Querying Is A Numbers Game

The internet is filled with resources on how to query, how many queries to send at a time, and how to write a query letter. But today I want to talk about something that I haven’t seen discussed nearly as much:

The fact that many querying writers shelve a manuscript without actually having sent out all that many queries.

Let’s start by talking about job applications. I know, totally unrelated, right? But bear with me here for a minute. My husband graduated from college in 2010, with a degree in computer programming. Because programming is a field with immense turnover and an average employee job length of three years, and because he’s done a few years of contract work, he recently started his fifth job in that space of time. Some of these jobs have come without much effort or application, but some of them have come after months of intense job searching.

In the latter situation, when he’s actively putting out applications to companies he doesn’t have connections at already, we’ve discovered that it takes a certain number of applications put out in the ether before things reach a critical mass, at which point things really start to move and he finally ends up with a job offer.

In my experience, querying is much the same. If you pay attention when writers who’ve recently signed with an agent share query stats, you’ll notice that much of the time, they’ve sent at least fifty queries for that book—and often much more than that. I know a fair number of talented writers who’ve signed with big-name agents… but only after they’d sent a hundred or more queries.

While preparing for this post, I asked a group of agented authors about how many queries they sent before signing with their agent. The responses ranged anywhere from 4 to 125. For those who went on to sell that book, there also was no correlation between how many queries an author sent and how quickly the book sold to a publisher; many of the ones who sent the most queries sold within weeks, while some who sent the smallest number of queries got the largest number of publisher rejections. It’s also pertinent to know that for many of these authors, the book that ultimately landed their agent was not the first book they’d queried.

Personally, I sent 43 queries on my debut, which is a fairly small number for my track record—and the only reason it was so relatively few was because I got an agent very quickly after the first #DVPit contest, which made things move much faster than they otherwise would have. On the book I queried before my debut, though, I sent more than 110 queries in total before finally shelving the book.

Why am I sharing all these stats? Because so often, I’ll talk to aspiring authors who are feeling overwhelmed by the query slog and hear that they’re considering shelving books after a relatively small number of queries. Many shelve before reaching the 50-query mark, and a good number shelve even before that, at 30 queries or less. But if you consider that the vast majority of authors send several dozen queries before signing with their agent, and some send a hundred or more, shelving a book when it’s been seen by such a relatively small number of agents isn’t giving the book a true chance.

Viewing querying as a numbers game also helps take the personal sting out of rejections. When you query expecting to have to send out a lot, it’s easier not to get attached to each individual agent you send to, and easier to move on again if you receive a rejection.

Of course, using this query strategy leaves two important questions:

1. How do you know you’re not just throwing away your queries on a book that’s not strong enough?

The answer to the first question is a matter of pretty simple game strategy. I’m a small-batch querier: I typically send 5-10 queries at a time (usually closer to 5, since sending queries takes time!), then wait to see if I get requests from that. A 20-25% request rate while I was querying was usually my sign—if I had that many requests, I could be fairly confident that my query was working well, so I sent out more. I’d send out one or two more queries every week or two, provided I was still getting requests. Over several months, I’d build up to the point where I had a few dozen queries out in the world—at which point, I’d start to get responses on the fulls I’d sent out to the early requesters. Full rejections can be a perfect time to pause, evaluate feedback given, and figure out if it’s time to revise before moving on with more querying.

2. How do you even find that many agents?

Since I write young adult and middle grade, my favorite resource when I’d get ready to query a new book was the Literary Rambles blog, which has a database of literary agents who represent picture book, middle grade, and young adult titles. I also would make note of Writer’s Digest New Agent announcements, check the acknowledgments of my favorite books or Google my favorite authors to see who represented them, and pay attention when my friends talked about the agents they were querying. I also highly recommend QueryTracker as a resource to track and organize queries. For my first queried book—which got sent to only a few agents because it was clear early on that I wasn’t getting any requests and I’d had specific feedback from several industry pros saying that my book just didn’t stand a chance in the current market—I literally kept track of the agents I was querying on a sticky note. I do not recommend that!

So, if you’re querying and starting to get discouraged because you’ve hit twenty, thirty, forty queries—or much more—without an offer, take heart! Remember just how many successful writers didn’t land an agent until they’d sent out a lot of queries. Take those rejections, archive them, eat some chocolate… and send out more!

 

Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

Let’s Stop The Writerly Blame Game

notebook

Settle down, my friends. Pull up a chair. Or a couch. Or a bed. Or sprawl on the floor, if that’s your preference. But get comfortable, because today we’re going to be talking about some hard truths.

Many, many times in the last few months, I’ve heard variations of the same two themes coming out of the mouths of aspiring writers. The first type of comment goes like this: It’s really no use querying an agent. Or querying this agent. Or trying to get traditionally published at all. After all, statistically only a tiny percentage of writers ever get an agent anyway. 

