What I learned from the query process

It’s kind of a shame each of us only has to land a literary agent once. Okay, not that much of a shame. Who wants to go through that again? But now that I’m done querying, I feel far more prepared to do it again. And since hopefully there will be no next time, I’ll share what I learned with you instead!

(Quick background for blog newbies: Rather than submitting a manuscript directly to publishers, most writers work with a literary agent, who guides the writer through publishing and negotiates the best possible contract. More details here.)

What to expect when you start querying:

It takes a while. Sure, some agents respond quickly, and maybe you’ll be one of the lucky ones who gets an offer right off the bat. But lots of agents take a week or more to get back to potential clients. And that’s just for the initial query. Once you hand over your sample chapters, you’ll got more waiting ahead. So don’t do what I did and press “send” on your first query and then feel anxious for the next week. Bad strategy on my part. Instead, you should…

Have something else to focus on. Maybe it’s your next writing project. Maybe it’s a vacation! Maybe it’s getting done all the things you put off while you were finishing your manuscript. But whatever you do, have something else planned. Because otherwise, that waiting period will be brutal. I’m a pretty laid back person, but I had some serious anxiety during the first week after I sent out my query. Part of the problem was that I’d worked on the manuscript and proposal and query letter for so long, that when I sent it out… I felt empty. Like my life had no purpose without a manuscript to finish. (Of course, I had and still have more revisions ahead of me.)

Things got better — and by things, I mean my blood pressure — when I went to Houston for a few days to visit friends, and then started looking for a job. Writing cover letters made me feel productive. Waiting around for agents to let me know whether they liked what I’d spent a year of my life writing… not so much.

Querying in batches is a good strategy. Querying every agent in the book (I’m using that term figuratively; I didn’t actually use a book) is not. I’ll let literary agent Nathan Bransford explain why. I followed his advice, and I’d do it the same way if I had to query again.

Don’t expect much feedback. Agents are busy. Even those who take the time to read your entire manuscript might not take the time to write a two-sentence note telling you what needs work. Of course, some agents will take the time to do that, and I found that some of that feedback to be super helpful.

Pay attention to the feedback you do get — and use it. While it was few and far between, several of the comments I got from agents were really helpful, maybe because they hit on something important, maybe because of the way they phrased it, maybe because they just knew what they were talking about. I’ve got a post planned about something specific an agent told me that’s helping me with my latest revision. If you do get feedback, consider yourself one of the lucky ones, because most of us fall into the next category.

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Example of a query that worked

I love practical advice. What do I love even more? Practical advice with examples.

So today I’m sharing the query I sent to literary agents with the hopes that it will help you create your own pitch letter. I’m no expert on this, and my query isn’t perfect. But it’s the result of a lot of research into how to write a good query, and several people who know what they’re talking about helped me mold it into its current form. Despite its flaws — which I hope you’ll point out in the comments — it passed the real test: it yielded a decent number of bites from literary agents who asked to see my partial or full manuscript and/or proposal. I don’t know why each of them expressed interest. But that’s gotta mean the query has a few good elements, right?

E-mail Subject: Query: Title Here (travel memoir)

Dear [Agent],

I’m seeking representation for my travel memoir, [Withholding Title to Surprise You Later]. I’m querying you because [personalize here for agent. I hand-picked the agents I queried for specific reasons that I’ll explain in another post.]

You’d think shadowing a bull-riding cowboy would be enough. Or covering an execution at a Texas prison. As a journalist at the Houston Chronicle, I had plenty of adventure, but it wasn’t the kind I wanted. I longed to travel. Not to Europe or the Caribbean like other single twenty-seven-year-olds. I wanted to go to Africa. And I wanted to go alone.

Africa?” My friends and family spit the word back at me as though it were a euphemism for bottomless pit. “By yourself? Why would you want to do that?”

[Title] is my story of leaving my job to follow a dream, backpacking through an undeveloped continent. I don’t want to be the woman who talks about her dreams. I want to be the woman who lives them. And by the time readers are done with this travel memoir, they’ll want to take leaps in their lives, too.

