An Extended Stay in Query Letter Hell

Technically, I’m not talking about Query Letter Hell.  Query Letter Hell is a place at Absolute Write where writers who are getting ready to query agents about their finished manuscripts can get their query letters critiqued ruthlessly, viciously, endlessly, and with the utmost compassion and desire to help.  It’s a good place, despite being the Tenth Circle of Hell.

No, what I’m talking about is the point in the agent-hunting process when a writer (me) sends a query letter for their novel (mine) out into the vast ocean of queries and hopes that an agent picks up their (my) query from the slush that lands on their (their) shore.

Here are stats, because everyone likes stats.

1st novel: 80K word Fantasy (sorta epic)
Queried for three months

This was my first experience with both writing a novel and querying.  I ended up sending the query for the book off to thirty-nine agents who represent fantasy.  A little over half responded, and only three of those positively.  Those three asked for partials (which range from the first twenty to fifty pages) and that was it.

Which was not surprising in hindsight (the only kind I have nowadays) since both the query and the book were undercooked.  In this case, I’m pretty sure it was the query, as a well-written query can get responses from a ton of agents even if the book isn’t ready (or even done, as urban legend horror stories have it).  And the main problem with that query was that there was no focus on the main character (which was also a developmental problem on the part of the book; and as to how a book can be avoiding its main character, that’s a long story.)

[Or simply bad writing. -ed.]

Shut up, you.

2nd novel: 90k word YA contemporary fantasy
Queried for a year and six months

I’d learned from my first attempt at a novel, both in regards to the writing and the querying.  Writing-wise, I decided to take advantage of the fact that I tend to write younger characters and aimed the book for the YA market.  I had a smaller cast of characters (the first book has a major cast of five or so, but an extended cast of about forty) and a restricted environment (it takes place at a summer school program at a rural college) and so everything should’ve been easier.  However, I don’t really like making things easier for myself so EXPERIMENTS: add two parts magical realism and four parts intrusive narrator and cut out all chapters, cook as thoroughly as you are able, then offer slices at tea parties.  And hope.

The query letter was much better this time around, as I had a central, active character and a distinct plot that he was obviously a major part of, and the query illustrated this beautifully.  My queries were more specifically targeted to agents, telling them why I was querying them (i.e., they represent a favorite author or they’re looking specifically for darker, literary-er stories).  In fact, my main problem with the query (at times) was that I was afraid it piqued interest in a book that didn’t actually exist (as it’s hard to get the truth of the intrusive narrator down in about fifty words).

I sent this query out to a hundred and thirty-two agents with, again, a little over half responding (with either a No thanks! or Please send more!).  Eighteen agents asked to see more, and nine of those went all the way to request the whole manuscript.  Daunting numbers, but not all that bad (I think) percentage-wise.

3rd novel: 72K word YA contemporary fantasy
Querying now

By now, you might be wondering where the query letter hell comes in.  I queried the second novel for eighteen months, and many times I never heard back from agents that I’d queried.  But that’s normal.  That’s like sending off to contests or fellowships or jobs where you expect that you won’t hear back and, if you do, well, lucky you.

The hell comes into play when agents start responding positively, because then you actually have something to look forward to.  Sure, sometimes the agents who request more material don’t respond, either, but those particular agents also didn’t seem overly excited about the manuscript to begin with.

Oh, but when they are excited!

When an agent first seemed wowed by le 2nd novelle it stunned me.  I couldn’t write for three months because I was hoping, everyday, to get a response to what I’d written.  Ideally, of course, a positive response, but either kind of response would’ve worked.  I’m used to rejection, and steeled to it, and (hopefully) tempered by it (to mix more metaphors).  But the uncertainty, that’s where the hell comes in.


Those months of dead-time wrecked me.  But I think I’ve been inoculated against the same thing happening again.  Advice on-line (see Absolute Write) is to keep writing, working on something new.  That was hard for me before, because what I would be working on next would be somewhat determined by the fact of an agent (If agent, then novel.  If no agent, then play or poetry or essay or etc.).

And maybe everyone needs to go through such a dead time.  Now, I’d echo the AW advice.  I’d say write regardless of what you’re writing.  Get words on paper, text on screen, images on vellum, hieroglyphs on stone, anything, just keep creating.

But if you do find yourself in a pool of dead-time, don’t despair.  Grab a coffee and klatch.  Give me a call and I’ll come keep you company.  You don’t need to give me directions.  I’ve been there.

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