What I learned from 5 years of querying

Hi everyone! I’ve realized recently that I learned a whole lot from my ~5 years of querying, and I wanted to share what I learned with all of you! So I thought I’d write this post looking back on my journey and telling you all what I’d do differently if I were just starting out. Some of this information might be old news to those who’ve been querying for a while, but I hope at least some of it will come as a surprise.

So, I first started querying Book 2 (my first “serious” book) when I was twelve years old (!!!), and my book was halfway written (!!!!!!!! don’t do this !!!!) It was a fun light sci-fi/speculative thriller involving telekinesis, government conspiracies, and lots of angst. I think I first sent it to about ten agents.

Miraculously, I got a full request from a really good, reputable agent?? To this day, I’m convinced that it was a fluke on the part of an intern, and that the agent themselves couldn’t have been the one to request the full. I replied saying the MS wasn’t done yet, but would be in four months, and they said to send it when it was finished. It came out to a whopping 120,000 words, and I sent it right away, after a quick read-through. This was a mistake!! I got the rejection pretty soon after that, and was completely crushed. I think I sent like three follow-up emails asking for feedback, and then re-queried them about two more times after major revisions to no response (please, please don’t do this!!).

The tip here is: Don’t start querying until you’ve finished your first and second draft. 

This may seem pretty obvious, but the earliest you should be querying is after your first thorough revision of the complete MS. If this is your first completed MS or first “serious” MS, like mine was, then I’d recommend having at least two non-family members read it and give feedback, and then doing at least two thorough revisions before querying.

So, after a soul-crushing rejection, I read up a little more on querying. I realized 120,000 words was too long for a YA novel, and cut it down to 98,000 (this is still too long, and I think every agent who expressed interest said so). I revised a few times. I entered contests to get feedback. I got active on twitter. The feedback I got from these contests was at time, harsh, but in the long run, definitely needed.

The tip here is: Take advantage of any opportunity to get free feedback. There are lots of calendars out there keeping track of all these. Some of the ones I entered were #PitMad, Sun vs. Snow, and #RevPit.

Also: If you find yourself justifying something about your book because you think you’re the exception; you’re probably wrong. 

A big part of the query process is killing your ego while also convincing yourself that you’re good enough to keep going. If you think you can bend the word count rules because you’re the next Stephen King/J.K. Rowling, there’s a 99.99999% chance that you’re wrong. Cutting those last few thousand is like pulling teeth. It’s painful and it sucks, but it’s necessary.

From here on, I had a better idea of what I was doing. I started keeping track of my queries and responses in a spreadsheet. And I learned to read between the lines of rejections, and to actually absorb feedback, instead of deflecting it.  I ended up sending 64 queries over a span of ~4 years. I had 8 full requests, and 2 R&Rs. Keep in mind, I was doing all of this while in high school. I know these fun stats because of the spreadsheet.

The tip here is: Make a spreadsheet to keep track of your queries

Not only will this help you avoid accidentally querying the same agent/agency twice, it’ll help you if you ever need to follow up. Another surprising effect of keeping track of my rejections in a spreadsheet was that it helped numb the pain of rejection. I would get a rejection, log it in the spreadsheet, and move on. It helped make the rejections feel less personal, and eventually led me to realize that I wasn’t getting rejected 90% of the time because I was a bad, talentless writer.

I was getting rejected because this book wasn’t working. My book was well-written, but the concept (a girl with superpowers who gets swept up in a military conspiracy) wasn’t standing out in agents’ slush piles. If I’d been pitching the final version of the book I ended up with after more than a dozen drafts in 2012 when I’d started out, I might’ve had a chance. But in the time that passed, the tropes in my book that I’d loved had become cliches, and I decided to do what I thought of as “taking the long way around.” I decided to write another book; one with a more unique premise, one that was more pitch-able, one that was more likely to grab agents’ attention and stand out from the rest when it landed in their inbox.

Tip: Know when it’s time to write another book. 

Also: Sometimes, it’s not you that’s the problem. It’s your book’s premise. 

