The Path to Publication, Part Three: Putting Yourself Out There

(Photo Courtesy of Pedro Simoes)

Writing a query letter is one of the hardest feats you will ever undertake as an aspiring writer. You have just spent the last several months or years of your life writing a complex, complicated and beautiful masterpiece, and now you are expected to distill it down into 250 words? And you are supposed to send it out to perfect strangers to let them JUDGE you?? What sort of sadomasochist came up with THIS idea??

Unfortunately, this is the reality of the game. If you ever want to become a published author, you must be willing to pour your soul and your guts into a query letter. And you must be willing to send this query letter out into the world. This means you must be willing to be ignored, forgotten and rejected by people who don't even know you. How scary is this??

I don't think I fully appreciated the gravity of this until I sent out my first query letter. I had been working on an urban fantasy called THE MERMAID GENE for about a year and a half, and I had been calling myself a writer for most of my life. I had built my entire identity around the fact that "someday, I was going to get a book published," and I had based so many of my personality traits on this promise that I didn't even know what would be left if you took it away from me.

So... I distilled my book into a query letter, and I sent this query letter out to an agent who happened to live in my hometown. Her name was Sara Megibow, and her agency, Nelson Literary Agency, was randomly based in Denver, not New York City. Despite its geographic abnormality, Nelson had amazing reviews, and Sara was known for being a young upstart with a penchant for moving mountains and making huge deals. She sounded awesome.

I polished up my pitch and hit send, and then I sat back and daydreamed about how fun it would be to someday meet her at coffee shops and bookstores downtown. We could talk shop and sip lattes, read the paper and discuss how well my book was selling internationally.

It sounded perfect.

Of course, things didn't work out that way. Instead of receiving a glowing offer of representation--or even a request for pages--from Sara, I received a generic "Dear Author" rejection letter. To make matters worse, Sara is a super quick responder, so I received this rejection within 24 hours.

Whoa. Talk about a mind-blow.

I expected to be disappointed by this rejection, but I wasn't. I was DEVASTATED, because I allowed myself to take it personally. I wondered if I had been pipe-dreaming my talent all these years, and I felt stupid for even thinking I was capable of something so monumental as getting a book picked up by a publisher. I cursed myself for wasting a year and a half of my life on this stupid piece of garbage I had been calling THE MERMAID GENE, and I felt so embarrassed about all the parties and gatherings and get-togethers I'd missed in favor of "working on this book" that I had to bite my tongue to keep from apologizing to everyone who had hosted them. I told my husband I was sorry for prioritizing the book over 'normal' pursuits like hiking or cooking or camping with him, and I retreated to my couch, where I'm almost positive I must have cried at least two or three times.

I also realized this is the point where most people give up.

No, scratch that. I realized most people give up before they ever get to this point, because it's a lot easier to squirrel your book away in a desk somewhere and hide it from the prying eyes of others. It's also easier to never finish your book, because you fear the reality will never live up to your expectations. Finally, it's easiest of all to never start your book, because it's a lot more fun to judge others and talk about what you WOULD do than it is to actually do something yourself.

So... I thought about these things, and I realized I had two choices. I could retreat back to my corner and admire my beautiful, untested manuscript in a closet somewhere, or I could dust myself off and try again.

I tried again.

Only this time, I spent another whole month working on my query letter, and I distilled it down even further before I sent it out to anyone. I followed all the rules I'd heard about writing a strong hook, leading into the body, and ending with an author bio, and I read that baby out loud so many times I'm surprised I didn't start reciting it in my sleep.

Most importantly, I decided I wasn't going to take my next rejection so personally. I was going to wear it like a badge of honor--the way Stephen King always did--and I was going to save every letter to remind myself I DID SOMETHING. I risked something, and I put myself out there despite the potential setbacks. I was strong and brave and courageous, and I was already lapping all those armchair writers who never actually did anything at all except judge everyone around them.

I was a writer. And I wasn't going to let a stupid rejection letter tell me otherwise.

Please tune in next week to learn more about the evolution of my query letter, and please share your query horror stories here. How did you feel when you got your first rejection letter? Did you take it as personally as I did? How did you overcome it?