The Underbelly of Querying

For many aspiring novelists, querying agents and sometimes publishers is a requirement. Most big publishers won’t accept manuscripts from unagented writers and even if they do, you’re up against a mountain of slush. It stands to reason that if your work is submitted by an agent that has a standing relationship with your dream publisher, your manuscript will rise to the top of the pile.

I started educating myself about the querying process in 2014, when I’d finished my middle grade fantasy novel, DOORWAYS TO ARKOMO. My education included reading Janet Reid’s blogĀ QueryShark from cover to cover so I could hone my query writing skills. I also combed the archives of Writer’s Digest and basically scoured the internet for any nibble of advice or insight. That’s when I discovered that agents and publishers are extremely active on Twitter.

I started following agents, writers (indie and main stream), editors, publishers, and book cover artists – pretty much anyone I could think of that had a hand in the industry. Even with all this preparation and after months of querying roughly 25 or 30 agents, I got discouraged. Rejection is hard. I wanted people to love my book as much as I did. I wanted to stand out, but it seemed impossible when agents were Tweeting about receiving hundreds of queries each WEEK. At that point I jumped on the indie author bandwagon and set about self-publishing DOORWAYS.

Self-publishing taught me a lot, but the biggest lesson I learned from the experience was that I really, REALLY needed an agent – a navigator to help me get my books out there where they won’t sink beneath the constant influx of new indie titles (in 2014, TechCrunch reported that one new book was published on Amazon each MINUTE).

I wrote a third book – the first in a new fantasy series. By now I’d been writing books pretty much nonstop for three years, learning about the industry and also learning to be a better writer (I hope). When I “finished” my latest novel, SPIRITWOOD, I queried with a lot more confidence and a newfound resolve not to let the rejections get me down. There were a few agents I’d queried with DOORWAYS who liked my writing style and told me to query them with any new books, so I started there. Yadda, yadda, yadda, I got a couple of requests for partials or fulls, but still…no agent. After about 35 rejections, I went back and took a look at my manuscript and revised it (based on very insightful feedback from one of the agents who read the full). Then I queried a few more agents and, by chance, met a writing coach who loved my premise and wanted to see the book. I met her on Twitter, by the way…

She read the book and pointed out some major issues that she felt were fixable and we started working on revising the book back in November. I’m on my third revision and, yes, I’m discouraged that it’s taking this long and more than a bit anxious that I won’t find an agent who loves the story as much as me, but I am LEARNING. I’m learning so much about what it takes to be a successful writer. It’s work. It’s hard. Some days it feels futile, but it’s my dream. I mean, what else is there?

And this is where I want to mention a recent train wreck that started when a young agent Tweeted about a writer she’d rejected, and who had posted a very unkind blog post about her on his web site. I saw her Tweet and I knew…I just KNEW…it was going to go viral in the writing community. Essentially, she’d rejected his book via the normal querying process, but for some reason he still met with her at a writing conference where she expressed zero interest in his book, once again. He likenedĀ himself to Hemingway, so I’ll call him Mr. Hemingway going forward…

Mr. Hemingway disparaged the agent’s appearance. An older (white) man, the tone of his entire post was bitter and condescending. Why should HE have to go through HER (such a young thing), to get his brilliant book published? This wasn’t his only post either – there were many, MANY others. Mr. Hemingway was pissed and he wanted to let everyone know it. His many posts include agents names, profile pictures (creepy!), the nature of the rejection and long, soliloquies about how misunderstood he and his brilliance were.

It didn’t take agents to find his post and begin a firestorm of Twitter outrage which included some people taking screenshots of the post and reblogging it (why, people?) and others threatening to blacklist him (I don’t think he needs any help there). And this is where I really felt my breath catch in my throat, because I didn’t realize before this all started how much resentment is bubbling under the surface on both sides of the agent/writer dynamic.

And this is also when I realized that we’re in this together. It’s not writers against agents or agents against writers. We’re all just trying to make a living in the same industry. Duh, right?

As a querying writer, each day can be discouraging. Each rejection can make you question yourself. Form rejections can make you feel pretty worthless – and egos can get ruffled. I GET that, I do, but it’s not okay to be mean to agents – or anyone – because they rejected your work. I’m not saying you have to simper and bow (e.g., THANK YOU SIR, MAY I HAVE ANOTHER?), but…man…if I had to sift through 500 emails every week, I’d come up with a form letter too. Also, as much as I’d like to write whatever the hell I want to write, it’s my job to understand the market and try to write something that agents can actually sell. Yes, I may feel my creativity is stifled because I can’t write my retelling of Moby Dick from the whale’s perspective, but ultimate freedom of creativity will have to wait until I’ve established myself, it’s that simple.

When a writer like Mr. Hemingway is bitter, nasty, threatening or demeaning to agents, it makes us all look bad. To the agents out there, I’m sorry that you have to deal with that shit. He doesn’t speak for me though, or the thousands of other amazing writers who dream of getting representation.

From a querying writer’s perspective, agents can seem dismissive and uncaring, particularly when they Tweet under the hashtags #querytip and #tenqueries, complaining about how their name is mispelled or writing a snarky comment about how a book is too long or too short, etc. etc.. Writers have a lot of rules to follow and we do our best, but we’re not perfect. If you’re going to tweet tips, make them helpful, “e.g., 200,000 words is too long for a YA Romance, the industry average is 50 – 70K” or whatever. Better yet, respond to the person who queried you and THEN tweet it – because I guarantee you that 9 times out of 10, your advice will help the aspiring writer.

So, now that the smoke as cleared and we all pretty much agree that Mr. Hemingway is a huge ass and no one wants to be associated with him, let’s all have a group hug and move on. We’ve got work to do.