Why Everyone Should Learn to Query

Even indie authors.

If you want to be traditionally published, pouring your heart and soul into a book is only the first step.

If you want the validation that comes with an agent and editor and marketing team behind you, the writing process doesn’t end with folding the feedback of helpful critique partners into a new draft. You wrote the book of your heart, you fawned over how much it reflects your heart, and now it’s time to break it. Both the book, and your little writer’s heart.

How do you do that? By writing a query letter.

Or, as Delilah S. Dawson put it in what is still my favorite trad-publishing blog post of all time, (the self-publishing version is here) you go insane in only one day. You take your precious 80,000-100,000 words and distill their essence into an enticing one-page business letter, perhaps with a bit about yourself, that has a very high chance of sitting in an agent’s inbox, possibly never earning a thanks but no thanks, no matter how objectively good it is.

Many writers, myself included, wonder why the industry is set up this way, why their chance at success and recognition as an author comes down to the whims/schedules/caffeine habits of a few professionals (mainly) in New York. But as subjective as it is, it’s a necessary evil to ensure that publishers take on projects they can passionately and confidently sell to readers. Some authors, frustrated with the layers of gatekeeping that bar them from a place on bookshelves, turn to indie publishing for higher royalty rates, quicker production, and generally more creative control.

But even self-published authors can’t escape the judgments of others. Even if you’re not looking for agents or editors, you still need readers.

I won’t try to prove that one path to publication is ultimately better than the other. That comes down to your personal goals. What I’m going to say is that even if you choose not to query agents and editors, you should still learn how to query.

Selling a book directly to readers operates on much the same principles as attracting an agent. The synopsis paragraphs that go into a query letter are basically the back-cover copy of your book. They introduce your main character and his or her world, set the stakes, and should leave the reader wanting more. That feeling of I NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS is what drives agents to request more pages and hopefully offer representation, and it’s the difference between a reader purchasing your book in the store (or, more realistically, smashing that “buy now” button on Amazon), or walking away empty-handed (-carted?). Your agent becomes your biggest cheerleader because of your pages, and your readers can become your fans.

I know, querying is scary. You’re putting yourself out there. It’s the digital, literary equivalent of wiping your sweaty hands on your jeans, walking up to that handsome stranger, and going hey would you want to get dinner sometime? I sent my first-ever query to an agent who never responded, but over a year later, I still haven’t given up. My book simply wasn’t ready, my query wasn’t doing its job, and I had to take that step and feel the sting of a failure in the form of weeks passing without a response in order to accept the many rounds of revisions that would follow.

All querying looks like is sending an email, but it’s an email that could launch your career as an author. Without the support that comes from a publishing team (how much support you get depends on too many factors to cover here and could be a whole other post), I would argue that self-published books have to be even more polished than traditionally-pubbed ones. Unless you hire a freelance editor, you and your critique partners are the only people standing between your book and the world.

No pressure, right?

Perhaps most importantly and most universally, querying also showed me that rejection wasn’t the end of the world. For every request I received, I probably got five rejections. It hurt, of course, but it thickened my skin. Not everyone is going to love or even like your book, just like not everyone is going to like you. But someone out there will, and it’s those people you need to find.

So take a chance. Put yourself out there. It’s the only way you’ll get noticed by the people who are waiting to find you and listen to what you have to say.

But also improve your chances by doing the most you can to attract those people.

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash.

The Ironies of Poetry

It was a magical weekend. Saturday I saw some friends, and Sunday afternoon I found myself going through my poetry collection. I flipped through Ali Liebegott’s The Summer of Dead Birds and Maggie Nelson’s Bluets (not sure if she counts as poetry but her words are definitely poetic), reminisced on discovering them, and laughed.

Why the laughter?

A year ago, I would not have considered myself a poet. I considered myself mainly a fiction writer. I only enrolled in poetry workshops because I basically had to in order to finish my minor in creative writing.

Before that, I rolled my eyes at what passed for modern poetry. In the age of Tumblr and Instagram poets, with the rise of brutal, short-form voices like Nayyirah Waheed, Amanda Lovelace, and Rupi Kaur, as well as people who wanted to imitate them, poetry seemed like platitudes or diary entries with line breaks.

I now unashamedly appreciate their art, but that’s another story.

So I began to refine my poetry craft over the past year, and to my surprise, and some of my pieces attracted attention. Most of the writing I’ve published in small journals or literary magazines, both print and online, has been poems.

Poetry is full of contradictions. Most people think it has to rhyme or follow a predetermined structure, but there’s also free verse with no form whatsoever.

Poems are typically short, but can go on for pages. They’re much more accessible and digestible than a 300-page novel, and can pack just as much emotional punch with their specific details and carefully chosen words.

