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Requiem for a Query: A guest post by Don Meyer #guestpost #writingcommunity #querying #writers

Sending a query to an agent is probably the most daunting task a writer will ever do. And knowing this, I still inexplicably choose to do so.

My latest manuscript was in my editor’s hands. —He has edited all my manuscripts for the past 20 years. Everything from grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure and phrasing.

While waiting for the manuscript's return, I began composing my query. Studying up. Following the suggestions. The helpful hints and certainly the rules. Once I felt I had the best version ready to go, I waited for the manuscript to come back from him painted red as usual. I worked through all the changes, took a deep breath and emailed the first ten queries to the agents I researched.

Since my work was Historical Fiction, I made sure I only queried those agents who listed the genre as one of their interests and were currently open to submissions. I sent out the next ten after a tweak of the query. As rejections came in, I sent out the next ten and the next, continuing to tighten the wording.

Around the 50-agent mark, I read an article suggesting the acceptable word count for a fiction manuscript was between 80,000 to 110,000. Beyond there is problematic. Well, my word count was 145,000. No wonder the rejections were so forthcoming. The first line of the second paragraph (the introduction) of my query stated: Affaire Intemporelle is a historical novel of 145,000 words ... No doubt ending my chances right then and there. It didn’t matter what my query said, or how it was structured, I had way too many words.

After a lengthy conversation with "my editor," I decided to undertake the task of bringing the word count into an acceptable range. Grinding my way through the manuscript I began purging the story from a single word right up to a whole chapter. It took over three months to bring the word countdown to 107,000. Often, I would have to rework to compensate what I removed. A never-ending balancing act. 38,000 words is a significant chunk to subtract from the original story. After completing a couple of read throughs to ensure the integrity of the story remained (and had an ending), I sent the [new] manuscript off to "my editor" for another pass and get his take on the revised story.

While waiting for him to finish, I had significantly reworked the query. Created a new title for this retooled manuscript: The Hidden American (my protagonist was born of an American mother and British father but raised British.) Once again, I emailed the first ten queries. The rejections were immediate, with six of those first ten responding almost instantly. Obviously, my query was in serious trouble.

Stepping back and completely reworking the query, I sent off the next ten and waited. Rejections were not so forth coming. But, as a matter of course, I did tweak the query (continuing to get the wording right) for the next ten and the next ten and the next. While I tried to keep the focus on agents listing my genre, I will admit later queries were sent to more general fiction agents simply because I thought I should try a different approach to reach more. I focused on the love story in the narrative (because every story must have a romance angle).

I created a dated, numerical log of queries I emailed and posted their response, if any. It helped me keep track of who I queried and who responded. Rather than dwell on a rejection, I queried the next agent. One in, one out.

After 192 submissions for this manuscript version with no success I stepped back and created another version of the manuscript, cutting it down further and reworking the ending(s) to fit the shorter version, which meant I did this all again. Passed the [new] manuscript by "my editor," created a new title: Sinclair Langdon (my protagonist, because it is his story) and created a reworked query. Hopefully, this time my message would filter through.

As we writers know all too well, there are many reasons why a query is rejected, including but not limited to genre and subject. My genre is Historical Fiction, which I read was not so hot a subject. It lacks the grab needed to hook an agent, not high on most lists. It must be the right thing at the right time. My subject was Vietnam, which I also read is synonymous with rejection! Vietnam is old news, yesterday’s story, who cares anymore kind of attitude. With two strikes right out of the gate, it may not have mattered how my query was worded. Or how it was structured. I had already dug a deep hole.

I really do understand the tremendous number of queries overwhelming an agent these days. How hard their job must be to weed through all those queries before even considering, let alone accepting one. I imagine it would be easy to shy away from those that don’t grab their interest immediately, especially, a subject or genre not high on the list. And it isn’t the next whatever. Or a subject already done to death (sorry, truly no pun intended).

To be fair, the more realistic answer may have been my query didn't deliver. It didn't have the right hook, or the left jab, or a clean uppercut, because the punch just didn’t land.

As a Vietnam Veteran, I thought this story focusing on the American involvement following WWII and ultimate creation of South Vietnam, would bring an important perspective to the “how the hell did we get there in the first place.” I created this work as a story rather than a dry recitation of the history behind those events deciding to tell of that period in a more entertaining way. Obviously, my query did not convey my intent to tell this critical historical event. Or if it did, the concept still did not stir the agent’s interest.

