Writing Advice #31: Q&A Pt. 2 – Agents

Continuing my quest to answer some of the questions I’ve accumulated over the past few weeks…

I was going to answer two or three more questions, but — as you’ll see in a moment — I sort of rambled a lot about agents. So this week is just about agents and next week I’ll get to some other topics.

A couple of people have asked variations of: “How do you get an agent?”

There are two things you need to do. The first one is (repeat after me, everyone!) “Have a damn strong piece of writing.”

I know, I know — it’s a drumbeat I keep playing. Having an excellent, amazing, supernal, insert-an-adjective-here piece of writing is the first step in EVERY phase of the process of getting published. Without that, you should stay home and watch TV.

I bring it up every single time because people forget. They get so caught up in the “game” of getting published — imagining byzantine hallways and secret codes and hidden messages in form rejections – that they forget to start with a kick-ass story and awesome writing.

So your first assignment in the Hunt for An Agent is this: Ask yourself, “Do I have an amazing piece of work in my hands? Is this story the best I can possibly make it? Have I workshopped it and revised it and sweated not just blood but actual encephlic fluid onto it?”

If so, then, well, OK, I guess we can proceed to the next step.

Which is this: Go find one.

(*ducks*)

No, no, I’m not gonna leave it there. Sheesh!

A wise friend of mine once told me something very important. To wit: Agents WANT YOU! If you are a talented writer, then agents are actively interested in making your acquaintance, selling your works, and taking 15% of everything you make for the rest of your life. They are not aloof, stand-offish demi-gods who bestride the vast chasm betwixt you and publishing. They are hardworking professionals who crave something new, cool, and exciting.

In short, if you are new, cool, and exciting, they are LOOKING FOR YOU. They just don’t know what you look like or what your name is.

Every agent I know (and, oddly, I know a lot of them) dives into his or her slush hoping against hope that there will be something there that is worth his or her while. Every agent I know is hopeful that today will be the day he or she meets an amazing new talent at a conference…in an online chat…hell, in the coffee shop!

Therefore, the first thing you need to do is discard this very common notion some aspiring authors have that agents are big ol’ meanies with the keys to the kingdom who are stomping on your dreams just ’cause they can…and ’cause it amuses them.

Agents, like everyone else in publishing, are saddled with the twin desires/needs to make art and to make money. If you can help them with that, they’ll love you for it.

Here’s the thing: Every agent has his or her own particular (sometimes peculiar) notion of how best to go about making art/money. Agents are not fungible resources! They are specific, unique individuals, with quirks, wants, and opinions all their own. Too many times, I see newbie writers lashing out and angry because they received the dreaded, “It’s good, but it’s not right for me” rejection from an agent. “If it’s good, they should just represent it!” these newbies cry.

Guess what? THAT AGENT JUST SAVED YOU FROM A WORLD OF HURT! Instead of being ANGRY at that rejection, you should be GLAD.

Agents SELL, people. They take your work and they go to editors and they say, “OMG! You have GOT to look at this new book I’ve got! It’s the most brilliant thing written since the Bible, only it will be MORE influential. And the author is that rare combination of J. K. Rowling, Frank McCourt, and Maurice Sendak, only without their flaws. If your opening bid is less than eight figures, I will burn down your house and make stew out of your puppy, which is nothing less than what you deserve for being so blind to this incredible opportunity.”*

Agents sell, which means agents must have PASSION. There is nothing sadder in this world than a salesman who doesn’t believe in what he’s hawking. You’ve seen it before — the old guy at the car dealership who just wants to retire or die, whichever comes first; the slacker kid at the electronics store who doesn’t know the difference between the Mac and the PC; etc. Would YOU buy something from these people? Hell, no.

Editors won’t, either.

An unenthusiastic agent won’t pitch your project right, won’t follow up with editors, won’t spread buzz about you, won’t talk about you and your books in meetings, at lunch, and with other people in the business, won’t push you to their foreign or co-agents, won’t be there for you during multiple submission rounds…

Don’t you want someone who is as gung-ho insane for your project as YOU are?

You want an agent’s love and passion. Even if your writing is phenomenal, if an agent doesn’t fall in love with it, the best thing for the agent and the best thing for you is to move on to someone else. You want an agent who not merely WANTS to represent you; you want an agent who NEEDS to represent you, who CRAVES representing you with a white-hot fury.

That is the person who will move heaven and earth to sell your book.

When you get the “Not for me” rejection, your reaction should NOT be, “That bastard/bitch!” Your reaction should be, “Whew! Dodged THAT bullet.”

All right. I told you all of this to give you a tiny bit of insight into the psychology of agents. But also because the appropriate question at the beginning of this (long) discourse should not have been “How do I find an agent?” but, rather, “How do I find the RIGHT agent?”

First of all, you need to find someone whose needs match what you can provide. LaSexy McAgent may be the hottest, coolest, top-sellingest agent in the biz, but if she only sells cookbook noir and you write llama romances, you’re wasting your time and hers pursuing her.

Your task is to figure out who sells what you write. How do you do this? It’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds.

Most authors are happy to heap praise upon their agents online and/or in the acknowledgements of their latest opus. Find books like yours and investigate those authors. Odds are those authors have mentioned their agents on their web pages or in their books or both. Bingo! That’s one way.

Another way is to do some research. Get a book like Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors, and Literary Agentsor Writer’s Market. Join Publisher’s Marketplace (an online treasure trove of information on publishing professionals). All of these resources — and many more — will tell you which agents are interested in which types of work.

Is this time-consuming? Is it back-breaking? Well, yeah. But hey — wasn’t it time-consuming to write your book, too? Would you just take all your hard work and drop in the lap of the nearest person who claims to be an agent?

No. I didn’t think so. Don’t try to take the easy way out — do the hard work. Do the research. Figure out the people who are most likely to fall head-over-heels in love with your writing and focus on them.

Then — and only then — are you ready to make contact.

Most savvy agents have web sites with their submission guidelines on them. Many have blogs where they talk about what they’d like to see and how best to contact them. Seek these sources out and use them. Follow guidelines to the letter — you don’t want to give someone an excuse to reject your work just because you sent a ten page synopsis when they asked for a ten page sample instead. If they ask for stuff sent via snail mail, don’t send a snarky e-mail suggesting that they wake up and smell the 21st century. Instead, assume the agent has a fine reason for doing business this way and then go to the post office.

Now, this is one way of querying agents, and it’s probably the easiest and least expensive. But my preferred method (and the one that worked for me) is to actually go and meet them. In person.

This does not involve stalking the agent or calling up to make an appointment to meet at his or her office or anything like that. No, this involves attending a conference or workshop that the agent is also attending, and making his or her acquaintance there.

And… Here’s where I palm you off to…myself! I actually already talked about meeting agents at writing conference a few weeks ago! Rather than repeat myself, I figure I’ll just use the Magic of the Internet to link to my own piece. You’ll want to skip down about halfway…

Oh, who am I kidding? Read the whole damn thing. It’s good for you. :)

Next week: How to deal with your agent when you disagree with him/her, plus a little bit about pacing.

 

 

*Not an exaggeration – actual agent pitch recorded with a hidden microphone.**

 

**No, of course it’s an exaggeration! Jeez! Even an agent wouldn’t make puppy stew. The rest of it’s real, though.

 

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