3 Lessons I’d Take Back to the Query Game

Currently, I’m in the happy position of being agented, which means I haven’t had to deal with queries for some time. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a few things about the process, and since our March topic over at Kickbutt Kidlit is queries, I’ve been reflecting on those things and what I would do differently if I were to embark on the journey again.

Here is what I came up with.

If I could hop in a Dolorean, I would advise my younger, querying self:

  1. To read the positive in rejections (including between the lines). When we get a rejection, I think it’s almost instinct to skip the pleasantries and land straight on Not Good Enough—especially when we’d gotten our hopes up after a full or partial request. But an agent’s time is valuable; they are not likely to waste any on something they don’t see potential in. That means that if you receive anything beyond a form rejection, even just a line or two, the agent is probably 1) recognizing your skill and/or 2) offering feedback on why they passed—which again, is something they probably wouldn’t bother with unless they saw potential in your submission.
  2. That agents generally do not give detailed feedback in passes (even after requesting). I mention this for two reasons: one, to underscore the positive significance of any feedback an agent does provide in a pass, regardless of how broad or “negative” it might appear. What often looks like “vague reasons I didn’t love your book” is actually “underlying ways I think you can improve this worthy story.” Two, because it is a mistake to expect feedback that will significantly improve your book in the course of querying. You might think that trickling out queries means you’ll get critique you can use to your advantage, but far more likely you will end up waiting 2-3 months for a just few brief sentences (in a pass), if even that. One agent who requested my full MS never even got back to me.
  3. That the best thing you can do for yourself is to write the best book that you possibly can, and query that. Given that you can’t count on constructive criticism after you hit send, the strongest strategy is to query only when you’ve written a book you really love, and then only when you can’t humanly make it better (ideally after multiple readers have read and critiqued it).

Perhaps the most important lesson of all: to NOT be afraid to keep sending, even when you get rejections and passes. If you have written the absolute strongest book that you can and you’re proud of it (see #3), you have nothing to lose by knocking on more doors. Reasons for passing, whether objective or subjective, are always specific to the passing agent. What holds true for one might not hold true for a dozen others, and you’ll never know if you don’t at least try.

Good luck! *blows past/alter self a kiss*

Advertisements

Who should I submit to? – How To Research Agents and Target Submissions

Since I’m getting ready to query a book, I’ve spent the last several weeks combing through query and agent resources and selecting my own top candidates. In this post I’ll share some of the helpful things I’ve learned.

First, a full list of resources. I’ll explain more about what they are and how they can be used below.

Resources:

Julie’s Method

When first building your list of potential agents, I recommend using AgentQuery and QueryTracker, which allow you to search for agents by the genres they represent. This allows you to compile an EVERYBODY list from the get-go, so if your top choices don’t work out you still have a huge pool to choose from right at your fingertips.

Another great thing to do at the beginning is to search Twitter using the hashtag #MSWL. Sometimes agents tweet very specific things they’d like to see in stories, which they mark with the acronym MSWL (Manuscript Wishlist). This might help you earmark a few agents to investigate more closely as potentials, or you might even find the perfect match! Also worth noting, the MSWL movement is not unique to Twitter. If your work is high concept, try Googling “MSWL + [keyword(s) that describe your novel]” and see if anything comes up on agent blogs!

Once you have a full list, whittle the pool down to your top choices. You might have a top 20, a top 10, a top 5. The important thing is to target your submissions to agents you think A) will be a good fit with your work–this book, and potentially future projects B) you would like to work with or C) both of the above.

I found the easiest way to focus the list down in the beginning (from 100+ agents to 18 in my case) was to read what agents were seeking. Represented genres are neatly listed on QueryTracker, but agent bios and interviews offer more specific insight. For example, QT might tell you that an agent reps both young adult and middle grade books, but their personal page might specify they want contemporary stories or are open to fantastic elements. Use available information to your advantage.

Once you have a narrowed list, begin deeper research. When you have your top [5-25] choices lined up, go deeper. Now is the time to check client lists (QT), sales history (Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery), career highlights (PM again), agent and agency reputations (Preds & Eds, Absolute Write), the agent’s personal pages (social media) and tastes (as reflected in interviews and the books they represent, which you can read summaries of on Goodreads). Form your own impressions of the agency by browsing their website, history, and the books and authors they represent.

