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10 Things I’ve Learnt About Querying Fiction

There’s a genre of opinion piece infesting the darker creative corners of the internet, where an unsuccessful artist lashes out and writes a diatribe about how the system is broken, and everyone is garbage, and how they’re striking out on their own. We all look at those petulant flameouts, and we shake our heads and wonder what drives somebody to that. I know I did. Now, four months into querying without a single partial, I get it. Every unanswered submission on my spreadsheet burns. Every form letter makes me feel worse about myself as a writer and as a person. Querying is a sandpaper whirlwind rubbing down my soul; querying is a little man with a big hammer gently tapping out an arpeggio at the base of my skull while I try to sleep; querying sucks ass. I think the reason I haven’t started shouting about FUCKING AGENTS is because I’ve been on the other side of the mirror and I know what it’s like. From the outside, the beast can seem callous and faceless. From the inside, it’s, well … let’s talk about it. 

Life in Wonderland 

I’ve run submissions inboxes for small magazines, major publishing houses, and everything in between. I’ve seen a lot of queries and drank a lot of instant coffee and let me tell you: the system consists of passionate, intelligent people who are monumentally fucking overloaded. I don’t think people really understand the volume these folks are seeing, and the sort of things that show up unsolicited. Here’s a list of things I’ve seen in slush piles: 

  • A Where’s Waldo with the author’s face photoshopped onto Waldo and almost no other changes. 
  • An extremely graphic childrens’ book complete with MSPaint illustrations, which aimed to teach kids about the author’s fertility cult. 
  • A novella about Adolf Hitler crying into Hess’ lap because he got booed by a Jewish man at an open mic, which leads to them planning the Holocaust. 

That Hitler story was three times the maximum length, the author wasn’t from a geographic location we accepted submissions from, and it seemed like the last 2k was hastily tacked on to fit our genre—it turns out it was virtual reality all along, so it was apparently SF/F. The unavoidable subtext was that the real Nazis are people who reject authors. Upon rejection, the author responded with an angry screed about how he was a big deal and we’d be sorry (he wasn’t and we weren’t). 

And it just keeps coming. Shimmer Magazine shut down submissions almost a year ago, and they post regular updates on their Twitter about the last time they received a submission. I don’t know when you’re reading this, but I bet you their last sub was less than a month ago. Shimmer locked their doors, and loudly announced they were locking their doors, and regularly remind folks that the door is locked, and they still get new content coming in every day. 

Think about that, then imagine what it’s like when the doors are open. It’s constant. It wouldn’t surprise me if some agents were getting triple-figure submissions some days. It’s a lot of work, and it’s not even their whole job: their actual money comes from selling books to publishers, and reading queries is just how they find books to sell. 

Look, there’s very little money in publishing. Most of us work other gigs, and do publishing on the side when we have time and when the work’s available.  Publishing is the coolest job in the world, but the pay is crap and the hours are long—you only do this work because you love it. It’s also precarious: one bad book could sink you. Neither agents nor publishers are part of some unfeeling machine—agents want to accept your MS, but they also want to pay off their student loans and sort out that downpayment on their mortgage and also get through a slush pile that just keeps getting bigger and bigger no matter how hard they work. They want to keep being agents, and that means making hard choices about what they accept.

Doing rejections sucks; you get the occasional angry screed, but most people who do respond are wonderful and gentle and heartbroken. It’s suburban dads who cried when they read Knausgaard, and teenage poets who need another ten years, and clever old women who run mystery-writing circles and whose current work is really very good but not what the market wants right now. I wish I could accept all of them, but if I did that I’d be the grim reaper of publishing houses. Just replying to everybody without using form letters would be a fulltime job. It’s a lot of work to keep your head above water, and the only reward is not drowning. 

So What Can I Do?

1) Follow instructions. I cannot overstate how important this is. Hitler guy is an outlier in how extreme he was, but a lot of authors break the rules and it’s an instant disqualifier. If you’re thinking you can be clever by explaining why you’re different then I regret to inform you that you’re not different, and you’re about to join the ten other people in the inbox this morning saying they’re different in the rejection pile. 

I know the temptation is real. I really wanted to query Dongwon Song with my current project. The dude’s got an amazing stable of authors, a great professional reputation, and I’ve heard he’s wonderful to work with. He sells books I love, and he seemed like a good fit. Two words on his MSWL sunk it: no cops. Now, my MS is best summed up as cops suck, be gay, do crimes, but the protagonist is a police officer and I knew that “I know you said no cops buuuuuuut” would send my query down in flames. Every day, there’s somebody in the inbox trying to tell you why they’re different in some way, and 90% of them are lying, and you don’t have the time or energy to figure out whether they’re not. 

