QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, March 30, 2015

The 5 Essential Steps to Getting a Literary Agent (Guest Post)

We've spent the month discussing different aspects of the querying process and writing query letters. It's really been a lot to take in! However, I want to leave you all with a message of hope, simplicity, and achievability--querying can a tough process, but it's not an impossible one.
 
Here is a guest post by Peter Hogenkamp, who wanted to share his thoughts on getting a literary agent. Only five simple steps--and it all starts with a query letter...
 

It was seven years ago, but I can remember it like it was today. I woke up on the day before Thanksgiving, booted up my computer, and saw the e-mail in my inbox. "I have reviewed your query letter and the first five pages of your manuscript and I would like to read more; can you please e-mail me the first 50 pages along with your author bio and and a list of comparable titles."

Now, by virtue of the fact that you are reading this blog on QueryTracker, I suspect you all have received similar e-mails and realize that this was no big deal. But it was a big deal to me at the time, and it is still something I remember fondly. I had sent this--my very first--query to Writers House (I am sure you all know what Writers House is) and gotten a request for a partial. Things fell apart from there, of course--the I regret to inform you e-mail followed shortly--but it was the first step of the 5 Essential Steps to Getting a Literary Agent.


Step 1)  Getting Your First Rejection.

Why, you ask, is this the first step? Well, consider the number of talented writers I know who have never received a rejection. The obvious reason is that none of them have ever sent a query letter in the first place. And why haven't they? The list is long--too much work, such a small chance of success, and not wanting to be slapped in the face top the list--but the reason doesn't really matter. If you are going to be a successful, agented and traditionally published author, you have got to put yourself out there--again and again--and in so doing you will be rewarded with rejections, apathy, criticism, (Sounds great, huh?) and the occasional positive response. Cherish the positive responses. Enjoying the small successes is the best way to keep on going.





Step 2)  Getting Your First Partial Request.

A request for a partial is not a guarantee you are going to be the next James Patterson or Daniel Silva, but it isn't a bad thing either: Someone (likely an intern or an agent's assistant) Somewhere (likely in NYC or San Francisco) thinks you can write. It is a validation of what you have known deep down all along. It is not a good thing: It is a great thing. But let's take a step back for a second, and do some math. Yes, yes, I know, they said there would be no math, but it is simple stuff and it makes my point. You sent out 10 queries and received 5 requests: What can you glean from this? You did a good job writing your query letter. On the other hand, if you sent out 20 queries and received just the 1 request, your query letter isn't any good. Revise it. (Here is the link to the QueryTracker Forum, where you can get great advice on how to improve your query.)



Step 3) Getting Your First Submission Request

After reviewing your partial, 10 agents have requested your full manuscript (this is what is called a submission request) but you get nothing but form rejections, lack of enthusiasm and, in many cases, nothing, in response. The fault here lies in your manuscript. I am not saying that your manuscript isn't any good, I am saying that it isn't good enough... yet. Getting an agent is a hard thing to do: Take a look at the acceptance rates on QueryTracker (and don't even consider the querying process without having QueryTracker on your Favorites list.) Many agents sign only one or two writers a year, some less than that. And many of the writers they sign come from referrals, not the slush pile. I am not saying you can't do it: my agent found me in the slush pile, and if I can do it, so can you. But you have to learn from the failures along the way. Kabitzing about how unfair the process is--or how arbitrary, or how frustrating--gets you nowhere. Asking yourself how you can improve is the correct approach. Go back to the comments you may have received; what are the agents telling you? Where is the weakness in your manuscript? Are your characters well-developed? Is your dialogue genuine? Is your prose tight? This is where you become a better writer: Don't waste the opportunity. Stop querying agents until you have fixed the problems with your manuscript; there are only so many agents who represent your genre. Stop querying. Start revising. Then query again. I say this from experience--this is the exact approach that worked for me in the end.



Step 4)  Getting Your First Revision Request

You may see this referred to as a Revise and Resubmit, but be careful: agents are very savvy about how they manage a writers expectations. You may need to read between the lines of their comments to realize you have received a revision request. What do I mean? Take my case. I worked very hard on revising my manuscript after it was rejected two dozen or so times at the submission level. I was fortunate to receive a lot of comments with the rejections, both good and bad, but let me tell you something: It is the bad comments you should be paying attention to. It is something you can work on. One agent told me: You write well, and I like the premise, but the main character isn't strong enough. That, my friends, was a revision request by my way of looking at it. So, that's what I did: I spent several months making the characters stronger and I sent it back to her with a carefully worded letter explaining that I had addressed the weaknesses of the manuscript and would she be interested in taking another look? (The key here is to be professional and polite.) In fact, I sent my revised manuscript to all the agents who had taken the time to make some comments (don't bother with the ones who sent form rejects or who didn't respond at all--they have no interest) and to the one agent who had specifically asked for a revise and resubmit. The agents who made comments were interested enough to spend some of their valuable time to help you: You owe it to them and to yourself to give them another shot. But only after you have worked hard to address the shortcomings in the manuscript.





