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An interview with querying writers


For the past few months, I've been actively querying a YA novel. Before I started, I did extensive research online, but the most valuable thing was hearing my writer friends share their experiences. That's what I'd like to do here: share my experience.


This isn't meant to be an advice post. Instead, it's a chance for people who haven't queried to see what the process is like. I invited people to send questions over social media, and because everyone's querying journey is different, I asked some other writers to contribute their answers. Their answers are honest and realistic; still, one thing that stands out is that none of us gave up after facing rejections. Any suggestions given are based on what works best for us.

 

First, introductions. What are you querying, when did you start (and finish, if applicable,) and how many queries have you sent?


Christina: I’m querying a 76k YA contemporary fantasy. I’ve sent about 65 queries from the end of October to the beginning of April. I’ve gotten three full requests, three partial requests, and 39 rejections plus 12 queries marked as “no response.” A few times, I was put on “maybe lists,” where the agent specified on Twitter that if you haven’t gotten a response, it means they’re considering your query more closely.


Bryn: I sent about 20 queries in spring of 2019 for a 124k word adult fantasy I quickly decided to shelve because I realized that I no longer wanted to debut with it, and couldn’t stand the thought of going through further edits with it if it was picked up. (I did receive a partial and a full request for it. I also somehow received rejections on a partial and two full requests. No, those numbers don’t add up. No, I could never figure out why.)


Since November of 2019, I’ve sent about 100 queries for a 98k word upmarket speculative fiction novel, and received a few partial requests along with about 10 full requests, five of which are still being read.


Bryn can be found on their website or on Twitter @DN_Bryn


Cog: I began querying my 82,000-word adult high fantasy/horror in March. I’ve sent about 30 queries as of mid April. So far, I’ve received 5 rejections.


Matt: I’m currently still line editing my second novel, but had queried with my first one, a 83,000-word YA Paranormal. That was in March 2017 and I (apparently) deleted most of the rejections I got, so I don’t have an exact number, but I sent around 40 to 45 queries and all of them were either rejected or didn’t get a response.


Matt can be found on tumblr @andtheotherwriter.


Hex: I sent out about 12 queries (of a planned 40ish) for a 109k adult fantasy in Feb 2017, which resulted in 1 full request, 1 partial, and the rest rejections or no response. However, three of the rejecting agents replied personally to say that they loved my query, but that the voice of the main character wasn’t strong enough for them to get fully immersed. One even gave a soft R&R (revise and resubmit) saying that she’d love to look at the manuscript again if I chose to polish up those rough patches. By then, I’d been working on the book for close to three years and was ready to move on to different stories, so I thanked everyone who responded and chose to end my querying after this first round. But by querying in batches like this, I was able to confidently say that my query was good, but the manuscript was unfortunately a product of much older writing and thus was never able to evolve in the same way.


In April 2019, I participated in #DVPit* with a 110k science fantasy and got some attention from agents and editors. I sent out a few queries to interested agents but got some personalized feedback about the worldbuilding being too dense in the first chapter. (Which is the same thing my writing friends and beta readers had said before. Listen to your readers, folks!) I’m currently doing an R&R on this project for an editor at a publishing house (!!!) who read the first 50 pages and was kind enough to give me some specific feedback on what changes they’d like to see. So fingers crossed on that one!


*DVPit is a Twitter pitch party specifically for marginalized authors. During a Twitter pitch party, writers tweet short pitches with the appropriate hashtag, and agents/small presses like them to show they’re interested.


Hex can be found on tumblr @hextracellular.

 

If you are still querying, how long do you plan to continue? If you’ve stopped querying, what helped you know it was time to stop, if you feel comfortable sharing?


Christina: Since I’ve gotten positive responses, I plan to keep going until my next WIP is ready to query or until I run out of viable options. I’ll admit, I’ve slowed down in sending queries, mostly because of life circumstances, but partially because I’m wondering if my next WIP would make a better debut.


Bryn: I plan to keep querying my current manuscript until I no longer have agents who I’d be interested in working with, which is about 20 queries down the line from where I’m at now. I wrote a whole article about why I shelved my first querying attempt, and you can find that here.


Cog: I’ve not decided yet … likely I’ll continue querying until I’ve exhausted the list of agents that would be a good fit for my book.


Matt: I’m gonna be honest - I just gave up. I’d heard that some authors had to sent over a hundred queries until they got an offer, and I was determined to send at least a hundred as well, but the problem was that (1) I struggled mentally with all those rejections. So hard so that I even decided to give up writing, because I wasn’t getting anywhere with it. (Plot twist: I started writing again after a few months.) And (2) I hadn’t properly researched how to query. (Apart from that, neither my novel nor I as an author were ready yet.)


