Agents, Querying, What I've Learned, Writing

What I’ve Learned in Six Years of Querying

Well, friends, here we are: six years of querying.

Three weeks ago I was in New York City with my husband. We went on a bike tour of Central Park, and I have asthma, so that’s already a bit of a challenge. But when you add in a cold, plus the fact that my bike was faulty and wouldn’t go into first gear and I was pedaling uphill, it nearly resulted in me giving up–which is how I sometimes feel about this publishing journey. But then one of my writing friends will step in with encouraging words about my latest manuscript and I’ll have hope again, just like when my husband switched bikes with me and I could finally make it up those tortuous hills. At least they paid off with some amazing views.

Full disclosure: I let him take this picture while I wiped out on the grass.

But back to the writing … I do have a few new lessons to impart from this sixth year of querying, but as usual, if you’d like to refer to what I’ve posted in the previous years, here they are: what I learned in one, two, three, four, and five years of querying. Because I do try to only include new points every year :).

It gets harder and harder to talk about your writing with non-writers. It wasn’t so bad when I was just starting out. I was so excited to be writing, and I still love that I have the opportunity to write every day. Not everyone is so blessed. But after seven years of doing it full-time, there’s this question I get that makes me crazy. I know other unpublished writers hear it too.

“Are you still writing?”

And I just want to shout “Yes! Stop asking!” I know that with every manuscript my writing improves and I get that much closer to my ultimate goal of publication, but these well-meaning friends don’t understand and assume that because they haven’t seen a physical book with my name on it I must be doing something else now.

I also struggle with questions from non-writers about how my writing is going. So often I see this look in their eyes that is very close to pity. Like I’m running in this hamster wheel of writing another manuscript, sending it out, and getting rejected again. I feel a bit judged, like they probably think I’m never going to get there. I do have a select few non-writer friends who have taken the time to understand the process and really do get it. I’m very grateful for them.

Let me also say that my husband is the most amazing, supportive partner I could ever ask for. He supports me fully, even if he does have the unrealistic expectation that someday I will write a series that results in a theme park like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I don’t write the kinds of books that merit theme parks, but I love how big you dream, honey!

It’s always worth trying a new writing/critiquing strategy. I’ve mentioned before how much I hate drafting, and I realize that for about half of you, that’s completely unfathomable because you love the drafting and hate the revising. I’m constantly searching for new ways to make drafting palatable, and I really like the one I landed on this past year. I attended a workshop on writing in reverse, and although it was really more about planning in reverse, I decided to take it to the next level and actually draft my whole novel in reverse, starting with the final chapter and writing the whole thing backwards. I loved it! Granted, I also applied strategies from K.M. Weiland’s STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL and outlined the sucker in much more detail than ever before. Interestingly, I found that I was happier with my first chapter than usual, while my last chapters meandered a bit–sort of the opposite of the problem you usually have than when you write forward, yes? I chronicled my adventures writing in reverse, so feel free to read about them.

On the critiquing side, I’ve always sent full manuscripts to readers after revising the first draft pretty substantially. But as I knew I couldn’t query my work in progress for a while due to waiting to hear on another, I decided to try swapping sections weekly with another writer while I was still revising the first draft, and I found there were some really great benefits to that process. I blogged about swapping weekly, but mainly I loved how it enabled me to anticipate what the reader might have an issue with later in the manuscript and fix it before she reached that chapter.

Deciding to take on a revise and resubmit, even if it resonates with you, doesn’t mean it will turn into an offer. I mentioned this in a previous year, but I think it’s worth repeating. If an agent gives you feedback, says that magical word “if,” and the accompanying feedback makes a light bulb go off in your brain with a million ideas for how to fix the issues other agents have mentioned about your manuscript, then you should absolutely do an R&R. But it’s always a gamble. Hopefully they will love the execution of your changes, but even if they don’t, be grateful for the opportunity. Whatever you end up doing with the manuscript, if the changes truly resonate with you, you have a better product in the end.

