The Waiting Is the Hardest Part. Okay, Not Really, But It Can Get to You.

First waiting room: the query letter.

So you’ve sent your query letters out to agents and/or publishers. The waiting game begins, but how long should you wait? This is where doing your research, as I suggested in my post It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You. Most agencies and publishers will state the usual response time in their submission guidelines. I’ve seen it range from a couple weeks to a few months, depending on how many queries they receive on a given day. They will also tell you if you should assume no response, after a set period of time, constitutes a “no, thank you.” To help me keep track of this, I created a simple excel spread sheet that lists: the agency/publisher, the specific person I queries, the email/address I sent my query to, what I included (synopsis, sample, etc.), when I sent it, how much time has passed, how long before I should hear back. The last was done using a simple formula: =today()-cell that contains date query was sent. I check the spreadsheet every so often, making note if I passed the “no thanks” threshold.

If, however, they do not tell you that no reply should be considered a rejection, is it okay to send an email checking on your status?

Yes, unless they ask that you don’t. Understand though that it might take some time to get a reply. Since mail (regular and the E variety) can get lost, if I don’t hear back within a couple weeks, I’ll send a second. If I don’t back from that one, I’ll mark that query as a rejection. I figure at that point either they’re too disorganized or don’t feel the need to reply, so it’s not worth worrying about any longer.

How long should you wait to send a message checking on your status?

If they mention how long it generally takes to respond, I use that as a basis. I’ll take the high end and add four weeks. If they don’t give a normal response time, I’ll give it two months.

This waiting is the least stressful part. I generally send out queries is bunches and, frankly, I expect a high percentage to get no reply or a rejection. The odds just say that’s the most likely outcome, but then you only need one to say yes.

Second waiting room: the sample submission.

Woo hoo! You heard back and they want a sample! After you’ve finished your brief moment of celebrating like you’re an eight-year-old who just found out you’re going to Disney World, you really should send the requested items back in short order. Don’t skimp on the celebration though, a request for a sample means your query did its job, it got you in the door, and that’s not nothing.

This waiting is the easier of the two because if they requested a sample, you can be certain you’ll hear back. Typically they’ll also let you know how long they expect to need to review your sample. If they don’t, you should ask. You should also get comfortable because it can take a while. Keep in mind these people, hopefully, have clients who are making them money, or if it’s a publisher, have books to print and sell to make money. My experience is that you should expect it to take between one and two months, depending on the size of the sample and the person’s work load.

During this time, it’s best not to think about it. That’s a sure way to drive yourself insane, and writers, as a group, already live pretty close, so it’s a short drive. Find something else to do to occupy your time. I give myself one day a week to go over things and remind myself I’ve got a sample out there being reviewed, but otherwise, forget about it. Work on another writing project, look at cat videos on YouTube, anything to get your mind off it.

As a side note, if you sent out multiple queries and you get the rare pleasure of having multiple requests for a sample at the same time, you should check with the first agent/publisher and see if they want an exclusive review (if they didn’t tell you when they requested the sample). If they don’t, and not many do, when you send the sample be sure to let the second agent/publisher know that someone else is also reviewing it. At this point you can celebrate more, then find something else to do. I hear making ships in a bottle is fun. It should also be noted that if you’re submitting short stories, this is generally the time frame you can expect, but with the request for exclusivity being more common, at least those with rapid response times or recognizable names, as I understand it.

Third waiting room: the full manuscript review.

Well done you! Go ahead, do your happy dance, I’ll wait. Okay, now you really need to get comfortable. Some places can take as much as a year to review full manuscripts. Also at this point, requesting exclusivity is more common. Yes, this sword cuts both ways.

What should you do?

Forget about it. Seriously, try your best to put it out of your mind and move on with other things. Every so often you’ll remember, and when you do, take a moment and remind yourself that no response means no rejection. Then, return to your normal life, there are dishes that need doing, garbage to take out, and have you seen how must dust there is on the coffee table?

