Ack! Queries! Part 3 – Query Submission Strategies

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Last week we covered Part 2 – Elements of a Successful Query, and the week before Part 1 – Purpose and When to Start. For today, we’ll cover: Query Submission Strategies.

Query Submission Strategies

My advice would be to send queries in blocks of 5 agents at a time; 7-8 at the most.

Why? You want to be able to adjust strategy by response.

To better illustrate my case, here’s how my query process played out back in 2012:

  • On my first round, I submitted to 15 agents (actually 18, but the other 3 were live pitches) and I had 3 requests, which was a 20% success rate, which is pretty good. When those 3, and the 3 pitch agents rejected it, I knew not to continue querying, though I DID know my query worked. I did another Beta round and polished, polished, polished my manuscript.
  • Second and successful round, blow-by-blow:
    • Day 2: 8 queried, 2 requests
    • Day 9: 42 queried, 3 requests, 7 query rejections, 2 MS rejections, and 1 partial converted to a full
    • Day 10: 3 more queried, 1 request, and first offer! (ended with 3)
    • Summary up to First Offer: 53 queried, 6 requests, 7 query rejections=46% success rate

So as you can see, there was a different energy to my second round. I could feel it, that my query was working big time and I was getting requests a lot faster. By this point I was also sick of the MS and so mentally I felt like this was it, if it didn’t work, I was moving onto my next book and would try again, that I’d done everything I knew at that point to make my MS as strong as it could be. Hence, when I saw my query getting a hotter response, I opened the floodgates and queried the rest of my list.

I’m also glad I came late to writing, as I was able to do all of this electronically, with no costs for postage and paper, etc. Can you imagine how expensive it was in the past? Hopefully even more agents accept electronic queries than in 2012, because at that time some good ones still only accepted by snail mail.

Once you have an offer

First, yay!!! After the squeeing has died down, you still have some work to do.

If it’s from your dream agent and you absolutely, positively know you don’t want another agent, you need to send out letters to all the ones you queried and who also have your partials and fulls to let them know you had an offer and are accepting it.  Here’s how I worded it:

Thank you for your interest! Unfortunately I’m going to pull this from consideration as I’ve already had two offers of representation and a third who wants to talk on Monday. With that in mind, I don’t want to ask you to take time to read it as I know you are extremely busy.
Thank you,

If you don’t have a dream agent, but rather a Top 3 or Top 5 list, then you need to go about it a little differently. Send out the emails to the ones you know you wouldn’t want over the one who offered. But for the rest, send them an email to let them know you have an offer (even the ones you’ve only queried but haven’t heard a response from yet) and that you’ve given the first agent a deadline for when you’ll get back to them (typically two weeks) so that the other agents have time to read your MS and respond. This is what happened to me, and it’s why I ended up with three offers, a great place to be!

Here’s how I worded that email. The first offering agent was putting the screws to me and was a little miffed I wanted time to decide and so I had a shorter window, but it’s absolutely all right to ask for two weeks, I just panicked is all 🙂

I wanted to let you that an agent has made offer of representation for MUST LOVE BREECHES. The offering agent wants my decision by the middle of next week so she can pitch to editors in October, but I also want to give you a chance to read the partial I sent and see if you’re still interested.

Thanks so much, and I look forward to hearing from you,

Resources

To close out this series, here are some resources to help you!

Pre-query
Query Process
  • QueryTracker – an extremely helpful database of agents and editors that will help you keep track of who you submit to, their response, your response, etc. It’s the only reason I was even able to pull the statistics above, because I had it all in there. There’s also a forum where you
  • Publisher’s Marketplace – not free, but worth the cost during this phase at it shows you which agents are selling and which aren’t, what’s selling genre-wise, etc. It’s a great way to get your finger on the pulse, to use a cliché.

What about you? Are you querying yet? What strategies would you add? What trouble are you having with your query or the process?

Ack! Queries! Part 2 – Elements of a Successful Query

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Last week we covered Part 1 – Purpose and When to Start. For today, we’ll cover: Elements of a Successful Query

External Elements

External factors to keep in mind include querying an agent who represents your genre. Seriously. Please. Don’t machine-gun blast agents hoping one will hit. Show you’re a professional and have done your research and aren’t wasting their time. Yes, this takes more time, but the payoff is better.

