Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Query Time: 7 Things I Wish I'd Known While Querying

It's Query Time here at the Muse's Library! Over the next two weeks I'll be doing a series of posts about the query process, ending with an interview with literary agent, Jason Yarn. Buckle your seat belts! For the first post in the Query Time series, I'm going to be giving you a list of Things I Wish I'd Known.

It's going to be a bit random, but these are all the mistakes I made (before I knew they were mistakes). They're common things that people do without realizing it, and they can get you rejected faster than you can say "rhetorical question".

Without further adieu, here are the 7 things I wish I'd known before sending out those first few query letters.

1) Get the agent's name. Get it right.

Think you have the name right at the top of the query letter? Check it again. Now check it once more. Before you hit send, check it one more time. Are you sure this person is a woman? Sure, the picture was fuzzy and the name says "Sue", but don't you remember that Johnny Cash song? You never know.

Did you spell the last name right? Maybe it's a German name and you can't pronounce it without spitting all over your keyboard, but you darn well better spell it right.

Maybe you're copying and pasting your query letter. That's okay, but be careful, you'll cringe with horror after you hit that "send" key and realize only after, that you've sent it to agent number two, with agent number one's name still on it.

And if you ever think of addressing your query with "dear agent", I suggest you bang your forehead vigorously on the desk until the urge passes.

2) Pay attention to guidelines

Go to the agent's website and read the guidelines. Read them again as you write the query and put together your manuscript pages/synopsis. Now read them a third time before you hit "send".

"Wait!" you say, "I don't need guidelines. I'm a special, shiny sequin and I live by my own rules!"

Get in line behind the other special shiny sequins. Doing "cute" things like phoning an agent, or showing up at the building will get you a reputation. And no, not a reputation for creativity.

No crayon drawings, no glitter bombs inside envelopes (surprise!), no pictures of you with your dog, Muffin, no mysterious packages.

Just follow the guidelines.

3) Don't sweat the rejections

You will send out lots and lots of query letters. In return, you will get lots and lots of rejections. Sometimes they'll be nice, sometimes they'll have feedback, occasionally it will be soul-crushing. Mostly it will be form letters, and sometimes....nothing.

Don't sweat it. Fire off those query missiles like you're running a "launch and forget" program. Don't analyze the vague feedback (this voice is far too turgid and plain) and if the same feedback starts to pile it up, use it to edit your manuscript.

Remember, this is totally subjective. One agent hates your plot line, another one loves it. One says the tone is too serious, another one says it's too light. Each time you get one rejection, send out two more query letters.

Most importantly, don't take it personally. That's a great way to end up spending a Saturday night on the kitchen floor with a bottle of wine and an entire french baguette.

What? No, that's not personal experience...

4) Ignore the "Haters"

As much as I dislike the term "haters" it accurately describes some people. Distance yourself from these people. They will tell you you're wasting your time. They'll say writing is a "hobby", they'll tell you that your query woes are "no big deal". The thing is, when you do find success, these people don't get any better. They won't celebrate with you, they'll snort and shrug and act like you crossing one of the biggest hurdles of your writing life isn't that impressive.

There will always be people like that out there. It's because they gave up their dreams, or because they're jealous of you, or because they're having a really rotten year and they don't think anyone else should be allowed to find happiness.

Sometimes these people are your friends, or your family. Sometimes it's other writers, sadly enough.

Push these people away. Find new friends who support you, who will cheer for you. Find a "query buddy" and help each other out. You can lean on one another when the rejections get rough, keep one another accountable (did you send three query letters out today? Get to it!) and best of all, you know who to call as soon as you get "the call".

5) Your first book isn't good enough

I should rephrase that to "might not be good enough". But there is no denying that mine wasn't. It wasn't ready for publication. It wasn't ready to be read by agents. It wasn't particularly marketable.

This might be you as well. How do we learn to write a book? By writing a book.

Your first book is going to have flat characters, sloppy pacing, crazy plot holes and inconsistencies, tons of passive voice and so many other flaws I could stand around and name them all day. But it's your practice book.

Would you record yourself learning to play the violin and send it to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in hopes they'll hire you? No, of course not. So why do people think their first book is going to be good enough to get the attention of agents?

It might not be your second book that gets picked up either. It might be your third, or your fourth. Maybe your fifth. Writing a novel is different to everything else, it's not like writing a play or a short story, or an essay.

Your first one is going to suck. It's inevitable.

6) Pace Yourself

To me, querying was like playing the lottery. I got addicted. I would sit there and send out ten queries per day, and when I got a request back for a full or a partial, it fed the addiction. The thing is, that's all I did. For a period of two or three months, I queried without writing anything else.

Dumb idea. 

Why was it dumb? Because I was querying my first book. It got rejected again and again, and finally I realized it wasn't good enough. I had to write another book and query that one instead.

But guess what... I hadn't written anything else. I hadn't even started an idea for my next book.

If I had just had a little more balance in my writing life, if I had been writing my next book while I was querying the first one, I would have had another book ready to go as soon as I realized my first wasn't going to cut it. 

Always have another book going. It's a habit you should develop early in your writing life. The same goes for when you're waiting to hear back from your agent, or when you're on submission. It's the only thing that keeps you from going insane.

Right now, I'm writing another book. If my first book doesn't sell and every editor on the face of the planet earth decides they hate it, I'll have another one ready to go.

7) The answer to your rhetorical question is NO.

Dear agent, what would you do if a gang of break-dancing clowns kidnapped you and took you to their secret hideout at Chuck E Cheese's?

No. No. NO. Stop it. Don't ever do that again.

I'm ashamed to admit I had a rhetorical question at the start of a few of my early queries. The best thing you can do to avoid query no no's like this is google "literary agent pet peeves". Study. Learn. Memorize.

There's a long list of things us writers seem to think is particularly clever, and we use them over and over and over, until the agent wants to poke her eyes out with a number two pencil, just so she never has to see another rhetorical question again.

So that's a total of 7 things I wish I'd known. I'm sure there are more, so there may be another post about this in the future. Tune in to Query Time on Saturday, where I'll be posting about how to write a query letter, and posting the actual query letter that got a full request, and eventually an offer.

Questions, comments, complaints about something I didn't cover? Leave 'em in the comments!


  1. Good to know!
    My father want's me to try and get my book published, which means getting an agent.
    He is a writer, so it's very handy to have him reading through it before hand to see if it's any good. (along with a few of my fellow writing friends) But I am still preparing myself for lots of let-downs and rejections and this has helped me a lot :)
    will be following the blog!

    Wendy Hamlet ;)

    1. You're lucky your dad is a writer! It's amazing to have some built in support right there! Yes, there will be rejections and let downs no matter how good you are. But if you're passionate enough, you'll get there. :) More query tips coming soon!

  2. Will you be my query buddy! ;) PS. you're a rock star!

    1. You're totally already my query/submissions/writing buddy. ;) Aaw, shucks. You're the greatest. :)

  3. This is ridiculously helpful. Although, to be honest, I don't think in your case most of these things matter. Heck, if I were an agent, all I'd need is to take one look at your works to know they'd be instant best sellers.

    1. Aaw, shucks. Thanks! It's a good thing I'm lurking in my library where no one can see me turn red. :O

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  5. I like your blog but I'll have to prove you wrong on #5.

    1. Thank you! And I surely hope you do! It's different for everyone of course. Good luck to you!