Query Theory (Part 1)

Are You Ready?

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Welcome to the first post in my ‘Query Theory’ series!

Querying for the first time is not unlike taking all your hopes and dreams, wrapping them in ribbons, and throwing them off a mountain in the vague hope that, beneath the swirling mists, there lies a fabled creature called ‘The Right Literary Agent’ who will catch them, cradle them, nurture them and raise them into something magnificent. Whilst all the time worrying that your precious bundle will instead be ripped apart by the ever feared ‘Rejecting Agents’, or worse (yes, worse… if you don’t believe me now, wait until you’ve been querying a while) simply disappear into the ether, being too unimportant for the pack to even bother sniffing, let alone savaging.

In short, there’s a lot about the query process that is beyond the author’s control. Which tends to bug us, quite a bit. Up until this point, we’ve been the masters of our own dreams. We (literally) wrote our own stories. We gave life to characters with a tipitty tap of our fingers, and cackled maniacally as we erased whole lives from existence with CTL X. We like control.

Don’t believe me? Why do you think there are so many resources out there for querying authors? Tools for tracking your queries, whole sites devoted to listing agents and their preferences, pitching contests on Twitter, blogs, tips, forums all devoted to the process? They help us to try to gain some sense of control. Try to find some reason/pattern/logic in what is, ultimately, a highly subjective experience that is unique for everyone.

The harsh truth is, there is very little you can control once you launch that bundle off the mountaintop. Once you’ve sent those queries out, all bets are off. I can tell you over and over again that studying Query Tracker, or rereading agents’ Twitter feeds ten thousand times, will do nothing but drive you crazy; that there is no pattern or logic to be found, but you’ll do it all anyway.

So, let’s focus on the things you CAN control.

You can control WHEN you query, WHO you query, and HOW you query. Today, let’s look at when.

 

Ready to Query?

You are the master of your queries, until you send them. Do yourself a huge favour by making sure you are absolutely ready before you hit that ‘send’ button.

 

The Not Ready and the Never Ready

A lot of writers fall into one of two traps.

Some, in their eagerness, query before they and/or their manuscript are truly ready. This can be disastrous, especially if they send to every possible agent all at once, leaving nowhere to go once they finally accept that more work is needed.

Others never feel the work is good enough, and will revise, tweak, edit and curse at their manuscript until they grow old and die; unless someone snaps them out of it. I am one of these. If it wasn’t for my critique partners screaming at me, telling me in no uncertain terms that it was ready, and threatening me with painful death if I dared shelve it without querying, I would still be rewriting odd sentences and periodically declaring myself to be ‘a useless, shitty, writer’ without ever having even tried.

As far as I can tell, the ONLY cure for writers in the second camp is bossy critique partners – so get yourself some if you’re of the it’s-never-good-enough variety of authors.

But for those who are worried they might be in the first camp, here are some questions to consider:

 

Is Your Manuscript Ready?

Is your work as polished as you can possibly make it?

This is not to say, ‘is your work perfect’ because, NEWSFLASH – it’s not. But is it as close to perfect as you can get it without industry help? The WHOLE manuscript? Because, it’s tempting, when you hear stories about how long agents take to respond to initial queries, to send off your submission package when there’s still work to be done on later chapters. For the love of God, don’t do this! Yes, sometimes they take an eye-wateringly long time to respond, if at all. But, most of my full requests actually came within days. My agent’s request came within hours. Don’t chance it.

Have you had (and taken on board) feedback?

Not just your mum, partner, friend, sister, cat etc etc (though obviously their opinions are great to have too!) have you had honest, preferably harsh, critique from beta readers and critique partners?

Have you let it ‘sit’?

Please, please, don’t submit your manuscript as soon as you finish it. You’ll read it back a few weeks later and want to bash your head against a wall. There are ALWAYS problems we can’t see when we’re still very close to our words. Give yourself some distance, because with it comes objectivity, before doing that final read-through. Please. You will save yourself the anguish of discovering problems when it’s too late to fix them.

Is it formatted correctly?

Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it certainly helps an agent’s immersion if your material is correctly formatted – and therefore easier for them to read. And we all want the agent we sign with to have been completely immersed in our words, right?

Are YOU ready?

I’m not going to insult you by asking you if you can handle rejection. You already know it’s inevitable. And nobody really knows how they’ll feel until it happens. Even if you’ve had short pieces rejected, having your book baby dismissed with a copied and pasted ‘Dear Author’ email is a whole different teapot of tadpoles. It’s unavoidable, and one of those things you have no control over. But there are other ways to tell if you, as an author, are ready.

Do you have realistic expectations?

Not just about the query process, but about agents in general. Do you know what they do, and don’t do? Do you know what type of agent (large agency, boutique, lone agent) you’d ideally like? And the pros and cons of each? If you’re not sure, talking to repped authors is a great way to work out the type of agent experience that would be the best fit for you. If you don’t know any, just try approaching some on Twitter. Authors are generally a pretty friendly bunch, and we love talking about writing and publishing. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? So maybe they won’t respond? – Well, frankly that’s just good practice for querying anyway 😉

How do you feel about critique?

Even if an agent loves your book, it is highly likely they will want revisions. In fact, a lot of agents discuss revisions with you BEFORE they offer representation. In no small part, this is because they need to be sure you are someone they can work with, someone who is open to making changes. Sometimes these changes will be obviously beneficial to the book as a whole, sometimes they may be changes that will make your book more marketable.

We all dislike criticism when we start out. But, by the time we’re ready to query we actively seek it, and embrace it (the constructive kind anyway). The first time I had to make revisions after feedback from a beta, I sat staring at my printed out pages, feeling like I was up against a wall. I couldn’t see what to do, couldn’t fathom how I was going to make it all flow again.

But by the time my agent called to offer, my mind was like an episode of Sherlock (when it came to my manuscript anyway. In real life I still couldn’t organise my sock drawer). When she made a suggestion, I could instantly see the parts of the book (even the very sentences) that ought to be changed, and the tendrils that connected those parts to other parts that would then need altering, and it was exciting. Her suggestions made my brain spark, and revision became a thing of possibility, not dread.

Do you know your manuscript that well? Do suggestions for improvement fill you with dread, or excitement? You are not going to get from finished draft to traditionally published book on a shelf in Waterstone’s without making revisions. As uncertain as the whole process is, I am certain of that much. So, this is a biggie. If you can’t bear to change a single word, you’re either not yet ready for traditional publishing, or it’s not the path you really want to take.

Do you have chocolate?

Perhaps the most important question of all. Once you hit send, you’re going to need some seriously indulgent sustenance!

 

Thanks so much for reading, please feel free to leave comments/questions.

Next post: WHO to query (researching agents, making the right choices, avoiding schmagents – there are some shark infested waters out there!)

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