Friday, October 15, 2010

My Query Letter Manifesto, Part 2

If you’re joining us mid-Manifesto, please scroll down and read yesterday’s post before proceeding.

OK, where were we? I believe the first round of queries had just been launched, and if I’m not mistaken, things were about to get ugly. Right now you probably feel like you’ve just stormed a machine gun nest with a melon baller in your hand. This is to say, your defenses are woefully inadequate for what you are about to face.

Step 8: Before we go any further, it’s time for a craft project! That’s right. I want you to find yourself a shoe box. Any old shoe box will do. Get out your construction paper and glue and glitter and decorate your shoe box as nicely as you can. When you’re happy with the way it looks, set it aside while the glue dries. We’ll come back to it in a little while.

Step 9: You begin to receive responses to your queries, and they are not favorable. This is that rejection thing you've heard so much about. How to describe this awful feeling? I'd describe it thusly: you feel as if you’re being vivisected by clumsy aliens who keep poking your liver with a stick because they think it's funny the way it jiggles. 

But here’s how you’re going to cope. I want you to now put on your best Newark, NJ accent and repeat the following phrase: “It’s nuthin’ personal. It’s just business.” What you’re going to do throughout your querying process is this: you’re going to stand tall in your black loafers and pinky ring while these agents shoot your cousin, move in on your territory, insult your mother, and feel up your best girl right in front your face. You got that? You’re going to take all their disrespect, all those “not right for our lists” and “lack sufficient enthusiasms” and “best of luck with your search for representations,” and you’re gonna suck them up like mussels marinara. You’re gonna take that pistol whipping they give you, and you’re going to keep repeating through your bloody teeth, “It’s nuthin’ personal. It’s just business.” OK? What I’m saying is, you’re gonna be a man about it. You want to plot your revenge, you go right ahead. But you keep that to yourself.

Step 10: Here’s where we deal with the subject of non-responsive agents. Sadly, about 60 percent of your queries will receive no response. I know, right? That seems wrong, and it seems wrong because it is wrong. But this is where that shoe box you made comes in handy. Each time you are tempted to moan about the unprofessionalism of agents or otherwise whine about the insane business model that is publishing, you write that complaint down on a slip of paper, and you put it in your pretty little shoe box. Then you put that shoe box in the closet or under your bed, and you never look at it again.

You are a writer, you’ve chosen to be a writer. It is the greatest job in the world, but this is the downside of it. Rejection and interminable waiting and indifference. You must remember that this subjectivity thing, it’s true. No one owes you his money or his time, and everyone is entitled to his opinion.

As for dealing with these no responses in a practical way, just decide what your cut-off is for receiving a response. I would suggest 4 weeks. This will allow you to close out these “no responses” as no’s and give you back a modicum of control in a process where you essentially have none. It is cold comfort but still, it’s something.

Step 11: We’ve now reached a fork in the querying road. I’ll start with the happier of the two possibilities, that you’ve gotten a request for your full manuscript. Congratulations! Even one full request is to be celebrated, but it is crucial that you do NOT NOT NOT put all your hopes into this one agent’s basket. Keep querying. That’s right. You heard me. Keep on sending out those queries.

I know it might seem weird to you. You might feel like you owe it to the agent who has asked to see your manuscript because you’re so utterly grateful that he showed interest. Or – and this is more likely – you might want to stop querying because you’re tired of it. I’m telling you, you’ve got to fight that urge to leave off. (I’m assuming, btw, that you have not made a pact with this agent for an exclusive read. If you have, keep that exclusive window short – say, two weeks – and by all means, honor it. But when the time’s up, get yourself back on that query steed and give her the spurs.)

Why do I say this? Look, you have worked hard, perhaps waited a long time for good news, and you don’t have time to waste on time-wasting agents. I’m talking about those agents who let things languish. Hard-working, smart agents work through their TBR pile efficiently and communicate with you effectively. This is the kind of agent you want. Also, if an agent is running behind, he/she will respond to your gentle, polite status inquiries with an honest answer and a realistic time frame for when he’ll get back to you. The sad reality is that some agents will NEVER respond, even when they have your full manuscript. (I know, I know. It’s horrible. Just put that complaint in your shoe box. It’s another thing you’re forced to tolerate.)

Here’s my query catch phrase, and if you remember nothing else from this long Manifesto, please file this away in your brain: Query until someone puts a ring on your finger.

