Query Theory (Part 2)

Swipe Write?

Finding Your Agent Match


It’s often said that the agent-author relationship is a ‘business marriage’, and it’s certainly true that querying literary agents is a lot like online dating. You read their profile, and get that tingly feeling that maybe they could be the one. So you take a deep breath, and send them a message.

Sometimes they don’t respond. Sometimes they politely say thanks, but no thanks (‘Thank you for your submission, which I read with interest. Unfortunately…’). Sometimes, they want to get to know your book better (‘I would be grateful if you would send me the entire manuscript’) – but ultimately decide not to hook up. Sometimes they’ll say they’re just not that into you (‘I wasn’t passionate enough about it’) sometimes they’ll say it’s not you, it’s me (‘Unfortunately I just don’t have room on my list’). But sometimes…. Sometimes… the planets align, the fireworks ignite, (‘I’ve now finished your manuscript. Please can we arrange a time to speak on the phone?’) and then it’s time for your Mum to buy a new hat.

As I said in my previous post, there’s a lot about the query process that is out of the author’s control. But, we can give ourselves the best shot by paying attention to the things we can control. The second of these is WHO we query.

Do The Right Amount of Research

Bachelor number two enjoys nights at the opera, long country walks, and fine dining.

So why the hell would you send him a message asking if he’d like to go to an inner city rave and grab a McDonalds? You wouldn’t, right?

It should go without saying (but judging by the amount of literary agents I’ve seen ranting about it on Twitter, it doesn’t) don’t send your query to an agent who doesn’t represent your genre. It’s a waste of everyone’s time – including your fellow authors, who have to wait even longer for responses because agents are sifting through completely inappropriate submissions.

If an agent is seeking ‘cozy mysteries’ – don’t send them sci fi. You may be thinking, ‘but they just haven’t read the right sci fi. If only they read MY sci fi, they’d change their mind.’ They won’t. It’s not just about personal taste, though obviously that’s a big part of it, agents who rep certain genres do so because that’s the market they know. They know the editors who might be interested, they know the current trends. Even if you send Ms Lit Fic Agent a contemporary erotic space opera, and by some miracle she actually reads it and loves it, she is NOT going to offer to represent it, because she doesn’t haven’t the contacts/market knowledge to do so effectively.

So, do your research. Most agents list the genres they represent, and often the type of submissions they are actively looking for, on their web sites. You can also look at their existing client list which can give you a good idea about whether they’re a match for you and your manuscript.

The Fine Line…

Don’t over-research. For your own sanity.

Imagine you are sending a hopeful ‘hello’ message to a potential love match. It’s a good idea to have checked their profile, made sure you have stuff in common, first. (And BE SURE they are legit – see ‘Schmagents’ below) But, it is NOT a good idea to have looked for every single scrap of information about them that has ever been posted online, ever.

It’s far too easy to build a particular agent up as ‘the one’ before you even send an initial query. So, think of it in dating terms. If you knew a person’s entire life history, the fact that they tend to eat at Nando’s on a Thursday, the names of their five dogs and the tube they take every day, before they’d even replied to your ‘hello’ you’d be considered a little bit stalky, no? Moreover, you’d be waaaay too invested in an image of them that may not even be true – and the rejection/lack of response is going to hurt much more than it should.

Thing is, we writers tend to be quite good at research. We have to be, to make sure our stories ring true. I once spent hours ‘virtually’ walking through London streets (thanks to Google Street View) in order to visualise the route my character would take. I’ve bugged various tourist boards with odd questions. I’ve got a search history that would leave the FBI severely bemused. But, before you send an initial query, just focus on what you really need to know:

Does the agent rep your genre?
Are they a legitimate agent, with legitimate clients/sales?
Are they currently accepting submissions?
Does your manuscript fit with the books they already represent?
Do they seem like someone you could work with?

