Confessions From the Query Trenches

Last month marked the one-year anniversary of my stay in what many writers like to call the query trenches. As the name implies, it can be a dark, dirty, scary place, and I often like to use the word “languishing” when I describe my time there.

But it doesn’t have to be utter torture. Here are my tips for surviving the query trenches.

Don’t Query Too Soon

Everyone says this (because it’s TRUE) and yet almost every writer I’ve talked to has queried before their manuscript was ready. I know how the thought process goes. It’s almost ready. I might be able to finish it before a mentor/agent/contest judge requests more. I don’t want to miss out on this opportunity. Nope. Nope. Nope. DO NOT DO THIS.

Remember that first pitch I mentioned? All I hoped to get was a little feedback on my ideas. I walked away with two requests for something that I’m actually still revising a year later. Yeah, it was that rough.  I was halfway through rewriting my story from 3rd person past to 1st person present, a change that ultimately led to that glorious moment when I finally felt like I’d found my voice. I was excited. The unexpected requests at the conference filled me with confidence. I entered Pitch Wars. I was almost done with the revision.

I got a full request from a Pitch Wars mentor for a manuscript that wasn’t ready. I wasted his time (mea culpa), I wasted my own time doing all the research that went into selecting mentors. And that time should have been spent on finishing the revision.

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Thankfully, no one reached through my computer to affix a cone of shame around my neck. But they should have. And you can bet my Pitch Wars entry this year (a different manuscript) is polished to a high shine.

Get Critique Partner Eyes on Your Manuscript

One of the amazing things about writing conferences & contests is the opportunity to make writing friends and find potential critique partners. When I walked in to my first-ever conference in June last year, I didn’t have a single writing buddy. When I walked out of that conference five days later, I had two amazing critique partners and a wonderful mentor whose help and guidance has been worth ten times the cost of the conference.

If no one but you, your mother, and your spouse has read your work, do not query it. Do not enter it into something like Pitch Wars. Just wait. Put yourself out there on the Twitter feed for #PitchWars or #amwriting or one of the many genre-specific hashtags that are out there. You’ll make writing friends that can help you get to the next level and who will keep your spirits up when it truly is time to enter the query trenches.

If you can’t find a group, create one. At this time last year, I was living in Finland and struggling to find any English-speaking writers to swap manuscripts. So I attended WriteOnCon and started begging inviting folks to a group that is now 24 amazing writers strong and has become my writing life-line.

Moderate Social Media

The writing community is amazing both on social media and off. Twitter is full of writing support and resources. And I love chatting with my writing pals, especially when I’m burned out, depressed by a rejection letter, or stuck on a tricky scene. But social media can be a real time suck, and two hours on Twitter does not translate to two hours spent honing your craft. So moderate your social media usage and focus that energy into writing the words. Check in daily. Even four times daily if you must. But also have social-media free hours where your focus can be on your manuscript. Oh yeah, and on your family/friends and, you know, life.

Do Your Homework

This is true whether you’re picking a Pitch Wars mentor, choosing a writing group or class, or selecting an agent to query. I love Janet Reid with all my heart (even more so after meeting her in person this summer at Midwest Writers Workshop), but she doesn’t rep middle grade. And that’s OK because I’ve already learned everything I know about query writing from her amazing blog, Query Shark. Knowing your genre, reading in your age group, paying attention to which agents are selling which type of books–all of these things will help you find the best home for your work.

Don’t You Dare Give Up

If writing is what is in your heart and you’re willing to put in the hard work, you can do this. You can survive the query trenches and emerge with an agent, a book deal, or a path toward self-publishing that fits your needs, personality, and skills. Giving up is not an option. So you’ve sent 152 queries on your first manuscript. Write another one (I’m on my third manuscript and have two more in the planning stages!). So your dream agent rejected the manuscript. Revise and send it to someone else. That itch to write isn’t going to go away, no matter how many rejections you get. So wear them like a badge of honor and write on, my friends.