This series is going to be no-holds-barred. I’m pretty much going to tell you all the mistakes I made as an early writer so that you can avoid them.
Last week I talked about newbie issues I think most writers have. Understanding word count, manuscript formatting, etc. This week I want to share the three biggest mistakes I made when I started querying my first manuscript.
For reference sake, let me go back in time. I started querying almost ten years ago with what I’d like to call a mash-up of a speculative/sci-fi book. LOL! First lesson: learn what genre you are writing in and stick to it! Agents want to know where your novel would be placed on the shelves at a bookstore.
Anyway, I had this book I loved but it was FILLED with all the new writer mistakes. It started with a dream. My main character looked in a mirror to describe herself. Then she was off to her first day of school. It was a virtual textbook of what NOT to do in the opening of a book. Now, let me just say here that many writers have started their books with eating breakfast or a first day of school, but they handled it in an original way. My way was not original at all.
Looking back now that book was problematic from the beginning. I didn’t know that because I didn’t understand writing craft or publishing. Truth was I was winging it. That’s okay when you’re starting out. The goal is to get the words on the page. Get to the place where you can write “The End”. That alone is an incredible accomplishment. What you do afterwards though, will determine if that book goes anywhere.
Remember what I said in the prior post? Yes, you must become a student of publishing. You need to understand what the next steps should be BEFORE you query that manuscript.
1.Don’t send out without having other people read. Meet/reach out to beta readers or critique partners (CPs)
While I’d love to say that once you finish your first book it’s ready to query, often this not the case. The best plan of attack is to get other eyes on your work. Not Mom, Dad, sister, or best friend. This means finding fellow writers who understand writing craft and publishing.
Quick definition for those who don’t know:
Beta Readers – People who will read your manuscript and give you general notes on content, plot, characters. Their critique will be more of a summary of what works and what does not work in your book.
Critique Partners (CPs) – These are writers who walk through most of the process with you. The trusted friends who talk through plot and character as you write. Sometimes you will swap chapters. Other times you will provide the full manuscript. They will give you more detailed notes and most likely, if you agree on it, share inline feedback within chapters.
If you are new to writing, you might ask how to find beta readers or CPs? When I started out I followed writers on Twitter who wrote in a similar category and genre. If I felt like we had similar styles, I would contact them and ask if they wanted to swap one chapter to see if our critiquing styles were compatible. I also became involved in an online forum called, AGENTQUERY CONNECT which has threads for posting queries. One other opportunity that is coming up if you write Middle Grade or Young Adult is WriteOnCon. It is an online conference for kid lit writers which is a great place to connect with potential beta readers and CPs.
2. Your Query and its Structure
My first query was a rambling mess. I mentioned too many characters and almost nothing about conflict and stakes. Have someone not familiar with your story read your query. If they understand it and want to read more, you have a winner. If the reader is confused, or has too many questions, then you need to rework it. Their response will most likely be the same reaction you’d get from an agent.
As for structure, I like the idea of HOOK, BOOK, COOK.
Hook – Your opening line that captures the main story idea. Think short elevator pitch. Example:
Winning will make you famous.
Losing means certain death.
This is from the blurb for the HUNGER GAMES. Short. Sweet. Most important: it makes you want to read more.
Book – This is one to two paragraphs that explains your book. Main goal here is to illustrate the conflict and stakes. What your character is willing to risk in order to achieve their goal. Your sinker (the final line) should be a cliffhanger that makes the agent want to read more. You do not include info about the ending in your query. Endings are only revealed in a synopsis (we will talk more about the synopsis structure in a later post).
Cook – That is you. Include relevant reasons why you are qualified to write this book. Any writing credits. Make it short and simple. If you don’t have any credits, simply state who you are and what you do for a living.
Example: In my first query I wrote a long diatribe about how I wanted to be a writer since I was young. Where I got the idea for my book. Don’t do this. Instead, be brief. In later queries, I wrote that I graduated from college with a degree in journalism and that I’d been working in marketing and advertising for the last several years.
Many people agonize over the bio part of their query. Don’t. Most agents know that debut writers will not have any past writing credits to their name.
3. Research/Sending in Batches
When it came time to send out my first queries via email, I made two big mistakes. First, I did not do enough research on which agents represented my category and genre. I also sent my query out in huge batches.
First thing to remember about querying: it takes time and A LOT of work. Get used to that idea now. Before you even start to create that first email, you need to do your research first.
Research includes finding those literary agents who represent your category and genre. Next, you need to check out their individual submission pages on their agency website. This will detail how they want to receive queries. Some want you to send to their query email. Others may want you to use an online form. Some agents just want your query. Some want query and first ten pages. Some want query, first ten pages, and a synopsis. BEST AND MOST IMPORTANT RULE: Follow the agent’s specific guidelines. The quickest and easiest way to get rejected is to NOT follow the rules.
This is my own personal opinion, and many may disagree, but I think the best plan is to send your queries out in batches of five. My reason for this is simple: if you get a request then you know your query, and or pages, are working. But, if you receive all rejections, then you know something is amiss. At this point, you’ve only closed the door on five agents. You can go back, work with CPs or betas, revise, and then send five more. You can repeat this process until you’re getting a high request rate. This confirms your query and pages are working.
Having been through the process many times, I know how daunting, and defeating, querying can be. Take your time. Reach out to those who can help. Ask questions. You only get that one chance to make an impression with an agent for that book. Hopefully in learning from my mistakes, you will get nothing but requests!
Have specific questions about what I’ve shared here? Other questions about querying? Please feel free to ask any and all questions in the comments!
Next up in the series: How to Approach a Request for Materials!