Querying for the New Year? Pt 2

January 17, 2014 at 8:47 pm (Industry, Writing) (, , , , )

So last time, we talked about the first steps towards publishing.

So now, you have a finished, polished manuscript, one on which you’ve received honest and detailed critiques, a manuscript that is the best you can possibly make it.

You’ve done your research- you know if you want to self-publish, sign with an agent, or go traditional on your own.

You’ve done even more research- looked at self-publishing companies, looked up agents and what they’re looking for, looked up publishers that accept un-agented manuscripts.

So what now?

If you’re self-publishing:
There’s not a lot I can offer you from here; this isn’t a path I’ve taken. Just don’t commit to anything you haven’t researched. As you’re looking at different companies that can help you, look at the various prices they have listed, and start to list out your own budget. Go right down the line of expenses: editing, formatting, book design, cover design, publishing, returnable options, distribution, publicity. Decide what you can afford for each category, and where you can give a little on one to gain on another. If you’re not financially ready for this kind of investment, WAIT. You don’t want to put out less than your best. Not only will you be cheating all the hard work you’ve done thus far, but you’ll also limit your options in the future. If your first public effort is less than, um…well, less than good, it’s a lot harder to get readers interested in a second book, and that’s just not how you build a career. Also, if you can’t afford to do it right, you don’t want to ruin yourself financially in the hopes that it’ll be a runaway bestseller and make you tons of money in the first month. The simple truth is- and this goes for any form of publishing– you cannot rely upon publishing to pay your bills. Not at first, and honestly, many authors never make it to that point. Publishing is a dream, yes, but you have to be realistic about it. Having a book out doesn’t mean much if you sacrifice your ability to pay your rent. Or buy food. Explore your options, make your decisions carefully, and when in doubt, look to those who’ve had some success with it. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If you want to submit directly to publishers:
Again, not a path I’ve taken, but make sure you pay attention to submission guidelines. Every publisher that accepts unsolicited manuscripts will tell you EXACTLY what they want you to send them. For some, it will be the full manuscript. Some will ask for a certain number of pages or chapters. Some will ask for a synopsis, some won’t. I know the gut feeling is to say “Screw it, I’ll send them everything, I just know they’ll love the first pages too much to want to wait for the rest!” Yeh, don’t do that. Send them what they ask for, no more, no less.

Another gut feeling is to send the first few chapters through such a strenuous polishing process that those first pages are AMAZING- but then the rest of the manuscript hasn’t gotten that kind of attention. Agents and publishers both see this a lot. The first chapters have been workshopped to death and the rest just can’t hold up. You want your submission to be balanced, to be equally strong the whole way through.

Once you’ve sent it off, resist the impulse to send follow-up e-mails every ten minutes. This is hard, I know. Still, you’ve got to resist it. The process takes time, and harassing them with follow-ups isn’t going to persuade them to read your submission any faster. In those agonizing weeks and months while you’re waiting to hear from them, do something else. Go on a reading binge. Work on a new project. Learn how to knit. Something to help distract you from sitting and stewing about it. Keep track of your submissions, including when you sent it off. You don’t want to send out one, wait until you get a response, then send off a second. Send in bunches, small enough for you to keep track of, large enough that you’re not wasting time.

If you want to query agents:
Welcome to the query letter! Also known as the strangest level of hell since the invention of the resume cover letter. Which makes sense, given that they accomplish much the same thing. There are thousands, perhaps even millions, of sites out there with advice on how to write a query letter. I looked at a lot of them while I was querying. What I can share with you here is my own distillation, what I found in my experience worked the best for me.

Step One
Get the agent’s name right.

No, seriously, this does actually bear emphasizing, because too many people don’t bother. This is how your letter is literally opening. This is the agent’s first encounter with you. Do not say “Dear Agent”. You want to personalize it, you want to address it to the person you are actually talking to. At the same time, you don’t want to be overly familiar. Don’t use just the first name, or a nickname. Use the name he or she has listed on his/her website.

A note on titles: when it comes to using Mr, Mrs, Ms, or Miss, there are differing opinions on that. Mr. is usually pretty safe (so long as you are very VERY sure that you are addressing a male; names can be tricky things), but the feminine titles can cause problems. I know some people prefer to use the titles, insisting that it’s more respectful, but I honestly prefer to use the first and last name as listed on the websites. There’s less chance of causing accidental offense that way by using the wrong one.

