Querying My First Novel – Lessons Learned

If I thought writing a novel was hard, I was wrong (well, not that wrong). Learning how to query a novel correctly (and well) with prospective agents and publishers is actually a whole lot harder, and demands an entire new dimension – that of selling your novel – from your creative writing repertoire. What makes it especially hard for aspiring authors, aside from the obvious fierce competition, is that you are largely left stabbing in the dark and trying to figure out for yourself where you are going wrong and how to fix it – which is pretty difficult if, like me, this is your first time doing this. Is my novel hopeless, you wonder, 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 as rare as gold-dust from time-poor agents and publishers who are overwhelmed with queries and need convincing to pursue yours. Like many writers before me I’ve had to learn this the hard way, but for your benefit I’ve summarised below some of my lessons learned from the early stages of this ever-evolving journey…

  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 that you have indeed 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 submission. 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 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. So 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. For example, the first draft of my second novel fell short of the expected standard. To combat 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 whole new, complementary dimension to my novel that I couldn’t have anticipated, making it an even more enjoyable read.

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

I could still kick myself for making this rookie mistake, but I know I’m not the first – and definitely won’t be the last – writer who is guilty of it. Yes, writing a novel-length manuscript is a significant achievement that might’ve involved years of toil, and yes, you will be desperate to get that work of which you are so proud out into the hands of readers ASAP – but this strategy is the surest-fire way of making sure that doesn’t happen. Completing your manuscript is only phase 1 of the process – editing the heck out of it until you lose all sense of sanity and objectivity is phase 2, sharing it with others in search of critical feedback is phase 3, editing it again (after salvaging your crushed ego) is phase 4, and querying it is phase 5 (where your ego will likely be re-crushed several times). Don’t skip phases – they will know. Do yourself and your novel the justice it deserves by following each of these steps, because they offer the best hope of reward for the amount of time, effort, sacrifice and loving care you have put into crafting your completed manuscript in the first place.

  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 your capabilities and 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 did), 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 – this mistake was also borne out of not yet fully grasping in my own mind the subtle differences between these two genres. I’d wanted to personalise my submission by demonstrating that I wasn’t just shooting out manuscripts left, right and centre and did actually know something about the writers they represented (and enjoyed reading their books!), but in hindsight I wrongfully categorised my novel thus harming my chances in the process, because despite the highly encouraging and supportive 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 therefore ensuring 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 popular and well-known author in fear of being perceived as arrogant – but at least the editor would have had clarity on the flavour of my book and where it would potentially sit in the market. So, to summarise, be clear on your genre, identify your best-fitting comparative title/author, and stick to it from the start.

  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 even so much as set pen to paper. 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 very first time, without losing some of your novel’s essence in the process. If you’re anything like me, your initial attempts will probably do you no favours. 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 to realise it. It’s not that they read poorly, they just weren’t overly enticing and didn’t do justice to my novel. I eventually rewrote them altogether with the result that my updated synopsis is far better at reflecting what my book is actually about than the original ever was. If you are struggling there are also places you can turn, 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, though I personally wouldn’t pursue this initially unless sufficient time had passed without success and I wanted someone objective and experienced to shed some light on why. Whatever you do, do not overlook the value of these essential parts of your submission 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 and conveys 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 pretty darn 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 then tweak accordingly. And before you click send, ensure that submissions are definitely still open – quite often I found that an agent/publisher who was initially accepting submissions had placed them on hold by the time I was ready to approach them.

  1. DO personalise your submission

Whilst 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 is a polite and respectful way to approach submissions, 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 you consider submitting to no more than 5 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, should 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 – 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 are probably going to be making multiple submissions at a time, but it’s still only polite to answer honestly if you are asked the question. 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, first ensure that the agent/publisher you are 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 quite 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 are happy with, in which cases there are 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 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.

  1. DO keep track of your submissions and responses

Create a table and include a list of who you queried, what you included in your query, the date of your query, the anticipated response date (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 box to include any personalised comments on your submission. 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

Should you be successful in securing the interests of an agent or publisher, your hard work doesn’t end there and you are 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 ensure it is no more than a sample otherwise your ‘unpublished’ novel will actually have been published online rendering you unlikely to secure an agent/publisher’s interest if that is the case. 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 submission – if you interest 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 really don’t think this gives the best impression or creates the right basis of trust and professionalism to those who may be considering investing in them.

  1. While you wait: DO start something new

The wait for submission responses can be long and tense. The best thing you can do is to start a new project straight away to distract yourself. You will find that the more you write, the better at it you will become, and if you don’t have success with your first novel, your new one might just be the novel that secures you a publishing deal.

  1. DO maintain professionalism at all times

If you receive rejection after rejection, or even worse – no response at all, it doesn’t necessarily mean that your manuscript is no good. The publishing industry is overwhelmed with submissions and the competition is extremely fierce. Any agent or publisher is taking a financial risk when they choose to represent a certain author, especially an unknown author. They need to have full 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. Remember that rejection isn’t personal and you should always act with professionalism at all times. Submitting can be a difficult and disheartening process and rejection does sting – but it comes with the territory and the sense of reward will eventually be all the sweeter for it. So take it on the chin, learn from it what you can, continue to refine your craft, and keep trying. You never know when you might just be successful.

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

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