An Update On My Querying Journey

I debated whether or not to write this post. A part of me reserves the belief that I shouldn’t talk publicly about the often disheartening process of querying. But another part of me feels that I might explode if I don’t write down some fraction of the mixed emotions I’ve experienced over the past month.

As some of you may know, I began querying my YA fantasy novel, HYMNS OF SALT AND TERROR, the second week of January. I began with a small batch of five queries. From those, I have received three form rejections and one personalized (and encouraging) rejection.

I took some time to rewrite my first few pages, because based on the small amount of feedback I got back it appeared that though the premise intrigued some, the first sample pages were not doing the work of pulling them in.

No problem, I said to myself. I can do this.

After the minor re-write and a bit of polishing on my query letter and comp titles, I sent out three more queries and crossed my fingers. Only three, I know, but slow and steady, right?

A form rejection rolled in a week later from an agent I had really had my heart set on. I began to (perhaps prematurely) worry. If I’m not getting at least partial requests at this point, then is something glaringly wrong with my novel?

I saved the rejection to a separate folder and noticed that #SFFpit, a twitter pitch contest for science fiction and fantasy, was happening in a week.

Instead of sending out more queries, I crafted ten pitches and scheduled them to go out on Wednesday, January 30th. Then I promptly forgot about the contest, focusing instead on moving back to school after the winter holiday.

On Wednesday morning, I went to the gym without checking my email or twitter feed. When I got back to my room around 9 am, I did a double take at the notifications waiting on my phone. Keep in mind, I have a very minimal twitter presence. I think I had 25 followers prior to Wednesday. By the end of the day, I had near 100.

I watched my notifications light up throughout the day as kind strangers retweeted my pitches and commented words of encouragement. I watched as agents who had long been on my list liked my pitches. I sat glued to my screen for the rest of the day, only tearing my eyes away to go to class and work. Another rejection rolled in that day, but I couldn’t have cared less.

All in all, I got twelve requests from industry professionals, Of those twelve, eight were from literary agents that I was keen to query. That night, I researched their agencies, their manuscript wish lists, their current clientele and sales records. One agent requested a full manuscript. Another the first one hundred pages. Two more the first fifty.

I went to bed, my head reeling, determined to send out the requested materials the next day.

I have a rule that I do not check my email before I’ve eaten breakfast. So it was not until I was sitting in my university’s dining hall with a friend that I opened my laptop to see if a professor had gotten back to me on a question.

Instead: it was a reply to one of the three queries that I had sent out two weeks before.

I read the ticker line that gmail teases after the the subject, and knew instantly that this was not the same beast as the form rejections I had gotten before.

A request for my full  manuscript.

Reader, I fell out of my chair. My friend thought I had a stroke.

So much had happened within the course of two days. I did not know how to feel. The agent worked at an agency that represented some of my favorite authors. She seemed to love the writing in my sample pages.

I took an hour to calm myself down before sending her the full.

The rest of the day I sent out the requested materials from #SFFpit in between classes and meetings. It is so surreal to be able to say that two agents now have my full manuscript while at least three have my partial.

This should be a sign of things looking up, right? I should relax, admit that it’s now out of my hands, and feel proud that at least I’ve gotten this far.

Well, if you think that, then you do not know what cavernous pit of self-doubt and anxiety gapes in a writer’s mind.

The next day I immediately began to panic. I skimmed through my novel and found a million things wrong with it, a thousand places I wished I had re-written, a hundred fumbles of sentence structure that I should have refined. I scoured twitter. I refreshed my email every thirty minutes. I worried that even though I had piqued the interests of several highly respected agents, that my pages would ultimately disappoint them.

I thought, I’ve tricked them with my pitches and my first pages. 
The work itself can’t live up to their expectations, whatever those may be. I am a snake.

I was paralyzed by the fear of misleading them, of letting them down.

Phew. Yes, I am aware that that is not a healthy brain-space to dwell in. But on that one day, in the wake of sending out requested materials to nine agents, it was a very real emotion.

So I did what I always do when I feel like control has slipped between my fingers. I put on a face mask. I ate ice cream. I drank pinot grigio with my friends. I called my mom.

And now, I know that all I can do is wait. It may be months before I hear anything back. But I have calmed myself with the assurance that even if they are rejections, I will learn so much more from them about where to begin my fourth round of revisions than I have learned from any form rejection thus far. In the meantime, my new project awaits.

Does anyone else find themselves flailing on the emotional roller-coaster of querying? I’d love to hear your story.

Happy writing, happy querying, happy roller-coasting!

-Emily

© 2019 Stellular Scribe

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Rejection and Gratitude in Writing

My dear scribes:

Today, January 10th of the year 2019, is a historic day in my writing history. It is a day that I hope to look back on with fondness and invigoration.