Spell the name correctly. It’s on the personal website, there really is no excuse for getting this one wrong. This is one of the very few things about a query that is black and white right or wrong.

Step Two
Hook your book.

Different websites and books will give you different opinions about the order a query letter should go in, but this is the one I prefer. You’re writing to the agent to talk about your book, so start with the book. This is a single paragraph, sometimes two if they’re short, that should spark interest in your book. It’s not quite a back cover copy, but it’s more than a twitter pitch.

(side note: don’t pitch on twitter unless specifically invited to do so during a #pitchmad or similar contest; it’s rude and out of place and tends to really piss people off. On the same note, don’t pitch on facebook. Or in the comments of a blog. There are specific avenues acceptable for querying, and you need to stick to those.)

This isn’t the place to go into detail. You don’t need to say everything about your book, every plot point, every character, every twist. This is your book in the most general terms. Think of this as the elevator pitch. You have 90 seconds: GO.

(Personal example: Hamlet Danemark V, Headmaster of Elsinore Academy, is dead and buried, but some secrets seep past the grave: the poison of a man who murders his brother to claim his wife and position; the poison poured into a son’s grief and twists the sorrow bloody; the poison of pills meant to strip away a world no one else can see.

For Ophelia, poison is just another way to drown, and she’s drowned before. When Dane makes a promise to avenge his father’s murder, she knows she’ll drown again- in his pain, in his rage, in his play at madness that becomes all too real. Revenge, after all, is a messy business.)

Step Three:
Define your book.

This accomplishes two things: first, it tells an agent what they should be expecting; second, it tells them you know what you’re talking about. Or, if you don’t do this carefully, tells them that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

This is where you say the title, the word count, the genre, and where appropriate, the category. (I say that because Young Adult and Middle Grade aren’t genres, they’re age categories. Calling a book Young Adult tells us the age it’s meant for but not what type of book it is; it doesn’t tell us if it’s paranormal or romance or thriller or what.) This is fairly succinct, almost a stats listing.

Titles aren’t the be all and end all. A good title can be intriguing, and the ability to come up with good, compelling titles is a definite plus, but titles change all the time. You have to put SOMETHING down, and you should try to make it good and appropriate, but the fact is, titles are hard. A bad title is not going to kill your chances.

Word count tells an agent how well you know you category. Genres and categories tend to have ranges of word counts. YA, for example, generally runs 75K-100K. There are always exceptions, of course, either shorter or longer, but a 140K word YA novel is going to make agents a little leery. Sometimes that means there’s too much story for one book. Sometimes that means there are just too many words, and the manuscript is in desperate need of red pen and a machete. But sometimes, it means that it’s a tight, fast-paced, well-written story that tricks you with its length by coming off as a much shorter book when you’re actually reading it. Word count, as long as it’s reasonably near range, isn’t an automatic disqualifier. If you go over 200K for anything other than epic high fantasy or in-depth non-fiction, you’re probably in the auto-reject pile.

This is a bit more like a twitter-pitch. You don’t have to keep it 140 characters or less, but it is short, and it is to the point.

(Personal example: Complete at approximately 99,000 words, Elsinore Drowning is a haunting, modern retelling of Hamlet through Ophelia’s voice for a Young Adult audience.)

Step Four:
Let’s talk about you.

No, seriously, this is where you get to talk about yourself. Agents aren’t after your life story, but they do want to hear a little about you. What do you do, what makes you the best one to tell this story. If you’ve ever won awards for writing, talk about them here. Member of any writing societies? (Preferably official ones). If you’ve ever published anything, here’s the place to talk about it. If that something is self-published, you might want to include sales numbers (if they’re respectable). Do you have a blog with millions of followers, or some other Cool Thing that means people might fall over themselves trying to buy your book? YOU SHOULD MENTION THIS. All of this relates directly into your sellability as an author- your brand, as it were. If you have a devoted following, you have the beginnings of a devoted readership; agents like to know these things.

Be aware that most agents will google the crap out of you if they’re even remotely interested. If you’re full of BS, they’ll spot it.

