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?


  1. I was definitely at stage one after I finished my first book. I seriously thought that book was publishable. Looking at it now, I can't believe I thought that.

    I didn't really query that much. I sent some more stuff out after I wrote my 2nd book. But I was still sort of in stage 1. Then I stopped querying. Learned A TON through craft books, wrote my 3rd book, and decided to wait to pitch it until I went to the ACFW conference. That worked well for me!

    On a side note:
    “Will I ever see a pay-off for all the work I’m putting into my writing?” That quote makes me sad. So many of us are of the mind frame that the only "pay off" for all this work is getting published. I think there are SO many pay-offs. And so many of them don't have anything to do with publishing. In fact, I wrote a blog post about it last Monday.

  2. I think I"ve gone through all those stages. I think I'm past them. I've learned all those lessons and now am willing to wait until I know I'm ready mentally and with my work before I query. And even though I know Rs will be hard, going in this next time, I know it's not personal.

  3. I've been through them all and now I'm floating in some outer hemisphere of waiting. ;)

    I couldn't agree more about not getting stuck on one book.

    I'm wondering...did you write this this weekend when you were feeling horrible? If so, I am super impressed!

    Hope you continue to feel better.
    ~ Wendy

  4. Thanks, Wendy! In fact, I did write. I didn't do as much as I usually do, but I think I'd have to be in the hospital or dying before I cut myself some slack! :-)

  5. Yup, I've slogged through all three stages! Hiring a freelance editor to work with me on my manuscript was a major step in the right direction.

    Thanks for a great post, Jody!

  6. As usual wonderful post Jody!!

    I think it is a matter of each individual being able to see their work without rose colored glasses. When that happens, we can dissect our story, and after that maybe, maybe be ready to query:)

  7. Thanks for answering my question, Jody!

    Love your titles for the stages. Very telling!

  8. Such a great post. Thankfully I just passed the querying stage. Now I'm revising before venturing out on submission, but I don't want to rush that either.

  9. I went through the stages. Taking a year off after writing five stories in a row to embark on a study of craft proved to be a wise use of my time. When I entered contests after that and began to final and win, I knew I was ready to submit again. Not that I was "there," but I was close enough to receive an offer of representation.

  10. I just blogged on this topic last week. Thanks to the great advice of and learning from the experiences of writers like yourself, I've managed to avoid this problem so far. Along with accepting the fact that for 99.99% of us, rejection will be part of the process, having patience (especially in the beginning) is so important.

  11. Querying is just plain wearying! Oh well, back to the drawing board!

  12. I'm definitely in Stage 2. Still working on improving the book I thought was publishable over a year ago. *blush*

    Great post, Jody! I recognized myself and many fellow writers in each of these steps. You nailed it!

  13. I've been through all 3 levels, too, Jody, not once but twice! The first time was in the secular market years and years ago, and then again in the CBA market these past two years. You never stop learning! Thanks for the great post.

  14. I am in the second category, certainly, with at least a toe in the deep end of the third category.

    Comments I have received from beta readers make me believe both that my first completed work is good enough for publishing, and lack of some others who said they wanted to read it lead me to say, "Does anyone want to read it?"

    I'm too hard-headed to not go on though. Further up, further in!

  15. I'm in that "taking some time to study the craft" period to get things right. Excellent post!

  16. Another winner, Jody. I wish I'd read this five years ago!

  17. Having been through the process, I would say agents themselves will also let you know if you're on the right track. If you get rejections that are based solely on your work not being "quite right for me" or, even better, agents are willing to recommend you to a colleague, you are probably in the ballpark.

    If your work isn't quite there yet, some agents may be kind enough to tell you exactly what's not working. This can be invaluable advice (worked for me!) and is a reason for not querying too widely up front. You may want to incorporate some agents' suggestions into a future draft, so make sure you have some fresh names to submit to afterwards.

  18. I'm a seasoned realist--all my first book attempts dwelling in darkness, all my rejections stuck in the steel trap of my soul. I'm at that stuck stage, not knowing what to do in order to move forward. I've over-edited to the point of exhaustion on the book I really want to publish, written a sequel, started a third.

  19. Wonderful post Jody! Right now I am the 'rejected optimist.' I felt that my manuscript had been through enough edits when I began querying, but agent rejections taught me otherwise. Since then, I've completed a major rewrite and cut the word count even more. After completing my very first novel draft, I was a naive writer who believed the path to publication would be easy. I cant count how many drafts I've rewritten since then, but I hope this time I can get an agent. If not, I'll have to prepare myself for stage 3. :) Thank you for this honest article.

  20. Wow Jodie, I can't believe how spot-on this post is! Last summer I was definitely in the first category. I gave lipservice to "expecting rejections" but deep down I expected a whirlwind of positive response. Then I did what Katie said and stopped querying to wait for a conference. I learned and learned in the meantime. I'm still learning and still applying.

    I'm in the second stage now, approaching third like a few others have said. Might take me a while because of my life season right now which leaves me with little time to work on applying to my MS the wealth of knowledge I've gained. But I'll get there eventually.