The second type of comment is similar: I’ve been querying, but I just keep getting rejected. I think it’s because agents only want the same old drivel. They don’t care about originality. This comment comes in an endless array of specifics and individualizations, but the heart of the justification is always the same: Those agents just don’t see what a good thing I’ve got going. They don’t recognize my genius. Often, the writer who makes comments like this is also resistant to the idea of revising or rewriting their book, feeling that that would be pandering to somebody else’s tastes in order to get an agent.

And you know what? I totally get it. Let me give you a little picture of my own query history.

Just over three years ago, I started querying a fairytale retelling. It was the third book I’d written but the first I’d queried, and I had stars in my eyes. I’d revised the book a bit, my critique partners had told me that it was Newbery Award material, and I was confident that I’d find an agent who wanted to snap that book up right away. Excitedly, I started live-pitching at conferences and sending out queries. I submitted to the Pitch Wars contest.

The crickets were deafening.

The sparse bits of feedback I got, from both agents and contest mentors, were all the same: It’s not original enough. There’s no place in the market for it. I was stung. I’d poured my heart and soul into that book! I’d given it my all! Couldn’t those agents recognize the genius that was in front of them? Of course, I comforted myself, the stats show that hardly anybody who queries actually lands an agent. The agents are all just too busy to see how big my book could go.

I’ve written before about the watershed moment that happened that autumn, the moment that gave me the courage to pick myself up by my bootstraps and keep working. Sadder but wiser, I turned my attention to my fourth novel. I spent months revising and polishing it, and then dove in again: live pitching, querying, contest entering. This time, things started out much more promisingly. I got lots of agent requests right off the bat, and for several months I was certain that that would be the book to get me an agent. When those requests turned into rejection after rejection after rejection, I found myself thinking again: It’s just because it’s not a Twilight or Hunger Games readalike. Can’t those agents recognize a good thing when they see it? 

Shelving that book was hard. It’s still the book of my heart, and saying a temporary goodbye to it was gut-wrenching. It was so, so easy to place the blame on anything else: the industry. The agents. The market.

This story has a happy ending: After going through a true dark night of the soul, I once again picked myself up, finished the manuscript I was drafting, and queried it. Within weeks, I had multiple agent offers for that book. I signed with my fantastic agent a month after sending my first query. Next year, that book will be my debut novel with HarperCollins Children’s.

What is my point in sharing this story? It’s because I get so frustrated, so saddened, to hear writer after writer utter self-defeating words before they’ve even really given querying and submission a college try. Querying is hard work. It is grueling, stressful, and involves a lot of rejection. But so, too, does writing as a career. No matter what path to publication you end up taking, there will be rejection, stress, and insecurity. As a traditionally-published debut author, I’m already beginning to feel the anxiety that comes from knowing that next summer, people will pick up my book… and some won’t like it. Some will give it bad reviews on Amazon. Even more terrifying, the vast majority of people will probably never be remotely interested in my book. And the stakes are high: How readers respond to my debut will, in large part, determine the path my future career takes.

Self-publishing is the same. While you get to skip the rejections from agents and editors, indie publishing is still rife with rejection and angst. The bottom line is this: If you want to be a writer, you cannot escape rejection.

And while shrouding yourself in an armor made of justifications is the natural response to the pain of being rejected, it’s also an ultimately unhelpful strategy. To be a writer is, by its very nature, to allow yourself to become vulnerable. What is more raw than the feeling of pouring your heart into words and then seeing somebody dislike (or—even worse—not care about) those words? That vulnerability is part and parcel of a writing career—and the sooner you can accept and lean into it, the more resilient and strong your writer heart will become.

Yes, it’s hard to be rejected. Yes, it’s hard to stomach the thought that the problem might lie with our book—those words that poured straight from our heart—and not with the agent, the publisher, the establishment. And yes, the statistics for the number of querying writers are grim. But you know what? In this industry, persistence, humility, and a willingness to start over and try again pay off. It took me three different books, more than 120 queries, and a whole lot of fresh starts and trying new things to land an agent and a book deal—but I did it. My agent has taken on a grand total of three clients in the last two years, including me. Based on the number of queries she generally receives, there was a .03% chance that I would have landed an offer. And yet I did.

And you, dear friend? I believe in you. I have faith in your ability to beat the odds. I have faith in your ability to adapt, to learn, and to use the tools available to you to bring your craft to the level that it needs to be in order to achieve your writerly dreams.

But trust me when I say that the first step to achieving those dreams is this: Take a deep breath. Let go of all the reasons you have for why agents or editors aren’t seeing what you see in your book. And get ready to work.

