June 8, 2011

Queries and Submission Part II

Today I have the wonderful Carolyn Jewel, my absolute favorite author, talking to us about queries and submissions from a published author's point of view. Carolyn writes both Historical and Paranormal Romance and has a gift for writing those steamy love scenes :) 

(From Carolyn's Website) Carolyn writes because she's a bit off that way. She loves history, action movies, scary stories and fine chocolate. She is also a Microsoft SQL Server Database Administrator. This is a geek job that's not nearly as exciting as writing. She lives in Northern California with her son and several critters. A recent switch from PC to Mac allowed her to glue paper fangs on her MacBook Pro and name it MacFang.

As a published author, do you still have to write query letters for your books?
Since I have an agent, I no longer have to write query letters. I had to before I was represented, of course. What I still have to do is write a proposal. For a while, I had to write a synopsis and three chapters, which can be quite a bit of work. Then it was just a synopsis, and now it's starting to look like I can do more of a blurb type thing than a synopsis. For someone like me, who is a complete seat of the pants writer, any "synopsis" I write before I've written the book is essentially fake. Until I write the book, I do not know what the story will end up being, and I most especially don't know what the romance will be like. I completely understand why editors want those details in advance, but any editor who's been in the business a while must know there is a set of writers who don't turn in the book as pitched. They get something better, of course. And entirely different.

The book I turn in does not resemble that synopsis in any detail except maybe the names of the characters. It's torture, I mean that in all sincerity, to have to come up with a synopsis that will satisfy my agent and an editor. The most frustrating part is that all those hours and hours, weeks even, is, in terms of the book that will be published, a waste of time. It makes a sale, so it's not a waste in that sense, but in terms of writing the book? Zero use. It's like telling someone who has never, ever seen a zebra to draw a picture of a zebra.

My most recent historicals sold on the basis of something like an extended blurb -- and the first book has practically nothing in common with the blurb except for (most) of the names. We'll see what happens with the paranormal proposals that are out. My publisher wanted sample chapters for the third book in the series. I wrote them, of course, but as I knew would happen, not a single word or scene in those pages made it into the finished book (that book was the January 2012 My Immortal Assassin, for the curious.)

Are you as nervous as other writers when your proposal is being considered for publication?
Of course. I'm not at the point where my getting another contract is at all assured. And, as you all now know, my editor has what is essentially a "fake" proposal. There isn't anything I can do about it so I just put it out of my mind and work on whatever other project is on my plate. Years ago, after wondering whether I should continue to try to sell my books, I realized that even if I knew I would never be published again, I would still write stories. So if I were to reach a point where I could not make a sale (and it's happened) I would keep writing. 

In the earlier years of your career, did you receive rejections for your now-published novels?
Well, I had a sort of inverted career trajectory in terms of rejection. I sold my first novel with just one query letter (it was a good timing, good luck and, as I like to think, a good book). I had an agent for my second book and that was more or less an option book that was picked up.  Between number 2 and number 3 were a lot of rejections. That book deserved the rejections. It's my only doorstop book. I wrote another book, figured out what I needed to do to make that book good enough, and it sold. Since then, I've sold on proposal and have (so far) found homes for those books. When I changed publishers, and my agent sent out the proposal, there were publishers who passed. And others who did not. That's the nature of the business.
For new writers, rejections usually mean one of two things, either your query letter is just heinously bad or your book is not good enough. Mostly it's the latter. Rejections shouldn't be taken personally -- because they're not personal. They're written by people who have read hundreds, if not thousands of queries and manuscripts and they also know what sells. Their jobs depend on knowing the market. Dismiss that expertise at your peril.

There's always a sense of frustration (why can't they tell that chapter 5 is AWESOME!) and dejection, but again, a rejection is about the writing and it means your book isn't quite good enough and you need to fix it until it is. You have to set aside that frustration and dejection and get back to making the book better.

With book #3 my rejections started at the bottom of the encouragement heap (blurry form letters, a scribbled "no" on my query letter) but as I continued to work at making the book better, the rejections got longer and more encouraging. Those rejections were helpful. "The book felt emotionally flat" was one comment that I found massively helpful. I went back through my MS and really worked on bringing out the emotion, and that effort made a big difference. I went through one more round of revisions after that (based on getting the book out to beta readers) and after that, I was pretty sure the book was good enough. Indeed, that book sold six weeks later.

