5 Lessons I Learned When Querying a Novel

Hi all,

Most authors will agree that the hardest part of writing a novel is getting a publisher to notice it.  This is usually accomplished by getting yourself a literary agent. But then the problem just shifts to getting an agent to notice your work.  Querying a novel to an agent or editor is an art.  It’s also hell.  A cold, horrible hell.

Dozens of sites and books are out there, all telling you how to query effectively.  A good query letter should sell the book, the main conflict, and hero’s goal in just 3-5 sentences.  This requires cutting out all the beautiful twists, subplots, characters, and everything else you love as the author.  Now you must trivialize that brilliant story you’ve spent months or years carefully crafting, and sum it up in the barest of ways, all while still trying to make it sound remotely appealing.  (Did I mention that it’s hell?)

I’ve queried two novels in my time.  The first was a failure. The second, Dämoren, was a success.  I submitted the first query for Dämoren on March 2, 2013.  In honor of its anniversary I want to share the lessons that I learned.


 5: Know Your Sub-Genre

Before you query an agent, you first need to be sure that they handle your genre.  They say you should look in a bookstore and see what section your book belongs in.  Dämoren is a modern-day fantasy.  So…Fantasy, right?  OK, that’s a start.  But then we get into the bizarre world of sub-genres.  Modern-day fantasy (or Contemporary Fantasy) can be broken into several categories, such as Urban Fantasy, Magical Realism, Paranormal Fiction, or Supernatural Fantasy.  This is before we even splinter it further into Young Adult, or Romance categories for each of those.  Some agents won’t handle Urban Fantasy, but will gladly do Magical Realism.   Some have Urban Fantasy listed on their website bio, but then somewhere else specifies that they’re strictly Young Adult Urban Fantasy. 

Amazingly, there is no standardized set of rules defining these sub-genres, and even worse, most agent websites will spend 95% of an agent’s bio page talking about their cats, but not really mention what specific micro-sub-genre categories they want or don’t want.  This means you will likely query an agent that doesn’t represent your sub-genre.  I actually found it easier to research most agents on sites that weren’t actually the agency’s website, just to find out what sub-genres they were looking for.

Once you figure out your specific sub-genre, and what agents represent it, list them on a spreadsheet.  Do this before you send a single query because…


4:  Organization is Critical

When querying my first novel, I queried every agency that I could find.  I have no clue who all I queried because I didn’t keep the best notes.  I shot queries out like Yosemite Sam shooting his pistols in the air.  After several months, it started getting harder and harder to remember who had and hadn’t rejected me.

yosemite-sam“Yee haw, I’m sending queries!”

Querying Dämoren was a different story.  I built a detailed and color-coded spreadsheet that listed which agents, agencies, and publishers I submitted to, what date I submitted, if any page samples accompanied the query, what their expected turnaround time was, and any other information I thought I might need.  I also listed the date I received a rejection.  This spreadsheet kept my sanity, which is good because…


3:  You Will Experience Horrible Self-Doubt

When writing Dämoren I received a lot of praise from my writer’s group.  It made me feel good. It pushed me to complete it.  Positive reinforcement from your writing peers is wonderful, but it doesn’t mean jack when the rejections start coming.  No matter how emotionless you try to be about it, that’s going to get to you.

crying-spock“No one likes my book.”

At first I thought maybe my query letter sucked (which it did).  That’s a valid theory (because it did).  Two month into my query storm I attended the DFW Writing Conference.  There, I attended a workshop that taught me what was wrong with my query letter.  I rewrote it, and then submitted it for their Query Letter Gong Show.

The Gong Show is a fun little exercise the conference does where all the agents and editors attending get a gong, and anonymous query letters are drawn and read aloud.  Whenever an agent/editor hits the point that they’d stop reading the query letter, they hit the gong.  At the third gonging, the letter is discarded.  Afterwards, the agents tell the audience why they would have rejected it.  Also, since they’re up on stage, they want it to be entertaining as well as vent some of their exhaustion/frustration from being locked in a conference center for an entire weekend with 300 desperate writers, they’re pretty savage in their criticism.  Seriously, this is like American Idol, but they’re all Simon.  After the first few public eviscerations, I was horrified when they drew mine and began to read it.

Amazingly, no one gonged it.  Not only was mine the only query letter to make it through, it didn’t even receive a single gong.  I was cheered, applauded, blogged about (Here and Here), and told that I now had a perfectly crafted query letter.

Query Gong Show Victory“My query letter is victorious!”

Armed with the “perfect” query letter, I went on to receive 6 more months of rejections.  I also no longer had the excuse that it was my query letter’s fault that no one loved me.  Saying that this was a punch to the nuts for my self-esteem is a lot like calling the Polar Vortex a “slight chill”. It was crushingly depressing.

Just remember that you’ve got to muscle through it.  Start that next project to keep your brain occupied.  Make yourself write.  Writing the next project is better than just sitting around and waiting.  Especially since…


2:  Waiting Leads to Paranoia

Some agencies have a listed wait time of just a couple days.  For most it’s 6-12 weeks.  That’s a lot of time to sit around and wonder.  After a while, you start to worry. “What if they didn’t get it?”  “What if it ended up in a SPAM folder or I sent it to the wrong email?” These questions gnaw at you.  They keep you up at night.

