Writing Excuses 15.14: Agent Query Trenches
Key Points: In the trenches, dealing with querying? How do you survive, emotionally? Don’t go into a holding pattern, keep writing, keep making things, keep submitting. Don’t give up the day job! Be honest with agents or publishers about your ability to work, when the deadlines are. Set your own success thresholds, your own goals, and be upfront with the publishers. Don’t like queries? Try first chapters! Be aware, it’s a lot more work, going to conventions, talking to editors, and asking to send them sample chapters. Learn to write a synopsis, which may be your query, before you write the book! Use Howard’s checklist: a character, a conflict, a setting, and a hook. When should you give up? If it’s making you ill. You may want to just write for fun! You may get someone to act as your shield. Think about what you love, you may be able to get it another way. Before you start, decide what the failure modes are. Be aware that even published authors have to deal with editors criticizing their stories, bad reviews, criticism! Learn to cope with it early on.
[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Agent Query Trenches.
[Mary Robinette] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Brandon] This title comes from a specific question that people asked us about what to do when you’re in the trenches dealing with querying. We’ve actually gotten… We have seven questions…
[Brandon] All along the same idea. Which meant we needed to do a podcast on this.
[Dan] We asked you what you wanted to hear about, and so many of you were like, “Please help me. This sucks.” It does.
[Brandon] Yeah. Queries are miserable. Let’s just do the first one. What are your best tips on how to survive the query trenches? I think they’re asking kind of emotionally, right? How do you deal with the fact that you’re getting lots of rejections or just never hearing back from agents on queries?
[Howard] Years ago, at… I think it was at LTUE, I was talking to a woman who’d handed a manuscript to Tracy Hickman, who was going to pass it along to an agent. She said, “What am I supposed to do now? I’m in this holding pattern.” I said, “Well, if it gets handed back to you and you’re told that it’s awful, are you going to stop writing?” She said, “No.” Okay, cool. So if it gets… If it comes back and they say it’s awesome, but it’s not what we want. Do you have anything else? Have you written anything else? She said, “Well, not yet.” Okay, if it comes back and they said it’s perfect but it needs revision, are you ready to keep writing on it? She said, “Yes. Okay.” All of these sound like you can spend your time waiting still writing. Because this validation that… Because it sounds a lot like your question is about I’m in a holding pattern because I’m expecting validation and I’m nervous about it. Whether I am told I can write or I can’t. For me, the best answer personally has always been regardless of what they think, I’m going to keep making things. So I keep making things.
[Brandon] That’s great advice.
[Dan] There’s a lot of self-care things you can do, but this is, for me and for Brandon, this was our baseline. Back when we were trying to break in, our rule was always be writing and always be submitting. Because once you send that thing off, if you sit on your hands and wait, it is going to eat you alive. But if you spend that time creating something new and doing what you love and following your passions, it makes it a lot easier.
[Mary Robinette] I’m going to ditto that. So, not to repeat it, what I will say also is that the thing about your emotional state while this is going on is to understand that the fact that the query has gone out, and you’re waiting, that you’re in a Schrodinger state. That it can either… You either have a published manuscript or you don’t. The beautiful thing about it is that you currently don’t have a published manuscript. So, the only state change is going to be a positive state change. Once you know that, I think that a lot of the pressure goes away. Because if that thing comes back, you can just send it out again. There’s no… There’s like actually no risk.
[Brandon] The thing is, the more stories you have on submission, that you can be submitting, at least, for me, the less any one rejection hurt, for me. This is just, I think, kind of natural, if you’ve got all these different options. You’re not so invested in a single one that a punch to the face right there hurts way more than if you’ve got lots of different options. I’m not sure how to make that metaphor work.
[Brandon] But it really did for me. Beyond that, do remember that a rejection of a manuscript is not a rejection of you. I know we’ve talked about this before, and it’s hard to think that way, but this is how you have to be. You have to be like these are pieces of writing, these are pieces of art I’ve created. It might be, when they get rejected, that there’s something wrong with them. It might be that it’s just the wrong match. They may be fantastic pieces of art. Either way, there the pieces of art you created, and that imbues them with a certain level of validity, no matter what happens. Right? They may not be ready for a professional publication, because they might not hit the market. They might not have the skill level. There are all sorts of reasons. That doesn’t mean they aren’t your wonderful pieces of art that are valuable because you made them. I really think that is the case. So, do lots of art and be submitting lots of places. Try not to let the rejections hit you too hard.
