Querying a YA Fantasy: The Numbers

For a while now I’ve been meaning to post my query stats in case this is helpful or interesting to anyone else out there who’s in the query trenches, or thinking about diving into them. Or in case anyone out there really likes reading about numbers. I’ve been querying since May 2008, so I guess this May is my 10-year queryversary.

Imagine that the empty space between these first two paragraphs represents me staring into empty space in shock as I realize that I have been querying for ten years and this is longer than Thing 2 has been alive. My querying is older than my kid. My query process should be graduating from fourth grade in a couple of weeks. I have been querying for about a quarter of my existence.

[insert existential crisis here]

When I first began querying, I sent letters via snail-mail to publishers, because that’s how it was still done back then in Days of Yore. Back then, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, you could still query a publisher and have a chance of being published. It’s still possible, of course, but the odds are much, much slimmer, as many publishers don’t accept submissions from unagented authors. I queried with my first completed novel, a Middle Grade fantasy titled Winning Home. It’s the heartwarming tale of what happens when two predictably poorly-supervised children in a more than vaguely medieval world encounter literally every trope and stereotype in every fantasy novel I had read up to that point. Needless to say, it now inhabits my Deepest, Darkest Drawer. Here are its vitals:

Winning Home: queried in May 2008

-13 queries sent directly to publishers via snail-mail

-2 partial requests

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By the time I had written and massively revised second and third novels, the publishing world had shifted, and I had done tons of research into agents and agencies. This time I queried agents, via email, with Water Witch, a Young Adult contemporary fantasy which is a retelling of the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, but with jacked-up pickup trucks and a Tastee Freez. My first-ever query to an agent resulted in a request to read the first fifty pages. I sent out one query, then another, then another, very sporadically at the beginning because the sheer stress of sending out one query took me a couple of months to get over in those early days. But I sent out more queries eventually, with the following results:

Water Witch: queried from March 2014-August 2016

-59 queries sent to literary agents

-12 full requests (all rejected)

-4 partial requests (two rejected; two agents never responded)

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I took a year-long break from querying, because it is hella stressful, and dove back into writing and revising. By the time I was ready to query again, with my cross-dressing girl-warrior YA fantasy Silence, I knew something about what made a query letter work, how to write a synopsis (protip: stare at the screen for about twelve hours and then pull out all your hair because the kind of person who needs 80,000 words to tell a story is not the kind of person who can easily tell that same story in 1-3 pages), and what agents are looking for. I also learned from my first round of agent queries that the vast majority of agents are not terrifying, and some of them can even reject you in a way that makes you feel good about your writing and encourages you to continue. In my third round of queries, here’s what went down:

Silence: queried from August 2017-February 2018

-74 queries sent to literary agents

-4 Twitter pitch favorites

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-5 full requests (two rejections; three still active. I had given up on these and started querying the next project when the requests came in. Publishing is a monstrous beast that runs on its own time, and agents are massively overworked people who read slush piles on their off hours, commutes, and vacations.)

Now I’m actively querying Vessel, which is a YA fantasy about a girl with a magic book, a girl with an attitude, and quite a lot of sea monsters. Once again, my understanding of the process has developed through past experience. I know so much more than I did when I began querying a (gulp) decade ago. Since I first started, I’ve discovered Twitter pitch contests, where novelists perform incredible contortions to twist and torture book-length stories into single tweets which agents can then favorite as a way of inviting the writer to query. I’ve come to not only need but want criticism, because it makes my work stronger, which is more important than my fragile ego. I’m learning to write better pitches and synopses. So far, this is where I’m at with Vessel:

Vessel: queried from March 2018-now

-82 queries sent to literary agents

-6 Twitter pitch favorites

-3 full requests (one rejection; one was a partial upgraded to a full; two still active)

-2 partial requests (both still active)

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I started writing this post in the hope that it might be useful for someone else. I’ve discovered in the process that it’s useful to me, too. I keep detailed query records, but separately for each project. It’s instructive to put it all together and try to summarize it, and it helps me see something I really needed to see–growth. Forward momentum. When you’ve been querying as long as I have, it’s often difficult to keep the faith. I have had many long dark nights of the writerly soul over the past ten years. I have whined and griped and complained and ugly-cried. The one thing I haven’t done is stop.

