Note from Aimee: This next Not the Darling submission comes from an author with a heartbreaking and poignant tale of not only querying but what it’s like to pour your soul into your art when darkness is coming for you. In the age of the pandemic, so many of us were burned out, and it affected the querying landscape like nothing else I can ever remember. It affected a different population in other ways, deeper ways, I would argue. This author is among that population: the COVID first line responders. I hope you’ll appreciate their story, the emotion behind it, and the bravery in telling it as much as I did.
Trigger/Content Warnings: COVID pandemic descriptions (including in a hospital setting), actual death on page, discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation, query statistics.
“But since something of my soul is in the thing…”
I write this on the day my hospital has made masking completely optional for staff, for patients, for visitors, for everyone. Why is this a meaningful day for me? Because I’ve worked as a provider for the entirety of the COVID pandemic to date. I say to date because I do not see it as over. Perhaps, in a way, for me it never will be. Perhaps to me the removal of masks within the hospitals is symbolic of how little what I and my coworkers did mattered to society, to my country, to anyone but our patients.
Why do I bring this up on a blog post about querying? To answer that question we must go back to the beginning of the Delta wave of COVID in late 2021. I had transitioned out of the Emergency Department (“ED”) to work inpatient medicine, and found myself immersed in the dead and dying. The ED was a place that wore its COVID exposure like a badge of honor, but few people died of COVID there. They came to the floor and lingered, and suffered, and finally succumbed to the virus, and I cared for them until the end, along with a host of over-worked, incredible, forgotten healthcare providers.
For me writing often seems to come from a place of darkness. When the world is hideous and unbearable, writing is my refuge. So I wrote. From my dresser drawer I took a book whose first draft I had written originally in similar dark times, years before, dusted it off, and rewrote it. My nights were filled with the sobs of family members through the phone when I woke them to say that despite everything we had done, their family member was actively dying. There were always two options: we could escalate things and send their loved one to the ICU, so that they could endure a more prolonged and torturous death; or we could change course, let them stop fighting, and keep them comfortable in their final hours or days. More often hours than days by the time we were having this conversation. Sometimes minutes.
With my nights embalmed in this horror, I wrote during the day, pouring my soul into those pages, finding an escape from the real-life darkness in the make-believe darkness of my characters. It was not that I had not known tragedy before, I had. As an EMT and then a paramedic for ten years I had worked in some of the most poverty-stricken places in the US, Guatemala, and Mexico. I had struggled to save men, women, and children injured by the most heinous mechanisms. But this was different. This was a more helpless feeling than in all those other horrors I had witnessed. The world was coming alive outside the hospital, insistent on going to sports events, reopening the clubs, getting back to their friends, and parties, without a thought to the thousands that were still dying every day in hospitals around the country. It was a loneliness that felt like madness. Here I was within the dying halls, while out there the world ignored the toll exacted by their merriment. COVID was already over for those not embroiled in it. On the radio on my way to work I listened to men and women of every political persuasion whining about the hardship of their long pandemic confinements, and rejoicing as they were set free at last to wreak havoc and mortality upon the vulnerable.
They say in writing and pursuing traditional publishing that you shouldn’t take it personally. But writers don’t write from a vacuum. Like every other artist, we create our work from our hearts, our passions, our souls, our suffering, and our aching love for life, even with all its pain. How can it not be personal?
John Kennedy Toole was an author who wrote because he had to, because it was an escape from the darkness within, the darkness that was consuming him. He was rejected, repeatedly. Once he wrote of why he had to keep looking for a publisher: “I haven’t been able to look at the manuscript since I got it back, but since something of my soul is in the thing, I can’t let it rot without trying.” Eventually Toole committed suicide at the age of 31, in part due to the rejections he experienced, in part because his darkness at last engulfed him. His mother managed to find a publisher for his work and he was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1981.
Like Toole, something of my soul is in my work, and the reviews from the beta readers were glowing and wildly enthusiastic. So I could not let it rot, and, after extensive editing, I queried it. I queried more than a hundred agents. Why so many? Because I struggled in determining what my genre was which made it difficult to pin down who to submit to. It had a historical setting, some fantastical–though non-magical–elements, some thriller elements, and some action-adventure elements. I had eleven full requests, a wildly diverse set of agents in terms of what they represent, including some who specialize in romance, some who specialize in thriller, some who specialize in action-adventure, and some who specialize in fantasy.
Not a single full or partial rejection mentioned the writing quality. A couple felt they couldn’t connect with one of the main characters, which, to be honest, I would have been deeply concerned if they could. Most mentioned marketing concerns. One felt it was too long for a thriller. One felt that because they were busy and were, at times, able to set the book down to do the many other things competing for their attention that meant they probably did not have the deep, overwhelming passion that they needed to represent the book. I’m not kidding. That last one was a real rejection that came in a wild, frantic, unprofessional email, a wall of stream-of-consciousness, inane, and chaotic text. Interestingly, this last rejecting agent represents an almost entirely white male list and my name is clearly Latina. That name is literally all that agent knew about me. It is neither here nor there, but I mention this only because it struck me. I had previously not put much credence in the notion that racism factored into agent rejections. Call me blind, but at least in the US agents seemed obsessed with finding writers of particular niche ethnicities and identities to virtue-signal their magnanimity and the holiness of their white-saviorhood. As if people of color were exotic butterflies they could catch and pin to their corkboard collection.
