It’s Query Time

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 So if you’re unpublished, good luck.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!

The Rejection that I Really Needed


Photo credit: Wikipedia

If you decide you’re going to be a writer, rejection is something you need to get used to early on. And it’s not just the newbies who find their inboxes full of metaphorical pink slips. Madeleine L’Engle, international bestseller, went through a ten-year slump, in which she thought she might have to give up on her career, before someone finally gave A Wrinkle in Time a chance. Especially after a run of success, rejection is hard to swallow, and that’s where I found myself last week.

My problem is that I am a planner to a fault. And I had a goal for how much money I wanted to earn last week, which was dependent on the number of articles that were accepted. I got past the halfway point with acceptance after acceptance, and I felt pretty good. I mean, I was writing about obscure things like foot valves – I didn’t have a clue what a foot valve was before I wrote that article – and getting paid for them. I began to have that indestructible, I’m-never-going-to-get-rejected-again feeling. And then you can guess what happened.

And it wasn’t something weird like the foot valve that did it. It was an article on treadmills. I used to run on a treadmill every day. I’m familiar with the super-fancy models they have in gyms, as well as the simpler models for home use. My instructions were specific about keyword phrases and how often to use them, and there was a website for reference. I followed all the instructions to a T, submitted the article. . . then waited. I waited longer than usual, then finally received an e-mail that it needed revisions. This worried me somewhat, but I figured I’d fix whatever I needed to fix, then have done with it. Except my instructions were that it was exactly not the kind of article the requester wanted. Well, I followed all of the instructions, so how else was I supposed to write it? Not only that, but she didn’t want me to edit the article. She wanted me to start from scratch. At that point, I’d already invested a couple hours of my time without being paid, and it wasn’t worth starting over – especially when the requester refused to send me specifics about what parts of the article didn’t work for her.

At that point, I was behind on my weekly goal, and unless I planned to stay up a couple hours later than usual to make up for it, I wasn’t going to be able to catch up. Now, my goal was ambitious, anyway, but that’s how I am. Instead of having a meltdown, however, which is what I tend to do when I can’t force things to go by the plan, I accepted it.

Looking back, I realize now that the pace I was keeping was liable to blow up in my face eventually, and the rejection actually saved me from what could have been much worse. I could have stuck to my goal, added to my sleep deficit, and lost my temper numerous times as I tried to cram thirty hours worth of work into a twenty-four hour day. Instead, I took some much-needed rest, read the novel I’ve been neglecting, and picked up a new project with a much friendlier deadline.

Rejections can be disappointing, yes, but they can also be freeing. Mine gave me perspective on the balance (or lack thereof) between my writing and personal life. That doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to the next one, but when it inevitably comes, it’ll probably be time for another wake up call, anyway.

One of My Least Favorite Things


Rejection (Photo credit: amanda farah)

I usually don’t procrastinate, unless it’s on a personal project with no hard deadline. Then I become a pro. Like querying literary agents. Yes, I finally did it (two rounds this year, actually), but I could have started a month earlier. I figured no one could reject me if I didn’t submit any queries. Once I made peace with the idea that my inbox would soon be filled with little pink slips, however, I got to work.

I didn’t submit willy-nilly, though. The agent has to be pretty enthusiastic about young adult lit (lukewarm doesn’t cut it), but even some agents that represent young adult aren’t interested in sci-fi or fantasy. After I went through my new copy of Writer’s Market, highlighting or crossing out, I went back and narrowed my list (checking every one on Preditors & Editors first – read why here). For the first round of submissions, I didn’t want to do a lot of work. Well, that’s not quite it. Writing a query is a lot of work, which is what last week’s post was all about. In one page, you have to introduce yourself, tell about your pertinent publishing history (if any), explain why you like the agent, and then say enough about your book to make an agent interested enough to ask for the rest of it. And just in case there’s some literary agent grapevine where they compare notes and giggle about the stupid mistakes authors make, I tried to make each query slightly different. I skipped over agencies that requested exclusive submissions. Those will go last because the response times can sometimes take months. I also skipped those who requested mailed submissions because, well, I was being lazy. And I temporarily ignored those pesky agencies that can’t live with a query and sample chapters, the ones who actually want a synopsis of the whole novel.

When it comes to writing, I’ll take a novel over a synopsis any day. There is little harder for me to do than cram a summary of my tens-of-thousands-of-words story into a tiny space – oh and by the way, make it catchy, too.