[Brandon] Someone else asks, “Is it reasonable to be able to go through the process of getting an agent/working to publish with a traditional publisher, while working a busy job or being a student?”
[Mary Robinette] Yes.
[Dan] Not only reasonable, but arguably, requisite. Definitely don’t quit that job until you’ve got a bunch in the bank.
[Mary Robinette] I think it’s the more standard model.
[Brandon] Having something else to distract you is also really handy when you’re waiting for all of these responses to come to you. Yes, in fact.
[Brandon] Although the next question is along the same lines, “If I’m slow making edits or accomplishing tasks because I’m busy with school or work, does that run the risk of an agent dropping me or a publisher canceling my contract?”
[Mary Robinette] I think as long as you’re honest when you go in… This is a thing that I do see happen to writers, that you take 10 years to hone a book, and you turn it in, and you have never had to write something in a year, which is what most publishing contracts are. When they come to you and say, “We would like the book on X date,” it is okay to tell them, “I think I might need more time than that.” They’ll negotiate with you some. If you want to make a living as a writer, it is easier to have more books coming out. But there are also plenty of people who have a career where they bring out books very slowly. It’s just a different shape of career.
[Brandon] Yeah. There are lots of people whose goal is to publish this wonderful novel that they’ve written. That’s… They’re the Harper Lee’s of the world. They want… They have this one thing, and they work hard and get it published. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to be writing a book every year. You have to decide what your success thresholds are, and what that shape is, and what it looks like. It’s okay to kind of set your own goals there. I would reinforce what Mary Robinette has said, that if you are… The publisher would rather have the person who is upfront and says, “This is going to take me two years,” then the person who is always a year late on their contract. The person who is upfront and says, “This is going to take me two years,” they can plan, they can schedule, and you’ll be just fine.
[Dan] Yeah. Don’t think of it… The problem is not that you take your time, the problem is missing deadlines. So if you just establish the correct deadlines upfront, you should be okay.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week, which is Seven Deadly Shadows.
[Dan] Yes. So, a good friend of the podcast, one of our guest hosts a couple of years ago, Valynne Maetani. She is Japanese by heritage, and she cowrote a wonderful Japanese urban fantasy with another great local author, Courtney Alameda. This just came out at the time of recording from Harper. It is wonderful. It is about a girl in Japan who works with her father in… er, grandfather, in a shrine, a Shinto shrine. While she is going to school in dealing with all these standard high school things, the shrine is attacked by Japanese ghosts, by yokai. It spins off into this really dark… Courtney is a horror author, Valynne is a great thriller writer. The two of them together have put together a really cool urban fantasy with this really strong Japanese flavor. I absolutely love it.
[Brandon] Seven Deadly Shadows.
[Brandon] Awesome. So a lot of these questions are digging out an idea that I actually don’t think that we’ve covered yet this podcast, I think we need to highlight, which is, they’re saying, “How do you deal with all of this? How do you deal with this emotionally?” I had a strategy for dealing with the query problem. Because the query problem is, and everyone I know admits this, yet there’s not really a better method. It is that a query is a bad pitch for a book.
[Brandon] Usually. Right? The first chapters are a good pitch for a book. You read the first chapters of a book, for most novels, that’s going to give you a really good indication of the writer’s skill level, how good they are at making promises, how engaging their characters are, and things like that. None of that comes across in a query. All that comes across in a query is maybe the basic idea behind it, and some of the skills that you can bring to it individually and things like that. My goal was always to skip the query stage.
