The very worst of the hurry-up-and-wait-and-wait-and-wait-and-oh, yay-another-rejection game!
It can be difficult for writers to stay on track while querying. It’s the first part of the process where writers give up control. And that can be scary. Terrifying, really. Because not only do we not have control, but we’re essentially asking someone to deem our work worthy.
Or at least that’s how it feels.
If you are currently querying agents–HOORAY! Congrats on making it to this step! It can be a long and drawn out process, so here are a few tips for staying the course while querying:
- Be brave. Bravery is a theme around these parts, but it’s important to remember at this stage of the process, too. Putting your work out there requires courage. We’re risking rejection each time we hit send on our email. And rejection does not feel good. Remind yourself that this is scary so it’s okay to be scared. Then take a deep, brave breath and do it anyway.
- Pitch in Batches. I advise all writers to pitch in batches. Assuming you’ve done your extensive agent research (and you should have, or I’m sorry to say, you aren’t ready to query yet) and have a list of agents you’d like to reach out to, you probably have a few that in addition to representing your genre have something else that has caught your attention (they are your favorite author’s agent, they only seem to touch bestsellers, they have the same breed of dog as you, whatever…). Start there. Send out about 10 queries at a time (individual and personalized queries please, no bcc-ing or generic “to whom it may concern-ing” here). Wait for feedback before sending out new queries. Then…
- Analyze Your Responses. Once you start receiving responses, analyze your feedback before you send your next batch. Agents are in a hurry and often focused on their existing client list. Their responses can feel formulaic and seemingly unhelpful, but there is still a lot you can learn from them.
- Are you getting only form letter responses?
- Make sure you are pitching the right agents in the right genre. Perhaps you have a thriller but are pitching to agents in the mystery space. Words matter. Especially in genre. Double check that your age group (middle grade, young adult, adult) and genre are correct. Agents want to know you understand the market and where your book would fit inside it. If you aren’t clear on what genre it is, they aren’t going to figure it out for you.
- Check your comps. Comparative titles are another indication that a writer understands the market. Your comps should be published within the last three years, ideally, and should not be too well known (i.e, that means no Harry Potter, Stephen King, Jodi Piccoult). Try using two titles to set tone and plot. You can comp an author for tone and a book for plot or a movie and book, etc…, just be sure that you are clear about what of each relates to your title (“Book X is similar in style to Y and will appeal to fans of author Z”). Again, agents want to know you know where your book will sit on the shelf.
- Make sure you are meeting your genres word count conventions. A 100,000 word YA manuscript is probably an auto-reject–it shouldn’t be that long. A 65,000 historical fiction is also an automatic no–it’s too short. When agents only have time to skim queries, they are looking for reasons to move on. Don’t give one to them.
- Check your query letter. Once the logistics above are nailed down, it’s time to look at your actual letter: Is it too long? Is your hook strong? Are you getting the who, what they want, what is in their way, and what they stand to lose of your story up at the top? If you aren’t sure if your query measures up, time to study up. I recommend Query Shark to all query writers. Literary agent, Janet Reid, critiques real query letters with fantastic, easy to understand feedback and you can go back through tons of queries to get a good idea of what’s working and what isn’t. I also love The Sh*t No One Tells You About Writing podcast’s Book with Hooks feature where agents Carly Watters and Cece Lyra discuss real queries and opening pages. I get it, query writing is not my favorite either, but the more you immerse yourself in queries that worked, the better yours will be.
- Are you getting requests and then form rejections? (Not sure if it’s a form rejection? On Query Tracker you can check the comments page for the agent and oftentimes folks will share the responses they receive from an agent so you can get a feel for their form rejection language.)
- Good news–your query is doing its job and agents want to read your work!
- The bad news? Something is not holding up in the pages. It might be time to go back in and see if your character motivation, stakes, and story trajectory are clear in your story.
- Are you getting requests and then personalized rejections?
- Some rejections are going to be about personal preferences (“I have something similar on my list,” “I like it but don’t love it enough” (sounds rough, but honestly you want someone who LOVES your story as much as you do). “It’s just not for me…”). This is hard not to take personally, but do you buy every book you see in a book store? Nope. You pick the books that speak to you. Agents are no different. It doesn’t mean the book you didn’t buy at the bookstore isn’t a great book, it’s just not what you want to read right now. So what do you do? Send out 10 more queries!
- If the agent you pitched provided specific feedback, do a happy dance! Then, give it a careful read and see if it stands up to what you are trying to do with your manuscript. DO NOT FALL INTO THE TRAP OF EDITING YOUR MANUSCRIPT TO TRY TO FIT EVERY INDIVIDUAL AGENT’S FEEDBACK. You’ll drive yourself crazy, water down the manuscript, and it may not make your story stronger. Collect your feedback, look for patterns, and then take a hard look at your manuscript to see if you agree with it before you make changes.
- Are you getting only form letter responses?
- Take Care of Yourself.
- It can be very easy to stalk your email inbox or panic every time you get a new message notification. If you are tempted to refresh your email every five minutes every time you send a query, I would suggest setting up a new gmail account just for querying. And turn OFF those notifications. Pick a time of day or a day of the week, and only check that box at those time.
- Have a piece of chocolate or go for a walk every time you get another pass. Do something that feels good (but not self-destructive) to acknowledge the sting of rejection. It’s okay to wallow a bit, it’s only human after all. But don’t let it take over your feelings of self-worth or confidence. Your work was rejected, not you.
- Start Something New. Yup. Go ahead and dip into that new idea. Or write a new flash fiction piece every day. Or start a newsletter. Whatever it is, just keep writing something else that isn’t related to the work you’re querying. Not only will this distract you from the process, but it will give you something to chat about when that agent finally calls and one of their questions is, “What else are you working on?”
Querying is hard. But if your dream is to be agented and eventually traditionally published, it’s a necessary evil. Armed with a solid strategy and a few self-care skills, you will be ready to conquer the query trenches.
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Featured image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
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