Everyone knows that if you want to get published, it helps if you can write a really damned good query letter.
But what if you can’t do that? I mean, what if you try to write a query letter–and by “try” I do not mean “give up after the space of an afternoon”–I mean, try and try and try to write a query letter over the space of months, and still don’t get anything that you love? Some people say that this is a sign your manuscript has fundamental flaws in plot, or that you are a bad writer. But since this happened to me, I’m going to tell you that it’s possible you are just a bad querier. Being a bad querier doesn’t make you a bad writer; it just makes you a bad querier. Think of it like this–you can be bad at flirting, but still be really, really good in bed.
So what do you do if you are bad at flirting–uh, I mean, querying? Obviously, my path to publication is not one everyone can follow, but it was hardly the only path to publication. And, knowing that I was not particularly good at querying, I did not hang all my hopes on the slim possibility that I would win Sherry’s query critique, and the even slimmer possibility that she would read my pages as a result, followed by the completely anorexic possibility that she would like what she read. I had a lot of irons in the fire. Here’s some of the things I considered.
Ways to Skip Querying
If you can’t query, it makes sense to try to find ways to get your material in front of an agent through some other means. Here are some that I tried.
- Networking. If you know someone who likes your writing, who has an agent, ask them to recommend you. I didn’t ask Sherry to recommend me to Kristin–she offered–but I did ask a few other people, who said yes.
- Networking (part II). I volunteered to do things, like give a workshop at the Beaumonde’s annual conference. One of the multi-published, award-winning authors who attended my workshop ran into me a few days later and said she’d enjoyed my workshop so much that she’d mentioned me to her agent, who wanted to see more. Someone else (who had also judged me in a contest) later told me she’d mentioned me to her editor, and her editor had asked to see my manuscript. At the time, I had an agent and we were already on submission (with offers on the table), but I really appreciated both those efforts–and you can be sure I would have followed up on them. If you are bad at querying, it helps to put yourself out there. It may never pay any dividends–in fact, when I volunteered to do the workshop, I never imagined there would be dividends; I just thought I’d done a lot of useful research that might help other historical romance writers–but if nobody knows who you are, nobody can help you out. And believe it or not, a lot of published authors–including multi-published, award-winning authors–really do want to help out younger writers.
- Conferences. I went to Chicago North’s Spring Fling Conference, where I pitched to two agents (one of whom was Kristin) and one editor. All three requested materials. Of course, this depends on your having a good pitch, but believe it or not, I found it much easier to pitch in person than on paper. I think it’s because expectations for in-person pitches are lower, and since I’ve spent time as a lawyer, I probably have more experience handling my speaking-out-loud anxiety. Also, most agents are too nice to say “no” in person. Take advantage of that.
- Contests. I specifically entered contests that had agents listed as the final judge. To be honest, I am surprised that more people do not do this. Editor judges are well and good, but I wanted to get an agent first. So I targeted contests with agent judges. Of course, my manuscript that ended up getting published fared exceptionally unevenly in contests, and so I never finaled in any of those contests–but don’t think I didn’t try it!
- Critiques. At the point when I signed with Kristin, I had not yet bid on agent/editor critiques, but these are offered every so often from various auctions. I got a lot of mileage out of Anna Campbell’s critique from Brenda Novak’s auction, and at the point when I signed with Kristin, I had already scoped out the agents on the list there. Let’s be frank–this option is very, very expensive, and I hadn’t decided if I was going to do it. But you do get your pages in front of the agent in question. It’s useful. But the price is so high that unless you really don’t mind donating that money to charity, it makes much, much more sense to attend a conference where your agent-of-choice will be, in order to pitch to her (and others as well).
Ways to Make Agents Request From a Query (despite not nailing the pitch paragraph)
Of course, you’ll notice that all of the items on the list above have a serious cost–money or time or connections, none of which are infinite. So I also focused on ways to make an agent request my manuscript from a query, even if I never managed to nail that pitch paragraph.
- Contests, again. In my case, since there are a lot of RWA chapter contests, and it’s never clear to an agent or editor how competitive the individual chapter contests are, I thought it was important to have something Big in the bio paragraph. For romance writers, there is one main Big contest: The Golden Heart. I read everything I could in preparation for the Golden Heart. I stalked the Wet Noodle Posse‘s blog in November, when they talked about what to do. I polished and polished my synopsis and pages for both my eligible manuscripts. There are no guarantees, of course, and I was lucky that one of my two manuscripts finaled. But it wasn’t just luck. I had done enough research that I knew I should end on as strong a hook as possible, that I needed to have my best, cleanest pages there, and that the synopsis was far more important than I had originally thought. I hoped that if I could say “I am a Golden Heart finalist,” that the agent reading the pages would give me bonus query points that would make up for a subpar pitch paragraph.
- Homework. I had a list of agents. I did a scary amount of research on the agents on my list. I don’t just mean looking up who their clients were. I mean, googling them for any and all interviews about what they were looking for; reading numerous client books, to see if my voice/style seemed like something they would be interested in. For every agent on my list, I had several bullet points, so that when I actually sent the query, it would start with something like this (but obviously targeted for the agent): “Dear Agent Y, You’ve said before that you are looking for strong, smart heroines in historical fiction. If your client X is any indication, you do a great job finding them. I hope you’ll be interested in reading more about Jenny Keeble, an independent, intelligent woman who has made the best of a bad lot in Victorian Britain. . . .”
To give you an idea, by the time I pitched Kristin, I had not read Ally Carter’s “Cheating at Solitaire” (I couldn’t find it), Becky Motew’s “Coupon Girl” (ditto), Cheryl Sawyer’s first two books (ditto), and Jenny O’Connell’s nonfiction. Everything else that she’d sold, that had been released? I’d read it. And Kristin wasn’t the only one whose client list I went through so voraciously. I love reading, and I figured that the more I liked someone’s client list, the more likely it was that they’d like me. There was not an agent in my top ten list where I hadn’t read books by at least three clients, if not more. (Besides, I really do love reading, and an agent’s list is like a list of recommendations.) I wanted to be able to truthfully and clearly convey that I thought I was a good fit for her list. So I did my homework. I did a lot of homework.
- Voodoo. I have to admit, I had a very firm idea in my mind who I wanted to represent me. I was also terrified of jinxing it, and so I didn’t tell anyone what my list was. Seriously. My critique partners asked me when we were in Vegas, and I think I gave them some really vague ridiculous answer that wasn’t even true. Was it because I didn’t trust them? No. It was because I didn’t want the universe to overhear and decide to taunt me Odysseus-style. I was sure that it would, given half a chance.
I am not normally a superstitious person. In fact, I probably lean toward hyper-rational. But occasionally (and I blame you for this, Mom) I indulge in ridiculously superstitious impulses. This was one of them.
- The bio paragraph. I’ve done a few things that are different and interesting, perhaps even among writers. I wanted to make sure my bio paragraph captured that without going over the line into boring the agent with credentials. That being said, given a choice between saying “I am a personal assistant,” and saying, “I am Oprah Winfrey’s personal assistant,” you always want to say the latter. (But given a choice between saying “I am a personal assistant,” and “I am Joe Blow Off The Street’s personal assistant,” you are just a personal assistant.)
So there you have it. If you’re bad at querying and you didn’t win a critique from Sherry Thomas, you still have a lot of options. Don’t let a little thing like being bad at querying stop you from getting your manuscript read.
Oh, and one final thing? If you are bad at querying, you’ll probably get fewer requests for pages. That means that every request you get must count. Seriously count. And that means, especially if you are bad at querying, your pages have to be damned, damned good in bed.