Saturday Six #31: Lessons In Querying

If you haven’t heard the news…I have an agent!

I was incredibly excited to sign on with Marlene Stringer of the Stringer Literary Agency at the end of July. Since the day I spoke with her on the phone, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind, asking questions, signing the agreement, a bit of waiting because that’s essentially what we do in this writing business, and buckling down for another round of revisions. I am thrilled she saw beauty in my story and fell in love with it, and I can’t wait to see what we’re going to accomplish together.

I actually got to sign my agreement on vacation!

I haven’t decided yet whether or not I’m going to do a “How I Got My Agent” essay, in particular because I’m not sure my journey was all that dazzling or inspirational. But what I want to share today is the most important query tips I learned over the course of my (just shy of) eleven months “in the trenches.”

Don’t Go It Alone. No man is an island, and no author should embark upon the querying journey alone. When I started, I pretty much dove in on my own, and I do not recommend this for two reasons. 1) Support from other writers, and especially other querying writers, is the best support to have because they understand, in a way non-writing friends and family never will. 2) Other writers can help you polish and perfect a query letter until it shines. The #WritingCommunity on Twitter has been my go-to for finding support, and I am certain I wouldn’t have found an agent without them! (More later on editing that letter!)

Know Industry Standards for Word Count. Yes, there is a general rule for how long a novel should be, and that rule should be followed, especially for debut authors. For a really good discussion on word count, check out this Writer’s Digest article, complete with a humorous infographic. Unfortunately, I was a bit misled about acceptable word count for historical fiction, so I began querying with a 112,000-word novel (red flag!), and it’s entirely possible I got rejections solely based on that. I read lots of sources that said 80-90,000 words is the “sweet spot” for debut novelists, and mine is currently sitting at about 87,000. Not knowing or not adhering to word count standards can be a quick way to make this a losing battle.

Don’t Be Afraid to Rewrite the Letter. I learned that a good rule of thumb is to keep the entire query letter between 250 and 300 words. My original letter was at least twice this! The pitch, which is a little like jacket copy, or what you’d read on the back cover or inside flap of a book, should include enough information to introduce the characters, a plot point or two, and what’s at stake. It takes a lot of work to get a novel basically down to its guts. I rewrote my letter at least a dozen times, and each time it got better. 

Participate in Workshops, Webinars, and Contests. Not only did the Writing Community on Twitter lead me to some awesome people, but it also led me to some much-needed workshops. Writing Day Workshops hosts monthly “How to Get Published” single- and multi-day conferences, with sessions taught by agents, editors, and authors. I learned SO MUCH during last February’s Minnesota Writing Workshop that it was probably the best $240 I’ve ever spent (registration plus two live pitch sessions with agents, something I also highly recommend). I attended an agent-led webinar through the Maryland Writers Association about how to write query letters, watched (free!) virtual sessions hosted by Virginia Festival of the Book, and participated in the RevPit contest via Twitter this spring. Even if you don’t “win” contests or score an agent from live pitches, they’re still a chance to get (in)valuable feedback.

Spam-Querying May Not Be the Best Method. When I say Spam-Querying, I don’t mean sending a mass email to a bunch of agents, or copy-and-pasting my letter into a bunch of individual emails. Rest assured, I researched each agent and personalized each letter to the extent I could. But when I started, I queried approximately thirty agents in a span of six weeks; in retrospect, I wish I would have sent just a few at a time and waited for responses. Many agents aren’t even able to respond within six weeks, so I effectively blew through about half my list of potentials before I got a single rejection. I know now that my manuscript wasn’t ready when I started querying, and taking a more measured approach would have given me a chance to revise before pursuing so many agents.

Prepare For the “Yes.” While querying, I felt very strange about doing research (i.e. reading blogs, watching videos) on how to prepare for a phone call with an agent. I didn’t want to jinx myself! But in the end, I had less than 24 hours to prepare for my call. (This was my choice…I could have had more time, but I had a very busy week at work coming up and wanted to do the call before that chaos set in.) In some ways, this was a good thing because I had a lot less time to obsess and panic. But I also had to start fresh in terms of writing down my questions and making sure we talked about everything. Had I done a little more prep beforehand, I might have gotten to bed before midnight that night! The lesson: I should have been more proactive, at least once I got the full manuscript requests.

I hope this post wasn’t too long and random, but these points all helped me tremendously while querying. My number one tip, though, is to get that support system, because once you have it, it will likely trickle down and help in all the other areas. I know it did for me. Soon I will be going into the next stage of this journey, more waiting while my agent seeks a home for my novel, and I suppose once that’s through (months, maybe years from now???) I’ll have another whole set of pointers to share.

If you have any questions about querying, I am happy to reply with my very much non-expert answers! You can reach me by clicking the Contact tab at the top of this page.

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