You become so used to rejections even a rejection on an R&R you put your heart and soul into hardly causes a blip. I wouldn’t have thought this possible. In fact, I know I mentioned in previous years that although query rejections no longer bothered me, the rejections on fulls still did. I thought it impossible to get to the point where full manuscript rejections truly wouldn’t phase me, and perhaps they will again, but when the rejection on this R&R arrived–and believe me, I pinned a ton of hope on it–I just shrugged it off. It does help that I was waiting on the response a while and was entrenched in working on another project.

Fewer agents reply to queries, and some don’t even reply to requests. I mentioned in year three that some agents who had replied to my queries in year one had become no-response-means-no agents. Now that I’m at year six and QueryTracker has even more detailed statistics (I do love statistics!), I’ve noticed even more agents have moved to the dark side (ha!). But actually, if that’s their policy, I don’t care as long as it’s stated. I respect agents’ time, and someday when I have one, I hope they’re devoting most of it to me ;). What I find to be a more disturbing trend is when an agent requests and never replies. I’ve had a few of those, and they’re agents who are making deals, so they’re not schmagents. I’m not naming names, so don’t bother asking. I just quietly cross them off my own list and continue on with the other fabulous agents out there.

You live off moments of hope, whether they happen to you or a writer friend. You get so many rejections on this journey, you have to hold onto every piece of happy news. It’s especially gratifying when it’s good news for you, like an encouraging note from an agent or possibly even an email that invites you to resubmit, but I like to celebrate just as much for my writer friends. In the past year, I’ve had writer friends sign book deals, win contests, and share other news that makes me dance happily at my desk. Last week I read a post from another writer–someone I don’t know personally–who had been on this journey for seven years and finally signed with her first agent, and that encouraged me too. When other writers have happy news, it gives me hope that my own happy news will be around the corner. That’s what I hold on to, and if you’re where I am, I hope you will too!

I figure that’s a good place to end–with hope. Because we all need some hope. I’m certainly not giving up. I have so many ideas knocking around in my brain, and if it’s not the one I’m working on now that leads to that physical book I hold in my hand, hopefully it will be the next one!

I’d love to hear where you are on the journey and what gives you hope!

Agents, Contests, Querying, Revising, What I've Learned, Writing

What I’ve Learned in Five Years of Querying

I’ve become a huge fan of the memories that pop up on Facebook. It’s a fun way to look through old photos, videos, and the occasional comment. Anyway, on July 3, a writing-related post showed up that made me smile and shake my head at the naive Michelle of five years ago, but it’s appropriate to this post, so I’m going to share it. Here’s what I put on Facebook July 3, 2011:

Novel update: For those of you wondering, the novel is finished! At least for now … I’m going to start submitting to agents when we get back from vacation. Once I find one, there’ll be more revisions, then once it goes to a publisher, more revisions. It’s a very long process! So now I’m writing the next one…

Well, I was right about it being a very long process! That particular novel, which was then titled ESCAPE FROM THE UNDERGROUND CITY and you can now find as THE MODERN CAVEBOY’S GUIDE TO SURVIVING BATS, BULLIES AND BILLIONAIRES under the Writing tab, eventually got shelved. I’ve since queried three other novels and currently have a fifth novel out with agents. I sent out that first batch of queries for CAVEBOY on July 11, 2011, and one year later I posted what I’d learned. It’s become a tradition to add to my experiences each year, and I now have posts for two, three, and four years of querying. I try to keep the points new each year, but it’s getting harder :). Here we go!

No matter how optimistic you are, you’re also a realist. I start every morning thinking, “This could be the day an agent offers representation!” But whenever my Gmail dings, I tell myself it’s a rejection. Why? Because even though I believe that offer will eventually come, I can’t get my hopes up every time a new email comes through. I’ve been disappointed too many times. One day, when I have that how-I-got-my-agent story to tell, I’ll share the statistics. I mean, this is a five years of querying post, so you know that adds up to a lot of rejections!

