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  • Writer's pictureM. H. Ayinde

A Tale of Twenty Years of Self-Rejection, OR... Everything I want to say about querying, based on my personal experience, which is already out of date as I type this very long title...

Updated: Apr 6

So ... you came here for an uplifting story about the Tenacious Little Author Who Could, and the hundreds of queries she sent before landing The One. Sorry, but that's not what you're going to get. Instead, you'll get a deep dive into my struggles with confidence and nearly two decades of me telling myself I'm not good enough. Buckle up.





Warning: this is a lengthy post and it includes a huge amount of self-doubt and self-rejection. But as a querying author, I ate up posts like these, so I figure I should send the ladder back down. I also wanted to speak frankly to any writers who struggle with confidence, as I did and continue to and probably always will.


If you're just here for my querying advice, then go straight to this section, but please take all with a grain of salt, because the querying climate changes FAST and what I've written here is what applied back in 2021/22 in the adult SFF sphere. If you're here for my querying journey (odyssey? ultramarathon-through-the-desert?) then read on!


My querying journey, or a seemingly interminable fight with my own self-belief


Let me begin by saying: do not do what I did. View this as a cautionary tale, and a lesson in not letting your inner critic rule your heart or letting your view of the world limit you. Here is how things played out for me over the nearly two decades between deciding to devote myself to chasing my dream and actually signing with my agent.


All I ever wanted to "be" was a writer of SFF books. I wrote my first story when I was four years old and there has never been a time since when I've not been writing fiction. At no point in my upbringing or young adulthood, however, did I ever think of this as a realistic career. I come from a working class background, and all the people around me, as well as my own family, were used to having jobs to put food on the table. I knew being a writer did not equate to guaranteed income. Therefore, I never even considered pursuing that full time. My plan was school, university, the most reliable job I could get. Yes, I had always planned to chase my author dream, but this was always secondary to having a steady income. When you grow up without a financial safety net, and when everyone around you is the same, and when multiple friends and family have experienced being unhoused and being without enough to eat, you have certain expectations and values that impact every aspect of who you are. My parents always, always believed in me, and if I had turned to them and said I wanted to be a full time author, I have no doubt that they would have supported me in every way they could. But it never even crossed my mind. They had struggled, and even though I grew up without having to worry about food or a roof over my head, I knew that to achieve this you needed regular, dependable income, and that that trumped any dream.


I'm mentioning this because it had a huge impact me seeing writing as an actual career for a long, long time. This affected the respect with which I treated what I was doing, and the value I placed upon it. Art is necessary. Art is what keeps us going. And art absolutely should be a viable career path for anyone who wants to pursue it. But alas, that is not the message the world sends us, and it is not a notion capitalism is set up to support. The other thing to mention is that I am a Black woman, and especially when I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, there were very few Black women writers period, let alone Black women SFF writers. So all the time, while I was creating these worlds, I thought I was kidding myself that there was a place for me in the industry. People like me did not get to publish books. That had a huge impact on my confidence and self-belief.


Anyway... I sent my first query letter in 2004. Hand delivered. Printed out on a dot matrix printer. The manuscript was unfinished at 250k words. Yup, all of that. It was rejected, so OBVIOUSLY the book was bad, so OBVIOUSLY I shelved it. I mean, this was a professional, and if the book was good, they would have signed it, right? So, I spent the next SEVENTEEN YEARS, YES YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY more or less repeating that pattern.


I will say that during those 17 years, I had three children, I continued to work a day job, and I dealt with numerous personal challenges including my dad suffering two huge strokes that resulted in him needing round-the-clock care. This was almost exclusively provided by my mum, but his first stroke, which happened five weeks after I had my first child, affected us all and meant our entire lifestyle had to change. There were long, long periods where I hardly wrote a thing, largely due to just being overwhelmed by life and parenthood. But during those 17 years, as you'll see below, I sent a grand total of 9 queries across four different manuscripts. Effectively, two queries per book. Or like, one query every two years. It sounds laughable now when I write it down, but that was the state of my confidence back then. I was more ready to believe that years' worth of work was worthless than that, you know, maybe I just hadn't found the right person. That is some top-tier self-rejection right there.


