National Novel Writing Month logoIt’s October 31! You know what that means!

…OK. Yes. It’s Halloween. I actually meant something else.

It’s the end of October. And tomorrow’s the start of November! And that means it’s time for National Novel Writing Month–also known as NaNoWriMo–a beloved annual event where writers try to write a 50,000-word story in a month.

Let’s chat about it!

I honestly didn’t like NaNoWriMo until I lived in a big city.

Honestly, the one-and-only reason I participated in NaNo last year–and the reason I’ll be doing it this year–is to socialize.

For a long time, I didn’t live in a place with a big writing community. I lived in small cities. I lived outside the United States. And no matter how many times I decided that I was going to hop on the forums and make digital friends, I… didn’t.

And NaNo is not that fun, at least in my opinion, if you do it alone. The thrill is in the community. It’s sitting in a room full of people who are desperately struggling to catch up, who are blazing through hundreds of words as fast as they can, and who are all encouraging each other to go go go! Without the community, well… I mean, you can write a book whenever you want, you know?

But if you’re in a place that has a decent local NaNo group (and you can check that by checking out NaNo’s Find a Region tool), it can be a lot of fun. Go to different write-ins. Chat with other writers. And if you don’t like them? Who cares! You’re there to write! Say your hellos, get to know everyone, then plug in your earphones and write for an hour. It’s the best of both worlds!

And even though I still think 50,000 words in a month is kind of silly…

Honestly. I know I said this last year, but 50,000 words is weird.

NaNoWriMo is an easy way for new writers to give themselves a challenge–and for that, 50,000 words is great. It’s high enough to be a challenge (especially if you don’t write) and it requires you to write nearly every day.

But most adult fiction is longer. Heck, most young adult fiction is longer. And I write fantasy, which can be just shy of twice that long. I could maybe write a middle grade fantasy inside of 50K. Possibly.

You don’t have to complete a novel to “win.” But NaNoWriMo isn’t nearly as exciting when the goal is “let’s write 50% of a novel really quickly, then finish the rest over the next few months!” How am I supposed to celebrate that?

…I’m doing it anyway! And won’t be posting in the meantime.

I know! You must be heartbroken.

I won’t be posting until December. Because let’s be honest–I write 1,000-word posts, and I’d much rather put those words toward making that NaNoWriMo graph shoot up.

I’ll be back in December, hopefully with 50,000 words of progress beneath my belt and a few stories about the new people I meet–and maybe a few new friends?

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Banner with part of the cover for the novel Justice Unending, by Elizabeth Spencer.First thing’s first! Want to enter a giveaway for Justice Unending? Just hop over to LibraryThing, change the “Media” drop-down to “Paper Only,” and scroll down until you find it. (I wish I could link directly to the thing. Sorry for all the extra steps!)

And with that out of the way, let’s get back to my favorite kind of post. I was reading stuff on the internet, and someone said something I didn’t agree with, guys! Let’s talk for 1,000 words about it!

So! The other day, I saw a post worrying about their YA science fiction. It was a story about teenagers. They had jobs, were concerned about their futures, and were looking forward to college. But it was otherwise a very innocent-sounding story, with no sex, no violence outside of a few bumps and scratches, and a lighthearted theme, and it had an unambiguously happy ending.

And he was nervous: is this not a young adult story? Did I actually write a middle grade story?

I was shocked at the number of people who were like “Oh, yeah! That’s not YA! Drop those ages!”

Huh.

Middle grade novels are not just sanitized young adult stories.

This happens a lot, actually! Many people don’t think there’s that much difference between YA and MG. Since they’re both books for children, many assume that the only difference is the subject matter: light violence, no sex, and no cussing is a PG movie. That’s MG! And if there’s anything PG-13 in there? BAM! Instant YA!

(Also, in case you’re unfamiliar with the acronyms, YA = young adult, or books for people loosely in the 13 to 18 year range, and MG = middle grade, or books for those loosely in the 8ish to 12 year range. But those aren’t hard numbers. There’s a lot of blurriness around the edges.)

And if all you care about is subject matter, then there’s a clear line: everything gritty and serious goes into YA and everything full of childhood adventure goes into MG.

And… that’s not entirely untrue? Middle grade novels are designed for a younger audience, so they do need to be age-appropriate in the way they handle violence, romance, and relationships. They don’t tend to have PG-13 content like sex and intense violence.

