Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Querying into the void

I have been on the querying journey for a few years now. I started querying in 2016 (prematurely). I stopped, edited, queried again in 2017 (which is when you and a few other agents gave me some great advice) so I stopped and edited some more. Then queried again in 2018 with a few partial requests and then one full request in October. The partial requests were rejected without any feedback. The full request was just rejected and I'm not even sure the agent read the ms, she referred to it as a "sweet romance." It's not a romance. It's very obvious. She also called it "standard fare." Which stung. But in none of these rejections have I heard anything helpful to go back and work on the way I had before.

It is "cowgirl lit," to borrow your term, so I don't know if perhaps my audience of agents is particularly narrow? I'm writing a new project, 50K words in. I just won an equestrian voices writing contest. I know I'm a good writer. But what do I do with the great big void that I keep throwing my manuscript into? I said I wouldn't give up on the ms until I queried 100 agents, and I'm a ways off from that, but I don't want to keep querying something just for the sake of numbers.

What do you say, oh wise and mystical literary one?

Cryin' In My Cowgirl Boots

Standard fare is a pretty helpful, if awful, phrase.
It means you didn't surprise the agent at all.
That's death in a query and pages.
It doesn't have to be some zippity new plot point. You don't need Sharknado meets Little Bo Peep.
You need deft turns of phrase, compelling metaphors and descriptions that make me gasp at their beauty.

We've talked about this kind of thing before. If I don't put your manuscript down at least once, just to revel in the gloriousness of a phrase, or sentence or plot twist, it's probably going to be a pass.

I don't need things that are as good as the current front list. I need things that are different. And better.

So, what to do?
This is where you need to pay for some expert eyeballs.
Often you can do this through a writing conference, or through a charity auction of some sort.

Agents and editors often donate services for a good cause.

What you want is someone to look at your query and first 20 or so pages. Very often there's a problem you're not aware of, but you can fix when you know about it. I see this ALL THE TIME when I do one on one sessions at writing conferences. Most often the book starts in the wrong place. I've sent writers to their car to get the full ms so we can figure out the better starting point.

And often you burden those first few pages with set up and backstory. More than one writer has been left with five pages marked "ditch this" and one opening paragraph that I like.

The real question is how do you figure this out for yourself?

Well, one good way is to read a LOT of debut novels. See how those start. See how the story unfolds. Some will be better than others.Take notes about what works and what doesn't. Often what doesn't work is more instructive.

Why debuts? Cause those are the books that got bought. Everything after that can be published for reasons that aren't "this is a good book and I want to acquire it."

A side note: Be VERY careful of which agent or editor you bid on at a charity auction. I recently heard from an author who paid a chunk o'dough and the agent never delivered.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...

I am bowing my head and praying that you do your words right. Surprise us.
My heart goes out to you OP because, (as the Muppet "Sad Song" so eloquently says) "...I've been there buddy.")
Can you tell I am knee deep in grandchildren. Snow day today. Little writing will get done.

Aphra Pell said...

If you want to get to grips with first pages, I recommend the archives on Flogging the Quill as an extra resource. I'm somewhere in 2013 right now, and reviewing that volume of first pages has been hugely educational.

The big thing, which is mildly terrifying as a writer, is how few engage me as a reader. The exercise really rams home how hard it is to stand-out from a pile stripped of hooks like cover art, word of mouth, marketing, blurbs etc.

For me, what's getting a page turn is being dragged in by a strong voice which makes me live an interesting setting or puts me right at the shoulder of a character I don't want to leave.

Kitty said...

Nora Ephron’s book “Heartburn” was a bestseller. I’m sure lots of people in journalism bought the book because Nora was a popular journalist and essayist who had interviewed many famous people. I’m sure lots of people in DC bought the book because the book was a roman à clef of her marriage to the popular Carl “Watergate” Bernstein who was having a torrid affair with their mutual friend, married British journalist Margaret Jay. But I didn’t know any of that at the time. My introduction to Nora Ephron was reading the first page of “Heartburn”:

The first day I did not think it was funny. I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it. “The most unfair thing about this whole business,” I said, “is that I can’t even date.” Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper it doesn’t sound funny. But what made it funny (trust me) is the word “date,” which when you say it out loud at the end of a sentence has a wonderful teenage quality, and since I am not a teenager (okay, I’m thirty-eight), and since the reason I was hardly in a position to date on first learning that my second husband had taken a lover was that I was seven months pregnant, I got a laugh on it, though for all I know my group was only laughing because they were trying to cheer me up. I needed cheering up.

She slipped in a couple of bits of backstory as she began her story and hooked me in the process. That was the best first page I've ever read. Whenever I begin a new story, I think of that first page.

John Levins said...

I've been in the same place, OP, and I hope you find an agent who loves your work! I can attest to the value of having an objective eye review the first 20-25 pages. I did this with my previous MS and I made some revisions that definitely made it stronger. Overall I didn't get an agent on that MS but when I started the next MS I was able to use the good advice I'd received.

If you would like a recommendation I suggest considering Nathan Bransford (he has a writing blog) who provided excellent advice for me. Of course there's a fee but it was worth it.

Good luck!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

OP As our queen says, getting a pair of professional eyes on that query and first few pages is priceless. I did this with an agent at New Leaf (Janet's agency) and it was great. I got an "you're almost there" with some good detail on what was missing. Almost there is not there so yeah, I am doing another rewrite I had not intended. Hey, better that than a bunch of wordless rejections and me trying to figure out what was missing.

A debate on twitter recently erupted about paying for a professional edit. Absolutely, you do NOT have to pay anyone anything to get published.

