We all know how tough it is to write a query. Condensing thousands upon thousands of words into a teeny-tiny pitch that will evoke such a powerful response that the recipient will request the entire thing? Talk about pressure. But even more so, I think querying is difficult because we understand that once the query is perfected, we must take the next step and actually hit SEND.
Today Luke Reynolds, author of Keep Calm and Query On, is with us, and why? Because he gets it. Luke understands the pressure writers are under, and the strength they must muster in order to become their book’s advocate, so keep reading!
Good Old Fashioned Middle School Courage
In the seventh grade, I had a massive crush on a girl and so I did the noble, sensible, courageous thing: I wrote her a note, folded it into an origami masterpiece, and passed it off to a friend, who passed it off to a friend, who passed it off to a friend who happened to know THE girl.
What did the note say? It was a query, of course. And the substance of the query was nothing less than putting my gooey, vulnerable, passion-filled heart on the line with essentially one solitary question: Will you go out with me?
Now, as a post-thirty-year old writer, I realize that I never stopped asking that question. Now I ask it in different ways, and I ask it to different people. (Thank goodness one young woman finally had the patience to say that amazing word, yes, to me, and I’ve not let her go ever since.) And as a writer, you’re still asking it, too, folding your middle school note in various ways and packing it off to someone who knows someone. Now that someone is an agent or editor, who you hope will write back and to share that miraculous YES that lets you know they’re interested in a long-term, committed relationship.
But the dilemma for us writers hasn’t changed. The essential question is still the same: How do we work up the courage to write the note, send it off, and if we’re rejected, ask someone else?
The answer lies, I think, in two steps:
1) Take yourself more seriously
I remember reading that critically acclaimed author John Gardner once got so fed up by the lack of response and rejection to his queries and partials that he eventually walked into Knopf’s New York office with two of his novels in brown paper bags, demanding that someone read the darn things. Gardner took himself and his work seriously: he knew that what he was writing had worth. An act of such confidence bespeaks incredible courage for a writer—the middle school equivalent of asking out the interested party on stage, with a microphone, during a full-school assembly.
Do we take ourselves this seriously? Do we believe in our work, in our words, this deeply? I would hesitate to recommend you show up at an agent’s home with your manuscript in hand—publishing times have certainly changed!—but you and I need to learn to see ourselves as writers who have something to offer the world. We need to say the following refrain: I have stories to share. Without my telling them, the world will be worse off for it; my stories matter. This helps us make that decision to write the dang query note—and get something sent off into the world of possibility.
2) Take yourself less seriously
The flip side of # 1, however, is that we also need to take ourselves less seriously. In middle school, if you were the kind of person who asked out that ONE girl or guy, got a rejection, then went back home and vowed you would NEVER DO IT AGAIN, then now (as an adult writer) is the time to change. Take yourself less seriously. You send off a query note to an agent and get a form rejection? See this as a small thing: not a world-shaking event that now puts you in the class of Never Will It Ever Happen.
Instead, we can tell ourselves, I’ve got to get it out there again. Writing isn’t all about the outcome; writing is about the writing, too, the fun and freedom of creation. Taking ourselves less seriously is akin to throwing that middle-school crush note out there, but realizing that you’re probably not going to marry the recipient of the note. No! Be gone wedding ceremonies for seventh-graders! Now, as adult writers, we take a step back and loosen our own standards—imposing the serious requirement that we constantly prove ourselves. When faced with rejections for our words, we even learn to be (dare I say it) a little bit silly.
My three-year old son Tyler, one night after dinner, said, “I am going to do something really, really good.” He then proceeded to take off his pants, pull two kitchen chairs together, and climb on top of them. Once in that lofty position, he exclaimed, “I don’t know what I am going to do yet, but it’s going to be REALLY SUPER GOOD.” Sometimes, taking ourselves less seriously requires that we, too, take off all the formalities of our writerly clothing, climb atop our desk chairs, and shout to the world of our workspaces something akin to what my son shouted.
When we affirm both the seriousness of our vocation as writers, yet at the same time allow ourselves to be gloriously human and fallible, I think we unlock a certain kind of magic. And I believe with all my heart that this magic is called courage.
Luke Reynolds is also the author of A Call to Creativity and co-editor of Burned In and Dedicated to the People of Darfur. He is represented by Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency. You can find him blogging at Intersections, or at his website.
In Keep Calm And Query On, Luke discusses not only his journey as a writer, but shares his interviews with powerful and prolific authors, including Jane Smiley, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Kathryn Erskine, George Saunders, Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, and David Wroblewski. They discuss their worst rejections, their first publications, what keeps them motivated, and why they believe in the power of words.
Are you querying now? Gathering up the courage to query? Tell me, what has kept you on the writing path? If you’re querying, what has helped you find the courage to hit SEND?
Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Late here, but loved reading your experience. Your 3 year old son sounds too cute 😀
Sharon K. Mayhew says
I have a tea box in my office that says, “Keep calm and carry on.” I think it truly shows the attitude of the English during WWII.
Karen Lange says
Thanks for the encouragement and giveaway!
Martha Ramirez says
Very awesome post! Thank you. And thank you for the chance to win!
Luke Reynolds says
Pk, thanks for yoru honesty: indeed, making us feel fragile is a good way to describe it. And I think we see more and more how we can feel fragile and yet shoot down roots into the soil of our writing anyway.