But this doesn’t mean that a YA automatically becomes a MG if it’s not violent enough, or that a MG becomes a YA because it’s dealing with something serious.

MG and YA novels are fundamentally designed for different periods of life.

Let’s start with something obvious: YA and MG books are, in fact, designed for children who are at entirely periods in their lives.

YA Novels Have YA Themes. In the most generic way, YA books deal with teenagers who are on the cusp of adulthood. They generally have themes like:

  • Being independent
  • Relying less on their parents and family
  • Being self-sufficient, and making your own decisions in life
  • Dealing with adult responsibilities, or preparing for them
  • Having to deal with adult problems, like housing, rent, jobs, or whatever the adult equivalent is in your genre.

YA novels may include a lot of adult content, but this may be the characters’ first experiences with them: these characters may have their first relationships, their first jobs, or the first situations where they’re really expected to go off, alone, with no one else, and survive by their own means. They are people being tested by adulthood.

None of these require sex and violence. It’s entirely possible to have characters–and a plot–that revolve around what it’s like to become a self-sufficient, independent adult that don’t require graphic violence or sexy times.

MG Novels have MG Themes. MG protagonists are, at most, maybe about 12 years old. They legally can’t support themselves, or live alone, or have a job. Consequently, their protagonists are:

  • More reliant on family.
  • More dependent on guardians and adult figures in their lives to provide the essentials of life and to take care of the big responsibilities.
  • Less interested in relationships, or only starting to think about them.
  • Trying to establish their identities, to form personalities and opinions separate of their family’s, and to create their own self-image, their own goals, and their own dreams.
  • Looking forward to growing up, and getting to do things that older kids do.

But adulthood and self-sufficiency are probably very far away for these kids–and if they aren’t, it’s much more of a tragedy. These are kids who are looking forward to the freedoms and independence of being a teenager.

These themes bleed into EVERYTHING in the story.

Is everything I said above a cliche? Oh, yeah. Are there exceptions? Constantly!

But let’s say you have, say, a YA science fiction that’s written about teenagers being teenagers. Can you just remove their jobs and say “Hey, we’re middle grade now?”

Probably not.

Because those themes I mentioned above? They affect everything. A 10 year old is not interested in the same things, and doesn’t have the same thought process, as a 17 year old. Their lives are different, their needs are different, their expectations for the future are different.

  • It affects your characterization and character interaction.
  • It affects the plot: what happens, why it happens, and what the consequences are may be totally different based on your character can do, how your character is likely to react, and what your character wants.
  • It affects the core themes in the story–the elements that you focus on, the underlying message of the events that occur, the significance of what happens.

The dynamics between two 10-year-old friends are different–they expect different things, have different ideas of what they’re responsible for, have different kinds of boundaries with each other, etc.

A MG story about a rough childhood might focus on regaining trust, finding adults who care, rediscovering stability in life. A YA story might focus on learning that a home situation isn’t safe, breaking free, and finding independence.

But even now, even with all this in mind, you still can’t say “MG = light themes, YA = heavy stuff.” MG novels can absolutely have serious, darker themes. Many books are designed to help its readers cope with the world around them–and there definitely are 10 year olds who deal with dysfunctional families, violence at home and in their communities, and other “adult” topics. They, too, can find comfort in stories about protagonists their age dealing with these very real problems. The way they deal with it will be different than a YA book, and these scary topics should be handled in an age-appropriate way, but just having a darker, heavier theme does not necessarily mean that a book can’t be MG.

Consequently, it’s very, very rare that you can take a book, change the protagonists’ ages, and change nothing else.

So, in conclusion… No. If you’ve written a book about teenagers being teenagers, I’m going to guess that turning it into a MG might require significant rewrites. (And this is all without mentioning the more obvious things: like how MG books are much shorter than YA and that MG science fiction is, I think, much harder to tell in than YA.)

But the most important thing is that YA and MG aren’t interchangeable. A fluffy YA isn’t “basically” a MG, and a darker MG isn’t a YA in disguise. Whether a story is MG or YA is a much more complicated decision.

Notecard that reads 'Today has mostly been about frustrations and disappointment :('

Photo by Sarah Barker on Flickr.

