My Life as an Author Seeking an Agent: A Rope of Sand

[Warning: Longwinded Post Ahead!  Full of carpentry metaphors for some reason!]

[And at the end, you’ll find some useful links!]

So now that the greatest thing in the history of my writing career has happened, I thought I’d share a bit about my process of getting an agent.

First, imagine a time frame in which you would realistically think you could get a literary agent.  Got one in mind?  Great, now throw that out the window.  I’m not even kidding.  I thought I was giving myself tons of time with a 5-year plan, but hoooboy was I wrong!

What I’ve come to realize about writing is that it’s not a 1-2-3-Done! type of deal.  It’s a life-long process which has many steps with unknown quantities of time in between each of them.

So here’s Step 1 of my easy step-by-step guide on how to become a huge author who’s loved by millions.  I’ll share a bit of what I did and how I went about finding myself the Rootin’est Tootin’est Most Awesome Agent Ever (TM).

First, I wrote.  I know that sounds really silly to say, but I have met a ton of ‘writers’ who don’t write (?).  Like what the heck man!  You gotta actually write that thing down.  Like on paper.

And I don’t mean I wrote a little.  Sleep Over is my fifth novel.  I have two fantasy novels (sword and sorcery, with more books planned), one paranormal urban fantasy (again, the first in a series), one YA sci-fi (book one of five in a series- you get the idea- don’t keep writing a series until you sell the first one!), and finally a hit with Sleep Over (a stand alone ._.).  I’m not even counting my 3-Day Novel (and unless you’re Mary Shelly neither should you haha).

I know not everyone is able to devote so much time to the craft, but I made it my job.  I went to work in the morning and wrote.  I actually probably let it consume more of my life than was/is healthy actually (nervous laughter) but basically, you have to take it seriously.

In addition to my novels, I also spent two years honing my chops using short stories.

This is one step I thought I could get around.

Some might be able to.  Remember, no one can tell you how to do it; I can only tell you how I did it.  I read this very thing from published authors all over the place, about how short stories were a must.  I guess you have to be worn down a bit by enough rejections to finally get the message.  So after two novels which failed to find an interested agent, I went nuts with short stories.

Not before fighting it some more though.  I dragged my heels on this one.

I’m a novelist, damnit.  I want to write long works of epic prose that take up footage on physical shelves the world over.

Oh past Heidi, stupid beautiful wonderful past Heidi, no.  No no no.  You don’t learn carpentry by buying the most expensive wood and mangling it with an unpracticed hand.  You start small with banging some nails into junky wood you found on the side of the road.

Such are short stories.  You get some plain wood and you have at it with all the free nails you can scrape together to make a little project.  And then when you have something which didn’t make you hammer your thumb, you try for something which actually looks like something other than plain wood with nails sticking out of it every which way.

You keep making these little experiments until you start to get better.  Eventually you’re making chairs, or at least some sort of salad bowl with a nice finish to it.  Hey it’s even watertight?  *High-fives self*

Short stories allow you to make mistakes.  Short stories let you do things to characters which feels so uncomfortable if you’re only used to the long form.  That character you want to explore?  Put them in a short story, see what happens to them.  Put the pressure on.  Really squeeze them.  Short stories are a boon for character development, and I used every single hour of my experience writing short stories when I crafted Sleep Over.

Tl;dr: Short stories?  Short stories short stories.  Short- stories.

During this process, I was able to publish several short stories. This was a great way to let potential agents know that I had some experience, and also some success.

I also self published a few short projects, which was a neat experiment.

Oh and just for fun I adapted one of my novels into a feature length screenplay (which placed in the top 10% of the Academy’s Nichol Fellowship candidates!).

So what I’m saying here is, you need to write.  A lot.

Additionally, read.  A lot.  Read books in the genres you write in.  Get to know what works and what doesn’t.  Read critically.  And also learn about your craft.  Read books on writing.  I really love Stephen King’s On Writing and Orson Scott Card’s Characters and Viewpoint.  I went to conferences and attended lectures and masterclasses on the craft.  I spoke with writers and soaked up all the information I could lay my mittens on.

When it gets down to it though, the only thing left to do is BICHOK: Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard.  Writer’s gotta write.

When I finished a novel, I started seeking representation for it.  Not a publisher, representation.  AKA a Literary Agent.

A literary agent is to manuscript is like what a real estate agent is to a house.  You can maybe try selling it without one, but hey, it’s their job and they probably know way more about it than you do.  I’d much rather work with an expert.  So I was dead-set on finding a literary agent.  (Also, most publishers do not deal directly with authors any more; they require an agent as a middleman.)

Basically, you find agents who represent books that are similar to the one you’re trying to get published.  You research them; what they like and don’t, how they seem on their blogs and on twitter, what their authors have to say about them.  You query them, and you follow their submission guidelines to the letter.

