fit for another. That’s not a reflection on the book. There’s no magical story that gets 100% acceptance or positive reviews. So when an agent or publisher turns you down, remember that it is a matter of taste, and not necessarily an indication that your writing is bad.

Go one step further, and remember that even if your book isn’t fantastic, it’s still not a reflection of you as a person, or even as a writer. Writing is a skill, and like any other skill, it can be developed through practice. It’s important to interrupt the chain of thought that goes rejection–>bad writer–>bad person. Stop at rejection –>not a good fit for this agency, try again with a new agency or book. If you can’t stop the first step, you can redirect at bad writer–>hone my craft with writing books and websites, and find critique partners to exchange manuscripts with to improve my writing skills. None of it says anything about you as a person. Deciding how to respond is one way to define yourself. Because…

Your Feelings are Always Valid

It is absolutely okay to be hurt by rejection. We’re social animals, and have huge emotional investment in our creative work. Allow yourself to feel hurt, and even frustrated or sad. But then make a conscious decision as to what you do with those feelings. Decide how to respond, and use each rejection to practice that response. Self-talk to ensure you don’t take the rejection personally is a good first step. Channeling your feelings into your next creative project is a healthy response. Distracting yourself with physical activity, or some small project you can complete to feel accomplished, is a good way to remind yourself that you are not defined by this one book or the response to it. And if it comes right down to it, visiting your local pet adoption shelter and snuggling the kittens or taking a dog for a walk cures a lot of temporary ills.

There are many parts to who you are. Writing is one of them. But you are a writer, regardless of when, if, or how you publish. No rejection can take that identity away from you. But that identity is also not the sum total of who you are or why you have value as a person. The stress of querying makes us forget that, sometimes. Be sure to remind yourself as often as you need.


3 (More) Tips for Twitter Pitch Parties

In addition to the basic tips I set out in my last post on pitch parties, I saw a few things that clearly hurt people’s exposure and chances during the March #PitMad and April #DVpit events.  I paid close attention to who was getting the retweets and likes, and who wasn’t.  A few definite patterns emerged as the day went on, and I learned some lessons to tighten my own pitches.

1.  Don’t Sacrifice Technique for Space

I saw a few people who were clearly frustrated by the limitations of describing their book in 280 characters.  Instead of re-wording their pitches, they crammed their words together in an ungrammatical hodge-podge of missing punctuation, misspelled words, and sometimes skipping articles like “a” and “the” where they were needed.

The pitch isn’t just selling your story, however; It is selling your writing.  If an agent sees a pitch that’s a mess of spelling and grammar errors, they’re going to assume that your manuscript will be full of the same.  It doesn’t matter how unique or interesting your story is, if they think you’ll write it badly.  So do the work.  Re-frame. Cut unnecessary characters, names, and sub-plots. Cut it down to the bone, and make it fit well.

2. Know the Rules of Pitching

Who is your character, what do they want, what are the stakes?  These are the key elements of your pitch. Leave out side-characters, extensive world-building, and lists of fun fantasy elements. Don’t worry about themes.  The core of the pitch answers the three questions first, and adds flavor details second.

The pitches I saw receive a lot of attention from agents and publishers had several common elements beyond the three questions.  They were written in third person, present tense. They were written in prose. They focused on the primary plot and MC.  They had clear, relatable stakes. Not all of them had comparable titles (X meets Y) but most did.

Yes, many writing rules are really recommendations, and every now and then someone comes up with a brilliant pitch that throws all the advice out the window and blows up with agent likes.  But these are outliers, not the norm.  Luckily, most pitch parties give you multiple opportunities to pitch, so if you’re really set on that pitch that’s a list of weird fantasy elements in iambic pentameter, put at least one traditional pitch in your rotation as a backup.

3.  Know the Rules of the Party

Most pitch parties have a website you can find with a quick Google search for the party’s hashtag.  The website lays out rules for participation including times, number of pitches, and who the party is for.  A few things I see consistently in pitches that receive few or no retweets/likes include:

Leaving off hashtags:  Agents are maximizing their time by searching for the tags they’re interested in.  For instance, an agent looking for YA fantasy during Pitmad will enter #Pitmad #YA #F.  If you have a young adult fantasy and don’t include ALL of those tags, the search results will not include your pitch.  I know they take up real estate you’d desperately like for your story, but if your pitch isn’t seen, it doesn’t matter how well it’s written.  Always include the party hashtag, the market, the genre, and any other applicable tags (like #LGBTQ and #Own).  They will do more heavy lifting than anything else in your pitch.

Posting too often or outside of hours: Agents are pros. They see a hundred pitches and queries a day.  They remember when something looks familiar.  So when an author pitched a dozen times during #Pitmad instead of the three allowed, I noticed and I’m sure agents did as well.  Ditto for deleting your pitch and re-posting to make it look like you were within the limits. What that tells agents is that either you feel like you’re too special to have to follow rules, or that you’re unable to understand them well enough to follow.  Either one makes a bad client, no matter how good your book may be.

Including photos or links: Because popular hashtags are targeted for spam, agents specifically filter out posts with photos or links.  There may sometimes be exceptions for picture books, but including concept art or a link to your website may doom your pitch to oblivion when it doesn’t even show up on agents’ searches.

As I’ve said before, pitch parties are just one way to get an agent’s notice.  Old-fashioned querying is still how most authors find representation.  So don’t despair, and take what you can from the experience to make your writing shine!