NEW SERIES! A Writer’s Story: Navigating the Query Trenches
A new year, a new series for my blog. One that’s quite different from my general tone, but one that rests pretty close to my heart. Because a writer’s life isn’t easy. There’s so much to learn and figure out, and it can take months or even years (not to mention a lot of money) to do that. While I’ve considered myself a writer for most of my life, I didn’t start pursuing it full-time until 2015. I had to climb so many hills, eat so many rejections, and spend so many dollars that it took me until 2021 to get the coveted book deal.
It has been quite a journey, and as I pondered that over the holidays, I decided I really wanted to help other writers who might be in the same boat. After all, I wouldn’t have got anywhere if others weren’t willing to do the same for me. I wouldn’t know the first thing about querying if literary agents hadn’t written countless books and given many marvelous lectures on the subject. I’d still be struggling through my manuscript if it weren’t for other writers who hosted fantastic classes on how to better my work. I’d still be blindly stumbling around in social media world without the wonderful seminars I attended about Twitter and Instagram, Facebook and TikTok, Snapchat and WordPress. A lot of people took a lot of time to help me get my little duckies in a row, and I decided I wanted to do the same for you.
So, I came up with this series, one that I will write in bits and pieces here and there, detailing some of the important steps in a writer’s journey to the book deal. And what better way to start than with the most daunting part of the writing process – querying.
There are thousands upon thousands of book writers out there, and only a limited number of agents that can only take on a limited number of projects. It makes the “query trenches” a very brutal place – loitered with rejection, heartbreak, and shelved manuscripts. With the rise of so many internet and independent publishers, hybrid book deals, and self-publishing routes, navigating this world only seems to get harder. I’ve been there, writers. I could easily be there again. And I see you. By sharing my own journey with this, my hope is to both inspire writers who are on the verge of giving up (that fiftieth rejection would take the heart out of anyone, but please, please keep going), and to inform writers who are just starting out and need something to point their mast at. So, without further ado….
M.B. Henry Explains: Navigating the Query Trenches
I actually got my literary agent through cold querying. Yep. Good old fashioned cold querying. I knocked on enough doors (with several slammed in my face) until someone finally said yes. Don’t let the myriads of nay-sayers out there discourage you. It doesn’t depend solely on who you know, prior publications, or even street cred. I have it on good authority that agents are really looking for a hook and a book they can sell. As such, the cold querying process still works. One just has to know how to navigate it. Now, that’s a maze that took me quite a lot of research to figure out, but I’m going to break it down into some hopefully easy to understand steps! Ready? Let’s go.
Finish your manuscript. You won’t get anywhere trying to query something that’s not done. Non-fiction writers actually DO query incomplete projects. But in fiction, you don’t. You finish the book, you polish it up, then you submit it. So carve out time, get your butt in the writing chair, and finish that book before you do anything else. And by the way, get some eyes on it before you send it out.
Totally up to you. I got extremely lucky in having both a friend and a sister-in-law with degrees in English, and with a stunning ability to give me criticisms right between the eyes. So I didn’t really need one. Whether you go pro or not, you should definitely have someone look over your book before you send it. Throw some beta readers in too. Every little bit helps.
Put together your Query Package. This should include a Query Letter (the most frightening two words for any writer. Don’t worry, I’m planning an entire future post dedicated to this). It should also include a synopsis that introduces your main characters, presents the basic storyline, and yes, gives away the ending. While that process truly does need its own post, here are the basics: There’s a lot of information out there, often written by agents themselves, on what they’re looking for in a query letter and synopsis. Read the books, listen to the podcasts, search out the online interviews. Then, do exactly what the agents tell you. No muss, no fuss. Agents get thousands of submissions, sometimes in a single week. They simply don’t have time for fuss. Be a rule follower!
Find your perfect match. While it’s tempting to approach the query trenches with nothing but the numbers game in mind, writing a form query letter and sending it to twenty people at a time isn’t going to get you anywhere. There’s a couple reasons why this method typically isn’t successful. One is that agents can sniff out a form letter (especially if it starts with “Dear Agent”) and they don’t particularly like that. Two is that by mass sending a query package, you’re robbing yourself of a great opportunity to personally market both your book and yourself as an author. Once that door is closed, it’s closed forever. Don’t throw away your shot (Hamilton? Anybody?) Find agents that are the best match for your work, ones that are actively seeking your genre, and send them each their own query. There are ample places to find lists of agents who are open to submissions. The Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents is what I used. It’s updated every year, and you can get it either online or in book form.
Research your agents. When I was querying, I made a list of all the agents that seemed like a really good fit for my book. Then, I googled them. I visited their Twitter pages. I checked their blogs. Many agents have interviews and podcasts out there detailing what they’re looking for and why. They mention what their favorite books are, or genres that really pull at their heart strings, or how many cats they have. Use this information to bond with them. Tailor a letter just for them and their interests. Everyone likes to feel special, especially literary agents.
Get organized. Make yourself an excel spreadsheet of all the agents you intend to query – with categories for when you queried them, what you sent them, and the status of said query. It’s easier than you think to accidentally query the same agent twice (a big no-no). Or query two agents that work for the same agency (also usually a no-no). Get all this information down in one place so you don’t get scrambled.
