This week I’ve spent hours working on finalizing a query letter for publishers and literary agents, as well as shaping a 1-2-page synopsis of my first manuscript.
I approached this task in my usual methodical way. I researched writing queries and synopses.
As so often happens, I found lots of advice, much of it conflicting.
I took notes, bookmarked sites and started rough drafts. My research mode doesn’t usually last more than an hour or two. At the point when much of what I’m finding is repetitive and I feel more bored than interested I know it’s time to switch to writing, no matter how tentatively or sloppily. One can’t begin editing and refining unless there are words on the page.
Out of all the templates, formulas, critiques and examples of “successful” queries and synopses, one shining question stood out, and I didn’t find it on a search. I found it on a literary agency website. “Tell us why you were the one who had to write this book.”
Why am I the one who had to write this book?
I’ve been carrying this question around with me all week, as I lifeguard and teach swimming lessons, as I spend hours working on my laptop, as I sit in the barn and sort through boxes of things from my old life.
I realize this question is the opposite of my usual frame, no matter what I’m doing. My conviction of my own inadequacy and that others will invariably be disappointed in me means I’m focused on all the reasons why I’m not qualified to write a book — or do almost anything else. What makes the submission task so daunting is coming up with a realistic, concise, clear evaluation and presentation of my creative work — and I’m extremely resistant to trying.
Yet the hardest work of the query has actually been going on for months, or even years, as I wrote, edited, rewrote, re-edited, and nurtured a tentative, almost shameful feeling of accomplishment, satisfaction and amazement that I actually wrote a book — a long one!
Thinking about why I had to be the one to write The Hanged Man turns me away from all the things I’m not and asks me for what I am.
I have little confidence in anyone else finding my work valuable, but the fact is I find it — and myself — valuable, so I can write about that. I can speak for myself and my vision. I cringe when I’m asked to write a short biography, but I can write about why I’m the one who had to write this book.
As I began to answer that question, writing the query suddenly got easier. I was able to evaluate my creation more clearly, and find a comfortable balance between overconfidence and no confidence at all. I stopped worrying about never being published before, winning no contests or awards, and receiving no formal or traditional higher education for writing, and started thinking about all the reasons why I, and only I, had to write this particular piece of work.
It made a nice change.
Obviously, I want to get published, but I wonder if the submission process itself is not the biggest payoff for me, regardless of the outcome. The necessity to stand up, speak up, support and believe in myself in order to be the writer I am drives me to push myself in ways that nothing else could, because nothing else is as important to me. It would be much easier to coast along with my old paradigm: I’m no good, and neither is anything I think, say, make or do. It’s my familiar story, and I feel anxious when I think about rewriting it.
I notice this tension between believing in myself and having no confidence in myself at work, too. I watch a colleague teach a water exercise class and admire the way he structures the class and his manner with the class participants. I think about the next time I’ll be teaching that class, and how I’m so much less than my coworker. I prepare and worry, knowing I won’t measure up, knowing the class would rather have another teacher, knowing I won’t do it right.
Then I get into the water, stop thinking and anticipating, assess the participants and their physical and social needs, and off we go. I have a good time. I feel calm and competent. I stop fearing I’m not good enough and give it my best. By the time the class is over, I wonder what all my fuss was about.
Why am I the one who had to write this book? Why am I the one who has to teach a class on any given day?
Maybe simply because I’m the one who did write it, and teach it. Maybe I was engaging with those activities because I was the best one for that particular job.
“Why can’t you be like …?”
Others have asked me that question, but not as often as I’ve asked it of myself.
I can’t be like all the other wonderful, competent, gifted, beautiful people in the world because I’m not them. I can’t follow their paths. Their definition of success may not be the same as mine. I can’t look like them, teach like them, write like them or make choices the way they do.
The piece I never think about is that they can’t be like me, either. Because they’re not me.
We can learn from each other. We can support each other. We can tear each other down. At the end of the day, though, we can only be ourselves. Everyone else is taken.
I have a query letter I feel good about now. I followed traditional conventions and standards for such a letter — to a point. But I also let my own voice and style shine through. No one but me could have written the query or the manuscript accompanying it. The day I finished the query I submitted to my first agent. The next agent I want to approach requires a synopsis and a query letter.
Sigh. Back to the drawing board. This time for a synopsis only I can write.
For the most part, I love living the life I have. I don’t find myself or my writing either inadequate or disappointing. Maybe an agent and publisher out there will agree with me.
I’ll never know if I don’t try.
And I’ll find my own path through the query and submission process, a path only I can make.
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