So here’s how to find an agent, as far as I’ve been able to piece together:
Step 1: Write a book. No, don’t just start writing a book. Finish it. Revise it. Edit the hell out of it. Then start on the NEXT book, because this whole process is going to take a while. Keep writing while you search.
Step 2: Craft an excellent query letter and send it out to agents who would be a good fit to your work.
Step 3: …
Step 4: Land an agent!
Okay, okay, so I admit it: I have no idea.
Really, I don’t. I know the first two steps are important, but I haven’t a clue what step 3 looks like.
The fun plot twist? I now have an agent. So I should know. Right? RIGHT?
I find the whole thing especially funny because I’d pretty much given up on the idea of finding an agent. I have on several occasions described the process of landing an agent as being akin to trying to find a date for the prom using only encrypted postcards sent to other cities, blindfolded. Handcuffed.
I asked anyone I knew who had an agent their secret and pretty much unanimously they shrugged or politely smiled and suggested I hang out over at queryshark.com and keep trying. I remember being pretty frustrated.
It never occurred to me that maybe they didn’t know the secret. Maybe there is no secret.
But no! There has to be, right? I sent off emails and waited on responses and while those responses were polite enough, nothing ever clicked. I memorized Query Shark. I entered a bunch of twitter pitch fests. I also made some classic mistakes, including my personal favorite: getting into an argument with an agent because I felt her stated reason for rejecting my submission was invalid. (I won’t go into details, but let’s just say it doesn’t matter why an agent is saying no — once you’ve reached that stage, it’s done. Walk away.) I became comfortable with the idea I was going to be indie-publishing or self-publishing forever and ever.
Thank god for my friends. They kept pushing. “What’s the harm in sending out a few queries?” one told me. And I smiled and agreed and mostly ignored their excellent advice.
Then one of my friends decided to play matchmaker. She sent me a link to the web page of an agent named Sam Morgan (at the time he was at Jabberwocky) and said, “This is the one! This is it! He’s perfect for you!”
I laughed and read his description of the sort of work he was seeking and…stopped laughing.
Because honestly, he did sound kind of perfect for me. We liked the same sort of books and the same sort of humor and both of us had a deep love for insanely detailed fantasy novels (which was exactly what I was pitching.) So the first thing I did was read everything I could find on Sam Morgan, from his blog to any mentions of him on any forum I could find (apparently finding an agent is a bit like stalking,) and the second thing I did was throw out my standard form query letter, the one I’d been sending to everyone minus a name change and a few personalized touches to prove I didn’t have a standard query form letter.
I wrote Sam’s query letter from scratch, and he is the only agent who has ever received it. I broke all sorts of rules on writing queries: this was irreverent and informal and possibly the most honest and authentically ‘me’ query letter I’ve ever sent out. (Note that I broke all kinds of rules except the ones that Sam himself stipulated for query submissions. THOSE rules I obeyed.)
Looking back, I think the authentic part was important. I was very honest. Too honest? Maybe…but normally, I would expect to hear back in a few weeks or even months.
Sam wrote back within FIVE MINUTES to ask for more, and then again the next morning to ask for the full manuscript. And when he wrote back to me about that (which took longer) it was to ask for a phone conference.
…at which point, he asked me to rewrite the entire manuscript. THE ENTIRE MANUSCRIPT. Do you feel that scream in your soul? I did.
Ugh. Was he going to sign me? No. Not yet. He wouldn’t sign me until the manuscript was ready, and he felt it needed work. He warned me that it might take two or even three years to get it right.
My friends were appalled. Horrified. I mean, you do hear stories, you know? People who rewrite their work at an agent’s request only to have the agent decide they weren’t really interested after all. A lot of people asked me if it was a deal-breaker. And maybe with a different agent and a different request, it might have been.
The thing was: Sam’s reason for wanting rewrites–his advice on how to tighten up the story–was amazing. Great, fantastic critiquing. Every point he brought up was insightful and helpful constructive criticism. If I walked away from that, I’d be walking away from the best chance I had ever had to take my work to the next level.
So I rolled up my sleeves and rewrote the manuscript.
And then I did it again, because Sam insisted it could be better still.
Of course, he was right.
And the third time, he called to say he wanted to sign me.
But you see the problem, right? How do I translate that into four easy steps? How do I translate that into useful advice at all? What worked for Sam probably wouldn’t have worked for any other agent in the entire universe, and it was mostly chance and insouciance that lead me to send him the query letter I did. (Not such would have mattered if he hadn’t liked my writing.)
So here’s my advice: write. Keep writing. And while you’re sending your book out, write more books. Pay attention to the rules of querying, but also know that there may be times and places where you’ll want to break those rules.
Which really makes it a lot like writing the book itself.