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How to Stay Sane While Querying Literary Agents

As I’m writing this, my search for a literary agent finds me with three agents having turned down the project based on my query alone, two agents rejecting the manuscript after reading it, three agents reading it, and two queries still unanswered. In other words, I’m at the very beginning of my search.

This is not my first time “shopping” for an agent. Back in 2005, I wrote a novel and set about finding a literary agent the same way I’m doing now—through queries and crossed fingers. Back then, I was living in Paris, France and didn’t know any other writers. The fact that I’m seven years older now, with writer friends and professional connections doesn’t make the waiting period any easier, or shorter. By all indications, the industry response standards haven’t changed much since 2005. From the time you send out your query, expect anywhere from two to eight weeks for an answer. Um, yeah. To your query. If you’re asked at that point to send the entire manuscript, book a trip somewhere. Most likely, you’ll be squirming in uncertainty for another two months.

I did get an agent back in 2005. It took me two months to get an offer with someone I admired, and I was freaking thrilled. Very soon after, we had an interested editor. Conversations continued that entire summer, with both my agent and potential new editor debating where I should live in Brooklyn when I moved there in the fall. Fort Greene, they decided. All of this editor’s writers lived in Fort Greene.

Well, I didn’t end up in Fort Greene and I didn’t sell my book. A week before I was supposed to go in with my agent to talk business with the potential editor, we got an e-mail from her. She’d changed her mind. She was sorry. The very next day, she quit her job.

The reason I’m sharing this anecdote is because I’m a very impatient person who has had to become very good at waiting in order to continue doing the one thing I love more than anything in life. Waiting to hear from editors can be awful, but at least you have an agent waiting with you. Querying agents takes an entirely different kind of stamina. Nobody’s got your back in this but you.

I hope these tips bring you a little solace, perhaps some entertainment, or in the best case scenario, both. Perhaps I’ll send an update at some point: “Hey, I got an agent!” But if I don’t, I plan to follow my own advice, take a shot of a distilled alcoholic beverage, and keep on failing better.

Get the hell off Facebook: When I say “Facebook,” I also mean Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, whatever. Simply get offline. In a line of work buttressed by rejection, there’s nothing worse than seeing that only one person “liked” the Walt Whitman quote you posted, while one hundred and thirty-seven people liked somebody’s cat. Or finding out that the literary agent you just queried Instagrammed a photo from his trip to a remote part of Nova Scotia and that this will be his last time online for weeks! Or that so-and-so just won a contest; just got a book deal; just got published in Harpers, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Granta….I don’t need to go on. There are enough articles these days asking whether Facebook makes you feel shitty to admit that yeah, it probably does. Don’t read about people’s good/bad news while waiting for your own.

Walt Whitman's Competition

If you can, vacation. You’ve finished something of a depth and breadth worth querying about, so if you can swing a congratulatory getaway, do. Try to go someplace without Internet access, and have someone babysit your phone. Until you separate yourself from the electronic instruments that allow you to maniacally check for phantom responses, you won’t find real peace.

Face it: they haven’t written back yet. Once your manuscript’s out with literary agents, you’re going to have to come to terms with the fact that although this book feels like the most important thing in your life, it’s not the most important thing in theirs. Case in point: one agent has had my manuscript for three weeks now. I allowed myself to imagine that she was half way through it, maybe enjoying it? Almost finished? Done? A friend of mine ran into her and relayed this to me: she hasn’t even started it, and she left yesterday for vacation, without my precious book. So, yeah. Every second that you’re away from your inbox for the next two months is going to feel like the potential moment in which you get a response. But it’s not realistic. No agent is going to write you at 10:13 p.m. on a Tuesday. So stop checking so damn often. Step away from the computer. Step away…

Become a reader for a literary magazine. Once I started rejecting (or accepting) fiction submissions for the magazine I read for, it became easier for me to accept rejection myself. Sometimes I’ll read something that is well written, even engaging, but it doesn’t move me enough to want to see it in print. This is the equivalent of an agent saying that they didn’t “connect” to your work. Now, I’m not suggesting you start rejecting writers as some twisted form of catharsis, I’m suggesting you develop empathy for your rejector so that you can understand, and perhaps even appreciate, the thought process behind the rejection of your own work.

