Query Weary: A Beginner’s Guide to Querying Literary Agents

Hooray, you’ve finished your novel! You’ve trudged through the slog of drafting and beta-readers and endless revisions and you are actually, officially DONE. Congratulations!!! Now the real work begins. I want to say j/k but querying is no joke. 

I had a vague sense of this before I got started, but I was so thrilled to simply be done with the book, this book I love and believe in so much, that I didn’t quite give the querying process much thought before it was upon me. I’d figured, I’d do some research, send a few emails and then wait. What’s so hard about waiting?

OMG EVERYTHING. Anytime you get a new email your heart stops. Every single moment you’re not on your phone refreshing your email, you’re thinking about refreshing your email. Rest assured, that tic does subside after a few weeks as you realize it really will take months and you’re about to go crazy with all this obsessing (and don’t get me started on the emotional highs and lows of querying while pregnant!). 

But lest we get sidetracked by the charming personality traits of a querying writer, let’s get to querying itself. 

What Is A Query Letter?

The letter is the first thing an agent sees, and the only information they get about your book. It should be no longer than 300 words and you want to use the limited space to entice the reader to want to see more (your manuscript). It should read like the back cover jacket copy of a book. Tell the reader what the story is about quickly and succinctly, in an enticing way that sets up the conflict and hooks, without giving away the ending. It’s tricky, but effective writing.

Where Do I Begin? 

You start by doing your research. Query Shark is the hands-down most helpful resource for learning how to write an effective query. I read these posts for weeks before I tried writing my own letter to not only get a sense of the style of writing, but what information needs to be conveyed and how do so effectively. There are also literally hundreds of blog posts about querying that I found with a simple Google search. 

Now? Write Your Query Letter. A Lot. 

I wrote anywhere from twelve to fifteen drafts of my query letter. I obsessed over lines and individual words. When you only have about 250 to work with, you want every word to count. Take the time to really massage and perfect your query letter. Especially your opening line, as some agents may stop reading after that if it doesn’t sing. 

Get Eyes on Your Query Letter

Once you’ve written your letter so many times you’ve gone cross-eyed, it’s time to get other eyes on it. Have other writers look over it, especially if they’ve queried before, and anyone else whose opinion you respect. I had both beta-readers of the manuscript, and those who hadn’t read it, go over my query letter to get equally weighted opinions on whether it sold the story correctly and if it enticed the reader to want to see more. 

Research Agents

While your beta-readers are tearing your query letter apart, spend your time researching agents.  You don’t want to send your query to just anyone. You want to send it to the agents who:

  1. represent your genre
  2. are currently open to queries,
  3. who are looking for your type of story,
  4. and who spark excitement in you. 

The most effective way to research agents for me was using the #MSWL (manuscript wish list), Query Tracker, and following agents on Twitter. While Instagram is so much more my preferred platform, Twitter was an invaluable resource for querying. Often, agents will state whether or not they’re open for queries, and pin what they’re looking for to the top of their profiles.

The longer you follow agents on Twitter, the more you get a sense of their personalities and the way they work. It’s a really helpful way to choose who could be right for you and your work. Also, ALWAYS go to their individual agency websites to research guidelines for submission. Each agency varies. Agents will also say on Twitter whether or not they participate in pitch events (more on that below).

Make a Spreadsheet To Keep Track

I created a spreadsheet to keep my querying organized. When I found an agent who seemed just right to query, I added them and created columns for their name, agency, the date I sent the query, and subsequent columns for partial and full requests (more on that below), or rejection dates. I color-coded who had what, when. It was so helpful in keeping myself organized. You want to be extremely detail-oriented because it’s a lot of irons in the fire at once. 

Send it Off! 

Once you have your letter done, your list of agents ready, and your manuscript perfect, it’s time to send those babies off! Take a deep breath, hit SEND, then luxuriate in the amazing accomplishment of your bravery! You sent your work into the world!! I started by sending five, then warmed up to always have about 10 active queries going at one time. 

WAIT For Response

As I mentioned earlier, waiting is the hardest part. Many agents aim to respond to queries within 4-6 weeks. Some can take months. This is the time when you relax, celebrate all your hard work, and binge a new show because you deserve it. (But you’ll likely be low-key stressed all the time and if you need support, always feel free to DM me!)

What Are You Waiting For? 

When those emails do start trickling in, what you’re hoping for is an agent requesting to see more. Sometimes they want the first 50 pages (a partial request) or the entire manuscript (a full request). It’s a genuine thrill when this happens. Make sure your manuscript is free of typos and send it back to them within 24 hours of their request. Then the REAL waiting begins. 

Agents can take anywhere from one week to one year to respond to a full request. In my experience, the longest I ever waited on a response to a full or partial was 2 months. Despite how busy they are, agents really do their best to get back to you ASAP. 

And ultimately, ideally, you’re waiting for one of those emails to say “can we schedule a phone call to discuss?” because that is an indication an offer of representation is pending!

Participate in Pitch Events

As you query, be sure to participate in Twitter and online pitch events. Agents and editors participate in these events and it’s a great way to get to the top of their slush piles if they like your pitch. The ones I know of are: #DVPit (how I connected with my agent*) and Pitch Wars, but there are dozens of events for every genre. Do your research to find the ones best suited for you and your book, and enjoy the unique struggle of summarizing your book into 280 characters or less! 

My Query Stats

These steps are all well and good to learn about, but I personally always want the dirt when people talk about their querying experiences! So I’m happy to oblige with my query stats — just keep in mind that everyone’s querying journey is different, and I only share in the hopes of encouraging and celebrating all of you in the query trenches!

MY STATS:

AGENTS SUBMITTED: 24

QUERY REJECTIONS: 7

PARTIALS REQUESTED: 4

FULLS REQUESTED: 7

CNR (never responded/assume it’s a pass): 6

R&R (Revise & Resubmit) OFFERS: 1 

OFFERS OF REP: 1*

TOTAL TIME QUERYING: 3 months

*MORE ON THAT IN THE NEXT POST!!! But, spoiler here if interested!

Good luck, querying writers! It’s a particularly unique agony, but a process that can be totally worth it when you put the work in. My inbox is always open if you have questions.

Write on!

xo

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9 thoughts on “Query Weary: A Beginner’s Guide to Querying Literary Agents

Add yours

  1. I always liked Query Tracker. I wrote a book about 10 years ago and remember this process all too well and the anxiety that comes with it. I had one partial submission requested and then got a rejection. I still remember how happy I felt at submitting the partial though. 😄

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes query tracker is the best! That’s awesome – the whole process is so confusing bc it really is genuinely thrilling when you get those requests! But the rejections — oof they hurt. I cried every time.

      Liked by 1 person

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