Friday, March 18, 2011

Querying for an Agent: What I've Learned So Far

It has been a couple of weeks since I last sat down to write a blog post.  I promised myself I would try to post at least once a week, but I’m feeling a little off these days.  I think—no wait, I know—it’s all the querying I’ve been doing lately.  Was it only a couple of months ago that I was so gung-ho about starting the querying-for-an-agent process?  It feels more like a lifetime and I’m beginning to find this the single most demoralizing thing I have ever done in my entire life.  And that is no small amount of time either.  I’m not exactly a wet-behind-the-ears third-year college student with stars in my eyes.  Well, I might have had stars in my eyes, but I am a bit longer in the tooth, as they say. 
I first approached this process with fearless optimism, but now find I have been ground down to more of an unwilling participant, too stubborn to simply give up.  But I must say, I have learned a lot during the last few weeks, mostly through mistakes—rookie mistakes, from what I gather.  Perhaps I am looking at this the wrong way.  Maybe I should be looking at this as more of a learning process.  But I don’t really want to see it that way because I have a book I love and I want to find someone else who loves it, too.  Someone who is willing to work with me to make it the best it can be and then find a home for it at a publishing house.  If I simply look at this as a learning process, I feel like I am giving up on my manuscript, chalking up every lost opportunity to land an agent as a burned bridge, never again to be crossed.  Well, I’m nothing if not diligent.  So onward I go.  But let me sum up for you what I have learned along the way, so hopefully if you ever find yourself in the same place, you can learn from my mistakes.
Well, first I should own up to the fact that I have made some of those rookie mistakes so many agents and editors blog about, like not editing my first draft before I started to query.  Mind you, it was more of a fishing expedition for me, and by that I don’t really mean that I was fishing for an agent so much as I was feeling the process out.  I only queried a small handful, perhaps seven or so, but I did proceed long—way long—before I was ready.  But okay, I learn fast, at least I like to think I do, and I did what I was supposed to do next.  I read and reread my manuscript and buffed it out a bit.  Then I searched for and worked with a number of critique partners who helped me polish it to a gleaming spit-shine.  But once again, I jumped into the querying fray.  And I did not simply dip a toe into the pool this time.  No, I jumped in with both feet.  Trouble is, I forgot to change into my swimsuit. 
Yes, I will admit, I was very close to being ready, but I was not quite there.  Yet I pushed on and forced the issue.  Besides the obvious, there were a couple of problems with this.  First, I had a friend who had an agent that was willing to have her arm twisted by her beloved client and read my full manuscript at her request.  Whoa, an “in,” I thought.  Wrong!  It turns out, a simple read through means nothing if the material is not ready, really, really ready.  And, as I said, I was not quite there.  But I did not discover this until I had hit that damn send button.
Well, unbeknownst to me, hitting that send button has a rather disheartening effect on the psyche.  It made me doubt my work enough that I just had to give my manuscript another read-through.  And what do you suppose I found as I read through?  That’s right…mistakes.  Not just grammatical errors, though there were a few of those.  I’m talking about stiff dialogue, telling instead of showing, a few too many adverbs and the like.  It wasn’t bad, but then again, it wasn’t good enough either.  But too late.  My friend’s agent had it in her hands, so to speak, and there was nothing I could do about it. 
Of course, she rejected me after nearly a month’s time, but that “in” had set the bar kind of high for me and missing—or ruining, I should say—that opportunity for myself was like a swift kick in the teeth.  But okay, it was a learning experience, however painful.  I was not ready.  So I read and reread, revising and writing new content, having my beloved critique partner (the one with the agent) blast away at it and whip it into shape.  Onward I go, compiling my query list.  Well, actually, I lie.  I was using, for the most part, my friend’s query list.  She had spent countless hours on the Publisher’s Marketplace website gleaning information, compiling the list of agents perfect for her manuscript.  So, she says, since our novels teeter on the same provocative subject matter, this list should work well for you, as well.  Enter my third mistake though I would not say it was a rookie mistake.  I have never heard or read anywhere about this so how was I to know?  But since I had dipped my toe in all those months ago and burned those very few bridges, I should have known better.  Do not query those agents you deem the best fit for your project right off the bat. 
Now I realize this seems counterintuitive, but hear me out.  Like I said, querying is a learning process.  Unless you’ve had experience doing this before, chances are you don’t have it down to a science just yet.  Not many queries are perfect out of the gate and this is something the aspiring writer does not realize until they have received rejection after rejection.  It is only then that they take the cues and rework their query.  So why would said aspiring writer send out an early query draft to his or her favorite agents?  Yep, bad move on my part.  I know, it’s only natural to want to give that special opportunity of representation to your favorites, but if your query is not quite ready, much the same way your manuscript was not quite ready, then why would you want to waste your learning chances on your favorite agents?  See what I’m getting at here? 
So I barreled through my friend’s perfect list of perfect agents, sending out several queries a week.  But once again, the bar was set a little too high for me.  Much to my surprise, I got a hit on my first week.  Super Agent X requested a full manuscript an hour after I sent her the query.  Whoa!  Well, as you can imagine, that sent bolts of electricity shooting through my body.  A request for a full!  Surely that must mean my query is kick-ass, spot-on perfect, right?  Ah, well…no…not so much.  But once again I was energized by the vote of confidence, this time by someone I did not have an “in” with.  I shot my manuscript off to her without waiting, like my editor / blogger goddess Anne Mini suggested on her oh-so-wise blog.
Of course, there was that zap when I hit that damn send button again.  Another push to read through my manuscript so I could reacquaint myself with the material I had just sent out.  And yeah…you guessed it.  It was not quite there yet.  Almost.  Maybe 93%.  But my goal was 95%.  A number set by several blogging agents out there.  So here I am, with regrets about sending out my full manuscript for a second time before it was ready.  And this agent is like Julia Roberts is to the acting world.  A real superstar.  And I sent her my manuscript before it was ready.  Or at least 95% ready.  How f-ing stupid can I possibly be?  Well, as it turns out , pretty damn stupid.
So as not to be totally demoralized, I continued to send out queries.  Mind you, it was after I fixed those remaining problems I saw in my manuscript after the Super Agent X read through, but I knew I had most likely ruined an outstanding opportunity.  I have not, as of yet, heard back from Super Agent X.  It has only been about six weeks and I know it takes a long time for a busy agent to read through her stack of manuscripts.  So I am still hopeful, but I am also a realist.  I pray she can see past some of that stiff dialogue in chapter three.  After all, that was the only problem I could see in the material I sent her, but still, there should never have been that kind of problem. 
Oh well, it is what it is and I had to move on.  And I did.  I continued to work my way through that substantial perfect agent list.  I did receive one request for a partial and I sent it out with confidence that it was good to go.  I don’t have any qualms about that submission.  But after sending out those queries in the last month and a half, I have only received one more request, though I will admit , she is a real winner.  Yes, that bar was set rather high early on and I am beginning to think that is not such a good thing, at least for my self-confidence, but perhaps my query was not so kick-ass, spot-on perfect as I first thought.  Too late.  I’ve already sent out a few too many queries.  And to the ones best suited to my kind of project, too.  

