Emmie Mears
SFF. Queer AF.

QueryQuest: Learning to Love the Slushpile

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QueryQuest: Learning to Love the Slushpile

You don't actually need a claymore to query, but it might help you feel more awesome.

You don’t actually need a claymore to query, but it might help you feel more awesome.

I don’t often write about writing-related stuff these days (let’s be honest — I haven’t been blogging about erm…anything lately for the most part), but Capclave inspired me. It struck me that the writing world has changed dramatically in the past ten years, and the process of publication has shifted a lot even in the past two. For new writers starting out who are sure they want to become traditionally published (instead of independently publishing), that means querying.

There are a lot of ways to find an agent.

Okay, scratch that. There are a lot of ways people have found their agents.

I was on a panel about agents at Capclave, and it was a reminder of this. Of the four of us, two had gotten agents in ways that are not precisely the statistical norm. Here are a few of those not-so-common ways:

  • Meet at a conference and sweep your agent away on a sea of roses.
  • Get a referral to Don Maass or Merrilee Heifetz or Janet Reid and sweep yourself away on a sea of roses. (Or sharks, in the case of the latter.)
  • Start querying with an offer in hand from a major publisher.
  • Receive an email or a tweet from an agent interested in you because of your blog/indie published bestseller/hilarious appearance on a daytime talk show/published op-ed in the NYT/etc.
  • Get plucked out of a contest and surf the sea of roses.

Those ways are all pretty awesome. There’s really only one problem: that’s not how most people manage to find an agent. And those ways are not exactly things you can bank on unless you’re very well connected within the publishing world.

If I had to guess (and if you find some Solid Data-like Stuff on this subject, please plop it in the comments), I’d say that at the very, very least, 75% of new authors find their agents through the slushpile.

So what’s the slushpile? It’s the masses of unsolicited submissions agents (and editors) get in their inboxes. At first glance, that sounds inherently disheartening, especially when you add to that the fact that many agents get hundreds of queries per week.

Query (n.) That maddening 250 word letter in which you stake your sanity on the ability to sum up and make coherent the entire plot, voice, and characterization of a 400ish page novel.

But I love slush. I absolutely love it. For new writers without connections, slush is The Great Equalizer. It’s also a proving ground.

Which is why I rather like to think of querying as….a quest.

I mean, I’m a fantasy writer. What did you expect?

QueryQuest Part 1: Find Your Sam

Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings, Sam

A few lines up, I called querying a proving ground. That’s true on many levels. It also means that there are several things you need if you’re going to be successful.

The first real thing you need when you embark on QueryQuest is Samwise Mothafucking Gamgee.

“Emmie,” you’re saying, “What the HELL do you mean?”

I’m getting there, Frodo. Mind if I call you Frodo? I’m going to anyway.

Your Sam is your story. It’s the stalwart centerpiece of your quest, even if you might THINK that honor belongs to the Precious. You know how fickle that damn hunk of metal is. Your Sam is your reason to keep going. Choose your Sam wisely. Sometimes you might assume you’ve found Sam, when indeed you’ve found an orc wearing a half-eaten goat as a hat instead. Without a great story, without your Sam, you ain’t getting nowhere near Mount Doom, Frodo.

Samwise Gamgee, Return of the King, Lord of the Rings


Samwise Gamgee, Lord of the Rings, Return of the King

Your Sam will get you farther than you can get yourself. Without your Sam, you’re just trudging through bogs with a gaggle of disgruntled Nazgul on your tail. Doors slam in your face, your mom tells you that you smell, and you’ll end up farting in important meanings out of sheer nervousness. It’s tough to know if you’ve really got Sam by your side, but if you put in the work, you can be pretty sure. Finish what you write, get trusted eyes to give you feedback, listen to that feedback, and then polish, polish, polish. Keep your heart open and your skin thick, and you’ll find your Sam.

Ready to get trekking?

Nope. Not yet.

QueryQuest Part 2: Listen to Gandalf, Ya Idjit

Gandalf, You Shall Not Pass, Lord of the Rings, Moria


Okay, so I might have been channeling Bobby Singer a bit there.

Seriously, though. Gandalf gives you your roadmap. He’s the one at your ear telling you to keep it secret, keep it safe. He knows his shit, dude. Listen to him.

Gandalf is the ropes you need to learn. Querying ain’t easy, Frodo. It takes a lot of hard work to make it to Mount Doom, and finding your Sam is only part of it. The nifty-super-rad secret, though? Listening to Gandalf makes it easier. And here’s why.

