5 Lessons I Learned When Querying a Novel

Hi all,

Most authors will agree that the hardest part of writing a novel is getting a publisher to notice it.  This is usually accomplished by getting yourself a literary agent. But then the problem just shifts to getting an agent to notice your work.  Querying a novel to an agent or editor is an art.  It’s also hell.  A cold, horrible hell.

Dozens of sites and books are out there, all telling you how to query effectively.  A good query letter should sell the book, the main conflict, and hero’s goal in just 3-5 sentences.  This requires cutting out all the beautiful twists, subplots, characters, and everything else you love as the author.  Now you must trivialize that brilliant story you’ve spent months or years carefully crafting, and sum it up in the barest of ways, all while still trying to make it sound remotely appealing.  (Did I mention that it’s hell?)

I’ve queried two novels in my time.  The first was a failure. The second, Dämoren, was a success.  I submitted the first query for Dämoren on March 2, 2013.  In honor of its anniversary I want to share the lessons that I learned.

 

 5: Know Your Sub-Genre

Before you query an agent, you first need to be sure that they handle your genre.  They say you should look in a bookstore and see what section your book belongs in.  Dämoren is a modern-day fantasy.  So…Fantasy, right?  OK, that’s a start.  But then we get into the bizarre world of sub-genres.  Modern-day fantasy (or Contemporary Fantasy) can be broken into several categories, such as Urban Fantasy, Magical Realism, Paranormal Fiction, or Supernatural Fantasy.  This is before we even splinter it further into Young Adult, or Romance categories for each of those.  Some agents won’t handle Urban Fantasy, but will gladly do Magical Realism.   Some have Urban Fantasy listed on their website bio, but then somewhere else specifies that they’re strictly Young Adult Urban Fantasy. 

Amazingly, there is no standardized set of rules defining these sub-genres, and even worse, most agent websites will spend 95% of an agent’s bio page talking about their cats, but not really mention what specific micro-sub-genre categories they want or don’t want.  This means you will likely query an agent that doesn’t represent your sub-genre.  I actually found it easier to research most agents on sites that weren’t actually the agency’s website, just to find out what sub-genres they were looking for.

Once you figure out your specific sub-genre, and what agents represent it, list them on a spreadsheet.  Do this before you send a single query because…

 

4:  Organization is Critical

When querying my first novel, I queried every agency that I could find.  I have no clue who all I queried because I didn’t keep the best notes.  I shot queries out like Yosemite Sam shooting his pistols in the air.  After several months, it started getting harder and harder to remember who had and hadn’t rejected me.

yosemite-sam“Yee haw, I’m sending queries!”

Querying Dämoren was a different story.  I built a detailed and color-coded spreadsheet that listed which agents, agencies, and publishers I submitted to, what date I submitted, if any page samples accompanied the query, what their expected turnaround time was, and any other information I thought I might need.  I also listed the date I received a rejection.  This spreadsheet kept my sanity, which is good because…

 

3:  You Will Experience Horrible Self-Doubt

When writing Dämoren I received a lot of praise from my writer’s group.  It made me feel good. It pushed me to complete it.  Positive reinforcement from your writing peers is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean jack when the rejections start coming.  No matter how emotionless you try to be about it, that’s going to get to you.

crying-spock“No one likes my book.”

At first I thought maybe my query letter sucked (which it did).  That’s a valid theory (because it did).  Two month into my query storm I attended the DFW Writing Conference.  There, I attended a workshop that taught me what was wrong with my query letter.  I rewrote it, and then submitted it for their Query Letter Gong Show.

The Gong Show is a fun little exercise the conference does where all the agents and editors attending get a gong, and anonymous query letters are drawn and read aloud.  Whenever an agent/editor hits the point that they’d stop reading the query letter, they hit the gong.  At the third gonging, the letter is discarded.  Afterwards, the agents tell the audience why they would have rejected it.  Also, since they’re up on stage, they want it to be entertaining as well as vent some of their exhaustion/frustration from being locked in a conference center for an entire weekend with 300 desperate writers, they’re pretty savage in their criticism.  Seriously, this is like American Idol, but they’re all Simon.  After the first few public eviscerations, I was horrified when they drew mine and began to read it.