Step 5)  Getting Your First Offer of Representation

Interestingly enough, the one agent who had specifically requested the R/R never even responded to my letter. Even when the offers started coming in and I let her know that I had several offers of representation, she simply said she was 'no longer interested.' (I wrote her back to thank her for help, by the way.) Her lack of interest didn't phase me, however, because I had received an offer. What to do in this case, when I still had another ten or so submissions out there? You want to let the agents know you have received an offer. They will either bow out (and save themselves some time) or expedite the reading of your manuscript in case they want to make an offer. I ended up with six offers in the next few weeks. (But just so we are clear, these six offers represented five years of querying, ten years of writing two different manuscripts, two writers conferences, and several laps of the earth trying to hike away my angst.) It can be done: You can get an agent through the querying process but it can only be done with a lot of hard work. Their are no shortcuts, no head starts, no tricks or gimmicks.

Just five steps.



Author Peter Hogenkamp
Peter Hogenkamp is a physician and author living in Rutland, Vermont. Peter's writing credits include ABSOLUTION, the first book of The Jesuit thriller series; THE LAZARUS MANUSCRIPT, a stand-alone medical thriller; and The Intern, a serialized novel based loosely on Peter's internship, published bi-weekly on #Wattpad. Peter can be found on his Author Website as well as his personal blog, PeterHogenkampWrites, where he writes about most anything. Peter is the founder and editor of Prose&Cons; a frequent contributor and reviewer at ReadWave; the founder and moderator of groups on Facebook (The Library), Google+ (Fiction Writers Anonymous); and a Beta-reader at StoryShelter. Peter tweets--against the wishes of his wife and four children--at @phogenkampvt and @theprosecons. He can be reached at peter@peterhogenkamp.com or through his literary agent (Liz Kracht of Kimberely Cameron & Associates) at liz@kimberleycameron.com.


 
   

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Five Stages of Querying Grief


Elizabeth KΓΌbler-Ross described the five stages of grief in 1969 in her book, On Death and Dying. It detailed her observations of terminally ill patients as they dealt with their diagnosis. I think it’s equally applicable to the querying process.

DENIAL:  This is it! My 250,000 word urban fantasy featuring vampires and brooding shape shifters is going to land me an agent at the biggest, baddest agency in New York. There’s going to be a bidding war with the BIG 5. It’s going to be made into a blockbuster movie. Foreign rights will pay for my private jet. I’m going to quit my day job and wear pajamas all day for the rest of my life, just like Hugh Hefner.

ANGER: Crappy form rejections! What’s wrong with these agents? Don’t they recognize talent when they see it? You know what happened to the stuck up kids in high school who never invited you to their parties? They became agents! I’ll show them. When I hit it big, I’ll start naming names of everyone who rejected me. They’ll be sorry.

BARGAINING: I’ll only send five more queries out, then I’ll stop. I can stop any time I want. If I just personalize it a little better…Hey wait, this agent loves Joss Whedon! I love Joss Whedon. This could be the one. It only takes one yes. I don’t need multiple offers. I don’t need a movie deal. There’s this one literary agent in Omaha that’s also an insurance agent. It could work. My neighbor’s grandson has a start up press in his garage. Indie is cool. Indie is the new traditional. Yeah, that’s the ticket. Just one more query first.

DEPRESSION: I suck. I suck so badly I even suck at sucking. I’m a worthless, talentless hack. What was I thinking? Why did I bother? My mother was right. I should stick to what I’m good at: Sucking. Are we out of chocolate?

ACCEPTANCE: I had a tough sell in a crowded genre. It’s not personal. It’s business. I’ll dust myself off and move on. I jotted down an idea for a new book the other day. I think I’ll start outlining this weekend. I do love to write, after all. This too shall pass.

 

FOLLOWED SIX MONTHS LATER BY:

This is it! This is the one!

