As a member of a querying writers group, I’ve watched writers wait 6 months to receive full manuscript rejections, or go months without receiving so much as a form rejection for queries. I’ve learned a lot about having realistic expectations and how to tackle the querying process. In this post, I interview some of those writers, with the aim of giving newly querying writers insights into what to expect on your journey, and advice. And to give those of you already on your querying journey a chance to reflect and possibly tweak your approach to querying.
Where Are You Querying From & Which Genres?
(Scroll right to see Debbie Hadad’s details).
|Juliana Savia Clayton||Melissa||Debbie Hadad|
|From||🇬🇧 UK||🇬🇧 UK||🇨🇦 Canada||🇺🇸 US||🇦🇺 Australia||🇮🇱 Israel|
|🇬🇧 & 🇦🇺||Mostly 🇺🇸||🇺🇸 & 🇬🇧||Mostly 🇺🇸||Mainly 🇬🇧|
|🇺🇸 & 🇬🇧|
|Why?||Book set in Australia.||“American |
agents tend to be more specific.”
|Canadian agents are literary fiction focused.||Not many agents, conferences only.||Not many agents in Israel|
|Age||Adult||Adult||YA Crossover||YA & Picture Books||Picture Books||YA|
|Genre||Historical 🗝||Fantasy 🐉||Scifi 🚀||Dystopian 💣||Scifi 🚀|
|How long for?||3 years||2 months?||5 months||7 months (Tapered off July to write second).||1 month||1.5 years|
What did you Think Querying Would Be Like?
Susan Way, way back I thought it was going to be every door slamming before I could get near it, but then when I learned that normal people can get literary agents, I realised I could be one of them. But at any point you get reminded it’s going to be hard and you’re going to get lots of rejections.
Alexandrina This is not my first time querying. This time round I wanted to go in with my excel spreadsheet and make it as ordered as possible. 10 queries at a time, wait 2 months, do another 10. I came into querying with a definite plan. I didn’t stick to it.
Debbie I think I underestimated how disheartening it could be and how much emotional energy it takes to keep going. If only you could just hand it to an agency to keep submitting or if there was an app like Book Tinder! Put your query up and if an agent likes it they swipe right and get your pages!
Melissa I did a lot of research and had an idea of agents taking a long time to respond, or not at all. I knew it was pretty hard to find an agent -if at all. I never planned to write a picture book. I’m not relying on this to get an agent.
It would be wonderful to be traditionally published for that kind of validation…–Cheryl
What has Querying Actually Been like?
I definitely know now that literary agents are normal people. Some of them have giant egos. Some of them are very, very humble. You learn which one you might want to work with.
And Twitter is a good way to see, at least, from what they choose to put out there, what they might be like. You still get an idea of their sense of humour and professionalism. It’s a good place to look for red flags, if nothing else.
Susan Personalisation, I don’t know what to do with that. Eg. “I saw on September 17th that you like spaghetti”. [My blog on query letters will address this later this week, and be included in my newsletter going out Oct 23rd].
Susan Comps for Ready Player One were Willy Wonker and the Chocolate Factory and the Matrix. A fifty year old book and a twenty year old film. As a consumer, I don’t care when the comps were made. I get driven insane by the whole “the comps have to be a recent thing.”
Elise The purpose for comps which leaps to mind for me is showing that you have some knowledge of the market and where your book fits into it, so you can say from square one “there is a current market for my book and I know what it is.”
I’ve looked for a machine online that you put information into and it spits comps out. There’s nothing.
Susan There was one query I had to put out. I knew it was going to be a rejection. It took two or three months to come. That was so long ago the story hasn’t changed, but the content has. I put the whole thing in first person present tense just to see what it would look like. I started with just one chapter, then thought, let’s just keep going because why not? Then I thought, I don’t really like this. Now let’s try first person past tense. So I wrote the whole thing again. I took out a point of view. Wrote a couple of chapters to fill in another point of view.
Elise I learnt that it’s so hard to develop and get into character when you write in third person. I can appreciate that re-writing in first person does that better, but it would be so much work.
Cheryl In the UK you can only really query agents directly. The big publishing houses don’t take direct submissions, like some of them do in Australia. It’s a really time consuming process, just hunting down agents who potentially might be interested.
