So. You’ve written a book. You’ve sat in front of the computer and poured your heart and soul into the screen for hours upon hours until blood dripped from your fingertips. You’ve typed those magical words, the words every writer yearns to type: THE END. Congratulations! Now, you’re ready to send it out into the world. You’re ready to query!
Or are you?
I’m going to tell you a hard truth: nobody is really ready to query when they start querying. I definitely wasn’t. And it took a
few dozen or more manuscripts, and a couple of years of querying too
soon, before I WAS ready to query.
So, how do you know when you’re ready to query your manuscript?
First, I’m going to lay out some ground rules. Think of these as general guidelines – basic requirements. These are the boxes that every writer needs to check off before even CONSIDERING querying.
1: You’ve researched comparative titles. You’ve gone to the library and read a dozen or more books that are similar to your manuscript – in theme, in target audience (which is more specific than age range), in topic, in tone. You know exactly which area of the bookstore your book would sit in, and you know which books are already on that shelf. You know where your book fits into the current marketplace, and you know what your book offers that other books don’t.
2: You’ve read through your manuscript and looked for plot holes, characterization problems, issues with the story arc, weaknesses in the treatment of setting, info dumping, and poor sentence structure, and you’ve revised it AT LEAST once (but probably more like two to five times). You’ve made sure that this story says what you mean it to say.
3: You’ve joined a critique group, or found some other writers (NOT friends!) with whom you’ve agreed to swap manuscripts for feedback, and had your manuscript read by these people. You have listened to their feedback, and you’ve revised your manuscript again AT LEAST once (but probably more like two to five times). You’ve checked that this story still says what you mean it to say.
4: If this is a story with characters in it who represent an underrepresented group, you have had AT LEAST ONE (but probably more like two to five) member of that community read it and advise you on stereotypes and other elements of representation. The industry term for this is a sensitivity read. (I think everyone should do this – even if you are a member of the underrepresented group you’re writing about, you should have other people within that group read it. No cultural group is a monolith, and different people have different perspectives and experiences.) You’ve checked that this story still says what you mean it to say.
5: You’ve proofread your manuscript. You’ve also checked that it’s formatted properly, with page numbers and all that jazz.
Okay, so, you’ve done all that stuff. How do you know if you’re ready to query?
This might sound counterintuitive, but I’ve found that the best way to know if you’re ready to query is to write the query.
There are a bunch of GREAT resources out there on how to write a query. I’m not going to get into it here, because this is already a long post. (Google is your friend, folks!) But the best summary I have ever heard is this: a good query should read like cover copy. Which means that if you own any books at all, you have a whole bunch of examples of good queries right there in your own home. Or, you can go to the bookstore. (I recommend the bookstore over the library, because you really need to find books that were published within the last five years.) Spend an hour or so reading those enticing paragraphs on the backs or the inside cover flaps and trying not to blow your monthly budget. Then, go home, google “writing queries”, and write one for your book.
Now. Now you’re ready to find out if your book is ready to query!
Look at the query you wrote and ask yourself these questions. Better yet, give it to your critique group, and ask them:
1: Are the stakes clear? Are they high? If you can’t write a clear sentence summarizing the stakes, it’s probably because you’re muddy on what they are in the manuscript. Go back and revise your book. And if the stakes aren’t HIGH STAKES, then your book is probably boring and you need to revise it. High stakes don’t actually have to BE life or death, but they should FEEL that way to the main character and, by extension, the reader.
2: Is the main character’s goal clear? The same rule applies here as in the question about the stakes. If you can’t write a one-sentence statement about your MC’s goal, then either you have too many plot threads going on, or the goal is muddy in the manuscript. Go back and revise – weed where you need to, clarify where you need to.
3: Is the language specific? There should be no phrases like, “average kid” or “save the world” or “his life gets turned upside down”. These are the word equivalent of stock photos – they’re fine in the frame at the store, but when you get home, you throw them away and replace them with something that is more interesting and that has meaning to you. Your query needs to have meaning for the agent reading it, and that means you have to be able to tell them specific things about your MC and their problems. What makes your MC tick? What is her greatest fear? Her greatest need? Be specific. If you can’t, then you need to revise your manuscript, because that is where these specifics should be coming from.
4: Does the voice come through? Does it sound unique? Does it match the book? If your query reads like a copy of the dictionary or an instruction manual, fix it. But also, go back through your manuscript and make sure it doesn’t have the same problem. Voice is a tricky thing, and it takes time to develop a strong voice. Give it the time.
5: Have I researched the agents I’m planning to send this to? Do not make the mistake of querying every agent in the world of Children’s Literature. Do your research: find out which agents represent your genre, which agents have a working style that you like, which agents are taking on new clients. Get on Query Tracker. Do your homework. People who don’t do their agent research end up pissing off agents, and you don’t want to do that, ever.
Okay, you’ve asked yourself all those questions. The answer to all of them is, YES! You are ready to query!
No, you are not. There is still one more thing you need to ask yourself. It is the hardest thing that any writer ever has to ask.
The question is this: Does this manuscript meet the standard set by other, already published work?
Another version of this question is: When I read this, are there any niggles squirreling away at the back of my mind?
Look: you know what a good book sounds like. Your bookshelves are lined with them. You’ve spent your entire reading life subconsciously soaking up the nuances of language, and rhythm, and storytelling. if those niggles are there -- if you have any doubt, any nagging feeling at all that something might be wrong – then it probably is. Find it, fix it, let the manuscript sit for two weeks or more. While you wait for those two weeks to go by, read a WHOLE BUNCH of really good books. Remind your literary palate of what good books sound like, of the shape of a solid story arc. Take your manuscript out and read it again. Wait. See if the niggles come back.
When the niggles are all gone, when your critique partners have nothing more to say, when your manuscript is absolutely the best that you can make it: then, and only then, are you ready to query.
NOW: the journey isn’t over. Here’s how querying usually goes: in the beginning, you get a lot of form rejections. If you send out ten queries and get nothing but form rejections, revise again. If you get requests for pages, but then those pages get form rejections, definitely revise again. If you get requests, and those requests garner personalized rejections that are all saying the same thing, guess what? Yup. Revise again.
All of this takes time. That’s okay. Let it take the time. Remember that publishing is a marathon, not a sprint. Remember that you only get better as you go along. Keep writing, keep revising, and don’t give up.
Ishta Mercurio is an actor, author, dog lover, and homeschooling mom. Bite Into Bloodsuckers, a non-fiction book about vampire bats and mosquitoes and other blood drinkers of all shapes and sizes, is nominated for the Red Maple Non-Fiction Award and is available now. She is represented by Laura Biagi, of Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency.