5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Querying Literary Agents

I spent my entire life talking about writing a book. There are times that’s just about all I talked about! Then, I finally decided to push past the fear, and just do it already! Well, I ended up writing the book in less than two weeks! You can read my humorous blog post How to Write a Novel in 13 Days here to see what a manic experience that was! Anyway, I was so green. I thought that since I wrote it so fast, it would be no time before I had an agent (let alone fanbase, movie deal, and a hefty cash advance)! Not. Even. Close.

I wish I’d slowed down, savored the journey, and, most importantly, refrained from querying every agent in the literary stratosphere before I was truly ready. I’m still not agented (is agented a real word??), but I’ve learned so much, mostly from my impatience! I want to share with you what I’ve learned in hopes of helping you avoid mistakes, disappointment, and all the icky emotions tied in with rushing the querying process.

3 Myths I Believed I Had While Writing My First Manuscript

1. IF I FINISH THE MANUSCRIPT QUICKLY, I CAN SPEED UP THE WHOLE PUBLISHING PROCESS: I am a relatively fast writer (not including the years of lamenting that lead up to me sitting down and starting chapter one), so I thought if I write the whole thing fast, I’ll speed up the publishing process. Yes, I’m a little embarrassed that I believed that for even a minute. The reality is that writing the manuscript is only one small piece of the puzzle to getting your book published. There is editing, revisions, more editing, more revisions, beta readers, querying, finding the right agent (or hoping the right agent finds you), and from there, the real work begins because then publishers are involved.

2. MY BOOK IS SO FANTASTIC THAT IT’S GOING TO GET SNAPPED UP QUICKLY: I know, again with the quickly business! I see a pattern of impatience here. Everyone thinks they have at least one book in them. Most of us also think we write wonderfully. Here’s the thing: It only matters so much that you write wonderfully, because there are about a dozen other things that also need consideration. For example, the quality of your query letter, your credentials, your social media presence (though there is some debate on how important it is in landing an agent), and so much more!

3. PROFESSIONAL EDITING IS ALWAYS NECESSARY: This one is tricky. I’ve heard the arguments for both sides. However, as someone who interviews many published authors (both self and traditional), I can tell you that a number of them do NOT use professional editors. A lot depends on how good you are at self-editing. I paid more than I care to admit, and the verdict is still out on whether it’ll lead to finding an agent. Both editors I hired (one reasonably priced, the other costing more than my Prius) were great. But, just a note on pro editors. They don’t fix typos. They don’t give opinions on “how good” or “how marketable” your story is or provide suggestions that will push you into the arms of your dream agent. They’re helpful, but for a financially struggling unknown writer, it can be a gamble since you don’t know upfront if the editing will get you an agent. There is definitely a conversation to be had about whether to hire a pro-editor. My verdict so far? I’m glad I went with the more reasonably priced editor, but feeling some serious buyer’s remorse about going with the multi-thousand dollar one.

 Now, back to the topic of this blogpost. Querying. The dreaded “Q” word. Well, to me, querying has been a rollercoaster of emotions. I have a hunch that not one agent read so much as a single page one of my actual manuscript, though I have no way of knowing that for sure. They didn’t get past the query letter (which I thought was decent)! But, let’s get to what I wish I knew before querying in the first place.

5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Querying Literary Agents

1. EVERYONE THINKS THEY’RE THE EXCEPTION, BUT MOST OF US ARE NOT: I’d heard how notoriously difficult it is to get an agent. I’d heard the rumors but didn’t want to believe it. I thought my book was so cute, so uplifting, that surely I could bypass the grueling process that everyone warns about. Well, here I am, 70+ query letters later (about 25 rejections, and the rest didn’t answer me so…) and no requests for fulls. No agent. No constructive feedback, just form rejections.

2. DON’T ADVERTISE YOUR INEXPERIENCE: This one is tricky because if you didn’t graduate from Harvard (or any college) then it almost feels like a disadvantage when shopping for an agent. If you also haven’t won any awards or been published anywhere (short stories, magazines, etc.), then what can you do, right? Well, being transparent, here’s what I’ve done: I talked about being a freelance writer, having a former newspaper column, and then adding that, “This is my debut novel.” According to The Writer’s Market Guide to Literary Agents, that is a big no-no! The guide also says not to add in that you’re a parent, for example, if you’re writing a children’s book, as being a parent doesn’t make you more qualified to write a children’s book. My obvious question is, What do you put in that box on the forms that asks for your bio if you’re so green you practically glow with inexperience???

3. DON’T SEND OUT DOZENS OF QUERIES RIGHT AWAY: OK, most people already know this, and I did too. But—there’s always a but…I got impatient! I had so much faith in my manuscript that I just knew there would be a tug of war going on in the literary world to land me as a client, so I blasted every YA agent I could find with my query. Oops. A better way to go about it would have been to send to half a dozen, see what kinds of responses I got, and then polish the query, and try again.

4. STAKES MATTER: I’ve been studying the craft of writing (along with how to get traditionally published) for years. But, one thing I hadn’t considered was making the characters’ stakes clear in the query letter. After unsuccessfully querying over 70 queries with NO requests for fulls, I happened to see a Twitter post by literary agent, Ali Herring, who said this:

“Just remember your query is the place to give us a short plot summary, but you must ALSO include the STAKES of your story. If I’m curious about your “hook,” but you don’t tell me what’s at stake for your characters, I don’t have time to read 90,000 words/- to find out.”

~ Lit agent, Ali Herring

I had never thought about it! My query letter (which I paid an obscene amount to be professionally edited, didn’t address my characters’ stakes once! Not even my protagonist. Talk about a lightbulb, A-ha, game changing moment for me! It will undoubtedly forever change the way I write and query, so a big thanks to Ali for that. This is why Twitter isn’t a waste of time, too, by the way. You can get very good insight from professionals in the business through social media.

5. SOME AGENTS READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OR TWO BEFORE EVER LOOKING AT THE SYNOPSIS: An upcoming interview I did with a prolific inspirational author, Deborah Raney, includes a fantastic insight on why you should make the first chapters compelling, rather than just worrying about a killer synopsis.

“…if you’ve written a fabulous novel, the agent won’t care that your synopsis is less than stellar. Most editors and agents have told me that they read the sample chapters first because no matter how great the idea or how compelling the synopsis, if the writer can’t write, those things don’t matter!

~ Author Deborah Raney

So, where do I go from here? I’ve nearly exhausted my list of YA agents, and on top of that, I realize the stakes aren’t nearly high enough for my protagonist. Well, with the holidays around the corner, I doubt I’ll be sending out any more queries this year. Instead, I’m going to set my manuscript aside for a minute, work on book two (learning from my mistakes), and maybe I’ll revamp my original manuscript in the new year.

            I hope you learned something from this, or, at the very least, can relate to my querying story. Share your query stories with me in the comments section or on Twitter.

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