So you’ve written a novel and edited it, and you’re pretty sure it’s ready for publishing—time for the next step! If you’re going for traditional publishing, you’ll want to query your novel to an agent, and to do that, you need a query letter! We interviewed Laura VanArendonk Baugh, a traditionally published author, to tell us all about the querying process!
What is querying and how can you query your novel?
Of course the important part of your novel is… well, your novel. But agents are very busy people and they’re constantly flooded by new writers who want to get represented! So, as you might expect, they don’t have time to read all the novels they get. And this is where query letters come in! As Laura says, they’re the nice shirt and tie your story wears for its job interview. It won’t sell the story (because the story will sell itself), but it will introduce it and give a good first impression!
If you don’t know how to write one, here’s a quick three-part structure you can follow!
- In the first paragraph, introduce the story. Mention the title, the genre, and the length (in words, not pages). Then, include the hook of the story too! This is not the synopsis, just a quick hook to make the agent interested in your work.
- Then, explain why you’re a good person to write about this. It might be because it deals with a topic you’ve studied or have direct experience with, or maybe you’re just a big nerd about it so you’re very knowledgeable! If you don’t have any qualifications, ask a friend—sometimes we’re not aware of our own expertise. And, no matter what, don’t lie! So if you really don’t have any qualifications, just skip the paragraph.
- Finally, in the third paragraph, describe your publishing credits to show that you’re reliable. Things like social media follows are usually not relevant. Again, don’t make something up—if you’ve never published before, skip this paragraph.
Just like you might have different job interview outfits for different styles of company, your query letter might also need to change depending on who you send it to! Look at the market of your genre and emphasize the parts that will be more attractive to the agent you’re querying. But, again, be always honest!
Dos and don’ts of query letters
Ok, let’s get you some more tips about query letters! Here’s a list of dos and don’ts from Laura that will help you master the art of querying:
- Do NOT inflate your publishing credits! This will make you look fudgy—agents are experienced and have a ton of contacts within the industry. If you lie, they’ll know eventually.
- DO get the editor’s name (and gender) right. It might seem obvious, but especially if you’re reusing query letters, it’s very easy to miss and makes a huge difference!
- DO follow the submission guidelines. Even details like which typeface to use for the letter and the samples you send. This shows that you’re an easy person to work with, which is very important for any kind of partnership!
- Do NOT add your social security number (or any other ID number) nor your postal address to the query letter. ID numbers are not useful at this stage, so it will make you look unprofessional—and communication is all by email so the postal address is useless!
- Do NOT oversell yourself. Be honest, describe what you have and can do, and everything will go more smoothly in the future.
- DO check the query letter one more time before sending it, even if you’re reusing an old one. Actually, especially if you’re reusing an old one!
Now that we have the general overview of how to make a query letter, let’s dig a bit deeper into the querying strategy!
Strategy to query your novel
Querying is not rocket science, but having a strategy will certainly help! First, keep in mind that querying multiple agents in the same agency will not work, so it’s better if you avoid it. That is, of course, unless you get a referral! Sometimes it can happen that you contact an agent and they refer you to a better fit for your genre within the same agency. In this case, absolutely take the chance—personal referrals are a gift and can be very helpful!
You can, however, query different agencies at the same time. But if you do, it’s better if you stagger them. For example, query three agents, then wait for their answers before querying anyone else. This will let you act on feedback without burning any bridges, and you’ll be able to learn from rejections! Speaking of which…
Yes, you’ll get rejections. And the first thing you need to remember is to not query with the same manuscript to the same agent unless they told you to do so after implementing their feedback! However, most rejections will be “form rejections”, that is, a generic message that will thank you but will reject your manuscript without giving any more information on why. This is common because, as I mentioned before, agents are super busy! Which is why getting a rejection with feedback is actually awesome news! That means that a super busy person took time off their day to do you a favor. Use this feedback to learn from them!
Ok, but how do you find agents?
Fair question! In a previous episode of the podcast, John Joseph Addams suggested to look at the Acknowledgements section of books in the same genre as yours to find agents that might be a good fit for you. Here’s a couple of other methods Laura recommended:
- Word of mouth! Many agents are active in social media—look through their profiles to see if they might be a good fit for your book. Some agents also post “manuscript wishlists” on their social media, so look out for them to better target your queries.
- Go to writing conferences or look for literary agencies. These are great to find many agents in a single place.
No matter the method you use, remember that agents will have different tastes and specializations in books. Spending a bit of extra time looking for agents that are specifically interested in what you write will make everything easier for you!
What to send with the query letter?
Usually, agents and agencies have submission guidelines that explain what to send together with the query letter. For short stories, that will usually include the entire story, but for novels it will depend on the agent. Some might ask the first few chapters, or the five chapter and a synopsis, or even a short and a long synopsis! As we talked about earlier, it’s very important to follow the guidelines they give you to the smallest detail. If you don’t, you’re giving them an easy way out to reject your novel!
If you’re worried about synopsis, don’t worry! It’s true that synopsis will be missing most of what makes the story great, but agents know that. They just want to know what happening in the story and have a good understanding of it. Remember, they don’t have time to read entire novels until they agree to represent you, so that’s the only way they can see your story.
Ok, so you’re ready to send your query now! Remember that responses will probably take quite a long time. The submission guidelines will often tell you how long it will take, and Laura recommends giving 4 weeks of leeway before sending a polite follow-up.
Listen to the full interview to learn more about querying your novel!
Who is Laura VanArendonk Baugh?
Laura VanArendonk Baugh is a fiction and non-fiction writer, writer of series like The Shard of Elan, Kitsune Tales, and Robin Archer, among others. Check out her website and her Twitter profile for more information!
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