With my first foray into the querying process starting back in April of this year, I tried to go in with an open mind – whatever happened, I was determined to learn a lot! Querying is a stressful time that comes with its share of highs and lows, and always with nail-biting uncertainty. It also doesn’t necessarily begin when you start querying. It can begin a lot sooner, if you’re willing to come to the starting line prepared.
Here are five tips I’ve gathered in the few short months I’ve been querying. I hope they’ll help some of you who are getting ready to take the plunge!
1. Make Use of the Resources
There are numerous ways to find agents t to query. When I started out researching the process back in 2015, the advice I kept finding over and over was to look up the agents in the acknowledgements of your favorite books in your Manuscript’s (MS) genre and consider querying them. I was really reticent to do this – for some reason, it felt cheap and invasive to me – but it’s true that you can get some names and insight through this tactic.
Another great resource is QueryTracker. It’s a very comprehensive database of agents that can be distilled by the genre(s) they represent. While there are some useful tools not available in the free version, I’ve found it to be extremely helpful in finding industry names. The website also lists the agent’s preferred method of submission, business email, agency website, and similar resources where available, which allows you to get a better understanding of who is open/closed to submissions, their Manuscript Wish List (MSWL), and more.
If you have Twitter, it’s also a good idea to follow agents you might want to query. While this isn’t something that necessarily helps your chances of catching that agent’s eye, it will often give you an idea of what they’re looking for in an MS, as well as keeping you current on whether they are accepting submissions, etc. While an agent’s website may take some time to update on these things, in the world of social media, things tend to be a bit more current. This is also a great way to learn some things about the industry, as many agents will occasionally give publishing tips, querying tips, etc. through their Twitter.
2) Do the Work Ahead of Time
This was one area where I fell short. Despite having three years between beginning my query research and actually querying for the first time, I was too intimidated by the whole process to actually apply what I learned. If I had it to do over, I would have a list of prospective agents written down before I ever started. As it was, I really felt like my first attempt at querying was a fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants attempt, unrefined and full of days where I was desperately scrambling to find agents to query. It was emotionally debilitating for me, especially because of my social anxiety, to hunt for agents and then tweak and send off my manuscript all at once. On this side of it, I see the wisdom in doing the research and setting up a list ahead of time – one I could add to as more potential agents came across my radar.
Another thing I failed to do when I should have was complete my synopsis – something I touched on in last week’s post. While not all agents require a synopsis, some do. Everyone will tell you to have your manuscript polished and ready before you query. What I didn’t know, and wish I had, was that it’s really good to cover all potentialities before you start, just in case, because it will seriously save you stress in the moment. Have that synopsis, query letter, and MS done before you start querying.
3) Be Polished and Professional
The biggest thing that struck me at the start of querying, and after researching dozens of successful query letters, was that this was the moment when writing stepped from the realm of pure fun and into the professional. There is a certain standard of do’s and don’t’s at work here, and how you present yourself is very important. Some things that helped me to really take the professional side seriously:
Creating an email specifically for querying and all things related to professional writing.
Making sure I used a built-in email signature with my necessary information.
Checking very closely that I was meeting each individual agent’s requirements for submission.
Within the querying world, I’ve also learned that it’s important not to be overly critical of your own work; not to fluff an agent up by telling them you know how busy they are; not to talk down about other books in order to talk yours up; not to badger the agent on the status of your query; and not to query multiple agents at once with a “Dear Agent” form letter.
On the other hand, it is important to present yourself professionally in your formatting and speech; to follow the unique guidelines of the individual agent; to abide by the window of consideration for your MS, if provided; and above all else, to handle either a “yes” or “no” with grace and maturity.
4) Don’t Put Your Eggs in One Basket
This one was hard for me. When querying my MS for Starchaser, I had one particular agent in mind who represents some of my favorite books, and I figured Starchaser was right up her alley based on her MSWL. My initial plan, hoping to keep my stress levels low, was to query to her and then wait for a “yay” or “nay” before I queried to anyone else. But even as I was preparing to send off that first letter, I read a slew of articles advising not to query one agent at a time. With the statistical evidence regarding acceptance vs. rejection, it can be a bit of a time-waster to just query one agent and then wait for a reply before you query to the next one. Some professionals even suggest querying in batches of ten!
Anxious but willing, I went along with the advice, and it’s a good thing I did. A few weeks later, the rejection came through – my first rejection letter, from that particular agent I was banking on, no less! But I had other irons in the fire, so it stung a little less.
Point being, even if there’s one agent you really think will like your MS based on other books they represent, don’t bet all your money on that. Query a lot. Query in batches (just don’t send out a form query, as mentioned above). Make sure you give yourself options, and diversify.
5) Keep Writing
I’ve known a few writers who planned to write, polish, query, and then…wait. Wait for the letters to come in, wait for the acceptance, wait for this story to make it big. For a while, I looked forward to that notion – finishing a story and pitching it to some agents and then letting fate take its course.
But here’s the thing: putting off writing other things while you query can be hard for two reasons. One, if you’re anything like me, you’ll just sweat the whole time because you have nothing creative to distract you. Too much of your time will be spent thinking about your query, obsessively checking your email, hoping and waiting for someone to snatch up that project. On the other hand, if you’re actively drafting, something else is taking precedence while the process plays out. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to keep refining and exploring your craft even if you think the MS you’re querying for is the Next Big Thing.
The second reason I encourage all writers to keep working while they query comes down to the sixth and most important item on this list:
6) Understand that This May Not Be the One
I was about a month into the querying process and having some major doubt when someone in one of my writing groups asked us all what we were struggling with that day. I mentioned my fear that Starchaser would not get picked up, and one of the group members – an author I admire very much – told me point-blank that sometimes that happens, even to published authors. They pour their heart and soul into a story and it gets shelved. But she encouraged me that it only hurts until you write the next thing.
That stung at first. But the more I’ve thought about it, and the longer I’ve had my nets cast out there with Starchaser having no bites – and especially since I started a Shiny New Project – the more I’ve come to terms with it. Sometimes, the MS you love is not the one that gets chosen first. It may not be the kind of story an agent thinks they can sell from a debut author. Maybe you need to gain some notoriety before your agent will take a chance on pitching a 150k epic, a very dark YA horror, or a multibook series to a publisher. Maybe your query letter, synopsis, or MS itself isn’t ready yet.
As you’re querying, it’s good to pay attention to the process, and to prepare yourself early on that you may not get any bites. It’s going to sting, it will likely cause some doubt in your spirit, but hang in there. This does not mean the end of your dreams as a published author, because you have more stories to tell! You will learn as you go, and even if this is not The Project that lands you an agent, don’t throw in the towel yet. Keep tweaking that query letter, keep pitching, keep improving, and above all, keep writing. Write other stories you can pitch. Write what continues to live in your soul. No matter what, don’t stop.
Querying is a long, arduous, emotionally tough, mentally taxing experience. Some people land agents quickly. Others have to wait years. Sometimes it will happen with your darling, your favorite MS. Or you may come to a point where you realize you’re pitching the wrong story and need to try with a different one. There are dozens of possible ways the process can go, but the most beautiful lesson querying has taught me is that the entire thing is indeed a learning experience. None of it is wasted time, nor is rejection equivalent to failure. You can learn something new at every step.
I hope these small insights I’ve gained will help prepare each of you for that journey. Write on and query on, my friends!