If the answer is yes to all of the above, send them a query (according to their guidelines). Then try to forget about it. The time to do a little more research is if they ask for a full – that way if they offer representation you will be prepared with all the questions you need answers to before you accept/decline. If they show interest, it’s a good idea to look at their ‘dating history’ (current/previous clients). Are they the type that likes long term commitment (repping an author for their whole career – come what may)? Or are they more into casual hook-ups (repping on a book-by-book basis)? Neither approach is necessarily right or wrong – but it has to match your needs.

Listen To Your Gut

If something, deep down, tells you that you wouldn’t feel happy working with a particular agent if they offered, just don’t query them. You wouldn’t send a flirty message to someone you had no interest in. You don’t have to be completely sure they’re The One (you can’t be at this stage!) but you need to at least feel there’s a possibility.

Equally, if they show interest, remember that this is a two way street – just like dating. You are not required to jump into bed with someone just because YOU were the one to initiate conversation. A query is a ‘Hey, you seem nice. I’d like to see if there might be a connection.’ – It’s the equivalent of offering to buy them a drink. If they enjoy having a drink with you (reading your submission package) maybe it’ll progress to dinner (full request). Maybe the dinner goes well, and conversation flows. But, none of this means you have to say ‘yes’ if they propose (offer representation). Similarly, they don’t owe you anything – not even an explanation (though hopefully they’ll give you one – but often not) if they don’t want to take things further. Even if they seem really keen, sudden ghosting can and does happen – a lot.

Schmagents (Author Beware!)

These are the catfish of the querying world. They are the exotic princes who are totally in love with you, and if only you could wire them your life savings they can come and live with you forever. They’re the twenty-four year old CEO who wants to wine and dine you, but when you turn up at the restaurant they’re really a fifty-six year old laybout who wants someone to wash his pants.

Reputable agents will not charge upfront fees. Reputable agents do not charge you for editing. Legitimate agents charge commission (typically 15% domestic 20% foreign – but this can vary) meaning they don’t get paid unless you do.

Be absolutely sure you are not querying schmagents. Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking than getting ‘the call’, only to find out they are actually trying to sell you their editing service? (Hint: These types likely make ‘The Call’ to EVERYONE who queries – they’re making their money from selling their editing service, doesn’t matter much to them if you get published or not. And it’ll likely be not if you sign with them).

If an agent ever asks you for money upfront – run a mile. And shout it from the rooftops on the sites dedicated to protecting authors from scammers (e.g. Predators and Editors, Writer Beware, Absolute Write)

Also, check out this excellent blog post from Rights of Writers to help you avoid falling for the top six scams targeting writers.


Wherefore Art Thou, Agent?

So, now you know what to look for in an agent, and what to steer clear of, WHERE are you going to find these potential literary soulmates?

Here’s a list of some (not all) of the best places to find literary agents who are seeking clients:

Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook – My absolute favourite resource (and where I ultimately found my agent). It’s not free – but worth the investment I think (or put it on your Christmas list!)

Manuscript Wish List – A list of what agents are currently looking for. Plus search #MSWL on Twitter for updates.

Query Tracker – designed to help you keep track of sent queries, but also great for finding agents who rep your genre

Writers’ Digest – Often features agent profiles, and new agent alerts.


Thanks so much for reading, happy agent hunting!

Query Theory (Part 1)

Are You Ready?


Welcome to the first post in my ‘Query Theory’ series!

Querying for the first time is not unlike taking all your hopes and dreams, wrapping them in ribbons, and throwing them off a mountain in the vague hope that, beneath the swirling mists, there lies a fabled creature called ‘The Right Literary Agent’ who will catch them, cradle them, nurture them and raise them into something magnificent. Whilst all the time worrying that your precious bundle will instead be ripped apart by the ever feared ‘Rejecting Agents’, or worse (yes, worse… if you don’t believe me now, wait until you’ve been querying a while) simply disappear into the ether, being too unimportant for the pack to even bother sniffing, let alone savaging.

In short, there’s a lot about the query process that is beyond the author’s control. Which tends to bug us, quite a bit. Up until this point, we’ve been the masters of our own dreams. We (literally) wrote our own stories. We gave life to characters with a tipitty tap of our fingers, and cackled maniacally as we erased whole lives from existence with CTL X. We like control.