I’m no stranger to creative slumps. Every year, I crash at least once, wonder why I write at all, and take a few weeks off. It eventually pases, all is well again, and I get back to work.

But not this year! This year has been terrible. I finished the edit of my most recent project earlier this year. (The edit itself took a year and a half. It was grueling.) Then I started querying. Querying was depressing, so I started outlining my next project. Everything went wrong.

The story I most wanted to work on was missing everything between the beginning and climactic battle–like, you know, a world for the rest of the story to happen in, characters who weren’t the protagonist and antagonist, and a plot. Uhhhhh…

So I tried another story–the sequel to the one I was querying. Nope. I’ve got a theme and a city, but not a plot. That… wasn’t helpful.

Then I went back to a story I wrote during NaNoWriMo. I already had 70,000 words down, so it had to be be easier to fix, right? It was half written! And… no. It was the wrong story, with the wrong villain. How did I even do that? I needed to start over. I probably couldn’t save anything.

And after months of bouncing between these stories, I had nothing to show for it. A stack of notecards, a few outlines on the wall, and… nothing. The year was more than half over and I had nothing to show for it.

So I sat down for my daily hour of writing time, determined to do something. And then that went wrong, too.

I have a bad habit of downplaying any work I do that isn’t “productive” enough.

I have a bad habit. I associate “productivity” with producing words. I’m not the worst about it, admittedly. I think all sorts of things are a good use of my time, even if they aren’t strictly “writing.” I feel good when I:

  • Add words to an outline
  • Create character sheets or worldbuilding documents
  • Edit old content
  • And, of course, just write an actual story.

But I wasn’t doing any of that. None of these stories had plots, remember?

What I really needed to do was brainstorm. And that was the problem. Brainstorming feels unproductive.

When I write or outline something, I can measure my progress: I wrote words. Yay! But if I spend an hour brainstorming, I can’t guarantee I’ll do anything. Maybe I’ll come up with an idea. Maybe I won’t! Maybe I’ll spend hours thinking and not come up with anything usable at all!

And I hate that.

I wrote 200,000 words last year–and now it’s August 2018 and I’ve only written a fraction of that. I need an idea now so I can write something now, and I need to get past the brainstorming and into the actual writing or I won’t produce anything at all this year and–

So I kept settling on any idea–anything at all!–that felt good enough that I could start working on it. Nothing’s perfect, right? I can fix it later, can’t I?

And… no. No. That’s terrible. Why did I do that? Why did I do it more than once? I kept glomming onto bad ideas and, unsurprisingly, deciding they were terrible a few days or weeks later. Then I’d toss them out, feel even more like I was wasting my time, and do it again.

Weeks passed. I was even angrier at myself. None of this was working.

I had to redefine what a “productive use of my time” was.

I needed to stop doing this. But how?

First off, I had to detangle this awful, messy, stupid knot of feelings. I was measuring my worth in a binary way: either I produced an idea, outline, or story and was good, or I spent an hour coming up with nothing and was bad. I was forcing myself to produce ideas on demand and beating myself up when I couldn’t.

I needed to reframe my thoughts. I started by trying to identify what was good about what I was doing:

  • Time spent thinking about a story is useful, even if I don’t come up with a solution to a problem. I should consider a brainstorming session as valuable as a writing session–it’s still time actively spent thinking about a story.
  • Word count is not the only measure of a good or active writer. A day where I spent time working on a story is a productive day. Period.
  • If my current brainstorming style isn’t working, I should try something new. Mixing it up could help.
  • And I really needed to pay less attention to my word counting sheet. I love it dearly, but if I’m brainstorming, I have no meaningful way to record that. It’s just a “zero word” day, which looks terrible. I had to think of another way to feel like I was doing something.

So I gave it a shot.

Little by little, I took some of the pressure of myself.

In my quest to “try other ways of brainstorming,” I started trying techniques I had seen other people use:

  • Journaling my thoughts and feelings about my story
  • Making Pinterest inspiration boards
  • Finding art that reminded me of my world

And because my word counting sheet was making me feel bad, I tried something simpler. I just used a calendar. If I spent any time working on my project, I’d put an X on that day. I was productive that day. No judgement. No word count. Just work = success = good.

It did feel a little silly. These felt like… fluffy things to spend my time on. But it was still better than going “Do I have any ideas? No? Let’s get angry at myself for 30 minutes, then give up and play videogames.”

