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 So if you’re unpublished, good luck.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!

What’s the Big Idea?

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

You’d think after ten years together, you’d know someone really well. And, no, I’m not talking about my husband. I’m talking about a character, and January marked ten years since she showed up out of nowhere, demanding I tell her story.

When eleven-year-old Emma popped into my imagination, it was shortly after I really got into reading young adult lit. I figured it was a sign that that was the writing path for me. Early drafts of her story were promising; readers liked it (and gave me a lot of constructive criticism). I finished writing the novel in nine months. That was a first for me: finishing a novel. I was good at beginnings and endings, but I always had trouble making that connection in the middle. But I finally felt ready to face the big boys; I learned everything I could about queries and began looking for a literary agent.

Then reality set in: no one was interested.

Rejection is discouraging, yes, especially when you know that your story has promise. But the wonderful thing, the part that makes me sure I’m not wasting my time, is that I never wanted to stop writing, even when I learned to expect that every SASE would come back containing a form rejection. I got excited when agents wrote something personal, even if the answer was no.

Each rejection I took as an opportunity to better my story; maybe it simply wasn’t ready yet. I continued revising, or sometimes it just sat and kind of stewed while I worked on other projects (like being a mom). Many authors recommend leaving the book for six weeks or so after revising, then coming back for a fresh look. To date, I’ve gone through ten major revisions (sometimes revisions within revisions) since I finished the first draft. Each time I’ve returned to my story, I’ve seen changes that I needed to make and might not have noticed if I hadn’t taken a break. I rediscovered clever bits of writing that I couldn’t believe I actually created (unless there’s a little word fairy that turns garbage into poetry when I’m not looking). It’s a fantasy novel, so I really delved into the world of the story and made up words in my own fictional language, gave my fictional kingdom its own history, wrote pages of backstory. I changed the title four times, and I think I finally have the one that fits.

With each revision, I felt like I was getting closer to my goal, but it wasn’t until recently that I finally felt satisfied with it. Even though all the components were there, including that tricky middle bit, I think part of my problem when querying was that I wasn’t completely confident. I was almost relieved by the rejections, as much as I wanted someone to love my book, because I didn’t know if I would be happy publishing it as it stood.

Then, last fall a friend clued me into a webinar given by a literary agent, which led to me buying the agent’s book and discovering perhaps the biggest roadblock in the way of me truly knowing my story—and thus being able to tell it. The agent is Mary Kole, her book Writing Irresistible Kidlit (which I recommend to all authors, not just those of “kidlit”). In it, Kole addresses many aspects to which I never gave conscious thought. Perhaps the biggest, aptly named, is the Big Idea of the story. Even if not clearly articulated in a novel, the Big Idea needs to shine through. It’s also something an author should be able to clearly state in a query letter. Well, I can tell you that every query I ever wrote before reading Kole’s advice was all over the map when it came to describing my book. I could not specifically pinpoint what it was about without giving a lengthy explanation of the plot (which is extremely difficult to pull off in a one-page query).

Other authors such as Madeleine L’Engle and Anne Lamott further encouraged me. (Click the links to read about them in previous posts.) I thought about my story, went to sleep and awoke in the middle of the night with Emma on my mind. One thing that always bothered me was that I had no idea what her middle name was. Now, Sarah, you’re probably thinking, how could you not know your own protagonist’s middle name? You made her up, how hard is it? The problem was that when I thought of Emma, a middle name automatically came to mind, but even though it sounded right, it wasn’t hers. The same thing happened with her hair color. My first, hand-written draft made it brown, but Emma’s hair isn’t brown, it’s red. Sometimes, there are things that authors try to force on their characters—attributes or bits of history—that don’t suit, and they have to go.

Then it came to me—the perfect name and with a perfectly logical reason for why Emma’s parents gave it to her. It’s a name that defines her. . . because she hates it. If you told me at the beginning what her middle name was, I would have laughed and said it was stupid. I hadn’t gotten to know my story yet.

And it turns out that Emma’s middle name has a lot to do with the Big Idea, which I only started to figure out a few months ago. With that final bit of requisite knowledge, I not only composed a better query letter, but I finally did so with confidence. For the first time, I have a firm grasp on what I wrote and what I need to do moving forward. Am I happy that it took me ten years to get here? Of course not, and if I’d known it would take so long all those years ago, it probably would have killed my spirit. Nor does it mean that I’m done making changes, finished struggling, or guaranteed a best seller. But I am satisfied and ready to share Emma’s story. And I think she is ready to share her middle name, even though she doesn’t like it.