Friday, April 24, 2009

How Long to Query

I know I’ve answered this before, but it’s a question that comes up again and again and it’s something I frequently think about. At one of my recent conferences a discussion came up about how authors should query and for how long. When should they quit? I made the suggestion that authors should never even start querying until they finish their first book and have started on the second. At that point, continue querying until the second book is done and ready to go, if you still have no bites, put the first book under the bed and start querying the second while writing the third.

Tough advice, I know, but after much thought another agent did admit that he agreed with my plan. So let me explain.

Hands down one of the biggest mistakes I see authors making is spending all their time and energy revising, rewriting and reworking that first book. I know from experience that over time you can do more damage than good with all of that revising. Most important, the goal is to move forward, and I fear that by not working on that second book you are instead spinning your wheels.

In addition, by working on that second book you are back to doing what you love and that’s writing. So when the querying starts to get you down you can go back to something you enjoy and learn and grow through that next book. Since I have no answer for how many agents to query, the best answer I can give about when to quit is when that next book is ready to go out. It gives you a goal and a clear indication of what’s next.

There are of course still things you should be working on with that first book. The query, for example. If you’re not getting any bites, you’ll want to rework your query, and if you get revision suggestions from an agent, suggestions you strongly believe in, you should definitely go back and make the changes. Otherwise, let it be. Take all of your newfound writing knowledge and focus it on your next work. Trust me, I think you’ll benefit more from that than you will working on the same book.

Certainly this is not a perfect plan, but for those of you who need to know when or how long, I think it’s a plan that makes sense. More important, I hope it’s a plan that keeps you writing because in the end the best path to a publishing career is just to keep on writing.



magolla said...

This is a good approach, especially for those of us who want to keep tweaking #1 MS. Starting #2 MS makes the querying process easier--out of sight, out of mind.

ChrisH said...

Oh dear! The spinning wheels analogy was rather chilling since it's taken me until recently to realise I've been doing just that. My first two (serial)queries resulted in requests for some additional work to my t/s, but both were eventually rejected. My 'Goldilocks' version which is neither too short and light nor too long and dark is out there again, but this time I'm getting on with the next book!

Marie Force said...

This is great advice, Jessica. When my first book didn't set the world on fire, I kept writing and submitting. I finally sold my seventh book, but never gave up on the ones that came before. When it came time for the option book, my editor ended up buying my third one. Right now, my agent and I are whipping my first one--the book of my heart--into shape for possible submission. I realize now that neither the time nor the book was right the first time around, but everything about it feels right now. I'm glad I kept writing in the meantime because I know a lot more now than I did then, and the first book is MUCH better this time around. I saw every new book as a new opportunity and that strategy paid off.

Amethyst Greye Alexander said...

I love it when I've unwittingly already followed good adivice. *grin* Of course my second book is a sequel to the first, but . . .

Thank you for the post!

P.S. Today's verification word? "Fully" No, seriously!

Alan Orloff said...

Very sound advice.

What you described is what I ended up doing. My first ms was very bad (I didn't even bother querying it). The second ms was less bad (I guess I learned some stuff writing the first one), but it only took a handful of queries before I determined it wasn't good enough to go anywhere, either.

I queried the heck out of my third ms--I thought it was good! Boy, was I wrong.

It wasn't until my fourth ms that I got an agent, and my next ms finally sold.

All along, I followed your plan. Query one while writing the next. Looking back, I was amazed (embarrassed?) by how much my writing improved between ms #1 and #4.

I was very glad I didn't put all my effort into trying to bring #1 up to snuff. I could have spent years working on that and it wouldn't have happened.

Anonymous said...

This is great advice. Having book 2 to focus on while you are querying is a way to keep your sanity. I'd heard it so many times "write the next one" but never fully understood the benefits until I did just that. Now, I have an agent for number 1 and am back and forth with revisions and in between I am working on 2. It will work to my advantage (mentally) during the editor submission process also. If for some FREAKISH reason that 1 doesn't sell, I can focus on 2.

Anonymous said...


