If you are a writer and are interested in traditional publishing (as opposed to self-publishing), you’ll need a literary agent. Very few publishers these days will read unsolicited manuscripts, but editors will look at manuscripts that come from a literary agent they trust. An agent thus is the the “middle man” that you need in order to get your story in the hands of editors.
I’m no expert on querying, but I can share my own experience and how I went about it.
WARNING: THIS POST IS GOING TO BE LONG AND DETAILED.
First, I had to learn about writing a query letter. Writing a query letter is an entirely different beast from writing a novel and– in some ways– harder. You have to take off your regular writer hat and put on one that is more suited to someone in business, specifically marketing. You also have to boil an entire book down into one or two sentences. I learned most of what I know about query letters from Rachelle Gardner’s blog.
I also spent a considerable amount of time reading the query critiques at Query Shark. In addition, I read successful query letters (along with agent commentary) in Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters.
Query letters consist of “the hook, the book, the cook.” In other words, your book in one flashy, catchy sentence or phrase, your book in a paragraph or two, and your author’s bio. The hardest part? The hook. HANDS DOWN.
Here are some YA books and their hook:
Divergent: One choice can transform you
Awaken: Death is just getting warmed up
My Life Next Door: A boy. A secret. A choice.
Under the Never Sky: A million ways to die. One way to live.
After tons of research, I drafted a query letter. Then another draft. Then another. I worked on my query for maybe a couple months. I tried various hooks out on my friend Elyse.
Here were some of my discarded ideas for Truest‘s hook:
Three friends. Two choices. One summer.
When static is in the air, lightning is bound to strike.
Second, I had to research which agents to query. I wanted a long list; I told myself I wanted the list to be 100 agents long– my final list had 101 on it.
I started with Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents. I went through the entire directory of agents (more than once) and, when I found an agency that represented YA fiction, I went to the agency’s website and researched the agency and the various agents, choosing which one would be best for me to query, and adding him/her to my agent spreadsheet. On my spreadsheet, I listed the agency name, the agent I’d chosen as the best fit for me and Truest, any notes on the agent or agency that I wanted to remember or could reference in my query letter*, a link to the submission guidelines, and what “tier” this agent would be in for me (I made four tiers).
* For example, “mentions YA, religion, and LWW” (of course I would personalize my query to mention how much I also loved The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe!), “dark and/or funny YA project” (this would turn into “I saw on your website that you were looking for a dark and/or funny YA project. I believe Truest is both.”), “Rainbow Rowell’s agent” (I would mention how much I love RR’s work), etc. This allows me to connect personally with the agent and prove I’ve done my research.
I also found out about a lot of newer agents through the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents BLOG. It has a New Agent Alert!
I looked in the acknowledgements of my favorite books to see the author thank his or her agent– then pounced on the websites, did my research, continued to fill out the spreadsheet.
I also used the “backward search” of Query Tracker, which let me look up an author and then would show me whom their agent was. Then again, more online research, more additions for the spreadsheet.
Also, I needed to write a synopsis and an author bio. These items, along with my query, my spreadsheet, my resume, and sample chapters were all the items I needed to query.
Then, I put them all together. Personalize every query. Revisit the submission guidelines and send anything they needed. Some wanted just the query, some wanted query + synopsis + three chapters, some wanted query + bio + ten pages, some wanted everything. One asked for an entire proposal, which I had no idea how to create, but I found a sample on Rachelle Gardner’s blog and figured it out! I prayed before every one before I clicked send.
I started by querying tier one and two. (I didn’t want to feel forced to accept a tier three or four agent before I’d given the top tiers a fair shot! And thankfully, I didn’t have to dip into tier three or four, hooray!)
The first response came that same night, asking for the full manuscript! After that, I started to get requests for the entire manuscript or the first fifty pages or more information about myself. I followed instructions explicitly, prayed my heart out, and hoped like mad.
Here is the query letter I sent to Steven, who would eventually become my agent (and I’m adding “hook, book, cook, connect” to try to delineate it further– those words were [obviously] not in the actually query):
Dear Mr. Chudney:
Summer love, small-town secrets—and the darker side of philosophy. (HOOK)
Seventeen-year-old Westlin Beck is dreading this last summer before her senior year, but everything changes when the Hart twins move into town. Silas, a prodigious young writer, is friendly with everyone but West, and Laurel, his mysterious sister, appears to be sick with an illness no one—and especially not Silas—will discuss. Forced to team up with Silas in a summer business, West and Silas begin to forge a friendship (and maybe something more). But when West comes face-to-face with Laurel’s devastating secret, the summer changes into a rescue mission—one with unexpected results.
TRUEST is a coming-of-age young adult novel that explores dark themes with humor and redemption—and is told in alternating tenses: both before and after the summer’s tragic conclusion. It is complete at 77,000 words. (BOOK)
I will begin my MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January. I have been honored to be published in multiple literary journals, to be selected as a recent recipient of an artist residency, and to be chosen as a winner of an international creative expression contest. I also author the Lights All Around blog, which averages over xxxx individual views each month. (COOK)
I noticed on your website that you are open to stories about spirituality but not religion. As my definition may vary from yours, I am submitting my query to you, as my story has deep themes of faith though the characters are not interested in the rule-keeping of traditional religion. Please let me know if you would be interested in reading part or all of TRUEST. Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you. (CONNECT)
From there, Steven asked me to snail mail him the first fifty pages, along with the answers to some questions on his website. I did. He read them and asked for me to mail the rest of the manuscript. I did.
27 days after I sent that initial query, I got this email:
Dear Jackie, I have competed reading your novel, and I really enjoyed it! You’re a wonderful writer, and I’m so glad you thought of me for this novel. The writing is really strong, and although the structure is non-linear, you handle that very nicely (reminding me of the novel 34 Pieces of You I had worked on). I’ll be curious to see one day how editors feel about the amount of religion in the novel, too.
And after that my story of querying turns into a story of getting a book deal. (!!!)
Image credit: Unsplash, modified by me