Querying the Query

“Dying is easy. Comedy is hard”—attributed to Edmund Kean.

Writing a novel is easy. Writing a query letter is hard.

Okay, easy isn’t perhaps accurate in describing writing fiction. But it’s sure as hell less effort, and much more rewarding and pleasurable, than writing query letters designed to interest agents in your book.

Having met my self-imposed deadline to have my work in progress, tentatively titled 100 Days, ready for submission to agents by New Year’s, I’m now struggling with the query letter. This is the sixth book for which I’ve written a query, so you’d think I'd be somewhat nonchalant about the task. But while I did have an agent for my first three novels, the two I wrote subsequently, some two decades later, were never picked up. I received requests for pages and full manuscripts, so I guess my queries weren’t complete failures. But all the same, summarizing a 30-chapter novel into 250 enticing, alluring words is, for me, a minuet of self-doubt and angst.

When writing 100 Days (and my other novels), I didn’t worry about pleasing anyone but me and of serving anyone but the characters. With the query letter, though, I have to home in on what will make a complete stranger, one who reads for a living with an eye for commercial prospects, want to try to sell my book to editors who read for a living with an eye for commercial prospects. And in the past, the lack of commercial prospects was the primary reason agents and editors gave for not taking on my books.

I should take consolation that the agents and editors who rejected by books never denigrated, and usually praised, my writing. But the book I recently self-published, Beyond Billicombe, was to my mind commercial: It could be considered a genre (mystery); it had as a protagonist a young Hollywood actress; it took place primarily in a setting that was somewhat off the beaten track (north Devon, England) but not disorientingly foreign; it was compact (73,000 words).

100 Days, on the other hand… Well, here’s where my query stands so far:

After slicing his wrists and overdosing on pills and vodka, 27-year-old schizophrenic Steve finds himself in hell—or is it a hospital? Yes, it’s a hospital, but as far as Steve’s concerned, it might as well be hell. So once he realizes that his latest suicide attempt failed, he persuades his friend and guardian, Cat, to kill him in 100 days unless he changes his mind. But does she actually agree to this, or is it just another of Steve’s delusions? And will Steve recover enough to decide he doesn’t want to die after all?

My 68,000-word novel 100 Days recounts Steve’s breakdown, the events leading up to it, and his unsteady steps toward functionality, in sometimes conflicting first-person narratives from both Steve and Cat that combine fear and sadness with surprising humor. While committed to a London hospital and struggling to differentiate reality from psychosis, past from present, Steve recalls his relationship with his girlfriend Diandra and its sudden end. At the same time, Cat races to help Steve become the fully functioning, engaging man he had been prior to this latest breakdown even as he continues counting down to the day when he expects her to put an end to his life.

My own husband has already informed me that he won’t be reading it; he “doesn’t do” books about mental illness. (Given that it took him eight months to get around to finishing Beyond Billicombe, one could argue that he “doesn’t do” books written by wife, full stop.)

What do you think? Does the query grab you? Should I mention that it has a more-or-less happy ending? Is 100 Days something you’d like to read? 

Size Doesn't Matter—Except When It Does

When I was a copyeditor at Vogue, one of my duties was to return to the articles editors any stories that needed to be cut to fit into the allotted space. On one occasion, shortly after an editor whittled down an article for me, I was told that a half-page had opened up, and she needed to add some of the cut material back in. When I informed her, expected her to be delighted, she looked at me mournfully. “Now that I justified cutting those sentences,” she said, “I don’t know how I can justify putting them back in.”

I’m in a similar situation now, with my work in progress, 100 Days.

Fairly satisfied (is a writer ever completely satisfied?) with my latest version, I ran a word count. The novel comes to 65,000 words. From what I’ve read online, a novel should ideally be at least 70,000 words.

My conundrum: Should I try to add another 5,000 words before submitting it to agents? Should I keep it as is and in my cover letters fib that it is 70,000 words? (I loathe lying, so I probably won’t do that.) Or should I keep it as is, mention in my cover letter that it’s 65,000 words, and hope that the word count doesn’t automatically turn off the agent? (For what it's worth, my recently published novel, Beyond Billicombe, is a spot-on 75,000 words.)

I’m sure I can add another 5,000 words. Of the two narrators of 100 Days, Steve is perhaps my favorite of the characters I’ve ever created. Writing in his voice is a pleasure; I love hearing from him. But he suffers from undifferentiated schizophrenia; the book chronicles one of his breakdowns, and among his symptoms is alogia, or poverty of speech. I take literary license in presenting his narration—a book told by someone suffering alogia in its purest form would be a struggle to read—but I hesitate to have him speak much more than he already does.

The other narrator, Cat, is highly social and verbal person. She could easily contribute more to the story. But by having her add another chapter or two, the novel may become unbalanced, and the reader might feel more distanced from Steve than I’d like.

Right now, I think I have the right amount of words for the story that I’m telling. But as a professional writer and editor, I know that sometimes the right amount of words for the story isn’t the same as the right amount of words for the assignment. When I need to hand in a 1,500-word article, I need to make it roughly 1,500 words, even if I think the story would benefit from being 1,800 words long, or if I can communicate everything that needs to be said in 1,200 words.

