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Tips from the Query Trenches November 20, 2021

I finally finished Our Little White Lie and launched the long process of traditional publication with a flurry of query letters to literary agents. There's a lot of information about the querying process on the Internet, but I'd like to share some of my tips to make it as painless as possible.

The key things you'll need to have on hand for querying are:

  • A finished book
  • Resilience
  • A list of agents
  • Comp titles
  • A one- to two-page synopsis
  • Multiple versions of your pitch
  • Personalization
  • A short bio
  • Samples from your project
  • Patience

A Finished Book

Before you query, you need to have a finished book with a known word count ready, and the book must have good commercial potential. I don't mean the book must be good artistically, which is a different matter. For traditional publishing, the book must have the kind of concept that sounds like a hit in a single sentence.

Not every book is suitable for querying. My last novel, Lizzie Bennet's Diary, was not. Though I'm very proud of it artistically, I suffer from no delusions that yet another contemporary retelling of Pride and Prejudice with no sexy twists would sell. The only people interested in that premise are Austen fans who seek out all the retellings they can find, and that's okay.

Resilience

It's no secret that traditional publishing is soul crushing. Every book that hits the shelves had to break through a wall of "no, thank yous" first, and it's not a reflection of their quality. Even if you think you're emotionally prepared, you're industry savvy and know nothing is personal, getting rejection after rejection in your email inbox will suck more than you thought.

In the month after you send out your first batch of query letters, you'll never know when an unread email is just your electric bill, or a delivery notification for cat food, or a sucker punch to the gut that says, "I'm sorry to say your sample pages weren't as compelling as I'd hoped"—which is in all likelihood a form letter that doesn't mean anything, but it still feels like it means no one thinks you're good enough.

If you do get an agent, the soul-crushing doesn't stop. When your book goes on sub, editors will also reject it. Maybe everyone will reject it for reasons beyond any agent's or editor's control, and in the end the book won't get published unless you do it yourself. Maybe it will get acquired (yay!), but the advance will probably not be the quit-your-day-job money you imagined, but more along the lines of budget-vacation-in-Hawaii money. And no matter what, your life leading up to publication will be marketing, marketing, marketing, which is not what you thought you were signing up for when you dreamed of being a published author.

You need resilience to emerge from the publishing process without turning into a cynical, disillusioned ghost of your literature-loving self. Capitalism ruins everything. It takes proactive mental discipline to prevent it from ruining your writing.

A List of Agents

Once you've finished the grueling process of writing a book with commercial appeal, the grueling process of researching literary agents begins.

The number of agents out there today, and the amount of information you have to hunt down about each one to query them, can be overwhelming. In days of yore every public library had the annual Writer's Market in print, sitting on the bottom shelf of the reference section, and it listed most active agents and publishers in the United States and what they wanted. Now finding agents that would like your book is a multi-week Google deep dive.

Here are some of the resources I've found most useful for finding agents to query this month.

  • Manuscript Wish List: Agents and editors write profiles spelling out exactly what they're looking for, and often what they're not.
  • MsWishList: This website harvests a feed of tweets with the hashtag #MSWL.
  • Literary Agents of Color: A directory of BIPOC agents.
  • Poets & Writers Literary Agents Database: Not every agent is on Twitter, and this database contains the names of others you can filter by pretty granular themes.
  • QueryTracker: Unfortunately the advanced search filters are for "premium" members only, but you can do a basic search by genre and see comments from other writers about their interactions with an agent.

Google each potential agent and read whatever you can find. Crucial information can be buried in unexpected places. I've written down the names of agents I thought were perfect fits, but then I found an anti-wishlist on their website that specified they don't want any books about BIPOC trauma, or they said in an interview for a client's blog that they hate pitches with protagonists who are authors. Sometimes I've followed links to their YouTube channels, and from the videos they made about their working styles and what they're looking for in new clients, I knew we just wouldn't jive as business partners.

