Resources for Writers Series: How to Bubble Up to the Surface of the Slush Pile

You have stalked about fifty agents and know what they like with their toast and where their poodles get their haircuts. The ten minutes you got to spend with some of them at writers’ conferences bought you nothing but sweat. Your queries have been answered with one-liners by robots: “Thanks, but no thanks.”

You’re likely wondering why me! as you wash and dry an ice pick before you plunge it through your ear. Wait, don’t do that yet. Put it down. Let’s talk.

I must note that I have the credibility of a divorced marriage counselor as I write this post. I have published shorts, but despite some interest, my novels have yet to find a home. Let me share then why I think my metaphorical estranged literary spouse has recently begun to return my calls.

  • One size does not fit all.
    Fear by Norm Pattison. License CC.
    Fear by Norm Pattison. License CC.

This one is obvious, and yet it took me a while to accept it. I blame it on being lazy. It is hard to write one query, let alone think about composing separate queries for each agent. Don’t let the temptation to put some lipstick on it and call the customized pig a goat get the better of you—it will still oink. Make sure to research each agent and their interests thoroughly. Two agents might each request “literary fiction with elements of magical realism,” but your letter to the lawyer with three children and a shoe fetish who has represented Neil Gaiman will certainly be different than the one you send the 25-year-old former publishing intern in love with a cat. Find your agent here (Poets & Writers) or here (AgentQuery) or here (QueryTracker) or here (Association of Authors’ Representatives).

  • It is a business.
    Fear by Hada del Iago. License CC.
    Fear by Hada del Iago. License CC.

Any given agent who takes unsolicited queries may add one or two new clients per year. No more. Most of their work is done with their existing writers. Agents make money when your book does. How do you convince them that it is not only a brilliant piece of literature, but will also sell? Make sure that you understand your themes and characters, that you have no doubt about what your work is—literary fiction, upmarket alternative history, a young-adult thriller, and any of a million other permutations—and what specific audience will spend their last nickel to get their hands on your hardback. But be humble about it.

  • You are a writer.

A query is a business letter and should observe certain conventions. Make sure you come across as a good potential business partner. And yet you are a writer and the query is the first bit of writing an agent will see. Use your awesome powers for good. Your turn of phrase, in addition to your themes and plot, should make the agent drool and ask for at least a partial submission.

  • God doesn’t care what time it is.
    Joy by Duncan Cumming. License CC.
    Joy by Duncan Cumming. License CC.

Whether a deist or otherwise, you must accept the fact that you will die. Memento mori. Please, bear with me: there is no reason to fear finality; rather, draw from it a sense of freedom. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether you’ve scaled Mt. Everest and won the Nobel Prize for literature, or have spent the last thirty years sending your stories fruitlessly to literary journals. Write to write. Enjoy the process, and don’t give up. Just because the first 387 agents and publishers laughed at you or ignored you doesn’t mean number 388 won’t fall in love with your middle-grade Victorian comedy about the goings-on at the dark heart of Khufu’s Pyramid. Just don’t expect someone else to love it if you yourself don’t think it is as good as it can be.

  • Cut out the dumb mistakes.

Seriously, you’ve spent two years writing your novel and didn’t bother to proof-read your query letter? You asked no one else for critique? Give it the time and love it deserves—you owe it to yourself. Make sure to follow the agents’ submission guidelines; they’re serious about those. And never, ever call your book a “fiction novel.”

  • Short circuit?

If what you have is a tight, genre, plot-driven piece, and you love to do your own sales and marketing, Indie publishing might present an attractive option for you. Beware scams—an entire industry has arisen to feed off of writers—but rest assured that with research you will find the right path for you. is hard to ignore, and you shouldn’t. Look up IngramSpark, too. Whatever you do, make sure to do your research.

I’d like to end with a request. Please share your experiences with querying and the lessons you have learned in the comments to this post.

Happy writing,

Your Outreach Coordinator.


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