We’ve probably all read what seems like more than enough advice and information about querying. You and I both likely feel like it’s the last thing we want to either read or write about in a blog post. So why am I writing about querying again when I did that not just about three years ago but three weeks ago? Because I learned a few new things since then.
For the novel I’m currently querying, Woodbury Avenue (suspense, 90,000 words), I used the Fiction Writer’s Market to target agents. That sounds harsh. To “find” agents. I started with just agents in New York, which was 25. I sent queries to ten a few days ago. Why ten instead of all 25? Good question. Along with all the things you “should” do when querying, there are also some things you “should not” do.
- Agents know agents
Just as teachers know other teachers and plumbers know other plumbers, agents know other agents. They talk, have lunch, chat, email, semaphore, whatever. And sometimes the conversation is, “Hey, read any good manuscripts lately?” One of these times, the answer may be YOUR manuscript. If agent 1 mentions a few identifying characteristics of YOUR manuscript, and the other agent is also considering yours, how do you think they’ll feel? Not good.
Of course, it can happen. But the fewer queries you send at a time, the lesser the chance of that happening. Many writers include a line in their query that states “this is a simultaneous submission,” which would likely help, but it’s not foolproof. Send only 10 queries, wait a few weeks or a month to give those agents a chance to catch up. Then you can send out another batch of ten.
- Don’t embarrass yourself
Another reason to send only ten has to do with improving your query. You’re going to occasionally review (and if you don’t, you should) your query to see where you can tweak and improve it. Don’t worry, you’ll find something. Hopefully not a grammatical error. When you do find something, you’ll want to fix it, but what if you’ve already sent 50 queries? You’re going to feel like there are now 50 agents who think you’re a dope. Yes, let’s foster that paranoia. There are now 50 agents who are telling their ten agent friends about the dope who doesn’t know subject-verb agreement or how to use a comma properly. That’s 500 agents who hate you, who laugh at you, who can’t wait to email even more agent friends, ones they don’t even know, and share your query in that email blast about the dumbest queries they’ve ever gotten. Yeah, you’re included now. Happy? That’s what you get for sending too many queries at once.
- The strict word count isn’t so strict
The rules always say “keep your query to one page” and “keep your query to under 350 words” or something like that, but there’s now some wiggle room there. Most queries, hopefully all of yours and mine, are going to be emailed. I’m not sure about your email, but mine doesn’t really show pages. It’s just one long thing. It could be that agents would open an envelope, see two pages, and throw it away. I can’t attest to that, but I can attest to the fact that when someone is reading something they enjoy, they don’t really care how many pages it might be. Your email query might go beyond one page in MSWord, but it’ll really be one page in your email. You should still keep it in the area of one page or 350 words, but don’t fret over that. Say what you need to say, and revise it later if it helps you feel better.
- Start at the top
As previously stated, I’m starting this round of queries with only agents in New York. It’s generally assumed that agents in New York are better connected to the larger publishing houses, also in New York. If you have a choice between an agent in either New York or South Dakota, well, no offense to South Dakota, but I think I made my point.
Once I collect the expected 25 rejections from those NY agents, then I can move down the list to other states like Connecticut, New Jersey, California, etc. Although it’s impossible for you to ever know, it would be a real shame if you settled on an agent in Kansas and waited six months while he or she did nothing with your novel while there was an agent in NYC who would have loved your pitch but never had the chance to read it. Real shame. Let’s avoid that by starting at the top and working your way down. Yes, this is likely more optimistic than I deserve, but it’s still a good idea.
- Bother people, but good people
I thought my query was pretty good, so I sent it to a friend to read. He said, “I have a good sense of your characters, but I don’t see the story. I don’t know what the characters are going to do.”
Yes, I felt stupid. He was 100% right. I spent so much time crafting (not a fan of that word) the description of the characters’ backgrounds and motivations that I forgot the damn story. It didn’t matter that my MC was released after spending 10 years in jail for a murder he didn’t commit, not unless I also explain what he was going to do now that he was out of jail and rather angry and disturbed.
I was also having trouble getting my story down to something like a one-sentence summary of the plot, and then another friend nailed it immediately: “A brutal prison environment turned an innocent man into the monster everyone thought him to be.”
BAM! That was excellent, and it was nothing I was going to think of myself. It certainly helped that the guy who gave me this is also a law student. But it also helped that I was willing to ask. I didn’t bother him, I asked him nicely. I think. Hmm.
I’m clearly no expert on this, but I’m getting better. You can too, but nobody gets better at something unless they actually do it. We’re in this together, at least until I get an agent. Then I’ll be too busy for little people like you.