Querying

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I sometimes get the impression that beginning writers think of agents and editors the same way I used to imagine the SAT folk, as twisted little goblins giggling in glee at the thought of tripping us up on our answers.  I can promise that agents and editors are not huddled up waiting to pounce in the first mistake you make in your submissions.  In fact, what keeps us reading submissions is the hope that we have every single time we dive in that we’ll find our next bestselling or award-winning author among the offerings.  We read hoping to love.

That said, I’m sure you’ve heard time and time again about how many submissions publishing professionals receive.  (Since we’re nearing the season, let me ask—do you remember the ending of The Miracle on 24th Street where the postal workers bring in all the mail from the dead letter office addressed to Santa?  Well, it’s like that.)  So, it can be difficult to stand out in the right way.  You want to make sure that what we notice is your work and not your typos or that you’ve misaddressed your query to one of our competitors.  You work months and months, maybe even years, on your manuscript, you don’t want to get overlooked because you were so impatient to rush it out the door that you spent too little time on your query.

Here are some general “rules” for querying that will hopefully help your submission rise to the top. (Remembering that we’re not gremlins but simply very busy people.)

#1) Do your research. Here are some great places to go when compiling a list of appropriate agents to query:

The Association of Authors’ Representatives – Not all good agents are members and not all member agents will be right for you, but representatives who belong to AAR must subscribe to a canon of ethics (viewable here) and can be censured if they’re found in violation of the canon.

SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) Author Beware site — This site lists known publishing scams as well as what to watch out for to avoid those as yet unidentified.

Preditors and Editors — lists agents (alphabetically by first name) and gives you a bit of information, like whether they’re known to have made legitimate sales.  Preditors & Editors has pages here for publishers, contests, conventions and various other things as well.

If you’re a member of a writers organization like SFWA, MWA (Mystery Writers of America), HWA (Horror Writers of America) or RWA (Romance Writers of America), chances are they have a list of publishers and agents they’ve vetted within their fields.  You might also look in the acknowledgements of authors to whom you would compare yourself.

#2) Continue your research by checking out the publisher or agency’s submission guidelines.  Some are very specific about what they want or how they want material submitted.  They may also have specific times of the year when they’re open or closed to submissions.  This information will very likely be on their websites.

#3) While you’re doing all of this research, hone your submission material.  Your query letter should be one page, just like any cover letter, and about four paragraphs long:

Opening: For example, I’ve written an epic fantasy novel of approximately 100,000 words entitled XXX.

Summary of the work: Think back cover copy.  This would be a teaser that hits the high points of the plot and the main characters.  Remember that this should intrigue us, so you don’t want to boil it down to the point that it sounds generic.  Let us know how it’s original—not by telling us that its original, but by bringing those unique elements to the fore.

Bio: Tell us a bit about yourself.  Do you have previous publications and/or award nominations? Did you major in or work in a field relevant to your work in any way?  If not, is there something intriguing in your background that might pique our interest?

Close: I look forward to hearing from you.  Many thanks in advance for your time.  (Or something to this effect.)

Note: If you’ve enjoyed the work of any of their authors or benefitted from any interviews or articles they’ve done, you might want to mention this as well—not because they’ll be swayed by flattery, but because they’ll know you’ve really done your research.  If you’ve met an agent or editor and he or she has invited you to submit, this is definitely something you’d want to mention right up front.  Also in that case, you’d write “Requested Material” on the envelope if it’s a hardcopy submission or in the subject line if it’s e-mail.

#4) Once you’ve got your query letter written, have someone else read it.  Accept criticism with an open mind.  Revise, polish and proof.

#5) Rule #4 applies for your synopsis as well.  It’s very difficult to boil your story down into a synopsis.  You might include too much information or not enough.  You’re definitely going to want another set of eyes on it.  Lather, rinse and repeat…er, I mean, revise, polish and proof.  (This should become a mantra.)

#6) Remember those guidelines?  Stick to them.  Don’t decide that you’re special and they don’t apply to you.  Really.  I mean it.

#7) Persevere.  Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged and don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Get this submission out, then get your mind off it by starting work on something else.  It’s a rare author who sells right out of the gate.  If an agent or editor says that they’d be interested to see the next thing you write, make sure that’s an option.  Learn from the personal rejections you receive; it’s meaningful when we make time to offer them.

#8) Have a support group.  A good writers group or critique partner is priceless.  They’ll not only help you hone your work, they’ll commiserate with you in tough times and cheer you in victory.  Writing is so solitary that you can easily lose perspective.  It’s good to have others around you as both touchstones and sounding-boards.

