Making A Book - Querying

Continuing to recreate my Making A Book series from memory, I'm going to skip over something rather crucial: WRITING. Now, I could spend weeks writing about writing. We could wax poetic about process and talk about craft, but there are others who have done that better than I. My best advice to you about writing: Tell the fucking story. When you're rough-drafting, just write the story. Get it out and polish the hell out of it in editing.We're going to skip forward past the writing to the next step. You've written a book. You think it's so awesome you want to get it published. Visions of book tours and movie deals dance in your head. So you dash off a query letter to the first literary agent you find in the phone book, convinced that your path to stardom begins now. Hold on there, Shakespeare, there's some stuff we need to talk about first.

Before You Query

  • Edit - You are not going to knock it out of the park on a rough draft no matter how talented you are. Every story can use editing passes--yes, plural--to look for grammar/word choice issues, plot holes, characterization issues, voice, pacing and a plethora of other blemishes on the face of your ingenue. Take the time to really read your work from an objective place and do some editing.

  • Beta Readers - Like the world to a Bond villain, your eyes are not enough. You need fresh perspective. You need readers. Some people use their friends, but this can get messy if you pick the wrong friends. You need people who will be brutally honest with you rather than blow smoke up your ass. It's the only way you're going to improve. So, what do you do? Well, you can shop online for some. Twitter, the Water Cooler and other writers' resource sites have forums that offer beta reading. For me, I started with thinking about what I needed. I needed the perspectives of readers--people who know their way around a book store and can't live without a book in their hand. My beta readers--fondly referred to as Attack Fish--are amazing people. Some of them are writers, too, some are just avid readers with a good sense of what works and what doesn't. Some are men, some are women. They range over many demographics. I also try to pick someone who normally *doesn't* read in my genre just to act as a control of sorts. Regardless of how you find them, betas are essential. You know the voices in your head pretty well at this point. You know your vision for the story. If you were just writing to hear yourself talk, you would be enough. But if you want to see if your story connects with readers and communicates what you're trying to get need extra eyes. You need someone in your corner who will tell you when you're a bum and a punk, but also someone who will tell you to eat lightning and crap thunder. You need a Mickey.
  • Edit More - Take what your betas say and improve on the original draft. Polish your manuscript until it shines, but be careful not to pull a George Lucas and tweak your work to the point of soullessness.
When You Think You're Ready To Query
  • Sleep on It - No, really. Step back for a few days and let the adrenaline run its course. Come back to it with a more rational mind.
  • Think about what your career goals are. Do you want to just publish a book? Or do you want to be an author? Think about what it is you want out of this deal. Your goals may not be inline with traditional publishing. You might be better suited to self-pubbing. (From here on, I'll be talking about traditional publishing because that's what I'm familiar with. Self-pubbing is, at the moment, not conducive to my personal goals.)

  • RESEARCH - I cannot stress this enough. Research research research. Use online resources, friends, colleagues, any thing to get to know everything you can. Follow writers, agents and editors on Twitter or read blogs. Use websites like the Water Cooler or Book Country. Learn what genre standards are. Did you write a 300,000 word YA paranormal steampunk romance? Chances are, you need to trim it down. Find out what agents represent your genre. Do not send someone who specializes in non-fiction your regency romance. Use sites like QueryTracker and Agent Query to find out who represents your genre, what they're looking for and who they represent. Find their track record and vet them yourself. Use Writer Beware and Preditors and Editors. Use word of mouth.
  • Remember that you are not accepted by an agent, they make the offer and you accept or reject it. You are interviewing people for a job, in a way. This is your career. Yes, the agents are seen as gatekeepers into the industry and you're about to open yourself up to a world of rejection, but in the end you are looking for someone to do the jobs that you yourself can't/won't. An agent is a navigator and partner. Choose wisely.
  • Write Your Query - Again, use the Internet and online writers' communities to learn what goes into a query letter. I cannot recommend the QueryShark enough. Find out what works, what doesn't and write a letter in your own voice.
  • Write it Again - Just like your book, you need to edit it until this letter sparkles. Agents are looking for any reason to reject you and clean out the slush pile, so don't give them a reason.
  • Write a Synopsis - Sometimes an agent will require you to send a "short synopsis" of the book. This can vary from person to person, but what I've found is one page minimum and five is the absolute max, and that's usually for some Game of Thrones level intrigue. Hit the major points of your story, the big plot moments, and yes, you give the ending. No cliffhangers in a synopsis. The synopsis is often the bane of writers. It's really hard to condense a 300 page novel into two. But, think about this: If you can't tell this story succinctly and hit the salient points in a two page pitch, how well do you know your story? This is where you strip it down to its most basic parts. Your heroine, her motivations, the problem at hand and how she gets through on the other side. Bam. If you're having problems with your own synopsis, step back and try writing one up for your favorite book, movie or fairy tale. Often, writing a synopsis will help you hone your query.
When You Query
  • RESEARCH - But, Jamie, you say, I just did that. Do it again. Find the agents you want to query and review their submission guidelines. Those rules aren't there just to make you jump through hoops, nor are they there for the plebian masses. They're there for you to follow. If an agent asks for a letter only, do not send an attachment of the whole novel. Follow the guidelines. If you can't find them, Google harder. Talk to other writers. OR--and this is my favorite--ask. That's right. Ask the agent outright. They don't bite. Usually.

