The Query – Part One

As a hopeful first-time author, I learned early on that the creative distress one goes through writing and finishing one’s first book pales into virtual insignificance against the  anguish, the dejection and the desperate measures one will endure to finish one’s first query letter and land one’s first agent. It is the equivalent of literary self-flagellation, on a par with root canals performed with common household tools and DIY tattoo removal. Most writers I spoke with before finally deciding to publish this essay readily told me they’d rather wrap their mouths around an exhaust pipe than repeat the experience. And while I don’t share their general sense of nauseous foreboding, I can empathize;  my first book took three years to write; the one-page query letter nearly three months.

Three. Months. To write four paragraphs. Four paragraphs on one page that are more important to an agent than the book itself, because if you can’t tell that agent why your book will light up the bestseller list in two of those four paragraphs, they’re not going to give a tinker’s damn about your two-hundred page manuscript. They’ve got seventy-three more queries to read. Before lunch.

And that, ladies and gentlemen is the name of that tune. Period. End of paragraph.

Every writer has a story about their first time at the rodeo. This is mine.

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Like most freshmen, I agonized over researching agents. With the first, first draft of my manuscript saved, the query and proposal edited and in the chute, I logged on to the top writer’s blogs every day, religiously noting their advice. I lived on AgentQuery.com. I followed Predators and Editors like it was the Wall Street Journal. I catalogued every piece of information I could find anywhere about every agent alive or dead in the known free world. I queried until I drew blood. I sent out partials like they were coupons.

And then, late in 2006 I was signed by one of New York’s A-List agents. He was riding a major bestseller-just-turned-movie, and wrote glowingly about the first hundred pages. He told me I was “the next piece of his plan…” That my prose was “heartfelt, raw, and the pacing was fantastic.” I was a gifted writer, he said.

I exhaled.

Three and a half months later, I finished the manuscript. I wrote for guidelines on formatting. He never answered. I wrote again, assuring him I knew how busy he was, but I was excited about getting the final off to him. No answer. I called the office. The office manager told me she’d relay the message. A week went by. Two weeks went by. I wrote to the associate agent that originally requested the partial. I was getting concerned, I said. Three days later, an e-mail. From someone my e-mail’d been referred to. Someone I’d never heard of. They apologized. My kinds of questions however, were normally routed to someone other than my agent, because “…he was just too busy to answer those kinds of questions.” He was definitely “interested” in “seeing” the completed manuscript, though, and they preferred hard-copy, Times 12, double-spaced.

I printed, packaged, sent and waited.

And waited.

Two months later, a single-page letter from the agency arrived in the mail. “We have been unable to find a publisher for your manuscript,” it said. “Accordingly, we’re no longer representing your book.”

I was a gifted writer. The next piece of this A-List agent’s plan.

I wrote back and asked to be released from my contract. I received no response.

Two weeks went by. I e-mailed my disappointment, asked for confirmation that I could query other agents, and for a complete list of houses that declined. An associate wrote back a week later, said I was free to query. I was released. I never received the complete list, and never heard from the agent who signed me again.

I’d poured my life into this book. Literally. I was devastated.

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I started building a new query list the next week. I was careful not to re-query and incur the wrath of agents that had already declined. My office became a war room. I devised new strategies. I re-wrote the entire query and a third of the manuscript. I polished every sentence, and every paragraph with a verbal chamois. I assembled the new hit-list, I hit SEND, and I hit the post office.

Almost immediately, partial requests began coming in. It was looking good. I settled in for the long haul, but continued to research new agencies. I bookmarked sites, wore them out, deleted them, then changed my mind and bookmarked them again. I kept a database of the return visits to agent’s sites I’d queried and those I hadn’t. Two weeks into the campaign, I pulled the database up for a review.

Damn. I’d hit Sharlene Martin’s MartinLiteraryManagement fifty-three times. I clicked the FAVORITES list and hit it for the fifty-fourth time. Cross-referenced my database. I hadn’t queried this agent. And what the hell was this ‘Considerate Literary Management for the 21st Century’ thing all about? Literary agents aren’t considerate…they’re sharks, they’re hit-people, they’re on the rungs somewhere between lawyers and used-car salespeople. A considerate literary agent? Horseshit. They don’t exist.  The testimonials were interesting, though, and…damn…she’s got the focus here on the authors, not her, not her site, not her success…her clients’ success. And damn if there wasn’t a NYT Bestseller and…wait a damn minute, here. She’s sold sixty-some books, and she’s only been in the game three years?! God almighty…who the hell is this woman?

Let’s see, she’s in LA – cool. She was in network TV and film production – interesting. And these testimonials from her clients…Jesus, they think she’s like, well, hell, they love her.

