Wall of text incoming; wear protective gear.
You’re finished your manuscript. You’ve put it away, and you’ve done extensive revisions. It’s ready. You’re pretty sure it’s ready for the hunt for an agent. What do you do now?
This is partly what I did, and also partly what I learned while in the querying process.
Step One – Make Sure.
Get three beta readers.
Look for people who don’t sugar coat the bitter truth, and who also point out what’s good. When you get them, tell them that it’s okay if they quit reading, but ask them to tell you where they quit reading if they lose interest in the book, and why, because that information is gold. Use a format that will allow them to comment on your work directly in the file, so a .doc or .docx file, or a set of files in a cloud document service like google docs.
Consider the feedback. Make a list of problems based on what the beta readers say, but take any suggestions to fix the problems with heavy consideration. Do ANOTHER revision and edit pass based on their feedback.
Step Two – Query and Synopsis
I am so sorry for this next part.
Write a synopsis of your work that fits on a single page of paper when written in Times New Roman 12 Point, single spaced. Getting this right will probably take you about 6 weeks if not longer. Something that might help you is to plug your book into the 9 Box Plot Outline Tool and then use those nine points as the skeleton of your synopsis.
Write the heart of your query letter, the “pitch,” which is about 100 to 250 words long, but the closer to 100 words, the better. This is possible, even with a complicated book. Query letters are some of the most difficult writing you will ever do. Expect getting your query letter to satisfactory after about 2 months of work.
This is a painful and frustrating process. It’s okay. Most everyone hates it. And I’m going to tell you something potentially painful: if you can’t manage to write a query letter with an intriguing, active character who is facing an interesting setting and its obstacles while pursuing a goal that has terrible and personal consequences for failure…it might be that you have to go back to the drawing board with your book.
I’ve seen a number of query letters where my feedback is, “This character seems passive. what actions do they take that ignite the story and start the forces of conflict to stop your protagonist?” or “These stakes seem a little flat. What are the external effects and the personal failure inherent in the consequences?” If these questions have disappointing answers, the problem is likely in the manuscript.)
Step Three – Agent Research
Okay, while you’re doing that, it’s also time look for an agent who will represent your work to the big five.
Get together a list of 50 – 100 agents who represent the genre and age category of the book you have written. Every single agent gets a ton of letters from people who don’t pay attention to guidelines, and they reject them outright. You don’t want this happening to you.
Look into their clients, and the sales they’ve made, and make sure they match up with your decisions about how you want to run your career. Some of the agents on your list will be established, and some will be new. Both choices are good, but they have different advantages.
Look not just at the agent, but the agency they’re with. Do they have someone who handles subsidiary rights like foreign language translations, audiobook rights, and tv/movies? Is that a direction you’d like to have a chance with for your book? Do they have a self-pub arm to help you go hybrid, if that’s part of what you want to do? There’s a lot to consider.
Look at the agent’s deals and who those deals are with. If you dream of being published by a certain publisher, you might want to look for evidence that the agent has a connection with that publisher – but no deals doesn’t necessarily mean no connection.
You can use a spreadsheet and DIY but I used querytracker. I paid for the premium service and I found it incredibly useful. When recording your list of potential agents, you want to list agents you’d like to query, be able to check their guidelines, whether you have a sub out, and what became of it. I did a list of 50 agents. Other people say that’s not enough. You get to decide how many you will try.
Step Four – Test Your Query
From that list of agents, find ten who are currently open to subs. Query them, obeying the instructions for how to query based on the research you did. (This may seem obvious to you, but I’m not kidding–about 10% of total queries follow the guidelines correctly. The rest are rejected outright. You’ll have an edge if you take care of the details.) Pick a variety of agents of varying levels of experience, and here’s why – you’re testing your query letter, synopsis, and pages.
Now wait for responses. Did you get a partial or full request from any of these agents? No? Revise your query, have a reader look at your first 5 pages. Don’t pick somebody nice. Pick someone who will tell you flat out what’s wrong. Whatever they tell you, look for those same problems in the entire manuscript, and revise. (I revised my manuscript during the querying process. it happens. it’s OK.)
Did you get a partial request? Great. Your query and your pages are probably good, but you might want to give it a polish, depending on what your rejections said. Query 3 – 5 agents a week. Did you get a full? Up your query rate a little. Did you get more than one request? You’re hot, my friend. Go for more, and be daring.
Step Five – Get to Work On Your Next Book
Somewhere in the midst of all this, start working on your next book. You need to do this. It’ll keep your mind off the bewildering process of querying agents, and you’ll have another book to talk to your prospective agent about when the time comes.
But write another book, and maybe think about writing it to a reasonable deadline, and consider it practice for when you’re writing a book because you have a contract and a deadline to go with it. Depending on genre, you might get a year to complete another manuscript. But you might get less – a lot of romance publishers work on a very tight schedule, for example.
The Second Book – Should it be a sequel to your first book?
This is controversial. I’m going to say it won’t hurt to do the planning for the sequel in detail, producing a solid outline so you have a head start on the sequel if they request it. (if you got multiple requests from the first test, and you’re the gambling type, you might want to take the chance and write it.)
But if you can, write a totally different book that is part of the career path you want. It doesn’t hurt to have a second book in your pocket for multiple contingencies… but be sure it’s in a genre that you can see yourself writing for the next ten years if that book hits.
Step Six – Camp Your Name on the Internet, and Wait
Secure your author name’s domain. You can do this fairly cheaply. I did it with WordPress, but there are other choices. Also camp your name on Patreon, if you haven’t already. If you’re doing promo and marketing online, secure your name on your social media platforms of choice. If you hear of a new one, get your name on it. Do it now, even if you’re not ready to do anything with them.
But now you’re querying, working on a new book, securing your social media. Have patience. Agents read potential client manuscripts when they get time. I waited months for responses. That might happen to you too.
Step Seven, Happy Ending Version – the Offer
You got an offer? OH GOOD! Now hit your spreadsheet and tell everyone who has a query that you have an offer of rep, and that you’re looking to give an answer in two weeks. Most of these agents will congratulate you and step aside, but some will quickly read your MS and decide to offer or not. You could have multiple offers of representation, but this doesn’t always happen.
Now you decide: who are you going to sign with? Ask for a copy of the agreement from every agency who offers rep. Check out their terms. Use this as a part of your decision on who to sign – not all agencies have the same agreements. Know what you’re agreeing to on paper.
Step Seven, Maybe Not so Happy – Time to Move On
Maybe you don’t get an offer of rep for this book. Gosh, this sucks. I am so sorry.
That’s why you’re working on your next book. Get back on that horse, friend. Many writers write multiple books before they get an offer of rep. Here’s the thing about people who get published – they didn’t give up.
It’s been a long time since I published a craft blog post, but I haven’t quit talking about craft. I made a Patreon account, and I have posts there about things like
- a synopsis writing guide that will help expose structural manuscript problems
- how to evaluate a scene to make sure it’s doing the right things
- how to build a story when all you have is a character
I do a new writing related post every month, available to patrons on a sliding scale basis – pick the level of patronage you can afford and you’re in!
Starting in August I am starting a Live Sessions tier, where I will explore a subject about the craft and business of writing on zoom, where you can ask more questions. Look for it then!