How I (Mostly) Survived Querying
Querying sucks. It just does. It’s a deeply vulnerable and emotional process in which you expose yourself for judgement and almost-inevitable rejection, for days, weeks, months—sometimes even years on end. At times, it feels like you’re walking through a dark tunnel, blindfolded, and then you suddenly receive notice that there might be a tiger hiding somewhere in the dark. Good luck!
They don’t call it the “query trenches” for nothing.
This isn’t my “How I got my agent” post (though stay tuned for that one!). This is a semi-comprehensive list of the things I did to get through my querying journey and how I made it out of the tunnel. Some methods are healthy, some are not-so-healthy, and some are just weird. Okay, most of them are probably weird. Nobody’s experience is the same as anyone else’s, but I hope you find some comfort, humor, and inspiration in this list.
1. I made friends with other writers: This is essential. Nobody understands that tunnel like someone who is currently in it. We cheered for each other’s requests, and we collectively boo’ed each other’s rejections. We helped decode the agent lingo in personalized rejections, parsed through what was probably a nice-sounding form, and identified what feedback could actually be helpful. Rejection sucks, but when an agent takes the time to specifically say why they didn’t connect with your manuscript, take note. Even if you disagree, it’s worth considering. Maybe you’ll find you disagree with what they said, but agree with why they said it—and that will lead to meaningful revisions!
2. I collected badges: This was something I did with the aforementioned group of writer friends. As the rejections and requests rolled in, it started to feel like we were reaching new levels in a video game, or collecting badges to pin to a scout sash. Participated in your first pitmad? There’s a badge for that. Get a “like” by a suspicious agent or publisher? You’ve earned a badge! Did your rejection come through in less than 24 hours? Badge. There’s a badge for every query milestone. I read once where an author said they try to accumulate 100 rejections because that means they’re trying. While 100 rejections definitely leaves a scar, it is something to celebrate.
(for the record, the badges started out digital. I’m the one who went from 0 to 100 and made them into something physical to pin on a stuffed animal wearing a Build-a-Bear scout vest. Ole Foxy here has lost a lot of badges due to poor Velcro technology, but you get the idea)
3. I made a chart: Come on, we knew it was coming. This is actually the simplified version I made after realizing the original was too complicated to keep up with. I originally had columns for agents, agencies, what they rep, what they like, how to submit, when I submitted, date of response, type of response, and any actionable feedback. Then, my computer restarted and deleted my updates to the chart and I couldn’t remember how far back the changes went, so I abandoned it and started over. I also included a shortlist of reasons for full rejections and agents who were next-up on my list. The dates pertain to the date I received my first response, and the queries are listed in order of when they were sent.
4. I obsessed over Query Tracker: I’d probably file this one under “unhealthy behaviors.” Query Tracker is a great way to keep up with your queries, how long they’ve been open, what the agent’s response time is, and maybe even discover some agents who weren’t initially on your radar. But it’s also a black hole for obsessive types, which yours truly definitely is. It became a daily ritual. I agonized over agents’ response times, analyzed when my query was skipped, wondered about the other queries not accounted for on Query Tracker… Anxiety comes from a fear of the unknown, of not being able to control your own outcome, and Query Tracker feeds that like Mac-and-cheese feeds a hungry toddler. Query Tracker gave me the illusion of control, but it was really just obsessive reloading and scrolling. But in this era, anything that gets you off doomscrolling through Facebook is a win, right? …Right?
5. I stayed in my classroom at lunch: This also goes along with the “unhealthy obsession” side of things. Sometimes, I did need my space and quiet time away from the breakroom with my fellow teachers. My coworkers are incredible, kind, thoughtful, and hilarious—but sometimes after the teens left the room, what I really wanted was to be alone. Nothing unhealthy there. But it was once my “alone time” turned into “pace outside in the cold waiting for a signal so I could reload my email” time that things took a turn. After I told her about this particular behavior, my therapist instructed me to check my email once a day, only. I… was not great at that. But I did find a compromise…
6. I forwarded query emails to my work account: This one has mixed degrees of helpfulness/harmfulness. So, my school network blocks gmail (But not other google services, and not Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest…), and I have horrible service at the bottom of the hill where my classroom is. I spent most of the day obsessing over my email, even while teaching. There was always this ongoing soundtrack of “did so-and-so read yet? What did so-and-so say?” and so on. If your brain doesn’t know the difference between thinking about something and actually doing it, then I was living every query outcome, on a loop, at all times: full request, partial request, full rejection, partial rejection, no response, R&R, offer. Repeat. Obviously, checking my email at all hours of the day wasn’t working out, so I needed another method. I set up a forwarding service on my gmail account so anything with “query” in the subject line was forwarded to my work email. This worked… somewhat well. I did once get a form rejection during student presentations, which was a huge bummer, but I survived. And I think at the heart of all of these methods, that’s what they’re about: survival.