As your friends sign with–and leave–agents, you get an inside look at those agents and start to form opinions about them. I mentioned last year that the caliber of my critique partners and beta readers has gotten higher and higher. It’s because we started out together years ago and many of them have gone on to sign with agents and even be published. As that’s happened, I’ve listened to their experiences. A few have quietly parted ways with their agents. They’ve shared the details with me behind the scenes, and in a few cases I’ve removed agents from my list. But for others, it was simply a matter of that writer and agent not being a fit–not necessarily an issue that would apply for me or other writers. The best testimonials, of course, are the writer friends who recommend their agents highly.

The more connections you make, the harder it is to enter contests because it’s more likely you know the organizers/judges. In year one, I learned the benefit of contests, and I still think contests are a great strategy to get in front of agents. The thing is … I’ve really tapped that contest market and made excellent connections. So it starts to become awkward. There are contests I can’t enter at all because my friends are running them and others where my choices are limited because my CPs have connections to them. There are always Twitter pitch parties, though!

You start to feel almost ambivalent when you send out queries. I remember the buzz I felt five years ago when I sent out my first batch of queries, how anxious I was to check my email for responses. It’s dulled significantly over the years. I still felt it somewhat when I started querying my fourth manuscript, but with the fifth one, even though I knew it was my best work yet and had the highest probability of anything I’d written of garnering agent interest, I found myself less concerned about how each individual agent would respond. My sense of worth in my writing ability wasn’t so attached to their interest in my manuscript. I’m not sure if that means I’ve achieved some level of zen or peace or what. To be honest, it kind of concerned me that I wasn’t caring enough. Don’t worry, though. I still care about the submissions!

You might have to turn down an opportunity because your gut says it’s wrong. Maybe it’s an agent you thought would be a fit–because you shouldn’t be wasting an agent’s time with a query if you wouldn’t consider signing with him/her!–and then you talk and realize you have a different vision for your manuscript. Or maybe you receive one of those if rejections. Some of you understand what I’m talking about. An agent (or editor) says, “I’d be willing to take another look if you do x, y, z.” It can be a heady email because it means the agent loved something about your work. Here’s someone who believes you have potential, so of course you should do whatever he/she says! Except … make sure that if involves changes you can live with and believe in, because it’s still your story. Only revise if you agree with the suggestions. If you don’t, walk away, no matter how hard it may be. If you can’t overcome your doubts, it’s probably not the right fit for you. But if the changes resonate with you, by all means, revise away!

You never know for sure if something will work until you try it. There may come a time when you want to try a creative element with a manuscript–maybe write it out of order or write it all in tweets or–ahem–include screenplay scenes. It might be exactly the right thing for your manuscript. Or it might not. Sometimes you have to put it out there to the people who know the market (agents/editors) to get a true read on it. But if you are trying something unique with your manuscript, keep a close eye on your feedback and be prepared to revise if it turns out the market isn’t ready for your text-messages-from-your-dead-cat manuscript. (Hmm … that might be funny!)

Just because an agent has never requested from you before doesn’t mean they won’t now. I’ve said the opposite of this before. There’s an agent who requested three of my previous manuscripts and didn’t even reply to my current one, but that’s okay. It’s obviously not her thing. But to prove my current point, multiple agents who’ve rejected all of my previous manuscripts have requested this one, so you never know. It’s always worth trying an agent again because maybe your current project is the one that will finally get the agent’s attention.

It’s okay to return to a project you really love. I’ve shared elsewhere about how I haven’t been able to let go of my second project, which is now my work-in-progress again. I felt sort of guilty at first, like it might be a waste of my time to focus on a novel I’d queried extensively and ultimately had to shelve. But I kept having new ideas how to fix it, so I gave myself permission to return to it, and I’m so glad I did. With three more years of writing experience to bolster it, I know it’s a much stronger novel. Now it’s just a matter of deciding what to do with it!

