5 tips for new authors querying a novel in English
Updated: Mar 6
Writing, querying (sending to literary agents), and successfully publishing a novel isn’t just about having a compelling story.
You also need to be aware of certain conventions in Anglo-American fiction publishing, craft a compelling query letter, and know how to market your book (but that’s a topic for another blog post).
Some of these publishing conventions are – let's face it – arbitrary. Others relate to guiding principles that help maximise and retain a big audience for your book. Such principles include promoting maximum reader immersion and avoiding reader confusion.
Always remembers that publishing is a commercial enterprise and publishers – especially the big ones – aim to maximise their profits.
In my experience (I read novels in Croatian and German too), other markets don’t follow all these principles as strictly as the Anglo-American publishing world. That’s because the publishing environment is different elsewhere.
In Croatia, for example, the state heavily subsidises publishing. And these other markets and contexts have unwritten rules of their own too.
So, if you’re hoping to query a novel in English, here are a few tips!
1) Use a consistent point of view
Point of view is the mode in which you tell the story. The main choices are between first person (I …) and third person (They/she/he …). It’s a lot more nuanced than this, and even advanced writers have significant issues with point of view, but new writers often have big POV issues. Examples include: frequent head hopping, too many viewpoint characters, switching between embedded and retrospective first person etc.
Luckily, you can usually tackle the big issues in a revision. If you want to learn the basics of point of view, check out this fantastic book by Sandra Gerth!
2) Make sure your query letter is well presented in the required format
If you’re used to operating in an environment where personal connections are important, you may be inclined to cut some corners or just wing it. Especially if you have some publishing connections already.
For 95% of writers in Anglo-American publishing, things don’t work like this. Sure, in the UK there are cliques of (mostly) Oxbridge-educated women in certain parts of traditional publishing. And yes, they may fast-track recommendations from friends. But for the vast majority of new authors, your query letter will be completely anonymous.
This means that not sticking to the brief provided will fast-track your query to the bin.
Because if publishers can pick and choose who they work with, then they’ll favor people who make that experience an easy or pleasant one. People who present themselves professionally and follow instructions.
Besides explicit instructions, the contents of your query letter also tell an agent or acquisitions editor how aware of publishing conventions you are.
· Do you know what tense a synopsis should be written in?
· Do you know how to style new character names in a synopsis?
· Whether you should use a synopsis to sell your project?
· How much to talk about yourself in the query letter?
If not, then I recommend these resources to get up to speed, and query tracker for organising the queries you do send:
· Jane Friedman’s post “The Complete Guide to Query Letters”
· Jennifer Lawler’s course How to Edit Query Letters, Synopses, and More!
3) Demonstrate awareness of Anglo-American writing conventions
One common bugbear is the use of unusual dialogue tags in English. For instance:
“I’ll have a coffee,” Andy hollered.
“Tea for me,” Melanie interjected loudly.
Creative writing in English strongly favours “said,” “replied,” and “asked.”
Because they are relatively invisible and therefore don’t slow down the reader’s immersion in the story. This involves unlearning habits often taught by English teachers, who are happy to see pupils use a varied vocabulary.
Fiction editors often justify this in terms of overtelling.
They argue that the dialogue makes clear whether a sentence is an explanation, suggested, interruption etc., so readers don’t need to know this twice.
But my experience is that this is just a convention that some other languages just don’t follow.
It’s a bit of an arbitrary convention too, as there could conceivably be less (just “said”) or a collection of more dialogue tags (e.g. “shouted,” “whispered”) that are just as invisible.
Full disclosure: when I began my fiction editing training and completed some practice exercises, I missed the expectation to edit out unusual dialogue tags. This shows just how much of an arbitrary convention it is.
4) Format your manuscript correctly
Once again, you should always follow an agent’s instructions on this, but the most common industry standard is double-spaced, Times New Roman (size 12), and – of course – indented paragraphs for fiction.
Editors can help with this, but you absolutely don’t need to have your text copyedited before sending it to agents (many authors, especially multilingual authors, would benefit from a round of line editing though).
Check out Rachel Rowland’s resources on literary agents. She’s a book editor and author signed up with a literary agent.
5) Get the genre right
If you’re submitting genre fiction, be sure to meet your genre conventions. A fast-paced thriller cannot have as much description as a cosy mystery, and a romance novel by definition must have a HEA (Happily Ever After) or HFN (Happy For Now).
If your thriller starts with three pages detailing Jessica’s doubts over whether Alice will go on a date with her, then you will confused your readers and agents won’t be interested.
This is not only about awareness of genre – writers write for a wide variety of reasons and agents will favour working with writers who are self-aware and, if they think in the longer term, with writers able to sustain a professional writing habit.
Equally, writers from different language backgrounds may draw on different genre conventions in those languages. Passing over genre considerations can reduce your chances of success, or the book may be placed differently (e.g. in literary fiction/fiction in translation).
And that’s it!
Querying a novel can seem daunting at first, but the more knowledge you have, the better job you will do. It takes persistence, so expect to fail multiple times, and learn to be comfortable with rejections.
Good luck and feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.
Andrew Hodges, PhD is a developmental editor and line editor who specializes in editing fiction for science fiction and fantasy writers. Their expertise is in worldbuilding and cultural considerations when crafting setting in stories.
They are an advanced professional member of the CIEP, a member of the EFA, and an ALLi partner member.
You can contact them here, or feel free to leave a comment below!