Fly, my pretties. Send out the queries! Nowadays, most agents have online databases that make it pretty easy. You fill out the form, copy and paste your query letter, your synopsis, and sometimes a sample of your work, and then you hit send. Once again – agents will tell you exactly what they want. Do what they say – no muss, no fuss. And yes, you will find typos after you hit send, but don’t sweat it. Remember what I said the most important thing is? A hook and a book they can sell. One or two typos isn’t going to break you (but I highly recommend making sure you at least spell the agent’s name right).
How Many Should I Query at Once?
Think of it this way. How many agents can you realistically deal with at once? I wound up with multiple enthusiastic responses at the same time. I had to carefully schedule each follow-up call to give everyone their chance at the book. So, how many people can you juggle at a time? I usually sent out four or five queries, then waited to get answers back before I sent anymore. This makes the process go a little slower, but isn’t there something out there about slow and steady winning the race? Be patient. Do it right. You’ll thank me later (or not – but that’s okay too).
Prepare for a beating. Rejections are part of the process. It took me about forty rejections in total, and writing a completely different manuscript, before I finally got my yes. And I think I actually got off easy compared to some stories I’ve heard. The “silent rejections” are the hardest. Agents simply get too many submissions to respond to each one, so if you don’t hear from them in x amount of days (or months), it’s a pass. Ouch. Brutal. I know it hurts, but try to think of rejections as arrows pointing you the right way down the path. As hard as they are, each one will get you closer to where you need to be.
And there you have it –the basic steps to getting started through the query trenches maze. If an agent likes what they see out of your initial query, they may request more materials – a few more chapters (a partial), the full manuscript (a full), or your first born (just kidding – they won’t ask for that). If they do, send exactly what they ask for, nothing more, nothing less. If they like those additional materials, you’ll probably set up a phone call to discuss representation.
All said -querying is a lengthy, meticulous process that requires a lot of patience, a thick skin, and several bottles of scotch.
But don’t give up. There’s a way through the maze, you just have to keep pushing. And there are other things you can do to speed things along if you so desire. Things such as:
Ah, the Writer’s Conference. I can’t harp enough on how helpful these were in my own writing journey. I had an especially wonderful experience at the Seattle Writing Workshop (click here for more on that). You get to meet other writers, learn all of the things about publishing, and sometimes, if you’re willing to pay extra, you get to pitch agents face-to-face. These pitches are usually done in-person or over zoom, and you get about ten minutes to make your case. I pitched at conferences multiple times. It racked my nerves something awful, but I always walked away with at least a partial request. My strategy was keeping the pitch itself to two or three minutes, so the agent could use the remaining time to ask me questions and get to know me personally. We also had time to talk marketing, which is a HUGE part of the process. If you have the money and the time – go to the conference. I highly recommend it.
I Know You’re Tired. But Send that Query.
I’ll close with a fun anecdote about what happened when I found my literary agent. I had just endured a particularly bad beating in the query trenches. I sent out a round of queries and two came back with a hard pass almost instantaneously. One got lost in the “silent rejection” realm, and the other two came back as passes as well. Although rejections should never be taken personally, it still never feels good, and I was ready to take a break. The holidays were approaching, agencies were slowing down anyway, and I needed some time to lick my wounds. Then, I stumbled on an article in Writer’s Digest about a new agent on the block. One who was seeking World War II fiction – my exact genre. My first instinct was to wait and query her after the holidays. No use getting lost in the slush pile. Besides, I was so darn tired from all the recent rejection. But that whiny voice in my head wouldn’t shut up. “Query her,” it kept saying. “Query her! Query her!” “Alright,” I said to myself. “I suppose I can take one more hit for the year.” Well, what do you think happened? She requested the full manuscript almost immediately. I sent it to her, and she breezed through the entire book in one night. The very next day, she wanted to set up a call to discuss representation. So my final piece of advice is – keep pushing, no matter how much it hurts. Keep querying, keep going, don’t give up.
Tune into my next part in this series – The Query Letter!
Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you would like to see covered in this series? Hit me up below!
All photos by M.B. Henry – taken around my cluttered writing space! To see more of my photography – click here.
To learn more about my own adventures in publication – click here.
ONE LAST FUN ANNOUNCEMENT!
Do you live in Valparaiso, IN, or nearby? Do you enjoy theatre? Do you need some laughs? Then head over to Chicago Street Theatre THIS FEBRUARY to catch my theatrical directorial “deboo” – “the Play that Goes Wrong”! There will be murder, mystery, mayhem, and a lot of falling down. Tickets are going fast, so click here to reserve your seats!
Thank you for this encouragement for writers. 🙂
It’s a tough world for a writer! I’m happy to help any way I can!
M.B., Thank you so much! We must have been having telepathy over the querying today! I just spent a few hours looking up children’s book publishers that are open to submissions. And, do you know what I found? I need to finish a manuscript first! UGH! Despite this, it is motivating! I am looking forward to the rest of this year’s series! Thanks, again! – Carol ~
Yay! I’m so glad you found some of the information here helpful. It can be a dizzying process for sure. Best of luck finishing a manuscript – I know you can do it!
