Query: To ask a question about something, especially in order to express one’s doubts about it or to check its validity or accuracy, “many people queried whether any harm had been done.”
As many of you who follow me on Twitter know, earlier this year I returned to the slush pile full of hope and determination and queried my third novel to agents and independent publishers. Yes, I’m fortunate enough to be one of those writers with a happy ending now, but just to reassure you (if that’s the right phrase) I have queried two other novels before this, and on both of those occasions the process did not end in agent representation, a publishing deal or champagne. It ended with me feeling like a total failure and wanting to give up writing forever, obviously.
If you search #amquerying then your timeline will be filled with hopeful writers. Cries of, ‘I GOT A FULL MANUSCRIPT REQUEST’ appear sandwiched between dejected writers whose work has been rejected for the first, the thirtieth or what feels like the millionth time. There will be huge support, back patting, congratulations, hugs and/or solidarity because most writers have been in the querying trenches and – whatever their personal outcome – know how being there feels. The writing community is awesome.
But querying, even with support, is still tough.
Often, querying sucks what little hope you have left from your body. From the form rejections, to the polite, ‘just not right for my list,’ ones, and the, ‘oh so close, but in the end, no,’ replies as well as – and by far the worst for me – no reply at all. As I write this I am still waiting to hear from two agents who I am pretty sure have ghosted me. They’re busy, I get it and I 100% understand, but that doesn’t mean it sucks any less to be the writer not even worthy of a rejection. And so, having been through the querying process and having received my fair share of rejections, I thought maybe a blog post that might help querying writers or those about to query would be useful. And so here goes… (Worth remembering here – these are things that helped me, we’re all different and so what I’ve written here might be anything but helpful for you, in which case, I’m sorry, take what you can from the below.) (Also, these are in no particular order, simply written as they came into my head.)
1. Find your tribe: A good rule for all things in life, right? Not always easy though. I’ve been lucky enough to gather up a whole host of writing buddies over the years and I’d be lost without them, and not just on the writing front. They’ve come from courses I’ve done, parents on the school run, Instagram, Twitter, writing retreats, cafes, literally anywhere you can think of I’ve connected and kept close. Of course not everyone has stayed with me but even if they were only part of this writing (man, I hate this word) ‘journey’ of mine for a short time they still count. Your writing tribe can be virtual or from real life or a combination of the two. Find people who believe in you, who boost you when you’re down, who nod when you say you’re giving up again and then wait patiently for you to change your mind. Who read your work and provide detailed, honest feedback. Who encourage you without pressure. Who send you links to useful sites or articles. Who hand make you a wooden block to hold your very own sharpie for signing your future published books because they have so much faith in you they know it’ll happen (Emily Koch I am looking at you here!) Talk to them on the phone, email them, text or Whatsapp, write with them in cafes or on retreats, walk with them, share with them, and be vulnerable with them. And give it back. When you find your tribe, large or small, one person or one hundred, give it all back. Pass the support on, the advice, the love. It takes a village to raise a child and a whole community to support a writer.
2. Do your research. This is a biggie. Use the Writers and Artists’ Yearbook, get a highlighter out that I know you all have and go wild. Then go to their websites and look at their authors, read their interviews, scour their wish lists. I cannot tell you how important this is. If you submit fantasy to someone who clearly says they don’t represent fantasy then you are doing yourself no favours. Just like you did with your novel – research, research, research.
3. Write something else, who cares what? While you are in the querying trenches do not edit the novel you’ve sent out. Put it to one side. Give yourself some space and time away from it. Get started on the next novel, poetry, short stories, memoir, creative non-fiction project, anything! Move on. Or, have a break. I did both. At first I was full of adrenaline from sending out my work and so I got cracking on the next novel, it was a welcome distraction and stopped me refreshing my emails every five seconds. Well, almost. And then, after a while and as the rejections started to come in, I lost hope a bit, and any inspiration disappeared alongside what little hope I had left. And so I gave myself permission to have a break. Instead, I read all the books. From ones about the process of plotting and writing, to fiction books that had been piling up on my tbr pile. I’d written a novel, I was querying, I deserved a break!
4. Make a spreadsheet of all the people you are submitting to. Trust me, I am an organized person and I still found out that it’s VERY easy to lose track of who you have sent what to and when. Also, it’s a good idea to add when’s the latest you can expect to hear back from the agency, and have they requested the full or not. Any feedback given was also added to this spread sheet so I could look for patterns and address if I needed to. I wish I’d added the email of the person/agency I had submitted to as well, as when it came to letting them know I’d had full manuscript requests elsewhere I found it hard to remember if I’d used an online form, or had to submit to an assistant and not the actual agent. Here’s a rough idea of my spreadsheet and column headings…
5. Personalise your query letter. This should come under the do your research section above really – when you’ve done your research on the agent and agency then use it in your query letter. Let them know why you have chosen them! Maybe I should write another blogpost purely on query letters? Although, I think the best thing to do would be to point you in the direction of https://www.mushens-entertainment.com/blog/the-perfect-cover-letter for that as they have a great one as well as blogs on all sorts of other useful things! It is important to mention that some of the nicest feedback I got, alongside detailed feedback on my writing, was thanking me for writing such a personalised letter.