Today marks the day of my first rejection from a literary agent!

When I was younger, the thought of sending my work out into the world, of bleeding out something that for so long had been kept quiet and secret, was enough to freeze my fingers at the keys. And then to have that piece of my heart rejected? Suffice to say, I feared the denial of agents and editors more than rejection in my personal day-to-day relationships. What was some dumb boy’s affections to the opinions of my literary betters?

But today I received my first rejection (not one week after sending out my first batch of queries, might I add), and I can’t help but feel…gratitude.

That might seem odd. And I’m not claiming that rejection doesn’t sting. But at this early stage in my career I can only afford to consider the positives.

I am grateful to have even been considered, because that means that I am officially in the game to play. If one rejection gets me down, then I’m in the game only to win, and winning isn’t possible without playing every card.

I am grateful that the response even showed up in my inbox, because a rejection is better than radio silence. I can now cross the agent off my list and send out another query in its place.

I am grateful that it was a personalized rejection. I hear that form rejections are common due to the sheer amount of queries that agents receive. So the fact that this particular agent took the time to comment on what she thought worked and didn’t work in my first few pages is extremely valuable to me. I know that my query and synopsis caught her attention with my concept and setting. I also know now that I need to work on kinks in sentence structure — which is feedback that I can use and that will be an incredible asset as I continue querying.

I am grateful for the rejection itself, because it means that this particular agent is not the right fit for me or my book. No doubt she provides terrific representation to a great number of writers, but without that initial spark in the querying process, there is no way that she could be the champion of my story that I would need her to be. Publishing is subjective, and that is simply a fact.

I am not going to post every time I get a rejection (because that will quickly get old as more roll in), but after reading my first rejection I was overcome by a sense of accomplishment. I needed to mark this moment, so that when I become discouraged I can look back and remember the things to be grateful for in a rejection.

Like I said before, I can’t afford to dwell in self-pity. I can only pick up my pen, revise again, and send out more queries.

Have you dealt with rejection in the literary sphere? What was your initial response? How have you grown from it?

Happy writing,

Emily

2019: The Year of the Query

I’m not in the habit of setting goals for myself come the New Year. This is in large part because I always, always, always have the same handful of goals guiding my every step, no matter the season.

And that driving ambition? To put a book out in the world.

Though with such a challenging objective, it makes sense for me to break it up into smaller pieces. That’s why, in 2018, my goal was to finish writing and revising my book.

I am proud to say that I accomplished that goal. My sixth book, a YA fantasy called Hymns of Salt and Terror, has undergone three rounds of revision, and is complete at just under 90k words. It isn’t perfect, and I’m sure that I could still find ways to improve it, but agonizing over that fact will only stagnate the process.

Now, after three years, I finally feel ready to query.

I have no delusions about the publishing world. Starting next week, when I send out my first batch of queries to literary agents, I will be exposing myself to rejection. I will be wide open, vulnerable. The future of my book is now out of my hands. 

So I designate 2019 the year of the query.

But I don’t want to be all consumed by drafting better letters or writing more revisions (though I will certainly dedicate time to those). I want to start writing something new in 2019. I think, after being so close to this project for so long, I will rejuvenate in a change of story, perhaps even in a change of genre. 

So my goal for 2019 is not “to get an agent” or “to get a book deal.” My goal is to cast my line into the waters of publishing, and to write ever more.

It’s easy to become overwhelmed by goals because so often we frame them as a thing that we want to achieve or possess. I find it much more assuring to stake my agency in actions. If I commit to the act of something, I do not constrict myself with the narrow outcome. I open myself up to possibility.

Perhaps I don’t get an agent at the end of this road, but I know that no matter what, I will get somewhere.

© 2019 Stellular Scribe

On the Accountability of an Unpublished Writer

Yesterday, my sister asked me why I was writing so much during winter break.

I told her: “I have a deadline I need to meet.”

“You don’t have a deadline,” she said. “This is all in your head. You’re doing this to yourself.”

Her response was not an unusual one. But it got me wondering: what is the difference between holding yourself accountable and having someone else depend upon your accountability?

I tried to explain to her that the deadlines I have set for myself are no less valuable than the deadlines set, say for example, by an agent or an editor. They are the liability of an unpublished writer. If I do not see myself as serious enough to meet a daily word count or to revise a certain number of pages a week, how can I ever visualize myself in the professional world of fiction?

Especially as a college student, these breaks are the most freedom I have to pursue finishing my novel, HYMNS OF SALT AND TERROR. If I don’t commit myself now, I will be unequipped to manage myself during the chaos of classes and work come February.

Yes, this is all in my head. Yes, I am doing this to myself.

Because who else will?

© 2018 Stellular Scribe

How To Describe Characters Like A Boss

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair. She was beautiful. She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul. She stood in the doorframe like a model.