Hex: I mentioned this in the previous answer, but I realized that my first novel was full of old writing that would require a total rewrite to fix, and after working on it for so long, I wasn’t ready to jump back into edits. I still had agents I would have been thrilled to work with, but when it became clear agents liked my query and were reading my manuscript, I knew the only thing that would get me an agent was reworking my book. And as I said before, I just felt burned out. I think when I start querying again, I’ll take Cog’s approach and exhaust the list of agents I would be happy to work with/who I think would be a good fit for my book.

 

What materials did you collect before starting?


Christina: A query, synopsis, one-line pitch, plus a list of agents to start with and of course, a polished manuscript.


Bryn: I did all the same as Christina. I will say: make sure that as you start filling out the extra questions on querytracker (these questions ask for things like target audience and extended comp lists) that you save those answers somewhere because a lot of agents use the same ones and you can reuse them!


Cog: Before I began querying, I had my polished novel, a query, a synopsis, and a bio. I quickly realized I needed a pitch, target audience blurb, etc. (What Bryn said about saving the questions you enter in the query forms.)


Matt: I had a query, bio, synopsis, and a polished manuscript. I can’t remember having needed a one-line pitch, but I’m going to prepare one for my second novel.


Hex: Aside from a spreadsheet with all the agents I wanted to query, I had a query (with a short, 2-3 sentence bio) and a synopsis for my first time querying. One agent asked for a one line pitch, which I had to come up with on the spot. I never wrote a paragraph pitch and no agent asked for one as far as I can remember.


For #DVPit, it was pretty much the same (query + synopsis) except that I also had a Twitter pitch (since it was a Twitter pitch contest).

 

Other than scrolling through Twitter, is there an effective way of finding personalization information about agents such as their MSWLs*?


*MSWL is short for manuscript wishlist. On Twitter, agents sometimes tweet using #MSWL


Christina: I definitely search agents’ MSWL tags on Twitter, but I also look on their pages at manuscriptwishlist.com. Querytracker.com will sometimes link other resources for individual agents. Other than that, I’ll see if they have information posted on the agency’s website, or on their individual websites.


Hex: I definitely recommend #MSWL (mswishlist.com compiles these Tweets and has categories for agents, though I’m not sure how complete it is), manuscriptwishlist.com, and agency/agent websites. One other thing I like to do is Google “agent name interview” because a lot of agents talk about favorite tropes, pet peeves, and what they look for in a manuscript in interviews. I’m not sure I would reference the specific interview in a query because it might come off a little creepy (hey, agents are people too!), but a generic “You’ve mentioned you were looking for more X and Y” might work.

 

How many agents is it wise to send queries to at once?


Since “wise” is subjective, let’s talk about our process for sending queries. How many queries do you send at once?


Christina: At the beginning, my plan was to send them ten at a time, but I realized that wasn’t realistic because the response times were all different. Now, I send queries whenever I can. Sometimes I’ll organize myself to send a bunch in a single day; other times, I’ll send a random one on a whim. The bottom line is that the more queries I send, the more chances I have of finding someone who will fall in love with my book.


Bryn: I knew from the start with my current manuscript that there was nothing I would want to change about it (or about my query), so sending queries in batches felt redundant. So, I set out to query as many agents as quickly as I could. I did break my original list into two parts though, so I sent about 45 queries in November, and then another 30 or so in January, and now I’m just querying agents at agencies that allow you to query a second/third/etc agent after the first agent passes.


Cog: There’s no rhyme or reason. I sent out an initial batch of about 15, and I’ve been adding to it when I feel like it (typically every Sunday). The thing about querying is that it takes many, many weeks for most agents to respond, and if you wait until all the responses have come in before sending out another round, you’ll be at it for a long time.


Matt: I’d sent out all of them at once, basically. (It probably took me a week or so until I’d sent all of them.) When I start querying my second novel, I will just send some out when I can make the time or when I feel like it - it’ll come down to three to five a week probably. (I was originally planning on sending them in batches and then tweaking my query/synopsis/etc. if I don’t get requests at all, but that shouldn’t happen since I’m aiming for a high-quality query to begin with. ;-))


Hex: For my first project, I sent queries out in batches of about six at a time, making sure to include agents who had faster response times or “no response after X weeks means no.” That way I could get some “feedback” on my queries before I started querying in earnest. After getting a full request, I cautiously sent out six more to gauge the pool, which ultimately led me to my decision to stop querying. But in general, this is the approach I take or plan to take in the future. I send about 6-7, wait for a few bites (not all responses! As Cog said, you could be waiting up to six months for that), and then send some more. If at some point I were to start getting positive responses that indicate rejections are a matter of taste and not necessarily a major flaw in the manuscript, I might up that to 10-15 at a time. (There’s also advice floating around out there about the etiquette of continuing to query after you get an offer, but that’s another topic in itself).

 

What is something super important to include in a query letter?