If you can't get a charity or prize read and you have no money to pay for feedback, make sure you have 1-3 quality beta readers. They are also worth their weight in gold. There are free services that will hook you up with beta readers if you don't have any in exchange for like service.

Also, read your book out loud or have someone read it out loud to you. That helps with pace and making sure you have the right words and breaks in your sentences and paragraphs. Reading out loud further accentuates voice of your narrative whether it is working or is not working at all.

You got this, OP. And yes, keep working on that next book.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

Oh, and I love the Nora Ephron example of a great first page, Kitty. Great story.

Craig F said...

I am one of those wish'n, hop'n, and so on. Just tossed my first three queries into the sci-fi trenches. I hope to see some feedback but am not going to get my hopes up, though this query has promise.

It is the third thing I have queried, though I just wet a toe the other two times. The first, I never could get the query right, though that thriller is still my favorite piece of work.

The second took too big a step and I stumbled in the writing, that one will make a comeback, I hope.

This one. I am proud of the query and the book. I am going to keep it swimming upstream until someone else realizes it is worth a look. The market, though, is like the mullet run down this way. The waters flash silver as millions of them vie for their spot. It can be dizzying.

K. White said...

I concur with E.M. Goldsmith about reading your writing out loud. It really does help. However, recently I've started using the text to audio feature in Word. It's a mechanized voice that takes a little time to get accustomed to, but by turning my back to the page and just listening I have caught many a mistake and awkward sentence that I didn't hear when I was reading it myself.

Luanne G. Smith said...

Just a wee small observation I've made over the more than ten years of learning to write my own novels and get them published: it's not so much about being a good writer as it is about being a goos storyteller. Being good at writing is generally a given for those who go down this path. The next leap in the journey is finding a way to tell a tale in a way (voice) that makes the reader ignore the constant pinging from their phone long enough to finish the next chapter. You have to make it compelling, and that is often done by wringing out the emotion/drama so the reader feels it too.

Luanne G. Smith said...

*good* storyteller. geez.

Janet Reid said...

Luanne G. Smithis SO right!
Good writing is the start. It's the good storytelling that brings it home.

Claire Bobrow said...

I feel ya, OP. The hardest thing in the world is to stand out - in a good way. Janet's advice about reading debuts seems spot-on. Luanne makes an excellent point, too. We have to become good storytellers, and that's a freaking difficult challenge.

We're with you all the way, OP. Good luck and keep trying!

Timothy Lowe said...

I don't know if it's this way for anyone else, but for me, writing a novel is an act of controlled drowning. Every time I feel comfortable swimming, I know something's wrong. Not enough tension, not enough stakes, not enough reason to propel the writing forward. Too predictable, something. I have to feel a constant sense of danger (I'm talking about my feeling, not my characters' feelings) to know I'm headed in the right direction. I seldom know what's coming around the corner, and if I do, I know I'm in trouble.

What a relief, though, when a domino falls into place. It's like finally taking a breath.

This gig ain't for the faint of heart, for sure.

Brenda said...

Take J’s advice, OP. I did.
I bid on, and won, a query critique from Jenny Bent and a three chapter critique from Barbara Poelle, both of whom gave me far more time and attention than I expected to receive for my donation.
Jenny taught me how to get my query noticed (it worked) and Barbara put her unerring little diamond clad finger on the problem with my story. Ultimately, they rejected the manuscript but I’m taking the lessons learned into my new WIP. Five minutes on the phone with either of them put many of my publishing fears to rest.
We become so invested in our work that we need fresh eyes to point out the obvious.

Brenda said...

I should also point out that not all advice received from other agents has been valuable.
These snippets of feedback all fell flat with me:
Add sex.
Change it to Y/A.
Make your Mc female and swap the gender of his parents.
Give your MC an indigenous sounding name. (WTF, by the way.)
I still have fulls out but my focus now is to take the lessons learned into the writing of the next, hopefully more compelling , story.

Melanie Sue Bowles said...

OP... I'm guessing you've enlisted the input of beta readers? What sort of feedback are you receiving from folks who read and love cowgirl lit?

Years ago, after completing my first collection of stories about Proud Spirit, I reached out to an author who also wrote nonfiction about horses. We spoke on the phone, discussed publishing, and she offered to look at my work. After reading pages, we spoke again. She told me I'd never get published because of my obviously poor education. But, she added, "Your ability to tell a story is outstanding."

I thought it was odd that she would ridicule me rather than encourage me to work on grammar and punctuation (which is what I did - and I did get published. So there, mean author lady).

My point is: it's nice to hear what resonates, but to grow we need to hear where we fall flat. Get ye more eyeballs. And onward!

AJ Blythe said...

Janet, I hope you don't mind me putting this here (please delete if you do).

If you want a set of eyes on your query and first 5 pages can I recommend sending it to The Query Shark!! Yes, that is Janet's alter ego and who better to give your work the once over?!

Did you know you can get your query, or query and pages reviewed? Prices are on the website. The best thing is, our esteemed Query Shark will look at your pages and let you know if she can help before taking payment (no charge for looking).

Even better, she gives you feedback, you revise and RESEND for our favourite shark to have a second go-over.

I'm speaking from experience as someone who has used this service and can I say worth. every. penny. (or in my case, cent *grin*). I've appreciated her advice and candor...*lightbulb* advice.

After an horrific end to last year I'm finally BUCHOK (bum in chair, hands on keyboard) and currently tearing hair out working through the feedback. The things is, her advice resonated and I'm excited about the changes.

I know (thanks to the time difference) there's a chance this won't be seen by many, so I might reference it in the next post because it's really worth considering using The Query Shark if you are wanting professional eyes on your pages.