Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Joy of Querying . . .

. . . A facetious title for a hellish process that is more accurately described using terms such as “torturous,” “nauseating,” “mind-boggling,” etc. That said, I think that my rather unique perspective as someone who has spent an entire lifetime getting rejected may help some people who are getting hung up on the querying process.

Why have I spent so long getting rejected? Keep the snide remarks to yourself, people . . . the official reason is that I’m an Academic. Which means that I have spent every year since I was seventeen putting myself out there only to get rejected. College applications? Rejections! Grad school applications? Rejections! Big Time Scholarship applications? Rejections! (Damn you, Cecil Rhodes!)

Then came the mother load of rejections: The Academic Job Market.

Being an academic SUCKS. Don’t let the fact that we never apparently do any actual work fool you. The reason we spend so much time not evidently working is because we’re busy trying to heal the festering wounds that riddle our souls--wounds garnered from our various, individual, lifetimes of rejection.

This is how applying for an academic job works. You study your ass off your entire life. You devote yourself, heart and mind, to a topic that you end up having to sort of, pretty much, and sometimes entirely violate in order to turn into a defensible thesis. Then you get to encapsulate yourself--your essence, dammit--into a cover letter and a Curriculum Vitae, which is Latin for, “the sudden and horrifying realization that you’ve done fuck all.”

Then you send out said cover letters to dozens, sometimes hundreds, of potential collegiate soul mates. Surely they’ll examine your finely crafted, carefully honed statement and recognize you for the creative, caring, genius/mentor that you are? Surely they will recognize that between the depth of your intelligence, and the expanse of your empathy, that you will be like a one-(wo)man Socratic Symposium? That you will single-handedly change a generation, bringing new visions of life to text-addled brains? They will turn from MySpace! And they will turn to YOU!

Only none of that happens. Instead, you hand over your finely crafted declaration of self and what you get in return is a form-letter, with a digital signature, and, oftentimes, egregious typos. It says something about how everyone is very sorry,but you SO AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH. Don’t take it personally! It’s just that everyone else was slightly better than you.

Eventually, you begin making jokes about how you should wallpaper your living room with these rejections, but you do so because the only other option is to crawl into a fetal position and wait for death to bring you solace.

And that’s where I get to querying. Because I learned something from the hell that is the Academic Job Market that I applied to my query letters. I realized, rather belatedly, what they meant by “it’s not personal.”

My cover letters sucked because they weren’t supposed to be about me. So, when I wrote my query letters, I stripped them. And that’s my advice: take out all the cute stuff, the stuff that tries to convince them you’re a great person who deserves this great opportunity. Because they. Don’t. Care. They want a product. Academia wants publications and proven teaching ability. Agents want a book they can sell. They don’t want a new friend. If you’re lucky, like me, you end up with an agent you can’t wait to get schnockered with. But that’s not where you start. Start with the project. Work on that tiny, paragraph long summary. Make it zing. Don’t have a half-page bio if, like me, you haven’t done jack. I was confident about my novel, and I’d learned from writing TONS OF UNSUCCESSFUL COVER LETTERS that trying to distill “me” and put it into a letter wasn’t the point. The point was the project.

If you’re still getting tons of rejections, start with the letter and work up to the project. Start asking yourself tough questions. Does the letter need work? Finally, does the project need work? Rejections can be taken two ways. The first says, “They’re all wrong, I’m perfect, they don’t recognize genius.” The second says, “Okay, something is rotten in Denmark. I need to assess. Am I querying the wrong agents? Can I improve my letter? Is there something about this project that doesn’t zing?”

The first gets you a glorious haze of self-righteousness. The second gets results.

Lemme know what you think. What has your experience been? What’s your take on query letters? Do you want to drop out of academia and become a necromancer because raising the dead can’t be as morbid as resurrecting an academic career in today’s market?


Qwill said...

I had once thought about becoming a medieval scholar and spending my days in the hallowed halls of a bastion of learning or sequestered away like a monk translating medieval tomes while revering the pages upon which they were written. Then I started talking to my professors. The academic stories were much scarier than any horror novel I'd ever read. I nixed the academia plan and became an attorney instead. Applying for a law position sounds a bit like querying though. They don't care if you are a nice person (actually that could work against you). They want to know if you can produce results in the form of billable hours and happy clients.

Nicole Peeler said...

The irony is that medieval scholars were the hot commodity at this years MLA. NOONE had interviews except the damned medievalists, who all had like 4-6. The same 4-6, but they had interviews. And there's only 5 of them, anyway.

And I was told by one of my dearly beloved profs, who was a lawyer turned professor, to go to law school. The skill sets are similar. Ironically enough, again, I'm now tenure-track at a state school, so my job is (relatively) safe, whereas all my lawyer friends are getting laid off.

Anyway, I think that you're right about focusing in on what you know the person reading the letter WANTS. A law firm wants a good lawyer, not someone who helps old ladies across the street. I think part of the problem is that we put so much emphasis on "the whole package" in HS, regarding getting into a good college, that kids think it's equally important to build huts in Brazil as it is to have a good GPA. And the sad thing is, it is . . .but only for that 3 month window of applying to college. Than it's "whole person" out the door and you get trained to become a widget.

Heather said...

I think there's a third option... to realize that it really isn't personal.

I'm not saying that my projects are perfection. (Everything can use a little work. And I agree that you have to be willing to stare honestly at that fantastic sentence of literary genius and ask yourself if you really need it.) But art is all subjective, and writing is an art.

So, just because these five agents don't fall in love with every word in the first five pages of my book, doesn't mean I need a rewrite. It means that they aren't connecting to the voice or the story... and that doesn't mean no one will.

I'm not talking about after you've received 100 rejections, or 500 or whatever. I just mean that just because the first 10 people I sent to rejected the story, doesn't mean no one will like it. There is a persistence piece to this as well, right?

Am I being delusional?

Nicole Peeler said...

Not at all, Heather! Five agents is nothin'. I'm talking loads. But I do think you should be tweaking the whole time. Partly to keep your sanity and to feel like you do actually have some control over what's happening.

Heather said...

I definitely agree with you there. I just have known a few people who send out 20 queries, get 20 rejections and decide to shelve their project.

And, in my experience, it's always the agents who I least expect to like the idea who end up requesting fulls down the line.

Nicole Peeler said...

Yeah, I would NOT suggest ever "shelving" a project, unless you've queried every agent on earth AND done the slush pile round. Only then would I shelve. Because it's also SUPER subjective. So I had a really "successful" query letter, in that I got loads of requests for fulls/partials. But then it came down to an agent's own particular gut reaction to the project. Anyway, I did everything in huge batches (another thing I learned from the job market), so I queried probably 50 agents, and I was querying up to the day I accepted mine. Never Give Up . . . but also never assume you can't make your project/letter/whatever better.

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