Being in the query trenches–doing research, entering contests, connecting with fellow authors–I hear a lot of people talking about rejection, how it’s disheartening and soul-crushing and despair-inducing. And honestly, that reaction leaves me kind of perplexed. Not that I haven’t encountered rejection, but my reaction is usually a brief “Drat” before popping over to my handy spreadsheet to note the details and see where it’s going next. It’s not as though I’m a particularly optimistic person (I’m a ruthless pragmatist if nothing else), so for a while I just couldn’t figure out the disconnect.
Then it hit me. See, from elementary school all the way up through college, I was heavily involved in choir and theatre. So there’s the sheer volume of experience points I’ve earned in the “getting passed over” skill, true, but I think it also means I approach the whole process with a rather different mindset.
Since illustrative examples are my very favorite thing in the whole world (or at least in this blog), it’s story time. My senior year of high school, I finally made the All-State Honor Choir. Rather than being placed via directorial discretion, singers went through a series of exercises, were judged based on a standardized metric, and given a score, which then translated to a ranking. Take the top-ranked people and you had a choir. But there was something curious about the scores: the range for qualifying as a soprano was 95-98, while tenor scores ran 92-96. So a singer who scored a 94 would make the cut if they were a tenor, but not if they were a soprano.
That’s bullshit, right? Nope! Because even when the point is ostensibly to show off the objective best of the best, it is not about how good you are. They weren’t just publishing a list of the rankings: this was an ensemble, one that got together and rehearsed and then gave a big concert. So it wasn’t the 200 best singers in Arizona (or it would be mostly sopranos *CHOIR BURN*), it was the 50 best singers in each of four voice parts, except the music occasionally goes into six or seven parts so you have to make sure you’ve got sopranos who can take the harmony instead of just camping out on the high notes, and everyone has to blend together while still holding their own parts. So yes, there’s a minimum standard of skill and talent (you couldn’t even audition for All-State unless you’d first made it through the whole process at the regional level) but meeting that standard is not enough to guarantee placement.
More recently, I was reminiscing with some fellow Disneyland vets, and we got onto the topic of Entertainment casting. Specifically, someone brought up the fact that the girls who play the princesses all have busts no larger than about a B-cup. See, the costumes are heinously expensive, and they have a small army of pretty clones that rotate through the different characters from day to day, so they aren’t going to alter those gowns for anyone. Either you fit into it or you don’t.
One friend hadn’t known that, and told us about going through character auditions where they seemed to really like her, but she didn’t get called. Said friend was probably a B-cup for only about a week during puberty. “Is it weird that knowing that makes me feel better about the whole thing?” she asked. I told her that it wasn’t. She’s spent years thinking that she just wasn’t pretty or graceful enough to make the cut, when it was really just never going to happen because of her huge tracts of land.
The “it was never going to happen” bit might seem fatalistic and depressing, but keep in mind that we’re not talking about her entire performing career. We’re talking about one single audition. An actor or performer knows that their career is going to consist of dozens of roles and hundreds–if not thousands–of auditions. You learn quickly that there are tons of factors you just can’t control, like the bust size thing, or if your judge has an irrational hatred toward your chosen audition piece, or if the whole thing is just for show because the part’s already been cast. Pinning your hopes on every single audition as your big break is exhausting, draining, and ultimately unsustainable: a sprinter taking on not a marathon, but a transcontinental journey on foot. One-way ticket to burnout.
So, 750 words in, what does this have to do with writing?
I get a distinct impression from some of my fellow writers that they approach querying as a request for admission to the publishing world in general, like all you need is an insider’s stamp of approval and then you’re on the gravy train. But while I don’t pretend to speak with any authority here, I’m seeing over and over and over that a given query is really an audition for a spot on that agent’s list. Really, that’s it. No more, no less.
Just like with an audition, there are numerous factors that could lead to a pass that have nothing to do with the quality of your manuscript: one of their existing clients could be working on a similar concept, or the sense of humor might not be to their taste, or they might have a pretty full roster and stay open to submissions only so they don’t miss the next giant blockbuster.
And just like with an audition, all you can do is show up, act professional, and give your best effort. You make sure that you’re ready to play with the big boys by putting your manuscript through several rounds of revisions and of readers who aren’t concerned about your feelings. (Friends and family don’t count unless you know they’ll be brutally honest. I’m sure all those tone-deaf people in American Idol auditions have loved ones who tell them they’re amazing. Get objective feedback before you go for the pros.) You read everything you can in your category and genre to get a feel for what’s popular and what’s been done. You keep up with industry chatter to learn what’s expected and what rookie mistakes to avoid (something the internet and social media have made dead easy). You follow submission guidelines exactly. You research agents and focus your energy on the ones that represent the sort of thing you’re selling.
It doesn’t mean that you can’t get through if you stumble on any of these, just like you can still get a part even if you miss a dance step or aren’t remotely what they thought they wanted. You prepare the best you can, then get out on stage and see what happens.
Even if you’re lucky enough to be a full-time writer, you’ve still got a lot of other stuff to deal with, and a finite amount of brainspace and energy to dedicate to the querying process. Don’t waste it on things that you can’t change anyway. Once you’ve covered the bases that are yours to cover, it just comes down to finding the right fit. So when an agent says that fit isn’t them, it’s really no big deal. You just shrug and move on.