The query — it’s how you get somebody to agent or publish your writing. Some of us are well-worn and weary from ages on the Query Quest, striving to create the perfect submission that will make the world yearn for our wondrous weaving of words. Some are just starting. Many writers aren’t really yet aware that the quest awaits them. And it may not actually be an obstacle for many writers, depending on what they write and how they intend to get it out to the world, but it ends up being pretty important if you want to sell something to a large publishing house and make that elusive best-seller list.
If you have queried and queried and still haven’t managed to become world-famous, take heart because you’re far from being alone. You’re in quite a huge company, as a matter of fact. If your novel is finally ready for publication and you’ve discovered that now you need to learn how to write and send out a query, and now it’s going to take even longer to reach that pinnacle, you’re also in a pretty large group.
Here’s a tip: start learning about querying while you’re still writing that epic tale. Right now. It takes a lot of work just tracking down all the information on how the whole thing works, not to mention figuring out the best way to write a query letter, create a synopsis, find the right agents to present it to, and even figure out exactly what genre you just wrote that masterpiece in. Learn as you go, so when your baby is ready to be put out there, you’re ready, too.
To help with a little perspective, here’s a column by Catherine Baab-Muguira on the excellent Jane Friedman website. It’s short but well-written and explains not just how she finally broke a long streak of disappointment, but also several other things she learned along the way. Maybe reading this will help you learn the lessons without having to go through the same slow and painful journey, and at the least will remind you that if you’re having query angst, you share it with many. Many, many, many.
Take a look, and cruise around the Jane Friedman site while you’re there. Sign up for a newsletter. Learn everything you can while it isn’t painful. Start now.
What If It Takes 12 Years to Get an Agent?
Posted on by Catherine Baab-Muguira
About a week before my nonfiction debut went to auction, I received two requests from editors who planned to bid if I did what they asked. The first editor wanted me to take my 4,000-word writing sample and rewrite it in a purely comedic vein. The second requested a rewrite, too, only he wanted me to make the book ultra-serious. No jokes.
It was 2019. I was childless, but I did have a demanding full-time job I couldn’t shirk, so I got up at 5 a.m. every morning and banged out new drafts before work. In the evenings, my friend Lizzie hunkered down beside me while, over beers and takeout, I walked her though the new material. Then we punched it up, or slathered on the sad. The adrenaline rush of all this was real, and also very far from pleasant. I felt like the comedy-tragedy mask come to unshowered, greasy life. If I didn’t satisfy both briefs, my book might not sell.
A dozen years prior, when I’d first started trying to get a book published, I wouldn’t have been up to the task. Fortunately, by the time all this went down, I’d already spent 12 years in the query trenches. I’d also spent a year in L.A. pitching movie ideas to producers in deep V-necks who absolutely loved the idea, wow, beautiful, brilliant, only change the entire thing, okay?
It’d been like a fitness boot camp for my ego: sadistic and deeply wrong, probably in violation of multiple health-department codes. In the end, though, I was glad to have survived, and the conflicting requests found me in shape. I’d already made pretty much every stupid, humiliating mistake you can make. Perhaps without all those years of unanswered emails, form rejections, close calls and ghostings, I would’ve been tempted to be like but but but! How dare you question my Art!
Instead, my feeling was: Thank you for the suggestions. Hand me that brief. Lemme see what I can do for you.
This kind of compromise isn’t for everyone, I realize. Depending on your ambitions, your age, where you are in your writing career and/or the happiness of your childhood, you may be on a different path. My goal was getting my book’s big idea out into the world, whatever form it took, whether comic or tragic. And for me, in the most literal way, humor triumphed over depression. Running Press, a subsidiary of Hachette, bid on the funny version and won.
I want to say I learned a lot in my years of querying and perhaps most especially in those last few hysterical days before auction—as Nabokov wrote, “The last long lap is the hardest.” But I also know it’s all too easy to recast the struggle as edifying and educational when you find yourself, for however brief a moment, lifted out of it. Who’s to say the self-congratulation phase is not, in its way, just as blind as what came before?
Putting it mildly, the world demands different dues from different people. We don’t all have the same access, resources or, for that matter, masochistic streak, dark sense of humor, what have you. I do, however, feel comfortable presuming that your experience of querying has been horrible and painful, too. Disheartening. A mashup of Cinderella and The Road.
You may take heart in hearing that you are almost certainly savvier than I was when I sent my first queries in 2006, when I was 24, and it turned out no one wanted the bildungsroman I’d written hoping to sway an indifferent ex. I queried two more novels off and on over the next 10 years before starting work on a nonfiction proposal in late 2016. It was 2018 when I signed with an agent.
Here’s what I came to see in my dozen years of disappointment. Maybe this hard-won knowledge can help you, too, wherever you are in your—the word is hard to dodge—journey.