P.S. Don’t let yourself stay too long in stage 4. Sure, we all get down, but don’t let the rejection get the better of you. It does only take one yes. And you can’t get to that one “yes” unless keep writing.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Queries: All Those Little Things You’ve Wondered

This month on the Querytracker blog, we’ve been discussing queries and querying. Today I want to discuss the little things you might have wondered about as you prepare to send out queries.

Full Verses Proposals


The answer depends on if you’re querying fiction or non-fiction. If you plan to query a non-fiction book (with some exceptions such as memoirs), you can send the agent a proposal, which includes a query, outline, and sample chapters. If you are querying fiction, then the novel needs to be completed. If you’re already traditionally published (or have self published and have strong sales), some agents might accept a proposal for your next novel, but in most cases, you’ll still need a complete novel.

Things are slightly different at the publisher level once you’re published. Your agent might shop your fiction proposal to editors. This usually consists of the agent’s pitch, a two-to-five page synopsis, and sample pages (often the first fifty pages). The odds of an editor being interested in your book are greater when they’ve read your previous works. Then they have faith that you will deliver what you promise in terms of storytelling and writing. The advantage of selling on proposal (which I’ve done), is that you don’t have to worry about writing the book and then discover no one wants it. The disadvantage is you still have to write the novel and you have less time to write it than if you had written it first. Of course, if you land a two-or-more-book deal, you’ll have to deal with these time pressures, anyway, with the other books.

Which One To Query


Querying takes time, unless you get lucky and the first agents you query jump on your book. We’re told to work on our next book while querying, but what happens if you finish the book before you’ve queried all the agents on your list? Well, first, if the books are different genres (for example erotic romance and a children’s picture book), query each book separately. Your list of agents will likely be very different. If the books are for the same genre, query the strongest one first. Don’t mention the other books. Save it for if you get The Call. You might decide to shelf the first book and not query the rest of the agents on your list. Or you might decide to continue querying the agents on the list with book #1, and query agents who’ve already passed on the first book with novel #2. But if you’ve just received a rejection from an agent one week, don’t query the other book the following week. Allow the rejection on the previous book time to cool down first, or else the agent will assume you made the same mistakes as before and didn’t take the time to develop your writing and storytelling skills.

Series

You’ve written the first book in a planned series, should you start writing the second book? Unless you’re planning to self publish the book if the traditional route doesn’t pan out, work on a project that has nothing to do with the series. If you do write the second book and book one doesn’t sell, you’ve wasted your time (unless you’re fine with chalking it up as a practice novel). If it’s a standalone story, which doesn’t require you read the other book first, then this isn’t an issue. But if it’s a sequel, work on a completely different project while you query the first book. Then if no one bites on the first book, you’ll have something else to query once you’ve finished the book. Otherwise, it could take you even longer before you can get back into the query game.

Short Stories And Novellas

Can you query short stories to agents? No. Most aren’t even interested in novellas. Check the agent’s website to see if she does accept queries for novellas; otherwise, query editors who are interested in short stories and novellas directly.

I’ve Have An Offer…

Congratulations! If you land an offer from an agent or publisher, contact everyone who still has your query or submission and let them know that you’ve an offer. If it’s from another agent, you don’t mention who the offer is from. If it’s from a publisher, let the agents know which one, but don’t accept it first and then tell the agents. If you do, no one will want to represent you because they can’t shop it around to other publishers.  Some agents will automatically pass on the book because they don’t have time to read it. For others, the offer will result in the book being fast track to the top of the slush pile.

Make sure you write “I’ve have an offer!” in the subject heading, or else your email could get stuck in the query slush pile for a very long time.


Do you have any questions about querying that you’ve been dying to know the answer to?

Monday, March 23, 2015

Query Lessons Learned the Hard Way


This is a continuation of our series on queries and the query process.

So this is the post where everyone gets a good laugh at my expense. And it’s also the post where it becomes clear that despite stepping in it a few times, you can still get an agent.

In my previous post, I described how I broke down my query and why I included what I did. But I did not include my blunders, because who would do such a thing publicly? Um, right.

It goes like this…

Dear Ms. – Before I sent out my first batch of queries, I asked a couple of agents who were my alumni to evaluate my query and give me their honest opinions. I didn’t know this wasn’t usual, and wrapped in my blissful ignorance, I sent out casual emails to people starting with “Hi!” and “Hey!” I can feel you all cringing for me already.

