I’m going to keep this week’s post short and sweet because my concussion has been acting up a bit, and I’m waiting for my new meds to kick in. I’m still working away on Bri’s revision notes, trying to get my MG Fantasy ready for submission, and I’ve been playing around with some older PBs – all while dealing with sick kids (again!).
I’m off to Montreal this weekend for the Canada East SCBWI Conference, and I’m looking forward to learning, networking, having adult conversation (nothing dirty, just getting to talk to grown-ups), and hopefully sleeping through a whole night. I’ll check in next week and let you know if my critique-choosing method paid off.
When I started querying my (now trunked) first novel, I didn’t even know what a query letter was. My first query letters were basically pathetic cover letters that said “here’s my novel, hope you like it.” Needless to say, I got a lot of form rejections and non-responses. It took me an astonishingly long time to think of asking Google to help me.
So, I thought I would use today’s post to offer some querying tips and advice I learned in the past four years of querying. And, in the spirit of paying it forward, I’m going to offer a query critique to one lucky reader. (More details on that at the end of this post.)
But first, here are my Top Twelve Query Tips:
1. Ask the Internet: There are a ton of sites out there dedicated to helping make queries better. Before I wrote my query for SHADOWCATCHERS, I went to QQQE, Query Shark, and Evil Editor and read practically every post to see what worked and what didn’t.
2. Know Your Audience: By which I mean the expected reader for your book. Make sure you get your age group/book style (Picture Book, Chapter Book, Middle Grade, or Young Adult) and your genre (Contemporary, Fantasy, Romance, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, etc) right. Then make sure your word count is appropriate. Not sure what an appropriate word count is? See Tip #1 above. (Okay, or check out this Literary Rambles post, or this Writer’s Digest post.)
3. Ask for Help: Once you’ve perfected the synopsis portion of your query, get a friend or critique partner (you do have a CP, right? If not, skip the query writing, find a CP and have them go over your manuscript with you before you start querying) to read through your synopsis. I like to pick someone who doesn’t know the story already, so they can tell me where I’ve left out important information. If my synopsis doesn’t make sense to them, it won’t make sense to the agent I’m sending it to. It’s also good to test-send your e-queries to a few friends with different email servers to make sure your formatting doesn’t appear wonky.
4. No Credentials are Better than Inflated Credentials: I think this part of the query letter strikes fear into every unpublished writer’s heart. I mean, how are you supposed to impress an agent if you don’t have anything to brag about? Relax. Not having credentials makes you a debut author – and agents sign those quite often. I didn’t have any credentials, and I still got requests from agents – not to mention, signed by one. But what you don’t want to do is lie/pad your resume. Agents will find out. So only use credentials that count. Agents don’t care if you won your Grade 6 Writing Contest, or are in charge of your PTA newsletter – but if you won a major contest, by all means, include it.
Some agents suggest writing something memorable about yourself in this section, if you don’t have writing credentials (not just that you have kids, or a dog, etc. but something really memorable, like having 15 kids, or raising teams of sled dogs – or say, owning a life-sized stuffed polar bear), but other agents would prefer you just leave this section blank. Which brings us to:
5. Read Each Agent’s Instructions (and Follow Them): It seems like every agent out there wants something different than the last – just a query, query + 5 pages, query + 5 chapters, writing sample embedded in the email, writing sample attached as a word doc, etc. Whatever they ask for – do it. Being different will make you stand out, but not in a good way. And, whatever you do, don’t just BCC (and definitely don’t CC) your whole slew of agents with the same e-query!
6. Personalize Your Query. Or Don’t: It’s always better to personalize your query, if you can. Find an interview or blog post where the agent said something that applies to your writing (I read on x’s blog interview that you are looking for MG Fantasies featuring were-gerbils), or comment on one of their clients (I really enjoy y author’s books), or stalk the hashtag #MSWL (manuscript wish list) – just make sure it’s a recent post, not one from three years ago. But if you can’t find something meaningful to say, it’s okay to say nothing. In fact, I think it’s preferable to have no personalization, than to say something generic like “According to your website, you represent MG, and I write MG.” Yes, I sent out un-personalized queries, and yes, I got requests for them. However, if the reason you can’t find a way to personalize it is because the agent doesn’t seem to like the kind of books you write, then maybe that agent isn’t the best one to represent your book.
7. Get the Little Details Right: I’m not just talking about spelling the agent’s name right (or knowing that they’re a Mx. not a Ms.). I’m talking about all the little formatting details too. For instance, a snail mail query is formatted like a business letter, with all your (and their) contact info, plus the date, at the top of the page. But in an email query the agent would have to scroll through all of that before they got to any of the good stuff, so your contact info goes under your name/e-signature, including any links to blogs, websites, etc. (If you read the Query Shark at all, you’ll already know this.) Both snail and e-queries should be single-spaced with a full return between paragraphs (like the formatting of this blog), but writing samples should be double-spaced. And while we’re at it, remember this is a business letter, so sign off appropriately. A “Thank you for your time and consideration.” followed by “Sincerely,” is the safest way to go.
