Today's guest is Sherrie Petersen, who writes middle grade novels and moonlights as a graphic designer, substitute teacher, freelance writer, school newspaper advisor, and mother of two children. She is represented by Michelle Humphrey at International Creative Management. Catch her on her website or at her her blog, where she's having a fabulous book giveaway this week.
THE MAGIC NUMBER
by Sherrie Petersen
A friend asked me the other day how many queries she should send out for a book before giving up.
My first reaction was, “NEVER GIVE UP!” But then I started thinking about my own querying journey and I realized sometimes, you do have to give up.
I started querying SECRET OF UNDINE in early 2009. I loved that book. It had water faeries and trolls, and two unsuspecting kids who get caught up in a territory war between the magical creatures. It was brilliant. I entered it in a prominent contest and won third place. I thought I had it made. Agents were going to be lining up to get their hands on this story.
Not so much.
I queried and rewrote, then queried some more. For more than a year. I got requests for partials and fulls. At one point, three agents were looking at the full at the same time and I just knew one of them would sign me. They were going to compete for my story and I’d have a contract with a major publishing house within a month.
Um, yeah. I obviously have a great imagination.
To console myself in the midst of all the querying, I started another novel, WISH YOU WEREN’T, a story about a boy who wishes his brother away. Even as I was writing it, I knew this story was stronger. The hook was stronger, the plotting was better. And my writing had improved a lot.
By early 2010 I’d sent out close to fifty queries for SECRET OF UNDINE, all of them ending in rejection, but I was ready to let it go. Several of the agents who had read UNDINE specifically told me that they’d be happy to look at anything new because they liked my writing. Now I had something better to send them.
About a week after I typed “THE END” and finished incorporating all the feedback from my critique group, I organized my potential agents into an Excel spreadsheet, categorized by whether they accepted email queries or required snail mail. The first ten on my list were people who had told me to submit when I had something new. They all accepted email. And they all got a query for my brand spanking new story with the first chapter attached.
I knew I was going to land an agent within the month. This time they’d be fighting to sign me. This time I’d get not only the publishing contract, but a movie deal as well.
Did I mention I have a really good imagination?
The very next day, rejections started pouring in. I was floored. This was not part of the plan. Were they not seeing the beauty in my cleverly plotted, expertly written novel? What was going on?
Simple answer: I had queried too soon.
I hadn’t let the novel sit. I hadn’t sent it out to anyone other than my critique group. And as a result, I had blown it with some of the agents who I thought were best for my story.
So I sent my not-so-shiny-new novel off to a beta reader. She didn’t have good news. In fact, she told me that several of my chapters were boring and pointless and she didn’t even finish reading the novel.
I spent the next two weeks in a funk. I didn’t query, I didn’t write. What was the point? I was obviously a hack.
But then I entered a little contest hosted by Cynthea Liu, called Red Light Green Light. And I won. The prize? A detailed critique of the first fifty pages of my novel and a referral to her agent.
That contest win energized me. I rewrote the first half of my book and applied Cynthea’s general comments to the rest of my novel. Now I KNEW I had it made. I’d get the agent, the book deal, the movie…
Only that didn’t happen. Again.
I sent out a few more queries and got rejected. Again.
I was done.
No, I was DONE!!!!!!!!
I was tired of getting my hopes up only to be disappointed again. I didn’t want to put myself through the torture anymore.
But then a funny thing happened. Someone sent me an email about how depressed she was with all the rejections. And in the midst of encouraging her, I encouraged myself. I knew my novel was good. I wasn’t ready to give up on it yet.
I sent out one more query. And found my dream agent. (You can read the story here.)
So how many queries should you send out before giving up? Your answers may vary. Mine did. I sent out almost fifty for UNDINE. But for WYW, the story that led me to my agent, Michelle Humphrey, I sent out 23. She was #24.
There is no magic number. There’s only a lot of feverish rewriting, ice cream consumed and lessons learned.
So what did I learn from this experience?
1. First novels rarely get picked up. UNDINE wasn’t the first novel I’d written, but it was the first one I’d queried. And speaking of queries…
2. Don’t query too soon. Typing The End doesn’t mean you’re done writing or editing. Give your story time to sit before you send it out to the world.
3. Trust beta readers. Even if you don’t agree with them at first. In addition to Cynthea’s critique, I took the advice of the beta reader and got rid of the chapters that didn’t move my story forward. My story is better for it.
4. Don’t give up too soon. That next query could be the one that makes all the difference.
Sometimes you do have to move on and accept that the novel you poured your soul into for more than a year was just a practice novel. And sometimes you have to find the courage to try again.
Most importantly, believe in yourself. Trust in yourself. You started on this journey for a reason. Don’t give it up too soon.