Unlike the narrator in most women’s travel books, I’m not looking for love or running from a relationship. My journey takes me to the mountains of Cameroon, where I help a grieving polygamous family heal; to the sandstorm-plagued desert of the infamous Timbuktu; and to a near-empty zoo in Burkina Faso, where I watch an AIDS-infected boy bond with a chimp. It’s not until I find myself alone in a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight that I admit that traveling alone in a place so different from home is scarier than I expected. But this is what dreams look like up close: dirty, frustrating and uncomfortable. And facing obstacles helps me learn that leaning on others isn’t a weakness – it makes me stronger.

I’m a professional journalist, a former reporter for the Houston Chronicle who has also contributed to The Christian Science Monitor, the Albany Times Union and the Colby Magazine. I tested the salability of much of this manuscript through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months. I also have a following on my writing blog, The Traveling Writer, where I’ve chronicled my experience writing this story.

Please let me know if you’d like to look over the completed 84,000-word manuscript or my proposal.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant
[My cell number]
My blog: The Traveling Writer
Twitter: @alexisgrant

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Some things are better left unblogged

When I was querying literary agents, I grappled with whether to blog about it. The whole purpose of this blog is to help you learn from my experiences (and to help me grow), and I kinda felt like I was leaving you out in the cold by not sharing exactly what was going on. Several people wrote to me asking, what’s the latest with your manuscript?

But while I’m a supporter of honest blogging, I also felt like blogging about querying might hurt my chances of landing a great agent. I wanted agents to come to my blog and see the community I’ve built here, not read about how I wanted to pull my hair out while waiting for them to get back to me.

In the end, some things are better left unblogged. And for me, the details of my agent search fell into that category — at least while I was in the middle of it.

But now that I’m represented by Rachelle Gardner, I want to share my query experience with you. In my next few posts, I’ll write about what I learned from querying, as well as how I went about it. I’m also planning to post my query so you can see what worked for me. Is there anything in particular you’d like to know? Any details that might help you query when it comes to your own agent hunt?

For those of you who are querying now, do you blog about it? What other parts of a writer’s life might be better left unblogged?

As for where I’m at now with the manuscript: I’m revising. Again. And I’m sure it won’t be the last time.

Querying your memoir: manuscript or proposal?

So you’re writing a memoir. Should you complete your manuscript before approaching agents? Or query with only a proposal?

I’ve touched on this topic here and here and here, but it comes up so often in the memoir-writing community — and there’s so little advice available online — that it’s time I addressed it outright.

Here’s why this is even an issue:

Writers working on nonfiction projects often query literary agents before they’ve written the entire manuscript. That’s because agents sometimes sell nonfiction based on a proposal, a summary document that includes an overview of the book and author, a promotion plan and sample chapters.

Fiction works differently. Because the saleability of a novel depends heavily on the quality of the writing in addition to the idea, most agents prefer new fiction writers complete the manuscript before querying.

Memoir — that lawless genre that refuses to be put in a box — falls somewhere in between. It’s nonfiction, of course, a true story. But whether it sells depends on how the story is told, which makes it similar to fiction.

For that reason, most literary agents recommend completing the manuscript before querying, like you’d do for fiction. Even then you sometimes need a proposal, too.

But in practice, a good number of agents seem to take on memoir clients based only on their proposal. How do I know this? Because I talk with a lot of memoirists, and most of the ones I know who are represented by an agent established that relationship before they’d written their entire manuscript. In some cases the agent found them through their blog or magazine article. Other writers successfully queried with only a proposal, and their agent picked them out of the slush pile.

What’s the lesson here? There’s no right answer. You’ve got to do what’s right for you.

Me? I decided long ago to write my entire manuscript before querying, partly so I could pitch my best product rather than one that was still evolving, and also because I thought more agents might consider me that way. To cover all my bases, I also wrote a kick-ass proposal (in first person, since my manuscript is in first person). I want to give agents every possible reason to represent me.

