December 7, 2020 § 30 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
In the past five years, I’ve queried 89 literary agents. I will query 11 more to reach my goal of 100. Then I may quit. Querying is taxing, and my manuscript garnered the most interest early on when it wasn’t ready. Now that it’s improved, my inbox is empty.
I queried one agent in person and five from referrals. I queried agents who represent similar memoirs and memoirs I love. I queried agents who request “unusual and offbeat,” “idiosyncratic,” and “voice-driven memoirs with morally complicated situations,” and hands-on agents who relish in the collaborative editorial process, hoping the caliber of my work rivals my fervent work ethic.
One agent said my manuscript wasn’t the right fit but asked if I had another one. (I didn’t.) The agent I pitched in person said, “This is exactly what I’m looking for.” Then her father died. One agent requested an entirely new draft. (Our visions didn’t align.) One agent called my project “fabulous” but not for him, and one was downright rude.
Any feedback is delightful. One agent “would have asked for pages 20 years ago.” She was “drawn to my self-deprecation.” She said I needed a “younger agent” who would “find the right home” for my book. It was a rare clue in what often feels like decoding witchcraft. I almost cried from renewed hope.
I scoured online advice and craft texts about query letters and book proposals. I revised both more times than I colored my hair. I learned to embrace the process, as I can’t change the outcome. I published essays, each time thinking, “Maybe this is the one.”
But, like mourning my unborn children when I was 40, I now grasp I may never publish the memoir I spent six years toiling over. I may never approve cover art I still can’t envision. I may never be “in conversation” with another author. I may never be interviewed on a podcast. I may never see my name on the billboard outside Powell’s. I may never be seen the way I want to be seen. It’s heartbreaking.
Once, on a hiatus from researching agents, I queried eight independent presses with no response. On a long enough timeline, I believed publishing my memoir was probable, even if that meant selling it to a tiny indie pub without an agent. I was naive.
The latest iteration of my proposal is the result of an epiphanous workshop. I merged sections, rewriting them as essays to showcase my voice. I chose fresh comp titles. I tweaked the marketing copy. I explained why my memoir is relevant to the culture today. I returned to the thought, “Maybe this is the one.” The problem with having a timely proposal is it’s timely, so if the query crickets chirp for six more months, the proposal needs revising again.
Querying is grueling in part because every agent has specific requirements, so every submission is specially tailored (as it should be). Agents want queries with three paragraphs; queries with four paragraphs; queries with 2,000 maximum characters; a query that’s no more than two pages; a one-page synopsis; a two-page synopsis; a complete outline; a marketing statement; the first chapter; two sample chapters; three sample chapters; a manuscript sample with 10,000 maximum characters; the first five pages; the first 10 pages; a proposal excerpt (which part?); the first five pages of the proposal; the full proposal written per their guidelines, using their online submission form (never quite the same as the others); the full proposal as an attachment; the full proposal pasted into the body of an email. (My current proposal is 40 pages, not counting sample chapters. That’s a long email.)
Agents are interested in “big social media platforms.” Others believe “Q & As and Skype book club appearances are more important than social media.” Some agents have no discernible requirements at all. Some agencies advise querying only one agent. Others say querying a second agent at the same house is okay after eight weeks.
I queried newbies building their clientele, veterans with 30 years’ experience, and agents with whom I’d been told I’d gel. I followed up after eight weeks. I didn’t follow up at all. I queried agents for so long some of them moved agencies or started their own. I crossed an agent off my list when I found her obituary. I researched houses I already researched. I read agent interviews, bylines, websites, Twitter feeds, and Manuscript Wish Lists. I queried agents with no web presence. I once met an agent I’d already queried, and she called me “Crystal.” All the while, I’ve tried to build some semblance of a platform. With every conference, book fair, reading, and face-to-face chat (back when those existed), I wondered, “Maybe this is the one.”
Thankfully, there are pluses to shelving a memoir: If I never publish it, I’ll never have to speak to my ex-husband again. (Bonus!) I won’t be tempted to read cruel amateur “takes” on Goodreads. I won’t worry if there are no reviews. I won’t have anxiety if strangers judge me. (“They will. Get over it,” one author said.) I won’t fret about earning out an advance. I won’t be sad when my book isn’t on any best-of lists. I won’t anger That One Guy I Dated That One Time because I said something unflattering about him. I won’t expose anyone whose personal stories are inextricably linked to mine. Secrets will remain secrets. Given the choice, though, I’d risk it all to connect with readers.
Maybe it’s almost time to sideline my first manuscript. In the past year, I’ve written 26,000 words of a novel. Maybe when I finish the novel, it will be the one. Maybe I’ll sell my memoir after the novel. Maybe I’ll get a two-book deal. Maybe I’ll have two manuscripts in a drawer. In any case, I will still write. Maybe, like being an aunt instead of a parent, that’s enough. Maybe it has to be.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, The HerStories Project, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize.