Note from Aimee: The author of the following post had me weeping by the end of this poignant, perfectly timed piece. Another #PitchWars alum, the story is one that obviously strikes close to home for me personally but in today’s climate speaks loudly for us all and is a perspective I have yet to host here: a return to the trenches. That said, I do want to note (with the author’s permission) that the agency and agent discussed are not those being discussed at present.
Content/Trigger Warnings: Signing with an agent, agent ghosting, long-term querying (no stats specifically discussed)
The beginning was thrilling enough that I thought I might be a darling.
I got into Pitch Wars with the book that was supposed to be my second attempt at querying. Thanks to a whirlwind showcase, I had an offer of rep before I’d sent a single cold query. The agent was a perfect fit—personable and enthusiastic, with a history of sales at a reputable agency. I had no doubts when I signed. Crank up the Hilary Duff, baby, because this is what dreams are made of.
We worked through revisions, made the book shine, and had one close call with an editor. But ultimately, sub went how it goes for most authors: a slow death for a desperately loved story.
Fortunately, my agent and I had picked my next project early, and I’d already sent them the revised draft. I received no response for a couple months. Worry pricked the back of my mind. Were they as enthusiastic about the idea as they’d been before? We had an encouraging check-in, followed by a few more months of silence.
I realized I was decidedly Not The Darling when I received a form letter from the agency, letting me know I’d been dropped. I had moved earlier that year, and because they didn’t confirm my address, the letter took over a month to reach me. My agent hadn’t even signed it.
I don’t know what publishing has in store for me, but I do know, without a doubt, nothing will be more shocking or humiliating than emailing to ask if it had been a clerical error, or if that was really how the only professional in my corner had chosen to part ways.
It wasn’t an error. The agent had decided not to represent my genre anymore, and I never would have gotten an explanation if I hadn’t requested one.
Several agent-siblings and I were dumped back into the querying trenches with nothing to show for our years of professional partnership. Just one little line at the end of the query. I was represented, but we parted ways amicably. Because you had to say it was amicable, or people might think you were the problem.
Months turned to years as I tried to recover emotionally and creatively from what happened. I queried another book. And another. And another.
I used to think even if publishing wasn’t a meritocracy, there was an element of forward motion. That one day, if I took my writing seriously, I could look back at the starting line, and it would be just a pinpoint in the distance. I don’t believe that anymore.
Sometimes I wonder why I keep trying to get published, and I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer, really. Most of the time, I have no idea if I’ll ever get a book deal. The vast majority of people don’t.
But I think somewhere deep, deep down I’m cupping my hands around a flickering candle of hope that after all this, I could still be the exception. I could be the one who gets the deal, and everything else she’s ever dreamed of. A decades-in-the-making darling.
Note from Aimee: This next author is a friend of mine I think many of you will know well. Before we were friends, she was a sort of inspiration for me, someone I actually thought was perhaps too big of a name in the writing community to even approach. Lucky me, she’s a normal person and doesn’t think that of herself and a friendship bloomed out of my first early awkward star struck days. Her querying journey has been long, her pain clear but professional. When she told me she was brainstorming a piece for this blog, I was honored beyond words. That I get to share it with you all now brings me joy and sadness. I love this series so much because I am so glad to know what it’s brought people, but seeing friends and peers here makes my heart ache because because as much as hosting this blogs makes me happy, what would make me happier would be to close it because every talented person hosted here (or reading here) got their happily ever after. And that sentiment rings harder than ever for the following author.
Content/Trigger Warnings: Brief mention of panic/anxiety.
I had gone to a party, telling myself that I’d leave early enough to get a jump start on my NaNoWriMo novel, but like Cinderella, I was having too much fun to be home by the stroke of midnight. By that point, I was rounding out ten years of being stuck at the querying stage, with the past several years being a special kind of hell.
The only way out of query hell was by writing through it, as I was constantly reminded by the onslaught of agent and book announcements that allowed me to watch author after author race past me. And I was (am) so desperate to escape this querying purgatory that I struggled to allow myself to do anything that wasn’t in service of that goal, even if it was celebrating my favorite holiday.
It is very hard to let yourself slow down when you only ever feel like you’re falling behind.
For a little context, the book that spurred my Halloween panic attack was the 19th I’d written. I’ve finished another since then for a nice even 20 completed manuscripts. Five of those I have queried. On paper, I have done everything right. I got beta readers, excellent ones. I went to conferences. I read craft books. I read hundreds of books in the genre I was writing. I networked. I wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.
I made writing my whole life.
It wasn’t enough.
People assure me it will be worth it, but the longer I am here the less I can imagine anything would be worth all this.
People also tell me I should be proud because I haven’t given up, but the truth is I have given up. I have given up so much.
Because my time is finite, spending it on writing always means I’m giving up something else. For instance, giving up a Halloween party. Even if I wasn’t giving up the time to be there physically, I certainly was giving up my joy in it.
There are so many things I have given up in the pursuit of publication. That party. Other parties. Sleep. Time with friends. Non-writing hobbies. Peace of mind.
While I knew I was making sacrifices, I don’t think I realized the extent of it until the past couple months. In February, I finished the draft of my twentieth manuscript and began what I thought would be a routine short break.
I haven’t written since. I haven’t wanted to.
For someone who has become accustomed to churning out multiple books a year, a two-month hiatus is pretty drastic. I have done so much with that time though. I’ve been spending more time with friends and family. I actually feel like I have time to pursue a romantic relationship. I’m spending my evenings actually unwinding by playing video games and watching the shows everyone is talking about. I’m more on top of chores and errands than I ever have been. I’ve picked up some new hobbies, like watching baseball and venting creative energy through a TTRPG.
I wasn’t doing any of this stuff, or at least not doing it regularly, when I was giving all my time to writing.
Mostly, I like feeling like my time is mine and not something I owe the fickle gods of publishing. I like ending my work day and not feeling like I have to start another shift.
I don’t know when, or frankly if, I’ll get back to writing regularly. Sometimes I’m haunted by the idea that I have already given so much up for nothing. But I think I’m more afraid of giving up my future with no promises anything will come of it.
While I don’t think I’m quitting writing permanently, it’s nice realizing that whatever writing I do give up will be replaced with another little piece of life for me to enjoy.
The truth is, I have always given up.
I’m finally reclaiming my ability to choose what I give up.
Bio: Kyra is a writer, editor, and recovering academic. During her linguistics graduate program, she studied children’s literature, query letters, and narrative nonfiction.Follow Kyra on Twitter @KyraMNelson or learn more about her at her website: www.kyramnelson.com.
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.
Note from Aimee: Today’s post struck me right from the title. Why not me? I don’t know how many times I asked that question through my querying journey. Every time I read a published book, every time I saw an announcement, every time there was a full request announced. Happy for them. But why not me? This next post addresses that very question I believe so many of us have grappled with, and I’m so honored to have it here.
Content/Trigger Warnings: Minor mention of querying stats; mention of C-PTSD and related trauma (religious); mention of parental homophobia; RSD
Why Not Me?
I’ve been in the query trenches for three years.
To some, that’s nothing. A drop in the bucket. To others, it’s an unimaginable eternity.
My first book (YA urban fantasy) was sent to 101 agents. I received 3 requests and 100 rejections. Technically, I still have a full pending an answer.
The overwhelming feedback?
I entered every contest I could toss my hat into the ring for. On more than one occasion, they requested additional material.
The only personalized feedback I received (from two agents independently, and I adore them for taking the time) was that the writing was great, query was strong, but the concept wasn’t new enough.
And here’s a secret for you…
I don’t write new concepts.
I am a traumatized, C-PTSD-having, ADHD-fueled, mentally ill, perfectionist, queer mess.
And all I want in the world is to write stories for people like me. Even the familiar ones. Especially the familiar ones.
So, with my next book, I changed tactics. I laid out my marginalizations so my ‘new take on an old trope’ would be more marketable.
