Whoops! 8 Query Lessons…that made me a better writer

Free image from geralt @ pixabay.com

It’s submission season again.

For those of you who don’t go in for such self-flagellation, I’m talking about submitting to literary agents, entreating them to represent me and my book.

If you’re not an aspiring author, don’t back-arrow just yet–these lessons learned can be applied to many facets of our writing lives. (And, bloggers are writers, I say over and over and over.)

First, because everybody loves query results in hard-and-fast numbers, here you go: cycle one of querying, I submitted a total of 20 queries. Of those, I had:

  • 1 request for a partial (first three chapters); and
  • 1 request for the full manuscript (after the agent read the partial).

Not bad, really: some action from 10 percent. I feel confident I’ll do better next query cycle, beginning this fall, knowing what I now know…

No. 1: The query letter, itself, is the key to unlocking this whole maddening process of securing the right agent. I’ve pored over every word of my 85,0000-word novel manuscript–as have the writers in my in-person writing group and online writing group, along with trusted writer friends. I’ve lived with the characters in my novel since before I knew my kids! But even if a manuscript is polished to shining–without the right key, an agent will never get in there to look around.

No. 2: It’s OK to enlist help on your query letter. You know how some people suck at titles? Query letter-writing is like that: a completely different beast than writing a novel (or short story, essay, or poem). You can even be good at marketing–my freelance writing clients think I am–and not be great at marketing yourself.

A while back, I enlisted help from two traditionally-published novelists for help on my query letter; after my first 9 queries elicited nothing but crickets, I got help from a third novelist, who happens also to be a whiz at queries and artist’s statements that showcase the writer’s strengths–in the way only an objective outside party can. (Message me if you need her info.) When an agent, who has said she responds to only 3 percent of queriers requested pages from me, I knew my letter was finally in good shape.

No. 3: Along the same lines, be ready with your bio–not the standard education + publishing credits bio you use when you submit to journals/magazines, if you do; but a more expansive bio. What does your writing in general explore? How does your writing reflect your life–where you’re from, your challenges, your strengths, and the wider perplexities of your modern-day life? And how can you show yourself to be a good literary citizen, engaged with the writing world, with readers, and with other writers?

No. 4: One synopsis, 2 synopses, 3 synopses, 4. I wish I were exaggerating, but all I can say is have at least a one-page and a two-page synopsis ready before querying. (Don’t be like me, up at 2am working on another version–whoops!) Plus, I can’t tell you how beneficial writing a synopsis is to see how your story holds up, where the holes may be, where it feels saggy, etc. When I do it all over again (with my latest WIP), I’ll write up the synopsis as an exercise right after completing draft 1–a viable option or addition to reverse editing, I think.

No. 5: Comps are king. Or, comps mean nothing. Some agents love comparative titles–books you can compare yours to. Some don’t. Have a good list ready of titles published within the last few years. Better yet, make them debut titles (so agents know you’re not trying to compare yourself to a seasoned author) and find a few set in your book’s general setting, another few dealing with a similar subject, similar themes, and a few with similar writing styles. Even better yet, read these books–they are the books in your book’s orbit.

No. 6: Know your comps, so you know why and how your book stands out. True enough that there are no new stories, but a reader wants a little revelation. This reader does, anyway. How does your book address age-old questions while addressing something new (even novel)?

No. 7: Closed to queries means closed to queries. Save yourself time and trouble by responding to agents’ wishes–what they want, and when and how–laid out nicely at Manuscript Wish List. Then, go to their site to see who they represent and just how they want aspiring authors to submit queries–if they do. Follow directions to a T (capital T). There’s also a lot of agent action on Twitter, so you may want to log on there to gain access to discussions around books and authors and what agents hope is the next big thing. Unicorn vampires anyone?

No. 8: Go Mad! Not really. I’m talking #PitMad. Yep, that’s one more reason to hop on Twitter. “PitMad” is short for Pitch Madness, when, a couple times a year, aspiring authors pitch their books to agents on Twitter. If an agent “favorites” your pitch, you query them. Not only did I get through to one agent this way, last time out, honing your pitch (280 characters or less!) helps greatly when thinking about how to actually TALK about your manuscript. Don’t have time to deliver a whole “elevator pitch,” you’re going to want to boil your book down to a couple sentences (complete with Twitter shorthand). Here’s one version of my pitch, which begins with a comp:

PHANTOMS x Puzo

WW2 Cali, when Italy becomes an enemy of the US, having a wife who still reveres Mussolini may mean an immigrant’s downfall. When he’s unduly arrested and interned, his wife and American neighbors rally to right the wrong.

Can’t get enough of this query conversation, or looking to kick-start this process before the September query rush, check out “Query 101 (or many more)” by Allison K Williams for the Brevity blog. Her (No. 7) advice on querying in stages I especially appreciated. Always so much useful info from Allison–just go ahead and follow that fantastic blog.

Stuck around this long but are more interested in submitting short stories, poems, or essays to journals and magazines, you are very patient! For you, I’ve got my post all about submitting, titled (oh so cleverly) Submit, submit, submit. Plus, check out my category on publishing above for more on getting our work “out there.”

Speaking of “out there,” I’ve had a busy summer over at my Parhelion Literary Magazine gig. If you love fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry or photography, I hope you’ll check out all our hard work. The June issue is live and we feature the occasional…um…feature, too. Lots to enjoy…

Now, it’s your turn, what have you learned from publishing–whether that begins and ends with hitting the blue “Publish” button on your blog or extends to querying editors and literary agents?

What’s your best advice to keep your confidence (and sanity) while sharing your words with the world?

My interview with author Amy Jo Burns

I’m reblogging my interview with author and essayist Amy Jo Burns in honor of her latest published essay up right now at the Paris Review: https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2019/07/25/the-silhouette-artist/

Amy Jo has said this essay took her 10 years to write, and I think the essay is better for its long gestation. But, wow, this is also a good lesson for us writers to stick with, or return to, those ideas that keep us up at night!

Essays not your thing? Writer, editor, and blogger at daily (w)rite, Damyanti, featured a really interesting guest post by Felix Cheong, a poet living in Singapore. In it, he talks about the process of writing poetry, and he goes back to old drafts a lot–calling himself a scavenger. He says: “Given the right time, they [old, discarded writing material] could be salvaged, given a makeover and presented as shiny and new.”

Here’s to reviving what we thought was lost. Here’s to sticking to a good idea for a good long while. And here’s to new inspiration.

Happy writing and reading, all!

~Rebecca

Rust Belt Girl

Bio Pic-1

Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.

Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!

Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?

I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that…

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