Amazingly, no one gonged it.  Not only was mine the only query letter to make it through, it didn’t even receive a single gong.  I was cheered, applauded, blogged about (Here and Here), and told that I now had a perfectly crafted query letter.

Query Gong Show Victory“My query letter is victorious!”

Armed with the “perfect” query letter, I went on to receive 6 more months of rejections.  I also no longer had the excuse that it was my query letter’s fault that no one loved me.  Saying that this was a punch to the nuts for my self-esteem is a lot like calling the Polar Vortex a “slight chill”. It was crushingly depressing.

Just remember that you’ve got to muscle through it.  Start that next project to keep your brain occupied.  Make yourself write.  Writing the next project is better than just sitting around and waiting.  Especially since…

 

2:  Waiting Leads to Paranoia

Some agencies have a listed wait time of just a couple days.  For most it’s 6-12 weeks.  That’s a lot of time to sit around and wonder.  After a while, you start to worry. “What if they didn’t get it?”  “What if it ended up in a SPAM folder or I sent it to the wrong email?” These questions gnaw at you.  They keep you up at night.

Most agencies forbid follow-up emails.  I’m sure they get hundreds of them anyway.  Still, you don’t want to ruin your chances by nagging them, and a simple “hey did you get it?” might just cause them to delete your message and cast you into the pit of rejections.

Rejected“This…is…REJECTED!”

This means all you can do is just stalk Query Tracker, and check your Spam box in case your reply ended up in there.  During my nine months of querying, I checked my Spam folder daily.  It got to the point that I knew the names of those penis enlargement and cheap meds swindlers more than I knew my own friends.  And for all my efforts scrolling through thousands and thousands of Lottery Winner Notifications and desperate pleas from the Nigerian Royal Family I found exactly zero agent emails.

In fact, I didn’t get that many emails at all. Which leads us to…

 

1:  Closure is Better Than Rejection

It’s hard to imagine, but there is a fate worse than rejection, and that’s not receiving anything at all.  Literary Agents get flooded with thousands upon thousands of queries (and yes, most are terrible).  This never-ending river of hopes and dreams from prospective writers leaves many agents too busy to take the 4.68 seconds to hit “Reply” and paste in a standard form rejection from a bounce-back mailbox.  How many agents do this?  About 50%.

Exactly one half of agents sent me rejection letters (including the one that came in an envelope that I had stamped and addressed myself when I submitted it.  So it’s like giving yourself bad news.). The other rejections came in the form of silence.

The silence is worse than anything.  You will spend weeks wondering, praying, hoping that they just haven’t accepted you yet.  This tiny thread of hope is worse than any rejection notice.  A rejection means closure. It means you can move on.  Silence is forever.

And don’t think that if an agent requests pages from you that it gets any better.  It doesn’t.  I had several agents request pages.  One requested the first 50.  Never heard from him again.  Another requested a full manuscript.  No reply (I later found out she had left the agency).  Another requested 50 pages, then the manuscript, confirmed she had it…then nothing.  To be completely honest, I’d rather have had a cruel, hateful, whiskey-fueled rejection than the pain of not knowing.

Your Manuscript Sucks.  Thank you for checking“Dear author, after careful consideration we’ve decided that your manuscript is fucking awful.
You will never have any future in this industry and should probably hang yourself.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity to witness the worst writing imaginable.
Please lose our email address and die.”

At the DFW Writers’ Conference I listened to a panel on ‘Finding an Agent’.  It was hosted by two agents that spent half an hour sharing the secrets to win their hearts.  Their suggestions started out pretty standard.  Look up the agent first.  Be sure they represent your genre.  Address the query to the agent by name, and if possible, list a reason why you chose them.  The agents then went on to suggest that writers go to their local bookstore and look over the books that those agents represented.  Mention those books in your query.  Compliment them.  Tell them they’re great, but don’t overdo it.  This research of scouring bookstores should take at least a day per agent.

Later, they revealed that one of them did send rejection notices, while the other proudly stated that she did not.  So even though she wants you to physically drive to a store and spend 1-2 days researching her work in order to craft her a custom ego-inflating query letter, don’t expect a simple “No thanks, but this project isn’t what I’m looking for.  Good luck in your endeavors.”  That message will never come.