On a personal note, I’m writing this as my own form of dealing with the wait. My manuscript The Stolen Child is under consideration by a publisher, and I had my one year anniversary of waiting just a few months ago. I did check, and I am still under consideration. The final word is supposed to come down by the end of this month. So trust me, I understand how maddening the wait can be, but that is just the cost of admission. Hang in there, and might I suggest some interesting articles to read at a rather brilliant blog, A Quiet Pint?

Writing a Query Letter (The Subtle Art of Begging)

Yes, I’m well aware how many others offer advice on writing a query letter. In point of fact, I mentioned it in my post It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You that Google shows 22,300,000 hits when I search “query letter.” Checking that number again it’s now 27,900,000. So why am I adding to that mountain? Because I’m a writer, and I know the pain and stress that goes into it.

So everyone is on the same page, let’s start at the very beginning.

What is a query letter?

Sometimes also called a cover letter, a query letter is, in essence, you asking someone, pretty, pretty, please, to read your work because it really is awesome and you know they’ll totally love it! Yes, you should word it a little better than that, but let’s be honest, you’re trying to convince someone to take time away from making money to look over your work because you think it can make them more money. The important thing to remember is that your query letter isn’t trying to get you published, even if it’s being sent to a publisher. A query letter is successful if it opens the door. After that, it’s up to your work to stand on its own.

Anatomy of a query letter

A query/cover letter is basically just three parts.

  1. The introduction. This is the easy part. You’ll need to tell them a few things:
    1. Word count of your work (I round to the nearest thousand, though you can be more precise if your letter is about a short story).
    2. Genre, and be specific. If it’s urban fantasy or space opera, say so.
    3. The title. Yes, this is something they should really know.
    4. Less easy is a “hook,” or reason why they should keep reading, and it shouldn’t be more than a sentence.
    5. A summary of your book. This is the hard part. You need to boil your story down to one to three paragraphs that will make someone want to read the whole thing. The common advice is to look at jacket copy (the summaries on backs of books or on dust jacket flaps). I also like to think of it as a movie trailer.
    6. Your bio. This is where you’ll put any publishing credits you have. If you don’t have any, don’t panic. This is also where you can say why you think you’re the person to write this book.

Somewhere in your letter, it’s not a bad idea to mention who you see as the intended audience for your book. Sometimes it’s implied, if you compare your work to another author’s (or, uncommonly, another popular form of artistic expression that is along the lines of your book, such as in the example below.)

Details matter

Remember this letter is going to be the first impression someone gets not only of your writing, but of you. How do you want to be seen? If you take the time and put together a polished query letter, you’ll come across as someone who treats their writing seriously and professionally.

  1. The title of your book should be in italics and all CAPS.
  2. Address your letter:
    1. To a person. Do NOT use: To whom it may concern, Dear sir/madam, or the like.
    2. To the correct person.

i.      If you’re sending it to a publishing company, address it to the acquisitions editor.

ii.      If you are sending it to an agency, send it to the agent who handles books in your genre.

  1. To Mr. or Ms., never the person’s first name.

i.      EXCEPTION: If you can’t tell the person’s gender from their first name, (some names are used for both), don’t try to guess. Use the whole name. For example: Dear Leslie Smith. Not: Dear Ms. Smith. Leslie could be a man, and wouldn’t you be embarrassed if he asked to see a sample of your book after you address him as Ms.?

  1. Include the name of the company
  2. Include your name and contact information.
  3. Personalize the letter. Include something that tells the person you’re querying that you didn’t just send out the literary equivalent of an email blast. Did you read on his bio page that he’s looking for your genre of work? Mention it! Does she represent an author you like? Tell her! Things like that are small, but they can make the difference.
  4. Note if you included any requested materials (synopsis, sample, etc).

I work well from examples, so below you’ll find the basic template, slightly modified for online publication, I used when submitting The Stolen Child. I ALWAYS modify the template and try to personalize it for each submission.

