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I received a completely unexpected rejection yesterday from an agent. Not that I had expected her to request my full manuscript, but I hadn’t expected to hear from her at all.  She’s the one I wrote about many months ago who I’d met at the Pitch Slam in January and then queried, and then followed up with in March (after the requisite two month wait) and then never ever heard from. So I assumed I never would.

Suddenly yesterday an email from her appears in my inbox. I was so surprised I thought maybe I’d pushed some funny button on my phone and pulled up old email files form the dark recesses of digital storage. But no, it was dated August 24 and she began by saying what a pleasure it was to meet me at the conference (although I’m certain she has little recollection of me at all). She then apologized for how long it’s taken her to get to all these submissions and acknowledged that I’d probably written her off, but “for what it’s worth, I think you have a very interesting project and an important story to tell. I also found that your prose conveys true emotion and that you handle a difficult subject with a deft hand.”

Okay, okay, this sounds good. Tell me more. And then the word: “Unfortunately …” It’s like those moments on The Bachelor when they say to some puppy-eyed prospect, “You’re everything I’ve ever wanted in a partner: funny and smart and good-looking. I knew from the moment I laid eyes on you that I might fall in love … BUT ….”

So, my “unfortunately” was that the narrative did not pick up quickly enough for her to have the necessary enthusiasm to represent my book.

Well, I have to say, this is a really good rejection for a few reasons: One, I didn’t expect to hear from her at all so it’s not like I was holding out some last great hope. And two, this is the very first time I’ve received any constructive criticism. I’ve had agents reject me in completely generic terms or I’ve had them praise me and my writing only to blame the market or their own inexperience for not being able to sell my work (a twist on the classic, “It’s not you, it’s me” line). But now, finally, I have an actual reason, something I can do to make it better.

And it’s the very reason I’ve been wondering about lately.  In fact, just last week, I dragged my book out of those dark recesses of digital storage and added a brand new first page, something I’d been loathe to do before. I knew the beginning didn’t fully capture my best writing but I’d been so stuck on how to change it. I still don’t have the perfect answer for how to do it but at least I have an impetus to do so and a clear goal — move the narrative along faster.

Now I just have to hope the one other agent I’m still holding out hope for doesn’t think the same thing!

Tuesday was the six month mark since I sent out my samples to the agents I met at the Writer’s Digest Pitch Slam. Of those five, I got three rejections, one remarkably personal and complimentary and two standard form letters. There was one woman who simply refused to respond, despite two separate follow-up inquiries. And then there’s the last, my holdout, and favorite of the bunch.

She’s the one who, according to online lore, takes an awful long time to get back to queries. The agency website says to resubmit after six months, so that is what I did late Tuesday night, six months to the day since I sent my original, with a friendly, “I know you’re really busy, but …” letter.

No word yet, but now I’m more nervous than ever. As tedious as all these months of waiting are, at least they hold hope. That whisper of hope is always there, simmering below the surface: this is gonna be The One, she’s gonna ask to read the entire manuscript and then love it and then sign up to represent me and then sell the book to a major publishing house — oooh, maybe there’ll be a bidding war and a six-figure advance, and then it’s interviews and New York Times bestseller lists and book signings and then, oh yeah, someone is obviously gonna want to make it into a big Hollywood production, and then ….

Or at least the beginning part: She’ll like it enough to ask to read the rest! That’s all I really want at this point — for something to read the whole damn thing.

If this doesn’t pan out, then I’ll have to take a long hard look at my work and possibly revamp the beginning, which is of course the hardest part to change.  If someone asked me to rework ten or twenty pages in the middle, I could do it in a flash. But the opening sentences are just so so hard. But I’m afraid it’s falling a little flat and that it takes too long for me to really get my groove. Oh, I don’t know, hopefully this won’t be an issue at all. Hopefully, I’ll get that positive response and then, and then, and then …. You know the rest.

So what is happening with that book of mine, you ask. Well . . . nothing much.

There are still two agents from the Pitch Slam who I haven’t heard back from, one of whom I’ve pretty much given up on. From what I’ve read of her online, she usually responds fairly quickly and in one interview, she welcomed follow-up emails if she hadn’t responded to a query within five or six weeks. So I sent her one a few weeks ago and still, nothing. She’s the one I mentioned who I would have been shocked if she’d asked to read my full manuscript, so I guess it’s to be excepted. Still, it seems extraordinarily rude to ask to read someone’s work and then to even give them the courtesy of a rejection. I mean, it’s only a measly form letter — it would take thirty seconds to paste it into the body of an email and hit send. Oh well.

