Publication Journey: Query Letters

Since signing my contract with TouchPoint Press for publication of my novel (reminder: launches April 5th and is available for preorder on Barnes and Noble online and Amazon, haha), I’ve had a few people reach out and ask me about the process of getting published. I fear my response to them was a tad disappointing, as it boiled down to:

1) write, rewrite, finesse, and rewrite again your query letter (HARD!!!),

2) be willing to spend an inordinate amount of time researching possible agents or publishers who are looking for your genre, and

3) develop an elephant hide so that when rejections come (and for most of us, boy, they do come), they will bounce right off and you can keep going.

That’s the way I got my contract, and it seems to be the experience of most novice writers (novice in being published, not in writing); if there is an easier way, I’d love to know it. 😁

So for those who are interested in the long path, I’ll add more detail to the above topic in a series of posts. This time, we’ll start with the basic assumption that you’ve already written something and revised it many, many times, at least once with a long break between revisions. I finished my rough draft at the beginning of summer three years ago, revised it twice, then had a small group of beta readers review it. These were people who I knew would be honest about giving opinions, adept at grammar enough to point out obvious issues, and gentle enough to not crush my spirit, because I was under no illusions that this was “the draft.” I revised again, using their comments, and then put it away in a drawer for a month before looking at it again and revising again. It’s amazing what a little time away does for your perspective—suddenly things I’d never noticed before were hitting me as trite or clumsy or telling-not-showing.

So after writing and rewriting your story x 1000, it is time to write a great query letter. To query, according to the old Merriam-Webster, means to “question, especially addressed to an official or organization.” What a weird term; technically, I guess the question is, “Will you read my manuscript?” And since I’m being honest, I will tell you I probably sent several dozen letters out during this process, and most of the time the answer was, “no.”

Don’t let anyone tell you that doesn’t sting. It does. A lot. Especially since most of the “no” were some form of, well, form. “Thank you for your interest. Unfortunately, your work does not seem to fit our needs at this time.” How do I know it was a form? Because I received almost the same thing from agents and publishers, with minor differences, many, many times. This brings me to the first point:

It may be you, but probably not. It’s probably them.

You know the old break-up standard, “It’s not you, it’s me,” a lie meant to soften the fact that it is 100% that person you’re dumping’s fault, but you’re just too nice to come out and say, a ’la Kathleen Turner in War of the Roses, “I want to smash your face in”?

Here’s something I was dimly aware of when I started submitting but never really processed until I read it in an article about dealing with literary rejection: Agents receive thousands of queries a year and sign three to five new books. Gulp! A THREE in a THOUSAND chance of getting signed! No wonder the form letter rejection exists—there are only so many ways to say nooooooooooo. Before you lose heart, though, here’s some tidbits to cheer you: J.K. Rowling was rejected twelve times for Harry Potter. Golding’s classic kids-are-freakin-terrifying novel, The Lord of the Flies, was rejected twenty times. Gone with the Wind was rejected thirty times (I maintain that the pain of that was one reason why Mitchell never tried to write another book.) Kathryn Stockett kept plugging her bestseller, The Help, despite its SIXTY rejections. Stephen King used to hang his rejection letters on a railroad spike driven in his wall. When one filled up, he started with another one. His first novel, Carrie, was rejected thirty times before publication. One rejection of his novel stated, “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell.” King’s novels of “negative utopias” don’t sell? Riiiight. May I be that unlucky, pu, pu, pu.

The fact is, the market is glutted and subjective. It only takes one “yes,” but you may have to endure a lot of “nos” to get there, so buckle up, buttercup, and hang in there. Faint heart never did win fair contract.

Second point: Maybe it IS you.

Maybe you need to spend some time reading through the countless columns of advice from agents and writers on what makes a “good” query letter. The hardest part is that “hook”—the first line or two that reels the reader of your letter in. Spend a lot of time on that part—whittle, finesse, whittle some more.

You might even consider hiring a professional to give you his/her feedback on your query letter. After a couple dozen rejections and rewrites, I did this very thing. Many agents in publishing also have side-gigs as editors and may offer their services at reasonable prices. I’m a big believer in editors, especially ones who don’t know me and so aren’t as worried about my delicate feelings as helping  me make my writing sing. So I hired Kaitlyn Johnson from Belcastro Literary Agency (https://www.strictlytextual.com/). She was great, told me my letter was polished and had all the necessary ingredients, then pushed me to consider aspects of my book I had held back. After taking her advice and rewriting my letter yet again, I began to see some actual requests for partials or fulls of my manuscript—a big milestone. I was still getting rejections, but I was also getting requests for manuscripts, which let me know for sure that changing my query letter did matter.

The next task, then, was to really focus on what I wanted for my book, and I changed course from looking for an agent to looking for a traditional publisher. And that, dear ones, is a subject for another post. So until then, keep bleeding on those typewriters (okay, laptops. Hemingway’s quote needs an update) and chase that dream.

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