The Three Stages of Querying

Eileen Astels Watson asked this question: How can writers KNOW when they’ve reached a level in their writing to confidently start shopping their work?

In other words, how can writers know when they’re ready to begin querying?

As I was thinking about Eileen’s question, I realized writers generally go through three stages when it comes to querying:

1. The naïve beginner:

When I first began querying, I didn’t stop to think about whether my story or writing was ready. I just assumed that if I completed a book, the next step was to send it out and “shop” it.

At this stage, we often have an elevated perception of our writing skill. We’re usually only one step above those who say, “Such-and-such (popular) book stunk. I bet I could write something better.” We haven’t really learned yet that the process of writing a publishable book is infinitely harder than reading a book or throwing words on the screen.

We may even think (or secretly hope) we have enough talent that we’ll be able to bypass the masses of other writers seeking publication.

So, we blissfully send out those queries.

And then, we’re dismayed when rejections start rolling in. Some writers give up at this point. Others become bitter with traditional publication (blame the system or agents for the rejection). Those who persevere will graduate to the next querying stage: the rejected optimist.

2. The rejected optimist:

When we begin to get rejections, we finally realize our writing skill or story might not be as good as we thought. We wallow in the sting of rejection for a while, but eventually we stop our temper-tantrum, pull ourselves off the ground, and get to work.

We immerse ourselves in the industry, buy the writing craft books everyone is talking about, and we put concentrated effort into learning what it takes to create a story people will actually want to read.

Some of us (myself included), spend years at this level. We’re optimistic that we have what it takes to get published but know we need to keep working to get there. From time to time, we attempt a trial run to see if we’re getting closer (either by sending out another query or entering a contest). Or we may get into a critique partnership.

Finally, after feedback from objective sources, we start to feel our writing is nearing a publishable level, especially when we get a request for a manuscript or garner interest from industry professionals.

At this stage rejections grow incredibly painful and have the potential to derail us. Those writers who can survive the heartache move on to the next stage: the seasoned realist.

3. The seasoned realist:

As we persevere through the difficulties, we begin to view our work more critically. We start to ask, “Is it really worth it?” or “Will I ever see a pay-off for all the work I’m putting into my writing?”

And the biggest question plagues us: “Why am I not moving forward? What’s wrong with what I’m doing?”

When we reach this point, we may want to consider doing several things that can help us evaluate why we’re still facing rejections on our queries or manuscripts:

*Find a new critique partner. Critique relationships or groups can become enmeshed after a while. The members become too much like family and not objective enough. A fresh pair of eyes can often give us a more realistic view of our work and offer us new ideas.

*Hire a freelance editor. Consider sending a sample chapter to a freelance editor for an evaluation, especially if you’ve exhausted all other courses (critique partners, contest feedback, etc.). Usually, most editors will allow a “sample” edit before making a commitment to more.

*Take a look at the story itself. Just because a writer has nearly perfect writing skills doesn’t mean they’ve told a gripping story. Consider testing your story with beta readers (preferably true readers who are familiar with your genre). Provide a questionnaire so readers can give feedback anonymously.

*Evaluate the market. Make yourself an expert of your genre. Look at what’s selling, find comparables, and know where your work fits and also differs. If your book/voice is too similar to what’s out there, look for ways to be more unique. If your book/voice is too different, maybe publishers just aren’t quite ready to take a chance on it.

*Never get stuck on one book. Keep writing. If consistent, multiple sources confirm your work is of publishable quality, you may still need to land upon the break-in book, the one that finally hooks the attention of publishing professionals.

So back to Eileen’s question. How can writers KNOW if their work is ready to shop?

My answer: I don’t think there is ONE right or EASY answer. I don’t encourage writers to jump into querying too soon. There’s no hurry. And you may save yourself a lot of pain if you do the growing and learning first.

No matter what stage you’re in, determine to make your book the best it can possibly be.

What do you think? What query stage are you in (and you can make up your own if you don’t fit my stages)? And how do you think writers can know if their work is ready to query?

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