6. Get someone who hasn’t read your book to read your synopsis. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but wither way it gets you thinking. I take every opportunity I’m offered for people to read my work and one thing I’d not done before was to have someone who hadn’t read the novel, or even spoken to me about it, read my synopsis. The feedback was always useful; it helps to know whether your story comes across cohesively, if your characters on first appearances are believable, if the plot reminds them of something they’d read before. They may have questions and it’s good to know what these are and if they need to be addressed. Again, there are so many blog posts about synopsis writing so I’m not going to go into that (apart from to say it’s a shitter, hats off and thanks to Gytha Lodge for nailing mine!) but having someone read it cold is a practise I will do with every novel I write from now on.
7. Rejections, ahhhh the endless and unforgiving rejections. Where to start with this one? Some will sting more than others. Some will haunt you. Some you will cry over. Some you will laugh about. Some you know are coming and others take your breath away when they do. Some offer hope, and some take all hope away. My advice on dealing with them is simple, they will happen, they are part of the process, and they are shit. BUT, they are also useful. Take what you can from them, stick ANY positive sentence or phrase or word up where you can see it and read over and over and over again. Hold on to what validation you can get because in the writing world external validation is often hard to come by. Take ANY feedback as gold dust, agents are busy, busy bees and if they have taken the time to respond to your submission and give you honest, individual feedback then that is worth holding on to each and every time. And then…
8. Channel your inner Elizabeth Gilbert and Big Magic style fire another query out. Doing this always made me feels better. And if you haven’t read Big Magic then do so IMMEDIATELY. Yes, Elizabeth Gilbert has written the book from a place of published privilege, but it is still one of the most uplifting books about being creative that I’ve ever read. Actually, I’m definitely due a re-read…
9. Have patience. You have no choice but to be patient when actually querying (I HATED it!) but here I mean before you even start. Not being patient is almost certainly where I fucked up with novel number two, and novel number three before this round of querying. If you’re anything like me you type ‘THE END’ and then immediately want to send it to everyone. But, no! Wait! If you can bear it (I never can) close your manuscript and don’t peak at it again for a few weeks if not months. Then edit the shit out of it. Send to beta readers (I refer you back to point 1!) gather their feedback and use it to polish your manuscript to within an inch of it’s life. Edit edit edit. Read read read. DO NOT SEND IT OUT TOO SOON. I cannot stress this enough.
10. Pitch Wars and Twitter comps. These are great, but not the be all and end all. I had a full manuscript request off the back of one and then some amazingly encouraging feedback, although I have also taken part and not received any agent likes. Have a look for #pitmad on Twitter, which happens every quarter. At other times agencies often have mini competitions or pitching events. In these it can be useful to scroll through and see what kind of pitches your dream agent has liked to get a feel for what they are looking for.
11. Accept any offers of help. I think I’ve mentioned this a few times now, but it’s so important. Do not be afraid to ask. Do not be afraid to show people your work. Twitter is a great place for this. There are often wonderful writers offering their services and I when I feel I am worthy I will pass on all of the help I have received and offer to help myself. The only caveat would be to not feel you have to take on all the advice given. Use what your gut tells you feels right and if more than one person has feedback the same then have a mull over what they’ve said. Yes, accepting offers of help is amazing, but too many cooks spoil the broth for want of a better phrase. What I mean is, don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and ask. If someone offers they usually mean it and you are not being a burden if you accept. But maybe don’t accept more than a handful of beat readers for each edit otherwise you could have feedback overload.
13. Do follow up queries. If an agency states on their website that they are open to follow ups, say twelve weeks after you queried if you’ve heard nothing, then do follow up. I emailed one agency to let them know about my other full manuscript requests and received an email saying they’d lost my submission and could I please resubmit. Funnily enough, several weeks later, I received not one, but two rejections from them. I won’t name and shame, but safe to say if I hadn’t followed up and they had been interested I’d have missed out.
14. Have a treat for every rejection. This was a suggestion made by someone on Twitter and I’m mortified that I’ve forgotten who it was. (Shout if it was you and I will edit!) But, the idea was to have a delicious chocolate, or special gin, or buy a new notebook, simply anything you like to cheer yourself up and make you feel comforted after every rejection. I went for the chocolate option but next time I think I might opt for notebooks, as I never have enough. (This is a lie. I could legit open my own stationary shop.)
15. Persist. Fay Weldon once said to me, when I was having an epic toddler tantrum over a rejection that stung, that if I gave up I’d never get published, and that stuck. She was right, of course, but I wanted to shout at her that she didn’t have a crystal ball and there was no guarantee I’d ever be published and at the time I needed that guarantee. But I persisted, and then gave up again at least a hundred more times, before persisting again. If it’s meant for you, it will not pass you by.
16. Don’t accept your first offer. I’ve never been in the position of more than one offer, if only, but I know people who have and their advice is to be patient and think hard if you are fortunate to be offered representation or publication by more than one agency or publishing group. Meet them in person or talk on the phone if you can. Listen to your gut.
And there ends my – hopefully helpful – querying blog. I am sure I have missed out many more important points. If you have anything you’d like to add then please do get in touch and I’ll edit this post to include your thoughts!
And finally, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the end of my story. Yes, I have a publishing deal and yes, it is amazing, but I’d still love to have an agent and so I will once more be querying when this next novel is finished. Maybe I’ll come back and read this blogpost then… in the meantime, good luck to you all x