I want to cast great words like landscapes rolling ‘r’s like hills and grass in the wind sweeping hosts of mountains high glaciers of clear expression and snow tumbling off the tongue in avalanches of meaning Tiny figures on the outskirts of the grand scenery and the sky, the sky like endless blue punctuated by wisps of white cloud spread above in sheets white on blue like black on white mingling, intertwining in my head in one huge knot, unresolvable set free with one cutting word with feelings too great to hold in any plain language or covered with grass
When I wrote about dealing with the trenches, I realised I have a thing to say (or even two thing) about actually querying.
I was excited and dreaded it at the same time. Friends were already in the trenches, and some had been for a while with AMAZING books, like, how did tradpub not fall over itself to acquire those? (Now I know why, but I do not see it or I will cry. 😭)
The first thing you notice when you enter the trenches is that there is no industry standard. There are a lot of people (agents) claiming to tell you the industry standard, but that is just their preferences. There is GUIDELINES which you have learnt by the time you finish. I guess.
I immediately got confused because I am a structured mind that way and wanted to write The Perfect TM query and that is impossible.
I decided to put housekeeping first, agonised of the comp I felt nobody knew (over which I’d agonise again later again because it won a Hugo…) and the comp I felt was way too big. I curated a list of agents and made sure I did not put anybody on there who is on the tea list.
Then the fun began. Because some agents use query manager and some use e-mail and some even have but a general contact form on the agency website for you to paste vaguely specified things into. (I wish I was kidding. 😔)
I tried, I really did. But the line between personal and creepy is difficult to discern for me (nd mess, remember). I quickly settled on the “Dear Firstname Lastname” greeting because pronouns are a thing and not everybody puts them where you can find them.
Then I despaired, because how to personalise with something they don’t know (its on your MSWL!) and not be stalkery (you posted a pic of this on 06.11.1987)?
What I do now is use my template and change it a little. Is it a bad template? Probably. But you get ME within the very first line and if you can’t with that, I think we’re both better off if we don’t. I am also looking for a second comp yet again because nothing is a best second fit. I will go down comping FINNA by Nino Cipri, though. If you not read that yet, read it now.
I started with housekeeping at the top because that’s where it belongs, right? To give the agent the facts and they know what they’re about to get into. Then I went to put housekeeping at the bottom because I am in love with my log line and it makes a great opening. (If you like getting the central internal conflict of the protag shoved into your face with a horrible pun.)
I am now back at housekeeping at the top because I use the log line to log off (so to speak).
So which is the right way?
Hell, if I know. 🤷♀️ Hell, if agents know. 🤷♂️ As a guide I really like this: if the beginning of your blurb is so strong it punches an agent out of their socks, housekeeping at the bottom. If your housekeeping holds something especially catchy for the agent (comp their dream comp or something like that), housekeeping at the top.
Does it help? Hell, if anybody knows.
How to write a blurb? I have no idea.
I have written a felt gazillion of blurbs for Sava. They were all inaccurate. The punchier they got, the less truthful they felt. Though the blurb may not be the right place for nuance, considering the number of words you’re allowed.
Still I feel the blurb should be truthful enough that an agent doesn’t go all frowny-faced when they read the pages and recognise nothing from the blurb that excited them.
There are formulas to help you distil the blurb. I hope they help you better than me.
I agonised over this, too. I am not a very interesting person. I am an enby nd mess. I like bad puns. I have no writing credits. (But Mel, what about this blog? Listen, if an agent finds it on their own, that’s on them.) I am not marketable. 📉
I solved this by being snarky about myself and mentioning the 1.5 mil words I have on AO3. (If an agent finds my stories there, congrats, you found some fucking good fanfic. Enjoy!)
Finally, I had a complete query that followed enough of the rules in a way that made it look query-shaped. I felt ready. (A lie, but you gotta do what you gotta do.) I set out to query the first agent and – synopsis.
Nobody likes writing a synopsis. I was happy when it was over, and all the important events were strung together in a causative way.
The last step was exporting the requested lengths of my manuscript. Which, again no standard, ranged between 5 pages and 50 pages and three chapters and an excerpt. At least that was easy to create.
Querying At Last
I started sending out my e-mail queries. That went okay. I am still unhappy with personalisation. But it gets easier with practice.
But Mel, the personal touch!
Listen, agents get as much of a personal touch as I expect in return.
