Monday, September 8, 2014

Writing a Novel (Part 5): Queries, Agents, Editors, Oh My!

You edited your book to death and finally have a product you feel good about.

Now you get to sit on your hands waiting for an agent to pluck your pitch-in-a-bottle from the ocean of infinite queries.


Querying is sending your first few pages to literary agents. If the agent likes it, they ask to read the whole thing. If they still like it, you sign a contract and the agent pitches it to publishers.

A lot hangs on querying. It's subjective, based on agents' tastes. It depends on how many freaking time-traveling fantasies with quirky protagonists they've seen this week, and yours being just one more versus the one that stands out. It's also objective. Agents know what's selling. Their job is to spot talent.

All agents want queries differently: snail-mail or email; three chapters or three pages; summary (whole plot including spoilers) or no summary. But without fail, they all want a query letter. It's essentially a cover letter. For example:

Dear Fantastic Agent,
Couple sentences with title, genre, and word count (follow these or these guidelines).
One to three paragraphs of hook. Introduce the protagonist, where they're headed, and what they're up against. Do minimal world-building and don't give the ending. The agent should come away wanting more. 
A sentence for writing credits: if the novel won a contest or you've published fiction before.
"I look forward to hearing from you." That's it. Don't include the word "soon." Agents are SWAMPED with queries. Most take 4-8 weeks to respond; some take a few months. Saying "soon" is like a punch in the face. 

Don't include the gif in your QL. It's just for illustration.
Contact info

Simple, short (1 page), and tasty. Have your CPs critique it before you send. Also visit Query Shark and Kristin Nelson's blogs for tips. Hearing the cadence of a good query can help you write your own.

For finding agents to query, some people suggest huge sites like Publisher's Marketplace. I find that overwhelming. Plus there are not-so-good agents out there. I use the Association of Author's Representatives; it has high standards of membership. Search for your genre to find the right agents.

Send as many queries as you can. Send 100 and wait. After 6 months, send 100 more. In 2001, the average published author received 52 rejections for every 1 request to see the manuscript. Not every request ends in a contract, either. This is going to be a long process.


You can also pitch to agents in person at a writer's conference (I recommend PPWC!). You can either ask directly if you can pitch to them or (better) sign up for a pitch appointment. With an appointment, you'll have 5-10 minutes to deliver some choice sentences and try to snag their interest. If they ask to see pages, write down immediately what they ask for and where to send it.

The in-person pitch is all about a good logline: 1-3 sentences that frame the protagonist's goal or desire, the problem they must overcome to get it, and what's at stake. Example logline for The Hunger Games:

In a future North America, the government maintains control though pitting children from the 12 districts against one another in a game of survival. Sixteen-year-old Katniss volunteers in her sister's place, but in order to be the last one alive she must fight against other kids not that different from herself.

Practice telling your friends what your book is about in 30 seconds, and you're on your way to a logline.


At some point after you've begun querying, you'll get your first response.

There's a 99% chance it'll be a rejection. Be ready. Even if you believe in your book and know you have what it takes, that rejection will hurt. Because after that will come silence. You're just sitting waiting for a response from someone, wondering if they've read your query yet. After a hundred rejections, it'll still be hard. The best thing you can do is start another project and have your loved ones tell you daily, "I love your writing!"

Sometimes you'll get a "yes if." This is good. If an agent took the time to give you edits, they're interested. Revise and resend.

When you score that "yes, send me the full manuscript," send it off as soon as you can. If there's another agent who is currently reading the full, notify both of them. Then if one offers you a contract, you can give the other a week to decide whether they want to offer you a contract too.

And then, one day, you'll sign that contract and it will be so, so exciting.

Glacial Processing

When you finally land a contract with an agent, celebrate!...with your family. Don't shout from the social media rooftops. Your friends will ask, "Where can I buy it?" Your response will be, "It's not out yet. Actually, I don't even have a publisher yet..." Don't tell people until you have release date and a cover photo. Which could be a few years from now.

When your agent signs you on, you dive back into editing. When your agent declares the book ready, they pitch to publishing houses the same way you pitched to your agent. The agents are the first line of defense for publishers, screening out all the crap and all the not-crap-but-won't-sell. The acquisitions editors (the publisher's people who find new books) know your agent and trust them.

An acquisitions editor will make a grab for your manuscript. They present it to their boss, who approves it and offers you a contract, which your highly-trained agent checks over. You sign. Woohoo!

You book goes to the copy editors. You edit again. Then the publisher gets a cover designed, gives it a new title, and sets a release date. That date is probably in 1-2 years. They want to put your book out at a different time than similar books but at a good time for buying.

You can get really excited now because there's actually an end in sight when you'll hold the book in your hands.

Your publisher will (usually) do a little publicity for you. They'll get the book into the hands of reviewers and in librarian's catalogs. Your publisher won't do any other promotion, however. You need to hunt down bloggers and ask them to promote your book. Ask schools if you can guest-speak. Get your friends to read it and tell all their friends. Post on social media.

Before you know it, your book is in the hands of readers. That is a wonderful feeling.

Good luck. Go be awesome. While you're at it, write another book.

That's all for the Writing a Novel series! I hope you all enjoyed it. A complete list of writing posts can be found under the writing label.

Word count: 1,117. Sorry guys. I failed you.