How Do You Query an Agent?

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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 ListQueryTracker, 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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Top Five Things This Writer Is Thankful For

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‘Tis the season for giving thanks, and here are my top five things (in no particular order) that I’m thankful for this November–related to writing, of course!

Bloggers and twitter followers

Without the continued chatter among bloggers and tweeters, where would we writers be? Writing can be so isolating, and for those of us who live out in the middle of nowhere, that isolation is amplified. I love connecting with others this way when in-person meetings aren’t possible.

Sisters in Crime and Mystery Writers of America

I spent last weekend in Chicago to attend functions put on by Sisters in Crime (the Chicagoland chapter) and Mystery Writers of America (the Midwest chapter). It was my first experience in-person with both groups, and the camaraderie was something to behold. Members are at various stages in the writing journey, from just starting out to published authors many times over. The best part? The genuine friendliness and willingness to help each other out. I walked away from both events feeling encouraged and revived.

NaNoWriMo regional group

I’ve long complained about the lack of formal writing groups in my area–I’m three hours from Chicago–but I joined up with our regional NaNoWriMo group, and wow. Just wow. They are some really cool people whose goals are as varied as are our genres. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, and it’s so nice to be in the company of like-minded people who help me remember to keep writing!

NaNoWriMo student group

This year, I started an after-school NaNoWriMo group for students at the high school where I teach. We had a Harry Potter-themed kick-off party and regular write-ins, and though it’s caused me to miss a lot of my “grown-up” regional write-ins, it’s a good trade-off. Seeing my students confer with one another about what the next best plot point is and sharing their work with their peers (and even me!) makes me smile. My favorite moment thus far was when it was pitch black save for the battery-operated candles hanging from the ceiling a la Hogwarts, and all you could hear was the clicking of keys. Every single one of us was engrossed in our own writing, yet we were doing it all together. Magical.

Early readers

Our school’s librarian was an English teacher in the early days of her career. She has become a good friend to me, personally and professionally. When I gathered the courage to tell her I was thinking of writing, she showered me with encouragement. She was an early reader for everything I wrote, and when The Devil Inside Me became more than a notion, she beta-read, discovering plot points and typos, offering suggestions and honest criticism. Without her enthusiasm, I doubt I would have ever finished the novel, let alone submitted it to agents and publishers.

What are you thankful for?

 

How to “Win” NaNoWriMo

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Last month, I explained National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), and now it’s here! As I write this, I have written 11,000 words into my second novel, The Devil Before Me since November 1.

Crazy?

Yes.

And that’s why I do it.

I’m a procrastinator extraordinaire, and I often feel like I have to get everything done on my to-do list before I can sit down to write. (Otherwise, my mind will be distracted by the other things I have to do.) Now, I am not a competitive person by nature. I didn’t like team sports when I was a kid: I preferred ballet and piano lessons. But when it comes to writing and brain sports, well, that’s a different story.

The drive to “win” NaNoWriMo–writing 50,000 words in November–is strong for me. That’s my idea of competition. However, the last time I attempted it, I petered out about six days in. I just could not find a way to write that many words every. single. day.

I learned a few lessons that I applied to this attempt, and so far so good. Here they are:

1. For this month, prioritize your writing.

  • The laundry goes for a couple extra days.
  • The hubby is put on dishwashing duty.
  • I make crock pot meals.
  • I say “no” a lot when it comes to after-work things.

 

2. For the love of all that is holy in writing-land, have an outline.

  • But I’m a pantser, you say? No problem.
  • It doesn’t have to be a formal, rigid, locked-in outline your high school English teacher made you write.
  • Let it be fluid so that as your ideas come to you, you can follow them instead of an in-stone outline.
  • Just have your basic plot points. From there, jot down some of the scenes you’ll need. This has been my biggest help: knowing where I’m going next without having to think about it.

 

3. Join your regional NaNoWriMo group.

  • Mine has physical meet-ups to write as well as virtual ones.
  • Being with other people chasing the same dreams is AMAZING for your motivation and inspiration.
  • Seeing others struggle with the same writerly things you are helps you to know you are not alone.

 

4. It’s not going to perfect.

  • It’s a rough draft. Get your story out first. Then polish.
  • Resist the urge to edit too much. (I’m an English teacher. Trust me, I know how difficult that can be!) Your goal here is to get the story, your ideas, out of your head and into some semblance of a form.

 

5. Don’t be afraid to fail.

  • Life happens. Sick kids happen. Job changes happen. Just do what you can do. If you don’t write 50,000 words, you’ll at least have more words than if you didn’t try at all.
  • Failing can be the best teacher. My challenges with my last attempt drove me to do better this time by learning from my shortcomings. You can too!

