When should you start querying a literary agent?

When I started querying with my first novel manuscript, I wasn’t ready at all. I basically broke every querying rule because I, like every other impatient dreamer, thought, “Oh, but my manuscript is special. The rules don’t apply to me.” My manuscript was, in fact, special, but not in the ways I hoped! Two years later, I’m querying a completely different manuscript. I’m following the rules I learned the hard way. And guess what? The agents are biting! While I haven’t landed one yet, I’ve learned a ton about the ambiguous stage between completing a manuscript and getting it read, and I wanted to share some of my lessons with other impatient dreamers. If you have accomplished the three heroic feats below, you are likely ready to begin querying literary agents.

1. You should have a totally completed, edited, ready-to-publish manuscript.

Sure, my first book manuscript was complete when I started querying. I had written “The End” on the last page, right? It was still about 20,000 words too long and even I was bored with the first few chapters, but so much of it was SO GOOD that I was sure agents would instantly recognize its incomparable glory. My siblings read it and they thought it was amazing. Some of my other readers told me the beginning was slow, but again, did that really matter in such a clear-cut case of genius?

Oh yes, my friends, it mattered. And the truth was, I didn’t even need to get rejected (which I did, utterly) to know my manuscript wasn’t ready. I just had to wait. Three months later, I could see all the flaws I was blind to in my first wave of enthusiasm. I was mortified that anyone had read sample chapters which I ended up cutting completely from my final manuscript. I spent another six months editing; when I began to submit again, the response was much more positive. But I had already wasted my chances with the first few agents I queried because I was just too impulsive to wait.

Here are some good indicators that your manuscript is ready to query with:

  • You’ve gone through at least three complete edits.

  • You’ve left it alone for 3-6 months between edits and come back to it with fresh eyes.

  • You’ve had at least 5-15 people read it. At least three people have read your most recent draft, and they didn’t suggest any major edits (such as plot changes, cutting characters, point-of-view or style overhauls).

  • Your first three chapters are absolutely flawless. Your whole manuscript is never going to be flawless; if you try to wait until you can read through the entire thing without ever wanting to change a word, you’ll be sitting on it for the next 50 years. But you should be able to read through your first three chapters and say, “Yep. Perfect.”

2. You should be familiar with the trends and parameters of your literary genre.

Two years ago I went to the Minnesota Writing Workshop, planning to pitch my manuscript to an agent in person for the first time. I was terrified but well-prepared. I’d practiced my pitch in the car about seventy-five times, missing my exit at least thrice. My manuscript was polished and ready to submit. I’d even bought a new dress.

Then, an hour before my pitch was scheduled, I went to a session on children’s literature. They explained some genre parameters I’d never heard before. Namely, that MG usually had a protagonist age 11-14, and YA usually had a protagonist age 15-17. I went up to the speaker after the presentation and asked, “What if your protagonist starts out at age 13 but ends at age 16?” She gave me a blank look. “That’s going to be a hard sell. It doesn’t really fit either genre.” I panicked. My stomach dropped. And it was time for my pitch.

I went in with a show of bravado, yet crumbling inside. No sooner had my pitch concluded than the agent asked, “But is this Middle Grade or YA? You mentioned that your protagonist was 13, and then she was 16? Which is it?” I wanted to turn and bolt, but instead I squeaked, “Um, both?” The agent could see how destroyed I was, and being a kind soul she gently gave me advice on how I might overcome this obstacle. She even requested sample chapters.

But reading the chapters, she pointed out yet another genre parameter my book didn’t follow: I had way too many points of view for a YA novel, not to mention an MG novel. I resisted her advice at first, but another agent requesting the manuscript soon pointed out the same problem, along with the age problem. This agent suggested the same thing as the first: that readers wouldn’t be able to find my book on the shelves because it didn’t fit the parameters of either MG or YA.

After a year of querying with this “problem child,” my beloved firstborn novel, I slowly came to accept that it had objective problems I couldn’t fix without completely rewriting it. At this point, I had been struck with a new book concept. This new concept was solidly Middle Grade; it met all the genre parameters I had discovered, and it followed trends of style and theme while still being wholly unique. I decided to set my first manuscript aside (“Only for a few years,” I told myself) and write something new.

And boy am I glad I did! The response to my second manuscript was completely different. I immediately started getting manuscript requests. Though I still got plenty of rejections, none of them pointed out inherent flaws in the structure or style. I never felt like I needed to apologize for or defend anything in my manuscript, but rather felt confidence in knowing my genre and where my book fit in it.

Here are some of the parameters it will be important for you to know:

  • Acceptable word count for your genre

  • Current trends in point of view for your genre. Not that you can’t break out of the trend, but you have to understand that you’re being a rebel and brand yourself as such.

  • Similar works that have recently been published in your genre. How your book has the attraction of these works but also offers something unique and fresh.

  • Appropriate themes/language for your intended audience. This mostly applies to those writing for children.

  • Age of your protagonist, also applicable to those writing for children.

3. You should have online visibility, either a website or social media (Twitter).

I felt like an absolute idiot when I first started my author website. I had been out of the writing world for years and hadn’t published anything since college. Blogging had never been an aspiration of mine; I didn’t even follow any blogs. But everything I read online (on other aspiring writers’ blogs!) said that I should start a website anyway, so I did.

And you know what? It was really fun. Not just because I love making websites, but because it helped me to clarify and express some of my “inscape” as a writer, what makes me me. (Also known as branding.) My original photography for the site included this picture of me imitating Tolkien:

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Everybody loved the photo and said, “Oh, that’s so you!” But eventually I realized, actually, it’s not me. It’s Tolkien. And as much as I admire Tolkien, I’m not him. I don’t even smoke a pipe. So I hired a new photographer and overhauled the site. Now it truly feels like me. The process of “branding” myself didn’t put me in a box; it helped me to break free of some of the boxes I’d put myself in.

I also resisted Twitter, because I’m just not someone who thrives on social media. I feel gross after I get sucked into it, and my writing actually suffers if I spend more than 15 minutes a day scrolling through a feed of other people’s vastly oversimplified ideas. But here’s the honest truth:

Of the agents who have requested my manuscripts, I’ve discovered at least half of them through Twitter.

Not only that, I’ve discovered an amazing community of writers on Twitter. Granted, any meaningful interaction with them has taken place outside of Twitter, but it was the first place of contact. In addition, the links to blog posts, the discovery of new books, the discussion of genre trends, the general commiseration and celebration, has formed an invaluable part of my journey as a writer seeking publication.

The bottom line is: if you’re trying to get published, you must be on Twitter. Do that first, before you get a website. You learn so much about the publishing world on Twitter that I suggest trying it out for at least three months before you start querying. And by trying it out I mean:

  • Following other writers and agents, actually reading their tweets, retweeting and commenting.

  • Joining some fun hashtag games like #1LineWed and #WIPjoy.

  • Tweeting fun, real anecdotes about your writing life, your manuscript, and anything else that makes us grateful you are a real person and not a robot.

  • Never ever using an automated service to post the same links to your self-published books over and over. Because we will unfollow you, and we will curse you as we do so.

That’s it! Just three things! Three enormous things that will take months if not years to accomplish. If you can truly say you’ve done these three things, I dub thee ready to submit thy manuscript!

You want to know how to submit to agents? Oh, that is way too much to explain in this post. Maybe I’ll write another post on that. For now, here’s a hint: (whispers) Query Tracker.