And this is where good behavior on the internet becomes a really, REALLY important thing, because agents (and editors) pay attention. If you’re ranting and raving about rejections or the slow pace of things, if you’re throwing tantrums, if you’re insulting to other writers, authors, reviewers, or bloggers, you’re not winning yourself any points. Agents and authors don’t have to be best friends, but they do have to be able to work together; if you’re showing yourself to be an unholy terror, don’t expect too much interest.

One of my best friends had a first conversation with an agent and was shocked when her wedding pictures came up as a subject- they were on her facebook. This isn’t stalking, this is research, the same research you did before you queried agents. They want to know who they’re dealing with, and people, seriously, the internet never forgets. Make good behavior a habit now if it isn’t already and save yourself a lot of heartache. Rant and rave and cry and pout in private ALL YOU WANT- it can be a very healthy stress relief- but don’t do it online, don’t do it where anyone and his mother can see it. You’re presenting yourself as a professional. Act like one.

(Personal example: I come from a mixed background of theatre and writing and for several years have worked at Barnes and Noble and a Kids/Teen Lead, where I gush about amazing books, want to purchase far too many of them, and do a happy dance very time a kid comes back for more adventures. I am not yet published.
My writing awards were, by this point, really out of date, so I didn’t talk about them. My background in theatre was directly connected to the fact that my book was based on Hamlet, working in a bookstore gave me additional knowledge and audience. Is it a ton to go off of? No. Which is why it’s VERY SHORT.)

Step Five:
Why this agent?

Some people prefer to put this first, or to put it right after the definition of the book, but I prefer to put it here, because it leads directly into the list of what’s included with the query and allows you a graceful way to close out.

This is where you’re telling THIS agent why you’ve chosen to query him or her. You can- and should- create a query template for yourself, wherein the bulk of the letter is the same every time, but the initial greeting and this paragraph should be personalized for every single agent. Yes, it’s time consuming, yes, it’s work, but it’s worth it.

But please, for the love of God PLEASE, make it appropriate. If you follow them on twitter, GREAT, you can say so, but if you’re going to talk about it, make sure it’s relevant. Talking about how cute their kid is? NOT A GOOD IDEA. Besides being unprofessional, it’s also a bit creepy. But mentioning that they participated in a twitter wishlist and requested “A YA that has X, Y, and 3.5”, and here’s why I think mine fits, hey, that’s a very good use of it. Same with things they’ve specifically mentioned on their blog or website. If you met them at a conference and they requested this, give them a gentle reminder here (and if you’re sending the query as an e-mail, put THE NAME OF THE CONFERENCE+REQUEST along with your title in the subject line, unless they specifically tell you to do otherwise- this gives them the heads-up that this is something in which they’ve already expressed moderate interest).

Querying an agent is not like picking a substitute teacher. You are not going down a list of more or less equally skilled people who simply need to fill a space for a day. This is not a case of “are you warm? Are you breathing? Good enough”. You are seeking a highly skilled, specialized individual who with whom you will be able to forge a solid working relationship. You need to know why you’re querying this agent, and not that agent, and you need to be able to say that.

Also, list what you’ve included with the query. Agents will request different things from you- it’s highly personalized, and you need to be able to keep track of it. At one time, one of my submission lists had query only, three pages, five pages, five pages and synopsis, ten pages, ten pages and bio, three chapters, fifty pages. You have to know what you’re sending to which agent. This also tells the agent that you’ve paid attention to their submission guidelines. Avenues of research are useful, but only to a point- books are very quickly inaccurate, unofficial websites that gather information can be wrong or outdated. When it doubt, always go with what the agent says on his or her website. If there is nothing listed, only an address that says send queries to, just send the query. Some sources will tell you to default to five or ten pages, but honestly, if they want to see past they query, they’ll ask.

Do not send more than they ask for.

Send everything they ask for.

If an agent does ask for material to be included with the query, paste it in below the query in the e-mail. Do not submit the materials as attachments unless specifically instructed to do so by the agent. Attachments are terrifying. Attachments are risks. Most agents aren’t going to take that kind of risk on a query they didn’t ask for. Save yourself an auto-delete, and don’t do it.

