(Disclaimer: I don't claim to be an expert on anything, really. I'm more of a J.O.A.T-- Jack of all trades and master of none-- but I have written a novel or three in my day, and even queried two of them. The first one was such crap that I often wonder what twenty-nothing-me was thinking, but I plead youth and enthusiasm, and use copies of its manuscript for kindling without twitching an eyelid. I've only begun querying my second book, but the point is, I have a stack of rejection slips that illustrate the importance of planning your process. I still don't know if my new reasoning will bring me closer to a publisher. Who knows? Maybe this book is crap, too. But I can give newbies a bit of Big Sisterly advice from hindsight, that I plan to follow this time around, myself.)
The process of querying a book is something like a dating service. I should know, since I met my husband of thirteen years online through one of them. I went through the process of putting myself out there, prettying up a profile, writing up my list of demands, my likes, my romance killers... And that's what agents do: they wear their hearts on their sleeves, knowing somewhere out there is a match for them, someone they can get excited over, and they're prepared to slog through a pile of whiners, mamma's boys and creepazoids to find it.
Your query is one of maybe a hundred they'll read this week. They don't lack for suitors. They can be fussy and wait for Ms. (or Mr.) Right. In fact, they have to be picky. Once they represent you, it's an awful lot like a marriage, so they absolutely must be in love not only with your work, but also with you.
Whether you realize it or not, the same applies to their prospective bride or groom: in this case, you, the author. Will you introduce yourself to a suitor who is all wrong for you, and let yourself be relegated to "kid brother" limbo? The, "It's not you, it's me," pile of exes? Or (shudders) the, "Not even if I were drunk and comatose," pit of oblivion?
Do yourself and your prospective partner a favor. Think before you jump in with both feet. Don't just spray random, carbon copy queries around like a dog marking his territory and hump whatever stands still too long. What you want-- if you're serious about publishing-- is a coordinated assault (maybe that's a poor choice of words, with the dating metaphor and creep factor, but in this case not intended as a sick pun). Before you query, decide what you want from an agent or publisher, then decide what you really need. Next, admit to what you could live with. After that, realize what your absolute minimum is-- the relationship that might not electrify you, but it wouldn't make you miserable. It wouldn't end with you packing your things in the middle of the night and heading to Mexico for a quickie divorce. This, in dating terms, is called "settling." If you're fortunate, it will never apply to either your love life or your writing career, but be realistic. You, the unpublished author, are the literary equivalent of an old maid. You're not an agent's fantasy. While you may have a lot to offer any partner, they can afford to be picky and your competition for their affection will be fierce. Be prepared for severe disappointment. Inject yourself with a healthy dose of blasé at the very start of your search and then if you find your happily-ever-after quickly, you can chide yourself for pessimism, primp in the mirror of success and climb into bed with your new life partner reassured in the knowledge that you've still got what it takes to be a trophy wife. The time you take before that partnership to ask yourself who is really right for you might mean the difference between finding that soulmate and dying a lonely, bitter old spinster.
So let's look at how you approach that list of agents and editors. Is it a smorgasbord filled with tantalizing confections that tempt you to sample before choosing the flavor that satisfies completely? Or is it a $2.99 all-you-can-eat buffet where you load your plate and care less about what it is you're eating than you do how much? Will you stuff yourself with empty calories and carbs? Will you come away with euphoria or heartburn? Be discerning. All agents and editors were not created the same. You wouldn't stuff yourself with garbage just for the sake of gluttony when a gourmet meal is set in front of you, any more than you would marry a person you believe is stupid and ugly just for the sake of marrying, when there's a possibility you could find your soulmate if you just look. You shouldn't choose your agent that way, either. Look around. Read, research, get to know the people you may partner. Get a sense of their attractiveness. Find out what they're looking for in a partner and whether you might be right for one another before inviting them on that blind date.
And back to the dating service metaphor again (nice segue, eh?). So you make your list before you even pick up that copy of Writer's Market. Yes, the point is to be realistic from the get-go, but just for fun, list everything you want from an agent. Your list can include, "fun to chat with," or "business-like," "I'd like a woman to represent me," or even, "she has to get me a million dollar contract." Everything is a go, on this list: it's your fantasy date, your Charlize Theron, your Fabio (or insert whatever celebrity name gets kids' knickers in a twist, these days). It doesn't hurt to try for him/her first, but don't be shattered if he says you're a sweet kid but he's not interested. It was worth a try, but he was out of your league and you knew it. Frame the rejection. Hang it on your wall and blow kisses at it from time to time and love him from afar. Don't bombard him with letters asking what's wrong with you. That only leads to restraining orders and not happily-ever-after. Move on.
Take another look at that fantasy list. Cross out whatever isn't realistic. Decide who isn't out of your league even if they may be long-shots. This is the list that-- if you landed him-- would make any normal author envious. You can equate the agent who meets these criteria with landing a good-looking doctor or lawyer. Your friends would be green over him, even if the relationship might not include your picture on the cover of a supermarket tabloid. Who know? It could happen. There are lots of doctors and most of them do, eventually, marry. So why not marry you?
But, face it. There are waaaaay fewer doctors in the world (let alone good-looking ones who aren't, say, proctologists) than there are women or men hoping to marry them. It's time to trim your list a little more. Ask yourself, "If I can't have my fantasy mate, or my friends' fantasy mate, what would actually-- in the larger scheme of things-- make me satisfied, even happy, to stay, make babies and eventually grow old with a partner?" With that answer, my friend, you're likely to find a true soulmate. Apply that list and you can afford a little disappointment when you're rejected. And now that you have made your list, it's time to pick up Jeff Herman's Guide again, sort through the potential suitors and draft your first query...
How do I decide where to start? That's a whole n'other blog, my friend, but you will have it ;)