What I’ve Learned in Three Years of Querying

Today marks three years since I seriously started querying my work. As a frame of reference, I’ve queried three manuscripts during that time. All of them started out middle grade, but one of them I aged up to young adult after a revise and resubmit request from an agent. I’m currently getting a fourth manuscript ready to query–this time a young adult contemporary.

Unlike the past two years, I didn’t sit down to write this post this week. Rather, I’ve been adding to it since about a month after I wrote the two-year post, jotting down thoughts as they occurred to me throughout the year, anticipating that I would have to write another one. (You can also check out my one-year post.) Sure, I hoped it would turn into a “What I Learned in Two-and-a-Half Years of Querying” or some other partial part of the year, but it didn’t, so here we are. And you know what? I’m ok with that. Because of the first thing I’ve learned:

Patience. Yeah. I’ve finally learned how to be patient, and I’m not talking about waiting for responses from agents because that’s still excruciating. I’m talking about being patient with myself. I’ve blogged about my tendency to rush, rush, rush before, but I’ve finally found the strength to force myself to slow down with my current work-in-progress. Honestly? I finished the first draft in late 2013 and thought I’d already be in the querying trenches by now. Instead, I have it out with a fourth round of readers, and I’m 100 percent ok with that. Some of my second-round readers would be astonished with what I’ve done with it since they saw it. Heck, I’m astonished with what I’ve done with it. That’s the beauty of giving it time and having PATIENCE. If only I’d learned that three years ago. Oh well. I’m not one to dwell on things I can’t go back and change. Moving on. I refuse to send this manuscript out to agents before it’s ready. Been there, done that, had my heart broken before. There may not be some magic formula, but I will not let my own impatience be my downfall this time!

Just because you have a great request rate on one manuscript doesn’t mean you’ll have a great request rate on your next one. There was a huge difference in the number of requests I got for DEXELON versus DUET. And I have to say, it was quite discouraging to go from getting tons of requests to eking them out, even though I knew my skills as a writer had improved. There are so many factors beyond your actual writing involved in how your work will be received–the concept, the current market. I don’t know for sure, but I think magical realism was hot when I queried DUET and science fiction was not when I queried DEXELON. Oh well. Onward.

The longer you query, the less query rejections hurt. Let me clarify that I’m only talking about the query rejections. I’ve gotten to the point where I just shrug when a query gets rejected. I think this comes from a better understanding of how different agents’ tastes are, and if my premise doesn’t appeal to them, of course I don’t want them as my agent. Maybe there’s a slight twinge if they’ve requested from me before, but I still shrug it off. Submission rejections still sting, though, because they’ve shown interest and I get my hopes up.

The longer you query, the pickier you get about which agents to query. I used to send queries to any agent I thought was a remote possibility of a match. I’ve gotten much more selective as I’ve watched writers change agents or have bad experiences with an agent who wasn’t the right fit. I tend to shy away from agents who are vocal online with opinions I don’t agree with, thinking we might not work together well. I’m also not as willing to trust my work with new agents who aren’t at established agencies–unless they have documented sales. I used to think it didn’t hurt to go ahead and query them, but I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t want to waste either of our time if I don’t think I’d actually sign with them.

The more times you query an agent, the trickier personalization gets. Maybe I’m just over-thinking things, but I always err on the side of assuming an agent will remember me. That’s probably because I have an excellent memory for my interactions with people, but then I’m a detail person. When I queried my first novel, I personalized wherever possible, mentioning clients’ books I’d read, things they’d mentioned in interviews or on Twitter, thanked them for sharing their knowledge with writers. But by the time I queried that same agent a second and then a third time, it just seemed awkward. In some cases, I barely personalized at all because I didn’t have anything new to say, and what if they remembered I’d already said that before? As I said, I’m probably over-thinking it, but that’s what I do :). Also, if an agent has requested more than one project, it gets awkward saying, “You requested my previous projects, THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES, AND BILLIONAIRES, DUET WITH THE DEVIL’S VIOLIN, and THE DEXELON TWINCIDENT … ” Kind of a mouthful, right? And yet I want to remind them we’ve interacted before in case they don’t see my name and immediately recall the titles. If I were an agent, that’s one area I’d have to go look up.

The longer you query, the easier it is to let go of a project you love. Each time I’m querying something new, I think, “This is it!” If I didn’t think that, I shouldn’t be querying it. And yet, the more rejections pile up, whether I’m getting requests or not, the more I start to think maybe it won’t be. I still push through because I know all it takes is one “yes,” but I’m less attached to each individual project and more confident that it’s my writing, not a particular story, that will eventually advance me to the next level.