Carrie, I sometimes feel like the world at large is just middle school on a much more massive scale. But I think it’s our second-chance middle school–you know, when we get to be who we really are rather than who everyone thinks we should be…
Brandi, I love your focus on finding the right person, and your continued faith that THIS PERSON IS OUT THERE. (Yes!)
Owllady, love your trsut in the story, and your belief in the world’s need for it.
Lady Lee, love it. Every no IS a step along towards yes. In research, when you find something that doesn’t pan out, that’s success, because you know what isn’t the missing link…closer to what IS. Thanks for sharing your wisdom.
Lady Lee says
I recite Joe Girard’s manta “Every no gets you closer to yes.” That and a good amount of stubbornness, a wonderful support system from my husband, and an awesome thing I whipped up one day called Rejection Brownies.
Great article and advice! Thanks!
Cynthia Chapman Willis says
Wonderful post in which I take away that querying was never easy and will never be easy, but origami, at least, is fun. Great to meet Luke and his books. Thanks!
What keeps me writing? I know I’ve got a great story. The more I read about various aspects of writing, the more often I find I’m already using this or that recommended technique. Not saying it’s perfect yet–draft #3 will not be the final draft–but it’s a story that needs to be out there. (I also like to say that my main character has put a geis on me) J
Brandi Daniels says
Whenever I get a rejection form letter I tell myself that it only takes one person to say yes and this person wasn’t the one. The right person for my story is out there, I just have to persevere.
Carrie Butler says
What a great guest post! I loved the middle school tie-in. 🙂
Off to follow Luke!
The kid story was great. Haha.
Great post. Found your blog from the #MyWANA tag!
Pk Hrezo says
Thanks for the pep talk, Luke! The query process makes me feel so fragile. I like the way you explain it as a balancing act. It really is. I hope you’re able to help a lot of writers with this awesome advice!
Luke Reynolds says
And Angela: THANK YOU for letting hang out here, and for the wonderful wisdom and encouragement you and Becca share!
Luke Reynolds says
Long-live origami queries! (And the possibilities for what we might turn rejection letters into…wow. I’m thinking: prom dresses, backyard sheds, belts, and roofing…)
Mirka, love your reminder to self: in the drawer = zero possibility. Out of the drawer = you never know…
Kittie, watching Tyler do his silly-confidence thing meant a lot to me; I laughed a lot, but it really impacted me in that silly-wisdom kind of way
Kristin, e-mail certainly makes intricate folding of queries difficult; I shall have to consider the angles
Leslie, ah to know before we send something out! I sometimes feel like even rejections are easier to take when they come fast. the waiting certainly plays those tricks: “She likes me; she doesn’t like me; she likes me! she definitely doesn’t like me!”
Stina, great point. What if our high school crushes end up becoming agents? Ouch…
Paige, let us know how the swan comes along! I’ll look forward to hearing…
Larissa, sounds like your critique partner is gold; and thanks for your nice words!
Matthew, thanks for your words! I’ve been reading your blog today and loving it so much! Your energy, wisdom, and passion are so beautiful!
Heather, I toast to next time with you!
Sher, your determination and patience and commitment are awesome. It’s what it’s all about, right? Reading your comment makes me want to put two kitchen chairs together and…
Angela Ackerman says
Stina, I so agree–no way would I want to repeat rejection on any of my childhood crushes!
Sher, stubborn is good. That’s what will get us where we need to go!
Heather, I know you’ll do great. The more we send them out and learn about querying, the better we get at it!
Larissa, I’m with you. Critique partners are so helpful when I’m on sub and waiting, waiting, waiting.
Thanks everyone for chiming in! Maybe Luke will come back and teach us origami so we can turn rejection letters into something nice! 🙂 lol
Leslie Rose says
Love the analogy. Too bad we can’t ask our friend who knows the agent’s friend if the agent likes us before we send the query.
Stina Lindenblatt says
I think I’d rather risk the rejection from an agent than from my the guy I crushed on in high school. 🙂
Mirka Breen says
I remind myself that a manuscript is one hundred percent unpublishable- in the drawer. That’s what it takes.
Shannon O'Donnell says
LOL. I LOVE the comparison to a love note, Sometimes, it really does feel like that! 🙂
Paige Kellerman says
I knew it!…off to practice folding my query into a swan.
I’ve read an interview with Luke before, and he impresses the h*ll out of me. 🙂
My critique partners (who I blitzed in your wonderful launchapalooza) keep me sane and confident that my writing is worth the time and effort to keep putting it out there. I couldn’t do any of this without them. 🙂
Matthew MacNish says
What an awesome post. A most excellent analogy, well written and perfectly presented. I’m off to follow Luke’s blog.
Heather M. Gardner says
My first query experience bombed but I’m looking forward to trying again the next time!
Sher A. Hart says
I suppose my stubborn streak has kept me on the writing path, more editing now. I know my concept is unique. I’ve never comes across anything like it in 40 years of SF fantasy reading. But learning the writing skills have led to 5 years of revising, rejection, and revising some more, all while going through critique groups, a 7th grade class, beta-readers and now another critique group I created through SCBWI. I’d have saved a lot of time learning the rules for middle grade books at the start, but I didn’t know about SCBWI when I started.
Kittie Howard says
Great suggestion! Tyler’s enthusiasm hit a respondent cord.
Kristen Wixted says
I hadn’t thought of folding my query letter in different ways…but with e-mail queries, it’s pretty hard.
Nice pep talk–Thanks!