I meant to write and post this yesterday, before reopening to queries, but I was feeling poorly, and wasn’t up to being my usual witty self. You’ll have to settle for reading this today, in hopes that it’s still useful information for the bulk of you.
So! You’ve been doing your research on literary agents, and you’ve narrowed down your extensive list of agents who represent your genre to agents who seem like they would like your novel in particular. You’ve double-checked the listing you found on Agentquery.com or Publishers Marketplace with the agent’s own website for the most up-to-date submission guidelines. You’re ready. Right?
Well, maybe not.
Time to take a hard look at your manuscript first. First of all, it’s finished, right? Sure, many agents are only going to ask for a couple of chapters if they like your query, but you do know the entire thing has to be finished, right? And not just finished, but polished. Until it shines.
If you haven’t already, send it out to your critique group or beta readers for their opinions, and be prepared to make another round of edits. Know that you don’t have to make every change that someone suggests, but be willing to argue the changes you don’t want to make, not just because you love the prose, but because they make the story BETTER. Be able to explain why.
Someone on Twitter the other day (and I’m sorry for not remembering who — if you know, remind me, please!) said an aspiring writer should look at a prospective agent’s list of clients, and be able to compare their own manuscript to those published books. For me, ask yourself if your contemporary YA has the same humor as a Maureen Johnson novel? The romance of Stephanie Perkins? Does your middle grade have the heart of Matthew Cody, the sly intelligence of Ellen Booraem? Ask yourself the hard questions — don’t be soft on yourself. That way lies quick disappointment.
If you can’t compare your manuscript to an agent’s clients because you haven’t read any of them yet, then put your manuscript aside a bit longer to get a better sense of what that agent wants before you send off that query. In 99.9% of these cases, you’ll be better off waiting to collect more information than sending something off prematurely.
Beyond an agent’s own clients, think about the rest of the marketplace. An editor pitching a manuscript often needs to be able to compare it to other titles — what are your comparables? Don’t say “there’s nothing out there like my manuscript,” because that either speaks to a lack of knowledge about the market, or an attitude that’s not going to be easy to get along with.
You don’t need to come up with a Hollywood pitch — Die Hard meets Splash, but with werewolves! — but do be able to describe your manuscript in one sentence, in one paragraph, and in one page. That’s your query letter, after all. You’ve polished that as well, right? Read a few blogs on hook sentences, what not to do, and how to attract an agent’s attention out of a pile of similar queries? Consider asking your critique group to take a look at your query as well, but also show it to someone who hasn’t read your manuscript. Do they think the letter describes a novel they’d want to read (if they didn’t already know you)? Ask them what worked and what didn’t. Revise accordingly, bearing in mind the above advice about making changes that other people suggest.
Are you ready now? Maybe.
Is your query letter personalized? Are you sending exactly what the agent asks for in their submission guidelines? Is your full manuscript ready to go if they respond immediately with a full request? Have you kissed the blarney stone and made the appropriate offerings to the gods/muses of your choice? (This last one is at your own discretion, of course.)
Then hit send! And start all over with the next short list of prospective agents. Good luck!