Querying? Think Outside the Box to Get Noticed

Kath here. Please welcome longtime WU community member LynDee Walker. LynDee is an award-winning journalist. She traded cops and deadlines for burp cloths and onesies when her oldest child was born. Writing the Headlines in Heels mysteries gives her the best of both worlds. Her debut mystery novel Front Page Fatality is receiving advanced praise.

“Author LynDee Walker sure knows her way around a plot twist. She kept me turning pages late into the night, following the rollercoaster adventures of her fashionably feisty heroine—crime reporter and designer shoe fanatic Nichelle Clarke. Front Page Fatality is smart, funny, and loaded with surprises. A terrific debut mystery.” —Laura Levine, author of the Jaine Austen mystery series

LynDee says, ” I have learned so much from WU over the years, and I wanted a way to give something back to the community here. This was the thing about my journey that was different that a lot of others, and I thought the story might help someone else reach their goals.

Take it away, LynDee!

Any writer who’s done more than a half-hour of research on the publishing industry can tell you there are some cardinal rules of querying. In summary: look up submission guidelines (and then follow them), personalize your query letter, wait out the quoted response time and then some before you nudge (and for the love of God, don’t even think about calling), and never reply to a rejection.

I know the rules backward and forward, the obsessive research cortex in my reporter’s brain having caused me to spend way more time than anyone should poring over agent and editor blogs and tweets.

For over a year, I followed the rules to the letter. Know when I got a book deal? When I broke one.

Now, before you reach for that phone to call up all the agents you queried with a mass email yesterday (kidding!) let me say I’m not here to advocate willy-nilly flouting of publishing’s hard-and-fast rules. But I am here to share my story and hopefully give you an idea of when bending one could help you, and how to go about it.

When I started querying Front Page Fatality, I read about agents, made a careful list, and sent letters written just for them. When I got requests (18 from 31 queries) I again followed all the directions, sent off my manuscript, and held my breath (chewed my nails, drank wine, wore out the refresh button on my email) waiting for replies. Some never came. The ones that did were all rejections. And they all said pretty much exactly the same thing: “you’re a talented writer with a great voice, and this was a tough call, but I decided to pass on this one. If you don’t find representation for it elsewhere, please send me your next project.”

In fact, I thought that was the industry standard form rejection until some writer friends informed me that it was good for a publishing pro to ask to see more of your work.

LynDee WalkerAfter the first 17 rejections, a couple of things happened in my life that caused me to set my publishing goals aside for a while: I had a(nother) baby, and my mother passed away. Eventually, mom’s insistence that my book was good (because, let’s face it, all the rejections can make the most confident among us question that, can’t they?) made me dust it off and do a serious search for a small press that might be a good fit for my novel. I may have very well shouted “eureka!” when I came across Henery Press, a young publishing company with a catalog of almost exclusively humorous mystery. Their cover art was amazing, the book blurbs hilarious and interesting.

I read the sub guidelines carefully and sent off my manuscript. Three and a half weeks later I got a polite, encouraging rejection that said the same thing the other 17 did. The difference this time? Front Page Fatality was the only piece of my fiction my mom got to read before she died, and I really, really wanted to work with this publisher.

So I replied to the rejection. Gasp!

I know. I’m such a goody-two-shoes, I shocked myself.

Here are my caveats, before you dive into your rejection file and start emailing folks:

*The editor had been complimentary and had asked to see other projects from me. Since I knew by then that this doesn’t go in most form rejections, I was pretty sure there really was something she liked about my novel.

*I was nice. This might seem like a no-brainer, but it’s important.

I emailed back the same day and said, essentially, “I’m so sorry if I’m being a pain, but if you have time and it’s not too much trouble, could you please tell me that the heck is the matter with this book?”

See, I knew my book wasn’t perfect. I knew it could be better. But after years of revising and beta readers and everything else you’re supposed to do to get a book ready to submit, I wasn’t sure what else to do to it to get that “tough call” everyone kept talking about to swing in my favor.

I chewed my nails some more, figuring I might have just decimated my chances of submitting anything else there.

Two hours later, I got a reply. A very sweet reply that called my book “a gem in the slush pile” (I totally framed it). It also outlined two major issues that would require a massive rewrite (try 53,000 words deleted and replaced with 48,000 new ones) to address.

I should have had a cartoon lightbulb over my head as I read that email. As soon as I read her comments, I knew I could fix it, and I was so excited to have something to fix that I (gasp!) emailed her again to thank her for her help.

That time I got a reply that ended with “if you want to rework the manuscript, I’d be interested.”

I danced around my kitchen for a good while. And then I dove back into my book. Three months later, I sent back the new version, and ten days after that, my editor called me to offer me a contract.

