To Query or Not to Query: That is the Neverending Million-Dollar Hair-Pulling-Out-of-Head Question

Direct quote from me to a composer friend the other day: “I’m so fucking sick of being a fiction writer.”

I am many things. (In fact, I wear so many hats that I’m tempted to post “Wife. Mother. Murderer.” under the About section on my Facebook profile. Then I worry about what Dateline or the FBI would have to say about that, because I’m that kind of person. I am none of those things. It’s a Lifetime movie title. But I digress.)

One thing I’ve never gotten paid to do is write a book.

And it’s not for lack of trying.

I am a voracious reader, always have been, but I didn’t take any writing classes in high school or college. I went to a high school of 125 students (that was MY ENTIRE SCHOOL. My class was 34), so things like creative writing weren’t on the curriculum. I went to a medium-sized university that emphasized social justice and the humanities. I had my pick of writing classes, and I took none of them. Why? The official reason: two majors and a minor left me very little time for electives.

The real reason: I was too chickenshit to have people judge my writing. Particularly the people with pink hair and black clothes who never smiled.

Did I mention that one of my majors was theater? That I had no problem being fake-choked to death or making out with dudes in front of an audience? (For some reason, both in high school and college, I was the girl who made out with the dude in several plays. My boyfriend made it a point to sit in the back row for those shows. But I digress again.)

The first time I wrote anything that wasn’t a paper or work-related was in spring 2007. I literally woke up, reached for my shitty laptop and banged out a seven-page story. Without stopping. I had no idea what came over me. The story wasn’t very good. But all of a sudden, it existed because I put it there. There was some weird goddess-like power in that.

The story grew into a novel. The novel also was not very good. But that didn’t stop me from querying it. Querying is when you send out a letter about your novel to agents, in hopes that one of them will love your book and want to try to sell it.

No love. Some likes, but no love.

Over the years, I wrote four more novels. The second was also pretty bad and I never ended up querying it. The third had a bit of a “hook” in its subject matter, and was almost picked up by several agents and a publisher. Almost. The writing wasn’t up to snuff, and I reached a point (after three years of multiple rewrites, three rounds of queries and notes from trusted friends who read several drafts) where I just got sick of the damn thing. I think I woke up one day and said the exact words, “I’m sick of the damn thing.” The fifth is one I MIGHT revisit someday after doing a shitton of research on improv comedy.

In the meantime, I took actual writing classes from people who actually knew what they were doing. I got feedback in workshops, and at first it was painful – oh, who am I kidding? It’s always pretty painful. But gradually I got less defensive and learned to really take the feedback and run with it. (And discard the truly clueless feedback, because there’s always some of that, too.) I learned which friends and fellow writers also made excellent critique partners. My closest friend, who’s also the most brutally honest, is the best.

I started a blog, and started freelance writing outside of my day job. I earned two residencies at an artists’ colony, where basically I got paid to hang around a tiny town in Nebraska and work on my novel. Seriously, this is a thing. A competitive thing, but a thing. And it’s totally awesome.

I say these things not to brag, but because in case you haven’t figured it out already, I am PERPETUALLY INSECURE about my fiction writing.

I can’t wrap my head around the fact that I am a writer. I feel like a fraud saying that some of the time, which is an improvement over two years ago, when I didn’t tell people I was a writer. I get paid to write articles. I’m a writer.

Except I’m not an AUTHOR, because to me “author” means “have published a book” and that frustrates the everloving shit out of me.

So, book number four. Book number four is my baby. It’s the one I’ve spent over four years on (more than any of the others). It’s the one that had a really crappy first draft I wrote in a month after compiling notes and doing research for eight months. I had 30 pages of typed single-spaced notes before I even wrote a line of dialogue. It’s the one I workshopped in a select yearlong novel program that had its own application process. It’s the one I’ve cut, slashed, built up and rewritten countless times, the one whose characters I think I see walking in my neighborhood, the one that consumes me.

And two weeks ago, it got rejected by an agent. I’d met her at a conference, she’d helped me rewrite my query letter, then requested the first 10 pages, then requested the full manuscript. I thought it was going to happen for me this time. It didn’t.

Okay, I know rejection happens. Published authors get rejected, for God’s sake. Related: apparently someone once said that Fred Astaire could dance “a little.” I’ve heard all the underdog stories. I get it.

I’ve sent out several other queries. There’s been one outright no (and I think the agency was really Christian, which, trust me, would NOT have been the right fit for this book). There’s been a whole lot more radio silence.

I haven’t even sent out that many and I’m already about to throw in the towel.

What really worries me about this book: it might not be that marketable. I’m not delusional — I know it’s all about what sells. Post-apocalyptic stuff sells. Fantasy and magical realism sell. If you are John Green, cancer sells.

My book? Is about two teenagers from Chicago with a weird family. Oh, and one of the teenagers moves to California and might be bisexual.

Yes, I wish I could write something that I KNOW would sell. The shitty thing is, it didn’t quite work out that way with this one. When I was walking in the snow in Nebraska in 2010, I thought up this teenage guy and his sort-of stepsister and they wouldn’t let me go. For four goddamn years. I listened to their music, I thought their thoughts, I lived in their neighborhood (which is also mine).

I want people to know them. I’ve shared a bit of the manuscript at two different public readings, and people seemed to like them.

And yet I, who some people perceive as fearless, can’t even think about sending off another query letter without getting the shakes.

IT’S A DAMN EMAIL AND I CAN’T SEND IT.

I really don’t know how to end this post. It’s been good to get out my angst, and I know other writers go through this kind of thing too. So why do I feel so alone? Why, when the rest my life is going better than it ever has, can’t this fall into place too?

I wish I could have some pat answer, some conclusion, a happy ending.

I don’t.

Published by

The Unprofessional Critic

Lauren Whalen is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She reviews plays for Chicago Theater Beat (http://www.chicagotheaterbeat.com) and talks about movies on The Film Yap (http://www.thefilmyap.com). Lauren's young adult novel is represented by Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency. Say hi to her at maybeimamazed02(at)gmail(dot)com. (Photo by Greg Inda)

2 thoughts on “To Query or Not to Query: That is the Neverending Million-Dollar Hair-Pulling-Out-of-Head Question”

  1. Thank you, lady! I’m trying – after this went up, I submitted six more query letters. And tried not to get the shakes each time I hit Send.

    In the past several months, I’ve become good friends with a published YA author (through circumstances entirely unrelated to writing – must be fate). She recently switched agents and has a book on submission right now, so it’s been nice to commiserate.

    I once read that you should write the book that you HAVE to write, even if (especially if) you don’t think anyone would ever want to publish it. That’s about where I am with this one. It’s not Harry Potter or The Hunger Games or Twilight. But I really love my two main characters and the journey they took.

  2. Oooh you’re a brave woman. Even though you might not feel that right now. And I recognize the ‘Write For Popularity’ thing but it just doesn’t work. My plot lines don’t co-operate, my characters turn onedimensional. I have to get the story out, not the product.

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