Before I get into the infallible process I've developed--the virtual query machine that requires constant oiling, tinkering, and howls of rage when the it breaks down--I want to bring to your attention an agent website with "must read" info on the process.
Jillian Manus of The Manus & Associates Literary Agency has written a series of articles under Info for Writers on "How to Pitch" (both for fiction and non-fiction) with very clear advice about turning your 500 page behemoth into three or four compelling lines (I still don't think it's possible, but I'm getting closer,) "How to Write a Non-Fiction Proposal," and, perhaps most important "Fiction Genres Defined." Even she admits the distinction between commercial and literary fiction is pretty unclear, but it's nice to hear a successful agent admit it. There are also articles on "Publishing Deal Points" and "Basic Contract Check List."
Very worth your time, plus Ms. Manus's charm and humor pervade her writing. She just seems like someone I'd like to work with. I was going to query one of her other agents, but, what the hell, when you've written the next Reasonably Great American Novel, go for the top.
On to my tale of woe. My agent, who had always dealt with non-fiction, accepted me on the basis of a truly screwball absurdest thriller. He was supportive, encouraging, funny, appreciative...one of the great gentlemen I've met in my life.
Then, in the middle of last year, he dropped the bomb. He wasn't sure how to position this book and thought I could do better. As he said, a new novelist's first entree into the market is the most important step you can take...so he told me to write another novel! Sure, and while I was at it, to grow more hair on my head.
I wish I could remember what he said, but I did write a second novel in six months, took two months to send it out to people for edits, edited it three times myself, sent it to him, and got rave reviews. Then the bomb dropped. He's very ill and is shutting down his literary agency. He couldn't have been more apologetic and supportive. I feel worse for him than for me and told him he may have lost a client, but he certainly hasn't lost a friend.
O.k., enough maudlin crap.
So...the query process. The first time I went through this, anxiety became such a constant companion that I gave it a name: Harvey. (Obscure joke) The fact is that it's incredibly time consuming, but there are general formulas. On this blog are a list of sites you can go to for help on finding agents, how to write queries, the dread synopses, etc. Read them, study them.
- Realize up front that you're going to spend hours doing research about each agent and the process. Suck it up and live with it.
- I use ACT!, a contacts data base to keep track of agents, their likes and dislikes, what I've sent them and when, and how and if to follow up. You can do the same with a spreadsheet or even a Word document, but keep a good list & keep it current. Don't throw anything--even a rejection away. You'll be at this for a long time, and you need a history of every agent you've contacted.
- Look for agents who take the kind of blather you're writing--sending blind queries off is just a waste of time.
- Go the each agent's website. Not only are there different guidelines (thanks guys) but you'll learn something about the agent that you can use to personalize the query.
- Definitely check out Predator's & Editors--it does list the scam artists.
- Write and rewrite and rewrite your query. It's more important than your book.
- Mr. Manus emphasizes the importance of the "pitch," those three sentences that capture the essence of your book. Think of it this way. Someone comes up and says, "what's your book about?" If you can't answer in 10 seconds or so, you've lost them.
- Unless advised otherwise, I avoid e-mail queries--they're too easy to delete. Good agents get hundreds of queries a week. At least with a letter, they'll probably skim the first paragraph. Plus, it's still easier to read paper than a computer screen.
- This is not advice because it could be dangerous: Forget the 1 page query rule. At 12 point type, you can barely get the address and your name in. But mine are never longer than 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pages--although I'm beginning to think that I can further refine my query and maybe get it to one page. (This is after I've sent off 6 already.)
- Follow the instructions about what to send with the query. Violate those and you're toast.
- Agents are serious about top-quality white bond paper, using names rather than Dear Whomever, proper closings, and that the quality of the writing in your query is the indicator of the quality of your writing, period.
There's tons more, but it's all in the links. Good luck to all of us aspiring and aspired writers. Most of all, enjoy your writing. That's what we're here for anyway. That and the big, big bucks!