Also, make sure you’ve read their submission guidelines. I know some writers suggest always appending the first 5 pages, but I didn’t do that. I sent exactly what the agent specified on their website and no more. I liked knowing it was my query they were rejecting (so I could polish it before my next round) and not my first 5 pages.

If you do these two, you’re already doing better than a majority of other writers querying right now. So take a deep breath and internalize that. Now we just need to up your chances even more by focusing on the query itself

Internal Elements

The time you take to craft your query shows the agent you take your writing seriously. Here are some elements you need in the query itself to give you an advantage:

  • Title (in CAPS), genre, word count somewhere
  • Personalized to the agent, if possible, but don’t fake it.
  • List two comps (and pick these well)
  • Short bio. Short. And only keep it relevant to how it affects this book.
  • Thank them
  • Query tone matches the tone of your novel
  • Only concentrate on the first quarter of your novel (up to your Act One Turning Point)
  • Use paragraphs and white space effectively

In addition to these are the two ‘meats’ of the query: hook and story paragraph

What is a Hook?

A hook is one sentence, but no more than 40 words or so, that quickly conveys what your novel is about and makes an agent want to read more. It:

  • Answers the question: What is your book about?
  • Mimics tone of novel
  • Weaves in the protagonist
  • Bonus points if you can infuse it with irony.

Here was mine: Isabelle Rochon, a thoroughly modern American working at the British Museum, has finally met the man of her dreams. There’s one problem: he lives in another century

What is the Story Paragraph?

The Story Paragraph in your query should be only 250-300 words. And it contains:

  • Setup
    • Protagonist, slip in age (if writing YA/NA) or occupation if you can
    • Setting/Story World (essential if sci-fi/fantasy)
    • Catalyst (Inciting Incident) that leads to the conflict
    • What do they want? What’s their quest/goal? Sometimes this is a vague want/wish that then gets sharpened to a specific goal when the conflict comes onto the scene.
  • Conflict (what/who stands in their way)
    • Not all conflicts. What’s the central conflict? A lot of times this is introduced by “but when…”
    • Who stands in the way of their goal/quest?
    • This becomes the Story Question in your novel that propels the reader into Act Two—Will s/he overcome [obstacle] and get/find [goal]? This drives all your scenes in Act Two up until the Climax/Resolution, which then answers the question, i.e. “Yes” “Yes, but”, “No” etc. But all this doesn’t go in your query, I’m just explaining what I mean by Story Question. By correctly stating your main conflict, this Story Question will automatically form in the agent’s/editor’s head when they read the conflict. That’s what you want to have happen, you want this Story Question to form–boom!–right into their heads. But don’t actually state it, let it form mentally.
  • Consequences
    • What’s at Stake? (what happens if they don’t succeed?) “Now she must ___ or ___”
    • You know you’ve got this nailed if you can pair it with your hook and it makes sense. For example, here was my Consequences statement: In the end, she must decide when her true home lies. So Hook + Consequences read like this:Isabelle Rochon, a thoroughly modern American working at the British Museum, has finally met the man of her dreams. There’s one problem: he lives in another century. In the end, she must decide when her true home lies.

      I actually had a little more before my consequences that said what was at stake, but I summed it up with this final ‘hook’

Don’t

  • Address the query to Dear Sir/Madam, or Dear Agent
  • Talk more about yourself than your book
  • Tell the agent they’d be stupid not to represent you
  • Misspell words (or the agent’s name!) or use poor grammar
  • Make your hook a rhetorical question. Why? The answer is obvious to the agent and takes the mystery out of it.
  • Send any email with an attachment unless asked
  • Give away the ending!
  • Talk about how much you’ve wanted to write or tell a cute story about your first story written in first grade. You’re querying, ergo you’re a writer. A trap some fall into if they feel their bio is skimpy.
  • Forget to tell them your title, genre and word count.

Now, Polish Your Query

Spend time doing the same polishing techniques as you would do with your novel.

  • Look for redundant words
  • Look for throwaway words
  • Look for vague/weasel words
  • See if you can use stronger verbs (but don’t get too writerly)
  • Tighten phrasing. Can you get away with one word there instead of two or three.
  • Check your spelling and grammar

Why? If they see stuff like this in your query, they’re going to assume it’s in your MS!

What does this mean for you?

