Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ready to Query?

After slaving away for months—years even—you’ve finally completed your first novel. You’ve given it to your friends and family to read, and they all LOVE IT! You do a happy dance with visions of a massive advance on a multiple book deal and a movie—make that movies!—starring your favorite actors. Ready to get that contract, you put together that list of agents and get ready to query.

But are you REALLY ready? Maybe. Maybe not. And I won't even comment on the massive advance or the movies.

There are so many things that need to be done before you query, and it’s very easy to either overlook something or not even be aware that you’ve missed a crucial step. Like anything, it’s all a learning process. When I finished my very first manuscript, I didn’t even know what a query was, and was woefully unprepared for the reality of querying agents.

So before you query, here’s a checklist to help make sure you truly are ready.

• Have you edited your COMPLETED manuscript?—Yes, for fiction you need to have a completed manuscript. And by “edited” I don’t just mean doing a read through. Of course, you need to make sure you’ve checked spelling, grammar and tense. But have you edited for info dumps, unnecessary words, words and thoughts that echo. Does your first page grab the reader and keep them turning the page? Have you made sure your first page doesn’t start with a dream sequence? Does your plot capture the reader’s attention? Does your plot make sense? Are there holes in your plot? Has your point of view remained consistent? Does it have voice? Is there too much description? Not enough? Are you showing versus telling?

• Is your word count appropriate for your genre?—This is very important. You don’t want to stray too far outside the norm. Yes, there are books that break the rules, but I’d argue that for every agent willing to overlook word count, there are another ten that won’t. You don’t want word count to be the reason an agent rejects your query.

• Have you had your manuscript critiqued?—Family members and friends do NOT count. It’s like asking your husband if your arse looks fat in the jeans you’ve been gushing about. In addition, most non-writers won’t have the skills needed to figure out what is wrong (please see points in editing your manuscript). For me, finding good critique partners was crucial to my development as a writer. You’ll likely have to don some thick skin, but honesty is critical, and it’s also why your friends and family do not make good beta readers and critique partners. Need a crit partner? Find one HERE.

• Write a query—There are a ton of great sites that address how to write a good query letter.  The forums on Agent Query Connect  and Query Tracker are great.  You may also want to have your query critiqued. However, you should be careful about editing the voice and character out of your query. Too often, over-revisions can lead to a query that’s technically perfect but bland as baby food. You’ll also need to make sure each query is individualized for the agent it’s going out to. No mass mailings!! When you’re ready to query, it’s wise to query in small batches, in case your query isn’t working and needs to be tweaked. You only get to query the agent once per project.

• Write a synopsis.—Wait! Make that—“Write multiple synopses.” Some agents will request or require a synopsis of a certain length and that can vary from agent to agent. You’ll want to write a short one and a long one, though you may find you need an extra short one in addition to the other two.

• Edit again!—It’s best if you let your manuscript sit for a few weeks (or even months) between edits. This allows you to look at the manuscript with fresh eyes.

• Research agents—There are some great sites for this. I like using Agent Query and Query Tracker. I’d recommend sorting agents into you’re A-list, B-list, etc. and then when you query, select a few from each group so that you don’t burn through you’re A-list only to find you have a query that doesn’t work.

• Prepare your manuscript, query, synopsis—Make sure any tracked changes and comments have been removed and your formatting is correct. It’s also a smart move to send yourself a test query to make sure things aren’t getting jumbled in translation.

NOW you’re ready to query. Or should be. There are a few more things you may want to consider. Do you have a dedicated email for querying? Please make sure the email you’re using sounds professional—your name is fine, but a humorous email that may turn off an agent is not. Also make sure you don't have any weird filters on your email, and that your email does indeed work.  Do you have a website or blog? Not exactly necessary at this stage, but it might be a consideration in the near future since it’s important to start building a platform.

When you do start querying, make sure you track things—Note the agent, the agency and the date you sent it. Note the query version you sent. Did you send a synopsis? Did you send pages? How many? And then when (if)you hear back, make sure you note that also.

It may seem like a lot, but being prepared will help you get through querying, which is never easy. I wish you the best of luck!


Robb said...

Great post. And there are lots of good websites and books on editing, revising, writing queries and synopses. Sometimes the synopsis is harder to write than the novel.

Jemi Fraser said...