Gandalf knows why going into the Mountains of Moria is bad juju, Frodo. Gandalf knows the pitfalls that will get you rejected faster than you can say, “Balrog.” Very simply, Gandalf is your submission guidelines. Do your research before you start sending out queries willy-nilly. You don’t want to end up with a Nazgul blade lodged in your chest on the top of Weathertop, do you?

I didn’t think so. Agency guidelines are easy to find. Google is your friend (it’s pretty much like Gandalf’s staff). There’s no excuse for fudging this part.

Here’s why it’s important:

Simply following the damn instructions puts you ahead of a hefty chunk of queriers out there.

Did you catch that bit? Read it again. My agent’s told me about the number of middle grade queries she gets every week. She doesn’t REP middle grade. At all. But they keep coming. My friend’s agent deletes all queries that don’t follow instructions. They’re almost never as terrifying as some of the things Gandalf tells Frodo, so you should just save yourself the trouble and follow directions.

I promise you, if you have your Sam and listen to Gandalf, you will traipse into Mordor without too much hassle. Agents will read your work.

Here’s where it gets tricksy (because it was bound to get tricksy, and you know it).

QueryQuest Part 3: Be Frodo, Not Gollum

Be this:

Frodo, Lord of the Rings, LOTR, Fellowship of the Ring


Not this:

Gollum, Lord of the Rings, LOTR


Trouble making that compute? Once more.

Be this:

Frodo, Lord of the Rings, LOTR, Fellowship of the Ring


Not this:

Gollum, Lord of the Rings, LOTR

Basically, keep your cool, Frodo. Be Frodo, not Gollum. Don’t be Smeagol, either. You’re trying to get a literary agent, not a one-way ticket to the funny farm. Be professional, be polite, and keep your sword sheathed in public.

The road to Mordor is fraught with all sorts of insanity, but you don’t want to let that show when you have agents peeking at your social media pages.

While inside you may be feeling like this after your umpteenth rejection:

Gollum, Lord of the Rings, LOTR


You need to pretend it’s all (full!) pints of ale and Longbottom leaf. Find a few trusted friends who won’t wig out at you if you have a momentary Gollum flash, but keep any stupid comments in your pocket. (Have a The Room reference, just to spice things up a bit.)

And just because we need to complicate things a bit more, onto the last bit.

QueryQuest Part 4: That Fickle Precious



I bet you were wondering when this would come in. Here it is! The Precious. The One Ring.

Why go to Mordor without it? Without it, it’s just a long trek with only stale elven biscuits for fodder. Ew.

Here’s the deal with the Precious.

The One Ring is the market. “The market?” you ask. “Emmie, how much Longbottom leaf have you been smoking?”

The One Ring IS the market. It’s what books are selling and why. Six years ago, if you had a solid vampire novel and a dream, you’d probably be snapped up before you could say, “Hello, Cullens.” Nowadays, if you have a vampire novel, you better have trussed that sucker up with underwater basket weaving or something equally random to make it fresh enough for an agent to even entertain the idea of representing you with it.

The craptastic thing about the Precious is that it yearns for Sauron. You can do everything right, and it’ll still trip you into a bog of the dead.

But here’s the plus side of the Precious.

The Precious isn’t personal. Sure, it might make you feel nuts sometimes, especially if you discover a book with a similar premise to yours just sold for upper six figures and made some debut author’s LIFE. But when you’re on your QueryQuest, the Precious is why you desperately need your Sam. You need a killer story. Your Sam is how you can find representation when the market doesn’t prove there’s a place for your book. Your Sam is how you can find an agent even if the Precious is whispering that your premise has been done before. Your Sam is what will haul you up the slopes of Mount Doom to your goal.

Agents pass on manuscripts for myriad reasons. Sometimes they see that your Sam is all there, but that you’re just not the droids they’re looking for. (Okay, still working on that bit of the metaphor.) Sometimes it’s the Precious, and they just don’t want to invoke Sauron if they can avoid it. Sometimes wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey just ain’t on your side. It happens.

Your QueryQuest can be difficult, but this is why I love the slushpile: if you have your Sam, your Gandalf to guide you, the Precious, and a staunch commitment NOT to be Gollum, you are already at the Black Gate while others are still bumbling about the Shire, trying to find the Brandywine River. If you have a great story and some professionalism and you manage to follow directions (I swear, it kills me how many people see agent guidelines and pull a Pirates of the Caribbean with them and assume they’re guidelines to be disposed of when desired), you will get close. Not only that, but if you keep at it, you’ll find success and get to drop that Precious into the fires of Mount Doom with aplomb.

