Querying (Part I)

Any writer can google how to query, so contrary to the title of this post, I won’t be teaching you how to query. There’s tons of information out there regarding how to query a literary agent — what to say, what not to say, how to say it, and how to say it well.

No lie. Querying is hard. In a previous post, I wrote about how long it took for me to get my query letter to the point where I finally got more than a form rejection as a response. So what I aim to show you in this series of query posts is the difference between my beginner query, my “better” query, and my most recently revised query (that was said to be “solid” by established writers).

Are you ready for my beginner query? Prepare yourself. It’s pretty bad.

 

Dear (Agent),

Translating prophecy is a tricky and inexact science, and one in which Moreina di Bianco doesn’t exactly place her faith, so when she finds herself at the center of a thousand-year old prophecy, everything she holds dear is suddenly threatened.

When Reina is chosen to accompany the White Sorceress candidates in their search for the infamous Faranzine Talisman, she quickly agrees to help. What she doesn’t realize is that her own life is about to take a drastic spin, and turning back won’t be an option. When the talisman unexpectedly chooses her as its wearer, Reina must not only accept the truth within the prophecy’s words, but also must find a way to save the kingdom from the malicious grasp of General Bruenner – a daunting task for a village healer who doesn’t even believe in magic.

Reina’s only help on her journey is her estranged and mysterious childhood friend, Quinn D’Arturio, as well as a dashing Captain who claims to be her protector…oh, and her second sight, which she insists is nothing more than a slightly heightened sense of perception. As if discovering the key to unlocking the talisman’s untold power, ending a war, and placing the rightful king on the throne weren’t enough of a challenge, Reina is also forced to address a most unpleasant section of the prophecy – the part regarding two suitors. For a quasi-hermit like Reina, the only thing more overwhelming than losing her much coveted solitude is the prospect of losing it forever, but Reina soon discovers that there are things more important than solitude, and that sometimes home can be found even afar.

The Tarrowburn Prophecies is a 91,500 word fantasy novel ideally suited for readers who enjoy tales such as C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy or Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series. Though it is a stand-alone novel, it is intended to be the first of a trilogy. Initially, I decided to contact you based on your profile on AgentQuery.com, and upon reading more detailed information on your submission website, my decision was confirmed. Like you, I have a diverse background, having worked in many different professional atmospheres. Thank you so much for your consideration! I’d be happy to provide you with a copy of the manuscript upon your request, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely,

L. Ryan Storms

 

Okay, so do you see the issues with this letter? I cringe just looking at it!

First off, it’s way too long and cluttered, and it rambles without focusing on the conflict and the stakes. It’s almost 400 words! (About twice as long as it should be!) There’s a lot of description here, but not much focus on what the book is really about. There’s no need for me to talk about Reina’s love of solitude. Is she a bit of a hermit in the book? Maaaaaybe. But that’s not really essential to the heart of the story. Why is the part about two suitors in the prophecy so distasteful to Reina? This query makes it sound like she wants anything but to fall for a guy, but in reality, that wasn’t it at all. (It’s because she’s so focused on figuring out a way to end the war!) I could go on, but you get the point. There’s a lot of ramble in this query.

Next, I made a rookie mistake in my first paragraph with the “…everything she holds dear is suddenly threatened.” In trying to hook your reader, the last thing you want to do is use the word “everything.” There is quite literally almost no possible way to be more vague. Then, I went with, “For a quasi-hermit like Reina, the only thing more overwhelming than losing her much coveted solitude is the prospect of losing it forever, but Reina soon discovers that there are things more important than solitude, and that sometimes home can be found even afar.” Really? Was losing her solitude that bad? Honestly, it wasn’t even a major part of the book… Why was I so stuck on this theme?

My point? Sometimes what we think the book is about isn’t really what the book is about at all. When I was writing this character, I wanted to invoke a sense of longing for home, a sense of loneliness, of a desire to return to the mundane, everyday life, but it wasn’t what the story was about. I hadn’t yet figured that out at the time I wrote this query.

