#AmQuerying: This Time It’s Personal

Posted: January 29, 2021 in Writing
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I’ve been here before.

My last novel, an Upper Middle Grade Fantasy, was the first book I ever seriously tried to get published traditionally. I queried well over 100 agents to that end, without much success. I’m now about a dozen queries into the process with my latest novel, ACTUALLY EVER AFTER, another Upper Middle Grade book. However this time, I have some experience under my belt.

What does it mean to “be prepared” to query? You might be surprised.

First, your manuscript

  • Finished! If you’re querying a novel, you can not query a WIP. Agents only consider completed manuscripts.
  • Polished! Do not send off a first draft. Do not send off a draft just read by your mother. Use alpha readers to review each chapter. Use beta readers to review your whole manuscript. Do a pass for consistency. Do a pass for grammar and punctuation. If you’re novel contains sensitive topics or you are writing about a culture other than your own, find or hire a sensitivity reader. Consult experts on your research.
  • Properly formatted. There are plenty of resources to define this, but basically, 1 inch margins, double-spaced, indent each paragraph, no spaces between paragraphs, start each new chapter halfway down the page, 12-point Times New Roman. Each page should have your last name and the page number in the upper right corner. There should also be a title page containing your contact information, your genre, and your word-count.

As hard as this is to accept, the manuscript is only the beginning. Querying means approaching individual literary agents with a pitch for your novel. But there are multiple ways to get agents’ attention. You may go to writer’s conferences and have an opportunity to talk to agents face-to-face. You make want to take advantage of the numerous Twitter pitch events throughout the year. In either of these events, you will want an “elevator pitch” to promote your novel. The standard for this is to describe the key theme, conflict, and plot of your novel in 35 words. For Twitter, you have total 280 characters (including spaces) to do this (however you need to leave around 12-18 characters for the required hashtags). And even if you don’t attend a single conference or intend to participate in Twitter pitches, you still want to develop your elevator pitch. Firstly, many agents specifically request one, but secondly (and more importantly) you want one. In order to talk about your book in a way that will entice agents, you need to be able identify the theme and conflict and express them in a couple of sentences.

This turned out to be a revelation for me when I began to query my last novel. Because I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t identify the key conflict — that one thing my hero needed to accomplish, and what would happen if she failed. It’s not that I was blind, it’s that it wasn’t clear in my story to begin with. It turns out this is a major problem and common stumbling block for new writers. It turns out (I learned way too late) you want to have this clearly in mind before you start writing your novel. You can decide this in the middle of writing your novel, too, or even after you have finished if you don’t mind going back and doing a major rewrite. It’s a lot like changing your major after three years in college, or right before graduation. You can do it, but it will take a lot of extra work and you’ll wish you had done it sooner. That’s what I did with my first novel, and I ended up doing several major rewrites in an effort to nail down a clear theme and compelling conflict The fact that no agent wanted to represent that book may be the results of my poor planning.

Here is the elevator pitch for my current novel:

One accidental wish and Clio and Mary are in 1507 Ireland, caught between Cinderella and her wicked faerie godmother. Strength and friendships are tested as the girls must choose between going home or saving Ireland.

And here is one of several Twitter pitches (I settled on 5, because most contests let you pitch multiple times over the course of several hours):

Yesterday Clio & Mary were ordinary 13yo girls. 1 wish later: Clio the faerie princess & Marigold the pixie are caught between Cinderella & her wicked faerie godmother, who’s bent on conquering Ireland. Strength & friendships are tested as they go to war. #PitMad #MG #HF #FTA

Once you have your pitch nailed down, you’re in a good place to begin writing your query letter. Because you want to express that same theme and conflict in a couple of paragraphs, but in such a way as to entice your agent-of-choice to want to read your book. There are many resources on the web for how to write a good query letter, and I could write several long blogs on various approaches, so I’ll leave that up to you. Generally, you want to keep it to 1 page, keep the actual pitch for your novel to 2 paragraphs (don’t give away the ending!), then a paragraph describing your audience and providing comps (books comparable to yours), and a brief biography of your writing experience and why you’re the best person to write the book you wrote.

Here’s where it get’s personal. A query letter shouldn’t be just a boilerplate you send out to every agent on your list, just substituting their name at the top. The best way to get an agent’s attention is to personalize your letter to that particular agent. Show you have done some research and chosen this agent for specific reasons, rather than just pulled their name from Writer’s Market. That means search the web for interviews they have given recently, check the Manuscript Wish List website. Manuscript Wish List a true godsend, and it comes in three flavors. Originally, it was a Twitter event where agents were invited to tweet what they were looking for under the hashtag #MSWL. Now, that hashtag is perpetually being used by agents to share what currently tickles their fancy or what they are on the lookout for. You can go to Twitter and filter by that hashtag, as well as by other hashtags such as #MG for middle grade, or keywords like horror or LGBT or pretty much anything else. Or, you can go straight to https://www.manuscriptwishlist.com and do the same thing. This site makes it easier, though. Things are organized there by keyword and by agent’s names, etc. This eventually evolved into the website I mentioned above, which is where many agents have a profile that details everything they want authors to know — their bio, who they represent, their wish list, their favorite books, and how to submit.

Use these resources! You don’t have to write a thesis on every agent you pitch to, but it helps if you include in your query a sentence pinpointing those specific things they said they were looking for which they will find in your book. For example:

I see from your wish list that you’re looking for fairytale-esque fantasy in a historical setting, and I hope ACTUALLY EVER AFTER fulfills your wish.

This shows the agent you went to some effort to seek him/her out and that your book should be a good fit for them. Both of these will be checkmarks in your favor.

But you’re still not done!

The Synopsis. Yes, the dreaded synopsis. This where you describe the entire plot of your book from start to finish, including the ending. The synopsis is not so much a pitch to sell the idea of your book, but to show that you know how to plot a story and that it hits all of the key elements of a story, as well as the tropes of your particular genre and age group. Some agents want it to be under 1,000 words (about 2 pages), and some require that it be under 500 words. Again, resources abound on the Web for how to so this.

NOW YOU’RE READY. I mean, there is always more you can do to prepare. Going back to polishing your draft, you want to give special attention to the first three pages, and especially the first paragraph. These are your first real impression, query letter aside. These can make or break a prospective agent’s interest, no matter how good your query. Also bear in mind that different agents or agencies have different submission requirements. Some request the first 3 chapters, others only the first chapter. Some ask for the first 50 pages, some want 25, while some ask for just the first 5. So, with that in mind, you maybe want to consider when you write not to leave the really good part for page 45. I knew this when I started my current novel, and made sure there was a really good gut-punch on page 3, and the inciting incident before page 20. Every little bit helps.

If you have queried before and have advice of your own, please share it. And good luck out there. KEEP CALM AND QUERY ON!

Comments
  1. Who knew that so much work was involved in pitching, eh? And here I got into this thinking that all I needed to do was write. But hey, I wouldn’t have it any other way still. Thanks for sharing about the pitching process!

    Like

  2. Bobbe Falin says:

    Hi, John, it’s good to see you back and querying again. So much information on this page, and all of it spot on!

    Lately I’ve seen Reedsy videos pushing for a two-line blurb to add to the mix. Another layer, but one that can help enhance your elevator pitch and maybe even replace it. At least one agent requests it on their automated query form. Congratulations on the new manuscript. I wish you well.

    Like

  3. Rick Ellrod says:

    Lots of good information here, John. Thanks!

    Rick

    Like

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