Two things happened that forced me to get my act together. The first was the approach of my 40th birthday. These milestone birthdays, especially the big four-oh, really force some of us to take a look at our lives. My kids were older now. The youngest one would soon be starting school. I was about to have more time and freedom. And I'm not gonna lie: impending middle age did make me wonder what the hell I'd been doing for all those years. The other thing was Covid. My mum, who lives with us and was in her late 70s by this point, had a lung condition. So we self-isolated, as a household, for over four months. I mean, none of us left house at all. Even when things started opening up again, we didn't socialise and we didn't go to indoor events for a long time. This meant I had a lot more writing time.


Actually, I lied - there was a third thing: I started copy editing for Strange Horizons. I'd been a huge fan of Strange Horizons for years, devouring their in-depth genre reviews. When I saw a call-out for copy editors, I put my name forward. I mean, I read their site all the time anyway, I'd done some copy editing as a job in the mid noughties, and I wanted to get my head around writing short fiction, as it was something I'd always wanted to do but didn't think I had the skills for. (Writing novels and writing short fiction are very different skills IMO, but that's a blog post for another day.) So, during that long period of Covid isolation, I started writing short fiction. I also started spending more time on Twitter, and found out about all the short fiction venues that exist... including FIYAH Literary Magazine. This was a revelation to me. A SFF magazine, dedicated to Black writers, that understood the myriad challenges we face. Honestly, I felt seen like never before. I sold my first ever short story to FIYAH, and then I started selling more short fiction, and I began to feel like A Real Writer, and I began to discover a community, and to see that there were other writers of colour out there just like me, and to realise that I could write a thing from beginning to end and that others might enjoy reading it. This gave me such a huge confidence boost. The month that my first short story was published was the month I began querying my epic fantasy - January 2021.


This time, I decided I was going to query properly. I'd spent years writing this last book, over and over, often restarting from the ground up, determined to get it right. For the first time, I'd written the book I truly wanted to read - filled with everything I like, to hell with what others thought of it. I'd paid for a couple of critiques of my query package (including a fantastic one from Odyssey Workshop) and felt I had a good query letter and solid opening pages. The book world was also different now. There is still a huge mountain to climb, but there were more SFF writers of colour now. I began to really see a place for myself. Writers I will be eternally grateful for had hacked out a path for the rest of us to follow, and now, thanks to them, I could see a way through. I was also more resilient now (honestly, I think I have parenthood to thank for that!) Others might not like my book, but it was in a condition where, for the first time, I was proud of it. I planned to send my queries out in small batches. I was used to rejection now, from all the short fiction submissions, so I had a thicker skin. I had already begun a second novel, and I was going to write that while I queried, and it would be shorter, and simpler, and once it was done, I'd query that too, and I would keep going with that pattern until I got where I wanted to be.


I sent my first batch of queries out, including my query to my eventual agent, in January 2021. I also kept my eye open for Twitter events and other opportunities. When I heard about the Future Worlds Prize, I went for it. I had nothing to lose. During that time, I got rejections, and I got full and partial requests and I waited to hear back. When the shortlisting for the prize came through, I was genuinely floored to have been chosen. My book was so nerdy, so complex - surely they would want something with more mass appeal? I had slowed on my querying as autumn approached as I was considering a rewrite. I was still waiting to hear back from that very first agent, who I knew was still reading, so I let her know about the shortlisting.


Then, a couple of weeks before the event to announce the prize winner, I got an email from that agent: she wanted to set up a call. I genuinely couldn't believe it. She had been in the first group of agents I queried (the moral being... agents read at different speeds, so never give up) and was at the very top of my list. When we chatted on Zoom and she mentioned her love of cities, I knew she was The One. There was a second agent who had my full MS at this point, and two agents who still had the initial query, but ultimately, two days before the prize winner was announced, I signed with my amazing agent Jennie Goloboy.


Then, two days later, I found out I had won the 2021 Future Worlds Prize (it was now February 2022, but the announcement have been delayed because of Covid.) I genuinely didn't think I stood a snowball's chance in hell of winning because I thought my book was too far along the fantasy end of the fantasy spectrum, and all the other ideas sounded so cool, and years of self-doubt had programmed me to never expect good things to happen to me.


For those who like querying stats, mine are below. Yup, these are laughably low numbers. It's quite normal for writers to send out hundreds of queries, and certainly over 17 blimmin years it should be more than just nine. Even for one book, it should be more than nine! Again, DO NOT DO WHAT I DID. I should also mention that even the number of queries for the book that landed me my agent and prize win is relatively low. Anyway, for what they're worth:


2004

Science fantasy 250k words, unfinished (LOL)

Agents queried: ONE (1) !!

