j’s Journey: Popping my cherry

By Judy Clement Wall

I did it. I sent my first query letter to an agent. It was an email, actually, constructed according to guidelines – a description of my book, a bio, the first five pages of my manuscript embedded (no attachments). It was as easy as hitting “send.”

Which of course wasn’t really easy at all.

I’m not exactly a virgin. I’ve submitted my work for publication lots of times. I’ve been accepted and rejected and ignored, and I’ve struggled with what each of those things does to my psyche. But when you submit short fiction, you hand over your manuscript. They are making a decision on the piece itself and so, thumbs up or thumbs down, it’s all about the story, the thing you actually wrote, the thing you’re trying to sell.

With novels the rules are different. I get that. You can’t just hand someone 400 pages and expect them to read it. I understand the logic behind a query letter, but that doesn’t mean I understand how to write one. I read tons of advice from writers and agents. I read sample queries. I read a letter about which two agents disagreed – one was utterly unimpressed and the other offered representation. I wanted to feel reassured by that story, but I didn’t.

Then one day, a writer friend, listening to my query angst, offered me some advice. I appreciated it, but appreciation, no matter how heartfelt, is not the same as sitting down and writing the damn letter. I know this because he pointed it out. Then he said, “I’ll show you my query if you show me yours,” and it was like being thrown a lifeline.

First, in that moment, I was no longer alone. Second, as soon as I said yes, I knew I would do it. I’d committed to it. I’d said it aloud, and you know how I feel about saying it aloud. I wrote a letter and I sent it to him, and he rewrote my letter and sent it to me, and somewhere between mine and his, we landed on the query I sent to the agent.

During the process we talked, and he said a lot of things that helped me. Mostly, versions on a theme: I was making too much out of the query. He said, “Writing the book and selling the book are different things.  One is creative and the other transactional.  We need to keep the two somewhat separate.” I don’t think it’s quite that simple. I hope to enter a long-term relationship with my agent, so, for me, this process lands somewhere between “just business” and a blind date. That said, realizing that the query letter is just a query letter helped. It had become this big, scary, unknowable thing in my mind, not unlike sitting down to write my first novel.

So now it’s done. I’m not a query virgin. I sent my first letter to my first agent. And then I sent two more. My plan is to send 3-5 a week. My friend says it’s a numbers game, and I think that’s true.

You have to go on a lot of blind dates to find Mr/Ms Right.


JUDY CLEMENT WALL is a Course Presenter for the Fear of Writing Online Course and co-manages the FoW blog with Milli. She has just finished her first novel, Beautiful Lives, and here, at FoW, she is chronicling her quest to find a publisher. You can read more of her work at Zebra Sounds.

17 Responses to j’s Journey: Popping my cherry
  1. Marvin
    May 10, 2011 | 10:40 AM

    Very reassuring post, Judy. Also, funny as hell!

    • j
      May 10, 2011 | 1:18 PM

      Ha! Well, I figure no matter what happens, if I entertain you, I come out ahead. Thank you for the encouragement. (And I just popped over to read your post about reading. Good luck. I’m almost always reading two books at a time. Never very well.)

  2. @fearofwriting
    Twitter: fearofwriting
    May 10, 2011 | 11:46 AM

    I know what you mean by “I understand the logic behind a query letter, but that doesn’t mean I understand how to write one.” I felt that way about marketing proposals as well. I always put my utmost into writing queries and proposals every time I did it, but it always felt like a foreign activity.

    It’s so great that your friend helped demystify the process for you. And congrats for doing it!! Writing the letter and sending it out. That’s big. Huge.

    • j
      May 10, 2011 | 1:21 PM

      I’m not sure he demystified it as much as made it less scary. (Held my hand.) Sometimes that what it takes.

  3. Al Riske
    May 10, 2011 | 11:54 AM

    “And then I sent two more”? I love it. Could be the basis of a song with a raggae beat. I can hear it now …

    I sent two letters before I sent two letters
    And then I sent two more.

    Keep going, J.

    • j
      May 10, 2011 | 1:22 PM

      It’ll be called “A Numbers Game.” Some day we’ll look back on this… and dance.

  4. Annie Neugebauer
    Twitter: AnnieNeugebauer
    May 10, 2011 | 5:21 PM

    Congrats, Judy! I wish I could say that the anxiety goes down as you send more queries out… but it doesn’t. =)~ What does happen, though, is a growth in your ability to think about other things while you wait. Or at least, that’s what I like to tell myself. Best of luck!

    • j
      May 11, 2011 | 2:57 PM

      That is one good thing. I’m so busy right now, I can’t obsess. Too much. ;-)Thank you!

  5. Estrella Azul
    May 11, 2011 | 7:53 AM

    I loved this line “for me, this process lands somewhere between “just business” and a blind date” sounds very close to the truth, that’s kind of how I imagine it would be for me too.
    I’m so glad you decided to share your journey with us, and *fingers crossed* for all the letters you send out!

    • j
      May 11, 2011 | 2:58 PM

      I’m so glad you’re all willing to be here with me. I’m counting on you, big time! <3

  6. short poems
    May 11, 2011 | 8:51 AM

    Great reassuring post, Judy

    • j
      May 11, 2011 | 2:58 PM

      Thank you!

  7. Lois
    May 11, 2011 | 11:51 AM

    This is very encouraging. Hopefully, when it’s my turn, I’ll remember your friend’s words of wisdom and your tales of the journey to published authorhood. 🙂

    • j
      May 11, 2011 | 3:00 PM

      I think this whole sharing thing is good for us. Writing is a lonely business. It’s nice to know we’re all out here, a big (somewhat angsty) community.

  8. Tricia
    Twitter: Tricia_Sutton
    May 11, 2011 | 4:56 PM

    I had put in hours on my query letter, gave it to my critique group and rewrote it 400 times. Then an agent wanted a partial(not from my outstanding query, mind you, but because a secret agent contest I was in). So I wrote my e-mail and attached my query and first 50 pages, as directed, and hovered over the send button. I couldn’t send it. I kept going over the query and 50 pages looking for a typo or plot hole or something bad. Then finally I sent it, lay down, and put a cold compress to my head. Then I screamed. I forgot spell check on the email cover letter! I typed it without a thought. I was so embarrassed, I turned red. I trembled and twitched for an hour before I looked and saw it was okay. I can’t believe what this business has reduced me to.

    Thank you for journaling your query process. Both to show me how it’s really done and to show me I’m not alone in the crazy aspect.

    • j
      May 12, 2011 | 1:30 PM

      You are not alone on the crazy! I’m so glad we cleared that up. I just read an awesome post on writing partners and critiques and stuff. It led me to the conclusion that you rock. Just so you know.

  9. LunaJune
    May 14, 2011 | 12:45 PM

    :~) you go girl
    and heres to love at first sight !
    I know it happens all the time
    and agreed sometimes you need to kiss a few frogs
    but remember every date is an adventure

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