How to query like Bilbo Bagginses

So my last post was all about finding the courage to send out query letters to literary agents for my novel, MOTHER MONA. I finally found a little bit between the couch cushions, and so I actually went for it. (scream)

You know those action movies where there’s a skinny little guy who takes on the world…

115186601_348382c“I’m going on an adventure.”

… and then he proves himself in battle and thinks he’s done, but whoa, no – he’s just getting started? And as the movie progresses, there are always bigger hills to climb and scarier monsters to battle? Kind of like, it never ends and the poor little guy is on his knees screaming, “DEAR LORD HOW MUCH MORE CAN I TAKE?”

Yeah. Querying is a lot like that. I’ll show you how. There are specific steps involved.

1. First, you find the agents you adore: the ones which your extensive research has showngandalf are compatible with your kind of writing, are open to queries, and have compassionate-looking avatars on Twitter and/or share your bad eating habits. You compose an email to each one containing your query letter. You personalize each one (Dear Agent is frowned upon but I think Hey You Sweet Thang is okay in some circles), and go to each agent’s website and review their submission guidelines (even though you’ve already cut and pasted them onto your handy-dandy AGENTS spreadsheet on Excel). You say a quick prayer, cross yourself, stop and re-read your email for typos, cross yourself again, stop clenching your fists and shake your hands until you can feel your fingers again, remember to breathe, eat a chocolate chip for luck, and hit “send.”

2. Immediately after hitting “send,” go to your inbox. Did they reply yet? If so, see the steps below. If not, check your “sent” folder. Is it there? If not, check your internet connection. Wonder if you remembered to pay your internet bill, and then realize … of course you did, you have that agent’s profile up on Twitter right there. If it is there in your “sent” folder, re-check the email address. Oh bless us and splash us, is that the right email address? Pull up the submission guidelines on their website again. Whew. Wait … did you remember to paste the appropriate agent’s name into the salutation? OH GOD!!! Wait, okay you’re good. Remind yourself that some agents can get as many as 100 queries or more every day. Give them at least a couple hours to read yours.

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3. This is where you’ll need to have an iPhone, because it is important to check your inbox regularly, and you won’t want to be tied to a landline. If your teenager spies your phone on the kitchen counter next to you while you’re doing dishes after dinner and tries to stealthily grab it to check her tumbler blog, or her own email account, or call 911 or something equally not-nearly-as-important-as-your-incoming-agent-email, just yell “GET YOUR HANDS OFF MY PHONE!” – but make sure you’ve already dried and put away the sharp knives first because they might jump back a few feet. That’s okay – keeps them on their toes. Nothing like a little healthy fear of the mom. =)

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4. Soon, In a day or two, Eventually, Finally, your iPhone will make that wonderful little “You’ve Got Mail” sound as you’re tucking your toddler into bed, and the Old Lady will go straight from swallowing-the-bird-to-catch-the-spider to well-she-should’ve-stayed-a-vegetarian-anyway-so-goodnight, and you will bang your head on the top bunk in your haste (but what’s a little blood for the sake of art?) and you will check your inbox and find a response from one of the agents you queried.

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5. Now, agents can respond to queries with anything from “My eyes are bleeding, don’t ever email me again!” to “This is wonderful, you are the next Emerson, when can we do lunch?” The responses generally fall into one of four categories: form rejection; personalized rejection; hmm, how about you send me a bit of your manuscript (partial request); and dang girl – send me the whole darn thing right away! (in the writer biz that’s called a “full”). If you get a good old-fashioned form rejection, be proud: you’re in good company. I hear CS Lewis was rejected like 7 million times for Narnia. Still, it hurts. Vodka helps. So does chocolate. Cry a little. Cross that agent’s name off your spreadsheet (or at least change their name to an unflattering shade of medium grey, so there) and tell yourself they really aren’t as awesome as you always thought they were. Eat another bite of chocolate and decide that yeah, they are, but that’s okay.

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6. If you’re really super lucky, you’ll get a personalized rejection. This is awesome because then you can brag about it to all your writerly friends. The personalized rejection means a Real Life Agent thinks you don’t Totally Suck Completely, and you’re worthy of taking the time to convey a smidge of hope to. Understand that it is a wee smidge, because after all, it’s still a rejection. Print it out nevertheless. Put it in a folder so you can frame it later. Have some more vodka. Resume iPhone vigil, but stay away from heavy wood furniture.