I also used a lot of the formulaic “When X happens, then Y is the result…” Just look at my second paragraph. Surely there were better ways than utilizing the much overused “When X…” And yet, I used it not once, but twice…in one paragraph.

When I mention the title of my work in the final paragraph, I forgot to put it in all caps. You work should always be listed in all caps. (This is something I still have issues remembering even today!) This is not the most horrendous thing I could possibly have done, of course, but using the caps lock for your manuscript’s title is a good way to make sure it stands out right away and it’s generally accepted as the proper protocol for query letters.

Lastly, my comp titles are all wrong! To be fair, this version of my query went along with a very early version of the book in which I had the wrong age range targeted. I was trying to squeeze what was essentially a YA book into an Adult category. No wonder it wasn’t working for me. (And no wonder I had no idea how to summarize what it was really about!) When I finally admitted to myself that I needed to revise my entire manuscript to fit into YA, I was in a much better place, both with the book itself and with the query.

And for the love of God, please do not, under any circumstances comment on an agent’s appearance. That’s just…creepy. I am absolutely mortified to admit that I did this when personalizing an early query. (Like, so mortified that I want to crawl under a rock and never come out.) The agent had said something about her unruly curly hair on Twitter and I ran with it. I shudder when I think of what kind of creep I came across as. So… Just. Don’t.

I try not to be too hard on myself because I know learning the querying process is all part of becoming a writer, but I still cringe when I read my earliest query. And I honestly feel like I just published a couple of nude photos of me! (But then again, I just told you how I commented on an agent’s appearance. Notice how I didn’t post that query.)

If you learn can from my mistakes, it was worth all my discomfort in putting this out there! And perhaps this will help you gain a chance at getting something a little more personalized than the dreaded form rejection!

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(Yep, that’s one I received on 2/14/2014. Feeling the love? Not so much.)

On Work and Effort

I’ll admit that I’ve been slacking a bit when it comes to blogging (for the obvious reasons), but as I’ve scrolled through my Twitter feed, I’ve seen a lot of my writer friends elated either because they are about to send out their very first query letter or because they’ve received their very first rejection letter!

I vaguely remember that excitement. The feeling of being a “real” writer on a legitimate path to publishing my beloved work. How would my story unfold? Would my offer of representation from an agent come after one query? Ten? A hundred? What if I had multiple offers? How would I choose?

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Oh, how funny I am! How naive. How cute and hopeful. The book I began querying nearly three years ago recently received its 85th rejection. To be fair, at least 30 of those rejections were really me trying to figure out how to heck to query an agent—what works, and what doesn’t. It should come as no surprise that for the entire first year that I queried, I didn’t get a single agent request for either a full or partial manuscript read.

My first full manuscript request didn’t come until after nearly two years of querying. To say I was elated would be putting things mildly. I shook with excitement. (Literally.) Needless to say, that agent didn’t offer representation, but what she did offer me was hope. What had previously seemed a futile attempt at baring my soul to no one who seemed to want to listen now suddenly seemed a legitimate line of communication. I had been sending out emails, but getting no responses for so long that I might as well have been using a megaphone to announce my intent to an empty parking lot. Getting that first request for a full read meant that someone out there had not only heard me, but was willing to having a conversation.

It’s been a year and a half since that first request, and since then I’ve received 3 more full requests and 2 partials on a manuscript that has continuously morphed into a deeper story than the one I originally wrote. That couldn’t have happened without accepting and embracing the feedback I received from each of those agents. So even though I’ve received 85 “no thanks” emails (or worse—cringe—no responses at all), I’ve got a stronger story and a better query letter than I had when I first began my journey.

Why mention all of this? Because I want my newly querying writer friends to remember not to be discouraged after they receive their 15th rejection and to keep going even after they receive their 50th. No one writer’s journey is the same as another, and the only way to be certain you won’t succeed is to stop trying.

Never stop trying.