If, however, your idea is particularly timely or you’ve got a great platform or there’s some other reason your story will stand out, you might consider querying with only a proposal. Whether or not that’s acceptable depends largely on the agent you’re querying, so check out their submission guidelines, as well as what other writers have written about them online.

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What do y’all think? If you’ve already been through the query process, which approach did you take — an did it work? If you’ve yet to query, will you wait until you’ve completed your manuscript or have a go with your proposal?

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No e-mails, please

As I research literary agents, deciding which to query when the time comes, I’ve noticed that some don’t accept e-mail queries.

Any idea why they do this?

My first reaction is that an agent who doesn’t accept e-mail queries isn’t Web-savvy, hasn’t reached the level of comfort with the Internet that I’d want in an agent. Why do I want an agent who’s Web-savvy? It’s not just that I hope to communicate with my agent via e-mail once she’s agreed to take me on as a client. So much of book promotion is now online. When my travel memoir is published, I plan to market it using my Web site, social networking, Skype (with book clubs), an online book trailer, a book blog tour, etc. I’ll expect my agent to advise me — or at least know and understand what I’m up to — during that process. Is it possible that she knows about all these online promotion avenues if she doesn’t accept e-mail queries?

On the other hand, I’m sure plenty of these snail-mail-only agents are perfectly capable of doing their jobs.

So why don’t they accept e-mail queries? Is it because that helps them weed out wannabe authors who aren’t serious enough about their work to send a letter via snail mail? Or they worry that a great query will end up in the spam box? Or are they really not Web-savvy enough to manage e-mail queries?

Can anybody shed light on this? Would you query an agent who only accepts snail mail?

A term you should NEVER use. Never ever.

While we’re playing grammar police, here’s a mistake I’ve seen many literary agents complain about (and many aspiring authors make): Using the term fiction novel.

It’s a novel. Why not a fiction novel? Because a novel is always fiction, so saying so is redundant. It implies that you don’t know what novel means. And of course you do, because you’re writing one.

Writing “fiction novel” in your query (or on your Web site or anywhere else) so turns off literary agents that many will trash your letter just for that reason.

Erase it from your vocabulary. Repeat to yourself, “I’m writing a novel. I’m writing a novel.” Whatever you have to do to forget that your fiction novel ever existed. Otherwise it will probably only exist on your laptop.

Writers’ Roundup: December 4

Full speed ahead on revision!

Links from this week:

  • A series from editor Chuck Sambuchino called Successful Queries gives examples of real queries that worked, letters that convinced literary agents to request more from the author. Best of all, the literary agent tells why they worked. Helpful for someone like me who’s preparing to query. Chuck also runs insightful series by writers called 7 Things I’ve Learned So Far and How I Got My Agent.
  • Literary agent Jessica Faust sounds off on the right way to prepare a nonfiction proposal. “There are guidelines to submitting material and there’s advice on making your submissions stronger, but there are very, very few ‘rules,'” she writes, reminding us again that it’s the writing itself that counts.
  • Writer Lisa Romeo blogged about a collection of essays on the craft of nonfiction at Narrative Digest, from the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. It’s worth passing along.

Happy Friday!

Start your Monday with a Kick in the Butt

An author wrote to me last week with this advice: “There’s no substitute for finding your voice and writing brilliantly.”

While he seemed to think my travel memoir had potential, he told me, very frankly, that I was spending too much energy figuring out the publishing industry when I should be focusing on writing a fabulous book.

This author, who I connected with online (another reason writers should use Twitter), gave me permission to post snippets of his advice here, but I’m going to leave him anonymous because, well, since this isn’t a newspaper story, I can. He wrote:

I’ve become dismayed by the presence of the advice industry on Twitter and the Tweeters’ corresponding blogs. I find that much of it presents the whole business as if there’s some secret formula or key that will unlock the world of publishing success. And it preys on the dreams and aspirations of unpublished writers, most of whom will never be published. I don’t think that advice is helpful, and in most cases it is harmful. In your case, write a compelling book with an original voice and you will find an agent and get it published.


