• Al Hess

A Traumatic History With Androids (and the query that got me an agent)

I already have a blog post on how I got my agent, and one on how I got my book deal. But I thought it might be helpful to share my actual query letter and the rejection feedback I received. My final assessment on the feedback is that though there were some rejections in common - and some for good reason - a lot of it is subjective.


I don't profess to being a master of query writing or a master of querying in general. I queried for five months in total, with a query and synopsis that were probably way too long and wordy. However, I wrote and self-published nine books before I wrote World Running Down, and I have no doubt that all that craft experience helped give me an edge.


What did not give me an edge was having a book with prominent trans themes. I knew it would be an uphill battle, and that was confirmed when the most common rejection reason I got was "I'm not the right agent for this kind of book." But it still stung when I received rejections like that from agents who specifically asked for queer and trans stories.


Similarly, the one editor rejection I got before getting my deal offer from Angry Robot was, "I don't know what to do with a story like this." Which, fair. If the editor and pub don't know how to market your book, then that isn't going to be a good fit and won't do your story justice.

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(HarperVoyager UK trying to figure out where my story would go.)


The next most common rejections were "weak worldbuilding" and "pace too slow."


The weak worldbuilding comments were true. I know it isn't one of my strengths, and the biggest revisions I did with my agent were on the worldbuilding. I had some big ideas and elements in play, but with no political or social structure framework for them.


I added about 10k to the MS during agents edits, and most of it was creating a better foundation for the city and rules that would keep certain characters in check and provide consequences if they strayed.


Pace, however, is highly subjective. If you're engaged in a story, you can't turn the pages fast enough. If you can't connect with it, it won't matter if it goes at breakneck speed - you'll find it boring. Some agents thought it was slow, but I have reader reviews attesting that the pace became increasingly urgent and they had to keep reading to know what happened next. So... subjective.


I was offended by the personalized feedback I received from an editor who liked my tweet in a Twitter pitch. They said the pace was far too slow specifically because the characters were focusing on "mundane events."


The sections they referenced were scenes focusing on trans joy.


Valentine experiencing gender euphoria by getting to do something he's always dreamed about, no matter how commonplace it might be for other people in a more privileged position, is not "mundane." 😤


Sorry, rant over.


Before I share my query letter, I offer you my most bizarre personalized agent rejection:


"I don't like android stories."


I think I might have queried Sarah Connor by mistake.


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I sent 60 queries in total, and had two agent offers. Most of them were cold queries. Four were likes from SFFpit on Twitter, and one was a personal invitation from an agent who reps several friends of mine. That one turned into an R&R and ultimately a rejection, but the agent has continued to be a source of support for my writing career, and so have other agents I queried and the agent who's offer I turned down.


My agent came from SFFpit, and I wouldn't have been able to query them any other way because they were still under the radar, building their client list as an agent's assistant.


The pitch tweet that got me my agent:


Cozy 'n' gay MAD MAX+BLADE RUNNER


Valentine needs a visa into the city to transition; when he’s offered one to retrieve fugitive androids—then discovers they’re self-aware—he'll risk his own dream to ensure the androids have the chance to live theirs.


My original query letter:


Valentine Weis is a wasteland salvager, taking on dangerous retrieval jobs across the southwest for anyone who requests his services. But Valentine is weary; he can’t endure much more of living in a van that reeks like socks, fighting land pirates and wrestling with body dysphoria. He yearns for the gleaming metropolis of Salt Lake City, where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition are free, the food is plentiful, and pirate arrows through the chest are much less of a concern. But despite saving every penny from salvage jobs and cutting corners on food and essentials, earning enough money for a Salt Lake City visa remains insurmountable. So when a handsome stranger named Osric extends Valentine an invitation into the city to discuss a mystery job—with a visa as a reward upon success—it’s almost too good to be true.


But Osric is no ordinary messenger. Once a powerful AI extending through the city’s network, he’s been forced into an android body against his will and no longer treated with the dignity he deserves. Valentine’s big heart and their shared predicament of being in bodies that don’t match their identities drives him to head to Salt Lake not only for a solution to his own problems, but Osric’s.


The job itself is intriguing: a local escort service offers android companionship, but all of the “ladies” are missing. Finding the androids is the easy part. The problem is they’re becoming self-aware, and they don’t want to return to the city.


If Valentine and Osric bring them back, Valentine will receive his visa, and Osric can appeal his punishment and be inserted into the city’s network where he belongs. But carrying out the mission would go against everything Valentine stands for. He’ll need to risk his own dream in order to ensure that the AI also have the chance to live as their true selves.


Set in post-apocalyptic Utah, WORLD RUNNING DOWN (86,000 words) is science fiction with a cozy slant. As a gay trans author, Valentine’s character and struggles draw from my own experience. I’ve already received a blurb from author Seth Fried, who says, “Full of adventure, charm, and deeply human insights, the world in Hess’s World Running Down is an apocalypse you won’t want to leave.”


And here is how that query has evolved into the (much better) book description on retailer sites after agent and editor tweaking:


What price would you pay to find happiness in your own body?


Valentine Weis is a salvager in the future wastelands of Utah. Wrestling with body dysphoria, he dreams of earning enough money to afford citizenship in Salt Lake City – a utopia where the testosterone and surgery he needs to transition is free, the food is plentiful, and folk are much less likely to be shot full of arrows by salt pirates. But earning that kind of money is a pipe dream, until he meets the exceptionally handsome Osric.


Once a powerful AI in Salt Lake City, Osric has been forced into an android body against his will and sent into the wasteland to offer Valentine a job on behalf of his new employer – an escort service seeking to retrieve their stolen androids. The reward is a visa into the city, and a chance at the life Valentine’s always dreamed of. But as they attempt to recover the “merchandise”, they encounter a problem: the android ladies are becoming self-aware, and have no interest in returning to their old lives.


The prize is tempting, but carrying out the job would go against everything Valentine stands for, and would threaten the fragile found family that’s kept him alive so far. He’ll need to decide whether to risk his own dream in order to give the AI a chance to live theirs.



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