Most agencies forbid follow-up emails.  I’m sure they get hundreds of them anyway.  Still, you don’t want to ruin your chances by nagging them, and a simple “hey did you get it?” might just cause them to delete your message and cast you into the pit of rejections.


This means all you can do is just stalk Query Tracker, and check your Spam box in case your reply ended up in there.  During my nine months of querying, I checked my Spam folder daily.  It got to the point that I knew the names of those penis enlargement and cheap meds swindlers more than I knew my own friends.  And for all my efforts scrolling through thousands and thousands of Lottery Winner Notifications and desperate pleas from the Nigerian Royal Family I found exactly zero agent emails.

In fact, I didn’t get that many emails at all. Which leads us to…


1:  Closure is Better Than Rejection

It’s hard to imagine, but there is a fate worse than rejection, and that’s not receiving anything at all.  Literary Agents get flooded with thousands upon thousands of queries (and yes, most are terrible).  This never-ending river of hopes and dreams from prospective writers leaves many agents too busy to take the 4.68 seconds to hit “Reply” and paste in a standard form rejection from a bounce-back mailbox.  How many agents do this?  About 50%.

Exactly one half of agents sent me rejection letters (including the one that came in an envelope that I had stamped and addressed myself when I submitted it.  So it’s like giving yourself bad news.). The other rejections came in the form of silence.

The silence is worse than anything.  You will spend weeks wondering, praying, hoping that they just haven’t accepted you yet.  This tiny thread of hope is worse than any rejection notice.  A rejection means closure. It means you can move on.  Silence is forever.

And don’t think that if an agent requests pages from you that it gets any better.  It doesn’t.  I had several agents request pages.  One requested the first 50.  Never heard from him again.  Another requested a full manuscript.  No reply (I later found out she had left the agency).  Another requested 50 pages, then the manuscript, confirmed she had it…then nothing.  To be completely honest, I’d rather have had a cruel, hateful, whiskey-fueled rejection than the pain of not knowing.

Your Manuscript Sucks.  Thank you for checking“Dear author, after careful consideration we’ve decided that your manuscript is fucking awful.
You will never have any future in this industry and should probably hang yourself.
Thank you for giving us this opportunity to witness the worst writing imaginable.
Please lose our email address and die.”

At the DFW Writers’ Conference I listened to a panel on ‘Finding an Agent’.  It was hosted by two agents that spent half an hour sharing the secrets to win their hearts.  Their suggestions started out pretty standard.  Look up the agent first.  Be sure they represent your genre.  Address the query to the agent by name, and if possible, list a reason why you chose them.  The agents then went on to suggest that writers go to their local bookstore and look over the books that those agents represented.  Mention those books in your query.  Compliment them.  Tell them they’re great, but don’t overdo it.  This research of scouring bookstores should take at least a day per agent.

Later, they revealed that one of them did send rejection notices, while the other proudly stated that she did not.  So even though she wants you to physically drive to a store and spend 1-2 days researching her work in order to craft her a custom ego-inflating query letter, don’t expect a simple “No thanks, but this project isn’t what I’m looking for.  Good luck in your endeavors.”  That message will never come.

Just accept that this is part of the business.  If an agency says their turn-around time is 8 weeks, then unless you hear otherwise from them, after 8 weeks mark that query as “rejected” and move on to the next.

In the end, querying is just a part of writing.  We face the trial by fire and survive it. When you see all the thousands of titles filling a bookstore, just remember that every author there has endured what you are going through.  They know what it’s like.  They want you to succeed and to join them.  You just have to survive it.  It gets better on the other side.

Welcome to ValhallaThe other side is Valhalla, BTW.

 And just in case you’re wondering how many rejections your favorite authors received, check out LiteraryRejections.com



“Lo there do I see Tolkien. Lo there do I see Howard, Jordan, and Rowling. Lo there do I see the line of my genre, back to the beginning. Lo, they do call me, they bid me take my place among them, in the halls of Valhalla, where the published may live forever.” ~  Genre Viking

8 thoughts on “5 Lessons I Learned When Querying a Novel

  1. Chuck Quisenberry

    Very funny and insightful. I’ve never given much thought to the torment that must come from having your work stuck in a hellish limbo. Say what you will about negative critisism, at least there is something to be learned from it. But having your efforts completely ignored?.. Oy!

    1. Publisher’s Marketplace was a big one that I used. My normal routine was to Google the agent and see any interviews they had done. Normally within the interview they would get real specific in what it was they were looking to represent. It was really amazing how many only wanted Young Adult, but nowhere on their agency site did it mention that.
      Query Tracker I only used to gauge how far along I was in the slush pile. If people that had submitted after me had gotten a reply, then I could only assume that my query had been reviewed.
      The other trick I go by is to have only 5 active queries at a time. It gives you time to review your query or first 50 pages for typos or things you can improve.

      1. Thanks, Seth. I checked out agent interviews for my first book, too. Something I didn’t know about until my current editor sent me a link was the #MSWL hashtag on Twitter, where agents post what they’re looking for in manuscripts.

  2. Michael Stout

    Seth, thanks so much for your thoughtful insights. You’re right. Querying is hell. Deep, dark, dank, dirty hell. But that’s what I signed up for, so I ain’t complaining. Finding this site helped. You’re a good man. Be well. Write on!


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