In my journey, I also found out the first ten pages of your manuscript need to “pop.” Those pages need to open the door and make the reader want to visit for a while. Right, sure, I get it. Maybe my first 10 pages were not the grab you, slap you around a few times and tie you to the chair kind of grab. But, and a big but here. But what if my query did catch the agent’s interest? Then made it past the genre and the subject. But my first 10 pages of the manuscript fell flat? Good grief, how would I ever know which one doomed me? What are the odds of getting all four pieces aligned when the exercise is to reject at first failure? It certainly is a lot to shoulder, especially since I am competing against thousands of other queries for the agent’s attention.

First and foremost, I’d like to give a huge shout out to all those agents who made the effort to respond, which usually was a form email rejection. (Most agents require an email submission.) Nothing more needs to be said and most appreciated. I believe it is better to know a no than to hang in there hoping and waiting for a response that will never come.

Secondly, a tip of the hat goes out to those agencies for having a “sell by date” on the submissions page. They may have a line saying something like: “if you have not heard back from us in 2, 4, 6, 8, 12 weeks please consider this a pass. Or we have decided to pass. Or know we are not interested. Although, not a response, at least you can set your “sell by date” and if the date comes and goes you know they have passed on your work. Time to move on.

Lastly, the dreaded no response, you never hear back from the agent. Some agents do say on their submission page: “we only respond if we are interested.” Right. I understand, with the overwhelming number of queries they must receive. But, c'mon? My first thought is they didn’t receive my query. Maybe I should send it again, and again? But realistically, I’ll just wait eight weeks (my rule of thumb) and assume I didn’t make the cut? My simple suggestion would be to at least add a “sell by date” to their submissions page which would remove all the guesswork. Knowing a date specific would help relieve the pressure of waiting indefinitely for an answer that may never arrive. It's a thought, just saying.

I can assume my word count doomed me the first time: Affaire Intemporelle is a historical novel of 145,000 words ... 50 submissions. But the next version: The Hidden American, 192 submissions, and the next version: Sinclair Langdon, 126 submissions, let’s put the blame squarely on my query:

"A coming-of-age saga follows Sinclair Langdon as he arrives in French Indochina post war 1945, gun running, investigative reporter and Yvonne, an exotic beauty of French Vietnamese mix, who sets in motion a torrid, forbidden love affair."

The opening line. The hook. All my "tweaks" were attempts to get that line just right. The crux of the novel by which the story builds. Obviously, no matter how I worded it, it was still passed over. I truly believe if my query had the grab and hold needed to convince an agent to consider the work, any issues the other three pieces, genre, subject and first 10 pages may have had, would have had less weight in the decision. Of course, I could be wrong. I usually am.

The one piece of good news, sort of: I did have an agent late in the game respond, for which I am forever grateful. She said:

“… I don’t see this – almost regardless of how good it may be – as something likely to interest commercial mainstream editors. I say this also in light of working with another book dealing with Vietnam, where response has been tepid at best.”

I believe her statement just may have been the Requiem for my query.

The chanting has already begun.

Title: Winds of Discontent

Author: Don Meyer

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: D.P. Meyer Publishing

Book Blurb:

A coming-of-age saga set against the backdrop of the French Indochina War years that follows the chaos of their defeat up to the American take-over and the creation of South Vietnam. Sinclair Langdon, in an act of youthful rebellion against his American mother and British father, arrives in Haiphong Harbour post war 1945. Langdon is quickly recruited to make a delivery only to find out afterwards that he has delivered a load of guns to a rebel force. He is introduced to a besotted British newspaperman who offers him a job as an investigative reporter hoping to get stories from his gun running adventures. In a chance encounter, he meets Yvonne, an exotic beauty of French Vietnamese mix, who sets in motion a torrid forbidden love affair that will entangle Langdon on his journey. Initially running guns to survive, he slowly hones his skills as an investigative reporter covering the historical events of the times, right up to those fateful days in November 1963 when everything changed forever …


“If I did die last night, this surely isn’t Heaven.”

The smell of the harbour coupled with the diesel fumes further engulfed Sinclair Langdon as he lay there suffering from the night before. The ship no longer swayed in the waves, but still rocked against the dock. The pain in his gut caused him to double up before subsiding and letting him stretch back out. The crew always has a toast to the last night out. Shipboard alcohol concocted below deck somewhere. And no doubt the cause of the pain in his gut this morning.

“Hey kid,” the man said gruffly, “time to get off this ship, you’re here.”

Sinclair felt the kick to his side and tried to open his eyes, but the sun burned into them and forced his eyelids to quickly close. His parched throat struggled to get the words out and offered a dry garbled retort.

