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?