Query Lessons Learned

The first time I queried a manuscript, I was a hot mess and didn’t even know it.  I hadn’t told a single person in my life I was secretly writing the nights away, dreaming of one day becoming a published children’s author.  The ink of my extremely rough first draft was barely dry when I thrust it out into the world.  No second reads.  No critique groups.  No revisions.  Not even a well-intended family cheerleader read that heap of dung before I mailed it out.  Rookie mistake!

Flash forward five years: I’ve brought my family and friends into the loop, formed an awesome critique group, joined SCBWI, written and revised a better manuscript, obtained a literary agent, attended writing conferences and workshops, received several manuscript requests and compliments from editors, designed an author website, started this blog, survived the disappointment of no actual sale of that first manuscript, wrote two more similar manuscripts, parted ways with my literary agent, switched genres, switched age levels, honed my writing craft, started entering writing contests, researched younger literary agents, and am now coming full circle to once again query with a new, polished manuscript (my fourth!).  That roller coaster ride through the publishing process may not have been the easiest to stomach, but it’s toughened my writing skin and taught me a lot about the publishing industry.  This time I’m sending my manuscript out into the world better prepared.  Hopefully we can all learn from my rookie mistakes.

LESSON 1: Tell people in your life you’re a writer.  Talk about your dream of becoming published.  Explain the tiny odds of that dream actually coming true, and the many hoops to be jumped through to get there.  Writing is a very solitary activity, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a support system along for the journey.  Remember: They can’t be supportive if they don’t know your dream, and they won’t know which tiny milestones are worthy of major celebration if you don’t explain the process to them.

LESSON 2: Join a writing organization for your genre / age level AND attend their events.  A membership looks good on the writing resume, but it won’t help improve your craft or expand your network if you don’t put yourself out there.  Yes, it’s scary the first time you attend an event where you don’t know a single soul.  Yes, conferences and workshops cost money you may never earn back from your writing.  Trust me: Writers are a wonderful, supportive group.  Published authors teach and encourage the unpublished writers at these events.  Literary agents advice aspire authors they will likely never represent.  It’s a great system, but be realistic about who you hope to befriend.  J.K. Rowling is likely not looking for a newbie unpublished author to join her critique group.  Andrea Brown probably won’t become your new BFF.  Focus on the many other unpublished authors who would love to get to know you and make the journey up the publishing ladder with you.

LESSON 3: Form a critique group, preferably with people who are not related to you.  It is extremely difficult to be objective about your own work.  It’s tough to proof read your own manuscript because your brain will fill in missing words and read what you intended to say rather than what you actually wrote.  And it is not possible to confuse yourself because you always know what you meant.  Check writing organizations and online forums for critique groups that are forming.  Then listen to the feedback you receive.  A good critique group can be your most effective support system because they are in the same industry, experiencing the same highs and lows as you.

LESSON 4: Do not send any publishing professional your first draft of your manuscript.  Seriously, don’t do it.  You may think you’re a writing genius who spews perfect prose directly onto the page, but you don’t.  No one does.  Even James Patterson revises his work and works with an editorial team at his publisher.  The awesome novels you love all benefited from critique and line editing to reach the level of success they achieved.

LESSON 5: Do not query an agent whose name is in the title of the Literary Agency.  That agent already has a full roster of extremely successful authors and likely only reads referred submissions.  Addressing your unsolicited query to Famous Agent Who Owns His Own Agency is the same as addressing your query to the slush pile.  Chances are high an intern will read your work.  Honest Truth: The agent most likely to take a chance on an unknown author is the youngest agent who is actively building his list.  So you will also have to take a chance on him.  Research those young agents for rising stars who are making sales and have successful mentors.  It will increase the odds of getting a human response to your query.

LESSON 6: Do not stop writing while you wait.  And that doesn’t mean you should write a sequel.  Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  If book one of your six book series doesn’t sell, who do you expect to buy books two through six?  No one.  Sure, it’s helpful to write a series synopsis with IDEAS for sequel books.  I’ve received that request from editors before.  But don’t waste your time writing sequel manuscripts until you are under contract.  Write a new, stand-alone manuscript to have ready if your first one doesn’t sell.  Prepare yourself for the reality that your first baby may never sell.

LESSON 7: Enter writing contests.  If you win, you now have a writing credential to add to that dreaded bio paragraph of your query.  Your entry might even catch an agent’s eye.  Most of us won’t win, but we’ll still get great critiques from other writers.  These strangers have no qualms about telling you the honest truth you’ve maybe been in denial about.   That unbiased feedback is priceless.  I recommend the Secret Agent Contest at Miss Snark’s First Victim Blog, but there are many other great opportunities out there.

LESSON 8: Meet agents at writing events.  Most conferences and craft retreats have the option of paying for a face-to-face critique of a manuscript excerpt.  These are great opportunities to find out what is generating all those generic rejection e-mails.  Is it the story idea or pacing?  Is it your writing mechanics?  Is the market saturated with that fantasy element?  Warning: This feedback is not for the faint of heart and often results in tears for those unprepared to hear the brutal truth. 

LESSON 9: Read your competition (good and bad).  Publishers today are not buying the children’s books you read as a child because they wouldn’t sell in today’s market.  Cloning your manuscript after Anne of Green Gables won’t resonate with kids who were raised in the video game / app era.  They want high action like Percy Jackson or innovative graphics like Diary of a Wimpy Kid.  Read best-selling books in your genre so you understand what sells.  And read other mid-list series to figure out why they aren’t doing as well.  Be honest with yourself: Which category does your manuscript fall into?

LESSON 10: Don’t take it personally if things don’t turn out how you planned.  They won’t.  Every published author tells a different tale of their journey through the submittal process.  One thing most of their stories have in common: The path to publication was longer and more heart-wrenching than expected, but in the end it was worth every tear along the way.

About Jennifer Kay

Jennifer Kay is a KidLit author and Structural Engineer. She has a VCFA MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, is an SCBWI Rockford Network Rep, edits the SCBWI IL Prairie Wind, and belongs to Mystery Writers of America. Jennifer works as a writer, freelance editor, literary agency reader, and creative writing teacher.
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3 Responses to Query Lessons Learned

  1. Alice says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. It makes me want to cheer you even more. Hooray for Jennifer’s bravery.

  2. Jennifer Kay says:

    Thanks Alice 🙂

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