Yes, it’s a concept you’ve seen before, but it’s sapphic. Why does this story matter? Well, you see, I’m functioning from a base of 18 years of religious trauma. Would you like to know what my preacher was arrested for (unrelated to me and my C-PTSD, thank the spaghetti monster in the sky)? Shall I list my dead relatives? My abuses and traumas? My journey of self-discovery that resulted in a very mellow coming out at 27?
The sixteen page Facebook message from a family member the day after describing exactly how I’ll burn in hell? My father’s awkward silence and refusal to acknowledge my identity? My mother’s gentle, ‘Okay, that’s fine, but you can’t tell anyone’?
Would you like me to tally my scars, mental and physical, so you can weigh them against my content and see if my story (and therefore I) am ‘different’ enough? Unique enough?
If I describe myself as ‘neurodivergent,’ is that enough? Will you assume I’m autistic? Will you assume I’m mentally damaged and can’t handle the pressure? Will you show compassion? Or will you reject me out of hand assuming I’m difficult?
If I claim that my work is sapphic, is that enough? It isn’t a romance. Not a traditional one. Should I tell you why? Show you my deep mental and emotional scars that have led to writing emotional intimacy without the physical?
Or is that ‘desexualizing WLW’ and unacceptable?
In the span of two weeks, I witnessed two literary agents talk about rejecting a YA fantasy because ‘we’ve seen this concept before.’
Like me, they were rejecting authors that weren’t writing something different enough.
The feedback on this latest manuscript (again, YA fantasy)? Great writing. Fantastic worldbuilding. *Chef’s kiss* voice.
And a concept we’ve seen before.
I received my first full request so fast it made my head spin. I dared to hope that flaying myself alive was finally getting me in the door. Making an agent take notice of something the same, but different.
And since that request, nothing but form rejection… after form rejection… after form rejection.
Agents are busy. Their time is valuable. They owe me nothing as a querying author. I know and accept all of this.
But the form I receive for ‘too queer’ is the same form I receive for ‘not queer enough’ is the same form I receive for ‘terrible writing’ is the same form I receive for ‘great writing, but a concept we’ve seen before.
What’s wrong with a twist on a concept we’ve seen before?
Why isn’t there space for an urban fantasy starring an ambitious-as-hell girl who can’t connect to other people? Her journey discovering that she can open up without losing herself is valuable. Her choice to turn away from ambition for the sake of people who finally gave her a home is valuable.
Why isn’t there space for a fantasy set in a world where ancient religions are the norm, with all their humor and all their horror? That run-of-the-mill teen’s story is important. Her friends who are devout and questioning and set against the gods and kind and cruel in every combination are important. Her discovery that a system can be horrible to the point of evil and still contain good people, that destroying that system may destroy some of those good people, matters. Her quiet questioning matters. She matters.
The next story I write? That will matter, too.
Duty versus love. The trauma-driven need to protect oneself versus protecting a person who is open and honest and kind. Fighting like hell for something as a neurodivergent person, achieving the same and better than competing neurotypical people, and being betrayed by those people. The choice to burn that world down. Whimsy and humor and boredom and trauma and dissociation and self-discovery.
And when I have to reveal intimate aspects of myself with every query to answer the question ‘Why are you the person to write this story?’ when I constantly have to lay myself bare to get a foot in the door, the old advice rings hollow.
‘They aren’t rejecting you; they’re rejecting the story.’
Not anymore. Not when every story’s theme must have roots in my trauma, my marginalization, my life.
I don’t have an answer.
I’m not angry with agents, or even with the system. A form rejection is certainly better than no response. I’m grateful there’s an emphasis on marginalized voices, even if the implementation is sometimes dicey. There are thousands of wonderful writers with millions of beautiful stories all trying desperately to gain representation.
I’m proud of the stories I’ve written. Whether or not they’re important to publishing, they’re important to me.
So I’ll keep writing. I’ll cut myself open to carefully display the traumas that ‘allow’ me to write my stories in the hope that some agent will see and decide that I am enough.
That my queerness is enough. My neurodivergence is enough. My trauma and mental health issues are enough.
Note from Aimee: My fellow 2021 Pitch Wars alum brings this heavy-hitting post on so many topics that could have been penned by me it aches. Nothing is a guarantee in this business, but damn if there aren’t so many clever ways into making us believe there are ways to be the exception to that rule. Thank you to Astra for shining a light on dark nights…
Content/Trigger Warnings: Mention of death in the family; RSD; query statistics
The Long Dark Night of Pitch Wars
By: Astra Crompton (Follow Astra on Twitter @ulzaorith)
I was a Pitch Wars 2021/2022 mentee. When I was accepted, my hope soared. I thought: This is it; I’ve finally gotten my chance! Little did I know that my class was to be the last Pitch Wars class ever and that, through spectacularly bad timing, my book (and my writing) would be dead in the water for over a year.
How did I Get Here?
I’ve had, like many writers, a meandering journey towards traditional publishing. I started self-publishing ashcans (hand-drawn picture books and graphic novels that my parents helped me print off at a local print shop) as a tween. By the time I was fifteen, I had written my first overly ambitious epic fantasy novel (we’ll come back to that), which I printed and mailed in SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) to agents in New York. This was before things like Query Tracker existed and everything was still, mostly, done in hard copy. I got nothing but rejections to my first batch of ten queries, but I figured, I was young yet.
Being brash, and with the advent of print-on-demand self-publishing, I leapt at the chance for creative control and spent a decade self-publishing a series of “unmarketable” dream projects. Some of which I’m still very proud of—even if I’d do things differently now.
By 2018, I decided to return to traditional publishing. A vast array of tools had cropped up since the old SASE days: the Twitter writing community, pitching events, Query Tracker, and mentorships like Pitch Wars. I learned hard and fast all the things I’d done wrong in the past. At first, I thought: “That’s why I failed! My querying skills, my knowledge of the market, and—yes—my storytelling skills were all lacking. But the idea!—surely my ideas weren’t the problem.”
After a brief (but statistically decent) stint trying to query my old epic fantasy, I pulled it from the trenches. I had already written all three books in its trilogy, and I’d spent a Tolkeinesque amount of time in that world: creating maps, conlangs, thousands of years of history, different original species, flora and fauna, recipes, myths, and even a home-grown tabletop RPG . . . It wasn’t right for the TradPub world. I would be too precious about it. To have any hope of getting picked up by an agent, I needed to write something more flexible, relevant, and marketable. But the other advice I saw everywhere was: write what you know.
Not ready to abandon my epic fantasy world, I zoomed into a specific corner of that map, to a more humanoid population and a more accessible culture. I shrank the scope of the story down to something more digestible, too: a genderqueer love story following a soft protagonist who struggles against gendered expectations, societal pressures, and an overbearing mother to come to terms with her own bisexuality and stand up for the love of her life—risking jail and ostracism in the process. It had a lot of me in it. It was the book teenaged me needed and never found. It felt relevant and accessible and meaningful. It was the book of my heart; I believed in it. I queried that book for almost two years. I entered it into mentorships: Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match.
Guess what? No one loved that book aside from me. Readers didn’t get what I was trying to say. Some of them loved the front half but didn’t like the turning point. Others found the front half stifling but loved the more magical second half. Everyone loved the love interest, but no one loved my protagonist—the one based on myself.
The truth was, writing a “book of my heart” exposed me to rejection in ways I hadn’t previously considered. This wasn’t just a rejection of everything that was important to me, but every comment of “not relatable,” “couldn’t root for her relationship,” and “unrealistic portrayal of sapphic love” felt like a personal attack. How I loved wasn’t valid. I wasn’t relatable. It was around this time that I was diagnosed with ADHD. Add that to being genderqueer and asexual, and I fully felt that there was no space for a voice like mine in this industry. I was too weird, too niche, too other to have a market.
