Querying Dos and Don’ts, Plus How to Decide Who to Query

This is what querying can feel like.

This is what querying can feel like.

Last week, I shared with you a quick three-paragraph formula for writing a query letter. This week, I’d like to share some dos and don’ts of querying that I learned along the way, as well as some tips for deciding which agents to query.

Querying Dos:

  • Always personalize your letter in the “dear” section. Please, please make sure to spell the agent’s name correctly.
  • Follow the agent’s submission guidelines. They will delete your query often without reading it if you don’t. Check their agency web site for specifics. Most don’t allow attachments at the query stage.
  • Be sure to include the genre you are writing in and your word count. (80,000 is ideal for adult, YA and MG tend to be shorter. A quick Google search show you what is normal for what you write.)
  • Revise your query letter. If you’re not getting the results you want to see, change it up. I went through about five or six drafts before landing on the one that worked for me.
  • Take advantage of query critiques. Second Draft (Part of Writer’s Digest) offers them for a nominal fee, but many agents and writers offer them as well as part of contests or workshops.
  • Be professional, both in your letter and after. Don’t respond to rejections. If the agent has specific thoughts for you, they will send a personalized rejection. If not, take it for what it is and move on.
  • Some agents say not to bother including a paragraph about why you chose them in your letter, while others say it’s a must. I usually included one just to be safe, unless I knew from Twitter or some other source that the agent didn’t like them. If you do include this information,  do your research to find out why they’d be a good match.

 Querying Don’ts: 

  • Don’t query if your manuscript isn’t complete. For fiction writing, your book must be finished before you send it to an agent.
  • Don’t address the letter as “Dear agent.” They hate that. Address them as Mr./Ms. LastName
  • Don’t use funky fonts, colors or other visual tricks to try to stand out. Let your writing be what sets you apart.
  • Don’t send multiple queries in one email. Write a separate letter for each person.
  • Don’t send attachments unless the agent asks for them. This can get you deleted.
  • Definitely don’t harass an agent. All that will do is get you a bad reputation, and agents talk.

Narrowing Your List of Agents
Wondering where to start deciding who to query? It can be overwhelming, but the easiest bit of advice I can give is to do your research into who represents the genre/age group of your writing. Here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Make a list of your favorite author’s agents. They will likely thank them in the acknowledgements section of their novels or they will be on their web site.
  • Writer’s Digest (both online and in print) features new and established agents (my agent happens to be in the October print issue!)
  • Buy or borrow from your library the Guide to Literary Agents, which is updated annually and lists agents both by agency and genre. There’s also a blog by the same name that features agents and advice.
  • If you’re looking for online resources, try QueryShark and Query Tracker.
  • Don’t forget Twitter and other forms of social media. Many agents are on social media. The best way to get to know their personalities, what they’d like to see in a manuscript and to just get to know them is my interacting. But please don’t pitch them on Twitter unless they ask you to as part of a contest.
  • Query contests – Usually you’ll find out about them through blogs or Twitter (Brenda Drake does several a year. Miss Snark’s First Victim does them monthly. There are many more.) I think they are a great way to hone your pitching skills and get exposure to agents you otherwise might not. I had a few partial and full requests from contests and made a ton of friends from them, so even if nothing else comes out of them, they are great for networking.
  • If you’re ever in doubt about the reputation of an agent or small press, check the boards at AbsoluteWaterCooler and Writer Beware. You can also Google them to see if any negative stories come up.
  • Some people suggest categorizing agents into an A, B and C list based on how much you like them and want them to be your agent. It’s not a bad idea.

What About New Agents?
You may have heard Writer’s Digest say that new agents are a gold mine for new authors and that is true. At first I wanted an established agent, but now I’m glad I went with a new agent. Here’s why:

  • They are eager to build their lists and establish their client lists, so they are more open to new authors.
  • They are learning right along with you, so you have that as something to bond you. Just make sure they have an established agent as their mentor whom they can go to with questions.
  • They have fewer clients so you’ll get more time and attention.

I was my agent’s very first client. While that might scare some people away, I’m glad I did it. I had an instant connection with Jen and I thought that just like someone has to take a chance on me as a debut writer, someone has to trust in her as a new agent. It’s the best decision I’ve ever made.

