From 2014 to 2016, I queried a novel for the first time.
I was a freshman in college. I extensively researched agents. I got a couple of requests. I changed my manuscript drastically. I queried again. I got some great leads. I got a lot of dead ends.
I started playing a game with my best friend; we guessed in a Final Four-style bracket who would reject me next. I got used to the epic silence of querying, and the fact that, after waiting six weeks and looking to my inbox like it was the bottom of the Christmas tree, “no answer” would have to be a sufficient answer for me.
My book was good. I still think so. I still have dreams about that story and I still get excited about how I could make it even better now.
Fortunately, I didn’t stop my writing career while I was querying. I wrote four more books while I waited. I became more integrated into the writing community on Twitter, and for the first time, I found writing friends.
I have seen a lot of people grow tired. Grow jaded with writing in general, and especially with the industry. That’s fine. Some people follow this path only to learn traditional publishing isn’t for them. Querying is such a good time for reflection. You’re suffering in the weirdest, easiest, most quiet way possible, and it’s a perfect moment to consider—or reconsider—why you want to write, why you want to share this story, and why your anxious stomach aches are worth it all.
There isn’t a simple fix on how to query fearlessly. Fear is part of the game. Losing hope is natural—if you hear no (or no response) at every turn, of course you’re going to feel like this whole writing thing isn’t for you.
Here are some things that helped me.
1. Make writing friends
Through #CPMatch and through Pitch Wars, I was able to meet people who critiqued my MS, shared their wisdom with me, encouraged me, and taught me so much. I read incredible manuscripts and learned how to write stronger. There were techniques I’d never tried before. Plot holes and weaknesses in my stories that I hadn’t really seen before. Above all, the empathy from my writing people is the best part. Querying, writing, revising; it’s all a battle, and to have someone check in on you, talk about their own struggles, and identify with the rough parts of the writing journey? It makes you feel like you aren’t alone and you aren’t stupid for attempting to share your story with the world.
2. Keep writing
Many writers find themselves tempted to go back and touch up their manuscript even while it’s sitting in an agent’s inbox. RESIST! This will end up being a hassle in the long run and you may never find yourself satisfied with the condition of your book. At some point, you have to take your hands away from your manuscript FOREVER, when it goes off to be printed… practice that self-control now!
Instead, edit an old story or start a new one! Becoming invested in new stories and new characters is a great distraction and reminds you why you thought writing was so great in the first place. It’s also great in case you want to try querying a different project someday—or if you land an agent, you might get to show off that new manuscript in your back pocket!
3. Reflect, don’t wallow
Taking time away from writing can also be a good thing. You should give yourself the chance to pause and think about why you want to query, why you love writing, why this story should be shared.
There is a dangerous and false assumption that being critical of yourself is the same as being humble. This isn’t the case. If you get a scathing rejection—which I’ve found to be rare, from my experience and others’—mourn, but don’t let those words define you. The writer you are today is not the writer you’ll be forever. One person’s critique of you doesn’t put you or the quality of your writing into a box. Even if one agent or critique partner—or two or three—points out a flaw you’re hyperaware of, turn that negative thought “I suck at this” into the more positive “I can get better at this.” Ask for help. Do writing exercises. Write fanfiction. The best way to grow in your writing is to exercise your writing muscle, and in my opinion, the best way to do this is to have fun while you do it.
You’re allowed to be sad or scared while you’re querying. You’re even allowed to feel hopeless. But the attitude you choose is also going to color how the next weeks and months of waiting will be. Don’t let your moment of sitting in your sadness turn into you rolling around in a puddle of tears.
4. Distract yourself
If you don’t want to distract yourself with writing, but still want to feel productive, read more books in your genre and/or age category. Consult with your Critique Partners or #amwriting; you may find a new and even better comp title for the novel you’re querying or your work in progress. Reading can also help you identify how other authors have addressed similar problems you find in your own writing (how to write strong dialogue, how to weave complicated plots together, how to juggle multiple POVs, et cetera).
Lastly, here are some things I learned while querying:
1. Query thoughtfully
As the process dragged on, I started to feel like my queries didn’t really matter, and I might as well send as many as I wanted on the off chance I got an agent’s attention. The thrill of clicking send and marking a new name on my query chart made me feel productive, even if I knew deep down that the agent wouldn’t be interested in my book.
If you find yourself sending a query to someone who didn’t say they didn’t want your genre… maybe reconsider.
The person you query is going to be your partner in your art. Make sure, even if they’re the eightieth person you query, that you know something about them, that you like them, and that you feel like they could actually be a good fit for your project.
2. Personalize your queries
This step is a given for most people, but it bears repeating and also connects to my previous point. Research your agents. Use MSWL (Manuscript Wish List). Check their Twitter. See what they like to read. Find blog posts or interviews. Find some sort of touchstone between your book and their interests and mention this in a line or two in your query. It shows that you’re not just spamming agents with queries and that you are invested in your project and willing to put in the work.
3. Make a chart
I made a document listing every agent I queried, their agency, and their email. I color-coded it according to what materials they requested or if they rejected. I also included the date I sent the query or the requested material, as well as an “expiration date”, the date when I would consider the query to be a “no reply means no.” Many agencies will list this expiration date on their website (it’s usually about six weeks), and QueryTracker is another place where you can see how long it takes for an agent to get back to you, typically.
4. Go slow and be willing to change your query or materials
When you first start out, send five to seven queries. Then wait. If you get no response at all, consider tweaking your query or looking back at the first ten pages you’ve sent. This is where your critique partners and other outside voices will help. Two agents told me they felt my story opened in the wrong place, and I paused, made my story stronger, and then sent more queries, to better results. Some other people suggested I change my age category. This also helped me get more positive feedback.
5. Make sure your story is “as advertised”
This is the biggest problem I see in queries I read over. If your selling point in your query is that your story heavily features robot unicorns and your first chapter takes place in ancient Babylon, I’m going to be a little confused and disappointed on the lack of robot unicorns. Your opening may be too slow, or your query may be making promises that are a little misleading in the grand scheme of your novel. Remember that an agent may only see the first five to ten pages of your book. You don’t necessarily need to name-drop the robot unicorns in chapter one, but give us enough of a teaser to make us believe that there will in fact be robot unicorns in your story.
If you’re querying now or if you’re thinking about it, I urge you to continue in your brave but worthwhile journey. I don’t regret the years I tried to get my book published. I’m not embarrassed with my attempts. Instead, I can already see how much I’ve grown, as a person, as a writer, as a critique partner. I’m going to query again someday soon. Maybe I’m met with dead ends like before. Maybe things will be different. Win or lose, I know that I will leave the battle proud of myself and ready to try again stronger.