Thursday, December 8, 2011

Query Advice

You may notice a lack of writing advice given on this blog.

That's because I have no idea what I'm talking about when it comes to writing. I do what seems to work for me and I cross my fingers. If it works, I keep plugging away. If it doesn't work, I try to fix it. But I really don't feel like I'm in any position to dispense advice about writing, since I'm sort of figuring out as I go along. And if there is something I may have some authority on, it's probably been covered at length already elsewhere. That's why this blog is pretty much devoted to my daily goings on and general fangirling.

However, in the past month I have been asked for advice on what steps to take when it comes to trying to land an agent. I still don't feel like this is something I'm particularly qualified to dole out advice on, since my path wasn't exactly typical, but I did have a plan in place for a traditional query journey, so I guess I can share that with you.

So, here are my tips.

Figure out how to write a query. 

This is important. You need to know how to do it and do it right and do it well. There are many sites out there that tell you how to do it. Use them. And remember that the point of a query isn't to talk about you and why you are awesome. It's to make the agent want to read your book. It should be mainly about your book and it should also showcase your ability to write.

You will occasionally hear about a query success story that caught the agent's attention despite breaking all the rules. I think these crazy stories are cool, but generally uncommon, and I'm pretty sure the rules are there because they make the query process easier on the agent. I tell my students all the time not to do anything in their papers or homework that will make me grouchy (like typing in Comic Sans) because the last thing you want is to have a grouchy teacher grading your work. This goes with agents, too. And the thing is, if you blatantly disregard the basic rules of the query they don't even stick around to get grouchy about it, they just shoot off a form rejection and call it a day.

You don't want to give them an excuse to not read your query.

Don't wait until you are done with your book to write your query. Write it now. Even if you are at the very beginning. 

First of all, I really found that writing my query helped me identify issues with the plot of my book. I didn't realize that some elements weren't working or that I didn't have a major hook until I sat down and tried to write a compelling query. My query was boring and flat because my book was boring and flat, but I didn't see that because I wasn't trying to look at it that way. Writing my query mid-draft helped me identify my problems and write a better book.

Second, I know I was itching to start querying as soon as I was done, done, DONE with my book. You just took forever writing the perfect book. Now you don't want to have to wait around to write a perfect query...or, the horror, send out a less than perfect query because you are so impatient and want to start querying now. Have your query perfect already so you can get going as soon as your ms is ready.

Get it critiqued. A lot. Get it critiqued some more by someone else. Keep working on it. Put it away for a little bit and then pull it out and look at it with fresh eyes. If your story changes, make sure your query changes with it. Work on it just as hard as you work on your book.

Make a list of agents

Look through your favorite books and see who the author thanks as her agent in the acknowledgments. Look up some of your favorite authors online and see who they list as their agent on their contact page. Use the Literary Rambles blogs to read profiles of various agents and find out more about them. Pay attention to who is making deals on Publishers Marketplace.

I made a Google spreadsheet and used it to organize all of the agents I was interested in. In addition to their contact info, I kept track of things like:
What (if anything) they wanted in the subject line of the query
Response policy and times
How many pages to include (if any)
Any personal connection I had to them
Notable clients
Why I want to query them
Links to their submission guidelines

My first round list had 45 agents on it. That was just going to be round one.

Be nosy

Follow agents on Twitter. Read their blogs. Participate in #askagent chats. Many times they are letting you know specifically what they are looking for, if and when they are closing to queries, what their favorite books are, what their query status is, stuff like that. This is all valuable information that you can use to your advantage.

Remember, though, that not all agents are on Twitter or have blogs. Just because an agent isn't tweeting, that doesn't mean that he or she isn't a rockstar. And just because you like an agent's personality on Twitter doesn't mean that person is the best choice to help advance your career, so don't get attached just because an agent writes funny blog posts.

There are also a lot of really great Secret Agent contests out there on blogs that are great to follow. Pay attention to them. You can see what the agents like, which queries they respond to, what they have to say about queries they pass on, stuff like that. You can really learn a lot from lurking around (or even entering) these contests.

Use QueryTracker

This website is the best thing ever for querying. It's a wealth of information as well as a great place to keep your queries organized and feel a little camaraderie with others who are in the query trenches with you. I'm still checking the comments on QT because I am interested in everyone else's journey, and I love seeing the success stories and seeing people announce that they have an offer.

Be organized and professional

Know the submission guidelines. Follow the submission guidelines. Address the agent correctly in your email. Don't cc a bunch of agents in the same email. Make sure the name that shows up in the inbox when you send an email matches the name you are signing. Make sure your email isn't something like MILF745 @ hotmail. Don't attach anything unless it's requested. Personalize the query if you actually have something to say, but don't make generic statements or make things up.

This is a business letter where you are attempting to establish a business relationship. Remember that.

Query widely, but in batches

Send out queries in small groups. This way you can tweak your query if you need to. If you are getting only form rejections, something isn't working with your query. You need to work on it. If you have only sent in small batches, you haven't blown your wad. You can fix your query and then send it anew to the next batch of agents.

Basically, it comes down to this...

Take the querying process just as seriously as you took the writing process

Honestly, when you hear the stats that agents receive 100+ query emails in their slush every day, it seems a little daunting. How will you ever get an agent that way? How will you ever get noticed? But more and more I realized that if you have a well-written, organized query that is for a genre the agent represents and follows the submission guidelines, you are in the top l5% or so of those 100+ queries right off the bat...without the agent even reading anything. If you are respectful of the agent's time and guidelines and you have a query and a book that is the best it can be, your chances of standing out are pretty good, IMO.

Obviously your book has to be outstanding to get to the elusive offer, but that's another story.

I hope this is helpful! And if you have any other query tips, leave them in the comments. Happy querying!


  1. Great tips, thank you so much!

  2. This is really helpful! Thanks!

  3. Thanks for the tips! I definitely write my query before I'm finished with the book. I'm a total panster, so once I figure out what I'm actually writing, that's when I write the query :)

  4. great advice, especially the plot part--so true!

  5. Maybe you should post advice more often--great post!

  6. Great post! I so wish I would have known more about the whole process *before* I finished the book, as per your #2...would have saved me a lot of time and agony!

  7. This is all such excellent advice, especially the part about writing your query letter early on. That's how I narrow down what my story is REALLY about before I ever write it, and it also gives plenty of time for tinkering before the letter sees the light of day. Great post, Jess! I also like the part about being nosy. :)

  8. I feel the same way about giving writing advice!
    Your querying points are all excellent.

  9. Thanks for the tips! I have a rough draft of my query so I'm going to take your advice and work on it as I finish revising my book, not after. I'm planning to begin the querying process (for the first time) in 2012 so I appreciate your advice. :)

    I second Meradeth-it seems like you have more advice to share than you realize!

  10. I have been ignoring my query letter draft like the plague. It's high time I sit down and sketch one out. Viva the Sh!tty First Draft!

    Thanks for the tips. I'll be back to brush up on these--hopefully next year!

  11. I've seen most of this before, but the 'write the query letter as you write the book' one is new. I'm so glad to see that on your list, because that's exactly what I did. I'm still not done my story (90% done) but the query is already in its third draft. Working on the query has shown me some places in my book where major plot twists should have come; it really helped with plotting my book. It's great to hear that I'm not the only one who finds this helpful!

  12. Thanks for sharing your query wisdom. I just added all of the query info you mentioned to my spreadsheet.

  13. Take the querying process just as seriously as you took the writing process

    Awesome advice, Jessica. Actually this whole post is full of awesome. Thanks!