You’ve finished your novel and you absolutely can’t wait to read your name on the spine of a paperback. For that dream to come true, you’ll need an agent. He or she will sell your book to the publishers.
Great. How do you get an agent?
There are two paths. Either you find your agent (query letter, successful pitch session at a convention) or she finds you. She-finds-you is the publishing equivalent of a lucky break. You’ve won a contest, or you’re outstandingly witty on twitter, or perhaps you’ve done something unique enough to make for a gripping memoir.
Lucky breaks are, well, lucky and rare. Most of you will have to write a query letter. It’s almost guaranteed you’ll make a few mistakes on the first swing. The most grievous and harmful can be avoided if you pay attention to steps 1-4. But you’re in a hurry, aren’t you? You’ve already skipped this paragraph, and are reading item 7. If you were within hand’s reach I’d smack you on the back of the head and tell you to ‘Snap out of it!’ This is one time where being in a hurry could seriously hurt you.
1. Get someone to read your first draft. This ‘someone’ should not be your friend, your relative or your work buddy. Ideally find a person who knows something about writing. Some critique groups are good for this. So are writer’s associations and creative writing courses.
2. Listen carefully to what they have to say. If you doubt their insights, get another person to read your book. Again, someone who’s not family. If both reviewers are saying basically the same thing, pay huge attention because that’s the flaw in your novel.
3. ALL first drafts have flaws. Listening to criticism and gaining something from it is part of writing. Revision is part of writing. Matter of fact, that should be in caps. REVISION IS PART OF WRITING.
4. Go back and rework the book until it’s as tight as you can make it. I mean this. Have the discipline to go in there with a weed-whacker. Alternatively if you write short, then go in and expand on the things that your betas thought needed fleshing out.
5. Can you say what your book is about in one sentence? Try. You’ll need to be able to do that to write your query. And make no mistake: query or not, you can’t avoid this step. If you intend to sell your novel, sooner or later you’re going to have to spit out that one-sentence plot summary known as an elevator pitch, because one day you might find yourself sitting beside the editor-to-die-for, or perhaps sharing an antipasto platter with a group of published writers. Don’t be so foolish as to think you can ‘talk’ your way through it. Here the deal: most of us are really boring when we want to talk about our book. We know too much about the characters, the reasons and why-for’s. We feel we must share our brilliance. DON’T DO THAT. They asked because they were being polite. Be equally well-bred. Have a quick reply–something that hints at the basic plot elements and finishes with a killer hook. If their eyes haven’t glazed over, you might finish with a quick comparison. “It’s a comedy-thriller. Think THE HANGOVER meets the TERMINATOR.” Then shut up about your book. Seriously. If they’re interested they’ll ask you for more and that’s when you can tell them about that fascinating plot that came to you in the shower.
6. Okay, one last thing before you start typing “Dear Agent Who Will Change My World”. Educate yourself first. What makes a good query? Go ahead, google it. And then go over to queryshark. I read 186 queries before I wrote mine. I would have read 187, but that’s all she had on the site at the time.
7. NOW, you’re ready. Start fooling around with some formulas–you don’t have to use one, but working with them will help you distill your story. I liked Nathan Bransford’s example, because it’s simple and I like simple, but you can do what I did to find different versions. Google: ‘query letter template for literary agent’.
8. Find out which agents specialize in your genre. If you’ve got dough in your pocket, then spend $20 for a month’s membership to Publishers Marketplace. There you can discover who represents authors you admire, and other important stuff. If not, go to your local library. Most of them will have a copy of Writer’s Market. Or go online. Google ‘agents’, ‘bad agents’ ‘how to get an agent’. Follow the links. Spend a lot of time educating yourself. Initially query only those agents who are actively looking for book like yours. Attracting an agent’s interest will be a lot easier if you’re dangling the right bait. Here are some of the links I went to AgentQuery and Preditors & Editors.
9. Go the agency’s site and carefully read what they want. Email or snail? 5 pages? No pages? Format? (if they don’t request something specific, try this). Follow theirinstructions to the letter. Do not piss them off or forget that their pinkie is less than 3 inches away from the delete key. [Edited to add a note from Deidre Knight, of The Knight Agency, “For writers who are submitting to agents: be sure to read your work aloud. You will catch word repetitions and missing words.”]
10. Send a few query letters out. Not all of them. Maybe five. Wait to see how they respond. Are you getting a request for a partial, or are you getting form rejections? If it’s the latter, it’s clearly a case of either two options: your novel premise sucks or your query does. Let’s be optimistic. Fine-tune your letter. Choose another group. Hit send.
Some of you might have read all my blog posts, and know that I got my agent through a contest. Yup. I’m one lucky puppy. However, I DID write a query letter. A few days before Deidre’s contest began, I sent my query to five agents–people who routinely sold stuff similar to what I write. Within six hours, I got my first form rejection. The other responses slowly trickled in, the last arriving in my inbox a good month after I’d signed with Deidre Knight. You know what? No one was interested.
Why? My query sucked.
Now, with the luxury of time, I can spot the choppy prose, the fumble with the ball. If I’d let it steep a week, I could have spotted those issues and fixed them. But then? I was in a hurry. I didn’t carefully listen to important feedback. If this happens to you, fear not. Retool your letter, send it out again. (NOT to the same people, unless you’re willing to change the name of your book, and possibly your pen name). Enlarge your search pool, and keep sending queries out. Meanwhile, scrape up some dollars. Yup, it’s time to invest in you. Go to a convention. That’s where you’ll find the agents (and editors). Why? Because they’re looking for talent. Perhaps they’re looking for your book, but they just don’t know it yet. Have your elevator pitch ready. Network. Use your head. Don’t annoy them. Do not push your business card under the bathroom stall (truly happened) or bother an agent when they’re eating. Don’t press your entire manuscript into their mitts or shove a business card into their hand when they’re grappling for change at the bottom of their purse (meet my friend the garbage bin). Don’t bad-mouth anyone. Don’t suck up. Know your book. Know what type of reader would like your book. Think before you talk.
And later, when you get home, don’t give up. Keep writing. That’s what you want to do anyhow, isn’t it?