My name is Philip and I am an aspiring science fiction writer. This tumblr will document my efforts at getting my science fiction novel published. I will also post random stuff that interests me in the gaming/movies/music/theology arenas.My Lists My Writing Video Games Ask me anything
Every once in a while a friend or a fellow writer asks me what the querying process is like. I never really know how to respond because it’s probably my least favorite part of writing, but I don’t want to discourage anyone from attempting it. I’ve been rejected a countless number of times, so I know what it feels like to go through this process. I’m just starting out as a published author and I’m still trying to build my own writing platform, but I think this guide should help anyone looking for a publisher or agent.
I just wanted to make a list of rules you should follow before you even think about querying:
- Make sure your manuscript is as perfect as possible. Obviously it’s never going to be perfect and most writers will always find fault in their writing, but it should be the best you could possibly make it. Spend time editing. Spend more time than you think you should.
- Your manuscript needs to be properly formatted. These guidelines can change from publisher to publisher, but the standard is usually double spaced, Times New Roman 12 pt. font. It also helps if you have your information on the top right corner of the first page—your name, address, phone number, and email address.
- Buy or borrow a copy of the most recent Writer’s Market. This will give you up to date information about the publishing world and you’ll know exactly who to submit to. It’s essential.
- Know your market and what genre your novel is. Be a reader. Understand how to write in your genre and what types of books occupy certain categories. Familiarize yourself with what’s popular.
Once you do these things, you can begin thinking about preparation for querying. This is sometimes a very long process, so you don’t want to be rejected because you forgot to do silly things. You need to remain professional at all times and make sure you do your research on each and every publisher or agent. I’ve come up with a few things you should prepare right before you query.
- Work on a couple different versions of your query letter. There are many resources on how to write one, but make sure you take your time. A poor query letter is most likely an automatic rejection. I know it sounds annoying, but agents and publishers read SO MANY queries. Sometimes they equate a terrible query with poor writing skills. They think if you can’t take the time to do the query letter right, then you’ll feel the same way about your manuscript. They want writers that will work hard.
- Write up a one to two page synopsis. Most places will ask for one when you submit, so you might as well do it now. Again, there are resources that help you write all of these things. Make sure you include the ending of the book because most publishers will want to know.
- Prepare a chapter sample that you can easily send if they request it. Organize your documents so these things are easy to find. Also save the first three chapters in a word document because this is what they will most likely ask for.
- Come up with a marketing plan. It doesn’t have to be anything incredibly in depth, but just enough to show how you will market your book. Some small publishers need to know you’ll put in the time to push your work. Think about how you will promote it.
- Create a one sentence pitch of your novel. If someone asks you to describe your novel quickly, you must be able to do it. This is usually my biggest problem because I find it so hard to compress 200+ pages of work into one measly sentence, but it helps.
Querying isn’t as simple as emailing an agent or publisher and asking them to read your work. You should summarize your novel, give relevant writing credits, and then thank them for their time. Read ALL the submission guidelines and familiarize yourself with what the agency or publisher represents. Don’t send someone a young adult manuscript when they don’t even represent that genre. You’ll be wasting your own time and they won’t make exceptions for you. Don’t plead with them if you’ve been rejected, just move on and go to the next one.
Most places will tell you not to submit simultaneously, but that is very rare. I always submit to more than one publisher at a time because if you don’t you’ll literally be waiting forever. Some places take a VERY long time to answer you and that’s only if they answer you at all. Most places will respond in a few weeks, some in months, and others a few minutes later. It depends on how busy they are and if they’re accepting new clients. Make sure you check the website and make sure.
If a publisher requires an agent (which most big publishing houses do), DO NOT submit there. I know it’s not easy to get an agent, but don’t bother sending your work. It’s a waste and they won’t read it. I usually apply to agents first and then move on to publishers who accept unsolicited work. There are a lot of publishers who do, so you have to read through The Writer’s Marketplace.
The most important advice I can give you is to remain positive. If your work is written well and edited, you’ll find an agent or publisher. I know it might sound ridiculous for me to promise something like that, but if you’re serious about writing and you keep trying hard to get published YOU WILL. Your book will absolutely find a home. If you find that you keep getting rejected for the same reason, take the time to polish up your novel or your query, and continue the submission process.
And NEVER burn any bridges. Always act professional and always thank people who have taken the time to give you thoughtful feedback. You’ll never know who will give you your “big break”.
