Thoughts from the Querying Trenches

q-plus-pencilQuerying. Ugh. If there’s an activity for a writer that’s less frustrating, I don’t know what it is. I suppose it could be worse, though. I doubt agents enjoy it any more than writers do, and they’ve basically signed up for sifting through queries for life. At least in my case, it should be temporary. Although for my true feelings on the subject, you’ll have to read my flash story, Publish or Perish.

First make sure you have a query letter that you’ve checked with other writers for feedback. Mine was a quest in Query Letter Hell (that’s the real name of the subforum) on Absolute Write, but there are other places you can go for feedback as well. Don’t just dash one of these things off. Give your book’s synopsis the same care.

My first unexpected hurdle was fear, in every shape and form this debilitating emotion can take. It’s like an attack. There’s the sheer, overwhelming rush as I sit at the computer that makes me want to scurry away. Go revise my novel again, scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush—anything other than to stay and work my way through my list. Sheer weariness made me want to stop at times. I’d read about an agent and catch myself thinking they were too good—they wouldn’t be interested in me. Who was I kidding anyway? I should’ve known better than to think I could do this.

And what if nobody wants me? I’m fine with the idea of self-publishing, but really, it feels different if I’m doing it because no agents are interested in my novels. So there’s the lovely vista of further self-confidence crises on the horizon as well.

Work through it. I’m pretty sure we all feel stuff like this. Clench your jaw (but not until you get a headache—trust me on this) and keep going. The foe is unworthy.

Having mastered anxiety at least to the point that you won’t allow yourself to be chased from your computer, the next thing you’ll need to do is build a list. Query Tracker is a good place to go for this, although there are other places on the internet you can try as well. In Query Tracker, just follow the steps, and it’ll spit a list out.

But having gotten your list (in my case, 192 agents), you’ll need to do some research.

research-binary-imageA true professional agent can be a staunch advocate in the bewildering world of publishing, but some agents are not so principled. Some will try to steer you to the pay-until-you-can’t-possibly-pay-anymore world of vanity publishing, and everything I’ve read advises us to avoid that route.

Google every agent. In my case, I checked them first on Preditors and Editors, but that site is now down for maintenance, so I’d recommend Writer Beware. Or Absolute Write’s Bewares and Recommendations sub-forum, although that one can be tricky to use. You’ll need to type the agency name into the tiny Google search box on the very lower left side of the page.

Query Tracker also has links for success stories from that agent, and I click on all of those. The successful queries are given as part of the client interviews, and it was useful to see what query format they preferred. QT also sometimes lists interviews and Publisher’s Marketplace posts, and I’d recommend reading those as well. I skimmed through their blog if they have one, looking in particular for query preferences. Sometimes the agency will have those posted on their website as well.

Some writers add agents to their Twitter feed. I didn’t go that route, but I’ll mention it in case you want to be extremely thorough. Or maybe you need to catch up on your tweeting anyway. Mine got neglected, along with my poor blog. All this research will take some time. Don’t expect to get it done in a week. I took over a month, working long hours.

I’ve read that changing agents is something like a divorce, and nobody needs anything like that in their life. Better to check thoroughly first and avoid heartache later.

All this netted me a list of sixty-one agents. Query Tracker isn’t exhaustive—I found six other agents on a Writer’s Digest post—but it should get the bulk of them.

Then it’s time to actually query. This is a surprisingly time-consuming process. Some agents prefer the word count, genre, and audience (adult, YA, MG) up front; others want you to dive straight into the story. Some agents have forms where your query is posted in bits so you don’t have to worry about the order, but it’s always extra work. You might have to create new files to attach the first three chapters, although most agents prefer this to be pasted into the body of the email. Each one will be different. Query letter, synopsis, first fifty pages. Query letter alone. Query and the first five pages. Give them whatever they want. There’s nothing to be gained by not following directions.

Since I’ve experienced the jaw-dropping horror of a computer crash, I’m paranoid and make a paper copy of everyone I’ve queried. Agent, date, agency, a note that says something like four weeks of silence equals a pass (from the agent’s website or automatic response email), another space to note rejections, and hopefully, eventual successes.

On Absolute Write, we’re generally advised to query in batches of ten or twenty at a time and wait for feedback. If pages are requested but nothing further happens, the problem’s not the query, but the manuscript. This can tell you whether it’s time to take a hard look at your pages or if your query needs more review.

And then you hurry up and wait. Many agents take months to get back to you. Find something else productive to do. Catch up on your blogging and social media. Revise another novel. Start another novel or short story. Scrub the bathroom floor (although not with a toothbrush). Anything besides checking your inbox obsessively.

Patience is hardly my favorite virtue, and I’m still in the waiting phase. But I’ll continue revising my other novels and start some short stories in the interim.