So, for my next book, I decided to break pattern with everything I loved . . . or, nearly everything. I wrote a book entirely trying to be “marketable.” I wouldn’t abandon my principles at the door, so my protagonist was still asexual, but she was also aromantic. There would be no romance subplot. It would still have magic, but rather than my big, beautiful fantasy setting, it would be set in my Canadian backyard: Surrey, Vancouver. It was the first (and thus far, only) book I’ve written set on Earth. The plot would center around hungry ghosts and a witchy woman who could step back and forth across the Veil, solving dead problems for the living and living problems for the dead. It was, in essence, a paranormal murder mystery. Thus was born my Pitch Wars book, GRIGORI BLUES.
HowDid It All Fizzle to Nothing?
The writing of GRIOGRI BLUES was far less fun than anything I’ve written before (or since). Writing an urban fantasy “grounded” in a real place was tedious and required a different sort of research into things I didn’t love: bus routes and police department policies and blooming seasons for certain poisonous garden plants. When I got to slide into the Veil, though, that’s when the book came alive for me. Bit by bit, I began to feel like this book had legs. The story was good, the challenges dire but accessible, the characters clever and memorable. I submitted it to Pitch Wars with no real hopes and went back to working on a more fantastic book. “Wouldn’t it be ironic,” I thought, “if the one book that makes it is the one least in line with the second world fantasies I love to write?”
I wasn’t even watching when the Pitch Wars 21/22 mentees were announced. My writing circle from AMM found out before I did. Their congratulations made me scramble to go check and make sure it wasn’t a dream. Sarah Remy had chosen GRIGORI BLUES (and me) to mentor! I’d applied to Sarah in previous mentorship programs because they seemed like a perfect fit in interests and skillset. I was over the moon—and still am; Sarah has been more generous and supportive than I could have wished for.
Thus began a three-month hyperfixation. Like Douglas Adams was, I’m a “performance writer.” If I have an audience, I eat-sleep-breathe my book with total and utter abandon. Shout out to my queer platonic partner for putting up with my absolutely single-minded obsession during the Pitch Wars revision process. I was learning a lot about comp titles and query letters and logline pitching (all parts of the querying process I still abhor, but Sarah helped guide me through). We did two full-book revisions to deepen character connection, smooth out some plot hiccups, flesh out the second POV, and better establish the villain. I felt (and still do) that Sarah made a good book great. We even finished in plenty of time. Everything was as polished and ready as it could be to dive into the querying trenches—starting with the Pitch Wars showcase.
Now, Pitch Wars is not a sure thing. Everyone warned me: the organizers, my fellow mentees (including one mentee who had been through the Pitch Wars wringer a few years before). Their friendship and support have been invaluable. We were all feverishly crunching stats, looking at the percentage of mentees who typically got agents. I was in the Adult category, which typically fared around middle of the road. In previous classes, about 58% of mentees in my category had gotten an agent within a year of doing Pitch Wars. I thought my expectations were fairly tempered with hope.
When the showcase opened, I got 7 requests from agents. Not as many as my mentor had hoped, but I was just relieved I’d gotten any. Some of them were even from my dream agents list. I felt very optimistic. I can’t speak to my fellow mentees’ experiences (both good and bad), but we had a sense that we were all in this together. Little did we know how much we’d need that support as a series of publishing disasters struck.
First, the day after the showcase closed, Pitch Wars was disbanded. Personally, I was devastated. I felt unmoored, gutted. All of a sudden, this important program that had given fledgling authors a leg up for ten years was gone. Any pressure agents might have felt to treat Pitch Wars’ authors as important seemed to have died with the program. Of course, at the same time, TradPub seemed to enter freefall. It was mired in imprints closing, editors quitting, agents retiring, worker strikes, US Supreme Court cases, and a record influx of pandemic hopefuls pitching their books. It seemed that no one had time for us. All the old data and metrics to tell if your query package was working—such as querying in small batches, 3-month turnaround times, rejection feedback, 30% request rates—none of it held true. There were months where I asked myself “is it really that bad in TradPub . . . or is it me, again?”
Thankfully my Pitch Wars alumni and the wonderful Sarah kept me from utterly despairing. It helped, of course, that this wasn’t a book of my heart. If people didn’t want it, liked some part but couldn’t sell it, or loved the writing but not the second POV, or enjoyed it but weren’t compelled to fight for it . . . well, it was just a perfect storm of bad timing. Everyone was struggling and squeezed too thin. It wasn’t personal.
But what is luck if not “right time, right place”? That one thing I couldn’t control. As the months passed and the rejections rolled in, and the requests turned into rejections . . . I felt my hope oozing away. “That was my one chance. And it could never come again because Pitch Wars—and so many of the other mentorship programs and pitching events—were no more. I had done ‘everything right’ but it still hadn’t been enough.”
In the end, we didn’t get enough data to find a common denominator. These days, authors are lucky to get a form rejection—if we hear back at all. Things are trickling through like molasses. I’ve received form rejections 15 months after submitting. I still haven’t heard back from some of my initial full requests. With the requirements to have your comps be no more than 2 years old, they could expire before you even hear back from the agents you’d queried!
What was I supposed to do with this new reality? I tried writing something I was passionate about: too weird, too ambitious, too rigid for TradPub. I tried writing something personal and specific: too niche, not relatable enough, no market. I tried writing something specific to the market, something edgy but grounded, accessible but inclusive: it still wasn’t enough.
For the first time since I was twelve, this lifeblood thing, writing—that had brought me joy and release and expression—went cold inside me. I felt like I’d let everyone down: my mentor, my father, my partner. My deceased librarian mother who had instilled in me my love of books and my oma (who died during querying) who had “always believed I’d make something of myself.” Maybe it was personal. I had never had writer’s block in twenty-six years, but I had it now. I had it something fierce. I wanted to write, but what was the point? I wanted to write . . . but what?
Where Do I Go from Here?
Thankfully, I write for my day job and for my freelance work. The muscles didn’t get a chance to atrophy, and writing to a brief is far less scary. TradPub claims to know what it wants but “no, not like that!” In truth, it’s all luck: right idea, right style, right time, right agent. Throw enough darts at the board, you might get there, but there’s no guarantee. Accepting that those aspects are outside of my control has been enormously freeing for me.
As the months trickled by with no new writing for myself, I dug into other creative pursuits: sewing a 1780s French Pollonaise dress, learning to embroider, refurbishing worn-out corners of my home, doing fantasy illustrations. I wrote a short story and submitted it to a couple magazines (no luck). And I finally opened up that old epic fantasy trilogy and started editing it from the beginning. Here was a story that didn’t need to be for anyone else. I could see ways to improve it I hadn’t noticed before. I rewrote precious sections, I cut large swaths to improve the pacing, I honed my sentence craft until it sparkled. And it was a relief to see how much I had learned. Yes, I still wanted to write. I still had stories in me itching to get out.
When it became clear that GRIGORI BLUES was dead in the trenches, my mentor asked me what I wanted to do next, and I was honest: I didn’t know, just write. I pitched them a few of my WIP concepts. After some discussion, they encouraged me to work on BLOOD MOONS & BINDING MAGIC. It’s another urban fantasy, but this time it’s second world, where I most love to play. I flailed about in the document for months, drafting random scenes and bouncing things off my lovely CP and my ever-patient partner. I still have no idea if this story has any legs where TradPub is concerned. It might be recognizable enough that an agent knows what to do with it; it might be not unique enough to break out in a crowded market. At this point, I don’t care. The important part is that I’m enjoying writing again. I have characters I love who make me laugh and choke up with tears. My characters matter, even if only to me.
So, I may have lost my one chance with Pitch Wars, but I gained valuable temperance. I learned how to step back into writing for the right reasons. I gained so many creative, talented, supportive writer friends along the way. Whatever happens from here, writing will always nourish my soul.
