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  • Writer's pictureH. M. L. Swann

My Most Vulnerable Post Yet...

In today's flooded book market, I feel a certain amount of pressure to be a marketing expert and social media persona rather than just a writer — and to be honest, it's driving me a bit mad. It's as if being just a writer is this simple, throw-away act. As if the hours — years — I pour into a manuscript are nothing compared to the 140-character pitch I post online. The time I spend investing in the craft is inconsequential compared to the number of followers I have. The energy I spend understanding the industry becomes insignificant when put against the number of subscribers. Now I know the Publishing Industry is a capitalist sales machine interested in money. No surprises there. But the frustrating part is thinking that there is so much unpaid time and effort on the writer's side, screaming into the void of the internet to try and break through all the noise.


Writing is an isolating experience because no one will ever care about my manuscript as much as I do. I'm not saying I don't have support systems and advocates on my side — I do, and for that, I am SO grateful. But what I am saying is, that no one else but me is going to put in the work to write, edit, plot, and obsess about this book as much as me. And that's okay. I'm years into this book relationship — let's call her Book Z for now.


This is the story of how Book Z and I just got a full rejection, how much that full rejection hurt, and where there is still hope.



First, what is a full rejection?

Full Rejection. It sounds so utterly all-encompassing. It's not that bad — really it's not — but it's a tough part of the process. In a way, it's a milestone in the journey towards publication. It stems from a literary agent requesting to read your manuscript. In other words a full request.


See, my goal with Book Z is to have her traditionally published. This would mean she gets published by a major publishing house that would provide editing, proofreading, marketing, and an advance on the book — not to mention handle the distribution in major bookstores across the country.


The first step in entering the trad publishing world is to get a literary agent. Literary agents represent clients, network with editors, and help authors receive the best contracts and deals for their books as they can. This is because they get a cut of the deal too. I've got mixed feels on literary agents, and honestly, that is a separate blog post. Maybe I'll dive into that someday, but for now, trust that I know the options. There are pros and cons between self, indie, and trad publishing, but while my goals might change later, for now, I aim to be traditionally published.


This means I need a literary agent. To get a literary agent, you need to "query" them. In a way, it's like applying for a job but instead of a cover letter and resume you submit a query letter (think book jacket summary/pitch) with the sample pages of the novel. If the agent is interested, they'll ask to read the full manuscript. If they like the manuscript, they offer representation. If they offer representation the next step would be more edits and hopefully publication.


My Query Stats

Book Z is the fourth manuscript I've completed and the third I've queried.


The book-writing world is one of production. The first novel I finished was the novel that helped me apply and get into my master's program at the University of Manchester. So while I wasn't technically querying that novel, I was researching and applying to creative writing programs.


From there, I went on to query each project. Or as some might say, I entered the Query Trenches. Now in the writing world, they always say that once you go out to query a book, you should already be writing the next one. So that is what I did. I would write the book, edit it, receive feedback, edit while polishing the query letter and pitches, and then query. Once I started the query process, I started the next book cycle.


Wash. Rinse. Repeat.


Some days this can be really hard. Some days I think, "I'm going to run out of books to write." Or, "If this book doesn't get an agent, then what?" And sometimes even, "I'll never write anything good enough." It's bleak, I know, but then the next idea always takes hold. When that idea is there, it reignites my love for story. It shows me again the reason I write. It's not for publishing or social media. It's because I love weird surreal narratives and how language on the page can be used to take me somewhere new.


I compiled my personal query stats below. From 2021 to the present, I've queried a novel each year. I was surprised to crunch the numbers and realize it wasn't as many queries as I thought. No novel ever broke more than 50 queries before I moved on to the next project. Let me tell you, it felt like hundreds of queries for each book. Still, looking at the numbers, it feels like a significant investment of time and energy.

Over the three books I've queried, I've sent 116 queries since 2021. Just imagine wanting a job so badly that you'll keep applying again and again. What's the definition of insanity?


For Book Z, I've sent 31 queries and received 3 full requests and 1 partial request. The 3 full requests all happened during the same week in November 2023. I was thrilled and hopeful, but underneath this milestone was a pit of imposter syndrome. Some part of me saying, "It might not be enough this time."


Still, I celebrated. I popped champagne. I lit a magick candle. I refreshed my inbox approximately 10,000 times over the next few weeks.


And then, as I waited, I tried to write.


Do you know how hard it is to feel inspired and excited to write knowing that someone holds your dreams in their inbox? Knowing that if they like your manuscript enough, all the hard work might feel like it's paying off?


I managed to write a little. I did some flash fiction throughout November and got 5,000 words into a new project — Book A (more on them later). But still writing fresh words felt strained.


