After reading the bios of 353 literary agents, I’m considering writing a novel about an orphaned, emotionally damaged dragon girl who steals an ultra-secret spacecraft with time-travel capabilities to find a giant lizard shaman in a distant galaxy 5,000 years in the future who can excise her demons, and while there, falls in love with the shaman’s shape-shifting daughter, who is secretly plotting the overthrow of her planet’s evil kingdom. It ends happy.
Let me say first off that my amazing family would love this novel … my neurodivergent daughter, my bi-racial 14 year old grandson who proudly told me last week that he is pan-sexual, my transgender son, my queer daughter-in-law. They would love it. Characters who exist outside “the mainstream,” just like them. Characters conquering the unimaginable. Just like them. I am grateful for a growing tower of literature, written by new, underrepresented voices, that reflects the world as they see it.
The trouble for me is, I couldn’t actually write that novel. It’s not my world, my experience. The world I am writing about – the world inside the 102,000 words of my historical novel, the novel that has sent me on a quest to find an agent, and ultimately a publisher – is squarely in the mainstream, as out of favor, I am gathering from all those agent bios, as chewing gum.
I am a straight, white, 66-year old woman, one of about 100 million older women worldwide. From my deep dive into the hive mind of the literary agent community, I’ve come to think of myself and the other 99,999,999 as kryptonite. When I arrive in their inboxes with my query letter about a white family struggling through the Jim Crow south, the barren Montana prairie, California in the depths of the depression, their right index fingers are drawn to the delete button. I’m trying to come to terms with this, while still clutching the 102,000 words to my chest like a poultice.
There must be a way in. I’m trying to understand how agents work, what they could possibly want, aside from time-traveling dragons. What I could write them in my query that doesn’t sound like “old women debut novelists are people too!”
In “Funny Lady” the exquisite Fanny Brice (Barbra Streisand) is in her fancy train compartment, and Billy Rose (James Caan), desperate for her affections, is watching her rub lemon halves on her elbows. “What do you want from me?” he asks. “Am I supposed to go for your elbows, or what?”
That’s how I feel most days, sitting down to my agent research: my elaborate, meticulous spread sheet, my subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace and QueryTracker, my bookmarked Manuscript Wish List, my printed lists, stippled with cross-outs, my daily commitment (since August 8, 2022) to submit two queries a day. What can I say in a query letter to conquer the chewing gum brush-off? Should I go for their elbows, or what? What exactly is “voicy”? What constitutes a “commercial hook”? (See above: dragons.)
It’s not the first time in my life that I’ve failed to comprehend the zeitgeist. Like that day the nurse handed me and my first born child and a diaper and sent us home from the hospital. It took us a while, but the mother/daughter thing grew on us.
Querying is like a glory hole. You stick your query letter and first three chapters through the hole, and you have no idea what will happen on the other side. So you hunt for clues. You read the laundry basket full of articles on how to query, which often contradict each other like black socks and white sheets in the same load.
After weeks of whittling, rewriting and paring my query letter to the sparsest, pithiest I could get it, I came across this advice: “You goal is to establish a relationship …” A one-way relationship, sure, but … give it a shot in three paragraphs in which you roll out a riveting pitch line, lay out the plot, establish your writing cred, list comparable reads, and describe your audience.
Whoa, boy. There’s a tweet going around in the agent community of late as one agent after another announces that they’ve gotten THE QUERY from the rampaging writer who doesn’t want to fill in the blanks and just rants, “Read the fucking thing!” He’s the incel in the querying population and he’s not going to take it anymore.
I am not going there. I’m trying hard to understand – have compassion even – for the thousands of agents out there who face a firehose in their inbox each day, from people just like me, desperate to start a relationship in three paragraphs. Some of us are old ladies who know nothing about dragons. But we are audacious enough to think we know human nature. And what is a dragon anyway, but a lonely little girl in Riverbank, California, just trying to make her way through the heavens, to love and resolution, and maybe, a happy ending.
Maybe I do know how to write that book.