My critique partner and I have been doing this dance lately about this very thing. My first manuscript was queried too soon, and I know that now, though I still got good requests for partials and even fulls, but I know its problems. Meanwhile, I've finished my second, and it's ready to query, but I want to go back and revise the first one again rather than starting the next. This hits home in a painful way--and it's good advice; I just don't know if I can do it yet!

Wondering: If I'm close to finishing up revisions on number one, is it a problem to query both at the same time? (Not in the same letter, nor to the same agents at the same time, and of course new agents only for the first one?)

Meanwhile, I might spend the ten or so hours to finish up the revisions I've been working on, but I know I need to get to the fresh writing.

By the way, said critique partner also reads this blog, and will no doubt email me with a fat "I told you!"

PurpleClover said...

Thanks. Your advice is logical and now I know what I'll do once my MS is done and edited. :)

Tiffany Chalmers said...

This is perfect advice. I did just this. Queried the heck out of my first book while writing the second book. No bites, even though I was getting requests.

When I finished the second book, I went back to the first, found major problems (since I was learning lots more by writing that second book), rewrote book one, then subbed it again. Got requests, but still no bites. And this time, I knew (or at least had an inkling of a feeling) that it wasn't that great a book. This is the wake up call right there.

I think a lot of writers get this gut instinct, and not just the usual feeling of insecurity, but the feeling that you don't want to stand behind that first book as much as you thought you did.

When I had that feeling, I knew it was time to stop querying that book and bury it.

I did not query the second book either(It was part of a series I'd planned out w/ book one).

It's a daunting journey the writing/querying/rejection. I think the hardest lesson to learn is when to finally let go and move on.

I'm a quick study, thank God, and it took me a year to figure out I needed to move on.

While I was writing book three, I was still getting back rejections on book one. Book three I knew was different. I knew it in my bones, as cliche as that is, that is just how I felt.

And you know what. I got my agent. I wouldnt' have gotten that agent had I still been pushing books ones and two. Now all this isn't to say that you can't pub your first book, I've friends who've done just that. But I think the liklihood is small.

Sorry for the uber long post.

Richard Mabry said...

Excellent advice. Just as others have done, I learned this the hard way. My first couple of novels still languish on my hard drive, the literary equivalent of that first waffle, the one you throw away.

Kristan said...

I think this is great advice too -- even though I'm not taking it... yet! I HAVE to keep working on my first ms, because I didn't really give it my all the first time around. But once these revisions are over, I will follow your advice. I already have books 2/3/4 in mind... ;)

Rick Daley said...

Reading your blog is like taking writing vitamins, which I hereby dub writamins.


Lady Glamis said...

Such excellent advice! Thank you so much! Rick is right. Your blog is like a wonder drug.

Anonymous said...

I agree with most of this but respectfully disagree on one aspect. The first book should never go under the bed. You've spent years writing it. If no one is going to pay you for it, self-publish it and give yourself a taste of what having a novel out in the world is really like. Easy to sell books? No, but it's best to get some idea how people will react to your book, and even traditionally published authors are responsible for promotion these days.

Ann Victor said...

Great advice. This validates the decision I've just made: on 1 June, book 1 is being put to bed and I start on book 2.

Anonymous said...

Your suggestion is exactly how I worked my search for an agent, that has now, after more than a year, gotten me representation with a very good agent. I queried widely with my first book. I received requests for partials and fulls but ultimately ran all the traps with no takers, though a couple suggested revisions which I didn't necessarily agree with. During that query process I continued to work on my next project. So that by the time I had finished querying on the first book, my next was completed. I then started the query process anew and soon received an offer of representation for the latest book. The agent has asked for revisions on this one which I am working on and is also reviewing the other books that came close but no cigar in netting representation. Keep in mind, in any event, that an agent wants a writer with more than one book in them. So you should be continuously working on new projects.

Alps said...

Great advice. Thanks, Jessica! This makes a lot of sense. It's nice to have some rules of thumb to live by in this business. This one's key to survival.

Dara said...

It makes perfect sense. I think I would go crazy if I continued to focus on the first book. I have so many other small ideas waiting to be worked on so I'm actually waiting for the day when I'm sending out queries and can focus on writing another story!

jimnduncan said...

