Posts Tagged ‘how to find an agent’

The comments on my Agent Conundrum post the other day have been really interesting. And after responding to one of them, I realized that what I’d just written might make a useful post. So I’ve copied that response below. Your feedback, as always, will be eagerly awaited.

From the onset of this blog (November 4, 2009), the mission has been to track the Journey, warts and all. So I felt that sharing a real-time query/rejection scenario might be especially helpful for writers stumbling across my post/blog who are in the earlier stages of their own Journeys. Setting our expectation levels to coincide with reality is such an important part of the process and is key to maintaining our sanity as we navigate the madness.

When I was getting started with my first novel (The Truth about Cinnamon) over twenty years ago, the publishing world (and, in fact, the world in general) was vastly different. There were no cell phones, no social media outlets, no email, and no way to contact agents and editors (who were still taking unsolicited manuscripts and queries back then) except by snail mail. So, I spent countless days/weeks/dollars in postage sending stuff out: query letters, the first three chapters, whatever the current Literary Market said the agents/editors wanted to see.

I still have all of those rejection letters/postcards–and a handful of individuals actually responded with suggestions, indicating that they saw some promise in my writing and my story but that one thing or another needed to be fixed/amplified/etc., before resubmitting. The time those individuals took to offer some tangible help is still remembered with gratitude. (Absolutely no one seems to have the time to do that anymore.)

But the most revelational moment in those early years of my Journey came when I acually made a trip from Atlanta, where I lived at the time, to New York. I had a whole bunch of new query letters, partial manuscripts, synopses, etc., that I’d been planning to mail out. And, on something of a whim, I decided instead to load everything into a big bag, hop a train, and go to New York to deliver my mail in person. I wanted to see for myself what the places looked like where I’d been sending everything.

Well … the visions were staggering! In virtually every office I visited (and some turned out to be literal holes-in-the-wall), unopened envelopes of every size and shape were in floor-to-ceiling stacks all over the reception areas, the submissions appearing to number in the thousands.

The employees who greeted me at each of the front desks were astonished that I was there, because “nobody’s allowed to deliver submissions in person.” Since I had obviously already broken that rule and was standing there in the flesh with my mail in-hand, a few agents/editors were kind enough to see me briefly. But I knew when I left each office that my submission was going to get tossed into “the pile,” and the memories of that reality have guided the setting of my expectation levels ever since.

As for “the chemistry” thing, I understand the existence of that elusive, intangible element in every endeavor we undertake. Someone’s assessment of the “it” factor will inevitably influence a professional’s decision about our work. The frustration arises, however, when the agent says that all the pieces are in place–the book is well-written, the story is a good one, “nothing is missing” … except chemistry. Young/new writers just embarking upon their Journeys need to hear that statement.

And the lesson for all of us to take away from this example is that being too selective with our queries and submissions will never get us where we want to go. We need to be blitzing the entire industry with our well-written, well-developed manuscripts/books, if we’re ever going to find that one person–that literary soulmate you so astutely described–who finds the chemistry absolutely letter-perfect.

And the mission of this blog is to track at least this one Journey, winding through the valleys and over the peaks, as the search moves closer to a happy ending.


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Update First

On Tuesday of this week, I had what I hope will be the last of the surgeries (this makes four in nine months). But, on this beautiful Friday, I’m feeling better each day, and today was especially uplifting with the developments in Egypt (which I was able to watch since I can’t go anywhere yet). The ten days ahead of the surgery were packed with things I had to finish, including a never-ending list of book promotion stuff.

So, that’s what I’ve been doing, in case you’ve wondered lately what’s happened to me and my posts.

Now, to the Agent Thing … Once Upon a Time …

Some of you may recall that when I was attending the Writer’s Digest Conference from January 21-23 in New York City, there was an afternoon called “Pitch Slam,” where we had the opportunity to pitch our books/manuscripts to agents in as many three-minute segments as we could complete (standing in long lines for each one).

The agents were all listed in our programs, with the specifics of what they were looking for in terms of genre, storylines, characters, etc. I studied the choices carefully, selecting a half dozen agents whose criteria matched Separation of Faith, which I ended up pitching to a total of three agents (and then I subsequently blogged about the experience, if you want to scan through those posts).

The first agent I pitched to asked me for a copy of Separation of Faith right there on the spot, telling me that she was going to read the book that night and let me know the next day (Sunday, the last day of the conference). The second agent asked me to send the book to him, along with a list of all the marketing and promotion activity to-date. And the third agent asked me to email to her the first three chapters (which I was able to do easily since I’d already requested the Word version of the final book from iUniverse so I could enter the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest).

