I never really liked science in school, but I still did well in it because it follows rules. If you use the right ingredients and follow the steps exactly, you get the expected outcome. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a set formula for landing an agent?
Actually, strike that. There is a formula:
Write a novel with a unique concept, solid grammar/structure, and appropriate length, voice, pacing, character arc, and conclusion
Query agents who represent the category and genre
Catch the right agent at the right time
Sign with an agent
Easy, right? Well, let’s look at each step.
Write a novel with a unique concept, solid grammar/structure, and appropriate length, voice, pacing, character arc, and conclusion. This one’s the kicker. First you have to write a whole novel–in itself a great accomplishment–then you have to nail all these other pieces. If you’re reading widely in your category and genre, you can probably figure out for yourself how unique your concept is. I also recommend reading through online contests. It’s amazing how many similar premises you see once you scan through twenty or so entries. There are tons of resources out there giving advice on length, so that’s pretty easy to determine as well.
As for voice, pacing, character arc, and the conclusion, turn to critique partners and beta readers. They’ll tell you what isn’t working and often give you suggestions on how to fix those things, but keep in mind that the opinions you’re getting are subjective. This is your story, and you have to trust yourself and what you want for the story. I can’t tell you how many critique rounds to go through before you start querying. It’s different for everyone. But at some point, the comments from your readers should be minor enough that you know in your gut you’re ready.
Query agents who represent the category and genre. In theory, this should be the easiest step. You do your research, and then you send out queries to agents you believe could be a fit. Except … how many do you send out at a time? How often? Do you send to your top agents first or hold them back in case you get feedback that makes you revise? What request rate is a sign you need to stop and take another look at the manuscript? If you have several submissions out should you wait for feedback before sending out more? These are just a few of the questions I’ve asked over the past couple of years, and the answers aren’t simple. Maybe there is something wrong with the query and/or sample pages, or it could be perfectly fine. The reasons an agent rejects are numerous:
- The agent doesn’t like the premise.
- The story includes x, which the agent is terrified of, or a character who does x, just like a nemesis the agent had in high school. Basically, there’s something the agent has a personal issue with.
- The agent likes the premise but already has something similar.
- The agent likes the premise but doesn’t connect with the voice in the sample pages/doesn’t like the actual character.
- The agent likes the premise and the voice but doesn’t think there’s a market to sell it.
Catch the right agent at the right time. Ah, this is the hardest news to take–that so much of the process depends on timing. What sounds appealing one day might not another. I’ve shared before that on more than one occasion I had an agent skip over my entry in one contest and then request it in another. Here are some other reasons timing is a factor:
- The agent just signed an author with a similar premise.
- The agent’s current workload is overwhelming and he/she doesn’t have time for new clients right now.
- The agent usually goes for this kind of story but is focusing on another area at the moment.
- The agent has seen too many similar pitches that week.
- The agent is open to queries but not actively seeking new clients, so he/she is less inclined to request at the moment.
- The agent just had a bad experience with someone who shares your MC’s name. (Kidding. Probably.)
And the timing can play in your favor, too:
- The agent just read/saw something that made them want a story like this.
- The agent put out a call for something like this (on Twitter or in an interview).
- An editor just mentioned looking for something like this.
It can get discouraging trying to figure out what you’re doing right or wrong in the querying process. I know I’ve agonized over it. I’ve come to the conclusion that all I can do is put my best work out there and hope I catch the right agent at the right time. Maybe it will happen with the project I’m querying right now, and maybe it won’t. In the meantime, I’ll keep writing and polishing my work in the hopes I’ll eventually perform the experiment with all the right ingredients and all the right steps to reach the expected outcome: landing an agent.
Great post, Michelle. Keep putting your best work out there, and good luck!
Thanks, Michael! Encouragement is always welcome :).