Querying is a tough, sometimes soul-crushing business—and writing a query letter can in many ways be the most difficult part. After all, being asked to condense your 60-100k (or more?) manuscript into a page-long letter that makes your book sound intriguing and also personalizes to that specific agent with the teeny tiny stakes of the agent reading your manuscript (or not)? It’s ridiculously tough.
I’ve read my fair share of query letters over the years, and with the WriteOnCon query critique forums still fresh in my mind, I thought now as good a time as ever to write about five things you don’t need in your query.
- Explanation of the lessons the reader/your characters will learn. I understand the impulse to include this, I do—English teachers have told us for years that a book isn’t really literary gold unless it has some grand, over-arching, bigger than thyself message. But here’s the thing—even if your book does have that kind of message (and, um, you know what it is?), it’s best to leave it out of your query letter.
Now, I can already hear what you’re thinking (apparently my online self is a telepath)—but Ava, I worked so hard to get those messages into my book—why wouldn’t I talk about them? The why is pretty simple actually: 99% of the time writers include the message or lesson the characters or readers (or both) are going to learn when reading their book in their query letter, it sounds preachy—and worse, it sounds like your manuscript is preachy (or teacher-y, which isn’t any better), which leads to a ginormous no thank you.
I know that seems a little unfair. It’s totally possible that you have messages in your book that aren’t preachy at all and are woven really nicely into the story, and if that’s the case, that’s great, it really is. But don’t mention it in your query if you don’t want someone to assume your book is going to be preachy/teachy.
- Vague phrases. I actually wrote a whole post about why details are so important in queries and pitches, so I won’t rehash the whole thing, but in queries, vague phrases are you enemy. Mentioning your protagonist’s dark secret or life-changing quest or how they meet a mysterious stranger or will have to make alife-altering choice whose consequences will affect all of humanity? Yeah, it’s not helpful.
The thing is, agents and editors read thousands of queries a year. They have books getting pitched to them all the time and the only way you’re going to pique their interest is if you show them how your book is unique. If your query is full of vague phrases, not only can I guarantee they’ve seen someone else (or many many many someone elses) describe their manuscript the same exact way, but you’re completely missing out on a vital opportunity to show them how your book stands out from the crowd.
- Quotes from your manuscript. I did this in my first ever query (spoiler: it so didn’t work), and it’s something I’ve seen especially amongst new writers.
Again, I get the temptation: you’ve worked so very hard on your manuscript and you want to share some gems with the agent/editor in the hopes that it’ll pique their interest. But the query is not the place to show off your writing (or at least, not the writing of your manuscript)—the query is the place to explain your manuscript in a condensed, interesting way to make the reader want to learn more (and hopefully read) your book.
But Ava, you’re thinking (boy, telepathy is fun), this super amazing quote isn’t in the first sample that I’m attaching to the query letter. What if they don’t see my really awesome quote because they don’t read enough? Well, my friend, I’m going to share a little tough love: if they don’t read far enough to get to your super awesome quote it’s because a) it wasn’t for them b) your query wasn’t strong enough to represent your manuscript or c) your manuscript wasn’t ready.
Leave the quotes for the actual manuscript. Your query is not the place for them.
- A huge bio. Let me start off by saying that bios are definitely important—and a vital part of the query. However, the focus of the query letter should absolutely be on your manuscript. Not you.
Your bio should be a few sentences to a paragraph long. That’s it. And that paragraph, quite frankly, really doesn’t need to take up all that much space.
Agents don’t need to know that you worked on this book for four years. They don’t need to know that your mom thought it was the best book she ever read, or that you won that online poetry award, or that you’ve known since kindergarten that you were meant to be a writer. All that should be in your bio are publishing or manuscript-related credentials (i.e.: you’re writing a medical drama and you’re a surgeon, or you’ve published short stories in The Glimmer Train, etc.). If you don’t have publishing credentials, that’s totally okay! Just say it’s your first book (or, you know, don’t? There’s some debate on this point) and let your manuscript do the talking (no debate on that one).
- Anything in either of thesetwo posts. Self-explanatory, really. For your sake, (and the agents’ sakes) don’t do anything in those posts. Please.
What would you add to the list?
Just as I promised in my middles part one post, this post will concentrate on raising the stakes for the middle of your book.