If you don’t get any requests for samples, it’s never a bad idea to look over your query letter again and see if you can improve it.

Bishop O’Connell
100 Awesome Author Circle
Some City, Any State Any Zip Code
Phone Number
Bishop@A-Quiet-Pint.com

Month Day,Year

Agent/Editor Name

Agency/Company

Address

City, State, Zip

Dear Mr./Ms. Agent/publisher’s name:

This query relates to my 96,000 word urban fantasy, The Stolen Child. This manuscript has strong literary and commercial appeal. It’s a character driven thriller. Here’s the novel’s premise:

Tonight, for the first time in over a century, a mortal child will be kidnapped by faeries, and it will happen in the United States.

After a terrible accident takes the love of Brendan Kavanaugh’s life, he condemns himself to exile from Boston, Massachusetts, the city he calls home. Now, many decades later, he has a plan to exact revenge on the faeries who caused the accident, but his plan is blown to bits when they make an unexpected move and kidnap a mortal child. As Brendan vows to find the girl and bring her back to her mother, Caitlin, he is drawn deeper and deeper into dangerous events that threaten not just his life, but the treasured memory of his love as well.

Like the rest of the modern world, Caitlin is certain that faeries exist only in children’s stories and Disney movies. Her life is simple; she’d worked hard, slept too little, and spent every possible moment with her four-year-old daughter, Fiona, the center and joy of her life. But when Fiona is kidnapped, Caitlin must accept that not only do faeries exist, but they are not at all like the characters in those children’s stories. These faeries have evolved alongside humanity, trading in their arrows, handwritten letters, and horses for guns, cell phones, and sports cars. But she has little time to process it all, as her daughter’s life hangs in the balance and Caitlin must, against her better judgment, trust Brendan and some of these strange beings to help her get Fiona back.

Stolen Child is the first of a series. I’m fascinated with history and myth, as well as how the two are connected. Throughout history, myths have shaped culture, and culture has in turn shaped myth. I believe it’s time to take back the faerie tale from Disney and make it what it once was, but for a current and modern audience. I seem to have found a bit of vindication in this, as there are currently three television series based on faerie tales; Once Upon a Time, Grimm, and Lost Girl. If you’d like to see my manuscript, or a sampling thereof, please contact me through any of the means provided above.

Thank you very much for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Bishop M. O’Connell

In the Face of Adversity—Dealing with Rejection

It’s unavoidable; if you want to become a traditionally published writer, you’re going to be rejected. Probably a lot. No, it isn’t fun, or pleasant. Well, it might be in you’re into that, but this isn’t that kind of blog. Now anyone can take being rejected once, twice, or even half a dozen times. You might need a little time to get past the disappointment, but you’ll pick yourself up and move on. What about twenty-five rejections? What about a hundred? Well, as first time writers, that’s the level we need to prepare ourselves for. Getting published for the first time has never been easy, but it’s become truly agonizing recently. Books, simply put, don’t sell like they used to. Publishers, regardless of how much they might love the literary world, are still a business. When it comes to investing your money, you want to get some return on it, or at the very least break even. So if you’re a publisher, you’re more likely to spend your money on something you know will sell: Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, James Patterson, John Grisham, etc. But the fact remains that new authors ARE published every year. I can’t tell you how to ensure you’ll be one of them, but I can tell you that if you give up, you never will be one of them. All that said, keep in mind there are different kinds of rejection. Sure, none of them make you feel all warm and fuzzy, but some sure sting a lot less.

  1. No Comment / Neutral Rejections

These are by far the majority of responses I’ve received. They’re either no reply whatsoever, which can be unnerving because you’re left wondering if they ever received the query, or if they’re actually not interested. Generally, it’s better to assume the latter. If you do get a reply, odds are good it’ll be a form letter that says something to the effect of, “Thank you for your interest but we don’t think your work is right for us at this time.” Don’t take rejection personal, ever, but especially not with this. Most agencies and publishers get more queries than we can imagine, and the bigger the name, the larger the number.

