Query Quest: the journey toward literary representation
By David G Brown
The most important step to finding a literary agent is accepting that your manuscript probably isn’t good enough. Agents review hundreds or even thousands of queries per year and ask for a full manuscript only five to ten percent of the time. Of those, a few will be offered representation.
You have to ask yourself: is your manuscript the best it can possibly be? Does your first page sing? Does your hook sink deep? Is your narrator’s voice compelling and distinct? Is your structure sound? Is your premise catchingly unique?
The hard reality is that many writers think their manuscript is ready for representation when it is not. Quite often, it’s not even close. It’s very easy to fall in love with your own creation. Our proximity to our writing makes it hard to judge our work effectively. The same goes for friends and family. Anyone who cares about you will bring a considerate eye and encouraging spirit to your pages.
What you need, ultimately, is to foster a keen ethic of self-reflection and to seek critical feedback from unbiased readers.
Practice critical self-reflection
Writing a full-length manuscript is a great achievement. Not many people get this far. However, after basking in your accomplishment, it’s time to get tough. Apart from a few friends and family members, no one wants to read your book. Reading is work, and eager readers already have a long list of titles in their sights. You need to FIGHT to make people want to read your words.
Put yourself in the mental space of your worst critic – a long-ago bully, a mean-spirited teacher, or your overly critical manager at work. Read your manuscript again with this lens. What will your critic hate? Why? How does your narrative stand up to intense scrutiny? Admit that your story isn’t perfect, that there is room for improvement, and start digging.
Seek critical feedback from unbiased readers
Not everyone has the budget for a professional editor, but with a little work, you can find or build your own workshop group. By collaborating with other writers (who don’t otherwise know you), you can arrange meaningful and productive feedback swaps. You read my manuscript, and I’ll read yours.
Keep in mind that not everyone is good at assessing a narrative and delivering helpful criticism. Like all art, writing is highly subjective, so it might take a few tries to find a workshopper or two whom you click with.
What you want from a workshop partner will depend on you, but it’s helpful for them to be honest, firm, and kind – someone who will make suggestions but not tell you what needs to change, and also someone who can deliver the tough message that all writers need to occasionally hear: this isn’t working.
Where to find workshop partners:
- The Twitter #WritingCommunity
- Goodreads forum
- Query Tracker forum
- Local writing groups
- Find an existing one on Facebook
- Start your own
- If you have the budget, consider a professional editor
Accept that you are on a long road
I finished my first full-length manuscript, a 100k-word YA fantasy-adventure story, in 2008. After a few rounds of self-editing and a few friendly beta reads, I queried more than fifty agents. Two asked for a full, and only one of those two gave me feedback.
“I like the premise and the voice,” he said, “but you spend too much time on setup. Look to cut about 20k words.”
A twenty percent hack off my story meant a ground-up rewrite. I knew that I needed to rework the narrative structure completely, yet I didn’t know where to begin. So instead, I shelved that project and wrote three more (unrelated) manuscripts. These gathered even less attention, so I shelved them as worthwhile writing exercises.
And I kept writing.
A couple years later, I was accepted into the UBC creative writing MFA program. For my thesis project, I resurrected my first manuscript and rewrote it from scratch, with not one sentence salvaged. I was supported in this process by my supervisor – a well-published and award-winning novelist – with developmental feedback and a thorough line edit. For the final stage, I received feedback from two second readers, also both published authors.
In the end, after all that, my manuscript still failed to convince some seventy or so agents to represent me. And so I kept writing, and writing, and writing.
Nearly a decade after starting out, I wrote Sky to Sea, an alternate-Earth speculative fiction manuscript. It was this story that finally caught an agent’s attention, and as of late 2017, I was represented by Valerie Noble of the Donaghy Literary Group.
Success? Not quite yet.
Despite Valerie’s amazing editorial support and enthusiasm for my project, we were met with rejection after rejection, and rarely with in-depth feedback to help figure out what wasn’t working, or why acquisitions editors weren’t connecting with the story or the protagonist.
I kept writing.
In 2018, I finished The Sparrow War, the first in a four-book series set in the same world as Sky to Sea. It's now out on submission, so the long wait continues.
The path forward
There are many guides out there with advice on how to write great query letters, how to effectively target the right agents, but the single most important step is to refine your narrative and polish your prose until your manuscript stands out among that top five percent of submissions that make an agent intrigued, then interested, then eager and excited to work with you.
Until you get there, keep drafting, reading, and learning. Temper patience with determination. No one is going to take a chance on your writing—you must prove that you deserve it.