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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?

21 thoughts on “Whoops! 8 Query Lessons…that made me a better writer

  1. Congratulations! As I read all that you went through, it reminded me of Zig Ziglar’s advice “Expect the best. Prepare for the worst. Capitalize on what comes.” I only publish articles that I’m paying an ad for so they let me put an article in the issue. And of course, I publish on my own blog. I enjoy living a writer’s life by reading your stories about all the adventures you take. You’re my hero!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, you just made my day, Shelley. This blog post has been so long in coming–been so busy with work around here. I love that quote you shared, and that is definitely the attitude to have. The writer Allison K. Williams compared querying like going to the mall, looking for something in particular, say, a jacket. You might find one that fits; you might not. It’s about being realistic without getting your hopes up so high that you feel terribly rejected! I think I’m getting pretty good at that. Plus, starting the next novel keeps me focused on what I CAN control. I love following your adventures, too, that you capture so well on your blog. One of these days, I’ll have to swing by WI (maybe on a book tour–fingers crossed!)

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Aw, I’m so happy to read that I brightened your day. You always brighten mine when you stop by. I love that AKW quote too. I’m happy to read you’re starting another novel. If you do head to WI – do let me know, I’ll be there to meet you in person!! I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you too!! xx

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  2. Excellent tips, Rebecca! I hear you about having different lengths/versions of a synopsis on hand. It definitely comes in handy to be prepared. PitchWars also taught me about honing down the book into a bite sized pitch, and I use that same tweet as my elevator pitch now, that is if my mind doesn’t go immediately blank when someone asks about my book 😅.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Man, the synopses–it’s like an agent in-game to try and come up with something new–ha! And, I’m with you on the pitches. I’m still terrible at talking about my novel, because delivering an actual pitch aloud to a human being sounds weird. There are so many reasons I’m a writer, but No. 1 is that I’m much better on paper than in person. Thank you very much for checking out my post–tho you’re past this stage!

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  3. Wow, what a great post (as always), Rebecca! Wish I was teaching this semester so I could share it with my students who, when they ask me about submitting novels, I must look like a deer in the headlights. I will, however, share this with all the writers I know who face that uphill battle, that “self-flagellation” (I love that) of submitting. And … as soon as I finish typing these words I’m going to check out your other links for submitting shorter work — I can really use some help in that area. Best wishes on your submissions this new season — I know the perfect agent is out there waiting for your query! Deb

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate all your championing of my little blog and my stories, Deb! It really means a lot! I try to remember that I’m trying to find the right agent, that it’s a two-sided relationship. And, then, if it doesn’t happen, there are wonderful presses and publishers out there! As for stories, it does seem that journal and mag submission season is also upon us. With all your publications, you must know what you’re doing in that arena! As fall semester approaches, I’m so happy for you that you get to concentrate on your own work, though I’m sure your students miss your guidance!

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  4. Excellent ideas here, Rebecca. I know I will put this information to good use when I’m ready to start pitching my gold rush book. (Oh when will that ever be?)
    Best wishes on your upcoming round of queries – with all you know now, you’re sure to keep ticking those stats upward.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oooo, I will definitely wait in line to read your gold rush book! I know that pitching a nonfiction book is a different beast than querying for a completed novel. The Brevity blog, which I linked to in my post, is a great resource for NF (as is Brevity magazine). Thanks so much for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading! I figure we’re all in this together–and the writing the novel is only the beginning. The road to traditional publishing is a long one, but there’s so much to learn along the way. I’m trying to take it as it comes and enjoy it! It’s all the better for having friends on the journey!

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    1. Thank you, and thanks for stopping by, Amanda! Better for my ego if I intend to learn at each step of the querying process–rather than just anticipate failure. Your blog is intriguing–and I’ll be checking in to check out your MG news. I write for adults but I have two very avid MG readers at home!

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