Query Strategies

I recently jumped back into the query pool. It’s been a couple of years since I’ve actively queried a new project and I have to say, it’s as rough as I remember–maybe more so. The querying process will wear an author down on on several levels.

Level 1

First, and the one we all know too well, is the emotional toll that comes from rejection. This level has sub-levels that are directly related to the differing means we have of arriving at this level.

Sub-Level 1A: Straight forward rejection as in “I’m afraid I just didn’t connect with your writing”.

Sub-level 1B: Rejection by lack of other evidence. This is when you can assume that no response is a rejection.

Sub-level 1C: The high of a partial or full request, followed by a rejection.

Level 2

Second, researching agents and publishers is a time-intensive process. You research agents/publishers and their agencies/houses to find out what they represent, their manuscript wish lists, who their current clients/books are, how they interact with the writing community/world on social media, and what their submission guidelines are. It takes a lot of time.

Level 3

Preparing to query is also a time-intensive process. You have to craft the best query letter possible, one that highlights your story, captures attention, and compels the agent or publisher to request more. And you have to do it in about 250 words or less. But you also need to have a synopsis ready, and any writer who’s ever tackled this knows the special room in hell that houses synopsis writing. Is there really a way to effectively condense a 100,000 word novel into a one-page synopsis? (No, really! I’d like to know. If you have the answer, please email me!)

Level 4

This is the actual sending out of the query to your chosen agents/publishers. This step seems like a quick and easy one, until you get started. For each query you have to check, double-check, and even triple-check (at a minimum) that you’ve followed all of the submission guidelines, properly spelled everything (especially the name of the agent/publisher!), correctly entered the email address, included only what is requested by that agent. And then you do it again for the next agent, and the next, and the next….

Level 5

You realize you’ve made a spelling error, formatting error, forgot to include your sample pages, forgot the actual query letter, accidentally pasted the letter you wrote for another agent, just re-read your sample pages and realize you should make more edits…It’s bound to happen. Everyone has experienced that horrifying moment when you realize you shouldn’t have hit Send quite so soon.

Survival Tips for the Querying Author

So what can you do to make the querying process a little more tolerable?

First, always keep in mind that even with the best manuscript it really does come down to that novel arriving in the right hands at the right moment in time. Rejection isn’t personal, it isn’t you that’s being rejected. Your manuscript really just isn’t the right fit for this person, and you don’t want someone to accept it with a “well, I don’t love it, but I could probably sell it” view. Ultimately you want someone who will love your manuscript, who will be passionate about it and pursue publication because they believe in it, and you. So keep in mind that each rejection puts you closer to the right hands.

Second, be sure you are researching agents and publishers to find the ones who you want to work with. Don’t go into querying with an anybody-will-do approach. Be sure you’re targeting submissions to people who represent the genre you write in, agents who will meet your long-term career plans (for example, if an agent only represents YA, and you plan to write in the adult market as well, you’ll need to consider that). You should be able to tell an agent or publisher why you submitted to them. Do they represent an author you admire, did you hear them speak at a conference or on a podcast, did you read an interview with them? What specific reason can you offer for thinking this agent/publisher is for you beyond the fact that they are open to submission?

Third, and this goes without saying, but will probably continue to cause all of us ongoing issues: read your submission 3-4 times before sending it! Pay attention to the spelling of the agent/editors name–as well as your own!

Fourth, learn to be patient, or come up with ways to distract yourself from the wait. On average you can expect to wait 4-8 weeks for a response (or lack of response!). I know, from the minute we hit Send on that query we begin the constant checking and refreshing of our emails. We can’t seem to get away from it, but what else can we do to busy our minds and make the wait go by faster? A common suggestion is to get busy on your next project. Writing definitely makes the time pass and keeps you occupied.

One trick I’ve adopted is to plot my submissions so that every week I should have something going out or a resolution on an outstanding submission. Part of my research involves making a note of expected response times. I then send out submissions, in part with an idea of response times (long, medium and short waits). I mix my submissions with an even number of 8-12 week responders, 4-6 week responders, and 2-4 week responders. That way every few weeks I’m either closing out submissions and sending new ones or researching more. But in my mind I’m making some sort of progress every few weeks.

When you do start feeling the sting of waiting and/or rejection reach out and talk to someone. If you don’t have a local writing community, the internet has so many opportunities for reaching out. On Twitter the #WritingCommunity threads are very supportive, and there are smaller, genre-specific groups as well. One thing you should never do though, is use social media to slam an agent/publisher who has rejected your work. Sadly, it is something that still happens, and it will not help you achieve publication–nor should it.