And for most of a month, I really didn’t do much. I wrote down feelings. I checked off days. I didn’t produce much, but I was sticking to my schedule.

And then things started to get better. I had a few ideas. I started an outline. And I–maybe? Hopefully?–started to find things I wanted to write again.

It’s still to early to see if it really helped, but…

I only just now started making progress, so who knows! Maybe I’m just doing what I did before: making a little progress, glomming on to it, and swearing that this time I’ve broken the curse.

But I do know that throwing down a deadline and forcing myself to make words didn’t help. Demanding that I make ideas, now, within my 60 minutes of writing time didn’t help. It seems kind of obvious to say “Hey, have you tried not being such a jackass to yourself?” but, well, sometimes we miss the obvious solutions.

Honestly, though, if there’s one thing that helped me the most, it was the journaling. I’ll write more about that in my next post, because it was genuinely surprising how much it helped me clear my brain out.

But that’s a post for another day!

The LibraryThing logo, which reads: LibraryThing. What's on your bookshelf?When I first started experimenting with book marketing, I managed to post about Goodreads Book Giveaways just a few months before they mad them expensive as heck.

And you know what sucked? I had a box of books in my closet.

I ordered a small number of books so I could test out Goodreads, but my publisher made a shipping error and sent me two batches for the price of one. It was lucky. I had gotten 20 books at a steep discount. When I ran my first Goodreads giveaway, I gave away 4.

And then, before I could give the rest away, they started charging  $120 for that service. OK. So I wasn’t using Goodreads again. But what was I supposed to do with the rest of my books?

Then I heard about LibraryThing.

What is LibraryThing?

LibraryThing is a service much like Goodreads that lets you catalogue books you’ve read, rate them, and review them. It has some very cool local features, too–just enter your city and you can see all the local, book-related events happening around you.

And, like Goodreads, it has a giveaway program. A still-free giveaway program! It has two, in fact:

  • Early Reviewer Books, where you can get early access to not-yet-released books from selected publishers in exchange for a review
  • Member Giveaways, where anyone can give away any book, no matter when they came out

And since my novel, Justice Unending, came out in 2016, we’re gonna talk about the member giveaways!

How does it work?

Member Giveaways are simple:

  • You can give away physical books or e-books.
  • …although, if you do want to give away e-books, they can’t be available anywhere for free.
  • You can give away as many books as you want.
  • You can run your giveaway as long as you want.
  • If you give away physical books, you are responsible for packing and shipping the books to the winners.
  • You can request that your winners review your book, but they’re not required to.

And that’s it! It’s simple, it’s fast, and you can throw one together in 5 minutes.

How’d it go?

I created a giveaway for Justice Unending that lasted 2 weeks. I gave away 4 copies.

Two weeks is not a lot of time, and I didn’t promote it. At all. So I basically just relied on LibraryThing’s own community and its own “get free books!” system to get my book in front of people’s eyes. I had no idea if anyone was going to see this thing at all, much less request it.

But it turns out I didn’t have to worry: 80 people requested my book. 80! In just 2 weeks! It might not be the 1,000 requests I got for a 4-week Goodreads giveaway, but who cares? I only had 4 copies!

And how’s it gone so far? Who knows! Giveaways are notoriously hard to measure. By their very nature, you’re spending money. I had to buy my own books. I had to buy envelopes. I had to ship them. And what do I get in return? If I’m lucky, those 4 people will read it. If I’m luckier, they’ll review it. And if I get really lucky, a few of them will review the book on a site like Amazon, those reviews will raise my visibility, and maybe, someday, I’ll have enough reviews to qualify for Bookbub.

Those are all indisputably great things, but you can’t put a value on them. Really, giveaways are just about throwing money away and hoping you get some visibility out of it.

So what could I do better?

Realistically, if I did not have a closet full of books, I’d only be doing LibraryThing’s e-book giveaways.

Seriously. I only have physical books because Goodreads didn’t do e-book giveaways until recently (when, of course, they weren’t free.) So that’s why I bought the books. When Goodreads Giveaways were free, they were still only “free.” You still had to invest your own money to try them out.