The harsher truth about QueryQuest is that you may not have the tools you think you have. That’s where companions come in. Merry and Pippin, Aragorn and Legolas, Gimli and Eowyn — those are your betas and critique partners. They’ll help you get (and stay) on the path you’re supposed to tread.

How’d you get to Mount Doom? Through the slush? Did you snag a referral or a deal before finding your agent? Tell us your stories in the comments…just remember to be Frodo, not Gollum. The Eye of Sauron sees many things.

Want some more info about finding agents? Check out Nathan Bransford’s blog as well as Query Shark, because Janet Reid is a BOSS.

And for some levity to break up the QueryQuest, check out Nathan Bransford’s Publishing Process in GIF Form.


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Author | Emmie Comments | 6 Date | October 22, 2013


Chris G.

Oh, Emmie. As ever, I love the personality and humorous (not to mention fantastical) flair you bring to the topic, but I don’t think even the wittiest of commentaries can turn my heart into appreciation of the great slush piles.

Be they for agents, publications, publishers, etc–they may be the great equalizers, but they’re also the great black holes, especially in this day and age. Many are the pieces on how many things are simply lost in the mass of them, and for that matter, how easy it is for those working through them to simply enter “the grind”. First sentence didn’t draw me in? 350 more of these to go. And…done. Mount Doom indeed. It’s not personal, but lord, it’s still atrocious to conquer–which is needs to be, I suppose, to whittle down the masses of pieces that flood said market today, but really now…

October 22, 2013 | 10:00 am


    That’s true. And I have known some people who queried for years without finding representation. However, with several of them, I think that was more due to the Precious (the markets) than anything else, and writing for traditional publication has to allow for that. Nothing gets published that an editorial board doesn’t see some sort of market for, whether established or emerging. In a couple other cases, I think people queried the same book for years at a time when it wasn’t suited for the trad markets (hell, the book that got me an agent was an exercise in that a bit — a VERY hard sell) or the writing wasn’t ready, and the writer could have benefited from writing something new instead of rehashing an old book over and over trying to make it better.

    The first book I queried was like that. I’d revised it to DEATH. And my style and voice had changed in the process of writing more books to the point where if you read the first chapter of the first book and then read the most recent chapter of the third that you wouldn’t necessarily even know it was me writing. To make that book work, I’d need to do a page one rewrite and probably completely re-plot and rework the story to make it salable. That doesn’t mean I’m a bad writer who can’t succeed in the traditional world — just that the first book (or in my case, three books) may not be ready for pro level. It took a now NYT bestselling author reading over my first few chapters and gently telling me that for me to trunk them and move on — I ended up writing the book that got me an agent. We all like to think that our first completed manuscript is IT — that people will read it and love it and that agents and editors will fall all over themselves for it, but that’s just not the norm for most people. My point is that I think a lot of what gets lost within the world of querying comes down to following directions, “no reply means no” policies, and cases in which the writing is fine, but just fine — leaving the story to pull the agent in. When it doesn’t, it usually seems to mean that the plot is somehow generic (which may NOT be what the author thinks or wants to hear) or has been done before (which the author may not even know if they haven’t read widely in their genre or have access to what’s going on inside the not-yet-published bit of the industry). There are just….so many factors.

    October 23, 2013 | 12:25 pm

Ramon Ballard

great post, but then you are the Amazing Emm. I got a request for a full from an agent based entirely on my twitter feeds. She was a keynote speaker at a conference I attended, and I introduced myself before it started. She said, “you’re funny on twitter, send me your manuscript.”

October 23, 2013 | 12:51 pm

Liv Rancourt

Funny…we watched The Hobbit last night…
Brilliant post, and pretty much spot-on imho. And the .gifs are cracking me up.

October 23, 2013 | 1:22 pm

Chris G.

By the by, this might also be relevant:
“Rejection slips, or form letters, however tactfully phrased, are lacerations of the soul, if not quite inventions of the devil – but there is no way around them.” ~Isaac Asimov
He didn’t quite make a quest of it like you did, but it’s a boat we all share…

October 29, 2013 | 12:49 pm


Great post, Emmie. I don’t have an agent-search story to share, but it does seem to be true that though there are new ways to find an agent, the ‘old’ way still seems to rule – for now.

November 12, 2013 | 7:00 pm

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