FINDING A PROSPECTIVE LITERARY AGENT
I had every intention of (finally) writing the classic “how I got my agent” post today. After all that query-work from the last writing-related post, one would think I’d be ready. But not quite. I almost forgot about the ever-important WHO to send your query to stuff. It seems like this should be quick and easy, considering the time and energy one needs to put into writing a very simple-looking query. But it takes longer than you think.
Especially if you’re me, and you’re a tiny-eetsty-witsy bit OCD about things, and you need to know everything there is to know about an agent before you query them. And then you need to make a chart with six handy headings: the agent’s name and contact info., their agency (link embedded), what they’re looking for, their submission guidelines, their response data (no response = no, 6-8 weeks, etc.), and a blank space for when you queried them and what they said.
That way, if they actually call you, you won’t be like “whuck? who are you?” Because that is my usual response when someone–ANYONE–picks up a phone and calls me.
(1) Anyway, I guess that starts with agentquery.com. Agentquery.com is the most comprehensive list I’ve found of literary agents. You can search the database by the genre they represent. There are about four hundred majillion agents who represent young adult. There are a lot less that represent sci-fi. I looked for agents who were looking for both.
So once you find the majillion literary agents who represent your genre, check to see that they’re accepting unsolicited submissions. Make sure they accepts email submissions (I don’t do paper. I mean, sometimes [I've recently learned it's indespensible for later-editing]. But I am pretty much 100% positive I wouldn’t get on with someone who uses paper. I know this about myself, so I didn’t bother querying anyone who doesn’t do everything electronically). If they’re a fit for all of the above, put ‘em on the list. Include their contact information, agency website, and submission guidelines.
Now the only problem with agentquery is that despite it’s breadth, it’s not *always* 100% up-to-date. I don’t think this has anything to do with the site… they’re amazing and keep tabs on everything. But literary agents are people, and as people, they don’t keep us apprised of every tiny thing they do and when their tastes and whims change. So you need to double-check all this information. Start with…
(2) Their Agency website (you should already have a link! in your chart!). If not, five seconds on google will do it. Are they actually asking for what agentquery says they are? Are they still agenting? If the answer is yes, then check their agency’s submission guidelines. If they match agentquery’s, cut-and-paste them into your chart. If not, I usually use agency guidelines above any other. Because they WILL be listed differently in different places.
(3) Okay. You’re prospective agent is still accepting submissions and *even* wants the kind of stuff you’ve got. Yay! Now it’s time to get on Publisher’s Marketplace and look up your agent. (Yes, you need a subscription. But you can do it for a few months and then cancel if you don’t find it useful anymore. Chances are, you will. It’s a great resource.) Check your prospective agent’s recent sales.
If they haven’t sold anything in your genre, make a note of it. Did they just start agenting? If so, keep them. If they’ve been around for twenty years and their profile doesn’t say something like “I’ve been around for twenty years but I’d really like to break into X genre,” cross them off your list. Did they sell a book almost identical to yours last week? Cross them off your list. Have they recently sold stuff in your genre, kind of like your book but not exactly? If so, keep ‘em! Cut-and-paste those books’ descriptions into the “what the agent is looking for” column. Onwards….
(4) Time to hit the internetz. The internetz is the place where you can learn all kinds of things that aren’t true. But you should hit it, anyway.
First get on Absolute Write and check the Bewares and Background Checks forum. Look up your prospective agent and see what people say about him/her. 95% of the time, it will be positive. Sometimes it will be glowing.
4% of the time, someone will say something nasty that you can easily recognize as the classic sour-grapes syndrome (“they rejected me! they are so evil!”). The mods usually get rid of these types of posts pretty frequently, but if you run into them don’t immediately cross this agent off your list. Just wait. Someone will usually step up to defend them.
o.5% of the time, your prospective agent will be a bad seed. Usually these are professional scammers. Chances are you’ll figure that out before you get to this stage in your research.
And then there is the 0.5% you need to watch out for. These are reputable agents who work for reputable agencies with recent sales. Most people like them and no one’s really nasty. However, you may run in to things like this “I used to work with him/her! PM if you wanna talk.”
This may sound innocuous. IT IS NOT. There are certainly times when this is true–people aren’t the right fit and things don’t work out. But from my limited experience, people either love their agent or they hate them. They rarely feel “meh” about an experience. If they did, they wouldn’t be on the AW boards talking about them. People on the boards who want to discuss things privately are reasonable, professional people who had a bad experience. Because they are reasonable, professional people they aren’t going around bad-mouthing anyone. But they’re their experience was bad enough that they feel the need to warn you.
