Friday, December 27, 2013

How I Got My Agent, Step 4: The Rat Race


First of all, I apologize for the 12 day delay between this post and the last. The holidays happened--what can I say?  I can only assume that in the last week and a half you’ve been diligently researching agents, compiling your list and perfecting your query—while eating your weight in pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce. 

Once your queries are in the wind a few things may happen:

False starts (“Bites”)
While I had flat out refusals, which are hard to misinterpret, I also had a few bites. These “bites” can be confusing as hell. What happens can vary but usually an agent will respond to your query favorably. They will usually compliment what they’ve seen so far and request more material.


Now, once they’ve requested more material a couple of things can happen:

--they can request more material (i.e. Thanks for sending the first 50 pages; send the rest)
--they can reject you
--they can never contact you again


These last two occurrences can be frustrating because you may not know why you’re being rejected. It can be like a great date that you thought was MAGICAL with singing bluebirds, prancing chipmunks, all ending in a two-hour makeout session--only to have him/her never call you again.


In the best case rejection scenario, the agent will offer feedback with the rejection. For example, a couple of bites expressed confusion regarding the world I created. So I did a few revisions and kept on submitting—and people stopped citing this as an issue.



The Neverending Story: Revise, Revise, Revise
Evaluate the rejections and see if there is any merit to the criticism. Sometimes it will simply be subjective/personal taste, and other times, the criticisms are spot on. You’ll have to distinguish between the two yourself—or ask your beta readers (those brave friends/family who read your book first) for insight.


If the agent rejecting you doesn’t offer feedback, feel free to ask. After all, what do you have to lose? Nothing, while the gain is far greater. After all, if you take the time to revise this “flaw”, then it is one less issue to put off the next agent.


No need to bring the train to a screeching halt—don’t withdraw your letters or notify the agents who have partials/etc. Just fix the problem once you agree there is one, and the next time someone asks for materials, send the revised copy. This is the best way to keep the process running smoothly, all while continuously improving your odds at quality representation.


Do:
--Revise. Submit.
--Revise. Submit.
--Revise. Submit.


Don’t:
--Make tiny avoidable errors*
--Show a lack of professionalism**
--Give up***



*Don’t make the mistake of submitting too much, too little, or in the wrong format. There was a reason why you diligently researched the agents. Put that knowledge to good use.


**Publishing is a business like any other. If someone makes you mad—or even directly slights you—that is no excuse to lose your sense of professionalism. No matter what you should be kind and courteous because a lot of people in publishing know each other. Watch what you say. A lot of “Thank you for your time and consideration” should be falling from your lips, regardless of what they had to say about your work.


***I’m going to say it again: This can take a long time. You will submit. Be rejected. Revise. Resubmit—it happens to the best of us. Yes, you might dream about sparklingly vampires one day, have an agent the next, and a three-book deal the day after—but that is really rare. If that happens, awesome! Give me a call! I’d love tips. If it doesn’t, settle in for the long haul and keep the faith.


You’ll get there. :)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

How I Got My Agent, Step 3: Submit


For the last few days (weeks, months, years…) you’ve been researching agents and drafting your query letter. Good news! This is the moment when those efforts come together.

Once you have a query letter that you feel ready to submit, here is what you do:

Make the list (of at least 50 agents)
I know this seems long but trust me. You want a comprehensive list. Now, if your work is strong, and you’ve done your research properly, you won’t need most of these names. However, the publishing industry is large, and rejection is the norm. So I say start with 50 and if those run out, make another list of 50 more.

How to compile the list
After I did my research and noted all the agents that represented my kind of fiction, I ranked them based on what was most important to me: (did they represent writers I admired? Did they make big sells? Did their clients seem to like them? Were they respected, sought-after, etc.?) Once I was better informed, I created a spreadsheet that looked like this:


Rank

1            
Agent

Peggy Sue Sell'ems
Preferred  contact

Email
What they want

Query & Ch. 1
Check back-OK

Four weeks


         



You will complete your list based on your criteria. This may take some time. That’s okay. You may have to make tough choices like: “What is more important to me? That my agent makes six-figure sales all the time or that (s)he is very supportive/loved by their clients?” And for the really tough calls, you can double up. Why not? If the New York Times Bestseller List can have three #9s then so can you.

