Contests, Pitching, Querying, What I've Learned

What I’ve Learned in a Year of Querying

One year ago today I sent the first round of queries for THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES. In honor of this anniversary of sorts, I’d like to share a few tips from my querying journey.

Titles are important. I did a number of things right when I started querying, but I should have paid closer attention to the title. CAVEBOY started out as ESCAPE FROM THE UNDERGROUND CITY. I know. It’s boring, but in addition to that, it automatically made agents think about THE CITY OF EMBER. I could have given them a whole list of ways my MS is different from that very popular book, but it was already too late. For many agents, the title is the first impression. It almost always goes in the subject line of your query, so make it stand out. Check out agent Suzie Townsend’s post about titles for more.

Enter online contests. I initially resisted any online contest that required me to post an excerpt of my novel. That was a mistake. When you enter first page contests, you get valuable feedback from other writers. These people haven’t read your MS like your critique partners or beta readers. They’re looking at it entirely for whether it grabs their attention or not. They tell you honestly whether they’d keep reading or set it aside for something else. You want this information! Even better, in many of these contests the participating agent also gives you feedback. Any chance to get agent feedback is golden. It rarely happens as a result of a query or even a submission. Here are a few bloggers who regularly host contests: Miss Snark’s First Victim, Mother. Write. (Repeat.), Cupid’s Literary Connection, Brenda Drake Writes and Operation Awesome.

It’s all subjective. You get the dreaded rejection that says, “Another agent may feel differently.” It feels like a platitude, but it’s not. I didn’t fully understand until I read 3/4 of the entries for The Writers Voice contest in May (note that this link goes to entries before they were edited with input from the coaches). Many of the entries were well-written and yet I wouldn’t have read them. I expanded on this further in an earlier post, but suffice it to say, agents’ tastes vary as much as ours do. If an agent takes you on, they’ll be spending a lot of time with your manuscript. That’s why they say they have to love it. So even if you’re not ready to enter a contest, go read the entries. You’ll have a better understanding of what agents face when they open their inboxes.

Be patient. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Impatience is your worst enemy when you’re querying. Don’t query without getting feedback on your pitch and manuscript from other writers, and even then, take your time. There’s a good chance you’ll need to modify one or the other during the process. For CAVEBOY, I changed the title once, the query at least four times, and the opening pages multiple times before I got it to a request-worthy place. By then, I’d queried too many agents too early. Test everything and regroup before you send more. For more details on my personal experience, check out these posts about CAVEBOY and DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLIN.

Spring for the premium membership on QueryTracker. I used the free version of QueryTracker to monitor my queries and submissions for CAVEBOY. When it was time to query DUET, I had to sign up for the premium membership in order to track a second project. I didn’t know about the other benefits. Now I wish I’d upgraded sooner. I’m addicted to the Data Explorer, which lets you see agents responding to queries real-time. If an agent hasn’t replied to me in his/her usual time frame, I can see whether I was skipped or the agent is just behind. I also used it as I developed my agent list for DUET, tracking which agents had made the most middle grade requests in the past year. Then I used the handy Agents With Similar Tastes report, plugging in the agents who requested CAVEBOY to see who requested the same middle grade manuscripts. Trust me, the data is worth $25 a year.

I could go on, but this post is getting long, so I’ll leave it there. What have you learned from querying? Any other tips to add?

22 thoughts on “What I’ve Learned in a Year of Querying”

  1. I didn’t realize you were CAVEBOY! I remember seeing it around and loving the title. We all need a trunked manuscript or two, right? That way, when another project sells like hotcakes and our editor wants to know what else we’ve got, we have something to whip out right away 🙂

    Great thoughts, Michelle.

    1. Thanks, Krista! Yes, I think we do need some trunked manuscripts. I’m hopeful that if an agent picks me up for DUET they’ll know what I need to do with CAVEBOY to take it to that next level. But it’s ok if that doesn’t happen because I’ve learned from it. That’s what we have to do – learn and move on!

  2. Hi, Michelle. Thanks for this great post (and also for the earlier ones I scrolled down and read.) I saw DUET in The Writer’s Voice and thought it was really good. I’m crossing my fingers for you. It sounds like we’ve done similar things with querying our MS’s and it’s nice to read that I’m not alone :). Mine’s MG, too. Best of luck to you! Cheers, Emily

    1. Thanks, Emily! It’s so hard to know when your MS is ready and to have the patience to wait and test it out. I wish there were some kind of magic ball that would tell us. Oh well, it’s a different journey for everyone!

  3. What a helpful and interesting post. I love that you shared what you learned with everyone. You offer great advice from your year of querying. I also learned to subscribe to the LMP on line for a week or two in order to do an up to date search on agents who read my genre. The LMP is huge- but it did help me to have a better idea who to send my MS to. 🙂 Wishing you much success!

  4. Superb blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?
    I’m hoping to start my own website soon but I’m a little lost on everything.
    Would you recommend starting with a free platform like WordPress or go
    for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I’m totally overwhelmed ..

    Any ideas? Thanks!

    1. I personally like the free WordPress site, but I haven’t tried anything else. I will say WordPress is very easy to use. However, if you want to imbed anything more than pictures, you will have to do a paid site. I haven’t sprung for that yet ;).

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