Any aspiring new author with a manuscript in hand and a glimmer of hope in the eye understands the haze of doubt and rejection that is the querying process. It can be a daunting, crushing, nebulous experience, but it's unavoidable if you're hoping to find a literary agent that loves your novel as much as you do. When you find her, she will be your champion in your publishing quest, and the query quicksand you found yourself in will be a memory.
So don't give up! I recently signed with an agent—the marvelous Jessica Faust of BookEnds—and I can tell you that your hard work can pay off. I spent months researching how to craft the perfect query, getting feedback from professionals and friends, and revising it until my eyes were crossed. I made many mistakes and endured plenty of rejection—the record was 17 minutes after submitting the query. It often felt like I was sealing my queries in glass bottles and hurling them into sea. But I persevered, researched, gathered feedback, and continually made my query stronger line by line, word by word.
Just because I now have agent representation doesn't mean I am a query expert (disclaimer: I am not). But I would often turn to agents and other writers when I was feeling lost to learn from their advice, most of it in blog form. I invite you to learn from my mistakes. Here are some of my top querying tips:
Do your homework. There is so much accessible content online on how to craft a strong query, much of it from actual agents, so be sure to understand the general principles and format. Jane Friedman and Tracy Marchini provide terrific advice.
Research agents to find the ones most likely to want to represent your work, and personalize the query to each agent. This may seem obvious, but I've read so many query horror stories from agents that prove otherwise. At the very least, address them by name (I found that "Dear Mr. / Ms." was the most widely accepted convention), but you should strive to demonstrate that you understand what they're looking for and how your novel fits the bill.
Don't lose sight of the query's primary goal: pique the agent's interest so they want to read more. You do not need to explain every sub-plot, character arc, or world-building detail. Focus on the protagonist's motivation, the conflict that ensues, and the stakes—why are they doing what they're doing, and what will happen if they fail? Write about what happens, rather than what it's about. Keep it vivid, focused, and enticing. I opted to open with a hook that distilled the essence of the story into one sentence.
Get friends to read your query, especially people who know nothing about your novel, and listen to their feedback. Don't just look for them to validate how good it is—seriously consider what they have to say. If they are confused or underwhelmed, then it's likely that agents will be too.
If you submit sample pages, make sure the words sing. If the agent is interested enough by your query to read your sample pages, then you have a narrow window to keep them reading. Convoluted backstory, cliches, or long-winded ruminations are not likely to do the trick. Based on some tough but honest feedback, I decided to rewrite the first two chapters of my manuscript because there was too much setup and not enough action. These chapters are now infinitely better. I received requests from two agents to read the full manuscript soon after these chapters were revised. Coincidence? Perhaps, but doubtful.
Find the right agent for you. Apparently, there are many bad and incompetent agents out there. Look out for the warning signs. If you've done your homework effectively, then you should find yourself querying only reputable agents who are suitable to represent your work. When you do get an offer, be sure you feel good about it. Ask questions. During our first meeting, I asked my agent to describe her vision for how my novel would be pitched to editors and positioned in the marketplace. This is important to me. I was thrilled to hear that her vision lines up with mine. Be sure your agent shares a similar vision and enthusiasm for your work, but also listen to what she has to say—she's the expert on what editors want to see and what is likely to sell. Bonus points if your agent is also someone you're going to love working with.
Most importantly, avoid getting discouraged and don't let yourself become resentful. I doubt anyone in the history of publishing ever said it would be easy. It's not. Careers are earned and fought for in any field. Don't forget that agents are human. They have varied tastes and a finite amount of time, much of which is spent reviewing the hundreds of queries they get every week. They don't owe you anything until you become a client, so be courteous and empathetic.
Don't give up. Being a writer requires patience, resilience, passion, and a super-human resistance to rejection. Keep learning, keep improving, and keep writing.
Let me know when you sign that contract so I can do a celebratory dance for you!