#9) Enjoy the journey.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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10 comments to Querying

  • Thanks, Lucienne, for this straight-forward approach to queries. Too often emotions get in the way of these types of posts and I always fear beginning writers turn a mountain into a snow-capped, mountain range with witches flying around black castles guarded by orcs. Your list keeps things simple and clear. Thanks.

  • Great advice. One to bookmark, folks!

  • Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, beloved Agent ‘O Mine. Hope you have a great day. Terrific post. I think #7 is particularly valuable. I know of too many aspiring authors who write something, send it off and then wait. Your approach makes much, much more sense.

  • Debbie K.

    Very clear and specific. Bookmarking this for all my friends who ask about the process and who don’t want to end up on slushpilehell!

    Lucienne, what about the process after the query? Not the waiting etiquette, but what to do when you’ve got a query out to an agency for representation and get an editor request for a full on that manuscript? (One of mine won a Maggie at M & M and the editor requested the full.)

  • Happy T-Day, Lucienne!
    Killer list!
    I’m with David about number 7.
    Now I’m gonna go take a nap.

  • Great post Lucienne. Gives hope and direction for those of us still in the “seeking representaion” trenches. I like alot of us forgot those basic things- especially number 9 😉

    Thanks and Happy Thanksgiving!

  • Debbie, great question about after the query. Possible outcomes are more like a flow chart than an essay answer, really. Starting with the response, a “no” can take two different forms: a form or a personalized rejection. Primarily, we send out form rejections, because we simply don’t have the time to formulate individual responses every submission (see above reference to Santa’s mail bag). Every once in awhile, either because we’ve made a personal connection or because the material motivates us, an agent or editor will give a critique, which they’re hoping the querier will find helpful. In those cases, if the comments are especially complimentary and the critique resonates, it’s acceptable to recontact the agent once rewrites are done to find out if he or she would like to reconsider. Unless a project has been pretty significantly revised, however, it’s not advisable to query the same agent with the same work. Although some guidelines will say otherwise (thus it’s always important to check), it’s also not generally acceptable to query multiple agents within the same company. Ditto for editors.

    At the query stage, it’s understood that you’ll be making multiple submissions. However, if a partial or full is requested, it’s a good idea to let the agent or editor know if it’s a simultaneous submission so that we’re not surprised down the line if you need to put us on hold to give someone else a chance to respond. If a publishing professional insists on a single submission (meaning they’re the only person to whom you’ll submit your material), they’ll let you know and it will be up to you to decide whether or not to grant that. It’s courtesy if someone does ask for a single submission that they expedite their reading so that you’re not held up for an unreasonable period of time and that if their response goes beyond that time frame, you’re free to submit your work elsewhere as well. Most agents I know don’t insist on single submission. Most major publishers won’t accept unsolicited material at all, but will insist that an author work through an agent. (However, they’ll generally accept submissions from people they’ve invited to query them at conferences, etc.)

    If you’ve gotten to the point where material has been requested, check the guidelines for response times. It’s fine to send a polite query as the response time expires if you haven’t heard yet, checking on the status of your submission. An e-mail is generally preferred to a phone call.

    Once an agent offers representation, there are all kinds of questions you can ask, from where they see your work fitting into the market to what revisions they’d suggest. You can also ask to speak with one of their current clients, in which case you’ll want to choose someone at about the same level you’re coming in (debut if you’re debut) rather than someone at the top of the list who will, of course, receive a great deal of the agent’s attention. If you’ve got your work out with others, you can feel free to ask the agent to hold that thought and give the others a chance to read and respond (something like a week), unless, of course, you already know that this first agent is the agent of your dreams, in which case you’d be putting the others through a rush read for nothing. If an editor makes an offer while your work is on submission to agents, you tell them to hold that thought, that you’re talking to a few agents, and then give those agents a call before you agree to anything. You should still settle on a representative enthusiastic about your work, but you really don’t want to go about negotiating your first contract on your own.

    Wow, you know, this is a whole other blog post I should probably tackle next month.

  • Debbie K.

    LOL, Lucienne! Just tweak this thoughtful, thorough answer and add a little. Voila, a new blog post. :)

  • Agent of my dreams…
    2 flavours:
    1. A jolly fellow or laughing lass, pushing a wheelbarrow filled with cash who shovels out massive stacks of wadded $100 notes because they are so happy and capable of selling even my worst work.
    and
    2. The above mentioned gremlin who cackles with glee at the opportunity to douse my work with kerosene. The resultant fire is then used to firstly roast marshmallows and secondly to toss handfuls of query letters.
    So I hope for number one but think the real agents are somewhere between.
    Thanks for the dose of reality.

  • Thank you, Lucienne. This is the best post I have read on this subject.