I left the office and traipsed back to Murph. She was on her laptop.

“Know you’re busy,” I said. “Go to MartinLiteraryManagement dot com, and browse this site. There’s something…I don’t know. Let me know what your gut tells you.”

And I headed back to my office. About an hour later, the inter-office phone rang. It was Murph.

“I’d query her. She’s handled some great stuff. Nothing to lose here.”

I spent another half-hour browsing her site, opened up MAIL, wrote what I thought might be the right greeting, attached the query, hit SEND, and left for a late afternoon after-school class teaching Karate.

Three hours later, Murph came to pick me up. Her eyes were dancing.

“That agent you queried today? Sharlene Martin? She called.”

“She what?”

“She called the office. There’s a message on the machine.”

When I got back to the office, I returned her call. We talked for fourteen minutes. Agents don’t have fourteen minutes to talk on the phone with an unpublished writer they haven’t signed. This was off the radar. And she was so…considerate.

“May I send you a partial?” I asked.

“Actually, no,” she said. “I want you to send me the entire manuscript.”

Holymarymotherofjesusgodallmighty.

I tried to conceal my growing fear of soiling myself.

“I’d happy to be. I mean…of will I course. Oh hell. Yes. Are you sure, Ms. Martin?”

“It’s Sharlene. And yes, I’m sure.”

“Hard copy or Word?” I asked.

“Word,” she said. “Let’s save a tree.”

That was Wednesday, May 2, 2007.

By the next morning, Sharlene had not only contacted my previous agent, but secured a list of the houses that declined. It was significant, but she sensed something wrong…things didn’t add up, didn’t make sense. More importantly, she didn’t quail, didn’t flinch, didn’t lose so much as one iota of enthusiasm.

At ten am pacific time, she telephoned me. Again.

“This is obviously all happening for a reason,” she said. “But I need to ask you an important question. Would you have a problem with Jonas Kelson?”

“Of course not,” I said. “Why?”

“Because I just talked with the head of the company, and he wants to see the proposal. Today.”

Three and a half hours later, she telephoned me. Again.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked. I told her I was. I lied. I was glued to the ceiling.

“I just sold your book. I’m flying in to Nashville Sunday afternoon, and we’re scheduled to meet with the publisher and the department heads first thing Tuesday morning. He only had one question.”

“And that was…,” I asked, dropping from the ceiling.

“How many zeroes do we want on the check.”

At some point, I realized I’d lost the ability to speak intelligibly. Or to speak at all.

“Ohhnnggmayygahhddddjh.”

“I’ve e-mailed the publisher the manuscript, and I’m printing my copy off tomorrow, and plan on reading it before I land on Sunday,” she said.

“Ohhnnnggfarghgukayhh.”

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I sat down at the computer, pulled the manuscript up, and started reading. Then I started sweating. At some point, I recall my brain beginning to bleed. I plodded, I crawled into the house, back to Murphy. “What the hell is wrong?” she asked. “You look awful.”

“I don’t think it’s any good,” I said.

“My God, it’s fine. It reads fine. Get a grip, for God’s sake.”

“No. You don’t understand. My syntax sucks, my grammar is horrible. And the second half is like, way better than the first half. I’m going to go kill myself. Hold my calls. O.k?”

I sat back down at the computer, my index finger poised above the DELETE tab, when I heard,  “You’ve Got Mail.”

Sharlene.

The meeting with the pub was on Monday now. She wanted to have dinner Sunday night. I hit REPLY. ‘Great’, I lied.

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Sunday. May 6. Four days since the query.

Murph and I arrive at the Sheraton. In the lobby, Sharlene is in a cream-white pantsuit, smiling. She is beautiful, I think.

“Beautiful,” Murph whispers.

We shake, greet, hug. “I finished the manuscript two hours ago,” she said.

“What did you think?” Murph chirped.

“Well…why don’t we go have a drink and talk about it,” she said.

From somewhere in my sternum, I heard the voice of James Earl Jones. “Luke. Sorry… Buck… it’s over. She has to have a drink under her belt before she tells you how bad it sucks.”

My legs felt like they were made of pipe cleaners. Any second, now, I was going to drop face down on the floor of the lobby. Somehow, I made it to the table. We ordered a bottle of Merlot, and I brought it to my lips. From the corner of my eye, Murph was scowling and shaking her head. She turned to Sharlene. “So…what did you think?” she asked.

Sharlene unfolded her napkin, draped it across her lap, took a deep breath and looked up.

“Well,” she said. “I absolutely loved it.” Murphy smiled in my direction.

“See? All that worry for nothing. What do you have to say for yourself?”

“Ohhhmmahhhggahhdduffth.”

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© 2015. J. Buck Ford