Querying My First Novel – Lessons Learned

Selling your novel demands a whole new dimension from your creative writing repertoire. What makes it especially hard for aspiring authors, aside from the fierce competition, is that you’re largely left stabbing in the dark trying to figure out for yourself where you’re going wrong and how to fix it – which is pretty difficult if, like me, this is your first time doing this. Is my novel not hitting the mark, or is it my synopsis, query letter or sample chapters that are letting me down? In other circumstances, such as a job interview, unsuccessful applicants are often invited to request feedback. But in publishing, feedback is rare from time-poor agents and publishers who are overwhelmed with queries and need convincing to pursue yours. Here are some of the things I’ve learned from my first venture into this stage of the process…

  1. DO make sure you have a completed manuscript

The face of publishing has changed dramatically since the rise of e-books and self-publishing, so these days the vast majority of agents and publishers of fiction are not interested in receiving a pitch for an incomplete novel. When you query/submit, they want to be absolutely sure you’ve completed a scrupulously edited manuscript that has already been polished to the highest standard and is available for them to request at any time. Don’t let them (or yourself) down at the first hurdle.

  1. DO make sure your manuscript meets marketable word-count guidelines

You will need to include your word-count in your query. If, like me, you’re writing women’s fiction, a reasonable word-count to aim for is 80,000 words – I’ve discovered several agents/publishers in this genre will generally not accept a submission that falls below this standard. If I were to submit a work of women’s fiction below 60,000 words or above 100,00 words, chances are that a form rejection would swiftly make its way to my inbox. Be clear on the marketable expectations of agents and publishers for your specific genre before you submit, because too high or too low a word-count is likely to alienate them. If you need to cull words, cull them; if you need to add words, add them. The first draft of my second novel fell short of the usual standard. To overcome this I added separate interweaving threads focusing on my novel’s more minor characters, which not only boosted my word-count to the desired level but added a new, complementary dimension to my novel that I couldn’t have otherwise anticipated. It was really fun to explore these other characters in a lot more depth.

  1. DON’T submit a first draft – EVER!

I could still kick myself for making this mistake, but I know I’m not the first – and definitely won’t be the last – writer who’s guilty of it. Writing a novel-length manuscript is an achievement that might’ve involved years of toil, and you may be super keen to get that work into the hands of readers ASAP – but this strategy is probably the surest-fire way of making sure that doesn’t happen. Completing your manuscript is only the first part of the process – editing it until you lose all sense of objectivity is part 2, sharing it with others in search of critical feedback is part 3, editing it again (after salvaging your crushed ego) is part 4, and querying it is part 5. Resist the temptation to skip a step. Do yourself and your novel the justice it deserves by following each of these steps in turn, because they offer the best hope of reward for the amount of time, effort, sacrifice and care you have put into crafting your completed manuscript.

  1. DO focus on your sample chapters

If your sample chapters (usually the first 3 – avoid submitting a random selection which could show a lack of confidence in your own opening chapters) fail to secure the interest of an agent or publisher, then even if the rest of your manuscript is outstanding no-one will know because they won’t ask to see it. The snag is that when you’re submitting the first 3 chapters of your first ever novel, it’s inevitable they will have been written when you were still a relative novice in your creative writing journey. As a result, they may not adequately reflect the quality of your overall manuscript, which would likely have improved as your novel progressed. Put your increased experience and improved written skills to good use by editing, and even rewriting, your initial chapters altogether if need be (I found this part really tricky and had to considerably edit and rewrite – it was a total pain but worth it), to ensure they live up to the same standard of the rest of your manuscript. And if your full manuscript is requested, be mindful that should your 50 – 100 pages be insufficient to maintain the agent or publisher’s interest they may not proceed to finish the work and a rejection could result.