What do I do with these “no comment” responses? I note the rejection and move on. There’s really nothing else you can do, except give up, and that isn’t an option for me.

  1. Gentle / Positive Rejections

I’ve received more than a few of these, and honestly, there are times they’ll keep you going. These almost always come after your manuscript, or a sample, has been reviewed. Generally the message goes something like: “I really liked X, Y, and Z, but I just didn’t love it enough.” If you’re lucky, they might actually tell you the things that kept them from “not loving it enough,” assuming they can even put it into words. I know this doesn’t sound positive, but it really is. Someone spent the time to actually give you a reply, not just hit send on the form rejection. You should take these as “near successes.” Hey, sometimes victories are won an inch at a time. You should also keep in mind, with agents anyway, that their ability to earn a living comes from them being able to sell your story to someone. It’s a tough job and I can’t imagine being able to do it without being really passionate about the manuscript.

What do I do with these? Well, that depends.

  • They just say they liked it but didn’t love it enough.

I write it off as someone preferring one flavor of ice cream when I’m selling another.

  • They provide feedback.

Okay, this is where you have a decision to make. While it’s never good to write to the current market; first, by the time you get your story out, the market has likely moved on to something else. Second and most important, if you’re not excited about what you’re writing, it’ll show. That being said, this is someone who, hopefully, has some understanding of what makes a saleable book. It’s always a good idea to consider what they’ve told you and the feedback they’ve given you. Sure, the industry is made of up individuals with their own tastes and opinions, but it’s never bad to get a sense of what someone on the inside thinks.

So really, you have two options. You can look at your story and consider some changes. Or you can just write it off as someone not interested and move on. Ultimately, it’s up to you. If they mentioned in the reply, or hinted at, that you should feel free to resubmit after you’ve addressed the points they’ve made, that is something to really consider. I rewrote the opening scene to Stolen Child after getting a couple of comments that it didn’t have enough tension. Obviously it wasn’t accepted for representation by those agents, but I do think it improved the story.

  1. Negative Rejections

I’ve had, thankfully, only one very brutal rejection. I’m not sure why the agent in question spent so much time on something they disliked so much, but they did.

What did I do with this one? It fueled my spite and made me even more determined to succeed. After all, why am I going to let someone like that dictate my success or failure? Now, I won’t go as far as E.E. Cummings did. He was rejected by 15 publishers and eventually self-published. He dedicated his first book to the publishers who rejected him. I won’t say that idea doesn’t appeal to me, but I’m spiteful, not petty. And yes, there’s a difference.

Simply put, you have to believe in yourself, and you have to do it in the face of potentially monumental adversity. You might have people close to you telling you to give up, and a stack of rejection letters taller than you, but if you really want to succeed, you have to push on. Yes, those people sending you rejection letters, or nothing at all, are denying you success, but the only person who can say you’ve failed is you. This is a rare kind of game. It’s only over when you throw in the towel. Each rejection makes me more determined to succeed. And isn’t something all the better when you’ve worked for

it? Are there writers who, for lack of a better term, stroll into an offer with an agent and then a publishing deal? Sure, it happens. People also win the lottery and are struck by lightning.

Of course, despite my determination, I’m human and I falter sometimes. I’ve had some rejections that were harder for me to take than others. In those situations, I call on my friends for moral support. I also find it useful to keep in mind what other authors, incredibly successful ones, went through before getting published. Since it might help you too, here are some I find useful:

  • Chicken Soup for the Soul – Rejected 140 times (currently there are over 100,000,000 copies in print in 54 languages).
  • The Dubliners – Rejected 22 times, and in its first year sold only 379 copies, 120 of which James Joyce bought himself.
  • Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance – Rejected 121 times (more than any other bestseller, it’s in the Guinness Book of Records).
  • Gone With the Wind – Rejected 38 times.
  • A Wrinkle in Time – Rejected by 26 publishers.
  • The Help – Rejected 60 times.
  • Dune – Rejected 23 times.
  • Louis L’Amour – 200 rejections.
  • Agatha Christy – 5 years of continual rejections.
  • Judy Bloom – 2 years of rejections.

