July 27, 2010

How I Got My Dream Agent, Part 2

What I’m Reading Today: More Bone Fire.

In part 2, I wanted to talk about what I feel made the difference in my search for an agent. Many of these are things that people have been saying for ages, but I have also found them to be true. Please take them with a grain of salt ~ these are things that helped me. I hope it helps others.

In General

Not one big thing. In my experience, it wasn’t one big thing that got me an agent but, instead, a whole bunch of small things. This means, in practical terms, that we just need to keep trying different things, keep doing research and brainstorming, keep learning, keep putting it out there, keep bouncing back. Boy, do I wish there was just one big thing!

Perseverance. The number one thing, I think, is perseverance, perseverance, perseverance. Sheer pigheadedness. I mean, we're ambitious, right?  That's why we're still here.  Maybe it’s just my take on the world, but a large portion of my success (in anything) has come from just being there, showing up again and again, keep putting it out there, finding new solutions or work-arounds. I mean, it took me eleven years! And, while getting an agent is a milestone, I know that it’s just another beginning.

Patience. Sort of a corollary to the last item. The publishing industry is notoriously slow. It all takes lots of time. The more ways you can find to make yourself patient, the better. It always helps me to have a number of irons in the fire. That way, when I get rejected, I have other things to look forward to. It’s all part of my Haystack Theory of Publishing. Also, if you’re sending an impatient or angry followup email, that’s not going to help your cause. I believe in following up ~ the squeaky wheel gets the grease, after all ~ but I think we should be on our best behavior when we do. To give you an idea, one of my partials was out sixteen months before I signed with Rachel, and I’d followed up three times.

Follow up on every opportunity. You know how serendipity will hand you something, and you’ll mean to follow up on it. Say your husband’s best friend is married to an agent. Or you start talking to someone in a bar who loves your book idea and says she’ll send it on if you send it to her. Follow up on it, dang it! Don’t let it pass. It never hurts to ask. Let me give you some examples. I recently read that 9 out of 10 authors fail to return their promo questionnaires ~ a huge missed opportunity. I volunteered at an archive that had a notable author in my genre who was a board member and an active researcher. I asked my lovely friends there if they would forward an email to her. I asked my workshop teacher and mentor to recommend me to her agent. I sent queries for my second book to all agents who included personal notes on their rejections to the first book, mentioning that I much appreciated their kind words.

Jump into online media and social networking with both feet. In industry jargon, creating a platform. You should create a website and/or a blog ~ now, don’t wait until your book is coming out ~ and be on Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and other places. I’m convinced that this is one of the reasons my agency was interested in me. I showed I was capable of being a promo-sapiens. And it’s an ongoing commitment. If you create a blog, you can’t not write for weeks and then announce to the world, “Oh, look, I have another blog post up!” No. You have to blog at least every other day, five days a week. It’s a commitment. Also, keep your website current. Be a good Facebooker ~ don’t just talk about yourself. Interact. Comment and promote others and enjoy it.

Making lots of writer and editor friends. AKA networking. But I don’t think of it in those terms. I just love being able to rub antennae with other geeks just like myself. I don’t think of others as competition. I think of them as a great big groups of fun people who I loved to connect with. But, in practical terms, this also pays off for your career.

Go to conferences. This pays off in so many ways. You improve your craft. You make friends. Your spirits go through the roof. And it gives you so many opportunities in the searching for an agent game. You can pitch agents at conferences. Even if you don’t pitch an agent, you can mention in your query letter that you saw them speak at such and such a conference but that you’re sorry you weren’t able to sign up for a pitch appointment with them. If they give a talk, you can mirror back to them what they said. I went to a conference, and the agent talking said he liked Cormac McCarthy and also was looking to take on women’s fiction. Well, I could say that my style is in the vein of Cormac McCarthy and that I write women’s fiction, as he mentioned at the X conference.

Get published in literary magazines. This sounds like an old saw, but it’s true. Not only does it get your name out there and increase your platform online, agents read them. It helped me keep Rachel interested, and I also received an invitation to submit a manuscript to a fabulous big-name agent. I was not able to follow up on this fabulous opportunity, as he requested an exclusive, but it was worth it in ego points alone. Who doesn’t want to hear that someone else liked their stuff?

Get an MFA. I don’t have an MFA, but I have friends who do. It paves the way like nothing else will, especially if you go to a big-name school. In some cases, agents come knocking at your door. I have a friend who went to a top-rated MFA program and then also attended a top conference every year. Without sending out a single query, she had her pick of four or five agents for her short story collection, and this with having only two or three stories published.

Learn about the industry. Read agent and editor blogs. Listen to agent interviews. Obsess. Do research on Get a subscription to Publishers Lunch at least, if not Publishers Marketplace. Lay awake nights and wonder what you’re doing wrong.

Be polite. Don’t be the difficult person. Be persistent, but be pleasant.

