(These were originally posted on my Curious Fictions on April 28, 2018 and May 6, 2018 -- I am trying to rescue my posts before the site disappears!)
I did a Twitter poll to see what people wanted to see for subscriber posts, and for the longest time 'how I flesh out ideas' was in the lead...till at the last minute (it must have been, because I kept checking) 'querying, etc' took the lead!
Initially, I was thinking self-publishing; no agent would be interested in my stuff, at least not if they wanted to 'make money' and 'not eat catfood forever.' Then a friend pointed out that I should at least start querying, and in the meantime, if I felt like it, get ready to self-publish. This seemed like a sound idea, and the thought of being ready to go on my own after a couple hundred rejections was appealing.
So I set up my querying spreadsheet:
- Name of agent, and their email or query form
- Name of agency
- Whether you could query more than one agent at the same agency (not very common, but not something you want to screw up, either)
- Link to the agent's 'What I Want' page or similar (any MSWL, or Manuscript Wishlist, stuff) if they had it
- Their requirements (different between almost every agent!)
- Date queried, date responded if any, and response
I figured I'd go in batches of ten, waiting a month between batches, and going in order of most preferred agent. This didn't mean 'biggest name agent' or 'agent who had sold the most books,' but mostly just... preferred. I didn't have anything written down, but I was kind of going by a mental algorithm of did they seem nice on Twitter, did they have clients whose books I liked, did they write somewhere what they liked, and... I don't know. Some intangible quality, if possible, suggesting that they might like weird stuff and weren't too fussy about genre divisions.
So I sent out my first batch of ten, out of which I got:
- Six responses (four people didn't respond at all, so I figured those were 'no')
- Of the six responses, four requests for partials; two 'nooooo, go away'
- Of the four requests for partials, two requests for fulls (so, two who never responded to the partial)
- Of the two full requests, one offer of representation.
And since this was in my first batch of ten, i.e. the ten agents I most wanted to be represented by anyway, I figured 'What the hell' and sent the offer back. :) I started in November 2016 and got my signed copy of representation back in January 2017.
I figured I would have more time (a year or so) to refine my query, which initially struck me as kind of...crude and simplistic, not to mention unrepresentative of everything that happened in the book. But I guess it worked, for one thing; and for another, I didn't realize that some agents are getting thousands of queries a month. Like, hundreds a day. And the simplistic approach might just be what they're looking for, as well as maybe a giant handful of Advil.
The structure of my query was basically:
- There's a main character; what does he want?
- A bit of his back story, and how the back story leads into what happens in the book
- What's preventing him from getting what he wants, related both to his past and to the events of the book
- Who or what might help him get what he wants (ha ha, not bloody much, sorry kid)
- Something that sets up the ending of the novel, and clarifies what might happen if he fails or succeeds
- The wordcount, title, and genre
- My writerly biography (at the time, a couple of short stories, which I was super embarrassed about)
Too basic, I figured. But as I read more of Janet Reid's literary blog (which I love, and is the main reason I decided to try to publish traditionally instead of self-publishing; also a great comments community) and Query Shark (also run by Janet Reid!) I couldn't really tease out what an agent would reliably want that was more than that. Comparison titles? Not always. 'X meets Y'? Not always. Marketing plans, author platforms, etc? Not always.
Bleh, this is getting too long. Next post: my example query!
So, as per my last post, here's approximately what my query looked like back in the day. I'm using 'Aliens' as an example instead of my actual book, which is still on sub (go go go lil novel! u can do eet!)
As per the structure I described previously:
- What does the main character want and why might we want to read about it?
- Bit of back story, and how the back story might feed into book events
- Prevention of getting what she wants (based on back story, and current events)
- Who might help
- Ending setup
- Wordcount, title, genre
'Aliens' is set up really well for this, as it's a sequel that can also stand on its own. The marines don't know there's a previous movie. They only have Ripley's word for it, and therefore all the setup and back story that they need is received from Ripley herself.
Similarly, the reader can get everything they need to know from this query, as if there were no previous movie. Ripley, also, is a sympathetic character -- she's not solely easy to sympathize with (because that's not what that term means, to me) but she's also interesting in her own right, she's led an interesting life. That comes into her back story, where it's revealed that she's lost her child, her job, her prestige, etc, as well as doubting what really happened.
Anyway, it's my favourite movie and I wanted to use it as an example, LEAVE ME ALONE.
What does she want?: 'All Ripley wants is to live a quiet life, get back to work, and leave the horror behind.'
Back story: 'As the last survivor of a historic disaster, she's been rescued and returned to society. It's been sixty years; the world has moved on; she's wracked with nightmares about monsters and paralyzing grief over the death of her only child. But she's safe now, right?'
Prevention of getting what she wants: 'Instead, her employer has asked her to return to her nightmare — on a colony planet that's gone inexplicably silent. Just as a consultant, they swear! She won't be in any danger from the acid-blooded killers she escaped sixty years ago. Tantalizingly, too, if she goes, she might be able to get her beloved pilot license back, and quit doing menial warehouse work.'
Who might help: 'Teaming up with company representatives and marines, she arrives at the colony planet to find only silence and desolation. And a single survivor, just like her. Their rescue mission has become an investigation, and she can only fill in so many gaps for the marines.'
Ending setup: 'But there are more factions at work here than anyone has realized, and soon Ripley is tangled in a fight not just for her life, but the lives of every human in the galaxy. A fight that she knows she can't win.'
Wordcount, title, genre: ''Aliens' is sci-fi/horror and is complete at 110,000 words.'
Bio: 'Premee Mohamed is both a beetle and a large carnivorous lizard based in Canada. Previous publications include A, B, and C. She is a member of the Codex Writing Group and Maulers Anonymous.'
OK, this could probably use a bit more work; I haven't gotten enough into the conflict, and it's not clear why the galaxy is at stake (ALIENS, MAN!!!!!!), but I'd probably fix that in future revisions. But with no more than a sentence or two!
My main takeaways from Query Shark at the time were:
- No need to get too complicated. Notice how the 'Nostromo' isn't mentioned, or specifically what the disaster was; or the Weyland-Yutani company and their motivations and the eventual double-cross; or the names of any of the marines, or the company rep, or the survivor, or the planet. A few of those might be OK. Too many, and the agent might panic and hide under their desk.
- Shorter is better; agents have to read a lot of these things. I mean, literally so many. I had no idea till I started asking around. The best query takes the useful information about the novel and sort of shrink-wraps it with a heat gun, so nothing sticks out.
- Agents want to read about the premise of your novel, not every single worldbuilding detail. Queries get one more chance to hook them with the pages that are sent.
- If there's a twist, the twist can be set up (in this case, 'factions'), but maybe shouldn't be laid out in the query? Opinions seem to differ on Query Shark, but in my case, there's a big twist very near the end of the novel (like, 25 pages before the end) and not only could I not figure out how to explain the setup in the query, but I was also getting bad vibes about doing so. Which worked out, thank Gord; my agent loved it, and said he never would have guessed it from the first 10 pages, or the partial.
Anyway, this is what worked for me! The usual disclaimer is that people's mileage may vary, and of course there are agents who do want the twists, who want longer queries, who want different stuff, etc. A few agents on my query list wanted a full synopsis as well, in which case I did regretfully lay out the twist.