Just accept that this is part of the business.  If an agency says their turn-around time is 8 weeks, then unless you hear otherwise from them, after 8 weeks mark that query as “rejected” and move on to the next.

In the end, querying is just a part of writing.  We face the trial by fire and survive it. When you see all the thousands of titles filling a bookstore, just remember that every author there has endured what you are going through.  They know what it’s like.  They want you to succeed and to join them.  You just have to survive it.  It gets better on the other side.

Welcome to ValhallaThe other side is Valhalla, BTW.

 And just in case you’re wondering how many rejections your favorite authors received, check out LiteraryRejections.com

 -Seth

 

“Lo there do I see Tolkien. Lo there do I see Howard, Jordan, and Rowling. Lo there do I see the line of my genre, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of Valhalla, where the published may live forever.” ~  Genre Viking

Story Inspirations – Florence

Hi all,

As I’ve written before, every author can name specific things they’ve seen, or read, that eventually appeared in one of their stories.  One city that has, and will continue to inspire my writing, is Florence Italy.

Florence

My first trip to Florence was in 2006, then again in 2012.  It is a beautiful city, brimming with history.  So much of it has appeared in my Black Raven stories, but the majority is simply atmosphere.  However, I did get a few pictures of some of the specific things that have directly influenced my writing.

 

TowerLonely Tower:  This tower was once part of the city walls and housed the mint.  Now it stands alone on a little island in the street.  Its imposing walls, and the difficulty I imagine in trying to break into a building that is so out in the open, led me to use similar buildings in both Darclyian Circus, and City Beneath the Kaisers.

 

 

 

 

Michelangelo's TombMichelangelo:  It’s impossible to spend any time in Florence without seeing Michelangelo’s influence.  He was so popular in his time, that the Pope more or less forced Michelangelo to work commissions for the church.  The idea of an artist held prisoner is what inspired The Gilded Noose.

 

 

 

LocksLockLock Clusters:  On and around the Ponte Vecchio bridge, there are thousands and thousands of padlocks affixed to just about everything.  The local legend is that lovers who affix a lock to the bridge, then throw the key into the River Arno, will have good luck.  I used these locks in Dämoren.

 

 

 

PerseusPerseus with the Head of Medusa:  Benvenuto Cellini’s (the guy whose bust is surrounded by locks above) beautiful sculpture captured my imagination when I first saw it in 2006.
I’ve always loved the Perseus myth and used the story in Dämoren. Later, I decided to give the statue a brief cameo in my novel.

 

 

 

 

 


Florence StreetsRoofs Along Narrow Streets and Alleys: My love of rooftop chases is older than I can remember. I’d already used the idea in The Mist of Lichthafen before I’d ever made it to Europe. Later, when I actually saw how close the rooftops actually were, and the support arches between buildings, I knew that it wasn’t just fantasy. Since then, my heroes have hopped rooftop to rooftop in several stories, most notably, Thieves’ Duel.

Alleys are one of my guilty pleasures.  When other tourists are snapping pictures of beautiful churches and great artistic achievements, I’m creeping though the narrow alley across the street. Florence is centuries old.  It’s endured wars, plagues, riots, and all kinds of other nastiness.  There’s no inch of the city that isn’t history, and for some reason, alleys are where I can really feel it.  More than once, my wife has turned around from something beautiful to realize that I’ve ducked off into some side-street to explore.


Narrow StreetThis alley is exactly one Seth wide

 I’ve heard many authors say, “Never stop writing.”  That’s great advice.  However, you do stop.  You go to work, you go out with friends and family, you get sick, you bingewatch Downton Abbey.  You might stop for only a few hours or days, but you do stop.

Because life happens, my secondary advice is, “Never stop drawing inspiration.” When you’re not writing, you’re still researching.  Maybe not consciously, but you are.  Keep that little recorder going in the back of your head.  Note smells, sights, and the way things make you feel.  Keep them in your mind because once you do return to your writing, you’ll have them waiting for you.

