Write It Sideways

Confessions of a Former Query Letter Addict

Today’s post is written by Nina Badzin. Thanks, Nina!

How do you know when you’re a query letter addict instead of a novelist?

When you recognize yourself in the following scenario.

You spent a year writing a novel and revised it twenty times. Armed with tips from agents’ blogs, you crafted such a compelling letter that a number of agents requested “a look.” Now you’re a writer, you told yourself. Now you’re in the game.

The rejections to your partials and fulls trickled in one-by-one, but you were prepared and realistic. Following the advice of successful authors, you sent more queries in batches of ten, gleefully responding to new requests for your book—a version you tweaked with vague comments from the agents who liked your book, but not as much as they liked your brilliant sell.

Your friends told you not to lose hope. Of course not, you said before boring them with query-letter lore: J.K. Rowling, Kathryn Stockett, etc. You gave them your request statistics even though they didn’t ask. You relished uttering “real” industry-speak. You loved the sounds of the words, “Eight agents are reading my book.”

More rejections came. You wondered if you should revise the book again, but the conflicting opinions of the thirteen agents who read some portion of it, or all of it, confused you. You lost your way, your voice. You could hardly remember what made you want to write that story in the first place. Revise? Give up? But Kathryn Stockett, Kathryn Stockett, Kathryn Stockett.

Now, instead of working on the characters and the plot that’s been brewing in your mind—the ingredients that you suspect would amount to a better book, a good book—you’re researching agents again. You haven’t written anything new in six months, not even a short story. You’re sending out queries to every new agent listed on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. You’re out of control.

My friend, you’re a query letter addict.

I, too, had to face that my query letter was excellent, or at least good enough to elicit an outstanding rate of requests. But the truth was I had never employed the enthusiasm, determination, and sense of perfectionism to the manuscript that I brought to the process of trying to find an agent. At some point I knew this, but I couldn’t stop.

Once I was in the cycle of the agent research and sending out letters and actually communicating with publishing professionals, the idea of stepping away from the potential high of an agent’s offer seemed worth the time and effort of the endless lows I had to experience first.

I think it takes a certain instinct to know when you’re a potential Kathryn Stockett and when you’re beating a dead horse. I’m grateful that I eventually decided to take my bizarre passion for industry research and transfer it to reading information on the craft of storytelling. But I don’t beat myself up too much about my addiction. One day, when I have a manuscript worthy of sharing, I’ll certainly know how to go about trying to get it in the hands of the right person.

Breaking an addiction is hard, so I’ll give you the key to what made it possible for me to step away:

I figured out that what drew me to the query process—other than the dream of publication—was not an unfaltering belief in the merit of my novel, but a desire to feel less isolated in my work. There’s nothing wrong with seeking colleagues and professionalism, but I was like a first year medical student asking the chief of surgery for a job.

I’m now working on an entirely new novel and following the guidelines of my self-imposed Query Addicts Anonymous:

Editor’s Note: Have you ever been caught in a similar query letter conundrum? What aspects of writing and publishing distract you from learning more about the craft? What would make you choose to pull your manuscript out of circulation and work on something else?

Nina Badzin lives in Minneapolis with her husband and three young kids. Her short stories have appeared in Literary Mama, Scribblers on the Roof, and The Talking Stick. She was also honored as a finalist in Glimmer Train Stories, and as a quarter-finalist for Writer Unboxed‘s recent search for a new contributor. Find her on Twitter @NinaBadzin.