In this series, 'The Path', I'll discuss my journey, as it's happening, in going from manuscript to commercial publication for the first time.
In last month’s post, I talked about the journey that led me to writing BENEFACTION, a thriller, which will be published in 2021. In this month’s post, I’ll talk about how I got signed with a literary agent.
So, let’s get right to it! First things first...
1 - Write the book. The whole thing.
My records show that I started writing the book that would become BENEFACTION on July 22, 2017 and that I started querying for agents with the book on June 26, 2018. It took me just under a year to write the full manuscript, revise it a few times, have my now-husband (and very trusted reader) read it and provide me with feedback, and then edit/proofread it again. There’s no real science to knowing when your book is “ready” to be sent out for agent querying. You just have to sort of trust that you’ve done all of the work and editing you can think of to do to make it as good and polished as possible. For me, I knew it was time when I felt I couldn’t do anything more with it by myself -- for better or worse. That I’d reached the limits of my abilities and foresight. I felt really good about the story, I felt really good about the cleanness of the manuscript (in terms of typos and errors). It felt like a fully-formed thing -- not perfect, mind you -- but fully-formed.
I know there are instances in which fiction writers will start querying agents before the book is complete -- sometimes well before. While it is possible to get signed with an agent based on the strength of a pitch and a brief sample only, I personally wouldn’t recommend counting on that unless you have a built-in, well-formed audience clamoring for your content, have buzzy, impeccable literary/literary-academic credentials, or you’re querying based off the strong referral of someone already inside the industry (that you can cite). And even then (or especially then), your pitch has to be really good.
So I suggest going in locked and loaded -- fully drafted, polished manuscript in hand.
2 - Know thyself.
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to know what kind of book you’ve written (genre) and which current writers in your genre you feel you could favorably compare your work to. Think of your novel in a bookstore; what books might be on that shelf next to yours? If you don’t understand what your book is and who it’s for, it will be very difficult to query with any level of success.
I gave this some real thought, and drawing on the extensive reading I’d done in my genre (thriller) to that point, I felt I could put my book in the same realm as the following:
GONE GIRL, Gillian Flynn (2012)
THE KIND WORTH KILLING, Peter Swanson (2015)
MY ABSOLUTELY DARLING, Gabriel Tallent (2017)
THE CHILD, Fiona Barton (2017)
That rough sweet spot felt right to me, based on BENEFACTION’s story, style, and approach.
It is so important to read contemporary titles in the genre in which you are trying to write and be published. It gives you a great sense for who is working in your same lane, what they’re up to, what trends there might be, and who is publishing and representing them. Read them, read them, read them! This should be a fairly obvious or natural thing for a writer in any genre -- you should be a fan of the type of stuff you’re trying to write. If not, that's not a great sign.
3 - Research the literary agent scene.
This next part assumes you do not find yourself getting signed due to direct person-to-person referral and/or networking. That happens sometimes, and it’s very cool. I know someone for whom this happened and it must feel amazing to sort of be “discovered” in this way!
This, however, was not my path. I knew I would be relying on diligent research and querying, as IRL networking is not one of my strengths. So, what did I do?
Well, first, even while still writing the book, I paid attention to the acknowledgements in the thrillers I was reading. What agents and agencies were these authors thanking? What publisher’s name was on the spine of the book? I started keeping a list.
After finishing drafting BENEFACTION, I started the big plunge into the research, starting with two industry stalwarts: THE WRITER’S MARKET (book/index) and the online arm of POETS & WRITERS MAGAZINE, pw.org.
THE WRITER’S MARKET is published every year, and is a compendium -- very telephone book-esque -- of literary agencies, agents, industry awards, contests, etc. It gives brief synopses of agencies, agents, and what those agencies and agents tend to represent and how to contact them. The book costs anywhere between $20-$30, depending on where you buy. But my guess is most libraries also have them for loan.
The website pw.org is another fabulous resource, and I probably used it more than even THE WRITER’S MARKET. From the homepage, there’s an option to hover over “Publish Your Writing” → “Literary Agents” which will take you to the “Literary Agent Database.” From there, you can filter by genre and submission type (postal mail vs. email).