If you have the means and opportunity to meet your online writing friends in person, do it! You know those critique partners who read your manuscripts multiple times, suffer through your email rants, and generally are the best cheerleaders in the world? I have several of those in my camp, and I’ve been working with them for years, but until a couple of months ago, I’d never met any of them in person. NESCBWI was the perfect opportunity to meet not only one of my longtime CPs, but also a number of other writers and published authors I’ve chatted with online. I wouldn’t give up the emails, Twitter DMs, or gchats for anything, but the in-person time was so valuable. I don’t know if I’ll be able to do it every year, but it’s now my mission to travel around and meet up with my other CPs, too!

So that’s what I learned in year five. I guess I’ll start working on year six lessons tomorrow, because I’m definitely not giving up! What have you learned on this querying journey? Anything you’d like to share?

Agents, Querying, Revising, What I've Learned, Writing, Young Adult

What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Querying

It’s here! I have officially been querying for four years. (Actually it was July 11, but since that’s a Saturday this year, we’ll just consider it today.) And in a strange coincidence, four years ago I sent off my first round of queries and then we packed up and drove down to Springfield, Mo., to visit family. This afternoon, we are driving to Springfield for a family wedding (although I have not sent off a round of queries, so it’s not completely the same). Anyway, I’ve experienced many ups and downs during the process and learned a ton. You can read about each year in succession, as I try not to repeat the lessons of previous years in the current year’s post. Here are links to the others:

What hasn’t changed is that I remain optimistic. I know I will find the right fit for my writing. So without further ado, here are the new things I’ve learned in the past year.

You don’t have to spend as much time researching agents … because you already know them so well. I’ve gotten to the point where many of the agents are like old friends. I’ve been over their profiles, watched their Twitter feeds, read their interviews, etc., so many times, that I know their preferences like the back of my hand. So when it’s time to send out queries, I don’t have to spend a lot of time reviewing before I put together a query for them. Sure, I still check the agency website to make sure nothing’s changed, but I don’t have to spend the hours I used to scouring the internet for information about them to make sure I get the personalization just right.

The caliber of beta readers and critique partners you work with gets higher and higher. The longer you’re in the writing community, the better the chances are that the writers you know have gone on to get agents and even publishing deals. For my last manuscript, I had three pre-published authors and two agented authors read for me. (And after reading, another reader got a book deal, and another landed an agent.) Most of these were writers I knew back when we were all unagented. We started out in the same place, but we’ve grown together. I figure it’s only a matter of time before I see my name in the acknowledgements page of a published novel :). That’s the nature of this long journey.

Just because an agent requested from you before doesn’t mean that agent is still the best fit for you at that agency. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to go with the agent you’ve been in contact with before, the one who’s shown an interest in your previous work. BUT, it’s possible that agent isn’t the best fit for what you’re writing now or for your complete body of work. I did some serious thinking before I started querying my last project. My first instinct was to go with the known, but the more I studied the bios and interviews, the more my gut told me to go with Agent B at a couple of agencies, even though I’d had requests from Agent A. And you know what? I got a request from Agent B.

This can also be something to consider with all the moving around that agents do. If Agent A has requested from you before but Agent B moves to Agent A’s agency and you’ve always really wanted to work with Agent B, don’t automatically think you have to submit to Agent A because of that past correspondence. Make sure you’re submitting to the agent who is the best fit for you now.

You might think you know the agents out there who are the best fit for your work, but you really don’t. I realize this point may seem at complete odds with my first point, but hear me out. I participated in a few pitch contests this past year, and I was shocked by a few of the agents who expressed an interest. A couple of them were newer agents I just didn’t know much about yet. But some were agents I knew about and just hadn’t considered because I’d pushed them further down the list for previous manuscripts. But you know what? I shouldn’t have done that.