Bio: As an asexual biromantic author, Astra Crompton is passionate about diverse queer representation that showcases the foundational importance of found family. Her speculative fiction has been published in All Worlds Wayfarer magazine, Anthology for a Green Planet, and Blood Moon Rising anthology. They’ve also written for the Unity RPG and Vampire: The Requiem by White Wolf. By day, she’s an editing and illustrations coordinator who lives in Victoria, Canada with their queer platonic partner and two cats: the snuggly but drooly Abyssinian Deos and the affectionate but anxious tuxedo rescue Schrödinger.Follow Astra on Twitter @ulzaorith.
I’m musing on things today—writing, me, art, validation.
I’m reminiscing on a period a few years ago when I made flowers my entire life. It was very special interest driven, much like writing, but I looked at my future and only saw flowers. I made an LLC, advertised, tried my damndest. I lived for peony season, finding perfect anemones, getting a floppy dusty miller to drape perfectly. I did two full weddings (okay, mine and my sister’s, but it was a lot of work) and felt just perfectly at peace when I tied a bouquet tight, wrapped a silk ribbon, and held it in place with pearl pins.
It was art, *my* art, it was so raw and real, and I felt it in every inch of my body. The pine scent of wax flower was like a drug, the sting of eucalyptus was like a brand on my hands.
But it didn’t work out, you know, in the traditionally measured was of success. I couldn’t break in, I was spending a lot, and the market was saturated. The years I spent with my mind always on garden rose pricing theory or plugging in euphorbia perfectly is something I’ll always cherish.
And in a pinch, I’ll always be able to make a little magic with grocery store flowers.
And, it’s becoming clear that my writing is like that. And art that has meant so much to me—something so purely me—that will probably be something I remember fondly.
I’ve been lost in it for about two years, which for some is no time and maybe to some it’s a long time. The emotions are too much for me, and so it feels like a long time. Too long. It kind of hurts.
I’m at this precipice that I’ve felt before with other things. I feel it under me and in front of me. I’m digging my heels in the ground, but its slowly dawning on me that *oh, this is over.*
It’ll never be over, just like my flowers will never be over.
But I feel as if in trying so hard for publishing, maybe before I was ready, I made my writing into a little flower stand that’ll always be in my heart but needs to close up.
Little flower stand in front of a wine shop.
I smile now, remembering these stands, but I cried that day, because I went home with all the flowers.
And that’s maybe how I feel about writing—I’m coming home with all the flowers. But, maybe they were only supposed to ever be for me?
Note from Aimee: As we traverse through stories and journeys, I find myself saying time and time again I am touched, humbled, honored that you all share them with me and others. Allowing us pictures into your lives at these vulnerable places. There is in some ways nothing more vulnerable than the subject of this post, which hits right where the entire point of this series comes from and hits it hard. What about the stories that do not get told? There is no expiration on the publishing dream, the ever-not-so-helpful anecdotes say. Except for, well, That One.No one wants to talk about That One, present company included. But it’s time to rectify that, so onward we bravely go, thanks to this next author.
Content Warning: This post briefly mentions/explores topics of mortality and dementia.
I got my first rejection from an agent in 1990. At a 1998 writers retreat, an Oscar nominated screenwriter gave an in-person critique of my screenplay and told me, “There was one part that wasn’t terrible.” I shelved a novel in 2019 after getting 150 rejections for it. I never received an agent like in any Twitter pitch contest, never got accepted into Pitch Wars or any other mentor program.
But there have been some low points, too.
I’ve been openly discussing my failures and setbacks in the Twitter writing community for several years, but my followers are few in number, due in equal parts to a lack of success, a refusal to participate in writer lifts, and a penchant for takes that are only funny in small doses:
A person can only take so much of that before pursuing the friendlier confines of, “What assortment of donuts would your MC choose for a baker’s dozen?”
Hopefully at this point I’ve established my Grumpy Old Writer bona fides. (If you’re unconvinced, I’ve got a great little rant about why I’ll never use the word “redirection” in place of rejection.)
But not too old. Because it’s never too late to pursue your dreams. I used to doubt that, but who am I going to believe? The older self-published writers who aren’t pursuing traditional publishing? Or the actuarial table that gives me about 27 more years before I die, and the family history of dementia that could make that window even narrower?
This is the part that doesn’t get talked about much. It’s not something people in my position want to think about, and it’s not something that any author who has reached any traditional publishing milestone can understand. Because once you reach that milestone, you’ll never know what it’s like to go all your life without achieving it.
“But I remember!” Not the same. “But it took me so long before it happened” But it happened. And once it happens, you’re not one of us and never can be again. The never published, the never rep’ped. The tried until they quit. Or died. In other words, most of us.
Most don’t want to talk about that, including the kind host of this platform, who characterized the voices that needed to be heard the most as the “…not yet successful.” Even she can’t quite let go of the idea that this lack of success for those of us who haven’t achieved the milestones is a temporary (albeit long-lasting) state.
The Cult of Persistence is hard to get out of. Persistence is a prerequisite to success, not a guarantee. I lost hope of achieving those milestones years ago. I’m also in the final stages of revisions and plan to start querying another novel next month. I don’t need hope to keep trying.
When I said, “There were some low points, too” earlier in the piece, it wasn’t (just) a throwaway gag. There were much lower points than the ones I mentioned in the first paragraph. There were seventeen years of no serious writing, where the only creative outlet I felt comfortable exploring was writing adventures to run with my gaming group at Gen Con.
So I can compare a life with writing to a life without writing. For me, a life with writing is better. Even a life without achieving those milestones. Or a life without hope of achieving them.
Bio:Mister Hand is a married servant of two cats and works as a school crossing guard and dog walker. He breaks up the monotony of agent rejections by occasionally getting short pieces published in McSweeney’s and an upcoming issue of American Bystander. Follow him on Twitter @MisterHand1
Author’s Note: If you’ve been around here awhile you’ll know this is standard fare from me at this point, but I repeat it for new folks: anything in this post is my opinion as one person not as a monolith. Nothing in this post can or should be used against other people in the same communities I describe.
Trigger/Content Warnings: This post talks about trigger/content warning discourse. Also describes in detail what a triggering event can be like. Brief description of child abuse and related triggering event thereafter; flashbacks; disassociation. References to childhood abuse and trauma.
Let me put this right up front for the TL;DR crowd. I am pro using trigger and content warnings. I am anti policing how people ascribe these things to their personal experiences. I am pro self-exploration about using these words more carefully. I also think we need to do a better job explaining what they are, how they’re different, and why we use them. I also believe failure to do so has caused harm to the communities who need them most.
Trigger; Triggering; To be Triggered
To be perfectly frank, because that’s what I do here, I have a very complicated relationship with the way the term “trigger” has evolved. For me, a person who has C-PTSD (and other mental health issues I don’t need or want to list out today), “trigger” has a very specific meaning. That meaning is the one used by most psychiatrists and psychologists and goes something like this: a trigger is a stimulus that causes a painful memory to resurface (usually the definition used in the context of C-PTSD or PTSD), or a stimulus that activates or worsens the symptoms of a mental health condition. Trigger doesn’t mean something offensive or a bit uncomfortable. It isn’t something that makes me a little sad or a little yick or a little anxious. To be triggered for someone like me means to be mentally fucked for a time.
Considering the volume of trauma I’ve been through, I’m not actually triggered that often. When I was younger, it happened more, but honestly, I couldn’t explain to you what the source of the triggering thing was. Now, I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been truly triggered in the past five years. But I sure as shit know when I am and what caused it. This is a primary goal of trauma work: identifying triggers and finding ways to lessen their impact on your life.
Impact. That’s what triggers have. That’s what that word is meant to mean.
