Note from Aimee: Today’s post has query statistics at the end for those interested. They follow a picture (which picture and alt text was inserted by me, not the author of this post) so they can be more easily avoided for those who don’t like to see stats. The book referenced in this post is described by the author as an adult, second-world grimdark fantasy and is the first novel written by them. I have also included links to the resources listed by the author, but neither this post nor my inclusion of links is an official endorsement of either (and no one was paid to put them here) and you should always research any paid service carefully before pursuing it. Now, without further ado, today’s amazingly raw, amazingly written, amazingly brave story of realness ❤
What if You Just Wrote the Wrong Book?
I knew the book I spent 4 years writing was a no-hoper before I ever sent my first query. I knew it as soon as I looked at agent MSWLs in my genre, as soon as I followed agents on Twitter, as soon as I looked for comps. I also know the book I just shelved is the best book I will ever write.
As a child, I had vague ambitions of becoming a published writer, for the simple reason that I wanted to achieve something in life and wasn’t good at anything else. But financial stability came first, and so I devoted my teens and 20s to academics and demanding jobs, writing only a few short stories over 10 years. It wasn’t until I managed to downshift to a 40-hour-a-week job that didn’t suck up all my mental energy that I had hope of actually finishing a novel. Even then, I struggled to find a work-in-progress I loved enough to stick with–until finally I did.
Finishing that monster of a 135k first draft (later whittled down to 121k) took me almost 4 years. Coming to the end and actually being proud of what I’d written was the most joyful moment of my life to date–until I got on the internet and realized I’d written the exact book nobody wanted.
My book might have been perfect for the SFF market in, say, 2010. But by 2022, my European military fantasy was exactly what agents in this hugely oversaturated market were begging not to see (which, if I’d been reading recent debuts instead of spending years frantically trying to finish my own book, I would already have known). Readers’ tastes had long since changed, but I was still writing for the teenager I’d been.
My book was second-world and epic when everyone wanted “grounded.” It had three POVs and a heaping of military strategy when everyone wanted intimate and character-driven. It was a bloody grimdark hitting every conceivable trigger warning when a lot of readers were hungry for lightness, romance, and hope. And worst of all, it had a female villain protagonist who sought power not to protect loved ones or to fight oppression but for power’s own sake–and thus was really, truly unlikeable to everyone but me.
I decided to query my book anyway, because what did I have to lose? I left off anyone for whom my book was explicitly anti-MSWL (quite a few), but between US and UK agents, I still had a healthy list to burn.
I came prepared. I scoured r/pubtips, submitted my query to the wonderful Query Shark, and paid far too much for a manuscript assessment by a freelance editor, because I wanted an honest opinion and was worried seeking unpaid betas would take months and plunge me into social media drama. The verdict: the editor couldn’t understand why anyone would write this sort of thing, and also I needed therapy.
But by far my most valuable investments were three, 10-minute query and sample chapter consultations with literary agents through Manuscript Academy (US) and Jericho Writers (UK). This is the best $49 you as a writer will ever spend, because it is the only time a professional in your target market will tell you exactly what you did wrong, as opposed to just hitting the reject button.
The agents I spoke to were lovely individuals who put real thought into explaining why, no matter how much I revised my query package or my manuscript as a whole, a book with this premise would never sell. Then, much more difficult, they tried to give me some guidance on what would.
Now, 10 months out, I’m at the end of the query journey for the book of my heart. I’m proud of the requests I received, and not at all surprised that they ended in silence or form rejections, given that the book only gets really controversial halfway through. I’m heartened by a few one-liners praising my prose, which I was afraid was too literary and historical for the current market. I’ve also done some thinking about what I need to do to improve my craft: tighten pacing, narrow my scope, and manage word count better as I go.
But as a thirtysomething woman (seemingly ancient for a debut), I can’t figure out for the life of me what to write next. It doesn’t help that I’m the sort of person who takes years to write one book, while most agented writers appear to have churned out a first draft every few months since age 14. Every time I come up with a new premise for a novel, I stumble over the same hurdles. Is this original? Is this “hooky?” Can I imagine one of the 15 acquiring editors in my target market actually acquiring this? Is this–above all–marketable?
I don’t want this post to sound like I feel somehow aggrieved. I’m in the same position as every other casualty of the query trenches, except that I’m privileged to have money and time and not to have to cope with the additional struggles marginalized writers face. Against reason, I still dream of getting an agent and a tradpub deal someday. But writing for the market has killed the joy of writing for me.
Query Statistics as Provided by Author:
Adult second-world grimdark fantasy
Query start date: April 2022
Queries sent: 86
Partial Requests: 1 (rejected)
Full Requests: 7 (4 form rejections, 2 pending, 1 ghost)
Closed No Response (CNR): 20