Querying is about what’s the best fit for my career now, not in the past. I’ve changed as a writer over the past four years. I started out focusing on middle grade, but it turns out I have more of a young adult voice. I realized I was ignoring agents who didn’t do middle grade; that was a mistake. Because my current MS was YA, my next MS was YA, and the one I was considering after that was YA, too. So … the MG issue probably isn’t coming up anytime soon. My point is that you shouldn’t discount agents or curtail your list too much. Now, I’m not saying send it to agents who don’t rep what you write. Absolutely don’t do that. But make sure your priorities fit your current career goals and not your past goals.

The more thoroughly you research agents up front, the fewer requests you’ll get further down your list. I’m not saying you won’t get requests from the agents you don’t include in your first few rounds because some agents just don’t put much information out there about what they’re looking for. However, if you order your spreadsheet the way I do, you start with the agents you think are most likely to be interested in your manuscript, so your request rate is likely to be higher in your earlier rounds of querying. Don’t let that discourage you! I’ve learned there are always a few agents who surprise me in later rounds of querying and move up to earlier rounds when I query the next manuscript. (I wrote a whole series of posts on How to Research Agents. If you click on the first one, it includes links to all of them.)

You can tell by the rejections when you’re getting close. I heard this truth back when I first started querying, but I didn’t understand what it meant. I get it now, because the tone of many of the rejections has changed. Often they arrive with a tenor of hope: “I know another agent will snap you up soon!” This might sound like a really nice form rejection, but I know it isn’t because the rejections on the earlier manuscripts carried the more generic “Another agent may feel differently.” (I actually mentioned this in the Year One post!). Now, just because several agents say this doesn’t mean it will come true, but it still gives me hope. Maybe sometimes I go back and read through those rejections for a pick-me-up :). I’ve never said that before!

You start to consider other options. Don’t get me wrong–signing with an agent is still my goal. However, my mind is more open to other possibilities and other paths to publication. I know I’m not alone in this. I have writer friends who have been querying for years without signing with an agent who decided to submit directly to publishers or even self-publish. I still believe that if I keep at it, eventually I’ll succeed with an agent. But I’ve also started to realize that the path may not be as straight as I expected it to be. For someone as linear as I am, that’s a bit difficult to wrap my mind around, but I’m getting there.

You have greater confidence in your gut. I’ve written about this separately, most recently in a post on subjectivity, but I’ve gotten better about knowing when to implement feedback–whether from agents or CPs–and when to file it away. In the early days of querying, I was likely to jump on the tiniest bit of feedback and revise, regardless of whether I was 100 percent on board with it. Today, I’ll set aside feedback that doesn’t resonate with me, even if it’s from someone I greatly respect. In many ways, it’s harder to ignore honestly given feedback you can’t buy into than to use it, but I’ve been on the end of revising a way that didn’t feel right to me before, and that resulted in an MS that didn’t read right for anyone. I’m not sure you can get to this point of trusting your gut without those years of experience, so my guidance here is more a reassurance that you will get there.

Ok, I think that’s about it. I’ve been collecting these thoughts all year, and I may start collecting them for next year as early as tomorrow :). For everyone else who’s on this journey with me, hang in there! It’s all about finding the right fit for your work at the right time. And to my friends who continue to support me, thank you! I appreciate every one of you.

Agents, Querying, What I've Learned, Writing

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!

Middle Grade, Querying, Revising, What I've Learned, Writing, Young Adult

What I’ve Learned in Two Years of Querying

I really hoped I wouldn’t have to write this post, but here we are. It’s officially been two years since I sent my first round of queries. During that time, I’ve queried two manuscripts, one of which underwent a major revision before restarting the querying process. I posted last year on what I’d learned in one year of querying, so I won’t repeat any of those points. In any case, I have learned many new things the past year.

Just because an agent requested one of your manuscripts doesn’t mean they’ll request the next one. Agents always say it comes down to the writing, so I assumed if they liked my writing once, they’d like it again. But they still have to be interested in the premise, and it seems I write vastly different things. I went from MG adventure with a boy protagonist to MG magical realism with a girl protagonist (later aged up to YA). Only one agent who requested the first MS requested the second one. My current project is MG science fiction with two girl protagonists, although it’s definitely not girly. So even though I’m up to about 30 agents who have requested my work in the past, there’s no guarantee they’ll be interested in this one. Even if they loved my writing before, maybe they don’t like sci-fi. Or aliens. Or girls who do Tae Kwon Do. Or books about twins. Who knows?