Another reason why this spreadsheet is important is because every agent will have their own preferences. Honor that and it improves the chances that you will get your foot in the door. Also, the “When is it OK to check back column” can have an actual date, if you like—letting you know when you can politely contact the agent and ask if they managed to read your query yet. It IS okay to check-in, but only after the amount of time they’ve specified.

I liked to send my letters in batches of ten. If you send all 50 at once, you run the risk that #48 will contact you before #2 has had a chance to read your letter. By doing it in sets of 10, you have a better chance of getting the agent you really want, and you’ll both be happier for it. After all, there must be a reason why you ranked them higher, right? If you really want your 1-10th choice, then be willing to wait for an answer. In case no one told you, I will. Publishing is a really slow process. Agents may not get back to you for 1-2 months and for good reason. Agents have a lot of other commitments.*  And even once you have your agent, be prepared to wait some more. Editors are even busier.


Don’ts
-Don’t
send an imperfect query, synopsis, manuscript
-Don’t contact them ANY OTHER WAY except how they want to be contacted
-Don’t check back too early or harass them. You may twitter stalk them in the privacy of your own home, but don’t admit to it in polite company and DON’T talk to them directly.
-Don’t get mad/lose faith/cry/binge eat when your queried agents tweet about watching television or having drinks with friends. They are not intentionally ignoring your query or hating on you. They are just trying to live balanced lives. No matter what their tweets suggest, they are working really hard. I promise.
-Don’t send more than 10-15 queries at a time. (For reasons stated above)
-Don’t be unprepared for the next step.  When the agent(s) finally contact you, be ready. If they want more materials, have them ready. If they offer representation, have your questions ready. YOU SHOULD HAVE QUESTIONS—you are entering into a business contract with someone after all. Through all of it, be professional. Be courteous. Be patient.


And just to make sure you are, that is where we are going next. How I Got My Agent, Step 4: The Rat Race.


*I can write a post about this if you want. Just show a little interest.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

How I Got My Agent, Step 2: The Query Letter


If you are reading this post, you have probably heard of a query letter. But because there is so much information out there regarding query letters, you may not have a clear picture in your mind as what EXACTLY a query letter is.

It could be anything from a piece of paper soaked in your own blood, promising your first unborn child, or a magical unicorn, on which you will ride into your dream agent's office before galloping into the sky together to begin your long and fruitful union.

Hopefully, I can clear up any misconceptions that you may have about these obscure letters that at best, pave the way to Jaguar convertibles and your face of the cover of Time, and worst, condemn you to a penniless life in your mother's basement where you live primarily on Spaghetti-Os and ramen.

So let's begin:

What it is:
*a short letter of introduction to publishers or potential agents
*your calling card
*an advertisement of your product (A.K.A. your book)

What it is NOT:
*longer than a page
*an opportunity to use as many “big” words as possible
*a place to ramble or confess secrets


SAMPLE QUERY—YES, THE ACTUAL ONE THAT GOT ME AN AGENT


Dear______:

          Jesse Sullivan dies for a living. As a Necronite, she is one of the population's 2% who can literally die in place of another person without disrupting the precarious universal order. This talent makes her quite the American commodity. However, in Death and Taxes, quirky and sarcastic heroine Jesse dreams of a life unencumbered by lucrative replacement deaths. A girl can only wake up on her back so many times before she wonders what life is really about.
         She cannot get health insurance because of her high risk profession. Religious zealots persecute Jesse and her fellow Necronites as soulless "zombies." Not to mention all of her friends are just as strange as she is: morticians, comic book collectors and crackpot psychics. This is the family she made along the way and with one terrible decision, may lose forever.
          Before writing Death and Taxes, my work has appeared in several journals: North American Review, The Florida Review, Zone 3 and others. I received the Rachel Maddox Award for Creative writing in 2005 and earned a Master's in Creative Writing in 2007 and an MFA in Creative Writing in 2010. Currently, I work as copy editor for a small press New Issues, and I teach freshman composition. Death and Taxes was written last fall, just after my return from a teaching assignment in Prague, where I was lucky enough to spend a quiet summer in one of the most beautifully charming European cities.

Please find pasted below the first five pages. The full manuscript has been workshopped by other writers, is clean, and ready for your enjoyment. I look forward to your response.

Thank you for your time.


Best,


Kory M. Shrum

Explanation of What You Just Read:
Ignoring the terribleness of my original title (Death and Taxes), let me explain to you the format I followed when constructing my letter. I followed the format I read from many magazines/articles that claimed to have the correct formula, and apparently, they must have.

