March 12, 2012

Q+A: When to Start Querying

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Anonymous asked: How did you know when you were ready to start querying agents?

The answer to this particular question generally changes depending on who you ask. I'll try to answer it first generally, and then specifically.

I've read a lot (A LOT) of agent blogs and chats and Q+As, and what I consistently see is that one of the major reasons an agent rejects a query is because of weak writing. What this typically means is that the writer queried too soon--not only because their book wasn't ready, but because their WRITING wasn't ready. A writer must not only be an engaging storyteller, but she must be a master of her craft. Writing for publication is a profession, the same as any other. Learn your craft.

Of course, the problem is that most writers are too close to their writing and can't tell where they need to improve. This is why it's so important to get third party opinions. And not just any outside opinion but someone preferably with the credentials to determine your strengths and weaknesses. I'm using 'credentials' loosely here to mean anyone from a professional editor to a fellow writer whose opinion you trust, and who will be HONEST and CONSTRUCTIVE.

Once you know what you need to work on, what's left is to write. Write and write and write. There are no shortcuts to improvement. Practice makes perfect. And then, apply it to your book, and when it's in the best shape you think it can be... query :)

For me, personally--how did I know I was ready to query agents? With my first manuscript, I totally made the mistake of querying too soon. Fortunately, an amazing agent liked it enough to not only finish it, but she gave me a 2-page editorial letter on what she loved and what needed work. I immediately stopped querying that manuscript and set it aside for a rewrite.

With my second manuscript, I was determined not to make the same mistake. I edited it to the point I had no idea what else to do with it. Then, I sent it off to my CPs, whose opinions I trust implicitly. They are seriously awesome. Once they got back to me (and they're so fast!), I incorporated their feedback and acquired a couple beta readers. I also went another round (or two) with the CPs. I incorporated more feedback (keep in mind it was only the feedback I agreed with and felt would improve the book). Finally, I did a line edit and tried to catch any last minute inconsistencies.

By then, I had no idea what else to do with the manuscript. I didn't know 100% if I was ready, but I knew I had done everything I could. The only thing left was to query. So I did :)

For additional resources, Bluestocking has this AMAZING resource roundup that covers everything from determining whether you're ready to query up through the call:

Resource Roundup – Querying Your Masterpiece

ETA: Arwen asked a great question in the comments, which I'll paste here along with my answer. She said:

You addressed this to a degree, but is there a good answer to the flip side of this coin? How do you know when it's time to stop querying a given manuscript because it just isn't going to fly? 10 form rejections? 40? Never, just keep tweaking and trying again?

Great question, Arwen!

I think it depends not on the # of queries you send but on your request rate. I think a decent request rate is about 30%, but that changes depending on who you ask.

If you're seeing a lot of requests that turn into passes, then it's time to reevaluate your story. Maybe go another round with a new beta reader (for fresh eyes) or ask your CP to take another look with an even more critical eye. If you have a really low request rate, then your query isn't working for you, and you should consider reworking your query. If you're lucky enough to get some kind of personalized feedback (and you agree with it), then make those changes as well.

For this reason, I'm generally against sending 'query flurries' until you know whether your query and opening pages are working for you. You only get one chance to make an impression so don't rush it.

More answers next time! :D

Have a great week! ♥

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