Thirteen Steps to Getting an Agent
by Jay Kristoff
The agent search. You pick up your manuscript, nurtured from a tiny seed, and send it out into the world. It’s perfect. You love it. Surely, everyone else will too.
And then you watch agents curbstomp it, or worse, ignore it, months on end, until you look at this thing you once loved and question whether it has any redeeming features at all.
That pretty much sums up what it was like for me. Brief periods of giddy excitement. Disappointment. Intense self-doubt. Feigned apathy. Resentment. Months on end. Long is the way, and hard, that out of hell leads up to representation. And nothing anybody says makes it easier. You can have your betas say your MS is the next Harry Potter, you can repeat the absolute, perfect truth “It only takes one yes” until your voice fails, but ultimately, you’re still getting rejected. And rejection is a fun as funerals.
Step 1 – Write a book. Make it the best you can possibly make it. This is kinda the easy part, and I’m not kidding when I say that. By no means is it easy. But it’s easier than what comes after.
Step 2 – Finish the book. Really finish it. Don’t just finish your third edit and say “done!”. Scour the pages until they bleed. No truer words were ever spoken to me than this – “Your first chapter better be stonkingly awesome. Because that’s all most agents are ever gonna read.”
Step 3 – Stop finishing the book. You’re just ruining it now. There comes a time when you need to say “Enough, this thing is ready to go out”. Some people spend years polishing, and never get around to actually querying. That’s fear. Fear is the mindkiller. Say it with me and Muad’dib and send that puppy out to slaughter.
Step 4 – Do your homework – Go to Querytracker. Go to Agentquery. Subscribe to Publisher’s Marketplace. Visit agent websites, read interviews. Learn everything you can about them. Check outPreditors and Editors. Pay no money to an agent upfront, EVER. Do not let your desire to get published blind you to the realities. Do not let your hard work go to waste at the hands of a hustler. Do not be a sucker.
Do. Your. Homework.
Note – there’s a fine line between research and stalking. If you find yourself rifling through an agent’s trash or standing outside their apartment in the rain, you’re doing it wrong.
Step 5 – Prioritize your list. Who’s your dream agent? Do you put them top of list or midlist? Do you acknowledge your query is going to suck at first (because it will), or do you think it’s as awesome as it’s ever going to be (it isn’t) and blow your shots at your dream agents by using them as guinea pigs?
Step 6 – Forge a prescription for some quality painkillers, then write your query letter. There are entire websites devoted to this (writing the query, not forging a prescription). I won’t elaborate on it, but there are faaaaaaaabulous resources online, darling, and you should take advantage.
You can find my query on my blog if you’re interested. The version you’ll be reading was my third iteration. The first one blew more goat than wow I don’t even want to finish that thought…
Step 7 – Read the submission guidelines. This can’t be stressed enough. The brownie points I’m racking up by mentioning this fact will be enough to get me repped in my next seventeen lives.
Every agent is different. Some like you to send your query solo (which is why your letter needs to sing like Amanda Palmer). Some like a synopsis. Some like a sample. Some like watching episodes of House wearing only an old “Spice Girls” T-shirt and bunny slippers, but you don’t know that because you’re not standing outside her apartment in the rain, are you?
Step 8 – Send it. Cross your fingers. Pray to whatever flavor of Flying Spaghetti Monster you prefer. Sacrifice a cat to the blood god. Seriously, cats are vermin, the less we have of them, the better.
I had around 15 queries in the air at any given moment. As soon as a rejection came in, I’d send out another. Some folks will tell you this is too many queries to run at the one time. Some will say it’s not enough. There are no absolutes here. You are stepping beyond the rim.
Step 9 – Wait.
Then wait some more.
You can choose to spend your waiting time however you wish. Writing your next book is a good way to go. Whatever you do, it had best be something you enjoy, because you’re going to doing a lot of it.
STORMDANCER is a rulebreaker –it really only took three months for me to land an agent on it, which is nothing. To put it in perspective, I waited three months for replies on some queries for my first ms. I spent five months waiting to hear back on a full (which incidentally, was a rejection).
So writing your next book while you wait? Probably a good idea.
Step 10 – Wait.
I realize I said this already, but it’s worth mentioning twice.
Step 11 – Learn from your rejections. My wife used to say to me “Stephanie Meyer got rejected nine times before Twilight got bought. J.K Rowling got canned a dozen times too”. I will say this now – those ladies had it easy. I took twenty two kicks to the baby maker on STORMDANCER. I took seventy on my previous MS. I had it easy. I know writers who got rejected over three hundred times before they got repped. Three. Hundred.
Most of your rejections will be forms. An automated, boiler-plate “thanks but no thanks”. If you’re lucky enough to receive feedback from an agent with your rejection, treat this like a nugget of gold. It’s a true rarity, and that agent is taking time out of an unimaginably busy schedule to offer it. Say “thank you” and be on your way.
When you get rejected, don’t ask why. You’ll be sorely tempted to. But sadly, it’s not the agent’s job to tell you what’s wrong with your ms. It’s your job to be telepathic. Yay!
Step 12 – Revise.
My query letter got better as I went along (hence you should consider the order in which you query your “dream picks” very seriously). If you’re getting lots of rejections, something is wrong. Of course, trying to fix it when you’re getting nothing but boiler-plate is difficult unless you have mutant powers. It’s maddening, but this is the status-quo.
Step 13 – Believe
I’ll depart from my wise-cracking, tall dark and scary routine long enough to give a little group hug now. Everyone needs a hug once in a while, especially querying writers. Here it is:
The only belief that matters in this equation is your own. It’s nice to have the support of betas or trusted friends, but it’s not necessary (the only person who had any idea that I was writing a book until I got repped was my wife). The only person who needs to believe you can do this is you. Everything else is window dressing. If you’re meant to be doing this, you can, and you will.
Believe in yourself. Keep the faith. At the end of the day, it’s all any of us have.