The importance of an agent to your writing career cannot be overstated. If you want to be published by one of the Big 5 publishers, an agent is a must. These publishers don’t take unsolicited submissions from writers, so an agent is your ticket in. Even if agents didn’t play the role of gatekeeper, you’d still want one in your corner. A good agent drums up excitement for your book, both domestically and all over the world, and gets you the best possible deals. They are as excited about your book as you are. A great agent will launch your career in a way that would be extremely difficult to do on your own.
Two caveats: 1) this post is for writers who want to be traditionally published. If you’re looking to go the self-publishing route, I’m afraid I can’t be of much help, since I have no experience in that realm. 2) I’m speaking from the perspective of and for fellow writers of fiction. Nonfiction has different rules, although some of the ideas here are likely still applicable.
I’ll first assume you’ve written a good novel, received extensive feedback on it, and applied said feedback. I’ll also assume you’ve read all the articles about not giving up—that writing is 90% perseverance, 10% talent—and taken those words to heart. Let’s move on, then, to the nuts and bolts. In this four-part series, I’ll explain how I signed with my agent, Madeleine Milburn of the Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency.
Part I: Query Prep
Your query letter is the second most important step in hooking an agent. (The first is writing a good novel.) Beginners can read more about what a query letter is here. For those ready to move beyond the basics, here are my tips.
I read every single entry of Janet Reid’s Query Shark blog—including every comment!—dating back to the first one in 2003. I did this by reading one entry every day for fifteen months. Don’t wait until you’re ready to query agents to start studying these entries. If you try to read the entire archive in the span of a week, you’ll go cross-eyed or, worse, start skimming. Instead, consider this blog your after-writing homework. Copy and paste your favorite queries into a word doc so you can analyze them later. Keep a bullet-pointed list of useful notes—mine was 8 word doc pages by the time I finished. I began reading Query Shark in August 2017; I started querying in November 2018.
Begin writing your query long before you need it. If you know the premise of your novel, you can write your query. I wrote the first draft of my query in March 2018, and, as mentioned above, began querying in November 2018. I went through 34 iterations in that period. If you think of your query as another writing project, one you pick up and edit from time to time, just like a short story or essay, then you know it needs time to breathe. Sometimes, lying in bed at night, I’d come up with a better turn of phrase that I’d then incorporate the next day into the query. Point is: consider the thing from every angle. Worry less about your last paragraph (writing credits, background) and more about the pitch. Hone. I love Query Shark’s advice to keep sentences and even words short. Pitches should be snappy.
Regarding the synopsis, see #2. If you don’t plot before you write, you’ll have to wait longer to write the synopsis, but try not to leave it until the night before you’re ready to query. A lot of agents ask for a synopsis alongside the query. For me, writing and sending the synopsis was the most painful part of the process. Asking to read the twist/ending in plain-spoken English felt like a dagger through my weakling heart.
When your query and synopsis are as good as you can possibly make them, then it’s time for professional feedback. If possible, enlist the help of actual agents! (I know, you’re thinking I don’t know any agents, Steph. Neither did I.)
I went to Jane Friedman for her query and synopsis critique services, which are worth every penny. If she tells you you’re ready, then great—you can feel a little more confident going into the process. If she offers you advice for improvement, even better. [Side note: as you will have noticed if you’re clicking the links in this post, her blog is one of my favorite resources for writers. There are few people in the industry whose advice I trust more.]
Find a community where agents offer critique services. As a subscriber to Mslexia, a UK magazine for women writers, I was able to take advantage of their Mslexia Max Pitch session. I posted my query on their forum, and then any interested agents (of which there were two) would reach out. My intention there was just to get feedback on my query, not begin the actual agent search. But between the agents’ interest and Jane’s feedback, I felt I was ready to go.
Here’s the actual query I sent agents. Note: this is the query for DARLING ROSE GOLD—the novel had a name change between then and now.
Dear [Agent’s First Name, Last Name],
Rose Gold Watts believed she was sick for eighteen years. She thought she needed the feeding tube, the surgeries, the wheelchair.
Turns out her mom, Patty, is a really good liar.
After five years in prison, Patty gets out. Mother and daughter agree to move in together and let go of old grievances. Patty says all she wants is to reconcile with Rose Gold and care for her infant grandson.
But Rose Gold knows her mother. She won’t rest until she has Rose Gold back under her thumb. Which is a smidge inconvenient, because Rose Gold wants to be free of Patty forever.
Only one Watts can get her way.
MOTHER MAY I (87,000 words) is a suspense novel told from both Patty’s and Rose Gold’s points of view, in two timelines. My book would appeal to readers of Ali Land’s GOOD ME, BAD ME and Gillian Flynn’s SHARP OBJECTS, if the story were told from Amma’s and Adora’s points of view.
My short fiction has been published in Bellevue Literary Review and was nominated for the 2018 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. I’m an MFA Candidate at Emerson College.
Thank you for your time and consideration.
In the next post, I’ll cover how I compiled a list of agents to query.
DARLING ROSE GOLD (US) / THE RECOVERY OF ROSE GOLD (UK) comes out March 2020! You can preorder at the links for US readers below:
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books A Million | Apple Books
IndieBound | Kobo | Google Play
And here are the links for UK readers: