I would say there are two kinds of writers: those who detail their woes without being asked and those who wait to be asked by others. I’m not going to say which one is better or worse. However, I cannot ignore when Stephen King once called writers “the secret agents” of the world. We observe the actions of others, go home, write stories and get paid for our observations. If we get popular so be it. I think writers are naturally introverted; it’s why many of us feel more comfortable, confident, and sane inside our own worlds than we sometimes do in the one we live. Which is why I find it so jarring when a friend or stranger goes on and on about their writing process (successes or misgivings) without anyone prompting them to do so. To me, that seems like they’re writing for attention not for the need of the craft. Sure they may need a little encouragement. Fine. I believe there’s a difference between confiding in a fellow writer for need of encouragement and using one’s woes as promotion for themselves. Self-promotion is an unavoidable evil should we get to the point where we want people to hear our stories. It all begins with querying.
While critique groups and grammar are great, I feel like my college education could have benefited from a bit more detail about what to do AFTER you’ve written your novel. It’s not like new writers are strangers to each other when it comes to finding beta readers. What knowledge I acquired about the task of querying came from research independent to my studies. I’ve gone through books such as The Writers’ and Artist’ Yearbook and Guide to Literary Agents, which could only provide so much advice. You can understand my delight when the Triangle Writers’ Group hosted a seminar on the very subject. While the seminar did shed some light, that’s not always a good thing. Something became very clear to me, something I had a concrete suspicion of even during my own homework on querying: timing is a bitch.
There were two speakers at the seminar, one of whom I have a professional relationship with, local freelance writer and head of the Triangle Writers’ Group–Tara Lynn Groth. The other was Lyn Fairchild Hawks. I never heard of Lyn before, but she was a flesh ‘n’ blood published writer with an agent, and that was enough to get me to sit down and listen to her speak about approaching those titans who are literary agents. At least I like to think of agents as titans, too busy with their current clients to pay any attention to me. This lost some water during Lyn’s telling of her experiences. I half attribute my failure to land a book deal in the past to agents being too busy to read and invest in queries via the slush pile–people who don’t have direct connections or contacts with an agency. (The other half is simply that my manuscript wasn’t ready, and I was right about that.) Actually, agents DO read the slush pile. Trouble is, again, timing.
Lyn spoke about several instances when an agent might come across a query. I gather from these anecdotes it doesn’t matter if you’ve got a handful of short stories published, maybe an award or two, or zero literary credit. What holds the most weight are two things: (1) the strength of the query letter/sample manuscript and (2) when the agent gets to it.
If an agent is having a good or bad morning depends on how they receive a query. What place in their inbox does a query land? If the agent just spilled coffee or had to yell at someone, it doesn’t matter if a letter is second or two-hundredth (yes, of that day!), the agent might lose that fragmentary percentage of patience required to view a query with their best heart. Mind you, agents read . . . a lot. Even if the query is expertly written using the best available resources, the agent might be too tired to recognize the gem they’ve been waiting for. As much as we may love what we do, we are still human.
You’ll notice there are a lot of conditional “mights” and “depends” in italics. It’s my way of emphasizing how arbitrary this whole querying thing seems to be. There’s no sure-fire method to receiving the “yes!” among a galaxy of “no’s” in your inbox. Although it shouldn’t sound as pessimistic as it does. This take-away from the seminar provides kernels of reassurance in that first of the two things that hold the most weight: the story. I may not be able to control when an agent sees my query–much to my dismay. I may not be able to list a number of publications or awards–MORE to my dismay. What I can control is the only thing that matters in the end. The thing that will weather through the tempest that is the publishing process is the story. That’s what we all want to see on bookshelves, not awards, celebrity photos, or royalty checks. Those don’t contribute to our civilization. Those don’t leave my legacy. Our stories should enrich the lives of those who read them, credentials and connections be dammed! Focus on the thing you can control, make it strong. Be a writer. The “yes” will come. There only needs to be one bitch during the querying process, and it shouldn’t ever be the artist.
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