 

headshot1Cindy Baldwin is a Carolina girl who moved to the opposite coast and is gamely doing her part in keeping Portland weird. As a middle schooler, she kept a book under her bathroom sink to read over and over while fixing her hair or brushing her teeth, and she dreams of someday writing just that kind of book. Her debut middle grade novel, WHERE THE WATERMELONS GROW, is forthcoming from HarperCollin’s Children’s in 2018. Find her online at www.cindybaldwinbooks.com and on Twitter at @beingcindy.

A Writer’s Guide to Online Contests

For aspiring writers, there are several different ways to connect with agents (and editors) to represent your work. By far the most common is cold querying (which, contrary to what some believe, does work). You can meet agents at writing conferences (I did)–and you can participate in online writing contests.

I love a good writing contest. Even though that’s not how I got my agent, online contests were a big part of my querying process.

Right now, with the Pitch Wars mentor blog hop going on and the Pitch Wars submission window just around the corner (August 17th), it seems like a great time to revisit online contests. (Full disclosure: I’m mentoring Pitch Wars this year. It’s a great contest, and if you have a polished manuscript, you should consider entering!)

https://i2.wp.com/iambrony.steeph.tp-radio.de/mlp/gif/140349%20-%20animated%20pinkie_pie%20writing.gif

Why should you enter online writing contests?

1. Get feedback

Most writing contests are a great way to get feedback–from judges, other writers, agents, even editors. Even if you don’t get “picked” for a contest, you can learn something by looking at the entries that do get in. Are they doing something different in the query? In their pages? Every contest I’ve entered has taught me something about how my pages are working.

2. Meet other writers

One of my favorite part of writing contests is meeting other writers. During Pitch Wars last fall, someone started a facebook group for the contestants. That group has been a mine of support, information, and feedback. (They even helped me with this post!) Not every contest will do that, but a lot of contests have a heavy twitter presence: find other authors hanging out on the hashtag and start chatting (#pitchwars, #pitmad, and more).

3. Get a sense of the market

Contests can be helpful to get a sense for what else is currently being queried. By looking at the winners of different contests, you can see what genres agents are interested in and which are oversaturated. Contests can also give you a sense of how competitive your work is: in my first online contest, I was shocked by how good some of the other entries were, and I learned to set my bar much higher.

4. Find representation

Of course, the goal of many of these contests is to find an agent who’s interested in your work. Some agents only accept work from contests, conference attendees, or referrals, so they can be a place to put your work before someone who might not otherwise see it. Sometimes contests get agents to see your work in a new light–I’ve had agents request who had previously rejected my query.

But remember, not all good agents participate in contests (mine doesn’t). Not all contest agents are good agents–do your due diligence before submitting to anyone who requests! And not all requests lead to offers.

For me, finding an agent would be the icing on the cake of a good contest–it’s great to have, but you can get a lot out of a contest even without that (see above).

https://thinkingthroughourfingers.files.wordpress.com/2015/08/8f9e6-finishline.gif

What contests are out there?

Obviously, a post like this can’t be fully comprehensive. But here are some contests that I and some of my writer friends think are worthwhile. If you’re looking for a list of judged contests, like the RWA’s Golden Heart award, here’s a great list.

Monthly Contests

Miss Snark’s First Victim also hosts a monthly secret agent contest. MSFV invites all those who enter to comment on other people’s entries–I know Tasha, Elaine and I have all participated and had some good feedback this way. MSFV was one of the first contests I actually won–even though that partial request turned into a “no” it was a good confidence boost for me.

First Five Pages, sponsored by Adventures in YA Publishing, accepts the first five pages of a MG or YA novel the first Saturday of every month. Martina Boone, Lisa Gail Green, and/or a guest mentor will offer feedback on how the beginning is working. (This isn’t necessarily a contest, but a great way to get feedback). 

Operation Awesome’s Mystery Agent Contests: the first of each month, Operation Awesome hosts a contest where a mystery agent (identity revealed when the contest is over) picks their favorite pitch from that month’s entries. The entry requirements vary by agent. (The last one was in April, so follow their blog or twitter account to see when they start up again). 

 https://i1.wp.com/evanweppler.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Nervous.gif

Annual or Semi-Annual Contests

Pitch Wars might be the best known of the annual contests: last fall they had over 1200 applicants and expect that many or more this fall. Hosted by the indefatigable Brenda Drake (if you’re not already following her on twitter @brendadrake, you should! She knows tons and she hosts awesome contests), applicants are invited to submit their query and first chapter to five mentors. Each mentor (an agented or published author) chooses one mentee and helps them revise their *entire* manuscript before posting a pitch and first page for the agent round. I’m a mentor this year (for YA) and I couldn’t be more excited! Entries are due August 17th (though Brenda may open the submission window early). Check out #PitchWars for writing tips and more contest information.