[Brandon] After the first year of querying, I realized I was bad at writing queries and good at writing chapters. This is hard to do. But it is what got me published. I never got anything other than blanket form rejections on queries. So, I went and I listened to editors at conventions, I talked to editors at conventions, I watched what people were saying, and I asked if I could send them sample chapters. A lot of times, if you ask someone in person, they will say, “Yes. Send me sample chapters and an outline instead of a query.” That doesn’t really help if you’re like, “I’m sending queries and getting all these rejections.” Brandon’s saying, “Well don’t do that.” But I will say that is what worked for me. I got, in all of my years of sending queries, one single non-form rejection letter. That was from Joshua, who eventually became my agent. But he had forgotten who I was by the time I met him in person and asked… I sent him sample chapters for something that was a bad match for him, and he had rejected them. It was a comedy piece. So, what do you guys think on that? Like, is this helpful? Is this not helpful? Is it…
[Mary Robinette] I do think that there is some merit to that. With the caveat that you should ask the editors and agents that at the appropriate time. You should not, like, just come up to them randomly. Like, don’t target them. But I think there is something to that, that if it’s not your strength. The other thing that you can do, honestly, if writing a query is not your strength, is that you can get help. There are people who will write query letters for you.
[Brandon] Yeah. This isn’t disingenuous. Again, the query is a, generally a bad pitch for your writing. It can be a good pitch for your story. Someone else can write that.
[Mary Robinette] Right. So, one of the things that a query letter, and this is a solid reason to get good at it, is that often, not always, but often, the publisher will wind up pulling the language from your query letter for the catalog copy. So it is an opportunity for you to control which of the things you are comfortable with people knowing and controlling spoilers.
[Mary Robinette] It’s not perfect. But it is an opportunity. Also, the other thing about learning to write a really good query is that it is a way to focus your story. So, I now write my query bef… The synopsis query, the little pitch thingy, I write that before I write the book most of the time. I found that that really helps me hone it. So it is… There are arguments both ways.
[Brandon] I must have query PTSD, because I never query on anything.
[Brandon] I don’t even want to.
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, Brandon, we’re just…
[Dan] You’re also a household name. So…
[Mary Robinette] Yeah, there’s…
[Mary Robinette] There’s a little bit of a difference there.
[Mary Robinette] It’s like, Brandon says, “I have this cocktail napkin.” “We’ll publish it!”
[Dan] Although, I do think it’s worth pointing out, just to emphasize this, you hinted at this, when you decided your strategy was to avoid queries, that ramped up your level of work significantly. You have to do a lot of extra things in order to make that work. So if somebody wants to follow that same path, they need to be prepared to do a lot more legwork, a lot more personal contact.
[Mary Robinette] It’s more expensive to go to conventions.
[Brandon] Way more expensive.
[Howard] I have a back cover copy checklist that actually works really well for creating a synopsis, which is character, conflict, setting, hook. It’s just those four things. Gimme a character. I don’t care if your book has 20 characters in it. Just give me one. Just focus on one, because that’ll be more interesting. What’s the conflict? Gimme a sentence that shows what the conflict is. What’s the setting? Put them in a room, put them in something. Now plant the hook. One of my favorites is from the back of… I think it’s Tuesdays at the Castle by Jessica Day George. Meet the Castle that changes itself every night and the women… Or the children who will do anything to protect it. I’m in. So having that formula for me… It’s not a perfect formula, but having that as a starting point, makes writing a query, which is essentially marketing copy, much, much easier. Much, much easier.
[Brandon] So, we have the question here, when is it time to give up?
[Mary Robinette] This is a…
[Dan] On your dreams as an author?
[Brandon] It just asks, “When is it time to give up?”
[Mary Robinette] So, it’s time to give up when it is making you ill. This is… Like, this is a thing that I think we do not talk enough about. That it’s… First of all, it’s okay to write just for fun. It’s… You don’t have to be on a publishing track. No one goes up to someone who plays the guitar and says, “Well, where’s your recording contract? You play the guitar, you’ve got to have a recording contract.” It’s like, no, everyone accepts that you can just play the guitar for fun. You can just write for fun. If the process of jumping through these hoops is making you ill, it’s okay to stop. It’s okay to put it down. It’s also okay to say, “I’m going to put it down for a while and then come back to it later.”
