Queries and Submissions… Oh, my!

It’s a no-brainer: writers love to write. Find a plot or an interesting character lurking in the brain’s back room and away we go, plotting (or not) and happily unravelling story complexities for hours, days, probably weeks… to the exclusion of all sorts of potential distractions. Housework? It can wait. Family? They’ll understand. Grocery shopping? Mmm, maybe a quick trip to stock up on essentials like chocolate and chai tea and Diet Coke.

When the initial writing is done we’re willing to delve right back into it, editing, revising and even rewriting. It’s what writers do, right?  Pick away at it from every angle until we get it ‘just so’.

Jay 2

When it’s finally ready, we steel ourselves to send it out into the world — to critique partners first, then to beta readers. Finally the day comes when we can’t stall any longer. The story is as good as it’s going to get under our hand. It’s time to find an agent or editor to mentor us through the next stage, time to send the manuscript out on submission. Ackkk!

That’s what sends me into a flap.

Jay 1

I end up all a-flutter, suddenly convinced that it’s premature… surely another revision is necessary. If it’s not the best I can make it, sending it out now could be a mistake. I begin to re-read. It’s total crap! I’m sure it is. At least, the whisperings of that nasty Inner Critic sitting on my shoulder are telling me it is.

What’s the solution? Do we re-work and polish manuscripts until the life is sucked out of them, then shelve them in favour of starting something new? Do we close our eyes to the possible shortcomings and throw them into the public eye, hoping the recipients will be kind and limit laughter and jeering to the confines of their own office before sending out the rejection letter? Or… dare I suggest it? Do we stand tall, pull up our big-girl britches and recognize when we’ve done the best we can for now — ‘for now’ meaning we accept the reality that there will undoubtedly be recommended edits forthcoming — and take the next step?

Jay 3

There’s nothing more nerve-wracking in my world than hovering my finger over the ‘send’ key. Despite what others suggest, it never gets easier for me. Over the years I’ve read plenty of books on the craft of writing, studied agents’ and editors’ blogs to glean helpful information and listened carefully to the experiences of other more seasoned writers. I’m developing a fat resource file, but nothing nourishes the seed of confidence that will tell me, “Yes, DO it now. You’re ready.”

Earlier this week I printed out another item to add to my file from the Books & Such Literary Agency blog: “Minimize the obstacles to publication“, a post written by agent Rachelle Gardner. Her very first point is, “Not working on your book and your writing craft long enough.” ::sigh:: See what I mean?

I just might have to peck out a bit more on this revision. I’m aiming to make it public soon, but… not today.

*

What convinces you that your work is ready for public scrutiny? How do you block out the negative Inner Critic’s evil whisperings?

~  ~  ~

Using more than half a brain (or, hints for successful querying)

Nesting birds are testing our patience this week. A junco decided to build a nest in the middle of one of the twelve-inch flower baskets that hangs just inches from our family room window. (Yes, the same basket from which the finch eyed me last week. What’s with these birds?!)

It’s an impossible location for us to accommodate since there are patio tables and chairs beneath the planters (plus I need to keep watering the flowers), so, although we felt badly about it, we chased her away.

That same evening, before we had a chance to remove the nest, a robin took it over, and the basket swayed precariously as she flew in and out on a redecorating mission. We discouraged her, too, so she has moved on to the top of the spotlight above our driveway, where anyone with half a brain can see the angles make it impossible for any twigs or moss to balance. Not having half a brain, and undeterred, she keeps picking up the bits that land on the pavement below and returning them to the spotlight… from where, of course, they slip off. Again and again.

Wasn’t it Einstein who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results? Silly wild things!

Then again, the not-so-wild among us have been known to act in a similar manner.  Who hasn’t taken the same query letter, polished to make the best impression possible, and sent it out to agents time and time again – the same letter to every agent on a constantly expanding list?

We’re told to be persistent, to have patience, because some day that letter will connect with *the* right person. But I’m not so sure it will! How can the same letter avoid becoming generic? I can’t help wondering if agents feel the same about our impersonal queries as we do about their form rejections.

What can we do to improve our chances for a positive response? Here are my six common sense (but as yet unproven) suggestions:

  • Research agencies and their client list. Do they rep our style of book? If not, we’re wasting our time (and theirs).
  • Explore agent websites to stay up-to-date on any changes in genre preferences and to find out whether or not submissions are currently being accepted. They aren’t going to make an exception for us.
  • Spend time interacting with agents on social media. Discover them as real people. (But don’t stalk them. Respect professional boundaries.)
  • Leave photocopying for manuscript pages. Make every query an original, using the agent’s name, correctly spelled.
  • Think about the mood of our manuscript and the voice that took us through its writing. Put ourselves in the same headspace while we write the query letter.
  • Don’t try to cram an entire synopsis into the query. Get the story’s concept across, introduce only the main characters and the conflict they face.  The job of a query is to captivate the agent, not to bog her down with a litany of details. Send a separate synopsis if one is required.

It also wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind agent Kristin Nelson’s admonition:  “It’s more important for a query concept to be original than for a query to be perfect.” If we don’t have an intriguing story, the perfect query letter isn’t going to help get it published, no matter how often we send it out.

