Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Query Check!

With NaNoWriMo wrapping up, there's probably going to be a whole mass of writers bum-rushing agents with their manuscripts come this next January. Everyone talks about it—that mad scramble to get your query/partial/manuscript onto an agent's desk before the onslaught begins. Everyone wondering whether it's better to query pre or post holidays. People discussing ways to time their queries Just Right so that they don't get shuffled into the trash can along with a hundred others—all so some agent can clear off his/her desk.

Oh, the guessing games can go on forever! Trust me, been there, done that.

I honestly can't say whether there's a good/bad time to query, but I have been to this rodeo before. That said, I thought I might offer up some advice, such as my limited experience warrants.

This list of do's and don'ts is by no way all inclusive, but hopefully it will nudge you ahead of the pack. You'll certainly be better off than I was when I began. (That's quite a story—one I'll have to share at some point.)

The List:

1 . DO NOT query your book before it's ready. I can't stress this one enough. You may have managed to pound out an entire novel in November, but that does not necessarily mean it's ready to make the rounds with agents. It also doesn't mean it isn't (I've always been an optimist). The thing is, though, you have to be able to take a step back from your work and judge it critically. Sometimes the only thing that will help you do that is some time and distance from your work. Finishing in November, polishing in December, and querying in January PROBABLY isn't enough time for most people. Just sayin'. Remember you only have one chance at making a first impression with your work. Don't spoil it by jumping the gun and putting yourself in the game before you're ready. Take your time. Polish. Revise. SAVOR the moments before the madness of querying begins. Go into it with the confidence of knowing you're putting forth the very best work possible. Unsure of yourself as a judge?? Join a crit group. There are lots of them available on the net.

2. DO NOT burn all of your bridges at once. Research agents carefully and work from that list…SLOWLY. Querying is a game of patience, and you need to play strategically. I wouldn't advise mass mailing queries out to 50 agents at once, for example. No…send your queries out in small batches. Why? Because chances are you aren't going to be a huge hit right off the bat. Sending small batches gives you time to receive and respond to feedback. IOW, if you send out ten queries and receive no partial requests, you need to revise your query letter. If you revise and start receiving partial requests but no full requests, you need to revise your partial pages, so on and so forth. Adjust and keep going. That is the name of this crazy game.

3. DO NOT let rejections get you down. I know this is much easier said than done, but really, they're a part of the journey. A badge of honor. A mark of a writer who has taken a HUGE step in trying to make their publication dreams come true. One of my favorite images of all time is Stephen King's railroad spike, filled to the hilt with rejection letters. King sold his first novel, CARRIE, in 1973 for 400,000, but remember, his success DID NOT happen overnight. He was rejected many, many times. What makes him different from a lot of would-be writers is that he never let the rejections weigh him down to the point where he lost hope. He kept going, kept querying, holding firm in his belief that someday he would be published. Chances are some of us will have an easy path to publication…but more likely, it will take many years, if not a lifetime for most of us to reach our goals. Even then, we may never get there. That doesn't mean our dreams are less worthy of fighting for. And having been through the query process, there's nothing quite like the highs and lows you experience. It's stressful, yes, but it's also very, very exciting.

4. DO query widely. The famous Miss Snark always advised to query at least 100 agents before shelving a project. I completely agree. A lot of you will go in with your heart set on a particular agent. Trust me, I know. I've known the excitement of a partial request from my number one pick…I also have known the devastation of having that same partial rejected by said dream agent. While it's good to go in with a hierarchy of agents in mind, don't close yourself off to all but those select few. The thing is, although you may think there's only a handful of agents you can picture yourself working with, when the slipper fits, You Will Know. And sometimes the agent at the other end of the line is going to be someone completely unexpected. But I can bet there is one major thing you'll love about the agent who wants to sign you… He/She LOVES your book. Trust me, that will go a LONG way in soothing any disappointment of not getting the agent you handpicked before you even started writing your novel. Query far, query widely.

5. DO NOT try to decipher the rejections you receive. I can do an entire series of posts about my attempts to do just that. It's quite hilarious how neurotic I became, trying to figure out just what an agent meant when they sent me a FORM letter. Heaven help me when I actually got a personalized response. I was a wreck trying to read the underlying meaning behind each word. You DO NOT want to do this. A rejection is A REJECTION. Unless an agent goes into great detail about why he/she rejected your manuscript, or gives tips on what you might improve so you can resubmit at a later date, you are going to drive yourself crazy. All for nothing. The bottom line is: THEY REJECTED YOU. Cry if you need to. Get it out of your system. But MOVE ON.