(BTW, these percentages ARE COMPLETELY MADE UP. Just estimating here, folks )
Here you can either PM the original poster and get the scoop, or cross this agent off your list. I’d go for the former. I know time is short. But I really do believe in giving people the benefit of the doubt. What if there’s some super-awesome agent out there who got a bad break? Who is wonderful 99% of the time but had something go awry with one deal? I do think you owe it to them, and yourself, to find out. Set up an AW account, if you don’t already have one, and PM away.
Hopefully it’s all a big misunderstanding. But if the original poster says they withheld funds, bartered a bad deal, etc. etc. run for the hills. Lot’s of bad things just happen. That’s the nature of business. But when people steal your cash? That’s premeditated, baby.
After AW, do a little googling. You’ll probably turn up a number of agent blogs or interviews. Read them! Is your information still up-to-date? Is your prospective agent a meat-eating NRA member and you’re vegan? Look for someone who fits with your work AND your personality.
(5) The List! You’ve got a list! Woot! Hopefully you’ve trimmed it down from about 200 to 70 or 80. Now it’s time for some organizing. Check over your chart, and look at the “what the agent’s looking for” column. Find the people who fit the *very* best with your material. Hopefully, you’ll have at least twenty.
Of those twenty, check response times. The first ten queries you send out should all be best-fit early-responders. Why? Well, if everybody says no, you know your query needs work. If they want partials, you’ll be super happy, but also get some quick, valuable input back if your work still needs some revisions (which you can take into round two).
So after you’re list is together, organized and happy, start sending! I’d go with the usual ten-queries-per-month. (I say that, but then I was so gung-ho with my queries I sent out about twenty-five in six weeks.)
Now… wait. Chances are, your MOST wanted soon-to-be-best-friend-of-an agent will send you a form reject from his/her assistant. That’s cool, though. Remember how the internetz is filled with things that aren’t true? And how agents are people? No amount of research is going to gaurantee anything. But you may find that it will help your chances. And that’s all you can do.
Anyways, this post has somehow turned into something potentially useful. Gasp! Clearly, I need to get back to waxing nostalgic about things no one else is really concerned about. So next time… yeah. More of that.Read More
So at the beginning of 2010, after I visited the folk-singer psychic-healer coffee-obsessed lady, I wrote another book. I had a very grand scheme to write a book in a month, a la my own private Nanowrimo in March. I even bought a book, A Novel in a Month, took notes on it, and put together a schedule for plotting and revision and word-count and and all that great stuff.
This was in February. I did not actually start this book until the end of March, and I didn’t finish it in a month. It took me about three, and by me and my son’s birthday at the end of May, I had another draft.
If Query-Process No. 1 had taught me anything, it was that I shouldn’t send out something until I was sure it was ready. Really sure. So I let a few family members and friends read it, made some revisions, and then did it again. I stopped working on it for a few months and spent all my free time swimming in the killer mid-summer heat of the South (yay!). I read some other books. And then I re-read my revised manuscript, pondered all of the remaining problems, and decided it was time to query literary agents, anyway.
Of course, querying meant that I had to construct the all-important query.
If you’ve never heard of the all-important query, there are many, many resources to get you caught up. There’s a nice little overview on agentquery.com. There’s Queryshark, where literary agent Janet Reid posts query critiques regularly. There’s Nathan Bransford’s Post(s) on Querying, which has links to everything else on querying. And finally, there’s Query Letter Hell on Absolute write, where people post their queries for critique.
All of these sources say (essentially) the same thing: a query is a short, 200-300-word letter designed to get an agent to look at your material. It must include:
1–a “hook”–something to interest the agent in your material, usually a short description of the book
2–the book’s title, genre and word count
3–your publishing credits or platform, if you have any
HOW you go about doing all of this–and how you go about doing it in an effective, clear, and concise way–that’s the big problem. It seems like it would be simple. You’ve written thousands of words already, what’s 200 more? But therein lies the problem. Thousands of words describing your book are much easier than 200. Especially 200 that an agent somewhere will look at for approximately 3 seconds and decided yay or nay on in less than that.
Needless to say, there are a whole lot of resources out there to craft a query. The reason? Something to do with stuff like this, from Richard Levangie’s Blog (which I just discovered, like, ten seconds ago):
Kathleen Ortiz, at Lowenstein & Associates, reports that her agency received 12,819 queries in 2010 and, from that, requested 478 partial manuscripts (a 3.7 percent success rate for the mathematically challenged). After reading the partials, the agency requested 87 full manuscripts, and offered representation to just seven authors, five of whom accepted. (So 0.05 percent of queries were successful.)
