There is a whole universe of information out there about writing queries: composition, etiquette, expectations, that sort of thing. (And yet so many people seem to get it just plain wrong. The mind boggles.) But it occurs to me that there’s not much information about the actual mechanics of managing your submissions. I hadn’t thought this would be an interesting topic, but talking with some local writers made me think that those just starting out on this particular path might benefit from someone who’s been at it for a bit. Plus, I’m saving up my litcrit posts for the A-Z Challenge, so meta it is. This isn’t a definitive guide by any means, just what works for me and what might work for you, too.
Step One: Back when I was waiting on feedback from my beta readers, I took the opportunity to start building my agent list. There are all kinds of resources out there, but how I did it was this: I pulled up Literary Rejections’ database of US literary agencies in a new window in Chrome. For each agency that said they accept my genre and category (as well as a few that weren’t clear from the listing), I right-clicked the link to their site and opened in a new tab. Once my RAM was doing dry heaves and about to pass out from the weight of the open tabs, I went to Menu > Bookmarks > Bookmark open pages and tossed everything into a folder, then closed the lot. I’d say this step took me an hour or two.
Step Two: Next (a few days later, because this shit is tedious and you should take breaks), I went through those bookmarks one at a time, checking out each site. Here I was able to weed out the ones that didn’t actually accept what I had (despite initial promise). Of the rest, I read through the submission guidelines and the agent profiles. I picked the likeliest agent(s) and added them to a Google Drive spreadsheet with the following headers:
- Agency name (hyperlinked to submissions page)
- Agent name
- Query others at agency Y/N
- Actively building Y/N
- Columns for each applicable genre and category, marked if they explicitly listed or don’t want
- Submission format (most are email, but a couple had web forms and a couple still want dead tree)
- Materials requested
- Posted turnaround
- Notes (MSWL, general conclusions drawn from available materials)
(Some of these columns were left blank if the information wasn’t available; for instance, I marked someone Yes under actively building if their agent page had language to that effect, No if it talked about them looking for “select” projects, and left it blank if there wasn’t an indication either way.)
As I was adding agents, I followed them on Twitter if available and added blogs and Tumblrs to my Feedly if they looked enjoyable.
Once I’d cleaned out that bookmarks folder, I had a good-sized list. I then ranked them into the tentative order I’d be submitting, using the information I’d gathered to determine which agents might be the best matches and moving them higher than the ones that I thought might be long shots. I held back my very top choice agents, test driving my submission on agents who I thought were still a good match so that I’d have a chance to revise if I came up totally empty.
I chipped away at this part over the course of a few days (again, tedious) until I was happy with everything. Once I’d gotten beta feedback and gone through another round of edits and a polish, it was time to go.
I work primarily from my Chromebook, secondarily from my desktop PC, and occasionally from my iPad or phone. Thus, I’ve found Google Drive to be the best option for managing everything (and really, I’m pretty deep in the Google environment anyway). Here are the documents I keep:
- The query. The personalization changes for each agent, but the pitch is the same, so I pull it from here. This also ensures that everything is spell-checked every time and that the links in my signature work.
- The manuscript. For versioning purposes, I keep separate documents for each revision, so the current one is labeled *CURRENT* so I can spot it at a glance. I considered creating separate documents for the various sample sizes that agents request (5 pages, 10 pages, 15 pages, first chapter, first 3 chapters), but that means to make a tweak I’d have to make that change in multiple documents, so it’s just easier to have one master and copy the correct excerpt from it when it’s time to email. Pro tip: Holding shift and using the arrow keys is faster than holding the mouse button and scrolling, because Drive doesn’t play nice with large documents and it will lag like whoa.
- The synopsis. I have this in several lengths (1, 3, or 5 pages) as requested. I started with the long one and then kept cutting as needed.
For the most part, agents want these materials pasted into the body of the email. If they want everything assembled as a PDF, I’ll download them from Drive and use Adobe Acrobat to assemble it into one tidy file with the page numbers and headers all undisturbed.
The thing with that list I built a few hundred words back is that it’s really easy for it to get out of date. Things move quickly, and you don’t want to waste your time submitting to agents who are now closed, or who have moved agencies, or who have changed their wishlist and aren’t looking for the same genres anymore. So this is where I created a new tab in the agent spreadsheet. The headers for this one:
- Agency name
- Agent name (both columns copied over from the other page, which preserves the handy hyperlink)
- Query date
- Nudge/Requery (I’ll get to this one)
- Query nudge date
- Response received date
- Query response
As requests started coming in, I created columns to track the dates and notes for partials and fulls as well.
