Optimizing the Query Process with Fewer Mistakes

Eldest leaves for college tomorrow. We–or should I say, I?–have a ton of checklists to keep us on track. And yet, I’m not overly concerned because a giant Walmart lives four blocks from his dorm and he’s only 45 minutes from home. Even if he forgets his tennis shoes, he or we can easily make the trek–on a weeknight if need be–to get them returned to their rightful owner in a timely manner.

And yet, after years of writing, I can’t help but check my lists to make sure we do this thing right the first time.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard exasperated, frustrated or terrified cries of, “Oh for the love of all that’s holy, guess what stupid query thing I did now?”

Yep, more than I can count.

So I thought it would behoove us all to remember that move-in day isn’t the time to first start thinking of how to make a smooth transition. Rather, we need to bear certain things in mind long before we show up at the dorm room with only  Doritos, goldfish and pony keg in hand.

The first and only truth of querying is that first time queriers are often impulsive. We’ve worked hard to polish our manuscripts. We’ve researched agents and have A, B and Z lists. We’ve even had our query letter beta-ed, line edited and tweaked to near-Godliness. We’re ready to go.

And so we forget things like our names or the agent’s name. We attach the wrong file or send blanket queries to a thousand and one agents–only to realize we never changed the agent’s name, so Agent Awesome, Super Agent and Agent Incredible all received a query addressed to Dear Mr. Agent.

We hang our heads in shame, climb back into the closet and vow never to query again–or at least not until our pain subsides and we can once again look ourselves in the mirror.

To help curb those last-minute mistakes, keep a checklist close at hand. Because nothing is worse than showing up for the main event ill-prepared. This list can be used for agent or editor submissions, though I use the term agent almost exclusively.

LAST MINUTE CHECKLIST

  • Start by sending only one query at a time, and start each query new. It’s easy to forget that each agent might want a little something different.
  • Go through the checklist with each new query. Until querying becomes second nature, it’s important that you pay close attention to each detail with each new query. Fast fact, the mistakes we make generally occur when we send batches at a time.
  • Check to make sure your agent information is current. Even if you compiled your list two weeks ago, things do change. In fact, agent/editor shuffling might be the only thing in the publishing arena that moves quickly–at least from our point of view–and it does us no good to shoot an email to Uber Agent when he’s been replaced by Agent Incredible.
  • Check the spelling of the agent’s name (and address if snailing it). Nobody likes having her name misspelled and it leaves a bad first impression. In fact, some agents get quite jaded about it over the years. Not that I blame them, as nothing irritates me more than telemarketers massacring my name. Now multiply that by 100 times per day and you’ll understand the importance of getting it right.
  • If you are sending a different query/submission package to each individual agent, double-check the guidelines of the agency and make sure they match the query you are sending. Agents get good at sniffing out blanket submissions. Especially when a query tailored to someone else finds its way into their inboxes.
  • Imbed, paste, attach or collate hard copy sample pages only after you’ve checked and double checked your guidelines. Yes, some agencies still require snail mail submissions and it’s just as important to send the right info to them as it is to e-agents.
  • SASE if snailing it and the agency requires it. The self-addressed stamped envelope is sent so agents can respond with ease. In fact, many agents will leave you hanging forever and ever amen if you don’t provide one for them.
  • If submitting by snail, sign your name. You laugh, but don’t. This is a frequent mistake.
  • Now hit send or hike it down to the post office. Just make sure you have enough postage or your precious letter will never make it to your intended destination.

One of the things I do when researching my agents is create a graph that tells me step by step what to do. It makes it easy to know who gets what, when and how. For example:

  1. Agent Awesome
  2. Address/Agency Info (for snail) or Web Address and email for e-queries
  3. Submission Guidelines (query, query and synopsis, query and 10pp, etc…)
  4. Special Notes (such as attachment directions, credential requests, request for clips, etc…)
  5. Simultaneous or Exclusive Submissions and SASE requests
  6. Time Frame on when to hear back (if this info has been imparted in guidelines)

By combining both lists, I’ve kept my mistakes to a bare minimum. Just like I hope I can do with Eldest tomorrow.

What query/submission mistakes have you made? If you know the outcome of making such a mistake, please share it with us, so we can learn. What things have I forgotten?

Curious minds want to know.

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4 responses to “Optimizing the Query Process with Fewer Mistakes

  1. Cat:

    Thanks,this is amazing info! I am downloading as we speak and keeping it next to my computer. I will definitely use it the next time I query!

    Amy 🙂

  2. I’ve learnt that an interesting query letter that sells your book to the agent is vital. I now believe that if your query letter is lack lustre and doesn’t hook them in most agents don’t even bother reading on to check out your chapters.

    • So true, Matt. The reason behind it this is because agents and editors feel that if the query letter has mistakes and isn’t intriguing, the whole manuscript will be exactly the same. To a certain degree, this is true, although I’ve seen some amazing query letters that go along with some poor manuscripts and some incredible manuscripts that accompany poorly written queries.

      We just need to work at honing both those skills–a task that can seem difficult in the best of times.

      Hugs and best luck on your writing projects. Thanks so much for commenting!

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