*cries in from rejection*
I started querying with Query Manager. It is a great idea in theory and often in reality as well. On the other hand, still no industry standard. You may encounter some strange things in QM. The basics are easy and nice. It remembers what you typed in, so I only have to type the first letter and can autofill. That is nice. Keep forgetting my name. (Joking, I’m just lazy.)
Then it gets fun again. Usually there is a field to paste your query. And one for a specified amount of manuscript. The amount may once again vary between one page and everything. BUT now you don’t have the page!pages any longer. Had I known! I could have kept the last two sentences of my chapter after all…
The real fun begins with the extras. You may or may not need a synopsis, or a bio, a pitch, more books like your ms, perfect audience. There may be questions about superheroes, your favourite whatevers.
Overall, I agree that the form is very helpful if you are an nd mess like me.
On the other hand, you can easily turn it into a fresh new hell should you be so inclined. I was asked why I think we’d be a good match, like, bro. How do I know? Starting point is we both love my ms. Then we chat and see if we get along. Is there another way to know?
I mean, I do believe we’re both adults and able to enter a professional relationship with clear communication, mutual respect, and, hopefully, horrible puns. Or at least memes. GIFs? 🥺
I don’t think agents are trying to be mean or something. Sometimes I get the feeling they are not aware of the power imbalance and how questions look from down here.
To most questions I will find a quip or pun or actual answer. Maybe a complete rant if you ask about the Arishok in Dragon Age 2. But the above or similar questions will make me spiral and get all the anxiety.
Simple and seemingly innocent things like: something fun about yourself (Sir, I am a bore!), fave TV show (OFMD, nobody else likes Project Runway, gotta lie!), fave food (do you know how many online Disk Horses end with blood spill about food? 😭).
I know others for who questions my head considers easy are more difficult. Also, do I want an agent who may diss me because I think Marvel and DC are the same company and probably owned by Disney anyway?
Last but not least. I keep seeing agents talking about how they do like their queries. The one time I back-checked with the queries of books the agent then represented – let’s say there was a certain disconnect between the Want and what got accepted.
So, whatever the advice is, take it with a grain of salt. There are only two rules in querying you can trust:
You can do anything, if you do it well.*
Agents know what they want when they see it
* “Well” being subject to whatever the individual agent considers to be well.
Querying is a squishy gloop of non-standard piled on top of a skeleton of personal agent preferences. You cannot win. There is no good time to query. All times to query are bad times. You learn as you stumble along, and you won’t get anywhere without an army of shoulders to cry on.
So – if you see me in the trenches, say hi and let’s share a cry.
Soft and silly, broken hearted I made myself a tower strong and tall it’s only a heart, I can mend it shattered pieces on night skies sparkling never fails, that one dedicated stabbing, running soft things through constellations to lead you invincible, unbreachable, untouchable, unreachable deep and dark and deadly what’s the difference? I’m still here cold and hard and true there’s hope in the pain piecing together who I was and lost and where and your words fall on stones I know, I know, I know your words are water, salty as you leave and still I yearn holding on and letting go what else is life I know how that feels and one day, one day, maybe with what never was stitching up the pieces that once were you picking stars from the sky From the very top those eyes are mine and deep and dark and drunken little presents loaded high I can see the sea on the sight of you
have said it for some time now, and I’ll say it again: I do not care if stories make logical sense. I want them to make emotional sense. Reading Craft in the Real World by Matthew Salesses makes want to write so many essays that I might as well start here. (His words make a lot of things click into place and make sense after simmering in a soup of useless craft advice for decades. Meta-language and recognition are important.)
The assumption is that stories make sense. The assumption is that this sense is logical (aka adheres to the laws to logic, time, and space) and develops inevitably from the actions and events in the story. The assumption is that I care about a logically infallible structure.
I do not.
I care about characters and their emotional journeys. I want to see them develop and grow into being more themself. I want to see their connections with other characters and how that moves them and , by proxy, the world.
Logic has little to do with that. (Like with wisdom, logic is the beginning of storytelling, not the end…)
Now I have to understand that an emotionally satisfying arc is many different things to many different people. And most of those people are not like me and want something else than I do. Valid.
On the other hand I have always known there is also people like me. Who want the same arc as me, who will bloody well write it if needs be. (Yes, yes I am talking fanfic here, the one place I got what I wanted for the longest time.)
So, if it existed, and people wanted it – why was it not in publishing?
I think there are many answers and most tie back in to what is considered Good Craft and how it perpetuates itself with little regard of anything outside it’s narrow cone. We learn how to correctly read a story early on and are taught by reverse conclusion, the right way to tell a story. If it doesn’t resonate with me, that has to be an me-problem, yes?