    Thank you for giving such clear benchmarks to identify with. Very well done, lady! =)

  21. I would like to think I'm at stage three haha!! My first three books earned me the title, The Rejectionator, by my youngest daughter, bless her :)

    I wrote a new one for the market and have just hit the submission stage. Let's hope The Rejectionator becomes the Acceptanator :D

    Great post, Jody!

  22. I currently am in the beginner stage, as I have a few short stories done that I was thinking of trying to send out, however I have been following many different writers and looking at the craft of writing for awhile. I'd like to think my writing is ready, but I know that it could always use some work.

    Great post! It can definetly open some eyes.

  23. Thanks to all of you for adding to the discussion today! I love seeing the diversity in where we're all at. And I truly appreciate that we can all learn from one another's experiences--one the best things about the internet writing community!

  24. I wrote six full length novels before attempting to query the last one, and then did my homework before writing the first version of my query letter. So with all that behind me, I think I skipped right over the naive querier stage. I think I was also lucky enough to find representation right out of stage two because I never had to deal with the 'seasoned realist' issues. No doubt about it, querying is TOUGH. It takes dogged determination and perseverance. And it's worth every moment when it pays off!

  25. Great points. Thank you for the post :)

  26. Great post. I totally went through that same process. It's hard, but it's a good way to build up the skills you'll need for submitting your actually novel and dealing with reviews afterward. Like on the job training!

  27. Great post. And for one thing, there's definitely no rush to query (as you said), and it can actually work against you. If you put your work out there before it's polished, you've already used up your pitch. Writers have to think of querying as being a finalist on American Idol - make every night count. With our writing, we want to make sure whatever we put "out into the world" is perfect, or risk not doing anything with it professionally. It's so much better to wait, make the book perfect, then query. Take it from me.

    And you asked how do writers know if their work is ready to query? Think of this way, if an agent asked you for the full tomorrow would you go through it again with a red pen, or would you confidently send it off? If you can answer "confidently send it off", then you're ready.

  28. I'm a seasoned realist--but I allow myself to keep dreaming.
    Querying is a tough part of the writing life, but one thing I enjoy doing is helping other writers polish their queries (verbal or written). It's so much easier to query when you've got someone walking alongside you, giving you feedback, hugging you when a rejection shows up, and encouraging you to try, try again.

  29. I'd put myself down as a seasoned realist, except that I haven't queried often and therefore haven't had many rejections. In ten years I've written and rewritten four books and still don't feel they're ready. ::sigh:: I'll probably keep submitting magazine articles while revisions continue endlessly on the novels. I wonder if I'll still be able to type when I reach my dotage. LOL

  30. I'm in the seasoned realist stage. While I'm not giving up on my first series, another project is in the works.

  31. I think there are some stages within the seasoned realist, but it can take different forms for different books. This business is so subjective, you can make yourself batty trying to bring reason to it. Hopefully, you are incrementally moving forward at all times, even within the query process.

  32. Jody, I just wanted to comment on how you always post such relevant, timely, interesting topics. I guess that's why you have such a following! I could see myself in all three of the 'stages' you mentioned. I suppose most of us have to go through them ...

  33. Thanks Jody! Another great post. I can see myself in all three stages as well.

    I like how you said to find a new critique partner. I've had many editors and critique partners review my writings and I've learned something from each one.

    We just need to keep pressing on and keep learning!

    Have a blessed Mother's Day:)

  34. Nice article, thanks for the information.

  35. That is the absolute best break down I've seen to date Jody. Disillusionment can occur at any of the stages with a constant barrage of basically 'not good enough' hitting you from all of the sources. I can admit that when I first started years ago, I was at stage 1 with everyone else. There's no escaping it, even as we know Stephen King and Neil Gaiman recount the endless rejections they received, we just don't feel it or see it.
    Nowadays we need to keep in mind the state of the industry as well and also take into account marketing slots/marketability. There's just so much more to take into consideration but it's always imperative to recognize rejection may not mean 'not good enough,' just not the right door for you. Keep plugging away until you find the right one.

  36. I am about to send my manuscript to a professional editor. I went to a writer's conference in March and have finished making changes based on the feedback. I think writing a book is like having children, you never really know when you are ready.

  37. This post is a God send, especially that part about not getting stuck on one book.

  38. Thanks, Angela (and everyone else!). I always love when the post resonates! :-)

  39. I'm a combination of your three stages - I'm a beginner, but I'd like to think that I'm not naive. I've read too many experts and published authors say not to query until your work is READY! So, I just found my first official writing critique partner, and I've solicited help from an old English Teacher to work with me on my edits & proofreading. I've got a ways to go, but I want to make it perfect. I'll then query, and start #2 that I have outlined already. Oh, and I bought the Guide to Literary Agents. It arrived yesterday. Great post!

  40. I'd say I'm a seasoned realist! Thanks for some interesting insight.

  41. Jody, It's interesting to see the replies you've gotten to this post. Most of us who've been around for a bit are realists, or at least we try to be. It might interest the as-yet-unpublished among the group to know that even many previously published authors have to come up with a query of sorts (including the dreaded synopsis) in order to interest an editor in their next book.

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