QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

After a Fashion: Reaching Querying Capacity

So, you've crafted the perfect query. Your manuscript shines. Your synopsis rocks.

You've done the research and created a list of agents who might be a good fit for you.

So what next? There's tons of information available online about how to prepare for the querying process, but not much on how to go about it. Different writers use widely variant methods. Some writers query every agent on their list simultaneously. Others query only their dream agent and wait for a reply before querying another. Most writers fall somewhere between those extremes and, while only you can decide which method works best for you, I'd like to discuss what worked best for me and why.

But first, I'd like to introduce this into evidence:

That's me (with my sister) on my way to the prom circa 1992.

Now, if you're like me, after looking at this picture, you're rubbing your stinging nose with one hand while wiping the coffee off your laptop with the other. Which is hard to do when you're shaking with laughter. I mean that is really quite the look, right? Check out the asymmetric hair-do and the "floating pearl" necklace. Not to mention the white iridescent tights. And when you're uberpale, the best look is almost always baby pink patterned satin over white tulle, natch.

Here's the thing:

At the time, I thought I looked awesome. Other people thought I looked awesome, too. I overheard my date's younger sister whining that her brother must have bribed me or something cuz OMG, she's actually pretty!

Unfortunately, I believe writing is a bit like fashion. I finished the first draft of The Edge of Memory in 7 weeks. I did a quick grammar edit, and then shipped the manuscript off to a bevy of test readers for feedback, while I took a month away "for perspective." (yeah, right.)

Over the next several months, I completed several major edits. I then decided I was done tinkering and ready to seek representation. I read the blogging agents mantras of "Don't Query Before You're Ready" and "Write a Great Book" and felt confident. I loved my manuscript. I didn't think it was perfect, of course, but I thought I'd reached the point where I needed professional feedback to progress further.

I was both right and wrong.

Between that first stopping point (when my book was titled Still Haunted) and the final version I submitted to my agent, I completed at least six more rounds of editing. And each time I finished a round of edits, I cringed to look at the previous drafts. Just like that prom picture, I look at those versions and wonder, "what the heck I was thinking?"

In February, an agent who had requested a partial and then my full manuscript pointed out a plot detail that bothered her. She gave me a eureka moment and I subsequently rewrote several scenes that strengthened by novel. Several other agents also provided valuable feedback on my work. And by submitting a few different versions of my query letter and opening pages, I learned which ones were most effective. In other words, the submission process itself helped me create an effective proposal package.

Naturally, I wish I had known that I wasn't as ready as I thought I was when I first began querying. But I'm not sure I would have ever reached that point without the query/submission process. Certainly, I might never have had the eureka moment without that agent's input.

The take-home point here is that I'm glad I've never been a Query Player (much as I've tried). If I had queried a zillion agents when I first thought my manuscript was ready, I'd have burned all my bridges. If I had queried a single agent at a time, I wouldn't have gotten the feedback I needed.

But since I only queried a few agents at a time, I got a chance to show my best work to the fabulous agent I eventually signed with. And I'm beyond grateful for that.

My query style:

* Query in batches of 5 or so, every couple of weeks.

* Of those, choose at least 1 or 2 agents who usually respond quickly (Check querytracker.net for response times.)

* If a specific opportunity comes up (say, an agent mentions seeking manuscripts like yours in an interview or on a blog), jump on it.

* After reworking a query pitch or opening pages, submit various combinations to assess what works best.

* Keep at least 5 queries pending

So... what's YOUR query style?

H. L. Dyer, M.D. writes women's fiction and works as the Clinical and Academic Director for the Hospitalist Program at a pediatric teaching hospital near Chicago. In addition to all things literary, she enjoys experimental cooking and composing impromptu parodies to annoy close friends and family. Click to visit her personal blog, Trying to Do the Write Thing.


Paul W. West, Author said...

Those are very interesting ideas. I like the idea of having several versions of your query and testing them out by sending a few of each every couple of weeks to see which one works best. Makes sense. Thanks for the ideas.

