Friday, June 15, 2018

Querying Too Soon: We've All Done It, Here's How to Avoid the Temptation

You've been working hard on your manuscript and it feels in reasonable shape.  Plus, you're reading articles and books about writing the perfect query letter.  A sort of urgency, maybe even FOMO (fear of missing out), is growing inside.  Is it too soon to begin the query process?

An all-important question.  I can almost predict when a writer will ask it.  What stage of manuscript, what stage of experience.  I've asked it myself many times--because it's almost impossible to know when is too soon, when is too late.  I'll share some of what I've learned in my own publishing journey and advice from those who have an inside view.

Most agents I talk with say that writers send their queries out way too early in the process.  Most agents, nowadays, will want to see the manuscript or at least a very polished sample, if they like your query.  Gone are the days when memoir or fiction writers could sell based on a query or proposal (memoir-hybrids, which combine personal experience with investigative topics, still sell on proposal).  So your query, now, is an introduction to your complete manuscript and a promise that you have it ready.  

Jane Friedman, in her excellent guide to publishing, Publishing 101:  A First-Time Author's Guide, recommends waiting until you're absolutely sure.  You only get one chance with an agent, 99 percent of the time. Friedman asks writers:  "What's the rush?"  

That's the question that fascinates me.

It's about two things:  (1) your ability to hold creative tension and (2) your insight into your manuscript's readiness.  

Holding creative tension is a learned process.  It's not a skill most of us have when we begin.  Signs of not being able to hold it are asking for feedback immediately on anything you write.  Or getting bored and moving around your manuscript's topics a lot--not being able to go deep, just broad.  I see it in myself whenever I am writing something challenging, maybe a topic that's out of my comfort zone or a section that demands a new skill I'm not quite confident in yet.  I stop writing, go pace or eat or clean.  If I do this enough, I recognize it as the inability to let the creative tension build inside.  I discharge it too soon, because it's uncomfortable.  If I hang in there, I often break through to a new level.  

I see it in writers who break a cardinal rule of book writing and ask for feedback from friends or family on first drafts, saying, "Tell me if you like it."  Really a silly question--what's the person going to say?  If they love you, they'll probably say yes.  You won't believe that, of course, because the request comes from the Inner Critic who is looking for permission to stop (Scroll down to last week's post for more about that).  So you'll keep circling until you find someone who has a comment.  But on a first draft--are you kidding?!  Why does anyone need comments on first drafts, except encouragement to keep going.

Note that I'm talking to myself here, too.  I've done this, many times.  

Creative tension comes from lots of time.  It's part of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours required to master any skill.  Don't get down on yourself for not having it honed yet--it's like scolding yourself for not being a concert violinist after a year or two of lessons.  

Holding creative tension is like watching a water balloon fill.  The more you can wait, the more power you gather.   The more muscle you can build.

The second reason writers want to query too soon is confusion about where their manuscript is, in the long journey to publication.  They've written solo, without feedback.  They've held the creative tension.  They've got a good draft.  But how good?  How do they know where they stand?

Two sources await.  One is peer review--writers groups, writing partners, classes.  You've put tons of effort and time into this manuscript, so take a little more and get some feedback from your potential readers.  I always use classes, groups, and partners at this early stage.  They are the best response for the money and time, usually.  Select a class that offers feedback from both instructor and other students, if you can.  You won't be "workshopping" your entire manuscript but you'll get a sense if some of it works.  Writing partners are often able to exchange chapters or larger sections.  You find them in good classes.  Most writers who go on to publish work this part of the process thoroughly before they go on to the next source:  paid coaches and editors.

Friedman recommends hiring a professional to read your manuscript before you begin to query.  You need someone who has been published a lot, someone who knows the industry and can tell you where you stand.  If you haven't used the first step, of peer review, professional review will probably shock you.  Editors don't hold back.  I like to coach writers for several weeks after my review, because I know the shock effect of the professional feedback I give--writers are often stunned, and they need to be gentled through the steps of fixing, rethinking, restructuring.  But many editors just report and leave you to it.  Because this level of feedback costs thousands (up to $10,000 a manuscript by some editors), it's very worthwhile, again, to make use of peer review first.  Make this one count; get your manuscript to a point where you get your money's worth.

I usually hire a pro a few times, in the journey of a book, because the first round tells me so much.  I need another round because I am not sure of my fixes.  I want a green light before I begin to query.

When you're ready to query at last, you'll have a complete manuscript (unless you're writing prescriptive nonfiction or memoir-nonfiction hybrid), a solid query letter that's also been edited by a pro, and a synopsis of your book.  These are the items in hand.  One agent I spoke with recently gets over 200 queries a week.  When she likes something she asks for a sample (the first 20-50 pages).  If that passes, then she'll want the full manuscript.  Sometimes these requests come within weeks of querying, sometimes within months.  If you're not ready, if you want too long to send what's asked for, you fall out of the agent's close vision and you may have to begin again.  

Querying is so tempting.  Enough already, I usually feel, when the urge to query arises.  I'm tired of the long haul of writing, I want those fast rewards.  I want a guarantee that I'm writing something interesting and publishable.  I rein myself in, return to less-costly routes to get my answers.  Save querying for when I'm really ready.

But most writers query too soon.  We pile up those rejections--so many are obviously form rejections, telling us the agent's assistant's assistant read no more than the first line.   We go back to basics and start again, crossing those agents off our future lists, since they won't look again at the same project.  It's an expensive habit, to query too soon, but it's how we learn there's a smarter way.