2) Pace yourself. I had a moment a few weeks ago where I got fed up at all the silence and sent out 10 queries in 48 hours. They were very low-quality, because I was churning them out as fast as possible. It was a bad move, and I expect 100% rejection from them. If you got a bad pitch from me on June 16/17, then I’m sorry about that. A colleague sat me down and had some words with me, and I’ve subsequently slowed the fuck down and revised my query letter. I can’t take back those ten letters, though—that’s ten agents I’ve burned, whose time I’ve wasted. They probably won’t remember me, but they won’t be taking me on either. The job of an agent is to distinguish signal from noise, and if you don’t act like a professional then you go straight into the noise bucket.  

3) Pitch Parties are a clusterfuck. If you thought submissions inboxes are bad, wait until you attend a pitch party. They were apparently great a few years ago, but the internet has caught up with them and now the volume is ridiculous. The number of entrants has skyrocketed, but the number of agents has remained relatively stable, even often going down. I started tracking metrics during last month’s #pitdark and caught 60 pitches/minute at the top of the hour. That’s not to say don’t do them (it’s 30 mins work tops to set up Tweetdeck with scheduled pitches—if you’re smart, the work/potential result ratio is solid) but manage your expectations. 

4) be kind. I remember Hitler guy not because his content was uniquely bad (it honestly wasn’t: his prose was fine, it was the bizarre subject matter and broken rules at issue) but because of his flameout. There’s a human on the receiving end of that email, and one who has dedicated their life to sharing cool stories. They want to accept your manuscript. They’re not the villain, and they will remember that you blew up at them. Grizzling about rejections is fine and normal (they suck, from the bottom of my worn and fraying heart right now I absolutely know how much it all sucks), but for the love of christ don’t hit Send. I’m more sympathetic to the dude now, but I’m not even close to accepting more work from him. 

5) this is going to suck. Some authors get lucky on their first pick, but if you bet on being one of them, then you’re destined for a breakdown. Most published authors send out 40-60 pitches before they get accepted. I’m about halfway there, and I’ve developed a much stronger pitch, and I still feel like screaming. I arrogantly thought it would take about six weeks (I’m connected! I do books for a living! I’m just that good!), and we’re now on month 4 with only a tiny bit of headway. WorldCon is—for what is almost certainly the only time—coming to my home next year and I’d dreamed of walking the con floor as a novelist. That dream has come crashing down and it sucks, and querying sucks, and everything really just sucks right now. Querying is harder than writing the actual book—it’s the same sort of effort without any of the joy. You need the perfect book and the perfect pitch, going out to the perfect agent. You need to know how hard this is so you can properly brace for impact, because otherwise it’s gonna break your damned legs. 

What Does a Good Pitch Look Like? 

  • If something is in your first x pages, the pitch should explain why it’s there. My mistake in my early pitches was to lead with something that happens ⅓ of the way through the manuscript, and isn’t included in the first 5–20. The opening chapter, without explanation, comes off like a bad cold-open. As soon as I flipped my pitch to start at the start, I got more traction. 
  • Comp titles are gold. They contain a huge amount of information in a very small space. Don’t overdo it, but 2–3 solid comp titles are an absolute requirement. Talk to your beta readers and see what it reminded them of—Leviathan got suggested by one of my readers, so I read it and I wish I’d done it sooner: it was a great read, and it’s a great comp title. 
  • Don’t run long. Most submissions pages will say how long they expect the query to be, and it’s rarely more than 2 pages. If they don’t say, that means 1–2 pages. 
  • Who are you? Publishing credits, awards, formal qualifications. One paragraph max, demonstrate that you’ve put in your 10,000 hours. If you haven’t got any, there’s other things to do here, e.g. I’ve noticed a recurring pattern in that good pitches from non-authors often come from journalists, and I take journo bylines very seriously. 
  • Be professional. One of the things I most regret in my early pitches was being super informal under the belief it would make me seem fun and easy to work with. I should’ve known better: the average submissions inbox is filled with unprofessional people and you don’t want to put yourself in their company. You create a question: is this guy chatty and informal, or do they just not know what they’re doing? When an agent is going through a huge volume of submissions, they don’t have time to make that distinction. 

So Where Does That Leave Us? 

Well, at the time of writing I’m still querying. If you’re reading this in 2029, tell me how well it worked out and/or whether it’s smart to invest in beachside property. I reckon I’ve probably got another 3–4 months minimum. I hate it, and I’m constantly on the verge of self-pubbing but my little goblin heart keeps pushing me back towards trad. We’ll see how it shakes out. 

You? I can’t promise you’ll sell your book, but I want you to sell your fucking book. You did a cool thing and you deserve credit for it, but that’s just not how things work. You need to brace for impact, because this is going to suck.

Good luck. 

We’re both gonna need it. 

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