Christina: A clear, 2-3 paragraph blurb of your story that’s specific about the inciting incident and stakes. The last thing you want is to be vague.


Cog: What Christina said, but I’ve also been including a “I’m interested in your representation because …” line. Not sure if it’s getting me anywhere.


Matt: What Christina and Cog said. I think the blurb is the most important thing, but I’ve heard a lot of agents say they want to be addressed personally so they can see the author has done their research and has really looked into what the agent represents. (I’m not sure but I’ve also had the feeling comp titles* are very important to include, even if it doesn’t say to include them in the submission guidelines.)


*A “comp title,” also called “comparison title” or “competitive title,” is a recent book that is similar to yours to help give a feel of where it would fit on shelves. Sometimes, people use movies and TV shows as comp titles, though they should include at least one book to show where yours would fit on shelves. Think: Readers of ____ and ____ would enjoy my book. They're typically included in a query.


Hex: I think the stakes of the story are imperative for the making of a good query. Try to show your protagonist between a rock and a hard place, so to speak. As they say, conflict is the soul of story! A query is meant to entice, so you don’t have to try to cram your entire plot and ending into 250 words. Distilling it down into the heart and central conflict (plus some intriguing aspect of worldbuilding) not only helps me write the query itself (and keep within the word limit), but it also gets immediately to the “why the reader should care” of the story.


I also agree with Matt that comp titles are starting to become more and more important in queries, and are pretty much essential in Twitter pitch contests due to the sheer volume of entries. General guidelines are to use books that sold fairly well in the past five years--huge bestsellers and film/TV are generally not recommended (if your only comps are non-written media). For #DVPit, since I felt the Twitter pitch format was a bit less formal, I used an anime series and a fairly well known adult science fantasy in the pitch. However, I stuck to only book comps in the query itself. In addition, many agents are fans of TV series and films and reference them in their #MSWL, so again, these guidelines vary from agent to agent.

 

What's a warning you'd give about querying?


Christina: That getting responses can take forever. And sometimes, when you wait forever for a response — especially on a partial or full request — you start to get your hopes up. What helped keep me distracted was working on another WIP that I fell in love with while sending the bulk of my queries.


Bryn: It’s very likely that querying will feel like it’s crushing your soul at times. It might make you doubt everything you loved about your manuscript. It might make you feel like you’re the only one who’s being rejected and no one else can possibly know how much it hurts. Always remember these two things:

  1. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean your manuscript is bad, it just means it wasn’t the perfect fit for that one agent.

  2. You are very, very brave for putting your heart and soul out there over and over again despite the risk.

It takes a lot of courage and perseverance and a dose of luck to get an agent. Even if the book you first try to query doesn’t get you where you want to be, don’t give up. Believe in yourself.


Matt: Getting rejections will hurt. I was always good at denying things so I acted like it didn’t affect me that the manuscript I poured my heart and soul into for several years was getting rejected by every agent I sent it to (which was due to a lot of mistakes on my part, but still). And then I had a little meltdown when I realized that it did affect me and everything came crashing down on me at once. Won’t happen again. I agree with what Bryn says: Just because it doesn’t work out the first time, or second, or even third, doesn’t mean it will never work out. As I was ten pages into writing my second novel it was apparent how much I’d grown as a writer compared to the first novel which I’d started writing at 15 years old, knowing jack shit about writing. (Plus, there is a much larger market for what I wrote now than for what I wrote back then.) Even if you have the skill, you still need luck and perseverance. Since you can’t influence luck so it comes down to what Bryn said: Don’t give up. Believe in yourself.


Hex: For me, the silence hurt the most. It felt like I was shouting into the void, and even rejections felt like at least someone was reading my work. Unfortunately, this is just part of the game. A full third of agents may never respond to your query, even if they don’t have a specific “no response means no” clause on their website or guidelines.


Also, there is nothing quite like your first time querying. The emotional buildup, the hope, the feeling of being rejected over and over...it’s a lot, and you’re not alone if it hurts. I couldn’t look at my first manuscript without flinching for almost six months after, and this was after I decided to stop querying in spite of some positive responses. I thought I was emotionally ready for querying -- I read endlessly about how to write a good query, I participated in query critiques (shoutout to r/PubTips, which is a great subreddit for getting query crits and advice), looked at countless examples of successful queries, and told myself that I didn’t expect anything out of this. And it still hurt. I’m not sure anyone who loves their work is ever fully emotionally ready, so go in with realistic expectations and give your book the best chance you can. There’s a reason we call it the query trenches!

 

How important is it to have a pre-existing fanbase for the book you're querying? Does it make a huge difference or is it still just the writing that's important?


Christina: Unless you’re Famous(™), having a social media following isn’t relevant to fiction queries.