Get dressed in the morning. For those of you, like me, who work from home, it’s tempting to spend the query period waiting around the home office (a.k.a., the couch) in a pair of ripped Thai fisherman pants and a baggy t-shirt. Here’s the thing though: when the inevitable first rejection comes, it’s easy to sink into depression if you’re already dressed for it. Make an effort to put on clean, attractive clothes. If a rejection comes while you’re dressed thus, congratulate yourself. Take yourself out for I-survived-my-first-rejection cocktails. You don’t even need to change!

Exercise. Do not give depression a rent-free place to live. Force yourself to stay active. If possible, orient your efforts towards team-based activities or super complex dance steps so that you have to concentrate on something other than your book your book your book.

Write something else. If I’ve waited this long to suggest this, it’s because it’s really hard. But you must do it. Try writing long hand, far away from your computer. Try writing critiques of other people’s work—book reviews, for example, are a great way to ease back into your own writing while tricking yourself into thinking that you’re writing for someone else. Work on something in a completely different genre or format than the thing that you’ve submitted. Experiment. Have fun. Try.

Yakov Smirnof, Esquire: Professional Nice Maker

Hire someone to be nice to you. Full disclosure: because of the nature of the project I’m querying about, I had to hire an entertainment lawyer before I wrote my book. Thankfully, in my case, this stranger has turned into a friend who actually likes my book. Nevertheless, it feels pretty great complaining about an agent pass to someone with “Esquire” after his name.

When it boils down to it, querying literary agents is about asking total strangers to help you with something, and not getting a yes. So find someone to help you. I’m not saying to get a lawyer, unless you find one who will occasionally accept payment in the form of grass-fed hamburgers, like mine. Just find someone who is neither a relative nor a sexual partner to help maintain your confidence during query period. Sure, it could be a psychiatrist, but you can also go on taskrabbit.com and find someone to send you encouraging text messages every day for like six bucks.  The task itself doesn’t matter. What does is that however fleetingly, you have the sweet sensation that someone’s on your side.

Print out a talisman. It’s true that the only opinion that really matters about your writing is your own, but it’s going to be hard to remember this while you’re looking for an agent. Print out something nice that someone wrote about your writing and use it like a talisman when you’re feeling down. When you get a rejection, reach for this nice note. Keep on doing this until 1) You find representation 2) You don’t need to read someone else’s words to make you feel good about your writing because the only opinion that matters is your own.

Read slushpilehell.tumblr.com Reading the queries posted by an anonymous “disgruntled literary agent” will give you a new perspective on the things agents need to respond to, before they respond to you.

Read. Read all the time. Read everything. Read the very beautiful and the very, very bad. But mostly, read the beautiful. Because it is only through the joy of getting lost in a great story that you will recover that desire to burn your own way through a page again, to write something new, to set another challenge, to feel that particular form of visceral aliveness that comes from spinning stories.

Most importantly, don’t give up. No one can stop you from writing but yourself.

The humor columnist behind Electric Literature’s “Celebrity Book Review,” Courtney Maum is a frequent contributor here at Tin House, and sometimes we lend her out to The Rumpus and Bomb. You can find more of her work on courtneymaum.tumblr.com or on Twitter at @cmaum. Courtney’s just finished writing a novel. Duh.

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Comments: 28

(510) Comments

  1. John says:

    I have no sympathy or empathy for the enemy, and literary agents are the enemy. The best way to stay sane is realize you are better than them. You are the talent, not them. They live off your talent. They are parasites–useful parasites if you want to be published–but parasites nonetheless.

    Get an agent, use them to accomplish their dream, but never acknowledge them as a person, because they don’t acknowledge you. You are “Dear Author” or “Writer” whenever they bother to respond at all. So use them to get what they want, and smile to yourself as you do. Once you realize that the literary agent is your enemy, you’ll stop blathering and giving a shit what they write on their twitters.

    Treat them as the enemy and you’ll go far.

  2. Mark P. says:

    This was a good article. But one thing that is still hard for me to come to grips with is an agent’s comment about “not connecting” with my book. I want to ask: What didn’t you connect with? The characters, the story, the settings? Or one or more? But most agents don’t seem inclined to tell you any more than that, or get annoyed if you ask.