Don’t believe me? Why do you think there are so many resources out there for querying authors? Tools for tracking your queries, whole sites devoted to listing agents and their preferences, pitching contests on Twitter, blogs, tips, forums all devoted to the process? They help us to try to gain some sense of control. Try to find some reason/pattern/logic in what is, ultimately, a highly subjective experience that is unique for everyone.

The harsh truth is, there is very little you can control once you launch that bundle off the mountaintop. Once you’ve sent those queries out, all bets are off. I can tell you over and over again that studying Query Tracker, or rereading agents’ Twitter feeds ten thousand times, will do nothing but drive you crazy; that there is no pattern or logic to be found, but you’ll do it all anyway.

So, let’s focus on the things you CAN control.

You can control WHEN you query, WHO you query, and HOW you query. Today, let’s look at when.


Ready to Query?

You are the master of your queries, until you send them. Do yourself a huge favour by making sure you are absolutely ready before you hit that ‘send’ button.


The Not Ready and the Never Ready

A lot of writers fall into one of two traps.

Some, in their eagerness, query before they and/or their manuscript are truly ready. This can be disastrous, especially if they send to every possible agent all at once, leaving nowhere to go once they finally accept that more work is needed.

Others never feel the work is good enough, and will revise, tweak, edit and curse at their manuscript until they grow old and die; unless someone snaps them out of it. I am one of these. If it wasn’t for my critique partners screaming at me, telling me in no uncertain terms that it was ready, and threatening me with painful death if I dared shelve it without querying, I would still be rewriting odd sentences and periodically declaring myself to be ‘a useless, shitty, writer’ without ever having even tried.

As far as I can tell, the ONLY cure for writers in the second camp is bossy critique partners – so get yourself some if you’re of the it’s-never-good-enough variety of authors.

But for those who are worried they might be in the first camp, here are some questions to consider:


Is Your Manuscript Ready?

Is your work as polished as you can possibly make it?

This is not to say, ‘is your work perfect’ because, NEWSFLASH – it’s not. But is it as close to perfect as you can get it without industry help? The WHOLE manuscript? Because, it’s tempting, when you hear stories about how long agents take to respond to initial queries, to send off your submission package when there’s still work to be done on later chapters. For the love of God, don’t do this! Yes, sometimes they take an eye-wateringly long time to respond, if at all. But, most of my full requests actually came within days. My agent’s request came within hours. Don’t chance it.

Have you had (and taken on board) feedback?

Not just your mum, partner, friend, sister, cat etc etc (though obviously their opinions are great to have too!) have you had honest, preferably harsh, critique from beta readers and critique partners?

Have you let it ‘sit’?

Please, please, don’t submit your manuscript as soon as you finish it. You’ll read it back a few weeks later and want to bash your head against a wall. There are ALWAYS problems we can’t see when we’re still very close to our words. Give yourself some distance, because with it comes objectivity, before doing that final read-through. Please. You will save yourself the anguish of discovering problems when it’s too late to fix them.

Is it formatted correctly?

Not necessarily a deal-breaker, but it certainly helps an agent’s immersion if your material is correctly formatted – and therefore easier for them to read. And we all want the agent we sign with to have been completely immersed in our words, right?

Are YOU ready?

I’m not going to insult you by asking you if you can handle rejection. You already know it’s inevitable. And nobody really knows how they’ll feel until it happens. Even if you’ve had short pieces rejected, having your book baby dismissed with a copied and pasted ‘Dear Author’ email is a whole different teapot of tadpoles. It’s unavoidable, and one of those things you have no control over. But there are other ways to tell if you, as an author, are ready.

Do you have realistic expectations?

