How to Approach a Literary Agent and Interpret Submission Guidelines

This answers a question that both Haylee and Siski asked a while ago, about how to approach a literary agent when you’ve got several projects kicking around your desk, and what to make of submission guidelines. Lots and lots of writers have multiple projects that they’ve completed. This is even more true for picture book writers, who may have 20 or more manuscripts. If this is the case for you, read on.

submission guidelines
Wondering how to approach a literary agent and what goes into the envelope? The submission guidelines are a great place to start.

How to Approach a Literary Agent When You Have a Lot of Ideas

The problem is, if they are beginning writers, those 20 manuscripts likely have some of the same issues. If I look at a manuscript that someone has queried me with and it lacks a strong character, for example, or a strong plot, or the voice is wrong, or there’s a lack of active language, or there’s no scene setting, seeing that the author has 19 more, hot off the press and ready to go, isn’t going to be a draw for me. Plus, if a writer is sending me that much, they’re not following submission guidelines. If they were all written around the same time, or even before the one I’m looking at currently, they’re likely suffering from the same issues as the first manuscript. (Querying multiple projects is quite a problematic way of how to approach a literary agent to begin with. Learn why.)

Every time you sit down to write, you are getting better. You’re learning. Sometimes it takes writing an entire novel-length manuscript to teach you a valuable lesson about your own craft. And sometimes, that lesson won’t get published. Sometimes, in fact, it takes five manuscripts, ten manuscripts, twenty, for you to feel your way around the novel form. The same is true for picture books. In fact, it’s even more true. Picture books are deceptively simple and it is awfully hard to make a great one (tips for writing a picture book here). Lots of people think otherwise, and happily churn out an entire slew of drafts. I think it’s more reasonable to see your early work and your early, prolific output as more of an exercise rather than a finished product. As such, I don’t want to see all of your exercises in my inbox. Per my submission guidelines, I want to see your single stronger project at first any way. Some practice is better left for your eyes only.

Submission Guidelines for Prolific Writers

If you get the itch to query and you’ve got multiple projects, query with your absolutely strongest one. I read thousands and thousands and thousands of queries and manuscripts. I can tell where an author is from looking at their work. Not every project — especially not the ones you wrote when you were still beginning and figuring things out — will sell. Show me only your strongest work. (Read here for more on a successful query.) If I’m considering taking you on, I’ll be asking about your future projects and what else you have in mind, since those will more likely be even better. I will very rarely say, “Hey, do you have any problematic drawer novels I can sell?” unless you are a 12 out of 10 genius. Wondering how to approach a literary agent? With your best work, period.

Agents really dislike it, actually, when people send a stable of their work on first contact. I wish that was featured in more submission guidelines. Pick the best one. If I want to see more, I’ll ask. This is especially pertinent to picture book authors. If I like the project they query with, I always want to make sure they have at least two more that I love before I take them on.

Bonus Tip: If you query an agent and get rejected, wait at least 6 months before querying them — or anyone — with a different project. Some submission guidelines even say that. Per my thinking above, the new thing you send me is most likely going to have the same issues that I noticed when I just rejected your first project. If you send out a project and it garners lots of rejections and little personalized or positive feedback, the cure isn’t jumping back into querying with a different project. The smarter thing to do would be to go back to the drawing board for a while and work on craft.

If you have a lot of projects on your plate, let me help you zero in on the ones with the most potential, especially you picture book writers. I guide writers through bigger picture questions all the time as a book editor.

43 Replies to “How to Approach a Literary Agent and Interpret Submission Guidelines”

  1. Great reminder. And to further that, the one we love the most may not be the strongest. Usually, we get attached to that first manuscript simply because it’s our first and we want the world to acknowledge the hard work and satisfaction we feel.

  2. Thanks for the bonus tip! I submitted a question regarding that only last night.

  3. Wonderful post, Mary! It makes so much sense, of course, to send out your strongest work. And only perhaps one work at a time, at that, to see just what kind of feedback it garners. Thanks so much for this insightful reminder!

  4. Don Cummer says:

    Mary, when you send that second query in, do you remind the agent that you have submitted material before?

    I’m getting a sense that the slush pile of the typical agent is very deep. (Or is it high? Does slush pile up or drop down?) And yet, I get the sense that you, personally, can keep tabs on the names and personalities of all the people who send you stuff — including those of us who comment on your blog.

    Does a writer who sends a first query make enough of an impression for the agent to remember them a second time around?

  5. Your bonus tip is right on the money, I think. You should totally tweet that! I keep telling myself, “patience, grasshopper.”

