I Did Everything Wrong While Querying So You Don’t Have To

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Oh, the query trenches.  Even if you haven’t entered the battlefield of querying, you’ve likely heard the rumors: it’s not fun.  For those who don’t know, a query is a pitch letter that gives a high-level overview of your manuscript.  Typically, they’re sent to a literary agent or agency.  Best case scenario: you pique the interest of an agent, and they ask to read your work.  But, as many writers are aware, query letters are often met with swift rejection, or no response at all.  How thrilling.

When I was querying, I searched the internet high and low for advice from authors who had managed to find an agent, and I found personal pieces like this one to be very helpful.  So, I’ll get into it, but before I give any tips and tricks, I must offer a warning.  Please, do as I say and not as I did.  Because when it came to querying, I definitely approached it with impatience and impulsivity, two things I have now learned do not benefit you whilst searching for representation.  So, I beg you: learn from my mistakes, because I could have saved myself a lot of humiliation.

I started querying my first novel at twenty-one years old.  It was too short, full of plot holes, and dripping in cliches.  Still, as soon as I typed out, “The End”, my naive younger self decided it was time to began searching for an agent.  I thought, ‘Surely these agents will jump at the chance to read this fantastic literary masterpiece,’ (which, trust me, was more like a fantastic lump of crap).  I did no research on how to write a query letter, looked into zero submission guidelines, and barely developed a pitch at all.  I would love to find this original query and paste it below for all of us to enjoy (and mock), but I sent it from my college email account, which was deleted a few years back.  However, I’m pretty sure it went something like this:

Subject Line: Message for Ms. Lovely Agent

Dear Lovely Agent,

I’m a twenty-one-year-old writer with no idea what I’m doing or how to break into the publishing world.  But I think what I wrote has value, and I wanted to tell you about it.  Like I said, I don’t know if this is the right thing to do, or how to go about getting in touch with you, but I figured I would give it a shot.  Because, why not?  If you’re interested in reading my book, please let me know. It’s my dream to be an author someday.

Thanks so much!

Sarah

That’s it.  I wish I was kidding.  Oh, how embarrassing.  For whatever reason, I was under the false impression that people don’t submit full-length novels to agents every single day.  I literally thought that what I had done with that message was forge uncharted territory.  Email an agent and ask if they want to read my work?  What a novel idea!  Surely, no one has every thought to do that before.  Surely, there isn’t a word for it…

The agent who was on the receiving end of my pathetic email was kind enough to actually reply.  She told me to research how to write a query letter, something I had never heard of at that point.  So that’s my first tip: learn how to write a query.  It’s not that difficult, and yet, somehow one of the most agonizing one-page pieces of writing you’ll ever attempt.  Which leads me to my next tip: find someone who has done this before and ask them very nicely to read your drafted query and whip it into shape.  People literally do this for a living, and it’s worth it to make sure you didn’t misspell your own name in the email signature (guilty).

Another thing I did while querying that I wish I could redo was my overall strategy.  I queried any and every agent who I thought would remotely find my book interesting.  Did they represent horror?  Sure, my book could be horror.  What about mystery?  Sure, my book is sort of mysterious.  I was like Oprah dealing out cars, but instead of cars, I had emails (“You get a query!  And you get a query!”)  Guess what?  Most of them did not request the full manuscript.  It can be tempting to cast a wide net, throw some spaghetti on the wall and see what sticks.  But, most of my queries resulted in rejection because I hadn’t put in the legwork to research if that agent was even actively taking on new clients or if they represented books like my own.  So, seriously, look at their manuscript wishlists, their client lists, their activity on Twitter.  Be honest when you ask yourself if your book is actually what they’re looking for.  If your thought is, “Well, maybe…” then the answer is probably not.  However, when I actually did that research and really vetted the tastes of these agents, more often than not, they were the ones who wanted to see more material.  Shocking, I know.

And while many agents will accept a standard query letter, some have more specific guidelines.  When I was a young idiot spitting out query letters faster than my WiFi could handle, I literally assumed that these guidelines did not apply to me.  I roll my eyes at this now.  Query guidelines apply to you, they apply to me, they apply to everyone. This was a difficult concept for me at twenty-one.  If you don’t follow the guidelines, the agents will likely not ready your query, no matter how groundbreaking the book is.  If you don’t follow them, you not only look unprofessional, you look arrogant, because you’re actively ignoring the clear instructions laid out for submissions such as your own.  You look like, well, like me at twenty-one.  And no one wants that.  I’ve been taken down a few pegs since that then, thank God.

My next tip would be the one that is most certainly easiest to say and hardest to practice: be patient.  Sometimes it just takes a while, no matter how eye-catching your query letter.  The more writers I meet and chat with, the more I find that seems to be pretty commonplace.  The sexy story is the one where a new author furiously spits out a brilliant 70,000 words, sends a single query letter, and BAM! gets agented in a matter of hours.  At twenty-one, I was certain that would be me.  Obviously, now I know that’s very rarely the case.  So, research the agents you want to query, edit your query letter until you’re crosseyed, hit send, and let it go for a while.  Because if there is one thing I wish I could tell my younger self, it is not to refresh my inbox every hour.  Querying can turn you into a psychopath, if you aren’t careful.

I queried three novels before finding an agent.  And it took me six years.  During that time, I took writing classes, I developed my craft, I started this blog, I got a real job in the real world, and I realized that querying is serious business.  I look back on all the querying mistakes I made in my youth, and I know now, I just wasn’t ready back then, even though I was so sure I was.  So, good luck out there in the trenches, dear writers.  And know that I’m rooting for you.

SGJ

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