It is not.
The wrong preconception is that to be good, a story must mirror the world and it’s laws as we know them. The idea that only thorough research and a carefully and completely logically knit net of world-building will make a story palatable. We talk about stories making sense in-universe.
We keep forgetting that sometimes it does make sense in-universe that the laws of physics bend to the needs of the emotional character arcs.
Think of the dance scene in the first episode of The Umbrella Academy where they all dance on their own in this big empty house. Does it make logical sense? No. Is it likely? Also no.
But is makes emotional sense and tells a story on a level I crave. Characters. Who they are and how they relate. And how, by wanting to act on and change those relationships, they change the world.
Another great example is Our Flag Means Death which follows this doctrine to the T.
Everything, and that includes absolutely everything, is secondary to the emotional character arcs. Time and space may exist, but in case of doubt, they have no power. The ocean can be navigated in a rowboat with nothing but the clothes on your back and a gaydar to find your destination.
What I really love about it is how nobody even questions it. Take a rowboat to the Republic of Pirates? No biggie. Invitation to a party on a boat? In the middle of the ocean? So what? We will find it no problem.
This holds true until the very end where Stede just boards his own rowboat and finds his crew stranded on a tiny island which could be anywhere. Is it likely? No. Is it possible? Also no.
But once again, it makes sense emotionally. The story is making very different promises to its audience and we understand them. (And in this case, trust them. It’s the reason nobody actually believes Lucius is dead. Why we a certain that little piece of red silk will find its way back to Ed.)
For once I look at a piece of media and see my own ideas of story logic mirrored there.
I understand that this method is more hit-and-miss finding its readers than copying the laws of logic. IMO, it is also a lot more rewarding when it hits home.
The Trenches are a bad place to be always, but I hear that right now it is worse than ever. I can’t compare so I’ll take y’all’s word for it. So, how do I, certified nd mess, deal with it?
As always, I have a spreadsheet. It helps me keep track of who I can query, who I have queried, who already passed and, in theory, keeps me from querying two agents at the same agency at the same time. (sry Donald Maass Agency 😓)
There may be a little too much info in it, but I like info. Have a lying screenshot of part of my list. No, I will not give the true comments in my comment section. Also I cut the names of the agents and hid most of their mail/querytracker addy as well as cutting off the URL to their page on the agency site.
So many colours. But I LOVE colours so I colour-code everything. Red only means closed, not sus. I have a separate tab for my tea list. Also, I have a very idiosyncratic set of code words for my categories and you won’t find more spaghetti in any spreadsheet.
The decision who is which choice at an agency is made from readily available info and my gut feeling. (Listen to your gut!) Sometimes it’s the tone the MSWL is written in or something they mention that matches with Sava. (Disclaimer: matches in my head)
I know you are sold strategies and everything about querying. I read them, too. I understand how they are a good idea, but also, I am not a good idea so here we are.
I started yeeting my query once I considered it good enough. I yeeted at agents about to close and the dreaded dream agents (pls reject my ms already, I am dying here! 😭) and, naturally every open enby agent I know of.
Not very discerning, I know, I know. I filed in the day I sent my queries and by when to expect a reply (in theory, we all know getting any reply is a lottery). I did not expect to have “unknown” as reply duration quite so often.
Then I set out to wait. And write the second part of the series. (I know, I know you’re not supposed to write it before you sell the first part, but I love the series and I will write it.) That didn’t go well. Neither the waiting nor the writing.
I got a canvas, partitioned off 100 squares and got paints and star stickers so each time I get a pass, I will paint one of the squares and stick a glittery little star on it. I have extra special stars for extra special passes and personalised passes get the agent’s name written on the star. (I have one of those by now *le sigh*)
Nothing happened for a long time, a few passes rolled in. I kept track on query tracker as well, but kept forgetting about the timeline feature. Well done, me.
Then I overhauled my query. I cut my prologue and sent another wave 4 months later.
A lot of nothing again. I remembered the timeline feature on query tracker. I looked my queries up and cried a lot.
I am currently waiting for a buddy to get query ready to yeet the last of the possible queries.
Why all at once? Because it helps me. I feel I have done all I can. It is not up to me any longer. The ball is in the agents’ court.