Will You Go Out With Me? Circle Yes or No

Remember middle school? If you’re like me, you’ve done just about everything in your power to forget as much as humanly possible about those awkward middle school years, but no matter how hard you try, there are still these lingering memories in the foggy corners of your brain of every horrific social interaction you’ve ever had between the ages of 11 and 13.

But nothing was as bad as trying to ask out your longtime crush. Scribbled notes on ripped pieces of notebook paper, folded into these weird triangle football thingies (that no one under thirty understands), were a direct line of communication to the chosen one of your affections. And often times, the message contained a single question:

Will you go out with me?

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I don’t know if today’s middle schoolers are any cooler, as my own kids are only starting to veer into that awkward-aged realm, but I suspect they still ask the same question even if the mode is more likely to be technologically advanced.

And that’s more or less what it feels like to query an agent as a writer. It’s a thrilling ride of ups and downs, but mostly you just feel like you want to throw up. Mood swings rivaling those of a raging hormonal teenager are common, and my husband can attest to the fact that some days I’ve been so depressed that I cry into my dinner. Thirty minutes later, a perfectly timed email request for a partial or full manuscript read has me giddy by bedtime. In just a few weeks, a pass on the full read (even with encouraging feedback) has me racing downward again. On and on we go. (Have I mentioned that I’ve never ridden an actual rollercoaster because I can’t stand the ups and downs?)

Querying is hard, and it’s not for the emotionally frail, but I will say this. I didn’t fully realize just how stubborn I was until now. I didn’t embrace the emotional fortitude I possessed until I faced rejection after rejection. It’s like asking your middle school crush out…again and again and again.

Someday, I hope to remember this ride fondly. Someday I’ll say that this was perhaps the only rollercoaster I’ve ever enjoyed.

Certainly it’s the only one I’ve ever willingly embarked upon.

 

The Labor of Love

I won’t lie. When I first began writing with the intention of finishing and someday publishing a novel (or fifteen), I didn’t have the first clue as to what kinds of water I was dipping my toes into. (Hint: Deep, dark, swift moving, filled with odd creatures who will take a bite out of you, and possibly even waters inhabited at times by the devil himself. I’m not making this up.) And when I speak with my non-writer friends now, it’s clear that they, too, have zero understanding of the publishing process.

It’s kind of funny, really, when non-writers ask me, “Oh, so you wrote a book? When can I read it? When will it be published? I’d love to quit my job and just write a book.” Most of them don’t realize what they’ve just done. They can’t yet grasp that they’ve engaged a madwoman on her most passionate topic. It’s like inviting a Jehovah’s Witness into your house to discuss God. Because I don’t fool around when I start talking about the writing—editing—submission—rejection—revision process.

And so the lesson begins.

Every book starts with an idea. Maybe it’s something that popped up as you’re drifting off to sleep or shampooing your hair in the shower. Or, maybe it was an idea you’ve had since childhood, one you’ve been contemplating writing about for years. Regardless of how an idea reveals itself, for me, it takes time to marinate in my brain before I can begin to write it down.

Award-winning fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson says that there are two kinds of writers—outliners and discovery writers. I most certainly belong to the former camp. Though I’m not the kind of writer who considers an outline the “Holy Grail” of writing, there are some writers who do. Me? I’m more of a write-a-loose-outline-chapter-by-chapter, highlight-the-major-events-that-need-to-take-place, then-bail-on-the-outline-about-a-quarter-of-the-way-through-when-another-great-plot-line-occurs-to-me kind of writer. Either way, the point is, an outline is a tool that helps to keep the story moving forward. Never mind the fact that I’ll write two more outlines before I get anywhere.

After the outline, depending on the topic of the book, there’s a lot of research to be done. Some of that can be beforehand, some of it is done as I go, and the rest of it falls into the category of [BLAH BLAH – FILL IN MORE HERE LATER – DETAILS!].  More professional writers will use [TK], meaning ‘to come,” but I’m just not that distinguished. I prefer sticking with the BLAH BLAH technique.