  3. Kate says:

    I’m just reading this article now… but what’s even more awesome about it is the fact that Courtney Maum’s book is being published by Touchstone/Simon & Schuster this June 2014. Proof that her advice is solid. Congrats, Courtney!!

  4. Pat says:

    Or just have kids. They distract the crap out of you. :)

  5. Sam taylor says:

    Hello Courtney this is an old long lost friend Sam Taylor found you on google has been a while do you want to catch up? Sounds like things are well with you I live in Bozeman Montana and build giant houses for super stars like bill gates

  6. Tiffany says:

    Thanks so much for posting this. I really needed this. And I agree with you about staying away from social media for a while. Taking a break from it can be helpful. I am in the process of writing two art books I plan to self-publish while I wait to hear back about the novel I am hoping to traditionally publish. Seeing the lack of comments on my fan page and Twitter feed was getting me down, so I just let my scheduled posts for HootSuite take over so that I can focus on writing. Great advice! :)

  7. Mercedes Hodge says:

    Thank You so much. I really needed this reality check. I felt this way in the back of my head and Knew that no matter how much I loved my book. It would not feel the same for everyone. But rejection is a part of life and querying is actually becoming like work. It’s all godd, because I LOVE to work!

  8. chat says:

    Some genuinely wonderful information, Sword lily I discovered this. “Purchase not friends by gifts when thou ceasest to give, such will cease to love.” by Thomas Fuller.

  9. Camille says:

    Excellent and humorous article!! Much needed, as I’ve been in ‘query purgatory’ for 10 months. I proudly finished a novel on Labor Day and was all smiles thinking the hard part was over. HAR-DEE-HAR-HAR!! Not so, oh foolish one. My non-writer friends ask impatiently when the book will be published, to which I respond, um, I need an agent to READ it first; someone impartial who can tell me if it stinks or not. Got momentarily excited for 1 partial manuscript request, but alas, she didn’t ‘connect’ with it, a phrase you mentioned! Even posted on Craigslist that I’d sell my soul for a literary agent. No replies. (Souls aren’t in high demand, evidently.) So I trudge on, sending 2 queries a week and hoping for a bite. Thank you for the chuckle and the tres witty (hellishly honest) advice ;-)

  10. Paula says:

    Awesome! Thank you for this!

  11. susan jane terry says:

    Thank you for a much-needed article. Since beginning my querying, I have tired of reading the tarot cards all day. Slush Pile From Hell was the funniest thing I’ve read in a long time. I don’t know what I’m doing. I wanted to have fire power so I finished three books in five months, thinking I would have big-time ammo there. Since querying, I’m almost finished with a fourth (it’s a murder mystery about a woman who can’t get an agent) and things are progressing fairly well. I started this whole process on Facebook and the only way I could begin the querying or, for that matter, finish any of these fabulous books, was to get off Facebook. Now that I have an extra 24 hours in my day, I know I can do anything. Thanks for the advice. For anyone who has to practice patience when they are dreaming of private jets, it’s good solid advice. I think.

  12. Jane says:

    I love this. At the same time I want to disagree with “Get the hell off Facebook: When I say “Facebook,” I also mean Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, whatever.” All the agents, voicing the state of the publishering industry, want to know you have a ready-made “platform”. And by “platform” they mean followers and by followers they mean Twitter, etc. So yes, my dog is now tweeting multiple times a day, tweeting almost more often than he takes a pee. But he’s gaining followers. As the grass is green, thus goes the publishing industry.

  13. Elaine says:

    Wow Courtney, thank you for this!! I am glad these articles stay up as long as they do.

    I am on my first journey of querying agents, and after receiving four rejections in the last three months, I have started to get…do I dare admit? Okay, discouraged.

    A former editor at Paramount has helped me edit my work and it’s very clean and–according to her–good, but I am entering a new phase of complete self-doubt. And your recommendation to start writing again sounds very, very sad. Like I’m passing a grief milestone and moving on. But it would connect me with this craft I love so much. The feeling of birth and relief after writing is what I need to focus on…oh, I forgot to mention the feeling of scuzzy mouth from not brushing.

