Let’s Talk about Querying!

(And why I stopped querying my novel.)

As some of you know, I was querying Iron From Fire on and off from March through May, and I recently decided to quit, despite it being overall a good story written in what one editor described as ‘on par’ for the genre.

And I think it’s important to talk about the process I went through, because my ill preparation hurt my mental health a lot, and you all deserve to know how to avoid the same fate.

First, this is the general process of querying, in case anyone is unfamiliar:

You finish the manuscript. And I mean finish it. Beta rounds, line edits, formatting, the whole nine yards.

You write the query letter. This includes a blurb meant to draw the agent in, a paragraph with stats and the names of a couple contemporary books that resemble yours, and a short bio about your previous book-related experience.

You send the query letter to a bunch of agents. A positive request rate right now is somewhere around 6 or 7%, which means if you have a stellar manuscript then 7% of the agents you query will want to read more of it to see if they’re willing to represent you.

You receive a mixture of rejections and requests, with a lot of silence in between. Most rejections are form rejections so you have no idea why they didn’t like your manuscript. Some requests turn into delayed form rejections. Everything hurts.

You either get an agent who signs you or you decide to quit. If you have a book you think will sell and are having positive responses from agents, the general rule of thumb is to keep querying until you’ve sent a letter to every agent you’d be interested in working with. This can mean anywhere from 30 to 130 agents.

Why I quit querying.

This is going to get personal for a hot second so bare with me.

I was querying the first novel in an adult fantasy trilogy I had worked on for over seven years. All the work from the first five years had been trashed three years before, and the rough draft I built the final manuscript on was rewritten three times after, so the actual story itself was only a couple years old, but I had the emotional attachment of seven years of love and heartache.

This being a trilogy, I had already written the second book and poured a lot of energy into the third book’s brainstorming by the time I fully finished the first manuscript. So not only was there over seven years of emotional attachment, but nearly 300k words of fairly decent story written in the series.

I hit a bunch of road blocks right when I first began querying: 

  • My story, while it had all the things a query needs like stakes and conflict, was very hard to break down to a 200 word blurb.
  • The blurb I did end up with, no matter how I wrote it, sounded like a rather traditional fantasy plot, despite the story itself going places I’ve yet to read about in any other book.
  • I could not find contemporaries (books published recently which have elements similar to mine) to save my life, to the point where I was scrambling to read new books in hopes something would appear.
  • Most agents ask for the first five or ten pages, and I have fifteen pages of status quo before I got to the real plot, so that meant most agents would never even see the story I had outlined in my blurb.
  • On top of all that, I had a book which went a little over the word count most agents seek for a debut novel in its genre and it wasn’t even a standalone.

Those things compiled were a mess, and they should have clued me in that this wasn’t a book that would be worth the effort of selling as a debut. But this wasn’t what did me in. These things alone I might have been overcome by sheer determination. So why did I quit, then?

I stopped querying my manuscript because I realized I wasn’t just querying a manuscript, I was querying my baby.

I had put all seven years and many rewrites and an entire sequel I loved more than life on the line for this sale, and it fucked me over like a moon-sized meteor fucks over a planet.

My mental health, which I’d finally gotten under control after almost a decade of chronic depression and anxiety, plummeted back to levels it hadn’t reached in years. I hated everything I wrote. I cried over my writing. I cried over things that had nothing to do with writing. I became very negative and angry with my friends. Everyone else’s success felt like my personal failure. I began tipping into the realm of suicidal idealization.

That was what finally broke me; the knowledge that I’d been happy with my life, exactly as it was before I started querying, and now I suddenly didn’t find it worth living despite the query process being the only thing I’d added.

I adored and despised my manuscript in equal parts. I’d thought the mounds of critique I’d gotten for it in the past would make it easier for me to handle the rejections because I’d handled them all before from beta readers, and that the time between writing it and querying it would provide distance. It didn’t. 

It turned this manuscript into the single part of my life I’d poured the most love and attention and frustration into, more then college degrees and individual relationships and work; even more than the book I’d already indie published. And setting that out for agents to reject at their whims was not healthy for me.

Once I looked that in the face, I realized something else as well: I didn’t want this book to be my debut.

  • The story was publishable, yes, but it had a funky structure I had reworked countless times just to make bearable, and the second book was the real gem of the series.
  • The writing was adequate, but it was also kind of bland compared to the style it’d developed since I’d written it. I preferred the style I was currently writing in and I wanted to sell that instead.
  • I really, really didn’t want to edit this book again for an agent or an editor. I’d poured so much energy into it already and I was sick: sick with love, sick with hate. Every edit I had made through the querying process had been wrapped in a mixture of forced disinterest and panicky dependence, and that was not the way I wanted to feel when I edited my debut for traditional publishing.

And this is not to say that Iron From Fire and its trilogy will never sell, or that no one would want to read it if it did. I’m shelving it, not throwing it out. But sometimes we have to admit to ourselves that it’s not the right time, and let a project go for a while, especially when its the one project we don’t want to let go.

Things I’ve Learned.

I’m prefacing this with the note that there are exceptions to every rule. None of these things will stop you from getting an agent or selling a manuscript, it’ll just make it harder to do so. And querying is hard enough without stacking the cards against yourself.

These are a mixture of experience and things I’ve seen agents talk about at length.

