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I Love Querying (Hear Me Out)

Posted September 2021, two months before signing with my first literary agents.

I've been querying my latest novel going on six months now. If you believe all the writer's community tweets, blogs, and chat forums, this should be hell. Sunscreen-in-your-eye, eating-buffalo-wings-with-a-papercut, pulling-a-dingleberry-off-a-labradoodle's-butthole hell .

But...I enjoy it. I'm hesitant to write that because querying's suckiness seems to a be a universally accepted fact in the writing community. Also, I'm afraid of jinxing myself (I'm one of those people who fake laughs after they say "knock on wood" to make it sound like they're just joking but deep inside I'm actually terrified I just ruined my life somehow so I frantically look around me for a real piece of wood to knock on, but everything's made out of that crap wood laminate stuff these days...)

But anyway. I like to think of querying as a rite of passage in a writer's journey. Sure, I'm just as anxious to be agented and published as the next aspiring published novelist, but if I don't have to really work for it, I'm not sure it will hold the same magic once it finally happens. (That being said, if any agents are reading this, I think I've put in my time at this point.)

Querying is exciting - in a performance jitters, new love sort of way. There's this agent you want to rep you, right? You know a lot about her because you've heard good things and read good things and she sounds amazing and you and your book would have such an amazing life with her if only she would just notice you. So you make this grand gesture and you pour your heart and soul into a letter and you send it off and it's such a rush to click send. Then you wait and wait. And there's a good chance she'll say no because she has so many options--everyone else knows how awesome she is, too, and so everyone else is asking her to be theirs too, and even though you're awesome and your book is awesome, who knows what she's looking for, right? Maybe she doesn't like dark and twisty as much as she claims on her profile. Maybe she's a flowers-and-happy-endings kind of girl, and that's so not you. And it's kind of painful waiting, but it's also so exciting because who knows? This could be it. She could be the one. Until she replies back with her form rejection--you're just not right for her at this time, she likes you but she doesn't love you--you have that beautiful, magical thing that makes the world go round: Hope. And just like earth, your hope can spin to its obsessive little heart's desire because there are no forces acting on it to stop it.

So now that I've debunked the whole querying sucks myth, it's got me rethinking everything I've read about querying. Okay, not everything. Almost every query advice article out there offers some version of the same advice and the tips are generally good, and legit, but here's a few I would tack an asterisk next to:

Don't obsessively check your email responses. To this I say: or what? This advice is as useful and practical as telling you not to itch your mosquito bites or not to worry while you wait for your test results to come back. Just keep busy, do something to take your mind off it, focus on your next book. I will do all that, sir. And I will continue to obsessively refresh my inbox because making this book happen is my Big F-ing Life Dream. Besides, it's not like there's a database where agents can go and see how many times you lovingly reread your own query letter or overanalyzed their Query Tracker stats or checked their recent tweets for something along the lines of "OMG! Just received the best query ever! Can't wait to read this MS and offer representation to this AMAZING author!" Freaking out over my email may be unhealthy, but so are Twinkies and I don't see anyone pulling those off the shelves.

Don't be weird. In general, yes, don't be a creep. If you're querying something academic or a traditional historical romance novel, now's not the time to get cute. And agents probably aren't looking for weirdos in the kid lit space, either. But, if your manuscript revels in the weird--if that's part of it's charm--then I say you almost have to put a touch of wow, that got a little weird in your query letter. If your thriller query doesn't sound a little dark or your humor query isn't funny or your fantasy query isn't... fantastical, how is the agent supposed to know you can deliver on the promise of your genre? This can be really difficult to execute, though, so I suggest getting a professional critique from someone in your genre and trying different things to see what works (rather than going all in on one tactic with your entire list of first-pick dream agents).

There's a magic time to query. You've got enough to worry about without trying to figure out this mythical beast. If an agent I'm interested in working with is open to queries and my manuscript is ready, I go for it. I've gotten immediate replies on Friday nights, weekends, and national holidays. You will never figure out an individual agent's best time to query because you cannot possibly know what they are going through at the exact moment they open your query. She could be pissed at her husband Steve because he machine dried her air-dry-only pants on high heat again and if your name is Steve, then guess what, buddy? Besides, just because you send your query at the optimal time doesn't mean the agent will read it at that optimal time--it could take her days, weeks or months to get to it. This one is something I wouldn't bother worrying about at all.

You have to personalize your query. Hear me out on this one because it's not black and white. You absolutely should find out what you can to ensure the agent you're querying represents your genre and you should definitely take the extra three seconds to replace [Dear Agent] with their real name and you should most definitely take another three seconds to make sure you spelled their name right. Now, if you've got a compelling reason for wanting to work with this agent, by all means say so! Whenever possible, I do try to express the specific reason I am soliciting a certain agent. But some agents don't have a lot of info out there--no recent interviews or a MSWL or a Publisher's Marketplace member page. In those instances, maybe all you have to go on is that they look legit, they're open to your genre, and you get good vibes from their headshot. In that case, don't force a tenuous connection. Just leave well enough alone and let the book speak for itself. If your pitch sounds exciting to the agent, she's not going to sniff at it because you didn't tell her you totally related to her tweet about ketchup on hotdogs. I've queried agents sans personalization (beyond addressing them by their correctly spelled name, of course) who've gone on to request fulls. (And if an agent doesn't have a lot of insights out there on the www, she's probably used to--and maybe even prefers--a little less chitchat.)

Those are my myth busters. I hope they made you even more stressed about getting your query just right. No, no, no! That's not the point of this post. This isn't another List of Things You Must Remember & Abide By When Querying Agents. By all means, read as much as you can about querying. I did and it helped me figure out the basics of what agents expect (and hope for). That, combined with experimentation, refinement, and personal observations about what seems to be working (generating manuscript requests) and what's not (form rejections or no rejections), has greatly improved my response rate over time.

The big takeaway here is that with querying, like writing a book, there's more than one way to do it and do it well. Follow your gut, be true to your style, fix what isn't working, and throw in a dash of common sense, and you will be alright. And don't forget to check your email as often as you damn well please.


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