Excellent advice of course. Tough to follow as well. So many writers want to see that reward for their first effort to finally finish a novel. They want validation for all of that time and hard work. I also believe people query too soon, overcome with all the hope and excitement that comes with getting that first one done, and it takes some querying to realize that the first book needs work, and wasn't really in a publishable state. So then it's rework/revise and try again. At some point though, you reach a point of diminishing returns. First books rarely ever sell. Writers just haven't honed their craft to where they need to be.

As much as writers want to get that book out there, it would likely be good advice to set the first book aside, write the next book, and then look at that first one again after some time has passed and see if you think it's worth the effort to make the changes it will need to be what you want. Getting some distance from your work has great benefits.

The Writers Canvas said...

Great advice as always, Jessica. One woman in our local RWA chapter talked about this very thing. She spent so much time revising and sending out her first book, so when it did finally sell and the agent/editor asked what other books she had, she had none because she'd spun her wheels on that first book for so long. She is published, but had to scramble to write another book because she had not moved on.

Thanks again for the daily blogs and great ideas!


Kathy said...

I love this advice!! It gets so frustrating to revise, revise, revise for a book to just not catch on. You can only do that so many times in a row before you're sick of it all. And you're right - the fun is in the writing, the creating of a new story.

And sometimes you have to tweak the query process. Send out a few and if you get no bites, you revise the query and then see if you get any interest. It has worked for me.

Selestial said...

Funny timing for your post. Last night I decided that rather than starting the second book of my series, I needed to shift focus so I stopped stressing about the querying game. Instead, I've started a new book just for fun that may never see the light of day (or may turn out brilliantly), but it will keep me happily writing while I'm querying. For a while at least.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I love what Marie Force said about some of her older manuscripts being bought or reworked. Writing the second book will strengthen your writing skills. If it sells, you can go back and rework the first, or even rewrite it completely if you liked the idea but felt the execution failed because your skills were less developed then. Or you can just scrap it and keep moving forward, but sometimes you just need time away from a MS before you can recognize what's wrong with it.

Anonymous said...

Jessica, this is the best advice ever, and so timely for me. I've just been trying to figure out how long to work on revising my novel. I have another one I've started, but put on hold because I feel this first one should be perfect before I start querying. But, this advice makes so much sense, because I feel sorta like I'm spinning my wheels with the first book. I don't even want to look at it sometimes because I'd rather be working on the new project. So, I'm totally going to take your advice.

This was such a good post! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Elissa M said...

I think many writers have difficulty letting go of that first novel. They've put so much effort into it, they can't accept that it might not be salable.

I often compare writing with my career as an artist. It's true that creating a painting doesn't take as long as writing a novel, but still my heart and soul goes into each and every one. Waiting until a painting sells before painting another would be ridiculous.

My walls are decorated with paintings that didn't sell. Some are good, and some perhaps only a mother could love. Focusing my energy on the unsold wallflowers would accomplish nothing except make me doubt my skill as an artist.

Writing is as creative an endeavor as painting. Writers absolutely must move on to the next project or their creativity will die, and they will become bitter, angry people who blame the "system" for their failure to sell.

Not that I've ever seen any evidence of that...

Yunaleska said...

Great advice - one I'm sort of doing. Or will be when I've got a polished draft. I don't worry about coming up with new um at least 10 in the pipeline :) So more than happy to query 1 while write 2, then if 1 doesn't bit send out 2 while writing 3, etc.

Robena Grant said...

I agree with what you're saying.

With three old completed manuscripts that got through the partial and full request stages, I wasted a lot of time trying to revise them. Last year I finally gave up.

I've only queried five agents and one editor on the completed MS, (the next one is in rough draft and almost finished). The editor gave fabulous feedback so now I'm revising the first one before sending it out again. If it doesn't fly in the next round or two it gets put aside.

I'm convinced the only way to improve is to write new stories learning from prior mistakes. The key of course is the learning. ; )

Amy said...

Jessica - Agreed, 2 days in a row!

The added benefit is it keeps writers from going crazy stressing about agent replies. Better to focus on the next book than the silent inbox. Instead of staring at your email you'll have a whole new book done!

Anonymous said...

