getting the labels right


If customers were to walk into a bookstore, where would I send them to find novels like mine?

Week 3 Query Totals (Agents Only):

  • Submitted: 30
  • Rejections: 4
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

I’m well on target to meet my goal of at least 40 queries by the end of this month. After that, I’ll take a break from querying, in part because once August begins I need to give my full attention to getting the semester up and running at Avila.

One of the most difficult things about querying is making the transition from a writing mindset to a marketing mindset. Like all professional endeavors, writing and publishing have their own unique languages, and while you wouldn’t expect it, there’s not a whole lot of overlap between the two. Unless, of course, you’re a writer who writes to the market. But most writers I know simply write the stories they want to write. When they’re done, they then have to spend some time and effort figuring out which square marketing hole is the best fit for the round peg that is their unique novel.

It doesn’t help that the best novels rarely fit neatly into a particular marketing category. And it helps even less that marketing labels and categories are in constant flux, as the publishing industry tries to track, define, and anticipate the preferences of tens of thousands of readers.

As a not-so-random example, take my trilogy, The Silver Web. There is no marketing label that is a perfect fit for this work. While The Silver Web draws heavily on traditions of high fantasy, it is written more like historical fiction with a healthy dose of magical realism. More importantly, the novels carry strong feminist undertones, in the way patriarchal systems are perceived, discussed, and challenged by its characters.

When asked for an elevator pitchI often describe The Silver Web as “feminist high fantasy.” Of course, that label is not all-encompassing. Worse, it kind of dooms me.

Most readers of high fantasy have no interest in feminism, fascinated as they are with ‘the good old days’ when men were ‘honorable’ lords and women their pliant and faithful servants (NOT – but we’ll leave the realities of medieval life for another post). At the same time, most feminists steer clear of high fantasy because of its history of overt sexism in the treatment – and exclusion – of women.

So “feminist high fantasy” is not a good marketing label, but nor is the simpler designation “fantasy.” The former label doesn’t exist in bookstores, and the latter, while it exists, is unlikely to attract the full range of readers who would really enjoy my work.

Querying for The Hunting Grounds has brought me back to this labeling dilemma. My new series is contemporary fantasy with strong paranormal elements, but there are no vampires or werewolves or any of the other creatures commonly associated with paranormal fiction. Like all my stories, romance lies at the heart of The Hunting Grounds, but the love story is by no means the sum total of the novel.

The book is dark, sensual – erotic, even – and sometimes violent, but there is no BDSM and certainly no forced sex. The main characters are bisexual, but the story does not dwell on dilemmas of sexual identity or “coming out.” They are who they are, and they live their lives and their desires accordingly.

Oh, and my novel has a forty-something woman protagonist – an uncommon, even revolutionary, age for the genre, where 18 to 20-something protagonists are more the norm.

How do I summarize all this in a single marketing sticker?

A year ago, when I started my first round of queries, I called The Hunting Grounds a paranormal romance. But I’ve since discovered the label ‘paranormal romance’ has strong associations that don’t describe my novel. What’s worse, paranormal is on a downswing because of these associations. People are tired of reading about teenagers with vampires, so they are turning away from paranormal shelves in bookstores.

Fortunately, publishing changes its labels almost as fast as readers change their tastes. There’s always another label out there that just might work for your novel.  In this second round of querying, the label that’s caught my attention is “upmarket commercial fiction.”

Of course, no reader goes into a bookstore looking for “upmarket commercial fiction,” but apparently among agents and publishers, this is now the go-to label for novels like mine that cross multiple genres, are written in a more literary style, and have the potential to appeal to a broad audience.

So there you have it. I write upmarket commercial fiction.

Problem solved – until, that is, the labels change again…

glimmers of hope


With my niece on Table Rock Lake. If querying gets you down, go out for a while and enjoy the sun!

Week Two Query Totals (Agents Only, Cumulative Tally):

  • Submitted: 22
  • Rejections: 3
  • Requests for Partial/Full: 0

I promise I won’t be posting these numbers every week, in part because it’s going to get depressing pretty quickly. For the moment, I’m only counting rejection letters, but many agents reject by simply not responding. As those response times expire, 4-6 weeks down the line, rejection numbers will show a sharp uptick.

On the other hand, it’s hard to tell sometimes how to interpret no-response scenarios. I’ve seen agents give estimated response times of anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks, only to write back six months later, long after I’d assumed they weren’t interested. Each of these cases was still a rejection, but it just goes to show: Sometimes a query can be in an agent’s queue for a very long time.