Bryn: Fanbases are very important for nonfiction, but practically pointless for fiction. Almost all works of fiction that are picked up by agents have little to no fanbase. The only thing your agent will want to see is that you do have the technological skill to use one form of social media so they can take advantage of that in the future. (As a side note, I’ve had agents and editors tell me not to include any of my own social media or fan following related things in my bio, but you can definitely include a twitter account name or website after your signature if that account is professional and writing related, and a few agents will even ask for that as part of your contact info!)


Hex: As far as I know, having a fanbase doesn’t mean much for fiction queries unless you’re very Famous as Christina said. (Think millions of subscribers.) As Bryn said, many authors have almost no fanbase at the time of being agented. Spin a good yarn, and you will find your audience.

 

How to balance writing a book for you (as well as the market/industry/audience) and the "damn but if I do this it'll make thing so much harder when I query!" anxiety?


In other words, how do you balance writing with traditional publication in mind vs. writing for yourself?


Christina: I don’t know if there’s an answer to how to balance writing for yourself vs. writing to get published, but here’s what I did. While I was working on my first WIP, I started doing research on publishing, but it made me focus on the wrong things. I decided not to worry about it until I had a polished manuscript, so I wrote a book I would want to read.


I wrote the first draft of my second WIP while querying my first. I still wanted to write a book for myself, but by this point, I couldn’t ignore the research I’d done. I didn’t write the content for the market, but I did some things structurally that I thought might help me later.


First, I set up the book so it was more “pitchable.” (At least I hope it is.) The tagline includes an easily recognizable trope (rivals to lovers) and my characters’ situation is easier to explain. I haven’t started revisions, but when I do, I’m making it a point to pay attention to where my 10th page lands. Agents ask for different sample sizes, but “first ten pages” is pretty common. The first ten pages of my first WIP end at a weird point, and I don’t think any of my requests came from queries asking for the first ten (they either asked for more or less.)


Cog: It isn’t a practical approach, but I’m writing for me and will always be writing for me. If I can find an agent that is as interested in my stories as I am, excellent! If not, that’s alright. The only aspect I’d be willing to change for querying purposes is the introduction, because having something exciting happen in the first 5, 10, 15 pages won’t really change the story I want to tell. That being said, I’m all about action, excitement, and pizzaz, so this the first bit tends to be very flashy anyway.


Bryn: I don't have a "this is what you do to make your hopes and dreams all come true at once" answer for this—I don’t think there is one. If you’re trying to turn a story into something slightly more marketable though, try to find comps for it before you write it. If you can't find any comps, then you can still adjust something that will get you at least one solid comp, whether that thing is a part of the story (a trope, a concept, etc), or a tone, theme, or voice. You can also give yourself a leg up by writing your query as you write the story! (This will show you where you have stakes and pacing problems too, so it's doubly helpful.)


Keep in mind that you may very well be able to write your less marketable ideas later. Just because you can't debut with a certain story, doesn't mean you can never put it out into the world. And if you love, love, love a concept, then no matter how out of line with the market it is, there's still a small chance you could get an agent with it. There are agents looking for quirky or genre-bending stories in particular! It will likely be much, much harder to query an off-market story though, so go into it knowing that it'll be a tough road to travel and you're doing so because that's how much you love and believe in what you're writing.


Matt: When I started writing my first novel, I knew I wanted to become a published author. But first and foremost, I write what I want to write.


I also think it’s difficult to write explicitly for the market, because even agents will like different things. (Even though there are probably ideas that won’t be marketable at all as of now. That shouldn’t keep you from writing them. It’ll always come down to the same thing, no matter what approach: You write a story, it gets rejected by everyone, you write a new one, you try again. Until you get an offer. Which is not to say you can’t land a deal with your first novel. But in case you don’t.)


Hex: Everyone has great advice here. I would add that it’s helpful to read as much as you can in the genre you want to write. Not only will this give you good (and recent!) comps, but you’ll get an idea of what the existing market looks like for your genre and age demographic. (For example, spec fic in adult and YA can be very different in terms of what does well in tradpub!)


I feel like I’m generally on the side of “write what you love, and write it well.” Of course, things vary from agent to agent and editor to editor, but a common trend I noticed in my query experience is that publishing professionals reading your work want to 1) feel immersed in your world and 2) see a character with strong motivations who they can root for. From what I’ve read online and been told personally in this journey, what really sells a book is the ability to get lost in it. And unconventional tropes or approaches can work if this is true.

As for the second point, as an example, I got many kind words on my style, phrasing, and worldbuilding for the #DVPit project, but ultimately needed to work on clarifying and strengthening the character motivations. Why does the character want X, and what happens if they don’t get it? For many agents, character is the soul and the key to creating a compelling story. We all want stories that make us feel something.

 

I'd like to end by thanking everyone who sent in questions or provided answers! And to anyone planning on querying, good luck!

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