Love the Query: 3 Tips, 12 Stages of Despair, and 1 Playlist

LoveQueryFail Faster, Succeed Quicker

The first time I saw “Fail faster, succeed quicker,” I was at an MIT robotics convention. Don’t ask. The idea being each failure teaches one to design a better experiment–or novel. More failures means more learning means, eventually, success. Or that’s the theory.

I’ve been told, variously, to expect to query 50 agents, 140, or 170 before getting to Yes. I know you can do the math, but just for the record, that is 169 rejections. 169.

I was on the floor after five. Just 44 or 134 or 164 more to go! 🙂

Flaunt that Shame

At dinner that night, my family and I toasted the five rejections. We quoted the harshest lines. Loudly. We toasted each agent. Her agency. Her parents. And her dog.

I went to bed grinning. But the next morning was, you know, brutal.

Flip That Incentive

I decided to reward failure: Success doesn’t earn rewards; rejections do. Fine chocolate! Cappuccino! Every five rejections merited extra goodies. Turns out I’m not the only one to come up with this theory. Kim Liao explains how she learned to “flip the incentive” from her successful writer friend who scored residencies, publications and awards by setting goals for rejection: 100 a year.

The next time I sat down to query, the shame-flaunting and incentive-flipping had created a tiny yogic distance from the self-loathing and despair. And with that distance, I re-read the agents’ rejection notes. If a suggestion rang true, I revised accordingly. But I didn’t send out a query after I finished all those revisions. Not that day. Or the next. Or for the next 60 days.

Ginning Up to Fail Query Again

I needed me some Mojo. Serious Mojo. Anthemic outrage. Desire, despair, and vogueing. (Strike a pose, let’s get to it. Thanks, Madonna.). I needed me some sham confidence before I could send out even one more query.

Tunes ribboned through my head. Chronologically almost. Motown then disco (there’s no accounting for the taste of the subconscious*) punk on up through aughts folk to today’s top 40 (see * above). And then they sorted themselves into query stages. To wit:

Querying: the Playlist

Ego Boost (Winter)

  1. Bang, Bang. Relevant Lyric: “She might’ve let you hold her hand in school, but I’mma show you how to graduate.”
  2. We Will Rock You. Yeah, baby! Bring on the Bombast!

Ego Boost (Spring, Fall)

Ego Boost (Summer)

Shining Star Thanks, Maurice.

Weary, Righteous Determination

Lift Up Every Stone. From bruised pride to Earthy vitality.

Anthemic Desire

  1. Gloria. (Van Morrison, live 1965 version)
  2. Dance this Mess Around. Relevant Lyric: “Why don’t you dance with me?” Scream along!

While You Wait (Sentimental)

You Keep Me Hanging On. Relevant lyric: “Set me Free, why don’t ya babe. You really don’t want me. You just keep me hanging on.” 

While You Wait (Menacing)

  1. Call Me. Mild menace.
  2. One Way or Another (I’m Gonna Get You). Stalker-ish.

Self Pity, Stage I

(Sentimental Yet Tinged with Vitality)

96 Tears. Self-explanatory.

Self Pity, Stage II (Tinged with Nihilism)

I Wanna Be Sedated. Self-explanatory.

Hinge Song:

Moving from Self Pity to… Resilience!

Reach Out (I’ll Be There). Relevant lyric: “Now if you feel that you can’t go on, because all of your hope is gone and your life is filled with much confusion until happiness is just an illusion, and your world around is crumbling down, Darling, Reach out, Come on Girl, Reach out Darling, reach out for me…”

Fun fact: When lead singer Stubbs hit the very top of his vocal range, he sounded hurt. So the producers pushed him to sing the entire song right past that edge. Know the feeling.

Ironic Self Pity

(Because Querying is Not a Straight Line**)

Gone, Gone. Bouncy tune against (massively depressed) Relevant Lyric: “Gone like my last paycheck, like a fifth of gin, like a Nixon file, like a landlord’s smile, like the furniture, like the rest of her, my baby’s goooooone awaaaaaay.”

Sophisticated, Ironic Self Pity

(See ** above.) 

At the fulcrum of ironic detachment and desire, Santa Baby is querying Nirvana. Relevant lyric: “Santa Baby, just slip a sable under the tree, for me, been an awful good girl. Ba—ba-boom, A 54 convertible too, light blue. Think of all the fellas [agents] I haven’t kissed. [Emphasis mine]… Santa baby, I want a yacht, and, really, that’s not a lot… Fill my stocking with a duplex. And checks.” 

So that’s it. Repeat as needed. And Query on, Writer Friends. Query on.

For a heartening look at the woefully misguided literary world who rejected (complete with scathing condemnations) blockbusters and literary giants ranging from The Da Vinci Code to Moby Dick to Lord of the Flies to Lolita to The Color Purple, click here.

8 comments

  1. Love this Lisa, and your playlist! It doesn’t seem fair that writers have to go through all this pain and it never gets easier. When I was querying my technique for dealing with rejection (and I got many) was to send out another query right away. I’m such an anticipation junkie that I would immediately switch over to hoping about my next query, and sort of forget the painful rejection.

    • Lisa Birk

      Emily! I’m adopting your technique! I bet it helps get over that sinking feeling post rejection. Or at least bridges it.

    • Lisa Birk

      Stephanie, betting you have some awesome playlists. I’m consulting with you for celebratory tunes when I finally get to Yes.

  2. Bonnie Waltch

    Love the song list, Lisa, especially the John Hiatt (I’m a huge fan). I can totally relate to the rejections and having to pick yourself up again and start over (sob). Keep on rocking on!

  3. Carol D. Gray

    Boy, can I relate! This playlist should be required gear for every writer. Thanks for putting it together.

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