Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Beginning To Query: Five Practical Steps To Get Started

A photo posted by Ellen Brickley (@brickleyelle) on

Disclaimer: I am not an agent or an industry insider - this is a querying writer's perspective on creating a system for querying. 

I had nice fingernails once. They were nice enough that I gave a crap about painting them to match my outfit, sometimes. (Not often, like, but sometimes. I am famously bad at being a woman. I once tried to file my nail with the side of two euro coin. It mostly worked).
Then I began to query my novel and, well, you can see what happened. After not biting my nails for four years, I started again, and have now taken to painting the inelegant stubs you see pictured on the right, in the hope that seeing nail polish will make me stop biting them. Again. Guys, I'm nearly 32.

But I don't regret it for a second. Querying is an adventure, it's a necessary step for the vast majority of writers seeking a book deal, and I will genuinely miss it when it's over. But we can talk about my weird masochistic tendencies another time.

If you haven't queried before, here are some tips to get started:

1. Start a spreadsheet. 

I am not kidding - you will need it. I'm being very selective in which agents I query - I don't believe in the scattergun approach and I'm only querying agents I really want to work with, but that is still a *lot* of agents and I need some way to keep track of everything. My own spreadsheet has the following columns:

Status (have I queried yet? If so, what date?)
What to send (most UK agents ask for a query letter, a short synopsis and the first three chapters, or the first 30 pages, or the first 50. Some want page numbers or specific fonts. No way I'm going to keep this straight in my head for more than two or three agencies)
Why The reason why I've chosen to query this agent.

Some agents' websites will include a usual timeframe in which you can expect to hear back, or after which you can assume the response is a no. Some *very* nice agents give you permission to chase them by email if you haven't heard within 8 weeks, or 12 weeks, which is incredibly useful information to have (most agents don't allow this, which is fair, so it's great to have an easy way to check which ones do). I usually pop this info into the Status section, which is where the date I sent my query will go later.

2. Find some agents and populate the spreadsheet

This is probably the most fiddly and time-consuming part, but it's also quite a lot of fun - you are trying to hunt down awesome people who might like your book! Yay!

Methods I've used to find agents:
  • The acknowledgements section of books I've read that are similar to mine
  • Twitter profiles, websites and blogs of writers whose work is similar to mine
  • The hashtag #MSWL (ManuScript Wish List - where industry professionals share their wish lists)
  • Google (YA + literary agents + UK/Ireland or writer name + agent)
  • The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook
  • Asking agented friends the name of their agent - more on this later 
Once you've found some agents, start filling in your spreadsheet.

Agent: Kate McAgent
Agency: McAgent Associates
What to send: Query, 30 pages and synopsis
Why: Reps Author I Really Like/Love her blog/Looking for YA with small town setting

3. Write the query letter

There is a metric ton of resources out there about query letters. The format for UK and US agents seems slightly different (from what I've seen, US agents like more information in the book and less about the author, and UK agents the reverse) and lots of agents have their own preferences (which you will have noted in your handy spreadsheet during your research stage).

I particularly like the sample format given here by YA agent Gemma Cooper of the Bent Agency (who should be on your spreadsheet if you write YA, btw).

4. Get someone to read your query letter and give you feedback

Ideally, this should be someone who has written at least one successful query (by successful, I mean 'has garnered at least one request for the full manuscript', as this is what a query letter is for). If you don't know any such person (and can't afford to hire one - Big Smoke Writing Factory in Dublin, off the top of my head, offer a query evaluation service for writers of children's and YA fiction), find some queries online to compare with yours, and ask your nitpicky friend to look it over. Everyone has a nitpicky friend. If you don't, I'll be your nitpicky friend! Hello. We are friends now.

If anyone you know has read your novel, they may have great feedback on your query - especially about whether or not it's an accurate representation of your book. My query letter has one jokey bit in it, because my book has quite a few jokey bits, but my book is also a realistic contemporary YA novel set in a miserable, rainy small town, so if my query letter was actually out-and-out funny, it would misrepresent the book (aside: when I was writing this book, if anyone asked me what I was writing about, I would say, with a straight face, 'I'm writing about the mysterious death of a teenager in a small town. It's a comedy' and wait to see what their faces did) (Further aside: Do you still want me to be your nitpicky friend?).

Once you have your query, tailor it for each agent. This is when your 'why' column becomes very useful, as if you have a reason to want to work with an agent, it may well be that the reason will go both ways and the agent also needs to know it. Plus, it reminds you why you think these professionals are awesome and why you want to work with them, which you may need to counter the butterflies in your tummy as you prepare to query.

Or it may make it worse, and this is where your fingernails are in danger.

5. Create a lot of folders on your desktop/Google Drive/Dropbox

I get that this is incredibly unsexy. ('Spreadsheets and folders? And to think I chose being a writer instead of an accountant. . . '). But trust me.

Remember how we talked about agencies wanting slightly different things? Personally I do not want to send agents any files with long names and I don't want to mix up query letters. So I create a folder for each agent with their personal query letter, with their personal sample material tailored to their requirements. It means I can find what I've sent to whom at a glance, and I don't have to send anyone a file called Ripple_Effect_Sample_Chapters_1-3_With_Title_Page_And_Page_Numbers_Kate_McAgent, or risk sending a file with a title page and page numbers to an agent who says they don't want them. Instead I go to Kate McAgent's folder and attach the file that has a sensible name like 'The Ripple Effect_Sample_Chapters_Ellen Brickley.'

It's not a perfect system - I have made mistakes - but it works pretty well.

. . . and now? There's nothing else I can suggest that will allow you to put off sending it any longer. Make sure your novel is as good as it can be, finalise your synopsis, polish your query one last time and hit send!

Then update your spreadsheet. You'll be really glad when you've been hitting refresh on your inbox for two straight weeks and you check when you might be likely to hear something.

Agent: Kate McAgent
Agency: McAgent Associates
Status: Query sent 1st January - if no response by the 31st assume it's a no
What to send: Query, 30 pages and synopsis
Why: Reps Author I Really Like/Love her blog/Looking for YA with small town setting

I was telling fibs before. This is when your fingernails are really, properly in trouble.


  1. Good tips, and good to see you again!

  2. I used to do all of these when I queried. Except I crack my knuckles instead of chew fingernails.

    1. I wish I was a knuckle cracker, but alas, I am a nail biter.

    2. I wish I was a knuckle cracker, but alas, I am a nail biter.


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