You know how they say you should never put anything smaller than your elbow in your ear? I know why. It’s because if you poke around in there with something that actually fits, like a q-tip, you might slip up and accidentally jab yourself in the eardrum. Which is really painful. Much like querying.
You can see where I’m going with this.
I’ve been racking my brain to come up with helpful “tips” that are fat and soft and fluffy and will generally make this process easier for everyone. But the fact is, querying is pretty tough. I described most of my hilarious querying stories in my post, The Alpine Path, so if you want to read about my process and how I did it, check that out.
As for the query itself, entire books have been written on the subject, and these are probably more helpful than anything I might say, but I’ll take a crack at it.
Be professional. Take the time to research agents who interest you, and follow their instructions for querying. I’ve been told that if your query is properly formatted and abides by the instructions on the agent’s web site, you will already be ahead of at least 90% of the competition. Not too bad.
Query widely. I have come across writers on Twitter who are disheartened after a dozen rejections. If you’ve had a dozen rejections, know that you’re probably just getting started.
That being said, if you send out a round of queries (I think I started with around ten at a time, but increased it as I went along to more like fifteen) you should get at least one or two requests for a full, hopefully more. If you send out one or two rounds with no interest, you probably need to take a closer look at your query letter and sample pages.
Crafting a query letter is SO HARD. I am a verbose person. Condensing my book down to its essence and trying to pique the interest of agents just about killed me. I still believe my query could have been stronger, but it got requests from some pretty big time agents right out of the gate, so I stuck with it. I suspect that it was my premise and sample pages that were working. I think most agents will take a look at those pages if they like your idea, even if your query isn’t the best letter they’ve ever read. Make those sample pages shine—it’s my belief they can really make up for a somewhat lackluster query letter.
And about that letter—my best advice for this, apart from reading a book or two, is to read everything you can on queryshark.blogspot.com. There is absolutely no website more illuminating when it comes to spotting the difference between a query that’s just okay and one that is killer. And yes, I did submit my query letter to her, but she didn’t review it. I suspect it was not quite bad enough for that, drat the luck.
By the way, I didn’t have a tag line for my book, and no one seemed to notice or care, so if you’re having trouble coming up with one, don’t worry. I also never used comps, except one time when I was forced to by an agent who had an online form to fill out. There was a space for a comp so I filled it in, but honestly I found it hard in my case and not necessarily useful, and no one seemed to mind. I still got requests.
I think the most important advice anyone can give about querying has more to do with taking the lumps and trying to stay positive than the actual letter itself. The letter can be hard but is less than a page, so it doesn’t take that long to write. The process, though, can last for months or even years. So how do we keep going, how do we keep heart when we might be setting ourselves up for years of rejection?
First off, keep writing. If you stop writing, you might forget the reason you started querying in the first place: because you love words, and you want to put your words out in the world. Focusing on your next project—or starting a blog or even journaling—will keep you happy. Writing is a lot more fun than querying. Remember that. Every agent in the world might turn up a nose at your work, but they can’t stop you from writing. They can’t stop you from having fun.
Remember that publishing is highly competitive. Agents can only take on books they are absolutely head over heels for—anything less, and they have to say no. As you endure the form rejections and silence, remember this. It might take time to find your perfect match, but all this means is that the agent who finally says yes will probably be the best person to represent your work.
And speaking of silence…this might have been the single most frustrating aspect of querying for me. It’s common now for an agent to simply state on their web site that silence means no. I never bothered to follow up on that silence and make sure my query was received, unless the agent had stipulated that I should after, say, waiting two months. I just moved on. I kept on querying while agents sat on my full, as well. Don’t hold up the show for anyone. Polite nudging is fine, but polite nudging often yields nothing, even when an agent has your full. Try not to worry about that or take it personally. Having spent many years at home with two young children, silence is something I now treasure. Silence when I was waiting hopefully to hear back from an agent was palpable, but it was still silence. It was that space in which I could still find myself writing.
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