Do you have any advice for those going through the query process? If so, I’d love to hear it in the comments. And meanwhile, keep writing. 🙂

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Avid writer and reader, especially of fantasy. Learning about social networking and always interested in honing my writing skills. Contact me at cathleentownsend.com.

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15 comments on “Thoughts from the Querying Trenches
  1. I’m dreading the query process and dragging my feet. No, I’ve planted my feet in wet cement and the cement has dried. So I thank you for a very useful and informative post about how to go about querying the right way.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yeah, the fear is extremely debilitating. I mentioned it in my post because sometimes it helps to know that others face the same thing. But I worked through it, and you can, too.

      I have three novels I can potentially query in the near future, meaning months, not years. (Nothing happens fast when you query.) Two of them are really too long for a debut (about 118k), but I was advised by people I respect on Absolute Write to query them, and really, what is the point of getting advice if you don’t take it?

      But even though I didn’t expect much from this round (it was more like a practice run for the novel I think might land an agent), the fear was overwhelming. It was like every destructive comment I’d ever heard reared its ugly head for immediate attention. There were times when a victory was forcing myself to send out a single query.

      The good news is, it got better. Halfway through my list it became something I could ignore. Fear can become nothing but an annoyance in time.

      Contact me through my blog (which goes to my email), and I’ll be happy to critique your query for you. By now, I’ve looked at hundreds, so it might help. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I decided to go the self publishing route in the end!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s still an option for me, too. But what I’d really like is to be a hybrid author (both trade and self-pubbed), since they reach a larger audience. So I figured I’d query my novels before I SPed them.

    It’s difficult, no matter which route you take. I wish you nothing but success. 🙂

    Like

  4. Ann Coleman says:

    Back in the days when most publishing houses accepted queries and manuscripts directly, I tended to avoid the ones that only accepted queries just because I was so intimidated by the thought. I’ve haven’t tried querying agents, because the process sounds even more daunting (which explains why at the moment I’m not trying to sell any of my work.) Thanks for the advice on agent queries, though, as I might get back into it one of these days! And best of luck to you in your writing career.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I felt the same way about the query letter only thing at first, but after a while, I was so weary of querying that seeing they wanted just a letter at least meant it would be over fast.

      I’d like to try trade publishing, if only to work with professional editors–story, line, and proofreaders. I don’t really have the money to pay for that with all my novels, and it seems like I might grow as a writer from the experience. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Good advice. I did most of what you recommend, though I didn’t send the query in 20-agent batches. I just wanted it done. The only time that is a problem is if multiple agents want your mss. (Un)luckily for me, that didn’t happen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • All this advice is just stuff I learned from other, more experienced people who were willing to post their wisdom online. It’s not surprising that we would end up with a similar method.

      I think having multiple offers would be a good problem to have. I’d be delighted with just one. 🙂

      Like

  6. Kim Gorman says:

    This is great advice, Cathleen, and thank you for sharing. I especially appreciate the reminder that someone else should read the query. I also think it’s a great idea to keep a list of who you sent with helpful details on it. I’m working on a query now, while I finish final revisions and edits on my novel, and I have to admit I’m starting to get nervous and plagued with self-doubt, like my novel totally stinks. I’m literally forcing myself through the process at this point, when I used to get so much joy out of it. It’s nerves, I know. When you put your heart, soul, and time into something for so long, it’s scary putting it out there where you know it’s going to be rejected by some people.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is scary. And then when the rejection letters start filtering in, even though they’re polite, it can be crippling to our confidence levels.

      But as long as you don’t think it’ll push you over the edge into serious depression or similar, do it anyway. (Otherwise, make sure you take care of yourself. We all have human frailties.)

      Go ahead and send me your query for critique if you like when you think it’s ready. I’ve critiqued a bunch of them on Absolute Write. Just understand that I’ve never landed an agent with one of these things, either. But I have read lots of critiques from people who do have agents, so at least I was taught by people who know what they’re doing. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Annika Perry says:

    Cathleen, you might have felt fear and trepidation starting the process but your sense of research, organisation and commitment shines through and I’m in awe of the query marathon you are on. Excellent sound advice for anyone embarking on this road. I am nowhere near that but being in the UK I would turn to the trusted ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook’ to help find possible agents – they print a new copy each year and its an invaluable reference source. Well done…let us now if you hear anything. Fingers crossed.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never used that source, but just in case you want another when your time comes, Query Tracker also lists UK agents. Sometimes multiple sources can be a good idea, although when you’re in the research phase, it’s tempting to skimp just to get through it faster.

      Thanks for all the kind words. Now it’s time to find out if mine are good enough to attract agent interest. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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