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Feb 25, 2021

Into the (Query) Trenches

By: Madeline Dau

You’ve just completed your novel. You’re excited, riding an exhilarating wave of momentum because you just typed “The End” at the bottom of your masterpiece. So, what happens next? There are hosts of hurdles in between your newborn manuscript and seeing your book on the shelves. 

Here, I’ll explore ten initial steps for the traditional publishing journey.

1. Do NOT immediately submit.
Resist the temptation to send your manuscript to every agent and publishing house. When everything’s fresh in your mind, you won’t be able to see the forest for the trees, so it’s easy to miss plot holes and simple errors. Let it simmer for a few weeks while working on a new project. 

2. Get help.
Recruit a second pair of eyes—as many as you can, and bonus points if they’re not related to you—to review your manuscript. Utilize beta readers and sites like CritiqueMatch to find critique partners. You can even prepare specific questions for your readers to focus on problem areas, like is the character’s motivation believable, or are there spots where descriptions are muddled?

3. Revise until you can’t anymore.
Once you’ve made your manuscript as strong as you can, I’d recommend letting it rest for a week before reading through it again, paying special attention to your first twenty pages. If your story doesn’t pick up until chapter four, the reader might not get that far before putting the book down. Draw us in early, but don’t confuse us.

4. Write a query letter.
This is a completely different experience from writing a novel. One is a narrative, the other is a sales tool. You’re selling your book and yourself. There are lots of great resources online regarding a query letter’s components. 

A query letter should contain one paragraph of metadata (the manuscript’s word count, genre, age category, comparative titles), a paragraph or two summarizing your book, and a brief author biography. It’s challenging to condense your novel to one page, but it’s recommended to keep the word count under 300. Check out the jacket copy of some of your favorite books to get some ideas for hooks and summaries. You don’t want to give your entire story away, but you’ll need enough to pique your readers’ interest.

You might be tempted to break the mold on that general formula to stand out, but keep in mind that an agent might receive anywhere from twenty to two hundred queries per week. Queries must contain key information that’s easily navigated. If the agent has to hunt for your genre or word count, they may auto-reject your submission.

5. Compile a list.
There are hundreds of literary agents, and they each have their own subject interests. Where do you even begin? There are several databases of agents online. For example, you can sort by genre and age category at You don’t want to waste an agent’s time (and yours!) submitting your eerie adult horror manuscript to someone who only wants to represent contemporary middle grade books.

6. Personalization will make you stand out—in a good way.
Remember the query letter from earlier? Add a sentence of personalization for each agent. There’s a wealth of information out there, and if you can concisely say why you’re submitting to a certain person, they may give your query more notice. My favorite places to find this information are listening to podcast interviews and perusing I also recommend creating an individual word document for each agent; it ensures that you won’t mix up names or personalization.

7. Send your heart out into the world.
Send queries out in batches of five to ten. If you receive all form rejections or no responses, you’ll want to adjust your submission materials before sending them out to more agents. Does your query hook the reader? Does it answer the important questions like what your characters want and what the stakes are? Or it could be the first pages. Make sure you’re not starting too early and overloading the reader with backstory or starting too late and plunging the reader into a hectic, confusing scene with no grounding. Revise and send out a new batch.

8. Patience.
Earlier I mentioned agents can receive a ton of queries per week. Some go in order, some skip around. There aren’t any rules, and some agents respond quickly while others take weeks to months. Some receive so many queries they can’t possibly answer them all, so they’ll have guidelines in place stating something like, “If you don’t hear from us in six weeks, consider it a pass.” This is frustrating, so what helps me is remembering I’m not alone and that agents are people too.

9. The Request.
So, your story has grabbed someone’s attention. Depending on their submission guidelines, they’ll request either a partial or full copy of the manuscript. Again, patience is key here. Your full one hundred-thousand-word story is going to take much longer to review than your one-page query.

10. The Call.
First, do your happy dance. Then prepare. This isn’t like a one-sided job interview. You’ll be examining the agent as much as they’ll be examining you. Have questions planned, even if it feels uncomfortable. Gauging how they react to questions is a good thing. An agent doesn’t just submit your work to publishers; they field questions and suggestions from editors and other parties, so you can just concentrate on your art.

Publishing is a long, arduous journey. Don’t take anything personally; once you send your book out into the world, it becomes a commodity. A product. So, write what you’re passionate about. Write for the love of writing.

About the author
Madeline lives in Florida with her husband, toddler, and two corgis. With her background in healthcare, she enjoys exploring characters interested in fantastical versions of medicine. She is currently querying her second novel, a young adult dark heist fantasy. For “fun,” she gets up at six to write or binge her favorite authors’ books before the rest of the house wakes up. Follow her on her website at