My C-PTSD wasn’t caused by any one thing, that’s what makes it different from PTSD without the C. A bunch of it stems from early childhood trauma though. I grew up in a violent, chaotic, loud environment. So, I have some sensory issues related to noise (as in, I don’t like it) but I don’t consider all noise triggering, or even all loud noise. Sometimes, when I’m overly stressed or highly tuned in, certain noises irritate me, or distract me. They might even become at times physically irritating, almost like a sting beneath my skin. Those aren’t triggers for me. More like irritations. They’re uncomfortable in the way too many bugs flying around you, ruining your otherwise pleasant picnic might be uncomfortable. Maybe it escalates into the bugs taking a bite or two, causing some frustration or agitation. Is it annoying? Yes. Would I rather it not? Yes. Is it outside the realm of a normal human emotion? Not really. I mean maybe in the sense that most people don’t find noise mildly painful, I suppose. But the emotion itself is not wildly disproportionate in a way that escalates my preexisting mental illnesses or causes a flashback or has any real impact on my life beyond fleeting, everyday annoyance.
This is where I’m going to describe a triggering event: Yelling, child abuse. And its impacts: Disassociation. Skip until next bold (after the photo of the bathtub).
What is a trigger for me is the particular noise of a mother screaming while beating her child.
Before I moved to my current home, I lived in an apartment complex. One of my neighbors in the same building a few apartments down constantly yelled at her kids. It bothered me but not to the level of a full-blown trigger. However, one day, I heard her screaming at one of her children. The sound carried through the walls, and with it came the very distinct whap of an object against bare skin. The child screamed. Begged. I had a flashback, then disassociated.
The next thing I remember was coming back to myself to find I was sitting in my bathtub, fully clothed, hands over my ears, rocking back and forth while tears streamed down my cheeks. I have no idea how long I’d been there. Long enough my legs ached and my throat hurt from crying, maybe even screaming.
That is triggering. Real live in the flesh triggering for someone who has a bona fide psychological disorder.
Who determines what is “triggering?”
The person who experiences triggers determines what they are.
The thing about triggers is they’re highly individualized. No two people have the same set of experiences, or the same brain, so it’s impossible to understand how someone will react to a particular stimulus under any set of conditions. I’ve done years and years of trauma work. In the beginning of this work, I was unable to determine what my triggers were. I knew things triggered flashbacks, and disassociation, that something made me start screaming for seemingly no reason, but it was difficult to discern what those things were. A key part of my early trauma work was focused on identifying triggers (or potential triggers) and working on ways to manage them. I did this with a therapist who specializes in trauma treatment.
I mention it because it’s important to understand that for some people, knowing what their own triggers are might be harder than you’d expect. They’re not as clear cut as the neat little warnings we often see at the top of the page. So if triggers “change” for someone, that’s not abnormal. It’s also why triggers are often given in broad contexts sweeping a range of topics: “abuse,” “trauma,” “domestic violence,” “assault,” because people who experience triggers might not know what specific thing in that wide category will trigger them, but they might know that category contains their past and that content should be avoided. Over the years of my personal trauma work, my trigger sensitivity has been seriously reduced. Not everyone is able to do that or is at that stage in their journey.
Basically, this is not the trauma Olympics. We’re not here to put our scars on display for you to evaluate if that’s a “good enough” reason for us to say “this thing is genuinely triggering to me.” You’ll note I didn’t describe the individual Bad Shit that happened to me as a kid in my story above. Because it’s none of your business. You don’t get to decide if whatever I went through was “bad enough” to warrant my response to my neighbor’s behavior. I control that. Well, I don’t actually which is the annoying part. Because, trust me, if I could make my triggers go away, I would. They’re not pleasant. It’s one of the main reasons I’ve been doing trauma work for a million years instead of putting that money toward I don’t know… literally anything else.
“Trigger” should be used with discernment and self-reflection
Here’s where it gets tricky. I do think the terminology has been a bit… overused. That’s why I provided an example of the reaction I have to a trigger. Reminder about the monolith thing I said at the beginning. And of the definition I used of the word trigger. The reaction doesn’t have to be that extreme for you to consider something triggering. However, a trigger is meant to mean more than, “This makes me feel an unpleasant emotion within the realm of the ‘normal’ human experience.” Feeling sad is normal. Feeling anxious is normal. Feeling uncomfortable is normal. Feeling pissed off is normal. Feeling triggered is distinctly not normal.
The reason this matters is because when the word trigger is misappropriated in day-to-day speech, those who need this language to better explain what’s happening to them are stripped of its value. If the word trigger is so frequently used to mean something less than its definition, it’s devalued. This means the only recourse I have to explain my emotional reaction to a stimulus is to put the actual emotional reaction on display (which in and of itself can be retraumatizing).
I have strange feelings about people who ascribe the word “trigger” to something other than what its general psychological definition is, because this word was given to me and people like me who are suffering immense emotional pain so we might explain that pain without having to relive it. I also have an issue with the idea there is a “trauma” trigger and a sort of everyday use of the word trigger. While practically, I think that might at this point true, it again puts the onus of explanation onto the population whose language was stolen. Triggers also apply to communities of people who don’t have trauma, for one. So to exclude them from their language is a poor solution. And for those who do have triggers because of trauma, forcing us to further delineate “trigger” to “trauma trigger” outs us in ways we perhaps did not want to be outed. Finally, many people have comorbidities that cause this discernment to be almost impossible. I joke with close friends pretty regularly about, “Is it trauma or is it my [x other neurodiversity, mental illness, etc.]?” But the joke hides pain. It’s hard to live like this. Constantly questioning what part of your twisted brain made you lose time this time. Putting the burden of waging that battle of defining pieces of self on people already struggling to do it is unfair and to be honest, cruel. A trigger is a trigger. Sometimes it’s trauma, sometimes it’s not. Always it’s more than uncomfortable.
To be clear: I’m not here to police anyone’s use of the word. This is meant to be a self-exploration exercise only. If you’re using the word casually or colloquially or flippantly, or you might be, or you’re asking communities to drill down language that was already intended to mean a specific thing, then a reexamination could be in order because the casual use of the word is doing actual damage to people who need it.
What is a Content Warning?
Content warnings can be sort of nebulous. However, I put content warnings in the category of the things you maybe shouldn’t be using the word trigger for. In the context of writing, because that’s what this blog is about, content warnings describe things that may be upsetting or uncomfortable or even things people simply don’t want to read about. Or read about at that particular moment, anyway.
Difference between Content and Trigger Warnings
What makes something a Content Warning or a Trigger Warning is not determined by the person writing, it’s determined by the person reading. That’s what makes them difficult for people to differentiate between because the writer has to use them interchangeably to accommodate multiple unknown readers (i.e. something that could be triggering to me might be something that just makes you uncomfortable, or vice versa).
So, if you’re the person doing their level best to alert readers about what’s coming, using content and trigger warnings interchangeably makes sense as you don’t know your reader. If you’re the person talking about your own TWs and CWs, you should delineate to make room for the nuance in the definitions.
For example, for me personally, I have never experienced a trigger in writing. I think that’s probably because of the way my brain processes information. My trauma is triggered by senses. A book doesn’t have much sensory output (in that it’s not yelling, or flashing lights at me, or smelling of alcohol, etc.). However, I prefer not to read books featuring trauma where the author doesn’t have a personal experience of trauma, because I often find the representations to be poor, stereotypical, and sometimes cruel, and I walk away feeling depressed, uncomfortable, or just pissed. A general content warning is helpful for me, so I know to look into the origin of the author (if that information is readily available), or read reviews to see how other people found the representation, or simply tread lightly on a day I have spoons.
Use of Content and Trigger Warnings
Step One: Use Them
You can’t know someone else’s life or their experiences. Just because you went through some shit and aren’t triggered doesn’t mean other people had the same experience. Again, we are not here to play trauma Olympics with one another. Don’t be an asshole, use CWs and TWs. You should do your best to use them all the time but especially if someone specifically points out they’d like them. Triply if someone is like THE FOLLOWING THINGS TRIGGER ME LET ME KNOW IF I’M ABOUT TO GO THERE.
If you forget, I’ll remind you to be kind to yourself. Messing up happens. We’re all human. I forget sometimes too, and I’m literally here writing this post at 11:00 p.m. on a Friday after working like 75 hours this week because I care about this topic so much. So, give yourself some slack. Unless you’re being an asshole about it and wantonly refusing to use them because you think people should toughen up. If that is you, I’ll remind you to be kinder to others. And honestly maybe yourself. Because you either have no idea what trauma is like, or you do and you think everyone should suck it up like you have and that is… well, a post for another day.