And my personal favorite.

  • Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone – Rejected by 12 publishers. It was eventually picked up by Bloomsbury, a small London publisher, because the CEO’s eight-year-old daughter begged her father to print the book.

One last story to keep you smiling when you get your next rejection letter:

To show how hard it was for new writers to break into the literary world, Jerzy Kosinksi used a pen name and submitted his bestselling novel Steps to 13 literary agents and 14 publishers, all of whom reject it. Including Random House, who’d published it in the first place.

Do I think I’m on par with the names on that list? No, but if James Joyce was rejected 22 times, me being rejected 100 times doesn’t sound so hard to take anymore. It comes down to this; if I’m never published, it will not be because I stopped trying.

What about you?

It’s Not You, It’s Me. Okay, It’s You.

You’ve written a book! Actually finished one! You’re no longer the person who’s working on a novel, you’ve written a novel. Truly, this is something to be proud of. The determination and dedication required to sit and write 80,000+ words (or there about) is not insignificant. As it turns out, though, that determination and dedication will serve you even better on the road ahead. Assuming of course you’re unpublished. After you’ve had your work edited, or at least read over by someone who will give you honest, helpful comments, your next step will be to find an agent, or a publisher who accepts submissions from unagented authors. As you begin your search, here are a few simple tips to keep your book from immediately going into the trash can, or slush pile, as it’s called in industry speak. While these tips are geared towards fiction, they are also helpful for nonfiction, but be aware the process is different.

Do your research!

You want to be a professional writer (be paid for your writing)? Well, now is the time to act like it. To be treated like a professional, you need to behave like one. This means spending a little time learning about the industry and how it works, including how to submit your work and what documents you need to write in addition to your manuscript.

  • A Query Letter (also called a cover letter)

You should know what this is, and what one should look like. There are thousands of resources available to guide you. A quick Google search (0.30 seconds) turned up 22,300,000 results. Others might disagree, but once I had a good query letter written, I used it as a template for all the letters I sent out; key word being template.

  • A Synopsis

To me, this is much harder to write than the book itself. Come on, boiling down your entire novel to a few pages is no small feat. Opinions vary on the correct length, but from what I’ve seen, three pages is generally a good goal.

My “aha moment” came when I started to think of my synopsis as the movie trailer for my book, though synopses also include the ending. I imagine a theater full of people about to see a movie, and the preview for my book comes up. For some reason, it’s always Don LaFontaine doing the voice over, but that’s just me. Start by writing it out just get it on the page and don’t worry about the length. Once you have it, then you can focus on whittling it down to reach your page limit.

  • Format

Take a few minutes and learn what the generally accepted format is for your manuscript, query letter, and synopsis. By this I mean the font style (Times New Roman, Courier, etc), font size (point), margin size, line spacing, and page numbering. Again, this won’t take long and is something you should know. Though it varies from place to place, your name and manuscript title should go on every page. Though most agents and publishers work electronically, they might print out your manuscript, or a portion of it, and do you really want to be rejected because someone dropped the papers and wasn’t able to put them back in order?

Okay, so you’ve got your synopsis and query letter, and your manuscript is properly formatted. Now, you need an agent, right? Well, no, you don’t need an agent to publish your book, but having an agent does open up doors that otherwise are closed to you. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if you need or want one. If you do, there are some things you need to look for.

Finding a reputable agent.

This can’t be stressed enough. There are countless people out there who are ready and willing to take from you every dime they can. Luckily, there are some common red flags to look for when screening agents. If you find these, does it mean they’re trying to scam you? Not necessarily, but you’re so much better safe than sorry.

