How I Nabbed An Agent

You’ve probably already heard my good news: I signed with a literary agent, Ruth Samsel at William K Jensen Literary Agency. How did Sonja do that, you wonder? Let me tell you the twelve easy steps, then you can do it, too.

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(Photo courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net)

1) Write a book. Yep, all the way to the end.

2) Edit the book. Start at the beginning and read it again. There are a lot of things you’ll be looking for, so get a good book on editing. I suggest James Scott Bell’s book Revision and Editing. There are a kajillion other books on editing out there, so find one or two and do what they say. This would also be a great time to find a critique partner, someone who will read the book and make suggestions (including fix your punctuation errors and spelling problems). Many times, a critique partner will also have a novel they need to have edited, so you can swap chapters. You’ll learn more about editing as you edit their work, and you’ll learn more about your own work when you read their critique of your novel. You can also pay a professional editor to read your book and tell you want needs fixed, but this usually costs a boatload of dollars. If it’s your first novel, skip the professional and find several critique partners.

3) When you think the book is good enough to be published, write a query letter. You’ll need a blurb (think of the paragraph on the back of a published book–that’s a blurb), a short biography about yourself, and some stats about the book (word count, genre, etc). Query letters are important, so don’t rush this step. Check out books on query writing, or go online. There are a ton of examples on the internet.

4) Write a synopsis. You might be able to skip this step, but I doubt it. Again, go to the library or the internet for tips and tricks and examples. The synopsis will be the worse thing you’ve ever written, literary-wise, but you’ll need one.

5) Make a list of agents who represent your genre and are open to submissions. You can go to the library and check out Writer’s Guide to Literary Agents, or you can go online to agentquery.com  Once you have your list, put them in order. The agent you’d love to work with the most goes on top, then descend from there. Once you have your top 10, go to their websites and read their guidelines. Don’t Skip This Step! If you don’t follow their guidelines, they’re likely toss the query in the trash and move on to the next one. After all, if you can’t be bothered to do things their way, they’ll find someone who will.

6) Send queries to those 10 agents on your list. Make a log and keep track of which agents you query, the date you sent the query, and what you actually sent them (some want just the query, some want a synopsis, some want sample chapters, and some will mix and match all those plus throw in some extra zingers like a biography). If they send you a rejection, note on the log when it arrived. You’ll want to keep track of all these things so you don’t accidentally query the same agent multiple times on the same book.

7) Write another book while you’re waiting for the rejections to come in. Yes, you will get rejections. Sometimes you’ll get lots. Sometimes you won’t hear from an agent at all–that means they don’t want to represent your book. But put this waiting time to good use and write another book.

8) If one of those agents asks for the entire manuscript, send it to them! This is definitely a step in the proper direction. Now’s the time to look them up on Predators & Editors to make sure they’re a legitimate business (actually, you probably should have done this in step 5, but if you didn’t, do it now). You DON’T want to get suckered. Remember: agents make their money when they sell your book. If they ask for money up front, run away.

9) Edit the second book. Use your critique partners again. Hopefully, they’ll have a new novel ready to go, too.

10) By now you’ll have heard back from those 10 agents. If you get all rejections, pull out your list and query the next 10.

11) Write a query letter for book 2, a synopsis for book 2, and make a new list of agents (the old list will probably be outdated by now). Send out 10 queries on book 2.

12) Repeat this entire process until you nab an agent. They can be elusive, but don’t give up! If you’re too stubborn to quit (like me), you’ll eventually catch one.

I know I said this was an easy process, but writing it down was the only easy part. It’s a lot of hard work, a lot of waiting around waiting for rejections (or acceptance letters, if your story is totally awesome), and a lot of heartbreak when your novels don’t attract the attention they rightfully deserve. My history goes like this:

I wrote my first novel back in 2006. It was a fantasy with a spiritual element. I found a publisher (not an agent) who was open to that genre, so I sent it to them. They turned it down. Then I queried a bunch of agents (some of those were duplicates. When I didn’t hear from them, I assumed they didn’t get the query and I re-queried.) Bummed by the massive amounts of rejections in my mailbox (that was back when it was all mostly paper), I edited the book again and re-queried. While I waited, I wrote a sequel to the book, then a third, then a fourth. By that time, I was getting pretty good at this writing stuff and realized the first book was still really bad and it was no wonder I’d gotten all those rejections. I re-wrote the book (meaning I started from scratch) and sent out more queries. I had a few requests for partials, but no real nibbles.

With all that rejection, I figured the world wasn’t ready for my idea of a fantasy novel, so I wrote a mystery novel. I sent out the first batch of queries, then wrote a sequel to the mystery. (Don’t bother querying book 2 of a series if you haven’t sold book 1 – that should be a no-brainer, but I thought I’d mention it, anyway.) Many of those queries were to the same people I’d queried on my fantasy series, but some were new. Unfortunately, none of them wanted my mystery books, either.

I switched to suspense. I wrote a romantic suspense and queried more agents. While I waited, I wrote two paranormal suspenses and queried the first one.

Through all of those queries, I had a few requests for partials and a few requests for entire manuscripts. I also had requests for cash to edit my work, and referrals to professional editors who would give me a discount if I signed with Agent X. Those were scammers, and I didn’t respond to them.

In total, I have written nine complete novels. Of those, three were completely re-written once I’d mastered another area of my writing craft. In total, I’ve queried 253 agent (hope Ruth doesn’t faint when she sees how many I queried. Many of those are duplicates–they got queried on multiple books over the years). Of those 253, I received 3 requests to represent me. The first two I turned down (the first was a scammer, the second was for personal reasons). But the last one stuck! I’m am so thrilled to be working with Ruth Samsel at William K Jensen Literary Agency. If she checks her files, she’ll note that I queried their office on at least two other books, but that’s a fun story for another time.

Share your querying history, if you’re feeling brave. How many have you sent out? How many rejections have you received? Do you keep them? (I kept all of mine, just for fun. Someday they might be worth a fortune to my great-grandkids.)

-Sonja

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8 thoughts on “How I Nabbed An Agent

  1. I have no idea how many rejections I’ve gotten at this point. It took me a few rounds of work before I realized how important it is to write down which agents I’ve already queried for which piece – I actually keep a separate Word document for each novel (I have four completed at this point) in which I list the names I’ve queried. There’s a lot of overlap between lists, but this way I can make sure I don’t accidentally send the same query to an agent twice.

    I’ve had quite a few rejections by now. The first time I got a letter from a place I’d queried, I informed myself that it was a rejection before I even opened it. Turns out, it was. Disappointing, but nowhere near as saddening as it would have been if I hadn’t psyched myself for it. I do that every time now, whether it’s for a novel query or for a submitted article (I used to write articles for a teen girl’s magazine). The first time I got an acceptance for those articles, I almost went through the roof with joy because I’d been prepared for it to be a rejection. Sometimes mind games can seem silly, but for me, they work.

    • Mind games can definitely work. I used to allow myself some time to grieve with a cup of coffee and a chocolate – but only for 15 minutes. Then it was back to work. Lately, though, the rejections just slide off easily. Now that I have an agent, when I get rejections from other agents, it’s kind of funny.

  2. A thousand apologies for the formatting errors in this post. I’ve tried several times to fix it, and the problem seems to be gremlins mucking up all my best efforts. I’ll keep trying…

  3. Pingback: Query Letters- Part 1 | Seventeen 20

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  6. Pingback: Why Literary Agents Aren’t Requesting Material: Is It Your Novel or Your Query? | Page by page

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