Last week, a few of my writing buddies and I traveled to the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark to listen to author extraordinaire Neil Gaiman. Neil shared short stories, personal anecdotes, and witty lines like, “Bless their little cotton-tail socks.”
Neil was referring to Amazon Prime’s socks and his negotiations with the company to expand a movie budget he was producing. At the same time, we negotiated the best way to eat pretzels without spilling salt on our seats. But I could have sat in that squeaky seat all afternoon, learning how Neil amassed such a powerful scope of work. Interestingly, Neil never mentioned angst or uncertainty accompanying his writing. Curiosity drove his creative projects, he’d explained, unabashedly confident in his work.
On the rainy car ride home, our conversation turned toward our writing and the business of querying. More so, why weren’t we querying? The excuses followed: the novel needs more polishing, the story needs to sit, querying is too time-consuming, and it’s soul-sucking. I had dipped my pinky toe into querying, so I had jazzier excuses to justify my lackluster efforts: it’s the holiday season, every agent is closed, and I’m waiting for in-person conferences to meet agents. The truth was, the longer my queries sat in agents’ inboxes, the more I worried the work wasn’t good enough. If the work was good, wouldn’t an agent have responded already? Best to slow down the querying and polish the pages. Chickens, all of us.
None of us were willing to say aloud what we all knew. We were battling resistance. Over the years, we’ve masked it in clever ways. We’ve gone back to school, started new jobs, started two jobs, started new novels, and switched genres to avoid rejection. (I’m guilty of everyone.) But we’ve put so much into our stories that they’ve become a part of us, and when an agent passes on the work, it feels like they’re passing on us, which dings our self-esteem. We’d rather stay in that warm, safe place of someday where possibility and promise live. (I’m not alone here. Memoir writer Stacey Hall Burge recently wrote about wrestling with somedays in her Journal.) I’ve wrapped my dreams in someday for so long; it’s like a worn sweater.
And then I went shopping for a new sweater.
Whenever I enter the retail store Anthropologie, I eagerly soak up the trendy, stylish clothes. I wander around, admiring the different brands, and run my fingers along the velvet pants, leather skirts, shimmery blouses, and sequence shirts. Their products are beautiful even though they’re not all right for me. Some styles are too young, too dark, and risqué for my taste.
On this particular day, I’m hunting for a brick-red holiday sweater. I spy honey-colored and cherry-red sweaters but don’t see the shade I want. It’s not Anthropologie’s fault they can’t produce what’s in my head. They’ve given me delightful and varied options, but my sweater needs to coordinate with my existing wardrobe. Besides, I already own a honey-colored sweater or two.
Sadly, I pass on the pretty sweaters. I didn’t give a reason to the salesperson who helped me find sizes and styles. Like I’ve done dozens of times before, I just decided to leave and try to find what I’m looking for somewhere else.
The salesperson smiled and said, “Come back soon,” not all offended by me rejecting her suggestions. Anthro knows their products are good; the right buyer will walk through the door.
And then it dawned on me. What if Ms. Agent was just like me?
What if Ms. Agent enjoys many of the queries she gets in her inbox, yet she, too, has something specific in mind, and some of these stories are too young, too dark, or risqué for her taste?
Perhaps Ms. Agent has to coordinate with what she already has, and though a query may be tempting, the premise is too similar to something on her client list. A girl can only have so many honey-colored sweaters, after all. And perhaps Ms. Agent is so busy searching for something specific that she forgets to explain her reasons for passing before moving on to the following query.
What if it were that simple? A store full of beautiful clothes or an inbox full of queries can sometimes be overwhelming for all of us. Taste in clothes and queries is subjective, but a pass doesn’t mean the product isn’t high quality; it may simply be the wrong shade of red. I never found my holiday sweater that day, but I did lose my angst around querying. So, dear writers, if you get a pass on your pages, stand by your stories, unabashedly confident like Neil. Let go of the angst, pull up your cotton-tail socks, and keep querying until the right agent walks through your door.