And don’t forget the mental block, also known as the dreaded writer’s block. That’s fun and always exceptionally unexpected. And once I step away from the keyboard, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be back any time soon… So for me, it’s critical to ignore writer’s block and just keep writing even if I scrap 90% of what I end up adding to the document. The odds are as long as I keep on writing, I’ll eventually write myself out of the block, but if I stop…well, I’m likely to easily lose a few months.

So, supposing all of this produces a finished novel, there’s also the revision process. That means going back, revising, refining, and hacking away until your raw treasure is a highly polished gem that’s acceptable to submit to an agent. But before you even submit to an agent, you’ve got to make sure you’ve got something worth submitting, and that requires beta readers – friends and family, and maybe even an online stranger or two, who will read your work and give you solid, honest feedback (no matter how much it hurts).

And, oh…an agent.

Somewhere around the time of your 5th draft or so (okay, maybe your 3rd if you’re really good), you can begin to query an agent. Since I began following dozens of agents on Twitter, I’ve started to feel really good about my query letter… If you’re unfamiliar with what a query is, there are hundreds of websites that show you how to effectively query an agent.

And there’s great advice from agents on how not to query an agent, too.  Like this beauty:

Or this one.

(Really, following Dr. Stender on Twitter has become kind of a recent hobby for me… But don’t give him all your attention. There are lots of other agents with great advice, too! Eric Smith is another good one.)

The best part (ahem…cough, cough…) about querying is compiling a list of agents who are looking for manuscripts like yours. I make a ridiculously overcomplicated spreadsheet that includes all sorts of info I don’t need, and I color code as I query. Yellow for queries waiting on a reply (including the date and the type of materials submitted), red for queries that have been rejected, and green for queries in which a full or partial manuscript has been requested, and let me just be honest and tell you that there’s a lot of red on my screen. When I open that file these days, it looks as though I’ve just murdered a small mammal. The problem with my green lines, of course, is that so far they haven’t stayed green, which means that I’ve gotten rejections even after a full manuscript read. But I’ve always gotten good feedback and I revise, revise, revise until I’m ready to submit again.

The most difficult part by far is the willingness to put yourself out there, get rejected again and again, and still remain confident in your ability. The key is to remember that agents are highly subjective and just because they turned down your work doesn’t mean they think it sucks. It just means they aren’t looking to represent that particular piece at that point in time. (Maybe they’re already representing a similar work, perhaps the story was too close to something else they know of, or maybe they just signed another author with a story that meets what they were looking for.) I like to give the ‘needle in a haystack’ analogy, only the hay is on fire and you just have to hope you find the needle in time. If you want to know just how tough querying is, check out a great guest blog by Shannon Parker about an insider’s perspective on rejection.

So if you nab an agent, and that’s a big if, it’s time to pop the champagne, right?  Well…

Though it might feel a bit like winning an NFL championship, signing with a literary agent is really only the first step in a marathon run. Okay, maybe it’s the first mile marker in a marathon. (The first step was writing the book.) Your agent is probably going to request a revision or two before going on to submit your work to editors at publishing companies. And guess what?

That means now your agent is querying for you. Oh yeah, querying again. So, get ready to be rejected again. And if you get accepted – yay! That means you’re on your way to an actual published book deal…after more edits…and galleys…and edits…

And what then? Promotion, promotion, promotion!

Then.

Take those years of soul-crushing disappointment that you put into your first book, and use them as fuel to start a second, a third, and a fifteenth book. Oh, and be prepared to put in what amounts to years and years of work without getting paid a single dime because that’s how writers (and agents) roll.

So, tell me again how you’d like to “quit your job and just write a book.” The fact is, writing isn’t for the faint of heart and it isn’t glamorous. It’s work. Real, tangible, difficult and often unpaid work, but if you’re lucky and you’re persistent, you might just be able to succeed at making a career of it.

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P.S. Writing is also *really* hard when you’ve got a 40-lb. lap dog.