Then in December, I started a new job. The training and learning curve for any new job is always tough, but it's been an overall exciting change of pace. I also did some art projects to help inspire my writing. I made some tarot collages in December and January and more recently — watercolor! I'm quite keen to share some of it with y'all (keep reading to see a glimpse of it)!


But then March came and with it the first full rejection. It was a form rejection, meaning there was no personalization, feedback, or content other than thanks, no thanks. It stung, of course, but the agent hadn't felt like the best fit based on their online presence so I made peace with it fairly quickly.


A few weeks later, the second full rejection came. To be honest, I was gutted. I said this would be my most vulnerable blog post, and let me tell you, I cried. My partner hugged me tight. He cooked me dinner and we watched a movie together. It was a sweet way to wallow in my fresh rejection.


This rejection hurt because I really felt like this agent would be a good fit. From their online persona, I trust their insights on writing and publishing. They are actively building their list (taking on new clients), and so while I knew rejection was highly possible, I still had a bit of hope that they would see the potential in my manuscript. Sadly, that wasn't the case.


Big Picture Query Stats

On March 27, I attended a free webinar with Carly Watters, a Senior Literary Agent at P.S. Literary. She shared some illuminating statistics. The odds of a writer getting a literary agent is anywhere from 1 in 3,000 to 1 in 6,000.


INSANITY Y'ALL.


See more stats from her presentation The Author's Publishing Playbook below.



While these numbers can be overwhelming, there is some comfort here. Book Z and I are not inherently not good enough. It means, that while my full rejection left me gutted, it also means I was part of a bigger picture — part of the 95% of submissions that got rejected. And according to literary-agents.com, agents receive as many as 1,500 queries each month. To become a full request out of the 1,500 query letters shows some progress.


I have to hope that the right agent is still out there.


Book Z's Outlook

I still have a handful of queries open, one full request with an agent, and a recent partial request (agents ask to read just part of the manuscript). I still believe in this book and so I'll be leaving those lines open. Book Z has potential and with the right advocate, it will find its audience.



Writing about Book Z's recent query failures feels scary. Risky. Vulnerable. In the publishing world, there's this concept of "the hype train" — the idea that if you keep promoting the good, the great, the fantastic, it will generate buzz about the project. Writing this blog post feels like the anti-hype train. As if writing about Book Z's query stats is shameful rather than true. As if there is something to hide or risk damaging Book Z's outlook. But at my core, I don't believe that. This has been my experience. While I don't love that my process has been an arduous journey, I also know I'm not alone. We often are fed the overnight success stories, the prodigies, the instant best sellers. But for most of us, the process is more nuanced than that.


The Publishing Rodeo Podcast explores many publishing topics, including the hype train, in an effort to make the publishing world less opaque. I guess that's one of the reasons I felt compelled to write about my experience here too. If you're keen or interested in writing and publishing, I highly recommend giving them a listen.


So what's next? Book Z to A!

As I mentioned, I still have some fulls and queries out there that I'm happy with, but until I hear back, I'll start polishing up Book Z for the next round of querying. While I'll be doing some revising, the heart of Book Z will stay true. Here's her one-sentence pitch with comps!


Flanagan’s FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER x JUST LIKE HOME x THE SOUTHERN BOOK CLUB'S GUIDE TO SLAYING VAMPIRES

When Ivory’s father is found dead in the woods, she must discover what is haunting her family line before her body is consumed by the evil that has rooted itself in Deer River.


I received some personalized feedback from one of the agents too! She shared some nice points about what worked well saying she "loved how dark and gritty the read is." She also gave some insight into what could be improved. I'm diving into revision mode with a fresh perspective. It's almost as exciting as starting a new project!


Speaking of new projects, I have started "Book A." My working pitch is that it will be Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower meets Josh Malerman’s Bird Box. A horror novel set in a dystopian future after a geoengineering disaster, a woman is willing to marry into a fundamentalist polygamist Mormon family. As the protagonist struggles with faith in God, she gains faith in the darkness within herself — but will she be able to control it before everyone she cares about is lost?



I've also started a watercolor art project that works in tandem with my short fiction. The first piece I've started with is Mouth Of God which was published in F(r)iction's Dually Noted Series. To go along with this piece, I've generated a watercolor drawing. I'm playing around with a few ideas on how to create story-art prints! This has been a great tactile project and a new method of creativity that helps my mental health while in the query trenches.


If you've made it this far into the post I hope you either found it illuminating or reassuring. If you're a querying author, I'd love to connect. You can sign up for my quarterly newsletter here or find me on socials @hmlswann.


Сайхан Бичээрэй!

xox

Haley

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