This is the latest post in my series documenting my writing process. Since returning from a writing conference in July, I have focused all my attention on rewriting a novel finished some time ago, called Being Ruby. I did this to accommodate much worthwhile feedback the manuscript received at the conference. I reconceptualized it, changed the voice from first- to third-person, remotivated the characters, simplified the plot, and radically straightened out the timeline. I gave it a better title, too.
That rewrite took only six weeks, albeit 6 hours a day, 7 days a week. The result, at 73,000 words, is about as good as I can make it. I could go through it again and strengthen my nouns and verbs and deepen my descriptions. I could fuss with it forever. That’s the problem of diminishing returns. So I simply declared a state of doneness. Time to send it out!
I spent an intense week writing my query letter and synopsis. The best advice for writing a query letter, I believe, is at www.agentquery.com. I followed their instructions pretty closely, although it took a long time to put my head into the agent’s point of view. The agent wants to know, at a glance, “Could I sell this story?”
The writer’s point of view is not so focused. Ask any writer who’s just finished a manuscript, “What’s this book about?” You’ll get a long, rambling answer. “Well, it’s sort of a love story, and it takes place in France, but it’s also about social class and manners, and key moments of history, and there’s a mystery element too.”
I realized, that for an author, the question, “What’s it about?” is not the right one for writing the query letter. The correct question is, “What happens in this book that is so interesting, anybody would want to read more?” Intention, subtlety, nuance, subtext, subplots, allegories, themes – all that goes out the window. “What happens” can be a statement of the plot, but better, a statement of what ordeal the main character had to go through. You have one sentence to say what happens. Here’s mine:
A young woman with inexplicable memory blackouts discovers she has a frightening alternate personality and doubts her own sanity, but when her long-lost brother returns to reveal a secret from their childhood, she finds a way to exploit her divided self to take revenge on the uncle who destroyed her life and her brother’s.
Is that a good hook? I have no idea. I will know in a few weeks if anybody bites.
The synopsis was also extremely difficult to write, and there’s no good advice out there on how to do it. 300 pages had to be reduced to one and a half. The key move for me was again to put myself into the agent’s head. Stories can, and often do, take many wild turns. You could start with a love story, and find you’re in a pirate adventure. The agent needs to see the overall flow. So I listed the three or four main challenges the character faced and turned those into linked paragraphs, finishing with how everything ended up. And you do have to give away the ending in the synopsis. The agent does not want any surprises.
Next, I had to find a list of agents. There are many lists, including:
The first two on this list seemed the most valuable places to start. Taking advice from many online sources, I decided to query 10 agents at a time, wait for the rejections, then do ten more. The idea is that I might get actual feedback (as opposed to merely no response, which is the most common form of rejection), and any feedback is better than nothing. Based on what happens, I might decide to revise my query letter and/or synopsis.
Selecting agents to query is a tedious process. I selected my search terms and got a list of 89 agents who matched them (e.g., genres = literary, commercial, and thriller; agent accepts email queries; agent is accepting ANY queries right now).
For each result, I had to click open the agent’s data and then the agency’s web site. An agency might have 1 or a dozen agents. Some want what I have, some don’t. I make a list. I enter their names on a tracking spreadsheet I made up in Excel. You can only query one agent at a given agency, at a time, so I chose a likely match. Based on the information they reveal online, it’s like reading tea leaves, but you can definitely rule out some, because of a narrow focus, for example.
Then I have to read the submission guidelines. All agents want the query letter, but only some want the synopsis. Some, but not all want some sample pages, from three to 50 pages. A few want an author bio. Whatever they want, I assemble into an email and shoot it off.
At conferences and in magazines, agents always emphasize that querying authors must “do their research,” which means, at least, read their agency’s web page, the agent’s statement of interest, and look to see if the agent has represented any books similar to yours. They also recommend that you read some of the books they have previously sold.
Well, it’s a good idea to read the agency web site and the agent’s statement of interest, but I can’t learn anything from looking at the list of books they represent. Usually it is an extremely eclectic mix that tells me nothing. Agents are opportunists. The past does not predict the future. So forget that.
Agents also commonly say they are deeply offended if a query does not address them with a proper salutation. I believe they all would agree to “Your Majesty,” but I find the tone of such complaints off-putting. Of course everyone wants to be treated with courtesy and respect, but when an agent tells me I should read her Facebook page to learn that she loves dogs, and then I should mention dogs in my query letter (“Hey! I like dogs too!”) my sense is that the relationship is all wrong from the start.
The author manufactures the magic, and need not pander to any agent. So I don’t insert “personal” notes in my query material. Fundamentally it is an economic relationship. I’ve got goods; you want ‘em or not?
I’ve enjoyed the last week or so of finding suitable potential agents and querying them. Yes, it’s hard work, but compared to creating something out of nothing, it’s relaxation therapy. Now I must wait about a month to see if any fish take the bait. Meanwhile, I can go back to other projects, where something must be squeezed out of nothing.
UPDATE TWO MONTHS LATER
I have now sent my query letter out to 60 agents, about 10 a week for two months. One agent requested a partial and one requested the full manuscript. Needless to say, I was thrilled. Nevertheless, both ended up declining to represent the book.
Of the 60 queries, 20 resulted in polite, written notes declining the offer, a 33% response rate, which I think is above average, based on conversations with my friends. I take that to mean that the query is considered serious, worthy of at least the time to email a form rejection. The other 40 queries resulted in utter silence, the cruelest form of rejection, as if I didn’t exist.
Even though I am fully aware this is a numbers game, getting rejected 60 times in a row takes an emotional toll. Each time, I plunge into self-doubt. Maybe the book really is no good. Maybe I am delusional. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a writer. Those depressing thoughts last only for an hour or so, but there’s no denying that rejection is not easy to take. But it’s part of the normal process, I tell myself, so I soldier on.
I re-read the query letter, for the umpteenth time, trying to see what agents see. Why do they not see the value? This is an interesting story, competently told, and they should be able to sell it easily. What’s missing? I decided to rewrite the letter, making it a little longer (always a risk) in order to reveal more about the characters and the plot to suggest what treasures are buried. Here is the new opening paragraph, now more than one sentence:
“College student Pam Dix is terrified by inexplicable memory blackouts linked to lapses into a frightening alternate personality, but when her long-lost brother returns and resurrects memories of childhood sexual abuse by an uncle, she makes a risky decision to exploit her divided self to take revenge. She learns to consciously invoke ‘Ruby,’ her feared alternate self, to accomplish what Pam Dix cannot.”
I’ve given the character a name, hoping to make a better connection. I’ve hinted at her age, to help think about marketing. I’ve been explecit about childhood sexual abuse, which I had shied away from mentioning, for fear of frightening the timid. I’ve tried to suggest a more Jekyll-and-Hyde formula than before.
The subsequent paragraph develops more detail on the character and plot structure. A final paragraph wraps it up. My word count went from 185 to 316, and I’m worried about that. Agents have extremely limited attention spans.
I’ll be sending the revised letter out this week. I report these changes here to illustrate how it is possible to “interpret the silence” of continual rejection, and why it is a good idea to send out queries in small batches, to allow opportunity for such learning and revision.
I have also signed up for a Writer’s Digest conference in which attendees are invited to submit their query letter to an expert for critique (for a price, of course). That will provide me with professional feedback that hopefully will help tune up the letter further.