If you do what I talked about above, you’re in the top 10% already. Boom! Nice, huh? Disclaimer: that percentage is not scientific but what I’ve seen bandied about by agents. 9 times out of 10 a query that lands in their inbox is an automatic rejection before they’ve even read the whole query. Mainly, queries get rejected when it’s not a genre they represent, they have no clue what the story’s about (because the writer didn’t tell them), it’s obvious the query was sent out in bulk, poor writing, etc.

It means if you’ve been panicking about seeing statistics from agencies regarding number of requests vs number of queries, keep the previous point in mind! They’re throwing out 90% of queries right off the top, which puts you in a much smaller pool of candidates. Now you just need to find the agent that is a potential match for your book and you. It also means your query letter doesn’t have to be perfect. Get those essentials across in a professional, well-written way, and if it sounds up their alley, they’ll request. Feel better now?

And that’s it for this week. Next week I’ll talk about query strategies.

What about you? Are you querying yet? Do you feel there are other elements that should be in a query?

Ack! Queries! Part 1 – Purpose and When to Start

gavin-query-letter-romanceI’ve been a baaad girl with blogging, so I thought I’d dip my toes back in slowly, with maybe a post a week. So to start off, I thought I’d share a presentation I did recently at my local writer’s group on writing queries, divided into digestible weekly installments.

For today, we’ll cover: Purpose, and When to Start since it seems like most blog topics on the subject of query writing cover the nuts and bolts of the letter itself (which I’ll get to as well).

Purpose of a Query

I know you probably think this is self-evident, but I see a lot of people in forums get hung up on this. It’s ONLY purpose is to make an agent request material. That’s it. It’s not some undertaking where you need to distill the plot of your book, give your life story, show all the cool worldbuilding you came up with, tell them all about your characters, etc.

Just get in and get out.

It’s a marketing tool. You just want to intrigue them! But not by telling them what a great writer you are, etc. Not that kind of marketing/sales pitch. Think Back Cover Blurb

When to Start

If we’re talking about writing the query itself, anytime during the writing process for your novel is a great time to start. For instance:

  • If you’re a plotter, see if you can write one before you start
  • If you’re a pantser, see if you can write it when you start revisions

Why? No better test to see if you have a central conflict, theme and plot! If you can’t get it down into a nutshell, your novel has a problem, not your query. Better to discover this at this stage, than halfway through your query process and you’ve blown through most of your A-list. (And remember, this means you can’t query them again for this MS, even if you do revise it, unless they ask specifically for a revise and resubmit)

Use it as a revision tool and your manuscript will be stronger, and you’ll have a smoother query process.

I began in earnest to study and work on my query several months before my MS was ready. I used the ‘set-aside’ time, between major drafts, to do this.

But when to send it out?

Not until you’ve finished not only revising your novel, but also copy edited and polished and it’s abso-fricking-lutely ready for an agent to see. I had several agents request a FULL the same day I sent the queries! Agents (in general) are acting quicker now if they’re interested. Some are still slooow. But the smart agents (and don’t you want a smart one?) know they have to act quick.

I say this because I’ve had writers tell me they query before they’ve even written the first draft because they want to see if it’s got any interest. Don’t do this. If you’re thinking you’re wasting your time pouring your energy into a book only to have it not picked up, don’t. All that time is time well spent in honing your craft. So it doesn’t work out–move onto the next one with some stronger writing skills under your belt. I’ve also had a writer tell me she was thinking of querying while her book was with the editor she hired because she heard that agents can take a while to answer back so she wanted to telescope the process. That might have been true earlier, but, as I said above, agents are acting faster now. When I landed my agent, that first week I had fulls and partials being requested the same day. By the next week, I had a partial converted to a full, and I think it was only a week and a half after I started that I had my first offer. I ended up with three offers, and one common refrain from all three was how polished it was.

I’d also wait until:

  • You’ve sent your query to a few others (who’ve not read your book) for feedback.
  • You’ve trolled advice sites and read some truly bad ones and some stellar ones and can start critiquing theirs well. When you start to see what works and doesn’t and can articulate it to them, you get better with your own. Just like critiquing manuscripts.
  • You’ve got your list of agents ready and divided up into groups of 5-8. And this is assuming you’ve researched these agents and determined they’d be interested in your book! It also wouldn’t hurt to be following these agents on their blog/twitter a bit before you query. Many blog/tweet about what makes them reject, what they’d like to see, etc.

And that’s it for this week. Next week I’ll talk about elements of a successful query and some do’s and don’ts.

What about you? Are you querying yet? Have you tried writing a query as a revision tool?