Not just about the query process, but about agents in general. Do you know what they do, and don’t do? Do you know what type of agent (large agency, boutique, lone agent) you’d ideally like? And the pros and cons of each? If you’re not sure, talking to repped authors is a great way to work out the type of agent experience that would be the best fit for you. If you don’t know any, just try approaching some on Twitter. Authors are generally a pretty friendly bunch, and we love talking about writing and publishing. Anyway, what’s the worst that could happen? So maybe they won’t respond? – Well, frankly that’s just good practice for querying anyway 😉

How do you feel about critique?

Even if an agent loves your book, it is highly likely they will want revisions. In fact, a lot of agents discuss revisions with you BEFORE they offer representation. In no small part, this is because they need to be sure you are someone they can work with, someone who is open to making changes. Sometimes these changes will be obviously beneficial to the book as a whole, sometimes they may be changes that will make your book more marketable.

We all dislike criticism when we start out. But, by the time we’re ready to query we actively seek it, and embrace it (the constructive kind anyway). The first time I had to make revisions after feedback from a beta, I sat staring at my printed out pages, feeling like I was up against a wall. I couldn’t see what to do, couldn’t fathom how I was going to make it all flow again.

But by the time my agent called to offer, my mind was like an episode of Sherlock (when it came to my manuscript anyway. In real life I still couldn’t organise my sock drawer). When she made a suggestion, I could instantly see the parts of the book (even the very sentences) that ought to be changed, and the tendrils that connected those parts to other parts that would then need altering, and it was exciting. Her suggestions made my brain spark, and revision became a thing of possibility, not dread.

Do you know your manuscript that well? Do suggestions for improvement fill you with dread, or excitement? You are not going to get from finished draft to traditionally published book on a shelf in Waterstone’s without making revisions. As uncertain as the whole process is, I am certain of that much. So, this is a biggie. If you can’t bear to change a single word, you’re either not yet ready for traditional publishing, or it’s not the path you really want to take.

Do you have chocolate?

Perhaps the most important question of all. Once you hit send, you’re going to need some seriously indulgent sustenance!


Thanks so much for reading, please feel free to leave comments/questions.

Next post: WHO to query (researching agents, making the right choices, avoiding schmagents – there are some shark infested waters out there!)

I’m On YouTube Baby!

Well, my stories are anyway. Truth be told, I’m far happier behind the keyboard than in front of the camera ;).

As those of you who follow me on Twitter may already know, and those of you on my Facebook certainly know, the lovely people at Bad Actors: Writers with Microphones have produced two of my short stories in audio form.

I saw the submission call on one of my writing groups last year, and it sounded like too much fun to pass up! So, I duly sent a story for consideration and sat biting my nails for – well, not for very long at all. Within the hour the managing editor responded, and he liked it. So much so in fact that he asked me if I had another, and I was happy to oblige.

For a writer just starting out it was beyond exciting to think that, somewhere across the Atlantic, someone was reading, and recording, my words! They’ve even gone and added images and music too! The links are below, but first let me tell you a little bit about the stories. Both were originally written as assignments for a writing course I took last year, which just goes to show nothing you write is ever wasted. Even that story you wrote as a kid, when imagination reigned supreme and silly things like grammar and sentence construction were ignored, can be polished up into something awesome. You just need to believe in it.

 “Don’t Be a Hero” is a short and sweet tale about a young boy who fears his dreams of being a hero might be over before they’ve begun. For this one, the brief was to write approximately 1000 words about an eleven year old boy. It got me thinking about heroes, who are they? What do they do?  Is the definition of hero dependent on perception?  Is there more than one way to be a hero?


“S 4.0” can best be described as a comedic (and slightly crass – you have been warned) sci-fi piece. The brief for this one was to write a piece that was dialogue driven. I had, at the time, been musing on something of a modern paradox: we are constantly these days striving for perfection (particularly physically), yet technology is on a quest to be more “realistic”. This seems strange, as reality is far from perfect. So I wondered what would happen if we continued to shun realism and uphold impossible standards of manufactured beauty, and yet demanded our tech be realistic. Somewhere along the line, the two would have to collide…


And if those aren’t dark enough for you, watch this space. I have a macabre, darkly speculative piece coming out in an ezine any day now. (But be warned, you may never look at the school caretaker the same way again… 😉 )

Beta To Be Better!