Step Two: Respect Requests to Include Them
Probably the weirdest thing I’ve seen lately in the writing community is people challenging agents on their ask that TWs and CWs be provided. I mean, listen, this is your future career and all, but my advice is to not do that. Besides being a super bad take for all the reasons I mentioned above about people’s need for them, it’s also just not professional to willfully refuse to do something beneficial to the mental health of the person you’re courting to be your future business partner.
Outside of querying, you should still honor requests to use trigger and content warnings by people when they’re given. The requests are likely not made lightly.
Step Three: Do Not Challenge People’s TWs and CWs
This one is harder than it seems and honestly I’m not 100% sure it’s the completely right advice, so bear with me. There are, in my mind, a spectrum of “Challengers.” On one end are people you should aspire to never be. On the other end might actually be me because here I am writing this post. Nuance. Brains. Complicated topics. Oh my.
Type One: That Asshole. You know the one. The one who has a Twitter bio that’s like “White man and proud. Trump 2024. God, guns, guts. Eats libtards for breakfast.” That’s the one who like gets up in people’s Twitter space and say shit like, “Trigger warnings HA! Do you need a safe space too?” Or “I’ll make sure to send you my [exactly the book the agent requests not to see in their inbox] LOL.” Or the slightly less aggressive but still douchey, “I’m not really a big believer in trigger warnings.” Cool, Tom. They’re not for you. And let me get ahead of you to say I don’t give a shit whether you believe my C-PTSD is real or not.
This type you should never, ever be. But I probably don’t need to tell anyone reading this blog that. Still, any variation on this is a no go. Basically, please refrain from aggressively questioning someone’s triggers or content warning needs because it’s invasive and rude. I might be the type to explain to you in a 7 page blog post about why I need trigger and content warnings and what my precise trauma is, but most people aren’t and shouldn’t be asked to. Whatever caused the need for the warnings is probably hard enough as it is.
Type Two: This Asshole. As in very possibly me. I’m not sure. I much prefer people do self-exploration and reflection to determine if their use of these terms is appropriate when they take into consideration the harm it could be doing to communities that need the language, as I’ve mentioned. However, this blog isn’t going to reach everyone. More like a couple hundred someones. That probably isn’t enough to reclaim the language. And not everyone is going to be self-reflective after reading a long ass blog from some random person on the internet. So what about calling out people’s use of the term nicely?
I’ve seen it done tactfully. Kindly. Gently. I’ve seen people say ‘I have this lived experience, and if you’re using this term loosely or in a knee-jerk way please be mindful of the people it hurts.’ I’ve nodded along with these people. Celebrated that someone finally said it. Then watched them get dragged on Twitter for daring to question a fellow survivor’s experience. Annnnnnnd I see that side, too. Who are we to know? I mean, I think I know. Even now I’m half typing out explanations of how I know, but ultimately no one can know their life except them. So reiterations of self-reflection are as far as I’m willing to go. I just… I would hate to be wrong and hurt someone else more than they’ve already been hurt, I guess. Even though I do really see the collective damage it’s doing. Have felt it myself. Understand the desire to make it stop. But I’ve always been about gentle pushes in the right direction more than sweeping gestures that burn hot and fade fast.
Step Four: There is no step four
Tada! I’m done. It was long again. Sorry. Please accept this token picture of my cat, Apollo, who has lived for 16 years through all my bullshit, just as you, dear reader, have lived through this long ass post full of my bullshit.
Until next random thought, please remember: language matters, and be kind to yourself and others!
Note from Aimee: The following post has found a special place in my heart (as they all have, really) because it discusses some topics that are only now finding their way to the surface. The one that resonates most heavily with me being Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (“RSD”). For those unaware what RSD it is, it’s an extreme emotional sensitivity and pain triggered by rejection and criticism (perceived or actual). It is commonly linked with neurodiversity. On a personal note, I had no idea what RSD was before Pitch Wars, until a fellow mentee mentioned I might be suffering from it. I vehemently denied this notion, but mentioned it to my mentor when it wouldn’t stop nagging at me, who sent me some information on it and said she thought my fellow mentee was correct. Despite being diagnosed with C-PTSD my entire adult life, and diagnosed with ADHD semi-recently, no one mentioned this. Not my therapists, not my psychiatrist. It took a fellow neurodiverse person to tell me what it even was. Because there are so many neurodiverse writers putting themselves through this process that essentially demands a near-constant onslaught of rejection, I think bringing this out of the shadows is important. I’m glad this next author was brave enough to write so candidly about it. If you’re looking for information on RSD, here’s an article to start. If ever querying gets too dark, know there’s help. If you live in the US, you can call or text 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
Content and Trigger Warnings: Mention of suicidal ideation; struggles with mental health; discussion of effects of rejection sensitive dysphoria; dark thoughts; query statistics.
When Your Brain Works Against You
“It is true that I am endowed with an absurd sensitiveness, what scratches others tears me to pieces.”
― Gustave Flaubert
Reader, I am struggling.
Since August 2021, I’ve been querying the book of my heart. The book I’m most proud of. The book I want more than anything to be my debut. And nothing I do seems to be working. I am really starting to think that I am never going to be what gatekeepers want. And that’s ok. Sort of.
Let’s talk about it.
92 queries. 61 form rejections. Too many CNRs to count. 13 fulls, 6 partials, and so, so much waiting. I am still waiting. Only I’m not convinced a response is ever coming.
Like many others, I’ve done everything you’re “supposed” to. I leveled up my craft. I did Pitch Wars. I read through the entire QueryShark archives. At risk of sounding arrogant, I know my shit. I’m an excellent writer with great stories to tell.
It doesn’t matter.
Right now, it feels like book Twitter is populated entirely by people getting agented or getting book deals. Everyone except me. And I am so, so tired of waiting. I’m tired of begging for the things that I want. When will it be my turn? When will all of my efforts and suffering be enough to deserve it?
Here, look. I’m following all of your rules. I’ve laid down my marginalizations at your feet in the prettiest package I can muster. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to. Love me.
I need to make sense of this, but there’s no sense to be found. I go days veering my thoughts frantically away from the open wound inside my skull that is querying. Other times, I go down the rabbit hole. I search for blog post after blog post, all the while seeking an answer to the same question: why is this so much harder for me than it seems to be for everyone else?
I struggle to drum up excitement for full requests, because they no longer seem like signs I am onto something. They end in form rejections, or even worse, ghosting, more often than not.
I struggle to engage in reading in my genre. Querying in 2022’s pandemic environment has sapped all the enjoyment out of a lifelong love of reading. While I used to gobble up book after book, enjoying each for its own merit while fantasizing about someday seeing my own book on the shelves, my time in the querying trenches with the book of my heart rendered each fantasy book I picked up proof of my own failure and inadequacy. Proof of someone else’s “yes” while all I’ve gotten is an unending string of “no. ”
I’ve become a shell of my once joyful reader-writer self.
The way that my brain works makes querying particularly difficult and traumatizing, and it wasn’t until I started to suspect I might be autistic that I fully began to understand why I seemed to struggle with this more than other people. My mind craves order and structure, clear expectations aligned to clear outcomes. If I’ve done something wrong, Ineed to know why and how to fix it going forward. I need clear stepping stones that outline the path to improvement. Without all of this, I’m left feeling lost, unsettled, and confused at best, and angry, depressed, and hopeless at worst.
So much of my life has (unknowingly) revolved around trying to make sense of arbitrary social norms that everyone else seems to understand and easily endure, and querying is all of that and more boiled down into a particularly painful microcosm that stands between me and my dreams. No wonder I’ve been so miserable, for so long.
