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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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.

Queryday: Literary agents use Twitter to offer tips

I’ve just barely begun to explain my progress on this new blog, but I’ve got to interrupt regularly scheduled blog posts to bring you… Queryday.

First, what’s a query? It’s a one-page letter to a literary agent, asking that s/he represent you and your project. If an agent likes your query, she’ll ask to see your book proposal, which hopefully leads to an offer of representation.

The query, then, is rather important. It’s an agent’s first glimpse at your proposed book and a chance for her to reject or claim you after reading just a few paragraphs about you and your project.

Lots of agents and writers have blogged and even published books about how to write the perfect query. But today on Twitter, agents are participating in something they call Queryday. They’ll use the popular social networking service’s 140-character phrases (tweets) to explain what worked and what didn’t work in the queries they’ve recently received.

Created by literary agent Colleen Lindsay, who posts rules here on her blog, Queryday was initially called Queryfail, and it caused a huge uproar in the publishing Twitter-sphere. Many writers who observed the online conversation hoping to understand what makes agents reach out to wannabe authors or toss their query in the trash complained it was too harsh, that agents were crossing the line by making fun of  author hopefuls. For the record, agents did not reveal the names of the writers they mocked.

So Lindsay changed the name from queryfail to queryday, hoping for a more educational session that would offend fewer readers (though her goal was always education). Regardless of what it’s called, I’ll be there — well, reading online from my home office — ready to learn.

Wanna get in on it? To ask questions — yes, agents are taking those, too — or participate, you’ll need a Twitter account. But to follow the conversation, you need only click here.

Since the queryday tweets are already coming in, here’s a sample. It helps to understand Twitter-speak, but even if you’re behind on that you’ll get the idea:

rachellegardner: Humility is much better than arrogance in a query letter. Try not to oversell yourself, but present your work with confidence. #queryday

jaypers: #Queryday question for agents:would you auto-reject a query written in 1st person from the character’s POV? @ColleenLindsay @BostonBookGirl

ColleenLindsay: @mightymur If an agent asks for an exclusive, give them no more than a few days and be firm on an end date. It’s YOUR project! #queryday

So check it out! And while you’re at it, connect with me on Twitter. Username: alexisgrant.

How’s the book coming?

More than three months have passed since I returned home from Africa, determined to write a travel memoir.

As I hole myself up in my home office and coffee-shop hop with my laptop, friends and family ask, “How’s the book coming?”

I know what they’re really thinking: What has she been doing all this time?

So, here’s what I’ve been doing. I’ll expound on each of these tasks in the next dozen or so posts:

1. Figuring out how to write a book proposal — and writing it.

This ain’t no small job — It has taken the bulk of my time. A nonfiction book proposal includes an overview of the book, promotion plan and detailed summary of each chapter. Basically an outline of the book, which means I actually had to figure out what I’m going to write, then give it structure and theme. Not to mention a working title, a challenge in itself.

2. Learning how to write a query letter — and writing it.

To attract an agent, I need a beautifully crafted query letter that explains who I am, what my book is about and why they should represent me — all in one page.

3. Researching literary agents.

I’m constantly reading about agents to figure out who might be interested in representing my type of book. I’ve come up with a list of a dozen for my first round of queries — let’s hope I won’t need a second round.

4. Reading about book marketing and picking strategies.

Why now? Because a large chunk of my book proposal must be dedicated to book promotion. To convince a publisher to buy my book, I need a plan for how I’m going to sell copies before it’s even written. (A publisher helps with promotion, but much of marketing is still up to the author.)

5. Networking.

I’ve joined all the popular social networking sites — and then some. I’m building contacts now so when my book is published, I’ll have a wide net willing to catch my promotion.

6. Picking the brain of anyone who will indulge me.

I’ve tracked down friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends who work in publishing to ask for advice about this process. Same with authors and other writers.

7. Creating a personal Web site.

I’m going to need a site once my book is published, so why not build it now? Agents and publishers interested in my work will visit the page to learn more about me.

8. Applying to writers’ colonies.

Rather than write alone at home, I’m hoping to escape to several residency programs for writers. The catch: they have to want me. I’ve got to earn an acceptance, and these applications are time-consuming.

9. Writing.

I’ve spent only about a quarter of my time so far actually writing the book. For now, I’m channeling my writing energy into two sample chapters that will become part of my proposal.

10. Crossing my fingers.

This has slowed my progress considerably, since keeping my fingers crossed makes it nearly impossible to type, a skill required for steps 1 through 9.