Sometime between 2004 (when I first started querying literary agents) and now, there have been drastic changes in the publishing industry. When I first started, e-queries were a no-no. In fact, they were hardly mentioned on agents’ websites (if they had websites). I snail mailed every query with an SASE, which I wasn’t guaranteed to see for months, if at all (which always drove me nuts – I paid for the stamp, so please send it back). Very few agents accepted simultaneous submissions, and every query how-to that I read stressed the author bio part. Like the more creditability you have, the better your chance of landing an agent. So if you’re unpublished, good luck.
For a while, I didn’t change anything about the way I queried. I took time off to have a baby. Then I wasted almost two years with a scam artist for an agent (read about that here). After that, I didn’t much care for agents for a while and quit looking.
Then I immersed myself in the world of e-publishing – writing articles online for people I’ll never meet in person, publishing e-books that will never be printed. I felt up to braving the sea of rejections again and began researching query letters, figuring that I had to do something different than before.
Lo and behold, many of the “standards” of query submission from ten-plus years ago are now the exception rather than the rule. Most agents prefer e-mail submissions, and only a handful ask for exclusive submissions. In fact, more than one agent I’ve read about has said exclusive submissions are ridiculous because you could easily spend years and never get anywhere. Well, I’ve been there and done that.
With all this talk about querying, you can guess what I’ve been up to lately. Yep, I finished editing my 2013 NaNoWriMo novel (again), and I began looking into agents this week. Querying is one of the most challenging aspects of the writing process. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading about the agents and imagining how great it would be to work with this or that one. Except that imagining is as far as it’s ever gone. (The scammer that I had met exactly zero of my expectations, but I was so enthralled with the idea that I HAVE AN AGENT that I kind of pushed all that aside.)
As I’ve heard various agents say numerous times, it’s not the query that wins the contract but the book. The problem is, of course, that if you bomb on the query, your book may never even get a cursory glance. So I’ve always felt that pressure to write the perfect query letter. I’ve done my best to make them personal. But not only did I have exactly zero positive responses last time I queried (no surprise), I didn’t even get responses from the majority of them. One was an agent with whom I’d worked before. I queried her twice. Nada.
So this time, after stressing more than I should have about what to write and how to write it (and coming up with a great hook but forgetting to write it down), I went online to brush up on Query Writing 101. There are more good resources out there than I can count. Many of them agree on the basics (like the order of the paragraphs doesn’t matter, but when you do talk about your story, it better have a great hook), and they usually give examples of both good and bad queries. The bad ones are great (read one here). Not only will you laugh at the sheer stupidity of some writers, but the number of real, terrible queries gives me hope that one of these days, I may stand out from the masses.
The problem is that it doesn’t matter how many good queries you read, you can’t just switch out the words that apply to your book and call it good. Every writer and every story is different. I remember feeling hopeful when I read Stephen King’s On Writing because he uses a great query example, but I could never make that format work for me.
The absolute best resource I have found for writing queries is in literary agent Mary Kole’s book Writing Irresistible Kidlit. As the title suggests, it’s mostly about the writing process for middle grade and young adult writers. But as an agent herself, Kole does her readers a favor and devotes an entire chapter to query do’s and don’t’s. She also gives an example of a real query letter that worked, with lots of commentary about why.
The part that helped me the most is the section in which she boils down how to write the novel summary by answering five questions. I’ve done this exercise with two novels now, and not only does it show where your story has holes (if you can’t answer the questions easily), but it also gives you an easy way to summarize and not go on for pages and pages. Even if you don’t write kidlit, I would recommend this book just for the query chapter.
So I wrote a basic query for my novel that I will customize according to the agents I choose. I cannot stress enough that reading submission guidelines is an absolute must. Not only do you want to make sure you send exactly what the agent wants, but sometimes one agency may want you to include something in your query that you haven’t used before. This happened on my latest query. The agency wants to know why I’m the best writer for this book. It gave me the opportunity (although a very brief one) to explain how my story came to me.
It also seems that literary agents are less concerned with your credentials (for instance, some say that you should minimize publications that aren’t related to what you’re querying). Of course, if you’ve won an award, that’s always good information to have on your side. What they would rather hear is that you have a good grasp of your market. Although they don’t come out and say it, I believe this is because writers are expected to do more marketing than ever before. And if you don’t know your audience and what they like to read, you have little chance of selling your novel.
At the same time, it’s an absolute no-no to write a wizard book and then send a query saying you’re the J.K. Rowling of the next generation. I scanned my bookshelves and was surprised to find a number of non-Harry Potter books that had elements similar to my own story. My husband even made a great suggestion about a book with a character who shares some of my protagonist’s strengths. More than ever, the idea that you need to read voraciously in order to write is very important.
So that’s what I’m going to do: read, write, edit… and query. Wish me luck!