Probably How Not to Query a Literary Agent

Dec 3, 2018 | Blog, Essays

I wrote a book last summer.  I experienced the very rare phenomenon of having all of the stars perfectly align in my life so that I could sit and type out a book.  In my case, I was sitting and scooching around on the floor to keep babies out of trouble while I typed a book out, but I managed to type it out nonetheless.  And it just poured out of me! It had been years since I’d written like that. It was like there was a divine hand guiding the process.

It was a kid’s book about an 11-year-old homeschooler from a big family trying to solve the mystery of her neighbor’s missing lawnmower.  I harbored no illusion that it would change anybody’s life or anything, but I thought it was a fun, silly mystery that kids might be able to lose a couple of afternoons absorbed in.  Most importantly, I thought it might be good enough to try to sell to a publisher.

My husband read it and said, though it was pretty good and he appreciated my enthusiasm, it was still a first draft and, therefore, not quite ready to sell.

Annoyed that I was not the Mozart of children’s literature, I went about the tedious task of revising and revising and revising.  A couple of friends graciously read the improved copy for me and the positive feedback gave me new energy and a renewed belief that it might be good enough to sell.  So after a few more revisions (because once you start, it’s difficult to stop), I set about writing a query letter to find an agent.

The First Query

Writing a query letter is probably the most difficult part of the process for me.  It’s no small task condensing 23,000 words down into a couple of paragraphs that are jazzy enough to make the reader want to read the original 23,000 words.  If I could say what I wanted to say in a couple of paragraphs, I wouldn’t have had to write the 23,000 words.

Fortunately, my husband is a query-writing whiz and he whipped one out for me in about ten minutes.  It was a nearly perfect rendition of how the back of the book would read, which is, what agents look for in a query letter.  There was that divine hand guiding the process again.

Query letter and revised manuscript in hand, (well, in laptop) the next step was to figure out what category my book fit into so I could query the appropriate agents.  It was not quite angsty enough for Young Adults (YA) but it was a bit more mature than a chapter book. It fell somewhere between the middle of the two into a category aptly called Middle Grade or MG for short.

Now to find the agents.  The last time I queried agents was before I had any children and MySpace was just getting big.  Then, I had to go to the bookstore and buy a giant book of agents that came out yearly like a phone book, search through it for agents that might potentially like my writing and then send my query letter with a self-addressed, stamped envelope to each of them.

I was ecstatic to see that it can now all be done online and that there are several websites designed to help writers find the right agent.

I stumbled across one such site called Manuscript Wish list (MSWL) in which the agents post what they’re hoping to see in their inboxes.

The first agent’s post I saw read, “Impress me with your wittiness.”

That’s kind of funny, I thought as I went to his agency website to query him.  I like funny people, he was looking for witty people (and it is a well know fact that I am about 61% witty), so I was confident that I had found my agent.  A perfect match right out of the gate. There did, indeed, seem to be a divine hand guiding the process.

The agency website stated if I didn’t hear back within 30 days, consider it a pass.

I don’t have to worry about that, I thought.  He’s funny, I’m witty. We’re a perfect match.

About day 28, I started to worry.  Any moment now, I thought checking and rechecking my email every 3.2 minutes.  Any moment I’m going to see that ‘Yes, I want to be your agent.’

Day thirty came and went with no word.  On day 31, my disillusionment changed to dismay.  He didn’t even like it enough to give me the courtesy of a form rejection.

It was time to get my head out of the clouds and reassess my approach.  Querying one agent at a time and waiting for a ‘yes’ that was never going to come was not a very efficient way to pursue a book deal.

More Queries

I went back on MSWL with pen and paper before me and a new battle plan.  I was going to read through the requests of the posting agents, carefully read through their biographies on the agency page and then, after going through this two-part discernment of compatibility, I would query them and annotate it in my bullet journal (yet another use for it!) to keep track of pending queries and agents that said ‘no.’  Or, in the case of the first agent I queried, ‘probably no.’ (He is now known around the house as Probably No #1 and it’s assumed, because I’m bitter and small, that he is not as funny as first thought.)

The newest obstacle on my quest for a published novel was that not a lot of people were looking for a fun, quirky novel about a suburban lawn mower mystery.

They were looking for fantasy and science fiction.  They were looking for romance, for LGBTQ, for graphic novels, for historical and for adventure.  My story didn’t really fit any of those categories. I could maybe make a case for contemporary but contemporary seemed like the most boring option and nobody wants to go with the boring option.  There was also mystery but the agents who wanted a mystery wanted something called a “high concept” mystery. What the heck does that mean? Like a Tom Clancy book?

