What I’ve Learned: Querying Edition

I’m going back into the query trenches soon, so I thought I’d pull together a list of things I’ve learned along the way either by experience or from the hundreds (literally hundreds, man) of articles I’ve read. I’ve also posted links at the bottom of this post from my massive collection of writing bookmarks if you want to read further.

Yet again: I am an amateur at this stuff, so feel free to disregard this entire post. I’m just trying to help writers like me get published.

  • Personalize, personalize, personalize.

I have a query template, but it’s not like I have blanks that I copy and paste information into (or at least that’s not how I’m doing things now). A blurb about your manuscript and signature is something that can be the same for all your query letters, but everything else—why you’re querying, your author bio (if you’re including one), comp titles and the format of your query—should be personalized. Don’t say “Dear Agent” or “Dear Whoever the Hell is Going To Read This”. Spell their name properly. While you probably can call them by their full name (e.g. Jane Smith), it’s a little politer to use salutations (e.g. Ms. Smith). Also, don’t be the dumbbutt that addresses your query letter to fifty different agents at once. That’s just lazy and stupid, and it shows the agent that you don’t take the time to do things right.

  • There is literally no accepted universal format for queries.

Everyone will tell you different things. Only 3 paragraphs! Do your hook first! Introduce yourself first! Break your query up into smaller paragraphs! Lead with a synopsis! etc., ad nauseam. It’s confusing as hell. The only mostly universal formatting guidelines are to single space it (with a blank line between paragraphs), no crazy fonts, capitalize book titles, don’t use italics, and leave some sort of contact info in your signature. (And PERSONALIZE!) Other than that, though, just make sure you follow the agent’s guidelines, because that’ll put you ahead of the game.

  • Don’t say your age, or any unnecessary facts about you.

In my first days of querying, my mom convinced me that my author bio should be this:

This is my first completed manuscript. I have been writing stories of various lengths for several years, including a novella posted online that has received high praise, but I have never had anything published. Since I am a teenage girl, I have drawn upon some personal experiences for the story in the hopes that others can relate to them.

MOTHER, YOU LED ME WRONG. This is not what you’re supposed to do, guys. Don’t mention your age. I know it’s tempting—especially if you’re a teenager like me, because some part of you wants to puff out your chest and be like hey! Guess what! I’m 16 and I wrote a novel! And my mom says it’s really good! But resist the urge. Don’t do it. It makes you look like an amateur.

Also, don’t ramble on about yourself if you don’t have any publishing credits. This was the most complicated and confusing part for me, because I have nothing to my name credit-wise. What the heck do I say? From what I’ve read, some people say you don’t really need to have an author bio—it’s just icing on the cake if you have one—and some still say you need one, so whatever. I’d say that if you don’t have anything interesting to say, leave it out if the agent you’re querying doesn’t need one, but write one anyways for the agents that do request author bios. You can keep it as simple as “I’m a debut author” if you are one, or you can write a witty little line about loving books. But that’s all up to you. Just don’t ramble on about yourself. Keep it short; ask yourself if some random Jim Bob Joe off the street is going to find what you have to say interesting. If it’s your age and the fact that you own ten cats, it’s probably not something you should put in a query. But if you took a yearlong sabbatical and traveled the world, and some of what you saw became the basis for your story, put that in.

  • Keep it short.

Words count. Don’t forget that. Try to convey the tone, themes, emotional stakes and basic plot with as few words as possible. I know, I know—it’s hard. But you’ve got to do it. Literary agent Carly Watters (who writes a great blog with lots of great tips for writers) said that you should try to limit your query to one email screen, as it makes things easier for the agent to read. Remember: agents are people too. They have lives. They may have short attention spans just like some of us do. Try to keep it as concise as possible.

  • Don’t query everyone everywhere at once.

I made this mistake once and queried like 15 agents simultaneously. Unfortunately, this was before I learned about the massive flaw in my manuscript (read: too many unnecessary subplots). Bye-bye, fifteen chances with agents. Usually, you can’t re-query agents, and even if they accept re-queries (is that even a word?), they’ll probably remember your previous query. Remember:  you’ve only got one shot to make a great first impression, so don’t screw it up. Query a few agents at a time (Chuck Sambuchino suggests five or six in this post) just to be safe.

  • Learn from your mistakes.

See above. If you do make the mistake of mass-querying, learn from it. If an agent gives you feedback, use it, because the fact that they took time out of their day to send you feedback means that you’re getting pretty darn close. Take their suggestions into account in your next revision, because chances are they know a little more about the publishing market than you do.

  • Utilize voice.

