Writing a novel is one thing. You set aside months, years of your life to flesh out characters, twist and bend the plot, build a world that is so believable that readers could practically live in it, and then you figure out a way to wrap it all up with a neat and tidy bow and type “The End.”
But that isn’t where it ends. Of course not. Then you have to edit. And edit. And edit. And then, because you’re a good, responsible writer, edit some more.
Then, once you’ve finally got this packaged manuscript and you’re ready to share it with the world you have to…query?
Few things in the literary world inspire more dread in the writer than querying. Whether it’s writing the query, sending the query, or researching where to submit the query, it is a nightmare. It’s what fear is made of. And it often seems downright impossible: “I just wrote 90,000 words of a densely layered mystery/thriller, and you want me to package it into a pithy pitch of no more than 300 words?”
It’s not impossible, though. It’s part of the process. And you have two choices. You can hate it, wish it didn’t exist, and try to think of new, inventive ways to beat the system and make querying go obsolete; or you can embrace the querying process and learn to love it. (Hint: Choose option two.)
If you do choose option two, you need to start with writing the query – and embracing that process from beginning to end.
First: Do I REALLY need a query letter? Why can’t my manuscript speak for itself?
In short: Yes, you really need a query letter.
A query letter does three things:
It swiftly introduces you and your work to an agent.
It showcases your professionalism and your understanding of the industry.
(A rude or typo-ridden query letter results in a fast strike of a delete key, but your engaging and carefully crafted letter will reassure an agent that your work is worth their time and attention.)
It allows an agent to see where your story fits in the current publishing landscape.
A query is a sales pitch. It sells your idea, your protagonist, your plot, and your professionalism, all in one tiny single-page letter. It’s also an absolutely necessary part of the publishing process. If you don’t respect the query letter, it shows agents that you don’t respect their time – or the industry as a whole. And why on earth would an agent ever want to champion someone who doesn’t respect them?
Love the query like you love the story
What makes you fall in love with a story? When you’re at the bookstore looking for your next great read, you don’t choose to buy a book because of the way the author weaves in alternating romantic relationships in the span of 472 pages. You don’t fall in love with a story because the tension from the rising action in chapter one finally releases as the ultimate climax unveils a tightly wound plot of forgery and deception. These are things that heighten appreciation for a book once you’ve finished it, but what makes you love the story enough to give it a chance in the first place?
It’s usually the neatly packaged concept found either on the back cover of paperbacks or in the jacket flaps of hardcovers…most of which are just slightly modified query letters.
Think of the query letter as you convincing a reader to read the book. You can’t just say, “I worked very hard on this, so read it.” In a world of a million books, you need to convince readers that you love your book in order to help them love your book.
Since you’re convincing a reader to read your book in 300 words or less, you should probably focus on just the best parts, right? Those parts that made you fall in love with your story in the first place. And I do mean just the best parts. When you’re trying to sell someone on a hamburger, you don’t tell them about the lettuce. You tell them about the hearty 100% Angus beef, the lightly buttered pretzel bun made in-house, and the razzle-dazzle combination of melted cheeses that tantalizes the taste buds.
So when you write your query letter, ask yourself: Where’s the beef? What was your primary drive for writing the story? What got you excited about it? What made you love it enough to spend so many months and years on it? Because those elements will probably get the prospective reader excited as well. (It’s not even a bad idea to write a “rough” query letter when you first have the idea for the book; when it’s in its infant stages, you are still caught in that honeymoon phase with your story. You can always fix the query later to match your finished book, but why not make the most of that initial excitement right from the get-go?)
Start your description with that character who you love, the heart of your story (or the beef of your hamburger). What does your dear protagonist want most in your story? Authors usually feel a lot of passion about their characters’ passions, and this is absolutely your chance to let your own passion shine through. Embrace it. You’re selling your creation, your character, to the public. That’s pretty thrilling, isn’t it? Imagine how much they will love this character just like you do.