Finally, be patient. I sent out probably around 30 queries before my offer. I’ve read stories of people who got 50, even 100 rejections before they found the right  match and then went on to be very successful. If writing is your dream, don’t ever give up! And as author Alyson Noel told me, “Don’t count the nos because it only takes one yes.”

Next week we’ll talk about what getting “the call” from an agent is like and I’ll give you some tips for working with one. Then, I’ve got something very special planned that is Celtic-related, so stay tuned!

What are your query questions? Do you have any dos or don’ts to share?

Writing the Query Letter

queryAh, the query letter – dreaded by writers everywhere second only to the synopsis. They’re a pain, but are vital to getting an agent.

First of all, there is no one right way to write a query letter. They are a lot like cover letters when you’re applying for a job. They are meant to give an agent an idea of what the hook of your book is, introduce the basic plot (but leave the agent wanting to know more) and introduce you.

I recommend following a basic 3-4 paragraph formula. I’ve included parts of my query letter for my first book as an example. It is by no means the only way to do it.

In the first paragraph, you establish what makes your book different from all of the others out there and try to catch the agent’s attention. They read hundreds, if not thousands of queries each week, so yours has to grab them right away.

She is one of the most famous legendary queens, but Guinevere has long lived in the shadow of Camelot’s old boys club of King Arthur and his knights. Not anymore. Guinevere of Northgallis, for which I am seeking representation, is an historical fantasy set in late fifth-century Britain that reveals, in Guinevere’s own words, her hidden life before she meets her famous mate.

The second and possibly third paragraphs are where you give a brief account of the plot. Think of it as the copy on the back of the book. You want to get the agent interested, but don’t give away the ending. Make sure you introduce your main characters, antagonist and the central conflict of the plot. That conflict is what will make the agent want to know more.

But she is not the fading wallflower of previous legend. Trained in the arts of battle, eleven-year-old Guinevere has just survived a violent attack and now faces a choice: remain with her family in war-torn Northgallis or join the sacred isle of Avalon to learn to control her burgeoning gift of Second Sight. She chooses Avalon, where she develops a lifelong animosity with an enigmatic student named Morgan, becomes a priestess adept at the magical arts, and falls in love with a young warrior named Aggrivane, an affection that will complicate her future relationship with Arthur.

When tragedy forces her to leave Avalon, Guinevere struggles to adjust to a world rapidly abandoning her religion and caught up in the tumult of political transition. Eventually exiled from her home, she is thrown together with Isolde, an Irish princess whose fate is tied to her own, and Elaine, an eccentric, young noblewoman with dreams of grandeur. Under the watchful eyes of men with intentions both noble and nefarious, she and her friends navigate a world of political intrigue where unmarried women are valuable commodities and love can have unintended consequences, even for a future queen.

Finally, end with a brief paragraph about yourself. This is usually the hardest part. If you have publishing credits, mention them. If not, don’t worry. A brief mention of degrees related to writing or relevant professional or personal experience will suffice. If you’ve done something that makes you an expert in your area, mention it, but keep this section brief.

This is my first novel. I hold a B.A. in English, a B.S. in business, and an M.A. in media communications. I am a proud member of the Historical Novel Society and the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. My free time is devoted to writing and researching Arthurian legend, Celtic Britain and the various peoples, cultures and religious practices that shaped the country after the withdrawal of Rome. 

Always include the word count of your book. Because my book is part of a series, I included some additional optional information about it. When you have a series planned, keep in mind that you’re really only pitching the first book. But it’s okay to give the agent some context about the rest of the series.

Guinevere of Northgallis is complete at 80,000 words. I recently completed a first draft of the sequel, Camelot’s Queen. A third book about Guinevere and a freestanding book about Tristan and Isolde are in outline form.

Don’t be afraid to revise your query letter. I revised mine six times before I finally landed on what you see here. If you have the opportunity to get your letter critiqued (paid or as part of a contest), do it. The more professional eyes on it, the better your chances for success.

Next week, we’ll talk about the dos and don’ts of querying. (This post is part of a workshop I recently presented for the St. Louis Writer’s Guild. Here’s the handout I gave to all participants.)

Writers, what do you think of this advice? Have you written a query letter? What was your experience? What are your tips for success? What are your query questions?