  1. DO be clear about your genre and comparable titles/authors

When I queried my first novel, in an attempt to show I’d done my homework on that particular publisher I made the mistake of comparing the style of my romantic women’s fiction novel to that of one of their romance authors. I didn’t yet fully understand the subtle differences between these two genres. I’d wanted to personalise my query by demonstrating that I wasn’t just shooting out manuscripts left and right and did actually know something about the writers they represented (and enjoyed reading their books!), but in hindsight I wrongfully categorised my novel, likely harming my chances in the process, because despite the encouraging feedback I received they felt that my novel did not sit comfortably enough in the romance genre for them to pursue it further (unless I was willing to revise and resubmit for that purpose). I think I’d have had a better chance of success if I’d been clear from the outset on my genre which would have ensured my manuscript was directed to the correct editor, and had also chosen a better fit when identifying a comparable author/title. I initially shied away from comparing my writing style to that of a more well-known author in fear of how that might be perceived – but at least the editor would have had immediate clarity on the flavour of my book and where it would potentially sit in the market. So, be clear on your genre and identify your best-fitting comparative title. Claiming to be the next JK Rowling is different to saying your book might sit near one of her titles on the bookshelf.

  1. DO polish your submission as much as you polished your novel

At first it can be pretty difficult to get your head around the differences between a pitch, a query, a hook and a synopsis – so it’s worth doing as much reading on the subject as possible, and seeking out a few examples before you start. It’s also pretty daunting trying to figure out a way to encapsulate your entire manuscript into 2 pages, 1 page, 500 words, 250 words (or whatever the submission guidelines dictate) for the first time, without losing some of your novel’s essence in the process. I still cringe when I look back at my original query letter, hook and synopsis – they weren’t good enough, but it took me time and a break away to see it. They were clunky and didn’t effectively convey the premise of my novel in a way that would entice further reading. I eventually rewrote them altogether, with the result that my updated synopsis is more successful at reflecting what my book is about than the original was. If you’re struggling with this there are places you can go for help, such as Query Shark, where you can seek constructive feedback on your query before you send it out. Otherwise, you could consider paying someone to assess your entire submission package through a service such as Fiverr, though I personally wouldn’t pursue this unless sufficient time had passed without success and I wanted someone objective and more experienced to shed some light on why. Don’t overlook the value of these essential parts of your query package. They require you to refine a different set of writing skills, and demand as much attention as your manuscript itself. They are what gives an agent/editor a window into your book (the very first glimpse) and convey the very first impression of your writing style, so do everything you can to make sure it’s a good one.

  1. DO stick within submission guidelines

Before you start querying, write a long-list of agents/publishers who are currently seeking submissions for your genre (the latest edition of the Writer’s and Artist’s Yearbook is a great place to start), and jot down exactly what it is they want included in your submission. The variation might surprise you – some people want a query letter or pitch, a 1 page synopsis and 3 sample chapters; some people want a 250 word synopsis or a 2 page one; some people want the first 10 pages, the first 50 or 100, or the full manuscript right off the bat. Some want you to email them, some want you to submit via their website, and some still only accept paper submissions. Some only accept submissions on a certain day of the week, some only accept submissions on a certain date of the month. If you do not sit strictly within these guidelines, your submission will be disregarded even if it’s really good. There doesn’t seem to be a standardised approach so I was careful to follow individual submission guidelines to the letter, working from a standard query letter or synopsis that I could tweak accordingly. Don’t offer any avoidable reasons to exclude your work. And before you click send, ensure that submissions are definitely still open – quite often I found that an agent/publisher who was initially accepting queries had placed them on hold by the time I was ready to approach them.

  1. DO personalise your submission

While querying I was always careful to identify the specific agent/editor I thought would be the best fit for my work, addressed them by their name, and/or articulated a reason I was submitting to that particular agent or publisher. Not everyone will take the time to do this, but I personally think it’s a polite and respectful way to approach a query, and should you be successful it will start your ongoing professional relationship off on the right foot.

  1. DO submit in small rounds

I recommend submitting to only a small number of agents/publishers initially, then wait – because the wait will hopefully tell you something before you go on to submit to (and potentially exclude) any more. For example, if you receive form rejections or radio silence – your entire submission package probably needs further attention and review. If you receive requests for additional chapters or your full manuscript followed by a rejection then your submission package is likely hitting the mark, but your novel is letting you down somewhere. And if you receive any personal feedback whatsoever, or an invitation to revise and resubmit – this is really positive and an indication you may be on the right track, so take what you can from it and use it to strengthen your manuscript to its full potential.

  1. DO be honest about simultaneous submissions

From what I can gather it seems that these days it’s largely taken for granted that you’re probably going to be querying multiple agents/editors at a time, but it’s still only polite be honest if you are asked the specify. And don’t forget to inform these agents/publishers if someone is interested in representing your manuscript so that they can fast-track a decision on it too.