Since then, Front Page Fatality has hit number 1 on amazon in new humorous fiction, and I’ve signed three more contracts: two for novels and one for a novella, all in the Nichelle Clarke series. I am constantly looking behind shrubs and around corners for Rod Serling and my arm is red from all the pinching it I’ve done, and I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t replied to that email.

Rules are nice. This goody-goody is a big believer in them. But every once in a while, breaking the right one can change your whole life.

Follow LynDee on FaceBook and  Twitter to learn more. Front Page Fatality is available now at all e-retailers. Get a signed copy and support a wonderful independent bookshop: Fountain Bookstore

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Comments

  1. Keith Hood says

    “I am constantly looking behind shrubs and around corners for Rod Serling…”

    That is a great line.

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    • says

      Thanks, Keith! It’s true. I had a conversation with another writer about it last month, though, and we determined that as long as I’m not smelling unfiltered camels for no reason, I’m probably still in this dimension. :) Yes, I am a classic TV nerd.
      LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  2. Denise Willson says

    From one goody-goody to another, LynDee, congratulations, and kudos for being yourself. In a world of tight rules, sometimes we forget we are just people, human beings capable of outside-the-box thinking at any given moment. Agents and editors are no different. Like you, I’ve seen it.

    My best to you.

    Denise Willson
    Author of A Keeper’s Truth

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    • says

      Thanks, Denise! It’s so easy to think of agents and editors as mystical bequeathers of literary bounty, or as heartless robots, when you’ve been on the query-go-round for a while, isn’t it? Happily, they are not! All the book people I’ve met are lovely folks who are passionate about their work. It’s much easier to relate when you keep that in mind.
      LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  3. says

    Congratulations on your success! What an encouraging story! Is it too bold to say that I have often wondered if small presses may just be the future of traditional publishing? They seem more inclined to think out of the box in their offerings while providing the writer editing and promotional support – things that are expensive if one wants to go the self publishing route and still put out a good product that gets noticed. As to breaking the rules, I think if one has done extensive research, written the very best book possible, and still finds the golden ring illusive, why not? All anyone can say is no, and as you have shown us, they might just say yes!

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    • says

      Thank you, Linda! It truly is like walking around in a dream. I will say I’ve had an amazing experience with Henery Press. I get a lot of attention and support, and they have a great, inventive marketing team that does think outside the box–with great results! Thanks for stopping by, and best of luck!
      LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  4. says

    If you don’t ask the question, the answer is always no. I tell my kids this all the time, but hesitate myself. No one wants to be a bother or a nag, but sometimes it is the only way to go.
    Mary Jo Burke´s last blog post ..Hello world!

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  5. says

    Great story, LynDee. You got me thinking about a rejection I received a year ago that said the same thing – that while they’re not interested in the novel I queried, they’d be interested in seeing more work of mine. I should have read between the lines, never thinking I should see what I could do about revising the first one!

    The wheels are turning now…

    Kate
    4amWriter´s last blog post ..Writer…Uninterrupted

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  6. Anise Rae says

    I loved reading your post, LynDee!

    Try, try again and if that doesn’t work, dare to ask for help. Congrats on being brave . . . and on your new release!

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  7. says

    Congratulations on the launch of your career, LynDee! Getting any kind of feedback from agents along the way can be invaluable. I have a similar rule-breaking story—it didn’t result in an offer of representation, but it did have great results.

    I sent my ms to a desired agent and a mentor from college at the same time. My mentor wrote back saying that to her, one of my plot decisions made my protagonist look weak. I immediately write the agent another note and asked, if she hadn’t read the ms yet, would she keep this criticism in mind and let me know what she thought? The agent read the ms and called me and we spoke for 50 minutes! She gave me valuable feedback about where she thought the book truly ended (earlier than I had thought) and agreed to look at it again post-revision.

    She did not end up offering representation, as she didn’t really know how to market the book, but I will be forever grateful for the hand-up she offered me, since I now have a great agent and my book will be coming out from Sourcebooks in Jan. 2014!

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  8. says

    This is so inspiring! I too am a former reporter. I think you found a way to follow and then break the rules perfectly. And the part about your mom was very touching!

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    • says

      Oh, thank you Lorraine! I’m glad you enjoyed my story, and I hope it helps you find your own path. I miss my mom, but I know she’s proud. And likely saying “I told you so,” several times a day. ;) Thanks for taking the time to read.
      LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  9. says

    It’s a skill to know when to set aside the rules for a greater principle. I can’t help thinking that you and your editor began on such a positive, mutually respectful note, that it bodes well for the rest of your interactions.

    Congrats, LynDee. It’s been wonderful to see your career take off.
    Jan O’Hara´s last blog post ..Ongoing Brain Wars (Plus Writer Unboxed Redirect)

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    • says

      Thank you, Jan!