Another consideration is that I’m in high drive right now, trying to submit as many queries as I can before fall semester picks up and I have to return to campus full time. That means queries are being put out at a pace well ahead of responses, but once classes start, the rate of queries will be much slower. And statistically, most – if not all – of the responses will be rejections, so…brace yourselves. Those rejection numbers will be on the rise very soon!

This is the second round of querying for my current novel, and the latest in many rounds of querying connected to other novels that I’ve written.

Eolyn was the first novel that I queried, and the first to land in a traditional market. It was picked up almost right away by the then-up-and-coming small press, Hadley Rille Books. Through Eolyn, I applied some important advice and learned some sobering lessons.

The important advice? Research the publishers and agents you query. 

My editor at Hadley Rille, Eric T. Reynolds, often said that the number one reason he rejected manuscripts was that they simply weren’t the right fit for Hadley Rille’s markets.

Of course, identifying the right fit for your manuscript is easier said than done. As careful as I try to be about who I query, sometimes the information available doesn’t give a clear picture of their current interests and connections. And I have, on more than one occasion, come across someone I deemed a perfect fit, only to be told inside a few days that my novel, while it seems “well written” and/or “shows promise,” is not what the agent is looking for.

Those are nice moments by the way, when they personalize their response to say my work shows promise. But I’d still rather have a request for a full!

The research end of querying has become a little easier than it used to be. I’ve kept a personal database over the years of who I’ve queried for what, including notes on response times and any personalized messages included in those responses. Rather than start raw, I can go back to the literary agents’ web sites, check on their current status, and see how their interests have changed or developed.

This saves me time because, while I am still identifying new agents and markets, I also have a backlist of people I know might be interested in my kind of story, as well as a query package set up that already meets their specifications. And I can hope – just hope – that they start recognizing my name, too, and that the portfolio I’ve developed since the last time they heard from me provides evidence as to how serious I am about writing and publishing.

In some cases, I’ve acquired a feel for the way certain agents work and this helps me interpret their responses. For example, there’s one agent I’ve queried for all three of my previous novels. In all three cases, she responded with a form letter rejection in the space of one to three days.  As of this writing, it’s been almost two weeks since I sent her my query for The Hunting Grounds, so perhaps I can dare to hope that maybe, just maybe, she’s at least thinking about asking for more…

There are some things that never get easier in life, but querying and fielding rejections definitely gets easier. The more you query, the less odious it is to query again. The more rejections you receive, the more they begin to slide like water off your back.

The occasional personalized responses that say, “This is cool, but it’s just not what I’m representing…” become notes  of encouragement to keep trying.

The occasional personalized responses that say, “Neat premise, but the writing needs some work…” become rallying cries to revise and improve your novel in preparation for the next round of querying.

Perhaps most importantly, the messy and often disappointing journey of querying forces us to re-center our lives; to recognize that as much as we would love to land that dream contract, publishing is not the most important part of writing. Writing is the most important part of writing. As long as we keep our pens alive, no amount of rejections can dim the innate value of the stories we weave, whether those stories are meant to be shared with a handful of close friends and a select circle of fellow writers, or with tens of thousands of readers across the world.

the virtues of querying

Montjuic 20

Playing the gatekeeper at Mont Juic, Barcelona

Week One Cumulative Tally (agents only):

  • 10 submissions
  • 1 rejection
  • 0 partial requests
  • 0 full requests

Yes, it’s true: I have, once again, embarked on the ego-debilitating task of querying.

There are few activities more onerous for a writer than querying. What better reward for the hard labor of finishing a novel than to spend hours assembling query packages, only to be bombarded by rejections?

At times, I’ve taken to calling queries “rejection requests,” just to feel like I’m succeeding!

In this age of self-publishing, when authors have the option to bypass gatekeepers altogether, it’s tempting not to bother querying at all. But querying continues to serve many important purposes – not the least of which is that, whether we like or not, we need gatekeepers standing between our precious manuscripts and the stormy sea of publishing.

Of course, there is more than one way to secure a gate keeper. Self-published authors – if they’re serious about their craft – build their own crew of gate-keepers by hiring quality editors and relying on honest, thorough critique partners. This is not quite the same as scaling the precarious walls that protect the hallowed halls of traditional publishing, but no matter how you define gatekeeper, the need for them is not in any way diminished by the advent of self-publishing.

