Leveling Up: Part 1 - Querying

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Welcome to the first post in a blog series called Leveling Up, titled such because though I originally intended to cover only revising a novel, I've decided to include some of what led me to that point. And what all these topics have in common is helping yourself dress for the job you want and level up. Topics I intend to cover include:
  1. Querying;
  2. Attending a SFF workshop (Viable Paradise);
  3. Attending SF conventions (World Fantasy Con 2015, Nebula Awards Weekend 2016);
  4. Working on novel revisions with an agent;
  5. Anything else I forget / requests (feel free to email or @ me on Twitter with suggestions!).
I'll try and update this first post with all the links every time. Also, I'm not trying to commit to any particular order or set of posts up front because god knows I'm pantsing this whole blogging this ;D



We can all blame my friend Merc Rustad, who is blogging about novel revisions and inspired me to join. For the record, their novel is on my TBR list as soon as they're willing to email it to me *cough* There's fae and gay and collars--three of my favorite things. But yes, go check out their series on revising a novel!

This scene not guaranteed to be in their actual book but IT SHOULD BE.
Also, up front disclosure, I'm not good at blogging regularly. I'm busy and non-fiction is still work and it gives me Imposter Syndrome (who am I to give advice over the Internet?). So it may come sporadically and unqualified, but I hope it helps someone because I read a ton of blog posts while I was finalizing and querying. So this is me paying it forward / unleashing my mental sludge into the universe.

Also I love gifs. Sorry not sorry.
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I'm going to start further back than Merc does, because I want to include my querying process. I had a spreadsheet. By day, I'm a paralegal, formerly a legal secretary, so you won't be surprised to hear that Post-Its turn me on. Especially those little flags. Hnnggg. Anyway, spreadsheets are the digital equivalent and I wanted one. But before I could fill in my spreadsheet, I needed names and information to populate it with.

There are several places you can find agents. I used the following:
  1. QueryTracker's "Who Reps Whom" ($25/year);
  2. The acknowledgment sections of books by authors I respect;
  3. Publisher's Marketplace ($25/mo. subscription);
  4. Agency Websites;
  5. Twitter;
  6. Word of mouth/asking my friends/recommendations.
Looking at my spreadsheet (which I totally gave up actively using once I realized how amazing QueryTracker is), I had approx. 50 agents on there. I divided them up into three "teams", sprinkling dream agents in with newer agents and big names, alike; I made sure I had favorites, big names, and newbies on each team. I think it's really smart to include agents of a variety of experiences in your search. Personally, my ideal agent was:

  1. Settling into their career, i.e. not so green that they had no track record, but not so long in the game that their roster was full of big names that made me feel unimportant, forgettable, and pressure to make a billion dollars or be dropped.
  2. Working at an agency with a trusted reputation, where partners or senior agents could provide mentorship, growth, and contacts.
  3. Representing SFF and either romance or erotica--not because I classify my writing as genre Romance with a capital "R", but because I wanted an agent who wasn't afraid of some sex in their SF. Because my SF has sex in it. Lots of sexy queer sex. (Have I said "sex" enough?) Also, I secretly dream about writing boy band romance, one day.
  4. Active in the SFF community, either online or in person at conventions, because I know networking and contacts matter.
  5. Actively seeking LGBT and/or "diverse" authors and books, because lol I will never write a straight protagonist.
  6. Someone I liked! I'd read stories of people breaking up with their agents because they didn't have similar communication styles or they wanted different things, etc. I hoped to work with this person for the rest of my career. I wanted to like them as a human.

    Spoiler alert: I signed with Jennifer Udden, currently of Barry Goldblatt Literary, who was and still is all of those things :)

    As you can see below, I took that information into account on my spreadsheet with categories for agency, genre, notes, and clients, amongst others. At the time, Jen was at Donald Maass, an agency with reputable clients that I'd heard of. I also checked to see if a synopsis was required (have one on hand before you start querying!) and made stalker-esque notes that she was seeking LGBT authors/books and that she would be at World Fantasy Con in 2015--and by stalker-esque notes I mean totally smart research you should do before attending any convention or deciding to query someone. More on that in a later post.

    Exhibit A - Spreadsheet headers with Jen's row half-filled in because by then I had discovered QueryTracker.
    I distinctly remember sitting on my couch with my sister, asking her whether I should start with the more senior agents and work my way down the list or whether I should start with Jen, who was earlier in her career, but seemed to want everything I'd written. "Obviously the one who wants your stuff," my sagely sister said. After further research, I realized Jen was a BAMF agent and my sister was right, like she usually is.

    Boom, done.
    I'm not going to show you my query letter here, because queries are a whole post or twenty unto themselves and I'm trying really hard not to write a novel just in this space. Know that it took me many drafts and input from several friends before it assumed its final form. Like a Pokemon.

