Settle down, my friends. Pull up a chair. Or a couch. Or a bed. Or sprawl on the floor, if that’s your preference. But get comfortable, because today we’re going to be talking about some hard truths.
Many, many times in the last few months, I’ve heard variations of the same two themes coming out of the mouths of aspiring writers. The first type of comment goes like this: It’s really no use querying an agent. Or querying this agent. Or trying to get traditionally published at all. After all, statistically only a tiny percentage of writers ever get an agent anyway.
The second type of comment is similar: I’ve been querying, but I just keep getting rejected. I think it’s because agents only want the same old drivel. They don’t care about originality. This comment comes in an endless array of specifics and individualizations, but the heart of the justification is always the same: Those agents just don’t see what a good thing I’ve got going. They don’t recognize my genius. Often, the writer who makes comments like this is also resistant to the idea of revising or rewriting their book, feeling that that would be pandering to somebody else’s tastes in order to get an agent.
And you know what? I totally get it. Let me give you a little picture of my own query history.
Just over three years ago, I started querying a fairytale retelling. It was the third book I’d written but the first I’d queried, and I had stars in my eyes. I’d revised the book a bit, my critique partners had told me that it was Newbery Award material, and I was confident that I’d find an agent who wanted to snap that book up right away. Excitedly, I started live-pitching at conferences and sending out queries. I submitted to the Pitch Wars contest.
The crickets were deafening.
The sparse bits of feedback I got, from both agents and contest mentors, were all the same: It’s not original enough. There’s no place in the market for it. I was stung. I’d poured my heart and soul into that book! I’d given it my all! Couldn’t those agents recognize the genius that was in front of them? Of course, I comforted myself, the stats show that hardly anybody who queries actually lands an agent. The agents are all just too busy to see how big my book could go.
I’ve written before about the watershed moment that happened that autumn, the moment that gave me the courage to pick myself up by my bootstraps and keep working. Sadder but wiser, I turned my attention to my fourth novel. I spent months revising and polishing it, and then dove in again: live pitching, querying, contest entering. This time, things started out much more promisingly. I got lots of agent requests right off the bat, and for several months I was certain that that would be the book to get me an agent. When those requests turned into rejection after rejection after rejection, I found myself thinking again: It’s just because it’s not a Twilight or Hunger Games readalike. Can’t those agents recognize a good thing when they see it?
Shelving that book was hard. It’s still the book of my heart, and saying a temporary goodbye to it was gut-wrenching. It was so, so easy to place the blame on anything else: the industry. The agents. The market.
This story has a happy ending: After going through a true dark night of the soul, I once again picked myself up, finished the manuscript I was drafting, and queried it. Within weeks, I had multiple agent offers for that book. I signed with my fantastic agent a month after sending my first query. Next year, that book will be my debut novel with HarperCollins Children’s.
What is my point in sharing this story? It’s because I get so frustrated, so saddened, to hear writer after writer utter self-defeating words before they’ve even really given querying and submission a college try. Querying is hard work. It is grueling, stressful, and involves a lot of rejection. But so, too, does writing as a career. No matter what path to publication you end up taking, there will be rejection, stress, and insecurity. As a traditionally-published debut author, I’m already beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from knowing that next summer, people will pick up my book… and some won’t like it. Some will give it bad reviews on Amazon. Even more terrifying, the vast majority of people will probably never be remotely interested in my book. And the stakes are high: How readers respond to my debut will, in large part, determine the path my future career takes.
Self-publishing is the same. While you get to skip the rejections from agents and editors, indie publishing is still rife with rejection and angst. The bottom line is this: If you want to be a writer, you cannot escape rejection.
And while shrouding yourself in an armor made of justifications is the natural response to the pain of being rejected, it’s also an ultimately unhelpful strategy. To be a writer is, by its very nature, to allow yourself to become vulnerable. What is more raw than the feeling of pouring your heart into words and then seeing somebody dislike (or—even worse—not care about) those words? That vulnerability is part and parcel of a writing career—and the sooner you can accept and lean into it, the more resilient and strong your writer heart will become.
Yes, it’s hard to be rejected. Yes, it’s hard to stomach the thought that the problem might lie with our book—those words that poured straight from our heart—and not with the agent, the publisher, the establishment. And yes, the statistics for the number of querying writers are grim. But you know what? In this industry, persistence, humility, and a willingness to start over and try again pay off. It took me three different books, more than 120 queries, and a whole lot of fresh starts and trying new things to land an agent and a book deal—but I did it. My agent has taken on a grand total of three clients in the last two years, including me. Based on the number of queries she generally receives, there was a .03% chance that I would have landed an offer. And yet I did.
And you, dear friend? I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to beat the odds. I have faith in your ability to adapt, to learn, and to use the tools available to you to bring your craft to the level that it needs to be in order to achieve your writerly dreams.
But trust me when I say that the first step to achieving those dreams is this: Take a deep breath. Let go of all the reasons you have for why agents or editors aren’t seeing what you see in your book. And get ready to work.
Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.