In addition, they’d give story prompts.  

“Send me something, anything with magic.”  

A lot of them wanted magic.  I’m a Catholic. I can’t write about magic.  I’ll get a tsk, tsk from God.

“Send me anything, except vampires.  Vampires are so overdone. Unless you can come up with a new twist on vampires.  Then send me vampires.”

If only I’d written my eleven-year-old as a vampire that had to do all her suburban amatuer detective work at night.  Though that would be an insanely boring story since people in the suburbs are usually asleep by nine. They need to be up by 4 am to get to work on their lawns.  She’d have been wandering around the neighborhood with no one to talk to.

“I’d like to see some stories with witches.”

“Send me your story that takes place during the Bubonic Plague, only it’s in modern day America.”

“Send me anything with witches.”

“Send me your story about the opioid crisis.”

“Send me all the witches!”

“Send me a story about the earth being destroyed and two tweens having to restart the human race on another planet by themselves.”

“Witches, witches, witches.”

“Send me a story about the hopelessness of the human condition.”

“I want to see witches in my inbox.  I don’t even care if it’s a good book or not.”

“Send me your story about the total absence of good in the world.”

“Did I mention I’d like to see a story with a witch in it?”

“Pan sexual sixth grader, after becoming a vegan nihilist, discovers she has magical powers and saves North America from a cabal of evil, old men with comb-overs who underestimate just how sassy and fierce a middle school-aged witch can be though sadly she could not stop the plague of hopelessness of the human condition due to a total absence of good in the world.  Where is this story?!”

We are talking about children’s books, right? I thought, looking at my laptop screen with confusion.  I checked the filter I’d chosen. It said MG. This was what middle schoolers were reading now-a-days?  No wonder they spent all their time playing video games!

Nobody seemed to want a silly novel about a girl in the suburbs tracking down an old lawn mower.  I mean, if that doesn’t scream ‘bestseller,’ I don’t know what does.

Since I couldn’t find an agent looking for anything other than Nietzsche for children, I ended up just querying agents that didn’t expressly forbid authors from flyover country.  

Each agent had a more in-depth ‘about me’ on their agency page.  Most listed their qualifications, the genres they were interested in, the styles that interest them.  Apparently “award winning book that has Harry Potter-like sales” is a popular style many agents are on the hunt for.

In the old days, querying was pretty turnkey.  You sent the agent a query letter and from that letter, they’d decide if they wanted to see anymore of your work.  With everything being online, it affords more flexibility for the agent. In addition to the query letter they can now ask for anything they think pertinent to finding out whether or not they want to represent the author such as sample chapters.

At first I was excited by this new development, thinking, “Great!  If they’re reading my actual work, and not just the query, I’ll have a much better chance because, as I’ve explained before, I am much better at writing in expanded form.”

As I started to query the agents, my excitement cooled a little.  Each one wanted different things. One wanted a query letter with one chapter, another wanted a query with two chapters, another wanted it with the first ten pages, another wanted it with one chapter and a synopsis, another wanted it with one chapter and a one paragraph synopsis (isn’t that the query?!), another wanted it with chapters and a synopsis and an elevator pitch, another wanted it with three chapters and a synopsis and a detailed breakdown of my diet and my shoe size.  

One agent wanted the query, the first three chapters and an entire marketing plan for selling my book.  Isn’t that the agent’s job? If I was good at marketing my book, would I need an agent?

I’m the “talent,” yes.  But my talent is writing, not selling the writing.  The agent’s talent is figuring out how to monetize my talent and also to make sure that if I request peanut M&Ms at a signing (I like to tell myself that if there are peanuts in them, they’re healthy), that all the brown ones are removed.  My marketing plan is to get an agent who will then come up with a marketing plan.

Adding to my anxiety, each agent page warns that the author must carefully follow the instructions for submission or their submission would not be considered.  Some instructions were pretty loosey-goosey.

“Send us a query and the first three chapters.  Write ‘query’ in the subject line.”

Some were detailed down to the font size, spacing and how high your blood sugar was when you wrote it.

“In the subject line, write the word ‘query’ along with the title of your book, the genre, the agent to whom you are querying and six references from scholars in literature who will verify that you are not a waste of my time.

“In the body of the email paste your personalized query letter, the first ten pages of your 16th draft, a one page synopsis and a good recipe for mimosas.  Make sure all text is in 12 point Comic Sans, double spaced with no semicolons.

“Do not send attachments.  If we see that you have sent an attachment we will whisper a curse and delete your submission.

