A Series of Unfortunate Queries
Howdy folx! How's it going? Are you hydrating? Taking your meds? Getting enough rest? I could stand to hydrate a bit more, but that's a byproduct of being a teacher. More hydration means more trips to the loo, which is in another hallway from my classroom. So, for ease of life, I tend to not hydrate between the time I get up and about 2pm in the afternoon (I leave work at 3). But I'm taking my meds and I'm getting some great sleep.
Welp, it's been 2.5 years since I wrote the zero draft of Harpy Girls and she's *finally* ready to query. I have a very solid manuscript. I have a great query letter, and I have a...synopsis (it doesn't get a modifier because it doesn't deserve one!). My approach to querying this project is vastly different from the first query I sent in 2016!
As a newbie to the writer scene in 2016, I was convinced I knew what I was doing. (I was wrong) I followed advice that didn't work for me and luckily, I never fell prey to any scams. I queried my original manuscript for close to two years. I sent over 100 queries. If the agent was open to adult, I sent even if their mswl was lightyears away from what my story was (it was fantasy, but I didn't care if the agent repped *fantasy* my criteria started and ended at adult). I subscribed to query tracker, I didn't know of Publishers Marketplace or how to use it to look for deals. I followed agents on twitter and scoured agency websites.
My list was exhaustive and while I got 3 full requests on that first manuscript, there were no offers of rep. I made myself sick with anxiety, constantly checking my email and I never stopped revising my manuscript--a clear sign that it wasn't ready to query even though I *wanted* to. I was part of an online writing group, but we were collectively all in roughly the same place and we didn't have industry insights past incendiary tweets thrown out into the void by YA Twitter. I constantly doubted myself and accepted the negativity and self-hatred I thought I had to project in order to be seen as *worthy.* To be clear, that's absolute bs and I have since (mostly) overcome that mindset.
My second queried novel, SAMM, went marginally better. I definitely had a stronger manuscript and my list of agents narrowed down to around sixty. I also had a list of agents to stay away from and because my writing group had grown, we had insight into more agents and agencies. I had a place where I could check on or discuss agent or agency behaviors. I received a single request for SAMM and it was kind of an R&R, but not an official R&R. I revised, I rewrote, I cried and I requeried.
By the time I was ready to requery though, I was deep into working on my next project, Tarnished Hearts. And I had agent interest before I'd even finished it. I felt really good about this book. So I pulled my remaining SAMM queries and focused on finishing and preparing Tarnished Hearts. This was a big move for me because it's possible that any of the agents who had gotten the revised query might have offered rep, but I decided that wasn't what I wanted when I knew that Tarnished Hearts was such a better manuscript. Taking away the worry over whether or not SAMM would get requests allowed me to focus whole heartedly on Tarnished Hearts. This was a mental game changer for me as I took a more active approach to querying and it reminded me that even though I'm hoping to get agent interested, I'm in charge of my writing and my career.
Then the pandemic arrived (Boooooo 👎)
Some of my beta reads fell through and I queried anyway because there wasn't anything *major* wrong with the manuscript and every writer friend I knew had gotten their agent and then gone on to do MASSIVE rewrites of the book they queried or to just move on and write something else. So I figured this was just how it was--it didn't matter if your book was *ready* as much as it mattered if it hooked an agent because you would revise and streamline it together before submission.
My query list was only around 40 this time. I kept whittling away based on potential dynamic, sales records, anecdotes, and of course, crossing off the names of those who decided to leave agenting. I had three requests for Tarnished Hearts. Two were rejections--each citing very different reasons for why they passed. But the third was an official R&R. You can read about that experience here. I had mixed feelings, but I dove in anyway. In case you don't read that blog post, the R&R ended in a pass. Querying always makes me feel like Donkey, except I don't have a Shrek to inevitably see my brilliance and PICK ME. (yet. I haven't found my Shrek YET)
That was back in 2021, meaning the last query I sent was in September of 2020. Now it's almost October of 2022, so I've been out of the trenches for two years. And so much has changed.
My query list has narrowed. I have it down to about 20 agents, it would be a few more if some agents changed agencies or some hadn't decided to move on to other pursuits. But I do like my list. I've vetted it through all of my writing groups. Currently, I can query about 10 of those 20 agents. The others are closed or a few are agents are at the same agency so I'll need to wait and query after their agency sibling passes. But it's a strong list. I have a very specific expectation for my career as an author. I want solid midlist deals with a steady reader base. I want someone who can negotiate for me and get me the deals my work is worth. And I want someone I'm willing to say YES to.
My first two rounds of querying involved people I wasn't keen on because I just wanted SOMEBODY. And that's a horrible way to approach this, especially if you want to make it a career. By the time I queried Tarnished Hearts, I was really homing in on agents that had a style and track record I thought I would pair well with. So that list I've toiled over is short and specific, which means I'm limiting my chances. But am I really? Because even though publishing seems like a free for all, it's also a business arrangement and a career. I want to put my best foot forward from the jump, so that meant drastically narrowing my list.
Secondly, everyone is understaffed and overwhelmed. Publishing has always been like this, but the pandemic really exacerbated the situation. As editors and agents leave publishing, there are fewer opportunities for all authors simply because there are fewer people advocating for authors (and you can multiply this if you're in a marginalized group!) Despite authors being the lifeblood of the publishing industry, they are continually undervalued and passed over.
Third, because everyone is overwhelmed, the standards for querying have gone up. What I mean by this is that the *revision* phase I saw all of my agented friends get with their agents doesn't exist in the same way. Agents want manuscripts that don't need as much tlc. They want submission ready manuscripts being queried (and look, I have no research to back this up, this all based on anecdotal evidence I've collected over the past two years)
Fourth (for funsies!) Let's not forget to mention the utter chaos of the publishing industry. From the maybe/almost-merger to the lack of marketing (remember that bit about being overwhelmed and understaffed? Here it is again!) to the disparity between advances and etc etc. Less editors means less books being acquired. Because like it or not, people's time is finite and editors and agents need to balance their current client list with acquiring new talent.
And now, here I stand with Harpy Girls, ready to boot it out the door and hope someone decides to adopt it. If we pare it down to the data, I'm looking at a lot of roadblocks:
I have a prologue
My word count is 98k (for a YA Fantasy)
It's book one of a duology
I'm querying just 10 agents (with another possible 10 if they reopen to queries)
I also know that my book is magnificent. It's not a literary masterpiece, but it's a genuine slice of my heart in paper and word form. My betas have loved it and helped me to shape it. It's a love letter to friendships and being the truest version of yourself.
My writing is solid. My pacing is on point. My worldbuilding is immersive. There is no reason why I shouldn't be published.
Ultimately though, querying is out of my hands. I've done everything I'm supposed to do. And if Harpy Girls crashes and burns like my previous three manuscripts, I'll try my next one. I can't say I'll go blindly forward with manuscript after manuscript until I die, but for now, I will. Writing is in my soul and I know there is someone out there who needs my stories as much as I do and that's why I keep writing!
Wish me luck, my sweet foxy folx, I need it!