Pitch Madness is also hosted by Brenda Drake (along with her minions and slush zombies). Here again writers submit a pitch and their first 250, then the contest coordinators chose 64 to vie for agent attention. This usually alternates with Pitch Wars (a fall contest) and is held in the Spring.The contest schedule for both Pitch Wars and Pitch Madness can be found here.

 Adventures in YA Publishing has hosted a variety of different contests. Last fall, I participated in #pitchplus5. Fifty applicants submitted their first five pages, which were then posted for comments from the community. Bloggers picked the top 25, which were revised and posted again with a short pitch. Published authors picked the top ten, which were again polished and posted for the agent round. Their most recent version of this was a pitch plus the first page, also with feedback. I had a lot of fun with this contest last fall: I got some great feedback and several agent requests (a few that turned into offers)–and the two of us who were the grand prize winners now both have three-book contracts. I’m just sayin’. 

Write Inclusively is a brand new contest focusing on manuscripts that address at least one diverse aspect: class, race, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. The submission window opens September 4-6.

Pitch Slam, a newer contest hosted by L.L. McKinney is a bi-annual contest (usually March and October) involving 35 word pitches and the first 250 words of a manuscript, which you revise for the agent round.

Nightmare on Query Street has been held the last two Octobers; I assume it will go again this fall but I’m not sure. The entries required standard genre and wordcount information, the first page, and a paragraph about the main character’s biggest fear. Follow the hashtag #NightmareQuery for more information.

Nest Pitch, like the Writer’s Voice, asks for short submissions (35 word pitch, 300 word entry) that are then claimed by various teams who compete against each other for the most agent requests. In the past, this contest has been held in April.

The Writer’s Voice, hosted by Mother.Write.Repeat, along with LoveYA, Cupid’s Literary Connection and Brenda Drake each May. For this contest, each of the sponsoring blogs chooses a “team” of strong writing entries and compete for agent attention. One of the cool things about this contest was that even those who weren’t chosen had an opportunity to have their submission posted on a blog and get feedback from other entrants. Follow @monica_bw for details.
 
Query Kombat involves 64 entries, facing off against one another in single-elimination tournament style. Fair warning: while I have writer friends who have done well in this contest, others have found the elimination style hard on their writing ego. This contest is held every few months, so follow the blog for updated information.

Pitch to Publication is another contest that, like Pitch Wars, offers a full manuscript critique for selected entries, followed by an agent round and a publisher’s round. This contest is currently ongoing, so follow Samantha Fountain’s blog for details of the next contest.

Miss Snark’s First Victim retired her The Baker’s Dozen last fall, but she periodically does in-house critiques and rumor has it there’s something in the works to replace Baker’s Dozen, so keep an eye on her site. 

Twitter Pitch Parties

There are lots of different twitter pitch parties out there, which generally give you a window (usually 24 hours) to tweet pitches using a hashtag. You can search the hashtags for more information. Some of the most common include

  • #pitmad (following Pitch Madness), 
  • #sffpit (exclusively for Sci-fi/fantasy), 
  • #adpit (for adult novels), 
  • #pitchmas (usually July and December), 
  • #kidpit  November 12, for children’s books (picture books-YA)

Gina Denny has an awesome post on twitter pitches that you  need to read if you’re thinking of pitching.
Not enough for you? Here’s an even more comprehensive list.

What contests have you entered and enjoyed? What questions do you have about writing contests?

Break Them All, But Be Smart

We are thrilled to welcome our newest contributor Scott Wilbanks!

Have you seen Legally Blonde?

In one of my favorite scenes, Elle has just given Professor Callahan her resume.  He’s standing in the university hallway, holding it under his nose, as she walks off.

He passes it to Emmett. “Smell that,” he says.

Emmett gives it a sniff. “Smells nice.”

The professor follows Elle’s progress until she disappears at the end of the corridor, and turns to Emmett, looking completely baffled. “Do you think she just woke up one morning and thought, ‘I think I’ll go to law school today?’”

While it may not be immediately evident, the moral of the story is that Elle is above the rules, because, well… she’s Elle. She’s a fictional construct designed to entertain. As nameless, faceless, yet very real people trying to rope in an agent, we’re not above them, right?

I’m not so sure. It certainly wasn’t my experience. And, believe me, with over a hundred rejections to my credit, I have a lot of it—experience, that is.

We all begin at the same place. We’ve written a manuscript, we’re raring to go, but we haven’t a clue what to do next. So, we educate ourselves. We learn the rules.

For example, we learn that our query letter must be one-page long, double-spaced, Times New Roman, font-size twelve; otherwise it will be frowned upon. It must contain a hook, a rip-roaring summary that distills the very heart of our manuscript in three sentences or less, a title, a word count, a genre classification, comparative titles, our platform, and a pithy introduction communicating to the agent that we’ve armed ourselves with knowledge of their inner most literary desires and are prepared to deliver on them. Oh! And despite the exhaustive restriction of all those rules, we’ve done the impossible. We’ve made our query stand out.