A poem is and is not.

A poem is a story with line breaks or it could be a whole, single paragraph.

It’s a song.

It’s a feeling.

It is a structural unit of thought and also formless.

It starts with the way you look at the world.

If I can learn to write poetry, so can you (or learn whatever it is you’ve been wanting to try).

Read some of my poetry here.

Feeding the Soul

We all know that what we eat impacts our physical health. But the less obvious reality is that food also impacts our mental health, thoughts and feelings. With the growing movement towards healthy foods and more vegan, gluten-free, natural, or locally-grown options, as well as concerns surrounding the climate crisis and our planet’s fate, it’s become clearer that people want to feel connected to the earth as well as what we can grow from it.

I began to realize this as a student at Stonehill College on the Easton-Brockton line, where I regularly spent Friday afternoons volunteering on the campus farm. To make a pun, there’s something incredibly grounding about being in the dirt, getting your hands dirty, planting seeds and harvesting crops that will benefit others. I spoke to Celia Dolan, assistant manager of the Farm at Stonehill (and my all-around amazing best friend), about the connection between agriculture and broader community health, on both the physical and more abstract (mental/emotional/spiritual) levels, as well as what this particular farm does to alleviate agricultural and socioeconomic concerns, particularly in the low-income community in Brockton.

Stonehill’s farm was founded in 2011 under the college’s Mission Division (since dissolved) to address local food access issues. Most of the 12,000 pounds of produce they produce each season is donated to community partners such as My Brother’s Keeper, Old Colony YMCA, and Evelyn House in Stoughton. Dolan estimated that the farm’s vegetables reach about 3,000 people each year, who may not otherwise have access to fresh, healthy food.

But beyond the direct community needs the Farm at Stonehill serves, there’s a particular benefit attached to being associated with a college, especially one founded in the Catholic tradition of educating the whole person. Students regularly visit the farm as part of courses in subjects ranging from environmental science or biology to sociology, to learn about food and food justice, as well as what they can do to help others who may not be as privileged.

Dolan said part of the Farm’s mission is to educate “young people who will be the leaders of tomorrow.” Among the things they discuss are the power of buying local and transitioning to a reduced- or zero-waste lifestyles. Additionally, as a non-profit farm, the Stonehill farm doesn’t have to worry about making ends meet with their produce.

Having access to fresh produce is a direct reminder that humans are irrevocably connected to the soil, which can help with existential, personal concerns, and may also motivate us to do something about the state of our planet.

“Good food not only feeds the body, it also feeds the soul,” she said. “Food is medicine. So if we can bring delicious, fresh, organic, local produce to people, we are sharing a healthy state of mind and body with them.” And, as an added bonus, “We form friendships with our community partners!”

Clearly, it’s not just about growing and providing produce, but what that produce can produce.

Hello, #PitchWars 2019!

Here’s my #BoostMyBio post for this year’s Pitch Wars event! Honestly, I’m still unsure if I’ll be submitting anything at the end of the month, because I have one finished novel (currently querying and revising accordingly) and another for which I still have to do the bulk of the writing.

 

So maybe that’s the first thing you learn about me – I’m a procrastination queen!

 

I’m Jess, and you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram @jcostellowrites (While you’re there, check out my #PWPoePrompts for August!). I just graduated from college in May, and I’m back in school for my master’s in counseling psychology. The long-term goal is to be a therapist by day and write by night. I’m a lifelong Massachusetts girl and wicked excited for autumn. You can read my other writing at Well-Storied and Boston Hassle.

 

If I do decide to enter, this will be my second time trying my hand at Pitch Wars. Honestly, the community surrounding this event is so beautiful, regardless of whether you enter. Beyond the chance to be selected as a mentee, work with amazing mentors on your book, and get your work in front of agents, PW offers the opportunity to connect with other writers and reminds us that, to quote Hemingway, “we are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

 

I write character-driven fiction featuring empowered women, intricate relationships, and the dark side of fame. I’ve been told my writing aesthetic is “starry night meets subway grunge” and I myself am a dark turquoise.

 

For the rest of September, you can meet the other writers who are participating in the Boost My Bio blog hop. Keep reading here to learn more about my manuscripts!

 

Novel Playlists

 

 
Book 1 – did I go overboard?

 

 
Book 2

 

 

 

And now for some more fun facts about me!

 

Favorite Books

 

  • The Shadow of the Wind
  • Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
  • How to Be Famous
  • Conversations With Friends

 

Favorite TV Shows

 

  • This is Us
  • It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

 

Best Writing Music

 

  • Lana Del Rey
  • Lord Huron
  • First Aid Kit
  • Two Steps From Hell