In the querying trenches. Expectations VS reality

Dear Diary,

Expectations vs reality – isn’t there always the deepest breach between the two? For example, take the weather. Yes, it’s incredibly trivial. Still, we can’t escape the weather – well, not completely – so why not use it to draw analogies when it suits us. Whenever we draw a pretty picture in our mind, reality pulls us back unceremoniously towards its practical bosom.

If you imagine a winter fairy tale with everything coated in pristine sparkling snow, with tree branches weighed down by its white fluffiness, and the soft crunching sound under your feet, the reality hits you hard with badly cleaned roads and muddy slosh clinging to your shoes. You imagine lights twinkling on the main city square, the seductive aroma of mulled wine with nostalgic notes of cinnamon and the invigorating smell of cloves, and “Jingle Bells” playing in the background while kids with happy faces ride on an old-fashioned merry-go-round. But what you get is car horns screaming all the time because of snow-induced traffic jams and a constant risk to slip and fall on an icy path. You do get to that Christmas market, but you’re lucky if it happens at least once during the festive season, for the end of the year is the time when your boss suddenly needs you to finish everything the company couldn’t in the previous twelve months.

So, that’s what querying your book feels like.

At least, when you do it the first time. I sent out my first query on 2 January 2019. By that time, I had completed my first ever manuscript, and it felt so huge, so significant. I believed that something so enormous and magical couldn’t end up in nothing.

I can’t say that I believed in being offered representation by a literary agency. But hoped I did. It was that kind of tiny winy hope that buzzes somewhere on the very bottom of your being fuelling your determination to attempt something that seems impossible. Outwardly, I told myself that it was not going to work. I didn’t tell anyone that I’ve written a book, let alone confessed I was reckless enough to send it to literary agents across the ocean. Still, inside I had a flicker of faith that a miracle can happen.

I sent out my first query on 2 January 2019, and I received my first rejection on the same day. It was a form letter without any comments on the submitted material. Strangely, it didn’t upset me. On the contrary, I felt encouraged that all of it proved to be real. I sent my work out there, and literary agents actually received it and replied.

In the course of the next year and a half, I sent more than seventy queries. I would have sent more, but alas, adult fantasy was not – and still isn’t – in high demand by the traditional publishing industry. During that time, I also reworked my manuscript. Twice.

The result of my zealous activity was a couple of more personal rejections than just “I’m afraid this project isn’t the right fit for me. Publishing is very subjective, and I urge you to keep going, as other agents may feel differently” or “I’m sorry, but your project does not sound like a fit for me at this time, and so I will have to pass”. In those encouraging rejections, agents praised my writing style and complimented the originality of my story. It was after I received those that I finally told my husband about having written a book. I see now that it was when my writing journey started in earnest.

My husband read my book and said it was great. You don’t have any reason to believe me, but it is more important that I know with a hundred percent certainty that he was honest and didn’t say it to flatter me or to make me feel better. If I’m a true bookworm to my very core – I love books and can’t get enough of them – then my husband is who you can call a bibliophile. While I had read only, let’s call them “exciting”, books until I was in my twenties, my husband had read everything that was worth reading. Kafka, Zweig, Mann, you name it, and he read it. So, when my husband told me that my book was worthy, I believed him.

I told him also about my attempts to find a literary agent and that I thought these endeavours were fruitless. After he had made a research of his own – that is his way to deal with issues – he asked: “What is that thing, publishing on Amazon?” I had not the slightest idea. Yes, don’t laugh. I had been so far from the whole indie publishing scene, what with all my career aspirations and then adapting to a life of a mother, that I didn’t have a clue self-publishing had transformed from “printed on one’s knee” stacks of A4 paper and boxes filled with your books you’ve paid a fortune for being printed into something completely different.

Now, three years later after I sent my first query letter to a literary agent in New York, I’m querying again. I don’t have any hopes for my manuscript to be accepted. Not even that tiny winy hope that had been pushing me forward that first time. This time, I have something incomparably better. I have experience. Since that day – 1 January 2019 – I have published three books, the Neglected Merge trilogy. I have gained knowledge about book promotion, marketing, and author’s brand building. What is especially important personally to me, I have realised my limits in all these things.

