Hello friends! Consider this a slightly different version of a “How I Got My Agent” post. I thought it would be fun to share some of the details of my querying process, including my timeline, some stats, and the (ultimately successful!) query letter I used for THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE.
WRITING THE BOOK
I wrote the first draft of MAYBELLE in two months, finishing in April 2017. This felt incredibly fast for me (I’d toiled on my previous middle grade novel for more than a year, and had gotten to a point where adding to its word count felt more like getting teeth extracted than creative writing). Drafting MAYBELLE was an amazing, emotional, and deeply cathartic experience. I put everything I had into it. I ate lots of stale protein bars for lunch so I didn’t have to stop writing. I wrote until my legs fell asleep. I put my forehead on the table and wept the day I finished writing it.
I then decided to make the investment of working with a freelance editor* on the manuscript, and based on her notes, did a big revision in the spring of 2017. But then I sat on the book for a good nine months because despite how much I loved it, I wasn’t sure it was quite right as a debut. That because I’m also interested in writing more commercial (or so I told myself) middle grade fantasy, maybe I should try to write and query a “bigger” project first. And so I tried to write something that I thought might be “more marketable.” And I tried. And tried. And tried.
And…failed. I failed hard. Everything I wrote felt stale. Empty. Uninteresting.
After half a year of these painful false starts, of deserted manuscripts with overcomplicated plots and flat characters, I did some soul searching. And that’s when I realized that starting a creative project thinking mostly about its marketability was a terrible way to make something I was proud of.
So in November/December 2017, I returned to MAYBELLE, gave the manuscript a mental hug and apology, and started thinking seriously about querying. I ended up being grateful I set it aside for so long, because I did another revision where I caught things I wouldn’t have otherwise. I did a ton of research on agents I wanted to submit to. I went to bookstores and searched for agents in the acknowledgements of books I loved and books I thought were similar to mine. I searched through years of the MSWL hashtag on Twitter and looked at specific profiles on the Manuscript Wishlist website. I spent a ton of time on QueryTracker. I read blog Q&As and thought about the kind of relationship I hoped to have with an agent. I subscribed to a month of Publisher’s Marketplace so I could see the kinds of deals different agents were brokering.
Once I had my list, I started working on the query itself. I read through all of the archived posts on Query Shark. I read all the queries posted on Writer’s Digest Successful Queries. I wrote a million drafts. For $25, I worked with a published writer/freelance editor to help me hone it. (Hi Laura, you’re amazing!) I posted the query on AgentQuery Connect to get feedback from other writers.
I took this part really seriously. I knew I had only one shot and I didn’t want to mess it up!
THE QUERY LETTER
Here is the query I ended up sending (I used a few variations of this in terms of personalization, but this was my “base”):
Eleven-year-old Maybelle Lane collects sounds. She records the Louisiana crickets chirping, Momma strumming her guitar, their broken trailer door swinging half-shut. However, the crown jewel of her collection is a sound she didn’t collect herself: an old recording of her daddy’s warm, sunshine laugh. It’s the only thing she has of his, the only thing she knows about him.
Until one day, she hears that laugh—his laugh—pouring out of the car radio. Going against Momma’s wishes, Maybelle starts listening to her radio DJ daddy’s new show religiously. He’s everything Maybelle dreamed of: smart and funny and as warm as his laugh. When he announces he’ll be the judge of a singing contest in Nashville, she realizes this is her chance to meet him, and she signs up as a contestant behind Momma’s back.
The problem: Maybelle’s terrified. She collects sounds, she doesn’t make them. It’s not that her voice is bad—Momma always says it’s the loveliest she’s ever heard—it’s that her bone-shaking stage fright keeps her from using it. But when her eccentric neighbor, Mrs. Boggs, offers to drive her to Nashville in her beat-up RV, Maybelle jumps at the opportunity. She’ll figure out the singing part later. Along the way, Maybelle convinces herself that her daddy will be the one to help her overcome her fears and find her voice—until an alarming discovery makes her question if he’s really the warm, wonderful man she’s built up in her mind.
THE LONELY HEART OF MAYBELLE LANE is a 52,000-word contemporary middle grade novel that will appeal to readers who enjoyed the bittersweet tenderness of Kate DiCamillo’s RAYMIE NIGHTINGALE and the road trip fun of Ingrid Law’s SAVVY.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
After I felt I’d prepared to the best of my abilities, I started sending out my queries in mid-January 2018. The full requests—and some form rejections, too!— started rolling in pretty quickly, and one of them was from an agent at the very tip-top of my list: Peter Knapp of Park Literary and Media. I’d seen Pete speak at a conference, and remember being struck by his erudition, poise, and approachability. So when Pete offered representation a few weeks later via perhaps the loveliest email I’ve ever received, I was absolutely over the moon with excitement. I then notified the other agents, accidentally setting the deadline for responses over a holiday weekend (Ugh. I’m the worst. Make sure to check your calendars, people!) I gave one week for agents to respond, but in retrospect, I think that between ten days and two weeks would have been more gracious. I did end up getting an additional offer from another incredible agent, but at the end of the day, my heart told me to go with Pete. (And I’m so glad I did. Query him! He’s the absolute best.)
So without further ado, here are my query stats:
Number of queries sent: 22**
Number of full requests: 17
Offers of representation: 2
What a wild ride. I know I am extremely lucky for a number of different reasons, including the speediness of my journey, but the best advice I would give is to take your time. Sit on your manuscript after you finish it—time will give you much-needed perspective. Find critique partners. Do an almost embarrassing amount of research. Do as many revisions on your query—and your manuscript—as possible.
If you made it all the way down, bless you. I hope this was in somehow either interesting or helpful!
*I am extremely lucky that I could make this (not small!) financial investment. I realize not all writers can do this, which is why I think it’s very important to be as transparent as possible. I was definitely able to get MAYBELLE to a certain point, polished-wise, because I was lucky enough to be able to afford it, which I definitely think gave me a leg up. I think authors should talk as openly about how we get our work ready for publication, especially if it entails financial burden that would keep others from that same success. For writers who can’t afford to spend money on freelance editing, I highly recommend entering feedback contests online or finding critique partners, who can be worth their weight in gold. Twitter is a great place to find these resources and connections.
**I should also add: 10 of my 22 queries went out with a referral. However, the two offers I ended up getting were not from referrals—they were slush pile. So sure, I think a referral can get your foot in the door, but if your manuscript isn’t a fit for an agent, not even the most glowing or complimentary recommendation will get you a “yes”!