Paragraph 1: The hook. You want to hook to draw the agent in the same way you would draw readers in. It should be as intriguing and interesting as possible.

Paragraph 2: The conflict. Personally, I think this is the weakest part of my letter, but you can do better! This is where you establish what your character has to lose and the conflict/trouble driving your book. It should serve to deepen your potential agent’s interest in the material.

Paragraph 3: Biography. If you have any writing qualifications or publication history, this is where you place it. If you don’t, try to think of other ways you can emphasize your developing talents (i.e. I charge all the neighborhood kids a nickel to edit their papers, and bygone, they all make As!) Also, try to make yourself seem more interesting than you really are (I think I overdid it with the Prague mention. A bit pretentious, don’t you think?) But whatever it takes! Present yourself as a writer who takes writing seriously.

Paragraph 4: The pitch. As far as paragraphs go, this is a tiny one. In fact, mine is only three lines. I specified what was included, why it was awesome, and what I expected to happen. Keep it simple.

Final thoughts
Of course you should also include the address/header material (date, names, etc.) as in any formal letter.

If your query “sticks”, you might want to have the following ready:
A brief synopsis of your novel (500 words)
First 50 pages polished and ready to send—but really the WHOLE book should be ready.

It is not uncommon for agents/publishers, upon liking your query, to request more. Be ready to give it to them. It varies, of course, between 10 pages or 50 pages, the first three chapters, whole manuscript, a synopsis, etc. But as long as your manuscript is polished and you have a 500 word synopsis on hand, you should have little problem fulfilling these requests, whatever they are.

So as you ready your letter and materials, let us see how your research is going. NEXT: Step 3—Submit


Monday, December 9, 2013

How I Got My Agent: Step 1


In January 2009, I initiated the rite of passage that all ambitious writers must endure at one time or another; I began my search for a literary agent.

It took me a year to land the lovely, Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, who I signed with in early 2010. As you can imagine, the previous year was long, daunting, and full of frustrations. However, I hope this “How I Got My Agent” series will consolidate my copious trials and errors into a few simple steps for those of you ready to brave the agent pool yourself.

So let’s begin:

Step One: The Research

Consider purchasing or borrowing Jeff Herman’s Guide (mine was the 2008 edition). This guide was excellent because it listed hundreds of publishers, presses, and agents. There are even articles in the back that offer helpful tips for people at this stage in the game. In my edition, 150+ pages were devoted just to articles that covered everything from how to “Write the Perfect Query Letter” to “7 Ingredients for Successful Publishing”.

Okay, okay—you only want to know about the agents. This is where it gets better.

200+ pages are devoted to listing available agents. But it isn’t JUST a list of agents.  Each “profile” includes the agency information as well as an interview with a particular agent from that agency.

For example, under the Donald Maass Literary Agency (as in Donald Maass, author of Writing the Breakout Novel, a MUST read), the agents Stephen Barbara and Cameron McClure were interviewed. In just over two pages you learn, their DOBs, career history, personal stories, hobbies/interests, subjects/categories they love to represent, what they do if/when they are not agenting, best way to contact them, their pet peeves/common pitching mistakes, what they are looking for in a client, how to improve your odds with that particular agent, titles they’ve sold, and much more.

So why is this awesome? Because as you start searching for agents, you’ll realize how incredibly “dehumanizing” the internet can be when you are trying to get to know someone. It is hard to see if you “click” with someone who lives hundreds of miles away and that you’ve never seen or spoken to—and so these interviews, written by the agents themselves, can feel really personal in a sea of by-reputation-only faces.

Another great resource to consider is Publishers Marketplace. Just select the genre that you write and BAM! A list.

Like the Herman Guide, you are given vital information about the agents: description of the agent, how long they’ve been at it, what they represent, leading clients, most recent sales/projects, and how they want to be contacted (IMPORTANT!).

In addition to the Herman Guide and Publishers Marketplace, you can always try good, old-fashioned and omnipresent Google. I just googled “urban fantasy agent”, and it took me straight to a Writer’s Digest list—so this technique seems legit enough.

3 things to watch out for:
--Real agents do not charge fees or advertise
--You should recognize the names of authors/publishers they've worked with
--It is a good sign if they are a member of AAR
 

As you read profiles, take notes as you go. What you are looking to do here is to create a working list of agents that you are interested in contacting. And that is exactly what we will talk about next in Step2: The Query Letter