Query Letters & Pizza Hut & Alcohol: lessons from PNWA Writer’s Conference 2016

 

So many emotions inside of this body. So many questions, doubts, and fears. Will my book ever be ready? Will an agent want me? Will my book be published? Will I amount to anything? All of these questions as I order Pizza Hut (a childhood staple) and sooth myself with old episodes of The OC.

So what’s got me in a funk? Well, I’m processing. I’m processing information received this past weekend at the PNWA Writer’s Conference, and the idea that, perhaps, my manuscript is not yet ready to query. And, perhaps, the way I have been querying has been wrong.

There was much to learn at the PNWA Writer’s Conference, and my ears were open and my eyes wide, soaking it all in, gleaning all that I could from each conversation and workshop. So what did I learn? I will be posting several “lessons” from this conference, but for now –

Lesson One: Query Letters.

I began querying in mid-June after years of digging and digging, whittling away at my novel until I believed it was ready. My calling card would be the query letter. Some agents (most) only want to see your query letter, and this is what they use to determine whether or not they’d like to take a look at your manuscript, whether it is a partial look (five pages, ten pages, three chapters), or a full request. For those of you who don’t know what a query letter is, the writer sums up their project with its title, genre, word count, a brief synopsis (as concise and engaging as it can be within 1-2 paragraphs), comparable titles, and a bio – all of this in only one page.

To say query letters are important is an understatement so I took great care while constructing mine. Made sure that it was professional yet also held the voice of my protagonist, showcased my style. When I was finished with it, I thought my QL was the shit, so proud to send that baby out to agents, and it was – is – it is the shit, but I realized that my calling card has been wrong.

Sure, I’ve gotten traction with agents. I’ve had 5 agents request my full manuscript after reading partials, after first reading my query letter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if all five of these agents rejected me. Because this is what I did and what I didn’t do…

In my query letter, I stressed the excitement of a revenge novel, but I didn’t showcase the personal journey of self-exploration my protagonist, Maddy, goes on. I used comparable titles that sizzle with revenge like Gone Girl and Girl on a Train because, like these books, my novel has a complex female character (but I added this bit – who takes the reader on a journey of unfiltered, unbridled revenge). And while this is true, this is all true – that’s not all that happens. It is not all about revenge. My book is literary in nature. It is not a genre novel. It is thoughtful. It is a slow burn, like Tampa or I Smile Back, with an unlikeable female protagonist because unlikeable female protagonists are my jam. And this was my desire: to crack Maddy’s skull open for the reader and expose her secret heart, her secret desires because once exposed, it doesn’t matter if you like her at all. It matters if you care about what happens to her, that you are invested in her story, and she has become relatable to her readers through her imperfections.

So what should have I done differently? I should have taken more care before submitting to agents, really thought about what type of book I have written. Because, really, your query letter is teaching the agent how to read your book, setting expectations for the reader. And the expectations that I have been setting are wrong.

Agents will read my book with Gone Girl in mind. They will expect the fast-paced thrill. They will expect the thrill of revenge. But perhaps they won’t appreciate the slower moments, the moments where we sink into Maddy’s mind and the only action is that of her brain ticking and clicking.

This conference forced me to think about my book as a product, and not a creative endeavor. It forced me to understand the business side of this artistic world. And I am a business woman. So I have tweaked my query letter. Gone is Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. Replaced by Tampa and Fates and Furies.

And, oh yeah, another tidbit – at the editor’s forum, an editor from a Big Five publishing house said, “I don’t want anything like Gone Girl or Girl on a Train – the market is saturated with them. I won’t even look at them.” Interesting. This business. And perhaps this is the very reason why some agents have rejected me based solely on my query letter. And little did I know (did they know), my comparable titles were off. I didn’t give it enough thought. Too eager to throw my baby out into the world.

Writing has taught me patience. Traditional publishing, even more. And the thing that’s got me eating Pizza Hut and watching television shows from the early 2000’s? The fact that my manuscript is not ready. It needs one more draft. (Sigh. Tears. Give me alcohol.) Because now I need to make sure that my intention within my novel is clear. I need to think about it as a product. Make sure my product is shaped to my liking, to my genre’s liking. As a debut author, I must think of these things. I must not give an agent any reason to reject me. I must give them every reason to take a risk on me. Because I have done the work.

So other writers out there – make sure you take care with your baby. Make sure your allegiance lies with the writing, not your ego. Make sure your query letter best represents your novel. Take a breath. Exercise patience. And I will be doing this with you. Over and over and over again. And we will wait and hope our baby lands in the right hands.

 

**Lesson Two will be on revisions. Stay tuned, friends.**

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