Friday, March 24, 2017

Perseverance 2017--or Query Reality Check



Persevering in the Query Trenches (taken with a Dose of Reality)

This post first appeared as part of WriteOnCon 2017, in February 2017

Perseverance—my favorite word

Today, I’m talking about Persevering in the Query Trenches. It’s one of my favorite topics. Every time I have the opportunity to talk to authors just starting out, I will eventually get to this subject. First, my own story.

I was first agented in February 2011. It took 67 queries, spanning about 2 years, for a YA contemporary that was near and dear to my heart. This was after a failed attempt to query agents for several picture book manuscripts over two years prior to that. My agent left the field about sixteen months later, leaving me agentless. I was sad at first, then determined to get back into the query trenches. She’d given me a handful of referrals, and I began the query process again. A month later, I had an offer. After 25ish queries. Alas, my second agent parted ways with her agency about a month after I signed with her, leaving me agentless a second time in just over four months.

I might have had a glass or two of wine at that point. I won’t lie. It was frustrating. I felt like my career was stalling through no fault of my own. But life happens. If you quit, you won’t get where you want to go.

Here’s where the part about perseverance comes into play.

I started querying again. This time I had two finished projects. And several more in the works. I’d met agents through conferences. I had author friends with agents. I focused my search. I asked for referrals. I made connections. I had done it before; I knew I could do it again. In August 2013, I signed with my third agent, Kathleen Rushall. Kathleen had seen previous work of mine, we’d stayed friendly, and when the right project crossed her desk, she signed me. (And I love her for it every day, three and a half years later.)

The book I queried her with hasn’t sold yet. But we’ve sold two other projects; a digital contemporary YA to Bloomsbury Spark published in 2015, and a Middle Grade time travel novel to Simon and Schuster/Aladdin (which I cowrote with Jen Malone), coming out in 2018. My overnight success story only took 15 years.

What does this mean for you?
The complaint I hear most often from people who are just starting to query is that it’s hard to take rejection. Not to mention writing the actual query letter.

Let’s start with the part about rejection. Let’s just put it out there. Rejection sucks. It’s hard. It’s hard to put your words out in the world and have people reject them. It feels personal.
Can we all agree not to call it rejection? Let’s call it what it is: A Decline. An agent declines your work. They pass. That’s all. They aren’t rejecting you as a person.

You have to get comfortable with agents declining your work. Rejection implies a judgement on you. As with anything creative, not every work of art is going to appeal to every agent (just like not everything you write is going to appeal to every editor). When you get a decline, take whatever you can learn from it—and then move on. Don’t burn bridges either, because maybe your second or third project might be the best fit for someone who previously declined. Take it from me, it happens.

But that’s the game. There are literally hundreds of agents representing children’s books (or adult romance, or science fiction). At any one time, half of them may not be accepting submissions. (note: I made up that statistic. I have no idea exactly how many agents are representing any genre or how many aren’t accepting submissions at a given time). They might not rep what you write. They may be looking for something super specific. This is not rejection. This is them looking to add to their own client list. This is them passing. Declining, not rejecting.

I wanted to share some data I collected for this blog post. The raw data of the survey is available upon request, but here’s my analysis.

I asked five questions of agented authors.

1. How many queries did it take to sign with your first agent (and any subsequent agents, if you're not still with your first.)
2. Are you still with your first agent?
3. Were these queries all for the same project? If not, how many different projects did you query?
4. How many months/years were you in the query trenches before signing for the first time/second time, etc.?
5. Since signing with an agent, have you published the work queried? Have you published a different work?

Data Analysis—Reality Check Time

Now it’s time to get real.

Forty-nine people answered the questions through a private Facebook page and through a survey posted on Twitter. Please understand this survey is not scientific. And I can’t share personal anecdotes, just the raw data, so it’s difficult to get any nuance from this. Also, don’t try to figure out who the authors are—even I don’t know, as it was an anonymous survey.

Here’s the down and dirty:

Number of queries sent before signing ranged from one to one thousand (you read that right, from 1 - 1000).  
Takeaway? You might be in this for the long haul. Get comfortable with the word “decline” (see above).