  1. DO ensure reputability before you query

Before you query, ensure that the agent/publisher you’re submitting to is reputable and that your hard work is falling into safe hands. One of the first publishers I submitted to, whilst masquerading as a traditional publisher, offered me a contract straight away in which they requested a significant sum of money in exchange for publishing my novel. There are quite a few of these businesses around – they make their money from authors, not books, and so will not put the effort into marketing your novel as there is insufficient financial impetus to do so. This is not acceptable (unless that’s an exchange you’re happy with, in which case there are reputable services that will openly do this for you without pretending to be something they’re not) – a true traditional publisher will bear the costs associated with publishing and marketing your work. There are plenty of other reputable services who openly request payment to publish your book if self-publishing is the avenue you wish to go down, without pretending to be something they are not. Try checking the reviews of agents and publishers before you submit. The Writer Beware Thumbs Down list is a good place to start.

  1. DO keep track of your submissions and responses

Create a means of tracking a list of who you queried, what you included in your query, the date of your query, the anticipated response date so you remember to follow this up if need be (it seems to be anything from 6 weeks – 6 months), the outcome (e.g. declined, revise & resubmit, form rejection, rejection with feedback) as well as an extra space to include any personalised feedback. I use a Word table to do this and update it periodically (I hate spreadsheets!). And don’t be surprised if you don’t hear back within the specified time-frame as agents/publishers receive such a huge volume of submissions to work through and are often overloaded with work. It might take months longer than anticipated. Sometimes you won’t hear back at all unless you’re successful – every agent/publisher seems to have a different policy around whether or not to inform you of the outcome of your submission (if the outcome is rejection).

  1. While you wait: DO build an author platform

If you’re successful in securing the interest of an agent or publisher, your hard work doesn’t end there as you’re highly likely to be expected to be as active and invested in marketing your book as they are. Many agents/publishers expect you to be active on at least one social media platform, and/or to have established an author website or blog. Even if you’re something of a technophobe like me, website hosting services such as WordPress are very intuitive to use and you can set up your website relatively quickly. Look up some of the websites of your own favourite authors for inspiration and include only quality, well-written content that allows your personality and writing style to shine through. You could also include a sample of your manuscript – just be mindful it’s no more than a sample (such as the first chapter) otherwise your ‘unpublished’ novel will actually have been published online rendering you unlikely to secure an agent/publisher’s interest. The purpose of creating an author platform is to provide publishers with a starting point to begin marketing your work, as well as providing an opportunity for your readers to connect with you. Include your links within your query – though an agent/publisher they will probably look you up anyway. And be professional – I’ve come across one writer recently who openly recorded their frustration with the submissions process in their blog – I’m guessing this wouldn’t give a prospective agent or publisher the best impression as it doesn’t create the right basis of trust and professionalism to those who might be considering investing in them.

  1. While you wait: DO start something new

The wait for submission responses can be long and tense. I found the best thing to do was to start a new project straight away to distract myself. The more you write, the more skilled and experienced at it you will become, and if you don’t have success with your first novel, your latest one might just be the one that succeeds in securing some interest.

  1. DO maintain professionalism at all times

If you receive multiple rejections, or no response at all, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your manuscript is falling short. The publishing industry is overwhelmed with queries and the competition is extremely fierce. Any agent or publisher is taking a financial risk when they choose to represent a certain work, especially a work by an unknown author without a significant social media platform. They need to have confidence in their ability to work with you on selling your book. And there’s no accounting for personal taste – sometimes you just might fail to hit the right note with the right person. Respond with professionalism, maybe thanking the person for taking the time to read your work and for any feedback they might have offered. Never retaliate. Querying can be a disheartening process and rejection can sting – but it comes with the territory and the sense of reward may ultimately be stronger because of it. Try to take from it what you can, continue to refine your craft, and keep trying. You never know when you might just be successful.

Putting together your query package can be as much of a learning curve as writing your novel, and it demands a new set of skills from you as a writer. You will likely get better at defining and selling your novel over time, as you refine your material and learn from the experience of rejection. If you are about to submit your first novel or currently have it on query, best of luck!

What did you learn from querying your first novel?

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