I’m going to ponder this a bit. And I'm heartened by a blog post from two years ago in which industry veteran Colleen Lindsay writes, "lately there's been a trend toward more spare and elegant literary novels as short of 65,000." I’ll go over the manuscript again, see if there are areas that should be expanded upon. Usually I focus on tightening—I like to think of myself as a concise (though far from Hemingwayesque) writer. But if any of you have advice or suggestions, I’d love to hear them. 

(Above is a photo of Bistro Benito in Earls Court, a favorite restaurant of mine since my sister lived in London, back in the '90s. It's also a favorite of Cat, one of the narrators of 100 Days.)

What I Learned from Publishing My Novel

In September, 43 years after writing my first short story (in second grade, about brother-and-sister detective team Tommy and Lisa Sue Vooleran, a surname that my mother criticized for being too unrealistic), a novel of mine finally made it into print.

When I was a kid dreaming of being a published author, I was sure that once my name was on the spine of a novel, my life would dramatically improve. I’d be the toast of the town! Hollywood would come rushing to make a film out of it! I’d be rich!

Of course, none of the above happened. I haven’t been invited to read in Brooklyn alongside John Wray or Gary Schteyngart. No producer has clamored to option Beyond Billicombe (though I can totally see James McAvoy as Richard, the male lead—James, call me sometime.) And I still haven’t even earned enough in royalties to cover the cost of having my friend Tim produce the fabulous cover for me.

But I have learned a few things:

1) Having people I know read the book is highly nerve-wracking. It’s akin to showing up for work in a low-cut, thigh-high, figure-hugging dress when you usually wear nothing but bulky sweaters and loose jeans. Although Beyond Billicombe is autobiographical only in its setting, any piece of fiction, I believe, exposes aspects of the writer. It’s in the choice of words, the choice of themes, the choice of details. Reading Wuthering Heights, for instance, makes it clear that Emily Brontë was probably pretty damn sarcastic when shooting the breeze with her sisters up in Haworth.

Then there’s the whole what-if-my-writing-sucks aspect. Being a writer is a huge part of my identity. Hell, I write for a living, albeit product copy and marketing articles. But by publishing a book, I’m allowing others to judge a massive aspect of how I define myself. What if they don’t see me in the same way? What if, after reading the book, they no longer have the same respect for me? I don’t care if people who read Beyond Billicombe now wonder just how much of my knowledge of junkies and 12-step meetings was first-hand, but I do care if they think I can’t put create a realistic character or set a vivid scene.

Fortunately all of the feedback has been positive so far. Then again, would someone tell me if he or she didn’t like the book?

And once people have seen you in a skin-tight dress cut up to there, when you show up for work the following day in your usual baggy clothes, they still have the image of your cleavage in their mind.

2) Negative feedback isn’t as tough to take as I’d feared. Granted, most of the reviews on Amazon and Goodreads have been positive so far. But two readers gave Beyond Billicombe only three stars. At first those reviews hit me in the chest like a baseball thrown by a Cy Young winner. But upon rereading (and rerereading), I understood the criticism, even agreed with some of it. And it spurred me to review 100 Days, the novel I'm working on now, with a keener eye.

Of course, if I receive a few scathing reviews down the line, the feedback may be harder to take in stride.

3) My instincts about my writing were correct. As I said, for the most part I agreed with the criticism I’ve received; it coincides with what I’d perceived as the book's shortcomings myself. But overall I was fairly certain that the writing itself was strong, the descriptions evocative, the emotions recognizable. From what I’ve been told, I’m correct. I’m a decent—dare I say, good—writer. And that’s encouraged me to finish whipping 100 Days into shape so that I can start submitting it to agents after New Year’s.

4) Writing about marketing is much easier than actually marketing one’s own product. I’ve covered various aspects of marketing, promotion, and sales for trade magazines for decades. I won awards for my coverage. I spoke at conferences and webinars. But I haven’t done a good job of marketing my book. I know what I should do, but I haven’t done much of it. 

Partly it’s been down to a lack of time—I have a living to earn, and a family that likes me to cook dinner for them and even spend the occasional evening or weekend with them. 

But a lot of it is also due to my shyness: I haven’t been able to bring myself to pop in at the local bookshops to see if they’d be interested in hosting a reading, for instance. I haven’t sought out blogs for the express purpose of touting my wares. Which brings me to…

5) I’d much rather write than sell. Beyond Billicombe is published, and I really do want people to read it, because I’m proud of it, and I think the characters are worth knowing. I want to introduce people to the protagonists, Suzanne and Richard, and to the North Devon town of Billicombe, just as some people like to introduce their single friends to one another in hopes of setting them up in a long-term relationship.

But right now I’m more engrossed with Steve and Cat, the narrators of 100 Days. Any free time I have, I’d rather spend with them. Steve and Cat still need me; Suzanne and Richard don’t.

This blog post is my way of writing and selling—or at least, trying to sell. So check out Beyond Billicombe. I don’t think you’ll regret it, and if you do, let me know. (Of course, you can also let me know if you love it.)

In the meantime, it’s a sunny day out here at the park bench where I write my fiction. The weather’s warm enough that my fingers aren’t stiff and mottled. So I’m going to return to 100 Days, all the while hoping you’re reading Beyond Billicombe and maybe even looking forward to what I’m preparing for you next.

(Thanks to my friend Tina for the photo. See, Beyond Billicombe makes a great beach read!)