158 Queries or, Another Case for the Growth Mindset

“I queried 158 times before I sold my first word.”

I was sitting in a Just Buffalo writing workshop led by Nancy Davidoff Kelton, the author of Finding Mr. Rightstein (Passager, 2016) and Writing from Personal Experience (F+W Media, 2000) and countless personal essays. “158 queries” was part of Nancy’s opening remarks.

The rest of her workshop was useful, personal, and entertaining—even if you don’t count the law firm’s noisy party on the floor below. But “158 queries” is what I needed to hear the most. I walked into the workshop, thinking “I don’t need a writing workshop—I need a query pep talk.” Unlike most of the other workshop participants, I’ve taken writing classes…several. I’ve spent a couple years, in those classes and working with 2 different writing groups, developing control over my voice, so the academic in me doesn’t come out unless invited.

But so far I’ve not developed a successful query process. I think I know my query issues, AKA false beliefs that serve to self-handicap, AKA the fixed mindset when it comes to querying. What’s ridiculous is, when it comes to writing, I’m the queen of growth mindset, which is the idea that if you keep doing something, you will improve. And improving depends on regular practice.

I shouldn’t be surprised by this because the research on mindsets (made famous by Carol Dweck who wrote the book) says that indeed, a person can have a growth mindset in one area and a fixed mindset in another. Here’s what I mean:

My attitudes about querying (Fixed Mindset):
– I query intermittently, not on a regular schedule.
– I, inaccurately, see querying as separate from writing in the sense that I “can’t” make room in my schedule for both at the same time.
– I dread querying because of the (extremely high) chance that I will fail.
– I don’t believe that if I keep doing it, it will pay off (meaning, result in an accepted piece).

My attitudes about writing (Growth Mindset):
+ I write regularly: multiple times per week, if you count academic writing, which I do since it’s my day job.
+ I make time to write in between all my other obligations.
+ I look forward to writing, because I see it as something that I can improve if I do more of it.
+ I believe that if I keep writing, I will end up with a piece I’m satisfied with.

Before Nancy’s “158 queries,” mini-pep-talk, I had been lying to myself. Telling myself that querying is too hard, that it’s not in my skill set because writers aren’t natural marketers, and that if I just keep entering contests I will eventually, miraculously, be found through that process by an agent or publisher who can’t wait to publish eerything I’ve ever written: my books, short stories, personal essays, back files, rough drafts, and even random, lightly polished journal entries (hey a girl can dream).

Ha. Please don’t tell Jane Friedman, or Anne Janzer, who helpfully present more on mindset-as-applied-to-the-writing-life here.

So now I’m trying to stop lying to myself. Querying is difficult, but Nancy did it. 158 times before she had any success. And now she is a grand success. She had, and has, a growth mindset about both writing and querying.

They (people, somewhere) say identifying the problem is half the battle. So here I am, problem identified.

Time to stop writing—for now. I need to go send in a query letter.

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