It’s easy to read through the rejections and feel like a failure. But when I put it all here in one place, I see a clear progression. Each time I’ve sent more queries, put my work out there a little bit more. Each time I’ve gotten some requests. I just haven’t yet hit that rare and magic moment when the book I am querying is the right book for the right agent at the right time. I’m not spinning out, as I often think when yet another rejection rolls in. I’m making progress. I’m making all the progress I can make. I continue to write, revise, and put my books out there in the world. I’ve written seven now, and though most of these will probably never see the light of day, each one makes me a better writer. And each query round makes me a braver and more resilient writer.

Are you in the query trenches? I’d love to hear about your experiences. And if you need a cheerleader, let me know. Pep talks are kind of my jam. Maybe one day we’ll be laughing about this on a conference panel together.

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228?!?  Alicia, if you’re reading this, I am now officially measuring my rejections in centibrads.
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14 thoughts on “Querying a YA Fantasy: The Numbers

  1. Wow, wow, wow! First, I had no idea you had written so many full-blown novels (and _please_ don’t say they are “just YA novels”). On the other hand, I’m not at all surprised that every one of your synopses makes me want to read the stories! I’m not kidding. If any of these remain unpublished after a while, I will have to pay you to read them.

    Second, I hear you on the rejections. Though it’s quite different in the self-publishing music world, it’s easy for me to relate with the energy it takes to get back after being turned down.

    Sending a big hug across the miles,
    Stan

    1. Thanks for the encouragement and empathy, Stan! I imagine that rejections are rejections, whether they come in the form of agent emails or self-publishing stats.

      Did I “just” myself? I went back to look and couldn’t find it. But thanks for being one of the readers who doesn’t have snobby ideas about Serious Literature only being about and for adults.

  2. Hi Brenna: Did you get (and did I send you) an e-mail about a student of mine that I would like to get in contact with you? She is very bright, an aspiring YA fiction writer. Thanks for this blog. I really enjoy it. I believe she may have subscribed too. Her name is Sophia Colby. Andrea

    Dr. Andrea Rowland English Renaissance School 418 E. Jefferson St. (434) 984-1952 Charlottesville VA 22902 http://www.renaissanceschool.org https://www.facebook.com/renschool

  3. Wow…10 years! I was at 5 years, and just recently took the plunge into self-publishing. We’ll see what happens. I’ve got to hand it to you, that’s some perseverance right there. It can feel like a full time job just tracking down the right agent/publisher for your project who is accepting at the right time. Best of luck to you!

    1. It does feel like a full-time job! Or at least a really demanding part-time one. Is your book out yet? Best wishes to you with the self-pubbing process.

      1. Thanks! It’s available on kindle, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords as an e-book, and comes out next week on Amazon. We’ll see what happens. I probably won’t be able to make a living from it, but at least it will be out in the world for someone to read. Here’s hoping someone does. LOL

  4. This year’s WFC (World Fantasy Convention) is nearby, in Baltimore, Nov. 1-4! I highly recommend attending this! Attending panels, listening in to others, and face to face meetings with other writers as well as, hopefully, editors, publishers, and/or agents is priceless. I speak from experience. Get a friend to go with you if you aren’t comfortable going alone, and take the plunge! ‘Cause…why not? What are you waiting for? 🙂 If you go, I can let my friend, Linda Addison, know you’ll be there in case you want to say “howdy.” She’s great! http://wfc2018.org

    1. That sounds great, Elizabeth! I’ll check it out. Usually what’s stopping me is money and time off work–with two kiddos and a mortgage, things are tight, and it’s hard to justify spending money on writing when my writing isn’t yet bringing in any money. But Baltimore doesn’t seem prohibitive.

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