    The goal was to send out queries to only those in one group at a time, that way I'd learn whether my query letter sucked before I struck out with all my faves. I'd planned to wait until all 10-15 agents from each group got back to me before sending out the next batch (lol again). That's when I realized how slow querying is. Eventually I got impatient and began with the next group, but I didn't start doing so until I started getting requests for my manuscript--partial and full.

    Real live footage of the publishing industry.
    Fun fact: Jen was the first to request my full manuscript and it happened about 45 minutes after a partial manuscript rejection. Hashtag fate. Hashtag anxiety.

    To make a very long story (11 months, to be exact) short, I only ended up sending out 27 queries because I knew in my gut that the people who had the query or manuscript were the right people for the book. According to QueryTracker, out of the 27 queries I sent, I got 9 requests and 18 rejections. Through slush, that's 1/3 positive responses, which is not bad! After awhile I even became immune to the form rejections--though my heart still raced every time I got an email with "QUERY" in the title.

    Almost a year later, I received The Call. My manuscript was with six agents at that time--query still out with some. If your query or manuscript is out with anyone, you should notify all of them, in the interests of being honest and transparent. You don't want to receive an email a year after you've sold your book asking if it's still available for representation and then have to awkwardly decline.

    I was at the SFWA Nebula Awards Weekend, when I received The Email that precedes The Call. Merc and I had just arrived in Chicago, plopped our luggage down in our ridiculously big hotel room, and walked over to Nando's for some delicious Peri-Peri.

    Actual gif of me eating while having querying anxiety.
    Jen had emailed me the previous weekend to let me know she was going to start reading my manuscript, so naturally I checked my email every ten seconds and did literally nothing else. Okay, slightly untrue. I had to go to work, still. I had to eat and sleep and be social. I listened to two audio books during that week in order to occupy my brain meat. Still, I was not expecting to hear back while I was eating Peri-Peri in Chicago, Nebula Awards Weekend.

    For the record, any email that begins with "Thanks" is a rejection. So when I saw "Thanks for your patience while I've had this submission," my heart sank. And then immediately exploded for the next line: "I just finished reading...and I loved it, and I would love to schedule a time to have a call and discuss representation!" I was speechless. I couldn't finish my Peri-Peri. Merc giggled at me while I sat with my hand slapped over my mouth.

    We scheduled a call for 9:00 a.m. Chicago time, the next morning. I, of course, had four glasses of wine the night before that thanks to my friend Alyx Dellamonica handing me her drink coupons at the SFWA Reception and other friend Mike Underwood inviting me to the bar with him for a drink. After we arrived, we spotted Barry Goldblatt, with whom Jen now worked. I know that several times over that weekend he asked whether I was excited to chat with her and how my call went and both times my answers were just:

    Literally could not contain myself, that weekend. Just flailed around.
    As is courteous, and because you always want to create the best opportunities for your career, I asked for one week to notify the other agents with my query or manuscript, as mentioned above. On Sunday I received a second offer of rep, still while at Nebulas Weekend. The next seven days, while I waited to hear back from others, and while considering those offers I had received thus far, was extremely difficult. It's a problem I joked about having back in November of last year; "Oh wouldn't it be great if..." No. It's stressful! Amazing and exciting but stressful.

    I checked in with multiple friends, made pros and cons lists, drank a lot of wine, talked it through, etc. Another thing I did was continue to email those agents who had offered representation. I note that here because it's important to understand that The Call isn't the only contact you can have to make your decision on. I specifically ended each call by confirming it was okay to email the agent if I had further questions and both said, absolutely. It's easy to become flustered and forget to ask things--or to think of new questions afterwards. In fact, Jen even emailed me to ask a question she had forgotten.

    Though both agents who offered were amazing and had solid track records and smart insights with regard to my novel--craft and business--I went with my gut in the end. And a lot of the time, that's all you can do. And guess what, I'm really happy.

    In NYC where we discussed, amongst Business, that we both wrote Hanson fanfic when we were younger.
    Next time on The Blog, I'll discuss what happened in between querying and signing with an agent: namely, attending SFF workshop Viable Paradise and SFF conventions. Eventually, I'll get to my intended topic: revising a novel (hint: there is a binder involved and it it beautiful).













    4 comments

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    July 11, 2016 at 7:52 AM delete

    This whole post was so exciting. I squeed several times throughout. It must have been amazing to be fielding all those emails and calls during the Nebula weekend!

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    K.M. Szpara
    AUTHOR
    July 11, 2016 at 7:16 PM delete

    It was beyond exciting! Especially surrounded by so many publishing friends. Truly a special weekend :)

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    Roger
    AUTHOR
    July 12, 2017 at 2:02 AM delete

    Nice to read this.Thank you so much for sharing this post.

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