Advice for Writers

The Business, Part 3: Finding an Agent

Step 1: Write a Great Novel

Make your novel the best you can make it. Make it original, with an exciting plot, great writing style, and interesting characters and settings. Don’t send it up if it just needs a little work, or if it’s rough, or if it’s not quite finished yet.Edit, edit, edit. With less than a 1% chance of getting an agent (based on the volume of query letters agents typically receive) sending up a book that isn’t your best work is foolish and lazy. (It goes without saying that your novel should have page numbers, correct punctuation, a lack of spelling errors, etc.)

Even though you may think you write better than the “brand-name” authors you read (and you may be better for all I know), remember that you’re not competing with them. They bring a built-in audience to the table and have sales that are guaranteed. And since publishing is a business—oh, that again!—your only hope is to offer the finest work you possibly can, when compared with other new writers, who also think their work is pretty good. (And again, their work just might be pretty good, too).

Step 2: Research Literary Agents

Next, spend some time in the Writing/Publishing section of the bookstore. The more time, the better. The book I used and frequently recommend is Jeff Herman’s, The Insiders Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents. There are also “Writer’s Guides” and “Writer’s Market” type books which are equally popular. They list agents, offer addresses, explain how best to contact them and the steps needed to be taken. Follow the directions each agent lays out. To ignore their preferred method of handling queries is taking a risk.

Step 3: Write a Great Query Letter

This is the final step in getting an agent, since most agents won’t take unsolicited manuscripts. They want a query letter, and if they like the letter and the novel you describe, they’ll ask to see part or all of your manuscript. That’s all there is to it.

Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took seventeen drafts and two weeks to write.

A good query letter has a few rules. First, it should be no longer than one page. Your name, address and phone number should be on it. It should be typed and addressed to a particular agent, not an agency. And it should have all the information the agent needs to make a decision on whether or not to read the manuscript. That information can include:

  • A description of previous writing experience.
  • A quick summation of the story.
  • Other books that are similar to yours, and why yours is better.
  • The possible market for the book.
  • A reason why you want to work with this particular agent.
  • A sentence explaining that the book is complete, with a request to have it read.

The query letter I wrote was enticing enough to have 12 of out 25 agents ask to read part or all of the manuscript. With less than 1% odds, it was a very successful query letter, especially considering The Notebookwas my first novel. To see a copy of my query letter, click the link below.

(Please be aware that, though most of the information in the query letter was true, the truth was stretched at times. This caution regards the fourth paragraph only, and was done for the sake of brevity.)