Yuck yuck yuck yuck yuck. Blech. That has got to be the most disgusting, shallow character introduction I have ever written because that, my fellow scribes, is an example of everything you should not do if you want to describe characters like a boss.

The above paragraph showcases what I consider to be the five venial sins of writing description. I call them venial because while it is very easy to lean on these tactics as a crutch, you are not doomed to a fiery pit where all bad writers go for using them. Hark, the Stellular Scribe sings, for I bring you glad tidings! There is hope after all, so long as you refrain from the following:


1. Describing Inactively

 

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair.

Even if your sole goal is to write a piece without narrative or plot, simply slapping on any ol’ description out of context won’t give an accurate portrayal of the character. Remember, describing looks should serve to enhance the reader’s image of the physical, mental, and practical aspects of the character. A character isn’t her appearance. A character is active and engaged in the story. The way the above sentence sits, Jasmine seems like more of a storefront display than an actual person.

Also, hourglass figure is a horrid cliché and it should be discarded immediately.

Solution: Describe Actively

Jasmine twisted her blonde hair with a lazy finger. Her free hand rested in the curve between her hip and ribcage.


2. Writing Vaguely

 

She was beautiful.

There’s nothing wrong with calling a character beautiful or ugly or old or young. But that’s only in the subjective sense — perhaps when another character is describing her or she is being observed on the basis of beauty alone. Here in this introduction of her character, “beautiful” is too general. A bird can be beautiful. A couch can be beautiful. What determines her beauty?

Solution: Write Specifically

She looked at him much like an artist critiquing a student’s painting — with an air of impressment, but mostly fond amusement at his folly. There was something stunning about the way she studied him.

(Ha! Bet you didn’t see that one coming. Remember, physical characterizations don’t reveal everything.)


3. Overstuffing Adjectives

 

She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul.

You’re introducing a character. Not playing thesaurus bingo. Tacking on adjective after adjective can make the description feel forced and unrealistic, and it will quickly cause the reader to lose interest. You are no longer writing about a person — you are writing a laundry list.

In the end, you’ve got to pick the most important traits and stick with them. In our example, describing Jasmine’s “eyes” makes much more contextual sense than informing the reader on her “smooth, flawless skin.”

Solution: Less is More

It was as if her eyes, sheer as sea smoke, revealed her every judgement.


4. Abusing Clichés

 

She had an hourglass figure […].

She had […] eyes that were a window to her soul.

Clichés are the devil. Ok. Maybe they’re not that bad, but it can begin to feel like torture for a reader to read the same recycled, thrown-up, washed-out descriptions over and over and over again.

Solution: Avoid Clichés At All Costs.

That’s right. Just don’t even touch them. Not. A. One.


5. Characterizing Flatly

 

She stood in the doorframe like a model.

And we’re back to describing a storefront display. Try to reveal some emotion in your descriptions. These are people you’re writing about, and most people aren’t very hard to read. Everyone reveals emotion in some way or another.

Solution: Characterize Emotionally

She leaned against the doorframe almost like a model posing for a magazine cover shoot — but somehow, she looked effortless. Completely unaware of her own natural grace. Bored, even.


And thus we go from

Jasmine had an hourglass figure and blonde hair. She was beautiful. She had smooth, flawless skin and big, baby blue eyes that were a window to her soul. She stood in the doorframe like a model.

to

Jasmine twisted her blonde hair with a lazy finger. Her free hand rested in the curve between her hip and ribcage. She looked at him much like an artist critiquing a student’s painting — with an air of impressment, but mostly fond amusement at his folly. There was something stunning about the way she studied him. It was as if her eyes, sheer as sea smoke, revealed her every judgement. She leaned against the doorframe almost like a model posing for a magazine cover shoot — but somehow, she looked effortless. Completely unaware of her own natural grace. Bored, even.

Voila! Now we have a character who the reader can care about, someone he will want to know more about.


Go forth and spread the good news, dear scribes — so that everyone can describe characters like a boss!

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

We Must Be Like Song Writers

I’m a bit of an instrumental music junkie, but as a writer, I can’t help but admire a song with really well written lyrics.

There’s more to writing than simply finding the right words for the right context. A well crafted paragraph must contain fluidity, musicality, melody. The sound a word makes must be taken into account when judging how it will flow in your sentence; the syllables and consonance and assonance are subconsciously noted when listening to a beautiful word. I’ve heard it said that the most aesthetically pleasing phrase in the English language is not “love” or “compassion” or “mother” — it’s “cellar door.”

Say it out loud now, without attaching any context or meaning to it. Cellar door.

Of course, we can’t disregard connotation when writing a piece of fiction or non-fiction, so we must be like song writers  — deliberate in our meaning, yet fluent in our presentation.

