Yesterday, among my regular email fodder–Writer’s Almanac, CNN, my Daily Dilbert–I saw one that took my breath away. Wedged in between my comic and a MySpace friend request from some girl I’ve never met who swears she met me at a bar I’ve never been to (ah, gotta love spam), I saw the subject “Query–Dead and Dying” followed by, in lighter print, “We would like to see the first 30 pages or”. Nelson Literary Agency is interested in my story.
Someone wants to see something I’ve written. Holy shit!
In On Writing, Stephen King compares writing a novel to “crossing the Atlantic in a bathtub”. That’s a very apt analogy. It’s lonely work, with little or no validation during the process itself. Still, at some point with your oars in the water, you want to see some landmark, some sign that you are making progress in the right direction. I can’t imagine the frustration of trying to cross an ocean in a bathtub, only to get turned around and end up right where you started. So, we look for landmarks, little islands of validation to let us know all the rowing is serving a purpose. That’s what a request for a partial is–one small buoy letting me know I’m still rowing for the opposite shore.
I realize that a request for part of my manuscript is far from a guarantee of representation (although that did not prevent me from dancing a little jig around the living room chanting “Partial! Partial!” after I read the email), but it set aside the great bugaboo that I’ve worried about since I started thinking about publication–the query letter. Having written a successful one now, I’m much less mystified by what should go in one, and what shouldn’t. For someone who writes in a long-format, encapsulating your story into a paragraph that not only makes sense, but also entices the reader to want more, is a helluva trick. To me, it’s more like composing a poem–a lot of meaning in a small package–than just writing a business letter. You have to stand out without being absurd. You have to be concise, yet pass on a fair amount of information. Most of all, you have to SELL the book. That’s what I’ve been missing in my earlier letters. Timidity is a great evil when it comes to query letters. I want to be bold and convincing, just like I would be to a customer shopping in my store. It’s not enough to send a letter saying “Hey, you might want to look at this”. I want to say “Hey, you NEED to read this and here’s why”.
What surprises me most about this request is not that I received it in the first place, but the agent requesting it. Kristin Nelson does not represent horror, the genre where my novel falls, but recently posted on her blog her fondness for them personally. She also expressed some regret that she does not represent more male authors. I’m hoping that by playing to those voids in her clientele, that my chances of gaining representation will increase, but I understand that whether or not I get further in the process depends on how good of a book I’ve written and that’s fine with me. Getting past the query stage, I have enough faith in my writing to feel at least somewhat hopeful. I also understand how business works, though, having been in retail management for years, and that sometimes a book, no matter how well written, will not sell in the current market. I’m fine with that, too. All I can do is what I’m doing–keeping my fingers crossed and letting my writing do the talking for me.
I hope my first 30 pages are good enough to garner a request for the full manuscript. If not, I will be disappointed, but the only remedy for that brand of disappointment is to send out another, stronger query to the next agent on my list. I have too many other things going on, including my works in progress, to let one little bump in the road get me down. I do want to be published, very badly, but I have patience. I also have two short stories out on submission that I’m waiting to hear back on, so as long as I have a few lines in the water, I can still hope for fish. What I can’t do is expect them to just jump into the bathtub with me.
Meanwhile, work on my novel-in-progress (Codename: Superhero) is picking back up. I went through a period where I could not decide whether to keep going with this one or start anew with another project I’m very excited about and, in the end, I decided to keep going with my current one. The new idea will still be there when I’m done and I’ve taken a few days to rebuild my original enthusiasm for Superhero. During my hiatus, however, I did pump out a guilty-pleasurable Harry Potter short story to appease my restless Mugglenet readers in the hopes that they will not notice the time I’m taking to write Chapter 12 on my long work there. Should any of those readers find their way here, I assure you that the project is not dead and wondrous things lie ahead as soon as I can work them into my busy schedule. So, we’ll resume posting my metrics on the WIP and see where I can go from there.