The first thing you can do with raising the stakes is write out a list of things that will bring more trouble for your MC. Don’t just throw out nonsense. Think hard about things that are probable. Then narrow that list down to the things you like best, then narrow down that list even more to things that would make sense in your book.
- Another enemy appears.
- It could be revealed that your friend has been the enemy all along.
- Your MC might finally fall in love with his/her crush.
- Someone dies.
- Your MC finds out a terrible revelation.
- Your MC’s world begins to fall apart, and he/she can’t currently put it back together.
- Another subplot appears.
- And so on and so forth.
You have to raise the stakes for your character. You cannot have your character walk away from the conflict at hand. You need a reason to keep pushing your character into that conflict.
Have you ever watched those awful horror movies where the characters run in the direction of the person who wants to murder them instead of running away? This can be seen as an allegory for a poor reason to have your character run toward the conflict instead of away. Amelia in When Stars Die runs headlong into her conflict because she feels like it is her responsibility to stop the shadows seeking revenge against people who are not like them. They have affected her throughout the entire book. She learns a few things prior to her decision to run headlong into this conflict. She doesn’t run into it out of recklessness, without justification. She doesn’t want to do it because she’s the protagonist and she has to. She does it for a few of these reasons:
- She has lost everyone she once loved because of a terrible choice she makes, and she feels indebted to right her wrong. (She doesn’t realize this, but you can definitely analyze that she unknowingly does what she does for this reason.)
- If she doesn’t face the conflict, she’ll live with the guilt knowing she could have stopped it.
- The shadows will only grow more vengeful without her trying to understand their motives so she can act accordingly.
- She seeks vengeance herself.
- There will be nothing left for her, unless she faces this conflict.
Your character needs motives, but there is another thing you can do. List reasons why your character shouldn’t face his/her conflict, and then abolish those reasons for why your character should. Here’s what I can list for Amelia:
- If she faces these shadows, she could lose her life.
- Her younger brother could get killed in the process.
- She can join the shadows and live in a world without people who hate them for who they are.
- Vengeance never solves anything.
- She might lose everything, but she could gain something she doesn’t even know about.
- Her society is filled with anti-witch propaganda, so why should she even care that those who are anti-witch even live? They’re beyond saving because they’re indoctrinated once they begin to understand abstract concepts. That hatred will never go away.
However, if she made those choices, they would be completely out of her character. She isn’t the type to make those decisions.
I would argue the middle of the book probably needs the most work. This was true for The Stars are Infinite, the sequel to When Stars Die.
You can combine or cut characters. I’m going to have to cut a character in The Glorious In-Between in order to put more emphasis on a character that already exists to raise the stakes for my protagonist. That character didn’t serve a purpose anyway. I tried to make her seem deeper than she was, but at the end of the day, her being a wallflower didn’t add any symbolic purpose to the story.
Each character must serve a purpose. In my fiction writing class, one of the questions I often choose asks me to list each character in a story I read and why each character is critical to the story. This is more difficult to answer than you think, but it’s a similar exercise you can use on your own characters. This is also an exercise you can use on characters in books you love. This exercise has to go beyond the simple, “Oh, well he’s important because he’s her younger brother.” You must look at it in this light: “Not only is he her younger brother, but this adds another stake for her because she has to use her life to protect him. He is all that she has because she’s lost her entire family. So now she REALLY has to evaluate every action she takes in order to ensure his safety. This makes things incredibly difficult for her and psychologically draining. He also exists to show her that not even the young are immune to cynicism.” So you have to look at each character you put in your book with that level of complexity.
Absorb a Subplot
Some subplots go off in wild directions and never connect to the main plot. Sometimes you have WAY too many subplots. I probably had over twenty subplots in the VERY first draft of The Stars are Infinite, one I started when I was fourteen. It was called Witch Tourniquet then. Over the years I have had to cut and cut and cut all of those subplots out. Even when I turned 21 I was still cutting, until I got to a point where I realized When Stars Die needed to be the first book because of the complexity of the second book. The second book just had too much in it that readers had to absorb that a first book was necessary to basically explain the events that led up to the second book. Basically, WSD is an origins book. The second book will have a glossary of the terms mentioned in the first book, as well as some new terms that pop up.
My main plot did absorb a few subplots in WSD’s sequel so that way that subplot had far less attention.
All right. That’s it! The last part will be about research for the middle of your book.
Happy International Literacy Day!