Writing isn’t just sitting in front of a computer, pounding out page after page.  Writing is teaching yourself to record the world in ways that can be told to others.  You don’t just look at a picture to draw your inspiration.  You note the frame, the wall behind the picture, the sounds of the room the picture is in, the hall that led you to it. Being a writer is being able to remember all those little details, the emotions they conjured, and letting your imagination run wild with them.

Never stop drawing inspiration.

-Seth

The Best Writing Resource I’ve Ever Found

Hi all,

Whenever I talk to someone who has either just started, or is considering writing, I always point them toward the website that has helped me more than anything else, The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, & Horror or simply, OWW.  Now, of course, the budding author needs to be working in one of those three genres, but that’s usually the case with the circles I run in. OWW

I’ll go ahead and state that I am not paid or profiting in any way by pimping this site.  I’m just a very satisfied customer.

I stumbled across this website right when I was first starting out, and I’ve been a huge fan of it ever since.
How it works:

  • You post a short story/chapter/etc. of 7,500 words or less.
  • Other authors from across the globe will read your submission, and critique it.
  • In order to post more submissions and receive more critiques, you must critique other authors to “earn” the points to post.

It’s a simple formula, but it works. Here’s why:

  • The reviewers are not friends. I love my friends.  My best friend reads everything I write before anyone else in the world gets to.  But most people can’t give true feedback to a friend.  They love you, and their personal bias allows much more forgiveness for weak writing.  Now some reviewers might become your friends.  I have several crit-buddies that I’ve met there, but whatever friendship we now have is founded on our ability at brutal and blunt creative honesty.
  • The reviewers are writers. A writer can look at a story and see it differently than a non-writer can.  They can identify clunky phrasing, word-abuse, and overall flow much better because they’ve trained themselves to see it in their own writing.
  • The reviewers, like your eventual readers, have only the work to go on. The biggest disadvantage my wife or my friends have when reading my drafts is that they already know part of the story.  I’ve told it to them, and bounced ideas.  Their judgment of how I set up a scene or plot-point is now based off of those conversations and not exclusively on the written work.  The reviewers on the workshop have been spared from those spoilers and their impressions are more valuable for it.
  • The impersonality of the Internet allows for honesty. I’ve been to face-to-face workshops or writing groups and the average person is simply a lot more honest with delivering criticism if they don’t have to look you in the eye when they give it.  Furthermore, the inability for the person receiving the criticism to interrupt, defend, or react, allows for more brutal truth.
  • Learning to review other writers teaches you how to review yourself. When I first started the workshop, I’d have writers point out flaws that I just didn’t believe I had.  Then, after reviewing other authors, and honing my skills, I started to make those exact same comments to others.  Then it hit me.  “Damn, I’m guilty of it, too.  I see it now.”
  • The variance of reviewers allows you access to their experience. This is one of those hard-to-identify benefits, so I’ll give you a few examples.  I’ve read stories by people that clearly have limited or zero experience with shooting a gun.  It’s not that they say anything wrong in their writing, but that it lacks anything above what you find in movies (particularly how loud they really are, or how far white-hot brass can fly and the fun places that it can fly into.)   Having a reviewer suggest little details that can add to the realism not only makes it read better, but can give a lot of credibility.  Personally, when writing DÄMOREN, I was fortunate enough that out of my small circle of reviewers I happened to have a Filipino author that could verify if I’d used an Aswang correctly.  I also had a British author. She helped me with Allan’s dialogue.  Another reviewer grew up in Tuscany, and they were able to help with the little details an actual resident would know over my short experiences there as a tourist.  That’s a much larger diversity pool than I’d likely find at any local writing group.

With any critique, you’ll need to learn what to follow and what to ignore.  That’s just a fact of writing.  I don’t always follow the advice of my reviewers, but I do note it.  If more than one person mentions the same issue, it might be something that does need correcting.  Honestly, I’d rather have 100 scathing peer reviews of an unpolished piece over an editor’s rejection of a finished one.  Most editors won’t tell you why they reject a submission, and having other authors tear it up first can greatly improve the chances of having a story accepted.

Now, not every review is a “good” review.  Occasionally you get one that is just useless.  Every once in a while I’ve had a writer show up that gives crits that are either pointless, or insane rantings.  But those are the minority.  Honestly, in the hundreds of reviews of gotten there, I’ve had less than 15 completely useless ones. Some might be 99% bad, but then they find a typo or make a style/story suggestion that no one else saw.  That’s still a “good” review.