1. Word count is important. 

It’s common knowledge that there are word count guidelines, but when most of the books on your shelf vary (sometimes drastically) from those guidelines, do they really matter? The fucking do. Agents will see too high word count and assume straight off that you don’t know how to create a streamline story and have wandering plot threads or useless scenes, and they’ll see a too low word count and assume you didn’t explore your world building and character development properly.

It you want to increase your chances of selling a manuscript, write it within the suggested word count guidelines.

2. Make your manuscript a solid, wonderful standalone.

You’ll hear ‘standalone with series potential’ thrown around a lot. This means you should have a first book which ends in a place that readers can feel satisfied permanently walking away from, but which doesn’t tie up so many threads that another story can’t come after it.

Less brought up but equally important is this: if you do have series potential, the rest of your series can’t be the better part of it. You aren’t selling a series, you’re selling a first book, so that first book must be able to stand for itself and say that it’s fantastic and more than worth reading on its own. It’s can’t be a gateway to a better book. It must already be the best book you can write.

3. If you have potential sequels, don’t write them yet.

From a writer’s perspective this is bad because it puts more of your soul into the series, and when it comes time to offer that part of your soul up to agents and editors, you want it to be as small as possible. Having six months of work rejected hurts. Having six years of work rejected kills. Be kind to yourself.

This is also bad from an agent’s perspective! Agents are looking for career oriented writers (even if that career is part time), who will write other books, with other plots and other characters, so if they sell your first book and its sales are mediocre they know they’ll have another chance with you on a different project. If you seem to be stuck in one world or series, that hinders their ability to market you as a writer.

3. Your first five pages are everything.

Five to ten pages is all most agents will ever see of your book. This is a lot less than many readers will read before putting a book down. Even if you’ve structured your opening to attract readers, it may not be fit enough to attract agents.

The first 2500 words of your manuscript should:

  • Display a clear narrative voice.
  • Introduce the world building and setting you described in your query with little to no exposition.
  • Introduce the main character’s personality and goals as described in your query with no exposition.
  • Show the main character doing the things you said they do in your query.
  • Show the inciting event you described in your query.
  • Show or at least hint at how the conflicts you described in your query will come to pass.

This is not always something you can edit into your manuscript at the last minute, so structuring your project this way up front is very helpful. If you can’t hit all these points with your story no matter how you rework it, you might want to consider querying a different project instead.

4. Young Adult is a harder sell.

The market is drenched in YA manuscripts. This doesn’t mean no one should write them, but if you don’t have a good reason why the story works best a YA (ie, it has themes targeted toward teenagers) then it might be worthwhile to adjust it to be MG and or adult (but not New Adult! NA is also a hard sell, because there are few editors actually buying it.)

5. The market matters.

On that note, it’s incredibly important to know what’s going on in the publishing market before you query. 

  • What types of books are selling? 
  • Is your manuscript a good twist on ideas, themes, or tones present in popular books from the last few years?
  • Does your manuscript align with what agents are asking for in their manuscript wishlists?
  • Is your writing style on par with the books what made decent sales in the last few years in your genre and target audience?
  • When you condense your story down to a few sentences, do you have a pitch that’s both unique and references popular contemporary stories?

In order to sell a book through traditional publishing, you have to first find an agent who falls in love with the book and has an immediate idea of how to sell it, and then have them find an editor who also falls in love with it and knows they and their marketing team can market it well.

Good writing makes a good book, but it’s the marketing which sells the book. If you don’t have a way to market your book in the current market, it’s not likely anyone else will.

What I would have done differently.

The top three things I would have changed if I had known what I know now.

1. Wrote the query letter earlier.

Writing the query letter as I wrote the manuscript would’ve helped me reformat the structure of the story up front. It would also have eliminated the desperate rewrites I did to both the query and the manuscript in an attempt to produce something concise enough to actually sell.

2. Followed agents well in advance.

There are tons of agents on twitter who routinely post tips, talk about what they want to see in future books, and boost resent publishing deals. Keeping tabs on them is incredibly helpful when it comes to figuring out where your manuscript fits in the current market and whether/how you should be querying it. 

3. Let my baby go in favor of a new, shorter standalone.

A standalone within the word count guidelines might have persuaded undecided agents to take a chance on reading more, but the important thing here is that I should not have tried to query the work I’d put my soul into. 

My mental health is more important than making my baby a best seller, firstly because there’s more to my life than just writing, and secondly because there are other great books left in my soul, and without stable mental health, I won’t be able to write and query them.

So, what am I doing now?

  • I’m writing a book with a strong contemporary I know agents are interested in, but with enough of a spin that it’ll feel fresh.
  • I’ve structured the story so that the opening engulfs the reader with the conflicts and world building that’ll be important throughout the whole story and the inciting event happens immediately. 
  • I wrote the blurb after only having written 20k words on the rough draft, and the blurb both contains all the necessary plot threads I need to describe the compelling heart of the story and reads as a unique and engaging manuscript.
  • I’m writing a standalone novel with series potential that fits perfectly within the genre’s word count guidelines.
  • I’m writing something that’s fresh for me and I’m madly in love with, but not dependent on. It’s a puppy I want to lather with attention, not a disappointing spouse I’ve been married to for eight years and now half loath but also can’t live without.

Annnd that is all the things I have to say! If you learned something here maybe support me by buying my fun, cheap indie book? It has sirens and a soft freckly pirate and lots of diversity, and comes in both ebook and paperback. Click here for links and things.

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