Seriously, follow the submission guidelines.  Agents get hundreds of queries a month.  The easiest way to make it into the slush pile is simply by not following the basic instructions they’ve given everyone interested in submitting to them.  It’s the most basic test: can you follow simple instructions?  If you fail, they will pass on your project in favour of someone who can.

There are tons of reasons why manuscripts get rejected.  An agent has to LOVE it and be willing to go to work to get it published.  Here’s another post I did about what makes an agent stop reading, and the reasons were varied and sometimes surprising!

Each manuscript got the full treatment, went through the rounds of me trying to find an agent for it.

And once the queries are out (I did them in batches), it’s the beginning of the phase called “waiting”.  This is a very strange skill I had to learn.  You think it’s obvious, right?  Waiting for people to get back to you?  But like… sometimes you don’t hear anything back at all.

I’ve had so many varied rejection letters over the years (including recently, The Best Rejection Letter).  Eventually they rolled like armadillos off a mossy hillock, down out of sight, leaving just a slight dip in my mood.  Sometimes they hurt.  The ones that took the most research to do, where I thought for *sure* they would be into my project, those ones bummed me out.  …Until eventually they didn’t.

Eventually I started to think of it like this: rejection letters are trestles in a bridge which I’m building.  Though, I don’t know how long my bridge is going to be or how long it will take to build; I cannot even see the place where I’m building it to.

It became part of the job.  I was just tossing messages in bottles into an ocean full of messages in bottles.

But you know?  I used to drop a message in a bottle over the side of the ferry each time I made the trip from Gibsons to Vancouver.  And you know what else?  I got a few responses.  One of the responses was this, and it’s amazing.  And, seeing as The X-Files was my favourite show ever, it blew my 11-year-old mind.  So I knew that even though chances were slim and sometimes the tide was against me, I could get lucky and get my bottle into the right hands.

I just kept trying.

I figure this is where we lose most writers (in that they give up and go back to doing non-writing things).  When trying and trying and seeing no results gets to you.  There’s that ‘definition of insanity’ floating around (attributed often to Albert Einstein, but I cannot find the true source): “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  I started to feel insane.  I got depressed.  Each time I wrote a novel and failed to find an agent, I got a little more bummed out.

…But also more determined.

I knew that with each novel I wrote I was getting better.  And I was also getting better at the query process.  Some of the agents I contacted recently had seen two or three of my other query letters over the years, and that was sort of a nice feeling.  That I was keeping at it, I mean.  That I was still here.

I knew it would happen eventually.  It might have taken waaay longer, but I knew that if I kept it up and kept trying, eventually I would get it right.

There is that danger though; that little voice in your head that says “what if this is bad?  What if I actually suck?” and that’s a horrendous thing to overcome.  It could be true.  You could be trying without a hope in hell.  It sucks, but the harsh reality is that not everyone is good at what they’re trying to do.  And it’s extremely hard to judge our own competency at things sometimes.

My tack with this, to see if I was crazy or maybe I actually was good, was again: short stories.  Once I started getting those published I knew I was in the clear.  I also did writing-critique swaps, with both short stories and with my screenplay.

So, while continuing to hone my craft, I queried agents.  The rejection letters started to feel different.  I got more full requests (where an agent wants to read the whole MS after reading your query).  I felt like I was getting closer.

So, after testing the waters and proving myself with short stories, eventually one of my novels hit the nail on the head.

I wanted an agent who loved my book just as much as I do, and I found one.

The phone call I got, where she offered my representation, was the best phone call of my life.  You know in movies when a bomb lands really nearby, and the soundtrack is just ringing and all the noise gets really muffled and dull?  My world was like that for a long time after.

Anyway I don’t want to go on and on…

Just to review: write short stories, hone your craft, write a lot, and follow guidelines when querying agents who fit your work.  Lather, rinse, repeat, repeat, repeat.

Good luck.  Because that’s part of it too.


As promised: useful links!

How on earth do you start publishing short stories?  Sign up for Duotrope and get “Upcoming Themed Deadlines” mailed to you weekly!

Looking to improve your query letter? What even IS a query letter‽ Get on that link like butter on popcorn, you delicious writer you!

Landing an Agent And while you’re at Robert J. Sawyer’s site, also check out the myriad of good advice from him here.

Got your query letter all set to go? Don’t send it out yet! Get some other eyes on it first or you will be super sad when you realize that your Most Favourite Agent got a letter full of typos…

Good. Now, you’re ready to send it? But WHO is looking for your type of manuscript? Agent Query is your best friend!

Want to see what other writers have to say about an agent? Check out the The Absolute Writer Water Cooler Forums for so, SO much info on everything from the timelines for hearing back from an agent, to past dealings, to little anecdotal snippets. A highly useful resource.

What are some reasons a query letter gets rejected? The list is varied and can be as simple as “you didn’t follow the submission guidelines” all the way to the extremely subjective reasons which you cannot combat!

I hope you find this helpful. There are a ton of resources on the internet, so do your homework. Just don’t forget to write!

Cheers.

Heidi out.

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