Today we move into the business-side of writing. It’s not really something you want to worry about until you’re done with your project, since you should never, ever query an agent until you have a finished book to send them. Trust me, it’ll look mighty bad if you happen to get a request for a full manuscript, and you don’t have one ready to go. But, once you ARE done, you can fret all you want about the worst part of being a writer: trying to get published.
I’m not kidding. It’s the WORST. I love writing, and I’m sure I’ll love being published. But that in-between is full of so much stress and heartache. For me it involves a lot of crying and eating my feelings.
Okay. First step: writing a query.
Queries are fucking horrible to write, mostly because you have to condense an entire book—something you have been working on for years, probably—into just a few paragraphs. It’s really, really hard. There’s a ton of advise about queries online, so I’m just going to outline a couple of the major points that all of those websites touch on.
Some Pretty Major Rules:
- The most important thing to remember when writing a query is that it is a BUSINESS letter. You are ASKING FOR A JOB. The job is being someone’s author, so, yeah, that’s kind of weird, but if you think of it from that angle it’ll be easier to resist some of the weird things it seems writers do in queries. I’ve been to some conferences where agents talk about what not to do, and their examples were ridiculous/horrifying/wtf/whothoughthatwasagoodidea
- Do not write as your character/in “voice.” As in, “Hi! I’m Maisie and I’m 5! My friend [author’s name] wrote down my life story so far! It sure is great!” Apparently people do this. WTF.
- Do not rely on gimmicks. An agent during the above-mentioned conference said that she once received a fishing memoir shoved inside of a tackle box. It went in the garbage unread. Some agents said they received food, which also went in the garbage, along with the book the food was sent with. Luckily the almost overwhelming preference for email submissions these days should eliminate your desire to send creepy gifts to potential agents, but just in case: don’t do it.
- Email one agent at a time. Don’t CC every agent you want to query in one email and open it with “Dear Agent.” That’s like sending a mass text to 106 girls asking if one will go out with you. It doesn’t look too good. They know you’re querying other people, but it’s still rude.
- Remember to include things like title, genre, word count, aka “the business stuff.”
- Make sure you read an agent’s website thoroughly to determine if they represent your genre BEFORE you query them. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if you send a scifi space opera to someone who only represents historical romance and memoirs about cat ladies.
- Additionally, make sure you read their submission guidelines. Some agents want just the query. Some want the first 10 pages. Some want a full first chapter. It varies, so pay attention.
- Need I say it? Yes. SPELL CHECK BEFORE YOU HIT SEND.
As for actually writing the query, there are some great resources out there. My favorite is Query Shark. The Shark has actual authors send in their actual queries and then rips them apart so that others can learn from it. Read all of the archives. Submit your own, if you’re brave enough. This one helped me a lot with my first-ever query.
Another useful tool to have when querying is a synopsis of the book. It usually goes into more detail than the query (thought not a LOT more, it’s not an outline). I actually tend to write the synopsis first (because I find them a smidge easier) and then use key parts of it to write my query. By the way, I like writing queries even though I now have an agent. The query I wrote for the current book I have out on submission was used for my agent’s pitch to editors. YAY.
I stumbled across this AMAZING site when trying to write my first synopsis, and it helped so much that I refer to it every single time I have to write one, in order to refresh my memory. It uses Star Wars as an example, and seeing such a familiar story written in synopsis form helped me to see which parts of the story I should highlight in my own synopsis and query. How to Write a 1-Page Synopsis
Just like with writing a novel, the hardest part of the query or synopsis is knowing where to begin. Personally, I like the “when” opening. “When so-and-so does such-and-such, blah blah blah happens.” <–Look how helpful my examples are!
Once you have a query and a synopsis, who the hell do you send them to? There are many resources at your disposal. There are books like the Chuck Sambuchino Guide to Literary Agents (they put out a new one every year with updated information). The Writer’s Digest Twitter account highlights new agents and specifies what kinds of manuscripts they are seeking (just as an aside, new agents are great because they’re actively building their lists). You can also just Google things like “literary agents horror” or “literary agents contemporary YA” and see what comes up.
When I was querying, I started out by making a list of my top 10 or so choices. Then I sent queries out in batches of 2 or 3, thinking that if I got rejections with feedback, it would be good to be given the chance to revise some things before querying anyone else. Once I ran through my top 10, I made a list of 10 more. You may have to query a LOT of agents. And there’s nothing wrong with that, so don’t go feeling all bad about yourself if you do! Agents are picky, because they’re going to have to live with this book and author for a while. Just as you shouldn’t feel bad about dating a lot of people before finding “the one,” you shouldn’t feel bad if it takes many tries before being “chosen” by an agent.
Lastly, make sure you research your agents, either before you query them or after they make you an offer of representation. YOU have to live with THEM, too, and if they like your current book a lot but HATE scifi space operas and you were totally planning on doing a 5-book scifi space opera series after your current book gets published, that may not be the agent for you. Look at their blog/Twitter/whatever if they have one. Know their tastes so that you don’t have any unpleasant surprises when it comes to future projects.
Remember that just because you receive an offer does not mean you have to take it. If you decide that this agent isn’t right for you, that’s okay. Feel free to ask them questions, talk to them about your future projects to see if they’re interested in what you will be working on next, talk about their expectations for you and ask them questions about themselves. An agent might represent you for your whole writing career, if you’re lucky, and you want to make sure you two jive in a positive and creatively-enriching way.
One last thing: when you get rejected (and you will—there’s even going to be a post about this in the next few weeks), do NOT reply to tell the agent that they are wrong, or stupid, or etc. I only recently found out that people do this, and it’s fucking horrible. Agents (and editors) reject for a bajillion different reasons. It’s not personal. It’s BUSINESS. An extremely subjective business. And here’s the thing: it’s also a pretty small industry. Agents and editors talk to one another. If you’re a nightmare, good luck getting an offer EVER. If you’re going to reply at all, simply thank them for taking the time. Or better yet, don’t reply. They’re busy, and I’m sure the last thing they want is another email cluttering their inbox.