The other agent who still hasn’t responded happens to be my favorite of the five. Her agency’s website says right up front that it takes them up to three months to review initial submissions and only to follow-up if we haven’t heard back in six months. Six months! And I thought I’d already done my share of waiting.

That agency did have a very thorough submission form that asked for all sorts of information, from the last book I read to the author who’s most inspired my writing to a single line, one sentence, culled from my submitted pages (not easy!). They also required a synopsis, which is harder than writing a full-length manuscript! Really, in the past, I’ve steered clear of agents who request a synopsis just because I didn’t want to have to write one. This is a two-page summary of the entire book, devoid of any exposition — just straight up, “This happens, then that happens, blah blah blah.” Ugh. Double ugh.

But I do trust that, by requesting all that information, and by warning ahead of time how long it takes her to review it all, that she really will indeed review it all, and that she really will indeed respond. I’ve also read some interviews with writers who’ve signed with her and they all say that she’s much much quicker to respond once she officially represents you and that she spends most of her work day acting on behalf of her current clients and their books, which is a good sign.

So, more waiting and more hoping. If there are only a few things I’ve learned since Austin was diagnosed with cancer, it’s how to wait and how to hope.

The rest of the details:  The entire conference was good, with many interesting sessions (and some really boring ones).  There was a mix of presentations on writing as a craft (how to build and develop your characters) and writing as a business (how to build and develop an online following). I find the former more enjoyable, even though right now it’s the latter that is probably more important.

There was an enormous focus on using social media and blogging (can’t tell you how many times I heard the words “Search Engine Optimization” — perhaps I should go back to my hot titles?) and on the changing face of the book industry given new technologies (e-books, print-on-demand and so on).  It was during these sessions that I found myself (and many of those around me) pulling out the draft of my pitch for endless last minute revising and rehearsing.

I had an opportunity on Friday afternoon to practice my pitch with one of the session presenters, the book world’s expert on pitches and queries. He really helped me hone in on the central theme of my work.  I had been planning on opening with one of those poetic lines that sounds really lovely but doesn’t actually give the hard facts an agent needs.

My original first line: The Wrong Side of the Window is, in essence, a love story: a great big public declaration of a mother’s love for her sick son, her healthy son, her husband, the family, friends and wide community that sustains one family through its darkest hours.

The first line I ended up using: The Wrong Side of the Window is an 83,000 word memoir about mothering through adversity.

A bit more to the point, yes? I also originally introduced Austin as “the hero” of the book until he said that, because it’s a memoir, the hero can only be me. So I omitted Austin entirely and spoke solely of myself.

Kidding!

But I did change a few words to say that the book “focused on” Austin, without using the word hero at all. Many of the agents really responded to the Braedan parts (with lots of vigorous head nodding): There’s wide-eyed and gentle Braedan, struggling to find his role in the drama that stars his little brother, whom he adores and resents with equal force.

I had been advised by above-mentioned expert to leave the word “suffering” out of my last line, which I tried to do late Friday night and throughout the Saturday morning sessions before I finally decided it belonged there, because, hello, I can’t just go and lie.

Sad but not depressing and hopeful but not sappy, this story is an intimate look at suffering and loving and really, really living.

After my introductory monologue, there were 90 seconds for discussion, during which time the agents inevitably asked how Austin was doing (and I often joked that they had to read my pages to find out). The other topics ranged from questions about my previous writing experience to “I can’t wait to read more about the Braedan and Austin relationship.”

All in all, I left there feeling listened to, respected and validated (never a bad thing).  I will send out my pages tomorrow and expect to hear back from them within four to six weeks. The hearing back part is another huge bonus of going to a conference like this and having a face-to-face meeting. Often, due to the high number of blind submissions an agent receives each week, they say that if you don’t hear back from them within a specified amount of time, assume it’s a no. I think that these agents will provide a response, even if it’s a rejection, because it’s material they actually requested. And, if it is a rejection, they will hopefully take a few minutes to say why. And if it’s not a rejection, then they’ll ask to read the full manuscript, which could take another eight weeks. And after that, they would either offer to represent you (or, hopefully, me!) or not.