(Personal example: While researching your agency, I saw that you were interested in stories with a unique voice, something I hope you’ll recognize within Ophelia. Below, please find the first five pages, a synopsis, and a brief bio per your site request. If this piques your interest, further material is available upon request. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Note that I’m not the most graceful individual when I’m conducting professional correspondence. I’m awkward and self-conscious, so I’m a bit stilted, and as long as you’re basically socially functional, you can probably be forgiven for a little awkwardness. You want to smooth things out to the best of your ability, but if you come off as a little stiff, don’t fret about it. That isn’t going to be the thing that sends the agents running for the hills.

Step Six:
Sign off.

This is another one that might sound strange, but the way you end your letter is just as important as how you begin it. Do not sign off with Yours Truly or Love or Always Yours or anything remotely of that nature. No. Just don’t do it. This is still professional communication.

That being said, I really hate signing things Sincerely. I am sincere, of course (usually, but always in professional circumstances) but I tend to sign off with Respectfully. Not Impatiently Yours or Impatiently Waiting or Desperate To Be Published. If you go with something other than the traditional Sincerely, it should still be professional and respectful.

And of course your name.

SOME TIPS

Just some things to keep in mind.

Be patient.
Keep track of your submissions, and note what an agent says his or her response time generally is. Also note one very important thing: NOT EVERY AGENT RESPONDS. There are a (large) number of agents who tell you to assume that no response means no interest. If the response time has passed for these agents, assume they’re not interested, and move on. If the agent promises a response, note the time span. Then, if the time has passed, give it a couple more weeks and then send a polite, non-pushy email with your query information in the subject line along with FOLLOW UP, and simply state that you submitted your query on such and such date, and simply wish to inquire as to the status now that such amount of time has passed.

Be organized about it. I can be a little OCD, I admit it, but I have a notebook for every project. These notebooks are where I do my brainstorming, my outlining, my character explorations, excerpts, writing stats, and these are also where I (used to) put my query lists. Agent name, agency, how I found them, what they said they were looking for, what they wanted submitted, date of submission, expected response time or no response. Then, as I got answers (or didn’t) I updated the notes. I also kept separate folders on my computer. In the folder for that manuscript, I had a submissions folder. Every batch of submissions I sent out had another folder with the date, and within that folder, every agent had his or her own folder, which contained the personalized query, as well as whatever other material they requested. This way, I knew at a glance what I’d sent, knew exactly what date to use as start date. Anal much? Yes, probably. But you know what, I never lost track of any of my queries. And honestly, it reassured me, knowing roughly when to expect things.

Being patient isn’t easy. This is our dream! This is all we can ever think of in a day, and every minute that passes, we start biting our nails or drumming our fingers or whatever the nervous tic du jour is, and we want to KNOW. More to the point, we want to SUCCEED. But once we hit send, it’s out of our control. We can only control our behavior and what we submit. We can’t control agent reaction. We can’t control rejection or acceptance. So be patient. Find something else to do. Don’t pester, don’t nag, don’t rant and rave at every moment.

Don’t query before you’re ready.
This breaks down into two parts. First part: do you have your materials ready? And not just whatever it is they’ve requested. I know the common joke is that agents take forever to respond, but sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they come back five minutes after your query is sent and they’re requesting the full. If you’ve polished and polished and polished the first few chapters on the expectation that you’d then have weeks to get to the rest of it, YOU CAN’T TRUST THAT. You have to be prepared.

Second part: are you mentally ready for this? I’ll be honest, querying is exhausting. It is an emotional roller coaster. It’s one thing to SAY that we understand that a rejection is a lack of interest in our manuscript, not a personal cut. Sure. We can say that. But rejection is HARD, y’all. It is. And when the rejections start piling up, it can become overwhelming.

And here’s the thing: you’re allowed to be overwhelmed. You’re allowed to have a meltdown and start sobbing into your pint of Ben and Jerry’s. You’re allowed to have a freak out that you’re nothing and you’ll never be published and oh God what were you thinking. And you know, you can even rant about how agents clearly have no idea what they’re missing out on. Just do it in private. Do with it a friend or family member, someone who has the sense to listen and not try to say anything (and more importantly not share anything). Just don’t do it in public.