The idea of shelving my beloved Book Two made my heart hurt. I’d read so many authors talk about tearfully shelving their first queried book before snagging an agent with their second, and for four years, I’d thought I would be the exception (nope), that if I just tweaked and tuned Book Two enough, I’d be able to get that one yes. But you can’t do anything about an off-trend concept except wait and hope the trend comes back around eventually and write more in the mean time (unless you’re willing to modify your premise/have tweaked the premise in some way that makes the story unique and fresh.) So I didn’t think of it as shelving; I thought of it as taking a break from querying it, and starting two work on something else to clear my head so I could come back to it with fresh eyes.

I pumped out Book Five (I’d written two more books while querying Book Two, but since half my heart was still with Book Two, these two attempts were half-hearted) in the span of two months. One of them was November (thanks NaNoWriMo). Then I revised it tirelessly ( ~4 hours spent revising every night for ~2 months). At this point, I was a college student, and those four hours spent revising every night were usually from 10-2AM, after I’d finished my homework.

I had this gut feeling that this book was either the cleanest, most brilliant first draft I’d ever written, or it was pretentious garbage. There was only one way to find out. I queried it.

…Nothing. I sent six queries and got no interest. At this point, I almost gave up. What dragged me out of the defeat-hole was reading a bunch of posts sort of like this one. Specifically, I went back to the very beginning of V.E. Schwab’s–an author who I really admired and aspired to be like–blog, and I saw how far she’d come. Why? Because she’d kept going. Even when her first book flopped. She wrote another.

So I went back to my query letter. I applied to a couple of contests where I got great feedback from wonderful mentors who were willing to volunteer some of their valuable time, and I revised the hell out of that query letter. By the time I got to this point, it was Twitter pitch contest season. When I’d started writing Book Two, the idea of summarizing it in 1-2 sentences never crossed my mind. I wandered through it, and figured out the pitch later. But before starting Book Five, I knew how I’d pitch it, and this pitch evolved as the book did.

Tip: Sometimes it’s not you, it’s your pitch. 

A lot of the time, probably. It’s so easy as writers to take all criticism and let it feed that part of our brain that tells us we’re not good enough, we’ll never be good enough, why are we doing this, we’ll never succeed, the chances are so slim, etc….But no writer is hopeless. If you’re not a good enough writer now, you can be. But maybe you already are; maybe you’re just not good at pitching yet.

This post is getting really long, and I could probably make a separate post all about pitching alone, but I’ll try to be concise about what I learned after crafting dozen of twitter pitches and setting my alarm for 5AM PST to send tweets for contests that started at 8AM EST.

Tip: Comps are your best friend. Twitter is also your best friend.

Comps (comparison titles) are titles of books in your genre or even TV shows or movies that you think are similar to your book in some way (tone, characters, setting, concept). Usually it’s two titles, and I’d recommend having at least one of them be a book in your genre. You’re telling the agent that people who liked that thing will like your book; this demonstrates that you’re well-read in your genre, and that there’s a pre-existing audience who would be interested in reading your book.

I saw a big spike in interest for Book Two after I started comparing it to Jessica Jones, because Jessica Jones was big at the time. One of the three agents who eventually offered said one of the things that most grabbed her was one of my comparison titles; apparently every author she’d ever signed had used that comparison title. Both of the other agents mentioned the comparison title being a draw in our phone calls. The comp titles you use can paint your book in whatever light you want it to be painted in. It primes the agent/reader to expect something they already like; now all you have to do is meet that expectation.

Comp titles are also an easy way to set expectations for your book in as few characters as possible, which is important if you want to pitch on Twitter. Also, pitch on Twitter. Not only will it help you connect with other writers in the community; if an agent likes one of your pitches, there’s a much better chance of them being interested than if you sent it in blind. I wouldn’t have my agent (or any of my three offers) if it weren’t for Twitter. It can be a pain sometimes, but it’s worth it in the long run.

And that brings us to the end of my querying journey. Thanks for taking the time to read this beast of a post, and if you have any more questions, feel free to comment, and I’ll try my best to answer. I hope this was helpful to some of you, and good luck out there in the querying trenches!

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