Friday, July 12, 2013

The Physical Experience of Learning

By Anna Blake

I attended The Query Lab with Sorche Fairbank on Thursday of the PPWC 2013 weekend. Ms. Fairbank introduced herself and warned us that she might get a nosebleed from the dryness. I immediately liked her.

She began by describing her job as a literary agent: promoting authors, endless meetings, project planning; a 24/7 job filled with creativity and drudgery. Then at some point, probably late in the day, maybe at the end of a long week, she makes time to read a stack of a hundred or so query letters. She’s hoping for one that will catch her attention. Even I can do that math.

This is my first query letter. I did online research, and then resisted writing it. After a dozen edits, I fell in love with my book all over again. I must say, my query is brilliant. I can’t wait to read the book. (Writing is an intrinsically arrogant behavior and a writer has to believe that their words are worthy.) But now that I visualize my query in that stack, my confidence starts to slouch a bit.

While I was trying to balance my vast ego with my low self-esteem, Ms. Fairbank launched into the parts of a query letter. There were absolute rules that must be followed, unless breaking the rules in a good way might work. Precise word clarity and razor sharp editing got redefined for quite a few of us. She had a worst of folder with queries that were full of sound and fury, and consequently a bit ridiculous. Some writers actually didn’t use spell check. We all laughed and worried. But there were examples of good queries as well, books that had me at hello.

We took a short break and with a thick stack of our queries and two hours left, the editing began. The reader (Apologies, I don’t remember her name and she did a wonderful job) began reading the first query out loud and then Ms. Fairbank made comments. She’s knowledgeable and perceptive, with a passion for her work. Ms. Fairbank is just plain smart. Her opinion is going to matter to me.

Judgments were quick and impersonal; it was sound critique. My heart ached for the writers whose query got a red pen, but I hoped mine would, too. As more queries were edited, it became clear that writing for an agent is a different thing entirely. It’s a pass/fail test in immediacy; there is no sauntering to the point.

The ugly truth: It’s a challenging thing for a writer to query-ize their manuscript to a couple hundred scintillating words, but if we can’t sell the idea there, it probably won’t happen in 300 or 400 pages either.

Another hour passes and we agree to skip the next break with so many queries yet to read. I’m getting stiff from sitting too long. I could use some coffee and a walk to stretch my legs. I notice the more my backside hurts, the more my compassion for the other writers flattens. Ms. Fairbank is focused, insightful, and consistent. It’s just me that’s buckling under the stack of literary dreams.

I can’t ignore my backside. In my real job, I train horses and riders. Seat awareness is a giant part of riding (barn humor), and I am always trying to find a polite way to encourage riders to put their minds in their hinds, to think and perceive with their backsides. Right now, my butt is affirming the pass/fail importance of a really inspiring query letter.

Is this literally how an agent feels? Is working through a stack of query letters actually a pain in their derriere, as well? That’s a lot for a lone query to conquer. Are they backside sore, searching for the right query in the haystack, like I search my thesaurus for the right word? I love writing, but sometimes it makes my backside hurt, too.

At the last moment, the reader begins my perfect query. I ‘m thrilled and time slows down just like during a car wreck. And… Ms. Fairbank finds plenty in my query that doesn’t work for her. When the chopping and hacking is done, it’s a better query and my confidence is somehow intact. My opinion of Ms. Fairbank stands, she is just plain smart. I’m elated and humbled. And my backside agrees.

Thanks for the great day!

About the Author: My meager bio got a good edit in the query session too. For now, I think I will go with the part Ms. Fairbank liked best: I get four duck eggs a day, if I find them before the dog.