Weigh all of these things carefully, and if you still need to tighten your list, consider these factors:

  • How experienced is the agent in question? A newer agent is more likely to be building their client list or accept revisions, but they have less to their name. A more experienced agent has a solid track record, but will be harder to interest since they’ll already have a substantial client list.
  • Does s(he) represent other genres/age groups you are interested in exploring in the future? If not, do they work with other agents who do?
  • What are your overall impressions? Does something on the agent’s blog impress you? What sort of vibes do you get from their Twitter feed? Does something they say in an interview make you jump up and down and go “AHHH, OMG, MY BOOK IS JUST LIKE THAT”? Information is an invaluable resource, but instincts can be just as significant. Trust yours.

What’s left? Submit. Wait. Repeat as necessary (though you may want to query in batches, and allow time for feedback to filter in so you can improve your material as you go).

Good luck!

 

On Doubt

The subject of doubt seems to be coming up a lot lately in my conversations with fellow writers and artists. I’m not sure why that is, but I know it’s an intrinsic part of the artist’s life and since I’ve experienced it quite recently I thought this would be a good time to reflect on some of the observations I’ve made about it. I’m always curious to hear how other creative types operate, too, so feel free to chime in with your experiences in the comments below!

Now, stop me if I’m being biased, but I think I’m pretty balanced of mind. I do my best to look at my work objectively, I welcome constructive criticism, and I don’t freak out when something doesn’t work– I think about it, and then I fix it. I approach creative challenges eagerly, with the mindset that there is a solution; I just have to work to find it. Meaning, I think I have an overall positive attitude in my work. I address what I can, and mostly that keeps me too busy to experience any more serious, hard-hitting doubts.

But there are times when they find me.

When they get in my head and under my skin and blacken my heart with their hollow, faceless terror.

So far these occasions have been limited. In fact, I count all of two:

1) When I decided to pursue writing and artistic efforts as a career. This, however, was not a short-lived doubt. Even knowing in the back of my mind since the second or third grade that I wanted to be a writer (and/or artist); even having funds from a previous job squirreled away; even realizing that no other work could ever be as satisfying to me as the creative livelihood, I struggled for a very long time to put both feet in the water and really give myself permission to pursue that life wholeheartedly. I’m talking months, maybe even more than a year since the time I began my first real attempt at a novel. I’m sure there were many reasons for that, but perhaps the easiest to point to is the simple fact of being a black sheep among peers. I’m in my twenties: my former classmates are in grad school or landing real jobs, getting married, buying houses, starting families. Me? I’m writing books. I wouldn’t have it any other way now, but it took some serious time, commitment, and effort to get to the stage where I didn’t just realize I had found the thing I loved; I accepted it, and embraced all of the outlier implications that came with it.

2) When I send out queries. Yeah. Notice that this one’s present and not past tense, because (at least, until I have an agent and actually sell something) I have a feeling that queries will be a perennial source of self-doubt. Up until the query stage I have been writing primarily for myself: indulging in artistic fancy, directing my work after my own vision. But once I come to the point where I must show the precious thing I have made to a professional whose opinion is tantamount to validation (or lack thereof), the doubts come thundering down: Is my opening right? Does the rest of the manuscript deliver everything it promised? Am I trying to do too much? Is this part cheesy? Is that part too complicated? Am I doing myself a disservice in submitting the work as it is now, utterly dashing all chances I have of finding representation?

It’s not even rejection I’m afraid of. I don’t take rejection personally and am content to revise/improve, then

Keep Calm and Query On

I think my real fear– the fear that swells up and can swallow me whole at times– is the thought that my book isn’t good enough.

Then I get a full request…

…and the doubts evaporate. Or, at the very least, I know I did something right.

SWEET RELIEF, I CAN BREATHE AGAIN

I think that’s how the majority of the artist’s doubts are: recurring, perhaps, but temporary. There will always be bad days. Days when we question our work or even our life choices. But there’s only one thing for it:

…And pretty soon life is beautiful again. Because you love what you do, and that’s all that really matters.