8. Act Professional: A query letter is like a resume for your book. You want it to look as professional as possible. That means proofread, proofread, proofread! Typos in a query letter are like having spinach in your teeth at a job interview – they won’t necessarily stop you from getting the job, but they’re darn distracting and may make the agent question your professionalism. While you’re at it, make sure you’re sending those e-queries from a professional-sounding email address. Sexygerbilgrrl67@hotmail.com is fine for you and your friends, but not for querying your children’s book. Open up an email account that has your name in it, and use it for all writerly correspondence.
9. Fill in the Agent’s Email Address Last: This tip comes straight from personal experience. As if querying wasn’t already stressful enough, there’s nothing worse than the dread that comes from realizing you accidentally hit “send” too soon. (Seriously, why are “attach” and “send” so close together?) If you save the agent’s email until the end, there’s no chance of having to send that second “oops!” email. Also, it lets you double-check that you’ve addressed it to the right person.
10. Keep Track: I used a word doc (which I printed out during my concussion days), but you can use Excel, recipe cards, or whatever system works for you. I typically put the agent’s name, agency, their expected response time (or no-response time) – in both weeks and date (ie. 4-6 weeks = follow-up after June 6, 2014). If an agent has no stated response time and DOESN’T say they are a “No Response Means No,” I would follow up after 12 weeks with a quick polite email. If you don’t receive a response, count it as a no and move on.
11. Query in Batches: I queried in batches of 5-10 agents at a time. Be sure to include both “dream agents” and not dream agents in each batch, because you only get one chance, and you don’t want to use up all your “dream agents” on the first go. Also, querying in batches lets you assess what’s working and what’s not. Did your first 10 queries come back with form rejections? Maybe it’s time to re-assess your query letter. Fizzling out with partial requests? Take a look at your ms. And, if any agents are generous enough to give you feedback – take it.
12. Grab Some Chocolate and Settle in For the Long Haul: In my experience agents took about 4-16 weeks to reply to queries, 2-8 months on Partials, and up to a year on Fulls. Writing (or at least, publishing) is not a speedy process, so sit back, eat some chocolate, start writing your next piece, and try to keep yourself from checking your email every five minutes.
And now, the part I’m sure you’re waiting for: CONTEST DETAILS! I’m going to make this simple. Just leave a comment with your name, your ms’s genre, age group, and word count, and I will randomly pick one to receive a query critique from me! I’m going to limit this to children’s books, since that’s what I write, and the critique will be private (ie. I won’t post it up on the blog for everyone to see). Contest will close Wednesday May 27 at 6pm EDT, and I’ll announce the winner later that night on the blog and on Twitter (@K_Callard). Good luck! Contest s now closed!
Squee! That’s right, it’s the post I’ve been hoping to write since I started this whole writing journey! How I got my agent!
Rewind to just over a year ago. May 9th, 2014, to be exact. I’d already been querying my MG Fantasy, SHADOWCATCHERS, for about a year. I had entered contests, bought agent critiques, and re-written the ms at least three times (probably more). Thanks to feedback from some generous rejecting agents, and help from my critique group, I’d just done a complete, gut-wrenching tear-down and re-write, and that day I sent out a new batch of queries for my shiny new version.
Then I waited. And waited.
And, while I was waiting, I had my stupid accident, where I hit my head and got my concussion (for the whole boring, embarrassing story of how that happened, click here.) I came home from the hospital with the concussion diagnosis where I’d been told to stay off the computer, and went to bed with a screaming migraine. I was only in bed a few minutes before my husband came up to tell me I’d just got a partial request. (I’d given him permission to check my email, since I wasn’t able.) Squee! This was exciting. My new version was working! Someone liked it! So, I dictated an email response to my fabulously helpful husband, squinted through a very fuzzy proof-read, and sent off the requested 50 pages.
And I waited. And waited.
A rejection came in from that same batch, and another full request. I also sent out a few picture book queries through 12×12, but I wasn’t really paying attention. I was too busy dealing with headaches and migraines, and sleeping as many hours a day as I could squeeze in with three kids under 5.
Flash forward to February of this year. My headaches were under control. I was finally able to go on the computer for a few minutes at a time. I re-started my blog. I also took a look at my querying records and decided 8 months was probably a decent time to follow-up on that 50-page request. So I sent out a polite nudge asking if the agent had had a chance to look at it. Almost immediately my inbox pinged with a new message. It was one of the 12×12 agents, telling me how much she liked the PB I sent her, and asking about other work! Double squee!
So I sent her an email with a blurb for two other PB projects, and my MG, explaining that she had rejected an earlier version of the MG the previous year. While I was waiting for her response, I heard back from Agent #1, who apologized for losing track of the partial, and promised to get back to me ASAP.
The next day, Agent #2 requested one of the other PBs.
The day after that, Agent #1 requested the full of SHADOWCATCHERS.
Cue more waiting. Nail biting. Consumption of massive amounts of chocolate.
At about the three week mark, Agent #1 sent a quick email to check in, telling me she liked my ms and the world, but needed a bit more time to make a decision. She also admitted to doing some light internet stalking of me (:D) and asked about other agents with my work. I told her about Agent #2, and she requested my PBs as well.