Of the forty-nine (49) respondents, sixteen (16) are no longer with their first agent – that’s a little over 30% who aren’t with their first agent. This survey did not ask why—but reasons can range from agent left the field, to the relationship not working out, or not having a sale. Remember, this is a business relationship that either party can sever. 
Takeaway? Having had multiple agents does NOT make you or the agent with whom you parted ways a bad person or a bad writer. No one thinks this and you do NOT need to be ashamed of having had more than one agent.

Of the forty-nine (49) queried, twenty-six (26) queried more than one project. Underscore this: More than half the respondents queried at least two projects over the course of their process. Out of those twenty-six, seven had four or more projects.  
Takeaway? Write something new while you’re querying.

Length of time in the query “trenches” ranged from one day to ten years, and lots of variation in between. There is no rule of thumb here. Your process can be short or long; and is in no way a judgement on you as a person or a writer.  
Takeaway? If you keep working at it, you can (and will) go on to sell your book.

Overall, those who have a second or third agent took less time to query and fewer queries for the second and third processes.  
Takeaway? It gets easier the more you do it.

Twelve out of the forty-nine haven’t sold their queried project, though some have sold subsequent projects. (And that means that thirty-seven SOLD the project they queried. YAY!)  
Takeaway? Having an agent doesn’t mean you will sell your project, but the odds are that you’ll sell something else.

Don’t toss out the baby with the bathwater
For me, the biggest takeaway is that whatever your expectation of the query process is, you need to toss it out the window. We love to think that we’re going to be the exception—that we’ll be the one person who sent one query and signed in a day (and great, if you are!). But realistically, the odds are that it’s going to take longer. Honestly, it should take longer—you need to vet potential agents as much as they vet you. The person who sold their eleventh project in the tenth year of querying, is a New York Times best seller (and yes, I know I said it was anonymous, but this person made themselves known to me). If that person had quit in year eight, we wouldn’t have those amazing books.

Some of the results might be skewed by personality types—it’s hard to know, but someone who holds onto a manuscript longer, revising multiple times, and then querying, likely has fewer overall queries. Others might query too early, with a MS that isn’t ready, adding time and numbers of total queries to their process. 

In conclusion
Your query process is yours alone. It won’t resemble anyone else’s. Take these results with a grain of salt—they are not meant to depress you or overwhelm you. My goal is to demonstrate, with real data, that the process is different for everyone. As long as you don’t quit, you keep practicing your craft, and you PERSEVERE in both your writing and your querying, you will achieve your dreams.
My simple rules of thumb are: keep it short (one page or less), talk more about your book than yourself, and make every word of the query count (no need to dwell on backstory and be sure to include the stakes for your main character).

I’m taking questions here on this blog post—let me know if this has been helpful, or if you want to chat! I wish you all the best of luck—if anyone is going to be at New England SCBWI in April, please be sure to say hello!

If you’re looking for someone to critique your query letter, I do that under the guise of QUERYGODMOTHER.com – find me there for details.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Deleted scene from ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT (First kiss)



This is a deleted scene from an early version of ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT. In honor of the winter weather today, I thought I'd post it. I was never an ice skater, but parts of this remind me of a boy I once knew who was a skater.
 ANY WAY YOU SLICE IT is available here from Amazon.

