Mindful Querying: Seven Precepts For the Trenches

At first glance, mindfulness and the so-called “query trenches” don’t seem to go together. The prospect of querying agents doesn’t naturally evoke a sense of calm among writers. Instead, it can spark anxiety, dread, imposter syndrome, fatigue, and disappointment.

If that’s how you feel about querying, you’re not alone. With that in mind, I have some thoughts on how to protect our sensitive, creative hearts during a process so stressful we named it after trench warfare.

I realized while writing last week’s blog that I hadn’t written extensively about my querying journey here, nor have I written a “how I got my agent” post. When it first occurred to me, I wasn’t sure I had much to say about the process.

Famous last words

How did I get my agent? I feel like my answer isn’t particularly unusual or remarkable. I did it by cold querying for what felt like forever (it was actually about ten months), and then sending what I thought was a set of Hail Mary nudges. If those nudges didn’t work out, I was considering either shelving the book or submitting it on my own to the small presses open to me. I had some interest from the latter angle, but I hadn’t yet decided on a course forward.

That’s pretty much the whole story, and so when I started to write this post, I found myself approaching that emotional journey, what worked and what didn’t, from a mindfulness perspective. This stage can negatively impact many writers’ mental health, so it makes sense to apply mindful principles like intentionality, practice, simplicity, patience, alignment, compassion, and (the big one) detachment.

Intentionality: do your research

Before sending my post-Pitch Wars query letters, I started with a list of agents working in my genre and created a spreadsheet that contained 100-150 names. I checked their websites, manuscript wish lists, and Query Tracker profiles to see if they might be a good fit, crossing off those who were not. By the end, I had around 100 names on my list.

Don’t skip the research part of the process. At a bare minimum, it’s crucial to make sure the agents you’re querying are interested in what you’re writing. Ideally, choose agents to query carefully. A thoughtful, informed strategy will serve you better than a scattershot approach.

For instance, a significant number of agents who sign science fiction are not looking for SFF books set in space or the far future. I don’t necessarily understand this—what story isn’t better in space?—but it’s safe to say these agents would not be a good fit for me, and querying them would waste their time and mine.

A Lego astronaut figure joyfully shouts "SPACESHIP" and runs away
IT ME

Agent experience is another aspect to consider. A query is a business proposal, and the ultimate goal is selling the book. It makes sense to query the biggest names with the biggest deals in the business, so shoot your shot and don’t self-reject. But keep in mind that more established agents with bigger lists will likely be pickier when bringing on new clients. Their priority will correctly be their current clients who are their bread and butter.

A newer agent may have more bandwidth to spare for each individual client. New or junior agents should still have a publishing background, an established agency backing them up, and positive mentorship. Some agencies support their juniors better than others. But assuming good mentorship and a solid grounding in the industry, don’t discount the opportunity to build your career alongside your agent’s. It is a partnership, after all.

I made copious notes on my agent list and included columns for submission guidelines, plus links to MSWLs, websites, and query forms for easy reference so I could to double check them later. (For more on agent lists, Meredith Mooring has a fantastic guide on how to build one.)

Practice: cold queries vs. pitch events

I almost titled this section “pitch events are overrated” but I thought better of it. Events like PitMad have a lot to offer. Crafting a one sentence-ish pitch is a valuable skill to practice. These events can be exciting and they’re a great way to meet other writers. And yes, some people do get agents that way.

But just as with cold querying, during popular pitch events, it can be hard to get noticed in the crowd. The sheer volume can be overwhelming—for agents as well as authors. Also, some books and genres pitch better than others.

I participated in several Twitter pitch events (two PitMads and LGBTNPit) with GALATEA’S PARADOX. I did get some exciting likes, one of which (from LGBTNPit) led to a full request, but ultimately, my agent offer came from a cold query followed by a nudge.

Proof that high engagement on a Twitter pitch doesn’t necessarily get you agent attention, either.

