In today’s post on #4 of the 7 Stages of Memoir Writing: Querying, I’ll explain exactly how to go about querying agents to improve your chances, and how even if this work seems to include a lot of rejection, the research and knowledge will put you on the right path in the end.
Sending query letters
In October 2017, I started contacting agents. During the summer, I’d researched exactly how to write a query letter and how to select agents to pitch. I asked friends and writers for suggestions and connections. I read the acknowledgment sections of memoirs similar to mine. I attended Hugo House seminars and spoke with agents after their talks.
In the end, I considered over 200 agents from online directories, word-of-mouth, personal contacts, sites like Manuscript Wish List and others, and agent websites. Out of all this data, I picked the 20 “most likely” agent matches for my manuscript. I put connections from friends or teachers at the top of the list. Hey, don’t they say it’s “who you know” that matters in this field?
(Spoiler: all the personal connections rejected me, though usually gently. I ended up finding my agent through the internet equivalent of the slush pile. He wasn’t even on my longlist of 200 possibilities. More details to come.)
Organization of queries
I created a spreadsheet for my queries, color-coded agent names, listed their emails, what they wanted from articles and interviews, their submission guidelines, their favorite books, and relevant links. I made a column for the date the query was sent, the date the response was expected, and the date the response was received.
One column listed requests for the proposal, and requests for the full manuscript. I prepared a space to note whether I received no response, a form rejection, or personal rejection.
My spreadsheet for the month of October 2017 lists 20 names, each representing many weeks of research and hours of careful attention to detail.
To summarize, the spreadsheet contained the following columns:
- Agent name
- What they’re looking for
- Submission guidelines
- Date query sent
- Date response expected
- Date response received
- Proposal requested/rejected
- Date full manuscript sent
I color-coded the agent names based on whether they had requested a proposal or full manuscript, and changed them to dark red when they rejected me.
I had a lot of hope at this stage of the process. I’d gotten a great deal of positive feedback on the memoir by then, and in my heart I knew it was a good story.
Of course, I also worried deep within my heart: could I tell that story? Or did my writing suck?
Personalizing for each agent
Every agent had a different set of submission guidelines. Some wanted you to email. Some sent you to an online submission site. Some said “no response means rejection.” Others said “contact me again in three months if no response.” Some said “a no from one agent in our company is a no from all,” while others said, “if it doesn’t resonate with me, feel free to try others in our agency.”
I spent many hours creating a batch of individualized queries for these 20 agents, and then I sent them out in October.
One agent rejected me in five minutes.
Most of the others took about a week or two to reject me.
But!! Out of the 20, four agents requested a copy of my full manuscript!
Someone liked my story! More than one person liked my story. Validation at last!
It felt like success. I was jubilant. I was on my way. These agents had confirmed what others had told me: the story was great, and they wanted to read it.
But there was a problem. Although I had a complete 99,000 word draft in October 2017, it wasn’t polished enough to send out to agents. (I didn’t want to hear “pretty good for a first draft” again.)
I’d fully edited my proposal and nothing more. The rest of the book had a LOT of rough spots. I’d assumed I could edit the full manuscript later based on what my (still hypothetical) publisher wanted. But now these four agents were all telling me they needed a copy of the manuscript before they could make a decision about representation.
I panicked. I turned to my writing teacher Theo. By then I had graduated from her class, but we were still in touch. I asked for help editing the manuscript, and she graciously agreed to provide it.
(Yes, it was expensive, especially on a single income, but I’d decided to invest in my future writing career and skip eating out, going on vacations, or — as my colleagues at work can attest — buying new clothes.)
Over the next three weeks, Theo and I worked together intensively. I rewrote and edited as many as five hours a day, twelve to fifteen hours daily on the weekends, squeezing it around my job and family obligations.
By December 1, 2017, I had a full polished manuscript ready to send to the four agents.
I was on my way. I sent off those four emails with tremendous excitement.
But by December 11, 2017, three of the agents had passed. (The fourth never responded — although about a year later I did get a note from her wondering what had happened with my manuscript.) These were the closest matches out of the 200 agents I’d researched. All the others seemed like real long shots.
I plunged into the depths of depression.
Despite all that work, despite all the time spent crafting queries, proposals, manuscript, despite the positive responses from friends and critique partners and editors about my story, it seemed it just wasn’t good enough.
My writing was no good. I was worthless. I might as well just give up.
A new goal
But then I thought about my flying career, about the story I’d just spent all that time writing. About all the times I’d hit bottom. When I was so scared to fly that two instructors gave up on me. When I ran out of money. When it turned out my legs were too short to reach the rudder pedals. When the only airplane I could afford wasn’t competitive at the national level. When I was trapped by bad weather and thought I was going to die.
I never gave up then. I kept plugging away. I found a way around or over or through all the obstacles.
So in January, I started a completely new writing project, a middle grade novel. And I set myself a new goal: 100 rejections a year.