I’ve come to enjoy pitching my story to agents. Not because I’ve landed a seven-book, multi-million-dollar deal, but because I relish the opportunity to talk about my book and learn how to better present my story. The feedback I’ve received has helped me hone the answer to “Am I ready to query?”
Here are five questions you should ask before sending out a query.
1. Do I know what my story is really about?
How do you pare down a 400-page novel into a five-minute or 50-word summary? It’s tough, but if you can’t tell someone what your story is about within a minute or two, you’re not ready to query.
An agent, publisher, or reader doesn’t need a meandering explanation of your world, your characters, and the plot to get hooked by your story premise. If you wonder how others successfully condense, head to the Internet Movie Database to peruse the single-sentence summaries of various movies or go to your local bookstore or your personal library to read back cover copy.
Once you think you have your book’s basics—who’s involved, what’s at stake, what’s the conflict– write it down and have others take a look. If your spouse or your hairdresser or your coworker or your critique partner doesn’t get it, an agent, publisher, or potential reader won’t waste their time trying to understand. Know what your story is really about.
2. Are you able to convey your writing voice?
I received this question at one verbal pitch: “Who would you compare your voice to?” My answer went something like, “Um…uh…I haven’t received that question before…let me think…” Nope, not exactly a shine-like-a-newly-minted-penny moment.
You must be able to describe your voice. Are you descriptive? Funny? Dark? What adjectives could you use? Come up with a few writers to compare your voice to, others who write similarly—even though, of course, you’re all unique. Also, your voice should come through when you query, so that even from the cover letter, an agent gets a taste of the spice that is you.
3. Can you name comparative titles?
Although I’d pitched several times, this was a new question I received at RWA National. Agents and publishers used to make the comparisons, write marketing copy, and sell your book accordingly. But in the days of agents doing-more-with-less-time, you’ll have a leg up if you can do some of the sales work in advance. That means knowing your genre and subgenre and what titles your book could be compared to.
With that information in hand, an agent or editor can approach potential publishers and say something like, “I’ve got a fabulous book that’s Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet meets Kafka’s Metamorphosis!” Not that anyone would actually read about cockroach love, but you get the point. The publishing pros then know who your book would appeal to and how to market to that audience.
4. Have you received feedback from valued critiquers?
Some writers have been known to keep their stories so close to their chest that they only reveal their book to an agent. Bad. Idea.
Yes, it’s unnerving to put your work out there for others to bleed their commentary on. It may feel less like receiving constructive criticism and more like receiving firing-squad bullets. Your book is your baby, but we all get a case of Ugly Baby Syndrome—unable to see our story flaws as clearly as others might. Beta readers, critique partners or groups, and/or a quality editor can provide valuable feedback and save you getting rejected over and over for things you can fix.
So find people (sorry, not just family) who will comment honestly and helpfully about your story. You don’t have to adopt everything they say, but if more than one person points out a specific problem, you likely have that problem in your book. And it’s better to know now…before you waste your time and an agent’s time with querying.
5. Have you made your story as good as you can make it?
I could re-label this recommendation as simply “Don’t send crap.” Too often, we writers think good enough and press send on the email to an agent or publisher. But publishing professionals are inundated with queries and pressed for time. If your book is sub-par, they’ll toss it aside like rotten fruit and move to the next manuscript in the pile.
Most verbal pitches occur at conferences, but you should only sign up to pitch if your book is finished and polished. That said, at the same time your manuscript is getting requested at a conference, you may also be having aha moments about how to improve your book in workshops and conversation with other writers. Suddenly, you realize your book’s not quite as ready as you thought. In that case, you may have some work to do before sending out your query.
Sure, you could miss the boat by taking time to make those edits. My last rejection from an agent came in the form of “since I requested this manuscript, I’ve taken on a project that would compete” and a rather blunt statement that I should have sent earlier. But while I missed that opportunity, I think I was right to wait. Because my book wasn’t as good as I could make it. It needed another round of edits for me to proudly, happily click send.
Your manuscript need not be unmatched perfection, but inasmuch as your talent and time allow, make your story as good as you can make it.
Still lost on querying? I highly recommend Laura Drake’s online Submissions That Sell course. This amazing rejection-survivor and RITA-award-winner helped me get my own query to the point that I read it and said, “Hey, I want to read this book! Oh wait, I wrote this book.”
Soon, I’ll be sending out my manuscript. And happy to sign that seven-book, multi-million-dollar deal.
How’s your querying savvy? Do you have query stories–or questions–to share?
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Julie Glover is the author of “Color Me Happy,” a young adult romance story in the Orange Karen: Tribute to a Warrior anthology, and My Sister’s Demon, the first of a series of young adult paranormal shorts. She is also working on a novel and lives with her wonderful husband and two sons in her beloved Lone Star state. (That’s Texas, y’all.)