Words for Writers: The Ups and Downs of Querying – That Middle Place

Querying is a fact of life in the publishing world, whether you have an agent or you’re writing up copy and pitches for agents who are then taking them to publishers. No matter how good you are or how hard you work, the approval of others is required for your professional career to launch – the audience has to enjoy and purchase your book, an agent has to read it and want to represent you, a publisher has to want to sell it. Save for in vanity or self publishing, the successof your manuscript mostly depends on someone who is not you.

This is sometimes good, because it means that there is someone else out there with a critical and experienced eye is helping to guide your manuscript along it’s path. However, sometimes it’s hard – the querying process is filled with anxiety and nervously opening envelopes, and sucking in breaths when you see emails back from publishers in your inbox.

One of the most frustrating things about publishing is getting the query response: “Your writing is lovely, but the story just isn’t for us.”

It’s a very hard bit of crit to take, because there is nothing you can do. There’s nothing to improve, no edits to make, no feedback on the structure of the narrative to integrate in your revisions. It was good – just not good for them, right now.
I have a tradition that I use in acting. When I don’t get a role, I have an icecream (the fancy kind you have to go put on pants to go out and buy, not the kind from your freezer) and I say, out loud, to myself “It’s not that they don’t like you, it’s that they just don’t like you for that role.” It makes it easier to take the rejection when you realize that they’re not judging you as a performer as a whole, just on your ability to play that role how they envision it.

I think I’m going to start using it for publishing as well. “It’s not that they don’t like your writing, it’s just that the story didn’t resonate with them, right now.”
And that is a huge factor in querying. If a publisher or agent cannot connect with a story, or a main character, then they cannot in all good conscious accept the manuscript and champion it.

There are lots of factors for not liking a story – perhaps they’ve had their fill of that particular genre/trope and are sick of reading about it; perhaps the market is oversaturated with similar manuscripts, or they just signed someone with a similar concept; maybe they just weren’t in a good headspace when they were reading (I put down “The Hobbit” like, five times before I finally read it at 24); maybe it’s just a genre the publisher/agent doesn’t want to handle; maybe they found my MC annoying and hard to sympathize with; maybe they just really dislike first person narratives; maybe they can’t stand Canadiana.

Whatever it is, the agent or publisher is always just rejecting the story, and not you, personally, the writer, nor usually your ability to write. It’s just that this particular story, at this particular time, just doesn’t work for them.

And that is a tough pill to swallow as a writer, sometimes. When you first start querying, the majority of what you receive are stock form ‘no’ rejection letters. “Thank you very much, but it doesn’t work for us at this time.” So you suck your courage back up and revise the manuscript, and send it (or your query) out again.

Eventually, if you are actively trying to improve your manuscript while waiting for response by using a reader circle or one of the hundreds of crit groups online, then the stock “nos” start becoming “nos” with notes – helpful advice about why the publisher didn’t take it, like the MC doesn’t have enough at stake, or that the middle lags. So you revise and send, and the “nos” become more helpful, and you’re getting pretty good at taking the nos and the advice together, and maybe you even look forward to them. And then they hit that spot that’s hard to handle – the “There’s nothing wrong with this and we love your writing, but we still don’t want it” stage.

I still find, emotionally, that this is the hardest kind of query to take. It means there’s no reason for the no, beyond the publisher or agent’s preference. Not every book is for everybody, and I fully understand and accept the legitimacy of that, and I completely accept and understand the agent/publisher’s choices. But it’s still difficult, because there is no answer to the question Why?

With earlier rejections, there was a reason. Why did this manuscript get rejected? Answer: Bad narrative structure, fake dialogue, annoying MC, not high enough stakes, lack of grasp of grammar, etc. or one of the other five million myriad problems that can plague fledgling manuscripts.

But with this level, there is no answer. Why was the manuscript rejected? Answer: Just because.

Ouch. It’s a tough answer to deal with, as a writer, especially one like me who likes to have all her ducks in rows and needs answers to everything. So how do you deal with it?

You buy a fancy ice cream from the store, and say out loud, “It’s not that they didn’t like my writing, it’s just that they didn’t like that story, right now.”

And then you eat that ice cream, revise that manuscript (tweak, tweak, tweak), and then send it out again. Maybe the next person will really like that kind of story, and will jump on it in a second. You never know.


For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

JM FreyWords for Writers: The Ups and Downs of Querying – That Middle Place