The lesson here is not to stress over pitch events if you find them draining or harmful to your mental health. You can still cold query the same agents and you’ll have the same chance as someone pitching, because it’s the pages that ultimately matter, not the pitch.

Bernadette Peters says "It's what you do with it that matters."

It’s not just the idea, it’s the execution that will catch an agent’s eye. And the reality is that most people don’t get their agent when lightning strikes in a pitch event. It mostly happens by going through the long slow process—and the practice—of cold querying.

Simplicity: developing an efficient process

A full guide to writing an effective query letter would require its own post. However, I do have a few thoughts on how to keep things simple.

  • Create separate documents with your query, synopsis, and sample pages in commonly requested lengths: 3 pages, 5 pages, 10 pages, first chapter, first three chapters. I kept these in a folder marked “Submission Materials.”
  • Keep personalization for individual agents brief and to the point. “Given your interest in [x, y, z], I think [MY BOOK] could be a great fit for your list.” You don’t have to get fancy, stalk them on social media, or use gimmicks.
  • No matter how large your ensemble cast, it’s best to focus the query on one or two characters and their “GMC” (Goal, Motivation, Conflict). A barrage of character names is confusing, not intriguing.
  • This may go without saying but have a standard query letter that you tweak for each agent. There’s no need to rewrite it every time.

I prioritized the names on my agent list based on reputation and how good of a match they seemed to be. Those priorities guided my query “waves,” and my first wave went out to about 10-15 agents. As passes came in, I would cross that agent off and send out another query, moving down my list.

Given your interest in queer characters, ride or die friendships, and genre tropes reimagined by LGBTQ+ authors, I think my manuscript would be a great fit for your list.

My personalization to Maeve: simple to write because her MSWL was truly a great fit!

Once I had this down to a science, sending a single query took me about ten minutes. I usually sent them in the morning between work meetings. The way I see it, there’s no reason to spend hours on a query that may only get a quick glance from the person on the other end.

Detachment: “yeet and forgeet”

Easier said than done, right? But as much as it’s possible, I strongly recommend cultivating a healthy level of detachment from the emotional experience of querying. I like to call this the “Yeet and Forgeet” method.

A Pokemon trainer tosses Pikachu into the sky (caption: YA YEET)
Yep, just yeet that book baby right into the void.

Distraction is key. At this point, the dice are rolled, and watching the inbox like a hawk won’t change the outcome. On my first wave of queries, I checked my query mailbox obsessively, multiple times per day. But as time went on and weeks stretched between responses, I started let other things take up my time. I had edits to complete and a second book to write, so I dove into those.

Lo and behold, my mental health improved as I shifted my focus. Eventually, I did almost forget I had queries floating out there. When the passes inevitably came in, three to six (or more!) months later, I found myself thinking “oh yeah, that.” Getting some distance helps.

It may help to set up a separate email box for querying and turn off notifications, so the responses can’t catch you off guard on a bad day. Check it when you’re feeling mentally and emotionally grounded.

Zealously guard your mental health while querying because no matter how good your book, you will statistically get many more rejections than requests. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s normal, and ultimately it’s just data. Mark it on the spreadsheet and send another one.

Meanwhile, work on a new (or old) project. Get absorbed in it. Get excited about it. Get invested…in something else, anything but your query waiting in an agent’s inbox.

Patience: it’s a numbers game

It’s very difficult not to take query passes personally. But the harsh reality remains that the book of one’s heart, while unique to the writer, is just one of thousands or more unique heart books looking for a champion.

Some agents on Twitter have posted their query stats and the numbers are eye-popping. They receive hundreds of queries during open submissions periods, and their inboxes quickly overflow. It takes time to filter through that volume, and with the pandemic impacting everyone’s workflow, those timelines are only getting longer.

People throw an avalanche of papers down a large stairwell
Picture the agent you’re querying standing at the bottom of these stairs, and you get the idea.

Keep in mind, too, that many agents have a day job. Most agents work on commission, meaning they only get paid when a book sells. Unless they have a robust list with several high-advance clients, they probably do something else to pay the bills.

