A #querywin Story with Saumya Dave

To lift your spirits and give you a bit more insight into my process, I’d like to share a #querywin with you today. I signed Saumya in November, and after a few rounds of revisions, we’re about to send her book out on submission. Cross your fingers for us!

Here’s Saumya’s query letter, which she sent on October 14:

Dear Jennifer:
When Simran Mehta befriends Neil Desai, the dorky journalist she has admired for years, she unknowingly puts her engagement on a trajectory to disaster. Set in Manhattan, Arranged Dating is a 77,000 word women’s fiction manuscript that explores how the ignored cracks in one Indian woman’s relationship widen into rifts.
As Indian Americans whose parents had arranged marriages, Simran Mehta and Kunal Patel are the first in their families to date for romantic love instead of duty.  Although Simran happily spends her days making compulsive lists, eating out, and sitting in graduate psychology lectures, meeting Neil compels her to question her privileged but predictable life.  Her doubts are further polluted by Kunal’s meddlesome mother, a taxing family wedding, and a steady revelation of secrets about her parents’ arranged marriage. It takes a spontaneous trip to India to visit her sassy grandmother and witness her work with young girls for Simran to realize she needs to reevaluate what is really important. Unlike her mother, she has the choice to leave when things become tough. But when should she keep working harder---the way her heritage would preach---and when should she let go? Is she truly embracing the best blend of ideals from the contradicting cultures that define her? This story is for anyone who has had to challenge everything they’ve known in order to make a major life choice.
Like Simran, I am an Indian American woman whose parents had an arranged marriage. I was the winner of Nicholas Kristof’s 2011 New York Times essay contest, which led to a reporting trip through northwest Africa. I have published additional articles in The New York Times Upfront, Huffington Post, Global Post, and India Abroad. I have written poetry for The British Medical Journal and Feminist Wire.
I completed a Creative Writing Certificate at Columbia University and am a physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. Emily Baker helped me edit my manuscript. Author Emily Giffin has offered to write a blurb for my novel.
I came across your name on Twitter. I have to mention, your Twitter feed is always entertaining and relatable. Also, your website indicated you enjoy upmarket women’s fiction, so I hope this is a good match.
Thank you for taking the time to consider my work. I really appreciate it.

I requested the full manuscript the next day and read it ASAP. I emailed Saumya on October 18 and set up a call. After a couple weeks, she asked to speak again, and we finalized our relationship on the phone November 7.

I know what some of you are thinking right now: “Jennifer, you’ve had my manuscript for months; what the hell?” I hear you! It’s partly a function of what other work I have going on—I got a ton of reading done at the beginning of February, but right now I’m working on three submissions, so I haven’t had much reading time in the last couple weeks. But there were a few things about Saumya’s query that made me prioritize it:

  • Emily Murdock Baker is a friend of mine (and a wonderful editor, I highly recommend EMB Editorial should you have a need), and she mentioned this might be coming my way. Referrals matter—not so much because of the personal connection but because there’s a much higher chance I’ll fall in love with the book if someone whose taste I trust says she thinks I will. 
  • Diverse #ownvoices fiction—I’m always on the lookout for this in every genre I represent. With Saumya’s book in particular, this sort of coming-of-age quarter-life crisis story is a perennial favorite—particularly with multigenerational elements!—and I was really intrigued by how the “contradicting cultures” the query describes would affect the protagonist. 
  • A potential blurb from Emily Giffin is enticing, in part because it reaffirms that this is the kind of book I’m likely to enjoy and in part because it would be appealing to editors. 

Obviously this query got the job done for me. But if I were to be super nitpicky, I’d make a few small adjustments: 

  • I’d put the information about Emily editing and why she’s querying me at the top; if you have a connection to an agent, let them know right away that this is the query they’ve been waiting for.
  • The second paragraph is long for an email; I’d break it into two.
  • I’d also try to avoid the rhetorical questions in the second paragraph. I’m a never-say-never kind of girl, but there’s *almost* always a better way to phrase things.
  • After having worked on Saumya’s manuscript, I would have emphasized different elements of the story. The novel contains intermittent chapters from the mother’s POV, which really enrich the work, but the query hooks in with Neil—and while he’s the catalyst, he isn’t the heart. You obviously can’t fit everything into a query, but make sure you’re focusing on what makes your story special.

