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  • Melissa Westemeier

and more murder

By January, Small and Graff gave me some valuable feedback on my murder mystery and I rolled up my sleeves. Writing requires juggling a few things at once. I had to revise the book (this was the easy part), create a list of small presses and literary agents to query (kind of easy), and prep my query materials (difficult). Query materials include a letter. The letter needs to be snappy, fresh, compelling, yet adhere to certain rules. The first paragraph should hook the reader with a pitch about your book, explain your audience, outline your marketing plan, and establish your bio and why you are the best person to write your book. The letter should be well-written, in a unique voice, and error-free. In other words, query letters are impossible to write.

You also need to create various excerpts because one agent will ask for 10 pages, another will ask for 50, some want the first chapter, others want the first three chapters. It's best to create a fresh document and paste in your text, being mindful of the fact that each recipient will also have preferences for whether or not your pages are numbered and your name appears anywhere on the file so you'll probably need to change it when you send it anyway.

Ugh.

Querying sucks. Really really really sucks.

Then you need to write a one-paragraph bio, come up with a list of published books similar to yours, and create a one-paragraph synopsis as well as a one-page synopsis. And a book blurb, one a single sentence and one a full paragraph.

Writing a synopsis of your book is akin to cleaning out your bedroom closet. A lot of effort required, mediocre satisfaction at the end.

I haven't mentioned the rejection that will inevitably follow. Seasoned writers know they'll probably get rejected 99.999999% of the time when they send out a query. I play my odds by sending out 100 queries. You read that right. I always send an even hundred. When that fails (and it usually does), I abort that writing project and move on to the next one.

It's a brutal experience, not gonna lie.

At least it doesn't cost me a fortune in postage to query anymore. Since I started over twenty years ago, writers now manage their queries online and some agents and publishers even use QueryTracker, an easy online form where one can paste their information. Back in the olden days we had to include a SASA (that's self-addressed-stamped-envelope for you young readers) and the postage varied based on the number of pages enclosed, so you got to know your local postmaster well as you weighed each query packet and counted out the correct change to pay for its journey to and fro.


(Not) me mailing my queries back in the olden days


Even though querying is cheaper in 2023, it's still time-consuming. It takes me two hours to send out ten queries. Oh, and most agents will tell you to only query one agent at a time after researching them carefully to make certain they represent the type of work you're writing, but allow them 2 weeks to 6 months before you hear back from them--and if you don't hear back from them? Assume they're not interested. It's not you, it's them. They're very busy.

Yeah. It's horrible.

My system is to jot down the name of each person I query and then cross them out if/when they reply. Some will send you an autoreply that day, others will get back to you...never. I actually got a rejection email last week from a query I sent in April. No kidding.

After starting the query process, which will eat a couple months of your spare time, it's a good idea to keep your spirits up by starting a new project, which is what I did. In April I reached my 100-query mark and began piddling around with a brand new book idea.


After casting 100 queries for my murder mystery into abyss, I got a few nibbles. Then I got a bite in June. A publisher called me and explained her enthusiasm for my project. The following conversation took place:

Publisher: First, it needs to be a series. Three books minimum. What's the next book about? Me: I have no idea--I'd recently had a vague idea of a sequel and jotted down the title as a lark.

P: Okay, start writing it. Figure it out. You can figure out the third book later. Also, you have a bit at the end where (NAME REDACTED TO PRESERVE SUSPENSE) plans to go to Mexico. No one goes to Mexico anymore. They have to go to Portugal.

Me: Okay. (jots down note)

P: And no mob. The west coast mob is nothing like the east coast mob. If you don't know the mob, you cannot write about the mob. You can't write about the mob.

Me: (I wrote about the mob? I didn't think I did...) Okay. No mob. (adds to notes)

P: Finally, who is the other person involved in this? You list a second name with yours.

Me: (I explain the situation, how my friend came up with broad strokes--the setting, 6 characters, inciting incident two years ago. But she's got vascular dementia and lives in a memory care facility, so I took the ideas she pitched and wrote the whole book. I just want her name on the cover along with mine, as a gift to her since she'll never get to write a book with her condition.)