Now you’ve got this character you adore, fighting for this cause you believe in, but darn it: Some annoying things are getting in the way. Obstacles in the story. Setbacks. The kinds of things that make the reader desperate to see the protagonist overcome. In the exact same way that the protagonist is often reflective of the author, so, too, are the obstacles. You picked them for a reason, so don’t shy away from them as you introduce them: Your story would be nothing without its setbacks, so share them with pride in your query letter.
That’s what experts always say, right? A good query shows the reader what the character wants and what gets in the way. But when you say it like that, it’s dull: I want a cheeseburger with cheese and a bun.
So say it like you love it! Say it like this is the greatest cheeseburger you have ever had, and you can’t wait for your friends to try it, too. In writing and in querying, how you say something is every bit as important as what you say.
Write what you know
The old adage to “write what you know” is often a point of contention, but when it comes to querying, the point is not up for debate. It’s a cold, hard fact. That’s the whole point behind comparable titles and knowing where your book fits into your genre: You show an agent titles they already know (and hopefully love) in order to indicate where your book fits in the publishing landscape. Which means you have to know your genre to sell your book.
Again, this comes down to the passion that you have for this book you’ve just written, you savvy author, you. It’s hard to look at an agent and sell them your book without any knowledge of the genre it fits in.
Did I say hard? I meant pretty much impossible.
That’s OK, though. Because you know all about the genre you’re writing in because you love that genre and are well-read in it, because that’s what pushed you to write this book in the first place.
Finding comparable titles can often lead to more unwanted stress for authors. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble to write an original book, and now you have to shoehorn it between two other books that other people wrote? At first glance, it looks like a lot of work to find the pitch-perfect titles that accurately reflect your style and story. But what is work if you love the work you’re doing? It’s play.
Because finding comparable titles is exciting: Not only do you get to flex your knowledge of your genre, but also you get to sell your book as a cross street of other books that have already sold. You’re not just convincing an agent that your book belongs on the shelf next to these established authors; you’re also convincing yourself. If you can confidently fit your book in between two published books from real-life authors, the stress of thinking you don’t belong will vanish.
When you find the perfect company for your book, it feels like finding that piece to the jigsaw puzzle you’ve been working on. Everything clicks into place, and it sings off the page and shows just how much you know about what you’re saying and how much you belong in the published world.
Hello, agents, it’s me
Once you have that query and you love it dearly down to each and every crossed “t,” you’re done. Your job is complete.
Now you have to take your story, which miraculously has been boiled down to 300 words or less, and send it out to gobs of agents who don’t know you from a cheeseburger. If that sounds daunting, that’s OK. Because we’re going to make it less daunting. We’re going to make it thrilling, exciting, and something you look forward to doing over and over and over (and over and over).
The fact that you already love your query (and your story) means that you’ve put all of your hard work together, and you’re feeling good about it. So don’t sell yourself short by carpet-bombing every agent in the Google database. That’s not exciting. It’s not fun to send a query into the void and hope somebody, anybody snaps at it.
Do your research. The same way that you now love your query, you should also love your query list – the comprehensive collection of all the agents that you think will love this query as much as you do.
Don’t approach this from the point of view of “everyone will love this book, obviously.” That comes across amateurish, and if you start sending your middle-grade high-fantasy to adult literary fiction agents, you’re going to get really frustrated really fast, and you’re going to hate querying. But you’re not going to do that. Because you’ve done your research and whittled the thousands of agents out there down to a conveniently sorted list of about 50 or so. Quality beats quantity. Always.
Remember that episode of SpongeBob SquarePants when SpongeBob competes against Neptune to fry up burgers? (It all comes back to the burgers.) In that episode, Neptune creates thousands of burgers that are all disgusting, and everyone hates them. SpongeBob, however, creates one superb burger, reads the pickles a bedtime story, and tucks them in under the cheese. In the end, Neptune admits defeat. No one liked his burgers, even though he gave them to so many people. SpongeBob wins by focusing his attention. He perfects his query for that one special agent and makes sure they appreciate his hard work. Be like SpongeBob, not Neptune.