I just sent Saumya notes on the second round of revisions. We’ve worked on streamlining the plot (see my previous post on that!), altering a few plot points, pacing, a couple small timeline issues, and doing a little polish on the line. Since she put so much work into this, the manuscript was in excellent shape, but you all know there’s always room for improvement. At this point, there are just a couple scenes I suggested adding. I’ll take a look at the additions when she sends it back, and I anticipate going out on submission shortly thereafter.

It’s a long, slow process, and we’re not done yet—though I hope this story will have a happy book-deal ending. But keep writing and keep querying. The next #querywin could be yours.

6 Tips for Sending a Requested Manuscript

Eeeee a request! All that inbox refreshing has finally paid off: an agent wants to see your work. 

A manuscript request is the beginning of your relationship with an agent, and as with any first encounter, you want to ensure you’re making the best possible impression. I would never reject someone for not following the advice below, but it makes me happy when a writer does these things. And you definitely want an agent to be happy when she starts reading your book.

1. Make sure to send in the requested format. 

This may seem obvious, but I frequently have to ask writers to resend their pages because they sent the document in a different format than I requested. Every agent has her personal preferences—I always ask for a Word document because I read manuscripts on a Kindle. PDFs don’t format correctly; I’m unable to enlarge the text. And reading on my laptop hurts my head, even with just a twenty-page sample. 

If a writer sends in a different format, I simply email and ask them to resend as a Word doc. Not a catastrophe, but it does mean a slight delay. And attention to detail is hugely important in the publishing process; it can only help your chances to show from the start that you have that quality.

2. Send promptly!

Generally speaking, I hope to see a response to a request within about a day. Sometimes when I’m really excited about a project, I’m checking my query inbox eagerly, hoping it comes in so I can start reading immediately. If a writer takes too long to respond, I can’t help but wonder if the manuscript isn’t finished yet. If you need time for one last polish, I’m happy to read whenever it arrives—but it’s best to do that polish before you send out your queries.

Of course, life happens, and I highly encourage email breaks when you’re on vacation. Just let the agent know that you were out of town, and no points will be lost, I promise. Clear communication is necessary for a good agent-author relationship, and this starts with the query process.

3. Paste your query into the front of your manuscript.

When I go to my Kindle to read, I like to remind myself quickly of what the manuscript is about before I look at the pages. If you don’t put your query at the front of the manuscript, I have to look at my email to find your query. And since I’m often reading in places without Internet access, like the subway, I may skip your manuscript and jump to one for which I have context. I get to every manuscript eventually, but anything you can do to help the process along is beneficial.

4. Title your file with Title.Name.Date.Amount Included.

This is another tip that helps give me the context I need to start reading your work. I often get manuscripts titled “Request for Jennifer Johnson-Blalock,” which I know makes sense for your system but doesn’t help me figure out what I’m about to read. At the very least, your file name should include the title of your work. The author’s name (okay to use just the last name) is also useful. If you include the date you’re sending it and the amount (50 pages, full, partial, etc.), that will be a huge help in keeping me organized. And if the file name hasn’t gotten too long yet, and you want some bonus points, you might also include the name of the conference or contest, if applicable. 

So for example, if I were sending a manuscript out, it might say, HEART-POUNDING ROMANCE.Johnson-Blalock.8.15.16.RWA.50 pages. And with that, the agent has the key background information, right in the name of the document. 

5. Make sure your manuscript is clean and doesn’t include tracked changes.

Tracked changes is a wonderful tool for editing and a terrible barrier to reading. You’d be surprised how often I receive manuscripts that still have the changes from the last round of edits. It’s impossible to lose yourself in a work when you’re reading past a strike-through, so I have to ask the writer to resend, which delays my evaluation. Don’t rush to follow tip #2 only to send something that isn’t the final version.

6. Don’t change the subject line when you send. 

For many agents' email systems, when you change the subject line to say REQUESTED or the like, it puts the email in a new, separate conversation. This means I now have two emails to keep track of in my inbox, and if you started an entirely new email instead of replying, I have to search to find the initial email to review the query. 

Two caveats to this advice, though. First, obviously follow any stated guidelines or preferences of a particular agent. Based on the conversations I’ve had, many agents share my feelings on subject line changes, but there are always agents who have their own systems. Second, I do think it’s fine to change the subject line if you have an offer because it’s helpful to highlight that in the agent’s inbox. But make sure you’re just replying and then changing the subject, rather than opening a new email, so that the agent has the thread of communication to reference. 

And there you have it, my best pro tips for putting your dream agent in a blissful state of mind when she picks up your work. Do you have any questions about manuscript requests? Feel free to ask in the comments section! Or chime in with your own recommendations.