Do Your Homework: Climbing Out of the #amquerying Trenches
Do you know how many of these posts I read when I was in the querying trenches? Maybe a couple dozen. Or fifty. Maybe (probably) more. But the bottom line is, they all had one thing in common: DO YOUR HOMEWORK BEFORE YOU START QUERYING.
That’s right. There’s no magic spell, no secret handshake. To get an agent, you really have to do your homework. To clarify, this also means that before you do your querying homework, you’ve got a manuscript that you’ve revised, workshopped with peers, revised again, shared with beta readers who are fans of your genre, and revised again. This does not mean that you ripped off a rough draft in a couple of weeks and shot your manuscript into the constellations of well-known agents.
So, okay, Miranda. I’ll do my homework, you say. But what does that entail?
Step 1: Find out who reps your favorite authors.
You know all those beautiful, amazing books that made you want to be a writer in the first place? The storytellers that ensnared you, bewitched you, and broke your heart? Read their acknowledgements. First of all, it’s amazing to see all the people who played a part in their success. (Take a moment and fantasize about the acknowledgements section of your book. You know you want to.) Second, see which agents those writers are thanking. If you’re writing the same genre, those agents might be interested in representing you, as well. Or, if that agent’s not taking on any more clients, there might be someone else in their agency who would love to take on a fresh, new voice because they’re actively building their client list.
Next, look ALL those agents up online. Don’t just absently scroll through their sites. Take the time to carefully read what the agents have to say. What kind of manuscripts are they looking for? Are they desperately seeking YA fairytale retellings or are they over them? Do they want to see more magical realism or a heroic space journey with lots of 80’s pop culture references? Take notes! Even if your query-ready manuscript isn’t a heroic space journey, maybe the next one will be, and you’ll be able to look back through your notes and find this agent again.
Bonus Query-Trench Points: Referencing the agent’s website wish list in your query letter. I know from your agency profile that you’re interested in finding the next YA novel with a Sarah-Dessen-feel that’s also set in space, and I feel like my manuscript fits this description makes it clear that you are interested in working with this specific agent because you’ve taken the time to research them, and that you’re looking for a good home for both you and your manuscript.
Step 2: QueryTracker is your friend, and also your new obsession. ( https://querytracker.net)
Do you know how many hours I’ve spent on QueryTracker? Let’s not talk about it. My husband gets jealous. QueryTracker is an online resource for writers to find agents who represent their genre, as well as tracking their query progress/success. You can subscribe for the basic service for free, or upgrade your subscription to get more detailed reports on things like how long it usually takes an agent to reply to a query, etc. The website gets updated with when agents are accepting queries and when they might be closed to queries because they’re on maternity leave or traveling abroad (or just swamped). Use the site to compile a list of agents who represent your genre. Being sort of a spreadsheet-hater myself, I had a special notebook, the same one I used to take notes from agent’s websites (read this as a 99-cent composition book, not a handmade engraved leather book) that I used to make a list of agents representing my genre, including the typical length of time it took them to respond to queries, clients they represented, and their #MSWL. You can also use QueryTracker see what the agents are requesting (most entries include the title/genre/wordcount) and what they’re rejecting, and this can give you an idea of who might be interested in your work and who is likely not looking for SPACE BUNNIES/YA SFF/300k words.
Step 3: Tweet yo’self. (Sorry, I’m a Parks & Rec fan, so I couldn’t help myself.)
You probably already know that the YA publishing world has set up shop on Twitter, and it’s a great place to meet other writers, observe and study the publishing process, and follow agents. In fact, go ahead and make a Twitter List called Agents. Fill it with all the agents you’ve found on QueryTracker. Congratulations, you now have a live feed of what those agents are thinking, reading, and chatting about. Check it often. Not in a scary-stalker kind of way, but enough to see what agents are interested in and to find which agents seem like they would be someone you’d want to build a long career with. Because it’s not just about landing an agent. This is a person you’re going to work with, someone you’re going to trust to look out for you and your best interests. This person is going to be your super-ninja-agent. Do they have a sense of humor? Do they only rage-tweet about incompetent writers who can’t follow submission guidelines? Do they photoshop pictures of their cat into 90’s movie scenes? (This might be okay for some people, but I’m a dog-person.)
While you’re scrolling through your Twitter feed, keep in mind that most agents do not want to be pitched to via Twitter. The only exception to this would be if there’s some kind of pitch event taking place (#DVpit, #PitMad, etc.) that invites writers to pitch using a specific hashtag. Or, some agencies will set up an hour or two in a special #Ask(agencyname) event where you can ask questions about their submission policies, wishlists, or current trends. But the bottom line is, don’t pitch your manuscript on Twitter unless invited to. And definitely don’t creep agents out by DM’ing them pictures of your dog and telling them that you want to set up a playdate for your bulldog and their corgi that would culminate in a scene like in Lady and The Tramp where they’re eating spaghetti together. (I swear, I’ve never done this.)
