October 5, 2018

Adventures in Querying Literary Agents

A year ago I made the decision to step away from self-publishing. After four years and sixteen novels, I was burnt to a crisp. It was fun for a little while, especially when I was bringing in money. Who doesn't love money?

I didn't step away from writing because that would be suicide to my soul. I started writing in junior high, filling up spiral notebooks and reading my stories to classmates. Spiral notebooks were the blogs of the 80s. I did, however, decide it was time to switch from dystopian fiction and fantasy and go back to my love of darker, realistic contemporary fiction. 

My latest book, This Isn't Happening, is loosely based on my teen years and what it's like living with an addicted parent. It's not a story about bitterness or resentment. It's a story about one girl's struggle with shame and paranoia and her inability to share what's going on. And it's redemptive. Because who doesn't love redemption?

I've been shopping the manuscript with agents since July. I've sent out 67 query letters and have one more batch of 21 agents to hit up. The rest are closed to submissions or didn't fit my genre, otherwise I would've hit my goal of 100 letters. To date, I've received 37 rejections. Yes, that number is correct. Some rejections weren't form letters but exceeded the agent's noted response time, and I'm considering those passes.

You think by now I would've walked into oncoming traffic or given up. But nope. This isn't my first gilly ride. I sent my first round of query letters for a children's book idea back in 1993. I had NO clue what I was doing and after a few rejections I hit the pause button and went into advertising. In 2005, equipped with some knowledge of the industry, I sent more queries for a humor book I wrote. I ended up self-publishing that book and some personal essays. In 2011, after years of toiling over my memoir, I sent out more query letters to no avail. And rightly so, it was a retched downer with zero story line. To my poor writing group who suffered through months of my pages, I deeply apologize.

When the writing coach I hired told me the memoir would never work, I dropped it and focused on a science fiction idea I had about people living in a city they didn't know was actually a prison for human breeding. Uplifting it was not. But dystopian fiction usually isn't. Before going down the traditional publishing route again, I devoted my time researching how to self-publish. I pretty much have the equivalent of a master's degree on the subject. In 2013, I self-published that book and several more, thus bringing us up to date.

I'm currently existing in a place I lovingly call "Query Hell." That's what it feels like sometimes. I'm unabashedly certain that nobody enjoys this part of the process. It's brutal. Drafting one paragraph that's supposed to sell your 70,000 word novel is enough to send you into a spiral of madness. But when the rejections start coming, good Lord, you begin questioning your entire existence and reason for living. A bit dramatic, but I am a writer.

I don't say this to discourage anyone from writing. I'm actually hoping to encourage you. Do you see the pattern?  

I still keep writing no matter what.

I also know it doesn't get easier, even for authors with the success I dream about. I know because they tell me. It's continuously stressful and competitive because after you get an agent, you still have to sell your story to the publishers, and years later that book has to sell to an audience. It's pretty much a never-ending cycle of torture. Except for the writing part. Although that's debatable for some. 

I wrote This Isn't Happening because I had something to say. I wrote about something many people don't want to talk about but really need to. Especially in the midst of an opioid epidemic. There are teenagers out there -- right this second -- who feel alone and anxiety-ridden and helpless. My story gives a glimpse of hope. And who doesn't love hope?

Even if the only people who ever get to read this book are the beta readers, that's okay. I know enough to know I must keep moving forward. I'm already working on the next novel. It's dark and twisted and borderline crazy-making. And I love everything about it. 

I'll keep you posted on my adventures in querying.

Until then ...

Keep writing. It saves lives.