But since LibraryThing does free e-book giveaways, there’s literally no reason to bother with physical books at all. (OK, well, there are some considerations–giving someone an EPUB is probably a great way to make it easy for them to ship that thing to their friends and family for free, I suppose.) But on the other hand, it’s free. No shipping. No purchasing books. And if you aren’t paying a shipping fee of $4.80 per book (and yes, I’m paying a domestic shipping fee of $4.80 per book), you can go ahead and give away 100 copies of your book at a time. Is that a lot of non-paying people? Yes! But it’s free, and it’s a lot more visibility–and a lot more chances of getting reviews–than sending out 4 copies of a book.

But you know what? Even if I don’t get any reviews (although, yes, I would still really like some reviews), I’m still happy about one thing: now I can actually put together a plan to give away the rest of my books. Phew! I was starting to wonder if I’d never get that corner of my closet back.

It’s been a while since I posted! So, first off: sorry for vanishing off the face of the Earth like that.

Mostly, I’ve been busy. Busy-busy. Work’s nuts. Long hours. Overtime. Craziness. There’s barely been time to write, and if I don’t have time to write, then I definitely don’t have time to blog.

But that’s an understandable excuse. One you might even empathize with! And believe me, I have far worse excuses for vanishing. Like this one: I’ve been querying, and querying always rocks my world. I prepare myself emotionally, I write posts about how you shouldn’t care about rejections, and then I get sad anyway. That’s right, I’m a hypocrite!

It always takes me time to accept that I’ll never one of those authors who sends out their first 5 queries and end up drowning in offers of rep 2 days later. It takes me a few dozen queries to transition into “querying is methodical, unemotional busywork that I never expect to pay off in any meaningful way.” So. Yeah. I’m not there yet.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve been reading marketing books again. And that just makes me realize how little I know what I’m doing.

And since that’s the less depressing topic, let’s talk platform. A little. Kind of. This post is kind of scattered.

The basics of marketing aren’t too crazy.

Cover of Online Marketing for Busy Authors.

Image from Goodreads.

Goodreads had an author newsletter about marketing a few weeks back, which included Online Marketing for Busy Authors by Fauzia Burke. It’s a nice, simple step-by-step guide, and it includes all the stuff you’d expect:

  • Know your brand and your audience. Tailor everything to them.
  • Make an author website.
  • Maintain a blog.
  • Be an active participant in online communities, where you act like a real person, produce useful stuff, and help other people out.

…I mean, there’s a lot more to the book. Those are just the fundamentals.

But whenever I think too hard about this kind of thing, I realize how unfocused I am.

This blog is fun, but it’s not really my target audience.

I like writing about writing. I like thinking about process. I like trying software and different techniques. I really like writing huffy posts because someone on Reddit said something absurd.

But I’ve made a silly mistake: the people I should be marketing to–the people who want to read my books and who I should, nominally, be trying to build a marketing community around–are not writers.

I write action-adventure fantasy novels for teenagers. And if you made a Venn diagram showing the overlap between “people who want to write novels” and “people who read YA fantasy,” you will have… some, but definitely not enough to say hey, this is a super awesome marketing decision! I should totally be ignoring the rest of the pie!

Unfortunately, Online Marketing for Busy Authors doesn’t have a good recommendation for this, because it’s primarily written for non-fiction writers. And they have no problem finding a niche to write about: if you write cookbooks, you have a blog about cooking. If you write about leadership skills, you write about psychology, workplace dynamics, whatever.

But if you write about fantasy, what the heck do you do?

I don’t have fans who want to see my maps or my bad drawings. You all don’t want to see the playlist I wrote Justice Unending to. (No, really.  You don’t.) And I change my mind so much, and so often, that I really wouldn’t want to post short stories or snippets until everything’s pretty much done.

This is why so many genre authors go the “Stock image + Random quote from your book” things. (I think they’re kind of cheesy.) Or “hey, here’s a Pinterest board I put together about my main character.” (I think those are kind of fun, actually.) But otherwise… ehhhhh.

I don’t know. I can talk endlessly about writing. But I have no idea how I’d write constantly about my writing without it sounding self-centered and arrogant. I mean, no one knows who I am. Why would anyone explicitly seek me out? At least “How to do stupid formatting tricks in Word” is useful.

So that’s a question mark. Am I focusing on the wrong things?

I’m also kind of terrified of socializing.

OK, so I don’t know what to do with my website or blog. But what about social media?

