First off, I need to acknowledge that everyone's query experience will be different. My experiences will be different from yours and everyone else's who query. That's just the way the business goes. So all I'm offering here are my experiences and some advice that might make yours a little better.
I believe that there are three things you must have in order to query:
1. A finished book.
2. A very good understanding of that book.
3. A polished query that succinctly explains that book.
The first one is a given. I've known a couple of people who sold books without finishing them, but it's so rare that you shouldn't expect to be one of the people who does it. Finish the book.
For me, two and three are so tightly entwined that they could almost be one rule. Most of the unsuccessful queries I've seen had one major flaw: they failed to explain the book well. And to me, that very likely suggests that the book itself isn't ready.
By the time your book is ready to query, you should have read it so many times and delved so deeply into all the plots and subplots, that you can describe what the book is about in 1-3 sentences. If you can't do that, then it's likely that the plot is muddled and the book not ready to query.
When I finished my first draft of The Walls, I had a hell of a time telling people what it was about. That's because I didn't yet know. But by the time I queried, I was able to distill the plot down into one sentence. The Walls is about a boy living in the hospital his parents died in, and his search for a way out. There are subplots and lots of other things, but that line is the heart of the story.
When searching for an agent, I think it pays to be methodical. I kept a spreadsheet of the agents I wanted to query. I spent a long time, combing through AgentQuery.net, Publisher's Marketplace, looking for agents I thought would be into the same things as me. I looked for agents who repped authors I liked.
Then I sent those queries out. I kept track of who replied, who didn't, who requested what. I did a small first round of querying. They were all near-misses, but to a person, each one mentioned hating my last chapter. Now, if one person had hated the chapter, I might not have given it another thought, but when seven hate it, I knew I needed to take another look at it. And I did. I rewrote it. And I went out with it again, casting my net more broadly.
I got a lot of advice about this book. Some thought it needed a paranormal element, some thought it was too dark. The thing I took away from it is how subjective it all is. I mean, I always knew that publishing was subjective, but one agent can read a manuscript and not like it at all, whereas another can read it and fall in love.
For me, that's what I was looking for. Someone who would love TW like I did. Someone who would love Drew and Lexi and Trevor and Rusty the way I did. Someone who would champion TW and help me make it better. And that's what I found.
I'll get into this a little more tomorrow, but one of the things that drove me nuts was the policy of "No answer means no." I tended to avoid querying agents with that policy, but in some cases I wanted to query an agent and had to overlook that policy. The reason I hate it so much is that despite receiving a lot of queries, sending out automated replies is so easy, that not doing it feels like a lack of respect. I know that it's not. I know that responding to queries takes away time from clients, and it opens up the door for a rejected author to write back, but I still feel like doing it is worth the effort.
Not only does it leave an author in limbo, but it means an agent can miss out on an opportunity. One agent I queried had such a policy. The policy was that no answer after 6 weeks meant no. 8 weeks after I sent in my query, that agent requested the material. But since I'd already passed the 6 week mark, I'd assumed it was a no and moved on.
Maybe that's just me, though.
The other thing that I disliked was being asked for an exclusive. To me, asking for an exclusive is just unnecessary. I get that an agent wants to make sure they're not scooped, but it's really not in a writer's best interest to grant exclusives. Not only because it means losing 4-6 weeks to an agent who still might say no, but also because just because an agent offers to represent you doesn't mean they're the right agent for you. Finding the right agent takes time and communication, and it's in the author's best interest to talk to as many agents as possible. Even when you know you've found the one, it pays to make sure.
I can understand why an agent might want an exclusive, but I just can't see any reason why a writer would agree to one.
All said, my query process was really positive. I talked to a lot of brilliant agents and signed with an amazing one.
Querying can be hard, but if you keep your expectations in check, have a great book, know that book, and write a stellar query, it doesn't have to be.
I was in a rush this morning, so I feel like I forgot to mention that even though I had two books sold when I queried The Walls, I still faced rejection. I still had agents who passed on the query, agents who read the manuscript and didn't think it was right for them, and I still felt that queasy sting of rejection. Querying is hard no matter what stage of your career your in. In some ways, querying as a published author was harder because I come with baggage. History. As a debut author, you are full of potential. There are no dreaded Bookscan numbers haunting you. No bad reviews. It's just you and your manuscript.
So, yeah, in the spirit of honest, I just wanted to make sure that I said it was hard. Nerve-wracking. But ultimately worth the work.