So You Think You're Ready to Query...

When I wrote my first novel, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could finish a whole novel. After 4.5 years, I did, and when my one of my two beta readers said, "I can't believe you wrote a novel! And it's good!" I thought maybe I could actually publish it.

It took me 8 months, 52 queries, and 0 requests to realize I wasn't ready. This is the post I wish I had read back then (though I probably would've ignored it and queried anyway).

Is the story basically the same as it was in the first draft? I don't mean prose and grammar. I mean big things: motivations, characters that need to be cut or added, scenes that need to be rearranged. Have you deleted/rewritten entire scenes and chapters? I barely scraped the sentence structure with my first novel, and it showed in my rejections.

Of course, it's possible you wrote something good enough the first time, but it's unlikely. I'm the most obsessive planner I know, but even I have yet to write something where I didn't delete whole scenes and rewrite entire chapters.

Do they love it yet? If not, it's possible they might be wrong, but chances are they're not. Revise it until most of them can't put it down.

And who are your betas? Are they friends and family, or are they writers who are trying themselves to get published? Friends make fine betas, but nobody knows the business like those who have already gotten their butts kicked by it. Network. Swap critiques with people who aren't predisposed to like your work.

I thought I did. I'd read books like Left Behind and Randy Ingermanson's Trangression and Oxygen and thought, "Hey! Christian sci-fi is a thing!" I was wrong.

That doesn't mean you can't write what you love, but know what you're getting into. If Christian SF was my one true love, I would've focused my attention on that market and figured out how to become the exception. But I'm easy. I shifted my focus to secular SF/F and ultimately to YA. I'm still writing what I love, but my chances have greatly improved.

This is assuming you're going the traditional publishing route (although a lot of book bloggers require query letters too -- can't escape, can you?). Have you written one? Have you revised it a bazillion times? Have you read hundreds of examples, both good and bad, and then revised yours again?

Have you had any of your stuff (query, opening pages, etc.) critiqued online by anonymous strangers? It's scary, and you're likely to get conflicting advice and people that don't get it. But this is a good way to see how agents or the general public might respond to your stuff.

If I could do it all over again, I'd join an online critique group and milk it for all it's worth, critiquing and getting critiqued until every beta said, "I can't see anything wrong with this! I love it!" I'd spend hours at Query Shark, Evil Editor, Matt MacNish and JJ Debenedictis' sites reading queries and submitting my own until people were saying, "This looks good! I'd request this!" I'd do it right.

Ah, who am I kidding? I'd do it exactly the way I did. I was so excited. I couldn't help it! I just hope one of you will learn from my mistakes without making them yourself.

Veteran writers, what would you have done differently the first time around? (Assuming you got rejected. If your first novel got published, I'm not sure I want to hear it!)


Jodi Meadows said...

Nothing. I needed all those mistakes to put me right here right now. :)

Heidi W said...

It's funny that people talk about querying too early all the time. That has never been my issue--I've never queried. I'm on my fourth novel and am starting to think that this might be the one since I've recently broken though to the next level of writing ability.

I guess I was clear from the beginning that I wasn't good enough yet. And I'm only just starting to feel like I've hit the threshold of really understand how to develop and write a novel.

So I'm glad I did it this way--I spent the time learning to write instead of tracking queries and dealing with rejection. We'll see how that changes if I ever actually query.

Emily White said...

I wish I'd been pickier about the advice I took. There are actually people writing "how to" books out there and telling aspiring authors to send gimicky presents to agents. Luckily, I never followed that particular advice, but I did quote my book in my query letter and made sure I mentioned the other books in the series.

After discovering many other far more helpful sources, I've learned from my mistakes. But it's still humiliating to think of all the stupid stuff I did.

Matthew MacNish said...

Dude, first of all: thanks for the mention!

Now, this is the kind of post I REALLY wish I could have found back then. Since my first draft I've cut 317,000 words, 2 characters, 5-6 flashbacks, a prologue, and countless other things that while I may have loved, had to go.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

LOL! I love the picture.

And I have to say that all those queries I wrote were great practice for querying book bloggers, but MAN are they more fun to query. (Partly because the response - yes they respond! - is so much more positive, most of the time).

What would I do different? I agree with Jodi - in most respects, my path is what let me here, and I'm not sure I would have chosen differently.

But I second (and third!) all of your advice. Some of the BEST things I've done: make my own online crit group, when I couldn't find one; find people online to swap critiques with; study bestselling writers like crazy; take a chance on a small publisher.

Martina Boone said...

This is a fantastic post! And when we are starting out, the advice is the last thing we want to hear--we just want to get the story out there. But I think the journey to pub is such a big part of the process. We can hear all the advice in the world, but until we are ready, we will not hear it. I suspect an online critique group is not for everyone--not until they understand that they NEED it because not everyone will love their work. Not until they have gotten past the story and the love of writing to the business of writing seriously. That's a hard transition to make, isn't it? We are all a work in progress :D



Unknown said...

Great advice for one in the know!

Nancy Thompson said...

And still, even doing ALL those things doesn't guarantee success. It's a brutal business. And yet, we keep pushing onward.

jjdebenedictis said...

Thanks for the mention!

I don't think I've screwed up anything major yet--although maybe I did and didn't realize.

Like you, I don't see much that I could have changed. I was operating on the best understanding I had of the situation, and being as wise as I knew how to be at the time.

Dr. Cheryl Carvajal said...

Great advice!

And the best advice is REVISE... so glad you really dug into that one, for too many writers think changing a character's name or checking for verb tense is revising. I've entirely rewritten some of my manuscripts several times over, and the novel I'm about to query was cut in half at one point (the second half is saved for a later book in the series), and the latter half written from scratch.

Most first drafts SUCK, without question. And my rule is, if I think it doesn't, I need to give it a month to fester, then go back and look at it with fresh eyes. That's all it takes for me to see the flaws.

dolorah said...

I'm kinda with you Adam; I may have sent the query anyway, but it may not have been as much as of a sinking Titanic.

But I don't think I would have been the attentive writer I am without making the mistakes either.

I'm glad to read posts like this, no matter how far I am in experience. A good reminder to me of how far I've come, and how far I have to go, and you never know who's journey you may be kick starting with this.

Thanks for sharing your experience.


A.L. Sonnichsen said...

I remember Janet Reid saying people should NEVER query their first novels or their second novels. They shouldn't start querying until their third.

I totally didn't listen.

And I'm glad I didn't. Because I learned so much from querying novels 1 & 2. What I'm glad I DIDN'T do was give up after novels 1 & 2, assuming I was a failure.