And that frees my headspace up. I can stop thinking about it. Because I did all I can. As long as I feel there is something I can /do/ I will never stop fretting over it. Once all possible queries are out, I only have to react. If I get a pass, I move on to the next agent in the agency if there is one. If I get anything else –
There’s also new agents I come across in my writing communities. I add those dutifully (research your agents, peeps! Get the tea before it’s too late!) to my list and yeet if possible. Then it’s back to waiting. (And by now writing because I just decided to write the most self-indulgent thing as palate cleanser.)
I won’t lie. There’s bad days and very bad days when it feels completely hopeless. And while I love my peeps getting agents left and right, there is days it only increases the desperation. Sometimes I feel, it’s never gonna be me.
Unfortunately, my bad days are usually triggered by somebody else making it (and YAY for them! I mean it. I can congratulate and cry at the same time.) so I usually just sit it out on my own. Not healthy I guess. But really, I’ve had enough parades rained on (or worse, ignored) to Not Do That.)
I try to keep busy and not think about it. I try to minimize it. After all, if all else fails I can always self-pub. (Or not seeing how much energy, time and money it takes to get it right.) I am actually kinda liking the horribly long waiting times because nothing is decided and hope is still out there and I do not have to do a thing.
It’s exhausting, still. I don’t know what I’ll do if Sava doesn’t make it. I keep telling myself that my writing friends won’t drop me just because I can’t score an agent. And then there’s the days where it doesn’t really matter because who’d notice anyway if I just stopped existing? 🤷♀️
Don’t do that, though. It’s called suicidal ideation and it is Bad™.
What does help is actually finding something completely else to do. May be a bad writer, but you can’t argue with 4964 tees and sweaters that I am getting something done. My cosplays may be far from screen accurate but they are recognisable and I bled on each of them while sewing. So I do still feel a thing.
Wow, this turned into a long ramble. Not sure I said enough about how I deal, actually? Probably because I mostly just don’t. 😅
I yeet my yeets and wait for the deets. It’s all I can do, all I have the energy for.
Let’s get at this old bony bastard of writing advice. I’m not going into known things like:
1) It only works if you share the same background because – come on! Captain Obvious anybody? What do you think is going on if a happy guy wanders around his quarter handing out eggs dyed red?
2) It’s a relic from a time when Literature was written from and for white allo cishet middle class white men. (If you do not believe me, go read “Craft in the Real World” by Matthew Salessess.)
Instead, I will dive into my neurodiversity and what that does to y’all proudly showing me how your characters feel: I don’t believe you.
It’s that easy and that complicated.
I have masked for the longest time. When I was younger, I painfully learnt what the correct tells were for emotions, what the correct responses to other people were. It became important to show the correct image of what I wanted people to read.
Please take a moment with mere her to reflect how the showing something, especially if you do not want to, is called tells. Thank you.
Let’s move on. Of course, this can be used consciously as well. I can flit eyes around nervously, rub my fingertips, touch my hair. My voice is steel, my face is stone, and I am exuding nothing but calm concentration.
I know what I show.
I also know that inside, things are a completely different matter.
What does this mean for Show Don’t Tell? Easy. It means I don’t believe the Show part on its own. There is always the chance a character is reacting the way they are so the others will perceive them like this. There is always the chance, the reaction is a learnt response, a conscious deception, a performance of self-preservation.
I have myself done all of those things and then some. For somebody whose second nature is not showing what they actually feel, visible signs of emotions and reactions are a precarious information source at best.
It is my lived experience that the outward depiction of emotional reactions or reactions at all, is a carefully crafted construct.
It doesn’t matter how well crafted and detailed your show is. I will see A Show. I will see all the building blocks of a correct and socially acceptable reaction. If your character doesn’t tell me they mean it, there is no guarantee they are genuine. (Leaving aside unreliable narrators for the moment here because that is where things become really fun.)
It seems that many neurotypicals view learning body language and using it as a spy novel skill you acquire to bedazzle and manipulate. Many neurodiverse people learn it simply to survive. Without this skill, we don’t last a day. There is a running two-way translation going though our heads all day everyday turning the outside world into inside sense and translating myself into reactions the outside understands.
Apart from being utterly exhausting, it also makes super sensible to mood and tensions. It is sometimes called a sixth sense. When you have to observe every minuscule detail to derive the correct meaning, you see a lot more of them.
Do I shut this down when I read or write? I think not. How can I? It is how the world works for me. (Apart from a few select fellow nds. ‘allo frens!) it’s alike to asking if you shut down your eyesight for stories. How can you? It is an important part of how you perceive the world!