“Because that one (Cheryl’s second novel) is totally in my control… I have made the decision to self publish that. It could have been a minimum of four years before Keepers got on the market. I’ll be on my walking frame by then, so I just want to get it out there. I’m not interested in making gallons of money. That would be nice, though that’s not going to happen.
Alexandrina I came into it with more confidence this time. Every rejection you get is a knock back. That feeling of ‘do I need to leave this for another month? Do I need to hold back on my next batch? And re-work it and look for more querying partners? This time I’ve had more critique partners and beta readers. Each time I get a rejection I think I do need to send it to them to check I’ve got enough characterisation in the first chapter, that kind of thing.
Elise Do you feel like you’re overthinking that or being a bit cautious?
Alexandrina Yeah probably… There isn’t a clear kind of… I feel like I will always need to improve it. Then I think “this is it,” I send out batches and I get rejections in a week, or I don’t hear back in three months, and I think, ok, something’s wrong here but I thought it was really good.
I always go by the reactions I have per round. If I haven’t got a reaction out of ten or from agents with similar things on their list then something’s not quite right.
Alexandrina For my third round, I’m looking for more beta readers anyway, so I’m focusing on the whole novel. I wasn’t just looking at what could be wrong in the opening. There’s always a chance I could get that full request, so I want the whole novel to be the best. It’s almost intuition when you read through and think,”‘there’s something not right with that chapter”. Last weekend I read through and I was really happy with the whole novel but there was this one chapter introducing a character which was so slow. I re-wrote the entire chapter even though I wanted to move forward. I’m not thinking about specifically querying until I hear back from the September batch.
Elise How long do you think querying might take and how long are you prepared to pursue traditional publishing?
Alexandrina I don’t like the term “dream agent.” There are agents who have lots of sales and I feel like I could work with them. There are agents I still want to query… at least two or three batches more, so I’m not giving up yet. I could send 100 queries then call it quits. It depends how much feedback I can get. I want to do Author Mentor Match in February.
On Query Manager: You click a button and get a rejection.Alexandrina
Debbie I sent out a few, then waited a few months. It’s like, will you please reject me? I rewrote my first chapter 6-10 times after letting it sit for a year. Then I got a request.
I struggle with personalisation. “I know you will like this because you like voice.” Oh my God! Run!
Querying my novel was big because it was like a piece of my soul. I didn’t get my first full until June [she started in January]. I’d heard the stories. I thought I was going to beat the odds. I thought my first book was really good. And it is. But it has to be better than good. It has to be marketable, and timely and no-one wants a dystopia when the world is on fire.–Juliana
Juliana When I got that request after 10 queries I was like, “I did it! I’m in. This isn’t so hard. What’s everybody talking about?” And then it was almost a year before I got basically a form rejection from her. I’ve mostly focused my querying on my novels, but I’ve queried my picture book to a handful of agents and got a full request for it. That didn’t pan out.
When I get a rejection I would have a cookie or a shot of bourbon to take the sting away.
I tried to send out a query for every rejection I got, but then you start running out of agents on your list. I only had 100 on my list.
I have 3 full requests out. Two with agents and a like from an Indie Publisher in #Pitmad. I was pretty solid (through the 7 months.) I’m pretty competitive.
To me taking a break wasn’t an option. Which may not be the best thing for my mental health. It naturally tapered to a halt when I started thinking my next book is better and not a dystopia. I’m not giving up on my first book. It’s taking a break and working on my second. I don’t know how people do it alone.
I think my critique partner had over 300 rejections before she got an agent for her picture book… She would get even more upset by my rejections than I would. She would be like, “No! This is the one that was supposed to get you representation!”
What’s been Your Experience of Twitter Pitch Parties?
Alexandrina I’ve not had any likes on pitches, which is always disconcerting, as I feel like I’ve re-worked my pitches several times. This year I’ve made sure I was in DM Groups, commenting on other people’s pitches and being more social about it. It helps with the community.
[In September #Pitmad, Cheryl and her co-writer’s first novel] got 2 likes and… [two agents] asked for a full. We’ve now been waiting two months… [to hear back from one]. It took her two months to ask for the full after the first fifty pages. [The second agent asked for a proposal, then pages, then rejected the manuscript. Cheryl’s longest full rejection took a year to come through.]
