Virginia Zimmerman Shares 5 Tips For Conquering Query Hell

I'm lucky (or cunning) enough to have lured yet another successful writer over to my blog for an SAT- Successful Author Talk. SAT authors have conquered the query, slain the synopsis and attained the pinnacle of published. How'd they do it? Let's ask 'em!


Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is Virginia Zimmerman, author of THE ROSEMARY SPELL. As a child Virginia enjoyed writing and talking to friends about books, so she decided to grow up into a person who could do those things all the time. She eventually became an English professor at Bucknell University. Most of the classes she teaches are about British literature of the nineteenth century or children’s fiction from the nineteenth century to today.

Are you a Planner or Pantster?

I am definitely a planner, though I’ve discovered in recent years that sometimes I do my best work when circumstances force me out of my comfort zone and into pantster position. That said, I can only pants (is that a verb?) if a plan is out there somewhere, like a safety net.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

Kids always ask this question when I do school visits, and it’s really hard to answer. What counts as starting? Is it when I have the first glimmer of an idea? When I have the plot outlined? When I first put words on the page? And what counts as finishing? Completing a draft? Sending the manuscript to my agent? Holding the published book in my hand? 

If the process begins when I have an idea and ends when the book is published, then the process takes me several years. If we’re only talking about actual writing time, I can sometimes write a full draft in just a month or so, but then it needs a lot of work. From first draft to final revision, I’d say it takes about a year.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I work on multiple projects at a time, but they are in very different stages. For instance, right now, I have three projects in process: I am revising a nearly-finished manuscript for my agent, and I am also making notes and brainstorming plot ideas for a new book; as soon as I send the manuscript off, I will start revising a different book that is drafted. My preference is to have two projects going at once—one at a writing stage and one in the idea stage. Three is a bit much!

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

The first time I sat down to write, I didn’t take myself seriously, so it wasn’t scary at all. By the time I realized I was actually writing a real book, I was already in the middle of doing it. What was more frightening was sitting down to write my second book. I was terrified that I only had one book in me. It was a great relief to discover second, third, and fourth books, each clambering to get out onto the page.

Did you trunk any projects before you were agented?

I got my first agent with my first book, which ended up getting published in Barcelona, Spain. La Finestra del Temps (Cruïlla 2012)—in English, A Window in Time--is set in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, so it was particularly well-suited for the market there. However, that book and its sequel have not yet found an American home. They are trunked… for now.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

I have never quit a manuscript, but I have completely rewritten, scrapping plot lines and characters. The book I’m finishing now was originally from a different character’s point of view. I wrote the whole book and thought it was finished. All my beta readers, including my 11-year-old son, said, “Don’t you think this other person should be the main character?” I knew they were right, so I opened a blank document and started over.

Who is your agent and how did you get that "Yes!" out of them? 

My agent is Bridget Smith of Dunham Literary. I signed with her recently after rising up from the slush pile via the traditional query process. My first agent was George Nicholson who passed away in 2015. I found my way to him through the alumni network of my undergrad institution, Carleton College. In a recent blog post, I described my agent story in detail. 

How long did you query before landing your agent? 

To get my first agent, I queried about a year. My second took only six months. The first time, I sent out queries in batches of five. As soon as I received a rejection, I sent out a replacement query. In a weird way, this made rejections feel like good news because I got to send out another query, so rejection was immediately replaced with hope. 

Any advice to aspiring writers out there on conquering query hell?

1. Keep writing. If you’re just waiting to hear back, then the process really is hellish, but if you keep moving forward, then querying becomes just an annoying buzz in the background.

2. Take solace in reading about how many rejections were received by people whose work you admire. 

3. Don’t try to read between the lines of rejections. Chances are the language is boiler plate. 

4. Don’t stalk agents on Twitter and try to figure out if their tweets are secretly about you, but do read #MSWL to know which agents may be especially interested in your work.

5. Understand that time in publishing moves at a glacial pace. Chances are you will wait and wait and wait over and over again throughout the process. You will wait for responses from agents. You will wait for responses from editors. And even when there is a contract and everything is all done, you will wait months and months for the book to actually come out. You just have to make peace with this pace. But, this doesn’t mean YOU should move at a glacial pace. See #1 above: Keep writing!

How did it feel, the first time you saw your book for sale?

It was amazing! I felt really silly taking pictures of my book for sale at my local bookstore, but I did it anyway. Sometimes friends in faraway places send me pictures of my book in stores, and it always gives me joy to know the book is out there.

At the same time, there’s something unsettling about the book being out in the world. It means it doesn’t really belong to me anymore. It belongs to its readers, who find in it things I never noticed and make it their own. At my book launch, I likened the experience to pushing a bird out of the nest. The book flies off and makes its own way.

How much input do you have on cover art?

Absolutely none, but Clarion did a brilliant job with the cover of The Rosemary Spell. It’s like a magic spell that makes people want to pick up the book. I couldn’t be happier with it.

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I was surprised that it was difficult to get my second agent. I thought that with a book out, a book that was well-received and has sold well, it would be easy to find a new agent. Instead, I basically started from scratch. In a way, I am grateful for the process since it led me to Bridget. If I had just signed on with the friend of a friend, I’m not sure I’d be so pleased with the match.

How much of your own marketing do you?

I have a blog on my website where I also post interviews and general information for my readers. I also have an author Facebook page, and I’m on Twitter and Instagram. I try to post pretty regularly, but I’m not nearly as prolific in the world of social media as many authors are.

I’ve gotten the most visibility from articles I’ve written for web sites that get a lot of traffic. I had a piece on mentor texts in Writer’s Digest, and I wrote an op-ed for Fox News Online about the value of re-reading. A lot of people read these and then became interested in The Rosemary Spell.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

I didn’t build my platform until I had my first agent. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. Some people get energy from the conversations they have on social media, so it’s worth the effort. For other people, maintaining these various accounts is draining. I put as much into social media as I can, and I don’t feel any pressure to do more.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

My books are middle grade, and those readers aren’t really on Twitter or Facebook much. I think social media is more useful for building relationships with other authors and with teachers and librarians. For a children’s author, those relationships are really important, and I am happy to invest time and energy into keeping up conversations with those folks.