Thank you! I have to buckle down and get it DONE! I keep getting distracted by writing other things…somewhat fearful of the next steps once I have it finished! LOL.
I totally get it. I’m always kind of scared when I type “the End” in a manuscript, because I know the challenges that are up next. As if writing it alone isn’t hard enough! Best of luck finishing up!
The world can be built on spreadsheets 😁 Brilliant post MB 🙂
LOL spreadsheets make the world go round!
Good luck with this new endeavor.
Thanks! I’ll need it!
If I’d read this twenty years ago, it might have encouraged me to give it a go. On the other hand, it seems clear to me that one of the most important requirements for publishing a book is a burning desire to do just that — and I don’t have the desire. I have a couple of friends who keep saying, “You ought to write a book!” My theory is that they actually mean, “I really like your work,” but that’s no reason for me to pursue publication.
This series is going to be great for people who do have that desire. With only fifteen or twenty years left to me — at the outside — I’ve got other things to do!
Fair enough! Publishing definitely isn’t for everyone, and you’re right – the desire has to be incredibly strong. Someone once told me that to be a writer, you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else. For me at least, that has held very true!
Fantastic advice and much-appreciated encouragement, MB! Congratulations on successfully navigating this ultra-challenging process!
Thanks Dave! 🙂 I’m still learning a lot myself, but I’m happy to share what information I do have!
A very helpful article. I finished a 90K manuscript last March, sent out one query letter to an agent with no response, (I didn’t really expect one as it was a British agency), then realized I wanted to write the first draft of the sequel first before I sent it out again. I had written myself into an ending that needed correcting if the story was going to go forward. I’m having fun with it, but wonder if it will just be pointless in the end. Is there any point in sending a query letter to publishers or does anyone do that anymore?
Ah, the joys of writing and all the things we need to change 🙂 🙂 I’ve definitely been there and am still there on some current projects haha. As for your question – although some publishers do accept queries directly from writers, I think you’d do well to query agents first. They have more access to more publishers and might be able to open more doors for you.
I find the whole idea of finding an agent scary – is there a standard contract you have to sign, short of signing over your first born, how do you know you have someone compatible with your vision etc? I know….research, research…..
Contracts – yes, they will have you sign one, and honestly, it’s there to protect both of you. Mine was pretty straightforward and easy to understand, without a ton of legal jargon, so I wouldn’t sweat that too much. As for compatibility, “the phone call” is where you find all this out. When an agent calls to discuss representation, never be afraid to ask all your questions and get a feel for how you will work together. It is even perfectly acceptable to ask an agent to talk to some of their current clients. An agent will be your business partner in all your book endeavors, so it is important the two of you are compatible. It is definitely a bit overwhelming and scary but there are paths through the wilderness! <3
Thanks so much!
Fascinating to read. I was obviously lucky with my crossword books – a small interest group but steady minor royalties.
Wow how cool about the crossword books! 🙂
Fab advice M.B and for me a look at a world I do not know, as I’m not a writer! Good luck with the play! That sounds fun!
The play is indeed fun – a doozy, but a fun doozy 🙂 🙂 Thanks so much for reading!
Thanks for the detailed advice, M.B. It’s a hard process but your persistence paid off. Back to work revising novel #2…
The never-ending revising! I certainly know how that goes!
Looking forward to your journey into the publishing world, MB. There are several amusing stories about world renown authors whose best selling books were rejected, over and over again. –Curt
Ah yes – I’ve certainly had to face my fair share of rejection and I’m sure I’ll face a lot more.
Ah, i live a bit to far for going to Valparaiso.
Aw dang! 🙂 It’s a very funny show, if I do say so myself.
Great query advice! It’s always hard to put yourself out there, but if you’re gonna sell it, it’s gotta be done. You’ve made it a little bit easier!
Thank you! You’re right, it’s definitely hard to put yourself out there. Probably one of the hardest parts about it!
lol your posts are always meaty, I’d forgotten I need a cuppa to read them 🙂
Great advice but I’ve no idea what I’d write about … may I ask what percentage you actually get after agents, publishers and others vultures take their cuts?
Congratulations on the book deal.
Thanks much! 🙂
This is fabulous and practical advice – and so generous of you to share your experiences. Thank you.
Very glad you found it helpful and practical! 🙂 I hope all is well with you!
Very interesting M.B.I have heard its a hard gig being a budding author, I’m not sure if I could have faced forty rejections!! So well doe for soldiering on and I’m sure a lot of your readers will appreciate this helpful advice.
I myself am knocking out my life story at the moment, No not for the public , just for my girls as I am amazed at what they don’t know about my life adventures, I’m keeping it focused on the funny side, nothing to serious.
That sounds like a really fun project, Pat! What a neat way to hand down your story and experiences!
I got the idea not long before my old dad died, he said to me one day , you had better ask me about anything that you are curious about now because you won’t be able to when I’m gone . I thought about it and was great full that I did as it answered a lot of things that had happened in his day , it made me a bit of a smarty pants in my family 😅😅👍🏻.