Just because an agent replied the last time doesn’t mean he/she will now. I’ve noticed that agents who responded to queries two manuscripts ago aren’t replying anymore. I don’t know if the volume has increased too much or if other responsibilities are taking more of agents’ time, but fewer and fewer agents are replying to all queries. Unfortunately, not all of those agents have updated their submission guidelines to reflect the change, so you can end up waiting months to figure out you’re not going to get a response. I’m ok with a no-response-means-no policy, but I do wish they’d list it on their submission guidelines if they’ve switched.

The more manuscripts you write, the harder it is to find an agent who will rep it all. Let me clarify this–I’m not saying I expect an agent to represent everything I’ve ever written. It’s more that if I’ve written sci-fi in the past, I might have another sci-fi idea in the future. So it’s not in my best interest to query an agent who will rep my contemporary young adult but has no interest in sci-fi. And let me tell you, this is hard to swallow. There are agents I interacted with on my first manuscript who I loved but I couldn’t query with a subsequent manuscript due to tastes. Who knows? Maybe that’s why it’s taken me so long to find the right agent fit–because I might have signed too early with an agent who would have turned out to be a bad fit later. I’m always looking for the positive spin on things :).

Looking back at what I learned in the first two years of querying, I’m amazed at how much I’ve grown, and as fantastic as it would be to be further along on this writing journey, I’m satisfied with where I am right now. Do I want to move on? Absolutely! But I have faith that everything will happen when the timing is right. And I’m sure I have much more to learn!

Responses to “What I’ve Learned in Three Years of Querying”

  1. Krista Van Dolzer

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this one, Michelle. This sounds like a post I could have written right before I signed with Kate. It’s downright eerie how we came to so many of the same conclusions (and how we gradually made the switch to writing in a different category). I don’t have a crystal ball, but I have to believe that great things are ahead.

  2. kiperoo

    Such great points here, Michelle, especially about the patience and lessening sting of rejections. As much as it stinks to still be waiting, it is such a sanity check (and reality check!) to have someone like you at my side all along. I keep thinking about our celebration dinner that’s sure to come one day! 🙂

  3. Andrea

    Thanks for sharing your insights, Michelle. I am right with you on learning to be more patient and getting more selective about which agents to query.

  4. Greg Pattridge

    Ditto on everything you said. I just finished my third manuscript and of course love them all. I know we’ll both hit the right combination some day. Best of luck.

  5. Jennifer D. Bushroe

    I’m right there with you—recently hit the 3-year querying mark, for 2 different manuscripts. I’ve started entertaining the idea of editing my 3rd manuscript. I applaud how zen and positive you are about all this; while I can see that my writing and business savvy have improved over this time period, I’m still climbing the hill of frustration and disappointment. I wish you luck with your YA contemp, and hope you land an agent soon who LOVES your work! 🙂

    • Michelle I. Mason

      Well, I have my good and bad days, but in general I do tend to think there’s a reason for everything. When you say editing, do you mean hiring a professional editor? I did consider that at one point, but my CPs pointed out that in most cases you can find other writers who can give you the same quality of critique for free. One point I didn’t make in this post is that the longer you’re doing this, the higher the level of other writers you associate with as well. For my latest manuscript, I’ve already had three soon-to-be published authors as readers. They didn’t even have agents when I first met them online. That’s one of the benefits of doing this a long time. Your company advances with you. However, a professional editor can be the right call, too. I wish you the best of luck in making the right choices for YOUR journey!

      • Jennifer D. Bushroe

        I agree about hiring someone, so I’m actually looking for a new set of CPs for my 3rd MS. I’m happy for you that you’ve found CPs of such quality, but I’ve experienced almost the opposite–while mine give good feedback, I’m the only one who seems to be taking ‘writing as a job’ seriously, and they only want to meet sporadically and for short stories. Time to find some new CPs who want to work on our novels, and who are actively pursuing agents and publishing! WriteOnCon is coming up, so I’m hoping to connect with some people there. Thanks for your response, Michelle!

        • Michelle I. Mason

          WriteOnCon is a great place to find CPs. I’ve found a couple there. I’ve also found a few through Twitter, as well as through contests. I have a group that all met through The Writers Voice contest two years ago. One has a book coming out next year and two others now have agents and are going through revisions with them. Also, if you have a manuscript ready to submit today, Pitch Wars is a great opportunity to nab a mentor who is an established critiquer. Many of these mentors are already published, but even those who aren’t have great experience.

          • Jennifer D. Bushroe

            Yeah, I entered Pitch Wars. That’s actually how I found your blog post–someone had linked to it on Twitter. 🙂 But because of the sheer number of applicants vs. the number of mentors, I’m not getting my hopes up… I’ll have to look into The Writers Voice; Pitch Wars is the first contest I’ve entered, I’m not very knowledgeable about the contest ring. Thanks for the recommendation!

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