Lessons from the Querying Trenches (AKA I HAVE AN AGENT!)

I HAVE AN AGENT.

I HAVE AN AGENT.

I JUST NEED TO KEEP TYPING THAT FOR A SECOND BECAUSE OMG YOU GUYS DID YOU HEAR I HAVE AN AGENT.

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Oh you did? Okay then. Just needed to get that out of my system.

Anyway. When we last left off, I’d completed my roughly 59,000-word historical fiction YA novel and had started sending query letters out into the wild. Now most places tell you to send your queries in batches of 8-12 at a time, so you can tweak if things aren’t working. But I’ve always been terrible at listening to advice, and when my first 10 queries started getting decent responses — meaning I knew the query and first few pages were working well — I thought, hell, YOLO, and started sending out a few a day. I know, I know, what a rebel I am.

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The thing is that those first few queries were yielding full and partial requests along with rejections, so I figured if the responses were fairly spread out, I’d have time to leisurely work on my next book and fix any gaping holes pointed out to me during the inevitable rejections that were sure to come. Any requests for fulls that came later, I reasoned, would then get a tighter, better manuscript. And if it still got rejected, then I’d think about what to do next.

So, err, it turns out that that didn’t really happen. From the beginning, I had quite a few requests for fulls and partials. One agent even expressed an interest early on, but provided I was willing to age the book from YA down to middle grade, which I ultimately decided I didn’t want to do. And then, almost exactly 2 weeks after I sent my first query letter, I got an offer of representation. And a week later, after nudging and waiting and biting my nails down to nubs, I had five.

FIVE.

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It took a lot of agonising to make my decision — all the agents were super qualified and gratifyingly enthusiastic about my work, and just really, really nice. It would have been helpful if anecdotes surfaced about any of them kicking puppies or stealing candy from kittens or some such thing, but alas.

In the end, as in the Highlander, there could be only one.

Deep breath: I am now represented by super agent Victoria Marini of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency! *throws confetti*

I chose Victoria because she has a stellar sales record and reputation, but I also chose Victoria because my conversation with her showed that she really understood my book and my characters, and because she’s shrewd and savvy and knows how to take my career where I want it to go. Not that every other agent who offered didn’t say all the right things; they were all wonderful, and I’d have been happy with any of them. But Victoria ticked every box, and some I didn’t even realise I had.

So there it is.

Final query stats (because I’ve been asked this a few times now):

TOTAL QUERIES SENT: 35
TOTAL FULL/PARTIAL REQUESTS: 21
TOTAL OFFERS OF REPRESENTATION: 5

***

But let’s be honest; you’re here for the magic formula, the secret to getting an agent.

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I don’t have it friend; I’m sorry. I think I hit upon a peculiar combination of luck and timing. For what it’s worth though, here’s my takeaways from my time in the trenches:

  1. Follow the rules. Every agent has guidelines for submission, and until they pick your MS out of the slush pile, you’re not special. Follow the rules. Some people want your first five pages, some want the first ten, some want a synopsis, some want the blood of your first born in a vial made out of diamond dust and unicorn tears. I made a spreadsheet that included each of their specific requirements, and followed it like it was the Pied F’in’ Piper. I swear, just following the rules puts you ahead of roughly 90% of the pack.
  2. Read twice before hitting ‘send.’ Make like Santa, friends: Check everything, and check it twice. Do not address a query to Susan when you’re sending it to Dave. Do not mention Talullah’s amazing Twitter feed when you’re querying Englebert. You’ve worked so hard to write the perfect query; don’t bloody stuff it up by being careless. CHECK EVERYTHING. THEN DO IT AGAIN.
  3. Use contests wisely. I recognise that I am wholly and utterly terribly at Twitter pitches; I just can’t condense my plots into 140 compelling characters. I really envy those who can. Twitter pitch contests are huge opportunities — just not right for me. Instead, since I was querying for the first time and wanted to know how to write the best query I could for my book, I entered contests and sought opportunities that offered query critiques. In this way, my query was looked over and tightened up by three industry experts — agents and book doctors — before I actually sent it out. Make contests work for you, bb. You can do it.
  4. Don’t pretend to know what you don’t. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I didn’t use comp titles in my query letter. I couldn’t think of any I was comfortable using — I either felt a bit unworthy of the comparison, or I didn’t think anything fit right — and I didn’t want to pretend to be something I didn’t 100% feel. So I omitted comps totally. I fretted about it a lot, but it was better than not being me.
  5. Stop comparing your querying journey to mine. Or anyone else’s. Dude, those query stats up there mean diddly squat. In the end, you only need one. Who cares what my journey was? Yours is yours, and that’s what makes it awesome.

If you have any specific querying questions for me, feel free to send me a message. And if you’re a Malaysian writer who’d like an extra pair of eyes on their query, DEFINITELY send me a message. I’m always happy to help.

ALSO DID YOU HEAR THAT I HAVE AN AGENT? BECAUSE I DO. HAVE AN AGENT.

I HAVE AN AGENTTTTTTTT.

*Flails into the night*

PS: I got some messages after putting up this post asking if I could please put up my query letter. Which I shall, with bonus liner notes, in the coming days! Promise.

3 thoughts on “Lessons from the Querying Trenches (AKA I HAVE AN AGENT!)

  1. syazaizzahm says:

    Congratulations Hanna!! I found you from Muslim Writer’s Club tweet and was so happy to see you are from Malaysia! Best of luck.
    Quick question: did it really matter to the agents that you are not living in the US when you sent queries to them? Or are you currently living in the US…?
    I’ve been searching for some answers for this question but found no luck. The closest answer that I could find was “if they fall in love with your story, it won’t really matter where you live” or something like that.
    Anyway, again, congratulations!

    • hanna.alkaf says:

      Hi! I’m in KL :). I asked several agents this directly before and during the query process and all of them said it wasn’t a problem at all — the only way it could be an issue is that US book tours would be a lot more difficult, obviously. It also took a little more work to schedule calls around the time difference! When it comes down to it, it really is the story that matters. Best of luck with the query process! Let me know if I can help 🙂

      • syazaizzahm says:

        This helps a lot! Gives me a lot of hope. I was doubtful in the beginning I would even be considered in the first place just because of location… I am still at the early stage of writing actually and pretty restless with settling one story. But I guess this means I should get back to writing! Thanks for the heads up.

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