More waiting. More chocolate. Maybe even a glass or two of Bailey’s.
Three days later, Agent # 1 emailed again. She liked SHADOWCATCHERS, thought it was original, and marketable…and that it needed work. She gave me a slew of notes and offered to chat with me on the phone and talk me through them, if I was willing to revise and resubmit to her (with a short-term exclusive for the revised version – totally fair).
I read through the notes, and found I was nodding along with each one. Everything she said made complete sense. So I emailed her back and agreed to the re-write. I took a few days to ponder over her notes, and then we spoke on the phone. She was really nice, she practically gushed about my story – which made me feel awesome – and we discussed ways to improve it. Then I embarked on my epic revision (you can read about that here, here, and here).
The only bad thing about Agent #1 (or, at least, confusing thing) was that she didn’t like the PB that Agent #2 had loved. So, I had one agent that liked my MG, but not my PB, and another that liked my PB and not my MG. (This is why they tell you not to query multiple works, by the way. It’s very confusing.) The whole time I was revising, I was praying Agent #2 wouldn’t respond, so I wouldn’t have to make my choice too early. I think it’s the only time I’ve ever hoped to NOT hear back from an agent.
I hit stumbling blocks a few times during the revision process, and each time Agent #1 came to the rescue with advice and thoughts via email. She was a great sounding board, and steered me toward some excellent resources.
Finally, on April 29, I sent Agent #1 the new version.
More waiting, chocolate, and general crazy-going.
Until May 5th. That’s when Agent #1 emailed to say she loved it and wanted to work with me! We set up a phone call, during which I asked none of the “Questions to Ask a Literary Agent Before You Sign” – mostly because I’d already done a ton of research on her before agreeing to the re-write. I accepted, and sent Agent #2 a polite note withdrawing my PBs and explaining I’d signed with another agent. Because, after all the advice, the work, and the knowledge Agent #1 had shared, I already knew she was the agent for me.
And how did I celebrate, you ask? With this appropriate little gem I’ve been saving just for this occasion:
That’s right, a camel’s milk chocolate bar (SHADOWCATCHERS takes place in an ancient desert land). To be honest, it kind of just tasted like regular milk chocolate, which is pretty impressive considering how long I’d held onto it.
So there you have it. My almost year-in-the-making story of how I got my agent.
For those of you who like stats, here’s the SHADOWCATCHERS breakdown:
Two months ago, I posted a list of my short term writing goals (see the full post here). It’s been a grueling couple of months, full of sick kids (hey, at least being tethered to the house meant lots of time for writing), stress, and a measles scare,* but I promised to let you know how I did with my goals, so here we go:
1. Continue to write one blog post each week. If you’ve been following my blog at all, you know I’ve managed this one. Some weeks may have been harder than others, but I still get to tick it off. Yay!
2. Work on revising my MG Fantasy. Also a big check mark for this one! I love this shiny new version more than words can express. Now if only someone else will love it, too.
3. Perfect the 250-word synopsis for my YA Contemporary draft. Another yes! According to my crit partners, my synopsis has them itching to read on, but I’ll have to wait and see what other critiquers think.
4. Name my YA Contemporary draft (my working titles just aren’t, well…working). D’oh. You’d think this would be the easiest of them all. I mean, hypothetically, I only had to come up with one word. But I couldn’t seem to find the right word (or combination of words). I did come up with a title I liked better, but a quick Google search told me it’d already been used for not one, but two, other books. So, for now, I’ll be keeping its working title, GEEK.
5. Apply for a SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grant (for that YA Contemporary draft). Yeah, this one didn’t happen either. When I went back to read the fine print before sending, I saw that the “Work-in-Progress” grant is actually for completed, polished, ready-to-submit-to-an-editor pieces, which my YA isn’t. I debated sending a PB, but I was short on time at that point, and I didn’t think a rushed entry would do my work justice.
6. Decide which manuscripts to submit for the various levels of critique at the Montreal SCBWI Conference at the end of May. Done and done. For insights on how I made that decision, check out my post here.
BONUS I also wrote a first draft of a PB that’s been kicking around my brain for a while. It needs a lot of work, but it’s the first completely new material I’ve written since my concussion almost a year ago.
So there you have it. I’m happy with my results (okay, I wish I could’ve come up with a better name for the YA, but otherwise I’m happy). Now to start working on my goals for the next two months. What about you? How’d you do on your goals?
*The measles-scare story: The Girl had a rash that was diagnosed as Influenza A. About 5 days later Boy #1 woke up with an even worse rash. Took him to the doctor, who wasn’t sure if his rash was the same as the Girl’s, or measles. I know what you’re thinking, but we vaccinated, honest. However, vaccines are only 99% effective. We came exceptionally close to getting quarantined that day, but fortunately the docs realized it was very, very unlikely for a vaccinated kid to get measles within days of his sister having a completely unrelated rash. We’re not quarantined, but Boy #1 is not allowed out of the house until they rule out measles. Results came in this week that he does NOT have Influenza A like his sister, but they are still testing for a few other viruses before testing for measles – which means we still might all end up in quarantine…