Friday, June 12, 2015

How to Query a Novel

Today I'm going to give you a lesson on how to query a novel. I'm kind of in a unique position to do this because I'm both an author (under a pen name) and an agent (under my real name).

Merissa McCain and I have just finished a romance novel and we're in the process of beginning to query it. It's just as exciting and nerve-wracking for me, even though I'm an agent, because I really want someone to love my work, just like every other author does. And of course sell it to a publisher for a truck load of money and whatnot.

But what do you need to do in order to query?

STEP ONE: Write the damn book.

See the irony there? Be sure your book isn't ironic like that...
 This seems obvious, but trust me, as an agent I get queries for incomplete manuscripts. Polish the book. Then send it to beta readers other than your mom, who can give you intelligent, constructive story and copy-editing feedback. Polish it some more. Make sure it's at its shiny perfect best before you even think about querying.

STEP TWO: Next, write a synopsis.

This sucks. Everyone hates it. It's hard and you'll tear your hair out and cuss like a sailor, but you need to have one. Make sure it's not more than two pages double spaced and covers the complete story arc, including the ending.

STEP THREE: Write a query letter.

The necessary elements to include in a query letter are:

           - title
           - genre
           - word count
           - a back-of-the-book style blurb that will hook the agent or editor. There are lots of places online
              to get advice on how to write a good query blurb. Go to the book store (or Amazon) and read
              the backs of a bunch of books in your genre. You'll get a feel for it. Then practice writing the blurb
              for yours. Write it a whole bunch of times in a whole bunch of different ways.
           - a VERY BRIEF author bio that includes your publishing history, if any, and/or just a little about
              who you are. Don't include that you've been in love with writing since you were in grade school.
              We all have. It's not really relevant. If you have no publishing history, just give some brief
               professional background and call it good.

That's all. Query letters should be short. They're a professional business communication, not an opus. Remember, agents get hundreds of them and they don't want to get bogged down reading huge long letters.

STEP FOURFigure out where you're going to send your queries.

This includes a lot of research. You must be patient. Publishing is a long game.

Check places like QueryTracker, Preditors and Editors, Absolute Write Water Cooler, Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents, or if you have a subscription to Publisher's Marketplace, you can research there. These are some good places to start.

I recommend making a spreadsheet that includes columns for: date submitted, agent name, agency name, email address, submission guidelines, notes, date response received.

This will help you keep track of your queries so you don't query the same person twice, and so you can keep track of submission guidelines.

Once you have a list of agents you think might be a good fit, look at each and every one of their websites and make copious notes about their submission guidelines. They will all be different.

This is CRITICAL, folks. Seriously, one of the best ways to irritate an agent is to not follow their guidelines.

It could be useful to also look at the agents' Twitter feeds to get a feel for who they are and if you think you'd be a good fit.

***Query Tip:  Just because an agent offers you representation, doesn't mean you should accept it. Lots of authors panic and think they won't find another agent, so they sign with the first one who offers. If you're not a good fit with each other, for whatever reason, you don't have to sign with them. Keep looking!

STEP FIVE: Send 'em out.

You've done the research, you know who you want to target and what their guidelines are. Now it's time to submit to agents.

The best plan is not to send to every single agent at once. Do a test run of maybe a third of your list to see what kind of comments you get. Make any necessary adjustments then send to the next third, and so on.



This is the hardest step.

Be patient.

Don't nag the agent.

Give them space and time.

Agents can get a hundred or so queries a day. That's not easy to keep up with, so give them some time.

Sometimes they list on their website how long their turnaround time is. For the love of all that's holy, do not check in with them before that time frame is up.

STEP SEVEN:  As your responses come trickling in, make note of them on your spreadsheet. Indicate the date you received it and if the agent gave you a reason why they rejected. Often you'll get a form rejection. Don't take it personally. Agents don't have time to write a personal note to every single author who queries them. It's just the nature of the business.

STEP EIGHT: Have faith.

This is also hard because when you keep getting rejections, it feels like nobody loves you or your literary baby. You get a lot of "this isn't really a very good fit for my list" responses which sound like bullshit, but are really true.

When you go to the bookstore and read the back of a book and maybe the first page, it's not the author's fault if you don't really like it enough to buy it. It's just that it's not the story for you.

It's the same for agents when they read queries. Most of them just aren't the right fit.  

But eventually it will be the right fit. The book will be the right fit for the agent, and the agent will be the right fit for you, and a chorus of angels will sing and radiant beams of sunlight will rain down on you, rainbows will burst, unicorns will frolic, and all will be right with the world!

And then you have to start the process all over again when your agent submits your project to editors.

Congratulations and welcome to the wonderful world of publishing.