Querying offers no order, no structure. No clear stepping stones. Querying demands that you continuously bang your head against what feels like a concrete wall, while hoping that an industry gatekeeper on the other side eventually decides they like the particular rhythm of your skull on the stone and extends a hand to guide you through. Some believe that voicing (totally justified!) complaints of the system makes you “negative” or “whiny” and means you “need to grow a thicker skin.” It’s just the price you have to pay. If you can’t handle it, don’t even try, and if you do try, well, just don’t let us hear you cry too loudly. It’s not a good look.
And Twitter is chock fucking full of well-meaning but (for me at least) ultimately useless advice surrounding querying. They’ll say, write through the wait! Write something else! Reader, I wrote TWO WHOLE something elses while querying!! And I was still waiting!! Still as head over heels with my querying MS as the day I sent it out! Writing something else didn’t distract me at all or help me move on from the project. It only made me more and more aware of the fact that this timeline, this process would not be kind to my brain.
Querying is the worst thing I’ve done for my mental health in over a decade. It has very nearly broken me. I still can’t fully articulate how difficult it is to endure. All I will say is this: the first time I seriously contemplated taking my own life, I was 14. The second time? This past year, while watching my dreams slip through my fingers, watching my number of red rejection smiley faces on QueryTracker grow.
It hurts to be told, however indirectly, that your best wasn’t good enough. Who you are isn’t interesting or marketable enough. It hurts so much that sometimes I am jealous of my recently-dead father, because he, at least, no longer has to endure any sort of pain.
I really was not expecting that simply trying to follow my dreams would make me hate myself this much.
My rejection sensitivity means that each rejection, no matter how couched in well-meaning platitudes like “I’ll be cheering from the sidelines!” or “It’s a subjective industry!” feels like a slap in the face. Even worse is the lack of actionable feedback. How am I meant to move forward and move on without knowing what I did wrong? My brain NEEDS that answer.
Why, exactly, would I put myself through that misery again?
It truly feels like a twisted game of Russian roulette. Only the gun is loaded with more live rounds than blanks. If you knew shooting your shot was more likely to hurt you than help you, would you even bother pulling the trigger?
Often, I hate how unfair this all is. I’m so angry I feel like I could spit acid. I see doors open for some people so easily, and yet here I am beating myself bloody against a closed door in the hopes of breaking through. I watch others from my Pitch Wars class get agents, sell books, and have those books near release while I am still sitting here waiting on query responses that feel like they will never come.
With nothing else concrete to point to, I am left to conclude that the problem is me.
I tell myself, this is my last try. If this book isn’t it, I’m done trying for traditional publishing. Since I started querying, my blood pressure spiked, I gained 20+ pounds from pure stress, and I experienced severe anxiety. I am just not made for this.
I hate what querying has turned me into. I hate how thoroughly that trying to claw my way into a place in this industry has warped and muddied my thoughts. I am a miserable, envious, bitter husk of a human. I’m so full of rage and jealousy and despair that it feels like I will simply explode.
I’m not particularly interested in the business aspect of self publishing, but I tell myself I’ll learn because it can’t possibly feel worse than querying. When I contemplate a future of querying book after book over the course of years just to try and finally hit that lightning strike of luck and timing, I feel nothing but dread. I know I won’t survive this process again. I am barely surviving the current round.
I hear stories of people who queried for 5, 10, 15, 20 years before getting an agent, stories that were meant to be inspiring. If that’s you, I admire your perseverance. But I personally fear that I cannot pour that much energy into a system that actively harms me. I worry that I don’t have it in me to endure that much suffering just for a shot at my dream. If trying to do this–the only thing I’ve ever really wanted or cared about–hurts this much and makes me this miserable, I don’t think I can try anymore. And I worry that I am not resilient enough to frequently participate in a system that very nearly killed me, and could, at any time in the future, before I manage to make any progress.
If given the choice between protecting my peace and repeatedly suffering the querying process that stands between my dreams, I don’t blame myself for dreaming smaller. I’m happy to content myself with less if the alternative is literally being suicidal.
But who knows if I can convince myself to stay away? One day, I’m done with it all. No more querying. The next, I come crawling back. I don’t know what to do, only that I can’t do this.
I don’t have any answers. I don’t have any advice. I can see no way through that is within my control. My hope with this is that maybe I can show one person who is suffering like me that they’re not alone in that pain.
Obviously I understand that the industry is on fire. Everyone is overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid. I get it. So much of what makes querying downright unbearable for me and other neurodivergent writers is simply a business reality that is not likely to change anytime soon.
But I wonder at what point we ask ourselves: When does perseverance and resilience turn into downright insanity? How much are we willing to endure? How much is actually ethical to ask an aspiring writer to endure? And at what point does all of this suffering for the off chance of making your dreams come true stop being worth it?
Note from Aimee: This post right here grabbed me by the throat, punched me in the gut, then never let go. I thought about it for days. The wisdom, the business acumen, the voice, the message laid brutally honest and bare. I keep saying this, but every single one of these posts has humbled me in a new way with a new perspective. Yes, I find myself saying. Also something I wish I’d heard. Yes, also something we need to talk about more. Yes, true. So thank you all, again and always, for allowing me a window into these truths.
Disclaimer: The links in the post were added by me, not the author. Most of the sites listed are free for querying authors to use and explore. Querytracker.net does have a paid, premium version. This is not an endorsement for any paid product by either the author of this post or myself, simply a tool for folks who might not be familiar with the resources referenced.
My writing origin story is unremarkable: I’ve been writing since I was a kid but never really finished much. I drifted away from it for a while when the obligations of work/parenting/adulthood didn’t leave enough time to sustain a writing practice. Then, about 18 months ago, the planets aligned to provide the right mix of financial security, motivation, and free time to start writing again. The end result was a 98,000-word contemporary romance that I absolutely adore.
I wrote it selfishly. It is the book I, a long-time romance reader, have been searching for but unable to find. It was so purely for myself that I didn’t even tell anyone I was writing until I was nearly done. When I did reveal I was writing my own novel to a few close friends in the context of discussions about the romance genre generally, to my surprise, they asked to read it.
My friends are lovely people, so I worked up the nerve and shared it with the folks who asked (2 of 5 actually read it) and got some very nice feedback. It wasn’t a totally horrific experience. I started to toy with the notion of sharing it with even more people.
I Googled “I wrote a novel, now what?” and two things quickly became apparent:
I’ve got a full-time job, a kid, and I suck at self-promotion; self-publishing wasn’t for me.
At 98,000 words, my book was too long for trad pub. Also, it is atypically structured and more slice-of-life than plot-y. Trad pub wasn’t for me, either.
That was where my publishing journey should have ended. But my friends were so encouraging…. As were the online writing spaces I had started lurking in, where folks with books outside the publishing norms were regularly encouraged to query anyway. The daydream of my book being out in the world, finding other people who liked it slowly grew more vivid. I kept researching how to query, feeding that dream like a feral stray, though I knew it was neither wise nor practical, until one day I saw a “how I got my agent” post from the author of a 94,000 word CR debut. I let that post confirm my bias. If other too-long books were being picked up by agents surely mine had a chance? Querying didn’t cost anything after all, so why not shoot my shot?
Thus began a month of querying prep. I read everything on r/pubtips and scoured query blogs. I agonized over comps. I drafted and redrafted query letters, synopses, and 1 and 3-sentence pitches. All of which sucked. I enjoyed none of it. I read Manuscript Wish List and made a list of potential agents on Query Tracker which I cross-checked against agency websites and social media. I made a crappy author website and signed up for all the social medias and even “engaged” on the platforms. All of the free time that, a year ago, had been devoted to writing was now devoted to making me and my book as appealing as possible to agents. I also started another WIP that I barely touched, promising myself I would work on it once the query package was done.