Rules, rules, rules. As writers, we’re surrounded by them, weighed down by the sense of dread they impose—a vague feeling that breaking them will result in some sort of cosmic, professional implosion.

So let’s cut a few down to size.

The Cardinal Rule of author/agent interaction—one that every agent on the planet will agree with—is don’t query too soon. Sweat over your manuscript, they say. Bleed onto the page. And only when Hemingway swoons should you have the audacity to send it out into the world.

Here’s the problem. With Hemingway dead and buried, how do you know if it’s too soon unless you do query? That’s a mean twist on the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum that no one really talks about. The answer is that you don’t. Family members, critique partners, and beta readers aside, you don’t. So, do the very best you can with what you’ve got, send your baby out into the agenting world, and prepare yourself for deafening silence. It’s not deadly. It’s not career ending. It’s merely… humbling. If and when a request for pages comes through, immediately prepare to be politely dressed down. That’s okay, too, because somewhere within that spanking will be the seed from which you can make your manuscript better. Do so, and stubbornly repeat the process.

The second rule is even more ruthless. If you’ve queried your heart out, and gotten nowhere, the prevailing wisdom is that there is something fundamentally flawed with your writing, the engineering of your story line, or both. Perhaps that’s true, but my beef is with the second half of the premise which states that you should put your manuscript in a drawer, and start anew. Hogwash. Words can be fixed. Story lines rebuilt. Stakes can be raised. Use what you’ve written to learn the craft of writing. You can build your craft on the shoulders of your prior work just as easily as you can from a blank page.

I don’t even know how many times I rewrote THE LEMONCHOLY LIFE OF ANNIE ASTER. It was a lot. And let me tell you, the first draft was so gawd-awful that the pages it was written on are currently on suicide watch.

Moving on to the third rule. Never re-query the same agent. They will know. This is a tricky one, as it implies a number of things, the first being that your pool of agents is more fragile than finite, something to be spooned out with exquisite care lest you sabotage your writing career before it’s even begun. It also implies that your work hasn’t evolved. Worse, it makes agents too remote. They should be respected, not put on a pedestal. And, finally, it implies on some level that you have a crystal ball that will tell you the exact moment an agent will be receptive to your query. I didn’t. So, I did re-query, albeit after I felt my manuscript had improved enough to merit it, and guess what? The world didn’t fall apart, but I did end up generating requests for pages.

And while it’s more an assumption than a rule, don’t be resigned to the inevitability of the slush pile. Find creative ways to reduce the degree of separation between yourself and the agent you are querying—without stalking, of course. That’s creepy. My modus operandi became webinars facilitated by agents. Writer’s Digest was my go-to place, as it fit my meager budget. If the agent reserved the right to request materials from the webinar, I was in! I’ll never forget the day I was sitting on my parents’ porch, my PC on my lap, listening in on a webinar when the agent/facilitator said, “Ladies and gentlemen, here’s an example of a query that breaks all the rules.” Her name was Barbara Poelle. Three days later, she offered to represent me.

The truth is that these rules, the ones that we adhere to so doggedly, were promulgated by an iteration of the literary industry that no longer exists—one that pushed paper over email. The industry has evolved. Recognize that, and honor the intent of the rules, but listen to your gut first and foremost. Unless, of course, it’s telling you to query on pink, scented letterhead embossed with your initials. Then don’t. You’re not Elle Woods.

——————
Scott is an American expat living in New Zealand with his frustratingly perfect husband. A former national title holder in the sport of gymnastics whose left arm is an inch shorter than his right—the result of a career-ending accident—Scott ditched the corporate world to “see where this writing will take me.” He is the author of THE LEMONCHOLY LIFE OF ANNIE ASTER, a commercial fiction novel with a fantasy premise releasing August 1, 2015, that tells the story of two pen pals who are fighting against the clock to solve the mystery behind the hiccup in time connecting their homes before one of them is convicted of a murder that is yet to happen… and yet somehow already did.

Receiving an Offer of Representation: 8 things to know

As you may know if you follow us on twitter, I recently signed with Josh Adams of Adams literary. For me, the process (as I’ve written elsewhere) was exhilarating, flattering . . . and very often stressful and confusing and sometimes downright discouraging.

Wait, you’re saying. You had an agent interested in your work–how can that be discouraging?

That’s what I though too–and to be honest, I was caught way off guard by some aspects of the two weeks following my initial offer before I made a final decision. I found, when I was frantically searching online for information, that there wasn’t a lot of information written about making a decision about an offer of representation–though there are plenty of celebratory posts (and rightly so).