I had no idea that I was supposed to start emails to literary industry folks with Dear Ms. and Mr. I work in entertainment, and all of our emails resemble texts. So I rightfully got an email back saying, “I dislike the expression ‘reach out,’ emails that start ‘Hi’ and being addressed by my first name by someone I don't know. There's brutal honesty.” Needless to say, I never did that again. In fact, even when I write emails to my mother now, I question how I should address her.

Grammar Police – I know it’s captain obvious to double-check your grammar before you send out a query. I did. All my commas where in tip top shape. But, I made one critical error and got this response, “I'll get over my initial winces at ‘hung’ for ‘hanged’ and read your query letter.” Yes, my book is called How to Hang a Witch. And yes, this mistake was not only repeated in my query three or four times, but it was in my MS about a gazillion times.

With my tail between my legs I learned that people are never hung; they are hanged. I also learned that it is worth it to find a couple of grammar whiz friends and run important things by them.

Format Shmormat – When I got my first full request, I almost fainted from delight. I jumped in the air, clicked my heels together, and pressed send. Surprisingly, even though query dos and don’ts are addressed everywhere on the interwebs, the format used when sending a full or partial is not. I sent mine single-spaced with no title page. Nuff said.

The sound of my forehead hitting my desk could be heard down the block. But, despite all of this brouhaha, my request rates were good. And I’m not sorry I made these mistakes. I’m actually really glad I did. They taught me right up front that there are all kinds of things about querying and the literary industry that I don’t know that I don’t know. Because of these blunders, I joined writing groups and developed a whole network of knowledgeable people who would ultimately save me from myself.

If you have any embarrassing query experiences that you feel like airing out, please share! 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Querying with Efficiency and Accuracy

When I first stumbled across QueryTracker, I was sure I was "almost ready" to query. I created my QueryTracker account, started saving agents to my list, and worked on polishing my novel with my critique partners.

Eight long months later, the novel that was "almost ready" was "actually ready." These things always take longer than you think they will, but that is beside the point today. Those eight months did something wonderful for the time I spent querying, though: they gave me a long time to prepare.

Since I was querying a YA dystopian and knew they weren't doing well in the market (well, I knew it by the time I started querying. I did not know it when I wrote the book), I decided I would query 50 agents and then shelve it to work on something else.

QueryTracker made the process of deciding on the 50 agents quick and easy. I used the search feature to only look at agents who represented young adult and added them to my query list. All you have to do to add them to your query list is check the box on the left by their name, like in the screenshot below.




But just adding every single agent who repped young adult was going to get me a lot more than 50 agents, plus I knew different agencies had different rules about whether you could query more than one of their agents, and then there was the whole "you should probably mesh with them if they'll be handling your career" aspect.

So instead of clicking on everyone's check box, I clicked on their names. From there, you can find links to their agency's website, their blogs, their Twitter feeds, common places for interviews... and I spent months researching agents. In the end, I found my 50 agents. In addition to adding them to my QueryTracker list, I made a spreadsheet of my own. I've always liked having duplicates of information, and personalized things in my spreadsheet that I didn't do on QueryTracker. Here's a screenshot of some of my (randomized and made anonymous) list.


On the far left is an arbitrary "Priority" rating I wouldn't have needed if I'd used QueryTracker premium. The C agents were in the third group of 10 queries I sent out. The next column is name, followed by email address. The fourth column was the most useful to me: whenever I went to submit to an agent, I could check my spreadsheet to see exactly what they were looking for. The second row shows "email: 'submission Deans: Damaged' query, first 10 pages of MS." That person wanted an email with the subject line "Submission [Last Name: Title of MS]." They wanted the query and the first 10 pages pasted in.

Knowing that, I would grab my generic query, personalize it based on what I'd read in interviews (especially the information in the last column), add in the number of pages, and press send. I'd then go to QueryTracker to mark that I'd sent a submission to that agent, and add it to my spreadsheet for redundancy.

Turning querying into something akin to data entry worked for me. With the exception of one email glitch resulting in a 20-page sample with no paragraph breaks, I was able to send my submissions quickly and accurately. It also turned off the emotional part of querying. Every query I sent was a button on QueryTracker and a line in a spreadsheet. Every rejection I received was another button. I would fill in my personal spreadsheet with red for each rejection. I felt like I was just finishing a spreadsheet for work that way, and it stung less, especially when querying in a dead genre.

I'm getting ready to query again soon. The only thing I'll do differently is get the QueryTracker Premium membership. With the ability to open a new project in the database, prioritize agents, and use the amazing data explorer, plus a million other awesome things, it was the only thing missing from my first querying adventure. Well, that and an offer of rep. But that was probably a given.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

And Our Final 5x5x5 Winner is...