I just love this and yesterday's post! Thank you. I sent four queries then moved on because I realized I didn't know how to make the book or the query better (and I'm too fragile to query far and wide just yet). Then, I got request for a partial. To keep from stressing about how that's gonna go, I press on with the next book. Writing is FUN!!! We all know querying is not.

Dawn said...

Great post! I've been putting my second book off while I was trying to perfect my query and first manuscript...too much fiddling, I think. Bad idea.

allison said...

FWIW, I did exactly what you recommend. I found an agent and sold with my fifth completed manuscript. One thing I noticed was that with each manuscript, I had more bites from agents for full manuscripts:

1) 1 of 50+ queries
2) 3 of 50+ queries
3) 0 of 0 (the book was awful, I never queried it.)
4) 1 of 2 queries
5) 5 of 12 queries.

I didn't keep track of partial requests except for book 5; two agents were reading partials when I signed.

My husband once said that he would have been writing and rewriting and rewriting the first book until he sold it or was dead. I wrote, edited, and queried. Then started the next book. Even now that I have a dozen books out, I still start my next book as soon as I finish my WIP and send it off to my editor--even if that title isn't contracted yet.

CNU said...

I do not like this manuscript Sam I Am!

I would not could not read a line,

Nor trouble myself to respond in kind.

I do not like your query, it didn't follow code,

I'll turn on my computer's- auto reject mode!

Try it, try it you will see.

No way, you ought let me be!

May I send an envelop self-addressed?

NO! You're giving me heart-burn, indigestion and mental stress!

Can't you just open your mail?

No, I'm late to talk smack on 'QueryFail'!

:) Friday Funny...

Good advice BTW.

(*Thank God for parody copyright protection...*)

Sooki Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

For those writers who just love towrite and are determined to be published, it makes sense to write the next novel while focusing on selling the first. Not every author has more than 1 book in them, however--especially non-fic writers who have 1 area of expertise.

But when it comes to wannabe genre fic writers (I guess about 95% of the regulars here), then yeah, know when to retire a novel and try another. I use the following system:

Write one while tring to sell the last, If the last hasn't garnered an agent by the time I'm done writing the new one, then I try direct to small presses. If that doesn't work, I consider POD--is this book better off dead, or given a longshot on lulu, amazon, etc, while writing the new one.

captcha: vinge

Anonymous said...

"should a writer who wishes to publish a mystery series--or even a romance series featuring initial secondary characters as subsequent hero and heroine--continue with that series, writing two or perhaps three books. Or should they start another series with entirely different characters and setting?"

If you're an unknown writer, it makes no sense to continue on with a series without having sold the first book in the series. Your chances are better if you keep writing different stories until one of them hits--and then create a series out of that one.

To use an analogy, if you were a cabinet maker and built a cabinet hoping you'd be able to sell it to somebody when it was done, but nobody ended up buying it, would you then turn around and build another cabinet of the same type but just a different color?! I hope not. That would be like one of those obsessive compulsive people you see in the movies, where his wife wanders into the garage one day and sees 50 cabinets that he's built, all of the same type, just sitting there...scary, right!

So why do that with writing? Be nimble and creative, not stubborn and tunnel-visioned.

Sooki Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Weronika said...

Jessica, thank you, thank you! :) I appreciate your time and the advice is wonderful. I'd never considered taking this kind of approach and I think I will from now on. Much appreciated.

Hallona said...

I wish my former cowriter could see this. This was one of the reasons I broke up with him. We finished the book and started submitting to agents. I was trying to come up with ideas for the next book while he dismissed them and fussed over the rejections. We barely hit double digits before he became convinced something was wrong with the book and that it needed to be revised. He didn't understand what needed to be fixed, only that something must be wrong because we were getting rejections. Mind you, the query was getting rejected, and he instead focused on the book. Even worse, he wanted to start revising again and would not even discuss a new project until after I helped him on his revision quest.

Now I'm almost finished with my next book, and have another planned to immediately follow.

Anonymous said...