  6. Thanks for this, Mary. We all need to be reminded that querying is not always the answer.

    And I feel like I share this blog post everywhere I go, but the best writer advice I’ve found on this subject is Natalie Whipple’s:


    Check it out, both that post and the one it links to. It changed my entire way of thinking about the whole query dance and when to take that first step out onto the floor.

  7. I just love seeing my name up in lights, even backlit computer screen lights! I’m afraid I’ve definitely been guilty of this. I’m still learning and new to kid lit, but when I get some interest (like winning second place in a query contest!), I just get overexcited. Learning not to jump the gun even when my heart says go, is proving to be the hardest thing for me to learn. But I’m getting there.

    I must also confess to sending multiple queries to two publishers (three stories). I got requests for fulls from both (probably will come to nothing, but a request is still a request, right?!). My problem was that I really, really didn’t know which story they’d like most, so I was naughty and sent three synopses. As it turned out, the story I guessed they’d like, they didn’t ask for!

  8. Thanks Mary, fabulous post as always!

    Krista G. for the link, I enjoyed it much.

  9. Shari Maser says:


    Thank you for your insightful blog. I learn something (usually many things) from every post.

    You raised an issue that has been on my mind lately. I am finding it challenging, as a picture book author, to choose the strongest manuscript from among vastly different projects. How do you decide which is “the best” when comparing a 100-word rhyming PB, a 500-word absurd comedy, and a 1200-word folktale?

    Just curious what your strategy would be….

  10. Okay, this is an incredibly timely post. I’ve been attacking one of my mss, because I really love the story, the characters, the pacing…I could go on and on. But at the same time, I’ve been wondering if I should shelf it. I don’t want to run the risk of ‘over editing’ and making it stale.

    Thanks for the reminder. Only send out your strongest work.

  11. Thank you for the bonus tip. It’s what a lot of us needed to hear.

  12. While I completely agree with you, I have to say as a writer, I love my first manuscripts. Not because they are great, or even finished, but because they are the ones that really helped me find my love for writing. They are the original “babies” of my craft. And just like with my first born, I look at them and wish I’d done some things differently. Then I look again and see things I did do right and it gives me hope.

  13. This is my first time reading your blog, and I must say I like what I see. I found it at the blog The Write Path.

    What is your opinion about querying an agent when I’ve already found a publisher for my book? That book, with contract about to be signed, is just one of many. Is it a good idea to query before the contract is signed, or to wait until that first book is actually published?

  14. Thanks for a great post. I totally agree with sending your best work, which is usually the latest one. So by the time I finish one and have begun the next, this new one is–will be– my strongest, so the previous one sits on a figurative shelf. Never querying because you’re always getting better is another problem entirely!

  15. Shari — Sorry, but I absolutely cannot make that choice for you. I do know that the market is a bit limited for rhyming but, having no idea what the manuscripts or stories are, that’s as far as I can go.

    Kellie — Of COURSE you do. Nobody’s saying that you should love your “babies” any less. Just know that they MIGHT not see publication, but love them all you want. They are important stepping stones and explorations for you.

    Laurisa —


  16. Hi Mary. I actually found your blog AFTER I queried you with my manuscript and spent the whole night catching up on your entries. lol. As someone who has spent the last few months getting acquainted with the querrying process, I wish I had found this site sooner. Eventually, I managed to figure out the right and wrong ways of getting myself out there and what options I have. But getting things from an agent’s point of view is essential so thank you! Whatever happens with my manuscript, I will be keeping on eye on this blog for future reference.

    PS- I also sent in a KidLit contest entry and then read the qualifications AFTER having sent it (seeing a pattern here aren’t we?) But I’m in europe so time is on my side:) Only one problem- I don’t have a personal blog to put the KidLit.com reference up in. Does facebook count?:) Thanks again for taking the time to do this!

  17. Thanks, Mary. I made exactly the mistake you’re talking about when I first started submitting. I’d get a bunch of form rejections, tell myself rejection was part of the process, and then send the same manuscript (often with minor revisions) to a bazillion other publishers. Now I tend too far in the other direction. I work on things forever and send them to my critique groups twenty times and then stick them in drawers and come back to them a few months later and say, “Nope, not good enough.”

    I’m learning, but it’s oddly lonely compared to my earlier submission blitz method. An SASE in the mailbox is a tangible reminder that I tried, even if it contains bad news. This year I’m planning send some work out again. If I get form rejections, I’ll do what you suggest and return to the blank page instead of sending the same work out again. Thanks for the post.

  18. You often hear from published authors how they’d written several novels before they actually queried an agent with one. Practice helps improve one’s style of writing, plotting etc. So this makes sense.

