Querying a novel manuscript is thrilling, soul-sucking, fun, and miserable, all at once. It’s also pretty confusing, since there are so many small decisions to make. Some writers currently going through (enduring?) querying asked me a few questions, and I figured I’d share my experience and opinions, in case they’re helpful.
How many agents did you query for your novel? How did you select agents?
A Light of Her Own is my fifth novel-length manuscript. I queried novel #3 over one hundred times — got lots of requests, but no offers of representation. I selected agents based on anyone who was interested in historical fiction, largely according to their profiles on querytracker.net which I always corroborated via the agency web pages. I also queried some agents that I met at conferences (particularly Muse & the Marketplace, an excellent Boston conference).
My fourth manuscript I queried less than twenty times, but decided I didn’t like it so gave up quickly. For A LIGHT OF HER OWN, I took my time before querying. I hired an editor to look at the beginning pages (the excellent Heather Webb), and tried to get as many beta readers as possible. I also entered Pitch Wars, and though I didn’t get in, I learned from watching the hashtag and the critique partners I met. I had earlier met Shannon Hassan at the Historical Novel Society Conference, and she had requested my manuscript but I asked if I could hold off sending until after Pitch Wars. She graciously agreed. I had also sent out a few queries (maybe 20?) but not a bunch. By that point, I was also keeping track of who represented the historical fiction books that I loved, according to the authors’ acknowledgements.
How do you choose comp titles for your query letter? Do you select a book with a writing style similar to yours and another book on a similar topic? How recent should comp titles be?
Ah, my innocent querying self. When I first started querying, I thought comp titles were supposed to be the books that inspired the writing, not ones the manuscript resembled. So one of my first comp titles was … War and Peace.
Later, I learned, with much horror, how wrong that was.
So I started picking recent books that had either setting, plot, or stylistic similarities. When I started querying A LIGHT OF HER OWN, I actually didn’t use any comp titles, for reasons I don’t remember. When Shannon and I sent the manuscript out on submission, we comped Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, based on the 17th century setting and the artist.
How did you know which genre to select from--for example, historical or women's fiction or commercial fiction or upmarket?
Querying writers should definitely choose one genre; the one that best fits your novel. It’s ok to say “historical fiction with literary styling” or “literary fiction that would appeal to readers of women’s fiction,” but the more specific you can be the better. I knew mine was primarily historical because it is set in the past — and no matter how literary the styling is, it seems that the setting sets the genre. There could be some wiggle room here for novels that take place in the 20th century; I have seen those slotted as literary fiction.
Imagine where your book would be shelved, and how other authors would categorize your book. If you really don’t know, try reading more recently-published books. Read from a few books in the genres you are considering. It’s worth the time to know the market.
How important is it to get a professional editor? How do you know if beta readers are sufficient?
I learned a lot from working with Heather Webb, and I certainly recommend hiring an editor — even for just your first 100 pages — if you can afford it. Vet your editors to make sure they have quality advice to offer. That said, if you’ve put the time into editing the manuscript and sent it out to beta readers who are not your friends and can be very honest about what’s working and what’s not working.
I wrote a post about how to think about shelving or not shelving your manuscript. I think this might also be useful for thinking about how query-ready you are. http://www.carriecallaghan.com/blog/2018/10/4/on-shelving-your-manuscript
When do you know if you need a sensitivity reader?
If you are writing about a marginalized or underrepresented group or perspective and you are not of that background, or even if it’s a different perspective than your own, it’s a very good idea to think about working with a sensitivity reader. At a minimum, see if you can find another writer to swap with who might have the background to help you with that. But since that work can be emotionally demanding, it’s pretty important to try to remunerate sensitivity readers when at all possible.
Do you recommend any resources for querying?
Definitely. I loved having as much information as I could about an agent’s responsiveness and correspondence habits. Knowing when an agent was sending rejections (or if she was in the habit of not ever sending any) helped me feel a little more in control. I used Query Tracker to help me monitor my queries and find new agents. Duotrope also has an agent function, though I only use them for literary magazine submissions, so I can’t vouch for the agent function as well.
There are also many great resources out there on how to write and refine a query letter. Query Shark is the classic, and Pitch Wars (where I’m a mentor) has a page of writing resources which includes a bunch of great query references.
Finally, I think both Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott are great emotional resources for querying. They have helped me approach literature with humility and humor, and those are tremendously helpful tools to lean on when you’re putting yourself out there.
How do you know when you’re on the right track with your manuscript or if you need more editing?
It has taken me years to learn how to edit my own work, and I’m still working on it. One of the best ways to know if you need more is to see what honest, perceptive readers think. See if you can get some critique partners to look at some or all of your manuscript, and listen carefully to what they have to say. If people are confused or bored, you still have work to do. Make sure you’ve done multiple editing passes, starting with big-picture structural issues (does my novel have a structure, does the protagonist have an identifiable character arc, do my chapters each portray the protagonist’s pursuit of a desire), and then move to chapter-by-chapter structure (is each scene essential, are there multiple story elements in play at all times), and finally paragraphs and words (is the writing smooth, consistent, grammatically correct).
Is there any request percentage that can indicate if you’re doing well?
There may not be a magic number, but if you’ve sent out 10-15 queries and received no requests, that’s probably not a good sign. Having a good concept is hugely important, and a good query that conveys that concept will elicit requests. From there, the novel should be able to stand on its own.
How long to wait before following up with an agent who has requested a full ms?
Be sure to check the agent’s webpage and Twitter for individual guidelines. Generally, you should not follow up before three months at a minimum. Personally, I’m a little fatalistic about following up. Unless you have an offer or otherwise have good news (a new publication, for example), I suspect that a follow-up nudge isn’t going to make a busy agent any more excited about a manuscript that she hasn’t already made time for. But that could just be me — I try to keep my expectations as managed as possible.
How important was it to have a social media presence before you completed your novel?
I don’t think it really matters to agents, unless you’re genuinely famous. But being comfortably engaged on social media in a way that feels healthy and rewarding to you can be fun — as long as you find a balance that works for you. I’ve loved having my Twitter community to help encourage and support me now that my novel is out. But I doubt the social media presence makes much of a difference for marketing.
Good luck querying, everyone. Putting your heart’s work out there for others to commodify is gut-wrenching. Remember that you’re standing on the shore of your own artistic island, and you’re hoping someone else can build a bridge to a community of book-buyers. Whether or not that bridge gets built does not diminish your own artwork and accomplishment. I know it’s hard, but try to separate what you can control — your work — and what you can’t — someone else’s reaction and willingness to spend money on your work.
And keep us posted on any good news!