Online Marketing for Busy Authors (and every other marketing book I’ve ever read) makes one thing clear: you need to be part of the online community. Talk to people. Say hi. Participate. Be online. Have a presence. Do this well before you have a book to sell.

It’s not even that horrible sounding: just sit on social media, say hi, and talk to people. Be known.

But know what? I have crazy social anxiety. I suck up my courage and try to get over this about once a year. It always goes terribly.

I overanalyze everything I post. I’m posting too much about myself! That sounds arrogant. How do I be friendly and social? I’ll find writing-related tweets and say I agree with them! Wow, that’s so shallow and cheesy. You know what? I’m sure the internet will forgive me for being stupid if I just vanish for 2 or 3 months, and then everyone will have forgotten about how awkward I sounded. Whoops! That’s not what I wanted, was it?

So, yes: another question mark. Well, kind of. I know I need to do more of this. I know I need to try. Heck, the worst that could happen is I make some friends, right? Or enemies? Or make a total idiot of myself and do nothing productive and regret it forever, and–

Uh

Okay, yes, this stuff is hard.

In short, there’s a lot I’m not sure I’m doing right.

The sad thing is, nothing I mentioned above is about the hard parts of marketing–you know, the actually selling books part? This is just the background noise: the “have some sort of useful online presence so people know who you are when you put out a book” part, which is the barest of bare minimums to being a person who produces anything these days.

I really need to sit down and think this through seriously sometime.

QueryTracker logo.As I mentioned in my last post, I’m back in the query trenches. And that means I’m spending way too much time thinking about querying.

So let’s talk about one of my favorite QueryTracker tools: the Data Explorer!

What is the Data Explorer?

The Data Explorer shows every time a QueryTracker user has submitted a query to a specific agent. It shows you their anonymized data: the genre of the book, its approximate length, how it was submitted, when it was submitted, what their response was, and how long it took to get it. And a whole lot of people use QueryTracker. And that means that, while the Data Explorer doesn’t show you every query an agent is getting, you can still see how that agent has responded to hundreds of other queries–in real time!

First thing’s first: this is, unfortunately, a feature you can only use if you have a paid QueryTracker membership. And while it’s not a feature I’d necessarily get a paid membership for, it’s super useful once you’ve made the jump.

So, with that in mind, you can get to the Data Explorer from your Query list. First, add some agents to your query list. Query people, and log those queries! Add agents to your to-query list! I explained how to do some of this in my last post. Once you’ve done that:

  1. Go to “Queries” in the top navigation.
  2. You can choose what agents to show here–the agents you haven’t queried yet? The ones you have? Choose whatever you want to see under “Advanced Search Filters.”
  3. Click this button:

QueryTracker Data Explorer - 3

The thing that looks like a stack of pancakes? That’s the Data Explorer. (The arrow beneath it goes to the Query Timeline, which uses the same data as the Explorer. The Explorer is a spreadsheet and the timeline is a graphical, er, timeline.)

Both are cool, but we’re going to click on the pancakes.

What does the Data Explorer look like?

Behold!

QueryTracker Data Explorer

I can see every single submission that has been logged in QueryTracker. And this is useful data! If I were about to query this particular agent, I could glean a few details:

  • She responds really quickly! Most of those rejections come in in under 20 days.
  • She might in a few days if she wants to request materials. (But not always! Don’t give up hope, me!)
  • She’s apparently  been busy, because she hasn’t responded to any queries at all since May 8. (Again! Don’t give up hope!)

But you know what? I’ve already queried her! Here I am~

Spreadsheet of manuscript submissions and

See that highlighted submission? That’s me. And that’s what makes this extra fun. I can now sign in to QueryTracker, check the explorer, and watch the people who submitted to her before me log their responses. And that means:

  • I can (roughly) tell when she starts responding to queries again. (I took that screenshot last week, for example, and she still hasn’t responded to anyone. So we’re still waiting!)
  • If she goes through her inbox in order (which isn’t a given), I can watch the people ahead of me log their responses.
  • Based on that, I can roughly guess when she might respond to my query.

And if I triangulate that with her agency’s website, that says she tries to respond to all queries, and usually does so within 4 weeks, I can say… Errrr, I probably should anticipate an answer around early June. So I’ve still got several weeks to go.

So… yes. This can make you obsess a little.