Full-time agents still have work to do for their current clients, which is and should be their priority. Reading queries is not their only job. That’s not to mention the other pressures and responsibilities of these tough times we live in.

This is all to say that passes are not personal. Yes, querying feels a lot like dating, and it hurts when it doesn’t work out. It’s also like dating in that you’re looking for a good match, and it truly is a numbers game. The more queries you send, the more chances you have of finding that perfect fit. (That’s where the patience comes in.)

But ultimately, a query is a business proposal. You are looking for a business partner. Your book is the business, and you are not your book. It may come from the heart, but it is not your whole heart.

If it is your whole heart, safeguard it carefully to ensure this process won’t break it.

Alignment: remember your “why”

I’ve urged detachment here, but it’s still important to give your feelings about querying some space. Make room for self-reflection. How much do you want this path? What are your true wishes and goals for your writing?

If you are querying as a way of validating yourself and your work, your motivations may bear deeper examination. Querying will not provide external validation. It will not improve your self-esteem. It will not prove you are a good writer (or a bad one, for that matter).

And let’s be clear: it is ok not to query your work. Whether that’s because you decide to self-publish, because you want to write for yourself as a hobby, or any other reason, don’t put yourself on the publishing escalator unless that’s truly the right way to get where you want to go.

A man tries to climb up a down escalator.
An escalator in the wrong direction is just a treadmill.

The only good reason to throw yourself at the mercy of the query trenches is because your goal is a career as a professional, traditionally published author. It’s not an easy path and it’s only worth it if you want it.

But if you DO want it, remembering your “why” can sustain you when the road gets rough.

Compassion: mindset matters

Querying requires persistence. It rewards resilience. But writers are tender souls, and we pour our vulnerability into the pages. The process of exposing that vulnerable work to external judgment, transitioning from creative joy to capricious commerce, can feel excruciating.

Vision looks at Wanda and says "But what is grief if not love, perseverering"
What is querying if not hope persevering?

Support systems for this journey are absolutely essential. I might not have stuck it out if not for my writer friends and communities. That’s where real validation happens, with CPs, betas, fellow query trenchers, and co-commiserators. A kind community makes all the difference.

(Corollary: I’ve heard some horror stories about backbiting betas and nasty group chats. A good rule of thumb is that if you always feel worse after seeking support from your network, it ain’t a support network.)

Again, it’s easier said than done, but there are ways to cultivate gentleness in self-talk around the querying process, too. This may not come as a surprise if you’re a writer, but language matters.

For instance, a “pass” sounds less harsh than a “rejection,” so I tried to use that language to discuss query responses when I received them and in this article. Likewise, if you don’t have an agent within x number of months (or years), you’re not failing—you’re persevering.

An image of a road with fluffy clouds and a question mark superimposed on it provides the background for a list of query stats: 59 agents queries, 10 full requests, 1 offer of rep.
My querying stats for GALATEA’S PARADOX.

Remember, in the end, it really only takes one “yes.”

I hope this was helpful perspective for those of you in the trenches or preparing to jump in. If you are struggling with the emotions of this process, know it’s ok to take a step back or pause your queries or even trunk the book (i.e. put it away in a drawer and write something new. Never delete a manuscript!)

Do whatever you need to do to care for yourself, but if you’re still in it to win it, if you’re following your heart’s desire, don’t give up. You never know when you’ll get that one yes.

As always, I love to hear your thoughts, experiences, and questions, so please share them in the comments!

9 thoughts on “Mindful Querying: Seven Precepts For the Trenches

  1. I lost hope a couple of years ago, so speaking only for myself, the answer to “What is querying if not hope preserving” is “A Sisyphean endeavor.”

    Liked by 2 people

  2. There are so many things here that I needed reminders of. Such as focusing on the process (pitching is a practice, regardless of results) and forgetting about my manuscripts once I’ve sent them out (because refreshing my inbox nineteen times a day doesn’t change anything). Great post here, Erin, and thanks for sharing your experience with us!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s