This is me kicking myself in the head.

So now I am compiling a new list. One of my very own.  I am spending an inordinate amount of time researching each and every one of these agents to make sure they are a suitable fit, but I am not as experienced as my friend who compiled the original perfect agent list so I have no idea if these new additions will work for me.  So I am completely demoralized to have burned through my list of perfect-fit agents during my preliminary trials of first-time querying.  And now I am on query-hold at the request of one agent who wants an exclusive.  Am I an idiot?  (Okay, don't answer that.)  Of course, I will give her whatever she wants if she wants to give me a chance. 
My whole point is that this is a lesson to all you aspiring writers out there with a much beloved project you think might be ready to go.  Read through your manuscript in hard copy, out loud, and in its entirety.  And then do it again and again and again.  Then send out that query you think is so perfect to agents that fit, but not necessarily those you think would be the perfect fit.  Give it time, allowing a couple of months to roll by before you send out more queries.  This will allow you to see if your query is garnering requests or not and is therefore effectively attracting wanted attention.  And before you send out any requested material, read it through as if you had indeed sent it out.  Read it through with another’s set of eyes in consideration. 
As an update, I have received about thirty-three rejections thus far.  Each one another brick added to the load I carry on my weary shoulders.  Each one a demoralizing stab that I am just not good enough.  But I am trying to keep in mind that I have still not heard back from the great majority of agents and while I know I probably never will, many agents seem to say that they do, in fact, respond to every query over time.  
So there is still hope and I hold onto that hope like a life preserver.  I often picture this process like that of a human egg being fertilized by sperm.  Here I am, one of a million little sperm, swimming against the current, nudging along the periphery of the hard-edged shell of one little egg, knowing that only one of us will eventually be admitted while the rest of us are washed away, out to sea.  It is a one in a million chance, but then I also play the lottery from time to time.  What is life without a little hope that we can achieve our dream if we are but persistent?  Never give up, I say.  No matter how heavy that load gets.  What do I have to lose except a little self-confidence and pride?   


Laila Knight said...

Nancy, I'm laughing as I finish reading your post because you are reflecting all my thoughts back at me. I thought I was only one that obsessed about the whole querying process. It is tedious, and I also refuse to give up on my manuscript and my dream. Good luck!

Nancy Thompson said...

Thanks for both reading and commenting, Laila. I know there are a lot of us out there. Can you imagine the power we could have if we united!

Katerina Bent said...

I haven't even started my query process and I am already terrified. It's a hard place to be, feeling like your manuscript is good but not perfect, and knowing you can never accomplish anything if you don't try. Anyway, thanks for the advice, and congratulations on your book deal!