    Thank you for the encouragement to keep up hygiene. At this moment I am gearing up to eat something healthy and work out.

    Deep down I know the rejections are a GOOD thing because I know my ms needs to be with the right agent. And maybe in a mystical way, my work is being protected from being with the wrong person.

    Thank you for sharing so openly your experience. So nice to know I’m not alone. Best wishes to you!

  14. Great post, great advice, great tone. I queried an agent not too long ago, and a friend in NYC told me: “Don’t even think about hearing back before Labor Day. All the agents are on Martha’s Vineyard, drinking Chardonnay (or wishing they were), and no work is being done.” Makes sense to me — and even if it’s not entirely accurate, who cares? Life goes on…

  15. Pam Parker says:

    Courtney – this is a terrific post! Some of your advice, I have already followed (become a reader for a literary magazine), and some I need reminders about — especially exercise, and ahem, yes, sometimes, getting dressed in the morning. I kind of like writing in my jammies. :-) Anyway, thanks again, this post is very timely for me!

  16. Thanks for writing this, I enjoyed it. I can totally relate as I collected 18 rejections before opting to self-publish my debut novel. That’s the only thing I would add to your list: Take control of your own publishing destiny, invest in a great content editor, book cover design, and put your work out yourself.

  17. I love the honesty of your post and the recommendations about reading and reviewing other peoples work. This reminds me of the lecture by Cathy Day at Midwest Writers Worshop 2012 about being a good citizen of the writing community–supporting other writers. And moving on to the next project–great advice. I am diffeent in that I resist sending my pages out when requested because I want to be sure it is my best, but when is it ever finished? Never. I know that. We all have our battles, and everyone talks about how painful the writing profession can be, but my experience tells me that most things worth achieving take work and perseverence and a daily struggle with out inner demons. For me, it’s just something else to write about. Like you have in this post. I’m rooting for you. Hang in there.

  18. Make that “interacting.” Typos. They will kill me yet.

  19. Love this post! I’m playing the waiting game again. Like you, I had an agent and it didn’t work out. I’m older, wiser, and my manuscript is 1000% better than it was when I first queried it last year. Also, since I first began my writing journey, I now know quite a few talented authors who have self-pubbed and been quite happy with the results. I just love being in the game. I love writing, querying (I know, crazy, right?!), and interactive with agents. I look forward to my book being published traditionally, but I know I’ll move forward one way or the other. Of course, I’m writing this with my computer open to FB, Twitter, and, of course, my EMAIL!!!. Did I mention I’m wearing my jammies? And. come to think of it, I haven’t washed my hair in three days. So if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s time for a shower and a fresh set of clothes….

  20. Great advice. Ironically, however, if I were taking the first piece of advice, about getting off the Internet, I would never have seen this piece, which someone tweeted about this morning. :-)

  21. Juliet says:

    Great advice. Anxiety is definitely compounded by the immediacy of internet/social network — I can remember the days when waiting for the postman once a day was IT. Talk about being patient & keeping distracted…

  22. A fun read… and yet, why am I not more anxious about the agents I’ve queried who haven’t yet responded? Is it because I know I can self-publish if I can’t secure a traditional book deal? Because I’m too busy changing nappies and raising children to obsess? Or do I suffer from pathetic delusions of grandeur?

    Wait, don’t answer that. I’m a writer. It’s got to be the latter.

  23. Clarence Coalfield says:

    Just read – “How to Stay Sane While Querying Literary Agents” I now feel completely distended (painfully and completely like a sprained finger, with all the throbbing) from the reality I once feared and believed to be true, only now I know I do not suffer the notion of waiting alone. Alas I seem to have found Courtney in the waiting room with me, albeit in spirit anyway. Great insight so good of you to share, oh if you don’t mind please shutoff the lights, my brain is starting to throb.

(5) Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] tide goes out . . . Waiting now for it to roll back in. (This article is helpful to read while biding […]

  2. […] are many tips out there about keeping your focus during distractions like this, but it would take too much of a toll on my already-sparse concentration skills to read them. Feel […]

  3. […] In query letter hell? Check out Courtney Maum’s post at the Tin House blog, How to Stay Sane While Querying Literary Agents. […]

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