“If you don’t hear back from us in 8-12 weeks, just wait longer, I’m sure a ‘yes’ is forthcoming.  Who are we kidding? If you haven’t heard from us by that time, not only is it a ‘no,’ but it’s a ‘no that doesn’t even merit a response’’”

I carefully crafted and sent query after query during my free time in the early morning hours to agents that I optimistically hoped I had a chance with.  Optimistic because there was a divine hand guiding the process, right?

I was rewarded for my efforts with one or two ‘I’m not excited by this but I’m sure there’s an agent out there who is’ form letter about once a week.

Many, Many, Many, Many More Queries

After a couple of months of ‘no’s’ dribbling in here and there, I decided it was time to hone my tactics further.  It was at this point that I came across a website called Querytracker that I had inadvertently signed up for to query an agent that used their form for accepting queries and lo and behold, it was the motherload of lists of agents.

I’ll play the numbers game, I thought.  As the saying goes, if you throw enough poop at the wall, some of it will stick (I come from really classy stock).  If my book (illustrated here as poop) was publishable, I’d find out much faster if I queried all the agents all at once.

I made querying a part time job and everyday made sure I queried at least five agents from the giant list.  It was satisfying for two reasons. First, everyday I was working on trying to advance my book a little bit instead of just waiting and two, the responses became more numerous.  Sure, they were still ‘no’s’ but they were ‘no’s’ that got me that much close to my ‘yes’ or so I told myself. I was still pinning my hopes on that divine hand.

Which brings me to one of the more embarrassing ‘no’s’ I’ve received.

An agent wrote me back and made suggestions about the point of view of my book and that perhaps if I changed it a little, it would work better for the story.

I was ecstatic to not only get a personal response after so many “Dear Author, thanks but no thanks” but a personal response that didn’t expressly state that he was not interested.  In fact, he even told me a little about himself to illustrate how he could relate to the story. Finally, the divine hand was back!

I researched the point of view he was talking about and decided it was, indeed, a good way to better focus the narration and, since he didn’t forbid it, I re-queried him with the changes.

“Re: My query with your suggested changes.”

I may have been a little overly enthusiastic in my response.  There was definitely some unbridled enthusiasm going on. In my defense, it was like I was stranded in the desert for months without any water and a kind man came along and offered me a drop from his bottle and so grateful was I that I mistook his semi-kindness for a marriage proposal.

His return was: “Re: your Re:  Glad my suggestions helped. Hope you find an agent.”

“Darn it,” I said after I’d read it, “I guess it was a ‘no’ the first time.  Well, back to querying.”

“What?” my husband asked.

I showed him the email.

“Yikes!  His email reads like he’s doing damage control.”

“How so?” I asked.

My husband thought about it a moment.

“It’s like he’s the cool guy in high school and you’re the nerdy girl and he said something nice to you and you mistook it as romantic interest and so he becomes very curt and blunt with his next interaction with you to make absolutely sure that you understand that there is absolutely no interest past him being nice.”

I was mortified!

“Really?  Do you think he took my response like that?”

My husband nodded and not without a little pity.

“Oh no.  I can’t leave it like that,” I said.  “I had the upper hand before. I was the bedraggled late-in-life writer clawing her way up from the bottom.  All I had was my dignity. I’ve unintentionally relinquished my dignity!”

“It’s fine,” my husband said.  “Just let it go.”

“You’re right,” I said and then waited for him to leave the room so that I could RE the agent back.

“Re: Re: your Re:  I’m worried my last Re: was taken the wrong way.  I was only hoping you might find the changes adequate, nothing more.  I still have my dignity.”

Moments after I’d sent it, he’d written back.

“Re: Re: Re: your Re:  I’ve thought it over and there was still hope for your dignity two Re’s ago but you definitely lost it with that last one.  In trying to save your dignity, you lost it.”

“Re: Re: Re: Re: your Re:,” I typed back, “But my dignity was never lost because you totally took my first “Re:” wrong.”

“Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: your Re:,” read his response.  “Now you are just losing any dignity you may have regained in the future.”

I was in a shame spiral and there was only one way to pull out of it.

“Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: your Re:  Your Mother.”

Still Pressing Forward

Luckily, I’ve gotten pretty good at living with humiliation, which seems to be a trait well-used in the search for an agent.

This process has taken a bit of a toll on my optimistic spirit but my plan is to continue to press forward until my book is on the shelves of every bookstore in America.  Or I’ll eventually give up, self-publish it, put it in my Etsy store and sell it to three people. But it will definitely be one of the two!

After all, there’s a divine hand guiding the process.

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  1. John Bernard Handrahan

    I feel that eventually you can compile all of your blogs into a “Collections of Donna” series and just let the agents rearrange them every year or so with a new title…(or has Chesterton already done that…?)

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