“Here? Where’s here?”

“Haiphong Harbor. Near Hanoi. Up north. Tonkin area. French Indochina. Late October 1945. Early morning.”

“Right, okay got it.” Sinclair blurted out to stop the man’s cadence and tried to clear his throat. He raised his hand in the air to block the sun and again tried to fully open his eyes.

“C’mon kid get up, last stop.”

“What’s it to you?”

Sinclair looked up at the man who stood over him. Tall, six feet maybe, bearish, but firm like someone who spent time in the sun doing manual labor. He stood there dressed in a wrinkled khaki shirt, open three buttons down and faded dark pants.

“I’m currently in need of a man to help me deliver a load. Captain said you got on last minute and might be in need of some francs. I need to deliver a load. Could use the help.”

Sinclair looked at the man silhouetted in the sun, sat up, shook his head and tried to focus. The pain in his gut returned. He used both arms to hold on.

“What’s the pay?” Sinclair asked.

“How much do you have in your pocket?” The man laughed.

Sinclair reached in and removed a Dix franc and Cinquante francs.

“Sixty-francs? I believe I can do better.” The man laughed again.

“Drank the crews’ rot gut last night.” Sinclair said. “My head’s not real clear. Load of what exactly?”

“Does it matter?” The man said.

“What do I need to do?” Sinclair responded.

“Ride along, maybe help unload, watch my back.”

Sinclair looked at him for a long minute then surrendered.

“Yes, I could use some work right about now. Yeah, sure.”

“Name’s Frenchy.” The man pointed down to the dock. “See the truck? Grab your gear. Meet me there.”

Gathering his wits, Sinclair stood and made his way down to his bunk. His gear consisted of a beat-up old grip. A quick search through his clothes found the least offensive shirt and a passable pair of pants to put on, but noticed the clothes hung loose. Now quite sure he lost some weight due to the rancid food on the ship over the last ten days and tucked the shirt into his trousers believing it would help. He stuffed everything else into the ancient grip and took one last look around before he quickly made his way off the ship.

Two burly men loaded the back of the truck as he approached. Six large wooden crates were stamped Machine Parts. They loaded the last crate onto the truck as Frenchy walked up. The bigger man waited while Frenchy handed him several francs, grunted and walked away. The second man fell in behind him.

“Ready, kid?”

“Yeah, and don’t call me kid, name’s Sinclair Langdon.”

“St. Clair Langdon? You British?”

“Sin-clair, not the British St. Clair, like the American author. My American mother liked the name, my British father had no choice.”

They both climbed into the truck, Frenchy in the driver’s seat and Sinclair on the passenger side. Both doors closed simultaneously.

“Look kid, not that I mind, but those clothes. I mean, well, they could use a good wash and maybe some that fit. You look like you stole those from a man twice your size.”

“Yeah, they’re mine. I lost some weight.” Sinclair said. “Food’s not real edible on the ship. Neither was laundry available. Rotating last couple of days, but once we got close, the heat. Well, no chance to do anything about it, maybe after I get some francs.”

“So how old are you, kid? Ah, sorry, I mean Sin-clair.” Frenchy asked.

“Nineteen. Why, how old are you? And you got a real name?”

“Thirty something. Yes, Frenchy.”

“Seriously, a French guy wants to be called Frenchy?”

The truck pulled out slowly as Frenchy ground through the gears.

“So, ah Frenchy, you know how to drive this truck?” Sinclair said.

“Good enough. Why, you do better?” Frenchy said.

“Well, at least I know how to shift using a clutch. You might want to try.”

“You mean like this?” Frenchy slid the gear into second, pushed forward, and smoothly shifted into third as they hit the street.

“That’ll work.”

They both sat silent as the truck lumbered along and passed through the streets of the city, past a block of homes, most in need of repair and after, a newer section of well-kept homes before beginning the journey into the countryside. Before long Frenchy slowed and turned the truck onto a rough dirt road. The truck bounced along, which caused Frenchy to say a string of words in French Sinclair didn’t understand, nor did he want to ask. The next two bounces caused Sinclair to hold on. The truck took some violent ups and downs, but Frenchy held fast and moved the truck along. About when Sinclair thought the truck couldn’t withstand another bounce they pulled into an opening.

As the dust settled, Sinclair could see men standing there amidst the haze. Frenchy, already out of the truck walked toward those men. Sinclair opened his door and cautiously stepped out.

Buy Link:

Author Biography:

Don Is the author of six novels, A Vietnam Memoir, several short stories, a number of essays and a couple of articles.

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