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Writing Process - Querying

Updated: Jan 17, 2022

In our last post we polished our manuscript. Today, we’re talking querying (assuming you are going the traditional publishing route.) I can’t speak to self-publishing, but there’s a multitude of information out there on that as well.

So here we go. You’ve got a manuscript you’re proud of, so what do you do now? If you’re interested in traditional publishing, that is, getting published by a publisher and having your book be sold in stores, online, etc, your next step is to search for an agent. Do I NEED and agent, you ask? Of course not. But most bigger publishers won’t except submissions from unagented authors, and honestly, I can’t imagine trying to navigate the publishing world without somebody in my corner to negotiate deals and look out for my rights as a writer. Sure, you can try to do it all yourself, but then you’re cutting into your writing time.

First things first, you need a query letter. Think of a query letter almost like a cover letter when you’re applying for a job. You give them a glimpse of the genre / word count, etc, a brief overview of the story (think short back cover blurb), and an ending that thanks them for considering your query and how to reach you. There are all kinds of how-to guides for writing a query. I like this one from Jane Friedman.

Some agents might request a synopsis as part of the submission too, so it’s a good idea to have a short one written. If a Query letter is like an introduction or ‘hook’ for your book, a synopsis is the breakdown of everything that happens in the story, including the ending. There are differing opinions on length, but I think as short and concise as you can make it, is best. I won’t lie—writing a synopsis is no easy task. I’ve heard so many writers complain “I’ve written the entire novel—why is it so hard to write a synopsis?” Here are a couple of great posts on writing the dreaded synopsis:

Now again, swap and polish. Am I sounding like a broken record yet?

Querying is a big deal, and it’s not for the faint of heart. You are about to grow some seriously thick skin. The first thing I recommend is to research agents. So many people skip this step and I just don’t understand why. Why waste your time sending your precious manuscript to agents who don’t even represent your genre? There are fabulous sites for researching agents. My favourites were Manuscript Wish List (this site lets you search for agents based on your genre), Query Tracker, and Writer’s Digest.

Make a list of agents you think are a good fit. Take a look at their list of clients, and what deals they’ve made. Follow them on Twitter. Sometimes they’ll tweet #querytips or specifically say, “I’m looking for whatever.” Study their agency’s submission guidelines—this is probably the most important thing I can stress because they all have different submission guidelines and you’re going to need to follow each agency’s guidelines EXACTLY. Some of them accept queries via email, some have online forms you have to submit through. Agents receive hundreds of queries a day. Don’t give them the opportunity to delete yours automatically, simply because you didn’t follow instructions.

When you’ve compiled a list of agents, send out a few queries. I started with five to ten. Now you wait. This is the time to start a new project or dive into another WIP (work in progress) to keep your mind off of refreshing your inbox. You might get a few rejections right away—form rejections, which are simply a generic “thank you for your submission. Unfortunately it is not what we are looking for at this time.” You’ll get very used to these. Congratulations. You’re manuscript is now in many agent’s ‘slush piles’ and you are officially in the querying trenches. As rejections come in, send out more queries. It’s a good idea to use a notebook or spreadsheet to track who you’ve queried, the date, etc, so you don’t query someone with the same project twice.

Another piece of advice worth adding is that I do not recommend querying your dream agents all in this first batch. Certain rejections will offer you some helpful feedback and give you something to think about that might actually make your story better. I’ve termed these kinds of rejections, the “bitter sweet rejection”. If you agree with the feedback, consider making the change they suggest, but don’t fall into the trap of revising your manuscript every time you get a rejection either. At the end of the day, this is your story, and this is a subjective business (which is also a line you will get used to hearing over and over). You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you’re manuscript has improved, but all the agents you really wanted have already passed on it. I would say choose a good mix of seasoned and new agents when you query. New agents are trying to build their list of clients, so they may request more often than agents who already have fairly full lists.

