Sorcery and Serendipity: The Quirks of Querying

If you’ve reached the querying stage of the publication process: Congratulations! You wrote and edited a book. (You did edit it, didn’t you? A lot? Good.) You’re ready to send your baby out into the world, and that can be thrilling and exciting.

This stage can also be totally overwhelming.

I dealt with some of the chaos by keeping a running spreadsheet of who I queried and when I queried them. If their website said anything about the time frame to expect a response in, I noted that as well. If I heard back, I tracked the response — outright no, request for pages, R&R, etc. If I didn’t hear back within their allotted time frame, or after two months, I counted it as a “no”. Sadly, that’s the case with a lot of agents — their slush pages are so massive that no news is bad news. It’s just the nature of the beast.

This spreadsheet not only helped me keep track of what I’d done, it helped me know what I needed to it. I always had 5-7 queries out at a time; when a rejection came in, or when a time limit passed, I could mark that one off the list and move on to the next. This way, I didn’t have to send out queries in batches; it could be one-in, one-out, rolling along constantly.

As for writing the damn thing — Look, it’s dark sorcery, that’s all I can really tell you.

QueryShark is a useful resource, but if you read through all of the archives, you’ll notice a lot of contradictions — things that are lauded in one example but excoriated in another. There are some general guidelines: open with a hook, briefly summarize the plot, include bio information but keep that short because honestly most of it is irrelevant, make sure to include your word count so the agent knows you know your genre, and for the love of mercy make sure you address the agent by the correct name. But there’s so much that’s variable, down to genre differences or the preferences of an individual agent.

What helped me the most was following a bunch of agents on Twitter. You get a sense not only of who they are and what stories they’re looking for, but you also get insight into what makes them look at or reject a manuscript based on the query. Many agents will occasionally post on a hashtag like #10queries, giving their followers rapid-fire glimpses at how they evaluate what lands in their inbox. (An astonishing number of the rejections are to people who are querying an agent that doesn’t represent their genre — Y’all, don’t do this. It wastes everyone’s time. And by the same token, follow each agent’s submission guidelines to the letter; send everything they ask for, in the form they ask for it in, and don’t send anything they haven’t asked for).

For what it’s worth, here’s the query letter that sold my agent, Connor, on From Unseen Fire.

The last thing you’re going to need to do is build up a thick skin. In some ways, the querying process weeds out the writers who can’t handle rejection. If a few “no”s discourage you, then you’re probably not cut out for this industry. Or, perhaps, this is a story that just isn’t ready yet, and you might know that, deep-down. But if you believe in your story, then you just have to keep at it. Remind yourself that it isn’t personal. Not every book is for everyone. Do you like every single book you read? Of course not. And you don’t want an agent who just likes your book; you want an agent who loves it and who will fight for it as passionately as you will.

There’s an aspect of luck, serendipity, and ineffability as well. You never know if an agent is seeing your query at the end of four hours of reading queries, at the point where words have lost all meaning. You never know if an agent is in a bad mood, or feeling sick, or otherwise suffering the very human things that make a person ill-disposed to like anything. You never know if an agent might like your book, but already has something similar in their wheelhouse. There are so many factors that aren’t under your control, and, as a consummate control freak, I know how frustrating that is. But it can also be freeing, if you frame it to yourself the right way: Write the best book you can and the best query letter you can, and that’s really all you’re responsible for. The rest is down to the stars — and all it takes is one “yes”, the right “yes”.


From Unseen Fire can be pre-ordered from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, Google Play, or your local indie store. Or, if you just can’t wait, try entering the Goodreads Giveaway or requesting an e-ARC on NetGalley. For behind-the-page sneak peeks and more insights into the publishing process, join Cass’s Patreon.

Author: Cass Morris

Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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