7. I went to therapy: I mentioned this in an earlier item, but it bears mentioning as its own item. Technically, I didn’t start therapy just to process querying, but it helped. I was able to use some of my sessions to break down my feelings throughout the process, reframe my rejections, and examine the worst-case-scenario and find a way to cope with it. I remember once, when I was querying my first novel (which did not land my agent), my therapist said something like, “You have to accept that this might not be The One.” And I broke. Down. And then, over time, that horrifying possibility became more and more of a reality until I finally let that book go. And you know what? It didn’t kill me. My second novel was stronger, better written, and more marketable. It’s the one that got my agent, the one that led me to my brilliant Write Club friends. It might not be my first sell. I want it to be, more than I’ve wanted anything in my life. But, as I did that day, I have to make peace with the fact that this is a process. Rejection isn’t failure. Rejection is triumph because it means I’m trying. I’m writing. I’m growing.
Important note: I know therapy is a luxury, and it shouldn’t be. I know not everybody has access to this kind of care, and I hate that we have a healthcare system that only favors those who can afford to live their best lives. But if it’s at all possible, in any way, to visit a therapist or counselor—or to tend to your mental wellbeing at all—I highly recommend it.
8. I visualized: I’m not entirely sure I believe in the concept of manifestation, but if I did, it might look something like this. When I felt at my very lowest, when rejections were piling up and I was feeling like nobody would ever want my book, I imagined what my acknowledgements page might look like. I went through all the people I’d love to thank, from that fifth-grade teacher who read my stories and poems aloud to the class (even when it was obvious I was writing during class time), to the super badass college professor who said she read one of my pieces late at night, her hand gripping her throat in anticipation of what was coming next. I’d think about Write Club (hey, ya’ll!) and my amazing CPs, and my parents. I’d think about how my mom cried when I got into my first mentorship program, as if that was it, that was the end of my publishing journey. I’d made it. Though at the time, I didn’t have an agent to hypothetically thank, I would still picture that line, the written high-five to someone who loved my stories so much they fought for me. (Hi, Alyssa!) I’d imagine the inside jokes I’d sneak in, the waves to friends and family, and think about how amazing it will feel when that day is real. As of writing this, I still have not received The Call that leads to The Deal, but you can bet that I still think about that acknowledgements page.
9. I visualized, part two: Another thing I did to picture my book being a Real Thing: I made a mock cover. Actually, I made several. Seven or so, at last count—and I set it as my phone’s wallpaper. That way, every time I checked my email, every time I closed out of a rejection or swiped an email away without reading it because I could tell it was a form letter (or because I’d already read it through my work email), I would see the faces of my characters, staring hopefully back at me. Those kids are part of me and always will be, whether this book sees its way to shelves or not. I hope their stories touch people, that my readers fall in love with them as I have. But until then, they lived here, with me. And whenever I flicked on my phone, I was reminded of the world I’d created for them.
10. I visualized, part three: At the start of the schoolyear in 2019, my boss suggested we use something aspirational as our passwords. Obviously, she didn’t ask us to share what we’d come up with, but it was one of those morale building things, equal parts sweet and cheesy (like trail mix with m&ms). I won’t say what my password was (duh), but it was something I pulled from the pages of my book, something only I would understand. And I have to say, every time I typed it into my email (and it was many, many times because we auto-log-out after 15 minutes), it never failed to make me smile.
11. I faked confidence: Around the time I started querying, I saw this meme that said, “do all things with the unearned confidence of a mediocre white man,” and I felt that deep in my soul. In the aforementioned group of fellow querying writers, this archetype became known as “Brad.” “Channel your inner Brad” became a mantra. I even went as far as to write it on my wrist, under my watch band so I could see it when I looked down. Every time, it was a reminder that I deserved this. That I’m a good writer who works hard and keeps trying no matter how many times I hear the word “no.” Not to say I wasn’t interested in growth—but I needed that jolt of “I do belong here” to combat the imposter syndrome.
12. I kept writing: As I said before, the only way to fail is to stop writing. You never know which book could be The One, but if you put all your hopes and dreams on one book, that’s setting yourself up for a situation in which you have very little control. And as previously mentioned, I really like having control. So I kept writing. I started two WIPs, but I kept feeling pulled toward a third story, and that one spilled out of me like no other story has. It was the first NaNoWriMo I actually completed. In fact, I was preparing to query that book (which, fun fact, I’m rewriting for the fourth time because it’s still not where it needs to be—writing is rewriting, amirite?) when I got my offer of representation (which you can read about once I finally write my “how I got my agent” post).
13. I ran (occasionally): I have a fraught relationship with working out, to say the least. But I do enjoy running, when I can make myself do it. It’s a weird kind of mental gymnastics to keep yourself from doing something you enjoy, just because the thought of actually initiating the thing is exhausting. But when I could, I ran.
14. I cried sometimes: Let yourself feel your feelings. Eat the ice cream, take the long, hot bath. Take a nap—or two—if you need it. The tunnel is dark, and at times it feels like there’s no way out. But there is, if you keep trying. Keep pushing. And above all else, keep writing.