Hence, the reason for this post: I wanted to talk about some of the things I wish I’d known before I got my offer of representation.

1. Celebrate!
I was thrilled when I got that first email from an agent saying she wanted to talk to me. After that, nerves set in: what if we didn’t “click” on the phone? What if no one else was interested? What if lots of others were interested and I had to make a decision?

This may just be my personal quirks at work, but I think I was so anxious about what came after my initial offer of representation, that I didn’t take enough time to enjoy the moment. If you’ve gotten an offer of representation, this is a huge milestone. Take time to celebrate–go do something you love with people you love.

2. Make sure the agent is someone you’re genuinely interested in working with.
There’s a false idea circulating the internet that querying writers should query agents from lower on their list with the idea that if they offer, the writer can use that offer to nudge other agents and prompt more (i.e. better) offers. Jennifer Laughran explains in much better detail than I can why this isn’t a good idea: it’s true that agents will look at your materials more quickly when you nudge them with an offer, but most of the time, those agents will be reading towards “no.”

So don’t jump to nudge those other agents until you’re sure that the first offer is one you’d be happy with–it sometimes happens that this first offer is the only offer a querying writer gets.

3. If # 2 checks out, nudge the other agents.
In my case, I was lucky that the first offering agent was a lovely agent whose clients love her. She could have been a great agent for my book. So, after talking with her, I sent out nudge emails to everyone who had my manuscript–even those who just had open queries. Dahlia Adler and Krista Van Dolzer both have helpful advice for nudging etiquette in this situation.

4. Brace yourself for rejection.
Before getting my offer of rep, it hadn’t occurred to me that by asking agents to get back to me in a relatively narrow window of time (in my case, two weeks because it fell over Thanksgiving; more conventional is 7-10 days), I was essentially inviting lots of rejections to flood my inbox. Because even though I ultimately received five flattering offers–I had way more rejections. Rejections sting. Period. Knowing someone loved my book helped, but not as much as I’d expected. It was far too easy to wonder what the rejecting agent saw in my book that the offering agent missed.

It’s okay to feel bad about these rejections, even with an offer in hand. As one of my smart friends described this experience, “It’s this time you look forward to for so long and then it arrives and you feel sort of awful, and sort of awful for feeling awful because there are so many people who are working so hard to get to this point and haven’t yet.”

But don’t get so caught up in the rejections that you forget the critical point: you have an offer!

5. Take time to de-stress.
I was utterly unprepared for how stressful the whole experience was. In retrospect, I should have known: I was a major basket-case while I was engaged (It still amazes me that my husband still wanted to marry me after that), and I should have known that another major life decision would be equally stressful for me.

And it is stressful. Wonderful, flattering, exciting–and horribly stressful. Sometimes its the stress of wondering if anyone else will offer. (If you’re like me, it’s almost impossible to make a decision until I know what all my options are). Sometimes it’s the stress of having multiple good offers and trying to decide between them.

Expecting the stress can help you plan to consciously de-stress. Unplug for a while. Go do something you love (that’s totally unrelated to writing). I spent a lovely morning at the park with my toddler one day and almost managed to forget what was going on in my writing life.

6. Do your research.
This should be a given. Once the offer(s) come in, do your due diligence. Figure out what questions you most want to ask the offering agent. Make sure you get answers you’re satisfied with. Talk to clients (if possible, call those clients instead of just emailing–sometimes people are more open on the phone than they are when there’s a printed record). Figure out what’s important to you in an agent–that will make your final decision easier.

7. Brace yourself for rejecting.
There’s a reason why I’m not an agent. I’m terrible at telling people no. Having to tell four people who loved my book that I’d chosen a different agent was heart-wrenching. I still get cold chills about it. I hated it. It was absolutely the hardest part of this whole process–and again, something I did not consider when I’d spent time air dreaming about how thrilling it would be to get multiple offers.

If you get more than one offer, you will have to tell someone no. Hopefully, this will be an easy decision–you’ll click with one of the agents, their vision for the book will mesh with yours, and everything will be clear. But if not, know that this part of the offering process can be extremely hard. Do what you need to do to get through it (stock up on chocolate, call a writer friend, have a drink). And know that it’s okay to feel badly about having to reject someone.

8. Celebrate.
Yes, I know, you already did this when you first got the offer. But I think it’s important not to forget to celebrate at the end, when you’ve said yes and you’ve signed the contract and you’re moving on. For me the week was such an overwhelming mix of emotional highs and lows and stress (I had two calls the day I was supposed to decide) that I was simply spent. It took another call from my new agent to remind me that I really did need to celebrate this!

And then it was time to get back to the work of writing (something that, admittedly, suffered during those two weeks).