Debbie At the first few I didn’t get agent requests. I kept doing them and I got better and more attention. I’ve had agent responses. I’ve had fulls requested through this. If the agent requests your work, rather than cold query, then the agent is interested… they usually like it more. I’ve had a weird experienced where agent’s heart my pitches, I’ve started researching them and they have nothing on their list that has anything to do with what I’m writing, like no Scifi [Debbie’s main genre 😉].
I don’t go to too much trouble to personalise because they’ve already liked my pitch.
Being in a query group has really helped, so you don’t feel alone. I think commenting boosts signal from an algorithm point of view. I like the fake likes… just this guy from somewhere. A kind soul or whatever. I feel better seeing five hearts and one real one than nothing at all, because nothing is so sad.
What have been your Biggest Learnings so far?
Alexandrina Be more social. I’ve had Twitter as long as I’ve been a writer, but while I was chatting to other writers, I never actively searched for a critique partner via Twitter. I never found DM groups. Pitch parties… I feel like I have more confidence to say, ‘Hi. I see you’re doing x, y, z. Do you want to swap pages?’ [Alex met current CP through #RevPit.] We both write similarly. We both get on.
Susan How much you should be ready to put yourself in a box. They want you to be clearly one thing. The whole NA thing -I’m ready to pull my hair out over that. After a few rounds of editing… this is just outside of YA, but Adult fiction doesn’t cover that period of life and the NA box is one people don’t want to put anything in. In Canada we don’t have a section labeled ya. There are shelves called ‘teen’. I don’t know if YA is… internally in the industry or on shelves in the US… I wrote a book about an 18 yo, and it’s not really a dystopia… but it might be, and there’s serious situations, and comedy, and I don’t really know how to do comps but please just read this! I can guarantee it won’t be the worst thing you’ve ever read!
Juliana I didn’t make too many tweaks. I know a lot of people make many on their first pages. I think that way lies madness. At some point you have to let your baby go. Maybe I should be tweaking more…
About a month in, when I wasn’t getting the response that I wanted I reached out to an editor, @AmQueryingH, and she’s amazing. She did my query and first five pages. I had the bones of the query, but she really amped it up and that was the query that got me a couple of responses.
No matter how good you think it is, it can always be better.
There’s nothing wrong with getting a little professional help.
I didn’t realise how competitive the market is. Its more about being better than good enough. And a million other things that you don’t know about.
There was a conference. I skyped him. I said, I queried you and you rejected it, but let’s not dwell on that, I’d like to talk about my new book.”
And he said, “wait. Do you want to know why I passed?… I remember that. I already had a client who had just written a book about a girl trying to find a cure for her boyfriend and that’s what your book was about.”
That was such an eye opening moment. It wasn’t my writing. It wasn’t that it was a dystopia. It wasn’t that he thought it wasn’t marketable. It was just that he already had that book.-Juliana
Take your writing off the table. Your mind wants to go to the place that well my writing’s shit. It’s a terrible book. My beta readers were lying to me. They were just being nice. I have to trust that my book is as good as my beta readers say it is.
You don’t have all the reasons why (for a rejection). Sometimes that makes it sting a little less. Sometimes the bourbon makes it sting a little less. And cuddling the cats and a very supportive husband…-Juliana
Melissa It’s well worth paying for services like Query Tracker. I learnt the value of it when it was discussed in my query group. Looking back, I probably queried prematurely. I had revised a lot. I did have feedback. But I think I needed to go through again.
Debbie People always say don’t take it (rejections) personally. To pick yourself up after a rejection is hard. After a while you develop fatalism. It’s like “has my rejection come through yet?”
The more I learned, the more I realised I didn’t know. I learned you need to let it (your manuscript) sit. You are completely blind to the first draft. You have to have other eyes on it. When you read for someone else you pick up patterns. You need someone to help you notice yours and break you out of them.
Listen to feedback you trust. Listen to your gut. If you listen to feedback from everyone, you’ll go mad.
Be willing to implement advice. Get rid of things you really like if it improves the story. You need to be confident enough to think you’re good enough and humble.