So approximately one-half of a person, per year, gets through the Slush Pile and gets picked up by a literary agency.
I do think this statistic is slightly skewed, though (as all can be). This imaginary half-author is not competing solely with other qualified query-ers. Because this statistic does not account for The Uninitiated. Query letters from The Uninitiated read as follows:
At the turn of the 17th century Alessandra van Doorheaven goes camping in the fraught wilderness of North America. She is a governess but she doesn’t love her life, she wants to find her true love on the plains of the unsettled American wilderness.
But when she meets Journeyman, a strange, unlikely man with great height and a strange accent, she abandons all of her dreams in rustic Spanish-America and falls deeply in love with him. The only problem is that he is a time-traveler. He’s come from the future to find her in the past. And he wants to change her future by taking her back with him to his present.
When Alessandra arrives, though, things are not as she expected. Journeyman is not just a man but a totem of his people and they have completely destroyed the U.S. and rebuilt it as a teeming underground metropolis. How will Alessandra survive in the underwater future, with only her governess training to help her?
THE WALK FROM THERE TO THE HERE is part memoir, part noir-thriller. At 375,000 words it is complete and has great series potential.
I have never studied history but have an intuitive understanding of the past. I’m also extremely well-read and I am confident my novel is much better than everything else that’s ever been written.
I have attached the first thousand pages of my manuscript to this email. Please respond as soon as possible. This manuscript won’t be available for long!
Oh, and there are pink bunnies and dancing flowers in the background. And the font is really large, in big ole scripty-format.
Now, I’m not trying to be snotty. Especially when it comes to writing. Writing is a SKILL–even writing fun stuff about aliens that you read on the beach–that takes time and practice that I will forever be trying to figure out. But like any skill, one needs to ascertain their specific level before they can take the next step. And when you have a HUGE discrepancy between your perceived level of mastery and others’ perception of your mastery, you gotta problem. (Case in point: the made-up query, above.)
I am convinced that The Uninitiated are just that… people who just haven’t yet figured out what their skill level is, and henceforth have not yet ventured into the realm of trying to raise it (cause, yeah, really? Wouldn’t a book about a time-traveling governess be kinda cool? I think so). And these people *must* send lots of queries before they’re ready. Right? They must. I am convinced.
So The Uninitiated send lots of queries. The Crazy sends lots, too. Great writers who have good queries who are querying and agent who doesn’t represent their genre send queries. Great writers who have good queries who are querying an agent who last month signed somebody with the same idea send queries. Great writers who have good queries who don’t have a market for their work send queries.
I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that if you’re a decent writer with a decent query who’s sending a query to an agent who represents your genre, your chances are greater than .05%.
All thanks to The Uninitiated. And The Crazy.
So I did some research on agents and I workshopped my query letter on Query Letter Hell. After some revising I came up with something I was more-or-less happy with, and modified it to suit each agent I queried. This is the one that landed me an agent:
Dear Mr./Ms. Agent
Maria Graham is accustomed to unfamiliar territory. As the daughter of two military officers, she’s spent most of her seventeen years as a transient. But in Section R there’s no sky, no earth, and no new place to go to if things go bad. For the first time in her life, Maria doesn’t have the comfort of the next town.
Her captors claim she and her ninety-nine companions are on an alien vessel, taken there to protect them from forthcoming events on Earth. Beyond that, information is sparse. No human has ever seen an alien. They’re encased in atmosphere suits and refuse to give information about themselves or the purpose of the human abduction.
Maria isn’t surprised when the first riot happens, but she’s baffled when she risks her life to protect an outnumbered alien. She can’t save the alien but she learns they can be killed. They’d also rather die than risk losing a single human. Armed with this new information, Maria knows the humans have more bargaining power than they think.
She can’t seem to win the trust of the abductees, so she tries to win the trust of the aliens. Maria grows closer to them—one, in particular—and more detached from the human population. When she figures out what Section R is and what the aliens want with her, she finds herself facing a dilemma she never expected: to save her people, and return home, or to save the species that imprisoned her.
A ROOM OF STARS AND ASHES is an 82,000-word work of young adult fiction. This novel is a stand-alone work with trilogy potential. I contacted you because I believe my book fits in with your interests—it’s YA sci-fi with a big helping of gothic elements, including a Rebecca-esque killer braid, a few towering infernos, and an enigmatic love interest.
I’ve attached the first five pages of my manuscript in the body of this email. Thanks so much for your time!
Of course, before that happened, I had to wait a bit. I do hate waiting.