Search the hashtag #MSWL. That stands for Manuscript Wish List, and there’s also a super amazing website you can check out, too ( http://www.manuscriptwishlist.com ). But back to Twitter! Agents tweet #MSWL posts that say something like #MSWL: Desperately wanting SFF YA that’s Gossip Girl + Space. And you suddenly say to yourself, OMG that describes my manuscript perfectly, and you can even reference that tweet in your query letter. This helps you because it shows that you’re interested in your agent as an awesome human who has great taste and as a person you want to work with, not just a random name that you found and queried.
Bonus Query-Trench Points: Stopping yourself from rage-tweeting. Especially something like, OMG Querying sucks hardcore & Agent X sent me a form rejection because he’s a jerkface *insert rude gif*. Remember that just like you’re researching agents on Twitter and other social media sites, they’re doing the same thing to you once you query them. If you look like you’re a bitter, vengeful human with a command of offensive gifs, they’re probably not going to want to represent you. If you are frustrated with querying, and of course, at times you will be, vent to a sympathetic friend privately. You’ll thank me later.
Step 4: Comps matter.
So you’ve read a million blog posts on how to write a query letter. But have you read any actual query letters? If not, check out the websites of those agents you followed on Twitter. Many of them have blogs of their own (treasure troves!) that share successful query letters of the authors you know and love. Read those. What do they have in common? Of course, they have a great hook and strong writing, but they also have concise comps. When you say My manuscript has a mother/daughter relationship it gives a vague picture. Is this mother/daughter relationship like Cinderella and her wicked stepmother? Is it like Laura and Ma in Little House on the Prairie? Hard to say. But when you say My manuscript is Gilmore Girls meets The Handmaid’s Tale, well, that paints a very specific image in an agent’s mind. So now we’ve got complex and sometimes troubled mother/daughter relationships PLUS a dystopian world. Well, that’s specific, and maybe an agent tweeted #MSWL: Missing that Gilmore Girls relationship, and this comp is going to attract their attention. Because good comps aren’t only a way for you to explain your book to an agent, they’re also a great way for an agent to share what qualities they’re looking for. #MSWL: Creepy supernatural elements like in The Raven Boys. #MSWL: Swoon-worthy love story like The Sun is Also a Star. #MSWL: Lara Jean meets Katniss in the wild west.
Also, there’s no hard and fast rule that you can’t reference TV or movies, so don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to only books that are popular in your genre. It’s going to be difficult to live up to expectations if you say my manuscript is NYT bestseller #1 book meets NYT bestseller #2 book. Because if your book isn’t shooting starlight and rainbows from the first paragraph, the agent reading is going to be disappointed. Likewise, if you comp obscure texts from seventy years ago, agents might not get any feel at all for your work, or wonder if you’re in touch with the current market.
Step 5: You're ready to query--- in batches.
You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating. Don’t send out forty queries at once and then sit down with your glass of wine/chocolate milk and wait for the offers to start rolling in. Start with a much smaller number, say ten queries. Wait a few weeks. This is where the doing your homework part comes in. Are you getting any requests? If not, you need to tweak that query letter. Are you getting partial requests, but no fulls? That means you need to revise that first chapter. Getting full requests, but no offers? Read the feedback from those agents carefully if they’ve taken the time to give it to you. Trust me, they’re super busy, and giving feedback is an amazing gift of their time and expertise, so don’t ignore it! If the agents tell you that you need to fully develop your minor characters, take a look at that. Maybe they say that you need to tighten the pacing. Now, that doesn’t mean that one critique is the be-all, end-all, but you should seriously read and consider any feedback that you get from an agent who takes the time share it Especially if you have several agents who say the same thing, like love the premise, but the pacing is too slow. Because now, instead of informing the forty agents you queried that you want to pull your manuscript for some serious revisions, you can just start working on revisions before you attempt to query again. I know this is hard to read because you’re thinking about the length of time it takes to even get a response from the slush pile, but consider it as a kind of safety net for your manuscript. It’s much harder to get an agent to take a second look at something they’ve already rejected than it is to get them to consider a brand new, well-written manuscript that’s just landed in their inbox.
So hopefully this post gives you an idea of the ways that doing your homework before you query can help you climb out of those querying trenches a little faster. And of course, if you have any questions/comments, feel free to leave them below.
Good luck to you as you query!