Fri 4 Dec 2009
I am frequently asked—especially by other, as of yet agent-less writers—how I got my agent. And, as a young writer living in Los Angeles and working on screenplays, I remember being somewhat befuddled when it came to the subject of literary agents. Even after I worked for one, I was still not quite sure what he did (other than talk on the phone a lot and drink vast quantities of Diet Coke). Who, then, are these mysterious figures? Do writers really need them? And, the greatest mystery of all, how does an author go about getting an agent to represent him or her?
Well, first of all: yes, you do need an agent. Can you sell your novel without one? Sure, it’s possible, but much less likely. Agents help in several ways. In my case, my agent started by working with me to make my novel as good as possible. Then, he identified the publishers who would be interested in my novel and got them to read it—no small task, as any author who has submitted a manuscript to a publisher knows. He sold the novel to the publisher he thought would do the best job—something that I had no clue about. And, he also sold the rights in German—something that I would not have even thought to do. All in all, that’s well worth 15%.
How, then, to acquire the valuable services of an agent? Start by writing a gripping novel. Then, follow these six easy steps for how to get an agent… or, at least, how I got my agent:
Step 1: Finish your novel. And by that, I don’t just mean that you’ve typed “the end” on the first draft. Cut it down to size, polish it, and make it as good as you possibly can. Then, when you’re feeling truly great about it, start looking for an agent. I went through seven drafts before I sent SIEGE to an agent. Little did I know at the time that I’d be going through seven more!
Step 2: Research. Don’t just send your novel to anybody. Think of some of the authors you admire in your genre and find out who represents them. Those are the people you should want for your agent.
Step 3: Write a query letter and make it very, very good. This is not easy, but persevere. This will be the agent’s first introduction to your writing, so if it’s not well-written, you won’t get a second glance. Your letter should: 1) give an exciting one-paragraph summary of your novel (not an easy thing to do); 2) tell the agent who you are and what kind of career you envision for yourself; and 3) give some indication of why you think the agent would be a good fit for you. For more on query letters, and all aspects of agent hunting, check out the Guide to Literary Agents. It worked for me.
You can check out one of my query letters here…
Step 4: The synopsis. If the agent replies (yay!), then he or she will most likely not ask you to send your novel along right away. The agent will instead ask for either: a) a synopsis (one, three, or maybe ten pages); or b) the first fifty pages of your novel. This means more hard work for you! On the bright side, being forced to condense all the brilliance of your novel into ten exciting, well-written pages is a great way to get a handle on what is and is not important in your book. When I did this, I quickly realized that I could cut a hundred pages without missing anything vital.
Step 5: Send the manuscript. If the agent likes what he or she has seen so far, then they will ask for the entire manuscript. Take a deep breath, perform your good-luck ritual of choice, and press “send”!
Step 6: Meet your potential agent. This last bit is optional, but probably a good idea. I went to the London Book Fair (I was living in Paris at the time), where I met two potential agents. It’s a good way for you to get a read on your agent, and for them to get a feel for you. And, it’s a good idea, since your agent will be holding your future—or at least the future of your book—in his or her hands.
So now the veil has been lifted, and the mysterious agent proven to be not so mysterious after all. Check in next week for the answer to another of life’s great mysteries: Why do writers work in coffee shops?