We have to take steps to ensure our querying efforts aren’t wasted, unless we enjoy being constantly turned away like silly birds!

~

~  ~  ~

Following the Road Signs

.

I’m good at telling people where to go, although I know not everyone appreciates being told what they can or cannot do.

On our recent Christmas trip we encountered many highway signs. Some told us what we couldn’t do, like exceed a specific speed, while others were very helpful. We didn’t appreciate signs that told us to reduce speed for construction ahead, especially when there was no construction. Or to merge lanes when that meant being stuck behind a slow moving transport truck.

But we liked the safety aspect of knowing that there were deer in the area that might bolt across the highway, and to be prepared because there were no gas stations ahead for several miles. It was comforting to know which junction to take when highways intersected, and exactly how many miles were between us and our destination. And it’s always good to know the clearance under an overpass, particularly if you’re driving a large RV.

My hubby says I’m a very efficient navigator when our travels require map-reading and following directions.  I wish my ability stretched to also knowing exactly how to proceed in my journey as a writer.

Wouldn’t it be nice if God placed bold signs that said, “This is the direction you need to go right now,” “Prepare yourself for a six-month (or six-year) journey,” “There’s a rough patch ahead but it’s a smooth ride after that?”

God does give us guidelines and signposts, but they aren’t quite as obvious as highway signs. Just as the Department of Highways expects responsible drivers to watch for and obey their signs, so God expects us to search out his guidance and follow it, whether it’s for everyday situations or our writing endeavours.

I think I’ve been waiting for him to slip easy-to-decipher instructions under my nose, when it’s pretty clear I’m suppose to take some action… make an effort to search out his directives and follow them. This road to publication is a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of journey, not a taxi ride.

Okay, God. I get it. Querying, here I come!

~

Have you ever found yourself immobilized because you didn’t know where to start in the querying process?  How did you get over the uncertainty about taking that first step?

~

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths.” [Proverbs 3:5]
.
Thus says the Lord, Your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you by the way you should go.” [Isaiah 48:17]
.
Therefore do not throw away your confidence, which has a great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that you may do the will of God and receive what is promised. [Hebrews 10:35]

~  ~  ~

Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

.

Common snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus, is a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family. It grows wild on shady hillsides and woodland areas but its attractive clusters of white berries have also made it a popular ornamental shrub in many gardens.

It grows in wild abundance on our family’s Okanagan property and provides winter food for quail and pheasant. In other areas it’s also browsed by deer, bighorn sheep and bear.

On a recent visit I admired the shrub and came home to research its name. Despite its innocuous appearance, I found one source (Wikipedia) that said snowberries are considered poisonous to humans. “The berries contain the isoquinoline alkaloid chelidonine, as well as other alkaloids. Ingesting the berries causes mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.”

We have a lot of wild berries in BC, many of which are edible, but some are known to be poisonous while others are of doubtful edibility or are just plain unpalatable. Around our property each spring we have bushes that bear small red berries that I think are huckleberries. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are… but not sure enough to eat them. I’m going to take a sample to our local nursery next spring and get a knowledgeable opinion.

In this case I think I’m smart to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. When in doubt, be cautious. Go do some research. That’s not a bad philosophy in writing, too. Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

A couple years ago agent Rachelle Gardner posted a “Friday Rant” about people who fall into her inbox looking for an agent. They pitch work that she doesn’t rep; they’ve clearly made no effort to read guidelines or learn about the querying process; they “aren’t taking the time to approach publishing seriously.” In their ignorance they alienate agents and effectively kill any chance of having their work considered.

That’s not very smart if their goal is publication.

~

When tackling something new in life or writing, how do you determine the proper approach? Do you prefer to jump in first and ask questions later? And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

~


Query Letter Advice: How to Avoid Being Buried in the Landslide

.

If you’ve been writing with the goal of publication you’ve likely read a whole lot about pitching, querying and submitting. There are books and blogs filled with everything you need to know, but if you’re at all like me, there are times when you begin to experience “information overload” – that sense of being buried under a landslide of information.

In 1965 the largest landslide ever to occur in Canada sent approximately 47 million cubic metres of rock and mud careening down a mountain and across the adjoining valley not far from the small town of Hope, BC, 150 km northeast of Vancouver. The Hope Slide left a permanent debris field 85 metres (279 ft) deep and 3 kilometres (1.9 mi) wide*, and buried three vehicles.

The aftermath of a landslide isn’t stable ground. Not that you’d be tempted to hike across the base of one that has just descended – but if you did, you’d feel a worrisome uncertainty beneath your feet. A slight shift. Maybe a shudder. Always the possibility that nothing is quite settled, and if you dare to step out with false confidence you may find yourself carried away by further movement.

There are days when that uncertainty is similar to the hesitation we feel as we prepare to send off a query letter. Perhaps we’ve encountered conflicting information about submission guidelines. We’re not sure what to trust. Rather than risk taking a wrong step, we freeze, paralyzed by fear.