Then a whole other process starts during which they need to sell the manuscript to a publishing house who actually publishes the book, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves!

Everything else about the weekend was great too.  The fellow writers at the conference were extremely interesting to talk with and very supportive of one another’s work. I am sure to have lots of new friends on Facebook this week!  My mom and I are excellent travel partners because we like all the same things — same kind of food (must include cheese), same amount of walking (lots), same style of walking (fast), same way to spend any free moment (shopping). So, after finishing our long Pitch Day, we walked 3.6 miles in our newly purchased and miraculously comfortable boots to meet up with old friends at a fabulous little Italian place and eat delicious food and drink fat glasses of wine before walking another 3.6 miles back to our hotel. And we never once turned on the hotel room TV.

Perfect.

I love that I can be equally as excited to go away somewhere as I am to come home again — definitely a good sign. And speaking of good signs … the weekend was fabulous.

I am exhausted so I’ll skip all the extraneous details (for now at least) and get to the thing you (and I) care about most: the Pitch Slam. What a fascinating and exhilarating and nerve-wracking process!  Picture more than four hundred aspiring authors lined up outside a hotel ballroom at 2:50 and then, when the doors are ceremoniously opened at 3:15, the crowd surges forward and everyone forms chaotic lines behind the agents of their choice, who are seated two to a table around the periphery of room. And then you wait, lips moving silently as you nervously rehearse your “lines,” eying the competition, strategically deciding which line to stand in next.

I pitched to seven agents in the two hours, which (from what I gleaned from my 400 new best friends) was on the higher end. Five of them requested material, usually the first 10 to 30 pages (one said, “Oh just send me the whole thing” — gulp!). I’m happy with that response, although it was far from unique.  Most attendees I spoke with were asked to send work to most of the agents they pitched to (my mom had an impressive six requests out of six!).  I think the request itself is not an indication of how well they really liked your pitch (I honestly think the agents were sometimes just being nice to people), but the victory lies in the fact that there will now be five people actually reading my work. And that for me has been the biggest hurdle, given the somewhat “unappetizing” nature of what I write.  I mean, few people walk into the bookstore and exclaim, “Oh look! A memoir about a baby who gets cancer — can’t wait to read it!”

I felt like I received some very personal and thoughtful reactions, including one excellent rejection. The first agent I pitched to, who was starred as number one on my list, got tears in her eyes and said she has learned through experience that she simply cannot represent work of this nature because she gets too emotionally caught up in the characters and is no longer able to be objective about the manuscript. That “No” felt as good as some of my “Yeses.”

I did have one other woman who passed, saying that cancer memoirs are just too hard to sell. I wanted to say, “Ugh, I know, everyone who’s ever been sick thinks they should write a book … but this one is GOOD,” but that sort of self-promotion is not looked upon very highly (to say the least).

But all the others seemed genuinely interested (often interrupting to ask if Austin was okay) and excited to hear more. So my next few days will include rewriting a query letter (much easier now that I have a pitch I like) and polishing up those first ten to thirty pages (again) and emailing them off in the hopes that one (or more) agents will like what they read.

And then, who knows, we’ll see … but mission number one is definitely accomplished.

I think I’ve been wrong. This book started out all about Austin. And it is obviously Austin’s story that sits at the center and that moves the narrative along. But this book is really about me and about being a mother. Or a parent. Or a person, for that matter. This is a book about hardship, of course, and overcoming hardship, but it is also about appreciating the little things, about relishing the joys large and small that come your way, about remembering what’s important.

It all sounds sort of cliched, “every cloud has a silver lining,” “life is what you make of it,” but it’s still true. I guess it’s time for me to sit down and rewrite these queries from scratch with that as my selling point — the human part not just the cancer part. Who really walks into a bookstore and chooses a book about cancer anyway, unless you’re living it at that moment. It’s all pretty depressing after all. And while my book is no doubt sad, depressing it is not.

This is such a revelation for me. I’m so glad I posted those letters and got such thorough and thoughtful feedback from so many of you (through all my various modes of communication, especially — of course — Facebook) about what has kept you coming back, even when the life-and-death moments were safely behind us, and reading my every word for the past year and a half. I wish I’d done it sooner.

Thank you. Yet again . . . thank you.

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