Query Advice and Becoming an Agented Author

So far. Let’s keep that in mind as we walk through it. So far.

Publishing is a continual process. But a lot of writers are out there trying to land an agent, as evidenced by the various agents that post their statistics for queries. I saw an agent quoted as receiving 2,500 queries last month. That’s 2,500 hopefuls, wanting someone to advocate for the story they’ve poured themselves into. As a writer, you’re far from alone. You’re writing a book, but so is Crazy Aunt Sue and John the Mailman and even your dentist. So how do you separate yourself from the rest of the crowd and get attention from agents?

Here are a few things that I learned along the way:

1. Follow the rules.

When I queried my first book, I didn’t. Sometimes I did. But most of the time I just followed the same routine and didn’t pay attention. When an agent says to send them the first ten pages in the body of the paragraph, what does it tell them about you if you can’t follow that rule? You had three directives for your query to them, but you only followed two of them. Later, will you only follow half their directives in a working relationship? It’s always good to follow rules. I see frustrated agent tweets about this all the time.

2. Don’t give up, but don’t be stubborn, either.

Here’s the thing. That first book you query to agents? It might not be ready. Mine wasn’t. I wrote Greyglance and sent it to about 50 agents. Very little response. My first reaction was bump that noise, they don’t know what they’re thinking! My second reaction was… if all of these people who are plugged into the literary world didn’t quite think it was ready, then maybe it wasn’t?

The solution? Keep writing. So I forged on until I got to my Babel series. With each new work, my writing got better and better and better. That doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt to be told no. Let’s be honest, no sucks. No is the worst. And when you have a whole pile of NO in your inbox, it can feel defeating. But no is what I needed to get to yes. I had to work for it. I had to refine the edges of my plots. I had to make my character’s voices more believable. I had to draw readers into a story. I had to adjust beginnings and tweak endings. You have to fail a few times to get to a point where you know what you’re doing.

3. It helps to stand for something and to know your audience.

I wrote this book with my students in mind. I really did. As a high school teacher, I often ran into the issue of protagonists and narrators always being white. That idea might ruffle a few feathers, but take a look at our heroes in most YA stories. The statistics last year had the number right around 80%. That’s crazy.

It also means that my African American and Hispanic students regularly go to my book shelves and can’t find themselves in the stories. That’s not right. We can only fix it by fighting against it. As a white author, I can try to write and include diverse characters. And the huge hope that I hold in my heart, is that young African American and Hispanic readers will see themselves more in literature. I hope that will have the positive and life changing effect of transforming them into lifelong readers.Then there’s the long shot hope that they love reading so much after, that they want to write themselves! What a dream come true, to have authors of every perspective and every culture penning stories that demonstrate their unique perspective on the world.

And I wasn’t shy about putting that in my query letters because I believe it with every ounce of my being. So in one paragraph, I talked about teaching kids at Riverside High School and Jordan High School and Holly Springs High School and Duke Young Writers Camp. The line I used was that I hoped my book gave normally forgotten students the chance to see themselves, “vibrant and on the page and victorious.” I want my book in every ninth and tenth grade classroom. I want Sustained Silent Reading time to be looked forward to by everyone.

4. Good writing wins out.

At the end of the day, agents are looking for writing they can sell. They don’t make money until you do, after all. So your query has to be the best possible version of it that you can write. Your sample pages need to startle us, to pull us in over our heads. The more I get to know my agent and others, the more I see what savvy readers they really are. Think about that… You’re trying to impress people that read books and sell books for a living. Your writing has to be really good to do that. So yeah, it might take you three books to get there. For some authors, it takes eight or nine. Some do it their first time around, but as Anne Lammott once suggested about her “perfect” writing friend, we don’t really like to talk about those people very much.

5. Here’s a general outline of how the process went for me:

a. I wrote Greyglance. I queried 50 agents. I had two full requests. No offers of representation.

b. I wrote When in Fancy. Queried 30 agents. Two full requests. No offers of representation.

c. I wrote Koth’s Anatomy. It’s a novella, not a novel, so I did not query for this. But I was thrilled to write and finish it. I learned a lot from the effort of doing it.

d. I wrote Babel (title in progress). I submitted to about 50 agents. I received nineteen requests for a partial or a full (and had around twenty agents not respond at all, due to time constraints). I received a lot of offers of representation. I accepted representation from Kristin Nelson.

6. What That Means and What Happens Next

While Kristin is magical and while the authors she represents definitely brag about her like she’s the queen, she doesn’t just wave a magical wand and get my book published. Kristin is my advocate. She represents me. First step, edits. I completed one round based on her general feedback. Second step, round two of edits. Kristin talked about believing in making the product the best possible version before submitting it to editors and publishers. So this round will dig deeper, be a little more painful, but result in a far superior product.

After this, she’ll submit to editors and publishers that she’s built connections with over the years. The hope would be for high interest from multiple parties. After that process, Kristin would hopefully find the best possible deal and match for my writing style with a suitable publisher/editor.

From there, more edits. Make it shiny. No mistakes. Pain.

Then yes, eventually there would be a publication date and title changes to the book and decisions about the cover and so many of those fun, but difficult decisions that go into producing that final product you get to see on the shelves.

It’s exciting, isn’t it? But there’s a lot more work to do. So instead of sitting around and waiting for it all to happen… I’m waking up every morning and writing. I’ve just finished book two in the series. Today, I’ll be starting book three. This was a huge step, but it’d be taking a step back to not keep going.

So on that note, I’m going to go to work.

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