So you’ve completed your book. Congratulations! This is a humongous achievement, and you should give yourself a pat on the back for even making it this far. Well done, you.
I get asked a lot about tips for approaching literary agents – the oh-so-scary query process – so I thought I’d compile some useful things here.
So, without further ado:
Finish your book. Yes, I know – I just congratulated you above for finishing. But did you really? You’ve written the whole thing, not just a sample to show agents? Did you send the whole thing out to beta readers? Did you edit for content, structure, grammar, and punctuation? Did you let it sit for a period of time and come back to it again? Almost universally speaking, first drafts are never your best effort. (Even John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, says he throws away about 90% of his first drafts.) Polish, polish, polish.
Draft your query letter. A query letter is not simply a summary of your book. Its goal is to hook the agent, so they will request your partial or full manuscript. AgentQuery Connect was an invaluable resource for me, as was Query Shark and #querytip on Twitter. Don’t be afraid to have other people critique your query – 99% of the time, it can only help! Just know that EVERYONE finds the query drafting process difficult and stressful – you are not alone. And again, do not send your first draft! Immediate turn-offs for agents include: spelling his or her name wrong, bad grammar, books that sound way too similar to books they already represent, ridiculously high word counts (130k words for a YA contemporary, for example), and an obvious lack of knowledge for the industry.
When I was querying (oh, I’m biting my nails just thinking about it!), I was maniacally searching the boards of websites like AgentQuery Connect, looking for any inspiration I could find for how to craft my query letter.
In that spirit, I’m including my full query letter to Claire Wilson (my now-agent) here – minus a few personal bits. I re-drafted it an ungodly amount of times, and it took over a month to get it to this stage. For anyone interested in stats, I sent this out to 32 agents all at once, got 15 requests for the full manuscript, and 5 offers of representation.
The final book is much different than the query (so goes publishing!), but this should give some indication of what agents look for.
FOR ANYONE WHO WANTS TO READ IF BIRDS FLY BACK, SPOILERS AHEAD!
Sixteen-year-old Linny has spent all of high school as “camera girl,” filming her friends’ escapades while craving adventures of her own. So when Álvaro Herrera (star of Linny’s favorite film, the 1960’s cult classic Midnight in Miami) seemingly rises from the dead before her eyes, she believes it’s finally, finally her chance to break away from the sidelines. Three years ago, Álvaro vanished from a yacht in the Gulf of Mexico, and reporters and FBI agents alike are hell-bent on uncovering the secret of those missing years. Armed with a lifetime’s worth of pent-up wishes for excitement, Linny resolves to unravel the mystery first—no matter what it takes.
Enter seventeen-year-old Sebastian, an aspiring astrophysicist with melodramatic tendencies, whose mother just dropped the bomb that Álvaro is his father. Álvaro has no idea that he has a son, and because of his rapidly progressing Alzheimer’s, maybe never will. Now Sebastian has to get to know his dad before it’s too late, but (much to Sebastian’s chagrin) some girl keeps interrupting their father-son time…
Álvaro’s mystery soon leads Linny and Sebastian on an entangled obstacle course through suburban Miami. What they end up discovering—and what they keep from each other—might drive them apart forever.
IF BIRDS FLY BACK is a 64,000-word literary young adult novel told in Linny and Sebastian’s alternating perspectives. It will perhaps appeal to readers of Rainbow Rowell and Sarah Dessen, and anyone who celebrates diverse books.
I have an MSt. in English from Oxford University and an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing from City University London, where I was mentored by Carnegie Medal nominee _______. I was recently a finalist for the Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, and I currently work as a Children’s Editorial Assistant at Faber & Faber. We actually met when you came to the Faber office with the ultra-talented _______. Because your submissions are of the best that we receive (I absolutely adored _______), I hope you will consider representing me as well.
I have attached my synopsis and first fifty pages to this email. Thanks so much for your time.
Do your research. Who represents the books that you like to read? In the acknowledgements, authors often thank their literary agents, and that’s a good place to begin. In the UK, The Writers and Artists Yearbook is also a fantastic source, as is Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog. Create a short list of agents who you want to approach – based on what they represent and if they’re accepting submissions – and then follow their submissions policies.
Keep organized. I was a complete nerd about this, but I actually made a color-coded spreadsheet with agents, submissions guidelines, when I sent off my manuscript, what the result was, etc. Whatever your system is, keep track of your submissions. If a particular agent has a six week response time, for example, note it; that way, you won’t accidentally (and rather embarrassingly) send them a follow-up email four weeks in.
Tailor your query letter. Every agent is looking for specific things. For example, some really want fantasy, others are particularly interested in humor. Find out a bit about their literary tastes, and try to shape your query letter to those specifications. Because you are looking for adventure stories in foreign settings, I hope you will consider representing me. Also, do you have any personal connections to the agent? Did you meet at a conference, another literary function? This is also good to note, as it shows that you are actively involved in the business of being a writer.
Send off your query. Again, some agents want just a query letter, others a query letter + 10 pages. Every agent is unique, so make sure to follow the guidelines. Send a dry-run email to yourself to see how your letter appears. Sometimes if you copy and paste from Word into Google mail, funky things happen. Also, I didn’t follow this while querying, but it’s not a good idea to approach more than ten agents at a time. If you query your top thirty agents and everyone comes back with a no, you’re stuck. Always give yourself the opportunity to revise and have another go at it.
Don’t be disheartened by rejections. I got rejections, all my writer friends have gotten rejections, and when you get your first one, it’s tough, but also – congrats! You’re in a club now. Rejection is part of being a writer. Don’t worry if you don’t get an agent with your first book. Even if it’s a perfectly good book, this happens, and this happens a lot. If you believe in your writing, don’t give up!
But if an agent offers representation, rejoice!
So good luck…