Handling the Fear Factor

To self-publish or not to self-publish: that is a question that haunts many nervous authors nowadays who are steeped in queries with no response. While we wonder if agents have read our sincere and severely-crafted missives, we also wonder whether we should persist in writing more of them or hunker down with a plan to go it alone.

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A funny thing happened on my way to self-publishing: just as I began to refine a serious plan, I get a request for my full manuscript from an agent. I want to get excited, I do, but then the fears come creeping in.

It’s easy to let them rule you. You’ve been around this block. Why try again? Are your instincts worth anything?

Questions about my self-publishing ideas pound me, too: will readers think self-pub is for hacks–and all my friends who’ve been following my journey think I’ve given up? Can I learn to market my wares? When will I find the time? 

But you do try–both the queries and the self-pub plan–because that’s what real writers do; they don’t stop. They also get information. Like Hope Clark’s primer of wisdom about the facts, just the facts, ma’am, on self-publishing versus traditional. The self-pub plan I’m building is full of strategies to tackle the fearful unknown. These strategies are gleaned from a wealth of great information on the Internet. We live in a world-wide library, folks–there ain’t nothing we can’t learn! Check out this helpful list of tips from Meghan Ward, too. I’ll elaborate on this plan in another post.

Expect that as you conduct your research, the fearful questions will pile up, and that’s a natural part of the process of change. Write the questions down, and approach each like a research paper in high school. Make notes. If you go the agent querying route again, as I am, you’ll start thinking:

How many is too many simultaneous queries? How much research should I do on each agent–should I put ten hours into an agent search, write a query, only to never hear? (And not write in the meantime–there’s the rub!) Did the fact I started with a synopsis of the novel instead of “why I want you as an agent” deter the agent reading this–is that why I never heard? Should I have gone into more detail about why I want this agent or does it sound like flattery? Do I sound too formal, stilted, not at all like my novel’s voice–when many model queries out there are playful and “cool”? 

When you’ve written as many queries as I have, these questions have the whiff of the rhetorical, unanswerable. From what I’ve researched, there are different opinions about how many queries to put out simultaneously; some say five to ten, then hunker down and wait. But if only 10% respond to you, why not double or triple that amount?

Research can tell you some things but talking to a person tells you much more; so I choose to limit my research per agent to an hour. I have a personal rubric that vets an agent based on preferred genres, client list, and statements made in interviews. An agent who has a web presence whether interviews or a personal or agency blog is someone I can get to know fairly quickly. The last criterion is that the agent accepts e-queries. It’s also a psychological strategy to limit my research: why get too invested? If the agent meets my criteria, then it’s worth sending out an email. He or she doesn’t have to be my perfect match on paper, whatever that is, and again, I can’t tell that from online research. I will be able to tell from a phone call where I ask good questions (see below).

Then there is the fact that agents who receive 50+ queries a day have an inbox beyond full, and that may be the one good reason no one cares if your synopsis comes first or last in your query; the point is, the agent may just not have time to read yours. And if you’ve done your research well, the agent will tell you exactly how he or she wants the query on the agency page.

In other words, there aren’t great answers; what you have above are “Lyn’s Answers.” There isn’t a sure path or an Obi Wan to mentor us through this. You have to pose the questions–to query or not to query, to self-publish or not to self-publish–to the universe and then let the answers rise as they simmer in your brain. When you know, you know, as a friend used to say.

I know that I would love to hear from a particular agent, but that’s not in my hands. What is in my hands is the best query I can write, the best research I can do in the short time I have, and the best self-pub launch plan I can craft. And this time, I’m really not scared.

If you pay attention to the blogosphere, it appears many other writers are feeling what I’m feeling, and even agents: go forth, bold writer, and try thy way in the wilderness. Agent Jenny Bent has an interesting perspective regarding books that fall between genres (Wendy Redbird Dancing, anyone?). Ones like mine, that are YA + women’s fiction, are often ones publishers don’t understand because they aren’t sure how to market them. So if you are an intrepid soul with energy to get your work out to the masses, have at it: you might find the market is there for you.

I also have a great list of questions should an agent call. Based on my last experience, I will now tackle fears head on by asking the questions below.

When in doubt, and when fears rise like fog around me, I start to write. Write down potential ideas, write down potential plans. I may discard 99% of them or never get the opportunity to make them happen, but at least I’ve talked myself off the ledge.

