Querying Your Novel in Five Painful Steps

So, apparently, I’m working on being a novelist. I was recently told this, and I eventually decided it’s a fair accusation. I don’t focus enough on my short fiction, if I’m honest with myself. I didn’t think I would enjoy the long form, but then I tried one, and it… well okay the first one went poorly. But the next one wasn’t too bad, and I’m currently getting it to where I can send it to an agent without wanting to drown myself in junk food and shame. (A moving target.)

Anyway, querying. It’s a simple enough process, especially simple for how many mega-bitz have been spent on the topic. It’s simple, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. I’ll be focusing here on querying fiction instead of non-fiction, which is a somewhat different process.

Upon proofreading this thing, I realized I talk a lot about querying in context of tests. I’m getting my master’s, and finals are just around the corner, so you can guess where my brain is.

Necessary Caveat: I haven’t queried. I’ve helped edit/rewrite queries (plural) that have gone on to be somewhat successful. I’ve been reading about this process for nearly two years. I’ve absorbed many dataz. But I haven’t taken this step myself, and I’m not an agent. So. Make of this what you will.

And if I got anything flat-out wrong, please say something kthx?

Step One: Write The Novel. Make It Not-Suck.

Here’s your “Am I Ready To Query” checklist:

  1. Do you have a complete novel?
  2. Did you edit your novel?
  3. Did someone other than you read your novel and tell you a bunch of things you need to fix, which you subsequently went and fixed?
  4. Did you like your novel before but you’ve gone over the damn thing so many times that now you hate it and think it’s awful and just want to set it, and possibly yourself, on fire?

If you answered “yes” to all of the above, you’re probably ready to continue.

Step Two: Research.

This is the longest part.

Find the books that look the most like your book. Look at what shelf they’re on. That is the shelf your book will be on, and that is how you will describe it in your query. (Please do not put “New Release” on your query.)

Before you go on your agent hunt, consider the traits you are looking for in an agent. A professional who understands the industry is an obvious must, but there are other details. Do you want an agent who offers edits? Do you need a highly communicative agent? Do you want an agent for just this book or your whole career? Do you need to get along with your agent personally, or are you fine with just a professional working relationship?

Answers to the above questions are at the end of the post*.

Go to Publisher’s Marketplace and get an account. Go to Agent Query. Search for agents, and make sure those agents represent the genre you’re querying in. (Note: someone who represents “science” and “fiction” does not necessarily represent “science fiction” — this was a startlingly common problem in my search results.) Look at their list of recent sales. Are they recent? Are they to legitimate publishing houses? (Don’t know a legit publisher from a non-legit one? That’s part of the test.) If yes, store their name somewhere (I have a massive spreadsheet).

Once you have your list of agents that work within your genre and have recent sales, the real work begins.

Go to Preditors & Editors and find each agent and see what was said. Go to the Absolute Write: Bewares, Recommendations & Background Check and find each agent and see what was said. (Some of those threads are really long, you will say. I know, I will say. I’ve read them.). Go to Writer Beware and find your agent and see what was said. Google your agent’s name and read everything you can: their agency page, any blog posts they’ve written, interviews they’ve given, lawsuits they’ve been involved in, everyting publicly available.

Take notes.

Step Two-Point-Five: Meet The Agents

This is technically still research. Just more expensive.

So I never actually intended on meeting agents. Primarily because I am too shy to simply approach someone out of the blue and be like “Hey guess what I’m a wannabe author like the fifty hojillion wannabe authors you deal with on an hourly basis but I’m special.” Unless I’ve had a few too many.

Some people will tell you this is a mad-crazy requirement, Oh My God, You’re an Idiot for Not Doing This Thing. Some people will tell you it’s not a requirement at all. That second group is largely correct. Many authors have been signed without ever having spoken to their agent prior to querying.

It all depends on how you work. I’m an Online person. A friend of mine works Face-To-Face. She swears by conferences. I swear by Twitter. Figure out what works for you here.

Step Three: Write Your Query

This is the hardest part.

Lots of agents have written about how to query, and they keep writing those posts over and over, updating their information as information needs updating. There’s a list at the end of this post. Go read every single one of those. There will be a test. Are you bothered by the fact that a lot of the advice seems to contradict itself? That’s part of the test.

The query basics come down to the following:

  • Keep it under 250 words (aka one page).
  • Talk about your book.
  • Don’t talk about things that are not your book or mega-related to your book.

The rest comes down to your competency as a writer. Show some level of voice. Show conflict. Show competency with the written word. Show that you’ve written an interesting book. (And please note my use of “show” and not “tell.” That wasn’t casual. “My book is awesome and will sell better than Harry Potter and the Bible,” is telling. Do not do this thing.) (And if you see that and scoff and think it’s hyperbole and agents don’t really get queries like that, you haven’t been doing the research I’ve been doing.)

Step Four: Get Help

Ask your friends to read your query. Post it over at Absolute Write’s Query Letter Hell and get feedback. Maybe even submit it to Query Shark. Take the advice you get with a smile and a thank you and go integrate it into your query.

Does some of the advice you receive contradict itself? Also part of the test.

Step Five: Submit.

Find the requirements for the agents you want to submit to. Some want a query. Some want a query and first five pages. Some demand snail-mail only. Some demand email only. Some have a form on their website. Some want specific things written in the subject line. Follow each individual agent’s requirements to the letter. (Are you feeling increasingly frustrated about meeting every little nitpicky demand and getting nothing in return? Guess what? Part of the test.) Then send.

The next step, of course, is dealing with the rejections (there will be many). Personalized? Maybe send a thank you note, maybe, depending on how detailed the rejection was. Form? Say nothing and move on. (Seriously, please, for the sake of your career, say nothing and move on.) Offer(s) of representation? Screaming, cake, more screaming, a shot of whiskey to calm yourself down, more cake, and eventually get down to business.

And that last bit? Getting down to business with an offer for representation? That’s another post entirely. One I am not equipped to write.



* Lie. Sorry, but you actually have to make these decisions for yourself.

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