Just because an agent takes a long time to respond doesn’t mean they aren’t interested. When you see an agent tweeting about signing a client within a week of submission and that agent has had your manuscript for nearly a year, it’s pretty disheartening. Thoughts like, “They must not be that interested in mine,” go through your head. Or my head. Whatever. But as with everything else, there are a lot of factors involved. Some agents don’t read in order, especially if something they have in their to-read pile has another offer on the table. I assumed an agent who’d had my MS that long wasn’t interested, and I was wrong. The agent upgraded me from a partial to a full after nine months. So a long wait doesn’t necessarily equal a lack of interest.

Getting a lot of requests does not mean you’ll get an agent. This one is tough to accept. I didn’t get many requests for my first manuscript and rightly so. But my second one was different. I had a great request rate, and I thought, “Finally! This is it!” Well, it still could be. I have a couple of submissions still out there. But it wasn’t the speedy success story my early requests made me anticipate.

Neither does a revise and resubmit. I was very hopeful when I received the R&R for DUET. I knew there were no guarantees, but here was an agent who really loved my premise and my writing. Unfortunately, that agent had a life of her own, and her writing career took off in spectacular fashion right around the time she requested the R&R. I waited. And waited. And finally heard confirmation last week that she’d decided to no longer agent. I could be upset that I put in so much effort to change DUET from middle grade to young adult, but I’m not. It was the right thing to do for the story, plus I learned I could write YA. That’s a good thing since my next idea is YA. So thank you to that former agent for challenging me to go beyond what I thought I could do.

There’s a lot more competition for YA than MG. When I aged DUET up to YA, I’d already burned through a good number of agents, but there also were a lot of agents still out there who hadn’t seen it. I updated my agent list with statistics from QueryTracker and was excited to see agents requested a lot more YA than MG. After all, I’d had a great request rate for the MG version, so if agents requested more YA, I’d get even more requests for the YA version. Nope. My request rate was way lower. Now some of that may be because I’d already queried the agents I thought were the best fit for my premise, but I think the bigger factor is that there’s so much YA out there. You see a lot more people querying YA than MG, and I think that’s why individual agents request more YA than MG rather than a preference for YA over MG.

Test out your submission materials as many ways as you can. The query letter and opening pages are so important. When I started querying DUET, I focused mainly on the query letter, and I received a lot of requests from agents whose guidelines called for the query letter only. I had a bit less success with agents who wanted pages as well. I didn’t pay enough attention to that. If I had, it would have clued me in earlier that my character should have been older. But maybe not. Sometimes the feedback you get doesn’t click until later. I’m being more cautious this time. One way I plan to test it all out is by targeting agents who request a partial before a full. Assuming they do request, I can get a feel for how well those early pages are performing. If they ask for more, that’s a good sign!

Trust your gut … but recognize things you might have to change later. I used to be one of those writers who incorporated 99 percent of the suggestions from my critique partners. To be honest, with that first manuscript I probably needed to, and even quite a bit of it on the second one. I’ve gotten to the point where I trust my own writing better than I ever have in the past. My CPs still catch a lot of issues, both major and minor, but I have much more confidence in myself if I don’t agree with a comment. This is particularly important in my current manuscript, as I have some risky elements that a couple of readers have been iffy about. It’s another reason I’m being cautious with querying–so I can feel out whether these risks are going to turn off agents or not.

So that’s where I am after two years. I really hope I won’t have to write a “what I’ve learned in three years of querying post” next year, but if I do, I’m sure I’ll have even more knowledge to impart.

How about you? What have you learned? Anything different from what I’ve experienced?

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?