So you’re ready to start looking for an agent. Congratulations!
Querying is one of the most emotionally difficult parts of the writing process. And that’s saying a lot, considering that you actually have to finish writing a novel to get to this point, which is the part of the process that tends to weed out a lot of the weak-willed.
Seriously, keep that in mind. You finished a novel.
You did finish your novel, right? Because, if you haven’t, you’re not ready to query. No if-ands-or-buts.
Take that in again. You finished a novel.
That is no small accomplishment. Most of the people who talk and dream about being writers someday never make it to that part of the process. But you did. You did the work. You pushed through it.
It may seem like there are a lot of people putting out novels these days. And that’s not exactly wrong. But when you consider the subset of people who are actually writing and finishing stuff to the number of people who want to be writing and finishing stuff, but aren’t, you’ll realize that you’re part of a comparatively small and elite group.
You did that. You.
And now, you’ve come to the part of the process where your fate isn’t entirely in your hands. You’ve got to send your story out for other people to render a verdict on it. Up until now, your success has been entirely in your hands. And, while that isn’t the case any more, there are some things you can do to give yourself the best shake possible.
Put the final touches on your query letter.
I’m going to assume that you’ve meticulously written and re-written your query letter. You’ve read all of the advice that’s out there in the world, and you’ve applied it.
You now have a sleek, beautiful query letter that focuses on your story and sets up the stakes and sells your protagonist and your story.
Now’s the time to give it one last pass.
I am a firm believer in Murphy’s Law. Chances are, as soon as you send something out, you’re going to notice a really embarrassing and stupid typo, or something you want to change. And that may still happen, even if you do this.
But give your query another pass, anyway. Read it out loud, and listen for places where it sounds strange, awkward, or convoluted, and fix the flow. Record yourself reading it, and play it back.
Yes, even if you’re like me, and you hate the sound of your voice in recordings.
You can’t entirely defang Murphy’s law, but you can definitely take care of the low-hanging issues and get them out of the way beforehand.
Streamline the process
Different agents are going to ask for different things in your initial query letter. Just to give you some examples from some of my favorite agents:
- Caitie Flum: Please send only a query letter in the body of the email.
- Mandy Hubbard: Send your query letter + the first five pages of your novel pasted into the body of an email.
- Uwe Stender: When querying Uwe, just include the query in the body of the email.
- Andrea Somberg: Please send along a query letter and the opening five pages of your manuscript.
- Mary C. Moore: Query letter and first 10 pages via submission form.
While every agent may ask for something different, you’ll see a lot of overlap. So, what I do while querying is I’ll keep a folder of querying materials on the desktop, with each file containing different “cuts” of my novel — for example:
- Query letter
- Query letter + synopsis
- Query letter + first page
- Query letter + first three pages
- Query letter + synopsis + first three pages
- Query letter + synopsis + first chapter
And so on. That way, when another agent is asking for the same “cut”, instead of having to go back into the manuscript and copy and paste the right selection, you can just open the right document, and hit CTRL+A, then copy and paste it straight into the email or form.
That way, you’re not having to devote a lot of time to sending out a batch of queries — just choose the right cut, put in the correct name and any necessary details, and it’s ready to go. This trick saved me a lot of time.
Address formatting issues.
When you copy and paste from Microsoft Word, specifically, into Gmail, you tend to get formatting issues — especially when it comes to indents and paragraph breaks. So be sure to keep your eyes open for these, and address them.
My biggest tip is to paste into Gmail by right clicking and using “Paste as plain text.” Once it’s in the email, you change the text to Times New Roman or whatever the default serif font is, and reitalicize and underline things. It’s a bit of a headache, it avoids making your manuscript an unreadable mess. If an agent can’t look at your thing without getting a headache, the chances of them actually saying yes are small.
Keep everything organized.
Keeping your submissions in line is one of the most important keys. Maybe you’re a QueryTracker person, or maybe you like Excel spreadsheets. Either way, keep a record of everyone you query and when.
Different agents and agencies have different rules regarding queries, and it is on you to know them.
Some agencies don’t allow submissions to more than one of their agents. Others don’t mind. Some have specific ways you have to format your email or subject in order to get through their filters. Some have different ways of rejecting — either “no response means no” or “no response within a month means no”. Some way of tracking that information is paramount to the process.
For someone like me, who’s naturally unorganized, QueryTracker is a gift. Other people have their own jam. Either way, it’s absolutely necessary. It’s easy to get lost with all the agents there are to query.
But it’s worthwhile. There’s nothing harder than getting a rejection, but there’s nothing more thrilling than hearing some kind words about your novel (even the ones that come with a rejection).
Zach J. Payne is, to borrow the words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, “a polymath, a pain in the ass, a massive Payne”. He is a thespian, poet, and writer for young adults. He is the #2 Ninja Writer, and the former query intern for Pam Andersen at D4EO literary. Follow along on his adventure, and receive his Query Letter, Deconstructed.