  • What do you like about my manuscript? What would you change?
  • Does it have potential as a hybrid work–women’s and YA? Is this more women’s fiction or YA?
  • How close is the manuscript to submission? What revisions would you suggest?
  • Do you see film potential?
  • Do you see foreign rights potential?
  • How many publishers would you submit to, and which ones?
  • Will you share the submission list and responses from editors?
  • What YA or women’s fiction have you represented that you are particularly fond of, and what do you think is the secret to their success?
  • Who would the primary contact be–you or your assistant?
  • What is your response time to emails and phone calls?
  • How often would we be in touch?
  • What’s your expectation for a next book?
  • What advice do you typically give authors as they build their careers?

The possibility of talking with a successful agent once again is a nerve-wracking premise. But armed with some questions, I know I’ll be okay.

In the meantime, the self-pub ideas simmer, and I’ll be sharing those soon. Vote at the next post on my brand ideas; I’ll need this whether I self or traditionally publish.

Will you self-publish? Have you already? Or are you waiting to hear from an agent? How do you handle your fears in the process?

I Have a Question

Random questions from my week:

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  • Why do some people’s sneezes sound like a raspberry? A sputter explosion? (Mine, for the record, sound like a dog barking.)
  • Why do some people keep their cranky child in a cafe when it’s clear the child wants to leave? And another question: when did public spaces become our living rooms–a place to let it all hang out–rather than a place of privilege we share with others?
  • Why did the employee of Trader Joe’s thank me for admitting I broke a carton of eggs? Who doesn’t report the mess she made and ask to pay for it?
Rant over. Rants are ugly but perhaps not so bad in the form of rhetorical, unanswerable questions. 
Literature at its best is the answer to a question told in images, characters, and events. While rants can sound alarm bells and beg for much-needed mercy and attention, they can also lose the opportunity for readers’ best thinking and grappling with the question themselves. Screaming and spewing anger from the rooftops isn’t literature. Art becomes diatribe, no longer experience but polemic. 
The best teaching is also question-driven rather than fact-driven. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, two ground-breaking educators, talk about Essential Questions: those dilemmas, challenges, and open-ended problems of a discipline that drive scientists, artists, engineers, philosophers, doctors, architects, environmentalists–any profession–to quest after new answers. Our kids, just like our readers, should spend classroom time in the pursuit of the Big Questions. The challenge is in making the experience, whether literary or educational, an engaging and compelling trip. 
Milan Kundera talks of the novel this way:

The stupidity of people comes from having an answer for everything. The wisdom of the novel comes from having a question for everything…The novelist teaches the reader to comprehend the world as a question. There is wisdom and tolerance in that attitude.

If we comprehend life as a question, and if we make art from our questions, then we engage in a great act of faith. We believe that answers will appear; that revelations will ensue; that God, the Universe, Spirit, or Energy is on our side, and that there is not randomness but order to be revealed.


  • How does a child survive chaos and abuse?
  • How do we define spirituality?
  • How does a self-proclaimed freak make friends?

Apparently Padgett Powell wrote a whole book of questions that might be a great start for those of us stuck in the answers.

What questions are you asking in your writing? In your teaching? And are you doing your best while in cafes and grocery stores to not rant at your fellow man?

Writing Prompts

  • Story idea: A boy who asks irritating questions finds himself ostracized. Where? By whom? When? Why?
  • Story idea: A teacher comes into her classroom one morning and finds a strange question on her board. Unravel a story of who wrote it and why and the consequences of the question writing for students, faculty, administration, and parents. 
  • Write a list of 10 unanswerable questions running the gamut from love to medicine, relationships to house cleaning, any stickler queries that needle you when you can’t sleep. Whatever keeps you up at night, whatever’s made you wonder where in the hell the answer is, write those questions down. Now which one would make a great story? A great novel?
  • Take those questions to people you trust and discuss answers that work and don’t work. Write a poem, short story, or essay with one of the answers.
  • Write about a person who never asks you any questions.
  • Ask yourself what questions you’ve asked lately. Are you comfortable or uncomfortable in a space of “not knowing”? Write about that.
  • In what place in your life are you most open to asking questions? The least? Why? Is there room for breakthrough–or at the very least, writing about it–to get to the other side of your lock-step, paradigm-stuck thinking?
  • Take one of my questions above–about sneezes, kids in cafes, or miscreants in grocery stores–and start a story. 
  • Check out the writing prompts I share at my post, “Ask and Ye Shall Irritate.”