My best advice (and right now I’m talking to my own reflection in the mirror) is to determine which agent/agency or publisher is the best destination for your work, then scrutinize their website for specific requirements. Take the time to investigate the best route, even if it takes a little longer to navigate. You want to be sure there is a solid foundation for your approach.

In looking for help, I’ve found a number of good resources, but one of the best is today’s post on Rachelle Gardner’s website. How to Write a Query Letter: The Definitive Guide is excellent – thorough, yet concise.  Go have a look. It’ll put your querying feet on a solid rock.

What’s your approach to querying? Do you submit the same query to multiple destinations, or personalize each one for specific situations? Have you found a concise and effective way to describe your book… words that, if found as a blurb on the back cover, would hook potential readers into buying and reading it?

~  ~  ~

“These words I speak to you are not incidental additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundational words, words to build a life on. If you work these words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who built his house on solid rock. Rain poured down, the river flooded, a tornado hit—but nothing moved that house. It was fixed to the rock.”
[Matthew 7:24-25 The Message]

* Reference: Wikipedia

Photos of Hope Slide by C. Garvin
All rights reserved

~  ~  ~

The Rejection Collection

Rejection sucks. Writers everywhere moan often and loudly about the misery of receiving negative responses to their queries and submissions. I haven’t had many to deal with but that’s only because I haven’t queried much. I like the writing part best so I write, then move on to write some more. For someone who aspires to publication that’s a chicken approach, and it’s about to change.

I have a goal this year and am pursing it. I’m realistic enough to know that along the way there is going to be more rejection, so I’m saving a post of Jessica Faust’s to re-read whenever discouragement wings in and lights on my shoulder. Jessica’s Does It Get Any Better? offers encouragement, but it’s the 120+ comments that grab me. I won’t link to the commenters; you can mosey over to the BookEnds, LLC website for yourself if you want to read more, but here’s a sampling of the comments to offer a bit of wisdom if you happen to be in the process of rejection collection yourself:

  • I’ve been rejected 71 times, 16 of those with partial requests. In the beginning I … couldn’t write, couldn’t find a coherent thought if it was thrown in my face. It took me a long while to realize I was going through post-partum depression. 

I just sent my ‘baby’ out into the big wild world, unsure of what would happen. I was nervous, anxious, depressed, had incredible mood swings when the requests for partials came in and then the darkest despair when they too came back rejected. There is no magic pill. Somehow you just have to let it go. Put the queries out there and take them as they come. The best suggestion is to start another book. As hard as that sounds, it’s really been, for me, the lifesaver in all the query madness. I’m still getting rejected but at least I’m working on something else that may, in fact, be better than the last book. [Anne Gallagher]

  • It’s sometimes hard to separate your “worth” as a writer from the query process for each individual book. Don’t let the rejection/partial/full process become your validation as a writer, or you will be disappointed often. Find a support group of other writers who know what it means to sweat over a book, think it’s your absolute best work, and get nothing but no after no. It happens to us all, and I guarantee when you look at this book in six months or a year, you’ll be astonished at how much you would change in that “perfect” book. The most important thing you can do right now is start writing the next book. [Joely Sue Burkhart]

  • In the beginning, it feels like every rejection is an informed and absolute judgment on your talent, the viability of your project, and indeed, your worth as a person. But they’re not. They’re SO not. I think on some level we always think we’re going to be the exception. That as soon as we send our work out, someone will jump out and say THIS ROCKS! instead of the much more common path of rejection and disappointment and, in many cases, a long hard slog.  [Jael]

  • Rejection is never easy. It does get easier, but only as long as you accept that this is a business — the business of writing. Each query you send is simply asking: Do you want to represent this book? And each rejection is a polite (usually) ‘No, I don’t’. It is not a judgement on your ability as a writer, or on your worth as a person. It is a business decision. [Jenna Wallace]

  • rejection is gonna happen if you submit your work, but in many cases it isn’t a reflection of whether your novel is publishable, just means that you haven’t yet found the right agent to submit to. I papered my walls, literally, with rejection slips, and tried not to let them bother me because really, I was writing because I loved to write. I knew if I was never published I’d be disappointed, but I also knew writing was my passion, and immersing yourself in your passion is never a waste of time….The people who fail are the people who give up.  [Elizabeth Joy Arnold]

  • Babydoll, you absolutely have to develop thick skin and if you continue writing, believe me, you will. It’s a part of the writing life. What you’re going through right now, is what they used to say, “separates the men from the boys,” but you should now properly say, what separates the writers from the wannbees. It just happens to sound better the other way. Part of your career now is as a salesman, er, saleswoman. Rejection goes with the territory. If you can’t handle rejection, you have no business trying to be a real writer. [Brendan McNally]

  • Writing is the best distraction from query hell. [Kathleen]

  • Sure, publication is the ultimate goal, but don’t forget why you picked up the pen in the first place.  [Gemma Noon]

  • You’ll start to see rejections as a milestone, not an end marker. Remember that losing the game means you’re PLAYING the game. Many people never reach that point. Dying on safari kind of sucks, but it’s also way cooler than sitting home.  [150]
Comment excerpts from July 1, 2010 post, BookEnds, LLC blog.