From my perspective, however, gatekeeping is not the most important function of querying. The most important function of query process is that it forces us to wait. 

Patience is a virtue, they say – one that is increasingly abandoned in the modern world. Back when I started getting serious about writing and publishing (which wasn’t that long ago) I was often told that after finishing a manuscript, an author should set it aside for six months and then come back to it again for a fresh round of edits.

It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone say that. Indeed, if someone were to suggest such a thing at a workshop panel, I suspect they would get booed off the stage with rotten tomatoes.

Six months?? Who’s going to wait six months, only to come back and do more revisions?

In six months, I can have my precious manuscript uploaded to the ebook market, where I will instantly dazzle my readers with the brilliance of my imagination!

In six months, I can write two more novels, because as anyone in the know will tell you, it’s impossible to make a career as writer unless you churn out at least 4 books a year!

In six months, no one will want this novel anyway, because the market changes so quickly, my whole premise will be obsolete!

In six months, the world could end – without anyone having read my novel!!

Yes, yes, I know: Waiting could be disastrous.

But it could also be the best thing that happens to your novel.

Here’s why: Our creative juices depend on giving our brains a rest. Sitting on a manuscript allows your imagination to tinker behind the scenes. Random passages will come back to mind, begging for a little reworking. You’ll remember particular spots where the wording is off or the reader needs more (or less) information. You’ll get new and brilliant ideas to reorganize the story, or you’ll discover something important about one of the characters that wasn’t clear before.

If your novel is part of a series, you might dig into one of the companion novels while you give the first one a break. As you work on that next sequence of events, you’ll realize some things aren’t set up quite as well as you thought in book one – and you’ll be grateful you still have a chance to fix that.

In my experience, sitting on a manuscript transforms it, often for the better. Short of the rare self-discipline to let something simmer – yes, for six whole months – one of the few things that still allows us to simply set a manuscript aside and wait is querying.

Despite these virtues, querying continues to be the ugly underbelly of the writer’s journey. I don’t think it should be that way, despite the inherent challenges imposed by the process.

In light of this, I’ve decided to share more about my own querying experience in the weeks and months (and maybe years!) to come.  The good, the bad, the ugly: all of it will be discussed here. Avoiding names whenever possible, of course – we must protect the innocent!

Whether you’re querying yourself, preparing to query, or feeling put off by the whole idea, I invite you to follow this journey and share your own thoughts and experiences. Who knows? Maybe we’ll all learn something together.

Next week, I’ll have a new tally and a new reflection. Thank you for stopping by!

Independence Revisited

Park Guell 01

Integrating past, present, and future in Park Guell, Barcelona. Photo by Wendy Donnell.

One year ago this week, I traveled to Costa Rica to sign my divorce papers.

Today, I can reaffirm the old saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Because this thing nearly killed me. And now, I feel stronger for it.

The years leading up to the divorce and the months following have been emotionally harrowing. Yet I’m still standing – another way of saying I managed to get back up every time I was knocked down, sometimes of my own accord, but most often with a little help from my friends.

The morning of July 4, 2017, I woke up rested and content, with a peculiar stillness in my heart, like the feel of a quiet forest or the soft rush of an evening breeze.

True to my writer’s instinct, I tried to capture the nature of this peace in words, but without much success. In the end, I could only describe it like this: I was blissfully man-free. Immersed in a hard-won awareness that no person – from my past, my present, or even my many imagined futures – was burdening my heart or mind in any way.

I was alone to greet the sunrise and comfortable in my solitude, satisfied with all the potential contained therein.

This was not the death of emotion or romantic instinct. On the contrary, pain and uncertainty were still with me, as were hope and the desire to share the gift of love, but these and other emotions had paused their frenzied dance and now rested inside my heart, like cats sleeping by the hearth.

It no longer mattered whether I was alone or with someone. It was enough just to be. 

I’m not sure how long this truce will last, but I’ve lived enough years to understand these moments – when you know with calm certainty that you are exactly where you should be in your life and in your heart – are few and far between. They must be cherished and honored, because sooner or later, you’ll be thrown back into the fray. And when that happens, sometimes the one thing that gets you through is the memory of how right it felt the last time you survived.

A year ago I wrote: One life is given to us. We do the best we can with every precious moment, and then we move on.

This past Independence Day, I woke up knowing I’d done my best, and that knowledge has set me free.