  19. Shari Maser says:


    Sorry I wasn’t clear — my question was meant to be theoretical, not personal. Maybe I should have used less applicable-to-myself examples, e.g. a YA romantic comedy vs. a whodunnit mystery… (I’m new to the online blog culture, so please forgive my learning curve!)

    What I was trying to ask is: how can we go about comparing projects that are extremely different in terms of genre and target audience? I imagine you must make similar comparisons of “apples to oranges” as an agent deciding which projects/authors to represent.

    It sounds like you were suggesting that marketability could be a deciding factor between equally strong projects, meaning it’s more of a business decision than an artistic decision.

    Anyway, thanks again for a writing a blog worth following.

  20. Thanks for the post Mary.

    And Krista G, thanks for the amazing link to Natalie Whipple’s blog. It’s so easy to read something (especially since I’m a book reviewer who gets most of my books for free) and think ‘well, heck, my stuff is at least as good as that’ and then turn around and send it out.

    I have to keep telling myself that I aspire to way more than the bare minimum standard for publication. If I ever get published, I want my book to move people, the way books like ‘Speak’ and ‘Holes’ and “Going Bovine’ have moved me.

  21. “Every time you sit down to write, you’re getting better.”

    Words to live by.


  22. that last bonus tip is useful. It’s nice to have a good, solid rule of thumb on resubmissions.

  23. Thanks for the great advice.

  24. Thank you, Mary, for another great post. A good critique group (that includes published writers) and professional critiques have really helped me put on the query brakes. I rewrite to the point where I’m sick of my story and then hand it over to fresh eyes. It’s amazing what you can’t see due to familiarity.

  25. Mary, this is my first visit to your site and I really like what I see. Your bonus tip answers one of my many must-know-now questions. I’m coming back!

  26. Very useful information!

    I wonder how this works for writers with projects spread across age groups and genres. If you have a picture book manuscript that lacks a strong character, will the YA manuscript also lack one? Picture books are generally harder–tiny word count, less time to develop a story–as compared to YA. Conversely, a writer with a great picture book voice may feel forced in YA.

    Just curious.

  27. Mary,
    Thanks so much for the insider info you offer on your blog, it’s humorous and realistic at the same time. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the future of e-books sometime.

  28. Possibly the most useful piece of advice I’ve read – and I’ve read loads of books, including the ones that hint that an agent is looking for promising authors to nurture. Not so. They are looking for books they can sell – to do anything else would be to do everyone a disservice. So, it’s back to the editing board for me – with gusto, not disappointment. I am getting better each time and it becomes easier to see what is not working. I’m a newcomer to kidlit so it will take me a while to digest all this wonderful FREE advice. Thanks, Mary.

  29. Thank you for this article. I am working on writing my querry letter now. I am thrilled to have found this wonerful site. I look forward to investigating every inch of it!

    Celeste Ammirata

  30. Great post! I’m enjoying your blog–the information you share is very clear and to-the-point.

    Ruth Donnelly : : Readatouille

  31. I can see how it would be hard to choose from a variety of picture books–of course you want to query your strongest, but at the same time, some of them might just cover non-overlapping territory. But still, a single, focused approach is better than divebombing. Even if they’re all good, it’s like giving a two-year-old too many presents at Christmas. They just can’t enjoy them when there are too many to look at.

    On having multiple works available, though–I agree that what fails in one book is likely to be systematic (systemic?) of all your writing. However, that universality goes both ways–if you write a novel, then write a better one, you may well be equipped to go back to the first one and correct the failings you didn’t have the skills for initially. If an agent doesn’t care for one book, they might not care for any other ones, but that doesn’t mean that the ship is sunk with someone else, who might well like both.

  32. Thank you for this blog. As a writer who has been writing for a while without querying, this is new advice for me. My question is how do know you’re not rejecting a good story if the author isn’t very good at the pitch?

    I only say this because I entered the ABNA last year with an adult novel. I had never written a pitch before and worked hard on it. The pitch was not passed on. I was bothered only because I had put so much into the pitch and thought that it was pretty good (word limit for the contest is 300 words, so I know it wasn’t too long.) Anyway, the story is complete, and has gotten good feedback, so how would you suggest going about querying when it’s not necessarily the novel, but the pitch that needs work?

    Incidentally, I entered my YA novel in your contest, and I apologize if my pitch sounds less that hook-ish. As I’ve said above, I need help when it comes to the query.

  33. So what are some of the main things you see in a query or the first ten pages of a manuscript that might cause you to reject it, and what are the main things you look for in a query or the first ten pages of a manuscript that might make you ask for more. You mentioned voice, character, plotting, setting, and active language. Is there anything else or any specific examples, good or bad you could share? Thanks

  34. Alice — I ran a query contest a few months ago that features good queries and my notes. It’s worth a look.

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