By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy
For my debut novel, I queried eight agents. I got four manuscript requests and three offers of representation. (I know, you all hate me, but hang with me a little longer). If The Shifter had been the only book I’d ever queried, I would have thought this whole publishing thing was easy. But it was the fourth “real” book I’d ever written (written with the intent to try and sell). The other three didn’t go nearly so well. Like thirty form rejections each. Very few page requests. Certainly no fulls.
So what was different about this book?
For one, it was a better book. A lot of attention is placed on writing the perfect query letter, but truth is, the best query in the world can’t sell a book that isn’t working. With my first submission attempt, I never got past the query stage. My second attempt, I got a few page requests, but all were rejected (including the agent I would later sign with). Clearly something was wrong with the book, since the pages weren’t grabbing the reader. I revised and tried again, with the same results. By this time I had a nice, thick file full of form rejections and a few encouraging words.
Then came The Shifter. I knew early on I had something better than I’d ever had before. It just felt different when I was writing it. I started to think I might have an actual shot, and – dare I say it – get a full manuscript request. That was really my goal at this point. I just wanted one more step forward in the process to prove to myself that I was making progress.
I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I’d made on those earlier books. I knew my query had to rock. I knew I had to send it to the right agents who might like my work.
I had no clue how to do any of that.
I figured the best place to start was to make a list of agents to submit to. I used AgentQuery.com and cross-referenced those names against Preditors & Editors. I cut any who had warnings, and wound up with 25 agents. Then I read agent blogs, especially those agents on my list. I Googled them to see what interviews they’d done or any articles they’d written. I checked out their client lists and read the books that seemed similar to mine. I was able to split my list into three parts based on this research. A) Agents who represented what I’d written, had sold a lot of books in my genre, and liked books like mine. B) Agents who represented what I’d written, had sold some books in my genre, and C) Agents who represented what I’d written and sold at least one book in my genre.
Now it was time to write that query.
I read everything I could find on writing successful queries. The most helpful advice came from Miss Snark and her Crap-O-Meter query contests. Seeing hundreds of real queries and reading her comments on what worked and what didn’t was an eye-opening experience. I started to get a feel for what a good query sounded like. Remarkably like cover copy on a book, but with details instead of being vague. So I went online and read cover copy of books in my genre. I analyzed the ones that grabbed me and made notes. I used the “here’s a person with a problem and here’s what they have to do to solve it” template and wrote my query.
And it was so-so.
I know this because at that time, an agent was doing a “post your query and I’ll give you feedback on it” session on her blog. I jumped at the chance and submitted mine. She had all kinds of issues with it. She couldn’t get behind the premise of the story (buying and selling pain) at all.
So I went back to the drawing board. This time, I focused more on the protagonist and what she needed to do, and less on world building. It felt much more interesting, because it was about a character with a problem, not “this is the book’s plot.”
Right about this time, one of the agents on my list announced she was doing a “Back to School” open query for YA. Writers could bypass the regular submission process if they had a YA book. Well, I had a YA book, I was ready to start submitting, so I sent it in. I figured this was a good time to send in the rest.
Then I saw another post online from another agent who was just starting to take on clients. She was working under a well-known agent on my B-list. I queried her as well, figuring she’d be more open to new writers since she was a new agent. And since she had a great agent mentoring her, I’d get the best of both worlds – experience and the need for new clients.
Both requested pages, then fulls. A third agent also asked for the full shortly thereafter (she was a standard snail mail query). I was ecstatic.
I was also just about to attend the Surrey International Writers Conference. Conveniently, several of my A-list agents were going to be there, so I’d be able to meet them and see what they were like. I got a pitch appointment with the last agent on my A-list and pitched her in person. She also asked for the full.
I was beyond excited at this point, and when I got home from the conference I had an offer of representation in my e-mail. After the screaming and jumping for joy subsided, I contacted the other agents with my fulls and told them I’d gotten an offer. How much time did they need to read my manuscript? Was by X date long enough? They read them and got back to me. Three were interested in representing me, one passed, but wished me luck.
Now I had the tough job of making a choice. All three were fabulous agents, so I really couldn’t have chosen wrong, but I wanted the one that was the best fit for me and my book. I spoke to them, listened to what they thought about the book, and made my decision. (The fabulous Kristin Nelson)
The entire querying to signing process took six weeks. The agent I signed with (the one I pitched) took ten days. This is why they say don’t query until your manuscript is as good as it can be, because you never know how quickly you might need to send it to someone. When it happens, it can happen fast.
The process was easy compared to my earlier submissions, but if I hadn’t gone through that and made my newbie mistakes, I doubt I would have put in the effort or had the skills to write the book and the query that got me my agent. Whenever I’d get rejected, I tried hard not to tell myself I wasn’t good enough. It was, “I’m not good enough yet.” That slight change in thinking made it easier to pick myself up and keep going.
And the only way to get ahead is to keep moving forward. Even if it’s one small step at a time.
Originally published during the Blue Fire blog tour on Hilary Wagner's blog.