Your query might be the greatest thing to ever grace the face of this earth, but if an agent sees another query identical to yours except with more voice, chances are she/he’ll go for that one. Don’t go to the extent of writing your query in the first person POV of your character, but make sure that your blurb/synopsis has the same tone as your book. If you’ve got humour in it, add a little funny to the blurb. If your character’s a forty-year-old biker or something, don’t use the same words that someone with a PhD in English would use in your query. Your query is an agent’s first look at your manuscript, so make it count.

  • Use QueryTracker.com.

Seriously. The site is amazing. It helps you record all your querying details—date of sending, date of response, etc.—plus you can see stats on the agents and some of them have links there to interviews. If you don’t have it, you’re missing out.

  • And visit QueryShark.

QueryShark is a blog run by literary agent Janet Reid. Basically, writers send in their query letters and she helps revise and polish them until they shine. Look through the blog. Learn from how she’s critiqued some queries, and look at how the successful ones are worded. The link is below.

  • Always be polite.

Don’t be the idiot that responds to a rejection letter by calling the agent who sent it names. That’s a) rude, b) unnecessary and c) incredibly unprofessional. You’re trying to convince the agent that she should work with you. If you come off as a rude asshole, you can pretty much watch any chance of that happening go right down the drain.

  • Don’t spam the people you query on twitter/social media.

I see this all the freaking time. People query an agent, and then tweet them saying that they’ve queried them. Uh, okay? How does tweeting them make any difference to your chances? If anything, it’s probably annoying. Also, don’t pitch to agents on twitter unless they specifically ask for it or if there’s a pitch party going on, like #PitMad or #Pitchmas, etc. And in the latter case, you don’t pitch to individual agents—you pitch to everybody. If you do pitch to a specific agent without them asking for it, they’ll just get annoyed and will be way less likely to look at your manuscript later.

  • Check the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter.

It’s where agents post what they want to see in manuscripts, and it’s really helpful when you’re looking for people to send queries to. But repeat after me: DO. NOT. ADVERTISE. YOUR. NOVEL. IN. THIS. HASHTAG. The hashtag is specifically for agents and editors. Don’t think you can raise yourself above all us mere mortals by tweeting about the Awesome McAwesome book you have. You’re only shooting yourself in the foot here.

  • The first rule of query club is you do not talk about query club.

This is the part where anyone who’s ever read this post will say, “but Alex, didn’t you write a post about your struggles with trying to get published?” And the answer to that question is yes. Yes I did. And it was probably a mistake. I mean, it’s not like I listed the agents I were queried and posted the entirety of their responses and their response times (well, okay, the last one I did), but still. If you want to tell a few close friends that you’ve started querying, go right ahead. But don’t tweet, “HEY GUYS I QUERIED AGENT X 3 WEEKS AGO AND SHE JUST REJECTED ME. SHE’S A MEANIE WEENIE BO-BEENIE. WAAH. NOW I’M GOING TO QUERY AGENT Y.” Don’t go outside and shout to the rooftops, “GOOD MORNING, SKY. TODAY I QUERIED AGENT X AND AGENT Y AND AGENT Z AND AGENT FROOT-LOOPS.” It’s all about professionalism. If you get an agent and you’re going on sub to editors, you’re going to have to {gasp!} not tell anyone ever about it. People who get published have to keep secrets. If you gossip everywhere, people aren’t going to think you can do this.

  • Get some patience.

Literary agents are busy people; some agents get hundreds of queries a day plus yours. Keep that in mind when you’re refreshing your inbox ten million times a second. Don’t pester them with emails like hey have you gotten my query yet hey hey have you seen it did you like it huh did you?  Don’t go all Hammy-the-Squirrel-on-caffeine on them. Calm down. Read a book. Start writing/planning a new manuscript. Go outside (ha. Outside. Right). Do something to get your mind over the query anxiety while you wait for a response. They may take a while to get back to you—and some don’t get back to you at all—but you need to be patient. Again, it’s another test of how you’d fare in the publishing world; when you’re on sub with editors, you’re basically gonna have to go through the query process all over again. And then, when you finally have that book deal you’ve been dreaming about for the last century-and-a-half, you’ll have to wait some more. Books take a long time to come out. I know waiting is hard—trust me, I’m an ADHD kid, I know—but you have to do it. It’ll be worth it eventually.

  • Rejections happen.

And yes, they suck. But never fear! That only means you’ve joined a sacred club along with the likes of J. K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, Ursula K. Le Guin, Stephen King and probably every other published writer (and then some). It’s something all writers go through. Don’t let the rejections bog you down, though, because someday, you’ll get a yes.

The promised links:

Aaaand Alex out. Thanks for reading! 🙂

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