Rejections: Spoiler... ONE (1)

Outcome: Book shelved


2008 

Science fantasy 180k words

Agents queried: 3

Rejections: 2 (and 1 CNR. One of the rejections was a personalised reply in which the agent went on a massive rant saying he loved the book but that publishing was in a "dire" state. It was very eye-opening.)

Outcome: Book shelved - yup, even after that praise


2010

Urban fantasy 110k words

Agents queried: 1 (plus 1 publisher open call)

Rejections: 2 (a very nice "almost" email from the open call.)

Outcome: Book shelved, even after the bloody praise!!


2015

YA fantasy 100k words

Agents queried: 3

Rejections: 3

Outcome: Book shelved. This was one I wrote because I thought it would be an easier sell!


2021

Epic fantasy of my heart 150k* words

Agents queried: 23 

Partial requests: 2 (These are the partial requests that did not result in full requests. Yeah, the two that made me cry at Easter - see below.)

Full requests: 6

Rejections: 14 (including 4 no responses.)

Outcome: Offer received!


*This is a risky word count, and I know more than one agent rejected me right off the bat because of it.


Your Takeaway


Don't query a book once and then decide it's trash. Don't spend years writing and rewriting the same story because your inner critic, programmed by the prejudices of the society we live in, is telling you there's no place for your words or you're just not good enough. Don't let your identity or your upbringing dictate whether or not you chase your dreams. Don't wait for others to carve that path for you... carve the damn path yourself: someone has to.


I still struggle with confidence. It took me a lot longer than I hoped it would. But I got there in the end. And you will, too.


General Querying Advice, or How to Navigate the Tenth Circle of Hell


You wrote a whole-ass book. You poured your heart and soul into it. You sacrificed so much time to see it to the end. You finished the bloody thing, no mean feat in itself, and the first stumbling block that many of us fall at (I speak from years of experience there, too.) You try to condense that passion, that vast, beautiful, maddening thing you worked so hard at, into a single-side of A4, which you hope by some kind of magic will convey all that you have created to someone you have probably never met and who reads dozens, sometimes hundreds of similar letters every week. You wait, and wait, and WAIT. And then you hear nothing. Or if you're lucky, you hear words to the effect of "meh." AND YOU REPEAT THIS MASOCHISTIC PROCESS MULTIPLE TIMES, OVER MULTIPLE YEARS, WITH MULTIPLE BOOK-BABIES.


Let's be real. Querying is its own special kind of torture. It's hard to articulate to someone who isn't involved in the publishing industry, but it is horrible. It takes such skill and hard work to write an entire novel, such courage and faith to share it with another human being, and it is so painful when those efforts do not lead you to where you want to be. I got my agent through cold querying, which is how the vast majority of authors get their agents. All told, I spent just under a year querying. The worst day for me came when TWO agents sent me rejections the day before the Good Friday - both of whom had partial requests (translation: they'd responded positively to my initial query and had asked to see more chapters.) I was sure that part of it was the need to clear out their inboxes before the holidays. It felt too cruel. I cried a lot that day. But that was also the day I decided I had to detach my feelings from the entire process. I switched my focus to writing my next book, which I was really excited about. Anyway, that was two paragraphs of me saying that querying is painful and there's no escaping that fact. Here are some things I learned during that process, things that helped me and will maybe help you, too.


Write your query letter BEFORE you finish your book. Seriously. Not only will it then be a less daunting process, and something you can chip away at over weeks / months, but it can also help you see shortfalls in your own work in time for you to correct them. Nothing forces you to take a cold, hard look at what you've written than trying to condense it into two tantalising paragraphs. If you're struggling to explain the hook, or the stakes, then perhaps these things need addressing in the MS.


Have a separate email address for querying. Limit the number of times a day (fine, hour) that you check/ refresh it. Ideally, don't have it on your phone. I'm serious. Be disciplined. It got so bad for me that my heart-rate would increase every time my phone pinged during office hours. DON'T DO THIS TO YOURSELF!


When agents say it's about their personal tastes... it really is about their personal tastes. Agents are in the business because they love books and reading and they will pick books they love and think they can sell. Not every agent is suitable for every book. Passion really does matter. And market conditions do also play a part. Rejection doesn't mean your book is bad. And it doesn't mean your book isn't sellable, either. Please repeat those last two sentences to yourself, and believe them. All rejection means is that THAT agent doesn't think that THEY can sell THAT book at THAT time. Truly.