  • Organize - Find some way to keep track of what agents and agencies you've queried, dates and materials sent, requests and submission information. Me? I've got a spreadsheet set up with multiple pages. One is just a basic database of agents. Names, submission guidelines, agency contact info and any other tidbits (Twitter accounts, authors they represent that I know or know of, blogs, etc). I've got a separate page for the queries I've sent. I list the date sent, the materials sent (per the submission guidelines), agent and agency name. If I sent this agent one version of my query and tweaked it before sending it to another, I make a note of what draft I used. Keep yourself organized because after a while, names and dates start to cross.
If you're not the spreadsheet type, might I point you in the direction of QueryTracker. You can basically do the same thing with fun point-and-click interfacing. Plus, you can spend hours obsessing over the query response statistics of each agent. (Don't do this. It wastes time. Time you could spend writing.)
  • Relax - Yes, we live in awesome times. Used to be snail mail and months before you'd hear back on a query. Now, you can be rejected in less time than it takes to make an egg. However, even if some queries come back to you with rejections or requests in a matter of hours, don't expect all of them to do so. In fact, pack a lunch. Be prepared to wait. Do not hover over your inbox (I know this is far easier said than done. I've refreshed mine three times while writing this post.). Get out and live. Hug your family, drink with your friends, catch a flick, take a walk, knit a SOMETHING. Like many things in publishing, it is a game of "hurry up and wait".  There may be weeks where you don't get a nibble, not even a simple one line rejection that crushes your soul. And then there are some days where you get three requests. It happens. It can drive a person mad. I'm told. *twitch*
  • Keep Swimming - This part of the game sucks, to be perfectly frank. Rejections happen. A lot. Queries go unanswered and you're left to wonder, "Is this one a no-response a no? Or did my email get eaten by the spam filter?" There are days you want to tear your hair out, destroy your computer and stitch your fingers together so you can never do this to yourself or the world again. But keep going. This is what you want, right? Do what it takes to get there.
A lot of people bemoan the query process. It's archaic, it hasn't caught up with the digital age, it's annoying as hell because blah blah blah. Sure, it might have its flaws, but the query process is what we have. It's like a butterfly needs to be a shriveled mess for a while before it can fly. Or a sword needs to get beat up and tempered before it can meet its potential. The whole dance of daring to put yourself out there on the block, rejection... it's necessary in our journey as legacy authors.
It doesn't always happen, though. Sometimes, you have to put a project on the shelf and re-evaluate. Did you get any hits off your query? No? Then your query needs work. Did you get partials, but no follow-up requests? Fulls but no offers? These things can all tell you something. Listen to the feedback you're getting. Does the query need to change? The manuscript? Or is it just time to try something else for a while?
If you find yourself staring down the barrel of an agent offering you representation, don't jump right away. Graciously thank said agent and ask for a few days to think, hang up the phone and squee your brains out. Get that out of your system, have some chocolate and hug your family. Because now, it's time to get to work.
And that's where we'll pick up next time.