The Data Explorer does have some limitations, though.

The biggest drawback to the Explorer is that it’s self-reported data from the people using QueryTracker. It has some limitations:

  • People often forget to choose their book genre, leading to book submissions listed as “Not Specified.” That makes it harder to tell what an agent is requesting.
  • QueryTracker tracks Middle Grade and Young Adult books as their own genre, and you can only categorize your book as one thing. I write YA fantasy, so I have to choose: YA or fantasy? And since everyone else has to choose, I have no idea what an agent is actually requesting. They’re requesting YA! But what genre?! They’re requesting fantasy! But is that adult or YA?! I have no idea!
  • And, of course, people don’t always record their submissions right. People forget to report when they got a rejection. They forget to close out responses for “no response = no” agents. So sometimes you’ll see weird and likely inaccurate results.

So the data isn’t perfect. But it still gives you a general idea of what that agent’s doing.

This isn’t the only data you can get in QueryTracker, mind you.

If you want to get really number-crunchy, the Data Explorer isn’t actually the most useful tool in QueryTracker. There’s a whole other feature in QueryTracker called “Reports” that does stuff like, telling you an agent’s average response rate, or what genres they’re requesting, or whatever. But that’s a separate feature, and something I should talk about another day.

So, yeah. You don’t have to export the Data Explorer data into Excel and do your own number crunching (unless you really want to). But it’s fun for at-a-glance and real-time information.

In conclusion, this is an awesome way to obsess constantly over your queries.

Querying is slooooooooow. But if you have something like the Data Explorer, you can at least get a rough estimate for how long you might have to wait. Watch the responses to other people trickle in! Watch your submission slowwwwwwly creep down the queue! It’s still going to be a multi-month wait, but at least you know where you are in the queue. Kind of. Maybe. Sort of.

Or you can just be obsessive. That’s fun, too.

 

I’m officially back in the query trenches! I’ve got a brand-spanking-new YA fantasy ready to go, and I’d dearly like to get a literary agent for it.

It’s harrowing! It’s nerve-wracking! I’m anxious!

And, well, that’s a lot of emotional energy. I just sent out my first batch, and… hey, it looks like most could respond any time between now and August. And since that’s a long time to be anxious, it’s time to distract myself!

…By writing a post about querying. This might not be the best plan. But screw it, let’s talk about how I find agents to query.

Step #1: QueryTracker is life.

QueryTracker logo.I’ve looked for agents a ton of ways–I’ve used Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and their website, gone to a ton of websites, searched through forums… But my absolute favorite tool, and the one I use almost exclusively these days, is the QueryTracker website.

It’s glorious. With a free account, you can find agents, track who you’ve applied to, and get basic statistics. (With a paid account, you can track multiple books and get access to the really awesome statistics–like the absolutely glorious data tracker.)

And it’s simple to find agents:

  1. Go to Agents > Search for Agents.
  2. In the right column, under “Advanced Search Features,” find the “Select A Genre” drop-down menu.
  3. Select your genre.
  4. Click “Hide agents who are closed to queries.” (This will be above the Advanced Search area.)

That’s it! A list of agents in your genre will appear on the page.

Step #2: Sorting through the QueryTracker results.

Now, don’t get too excited: you can’t query all of these people.

What are we looking at, and why can’t we query all these people?

You now have a list of agents who might represent your genre. Might. Maybe. But even if they’re all viable agents in your genre, you can only query a subset of them.

First off, an agency may have multiple agents in your genre. This is tricky! Some agencies let you query all their agents (as long as you let each agent reject you before going to the next) and some have a strict policy of “A no from one of us is a no from all of us.” So you’re going to have to choose one person per agency, at least to start–and possibly one person per agency, period.

And that’s assuming that you could query any of the people in that agency. You see, even though QueryTracker gave you a shiny list of potential agents, they still might not be appropriate for your book. An agent might represent fantasy, but they might only be looking for urban fantasy. And if an agent represents multiple age ranges, they might not represent your genre at all–I’ve seen a few agents that are listed under young adult and fantasy, but who only want contemporary young adult and adult fantasy.

So how do you deal with all this?

Research every agency.

Let’s say that you’re looking for YA and your QueryTracker search results include a boatload of agents from Andrea Brown Literary Agency. You now know you have to start with one of them. But who?