Good advice, Jessica, but too late for me. :-)
I took a leap frog approach, though I didn't even think about it at the time.
I wrote book one, then book two. Returned to book one for rewrite, wrote book three.
Returned to book one for another rewrite, wrote book four.
Returned to book one for rewrite, started book five, had more ideas for book one. At this point, I discovered a few authors whose writing inspired me. I attacked book one again.
My trusted first readers said, Wow. It was time to stop fussing with book one and get down to business.
I recently started sending queries on book one and am getting agent requests for partials and fulls. The question to ponder: if I manage to publish book one, is it really my first manuscript or is it number six or seven? Hmm...
Now, I'm tweaking book two, but heck, book five won't leave me alone!
I can honestly say, I have not looked at book one in a month--not even a minor tweak.
Is there is a program for this sort of addiction? And do I want to be cured if there is?

Anonymous said...

If you're an unknown writer, it makes no sense to continue on with a series without having sold the first book in the series. Your chances are better if you keep writing different stories until one of them hits--and then create a series out of that one.I agree. When editors started rejecting my first in a series, I didn't have the stomach to continue with the second. Thank God I stopped. Thank God I didn't listen to all those people who kept telling me I should write the second book anyway. The first book didn't sell and my agent dumped me. (And now that a year-plus has passed, my unique hook isn't so unique anymore.)

Anonymous said...

I think if you're writing a genre series, why not follow up w/ a second book? Most agents seem to sell 2 or 3 book deals & it doesn't make sense to switch gears after the first book.

Then if those two don't sell, maybe try something new...
I like my idea too much to give up--and several agents are still reading the fulls so there's hope.

BookEnds, LLC said...

Anon 9:24 covered this and I've done other posts on this subject, but never write the next book in the series unless you've sold the first one. It's counter-productive. If the publisher buys the first one and wants others you can always go back to the series. I'll tell you now, you are very, very unlikely to sell the second book in the series if you can't sell the first.


Kenny Celican said...

Well. Ouch.

I'd been following most of that advice excepting the bit about the 'series'; I'd gone on to work on book two and three while book one was in a slush pile. Now to decide if it's easier to purge the brain onto paper or via some other method...

beckylevine said...

Interesting, Jessica. So if an author has been getting "bites"--i.e. requests for pages & then some requests for full, they shouldn't STOP querying while they write their second. On my kids' mystery, I have gotten this kind of encourgement, but felt that--since no one was taking it--maybe I should stop querying on it. (I am working on the next book). But you think, in general, keep sending out the letters?


Anonymous said...

Two of the most eloquent writers I know QUIT (!!) writing when their first book (each) did not sell.

I am sort of the Stephen King school of "keep filling the drawer."

Sooki Scott said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

Thanks, but how do you know the first book won't sell if you give up too soon? I've had 5 requests for fulls out of less than 20 submissions so I think the odds are good it will sell. Seems the agents are taking their time reading and deciding, but I want to be ready when that offer comes in! LOL

My question is: How many queries should you submit before you give up? I've heard 100 but I think I'd hang it up before then...
Anyt thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Jessica, I thnk there are exceptions to this "rule." An agent asked me about a series proposal with her full request, and seemed very impressed that I'd started book #2 and already had a title and idea for book #3. Fingers crossed!

ps/What info should you include w/ a series proposal?

Anonymous said...

Jessica, I thnk there are exceptions to this "rule." An agent asked me about a series proposal with her full request, and seemed very impressed that I'd started book #2 and already had a title and idea for book #3. Fingers crossed! I wouldn't dare speak for Jessica, but I did want to share my experience. When my agent signed me, she honestly didn't care that I hadn't started my second book. (I asked her.) However, I do think it's helpful to have ideas ready for the next couple of books in a series. (This came in handy when an editor asked to see a brief pitch for Books #2 and #3.) But if I'd gone ahead and written Book #2, I would have wasted 1-2 years of my writing life. (I'm Anon 8:44, the one whose agent dumped her after Book #1 didn't sell.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Anon--but I'm a big believer in recycling! LOL I just started trying to sell Book #1 and rather than obsess, I started #2. Agents are partly to blame for taking so long to read & make decisions...IMHO

Who knows? Maybe Book #1 will sell after Book 2!? (I'm a published writer so maybe more optimistic..)

Suzette Saxton said...

Thank you for your excellent advice. It's the best answer I've ever heard about how long to query.