So for any new writers needing a place to hone their craft, you should check it out.  There are other online workshops out there, and some of them are reportedly pretty good.  But this is the only one I’ve ever used, and I can honestly say that it’s where I learned to write.

-Seth

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Book in a Drawer

Back when I first started writing, I penned an amazing dark-fantasy called Dreams of Lost Souls.  It was the first of four in my Empire of Deceit series.  Coming in at 114,000 words, it took me just over two years to write.  Once finished, I immediately started on its sequel, Divine Liberation, while simultaneously trying to pitch the first book.

I attended a writer’s conference in Austin Texas, and learned how to query and pitch my masterpiece.  While there, I heard several authors and editors all lovingly discuss their books in a drawer.  For those who don’t know the term, a Book in a Drawer is an unsellable manuscript that never sees print and spends eternity living in a drawer (or in today’s case, on a hard drive).  Evidently, most authors have a cherished work that they keep hidden away (some authors have several).  They’re considered “practice novels.”

“Fools,” I thought.  “I’m not going to have an entire book that never gets published.  I’m going to sell this baby, and then I’m going to sell its sequels, spin-offs, movie rights, and have to buy a new house just to hold all the awards they’re going to earn.”<insert evil laugh>

No one bought it.  No one even asked for a full manuscript.  I wish I could tell you how many rejections I got, but I can’t.  I just stopped counting.

rejectedI found it to be a lot easier if I just stamped them myself.

But that didn’t stop me.  I kept writing.  I kept editing. I kept writing short stories that all took place in the same fantasy world I had written.  (The concept was to create a living world that has many stories and adventures going on, not just the one epic tale)

After several more years, I found myself at the FenCon 2011 Writer’s Workshop.  It was chaired by Editor Lou Anders, who had just won a Hugo.  It was going to be 3 days of peer reviews and one-on-one with one of the industry’s rock-stars.  I knew that once he read the first 10 pages, he’d be sold.

He wasn’t.  In fact, he tore it to Hell.  I was over 200,000 words into my series, and spent three days having Lou (who is a terribly awesome guy, by the way) patiently, but brutally explain that it was sheer crap.

Some of the other authors were understandably upset having their works shredded.  Strangely enough, I wasn’t upset at all.  I was relieved.  It felt like a huge burden had been lifted off my shoulders.  I not only knew my book was bad, I knew why it was bad.  I knew why theirs were bad.  And most importantly, I knew what an editor was looking for.

The final morning of the convention, I saw Lou quietly having breakfast.  I stopped by to thank him for all his help and tell him that he’d given me the courage to put my manuscript away and finally start on a story idea that I’d been bouncing around for the past few years.  Not wanting to be a bother, I tried to make it a real quick conversation.  Lou (I can’t stress enough what a nice guy he is) asked me to sit and we then just B.S.’d for half an hour.

When I told my wife that I’d finally given up on ever selling Empire of Deceit, she was horrified.  She thought I’d be crushed.  I simply told her that it was my practice novel, and it had taught me how to write.

The next week, I started Dämoren.

I met Lou again at an Agent/Editor Conference in 2013 while hocking a freshly-finished Dämoren.  I thanked him again for giving me the courage to start this new project.  We talked shop for a bit, then snuck off, grabbed a coffee, and discussed important matters like Batman and Sci-Fi TV shows.

My name is Seth Skorkowsky and I have a book in a drawer.  No you can’t read it.  But my novel Dämoren is about to be released by Ragnarok.  You can read that, instead.

Oh, and as far as those short-stories that took place in the same fantasy world as my never-to-be-released novel: You can check out The Mist of Lichthafen, Relàmpago, or my soon to be released Black Raven Series.

So for any aspiring novelists reading this: Good luck.  I hope you sell your first novel and fill a money bin with all the fortune you deserve.  I really mean that.  I’ll also hate you with jealousy, but it will be a loving hate.  However, if you don’t sell that first novel, don’t worry, you’re in good company.

ducktales-money-binI hope this is you.

-Seth