Polishing your manuscript, targeting agents, pitching your book … A walk-through the pitfalls of querying.
1- Finish your book
You think your book is finished? Chances are it’s not. Your draft itself is finished when:
- It’s been thoroughly critiqued by an experienced critique partner (you can find one, for example on the Critique Circle website, or, if you write romance, on Romance Divas – but you’ll need at least a hundred posts and two months of active membership to access the critique forum)
- It’s been read by at least two beta readers, and possibly edited accordingly. At this point, you’ve spent so much time writing your book that you can no longer trust your own perception of the manuscript. You need someone else—not your friends or family—to tell you what’s wrong with it (because there has to be something wrong, even the best writers have issues in their drafts).
I’d advise against sharing it on communities such as Wattpad: you want readers who will give you an actual opinion, not people who’ll tell you the book is so great/awesome/perfect . . . as a reward for having given them the same type of comment about their own work.
In your final draft, look out for :
Pace, plot issues & consistency, characters depictions (is the depiction clear, do you insist too much on certain characters traits and tell instead of showing, are there any clichés in your plot and inside your scenes?)
Having a somewhat clean manuscript, written in proper English, and easy to read. The best option is to hire an editor, but I know that not all authors might be willing to invest. Prior to querying, I worked with Devin Govaere, who helped me clean a lot of things in Spotless!
2 – Target your queries
Before I started looking for an agent, I read dozens of horror stories about how people who had sent 300, 500, 1000 query letters, about people who had spent ten years looking for an agent and so on …
Querying is hard work, but, honestly, if you’ve sent several hundred queries, you’re just doing it wrong: it means you’ve randomly emailed hundred of agents who might not even represent the kind of books you write, who might not even be in the business anymore. You probably queried dead agents! (At 1000+ queries, this last possibility is very real).
So narrow your market segment. Narrow, and narrow some more. And yes, that takes as much time as sending tons of queries, because it means you’re gonna have to check each agent’s bio and website in detail in order to understand what books they represent.
In my case, I was looking to sell a romantic suspense, so I limited myself to agents:
- Who represented romance or women’s fiction
- Had represented romantic suspense in the past, especially humorous ones
- Were open to submissions
- Appeared to be active on the market
- Gave me the impression that they’d be open to read something from a beginner (that’s important: if the agency fits all the other criteria but markets itself as a some NY Elite club only representing best-selling and super awarded authors, don’t waste your time: know your limits.)
So, in the end, I sent 6 queries.
Two agents never replied. I later discovered that one of them had simply forgotten to update her website: she was no longer open to submissions. Like I said, the more you know …
Two agents replied almost immediately to tell me that they weren’t interested by the story. It always stings a bit, but it’s better than no reply at all, and I thanked them for their quick response.
… And two requested the manuscript. According to my mailbox, querying took 45 days, and after that, I received an offer 19 days later. So, the whole process took a little over two months.
Target your queries, you’ll get there much quicker.
3 – Write a catchy, concise blurb
Yeah. I didn’t do that.
I think my own blurb did highlight the story’s premise properly, but it was definitively too long, and maybe that made me lose points.
It’s a very difficult exercise, because as a writer, you feel everything you wrote is important. It’s not. Much like the way you target the agents you’ll query by pruning dozens of names based on their preferences, you should prune your blurb until only what’s truly impacting (Time, place, original world setting) and relevant to the conflict is left.
If the hero is a billionaire werewolf accused of a crime he didn’t commit (God, please don’t write that, BTW …), then that’s what should be in the blurb, not how he became so rich and how he got arrested.
If he’s going to fall in love with the female werehedgehog lawyer representing him in court (Where the hell is this story going?!), that’s what you should focus on, no need to add layers about how she just broke up with her vampire boyfriend.
Unless he was abusive and will return to threaten their love and create conflict! (Sweet Jesus …)
So, make it catchy, to the point, and don’t be scared of skipping details, as long as the premise really highlights a fun conflict. BTW, if you struggle to write your blurb, it might also raise some red flags for the book itself (lack of conflict, overly complicated plot that only makes sense with tons of details …): never hesitate to share the product of your efforts and ask for fellow writers’ opinions.
4 – Don’t become bitter
Remember above, when I talked about writers who had submitted to hundreds of agents, waited for years, received very little feedback, etc. ?
The corollary to this situation is usually for the author to become super bitter. They become walking q-tips, writing endless blog posts about how agents despise writers, treat them badly and hate books in general.
There is certainly something to be said about the psychological impact of the querying process on a writer, about how we feel when reading that an agent will judge our entire book in 60 seconds by its query letter alone, but it is what it is, and much like professional killers, agents will tell you that it’s nothing personal.
This is still tough on the ego, and can undermine an author in a surprisingly short amount of time. First come the bitter rants, and the next stage, in many cases, is to turn to self-publishing.
Why not. But sit back and take some time to think about why you’d be doing this.
If you’re self-pubbing out of resentment, because you think agents missed on a great story and you’re gonna show them, you might be in for some serious disappointment. Maybe all those agents did effectively fail to identify a potential best-seller (if you want to nurse you ego regarding this point, the internet has many websites listing international best-sellers that were rejected many times over before rising to interstellar fame). But it could also be that the book wasn’t ready, in which case readers will be just as unforgiving.
See it that way: the agent didn’t reply, or replied with curt rejection that felt like a kick in the balls (“Kelly doesn’t appeal to me as a character. I like my heroines with some brains.”), but at least, they’re not out there on Amazon giving you a one-star rating and claiming that Kelly’s lack of awareness throughout the book made them want to shoot themselves.
So grab something soft (a cat), something sweet (brownies!), sit back, relax, and don’t do anything rash (ie: firing back an angry email to the agent who said Kelly comes across as slutty in your book, or uploading the manuscript on Kindle Direct Publishing in a fit of blind rage and egotistical crisis).
BTW, I’m not advocating against self-publishing, here, but rather emphasizing that it’s an entirely different process and should be the result of a decision, rather than a reaction.
Also, if you want to spend some time in an agent’s head, I highly recommend Kristin Nelson’s blog: “Pub Rant”!
5 – You’ve got an agent? You’ve got nothing.
I know, that’s a very mean thing to say. What I meant by that is that, right after you get that email or that phone call confirming an agent’s offer to represent your book, you’ll be on cloud 9, and mostly unprepared for the stark realization that things are only getting started.
The submission process will be just as trying as the querying one, perhaps even more so, and while having an agent does change everything, it’s good to remember that nothing is done until a publisher offers you a contract. That could take months (it took three months, for Spotless), and you might have to make sacrifices, creatively speaking, and in terms of what kind of rights you retain on your book.
That being said, there might also be good surprises. In my case, Amazon’s offer for Spotless came at a time when I was a bit disheartened by the feedback we had gotten so far and what needed to be sacrificed in order to secure the potential offers we had: I no longer expected to hear someone say “I get what you’re trying to do and I’m willing to help you write it your way.”
In the end, my agent convinced an editor to let me write about killer platypuses. I live the dream.
As a conclusion, tough as it may be, the querying process is, I believe, more than worth it, and being agented opens many doors. So God speed to you all!