Everything I Know About Querying: Preparation
I recently shared, in a series of comically long emails, everything I learned about querying with a fellow author who was just starting out on her journey. At the end, she mentioned people might like to hear about my experience, and I thought, sure, why not. It's not like I'm particularly passionate about it after writing probably two-thousand words on the subject.
As such, I'm going to break these up into smaller pieces, because it'll be way more easily digestible if I don't dump it all out all at once.
So, preparing to query.
Here is what I learned the hard way: there is a very good chance that you are not ready to query. I sure as hell wasn't, and I wasted so much time, energy, and potential leads on agents because of it.
Let's take a step back before I crush your dreams further.
Querying is the process authors use to find agents who might want to represent them to sell a manuscript to a publisher. They're the middle-man, of sorts, that help you polish, frame, and access editors (who work for publishers) and sell your books to them.
(Here, I just want to say that yes, I sold my first two manuscripts of the Saffron Everleigh Mysteries without an agent, so no, you do not have to have an agent in order to be traditionally published. I should also note that any information I share is based on a combination of my experience querying agents three different projects over the course of three years.)
I experienced a lot of impatience during my querying process (if you know, you know- the waiting game is endless and brutal), but my first experience with impatience as a writer was the impatience I felt in getting ready to send out queries. I'd finished my manuscript, edited it half a dozen times after my friends and family read it, and thought it was good. I wrote a query letter based on the information I found online about how to do it, and began researching agents.
At this point, I'd never read a craft book, visited a critique group, or had anyone other than family and friends read my work.
My query wasn't great (more on that later), but more importantly, my manuscript wasn't great.
Don't get me wrong: for someone who'd never dreamed she'd write a book, let alone attempt to get it published, it was pretty good. But I had about three chapters on the front end of the manuscript that needed to be chopped. I hadn’t quite nailed down the essential why’s of Saffron. Why was she so keen to investigate? Why was she making questionable decisions? Why was this story unique and worth paying attention to?
The Literary Gods smiled at me, however. I somehow found another author who was incredibly generous and edited my book for me, asking me those hard questions and pointing out any time Saffron’s naivety was simply too much to bear. She kicked my ass and it was the best possible thing for me at that time. Christie, I will never stop singing your praises!
Not all of us, or even a significant portion of us, will have a Christie. We have to be our own Christie by educating ourselves on what to look for in our manuscripts, and in other books, that will take them from being good to be great, amazing, breathtaking-- all the things agents are looking for.
Because here is the hard truth: You will not get an agent unless your work is good.
Agents and editors at publishing houses don't have time to coach an OK writer into becoming a great writer. You have to do the work before you give your story to them.
I thought being a lover of mystery was enough to write a great mystery. I thought binging a hundred excellent books taught me enough to write one.
But loving books and reading lots of them isn't enough.
This is the number one thing I would have done differently in this stage of the querying journey: I should have educated myself about the craft of writing before sending even one query.
Let's be real. If someone had told me to slow down, rework my story, read craft books, and all of that right when I was preparing to query, I wouldn't have listened. But trust me when I say, if you haven't been developing your craft while you're writing, you are kneecapping your potential and your manuscript's potential to get you an agent and/or sold.
These are some of the things I've done over the course of the past five (five??) years: read craft books, listened to writing podcasts, and studied books I thought were amazing to see what made them so good.
These craft books in particular transformed my writing:
To learn about story arcs and how character development should guide them, I studied Story Genius by Lisa Cron. This is a staple for fiction writers, and you've probably already seen it recommended a hundred times. There is a reason for that. The pre-writing questions and exercises are excellent. I highly recommend the exercises both as brainstorming tools before you start writing and as revision tools.
Save the Cat! Writes A Novel by Jessica Brody is equally required reading. This is a pacing tool, as well as a genre tool, that I found invaluable. Pacing is not my strong suit, and this book taught me what story beats were, how they look in different types of stories, and a general formula I could use to make sure my story wasn't getting off track and using thousands of words in the wrong place.
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King is a damn gem that I do not see often enough in writers' circles. What didn't it teach me about editing? From the big picture to the small details, this made my writing and editing so much more careful. You can read it front to back, or use it as a step-by-step guide to editing your manuscript.
The Story Grid by Shawn Coyne is similar-ish to Save the Cat! I wouldn't call it required reading, but if you want to learn, in-depth, the intricacies of pacing and how the outer story reflects the inner transformation of your hero, this is amazing.
Before you even write a query letter, you should have already:
Drafted the entire manuscript.
Revised it several times for plot, character, etc.
Edited it for grammar, spelling, punctuation, etc. (Use Grammarly!)
Had at least one round of beta readers (who read the genre you write) and made changes based on their feedback.
I'll be discussing choosing agents and writing the query in separate posts, so I'll stick to this other element of querying, the elephant in the room, a bummer that no one likes to talk about: mental health.
You need a plan before you find yourself where I so often found myself: staring at my inbox, refreshing it a thousand times a day, brewing in a toxic mixture of dread, hope, and impatience. Everyone gets there, but you need a way to slow your descent into it and a way to pull yourself out of it.
I have no magic answers for this, but I can tell you it is essential to not do this alone. Having a writing community will save your sanity. They can relate in a way that non-writers can't. They will champion you, celebrate you, and commiserate with you. When you hit your milestones, like the first query, rejection, or request, they'll be there to cheer you on.
Like educating yourself, however, I wouldn't sleep on this. Start building community now. It could be on IG, Twitter, in person, whatever. Start cheering on other authors, liking their content that speaks to you, asking to read their stuff. Learn from them, as many of them will struggle and succeed in the same things you are. Invest in your relationships, not just so you'll have people to cry to, but because we're wired to connect with others and writer friends are the best. They not only accept but encourage your unique brand of weirdness.
Set up a separate email for your writerly business and do not connect that email to your phone. If you're like me and your phone rarely leaves your hand, this is a sure way to prevent your excitement and anxiety from clawing away your self-control. If you have superhuman self-control, set a specific time a day or week to check that inbox and don't let yourself refresh it a thousand times. You could also ask a friend or family member to check it for you if you're worried you'll obsess over it.
If you're worried about your ego and enthusiasm being decimated, create a document where you paste positive reviews, emails, or beta comments for a rainy day when everything sucks, especially your book, and you want to quit. It's so easy to remember and internalize negative critiques. It's much harder, especially when you're feeling low, to remember the reasons why you love your work. When you're facing your fiftieth rejection, you might need to remember your whys to persevere long enough for that fifty-first agent to give you a yes.
And finally: work on another project while querying. Make your moodboards and playlists, daydream and doodle, and actually write. It'll distract you from the wait and keep you excited and positive about writing through the roller coaster of requests and rejections. Plus, agents will ask you about what other books you want to write and sell, and it's best to have at least ideas if not pages you can send them. They'll take you on without that, but it's never bad to have an extra selling point for yourself.
In a nutshell: To prepare for querying, you need to:
Educate yourself about writing craft
Educate yourself about the querying process
Bulwark your mental health by building community, separating your writerly emails, building up why you love writing, and working on another project.
If you've queried, successfully or unsuccessfully, what else would you add?
The next post in this series will look specifically at choosing agents, because that is a very, very important part of this whole process that <strike>I</strike> many people don't consider enough.
Thanks for reading!