***

My nose and cheeks tingled with the cold the second I pushed open the car door. In ten minutes, I’d look like Jack Frost’s twin sister, but I didn’t care. No way Jake was going to beat me today; I’ve been working too hard for him to out skate me this time. I pulled on my gloves and grabbed my skates off the back seat. He was hot on my heels, but I didn’t even look back at him as we sprinted to the dock to lace them up.
“Bet you an extra-large chocolate chip scone you can’t beat me to the middle!” he yelled, sliding down next to me and throwing off his boots.
I rolled my eyes, and bumped his shoulder. “Seriously? We’re not ten anymore.” But the second I finished my laces, I took off, pumping my arms to pick up speed. We’d done this race a gazillion times, but it never got old. I could do it with my eyes closed. It didn’t even really matter who won—it was just what we did when we skated on the pond.
I raised my arms in victory when I got to the spot we always called the finish line. “I am the winner!” I started my victory dance, knowing he’d have done the same if he’d been first. I took a bow, and twirled around gracefully on my skates, just in time to see him come speeding at me. The moment before he careened into me, he stopped short, sheering ice everywhere. “You really are still ten, aren’t you?”
“Only when I’m with you,” he said, as he glided along the ice in a perfect figure eight.
“Ha! Aren’t I the luckiest girl.”
When the sun dipped below the tree line, something about the weird shadows chasing Jake around the pond make me stop and watch him. With a pretend stick in his hand, he raced toward an imaginary goal. “He shoots! He scores! And the crowd goes wild!”
His energy and joy wafted toward me like a palpable breeze, and everything melted away. No coach, no parents nagging me to do the right thing, no team counting on me to lead them to victory. None of that was going anywhere, but for now, I’d block it all from my brain. I’d just enjoy myself.
The ice on this part of the pond was about two and a half inches thick but the way the light reflected off the smooth surface, made it seem like it went on forever. The first time it cracked it sounded just like thunder, rolling far away in the distance. “It always freaks me out when it does that!” I said to myself, knowing he was too far away to hear. I skated in a few lazy circles, before Jake’s fancy moves drew my attention again.
He spelled his name and twirled a few times. The guys on the team would never let him live down some of the girlier ice dance moves, but he really was amazing on his skates. His stupid hat trailed behind him like a tail. It was so long, it could double as a scarf and wrap around his neck four times. He turned and waved the pompom on the end in my direction. It was the smallest of gestures, but suddenly I felt my face flush. It was like someone turned up the heat—like I was almost breaking a sweat. If I’d been near a chair, I’d have sat down.
“What’s up? Why aren’t you skating?” He stopped a few inches away and squinted at me like he could see into my soul. “You feel okay? You look like you’re about to pass out.”
Before I could answer, the thunder came from directly beneath us. In that second my only thought was if we were taking a plunge into the icy depths, we were going to take it together.
My next thought hit me like a hockey stick to the gut.
Oh my god, I’m in love with Jake.
In that instant, waiting for the surface to break open and the icy water to swallow us whole and knowing beyond any doubt that I loved Jake Gomes with my entire being, my reflexes reacted and I gripped his forearms like a life preserver.
He grabbed my arms in return and, I saw panic flash across his face.
We stood face to face, linked. Panic gripped my heart as I waited for the inevitable. My brain tried to get my feet to move and skate to shore, but I couldn’t let go of Jake arms.
He relaxed first. “Pen, what the hell’s wrong with you today? The ice is totally thick enough here. It’s not cracking.” But as he said the words, he pulled me into his chest and held me for a long time. I could feel his heart beating through his parka and I knew I’d scared him. I buried my face in his coat. I couldn’t look at him; if I looked at him, my eyes would betray my heart. As terrified as I was of my heart, I’d never felt safer in my life wrapped in Jake’s arms. Like I’d come home. After being away for a very long time.
He finally loosened his grip and looked down at me. I might have been crying or maybe my eyes were watering from the cold. And I wasn’t sweating anymore; my body shook with fear and cold and confusion. How could I never have known that I loved Jake Gomes? He took off his glove and wiped my cheek. Why had I never noticed that his eyes are turquoise? I’d been looking at him since we were seven, but I’d never noticed.
My heart had just started to calm down from my earlier panic, but as Jake leaned toward me, my pulse quickened in my ears.
I’d never imagined kissing Jake. I have no idea why I never imagined kissing Jake. Kissing Jake was amazing. I wished we weren’t wearing parkas because I wanted to get so much closer to him. He pulled away first, and started skating backwards away from me. He looked more scared now than he did when the ice cracked. “I’m sorry.”
I felt like I’d been punched again. I whispered, “Why are you sorry?”
He looked surprised. “I…I mean…I didn’t mean to kiss you.”
I skated forward, closing the gap he’d created. “I’m glad you did.” I wasn’t trying to be sexy, I just wanted to be kissing him again. In hindsight, maybe I was too enthusiastic. I misjudged the distance and caught him off guard. We both lost our balance and went down hard onto the ice.
When he started laughing, I started breathing again. I wasn’t sure what to do with this new Jake. The Jake who kissed me. The Jake with the beautiful blue-green eyes. The war in my head raged. This was the same Jake who had been like my brother for the last eight years. There was no reason to be nervous. “Thanks for breaking my fall,” I said, holding out my hand to help him up. I could pass my shaking hands off as being cold, right?
Jake grasped my hand and pulled me back onto the ice next to him. He pulled my hat off and ran his fingers through my hair, and then, finally, he kissed me again.