I finished my edits for The Devil Inside Me over the summer. There were some drastic changes–including changing my protagonist–that I did based on feedback from a published author, an agent, and a small press publisher. At first, I started out with just changing up a few chapters to see how it felt. What can I say? I think the pros know what they’re talking about. I loved it, and as I went through the rewrites, I loved it even more.
At a writing conference I attended over the summer, I was able to personally pitch my book to an agent and a publisher. Both asked to see my first three chapters. After reading those, the agent declined, but the publisher asked for a full manuscript.
I about fell out of my chair.
It’s what I wanted, of course, but I was surprised that someone else thought it would have merit. Validation is oh-so-important to writers.
I’ve since sent out eleven queries to agents, carefully picking and choosing from Publishers Marketplace and Manuscript Wish List and QueryTracker, cross-referencing with websites to ensure the agents were indeed still looking for my genre and still open to queries.
I’ve heard back from four: three rejections and one send-me-the-full.
Again, I about fell out of my chair.
Now, I know technically this means nothing. Saying they want to read the whole novel does not an offer make. But again, the validation thing.
So where do you even begin with querying? Here’s what I did.
Step 1: Research
First, Google “how to write a query letter.” Seriously. You should know before you begin what this ball game is all about if your end goal is traditional publishing. Start with Writer’s Digest’s deceptively simple “The 10 Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Query Letter.” They also have an excellent series of posts with actual query letters that garnered representation AND commentary from the agents who loved them. This article from The Write Life is excellent as well. I think the single post that helped me the most was Jane Friedman’s post on writing a query.
Second, if you haven’t already,
stalk follow people who know what they’re talking about, like Jane Friedman, QueryShark Janet Reid, and agents who represent your genre. Read the agent’s webpage and study their agency’s website–some will have specific instructions on what they seek in a query letter.
Step 2: Finish your manuscript
Unless you are writing non-fiction, you should have a finished manuscript, edited and polished, ready to send to an agent or small press publisher the minute they ask for it.
Step 3: Write the query letter
It’s painful, but again, do your research. Revisit step 1.
Step 4: Curate agents
This took more time than I anticipated it would, but I wanted to get it right. There is no point in querying someone who doesn’t accept science fiction if that’s what you’ve written. As I mentioned above, I cross-referenced Publishers Marketplace, Manuscript Wish List, QueryTracker, and agent websites for those open to queries in my genre.
I created a spreadsheet with all of their information bits–agency, email address, likes, dislikes, extra details on personal interests, their response-time estimates, etc. You can use QueryTracker’s tracking feature, but I wanted the ability to add more detail. I tried using those extra details to prioritize which agents would be the best fit for my manuscript.
Step 5: Personalize your query letters
One piece of advice I saw repeatedly, from general writing websites to agent webpages: please personalize the queries. Your paragraphs about your novel can remain the same, maybe even the paragraph about you, but be specific to whom you’re addressing. Don’t write “Dear agent” when you can write “Dear Ms. Jones.” If something on their MSWL made you think they’d be perfect for your manuscript, say so. If you met, even in passing, at a writing workshop or conference, say so.
Also–every agent and agency is different. In my research, I found some who wanted a query letter only, some who wanted a query letter plus my first three pages, some who wanted a query letter, a synopsis, and the first ten pages, and some who wanted a query letter and the first three chapters. Tailor each submission to those directions. Nothing will get your query tossed faster than not following directions.
Step 6: Triple-check everything
Do you have the right query letter for the right agent? Sending it to the right email address? Have you followed their directions to the letter?
Step 7: Click send
You’ve come this far. Do not be afraid. The worst you will hear is no, but every other published author in the world has heard no more than they’ve heard yes. Click send.
And now, a lesson my mother has been trying to teach me since age four: patience. The average response time for queries is 4-12 weeks, and 8-12 weeks for fulls. In the meantime, I’m working on novel two, getting back to short stories, and reading.
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