Working with Professional Editors and Beta Readers

editingA few weeks ago, I was asked by the St. Louis Writer’s Guild to teach a workshop on “Querying, and getting an Agent.” So I decided to turn my presentation into a series of blog posts for everyone who couldn’t attend. (Before you non-writers run away screaming, take a second to consider this your backstage pass into what goes into getting your favorite books published. Okay, now you can hit delete if you want.)

In case you just want the Cliff’s Notes version, here’s the handout that I gave to all attendees.

Are You Ready to Query?
Finishing your manuscript is a huge deal, something most people never accomplish and you should be proud. Make sure to celebrate!

Once you’ve done all your self-editing, and maybe had your mom, spouse and/or a few friends read it, you’re ready to submit it to agents, right? Maybe not. It’s a tough call. You may not know for sure until you’ve sent out a few query letters and seen what the response is. I queried my first book too soon. I thought it was as good as I could make it, so I hit a list of agents of my favorite authors. I got a few nibbles here and there, but no major enthusiasm.

Working with a Professional Editor
This made me step back and take a hard look at my book. I realized I needed experienced help if I was going to make it better. I really didn’t want to spend the money on a professional editor, but I did. I wanted to make sure I was working with a real professional, someone legitimate, so I went through Writer’s Digest Second Draft Critique service. (They are only one of many, many options. Do some research and you’ll find many more reputable people/companies.) They match you based on genre. I was matched with historical romance writer Terri Valentine. I learned more from her than I could have in any class. And using my own manuscript as a textbook made it personal and much easier to understand than a generic example.

Some editors offer only content editing, which is the big picture stuff like suggestions on plot, pacing, continuity, character development, chapter breaks, etc. Others offer line editing, which goes into the little things like spelling, grammar, and proper dialogue formatting (which I still have problems with). I chose to do both, which meant an extra fee. That’s totally up to you.

A good editor will tell you where you need to change things and possibly give a suggestion for how, but will leave the writing up to you. So while he or she will point out areas for improvement, you’ll still be the one doing the work. Have no fear that it won’t end up as your product. You are free to agree or disagree as you see fit.

Beta Readers/Critique Partners
An alternative to a professional editor is to work with critique partners or beta readers. I consider beta readers and critique partners pretty much the same thing. Some people make the distinction that critique partners tend to be other writers, and so focus more strongly on the craft of writing, whereas beta readers are non-writer people who give you gut feedback.

No matter how you define it, I recommend a mix of writers and other people so that you get feedback from both the mindset of the writer and the typical reader. Because I work in marketing, I know a lot of writers, so that was easy for me. But if you’re wondering where to look, try members of professional writing organizations you’re a part of, a writer’s group or even people you trust from social media. I usually have about five to seven people read and comment on my books before they go to my agent. I always make sure at least one is an excellent proofreader (that would be you, Nancy!) to catch those errant typos that somehow manage to multiply in the editing process no matter how many people read the book.

What do kind of feedback do you ask them for? That’s really up to you. But I always ask for general impressions of the book, if there were any places they stumbled on or didn’t make sense, if they caught any inconsistencies, who their favorite/least favorite characters were and what scene(s) stuck with them. Chances are good you’ll know specific chapters/scenes that may be weak or have a piece of writing that you’re not entirely happy with. Ask them about it. This is your chance to get an honest opinion on anything that doesn’t sit right with you. I also find it’s great at revealing information that I thought made it into the book, but was really only in my head. That’s something you can’t catch without outside help.

I’ve also been a beta reader for other people, which has taught me a lot. I’ve gotten to see different writing styles, pick up tips from others and pass on the ones I’ve learned. Plus, who doesn’t want to be the very first person other than the author to read a new book?

Whichever route you choose, getting professional feedback before you query is great practice for working with agents and editors, because no matter how good your story is, you’ll have to make several rounds of changes before publication. It helps you to get over the fear/hatred of critiques. When I got my first round of edits back from Terri, I sobbed. Seriously. But I took a few days to think about what she said and realized she was right. I would recommend doing that with any feedback you get. Then get to work and make the edits. If it makes the story better, it’s worth putting in the time for.

What about you? Have you used a professional editor, critique partners or beta readers? What’s your experience been like? What tips do you have? What questions do you have?