Well friends, that’s it, that’s all I have to offer. Above all, I encourage you to keep writing, keep submitting, and keep dreaming! (and drop me a comment when you achieve your dream–or any time)

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Query Letter Basics

By this point in my writing life I should have earned some sort of certification in the art of query letters. I’ve spent countless hours obsessing over each of mine. I’ve written, revised, thrown out and rewritten each of mine at least a dozen times. I’ve researched query letters, read books, articles, watched videos and participated in group discussions about the basics of querying. And yet, the art of writing a query letter still feels like an elusive talent.

Don’t get me wrong, I think I’ve come a long way. My query letters are effective. I have an understanding about the structure and purpose of a query as well as how to write a decent one. What I lack is the innate ability to create a query that is pure artistry—and, I’ve decided that’s okay.

A few years ago I decided to learn more about what makes an effective query. I began looking for opportunities to read the kind of queries that are sent out on a daily basis. I participated in group query critiques, researched query letters for books I’ve read, took part in some early stage contest queries, and read a bit from the inbox of a small publisher. While I did have the chance to see which query styles and information made the greatest impact, I was also astonished to see some of the “queries” that are being sent out. While I understand some of the enthusiasm-based mistakes of newer writers, I feel it’s time I add my voice to the list of those who really, really—really!—want you to have the best chance at success. After the amount of time you’ve spent on your novel, you should do it justice by submitting it with a professional query.

To start, these are not query letters—ever!:

  • “Dear _______, I’m attaching the first chapter of my novel as directed on your website” (that’s the entirety of the communication. Also, the website stated no attachments)
  • “Dear ______, Category: Young Adult. Genre: Horror. Word count: 76,500.” (yeah…that was all there was)
  • “I have several fiction projects, all of which can be viewed at this link. If you find any interesting you can contact me and we can discuss publication” (I’m not following that link, nor is anyone else)

So, what is a query?

A query letter is a formal, professional, letter that writers send to agents, publishers, magazines, or writing contests that describes a project they’ve written (or are proposing) and are seeking representation/publication for.

The purpose of a query (which Jane Friedman so perfectly describes on janefriedman.com) is “to seduce the agent or editor into reading or requesting your work” (Note the word “seduce”! It’s perfectly used).

All the bits:

The following are all the bits & pieces your query letter should have. Some authors will change up the order (ie-book details first, personal info last). When I’m reading a query I’m not as concerned by the structure of the letter as in the work that’s been put in to making it interesting, but there are some traditionalists who prefer a specific structure—and some even list that on their submission guidelines!

  • The greeting. Be specific in whom you are addressing your query to. Do not send a “Dear Sir or Madame” or “To Whom It May Concern”. You should have researched this agent/publisher and have in mind exactly who your submission is targeted towards.
  • A brief and personalized paragraph that includes the reason you’ve chosen this agent/publisher to submit to. Did you hear them speak? Read other books they represent/published? Read an interview? Let them know you’ve done your research and why you’ve chosen them.
  • Your hook. This paragraph will include the details of your book: a brief description of the story (this is not a synopsis!), the word count and genre.
  • Your bio. Again, this is a brief paragraph. If you have published works, writing related awards, or anything else that’s literary related include that. If you have special training or skills that lead you to be specifically qualified to have written this book, please mention that. Do not mention that your mom, spouse, friend, or your cousin’s best friend’s neighbor loved the book.
  • Your contact information. Yes, if you’ve emailed the query letter your email address will be evident—unless it’s been forwarded from a first reader, to a follow up, distributed to a team, and back again. In closing your query—as with any other professional letter—be sure to include your name, phone number, and email address (and please, for the love of all things good in the world, if your email address is left over from your partying days consider a more professional one for writing correspondence—nobody wants to correspond with BigPimpDaddy69@getit.com).

 

Even with a perfectly crafted query it’s up to you to research agents and publishers to ensure you’re targeting your submissions appropriately and following submission guidelines. I’ve returned several unread queries, referring writers to the submission guidelines. In talking to publisher/agent acquaintances there’s a consistent practice in rejecting—or even deleting, unread—queries that don’t follow guidelines. You’ve spent so much time writing your novel, give yourself the absolute best opportunity by making sure your query letter shows the same dedication to quality as your manuscript.

 

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