I don’t plan to stay in the querying trenches for too long. Other writers of the Writing Community on Twitter gave me excellent advice to tweak my query letter and maybe even the manuscript if I receive a bunch of rejections. This is very sound advice. I would repeat it myself if others who query asked me for advice on this matter. It’s just my book won’t change if I describe it in a different manner. It will still be about a 17-year-old Latvian girl who begins her adult life journey in her home country.

Nowadays, we celebrate diversity, but – and I don’t mean it in a sarcastic way – even diversity is strictly classified. You have to be able to tick the right boxes in the diversity section to be eligible. I wanted to say that it’s normal, but then, I thought that it’s more appropriate to say that this is the way life is.

I don’t diminish my story. It’s just my journey in the publishing/writing sea has taught me that it’s not how good your story is that counts. It’s not even how fresh, unique, sincere – the list of adjectives is endless – it is. Traditional publishing first and foremost is business. And any business is formed with a primary goal to grow the wealth of its owners. Again, this is how it works. We can argue about fairness or justice of it, but we won’t change it. So, it’s not that all literary agents are mean or lazy or don’t want to invest their time to carefully read through every query they receive. They are employees – or agency executives/owners – who are interested to sell as many books they publish as they can.

While I was writing these lines, another analogy sprang into my mind. I remembered how I was looking for a job. During job interviews, all those people in somber suits seemed to expect some kind of exceptional reverence from candidates. They wanted them to demonstrate that working in their company is every candidate’s dream. They asked questions about why you wanted to work there, and it wasn’t a formality. Since it was twenty years ago when I was active in labour market, I can’t remember who told me this, but someone actually confessed that it was what they expected to hear – that you dream about working in their company even in your sleep.

I feel the same pressure trudging the querying trenches. That I’m expected to jump like a cheerleader and repeat something like “I can do it! I will receive a full manuscript request! Yes! Right now!”

Well, I feel nothing of that sort. You can accuse me of pessimism, but I call it a realistic approach. As I said before, my stories will remain as they are, and nothing will transform them into a marketable material – least of all, bursting over-the-top enthusiasm.

Why don’t I write something that has a potential for sales then? Those who write know how time- and effort-consuming writing is. It is nothing like those inspiring fast-forward sequences they like to insert in movies, when in five-minute footage, the main character jogs in a beautiful park, along the lake, spends all day in an office cubicle, and then, late at night, sits at his desk, frowning and scribbling down something. Voilà! A manuscript is finished, sent out to the five biggest publishers, and a letter of acceptance is received. There are tears in the main character’s eyes, close-up, and he or she is signing books at some posh event while film credits start rolling slowly accompanied by beautiful music.

In real life, the time one spends writing is the time torn away from things you could do instead. From teaching your kids to play piano, spending time with your family, cooking more elaborate meals, cleaning your home – and from doing something for what you can get paid.

But at the same time, writing the stories you want to tell, the ones you bear in your head until they spill in a form of words on the pages of your manuscript, the ones filled with characters who talk, cry, laugh, live somewhere in a special place inside you – that’s what truly matters. This is the essence of creativity. The miracle of it. Writing a story is a value in itself, and its worth should not be measured with money.

At least, that’s what one should be telling themselves not to lose the motivation to keep going. Current statistics: 1) finished manuscript – 76 queries sent, 14 form rejections received; 2) work-in-progress manuscript: 7856 words written. The last but in no way the least 3) 3 books independently published on Amazon.

“If opportunity doesn’t knock, build a door.” I love this Kurt Cobain’s quote. It is very fitting to the indie authors’ situation. If you can’t get your books traditionally published, publish them yourself, and don’t stop building that door. Some may call social media the plague of our time, but like with almost anything else, social media is what you make of it.

“Do what you feel in your heart to be right – for you’ll be criticized anyway.” Eleanor Roosevelt is criticized even after her death – maybe even more than when she lived – and still, she was right. I know that I’ll be criticized by readers who’ll find faults in my books. And I will be criticized by those well-wishers who are in everyone’s life, who know better how you should live your life. But at the end of the day, what truly matters is that in my heart I feel that I should go on writing. Writing makes me feel happy and fulfilled. Writing has saved me. Maybe I’ll tell you about it one day.

“Completing a story and sending it out into the world is an accomplishment all in itself”, this is another line from the rejection I received for my query. Keep writing. Keep publishing. That’s what I tell myself. If you are a writer, you should believe it too.

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