Finding a Literary Agent

This post is a response to a question about how I got an agent, from someone about to start the process of searching for one of their own. The timing on was excellent. I have been commissioned to create a workshop on the business side of writing for KidLitNation.com, and chose to use this as part of my process for pulling the workshop together, because getting an agent is a common topic.

My first step in the process was making sure I understood what an agent could, and could not, do for me. Beginning writers often see agents as fairy godparents who wave a magic wand and get their story accepted by a publisher with a huge dollar contract.

Agents have contacts and reputations and negotiation skills. That’s what they bring to the table. They also want and expect a partnership with authors in the effort of polishing your manuscript, making the sale, and doing what comes after. Since they only make money if you, the author, make money, it is in their interest to partner with authors who will be prolific and professional. Since there are lots of authors out there, they can afford to be choosy.

In fact, most good agents are inundated with queries. Your query has to zing to stand out of the crowd of the hundreds the agent receives EVERY WEEK. And responding to queries is a minor part of his/her job. So you need to write something that stands out in that haystack and makes them say, “hmm, I see potential.”

There are three ways to attract an agent that I know of.

1. Get your actual manuscript in front of them as the result of a contest or auction. Many chapters of the RWA hold contests with various agents/editors as the final judges, so if your work is good enough you can get it in front of them by being a finalist. Other organizations do the same. KidLitNation recently held a fundraising auction that included critiques by several agents and editors. Information on some contests for all genres of writing, including non-fiction and poetry, can be found at http://www.stephiesmith.com/contests.html (Note, this is not an endorsement of any of the contests noted it is simply information.)
2. Attend a writer’s conference. SCBWI holds two major conferences a year, one in New York, the other in Los Angeles. In addition, numerous state chapters of the organization hold smaller, local conferences. Agents and editors attend and normally either take pitches from attendees, or invite all attendees to submit their manuscripts. (BTW, this often includes publishing houses that are otherwise closed to new submissions or will only take agented submissions.) Attending the conference gives you a side-door past the regular query pile. Note: This year KidLitNation used the proceeds of its fundraising efforts to pay the conference fees of ten authors and/or illustrators to attend the Illinois SCBWI conference.
3. Write that super-awesome query. 95% of queries earn a no. That leaves 5% that get a followup. You just need a great book and a super query.

I actually had results from two of the three methods. First: the query.

I queried, and queried, and queried. In the meantime I kept learning and improving both the query and the manuscript. Here’s a version of my initial query for my debut YA novel, Pull. (The publisher changed my title, darnit!)

How much do we owe the dead? Especially when our life is all we have to give? In my 68,000 word Young Adult novel, Pull My String, David Albacore is haunted by his mother’s ghost as he searches for an answer to that question.

Seventeen-year-old David enters his senior year in a rough Chicago neighborhood feeling a failure. Not because of school, although given a choice he’d drop out in a second. But his choices died the night his father’s bullet ended his mother’s life. David dedicates himself to keeping her memory alive and parenting for his sisters. Things seem to be holding together until a school bully makes David a personal target. Worse yet, David and the bully’s former girlfriend become a couple, draining his meager resources and alienating his sister. Things fall apart when David loses his job and his new girlfriend. He knows a man’s supposed to take care of his family but the stress of being a man at seventeen leaves him drowning in resentment for everything and everyone he loves.

I am an active member of the Chicago North chapter of Romance Writers of America and the Illinois chapter of the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and take writing classes and workshops through Harper College and Chicago State University. In addition, I have contributed several short stories to the Arlington Almanac, a quarterly journal circulated in the Chicagoland area, since 2007. As a lurker on your blog for some time I appreciate your advice and know your interest in Young Adult fiction. Per your instructions I’ve included the first five pages in my email. If you find Pull My String interesting I will be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

That actually got little more than form rejections. Here’s the version that worked and got me an offer –

As an active member of the Chicago-North chapter of Romance Writers of America, I have heard many good things about you and your agency from both Courtney Milan and Simone Elkeles. Simone provided valuable feedback on my writing and mentioned that you had an interest in young adult books written for males, leading me to hope my 67,000 word YA novel, Pull My String, will be of interest to you.

Seventeen-year-old David can’t wipe out the memory of the night when he failed to keep his father from murdering his mother. When he departs the elite Grogan Hills Academy and enters a new school on Chicago’s south-side, he assumes a secret identity in hopes of a quiet senior year. He’s prepared to give up sports, friends, and his desire for independence to care for his younger sisters. His quest for anonymity is shattered when he’s forced to rescue one sister from an attack by a group of mean girls led by “The Dare,” the acknowledged school slut. David is prepared for the school psychologist’s attempt to force him out of the shell he’s drawn around himself. But he’s not prepared for the way guilt makes him lash out at the people he loves, forcing him to confront the fear that he’ll follow in his father’s destructive footsteps. Nor is he prepared for his growing attraction to The Dare, a girl hiding a secret shame more destructive than his own.

I am an African American woman who grew up in Chicago’s inner city, and knows first-hand the struggle to be the responsible eldest child after the loss of a parent. In addition to being an active member of RWA, I have had several short stories published in the Arlington Almanac, a quarterly journal circulated in the Chicago area, in 2008 and 2009. If you find the premise of Pull My String interesting I will be happy to send you the complete manuscript.

Thanks very much for your time and consideration.

Note that with the second, I tried to establish a rapport with the agent, noting something we had in common, or at least a reason why I did not pick their name out of thin air. I also name dropped one of their clients who I happened to know, at the time we were both members of the same writing group.

The next paragraph tells something about the story, concentrating on the characters and their inner journeys. Its not a synopsis but a hook for the agent. I do not try to tell the whole story because I don’t want to leave them yawning, I want them to be enticed.

The query ends with information about myself, something that lets them know I consider myself a professional. And never forget that all-important thank you.

This query got me an offer. An agent responded saying that she really liked the concept. But, almost simultaneously, I got an offer from another source, the contest route.

I had entered Pull My String into a contest earlier that year. Actually I entered several contests, I considered them a great, inexpensive way to obtain feedback on the opening of a manuscript. I chose contests with three judges to maximize the feedback I would obtain, that’s really all I was looking for. Over time, I used the judges comments to improve my manuscript. When I entered the Golden Rose contest with my story about a teen boy, I never expected more than additional feedback.

Instead I became a finalist.

Then I received an email saying the agent who was the final judge LOVED the book and wanted to represent me.

There I was, with two nearly simultaneous offers arriving over the Thanksgiving holiday. (I will never forget that) In the end I signed with my contest judge, Andrea Somberg from the Harvey Klinger agency, because LOVED trumped liked to me. And because I spent a few furious days researching them both.

As an FYI – from the time I finished the book to the time I signed with Ms. Somberg took just under a year. She sold it a few months afterward. All of this is actually extremely fast for a first time author. But then, Pull My String was not the first book I wrote. My first published novel was actually my third completed manuscript. While writing those first books my writing skills improves. I also took coursed, both online and in person. I can look back on my first books now and see why they never got anything but form rejections.

My big piece of advice – send out your queries, join professional writing organizations, take classes. And keep writing. There is no better way to improve. And remember that you and the agent are individuals entering into a business partnership. Let them know that you will be a contributing partner, not just sending them a manuscript and expecting a miracle.

References:

  1. My column on the “Who I Got My Agent” blog – http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/how-i-got-my-agent-b-a-binns-and-a-free-book-giveaway
  2. A blog from my agent Andrea Somberg – http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/agent-advice-andrea-somberg-of-harvey-klinger-inc
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