Weathering the Storm: Surviving the Query Trenches
I am an infamously stubborn person. When the going gets tough I have a tendency to dig my heels in and grit things out, for better or for worse. But there was a point on my long and winding path to a book deal where I seriously considered throwing in the towel. The part of the process when I think most of the people who do give up end up saying “fuck it.”
There is no way around it, querying is brutal. You spend weeks and months and years chilling in the slush pile of every agent that represents your genre, periodically getting bitch-slapped by form rejections while you watch every other writer on Twitter sign with their dream agent before your very eyes. Jealousy, impostor syndrome, and despair all gang up on you and kick you in the metaphorical balls on a daily basis. All in all, I spent about a year of my life actively querying, and I have never felt more worthless than I did during that time. But I managed to stick it out until I caught my lucky break! I’m going to give you all my tips for surviving the pain and torment of the querying process.
Stay Organized: I feel like this is my first tip for every fricken post on this blog, but it’s just good advice, guys. During my first round of querying I just had a short list of agents and sent my emails and called it a day. Then a few days and weeks passed and I didn’t get any bites, and I was left with some questions - could I query another agent from that same agency, or did that agency have a “no from one is a no from all” policy? If I didn’t get a response at all, how long did I need to wait before it was considered a rejection by silence? So, before I sent out my next round of queries I made an Excel sheet with columns for all those questions and more. That way I always knew which agents were left for me to query, what their query requirements were (synopsis? First five pages? Query letter only?), and how to contact them.
Be Diligent: When you’re sending dozens of query letters out at a time it can be tempting to phone it in. “If my project is as genius as I think it is, will it really matter that I didn’t follow the agency’s instructions?” The answer is… uh, yeah. Yeah, it will. Think about it, agents get hundreds of slush pile emails a week. They have to go through those in addition to helping their current authors with edits, negotiating contracts, subbing clients to publishing houses... you know, agent stuff. If you don’t follow instructions you’re an easy “no.” Think of it this way - you didn’t put the effort into them, why should they put the effort into you?
Start the Next Project: I am convinced that this is the true key to happy querying. Or less miserable querying, at least. When I was first querying I didn’t want to start something new - it felt like giving up on the old project before it was even dead! But ultimately, if you want to do this thing - be a writer, I mean - you’re going to need more than one book eventually, right? Why not get ahead of the game? I always find when I have a shiny new project in progress, rejections on the older one hurt way less.
Find Other Writers: If you know some in real life or have a critique group then awesome, lean on them! If not, find some on the internet - Twitter’s #WritingCommunity is super active and overall very supportive. Also, if you can afford it, find a local writing conference and go! There’s usually the opportunity to buy slots to pitch an agent in person, so you know a lot of the other writers there are in the hunt for an agent as well - in other words, they know your pain! The querying process can feel a lot like screaming into the void, so it’s nice to know you’re not alone.
Know When It’s Time to Call It: Not saying you should give up on writing altogether - that’s not even an option for most of us, honestly. I’m just saying know when it’s time to pull the book you’ve been querying and try another angle. Pull it and do some intense edits before resubmitting… or maybe just pull it altogether and try again later with a brand new project. I don’t have a specific rule for when this time is. Maybe it’s when you’ve exhausted your list of agents. Maybe it’s when you feel like you’re about to break into a thousand pieces if you get ONE MORE REJECTION. Maybe you’re like me and you wake up one day and realize you now kind of hate the book you’ve been querying for the past six months. Whatever it is, you’ll know the moment when it comes… as long as you’re watching for it. Just don’t ignore it for the sake of stubbornness.
You may notice that none of my tips were to spend money on a professional editor. That’s definitely an option, but editors are expensive af, and honestly, a good beta reader can provide great feedback too, and they’re free. If you’re going to spend money on anything I would recommend maybe purchasing one of those slots to pitch your project to an agent directly at a writing conference. Then you at least get guaranteed feedback - there are no form rejections face-to-face!
Over time your skin will thicken. Rejections won’t hurt so bad, criticism will sound like help instead of insults, even the long bouts of waiting get easier… but that takes time. Querying is a long, frustrating process, but using these tips will hopefully help make it a little less miserable for you!
What tips have helped you survive the querying process? Comment below or tweet me @mj_kuhn to chat about it!