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On Monday I attended a great little workshop put on by the Chicago Writer’s Conference on how to query a novel. Because I’m all about spreading the love, I wanted to share what I learned. The workshop was hosted by Holly McDowell, a published author based in Chicago.

1. Persistence. This was my biggest takeaway from the evening. Holly has been writing for ten years. In that time, she says that most of the people she knows who stuck with it did eventually end up selling books. But it took some of them a long time. Including her. It took her almost ten years. And the novel that she finally sold? It was her fifth. She went through two useless agents before finding a third that has been great. She received hundreds of rejections. But she just kept going, and eventually it paid off. This is both incredibly inspiring and terrifying.

2. The High Concept Idea. This was my second biggest takeaway. I’ve heard this over and over again, but never really understood it until Monday. Holly defined it as a way to describe your book that can be captured in a brief statement that will automatically generate interest in a wide audience. It should be compelling, commercial, and it should make a story out of something universally appealing. As of now, I do not have a High Concept Idea pitch of my book. I need to work on that.

3. Keep it Short. I find it really difficult to summarize my book in a page, let alone in 200 words. But that’s really the maximum word count for your pitch in your query letter. 150 might be better. Again, something to work on.

4. When to Query Who. We talked about the strategy of when you query which agents. Make a list of agents you want, with a 1st, 2nd and 3rd tier. Query some from the 2nd or 3rd tier first just to see if you query letter is working. If no one asks for partials or fulls, then you know you need to fix your query letter. But if you’re getting asks (probably from about 30% of the agents you query) then it might be time to start querying some of your top tier agents. If you don’t have many top tier agents, then take it slowly. If they request materials but then don’t want anything, you might need to do some reworking and it’s better if you have some top tier agents left to query after the reworking.

5.Queries Work. Holly said that almost everyone she knows who has sold a book has sold it through the simple process of querying agents. They didn’t have special connections or “Ins” in the industry. People talk about how hard it is to break in. But the best way is to just keep querying. It really does work.

6. Once you send the query, let it go. Once you cue up that query email and press send, it’s out of your hands. There’s nothing you can do to help it along. So just let it go. And in the meantime…

7. Keep writing. Let me go back to something I mentioned in point 1: the novel that Holly sold was her FIFTH novel. All the time that she was querying, going through agents, etc, she just kept writing. She was so embarrassed by her first novel that she wouldn’t even tell us the name. She said her writing just kept getting better and that she needed to go through those early efforts to get where she is today. So just keep writing. Don’t give up.There’s one more installment of the workshop next Monday, so I’ll be sure to share any other great insights.

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