(but now I have FAR exceeded my 1000K blog-post limit, so I guess I’ll write about that next time!)Read More
THE MEH APPROACH TO WRITING
A few months ago I announced on Facebook that I had decided to accept an offer from a literary agency (Trident Media). And in addition to being SUPER excited/thrilled/in disbelief, I was also a little surprised at the number of people who replied to ask what I was writing. Or that I was writing, at all.
I guess I am pretty bad at sharing.
(But look! I’m updating my blog! I’m sharing! That’s right, two people who are reading my blog!)
I’ve always written, since my very first completed manuscript when I was a tiny little girl. That story was about a dog, in the yard, doing his job. It registered hysterical laughter, from parents and siblings alike. (Little did they know that his job was actually a super-secret private investigator dog. Which is a lot less funny, but WAY cooler.)
And even though I’ve been doing this for as long as I can remember–a couple pages here about this or that, a plot outline that I never finished, an idea that just sits there for a while, never really actualized–it wasn’t until E. was born in 2008 that I thought about seriously pursuing it.
Writing just seems like one of those things that only talented, interesting people do. You know. OTHER people. When I think of a writer, I think of Ernest Hemingway, watching the sun set in Key West and getting blasted on some kind of specialty rum I’ve never heard of. Or Gustav Flaubert, toiling for his entire life over one novel, that he wrote over and over and over again until he had just one perfect thing to contribute before he died. And it was perfect, pretty much.
Regardless, they’re not really a happy bunch. They seem angsty. Which is the opposite of me.
Anyways, 2008. I was not having exceptional angst nor was I feeling exceptionally ambitious. I was experiencing a rare moment of sitting-down while my son was napping, and started flipping around on my computer. And I found–to my surprise–hundreds and hundreds of pages of stuff. Stuff so old I had zero recollection of writing it. Stuff that was bad, stuff that looked kind of fun, stuff. Amongst said stuff was 85,000 words of a completely-planned novel, with a scant three chapters unfinished.
I read it, enjoyed it, and decided that I could at least finish ONE of these piles of stuff. So I did.
It wasn’t that painful. I just did it. I wondered why I didn’t finish all of the other books floating around, half-written on my laptop. And after said finishing, I decided I needed to develop a very “what the hell?” attitude about writing. There are some “meh” writers out there, in addition to the huge list of exceptional ones.
I could be meh. I could be one of the meh. Right?
As I had firmly entrenched myself in the meh, I figured “what the hell?” and let some friends read my book. I got mostly positive responses, because I have nice friends. I did minimal editing, and (what the hell?) sent a query to some agents.
This is when I realized I should plan more carefully.
I sent out ten queries on a Sunday. Sunday night an agent requested the manuscript. Wednesday morning, she called me.
She did not want to represent me, but she did like my book, and she went over an extensive list of edits to get it in better shape.
I was excited. This was awesome. And TOTALLY UNEXPECTED. Seriously. While entrenched in the meh approach to writing, one does not expect to be called up by a big-time agent lady.
But I did, and I worked on revisions, and I talked to her a few more times, and I worked on more revisions. In a few more months, I had a considerably better manuscript. I sent it to back to said big-time agent lady, thrilled with my progress, and… she said no.
More specifically, she said she didn’t think she could market it. It was set in college, and OH on second thought, that shiz is hard to sell. Young adult, apparently, does not surpass the magical age of 18. I think she thought about this at the get-go, but once it got down to signing on the dotted line, she had lost interest.
I understand this line of thinking. I think she was disappointed, too. She read through that thing three times, and spent considerable time talking to me and working with me. In short, she helped me edit the whole thing. But, she DID tell me, specifically, that she was going to get me signed up. So I was a bit disappointed.
But again… and this is where the all important attitude yet again comes into play… MEH.
Whatever. Someone else will sign me. I’ll finish another book.
So I sent out many more queries. A lot of agents out there read my manuscript. And every single one of them said something like this:
You seem like a nice person. I liked your query. Your book was okay. But I’m pretty sure no one in their right mind would buy this because it’s really tricky to market a book that’s set in college.
I would say re-write it, but… it’s kind of integral to the entire story. Oh, well.
Now, I don’t want to ignore the very real possibility that my book just kind of sucked *ss, regardless of setting. Agents do, on occasion, say super-nice things to be polite. And this particular agent, even though she crapped out on me, WAS super nice. So that’s a very real possibility.
(Don’t tell anyone. Especially me. I still like my first book.)
However, ultimately, I think it served it’s purpose. During my first query/revision process, I learned a lot about editing. I learned a lot about publishing. I wrote another book, and started a third. And they were, I am positive, BETTER.
One of them was better enough to land me a super-awesome agent! (But that’s Part 5)Read More