  1. No agent should ever charge you anything up front. They make money when you do, hence their interest in your success.
  2. No agent should recommend an editing service, or insist on you using a particular service as part of representing you. This is a blatant conflict of interest. They might provide you with a list of editors or companies, but never push one above another. However, your work should’ve been edited before you got to this point.

There are several sites that will give you a much more extensive list of things to be on the lookout for. A few I’ve used are:

Preditors and Editors

Absolute Write (Keep in mind this is a forum where people post their experiences, so you might get a wide range of opinions. Use your own judgment, but remember it’s always, always better safe than sorry.)

SFWA Writers Beware (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, but even if you’re not writing in that genre, the advice is still sound.)

Association of Author’s Representatives (As you visit agents’ individual websites, you’ll probably see some who say they’re a member, or hold to their canon of ethics.)

Once you’ve identified a list of reputable agents, you’re ready to start sending out query letters, right? Wrong! Sit back down at the computer! You’re not done working yet, buddy. Yep, still more research.

Understand to whom you’re submitting. That’s right, whom!

Do you like spam? If you answered yes, well, you have bigger issues than I can address. If you are among the 99.9999 percent of the rest of us who hate it, guess what? Agents and publishers hate it too. Don’t let your submission be thought of as spam. Remember, these people are professionals in the industry you want to enter. Show some respect for that. What does that mean? I’m glad you asked.

  • Make sure the recipient of your query might actually be interested.

What are the odds the agent who deals in romance novels really wants to read your horror story? No, I don’t care how amazing it is. Most agencies, agents, and publishers have websites. This will tell you what genre(s) they work with and are looking for. Some agencies have multiple agents, with each agent interested in different genres. Read up and find out who would be most interested in your query. Using the person’s name in the query letter should be obvious. “To Whom it May Concern” may not land you directly in the bin, but it’s not a good start.

  • Read the submission guidelines.

This will tell you what format they want you to use for your documents, and what you should send. Some will just want a query letter, others will ask for a sample, a synopsis, or a combination of all three. Once you know what they want, send them what they ask for, nothing more, nothing less. Also, make sure to send it how they want it. In these days of email submissions, you should know if they want the documents embedded into the email (the text copied and pasted in), or if they prefer the items as attachments. If it’s the latter, which more places are steering away from because of viruses and the like, make sure you know if they want separate documents for each item, or if they want everything in one document. Also, make sure you know what kind of file to send (.doc, .rtf, .txt, etc). Some agencies and publishers also have online submission “portals.” These will be pages where you’ll type in, or copy, the relevant text from your query letter and either upload, or paste in, the additional materials they want.

Of course, some places still want you to send it via regular (snail) mail. In this case, it’s REALLY important to send them only what they ask for. Don’t send your manuscript to someone who just wants a query letter. I know, I know, this should be obvious, but I’ve heard of people who’ve done just that. I’ve also heard in one instance of someone sending a handwritten manuscript to an agent who works solely via electronic submissions (and clearly states that on their website). The topper: it was the only copy. Yeah, take a minute to let that one sink in.

Will doing all this guarantee you’ll land an agent or publisher? Seriously? You’re not seriously asking that, are you?

No, of course it won’t. But what this will do is show the person to whom you’re submitting that you take this seriously. You understand that you’re not doing them some immense favor by gracing them with the chance to represent your masterpiece. You didn’t write up a generic query letter and sent it out (spam like) to everyone you could find. There’s no need to genuflect and kiss the ring, but at least recognize that this agent is reading your letter and giving you a fair chance to get them interested. Odds are they have clients, clients who either do, or they expect soon will, provide them with their income. You’re not doing them a favor, they’re doing you one. A simple equivalent to “please” and “thank you” isn’t really too much to ask in return. In short, think of it like a job interview, because in a very real sense, it is.

Remember, all I’m offering here are some things I’ve learned in my pursuit of publication that will help you put your best foot forward. Beyond that, it’s all up to you. Odds are good that you’re going to be rejected. But I hope all these things will at least make that rejection closer to, “it’s not you, it’s me,” than “no, it’s you.”