I’ll throw to the wind an old favorite of mine.

Like faithful oxen through the chalk,
With dragging tails of history walk.
We soon confuse the compass and the cross.
Carefully and cursively we fill our traveling diaries with loss.

The above are lyrics from “History Book,” a song by the (now broken up) band Dry the River. It’s a song about young lovers growing up and carrying the past with them.

Let’s take it apart, shall we?

The Technical: The very first line — Like faithful oxen through the chalk — is iambic tetrameter with consonance on the repeated th– and f- sounds. The second line — With dragging tails of history walk. — follows near suit. We soon confuse the compass and the cross. Carefully and cursively we fill our traveling diaries with loss. — these lines are ripe with alliteration, repeated s- and c- consonants, careful stressing of syllables, and all around listening pleasure. Seriously. Listen to the lead singer open with these lines, and your ears will melt down your neck.

The Connotation: The image of oxen dragging tails through chalk as they migrate for days upon days is a powerful one. Like faithful oxen, the lead singer croons, because he and his lover are akin to those ancient, nomadic beasts. They have travelled far; they have learned much in the ways of love and individuality and life. They have gone on so long, that they can’t tell the difference between the compass and the cross. What is guiding them anymore? Religion or their own intuitions?

I’m not saying you have to make everything a symbol (please don’t do that) or fling alliteration about all willy-nilly (the absolute worst), but writing and thinking like a song writer can help you feel present in your work. By weighing sound and subject, you can tell a story while setting a melody.

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

How To Avoid Being A Jealous Writer

Artistic envy is easier than ever in this digital age. As writers, we naturally gravitate towards other creatives online to follow their work. At first it’s all good and inspiring, but after a few book promotions here, a blog blast there, it doesn’t take much to feel jealous.

I’ve experienced it myself: feelings of inadequacy and insecurity, that I’m never doing enough, that I can never compete. The world is filled with brilliant writers who have worked hard and found tremendous luck, and sometimes I wonder why I can’t just slip into success like them.

The problem is magnified when the object of envy is a close friend. You love them. You want to support them. But you feel sick to your stomach after reading the tenth Facebook post about their good fortune. You want to simultaneously congratulate them and shrink into a hole when they write something spectacular.

I’m not perfect. I still find myself thinking, “Why do you even try?” But I’ve managed to lessen the bite of the green-eyed monster by taking the following steps:

  1. Accept that we’re all brutal on the inside. To ourselves. To others. And it’s ok to feel crummy. It’s ok to admit it to yourself. Because if you acknowledge your jealousy, you acknowledge that everyone has feelings of self-doubt and resentment sometimes. Chances are, that exact person who you’re envious of is just as insecure as you.
  2. *slaps you upside the head* Now pull yourself together! Jealousy won’t get you any further than a blank page and a case of qualms! Life is too short and your creativity too expansive to keep wondering “what if?” and “why try?” *pats you on the shoulder* There, now. Sorry I had to get curt there. Shall we go on?
  3. Recognize your accomplishments. Maybe that’s writing a few sentences a day; maybe it’s getting published in a magazine. Rejoice in yourself and what you have done, because dang it, you’ve worked hard and you should love yourself and your passions first and foremost.
  4. Realize that the object of your jealousy got there for a reason. More often than not, it’s because they worked hard and put in the time and learned the business. Sometimes people get lucky; I get that. It’s an unpredictable industry. But if you accept that they deserve their success, then it’ll be much easier for you to congratulate them and figure out the steps you can take to achieve your own goals.
  5. Set goals for yourself. Maybe you want to query at least one agent a week or write one thousand words a day. Small or large, giving yourself something to look forward to will help keep your mind off feelings of uncertainty and inferiority. It’ll give you something to feel proud of!
  6. Think about why you’re jealous and put it into perspective. Is it because someone you know got a big-name, six figure book deal? There’s a difference between working for an art and throwing your art to the wind and hoping it lands on a publisher who is in a good mood. It is in no way an indication of your talent or worth if you do not have those same opportunities. What it really comes down to is what makes you happy: making art or raking in the profit?
  7. If need be, remove yourself. Hide someone’s feed on Facebook. Take a break from their blog for a week. If you like them and you’re jealous, take a break. If you don’t like them and you’re jealous, remove them entirely. Blocking someone is never the best solution, but it can help if feelings of personal inadequacy are impossible to shake off.
  8. Wish other writers well. This is the hardest part, but it’s arguably the most important. Without each other, our art goes nowhere. It speaks to no one. Think about a time someone complimented your work and how you felt. Think about how you would feel if you accomplished something that you cared about and poured your heart into, and were only received with jealous eyes. Support other writers, because one day they may be the ones wishing you well.

Happy writing!

© 2016 Stellular Scribe

Image: “Writer’s Block” by Drew Coffman