      I sure hope so. My editor is truly a lovely, brilliant woman and I have a great deal of respect for her. Front Page Fatality is a better book thanks to her sharp eyes and insightful comments, and I learned so much from the process of putting a book out. I just turned in the second Nichelle book this week, in fact, and am anxious to hear what she thinks. I’m also excited about meeting her in person at Malice Domestic, which is in just two months!

      Also, I would not be here without all the years of support and encouragement from you and all my other writer pals—so thanks for being there.
      LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  10. says

    Thanks for an excellent post, LynDee, and for your courage in sharing wisdom on when rule-breaking might be ok. I love that you did all the right things first, starting with writing a fabulous novel and listening to advice along the way (before stuffing the rules in the closet and body slamming the door, of course).

    Congratulations on your contract & best wishes for a spectacular publishing future.
    Rebekah Postupak´s last blog post ..Flash! Friday # 13 — WINNERS!

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    • says

      Thank you so much, Rebekah! I think as writers, we have to write in order to be happy, but trying to get published can be so frustrating and confusing that it sucks the joy right out of writing. It was so important for me to be able to come to WU and see that there were happy endings, because it helped me keep going. I hope this has done that for a few folks today. Thanks for stopping in and sharing your thoughts!
      LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  11. Kate Klein says

    I greatly admire your willingness to go against the grain, LynDee, AND your willingness (make that excitement!) to revise your novel to make it the best it could be. Congratulations~ I can’t wait to read your book.

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  12. Larry says

    Stumbling across here via a cross-tweet, so hello, all!

    I had to respond in particular to one point about sometimes breaking the “never respond to a rejection” rule. I’ve done it exactly once, when I was told that the short story I’d sent was over the word-count limit by a good margin (as well as other reasons). I was very much a newbie, and nervous as hell, but I replied to ask specifically if there was a certain standard counting method to be aware of, and explained that I did so solely because my MS Word counter listed it as right on target (over by 100). That asking and his (extremely kind and gracious) reply was the only way I’d have known that the counter in my version of Word was hopelessly broken (off on that document by about 35% and gave varying counts depending on how and when I checked it), and I no longer rely on it. It didn’t lead to a sale, but it did lead to information I absolutely had to have as a starting writer.

    (For those wondering, it was Office XP/2003. His version of Word, as well as Open Office and another program which I forget, all gave much higher counts, and I got a number closer to his when checking it a different way as well. I’ve long since switched to a newer version of Office as well as Scrivener, and no longer have those problems.)

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  13. says

    Hi Larry,

    Thanks for coming by, and thanks for sharing. I had the same issue with my old laptop, actually! I bought a MacBook Air a year ago and not only do I love the portability, but Pages and Scrivener seem to agree more about word counts.

    Glad the editor you contacted was nice enough to reply, too. I think maybe we get a bigger sense of “I’m being a pest” sometimes than is warranted. It also might be a case of “those who worry about being a bother generally are not.” But you hear and see so many horror stories, it definitely makes you wary.
    LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  14. says

    Congrats, Lyndee! What a wonderful story!

    I’m currently struggling with a completed MS that’s in need of some major revisions. As of yesterday, I was willing to put it to the side (out of frustration) and start something new. But your story has inspired me to make those revisions. If you can do it, then so can I, right? I needed the motivation. Thanks for giving it to me.
    Alison Bliss´s last blog post ..Things I Love

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  15. says

    Loved this piece and congratulations, LynDee! Sometimes that’s all we need after all the years of hard work and rejection – an answer to the question, “what the heck is still wrong with my MS???” And you should be very proud of the fact that you DID IT! You kept working, even when it was so hard.

    Finding you on FB if that’s okay! :-)
    Kimberley Griffiths Little´s last blog post ..Scholastic, April 1, 2013

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  16. says

    I love your story, and your book sounds amazing — can’t wait to read. Thank you so much for the encouraging post, and congratulations on your well-earned success!
    Julia Munroe Martin´s last blog post ..To Do

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  17. says

    Sorry for the delayed replies, y’all! I was actually making a “press clips” page for my website based on the advice of today’s WU post and came over to grab the link when I saw your comments. I’m so glad I helped some of you, and really appreciate everyone taking the time to read and comment! :)
    LynDee Walker´s last blog post ..BURIED LEADS: The Next Big Thing

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  18. says

    Encouraging post LynDee! I have written two stories and revised them several times (and can still revise them more). I was thinking of looking for an agent for them, but feel discourage of having them rejected (they have been rejected before in competitions and magazines I sent them to. But with your experience I will not give up and consider pitching them to agents.

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