As to my agent (the wonderful and amazing Kristin Nelson of The Nelson Agency), I queried her after I had parted ways with a previous agent. At that point, I had a personal request from an editor who wanted me to write for her and an option novel due to another publisher. I had three projects to pitch and Kristin asked for pages. I had offers from other agents, but I knew Kristin was the agent I needed when she told me if I'd queried her only on my historical project she would have rejected me outright. She loved the other two projects, though, and I signed with her. She told me to "just start over" with the historical, so I did. That book, Scandal, was a 2010 RITA finalist. The second book in the paranormal series I pitched to her (My Forbidden Desire) was also a 2010 RITA finalist. She had four other RITA finalist authors last year and I believe two of them won.

What aspects led you to submit to your agent?
When I realized that my previous agent and I were not a good fit and there was no resolving that even with good faith efforts on both our parts, I went to that year's RWA conference and attended every single agent panel I could. I took notes. I hung out in the lounges and bars and talked to other authors about who they were with and what their experience was like and I listened to and observed the agents who were there. I already knew what wasn't working for me so I had pretty specific ideas about what kind of agent I thought would be a good fit for me. I did not pitch to a single agent, by the way. My mission was information gathering only at that point. By the end of the conference, I knew even more about the author-agent relationship (there are many different kinds!) great information about specific agents and authors, and I had a list of top candidates. Kristin Nelson was on that list.

Anyone looking for an agent should attend conference if at all possible. Not necessarily for the opportunity to pitch, but for the opportunity to listen to agents talk about what they like and how they work. Listen to what other authors say about their agent relationships, keeping in mind the kind of writer you are and where you are in your career and whether that squares with what a given author has to say about her agent and how they work together.

Do you have any advice for unpublished writers who are in the middle of querying right now?
I think I might have already spewed forth that advice. But to sort of condense that, rejection isn't personal, use rejections as indications of how close you might be. If you're not getting any feedback besides "no", chances are you have a lot of work yet to do.  Go do that work. "High quality" rejections indicate you're getting close and you really need to look for ways to bring up the level of your writing that last bit. Each set of revisions on your book should be a learning process for you.

If you send out a round of queries and you're not getting requests for more pages, then the pages you're sending are flawed. The best query in the world won't sell flawed pages. I'm pretty sure I'm a mediocre query-er (because I have seen a lot of queries that are better than any I sent-- you can see a couple of them at my website) but I eventually sold when the pages were good enough. So, you need to figure how to fix those flaws before you send out the next round of queries.

If your queries get requests for pages, partials and fulls, then you're doing something right. If you're close, the rejections will almost always have a reason besides "no" and those reasons should point you in possible directions for things you need to improve.

I'll end this with one of my favorite rejection stories. Before I was agented, I was querying agents and editors on Book #3 (the doorstop book). I queried Ballentine and got a blurry form rejection many weeks later. I sighed and moved on. Six months later, I got a second, unsolicited even blurrier rejection from them. Yes, I got a slush rejection. I guess they wanted to be absolutely sure I knew they didn't want my book. Heh. OK wait, I have another rejection story. Quite a while later, I queried a Very Famous Agent on a project. Nine months pass, and during that nine months, I had heard zero from that agent, which I took as a rejection. I found an agent and sold that very book. Then I got a nice email from the Very Famous Agent that said he'd read my query, [some nice words] but the market for that kind of book was terrible and he just didn't think it would sell.

So there you go. Publishing is a crazy business.
I want to publicly thank Carolyn for taking the time to answer my questions! You can visit her website here and see all of her awesome books here. My Dangerous Pleasure was just released on May 31st, and is the fourth book in her Witches and Demons series, which I can't get enough of!


  1. Thank you to Carolyn for sharing this insider's view of querying! It will really help. And that last statement, priceless and oh so true!

  2. No kidding! It's absolutely why you can't take rejections personally. Because publishing is crazy! Everyone feels bad about rejections, but you can use them to your benefit.

  3. Thank you for giving me this opportunity to interview you, Carolyn!


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