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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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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Writers’ Roundup: March 19

Great convo in the comments of Monday’s post on building community around your blog. It’s worth checking out if you haven’t yet.

Some great links out there this week:

I’m in New York City for the weekend, getting away from my computer for a few days. (And using a friend’s laptop, which is why I can’t seem to space this post as nicely as usual. See how much more difficult it is to read without white space?) Hope you’re able to do the same this weekend!

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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Literary agent critiques my query

During an Editor Unleashed forum on Wednesday, literary agent Jessica Faust critiqued my query (the same query I shared with you in a previous post).

Her critique is very specific and quite helpful, which is why I’m sharing it here in full:

Never start out with “hoping I’m the right agent” it gives the impression that you really haven’t done your research. Remember when querying agents that you need to think of it as giving us the honor of reading your work. In other words, come on strong and sure. I’m excited to tell you about my travel memoir would be more appropriate. I’ll decide if I’m the right agent, but you don’t want to give me an easy out. You’ll also want to make sure that somewhere in there you have a word count.

In the second paragraph you describe your book as poignant and yet I get no sense of poignancy in your voice. Anytime you’re describing your work as something–humorous, poignant, suspenseful–you need to show in your voice that it matches the description. As you’ve written it here it feels very stiff and, frankly, not special. What about your book makes it different from the many other travel memoirs currently on the shelves at bookstores. Did you find adventure? How will it inspire readers to take those leaps? All of this needs to be shown.

I would skip revealing your age as well as the fact that you’re full of potential and good at editing. That’s always assumed. Let that show in your writing.

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Query tip

I love this query tip from Michael Larsen‘s How to Write a Book Proposal.

For snail-mail queries, he suggests sending a self-addressed, stamped postcard that reads:

Please send the proposal __

Sorry, we can’t help __

Plus the name of the agent, for the writer’s benefit.

“No matter how busy they are, agents and editors interested in finding new writers will take the time to read a one-page letter and put a checkmark on a postcard,” Larsen writes. “Although they may have their assistants do it.”

So I personalized postcards (using a print service that’s associated with Flickr, where I’ve uploaded all my travel photos) with a beautiful scene from my trip, the view from my bungalo at Isalo National Park in southwest Madagascar. If I don’t use all these special postcards for queries, I’ll send them to friends.

View from my bungalo outside Isalo Park, Madagascar

View from my bungalo outside Isalo Park, Madagascar

While stuffing my postcards and query letters into envelopes, I realized the downside to the postcard: an agent can’t stuff her reply letter inside. So then I wondered: Should I send a self-addressed, stamped envelope instead?

This is a tedious, nit-picky detail, one that matters far less than the quality of my query and book idea. But since I’m a first-timer, I like to get details right.

What do you think? Should I go with the unique postcard or stick to the boring yet dependable envelope?

The all-important query

A query is a pitch to a literary agent, asking him or her to look at your book proposal and hopefully represent your work.

There are lots of resources on the Web that explain how to write the perfect query letter. The one-page letter should give a summary of the book’s plot and theme, as well as why readers would buy it. It should include information about the author and why she’s qualified to write the book. And it’s gotta be catchy — this is the writer’s one chance to catch the eye of an agent.

I’ve already written my query. As soon as I finish my sample chapters and add them to my book proposal, I’ll start sending the letter to literary agents.

I’ve personalized my query for every agent I plan to send it to, explaining why I chose them. But the meat of the letter is the same. It includes my working title (which may change as I write), selling handle and comparison to another published book, three components I’ve already addressed on this blog.

Wanna have a look?

Dear [agent name here],

I hope you’ll be the right agent to take on my travel memoir, Madame or Mademoiselle? A woman’s solo journey through Africa.

The story of a journalist who leaves a stable Houston life to backpack through an undeveloped continent in search of adventure, this poignant narrative will inspire readers to take leaps in their own lives. Think Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari on estrogen, with a dash of optimism and a few dozen wannabe-suitors thrown in.

While this is my first book, I’ve been published for years in newspapers and magazines. I turned stories for three years at the Houston Chronicle, and I hold a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. I thrive on deadlines and enjoy the editing process. I’m 28: full of potential and worth your investment.

Madame or Mademoiselle? will bring readers by boat to Timbuktu, to Cameroon to deliver a gift to a grieving polygamous family and to a dangerous Malagasy bus station after midnight, when even an independent woman admits she’s vulnerable. I tested the saleability of these stories through my travel blog, Inkslinging in Africa, which garnered 50,000 hits in just six months, an impressive figure for an independent start-up.

Please let me know whether you’re interested in looking over my 29-page proposal, plus two sample chapters. I’ve provided a self-addressed, stamped postcard for your response.

Thanks for your consideration,

Alexis Grant

After hearing on Twitter that agent Jessica Faust would critique several queries on an Editor Unleashed forum, I jumped at the opportunity to submit mine. Faust is on my list of agents I plan to approach, so having her feedback would be useful. She’ll critique my query and four others during a live online discussion on Editor Unleashed on May 13 at 11 a.m. I’ll let you know what she suggests!

In the meantime, I’d love to hear YOUR suggestions. Is this short and sweet enough? Does it get my point across? What can I do better?