  1. In QueryTracker, click on any agent’s name from that agency. It doesn’t matter who.
  2. You’ll end up on that agent’s page. In the far left column you’ll find that agent’s email (if known), the agency’s website link, and some other information.
  3. Click on the agency’s link.
  4. Now you should be at the agency’s website. Every agency website will include a page about the agents and a page about their submission process. Start by finding their list of agents. (For the above-mentioned Andrea Brown Literary Agency, that page is here.)
  5. Read every agent’s bio. What are they interested in? Do any of them actually seem appropriate for your book? Out of all of these agents, who seems like the best fit for you?
    1. Optional: This is also a good time to check out #MSWL, a promising agent’s Twitter account, or your good ol’ friend Google. These might help you learn whether your story is a good fit for them.
  6. Write down the agents who seem most appropriate. But do you have to choose one or can you query one, wait for a rejection, and query the other? Let’s find out!
  7. Read the agency’s submission guidelines. You’ll have to dig for that page, too, but you can usually just look for a “Submissions” button. Here’s Andrea Brown Literary Agency’s submission guidelines.
  8. Now you have decided which agent to query first. You also know how to query them! Return to QueryTracker.
  9. Go back to Agents > Search for Agents. Find the agent you decided on.
  10. To the left of their name (and left of the “Query Status” column), there will be a single, unmarked checkbox. Check that!
  11. This will add this agent to your “My Query List,” which you can view by clicking “Queries” in the top navigation.

Phew! Now you have this agent on your to-query list.

Now do that again. And again. And again.

Step #3: Keep track of your submission guidelines.

Before you actually query someone, it can be helpful to know what to prepare. Submission guidelines are tricky. What do they want? A query? A query and 5 pages? A query and 10 pages? A query, a 2-page synopsis, and the first chapter? A query, a 1-page synopsis, a biography, and… OK, you get the point. It varies.

And if you want to make querying as easy as possible, you probably want to know who wants what ahead of time. There are a few ways to do this.

Option #1: Use QueryTracker

QueryTracker has a few tools to help you track your data.

  1. Go to “Queries” In the top navigation.
  2. You should see a list of all the agents you want to query. (If you don’t, click on the “Advanced Search” tab in the right column and click “Outstanding Queries.”)
  3. You can see who you queried, when you queried, how many days your query has been out, and a ton of other things. For now, find the “Query Details” column.
  4. The second icon in that column (which will be grayed out) is “Add a Note for this Query.” Click on that.

This creates a private note that only you can see. You can track your submission guidelines there (or anything else you want to.)

Option #2: Keep that information on a file on your computer.

I know this is a little low-tech, but I track all my agent research on QueryTracker AND in an Excel file on my computer.

I love my Excel tracker. I write down the agent’s name, what materials they want, and any special notes about what they’re looking for. And since this is Excel, I can see all this information in columns, side-by-side, at a glance.

This is especially fun for keeping track of stuff like “What version of my query I used” and “When the agent should respond by (if ever.)” You can track that stuff in QueryTracker, but only in your private notes. And the stuff in your private notes aren’t visible on your My Queries page, or sortable, and you can’t see them at all unless you open them one at a time. So I use Excel so I can see those extra details without digging.

Step #4: Get your materials ready.

So what do these agents want? You have to make a query letter. But what else? Do you need a synopsis? Do you need a bio? Do you need an ultra-polished, Standard Manuscript Format-formatted version of 5 pages? 10?

Get all that stuff ready.

Step #5: Enjoy querying!

And now you’re good to go. Look at your list, decide who to query in what order (or, hey, go into QueryTracker and assign each agent a Query Priority. It’s under the “Query Details” tab!)

Go back to the submission guidelines for that agent’s agency. Do everything they ask. Send the right materials to the right agent.

Then wait.

And wait.

And wait.

I like to use QueryTracker (or my friendly local Excel file) to track the agency’s estimated response times. Did they say that they respond in 6 weeks, and no response = no? Or  was it “We’ll respond to everything within 3 months”? Write that down.

Then you, too, can settle in for the long haul. And you, too, can write random blog posts to keep your mind–unsuccessfully–off the realization that you’ll be waiting a long time.

So, yes. I guess I’m saying that I’ll probably post a lot more about querying these next few months. You might as well prepare yourself.