Good morning from the trenches, come on in, your emotions are fine.
This piece is for my fellow writers in the trenches of the querying process. For all the other writers out there who have yet to query, once you choose to join us here in these trenches, I hope this blog serves as both informational and inspiring.
Sitting in this trench, boots covered in the mud of revisions, and mind gone a tad crazy, I’m filled with the shrapnel of rejection letters. It’s hard not to emotionally bleed from the quick responses, one as soon as five and a half hours. As the rejections pile up, I’ve heard the words of many successful authors in my ears – “Don’t give up, keep going, it’s worth it.” I still believe this to be true, and I hope, even after all the rejections you may receive, you will too.
The query process is a battle, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that it’s a battle between you and a prospective agent. As much as their form rejections might hurt your feelings – and deep down they hurt most of our feelings – agents are not your enemy. Even though it isn’t as helpful as we’d like, form rejections give you the freedom to move on. That’s the kind of freedom that unclogs your boots and gets you moving again. Does it feel strange to take joy from being told no? Yes. Should you do it anyway? Yes. If you believe in the core message of your manuscript, then take heart, and keep fighting like crazy to find an agent who feels the same way.
I came up with a process for my queries which might help you. Before we dive into it though, I want to say this – My process may be different from yours. It may or may not work for you. It hasn’t (to date) gotten me an offer of representation, but I believe it will.
First – Finish your manuscript – You should know this already, but if you don’t, you’d better do yourself the favor of sending an agent something that’s complete. I can’t tell you how many writers I’ve seen on social media who pitch half done projects. It’s like eating Thanksgiving turkey after its been in the oven for 30 minutes. It’s not done, and it tastes like garbage. Find a critique partner if you can, cultivate a team of beta readers for neutral feedback, and make whatever final changes you need to before you even contemplate writing a query letter.
Second – Research your targets – Agents aren’t unicorns (okay maybe some are) but for the most part, many agents are on social media – and holy shit they will actually tell you what they want! So if you’re coming at an agent with something they don’t rep, you’re bound to get shot down. Heck, you might have something you think they want, and they might shoot you down anyway, but at least you’re in line with the genres they rep. You might have to watch their feeds, check them out on MSWL, or even go see them speak at conferences, but no matter what your book is about, you need to do yourself the favor and do your research!
Third – Query intelligently – You’ve spent long, hard hours working on this piece, right? It doesn’t happen overnight, so why fire off a query without knowing who you’re sending it to? I mean know them. Many agents list the books they are looking for within the genre your book falls into. They also usually have a list of authors they’ve already signed, so do yourself the favor and get to know those books. You should be read into your genre as best you can, but you can’t read everything, so make sure you have a list of books to research.
When you write your query letter, there’s little need for it to be over 350 words. Be brief, be focused, and be ready to respond. Being brief isn’t easy after writing tens of thousands of words of a manuscript, but a three page query letter is probably going to end up in the trash. I understand all too well a white-hot passion of a thousand suns when it comes to a piece, but exploding all over the pages of a query letter with that isn’t the best method. Save that for your manuscript. When I talk about being focused, keep in mind that I come from a background of Attention Deficit Disorder. My thoughts are always going in a million different directions every day, it’s hard for me to focus at times. Being ready to respond means, being ready when you get a positive response from the agent(s) you’re querying. They may ask for the first 50 pages, or the first three chapters, or only the first five pages. When I start querying a manuscript, I have separate versions of those files ready to go. Create your synopsis – yes that dreaded document that spills all the beans – so if they ask for that during the query process, you have it ready.
Finally, use something to track all the queries you write. I use two different methods: Querytracker (from www.querytracker.net) and an Excel spreadsheet for personal notes. No matter the method you choose for tracking, I suggest making a new project or sheet for each piece you take into battle with you, especially if you’re querying multiple genres. This part of the process means a lot of hard work, but if nothing else, it will make you proactive about gleaning more information for future endeavors.
Fourth – Don’t be a dick – Yep, that age old rule. If you’re a jerk online and in those responses you get from agents who’ve turned you down, then you’re gonna have a bad time. It’s hard to be in the trenches, every querying writer knows that, but here’s the thing – good agents know that too. They don’t exist in a vacuum when it comes to what we do. If they’ve signed authors in the past, then they know how hard it is to take an idea and turn it into a book, so when you get rejected (especially by agents you’ve targeted and fallen into literary love with) you need to take it in stride and move onto the next one. I’ve had agents who I’ve had great interactions with on social media, who rep my genre, and know I’ve been working on something, turn me down within two days. It feels like a gut punch, but it isn’t. Professional writing is a business. Agents must consider – beyond any interactions they have with you online or at a conference – if what you have will work for their business. No amount of pleasant interactions can change that, because they have a very personal stake in what they choose to rep. I’ve been rejected after five and a half hours by someone I get along great with. That rejection didn’t change my feelings on them as a person, or an agent. The worse thing I see online is the writer who chooses to take to social media and go all “Scorched Earth” on agents and the gatekeeping they’re doing which prevents their success. The biggest hurdle to your personal writing success is quality of writing and timing.
Fifth – Get back to your writing – No matter how many agents you’ve queried, or how many rejection responses you’ve gotten, you need to remember who you are at your core. You are a writer, you must write. You didn’t get to this step without writing a manuscript, so why turn your back on the path that got you here? Get back to your desk, find your muse, and start putting words down on the page. If you choose to lay on the querying battlefield and cry out waiting for a medic, you’re going to bleed out. I know that analogy might not be appreciated by everyone, but the truth is, you’re going to have to get back to being who you are or you’ll end up in a dark place where writing is nigh impossible. You’re on this Earth to do something wonderful, to show us all something you have inside you, don’t let the querying process kill that. Take a walk, pet a dog, go lend a hand with someone who needs it. Transfer that fresh perspective you receive to the next project, but for the love of humanity, keep going, don’t give up, and remember it’s worth it.