Pen Friends, welcome Jessica Jade, a fabulous addition to the Spinning Pen. She’ll be joining us for a few months, sharing her journey on becoming an author — tips on writing, querying, YA fantasy, rejection, success, book reviews, and more! You’ll want to connect with her on twitter (link below) and see her beautiful novel aesthetics on her YA fantasy that she’s querying at the moment!
When I first started querying over two years ago, I thought I was ready—the manuscript, the query letter, everything.
Oh, I was wrong. Embarrassingly wrong.
Right before that unfortunate round of querying, I applied for PitchWars 2015. Didn’t get a single request. Perhaps I’d picked the wrong mentors to submit to, or perhaps my story just really wasn’t their cup of tea. But I couldn’t let that get me down. Nope! I had to persevere.
So I queried 16 agents, and not surprisingly, received 16 rejections (there was one request for a partial, but that ultimately turned into a pass).
Obviously something wasn’t working with my query or my first pages (spoiler alert: all of the above). In the meantime, I reached out to a couple of beta readers. One was super supportive and positive, the other was…harsh–but that might be an understatement. She pretty much didn’t like anything about the story. My precious characters! The plot! The pacing! The setting! The dialogue tags! The repetitious body language descriptions!
I cried. Threw a tantrum (of the private, in my home, and offline variety). Flippantly tried to attribute her opinions to subjectivity and—in my wounded arrogance—ignorance about what makes a good novel. But a nagging little voice in my head kept whispering there was probably some truth in what she’d said, especially amid all the rejection I’d already faced.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t begin to work out solutions for the problems in my story. I was too burnt out. So…I took a year off (long story) to gain some perspective. Instead of obsessing over what was wrong with my story and how to fix it, I focused on family. Learned how to cook a bunch of new recipes (hummus in a blender! Life changing!) Read a whole lot. Then I came back to my story with fresh eyes and realized that super harsh beta reader was 95% right. After I threw myself a pity party, and steeled myself with all the positive encouragement from the other beta reader, I tore my manuscript apart and chucked my query. I delved into revisions, despaired in my incompetence, rejoiced in my progress, then despaired some more over whatever plot hole I couldn’t figure out, but eventually felt like I’d fixed most of the issues.
Then came PitchWars 2017. History repeated itself. No requests (and I even had 2 extra mentors!). Pitprom…same. Author Mentor Match actually came with some bites, but I wasn’t chosen as a mentee.
So I found more readers and critique partners. 13 of them, actually. I also entered pretty much every query and first pages critique drawing available on Twitter, and was super lucky. Finally, after all that toiling over revisions and integrating feedback from various readers and editors, I felt like my manuscript was ready.
But something about my query still felt off. I sent it to a writer friend (Nova, a member of The Spinning Pen team), who’d read the query before she read my manuscript, for a last pass.
Her feedback was exactly what I needed. She explained how the story she thought she was getting based on the query was completely different from the one she got when she read my manuscript. I’d captured the basics of the plot well, but had somehow missed the actual heart of the story—that the story was so much more than what I’d described in the query. And then she had to tell ME—you know, the writer of said story—what the heart of the story was.
But you know what? That changed everything.
I revised my query letter and started querying more agents. And guess what? It’s already gone so much better than my first round of querying. Yeah, there have been some rejections already too, and it’s totally possible some of the requests might eventually turn into rejections as well, but at least I am now confident (not deluded like before) I have a query that works.
So here are the lessons:
- Don’t rush it. The drafting, the revising, the readers, nothing.
- Sit on your manuscript and your query letter for a few weeks—maybe a few months—then come back to it with fresh eyes after each revision.
- Find your people! Those readers and critique partners? They’re invaluable. Even if they might not like certain aspects of your story, they’re your support system. They’re there to help you make your story (and query) the best it can be.
- Find your Nova (someone who will tell you whether not your query captures the heart of your story). You know…in case you somehow don’t know it yourself.
- Make sure the query letter and first pages are so sparkly and shiny you can see your reflection in them.
- Spreadsheet the heck out of agent/agency manuscript wishlists and submissions instructions (next time I’ll share the craziness that is my spreadsheet).
- Personalize those queries whenever you can.
- And send away! Query in batches every few weeks so you can judge how successful your query letter and first pages are, and query widely.
(cue Sutton Foster as Princess Fiona in Shrek the Musical).
- Finally, don’t give up. Maybe your current manuscript isn’t the one that will get you an agent, nor the one that gets you published, but you’ll 100% never get an agent or become a published author if you throw in the towel.
Best of luck to all of you who are in, or will soon be, in the query trenches! Please share what you’ve learned about querying with us J.
Jessica, signing off.