When you’ve been querying for a while and you’ve been revising, in my case I’d been focusing on the first chapters and going back on things like a really strong hook on page one and having an inciting incident as close to the first five pages as possible. I’d been working on the first 50 pages because I’ve noticed agents request up to the first 50 pages, but I hadn’t been working on the rest of the manuscript.
The rest of the novel was not at the same level as the first 50 pages.
I’d been learning how to write better over the past year. I sat down in August, rewriting the manuscript from the beginning. I hadn’t touched it for a year. I could really see the things I’d edited that I couldn’t see a year ago.
You’re blind to your manuscript’s faults because you’re so in love with it that you can’t see what’s wrong with it.
Like phrases you use too much. I removed characters and rewrote from third person past tense to first person dual point of view.
What Advice would you give to Writers Beginning Their Querying Journey?
Melissa I don’t put all my eggs in one basket. You can’t rely on one path to get you through. Have a process for dealing with rejections. (Some writers)… have a dream agent or a few dream agents in mind and I feel like that’s setting yourself up for disappointment.
Alex Take on feedback. Actively look for feedback. Know this agent looks for this because of this interview.
Susan Even if you do fit into more than one category, you have to know how to make yourself fit into the boxes the agents want to fit. Accept that you’ve got to follow the established rule for comps. Actually read at least enough of them to understand why you’re comping it. Ask people who have experience with querying… who’ve gotten to have informal conversations with agents (at conferences). Go to any conferences available to you. If not, find people who’ve been there (not stalking 😉).
Do not start querying until you are super, super happy with your manuscript. Give it to as many readers as possible and beg for their honest views. Re-write. Re-write.-Cheryl
Tell them you’re not just interested in where the commas are. You really want to know if the story works and how do the characters come across. So ask questions. [For an example of possible questions, see my chapter one critical reader checklist.]
Think about your comps very carefully. Think about style, tone, voice -is it similar? Don’t be too specific about the story.
Make sure you read the submission guidelines very, very carefully. If they ask for 50 pages, send 50.
In terms of getting your manuscript ready, make sure you’ve actually written it technically properly… point of view… dialogue.. make sure you learn those things from other writers. From reading books like Dave King and Renee Brown’s Self Editing for Fiction Writers.
Because an agent’s just going to throw it out the door… they need just the slightest excuse to move on to the next one.
Typos, you may get away with the occasional one if the story is great, but if you don’t know how to punctuate or you head hop -gone!
In the end, don’t get discouraged. Take any feedback you get, and use it and keep on going.
There’s no point throwing the same manuscript out there for 4 years though.
Juliana I read the advice… I would have told my eighteen year old self, “You’re going to get rejected a lot. More than you think you’re going to. You’re not the one that’s going to defy the statistics.”
After living the rejections, it gets easier. It really does.
By my 80th rejection it was, “well at least I heard back. That was nice.” I had 5 agents say, “That wasn’t for me, but I hope you’ll keep me in mind for future work.” So make sure you read your rejections all the way through, because it usually comes at the end if they say that…
I missed my first request because all she said was, I’d love to take a look at this. I thought that was her confirming receipt. But that was a full request. Don’t overthink it and have imposter syndrome like I did.
If they say “I’d love to read this”, that means they want the full…
Keep track of it. Query Tracker is a really good website. Being type A, I substitute that with an excel spreadsheet. A tab for agents I want to query. A tab for agents I’ve submitted too. A tab for agencies which are closed that I want to query.
For my future queries, I have that sheet with who wanted more and whose responses were kind and personalised. I got a couple that were kind of scathing like, “consider joining a critique group.” Like, I am. I got one that just said, “Thank you. This isn’t for me.”
I can’t emphasize enough: have a support system. Nobody gets it like a writer gets it.
Once you have really great feedback and your critical reader falls in love with the characters and wants it on a shelf, it’s ready. If not, it’s shouting into a void.-Debbie
Debbie Seriously, make a list of 50 people. Collect 100 rejections. Treat it as an exercise. Be persistent. It’s a long long process. Finding an agent by Friday is like walking down the street and finding a bag of gold. It’s like going on a first blind date and expecting that person to be the one. You need to date a lot of weirdos before you find the one. It’s the same with querying.