That nudge/requery column is a major sanity preserver. When I send a query, I check the submissions date, check their posted turnaround time, and figure out the date by which I should hear something. Then, in that column, I’ll note “Nudge [date]”. (If no turnaround is posted, I go with three months, which seems to be fairly standard.) If they’re a “no response means no” shop, I note “No response by [date] means pass.” The reason this is a sanity preserver is that a lot of people tend to freak out about these responses, which leads to premature followups, which leads to irritated agents. Doing the math up front and making a note means I’m not continually recalculating. When I’ve got the spreadsheet up, if a date has passed, I’ll either send a nudge or cross them off (or occasionally adjust the date out if I know from Twitter that they’ve been on vacation or at a conference or something). If no dates have passed, nothing to worry about.
Responses get their dates noted, and I’ll add any personalized feedback to the Notes field to make it easier to spot potential patterns. I also color code those rows by clicking on the row number and selecting the paint bucket tool. Here’s the code I use:
The color coding is easier on the eyes than crossing out, so that I can still see that old information. The “never responded” is handy, because after a certain point, it’s not inconceivable to get a response, but I’m not going to consider that an active query anymore. I only nudge once, then let it go. (High fives if you just started singing Frozen.)
As far as the response emails themselves, after I’ve noted the details, they get moved to a folder (even the rejections). As with the nudge dates, it’s an “out of sight, out of mind” thing. No matter how thick your skin is, seeing a rejection at the top of your inbox sucks, so get that sucker out of there.
Assembling the Query
So, now that I’ve got all these fancy spreadsheets, it’s time to get to the actual email. I use Gmail’s web interface due to the aforementioned multi-device setup (and the aforementioned Google fangirlness). I prefer to put together query emails from my desktop PC so I can have the email draft up on one screen and the various documents and resources on the other, but it’s not impossible to do from the Chromebook.
Here’s what goes into assembling a query for Agent Awesome:
- Go to the submissions page for Agent Awesome. Look for any changes that might affect submissions (closures, new wishlist items) and confirm correct email address and requested materials.
- Subject line: If the guidelines specify a particular format, use that format exactly. You don’t want to end up on the wrong end of an email filter. If there’s no format requested, I go with “Query: [TITLE] (#MSWL/#PitMad Request/whatever is applicable if anything.)” Manuscript title goes in all caps.
- Salutation (checking the spelling of the name about eight times because I am neurotic). Paste in the query below that. If it’s a MSWL or pitch party request, I usually lead with that, otherwise I go straight into the pitch.
- Paste requested materials
- This is my favorite part. Fonts and formatting can be the kiss of death if you mess them up, but Gmail makes this so damn easy that there’s absolutely no excuse for getting it wrong. Here’s what it looks like after I’ve pasted everything from three different documents that all have different formatting:
Mess, right? There are actually two more different styles in this document beyond what you can see here. But see that button at the end of the formatting bar that’s highlighted? That strips this puppy bare. Here’s what it looks like after selecting all (Ctrl+A) and hitting that bad boy:
Boom. Done, son. It even correctly throws in the carriage return between paragraphs. True, I have to go back in and add italics to the manuscript, but I pretty quickly memorized where they are (two on page 1, one on page 5, one on page 9, ball change jazz hands hey) so putting them back is no problem. The basic font may not look as fancy, but I guarantee this will show up correctly on any given device.
- Walk away and do something else for a little while, even if it’s just tabbing out to check Google+.
- Look over the submission once more with fresh eyes.
- Hit send.
- Do a little happy/nervous dance.
- Note it on the spreadsheet and do the nudge/requery calculations.
- Repeat for remaining agents in this wave, then go do something else again.
I was initially maintaining six active queries at a time (so submitting a new one when a rejection came in or when I’d stopped the clock on a non-response), but I ran into a surprising amount of dead air, so I bumped it up to twelve to keep things moving.
So that’s about it. I know there are tools out there like QueryTracker that can help manage this stuff, but I’ve always been fond of a good, simple spreadsheet, and I’ve found this has kept things organized and manageable, so I can at least pretend to be a professional and shit.
Does your query management system look like this, or something else entirely? Do you find it difficult to stay on top of everything? Sound off in the comments.