A few etiquette tips: NEVER ever reply to a rejection with some snub to the agent. It’s actually a very small circle and they all talk to each other. So if you feel like snapping back, walk away from it. Write your response in a journal and then crumple it up and throw it away. Take it in stride. NEVER vent or publicly whine about rejections on social media. Save it for your private groups. It’s also worth mentioning to NEVER Direct message an agent via twitter or Instagram, etc. This is a huge turnoff for them. You are a professional and you need to contact them the way their website says to. These things probably seem like no-brainers, but you wouldn’t believe how often it happens.

One of the most important things to say here is that there are many paths to publication. We all have our stories. I want to veer slightly off track for a moment to talk a bit about contests. There are some really good author / mentor contests out there, that you’ll find out about from twitter and those writing groups you joined. Two contests that come to mind are Pitch Wars and Author Mentor Match but there are probably others if you take the time to look. They work very much like the querying process, where you submit a query and the mentors have the opportunity to request additional pages. They narrow down their submissions and choose a story they think they can help make stronger, and then you work with that mentor to make your story shine. Some of these actually have an agent showcase at the end, so your manuscript will be seen by a bunch of agents who signed up to take part. I was querying for a while with no luck, so I took a break from it and entered Pitch Wars. I actually entered three years in a row. The odds of getting chosen get lower every year as the contest’s popularity grows, but it’s a great “practice run” for querying, and the community support is like nothing else I’ve seen. I actually “met” all of my critique partners through Pitch Wars and believe without a doubt the experience made me a better writer.

Another thing you’ll find a lot of on Twitter are pitch events. These are designated dates where you tweet pitches of your story with appropriate hashtags, and agents are following those hashtags all day. If they “heart” your tweet, it means they’ve just invited you to query them as per their submission guidelines. Again, some people score an agent this way, others don’t. I personally never got into the pitch events, but there is definitely value in crafting catchy pitches and getting your name in front of all those agents.

One day, either as a result of a contest or the old-fashioned slush pile, you will open your inbox and receive a request. Congratulations! They may ask for your first three chapters. They may ask for 50 pages, or they may ask for your full manuscript. This is huge! Respond promptly. Give yourself a pat on the back, and get ready to wait again. It can take months. Rejections on full requests hurt. I won’t lie. You’re waiting with baited breath, refreshing your inbox, and then they come back with a rejection. I reply with a quick and heartfelt thank you to these, especially if they offered you anything constructive. Opinions differ on this. They might not read it, but they might. This person took the time to read your words (maybe even your entire book) when they are getting hundreds of submissions a week. It’s just common courtesy to thank them, in my opinion.

Keep your head held high and focus on your new WIP. Eventually, you could get an offer for a revise and resubmit, or an agent could tell you they want to have a phone call, which is a very good sign and what you’ve been waiting for all this time. While it might be tempting after all the waiting to just say Yes! Where do I sign?! You really need to swallow your excitement and keep your head on straight through this process. Here is a post that talks about what kinds of questions are the ones you want to ask an agent on ‘the call’.

If an agent makes you an offer, now is the time you can nudge those other agents as a courtesy and tell them you have an offer. Some of them may bow out right away, or you may get a couple who are interested enough to bump your query up on their priority list and ask for the full manuscript. There will be a roller coaster of emotions if you have an offer from an agent and you are waiting for other agents to respond. Ultimately, if you end up with more than one offer, choose the agent you connected best with over the phone, and who you think has the best course of action for your story. I went as far as to contact one of my agent’s clients and ask her if she would recommend signing with this agent. Her praise for my agent was definitely a deciding factor.

Signing with an agent is a huge accomplishment. Celebrate. It takes a strong person to come as far as you have. Your agent will likely have recommended revisions and a course of action for when you send your novel out on submission to publishers. Publishing is a long road, but if you’ve come a significant distance. Think back to where you started and take pride in your dedication to your craft.


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