Hello, hello! Are you a brave warrior about to go into the querying trenches? Or maybe you’re already in there?
I’ve been through the querying trenches too, and signed with an agent as a proud product of the slush. Today, I’ve gathered several other Roaring 20’s debuts to share our top advice for staying strong in the trenches:
- “Make sure your story is as polished as you can possibly make it! Look for critique partners before querying, and find fellow writers who you can trust to provide insightful feedback on your manuscript and help you keep what you love about your story.”
- “Don’t start too early! I like to shock people by saying I got 150+ agent rejections on MY LIFE AS A POTATO (which sold quickly to Random House once on sub.) The truth is, I started querying way too early and too broadly and racked up tooooons of rejections. Read up on craft. Get GOOD AND HARSH beta readers (not just the “I love everything!” cheerleaders, though those are helpful for different purposes.) And THEN dive in wholeheartedly!”
- “For your mental health, consider setting up a separate email account just for writing. Turn off the notifications and promise yourself that you’ll only check it once (or twice) a day. That way you won’t be maniacally refreshing your inbox all day or get jumpy every time your phone dings.”
- “Be professional! Even though you might interact with agents on Twitter or other social media spaces, when you’re querying make sure you keep in mind that at the end of the day, publishing is a business. Make sure you follow the individual guidelines as laid out by each agent you query. I recommend making an agent spreadsheet (I love Excel) with a column that specifically speaks to the requirements that each agent requests. That way, you know which agents require a synopsis, which ask for 5 pages, 10 pages, etc! Your query is the first time the agent is getting to know you in a professional setting, so treat it as such.”
- “Find your unique angle. Query-writing is already such a tricky art, and as writers we’re often focused on effectively condensing the main plotline into two or three paragraphs. But if your wording gets too vague, agents will have a hard time picking out what makes your book different. Whether it’s your setting, your concept, or the specific relationship dynamics at play, find ways to show that your voice is fresh, new, and has a place in the market!”
- “This will sound counter-intuitive, but don’t tell too much in a query! Queries are just the appetizer to the main course of your manuscript. If you try to load them up with all the characters and subplots and twists in your story, you’ll overstuff your potential agent and leave them feeling bloated and confused. Give them just a taste of the juicy, meaty main story – enough to get them salivating and requesting more. (Can you tell I wrote this right before dinner??)”
- “Use the MSWL hashtag and website to your advantage! What agents write in their submissions wish-lists is usually just a loose guideline of what they’re looking for. By following the hashtag, you get a more specific sense of what agents are dying to get in their inboxes. If you do come across a post that fits your manuscript, don’t be afraid to include the #MSWL on the subject line of your email. That way, your query will stand out from the rest of the slush pile. Not all agents use the hashtag, so make sure you also use other resources such as Querytracker and agent features and interviews to gain a better understanding of what they ARE and AREN’T looking for.”
- “Find a friend who’s further along in the process than you. That way, when bumps come in the road, you aren’t trying to navigate them on your own. Having someone you can go to for guidance and support can be a life saver.”
- “Try writing the first draft of your query focusing only on who your character is, what they want most in the world, and what they’d be willing to do to get it. If this is hard, writing a draft in first person can help you get into their head. (Emphasis on draft. Finished queries should be in third person!) Doing this helps narrow things down to focus on the main drive of the story. Then rewrite and revise again and again until your query sings.”
- “I wrote a lengthy blogpost on how to write an effective query (click here to read it!) and also dissected the query that got me a high full request rate. My top tip is to be succinct but detailed. This may sound contradictory, but basically asks: Is this word/phrase/sentence essential? Does it add value? You have about 250 words to get the meat of it right. And if you do eat meat, think about a steak—overcook it, and it’s tough and dry. Over-season it, you lose the primal flavor of the beef. A query should be that perfect medium-rare piece with the right amount of sear and the juicy pink center with just a light sprinkle of salt and pepper to bring out the nuances in taste… and okay I’m getting hungry writing this. What I’m saying is this: Focus on STAKES and CONFLICT and add KEY details. It’s the difference between “if the protagonist doesn’t do this, she will lose everything” (So vague. What does she lose? Her shoes? Her lunch?) vs “if the protagonist does not steal the king’s crown jewels from his heavily guarded safe, her beloved sister will lose her head” (Obstacles + omg her sister’s gonna die/personal stakes).”