Most writers know the importance of beta readers. Sometimes (well, a LOT of times) you simply can’t see the words for the prose in your own work. You can’t see that you haven’t got your point across properly, because you know what you’re trying to say, so you can reread it a hundred times and your mind will still fill in the blanks. You don’t notice glaring plot problems (like the fact you’ve got a family running from a blazing building, even though the flood waters are rising during an apocalyptical downpour… Yes, I have done this). You don’t realise you’ve said the same thing three different ways (or felt you had to, until a beta tells you “I got it the first time! Stop harping on!”

Good betas are invaluable. Every writer wants them. But, there seem to be fewer writers who want to BE one. To my mind that is a terrible shame. Not just because it’s nice to be helpful to others, but also because beta reading for others helps you with your own work.

I’m not just talking about the prospect of reciprocity, though that is a great thing too. Beta reading for other writers will often lead to them offering to do the same for you in return, which is great. You scratch their back, they’ll scratch yours. But even if there no prospect of the favour being returned, what you learn from beta reading is reward in itself.

As well as getting to read some really awesome stories, and the opportunity to give input to their construction, I have learned a great deal about my own words by reading those of others. It is far easier to see what works and doesn’t work in someone else’s work than in your own. But, and here’s the rub, having learned to identify it in the prose of others starts to make it more obvious to you in yours. You start to see that YOU’VE committed some of the literary sins that you’ve highlighted for others. They were hidden beneath your own perceived awesomeness before, but suddenly they’re leaping off the page at you. Suddenly, you can see your own grammatical errors more easily, spot the wrong pacing, realise that your character is coming across dull as dishwater… It’s as if your eyes have been opened.

So who should you beta for? Well, ideally you want to make sure that whoever you are reading for actually WANTS to hear your opinion. If what they’re really after is a pat on the head, or someone to faint with awe at their literary prowess, don’t go there. Make sure they are serious, and genuinely want to improve. Otherwise, your suggestion that perhaps having the main character wake at the end to find it was all dream, or reveal in the last page that they are in fact a dog, is not the best idea will be met with anger. And justifications. Or perhaps they’ll start to explain the bits you didn’t understand… Are they planning on visiting everyone who buys their book personally to explain the obscure bits? No? Then they ought to take your lack of comprehension as an indicator that they haven’t quite pulled it off.

In short, be sure your input will be welcomed. Sometimes writers receive critiques that make them seethe. But if someone has spent time and energy trying to help them, that in itself is a compliment. I always thank my betas profusely, and instantly, for their feedback. Even if I’ve just been kicked in the stomach by their words. And you know what? Often, when the initial shock dies down (“How could they not like my twenty-foot high giant poodle? How is that not the most awesome thing ever?” – OK, I made that one up), and objectivity creeps in, I can see real merit in the blows I’ve been dealt.

Often, they hurt the most because they confirm what the nagging voices in your head were already telling you. You knew it all along, you just didn’t want to listen.

So be the type of writer who takes criticism from betas with good grace, and in the spirit of helpfulness in which it was intended (but do get more opinions if you fundamentally disagree. REAL opinions, don’t cherry pick the people you know will boost your ego…), and be the type of beta reader that tells it straight, but tells it constructively.

It is also highly possible (and to my mind, positively essential) for the whole process to be great fun. The trick to that is to find someone with a similar sense of humour. I don’t know if any other writers out there cry with laughter at the cheeky, sarcastic comments their alpha/betas return their manuscripts with, but it sure helps if edits come with a free giggle :). Why take everything so seriously? It’s perfectly possible to get the laborious task of nuts and blots editing done with a little laughter to sweeten the process.

Now, I sit here eagerly awaiting the next instalment of a fantastic story by my (reciprocal) alpha reader. Last time I got edits back from him on my own work in progress the git had “corrected” gigglesome typos that I hadn’t made, he’d put them in for his own amusement… Well, it’s my turn to edit his work now… Be afraid, be very afraid… 🙂