Every query you send to an agent should be so tailored and so specific that they open it and immediately understand why you sent it to them. That still doesn’t guarantee an immediate acceptance (spoiler: nothing does), but at the very least, it will leave you feeling good about the work you put in. Whether they say it or not, that agent will appreciate that you took the time to send them something relevant and properly thought out. Chances are, you’ll at least get some valuable feedback. Maybe the story starts too slow, or the agent didn’t connect with the characters’ wants. Take that feedback and stow it away, like pirate treasure. You’ll need it for later if this round of querying doesn’t work out.
Even emails can be points of pride for a writer, so put your heart and soul into each one, same as you did the book, same as you did the query. Don’t copy and paste the entire thing over and over, although you can (and probably should) copy and paste the summary portion of the query. But the introduction? The reason why you’re querying that particular agent? There should always be a reason. One that you’re proud to share with them. Maybe this agent reps one of your favorite books. Maybe they’re big Stuart Gibbs fans, and so are you. Whatever it is that drove you to that agent, make a connection. They are just as eager to hear about it as you are to bring it up. And that’s exciting. You are making a legitimate connection with someone who can help get your book on the shelf! There are many, many connections like this to be made. After all, agent or editor or writer or publicist, what do we all have in common? We love books.
The same holds true when you meet an agent in person. If you sit down across from them and say, “I got a burger, and it has lettuce,” you’re not going to get a reaction. But if you tell them all about that query, and you’re smiling and engaged because you love that story and you love that query, then all of a sudden, you’re both having a good time at a stuffy writing conference – and, all of a sudden, they want to work with you and see that novel.
But how do I love rejection?
Great question. And there really isn’t a grand, innovative answer that will make you suddenly excited to accumulate hundreds of rejections for the project that you love (and that query that you now love as well). At the end of the day, a rejection still sucks. It’s not what you want. You want an acceptance.
What this comes down to, though, is what a rejection means outside of this one particular “no.” The first thing it means is that you are sending your story out there to the world. Congratulations! Most people don’t even make it that far. It’s a huge step in your career as a writer. You have opened the door to the wide world of opportunity, and you just never know what you could hear back. Sure, it will probably be a no. But it could be a yes. And that’s about as exciting as it gets.
Another thing a rejection signifies is that you now know this particular agent isn’t right for you, so you can strike them off your list and turn your attention to other agents. (One down, many more to go!) Or, if you’re really jiving with that agent, know that this one rejection doesn’t have to be a final one. It can be a challenge. Head back to the writing desk, write something you love even more, and send that project to them, too. Your first round of rejections helps you understand both the industry and your potential agents, better preparing you for the next round of battle. Even if a rejection feels resolute and impersonal, rest assured that if you followed their guidelines and sent them something relevant to their interests, they read your query, and your name now registers on their radar as someone who respects their time and preferences. So don’t be afraid to try again later.
Or, if you feel the urge to let rejection fester, use that as motivation. It’s OK to use spite as an added incentive to do better. All these agents who are rejecting you? Think of how they will feel when you land your agent and your six-figure book deal, and they remember that they passed on you. It happens. And it will happen again. So why not you? (Although please don’t email those rejecting agents with a “Haha, look what you missed out on” email. That’s poor form.)
Also, not every rejection is a direct condemnation of your writing. Frankly, it’s hardly ever that. It could be any number of things: The agent has another book just like yours, or the agent can only take on one or two more clients and is looking for something extremely specific, for instance. Finding an agent can be difficult, but writers do sign with agents all the time, and it can happen to you, too.
So let’s revisit the question – how do you learn to love rejection as much as you love your book and your query?
Use it to fuel your motivation for the next round.
Take it as a challenge to do better.
Know that it’s another wrong agent getting out of the way of you and your right agent.
Move on to the next.
Spread the love
Excitement for a project is contagious. It’s OK to be excited. It’s good to be excited. You can still be professional while being excited about your story and your genre. But it all starts with the query. If you can love that query, and imbue it with your passion for the project and the genre, you spread the love for your story the only way that you can – through your writing.
—Josh Sippie is the Director of Conferences and Contests at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches. His work has appeared in The Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, and more. Twitter: @sippenator101; more at joshsippie.com.