The world of querying podcasts, workshops, twitter, discords, writing critique groups, reddit, all echoed the same toxic positivity at me as I kept querying. They said: “it only takes one yes,” “onward and upward,” “you just haven’t found the right agent yet,” “I was in your shoes exactly 3 years ago and now I’ve got an agent,” “just keep going,” “that’s just one agent closer to the one who’s going to love your book,” “just write the next thing and query that,” “that’s not what the market wants right now, just write something marketable.” All of these and thousands more quips encourage damaged people to keep playing a game in which their odds of success are truly abysmal and based more on luck than any other single factor.
The positivity eventually burned me out. It came at me from all sides, but it didn’t ring true. The lottery-like odds of publishing success had been laid bare to all the world by the PRH/Simon & Schuster trial. This was not an industry based on any sure science. The market was a fickle creature that even publishing executives didn’t understand. Their method, more often than not, seemed to be to pick a number of books based on what they thought people might be into, throw them at the wall, and see what stuck.
The constant, draining affirmations I was reading were the same kind of false sunshine that was blown up my ass working at a family-owned McDonald’s franchise as a youngster. Working at McDonald’s sucks, no matter how much you try to pretend it doesn’t. You can put all the powdered sugar in the world on a turd, it’s still going to be shit underneath when you bite into it. Similarly, you can query and query and query and query and never get that mythical ‘yes’. You can write and edit the next book (and I did) and query that one, but it’s also “not what the market is looking for.”
After hearing how people slog on sub when they are accepted by an agent, and after witnessing endless bizarre and sometimes toxic interactions on the internet, I’m not sure that literary agents or publishers know what “the market” wants. And that’s ok. But I would appreciate it if everyone in the publishing industry quit pretending and admitted that they have no idea what people want to read. I would appreciate it if just one agent came out and said that something that might have tempted them yesterday at 10 AM when they had a full night’s rest and got good news about Fido’s biopsy, just didn’t hit their sweet spot today at 4 PM because they didn’t have their usual 8:17AM bowel movement and they just got some bad news about their Aunt Lithadora’s mammogram.
I had a birthday recently, and I realized there was only one gift I wanted to give myself. I wanted to stop querying. I wanted to stop putting this work out there to agents and getting their thoughtless form rejections. I owed it to myself to stop making myself hurt. I’ve been through enough in the last few years and life is short. But I do still believe that my work is marketable, based on the feedback of beta readers, strangers on the internet who owed me nothing but still adored the world I created and my realistically irrational characters.
I am writing this to encourage you to consider quitting as well. Has this querying journey been ugly and bleak for you? Has it made you ponder suicide like John Kennedy Toole? Don’t do it. Your life, and your work matter. You don’t have to keep going. You don’t have to keep putting yourself through this. You don’t have to play this lottery. There are other options. You could self-publish, you could just give the book to friends and family that express interest, or publish to Wattpad or Royal Road to find readers that will love your work. You can even write fanfiction if you like. There are many lovely fanfic readers out there who will enjoy your work and celebrate your prose, your story, and your delightful characters. I’m here to tell you that what you wrote is incredible, and I’m glad you did it, and I’m proud of you, and you should be proud of yourself too.
Gratitude. That has been the saving grace for me, the rope I used to climb out of a bitter, cynical hole. During the Delta wave, I chose to be grateful that I had that brief chance to know and care for so many people in the last days of their lives. I am grateful that I had the opportunity to meet them before they passed, and to care for their families in their passing. I looked upon my patients in those final moments and saw that they were people, that they existed, and that they mattered. Everyone of them mattered, whether or not they had written a great manuscript that got an agent and a publishing deal. They mattered because they were human, and they had lived, and it was beautiful, and I, though I didn’t deserve it, got that chance to meet them, in all their humanity, their beautiful humanity.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the years working in the hospital, it’s that my writing matters to me, but no one lives or dies if it isn’t published by some suit in an office in New York that doesn’t care what inspired it. I’ve learned not to take my writing seriously, in a good way. I’ve learned that this is a delightful hobby, that produces work that some people will enjoy, and some won’t, like any art. But no one lives or dies because this book was or wasn’t published. It’s at my job where people’s lives are at stake, and my writing will never matter as much as those lives and those families. My book will never matter as much as all the ghosts that haunt me now as I walk the halls of the hospital and see the maskless faces of nescient people peering from those same rooms where I bore witness to so many deaths. Will I keep writing? Of course. Though I said no lives are at stake, I think sometimes that mine is if I don’t keep telling these stories. But my acceptance by some random literary agent is not what gives my life or even my writing value and meaning.
Whether or not you quit querying too, I would encourage you to choose gratitude. Gratitude that you were able to write your work, gratitude for your skill, your knowledge, even gratitude for the ugliness and suffering you may have endured that led you to write what you did. Gratitude that you didn’t die alone on the tenth floor of a hospital during the pandemic and you get to keep writing. Choose gratitude. But don’t choose to torture yourself, and if querying is torture, choose to free yourself from it. Reread the glowing praise you got from that beta reader. Laminate it. Make a bookmark out of it. Put it in a locket and carry it around your neck. Know that your work resonated with someone out there and that is a beautiful thing. Marinate in their validation of your art. You deserve it.