So, you’ve finished the first draft of your New York Times bestselling novel.
Now what? You might be looking at getting it published so the world can bask in your genius, but unless you’re planning on going the self-publishing route—a separate beast altogether—you’re probably also going to need an agent.
Traditional publishing is often hailed as an insurmountable feat riddled with confusing rules, taboos and never-ending stretches of downtime meant to intensify your anxiety and slowly leech the hope out of you that your book will do well. But it’s far from that.
It leeches the agents.
Now if you haven’t already had fresh eyes on your book, don’t even think about querying. If you haven’t edited your draft since you finished it seven minutes ago, DO NOT START SENDING QUERY LETTERS.
A successful query letter is not the hardest thing in the world to draft, but many times authors overestimate their preparedness to start pitching their book, only to wind up disappointed and discouraged later in the process. Literary agents and editors do not want to crush dreams at all; I’m sure they would all agree that if every manuscript they were asked to consider were in its best form before it slipped past their intern and into their lap, they would never run out of things to read for the sheer pleasure of it.
But there is a line between a finished manuscript and a polished one. I want to go over some tips I’ve learned during my time in the trenches to hopefully inspire you hopeful authors not to give up.
The first thing you want to do after you’ve done your first round of edits is find beta readers. If you aren’t familiar with the term, essentially you just need three to five people to read your book and provide constructive feedback.
How you define constructive feedback is subjective, but I find it extremely helpful to follow a system and keep it consistent. I might, for example, draft a set of questions I plan to ask each of my readers after they’ve finished reading a chapter, or email them questions I would like them to address after they’ve read longer sections.
Your beta readers are your peek into how people will receive your book when they pick it up in the bookstore, so you want to be as thorough as possible when interviewing your readers.
Edit Your Manuscript
“But I already did that,” you groan as you drag your feet on your way back to the chair now molded to the shape of your buttcheeks.
Good, you should have already edited your manuscript. But if after you’ve received feedback from varied independent sources (it’s better if you allow your readers to read apart from one another to get the best version of their feedback without the affirmations of others inserting bias), you still feel there’s nothing that needs to be changed, my advice is find different betas.
You want your beta readers to point out things you might have missed as the author. Plot holes, inconsistencies in character or voice, unnatural language, purple prose, etc. When you are too close to a piece of work for a long time, it can become difficult to separate yourself if you don’t learn to seek out the opportunities for improvement.
Editing is a beast all its own deserving of its own blog post, but these are the basic steps I like to follow:
- Step away from the manuscript.
- Leave it alone for at least a few weeks.
- Reread your manuscript and look for large plot issues.
- Reread and look for voice inconsistency and awkward language. (I like to do this step aloud to really hear the flow of the language)
- Reread and perform line edits.
Write a Synopsis
Alright, so you got that part done, now we can move on to the query, right?
Not quite yet.
Next, you’ll want to think real hard about that book you reread three times and sum it up in about half a page of text. Imagine someone is going to pick your book up and turn it over to read what it’s about. This is what you get to write first. Try not to write a thesis on this part, you’ll need to save your word count for what’s coming up.
Introduce your main character(s) somewhere in the first two lines, something related to the setting to help the reader contextualize the story in the next few lines, and a hint at the inciting incident or major conflict that kicks your story off at the end.
In your letter, this can be a short one or two paragraphs, and will serve as your book’s introduction for the agent you want to consider you.
Write a Good Query Letter
A good query has three main parts: the hook, the book, and you.
In your first paragraph, you want to address the agent you are querying by NAME, and for the love of God do not misspell it. Some agents understand the limitations of technology, and that autocorrect will wreak havoc when allowed, but double check that you have at least got the preferred gender (if applicable) and correct spelling of the agent’s name.
From here you want to move into why you think this specific agent would be a good fit to represent your book; maybe you follow their twitter feed and have seen the types of works they are actively seeking, or you read about the fiction they represent in an agent roundup, or maybe you heard them speak and had to have them consider your work.
Whatever the reason, name it. Keep it brief, at maybe one to two sentences.
Don’t exclude your final word count and genre so agents can assess where your work might lie as they read your query. It helps them determine whether or not they will be a good match in a few ways. If you’re book is presented as a YA romance, but is 120K words long, they know you need work to cut it down, as it doesn’t conform to industry patterns. Same for if your book is too short; it can help them decide between a rejection, a revise and resubmit and a request. If you are planning a series as well, here is a good place to mention it. Some agents may want to see a full synopsis of the entire series, so you’ll have to repeat the above steps if that applies to your manuscript.
Also, I don’t want to be the broken record in the room, but if your manuscript is not finished, you should not put an estimated word count and hope for the best. Finish the book, then query.
From here you want to move into your book’s premise, using the copy you wrote earlier. Hook the agent and they’ll read to the end. Bore them, and you may wind up on an infinite list of ghosted writers who may never hear back on their submission. Follow the structures that work and you might find yourself pleasantly surprised.
Lastly, comes you. The blood, sweat and tears that went into the book. Agents, like other people, want to know the person behind the work—not just the book. Have you published anything before? Mention it. Any writing degrees or awards? Mention it. Anything that makes you stand out as a writer goes in this last paragraph, and if you are a young writer just getting your feet wet, please, mention this too. Querying can be intimidating to all of us, but I believe young writers are the next generation of literature. They will determine future trends, the fate of certain industries, and more. Many agents excel at coaching young writers and helping them into the world of publishing, so if you’re worried about receiving form rejections that don’t help, you can ask for feedback in your closing paragraph as well.
I have been querying my novel for a few months now, and realized through the process that my book needed a lot of work. I was receiving rejections for simple errors, and I needed that wake-up call to take myself seriously as a writer and prioritize working on craft. I now try to write at least 1200 words a day, whether it be through revision, drafting or scripting. I don’t want other writers to feel discouraged or give up on their dreams simply because they might not be following protocol to a T. My hope is with these few tips you can craft a killer query that will land you the agent of your dreams.