There’s no great mystery to publishing.

But I need to learn about the industry to get my book published, I argued. I need to know how to best present my manuscript, through a query letter, a proposal, whatever, to convince an agent to represent me. His response?

Agents almost never find clients at conferences or from the slush pile of submissions. No guidelines or tips on writing cover letters are going to help you get a good agent… Agents get clients usually by seeking them out. They see an article somewhere written by a young promising writer and they track the writer down. Or they get a referral from an editor, current client, or writer they respect. Most good agents — and we’re talking about a handful of agencies here — do not find clients in the query pile. It happens, but that’s the exception that proves the rule.

Take it or leave it — This is only one guy’s opinion (I warned you this would be a kick in the butt). He wasn’t ruthless enough to leave me hanging hopeless. He offered to look at my manuscript when it’s complete, and if he likes it, pass it along to his agent, just like an established author did for him years ago. He continued:

Only two things matter. Have something to say. Say it with a clear and distinct voice. Doesn’t matter if it’s memoir, fiction or nonfiction. This isn’t easy, of course. You’re writing about experiences in five or six different countries, but there needs to be one clear idea that drives your narrative. That central idea can be you, or it can be an idea about development or health or something Africa-related. But that’s the key. You need to be able to tell me succinctly what your book is about.

Harsh? Yes. Just what I need right now to keep me motivated? You bet.

Literary agent Rachelle Gardner addresses memoir

Memoir includes elements of both nonfiction and fiction, as I’ve discussed before on this blog. While literary agent Miss Snark calls it a pesky category buster, until today I was ready to call it the forgotten genre. Although literary agents seem eager to represent memoir, most don’t specifically address the genre or its submission guidelines online.

So when literary agent Rachelle Gardner called for questions on her Rants & Ramblings blog, I jumped right in with inquires about memoir. Today she answered them! I’ll paste part of her post here, but for her full answer and readers’ comments (which are quite helpful), check out the entire post on memoir guidelines.

Alexis Grant asked: Would you consider a post on memoir guidelines, since memoir falls somewhere between fiction and nonfiction in many ways? For my travel memoir, should I query when I have a proposal and several sample chapters, like nonfiction, or wait until the manuscript is complete, like fiction? What’s the usual word-count window for memoir? Are there any other areas—aside from reading like a novel—where I should follow fiction guidelines instead of nonfiction?

Great questions! I think memoir requires the most out of a writer, because it’s non-fiction, so platform matters. But it’s also story-driven and the writing is the most important aspect, so it requires the level of attention to the art and craft of writing that fiction does.

I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule about whether to query with sample chapters or a complete manuscript. With a first-timer, I always prefer to read the whole thing before I make a decision whether to take it on. At the very least, I want to read three or four chapters, and perhaps rough versions or outlines of the remaining chapters.

I DO recommend finishing the manuscript before you query. Like with a first novel, you are going to discover so much in the writing process. I believe your book will morph and evolve throughout the writing, and so those first few chapters, though written, will not actually be complete until you’ve finished the book. A memoir is a work of art much more than the typical non-fiction book.

If you don’t read Rachelle’s blog, start now. It’s worth your time!

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When to query?

Maybe I’m going about this all backwards.

During an Editor Unleashed live chat on Wednesday, literary agent Jessica Faust not only critiqued my query, she also made me reconsider my writing and publishing plan.

I was under the impression that an agent and publisher would consider my book based on a quality proposal and sample chapters, before I write the entire manuscript. That’s how many nonfiction books are sold.

Fiction works differently; writers are usually required to finish the manuscript before they have a chance at getting an advance.

Narrative nonfiction, the genre of my book, fits somewhere in between. It is nonfiction, but it actually has more in common with fiction. It has to read like a novel. Unlike nonfiction “how to” books, readers will buy my travel memoir for the same reason they might buy fiction, because it’s a good story.

That’s why Faust says I need to write the entire book before sending out queries. I’ve got to treat this travel memoir like fiction.

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