I write down every agent I find in a spreadsheet, with a comment explaining why they're a good fit (e.g., "Wants upmarket fiction for Millennials") to make query personalization less stressful later. I also started writing down why agents are not a good fit (e.g., "Category romance & SFF only") so I don't spot them in another #MSWL tweet later and look them up all over again.

Comps

Finding "comps" (competitive/comparable titles) is the hardest part of the process for me. If you Google "how to find comps for literary queries," the resulting articles will mostly emphasize the pitfalls: "Not too old! Not too popular! Not too obscure! Not too misleading! Not so perfect the agent thinks your book has nothing new to add!" Some well-meaning advice-givers will conclude you should try not to include comps at all, if you can help it.

But from what I've seen directly from agents' mouths and thumbs, comps are important and can't be skipped. Some QueryManager forms will have a required field for comps, or at least the closely related question, "What current titles do you see your book sitting next to on the shelf?"

There's no easy shortcut to finding good comps. The only way to find them is to read, and read, and read some more.

Look at the current bestseller lists. Google the titles and authors agents in your genre reference as favorites in their Manuscript Wish Lists. Go to your local bookstores and public libraries and browse the Hot Titles and New Books displays. Pick up books with the same aesthetic you'd want for your book, books with a similar tone, books with a somewhat similar setup. There are many different elements of books you can compare: themes, characters, settings, conflicts, writing style.

After reading everything with a pink, illustrated, or upmarket-looking cover I could find with Millennial characters and the themes of social media, coming of age, the complexities of multiculturalism, and lying about who you are, I eventually had a list of potential comps for Our Little White Lie to pick from:

  • THE VANISHING HALF - theme of BIPOC cutting off their own roots to be accepted by white people
  • BIG SUMMER - theme of young women misrepresenting themselves on social media for commercial gain
  • SUCH A FUN AGE - theme of the awkward tension between privileged white feminists who think they're progressive and the women of color they use without realizing it
  • BEACH READ - humorous tone and a protagonist who's a romance novelist

Not listed are the many others I hoped could be comps, but weren't quite right, like a book that was packaged as upmarket fiction that turned out to be category romance, and another packaged as a rom-com that turned out to be a literary family drama. The process was very frustrating, and I thought I'd never find a single title that could communicate the essence of my own book. But there are many, many more books in the world than you might think, and every topic has been addressed by someone. You just have to keep reading.

Synopsis

A good number of agents I've queried had a Synopsis field on their QueryManager forms. They didn't specify length, but one to two pages seems to be standard.

The synopsis is the "book report" version of your novel. It's not a play-by-play of every chapter, with every character and subplot. It's the key beats of your main story, with your characters' motivations for doing what they do and how their relationships change.

I'm the kind of person who reads the Wikipedia articles of movies before I decide to watch them, so I imagine agents use synopses the same way. A story can have a killer premise, but then it doesn't live up to its potential. Your synopsis shows how you took advantage of juicy conflicts to keep readers interested all the way through.

Multiple Pitches

Long Version

The traditional query letter was an actual letter, on actual paper. But no agency I've looked at this month accepts snail mail queries anymore. Agents aren't going through a literal slush pile of envelopes one by one at a desk in a New York office; they're quickly scanning a list of submissions during their coffee breaks in QueryManager portals or email apps. They're not necessarily opening letters chronologically, or reading each one from beginning to end. They're clicking on whatever they're in the mood for and scanning quickly, in the same way you might browse Libby for something to read or Hulu for something to watch.

So the "long version" of a query today actually needs to be quite brief, get to the point, and generate the gut reaction, "Ooh, this looks good!" I used to obsess over dressing up the language of my queries, but what's more important are the naked ideas underneath.

  • Who is your protagonist?
  • What is the inciting incident?
  • What are the challenges your protagonist will face?
  • What is at stake if they mess up?

Agency websites might compare the pitch to a back-cover blurb. But while a blurb withholds information to tease potential readers, the query should tell the agent exactly what this book is about and where it's going. You don't have to be coy to avoid "spoiling" the plot. Agents aren't reading manuscripts like casual readers to find out what happens. They're reading to evaluate the commercial potential of the project, and whether any editors they know would want to acquire it. So give them all the selling points you can. Spell out those delicious disasters readers won't see coming, like one of those glossy Hollywood trailers that give away every beat of the movie.