Well, the next day (Sunday of the conference), I finally found the first agent in the sea of attendees, and she told me that she hadn’t had an opportunity to read the book the previous night. But she said she’d take a look at the story on her return flight to San Francisco later that day and would give me her decision right away. Although I was disappointed at not receiving the promised feedback, I should have known better than to expect to hear anything so quickly. So, when I returned home, I sent off the requested material to the other two agents and then got busy doing other stuff.

A week later, I realized that I hadn’t heard from the “airplane agent,” so I sent her a short follow-up email, thanking her in advance for the time she was taking. The next day, I received the following response (and this is copied exactly from her email):

Good morning, Cheri,

Thanks for sharing SEPARATION OF FAITH with me. I’ve had a chance to read it, and there’s a lot to like about your story. That said, I’m not sure I’d be able to represent it with the enthusiasm you and your manuscript deserve.

Given the quality of your work, I suspect that other agents also were interested in seeing your manuscript, and I’d urge you to submit it broadly in the hope of finding just the right agent.  

Again, my thanks for the privilege of reading your manuscript. I wish you all the best going forward.

Kind regards,

Well … if you’ve done even a minimal amount of querying, I’m fairly certain that you have a few letters that look exactly like this one–because this is a form rejection letter. And the fact that she hadn’t taken a minute to add even a few specifics or words of personalization, since she’d actually met with me–twice–was just a smidge perturbing. Believing that asking for more information was not out of line, I sent the following response:

Thank you so much for responding to me. I really appreciate the time you’ve taken, and I would be immeasurably grateful if you could give a little more feedback regarding this rejection. The story is a match to what you said you were looking for in the WD Pitch Slam program: “… ironic family dramas and realistic midlife tales, often with a twist, preferably involving strong female characters.”

If there’s this much of a match between Separation of Faith and what you’re looking for, and if “there’s a lot to like about my story and the quality of my work,” I would sincerely and deeply appreciate more specifics about why you don’t want to represent the book. What would need to be there that isn’t there now, in order for you to represent me?

Thank you very much, in advance, for a few more minutes of your time, which I will appreciate more than I could ever tell you.

 All the best,

Cheri Laser

What would need to be there that isn’t there now, in order for you to represent me? The answer to that question is, for me (and for all of us, I think), the holy grail. If we could only know what’s missing–and if we possess even a reasonable amount of talent–we would happily correct the deficiencies and then, perhaps, actually make some forward progress in this insane endeavor. So, I anxiously awaited her answer which, I must admit, did come quickly:

Hi Cheryl, [Note that this time she refers to me as Cheryl, whereas the first time I was Cheri …]

Very simply, I wasn’t drawn in to the story the way I need to be in order to represent any given work. There was nothing missing from the manuscript–it was well-conceived and well-written, and yet I wasn’t captivated by it. These things are a question of chemistry–what may not engage one agent may well sweep another away.

Best of luck in finding the right agent for your story!

Kind regards,

Nothing missing … well-conceived … well-written … met all of the listed criteria–but … these things are a question of chemistry. Okay. That certainly clears everything up.

Are we to actually believe that, no matter what criteria is listed under the agents’ names in the various how-to-find-an-agent guidebooks, what they are really looking for is “chemistry”? I guess we’ll each have to decide that one. And if we think that is true–that a well-conceived, well-written book, in which nothing is missing, can’t make the cut unless the criterion of “chemistry” is met–then each of us needs to also decide how much time, money, energy, and emotions we want to invest in trying to satisfy something so elusive and random.

The second agent, by the way, who requested a copy of the book and my promotional activities, also sent a rejection this week. But his was more personalized, in that he actually acknowledged and remembered meeting me. And when I looked back at the conference program, I saw that his stated criteria wasn’t as close a match as I’d thought in the midst of the Pitch Slam.

So, that leaves the third agent, who requested the first three chapters. “It’s all about the writing for me,” she said, as my Pitch Slam session with her was concluding. “It’s all about the writing.” I haven’t heard from her yet.

And, like something tied to a bungee cord, I keep bouncing back up, filled with anticipation and the hope that good news might be forthcoming … eventually. We’re all like that as writers, you know–ever the eternal optimists. And we have to be that way, always believing in possibilities, always hopeful, never giving up the dream.

There’s a whole new generation of really great writers in our world, who are out there writing really great stories every single day. And that collective group of us is able to define who and what we are, all of us enjoying wonderful company with each other. As I conclude this post, I’m very grateful that I’m a writer rather than an agent, because-despite the frustration expressed above–I think that getting up each morning, looking for chemistry instead of good writing and good stories would make for a string of really long days.

Hope you all have a fabulous weekend! –Cheri  

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