I recently acquired literary representation and have had several writers I know ask how I did it. Frankly, I’m tired of answering the same question, and that was enough for me to sit down and post something on this website. So, here it goes. This is how I got an agent and other nonsense.
I’ve been writing since 1997. Started hitting it hard in 2001. Turned up the heat in 2011. You can say I’ve been at this for 23 years, but really I’ve been putting serious time to my writing for 9 years. Still that’s a long time. I’ve had some screenwriting successes over the last 23 years, but never had an agent. In 2011, I began focusing on prose, that is I started writing novels, short stories, and dabbling in poetry. I sent some queries out back then, but no one cared. I wasn’t ready.
Publishing seemed impossible. So, I self-published. Had some minor sales, enough for dinner and a movie now and then, but nothing to brag about. Eventually, I sold the film rights for one of my self-published novels. That was nice. Still, no agent. No one cared.
Fast forward to 2020. What did I do differently? To put it plainly, I wrote a really good novel. I not only wrote a really good novel, I wrote two really good novels in the same year. Then I sent out queries.
How did I know which agents to query?
I looked up novels in the genre I write. From there I searched for the authors’ agents. I compiled a list of ten agents and their agencies. Then I searched top agents for the genre I write. I took the top 25, compared them to my list of ten, and consolidated the list. Then I checked their submission guidelines and if they were still looking for my genre. I ended up with a list of 19 agencies.
The agent I’m with now was the first to respond to my query. He simply wrote:
I like the opening.
Send me the entire ms.
My query to him included a synopsis (two short paragraphs) of the book and the first three chapters. I happily sent him the manuscript.
After I signed with the agency, I followed up with the other agents I queried to inform them of the news. There was no reason for them to read the material submitted if I was off the market, so to speak. I hate having my time wasted, and don’t like to waste the time of others, either. Common courtesy goes a long way, too.
So, what advice do I have for writers trying to catch the attention of an agent?
First, write something really good. You’ll know it when you do. I’ve written many novels. Most are in the bottom of my desk drawer. I like them, but I also know they’re shit. Never even bothered to shop those books around.
Second, be patient. Go over your manuscript like a miser counts pennies before you consider shopping it around. Hire an editor. An editor will cost you anywhere from $10 a page to $45 a page. Don’t want to hire a stranger, find someone in your writer’s workshop group who is a good editor and pay them. Don’t belong to a writer’s workshop group? Well, then good luck with your echo chamber.
Third, do your research when it comes to agents. Know what they read, check out their personal websites (many have one), and not just their agency page. If they have Twitter, look at what books they’re recommending. Same with other social media sites. Don’t query an agent who primarily sells romance novels with you’re sci-fi book. That’s stupid. Don’t be stupid. You’re a writer, for crying out loud.
Ultimately, I believe the reason I acquired representation was because my book had an intriguing opening that blossomed into a fine story with a satisfying ending. The opening only gets a foot in the door. Still have to sell them on the whole book.
That’s it. No real secret. Write well, edit well, do your homework. I didn’t bother going into writing a query letter. If you can’t write a letter to sell someone on a book you wrote, then you probably need to put in more time with your writing. That is to say, you’re not ready. But you will be if you do the work.