One Paragraph

Every agent says they read a little differently. Some put the most weight on comps, some skip right to the sample, some read the pitch first and look at the sample only if they're on the fence, etc.

For the agents who specifically say they don't need or want a long pitch, you'll need a one-paragraph version of your query ready. I've found it easiest to work from longest to shortest: first distill the novel into a synopsis, then distill the synopsis into a query letter, then cut out everything but the bare essentials for the one-paragraph version. A paragraph gives you just enough room to answer the questions above.

One Sentence

Some QueryManager forms have a field for a one-sentence pitch. You don't have room for the whole plot, so this will be the extremely compact version of those four pitch elements put together.

For example, if the movie Happiest Season were a book, the one-sentence pitch might be: "When Abby Holland [protagonist] visits her girlfriend Harper's conservative family for Christmas [inciting incident], she must hide their relationship from Harper's image-obsessed parents and decide how much she's willing to endure for the woman she loves [challenges & implied stakes]."

You can Google tips for screenwriters writing "loglines" for other examples.

Personalization

For every submission, you'll need to personalize your pitch a little bit. One sentence is enough, just to let the agent know why you're interested in working with them. E.g., "I saw your #MSWL tweet calling for laugh-out-loud rom-coms," or "I read on your Manuscript Wish List profile that you're looking for atmospheric horror like MEXICAN GOTHIC." You'll put this at the beginning of your email queries or in a QueryManager form field for "Why did you choose to submit to me?"

Short Bio

From all the talk of platforms on the internet, you might think the purpose of a bio is to impress agents with your fabulous literary awards and one million Instagram followers. If you have those things, great, but most of us don't. The purpose of your bio is really just to tell the agent who you are and why you wrote this particular book. A few sentences will suffice.

For example, my bio in submissions for Our Little White Lie is simply: "Like the fictional Rachel Miller, I'm a half-Chinese, half-white Millennial with a fondness for K-dramas. Unlike Rachel, I have a career as an IT manager for academic libraries in the Pacific Northwest. I've self-published previous works of fiction and maintain a website at https://author.tkmarnell.com."

If you're struggling, you can think about what parts of yourself you put into your story. Even for highly imaginative fantasies, every writer embeds themselves somewhere in their work.

Samples

You have a book, but now you have to chop it up into samples that can be easily copy/pasted into QueryManager forms and email bodies.

If you wrote your manuscript in serif font with first-line indents, I suggest copying the first 50 pages into a new document to reformat. Use a sans-serif font like Arial to match the emails you'll be typing, and adjust the paragraph styles so they'll look nice in electronic communications someone might be reading on a phone. You'll probably need to find clean breaks at various marks: 5 pages, 10 pages, 15 pages, etc.

If agents request partial or full manuscripts, the standard format requested will be a DOC or DOCX file with Times New Roman 12-point font; double-spaced paragraphs with first-line indents (not a tab character); page headers specifying your name, book title, and page number; and a title page on top with your contact information. Google results for "how to format a book manuscript" are all mostly the same, so at least in this one matter, you won't have to sort through a lot of conflicting information about what agents want.

Patience

Once you've gathered all of your materials, it's time to submit! If you have twenty agents on your list, you'll probably mix and match the elements above in twenty different ways.

And then you wait. And wait. And try to forget you're waiting, and to stop tensing up in the anticipation of heartbreak every time you look at your email. The agents I've queried say they typically respond in four to six weeks. Then if anyone requests partial or full manuscripts, they'll probably get to them in another three to six months. They have a lot of submissions to read and tackle them during evenings and weekends, because their current clients are their priority during the work day.

Instead of dwelling and fretting, start thinking about your next project. If you get "the call" in six months, the agent will ask about your plans and vision for your writing career, you can tell them about the new book you're drafting or revising.

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