The process of querying is this crazy zigzag of hope and ecstasy and anticipating and fear and worry and despair and anger, and you have to be ready for it. You have to go into this knowing that very few people have everything fall in place easily, that for most people, there are many rejections, many silences. You get a request for further material and OH MY GOD IT’S AMAZING but then there’s a whole new level of fear.

Don’t be afraid to re-write your query.
There are so many drafts of my query letters it’s kind of ridiculous. I wrote seven or eight drafts before I ever set out the first round of submissions. Then, as I started to hear back from each round, I worked on tweaking my query, trying to tailor it better, or make it more intriguing. Sometimes I was successful. Sometimes I wasn’t. Always keep a copy of the query you actually sent out, but it’s okay to make it better for the next round of queries. You learn by doing. You learn by feedback. Improvements are never a bad thing.

Don’t be jealous.
This one is hard. We all hear about the people who send out one query to their ‘dream agent’ and get signed, and then six weeks later there’s a huge multi-house auction that lands a three book deal for seven figures and everyone is watching with green eyes and a large vocabulary of curses. The fact is, we hear about these things to such an extent BECAUSE THEY’RE RARE. Most of us have to slog through round after round, and maybe even project after project, before we get a little bit there. It’s easy to be jealous of other people. Don’t be. Luck will always be an element, but sheer determination factors in there too. Rather than dwelling on what other people are doing or getting, focus on what YOU can do. Look for the stories that don’t invoke Cinderella, the ones where it was patience and determination and persistence that got them to their goal.

It took me three years and three projects to sign with an agent, and now that I am where I am, I can be grateful for it, because Sandy is amazing. We’re very well paired, and she gets the dark and twisty products of my imagination. I am where I need to be.

Don’t give up.
You want this- so go after it. Learn from each experience, make it better for the next round, but don’t take those rejections as proof you should tuck this dream back into the corner of the mental closet. You can’t get anywhere by giving up. But, on that note:

Know when to give up.
Not on the endeavor- but maybe on that specific manuscript. If you’ve queried everyone you can think of that accepts your genre and category and not gotten anywhere, maybe this isn’t the manuscript that’s going to sign you.

AND THAT’S OKAY.

Because you’ve kept writing, right? You’ve got something that, built off your experiences, is stronger. Better. Something that you can work on to make even better, and even stronger. And when you’ve reached the point, many MANY MANY MANY queries in, that maybe that first project needs to get shelved for a while, you have something else. And you can start over.

Except it’s not starting completely over, because the experience has taught you a lot. You have an advantage this time: you’ve done this before, and you know more or less what to expect.

Like I said, I queried three different projects over three years. It broke my heart to shelve those earlier projects, but I knew it was the right choice. I knew what I had waiting in the wings, these things I’d written while trying not to go crazy while the queries were out, I KNEW these things were better. I knew they showcased my writing better, that I’d learned and grown and expanded into characters and story and pacing.

Each time, you have the chance to get better, to improve not only your writing but your querying. As long as you’re willing to honestly assess yourself and your writing, you have the opportunity to improve your chances.

Don’t beat a project long past any chance it has to attract someone- know when to put it away and put out something better.

Last tip.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

The internet is a wonderful thing. It gives you access to a TON of people who have gotten where you want to be- so when you need to know something and you can’t find the answer- when you need to be reassured- don’t be afraid to ask. A lot of authors, especially in the YA community, have ask boxes on tumblr. They have blogs where you can leave comments. So ask.

Be respectful of the space and circumstances. There are times when it’s not particularly appropriate to ask some things; let common sense guide you.

But we’re here, on tumblr, on twitter, on facebook, on blogs. There are interviews and newsletters and signings and panels, and you know what? For as much rejection as we have to experience, even after we get those first steps in the door, publishing is a ridiculously inclusive community. People cheer each other on, because when people are reading, this is good for ALL OF US. We want you to succeed. We want to cheer you on when you announce your sale, when you have signings and events and features. We want to celebrate your successes with you.

So consider this post an open thread for any questions you have. I’ll answer what I can, and I’ll try to point you to others when I don’t know what to say.

Work hard, be patient, and the best of luck to you all.

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