I knew I would have to do it eventually. As much as writing a synopsis is like pulling teeth, I didn’t want to take the chance of submitting to those agencies without one and offending them, nor did I want to avoid them altogether (and a potential, although not likely, sale). Besides, during the almost-two-year period when I contracted with a scammer agent, my first assignment was to write a synopsis, anyway. The scammer forwarded five articles with tips about synopsis writing. Even if the articles wouldn’t write the synopsis for me, I figured they would give me a clear direction. Ha.

The direction turned out to raise more questions than answers. Of the five articles, there were at least three different ideas about how to format a synopsis and the proper length. One stated that some people go by the rule of one page of synopsis for every twenty-five pages of manuscript –but went on to say that that’s probably too much for most agents and editors. (Questioning my agent didn’t help; she was absolutely clueless – didn’t the articles give me enough conclusive info? I should have started running, then.)

I did the best I could, and only after my synopsis was critiqued did I find out that my agent needed it to be under two hundred words. Um, that’s quite a departure from one page of synopsis per twenty-five pages of manuscript (especially considering my manuscript was over three hundred at the time).

When I read someone else’s manuscript, there are certain things that I expect, that I believe most editors and agents expect, too. There are the general things that matter, such as double-spacing, using a legible 12-pt font (like Times New Roman or Courier), one-inch margins on all four sides, name and contact information somewhere in the header, and a heading with name and title on any pages after the first. Page numbers are a must, and I prefer a word count, although I’ll let it slide if it’s included in the cover letter. Although not following these universally expected guidelines isn’t enough to make me reject a story outright, seeing crazy fonts in a lot of different colors, for instance, will make me less friendly toward the manuscript I’m about to read.

So when it comes to synopses, is the same true? To me, it doesn’t really matter if the title is in all caps or if a character’s name is capitalized the first time it’s mentioned – especially considering these were two points that seemed very important in some of the “helpful” articles I read and not worth mentioning in others. In my opinion, if an agent has such specific expectations, they should be spelled out in the submission guidelines. Or I could just play it safe and write my synopsis half a dozen ways and submit them all, just to cover every possible formatting opinion. I couldn’t possibly be rejected for doing that, could I? Well, yes, I could, and I have rejected people for writing like insecure idiots. Two things drive me nuts: the person who should write “there” but uses “their” and “they’re,” too, because he can’t figure out which is right and the person who doesn’t trust that the words are getting the message across and resorts to excessive italics, underline, bold, and two or more paragraph styles to make it look interesting. At that point, I know I’m dealing with someone who doesn’t care enough about the craft to learn how to write properly.

So here I am, wondering if my synopsis (which looks okay to me) shows me as an author who is not ready for print. Unfortunately, rejection slips are never so specific. I’m sorry, Ms. Cotchaleovitch, your synopsis was so poorly written that I could not stomach the rest of your submission. But there is some consensus out there. A synopsis does need to be short. Sorry, wordsmiths. I am one of the wordiest people out there, so it’s hard for me to swallow that one, too. But you don’t want your synopsis dumped in the slush pile because it looks like a short story (or worse, a novella). More important than the length, however, is that it has a catchy opening (the hook), and that it is clear and concise. Trim all the fat – extraneous adjectives, adverbs, and interjections such as this one – from your synopsis, and when you think it’s lean enough, go back and trim some more. It’s not necessary to name every character and outline every subplot. What gets the protagonist from Point A (the beginning) to Point B (the end)? If it doesn’t follow that path, save it for the story (and make doubly sure it really belongs there, too). Then have someone read it. Joe Reader is fine. It helps to get honest feedback from someone who knows nothing about the story. It might hurt, but it’s better to hear the bad news from a friend and fix it before you send it out.

I dug up my old synopsis, but since leaving the scammer agent two-and-a-half years ago, my novel has undergone two revisions, and it was almost useless to me. Actually, what helped me most was going back to my query, reading my brief description, and elaborating from there. Then I cut and cut and cut some more until I got it a little shorter than two pages. Then into cyberspace and the mail my queries and synopses went. Now, my fingers are crossed.

You “Read It With Interest,” My Foot


Mail (Photo credit: Bogdan Suditu)

There’s no way to stop them from happening. Rejections. I’m talking about in the publishing industry. I have yet to hear about a published author who sent out queries and never received a rejection. The only way to achieve such a feat is to never send a query. Even the most successful authors went through many a rejection before they broke through.

So what’s the big deal? Someone like little ol’ me should expect rejection, right? Yes. And I do. I remember back in the days before e-mail queries were acceptable (and when every agent I queried preferred exclusive submissions), I snail mailed them one at a time, each with my SASE included, and then I waited. Never for acceptance, although I pretended to keep my hopes up. Usually, within a week or two, I would find my self-addressed envelope in the mail, creased from where I’d folded it into thirds. I would carry it inside, almost not wanting to open it. If anyone was around, I would wave it and say, “Here’s another rejection.” I was always right.