For those of you with agents, what do you wish you’d known before you got your offer? And for those still hunting–what questions do you have about getting an offer?

The 4 C’s of Writing a Query Letter

We are excited to have Shallee McArthur with today’s guest post!

Queries.

Does that single word fill your writer’s stomach with dread? It used to do that for me. I queried two books before I got an agent, and both times, the writing of the query letter seemed like the most impossible thing on the planet. How could I take my entire amazing story, shrink it down to 250 words, and make it sound amazing?

Eventually, I discovered something important. A query letter is simply a story in miniature. If I wanted to convince an agent I could tell stories, I darn well better write a good 250 word story. And that made me realize…I already knew how to do this. The only difference between writing a query and writing a novel is that they have different formats.

So allow me to share the format that I used to write the query for my book, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee. (If you’ve read Query Shark, these might sound familiar. If you haven’t…go do so.)

A query letter needs the same 4 basic elements a novel does—a query simply strips away the excess and focuses narrowly on them. The format is simple: a Character in a Conflict who makes a Choice with certain Consequences.

Character: Who is the story about? What makes this person worthy of their own story?

Conflict: What goes wrong? What disrupts your character’s status quo? What is the story about?

Choice: What choices does your character face when the conflict rears its ugly head?

Consequence: This is the “or else.” Your character has to make their choice, or else…bad things happen. What specific consequence is your character trying to stop with their choice? Consequences are how to make your reader care about the conflict.

I found that the easiest way to start a query was with a single sentence that described the book and had those four elements. It’s a lot easier to expand from one sentence than it is to shrink down 70,000 words. In fact, it’s kind of like Mad Libs.

When ________ (character) faces _________ (conflict), s/he must ________ (choice) or else ________ (consequence.)

You can play with the format, of course. Here’s my original logline for Unhappening’s query:

A 17-year-old girl who stores her memories in external objects must hunt down a memory thief before she is robbed not only of all her clues, but her entire life.

The reader knows who the story is about (girl who stores memories in external objects), the conflict (memories being stolen), and what choice she has to make (hunting down the thief), before something bad happens (she loses a lifetime of memories).

You don’t want to include the logline itself in the query, instead you want to expand it into a query. How do you do that? Details, my friend. The right kind of details. Now, the right kind is going to depend a lot on the type of book you’re writing. Character-driven? You’ll need more details about the character. Crime thriller? You might want more focus on the conflict and consequences. Being vague about your details can make your story sound generic. But you don’t want to explain all the events of your novel, either. You want to focus on the moments that make your story stand out.

Here’s the pitch from my query to illustrate the kinds of details you can focus on.

“Seventeen-year-old Gena never takes off her Link bracelets. Each one holds her most precious memories—literally. Gena is Mementi, someone who uses the Links to store every moment from her life. Her memories never dim and they’re never forgotten. [This is all character. I focus on my character to explain the essential bits about her world. I try to give the reader a reason to think this is a character they might want to read about. I try to give VISUALS—bracelets never taken off, memories that stay bright.]

But they can be stolen.

A Link thief has already ripped entire lives from six people, including Gena’s best friend. Anyone could be next. Which is why Gena freaks out when a strange boy appears and claims she’s forgotten him. His proof? A recording of his own memory that shows her crashing into him—on the run from the Link thief. [Conflict is right here. I focus on the essential moment where the conflict comes into play: When the boy approaches Gena and she learns her memories are gone. A few sentences of ACTION describing the actual scene are all that’s needed.] 

With suspicion tearing her town apart and hints of a dark purpose that could destroy the Mementi altogether, Gena has to find the thief. Again. Before she forgets anything else.” [This is choice and consequence rolled into one paragraph. In relaying it, I tried to add a bit of drama through WORD CHOICE and sentence structure.]

Writing a query is hard. There’s no doubt about it. Because queries are shorter than novels, we think they should be easier, which is part of where some of query-writing anxiety comes in. Accept that it’s hard. And then remember that you know how to write a story, and that’s all this is. Play with how much or little you want to tell of each of the four elements, and the best order to present them in. Get feedback. Refine it. Try writing it again from scratch to see if a new approach works better.

Do all those things you did when you wrote your book. You are a writer. You’ve totally got this.

————————————–

Shallee McArthur originally wanted to be a scientist, until she discovered she liked her science best in fictional form. When she’s not writing young adult science fiction and fantasy, she’s attempting to raise her son and daughter as proper geeks. A little part of her heart is devoted to Africa after volunteering twice in Ghana. She has a degree in English from Brigham Young University and lives in Utah with her husband and two children. Her YA sci fi novel, THE UNHAPPENING OF GENESIS LEE, debuts Nov. 18, 2014.

And because people always ask, her name is pronounced “shuh-LEE.” But she answers to anything that sounds remotely close.

