September 9, 2009

Advice to a young query-er

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 3:35 pm

I wrote the gist of this in response to a friend who feels down about the state of things. The process. The I-want-to-be-published-one-day game. And I thought I’d reproduce it for anyone else who might feel the same way, and also anyone who sees it differently, and would be willing to say why.

One thing i have learned…never, ever (ever EVER) take one person’s opinion to mean the ms is flawed. Or even five people’s opinions.

Don’t go back to the drawing board. Don’t open up the document and drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to change it so it wouldn’t have gotten rejected.

If you get the same specific criticism from two or more people, my advice is to consider that seriously, see if it resonates with you. But if it’s only vague “didn’t fall in love” type rejections, or specific reasons that don’t match other specific reasons you’re getting, just keep sending it out.

This business is so subjective, and bottom line, I think editors are looking for a book they would want to pick up in a store–not necessarily something other people would want to pick up in a store. So you are trying to find the one editor (or agent) who is going to adore your particular book.

If they’re passing it doesn’t mean your book isn’t saleable–it just means that one person didn’t love it. And so it’s a matter of throwing enough spaghetti till a piece sticks.

Go with your gut. If a criticism causes a spark of recognition–or better yet, excitement–by all means sit down and revise accordingly. By the same token, if one feels totally, completely, my eyes-are-tearing-up-at-the-thought-of-doing-that wrong, don’t change a thing.

(Unless you know you’re the type who always resists what’s really right for your work. In that case you may have to sit with rejections a while, until that initial impulse has passed.)

I guess I would add for the purposes of this blog–I know my friend’s work is good, so this caveat wasn’t necessary for her–that it’s a well recognized truism that most everyone thinks they can write a novel. And most everyone can’t. So if you’re querying and you’ve gotten upwards of fifty (maybe even twenty) form rejections without one personal note jotted down–keep at it; this is good, but not for us; try my friend Josie at such and such; I know you’re going to succeed; or the like–then it might be time to hone your craft a little more.

Take an online class. New York Writers Workshop or Writers Digest or Gotham all offer them. Look into workshops or conferences that focus on craft. Two I know of are Writers in Paradise, which features more bestselling legends than you can shake a stick at, and Algonkian. Go over to your local community college and see if you can audit a creative writing class. Find a writers group through your local bookstore or community center.

Otherwise, I would say keep contacting agents. Or if you’re represented, let your agent keep contacting editors. I heard recently from one author whose agent worked a year and a half before making a sale. Don’t get down hearted. And most particularly, don’t give up.

This is how the game is played.


  1. Great post, Jenny. One of the hardest things about writing is balancing the “reality check” of feedback with our own knowledge and experience that tells us what’s right and wrong for our work. Both are important elements of success, and maintaining that balance requires effort and constant reassessment.

    Often it seems to me that the more accomplished writers become, and the closer they get to publication without yet succeeding, the more they tend to focus outwardly, swaying back and forth with each new opinion, hoping that each one will be the magical piece of advice that will push them over into the land of the published. (Sadly, in my experience as an editor, it’s usually the less accomplished writers who tend to rely on their own unrealistic assessment of the fabulousness of their manuscripts.)

    That said, I think we should always be willing to re-examine our work in light of feedback (and most constructively intended feedback can be useful in some way). But we also have to learn to trust our own professional opinions, and gut sense of what is right for our own work, rather than changing our opinion of it with every comment we get. And we each have to figure out our own way to walk that tightrope.

    Comment by Lauren S — September 10, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

  2. It’s easier said than done, though. I am happy to say I knew my new agent was “the one” when her revisions caused excitement rather than annoyance. However, when you’re desperate, it’s so easy to say “I’ll do anything.” You want to be the consummate professional, distant from your ms, and you WANT. An. Agent. So. Bad.

    Comment by sapphiresavvy — September 12, 2009 @ 6:21 pm

  3. Oh, for sure. It’s true in terms of editors, too. I was joking about this recently: A rejection from X Major House: I loved this novel. Loved it. It has everything going for it, strong plot, interesting main character, dazzling prose. I am sure it will land successfully on shelves. However, I tend to like dogs in my stories. So, sadly and with much regret, I’m going to pass so that someone else can snap this up.

    Me: I can put in a dog.

    Comment by jenny — September 12, 2009 @ 7:07 pm

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