Naturally, this feeds back into my reading. I see your character’s reaction, but if you don’t confirm the truthfulness of it, I will reserve judgement and if the signs I know align, just know they are not, in fact feeling the way they present themselves.
It also definitely plays into how I write. My characters will show all kinds of reactions. And I will assume that, since it is obvious they only show a thing, the reader knows there is a great possibility they feel something else entirely. Even if they don’t admit it (not even) to themselves.
This leads to a great disconnect between how I am told stories need to be written and how I need stories to be written to reflect my reality.
I want to know and love the characters I read about. But how am I supposed to do that, when they rarely show their true self to me? How can you tell me that my characters should not open themselves to the readers? That they never allow a glance under their armour? That they must not be vulnerable and true?
TL’DR, as somebody trained to display the correct responses, to me showing will always be a smokescreen to hide behind.
There is a lot of talk about plot, plotting and story structure right now. So have my take that absolutely nobody asked for. It is mainly, you do you and make sure it looks shiny. 😊
For many years I did my best to learn how to plot correctly and, in that process, completely scrambled the three-act-structure. In consequence, I now think of some projects in thirds, though it is not guaranteed that each third is equal in words and content to the others. It’s a third in my mind that that is where the ‘plotting’ happens.
What I am trying to say is, that over time, I had to learn that story structure as taught does nothing for me but confuse and frustrate me. I am very certain that stories have a structure and that knowing what it is helps you write them. What I am also certain of is that you have to do you here.
So, look at Horny WIP with me which most definitely has thirds. Like, three parts and they are definitely, well, ok. The first third has about 13k, the second around 45k and the last third has 18k. Makes sense, right?
But this is how thirds work for me in writing. Three acts – beginning, middle, end. I think somebody may have forgotten to tell me that those are not supposed to be the same length? (Are they? Halp! 😭)
Anyways, for me, a third contains a certain part of the story that I deem necessary.
Part 1: This is where we get to know the characters, what they want, how that intersects with the other character’s wants. How they decide or are forced to be in contact. Part 2: Where the characters achieve what they think they want only to realise that it wasn’t this at all. The decision to work together for real to get what they really want and defeat the Final Boss. Part 3: Where the characters beat the Final Boss and live happy ever after.
Example Space Wizards: Part 1: Naida & Zeko are introduced, their unrelated goals are shown and how they can use each other to achieve them Part 2: Following their goals, both achieve them only to find it is not what they actually want and they find the Final Boss. Part 3: They work together and defeat the Final Boss.
Example Horny WIP: Part 1: Salma and Samson are introduced and how they are at odds with each other. Ends with finding something they have in common. Part 2: They get close to each other (aka they bang a lot) and realise who the Final boss is. Part 3: they defeat the Final Boss and live horny ever after
If I want a story to make more sense parts-wise, I tend to use a device of my own making because it is neatly tailored to how I think about story progress.
Mel’s Amazingly Accurate Chart of Story Structure*
As you can see, even breaking it down to steps I have two different kinds of beginnings that, in my head, are a different structure because they need different things.
Returning to Horny WIP.
1: Let’s finish this: Salma and Daniel finish a job and get an assassin thrown into the mix 2: Brave New World: Life and Job are different with an assassin thrown in the mix 3: You Asked For an Additional Problem?: Oop, Assassin is in love with Salma 4: I Did Not But I’ll Deal: Salma falls in love with the assassin, too 5: VICTORY! (oh, no…): They accept they belong together and trigger the Final Boss into action 6: Course Correction: Planning to kill The Final Boss 7: BOOYA!: Final Boss is dead, but so is the assassin 8: We’re Done Here: He not dead, of course!
Now the steps tell me clearly what will have to happen to get me to the next stage. Without assassin, he can’t complicate life and fall for my protag. If he doesn’t fall in love, neither can she, and if they don’t decide to live their relationship, the Final Boss doesn’t get involved and I don’t get my showdown. Clear as dumplings.
Plot is how I structure a story to make it make sense. So I guess it makes sense if other people’s structures don’t work for me much because they are not inside my head and what I have to help me sort my way will probably not help them in return.
Another thing that is not helping me is that I am very accepting of plot structures. I do not need or even want beats that tell me where I am. My pattern recognition is a high performer and I hate it when a book tells me what is going on by relying on traditional structure. (Yes, this happened and I did not approve.)
On the other hand I am somewhat looking forward to people pointing out how I rely on tried and tested plot structures once my books are out.
Heads work different. As long as it works, we should be fine. 🤷♀️