The types of rejections varied. Every once in a while, I received my query back with a coveted, hand-scrawled note, giving me some encouragement that at least someone had read it all the way through. Other times, the agency in question couldn’t be bothered to use a whole piece of paper for their form rejection. I do understand that it’s wasteful to use a whole sheet on a message that boils down to, “We’re not interested. Bother someone else, please,” but it just adds an extra little sting.

Worse were the rejections that never came. There are a few agencies that inform authors up front that SASEs are unnecessary. You can assume you’re rejected if you don’t hear anything within a specified period of time. If they want to see more, they’ll either call personally or go to the expense of using their own envelopes and stamps. You can guess the kind of “response” I received from these agencies.

One time, I received a form rejection that made it very clear that no one ever read my query. It so offended me that I got in a huff and wrote the most sarcastic query I could muster in response. The idea was to see if I could make an agent mad enough to respond, even if it was just to say, “How dare you!” Of course, I never sent it. The act of writing it calmed me, and I eventually decided that agent wasn’t worth my time, anyway.

But it made me wonder if querying was a futile effort. Why spend my time polishing a letter that no one was going to so much as glance at before rejecting? I understand that agents are extremely busy. Some even have periods when they do not accept submissions because they have to get other work done (like working with their already-established authors). Is there some kind of magic trick for those of us who don’t have an “in” in the industry?

Nowadays, more agencies are open to simultaneous submissions, and with so many accepting e-mail queries, as well, it keeps the process from stretching out for years. Already this month, I’ve sent ten queries, whereas I don’t think I ever sent ten in a year before, what with doing them all one at a time and then waiting for the mail. Still, it doesn’t make rejection hurt any less.

One day this week, I sent a query just before 5:30 P.M., and a lot of these agencies have an auto-response e-mail that lets you know your submission went through and is waiting in line with all the other millions of submissions. Most agencies have a response time of four to six weeks. I was surprised, however, that the auto-responder said someone would be in touch with me “shortly.” That was different. They seemed to pride themselves on expediency.

Well, “shortly” turned out to be midnight. Or that’s the time listed on the e-mail I received the next morning. And the opening was quite cordial. They thanked me for my query, which they “read with interest.” But they were so sorry that it just wasn’t right for them. Now, who are they trying to fool? This agency isn’t two time zones over, where someone might possibly have read it before the office closed. It’s in my time zone. In my state, actually, which, to be honest, was one of the few things that attracted me to it. So either someone stayed after hours to read submissions and then sent the robo-rejections, or some computer program scanned it for key words, didn’t find what it was looking for, then sent the rejection when it was done. I’m going with the latter option.

There are a lot of things that bother me about this, but the first is that their response flat-out lies. You don’t want to do business with me, so why sugar-coat it? Just say, “You know what, your type of submission isn’t what we want right now. No thanks.” I’ve heard this before and moved on. Don’t tell me you “read it with interest” when the only person in the building was the janitor. And, of course, since this is a form rejection, all authors receive it. We’re all being lied to.

Second, they asked for a writing sample. Why bother? Well, I suppose the software that reads for them could send up a red flag if the writing sample was full of typos, but even if I don’t write the most gripping queries, they’re grammatically correct. (Well, one that I sent out did have a big typo that I didn’t catch until the next day, so when I receive that rejection, I will fully deserve it. But I digress.) I always bemoaned that, when querying by mail, the agents judged me based on a one-page cover letter. I would try to throw in lines from my book, hoping to show my style, but that approach never worked. I recently had the opportunity for an agent to critique an excerpt of my story, and she said the voice and opening were strong. So if they’ll just read the bit of story that I send (and I only send the length they ask for), they’ll have to admit it’s well-written, even if it’s not subject matter that they want to represent.

The vindictive part of me wants to become the next J.K. Rowling, so I can rub it in the rejectors’ faces. But really, I just want someone out there to give my middle grade fantasy novel the time of day. They certainly don’t seem to mind representing some of the absolute garbage that litters the bookshelves. But I refuse to write something sensational, just to sell copies. If no one wants to publish my story, I know a great place that’s friendly to indie authors, and it’s called (I’ve already published my short story “Stranded” there and have another story in the works.) There are many indie authors out there who are doing pretty well, even getting discovered by big agents and publishers. I was encouraged when my cousin sent me Hugh Howey’s publishing story this week. It would be a stretch for the same kind of circumstances to happen for me, but. . . maybe there’s hope for this girl, after all.