On Writing: Thank God for No’s

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I’m at a point where I’m going to start querying agents again. I’ve got several picture books (PBs) that are ready to get off my computer and on to a bookshelf somewhere. Last year I printed (I won’t say published) a few copies using the Barnes and Noble Press, and gave them to my kids and a couple of my friends’ kids as presents. It was super satisfying to hold one of my books in my hands, but, because I know nothing about margins, bleed, formatting, and CYMK vs RGB or whatever it is, the books didn’t come out quite the exact way I’d hoped. Plus, trying to figure out ISBNs, royalties, and all that other technical stuff stressed me out to the point that I just gave up any hope of trying to sell the books for a profit.

But for the rest of this year, I set a goal: I will stop entering contests and stop trying to “get my name out there.” Instead, I am only going to perfect my old writings and books, and when they are as good as I (and my critique groups and beta readers) can make them, I will start querying them. I want someone else to deal with the ISBNs and the bleed and the margins and the tax IDs and all that. But before I can get anyone to do that for me, first I have to convince them that I’ve written a good book. That’s where the query letter comes in. About a decade ago, I sent out a dozen or so query letters for a PB I was calling, “The Sun, the Moon, and the Prince,” about a little boy who banishes the moon in an attempt to abolish bedtime. No one accepted the story and at the time I was, understandably, disappointed. But now I am so thankful that that story is not in print anywhere. It was terrible! It was about 500 words too long, both of the main characters were unlikeable, and it meandered around and around way past the time people would have lost interest. The query letter for it was equally terrible! I didn’t do any of the obvious no-no’s (insisting this book will be a best seller, or addressing the letter “Dear Agent”), but I did a terrible job with the hook and description, and I used weird humor to try to make a personal connection. (I’m awkward, ok??) It fills me with so much cringe to go back to that file on my laptop and read through the story and the letter I sent trying to sell it, but I keep them both as a reminder of how far I have come.

In addition to poorly written children’s stories and query letters, I also have old blogs from MySpace and several short stories I submitted to various magazines or contests that were not accepted – thank God!! I keep everything on my hard drive, even though it fills me with physical pain to read them, because they mark my progress as a writer. I tried so hard to be funny in my old blogs, and I just came across as angry – think Lewis Black, but with zero talent. In my short stories, I tried to be relatable, but instead I was just boring and trite. I know that in another 10 years, I’ll most likely look back on everything I’m currently writing and hate it all, too. But at least if I have an agent, there will be someone else in this world who signed off on my writing. I won’t alone be at fault.

So to all those other agents who passed on my previous works – THANK YOU! I am forever grateful that I can keep those terrible stories and letters a secret. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised if some of those queries ended up in a “What Not to Do” article somewhere. Seriously. They were bad.)