Your Query Letter and You

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By Alexandra Neumeister

Querying is that awkward adolescent stage of writing that nobody likes to talk about. It’s one thing to hear that your favorite author was rejected a hundred times before being published, but it’s another to go through it yourself and experience the multiple flavors of it. The deafening silence of a non-response, the formula letter they send out to everyone, the response two days later saying “It’s not to our taste” even though the agent specifically asked for that genre on the website. Here are some concrete methods that I’ve gathered from various authors to help keep you moving forward in this painful part of the process.

  1. Keep track of everything.

There are websites like Querytracker that help you manage this, but whether you use that or not you should always have a record of your activities. A list of agents you’ve researched that you’d want representing you, the letters you’ve already sent, and who sends form letters or personalized responses. Have documents and spreadsheets with all the information and keep them updated as soon as any changes come up. In the stress of a recently received rejection, being able to just pull up a document and see what you need to do next helps move things along.

  1. Keep a schedule.

It’s easier to keep track of who you’ve sent a letter to when you aren’t sending out a hundred at a time. The usual recommendation is five per month, and when you turn it into a scheduled event it’s not giving up on an agent you wanted, it’s just sending out the latest round. Pick a specific date, the 1st, the 15th, the 27th, whatever you want, so that you can both look forward to it and keep everything in line. If you get a rejection before then, send out a new one as soon as you can and do one less on query day, as long as you’re regularly sending out new letters.

  1. Make changes.

If you haven’t received a positive response, even a personalized rejection, in two months or ten letters, then it’s time to change your approach. It might be rewriting the summary to focus on a different aspect of the story, or maybe you’ve gotten new credentials that you need to add.

You might have learned something about writing query letters from other writers since you started and you might cringe at what you wrote before, but it’s always good to make updates and keep things fresh.

  1. Get feedback.

The silence may be the most painful part of starting to query. Agents don’t have time to respond to every letter personally, which is good because as a potential client you want them spending as much time working on selling books as they can, but not knowing if it’s the sample pages or the summary or if you misspelled the agent’s name can be frustrating. The solution is to get feedback elsewhere. Find writers in the same place as you and swap letters. Become part of a community and find people that can trade critiques with you, not just of your letter but of the writing itself. Maybe the first chapter isn’t as exciting as the next, and you need to tweak it to stop people from putting it down before the second page. Fellow writers might even recommend agents you hadn’t considered. Honing in on what hooks people about your story and what bores them will help you condense your query into its best possible form.

  1. Let yourself be emotional.

Getting a rejection is hard. Getting a form rejection is even harder. Getting three rejections in one day is downright painful. But it’s not you they’re rejecting, it’s your work, right? There’s no need to get emotional, right? Logically it doesn’t make sense, but if you’ve written something that’s worth publishing, you put your heart and soul into it, you put yourself in every word. So in a way this rejection is very personal. Don’t try to ignore them, don’t try to say they aren’t real. Allow yourself to have these emotions. If you need time to process it, have a cup of warm tea, take a walk, commiserate with a friend, do what it takes to work through it. If you didn’t have strong feelings about this story, it wouldn’t be worth telling. Take that mental break, but when you do, there’s one last thing you absolutely have to do…

  1. Work on the next story.

This is at the same time the most important step and perhaps the most difficult. You’ve spent months, even years on this project and you want to see it come to fruition, devote all your efforts to seeing it get published. Querying uses a logical part of the brain. I’ve sent out this many letters to this many agents, this agent has requested this genre but not that one, I haven’t heard back in this many weeks and they said to count that as a rejection. This is an important mindset to use when trying become a published author, but it’s not why you wrote this story in the first place. You wrote because it was meaningful, because it had to be told, and if you want to publish more than just one project you’ll have to be able to do it again. As much as you want to focus on this story you’ve worked so hard on, you have to let it go. Make something new. While you’re waiting for responses, spend that time writing a short story, or the first chapter of the second book in the series, or something entirely new. Keep the creative part of your brain working, remind yourself why you started in the first place. If it turns out a year has gone by and you still haven’t sold your original book, as painful as it is to think about, is it better to have a just pile of rejections or a pile of rejections and a brand new project that might be ready for querying? The worst thing you can do is give up, and pouring yourself into a new story can push you forward through this awkward phase of publishing.

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