I sent out my first round of 10 queries. The first rejection came 4 days later. I knew almost all authors get rejected. I knew about Steven King’s railroad spike; about all the pillars of the cannon and blockbusting bestsellers that had been rejected scores of times before they were published. I had done my very best to temper my expectations and keep the fact that my book was a longshot for multiple reasons front-of-mind. That first rejection still hurt. Even with all that foreknowledge and my realistic expectations, I cried. The next day, I dutifully sent out another query because that’s what all the blogs said to do.
One month later, I had 6 more form rejections and no indication any agent had ready anything beyond “98,000 word contemporary romance.” I also knew a lot more, not about querying, but about the publishing industry. In that month, I learned that the majority of US agents are only paid when an author is paid and the amount is a) not much per book and b) usually split over YEARS. I learned how under-resourced and over-worked editors are and how much pressure they are under to prove ROI* to the finance bros who actually run the publishing houses. It’s always been this way, but due to a combination of VC** funding in publishing, houses consolidating, and agent and editors leaving during the pandemic, it’s apparently gotten worse. Multiple sources were said querying is harder now than it’s been in modern memory.
With a clearer and more nuanced picture of the publishing business, I reevaluated my book not as a piece of art but as a business proposition. If I were an agent looking through the hundreds of manuscripts in a slush pile for something that would pay my rent, would I pick my book? The answer: No.
A smart agent is going to try and find books in the slush pile that are going to be the fastest, easiest sale so they can maximize their ROI and stand a fighting chance of paying their bills. Their best bet isn’t an outlier; it is a book that has the expected word count, is easy to comp, on trend, with query materials that demonstrate the author can effectively promote themselves. My book could be the objectively best thing in the slush pile (it is not) and the smart agent is still sending me a form rejection and requesting a full on the 83k manuscript with a quirky 24-year-old FMC that lists 5 different tropes in the first paragraph of the query and comps itself to the books most beloved by the BookTok algo last spring.
[This is not a criticism of agents! I, too, like shelter and providing for my family and maximizing the money I get vs. the hours I spend on my work.]
Since I am not a once-in-a-lifetime talent, for my book to be a good business prospect, I would have to make it conform to market. I would have to cut 18,000 words and add in elements and structure that are more expected of the genre (that I consciously omitted or subverted because I am tired of them as a long-time reader). I would have to make it something other than the book I love. However, publishing offers me precious little incentive to do that.
There’s no financial incentive: I am never going to make more writing than I do at my day job. If I’m going to expend effort on something I find neutral to unpleasant for money, I’ll just log a few extra hours at work. I’ll make a lot more and it doesn’t involve hacking up my art. I don’t want to be famous. Being a recognized author would be cool because it would potentially provide opportunities to geek out with readers and other authors but otherwise fame seems like a pain. The only thing publishing offers that I desire is people who know how to make and sell books who could put my book where the readers who might like it could find it. But it wasn’t going to give me that for a cost I was interested in paying.
It also turned out that querying wasn’t free. It was costing me something. Though my query package was done, querying was still occupying large chunks of my very limited free time and mental bandwidth. When I did manage to allocate time to my WIP, the persistent, low-grade angst from the rejections and the silence and the fact that I was constantly thinking about Book 1 made getting into the right headspace to write Book 2 incredibly difficult. After a month, I was dejected, the WIP only had 6,000 new words, and writing, which had once been an absolute joy, had become a slog.
I might not be able to make a business case for my book to publishing, but publishing wasn’t exactly making a compelling case to me.
If my book wasn’t a good business prospect for agents and changing it wasn’t a good business prospect for me, then what was the point? And why should I continue?
The answers were, of course: There is no point, and I should stop.
A proportionally brief digression about the prevailing attitudes around querying:
The refrain of the querying community is overwhelmingly “Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day.” A certain amount of irrational optimism is necessary to query and have the fortitude to keep going in the face of repeated rejection. Writers certainly should support and encourage each other in the query trenches. But it is a truth almost universally unacknowledged by the #amquerying world that not all of us will get there one day.
A writer can do everything right–stellar query letter, great comps, snappy synopsis, flawless manuscript–and still not get an agent for one of a dozen reasons that have nothing to do with merit and are wholly beyond their control. A writer with an amazing book who did something slightly wrong–weak query package, book too long or short, doesn’t fit neatly into a genre–has even dimmer prospects. The fact is, there are thousands of wonderful, worthy books we will never read because the system is jacked up.
“Just keep querying and you’ll get your turn one day,” is a lie; a tempting illusion. It gives writers a false sense of control: that if you just tweak your query letter/find the agent with the best Query Tracker stats/revise that log line then you can cause an agent to request a full. It also allows us to blame other writers when they fail to secure representation and differentiate ourselves, so we don’t have to acknowledge that publishing is subjective, capricious, and that worth and merit have a very small role in the process. “If they didn’t get any requests, it was because they did something wrong. I did [online query wisdom] so that won’t happen to me.” Further, it allows the publishing industry to shift the responsibility of its systemic failures to writers. I spent thousands on therapy fighting to keep my illusions of control because admitting you are powerless, that the universe isn’t just, and that good work and good people aren’t always rewarded is terrifying. But illusions help no one. You can’t make good decisions based on lies.
Back to quitting: Though quitting was eminently logical, deciding to actually do it was hard. The dream of being published, of having my book out in the world where other people might love it didn’t get any less lovely, and I didn’t want it any less once I figured out it was impossible. Also, the well-intentioned but relentless drumbeat of, “Just keep trying! You’ll get there!” from the online writing community made even considering quitting felt like cowardice. Acknowledging this might not work out felt like a personal failing, a fundamental lack of tenacity and gumption on my part that made me unworthy of being published.
I spent many days examining quitting, weighing the pros and cons, and “sitting with my feeling” (gross) before I could bring myself to do it. I spent another few days after that figuring out whether I wanted to stop entirely or if I wanted to finish off all the open agents on my list. I opted to finish the list, though it was not strictly rational, for two reasons. 1) My deeply Type-A ass needed that feeling of “completion.” 2) So when I encounter well-meaning folks in writing spaces who try to encourage me to query again because me giving up freaks them out about their own querying prospects, I can say I gave it a legitimate try, with the numbers to back it up.
My last outstanding query closed last week with 0 requests of any kind. The evidence is in: my book was not a good business prospect.
The evidence also shows that quitting was the right decision for me. My morning pages are no longer 30% Publishing Feelings. The rejections that came in after I decided to quit were easier to take. The biggest proof, however, is in the writing. In the two months I was actively querying, I added 6,000 and 6,500 words, respectively, to my WIP. The month after I quit, I added 10,000 even though I couldn’t write every day. The day after I resolved to quit, I wrote 1,500 words, and it didn’t feel like squeezing blood from a stone for the first time in weeks. With some distance, I’m also starting to appreciate the positives of doing this purely as a hobby, most of which boil down to not having to give a fuck about “the market” however publishing defines it at the moment.
If I had known what I know now when I started querying, would I have still done it? I honestly can’t say. I have more than my fair share of hubris, and humans are bad at estimating risk. But I think I would have done it a bit differently. And quitting would have always been a part of the plan.
As for what’s next, I don’t know. This whole exercise has shown me that I do want to share my writing, far more than I realized. I’ll spend some time this year exploring ways to do that and build more community. Though I worry that I’ve limited the spaces I can find community by opting out of publishing. I have no idea what that looks like yet. Whatever I end up doing though, this time I know that if it doesn’t work out, I can quit.
Bio:Regina Weaver is a self-described “chronic overthinker” and author of contemporary romance. Occasional destroyer of worlds. You can follow her on Twitter @ReginaWAuthoror checkout more of her writing on her website: https://reginaweaverwrites.com/
*ROI = Return on Investment. Calculated by dividing the net profit (or loss) by cost. A publisher yields a high ROI when (a) a book sells well; or (b) it is produced cheaply; or (c) both.
**VC = Venture Capital. Private equity funding where a financer provides money to a young company with the intent the money will spur the business into rapid growth ending in an “exit” (usually a merger or acquisition where the company is bought by a larger company for a sum much higher than the investment).