Awesome post! You've covered so much. When I stumbled onto AQ a long while back, I didn't know ANYTHING. Sure I had a novel, but I didn't know a single thing. I'm so grateful I didn't query that mess! :)

Jean Oram said...

I just wrote a very lovely and witty comment, but it got eaten. Argh! I think you need to add something about backing up data in there. ;)

Yes to editing (a zillion times) and yes to not asking your family to critique. Hilarious comparison, by the way.

There is so much to learn, isn't there?

ali cross said...

Great list! I loved a comment I read this past winter by an agent (who's name I can't remember, sorry) that said "You can query a manuscript too soon, but you can never query too late." Meaning that, there's always more work that can be done to clean up your work, so you better work extra hard to make sure it really REALLY is ready.

So, I second everything you said!

Cali MacKay said...

I'm so glad you guys liked the post, and also happy I didn't forget anything major.

There is just so much to learn when it comes to trying to get a book published. I really was clueless when I first started. I had it all-- info dumps, long descriptions, head-hopping, etc. Glad those crit partners whipped my butt into shape! : )

Anonymous said...


Great blog post. You have effectively summed up the steps needed to not make that newbie mistake. While it is so tempting to chuck our "completed" manuscript into the writing pool, we often misunderstand the difference between finishing a manuscript and properly preparing ourselves and our writing for the process.

Thanks for sharing your wonderful words of wisdom.

Matt Sinclair said...

Loved the post, and I loved Ali's comment about how you can never query too late. As I rework my manuscript (yet again) and my query (yet again) and tweak, tweak, tweak my synopsis, I love the idea that it may not be too late.

Cheryl B. Dale said...

Great post, Cali!

I do have a couple of friends and one family member who'll give me honest feedback. The friends aren't writers but they're avid and generally across-the-genre readers. Often they can point to things that don't work for them without knowing why, just that they don't work. Then I can usually figure out what's wrong.

And as you said, make sure the ms is as polished and honed as you can make it before even thinking of a query. You only get one chance to impress an agt/ed and that query letter is generally it!

Cali MacKay said...

Thanks, Cate. I completely agree about how tempting it is to just get it out there. It's so hard to resist the urge.

Glad you liked the post, Matt. Ali's quote really sums it up. And it's never too late. : )

Cheryl, that's great that you have friends and family that can give you good feedback. Mine usually just smile and say they liked it.

Amanda Borenstadt said...

Super post!
Yes, yes, be sure to note which query version you send an agent. I've only recently figured out that's a good idea. I'm querying my ms as a young adult fantasy to some agents and as a fantasy to others. I've even sent out the first couple of chapters and then revised them. But I want to remember what I sent.

Oh, I nearly forgot- I have an award for you at my Fortnight of Mustard blog! :)

R.C. Lewis said...

Great breakdown of the process, and I'm relieved to find I didn't skip any of the steps. Now just the waiting ... and waiting some more. :)

R.C. Lewis said...

(Okay, now I just want to say that the word verification for my first comment was "gynocat" and I can only imagine what a clever bunch of writers could do with that.) :X

Eeleen Lee said...

great post.You'd be surprised at how many wanna-be writers don;t include the basic items on your list

Cali MacKay said...

Amanda, noting the versions and what was sent was something I learned the hard way. Live and learn. : )

R.C. and Eeleen, glad you liked the post! Waiting is definitely the hardest part of the process, not to mention resisting the urge to check email 100 times a day. lol.

Anonymous said...

Great list. I wish I had this list when I started out. I read some books, but they weren't always helpful. Critiquing would have definitely helped me, but I joined groups later in the game.

Cali MacKay said...

Amanda, I forgot!! Thank you so much for the award!! Truly appreciated!!

Medeia, glad you liked the list and glad you found a critique group. Better late than never! : )

Anonymous said...

Very comprehensive and informative post.

I have an award for you over on my blog, if you'd like to check it out! :)

Unknown said...

Calista, this would make a great check-list. It's overwhelming to somebody who's only still working her way toward the end of a first draft. Thank you for compiling! : D

Cali MacKay said...

Thanks so much for the award, Layinda!

Glad you liked the post, Ezzy. And so exciting to hear you're nearly done with your first draft! Good for you. : )

ANGRY CAT said...

very cool, Calista