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One semi-scary monster down …

7. Now, one day you might check your inbox at 5:35 in the morning (because agents do not sleep or eat but subsist off words alone) and find – cue the Hallelujah Chorus – a note from an agent requesting a partial or full manuscript from you. When you’re done screaming (why should the rest of your family sleep in anyway? You’ve been meaning to get them on a schedule), eat a bite of celebratory chocolate. You just killed the dragon. You’re IN THERE, buddy. A Real Live Agent likes you. Do the happy dance, pour yourself a cuppa coffee and send that baby right on over. Then, take a deep breath – because you’re gonna need it – and proceed to the next step.

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8. Yeah. Here’s where that bigger hill happens where Bilbo has to kill another dragon (or similar scary creature). One that makes the first one look like a cute fluffy bunny.

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Because now, the stakes are amped up, and agents can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months to read manuscripts. Go ahead and add a little Baileys to that coffee. I’ll wait.

And wait. And wait.

9. It only gets better, and scarier, from here. Assuming you’re one of the 3-4% of requested manuscripts agents fall in love with (and requests only constitute a fraction of a percent of the amount of queries they receive), and the agent calls you and you both decide you’re a perfect fit for each other, and you actually become an AGENTED WRITER, guess what? The whole thing just starts all over again (oh, and did I mention revisions yet? Heh heh heh. Have a Snickers bar). Your agent turns around and tries to sell your manuscript to publishers … wait for it … by writing a pitch letter very similar to the query letter you wrote them.

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I’m told being “on sub” – that excruciating time when your agent is out there trying to sell your book – is even more frightening than querying. I wouldn’t know (yet!), but I believe it. To be so, so close to the very tip of the mountain, only to fall back down again if a publisher rejects your book, has gotta really hurt. And, you’re no longer in control – it’s all up to that super awesome agent of yours.

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  It is in Men agents that we must place our hope.

Through all this though, I have discovered a pretty good way to deal with the pain and fear of querying a novel. You’ll never guess what. Okay you guessed it. By writing another book.

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More on that in my next post. 😉

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For Mother’s Day I Want A Heap of Guts

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People in your works of fiction always think the story is about them.

It is.

And, it’s not.

For example, I have spent hours (okay a lot of minutes) trying to convince my mother that my novel MOTHER MONA is not about her. It really isn’t.

She’s in there though – just a wee bit of her. So is my beloved mother-in-law. So am I.

MONA, my main character, is a woman who’s lived her life restrained by fear. Fear of connecting, fear of leaving her comfort zone, fear of leaving an alcoholic husband. Fear of germs. Of spiders. Fear of looking stupid. Fear of fear.

See, there’s me in there. Certainly not that bad, but one of the perks of having a vivid imagination is that not only do you view the world in a way that makes people think you’re at least a little bit nuts, you also have the capability to imagine every little possible thing that can go wrong. And, I hate spiders.

So here I’ve gone and written a novel. Now, Mother’s Day is in a couple days and if you follow any kind of media whatsoever, you’ve been inundated with gift ideas for Mom. My kids have been asking me what I want (clean house, long nap, vacation to someplace warm, lots of hugs and kisses – not necessarily in that order). Then that Little Voice said, “What do you want? Guts.” Not the moose kind (been there, done that) or the fish kind (done that too). The writerly kind. Yeah.

So my Mother’s Day gift to me? The guts to query. For you non-writer types, that means I’ve spent months writing a novel, and weeks and weeks polishing it until my eyeballs bled, and now it’s time to send a blurb about it to literary agents to see if they like it well enough to represent me. The blurbs are called queries. So “to query” literally means “to rip your heart out and wave it in front of the whole wide world to criticize or reject or maybe even laugh at.”

Gulp.

I went bungee jumping once. Years ago, in Florida. Bouyed by copious amounts of liquid courage and the effrontery of my husband, who said I’d chicken out. I showed him. From 1,000 feet, I jumped. It was terrifying. And wonderful. And ever since, I’ve been able to look back and say to myself, “Ha! You did that! You can do anything!” and “I told you so” to my husband (which is also fun because it doesn’t happen often).

Today, I’m jumping. Leaping off the big fat, scary query cliff is my Mother’s Day gift to me. Tawanda!

But I still want all the hugs and kisses from my kids. And the long nap.