P: (yelling) YOU NEED A COPYRIGHT LAWYER! THERE NEEDS TO BE A LEGAL AGREEMENT! YESTERDAY!


Well, I hung up the phone feeling rattled. Excited but rattled. First, I had no idea I couldn't write a book and surprise someone with it by including their name on the cover. Second, I didn't know I'd written a book about the west coast mafia. There was a lot to process.


After performing some recon on the publisher, I educated myself on copyright law and reached out to my friend's son who is her power of attorney. The cat was out of the bag now, but he happily agreed to whatever contract I could create with a lawyer if it meant his mom would have the pleasure of seeing her name on the book's cover. I located a lawyer. Then I tried to figure out what the actual--I mean, I didn't remember ever writing about the mob. I used the "find" tool to search my manuscript and the word "mob" never came up. Neither did "mafia." I reviewed the entire text, changing the reference from "Mexico" to "Portugal" along the way and that's when I caught it: there's a reference to a family. To this woman's mind, the word "family" implied "mob." Good grief! I finessed those paragraphs and just before I resent the manuscript I got another email.

A literary agent was requesting a Zoom meeting with me to discuss my manuscript.

WHAT? I paused for a whole milisecond before typing my reply. "THAT SOUNDS LOVELY! I AM AVAILABLE! CANNOT WAIT TO TALK!"

I get a little shouty when I'm excited.

You see, the publisher had some mixed reviews online and they hadn't offered me anything in writing. Between that and the whole copyright thing I felt out of my depth. If I could sign with a literary agent, all of these headaches would go away and become someone else's problem! And this agent could maybe even sell my other books!

I met Dawn Dowdle from Blue Ridge Literary Agency and we talked for about an hour. This lovely woman was upfront about the reality of publishing (ugly) but believed in my writing and assured me she could get me a better deal than the one I'd been offered. She also insisted I write a 3-book series, and better get cracking. I left the call feeling like I'd reached a safe harbor at last. She was organized, strategic in her effort to get people's work out there, and an excellent communicator. I trusted her completely.


It was now June and the book I'd begun piddling around with got sidelined while I began writing a sequel to the first. A copyright agreement with my friend and her son got signed and sent along to Dawn. Dawn made me put the first book through another round of editing and I had to create a few more documents to go along with it. My hands were full, but at least I wasn't mired in the query process any longer.

In July I brought the first 70 pages of the sequel to my writing partners, the aforementioned Small and Graff, and they loved it and I wrote all their ideas as they guessed whodunnit and how and why. (I really didn't have all of these parts worked out yet, so their speculation was enormously helpful.)

In August Dawn's editor returned my manuscript and I hacked away at it again. She wouldn't shop it around until it was perfect, which was part of her agency's success. I revised it again and she sent me a list of publishers, "first tier." Did I approve? Of course! Go! Sell my book! Make my dreams come true!

Dawn circled back to me in October, saying she wanted to give the first tier more time. Typically she'd send one round, wait a month, then send the book out to another round of publishers. I trust you. Whatever you recommend is what I want to do. And I waited.

At the end of October I got an email asking if I'd be free for a phone call on Monday. I flew into the living room and announced:

Me: OMG! I think she sold my book! Dawn wants to schedule a phone call!

D: Don't get your hopes up. 2023 hasn't been your year, Mel. She probably wants to cut you loose.


Yeah, that guy has so much faith in me. Anyway, Dawn called me on Monday and like I figured, she had an offer. "A really good one." She outlined the terms, told me to do my own research on the publisher, and let her know my decision.

Really? What was there to decide? I had an offer! A really good one! But Dawn's the expert, and if she says to do my research and is giving me time to decide, I better take it.


Two months later I still regret not screaming "YES! LET'S SIGN!" when she called me but I had no way of knowing what would happen...





(Yes, this is a cliffhanger. I'll be back with the ending next week.)





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