I haven’t written here much about my publishing journey, partly because the conventional wisdom is that one shouldn’t, but I actually passed the one-year anniversary of my very first query sent a little over a week ago, and I’ve been having a lot of feelings regarding the process, my successes and failures, and what I’ve learned from all of it so far.
First, I should probably mention that I used to be a professional singer/actor, which means I’m really skilled at handling rejection on a massive scale. I feel like this is important to mention, because I think the querying process can be really shocking and painful for a lot of writers who are experiencing serial rejection for the first time, and I don’t want to make light of that. It’s just not a huge issue for me. So if you’re a fellow writer, and you’re having more trouble dealing with rejection than I have, please do not feel bad. I’ve had a lot of practice.
I will say that the one thing my performance career did not prepare me for at all is how slowly everything moves in publishing, including the query process. As an actor, you usually find out very quickly after a first audition—often even in the room—whether you’re getting a callback, and I don’t think I ever waited more than a month to find out if I was cast in something I’d been called back for. This is absolutely not how querying works, at any point. Sure, there are agents who may respond very quickly with a rejection or request, but more often than not, the wait is long, requested material can take even longer (I have at least one submission that’s been out for a full year), and many agencies have a policy of not responding at all if the response would be a rejection. That’s been something I’ve struggled to get used to, and I haven’t always handled it in the smartest way. There have been multiple periods where I’ve sent more queries out than I should have, just because I was impatient for a response—any response, even if it was a rejection from a fast-responding agent who was probably not the best fit for my work. Most of those queries probably didn’t do a lot of harm—those agents were probably never going to be the best fit for me—but there’s always the chance that I blew a shot with the perfect agent because I didn’t spend enough time testing out my query, or with whom I might have done better after I revised my opening pages based on feedback from a generous agent.
Speaking of that revision, I have to mention just how incredible it is when an agent does take time to provide feedback. This is not a realistic expectation in most cases, due to the volume of queries most agents receive, and it’s not an experience I’ve had often—even my first full rejection was a polite form letter. This is something a lot of writers complain about, and I get it. It’s frustrating when you can see that something about your work isn’t resonating with agents, but you genuinely have no idea what the problem is. That said, I think most of us can accept that it isn’t—and can’t be—an agent’s job to sort this out for us, no matter how much we wish for it.
But wow, when an agent does take that time… I honestly wasn’t prepared for how great that would feel, or how useful that feedback would be! The advice I’ve read has mostly been that writers should never respond to a rejection, even to say “thank you,” but I admit I’ve done that more than once when I’ve received really thoughtful feedback, and one of my greatest regrets so far has been not thanking the agent whose feedback inspired the rewrite of my first fifty pages. It was the first agent feedback I ever received, and at the time, I was operating on the assumption that this it was bad form to respond, but when I finally gave in and sent a couple of brief thank-yous to agents who really went over and above, the response was really positive. So I regret not letting that first agent know how helpful her notes were when I had the chance.
Other things I learned over the course of my first year as a querying author include:
Don’t get attached to the notion of a “dream agent.” As easily as I take rejection, there was exactly one time when a rejection letter made me cry. It was a query I’d had out for a while with a normally fast-responding agent. I had multiple reasons for feeling this agent might be the perfect fit for me, and I spent way too much of that wait time building up the notion of them as my dream agent—absolutely the person who would really get my work and be the perfect champion. When the rejection finally came, I thought I was fine with it at first, but the next morning I found myself crying at my desk. Had I not built this agent up so much in my mind, I could have avoided that unearned sense of heartbreak. And the truth is, the agent who doesn’t connect strongly enough to your work to wholeheartedly champion it is not your dream agent. They can’t be. They’re your daydream agent, which is really not the same thing at all.
Find your people. This is true basically anywhere, anytime, but I can’t possibly express just how helpful and gratifying it has been for me to find my place in a network of writers—especially the trans/nonbinary writing community—each going through their own publishing journey. The other writers I’ve met have been brilliant, fun, and incredibly generous with their time as critique partners, beta readers, fonts of publishing knowledge, and also just as really spectacular friends. My work has improved because of the other writers around me, and I could not be more grateful to them all for welcoming me into their community. My people may not be your people. Find your people.
Write something else. This is the number one most important thing I learned over the past year. It’s advice I heard a lot, but only truly understood recently, as I finally finished the first draft of a new book. It was a project I’d been tinkering with all year, but it kept getting pushed into the background as I obsessed over what was happening with my first book. But when I made the decision to enter my first book into PitchWars, I also decided that I should use the waiting time between submission and the announcement of mentees to finish that project. This is honestly the best decision I’ve made in my publishing journey so far.
PitchWars mentee announcements are still over a week away, but now that I’ve got a draft of my new book out with first readers, I find I’m just as excited about that one as I was about the first, so whatever happens on November 3rd, I’ll have a triumphant way forward. Also, though I’ve been writing all my life, the novel I queried this past year was my first project of that length, ever, so completing another one was an important step in proving to myself that I really do have more than one book in me and that this is realistically something I can continue doing. Despite not having yet found an agent, I feel better about my writing now than I ever have before, and that’s because I just kept doing it.
Really, though, I just need to take my own freaking advice.
Perhaps my greatest takeaway from all this is actually the exact advice I give to my own students as they embark on their biggest next step—applying and auditioning for college. The thing I tell all of them (and their parents) is that as brutal as the college audition process can be—and it is so incredibly brutal—I really do believe that it ultimately matches the right students up with the right schools for them. The outcome may be unexpected, but whether the school they end up attending was their top choice or even close, it’s most likely the place in which they’d most thrive. This is not to say that nobody ever changes colleges (or literary agents!) but where you find yourself at the end of the process is with a department (or agent!) that really believes in you and believes they can bring out your best work.
As I head into the second year of my publishing journey, I probably crave the partnership of an agent even more than I did going in, but I also have a lot more clarity about what that really means to me and how worthwhile it is to keep on going until I find the right one. So year two, here I come!