- “Take your time. It’s easy to feel rushed, like you have to query right now, especially if you have friends getting agents, editors, etc. But the more time you take to revise your own book, the greater chance you give it of making it through the query trenches. You want to put your best work out there! And then once it’s ready, let it go, hope for the best, and start working on the next book.”
- “Brace for rejection—and then, embrace it. Being told ‘no’ is an inevitable part of the process, and it does not diminish your work or your talent. Be prepared to take those hits, regroup, and try again. If there’s a specific piece of feedback that keeps popping up, give your pages a second look, and be open to the possibility of making changes. There will always be someone, whether an agent, an editor, an acquisitions team, a blogger, etc., who will tell you yours is not the book for them–and that’s okay. The first ‘no’ will sting, as will the 10th, the 52nd, and the 127th, but one ‘yes’ is all you need.”
- Be specific! Include a couple of details about your main character that makes him or her unique and a particular aspect of your world that brings it to life. Make the main character’s goals and obstacles clear and particular to the story. These specific details will help your query stand out!
- “Study examples of successful query letters. It’s one thing to learn the basic components of a query, but actually seeing these parts executed by writers who landed agents can be extremely helpful. A great resource for this is Writer’s Digest (Link Here), where you can read successful query letters as well as reactions and dissection from the agents who offered representation.”
- “Query widely, but also only query agents you truly want to work with! There are hundreds of agents out there, but not all of them will be right for you, for any number of reasons. Do your research to make sure that every agent you’re querying represents the types of books you write, and has a solid sales record in your genre/category. (If they are a newer agent with not many sales, make sure they are at an agency with a solid sales record.) If you get an offer, congrats! But before you say yes, make sure you have a phone call with the agent, ask them questions (here are some good ones to start with) and take time to evaluate whether they’d be the best agent for YOU. Also be sure to let the other agents with your query/manuscript know you’ve received an offer, and you may end up with additional offers. It’s okay to decline an offer if an agent doesn’t feel like the best fit. Go with your gut, and keep querying. No agent is better than the wrong agent!”
- “Queries should do five main things: introduce your main character, show the setting, give us the main conflict, the stakes, and the hard choice your MC will make. That’s a great framework for a successful query. And don’t forget recent comp titles! It helps agents get a feel of what your book will be like in terms of theme, atmosphere, or character motivation.”
- “While you’re drafting your book, write a query letter as soon as you have the bones of the story. Then once you’re done adjust accordingly. Make sure people who have never read your book read over your query letter and give you feedback on what is working and what needs to be cleaned up.”
- “Go into the trenches with the philosophy of looking forward, not back. I strongly advise this by starting a new project or having one you’re excited to dive into on deck. Not only does it provide a fun distraction (for the times when the trenches are decidedly Not Fun), but it also keeps your writing momentum going and constantly reminds you that as a storyteller, you are not just one book—you have many stories inside that have yet to be told.”
- “Take an active role in the process by querying in batches (I recommend 7-10 at a time). If you get a couple form rejections, that’s fine. If all ten come back as form rejections, there might be a problem with your query, so consider getting additional eyes on it. Rework, then send out a fresh batch. If you’re getting requests for partials or fulls, it’s usually a safe bet that your query/first pages are doing their job. Rejections at this stage are tricky, and any agent feedback is a gift you should appreciate. Evaluate that feedback with notes from your previous beta readers/CPs. Is there a consensus about what might not be working in your story? Consider revising. Lather, rinse, and repeat until you have the strongest query package you can manage.”
- “Reach out to friends who are querying at the same time, but know it’s not a race. The best part of this business is watching good things happen to good people. And these friendships can continue through drafts and book deals and rejections and beautiful moments.”
I hope you enjoyed this insight on querying! Please follow these amazing contributors through their links above and look out for their debuts coming out next year.
Julie Abe is the author of the middle grade fantasy EVA EVERGREEN, SEMI-MAGICAL WITCH, releasing in 2020 (Little, Brown Young Readers) and the second book in the series, releasing 2021. She has lived in Silicon Valley, spent many humid summers in Japan, and currently basks in the sunshine of Southern California with never enough books or tea, where she creates stories about magical adventures. Catch up with the latest on Julie’s Twitter, Instagram, or Newsletter.