Agents have to practically marry your manuscript to represent you. They’re going to be going over it so many times and pushing it to other people.
It’s probably as hard to find an agent as it is to find a partner. One side in the equation is very, very picky and has a lot of experience and is not going to take on everyone. So going in understanding that, and that every first date is not going to be a marriage proposal, is important.
I need to make a decision if I’m going to keep querying or self publishing. I really love my books and I think they are publish worthy. I believe they will find a home in readers hearts. You can’t know if there’s a cavern of gold and you’re centimetres away. We don’t know how far we are from the cavern or if there is a cavern.
I kind of want to say don’t give up because you could succeed tomorrow, but you don’t want to be querying forever.
Debbie Iancu Hadad
Two short stories of mine appeared in the anthology ‘Achten Tan: Land of Dust and Bone (Tales from the Year Between, Book 1)’. Currently querying a couple of YA SFF novels, participating in three different anthologies, writing vss on Twitter and buying way too much stuff on Aliexpress. For my day job I give lectures on humor and serve as a personal chauffeur for my two teenagers. Residing in Meitar, Israel. You’ll find her on Twitter @debbieiancu.
Susan Waters lives in Ontario, Canada. Her writing, however, usually features her east coast roots, whether by landscape or by culture. Her first novel is an upper YA Speculative Fiction she hopes is the first volume in a series. Currently she’s penning an adult romantic comedy while plotting half a dozen stories, most of which blend science fantasy and humour. You’ll find her on Twitter @storiesbysusan.
Juliana Savia Clayton
I write young adult novels and picture books. Currently, I’m working on a YA Romcom. I am an active SCBWI member, serving as the Indiana chapter’s Volunteer Coordinator. I am also a member of the Indiana Writers Center. In my day job, I edit environmental documents, and I have one published non-fiction article in my field. You’ll find her on Twitter @kidlit_writer.
Raised on a diet of Tolkien, Doctor Who, and Agatha Christie, Alexandrina Brant grew up around the city of Oxford, England. After graduating from the University of Reading with joint honours in Psychology & Philosophy, she hightailed it to London to study a Master’s in Linguistics at UCL, where her focus was sociolinguistics and dialect blending. She currently lives in Yorkshire with her husband and two warring cats. Her short stories have been published in several local anthologies and she is working on a Steampunk novel about a linguist’s journey to rescue her fiancé and a Doctor-Who-esque sci fi about lesbian aliens trying to save a corrupt planet. She keeps up with the bookish community on Instagram @lingua_fabularum. You’ll find her on Twitter @caelestia_flora.
Melissa-Jane Nguyen is an Aussie freelance writer and editor and mum to two little ones. She has writing published in Kidspot and Essential Baby, she sends out a fortnightly newsletter that combines aspects of writing and parenting, and she runs a short story publication with her sister. Melissa is currently working on querying and writing picture books, planning a middle grade novel, and letting a young adult manuscript marinate for a while before turning it on its head and rewriting the entire thing. Melissa is (sort of) becoming an expert at juggling lots of projects simultaneously. If you can get her to sit down for a chat, she’s partial to any kind of tea and will happily relate all she’s discovered about celebrities and topics she has no real interest in but has researched thoroughly as a result of falling down rabbit holes. You’ll find her on Twitter @MJEditing.
For a list of Twitter pitch parties to pitch your novel in, see this post.
For advice on crafting query letter or tweet pitches, see this one.
For a list of resource links spanning Query Letters & Synopsis to Finding and Communicating with Literary Agents, see this post.
Cheryl Burman lives in the beautiful Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire, UK. Her first novel was a fantasy middle-grade trilogy but she has since taken to adult historical fiction. Her co-authored novel The Shanty Keeper’s Wife is currently being queried and she has also written a romance set in Australia in the 1950s. Her current WIP uses the Forest of Dean as its backdrop and is a magical realism novel about a young woman who becomes a hedge witch – and a little bit more.At the end: She also writes short stories and flash fiction, a few of which have won prizes. She also writes short stories and flash fiction, a few of which have won prizes. You’ll find her on Twitter @cr_burman.