Your journey starts with a query

Your story is ready. You’ve given it a fresh haircut, polished its shoes, threw on a nice coat and a hat to go along. You’ve made several bouts of revision, going onwards and backwards and flipping the pages and changing the characters’ names thrice – only to bring it back to your original choice. You may even have sent it to several beta readers (which is optional, but extremely helpful.), and they adored it! Other than a few typos, which you expertly caught and changed, you find no flaws in your manuscript. Now, you’re ready to send it out to the world.

There are many ways to reach out to your audience. Digital platforms engage with millions of readers and can showcase your work to readers with similar tastes. You can also choose to self-publish, where you have full control over the content of your book. The downside is that you need to find your cover illustrator and editor yourself, shell out a good chunk of money for printing and market it yourself.

The last option is through traditional publishing. This, for many, is the longest, most exhausting route, but the journey is worth it. Your book gets published by an established publishing house – or a reputable small press – who will offer you an advance, and take everything off your hands. They’ll edit your book, provide art direction for the cover, without the need of you paying anything. All you need is a good story.

And, most likely, an agent.

There are publishing houses that allow unagented submissions, but if you are seeking to be in the industry long-term, it’s better to have an agent. An agent is your champion, your counsel, and your friend. They know the ins and outs of the book business and are backed by established agencies (with clients whose books you once swooned after – imagine, agency siblings!) Your agent will go before you when it comes to submitting to editors, when dealing with contracts, when faced with an issue. They’d make sure your book gets the best deal it deserves, and will help you find the best writing opportunities that will fit your style and voice, so you can make more books you love to write about.

How to get an agent

Querying is like knocking on an agent’s door and asking them to take your story (pretty please). But you don’t appear at their doorstep and ring their bells – they’d probably hate that. You also don’t give them a call, either – they’d probably hate that, too. What you should do, which is 100% likely they won’t hate, is send them a letter.

Your query letter is a slice of your manuscript’s pie, just enough for the agent to know what your story is about, who it is for, what makes it extra (because bland isn’t what we’re going for), and who you are. It’s more of the book, less about you, so if you start the letter with your PhD, they’re going to roll your eyes and ditch it.

It’s all about your story because they need to know, in the few minutes they’ll read your query, if it could sell. Why few minutes? Because agents get thousands of queries each month, and you need to convince them, right then and there, that your story is the one they’re looking for.

You need to make it crisp, clear, and concise – round it up to 350 words. Or even close to 400, but no more than that.

Sounds like an impossible feat? Not really. You just need to know what’s supposed to be there and trim off what’s not.

What's in a query letter?

  • Your manuscript’s meta: title, genre, number of words rounded to the nearest hundred, and when you can, comps.
  • Your manuscript’s pitch: write the gist of your story in the most effective way, but stay within 250 words. Scatter breadcrumbs for some mystery. Pick their curiosity. Ask a hanging question or leave them to guess what the ending would be. Highlight the stakes! Yes, stakes! Stakes are delicious when well-done.
  • Your bio: agents want to know you, if you live in the mountains, have three cats, published a book before, or are a part of a literary guild. Be honest. Be quirky.

Tip: Agents are particular with query letters. Some ask for a synopsis, some don’t. Some only require your bio, some require pitches in whole. Make sure to read the agency guidelines and send it to the correct email address or else, your query will be ignored and deleted. We don’t want that to happen.

What should not be
in your query letter

  • A statement that “this is the most exceptional book of the century” or “the next Harry Potter.” Please, leave those opinions to the readers.
  • Ramble all about yourself right off the bat, and forget that you’re selling a book, not yourself. Please don’t make our dear agents sigh when they go through reasons why your book is amazing, why you deserve this, why the agent should pick you. This is not an audition for reality TV.
  • Pitching in first person. Stick to third person, please.
  • Every fact about the book, except what the book contains. Don’t distract them with Big Words. Tell them what it’s all about. Give them a taste of the pie. The pie is good. You made it. You were sure of it. Let them eat pie.

A query letter can have typos, and the best agents look over the flaws and turn to the shining parts of your letter. Of course, it pays to be diligent – getting your agents’ name and pronouns right are first and foremost essential.

Tip: Your best bet is to use the agent’s first name – it sounds friendlier that way.

Here is my query for MARIKIT

Dear [Agent],

Marikit is used to wearing faded-out, recycled clothes all her life, so for her 10th birthday, she asks her mother, the barrio’s seamstress, for something new. But her birthday dress turns out to be a stitched-on medley of scrap fabrics in various prints and odd shapes. Marikit vows never to wear it, until the eve of her birthday, where a nasty shadow-bird sneaks into their home and tries to abduct her.

That’s when Marikit learns that the patchwork isn’t just a dress – it’s a map. A map that will lead to her asylum in the magical lands of the Engkanto and will save her from the clutches of the evil Sitan, the shadow-god who kidnaps half-diwatas like her for his cruel plans. Her mother, using the last of her weaving magic, sends Marikit on a journey, advising her to never take the dress off, and follow its guide towards her destination: the mysterious X.

Accompanied by Ali, an Infinite in form of a firefly, Marikit trudges through the enchanted lands of folkloric creatures, making friends out of monsters and challenging gods along the way. But everything goes wayward when Marikit’s dress gets stolen. The worse part, the culprit is from the most terrifying breed of engkantos – man-eating aswangs. To continue with her journey, Marikit must get her map back, and she must face her greatest fear without being eaten alive.

MARIKIT WEARS THE MAP TO THE ENGKANTOS is a Middle-Grade Fantasy novel set in the Philippines, made with loving thoughts of young Filipino immigrants wanting to reconnect to their motherland. It is complete at 53,000 words and will appeal to fans of Catherynne M. Valente’s FAIRYLAND series and Erin Entrada’s LALANI OF THE DISTANT SEA. This is my first book. Please find the first 50 pages in a .doc file attached to this email.

I am a freelance writer based in the Philippines. I live with my mother who was born on the same day as my grandmother and still keeps an heirloom sewing machine. Unfortunately, no magical patchwork dress has ever been made for me.

Grateful for your time,
Caris Cruz

How long should I query?

Agencies have varied reading timelines. Some go through their inbox within weeks, and other spell out their reading timeline as, “If you don’t hear from us within [a number of months], consider it a pass.” There are agents who choose to give personalized rejections, so going over each query letter in their inbox takes a long, looooooong time. 

Other than knocking on a door, querying is a trench. Some query for years. Many writers held their breaths and hoped their best. If you are at this stage, stay encouraged. If you are on Twitter, join the querying community and encourage other writers at #amquerying


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