H. H. Holmes Hits the Headlines

Holmes

Imagine my surprise when I saw a link pop up in my Facebook feed with this headline: River North hotel invites guests to spend a killer night in H.H. Holmes pop-up suite

Yep. You read that correctly.

If you’ve followed by blog for any length of time, you know that my novel is based on the murders of H.H. Holmes. He’s received some cult-level popularity via Erik Larsen’s book, The Devil in the White City, the recent History channel American Ripper docuseries, and even American Horror Story. And now, for a limited time, the Acme Hotel Company in River North is converting a hotel suite into a Holmes-lover’s dream. Or is that nightmare?

Decor included in your scare stay: old newspaper clippings, surgical tools, and Holmes’ mug staring at you. All. Night. Long.

Acme Hotel, this Holmes fanatic thinks you’ve landed on a spectacular idea.

Attached in the same Tribune article? A link to an interactive “walking tour” of the 1893 World’s Fair. Incredibly cool, and not just for a writer’s research either! 

NaNoWriMo approaches…

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It’s October, and you know what that means! Pumpkin spice everything–and NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.

Never heard of it? Read Kristen Kieffer’s excellent distillation on her blog, well-storied. In a nutshell, it’s a bazillion people trying to write 50,000 words in one month. That’s 1,667 words a day. A DAY. Crazy? Perhaps. But NaNoWriMo has forums and pep talks and regional groups that all help create a beautiful (and maybe a little crazy) writing community to help you along.

I wrote a bit about my last NaNoWriMo experience here, and I’m so looking forward to beginning again in a few weeks–especially because I’m starting a group for my students. Creative writing is not something that Common Core values, so I squeeze that in wherever and whenever I can! I will be writing feverishly alongside them as well.

Many NaNo writers spend their Octobers preparing (i.e. Preptober) for the challenge. Given my experience, I would strongly encourage you to do the same–and Rachael Stephen, author of State of Flux and creator of the plot embryo, has a ton of practical resources for free on her website. (She is also a bullet journaler–check out her video of her NaNoWriMo one. Talk about a work of art!) She also offers a free (FREE) seven-day course on plotting–all on one page. For those of us who tend to eschew outlines and too much preparation, it is a perfect solution to meet in the middle.

Are you up for the challenge? Let me know if you are! I’d love to keep in touch with other NaNo-ers!

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Stir It Up

typewriter with paper flying out of itIs your writing routine working for you? My recent experiment is proof that changing things up can work to your benefit. I made it through 100% of my edits! (That may not seem like much, but I’m doing some extensive re-writes in the hopes that I won’t have so many drafts.) I just had to be willing to forego the must-write-every-day mantra–which was HARD to do. It still is. But I’m buoyed by the work I’ve been able to get done. If you’re stuck in a rut, I’d like to share two blog posts that talk about letting go of our routines to make way for motivation.

The first is guest blogger Amanda Linehan, who wrote “Writing Outside the Lines” on Lauren Sapala’s kick-butt blog. In it, she discusses how she was a ride-or-die outline user, until–well, until the outline wasn’t helping her. My favorite suggestion that she gave for those who are hesitant was to “try it out with some low-stakes project” like a short story.

The second is K.M. Weiland’s “Don’t Let Anybody Tell You How to Write” over at Helping Writers Become Authors. With sage advice such as “don’t let anybody tell you how to write. Not me. Not Stephen King. Not Writer’s Digest. Not Aristotle,” Weiland reminds us that “structures aren’t the destination, but rather the vehicle.”

In other words, stir it up, writer friends. If your method is not working for you, try another way. The writing police will not arrive, I swear.

Back on the Wagon

As most teachers will tell you, August tends to be our version of the new year. Everything starts fresh again: new students, new notebooks, new pens that I don’t need…The summer tends to be a recharging time for me, and while I really thought I’d knock out all of my edits for The Devil Inside Me, I did not. Not even close. But with the beginning of the “new” year, I have reset the clock and calendar, and the edits are calling. It’s interesting how, when you let your work sit for awhile, it often comes calling for you. In my case, it’s getting back into a regular schedule of things, which means regularly scheduled writing time. I’m changing up my schedule though: When actively writing, I try to write as close to daily as possible. However, I’ve discovered that this revision process requires more of my time in one sitting–so rather than block an hour out daily, I’m finding ways to chunk my time a few days a week, such as moving weekly chores onto one night so I have three straight hours to work the next. Knowing that I have a block of time, well, I can’t even tell you how much I looked forward to my dates with my manuscript this week!