[Brandon] You know what else I’ve heard is also okay? If you have a significant other or loved one who is willing to be a shield for you, and you are going to give them the works, and you’re going to say, “When one of these gets picked up, tell me. Otherwise, I’m just going to assume they’re all out there in the aether.” I know people that, for their mental health, that is how they have to work. It works really well. The creator focuses on creating, and the partner focuses on making sure that these queries are going out and even sample chapters and things are happening.
[Dan] I’ve got two friends who, over the last year or so, have both given up. Which is… Which makes it sound like a failure, and neither of them see it that way.
[Mary Robinette] No.
[Dan] They’re both authors. They’re both creators. For one of them, it was the realization that what she really loved about art, she could also get through visual art. So she said, “I haven’t had success with this, I’m going to pursue a different direction.” So she still has something very fulfilling in her life, that she loves to do, and is finding that she’s excelling in it, which is great. For the other one, and this is stuff that she shares publicly, Natalie Whipple, who wrote what is still today my favorite eSport science fiction novel, just kind of said, “You know what, what I really love is storytelling. I think I’m just going to play D&D. She now GM’s two different Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. Some with her kids, some with friends. She is getting all of what she was happy writing would give her through a different outlet that is leaving her very fulfilled and happy.
[Howard] There’s an entrepreneurial principle here that runs parallel to the… You’ve set a trigger event, Mary, a trigger pull event, which is when your health begins suffering, it’s time to change. It’s time to change something. The entrepreneurial aspect is before you go into this business endeavor, you need to have decided what the failure modes look like. It may be that the failure mode is when I have paid the bills for all of the things in my life using my credit cards for three months in a row, it’s time to give up this business and go get a real job. Okay? Because putting that pin in the ground ahead of time means that when you look at this financial disaster you’ve created, you can say, “Oh. I actually predicted this as a failure mode. It is now fine for me to quit and to move on.” I do not know what this looks like for writers. I know that as a cartoonist, in 2006, Sandra and I were literally on our last seven or $8000 of savings, and that was what we sent the first Schlock Mercenary book to the printer with. If that had not paid for itself and paid all the bills, then it would have been time to go get a job. We knew that that was the signal for time to give up. I got lucky, didn’t need to give up.
[Brandon] We’re out of time on this, although our homework this week, we wanted to find some way to kind of help you with some self-care. If you’ll forgive a little bit of a diversion here, this doesn’t necessarily get better once you get published.
[Brandon] That’s the thing you have to realize. Right?
[Mary Robinette] So true.
[Brandon] Now, those of us in this room, me in particular, sit in a very privileged position where we’re able to earn a living off of our writing, which certainly does take away some stressors, right? I understand that. But, once you get published, you are still going to be dealing with editors sending you long sheets of notes about how bad your story is, right?
[Brandon] Once the book comes out, you are going to hope for reviews, because reviews are very important to you, like Amazon reviews and things. Some of those are going to be bad. They’re going to be scathing. If you are fortunate enough to get very popular, every place you go on the Internet, you risk having people… Running across people having a discussion about you. This is where I am right now. I can’t go anywhere that I used to hang out without just running across threads. Though often times the first comment is laudatory, the second comment is the opposition, right? Why do people like this guy? He’s terrible. Point, point, point, point, point. That is just… You’re going to have to, as a creator putting your work out there, get used to the idea that you are going to face criticism in some form or another every day of your life. So. Learning to cope with this early on can be really handy.
[Brandon] The homework we suggest is something that some of us here at this table do, which was, we go read one star reviews on Goodreads of books we know are brilliant. Right? I do it for Terry Pratchett books, right? I go in and say, “Okay. Who could possibly, possibly hate Good Omens?” I go read about the one star reviews…
[Brandon] I’m like, “Oh. Art is subjective. People are allowed to like different kinds of art. It’s okay for them to not like my art. A one star review does not… Is not a personal attack, it is just this art isn’t working for me.”
[Dan] You practice a much more kindhearted version of this. I will read the one star reviews and go, “Man, the world is full of idiots.”
[Brandon] So, go do that. Go familiarize yourself with the idea that art is subjective and then keep making your art and meeting your own goals. This has been Writing Excuses, you’re out of excuses, now go write.