Now, let's hope you do hear back, but let's say the agent has passed. How do we parse these full manuscript rejections? OK, well, sometimes you get nothing useful back from an agent, and you can draw no conclusions from zero information. Unfortunately, most rejections, even on full manuscripts, will fall into the “It’s just not for me” category. Sometimes an agent will say why exactly it wasn’t for him, sometimes not. Sometimes this reason will make you say, “Hmmm, yes. I see what he means. I can fix that.” Sometimes you'll just scratch your head in astonishment, not sure what to make of his response because it's just so...wrong.

The thing you need to remember is that no single rejection is a referendum on your talent. The only thing (entity?) that can tell you when to quit is your gut. If the agent passed, he passed. Oh, well and onward. Tomorrow's another day.

Step 11b: Alas, we’ve now reached the sadder of our two alternative endings to the query quest. Let’s say, after two or three rounds of querying – so that’s about 30-40 queries – you've gotten few if any requests for your manuscript. You can feel defeat. You can smell defeat. It smells like a dog’s ass. Maybe after weeks or months of this process, you are sitting in the VA hospital, missing several key body parts, eating your meals through a straw. The nurse, she averts her eyes when she changes your bandages, and your mother keeps bursting into tears at the mere sight of what you’ve become so you’ve asked her to stop visiting.

Dude. This sucks, but I’m telling you. This is the moment. This the moment that determines what kind of writer you’re going to become. Persistence is the key to this whole crazy endeavor, but smart persistence is what you’re aiming for. You do not want to be that guy who keeps going and going until he’s just a charred torso, desperate and delusional. This is when your gut needs to come and sit at the end of your hospital bed, and you two discuss how you’re going to proceed.

You need to consider that your manuscript might not be ready, that YOU might not be ready. There is no shame in this. Take a break, set your manuscript aside, work on something else. Come back to it in 3-4 months and take another look. Odds are, with a little time and some emotional distance, you will see things that need improving. It is a sobering and difficult thing to do, but if you can get through this stage, you will be better for it. Not just better. That’s an understatement. I’m not exaggerating when I say that this part – being able to realign yourself with reality -- is the single most important skill you will ever master as a writer and possibly as a human being.

Now, having faced up to the fact that you need to revise, you may be afraid that you can't make the changes, that you simply don't know how. You must try. Go on, give it a go. You cannot be afraid of revision because revision, like poverty, will always be with us.

If you do decide, however, that your manuscript just doesn’t pass muster and can’t be fixed, then it’s time to move on. Do not for a moment mistake this for giving up. It’s a strategic re-grouping and can be evidence of what I just mentioned: smart persistence. These are the battlefield decisions that make the difference between ultimately successful campaigns and lots of needlessly dead, maimed soldiers.

Let me just finish with a few hundred more words on the subject of dealing with those painful pangs of envy you may feel toward more successful writers.

About two years ago, I did this 100-plus mile bike ride thing. Why did I do this? I don’t know. I guess I like to suffer even during my off-writing hours. Anyway, during one portion of this ride, you’ve got to get up this absolute beast of a hill. It’s like a mile straight up, and as you are hauling your keester up the right side of the road, trying to keep the vomit from rising in the back of your throat, you see this stream of cyclists coming down the hill in the on-coming lane. And you hate these people. Oh, how you hate them! You want to track down each and every one of them and follow them to their cars and cut their brake cables. Because there they go --- WHEEEEE --- whizzing effortlessly past you while you’re on the other side of the road struggling and sweating and suffering.

Of course when I finally crested the hill, I realized that the route called for riders to do a short two-mile loop and then double-back down the beast-hill I just came up. In other words, all those people I saw coasting down the hill earlier – they had already climbed the mountain.

I think my point is pretty clear. Those people you hear about who are getting manuscript requests and signing with agents and even getting book deals, more than likely they have already climbed the mountain. They’ve had their disappointments and heartaches. God knows I have, and for me, the summit is still miles off. I’ve had my heart broken more times that I can count and have been treated unkindly by a few agents along the way, but I don’t dwell on that. With malice toward none and charity toward all, I’ve carried on. (Jesus, did I just plagiarize Abraham Lincoln in that last sentence? I think I did.)

So I guess I’ve come to the end of the Manifesto at last. I hope you found something here to encourage you because that, at the end of the day, was what I was going for.

Go forth, query bravely, and may God have mercy on your soul.

Now what say we stop all this query talk, flag down the bar man, and have him bring us another round of boilermakers? My treat.