What Makes You Stand Out?

I had a phone conversation with an author last week—a friend of mine insisted I call her sister (a writer with connections and a fabulous agent) for advice.  While I wasn’t familiar with her work (the call was a little spur-of-the-moment), I was familiar with her agent’s reputation and duly impressed. This sister was lovely, and completely kind to spend a few minutes of her day talking to me.  She advised me on general things, and on contracts, and when our conversation ended, she told me she’d be happy to look something over for me.  I agreed to send her the said something, but as we wrapped up our conversation and I hung up the phone, my spidey senses tingled with the knowledge that I would never hear from her again. [I got this same spidey-sense feeling the week before when a contractor told me over the phone that he would call me “later”…]

I’m not bitter.  At all.  Life is busy, and she really was kind just to talk to me. But our exchange got me thinking about why things ended the way they did, and what I could have done differently.
Hers wasn’t a rejection really, it was more of a,“You’re nice, but I don’t have time for you just now,” brush-off—much like a query letter rejection (or lack of response). The whole situation reminded me so much of querying, in fact, I wrote a list of things I could have done better.

1) [This is personal one] I could have contacted her a different way.  Conversing on the phone is not my strength; I am rubbish at it. I feel insecure when I can’t see faces and gauge reactions.  Is this an official phobia? [it is; I just looked it up: telephobia] because I have it.  Email, postcard, communication by carrier pigeon is better than phone for me.

Which makes me realize that as much as I hate writing query letters, I should be happy that at least we don’t have to speak our book ideas over the phone. [look at that: a query letter silver lining!]

2) I could have been familiar with her work (I should have done my homework).  I could have commented specifically on an aspect of it. Who isn’t thrilled, and more invested in a conversation, when someone is aware of your work?

3) I could have been more confident. I fill my silences (and sometimes my sentences) with silly “maybes, hems, and has, if you don’t mind, I think, er, possiblys” and they weaken what I say.  I don’t want to be aggressive. I don’t want to use people for their connections (I love what Erin Shakespear said about not trying to network). But I definitely could have been more confident and competent-sounding.

4) [This is the big one] I didn’t make myself desirable and/or memorable enough. Frankly, I didn’t stand out.

The funny thing is, I probably could have if I’d made less of an effort [here’s a funny truth about my voice]: I have a mild British accent, but on the phone with strangers, I put on an American one because I don’t want to bother with miscommunication/repeating myself.  My American accent feels fake to me, and sometimes I shudder, but try ordering a taco and water at a drive-in with a British accent [seriously—try it], and then imagine that every time you pick up the phone….

A friend told me he knew someone who got a highly-desired job because of a recommendation from a previous employer who said, “She would be better than a potted plant”.  Apparently, that statement was so memorable—intriguing even—that the applicant stood out among others enough for an interview. (After which I can only assume she wowed with more skills than stationary vegetative growth).

I understand this.  When I was at university, I had a job giving tours (on golf carts!) to people visiting campus. It was the best job ever. After I graduated, I got a full-time position. I was in charge of hiring student tour guides. Whenever we posted a job opening, even for just one day, we got hundreds of applicants.  It was impossible for me to interview them all.  I didn’t have the time to even feel badly about this.  I had to develop a method of selecting whom to interview.  I chose to interview the students who wrote extra comments on their applications (things like, “I ‘d love this job!” “I’ve always wanted to do this!”).  Just showing that extra bit of effort and enthusiasm got them out of my slush pile and into the interview chair. [It was still hard to find really fabulous tour guides—I’m sure I missed some great ones, simply because they didn’t grab my attention at that very first moment.]

I love the idea that we need to write the novel that only we can write.  I believe it. We all have our own experience and expertise. I know I could read Tolstoy for years, but I would never feel comfortable writing novels about 19th Century Russian society. I would, however, feel comfortable writing about places I have lived and experienced personally (Welsh villages, Utah cities, London boroughs, New England country….) or imagined (outer space and alternate universes are free game) as long as I felt passionate about it.

In summary: when querying, being aware of your strengths is important, as is being aware of your audience (doing your homework), having confidence, and sounding competent. Standing out enough to get an agent’s attention (but not in an insincere/gimmicky way) is a must [your voice should be distinct from the get-go].  But your own personal voice matters too.  If I was an agent, I’d like to read, “I got this idea from . . .” It would get me into your head for a second [which is about the amount of time they have to spend on your query letter]. If I liked what I saw, I’d want to read more.

—————————-

Emily Manwaring spent her childhood in Wales, her adolescence in Utah and the time since in England and New Hampshire respectively. She has a degree in English Literature from BYU and currently lives in Northern Utah with her husband and children.  She likes to sleep [mostly she just misses it], read, and write [this makes her sound very lazy].  She is currently working on a picture book series.