Write the next damn thing. I repeat, write the next damn thing. It was so freeing to have this new book I loved on the go while I was querying, and while some of the rejections I got still hurt (those two Easter partials, man) I was already thinking about how I would query my new shiny thing, which I was going to make EVEN BETTER.


Remember that luck plays a huge part in this crazy industry. Yes, you can maximise your chances by getting out there, by sending queries, by entering competitions and Twitter pitches, by getting critiques and attending workshops, and by honing and honing your craft, but ultimately querying is about having the right idea in front of the right person at the right time and a huge amount of that is completely beyond your control. That's not always a comforting thought, but if like me you think everything is down to you being rubbish, remember that it really, really isn't. And if you're a control freak, also like me, remind yourself every day that you cannot control this process, and no amount of stress and anxiety is going to change that.


These are the four key websites I would recommend to querying writers:


This is a good way to finding agents, but it also works as an alternative to a spread sheet for keeping track of your submissions and response times. For me, the real magic was in the stats, and if you're a control-freak, stats dependent obsessive like I am, then this website is either a godsend or a terrible enabler. Before I recommend you start looking at the stats, I suggest you figure out which kind of obsessive control freak you are: are you the type that is calmed by the illusion of control that info overload provides? Or are you the sort that will implode under the weight of all that data? If the latter, then steer well clear of the stats or they will stress you the hell out. Anyway... the free version includes access to lots of useful agent info, including their request rate, response rate (SO reassuring to read in this age of widespread ghosting), as well as a comments feed where other querying writers can detail their experiences and sometimes post their rejection letters. But, if you get the paid version (I did) then you get a timeline of all submissions (anonymised, obvs) showing when other submissions are rejected, or when fulls are requested, and so on. So you can see where yours is in relation to other recorded queries. Has the agent skipped over your query? Does it mean they might request a full? Will you enjoy torturing yourself by wondering? This gives you the opportunity to do so.


It's worth going through the full archives of this site, even though it's quite old now. For anyone unfamiliar with Queryshark: some brave writer souls offer up their queries for critque by literary agent Janet Reid, who goes through them with comments, and explanations of why she would / wouldn't request pages. Sometimes, people will revise their queries and you can see them go from nopes to yeses. Honestly, it's a goldmine of frank advice, and after spending time trawling through all the entries you begin to get a rhythm for what works and what doesn't. This site was hugely helpful to me when it came to crafting my own query letter, as I could almost hear Janet in my head by that point.


This is more US-focused, and there's not a huge amount to access via the free version. But with the paid version (which isn't cheap but is worth it perhaps for a month for initial research) you can see who is making the most deals by genre, who's making the biggest deals, and so on. It's worth remembering that you have to find the right agent FOR YOU, because aligning tastes and visions, as well as enthusiasm, are the most important things in this professional partnership. But it can give a picture of how an agent works, who they tend to sell to, and it can help weed out the schmagents. (Also look on Writer Beware for these.) Publishers Marketplace also has a free newsletter called Publishers Lunch, which lists new deals as they're announced - although I think you still need to create a login for this.


This is a site where agents can list their particular interests and what they're currently looking for or definitely not looking for. It's useful both for finding agents whose tastes align with yours, and for adding personalisation to your query letter, if you want to do that (and some agents say this isn't necessary so you should go with your gut for this. I did try to personalise all of mine.) Lots of agents post this info on their websites or their social media too, but I found there was sometimes a bit more detail here.


OK, brace yourself. This is cheating, and maybe a bit cruel. Anyway... Sub Stories is run by the amazing author Kate Dylan and includes anonymised stories and stats for book submissions to publishers by agents. Yup, you read that right. Once you have an agent, the process begins again, because your agent then has to "query" editors (except they don't call it that) with your MS. They get ghosted too! They sometimes have to wait months too! And, sadly... they get rejections too! Often, the book that gets you an agent will not be the book you sell to an editor. This is something I didn't know until well into my 2021 querying journey. Many authors I know signed with one book, and then wrote two or three more before they struck publisher gold. I'm saying all this, and including this site, because it hopefully helps provide some perspective, and because once you get your agent (and you will. I believe in you. Make sure you believe in yourself) this site might help you maintain your sanity. It helped me maintain mine while on submission. I'd also recommend the Publishing Rodeo podcast... again, aimed at agented authors, but it really gives a frank insight into how this often opaque and secretive industry works.


That's it! Good luck! Believe in yourself!




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