The Manuscript

Revise, revise, revise the manuscript. It needs to be as perfect as you can possibly make it. Resist the urge to send it out immediately upon finishing the first draft. Resist mightily. Find as many ways to polish it as possible. I wrote and revised my first novel for six years. I wrote and revised my second novel for four years. For suggestions to help revising, see the following.

Read craft books. I can’t tell you the number of great things I’ve learned from craft books. Halfway through my first book, I stopped and thought, “I have no idea what I’m doing.” Then I read a gazillion craft books. I still read and reread them. It helps.

Get feedback on your writing through friends and critique groups and workshops. Prevail upon your friends. It’s nice to have your family tell you how good it is ~ we all need that ~ but it’s more effective in craft terms if the feedback is from another writer. If you have a critique group, great! Or take a novel workshop. Or take an online workshop. Or go to a conference that has a novel workshop. Get feedback on it as much as possible.

Have a professional freelance book editor give you feedback. Preferably one who has been in the industry. If you’re going to pay good money (as much as $2,500 for a good one) for a book doctor in order to get published, make sure that editor knows about publishing. If you’re just looking to get feedback on craft, that’s great. It’s fine to pay a writer who’s also an editor. But if you’re trying to work toward publication, it makes sense to get an editor who knows about publishing. I plan to use my freelance book editor for all future books, hopefully before I send it to Rachel (depending on my finances).

Things in your manuscript that put up a red flag for agents. Every writer goes through a natural progression of learning craft, and there are craft things that mark you as someone starting out. I think you can get away with one or two of these (calling your writing literary, one misspelling), but they add up quickly. Click on link at the beginning of this paragraph for an elaboration.

Sometimes it’s time to move on. Sometimes, you’ve learned everything you can from a book and it’s time to put it away and move on to another one. They say it usually takes two or three or more book manuscripts to get an agent. There came a point when it was time for me to move on from my first manuscript. Now, going back, I can see its flaws ~ though I couldn’t at the time ~ and I’m planning to rework it.

The Query Letter

Do a whole bunch of research on writing a great query letter. It is the most exacting genre there is next to the resume. One word will make the difference between getting a request and not. There’s a lot of great blogs and resources out there. Take advantage of it. Read Miss Snark’s query letter Crap-O-Meter ~ she commented on something like 99 query letters, talking about what was working and what wasn’t. I’d pay special attention to the ones in your genre.

Revise, revise, revise. When you’re not getting requests for partials and fulls, revise it some more. Still not? Revise some more.

Get feedback on your query, preferably from other people who’ve been trying to query or people in the industry. I went to a whole conference devoted to crafting a query (Algonkian), and I posted mine on an agent blog who was having a contest to give feedback on queries, where mine won a spot and received feedback. I also asked the freelance book editor who went over my manuscript to also go over the query letter.

Some basic stuff. Use her or his name. “Dear Ms. Smith:” Do not mass email to a bunch of agents. Do research on whom you’re sending to. Personalize each query. By that, I mean, read their website and any interview and somehow mention something very specific that they said. Use their wording. Think about it: You’re trying to seduce this person. You’re looking to get a partner for life, much like a marriage partner. Is quantity going to get you into someone’s heart? Nope. Quality. Personalization. Making a connection.

Check your spelling. This seems like a no-brainer, yet agents say that they get queries with lots of misspellings.

Don’t try to be cute or funny. You may feel a connection to an agent because you read their blog, but do not give in to temptation to be funny. Business formal only.

Previous connections. Mention right away if you have a referral, if you had them in workshop, if you went to a conference they spoke at, if they included nice words in their response to a previous submittal, if they are your cousin’s inlaw.

Follow guidelines. For each and every query, read their guidelines on their website and follow them to a tee. Also, you can get a lot of good information on

Play by the rules. Don’t be that guy who thinks that breaking the rules will get you in. It won’t. It’ll just irritate people.

I’d recommend sending queries out in batches. Maybe ten at a time, every month or two. Aim your query high and low. New agencies and new agents at established agencies are good places to query for new writers. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace and sign up for Publishers Lunch Deluxe and pay attention to the announcements for new agents.

Follow up politely. Give them the amount of time they state on their website. Or, if they don’t state it, I’d give them three months for a query, four months for a partial, and six months for a full. Repeat (politely) until you get a response. Don’t take it personally.

When is it time to give up? I don’t know. I think some people would’ve given up way before me. I queried 128 agents on my first manuscript and 62 on my second. Maybe that makes me a slow study. Like I said, pigheadedness is sometimes my greatest asset.

I hope this helps! You can do it!

Questions of the Day: What do you think? Do you disagree with anything I suggested? Anything you’d add? I’d love to hear from you!


Ken Olsen said...

Tamara --
This in incredibly generous -- and helpful. Thank you for sharing such detailed and inspiring guidelines.

Ken Olsen

Tamara said...

Thanks so much, Ken! I sure hope so. I just know that there's work out there (your fabulous memoir, for example) that is so good and deserves so much attention, starting with a good agent!