Trigger warning: This post contains disturbing content about query letter writing suitable for mature audiences only. Thick skin is recommended before reading.
Query letters. Ugh.
I think the second part of that response is automatic for most writers. The very thought of writing a query letter elicits only slightly less nausea than the actual writing of the first draft of a story. Unlike a completed story – which can sit comfortably hidden in a drawer or a secret password-protected folder on your cloud drive never to see the light of day again – a query letter is meant to be sent to people. People like editors and agents. People who can, with the stroke of a pen, send a writer to the height of the mountaintop of joy or crashing into the depths of despair and self-flagellation to roll in the cesspool of imposter syndrome while gnomes in spiky combat boots trample on their soul.
That’s one powerful pen.
Social media is filled with posts about querying.
“Sending out query #1. Wish me luck! #amquerying #publishing”
“Query #28. Another form rejection. #amquerying #soulcrushed”
“I got a full request! #amquerying #soexcited”
“Is a personal rejection better than a form rejection? #amquerying #confused”
And let’s be honest, there’s an odd mixture of excitement and jealousy for our peers when we see the post that says, “I just signed with my dream agent!” or “I sold my debut novel to…” We want to be excited for our friends and fellow writers, and we are. Doesn’t mean we’re not disappointed it’s not happening for us.
By far, however, the posts about querying that get the most traction are the ones in which a writer is puzzled/frustrated about the oh-so-very-vague language of the rejection.
“Just not right for me.”
“No clear editorial vision.”
“Does not suit our list at this time.”
A resounding “why” echoes throughout the universe after such a rejection. Why isn’t it right? Even if a manuscript checks every item on an agent or editor’s wishlist it may not fit what the agency or house is looking to focus on in the 12-18 months it will take to get the book ready for publication. The market changes rapidly and in order to stay at the front of the line, professionals have to be constantly on alert for the subtle shifts that indicate where the readers want to go.
The love language of the rejection – those soft words that simply mean “I’m not interested” – are hard to read for a writer for many reasons. As much as we hate rejection, we hate knowing our story failed to connect with a reader. I think we crave the feedback, however much we may fear it. If we don’t know what didn’t work, we can’t fix it!
And therein lies the rub. Unless an agent or editor is going to put in the long term effort to ready a manuscript for publication, they’re not going to offer feedback for a variety of reasons. One, if you’ve ever critiqued a manuscript, you know how much time is involved in providing balanced and constructive feedback. It’s not “oh I like your character” and “your plot really interested me.”
It’s layers of response. It’s not just giving you a reaction, but telling the writer the foundation of why that reaction was formed, how multiple scenes and moments in the book built that emotion and that response for you as a reader. Then showing them the impact of this reaction on other elements of the story and character. Does it make the story stronger or does it weaken some other element?
Because without all of that, simply saying “I like your characters” really doesn’t mean anything.
But here’s the part that I think most writers won’t like to hear and I’ll explain it by giving an example from my own writing. I entered a lot of contests when I started writing. I had visions of someone falling in love with my story and giving me the secret to overnight success. What I got was a ton of feedback. Great, right? Yes and no. It helped me learn my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. But I took every comment as something I had to change in my story.
After a while, I didn’t recognize my own story. What one person loved, another hated. Too much information for one person was not enough for another. I spent so much time rewriting my story I never moved on to another. Luckily my mentor told me I didn’t need to take every comment to heart. Not every change would be right for my story. And no matter what I changed or didn’t change, someone wouldn’t like it. I would have to figure out where that line was drawn because it was my story.
Given our nature, I think writers would focus on the negative and get mired down in what didn’t work for each query outcome. I’m not sure that’s the reason editors and agents don’t give us specifics. Frankly, I think they don’t want to send a message that might be interpreted as “if you change this, I will publish/represent you.” Because we all know there are those that would take it that way.
There are a lot of ways to learn about the publishing journey but the best is usually to fail, pick yourself up, and start again. If you’ve sent out 100 queries and gotten no response, maybe you need to review your book or your query. Are you targeting the write houses or agents? Is your query adequate? Is the book polished to its best shine?
Is the market ready for your book?
I’d love for the answer to this question to be yes for all of us. The truth is, however, it doesn’t work that way. You may need to sit on the book for a little longer, watch the market, and find another time to query this particular story. And if you can’t wait, maybe there’s another avenue to publication you need to research.
Publishing is a tough business and as much as I would like to think the world is waiting to fall in love with my story, the truth may be the market is saturated with my type of story or my writing isn’t as good as my mom said it was or my kind of story just isn’t selling right now.
Yeah, I know. It sucks.
But maybe all of that will change with the next book your write. So go write it. Finish it. Query it.
Then do it all over again.