6. TRY NOT to take rejections personally. An agent doesn't reject you because he/she hates YOU personally. Sometimes, believe it or not, an agent will pass on a good book simply because it isn't right for them. It could be outside his/her field of expertise…it could be that he/she just signed an author with a very similar style/book, it could be that they just don't have time for another project, no matter how good. It's not because they have a personal vendetta against YOU. The VERY last thing you want to do is to get into a petty argument with an agent about why she rejected you. The only loser of that game will be YOU. Not only will you be on her blacklist, but if you raise enough of a stink, she'll probably tell all of her agenting friends. Publishing is a tight group—cross one, you cross many.

7. DO be careful who you send your work to. There are a lot of scam artists out there today. With the advent of e-queries and e-submissions, it's quite easy to send off your manuscript with the click of your mouse only to find out later you should've been a bit more cautious. IF it smells fishy, it likely is. Remember, you NEVER pay money to an agent upfront. When in doubt of someone, DO NOT send your book to them. There are plenty of sites where agents can list themselves—creditable sites such as www.agentquery.com, www.publishersmarketplace.com, www.writersmarket.com. Never underestimate other writers as sources of information. Ask around. There's likely someone out there who can give you the inside scoop on an agent. If you can't find out something about them, think twice about querying them. And always, always, always check out their listing over at Preditors & Editors. Protect your work first and foremost.

8. DO NOT let querying become your one and only focus. Yes, querying is time consuming. It's difficult emotionally, especially when rejections start rolling in. You need to be in the game, but you also need to channel your energy into a new project. So, begin working on something else. It will take your mind off the waiting game. Hopefully keep you sane (no guarantees). But who knows, maybe this new project will be EVEN BETTER than your current one. That's what we all strive towards, right?

9. DO NOT give up. Maybe you haven't been able to snag an agent with your current project. That doesn't mean you never will. Keep writing. Keep improving. Your next book may be your golden ticket.

Ahh…the query process. I both hate and adore it.

That covers everything I could think of…I'm sure there's lots I left out.

Does anyone have any questions about specific areas I've covered/not covered here? My brain is yours for the picking. J Hopefully Kristen will be willing to weigh in, too. Ask away, I say!


  1. As always, awesome post, Jen!

    LOL, Rachel is so right; we are starting to think alike with posts, because I was going to do a query related one too. Won't now. I'll just chime in here as suggested. (lol)

    I think Jen pointed this out clearly; going on the query-go-round is like going to war. You must plan your strategy in advance, know your enemy (lol), and put yourself in a neutral mindset where fear and indecision is not involved. (bg)

    But the main thing I was going to touch on in this: you will often hear that a rejection is not personal. Well, to me, it is. What that agent is saying is that they personally don’t want your work- for various reasons. But that is kind of the point, isn’t it? Believe me, you want someone who loves your work. Yeah, the agent/author relationship is a business one, but it is unique because it is also highly personal relationship based on trust and mutual understanding. Like in dating, you (and the agent) want to click with someone. You want them to “get” you. So, yes, rejection is personal. It hurts. But it is part of the writing life. Not every one is going to get your stuff. Let yourself feel the rejection, acknowledge the hurt, then move on, and find that special someone who possess the five major points of compatibility…wait, that’s something else. (g)

    -but please, please listen to what Jen says on the personal debate because she is totally right; you do not want to lower yourself and act unprofessionally by responding in a personal manner to rejection. Not good.

  2. Kristen,

    LOL... man, we DO think alike. (g) That said, great points, all. I agree rejection can be very personal to US, not so much to the agent. We're just another MS to come across his/her desk so while it seems very personal to us to be rejected, they aren't looking to shoot US as people or writers down. They simply aren't GRABBED by our writing for whatever reason --bad day, spilled coffee on the pages and now they're unreadable (I personally believe that's what happened with my rejections) and it's blotted out my addy, too. Oh wait...when did this turn to being about me??? bwhahaha.

    Ooops. (vbg)

    AND YES YES YES on the personal debate. DO NOT DO IT.


  3. Agents looking to shoot writers down...Of course not! (I hope no one thinks that, cuz it just ain't true (g) :) In my experience, agents often act with a lot more class then what they receive. What I really was pointing to was the fact that their discussions comes down to personal preferences. The whole selection process is a highly personal one, which is okay since the agent/author relationship is also a highly personal one. Erm, that was what I meant. Lol

  4. Email definitely makes the whole process easier. But now that I've got 50 rejections under my belt, I'm kinda scared to keep going...

  5. Hmm, filing this post away for when I start querying. So very helpful, Jen! Great stuff.