RC Hancock ( ) is the final winner of the 5x5x5 give-a-way. Congratulations RC!

He has won a $100 gift card to either Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or ITunes. His choice.

Thank you to all who participated. Now get back to writing!




Friday, March 13, 2015

The Query Process: laughably bad rejections

I've gotten some eyebrow-raising rejections, like the form that says (rough approximation) "This is nothing I would ever want to represent." But one personalized rejection stands out in mind whenever someone says, "What if a literary agent is just obnoxious?"

This agent had requested the full knowing the book had an angel in it. So imagine the fun when I got a rejection letter talking about how she knew my type and how people like me had to include "God on every page."

Based on her comments, I realized she stopped reading at page 30, and there hadn't been 30 mentions of God to that point. And this is even better: "I get that your main character is a religious fanatic."

My character was a Religious Fanatic because when the aforemention angel hassled her repeatedly, she hauled her butt out of bed and went to church to deliver brownies to a bake sale.

And then, when an extremely hot guy is at the bake sale, this happens:
He says, "Are you sticking around?"
I am not proud. Yes, I will find it in my heart to sit through church this morning.
Religious Fanaticism's bar is getting lower and lower. I read the rejection to my husband and said, "My main character also takes out the recycling. Does that make her an ecoterroist?"

I'm recounting this not just so you'll have a good laugh at this agent's expense (I certainly have -- and I've obfuscated/declarificated enough that she shouldn't recognize herself) but to show you sometimes agents are wrong. But even so, you may grant their wrongness authority because they're literary agents.

Think of them instead as just people. People with training and experience, but nevertheless, people.

Clearly because of her prejudices this agent wouldn't have been a good fit for me, and that's fine. But if I hadn't been able to go back through the manuscript and make sure her assertions weren't correct, I might have gotten discouraged. What if my main character really did drag herself to church under duress like all Religious Fanatics do? What if I really believed five equalled thirty?

In the end, this manuscript did net me a literary agent, although it didn't get us a Big 5 contract. It also placed second in 2013 Write Club and will be published by Philangelus Press in a few months. It's also got a sequel. Why? Because sometimes agents are wrong.

You're going to get nasty critiques. You may get them from members of your writing group (in which case, leave) or you may get them from agents, or you'll get them from editors, and eventually you'll get them from reviewers.

It's our responsibility as writers to make sure our writing is as good as we can get it, of course, and to do that we need to analyze others' comments. Some of the helpful rejections I've gotten were incredibly blunt: "This was confusing," "I hated your main character," and "Your book was boring." Sometimes a remark ("This was just a bunch of events strung together") pointed me toward the query as the problem rather than the manuscript, and then I could change the query to better fit the book.

The above were helpful because when I analyzed, the rejection-writers were absolutely, unequivocably right. The one who told me she hated my main character went on about it at length ("I wouldn't even accept a Twinkie from him!") and it was great because she totally nailed it; I revised and the story got bought by the next market I sent it to.

But we need to recognize that sometimes an agent or editor's comment is not right, and when it's not, we need to let it roll away.

Because rejections? Can be ridiculous. "The stakes are too high" was my favorite. But what do you do with "We just accepted a story with a main character that has the same name," or "When you said the relationship was platonic, I didn't realize it wouldn't be romantic"? What about an endless back-and-forth with a publisher where they insisted an adult novel must be midgrade because it had a child protagonist, and at the same time couldn't understand why the vocabulary, tone and themes (not to mention the length) were aimed at adults?

Laughter helps. Sometimes remembering how subjective it all is will help. So the agent writes a paragraph about how he doesn't connect with your main character? Awesome, but maybe you don't want to write a main character who's exactly like this agent. Shrug it off.

And think about what you do in a bookstore when you're selecting your next read. Do you take them all? No. Why? Sometimes, it's just not right. You may be wrong in your judgment call, but in the end, that's all it is: a judgment call.

Keep your head up. Analyze all comments to find the truth at their back. Use the true ones to improve. But the nasty ones? Laugh at them because doubtless that venom emerges from a place of overwork and burnout, jaded expectations and prejudices you had no hand in forming. Count them as victories because at least your work was notable enough that someone took the time to think of a cutting remark. (Incorrect, but cutting.)

And when you're done having a good laugh, go back to the main QueryTracker site and send another query. Send two for good measure. Let your persistence be the venom's legacy.