Status: Watching Investigation Discovery
Last week I went on a little rant about query letters and pitches. I believe I said I’d focus on synopses for this time, but I feel this is the topic for now, because it’s so universal. So today, I’m going to rant about why it is so important, imperative, more crucial than the air you need to breathe on why you must wait at all costs before you send off your query letter.
Let’s look at it this way. You have finished your manuscript. You locked it away for a month, resisting the temptation of going back to it, treating yourself to wine and ice cream and self-praise. Then you returned to it, hunkered down, and edited and revised like a mother lover. You sent it to beta readers and critique partners, followed their advice, advice from the Internet, advice from the cat–and you think it’s ready. You know it is. It’s a gut feeling.
What’s next? Your query. And you do the same thing that you did with your manuscript ad nauseum. Wash, rinse, repeat, until finally, that is as damn good as it’s going to get.
You have your dream list of agents, maybe in a notebook, a Word document, sticky notes plastered on whatever available surface remains.
You. Are. Ready.
But let me tell you: No.
I have been there; I know the excitement, the anxiety and eagerness. The feeling that if you don’t start querying right now, right now, right now, that someone will swoop in and sign with the agent. Or the agent will stop accepting queries. Or, you know, the world blows up and subsequently destroys all technology. Maybe zombies decide to target agents. Something will happen, and oh dear lord above, you must send it-send it-send it.
Don’t. Back away from the computer. Shut down the e-mail program. Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe.
The thing is, by hitting send, you’re thrusting your precious baby into the slush pile, and it might not survive. You will be amongst many other eager individuals, and they may not have done everything you did. (le shock, they didn’t do all that painstaking work? Sacrilege!) Here is the truth: Chances are, by being so very eager that you’re bouncing up and down like a freaking bunny rabbit, the opportunity is blown. Destroyed. Sayonara. Agents are receiving hundreds of queries, and while some of them may have big issues–passive voice, passive characters, no plot, the list goes on and on–there might be some in yours.
But, you may say, trembling in rage, I’ve read, and re-read, and had everyone I know plus the crazy cat lady next door read my query. They say it’s fine!
Well, I will say to you now, that may be the case, but here is Emily’s belief: Do not, I repeat do not, submit until you are absolutely, positively sure that the query letter and manuscript are in the best shape they can be.
So how do you do that?
Here’s some suggestions.
1.) Hold your beta readers and critique partners hostage
All right, not really, unless you’re truly desperate and a shade of crazy. Make them read your manuscript, pick at it, nitpick at it, shred it to ribbons. Then, collecting the remains, you piece it together. Yes, it sucks. Yes, there may be crying involved. And yes, it is worth it. Having other readers–willing or not, all depends on the hostage thing–review what you have written is the best thing you can do. Your brain and eyes are so, so familiar with the words on the screen. You might be dreaming about your characters; you might be mouthing lines of dialogue to yourself like they’re a damn Broadway song stuck in your head. Those are signs that you live and breathe your story. That’s fine. We’re writers–it would be weird if we weren’t so obsessed with our story. If we clutch our laptops to our chest and stroke it saying, “My precious” that is perfectly cool. That passion is what will drive you through the long haul. Think an agent wants a writer who’s a one-trick pony? No. Unless you’re a one-trick pony who makes as much as Bill Gates. Then be the pony.
In conclusion: Get readers. Get critique partners. Listen to them. You do not have to apply what they said to your story right away, because if you don’t, then it will suck, and then–and then– No. Don’t think like that. Most of the time, your writer/reader buddies are only offering advice. Good advice, but you just have to take it into consideration.
2.) Read Your Story Aloud
Gather ’round, kids, it’s story time. All right, again, not really. But the common advice floating around is to read your story to yourself. Not just in your head, not mouthing the lines. You must speak it.
But Emily, you may say, hefting the baseball bat for crushing my skull, what’s the point to this? I know the story; I wrote it!
Ah, yes, but you have not heard it. Tone, inflection, pacing–think your brain monitors that? Well, maybe it does, but if you read the story to yourself, you may pick up on things you wouldn’t if simply reading silently. Trust me. I have my laptop programmed to read me a chapter once I’m done editing, and while mechanical Suzy has the personality of a watermelon, she does help me pick out things my brain skips over.
Because being so sleep-deprived that I’m half-dead kind of kills my focus.
In conclusion: Warm up your vocal chords, get yourself an audience of people or stuffed bears, and start reading. It’s worth it.
3.) Write like a writer, read like an agent
I once took part in a competition with some fellow writers to read each other’s queries like we were agents. We had to scan the queries, as though we had a thousand more to go through. On Twitter, many agents post how many queries they have received, or how backed up they are that their e-mail may die of constipation. Agents don’t have all day to dissect a query to pieces to judge whether or not they like it; they scan those suckers in five seconds. You need to find something in your story, what is commonly referred to as your hook, and make that baby shine. It’s not worth making an impression, you want it to make the impression, make the agent want to read more. Because that is what the query exists for,
besides to drive us writers mad.
So look at your query. Does it have active voice, an active character, a plot that is original, moving, will make the agent salivate for more? If not, I hate to break the news, but it’s back to the drawing board, my friends. If so, well, by golly, you might be on to something.
In conclusion: You don’t need acting skills, but act as though you are an agent: pressed for time, immersed in the slush pile, looking for that undiscovered gem. You want it to be yours.
4.) Take a Break
What? Really? A break? Like, like vacation?
Believe it or not, it does a writer good to return to that thing they call real life. With people, the world, and yes, you can play outside! Truth is, the process of getting ready to query is as taxing as writing, except not as fun. Or maybe it is, but it involves much more stress because you are that much closer to the big moment.
But take a break. Put your manuscript and query aside, and if you can’t stop stalking agent Twitter feeds, then look up those agents. Compile your dream list, do your research on why these agents must receive your query letter. State those reasons, analyze them. Believe me, it helps. You’re doing something, right? And something others may not have done, or neglected to do. It makes you look professional, like you’ve done your homework, because stating the reasons in the query letter will let the agent know you chose them personally.
Examples: I’ve followed your blog and found it immensely helpful/I attended a workshop of yours/My novel is in the same vein as X client of yours/ Since you represent X, perhaps . . . See where I’m going with this? Those are the reasons you want to investigate. They are good reasons, not something weird like, My dog is the same breed as yours, or That dress you wore last Sunday? So much like mine! Agents want writers. Not stalkers.
A break will also clear your head. I know if I’m overwhelmed, I rediscover what I used to do before writing. Hell, I do the most exciting thing in the world: nap. Your story isn’t going to run away. Agents that are open to queries aren’t going anywhere. The world isn’t going to end if you don’t hit send. It won’t. Say it with me.
In conclusion: You work tremendously hard, and for that, I applaud you, but your brain, your fingers–they require rest. Go eat ice cream. Love your children. Hug your dog. And when you feel you’ve recharged, then, yes, you can go back to
The point is, it is imperative to not hit send as soon as everything is said and done, because chances are, everything is not said and done. There is always room for improvement. Always. Only when your eyes bleed, you can’t stand the sight of another word of that manuscript, you think you’re going to rip your hair out and scream–then you know you’re ready. Trust your gut to tell you when, but don’t over-edit (which I’ll get into another time.) Trust yourself, too.
Until next time, stay writerly, my friends.