~Jamie said...

I do the same thing, but in batches of ten. I try to have te out at all times.

I also mark them as no response after a month and a half.

I both HATE and LOVE that it seems like they all get back to me on the same day almost every time. Like some days I will feel like I have nothing to do book wise, and some days I am pumping out partial and full emails.

It's like they get together and plan it or something!

Scott said...

Okay, the IT guy at work isn't going to be happy cleaning out my keyboard . . . again.

Those pictures remind me of the 'big hair' pictures in our family. Late 80s, sisters with perms, me with perm, and OMG . . .huge hair. I'm surprised we fit in the picture.

Thanks for the query advice. I was always send a query, wait for eternity to end, then send the next. I really wasn't sure about sending multiples out. Now, I am.


p.s. note to self - remove big hair picture from family album on next visit. : )

Lynnette Labelle said...

I haven't started yet, but my goal is January. I plan on doing what you did, a few at a time. I'm also not going to send to my dream agent (if there is one) until I start to get some real interest from others.

Lynnette Labelle

Rebecca Knight said...

This was a great post :). I did the same thing, where I queried when I *thought* I was good and ready, but then realized after some feedback from an agent that it wasn't quite there. Cue intensive re-writes over the last few months.

Now, I'm about ready to get back out there :). It's encouraging to know it happened to you, and your book is agented! Woooot!

Elizabeth Lynd said...

I'm not sure I have a query style, but I will admit to sometimes getting the impetus to do so when I feel like I need movement in my writing life. Something about sending off a query (and yes! those fast responders are great) can get the ball rolling again on everything.

Abby Annis said...

I'm getting very close to this step. Thanks for the tips!

Melissa said...

I've had a similar experience with my own work-in-progress. I wouldn't be at the stage I'm at now, somewhere around a 5th draft, if not for the feedback I got during the querying process.

Liesl Shurtliff said...

I hear a lot of people say they will not query their favorite agent until you get some interest from others, almost trying to "warm up" to the process. It sounds good and I admit I've thought of doing it myself, but is that really wise?

What happens if an agent offers representation and you haven't even queried "favorite agent?" Do you say "Hang on to that offer while I query my favorite agent and I'll get back to you?" What if "favorite agent" takes weeks to get back to you? I think it's perfectly right to alert other agents you've already queried that you have an offer for representation and would like them to get back to you asap, but somehow keeping an agent hanging in order to pursue "favorite agent" whom you have not queried yet just doesn't seem ethical.

However I freely admit I'm an amateur and I've never entered the query process so maybe this is perfectly okay and makes sense in some way I'm not seeing.

Anyone have answers to this?

scott g.f.bailey said...

I did a lot of research into agents, seeing which ones repped books that I respect and were like mine. I came up with a list of no more than eight agents, and I queried them all over the course of a couple of weeks. One of them (the amazing Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management) now represents me. The only lesson I have to pass on is that it really pays to research agents in depth before jumping into the query trenches.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Great post, Heather. Thanks! I'll need to work on upping my output. Sometimes I only get to one or two queries at a time because I find it so time-consuming to personalize my queries. Querying is almost as much work as writing the novel! But it's good to query widely, so this is a great rule-of-thumb and something I'm going to strive for this time around.

Stina said...

Lies had a very good point. Some agents got back to me within the day requesting a full. Others took over two months, at which time I had written them off as non responders. You can imagine my surprise when I landed a request for a full at that point.

Maybe send out the queries first to those agents who take a longer to get back to writers (usually your dream agent). Because you don't want the call to come before those dream agents get back to you with a request, now do you?

Tabitha said...

That's exactly what I did, but I started out in batches of three. As I got feedback, I revised where needed, then sent out three more queries. Eventually I got to the point where I had a much stronger query package, and got many more requests. And, eventually, an offer.

I completely agree that I needed the query process to bring my work up to a new level. I'm very glad that I didn't to mass-querying, and kept it to a relatively small number in the beginning.

Great post!