After getting the very initial, very brief scoop on agents who I thought might fit with my work, I then went directly to the websites of each agent and researched the “about me” and “looking for” sections of their pages. This all took quite a bit of time, but as I went along, I assembled a list, a few at a time, of who to try.
4 - Write the (dreaded) query letter.
I’d tried writing query letters before, for two other books: one for ALL OF THE EVERYTHING, the manuscript I wrote during my MFA, and one for the romance novel I wrote a few years later. Neither letter “worked” -- which is to say, no one ended up signing me, and I got hardly any bites for more material.
I put this down, in its most basic terms, to this: in the first case, with AOTE, I don’t think I truly understood what *kind* of book I had written. And so the query letter was probably muddled, which is no good. How can you pitch something effectively if you’re not even totally sure what it is? With the romance novel, I was not at all familiar enough with the genre, its conventions, or its major players to write intelligently about how my romance novel fit in anywhere. And then, of course, are the books themselves. The excerpts that the agents did read did not seem to grab them. The books just weren’t right for them. Whether they would have been right for someone else, I’ll likely never know. But 65 tries between the two of them tends to say that maybe the books just weren’t quite good enough, you know?
This time around, with BENEFACTION, I felt more optimistic that I could write clearly, precisely, and compellingly about my book -- because this time I *understood* my book completely in addition to loving it completely. I also had been reading so many thrillers that I felt really knowledgeable about the market and where my book might fit.
Then I read up on and researched every source I could find online for tips and tricks about how to structure and write my letter, as I had done in times past. But this time I decided to send out only a few query letters at a time, hoping for feedback that might help me better fine-tune the package for future queries as I went along. Basically, I didn’t want to blow my load on every agent all at once with a first draft letter, and have no real recourse to try them again when I might have some sense of how to make my pitch more compelling through feedback I might receive. So, patience. And fortitude.
I went through many drafts of this letter before sending any out, and then tweaked and tweaked and tweaked while it was out and about.
Below I’ve pasted what I would consider the final draft of the letter that I actually used; it’s the letter I sent to the agent who signed me, though every iteration was pretty close to this, give or take. Almost every agency wanted these via email, so I just copy-pasted the letter into the body of the email. (Of note, the manuscript was then titled THE AGONY RECORD. It changed later, in consultation with my agent.)
November 2, 2018
[Address of Agency]
I’m currently seeking representation for my 85,000-word novel, The Agony Record, an engrossing multiple-POV thriller set in the northern wilds of Maine. The Agony Record is a book that could sit comfortably on a reading list with works like Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing, Tana French's In The Woods, Gabriel Tallent's My Absolute Darling, and Fiona Barton’s The Child. It's a thriller that puts women at its forefront and which works with themes surrounding the unlikely solidarities that can form around trauma.
It’s mid-October in New England. Lovers Audra Colfax and Max Durant have decided to escape the bustling streets of Boston to weekend at Audra’s family home on the shore of Moosehead Lake in Rockveil, Maine. Twenty-eight-year-old Audra is the star student in the Painting M.F.A. program at the Boston Institute for the Visual Arts, and forty-nine-year-old Max is her professor, mentor and thesis advisor there. For nearly a year the two have indulged in the exquisite pleasures of secrets – secrets both withheld from one another and forged together. And while Max believes their relationship to be born of mutual artistic admiration and erotic passion, it’s a misapprehension that may prove deadly. [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS]
What comes to light, chapter by chapter, [REDACTED FOR SPOILERS]...Told from the alternating perspectives of Audra, Max, Audra’s mother’s diary, and Max’s wife, The Agony Record reveals the deep, deadly, interconnected secrets of four people across nearly three decades.
I hold a B.A. in English (2009) and an M.A. in English (2011) from the University of Maine and an M.F.A. in Fiction Writing/Prose from the University of Notre Dame (2013). In 2016 my debut novel American Vaudeville – a small-press literary novel – was published by Mammoth Books. I have had short stories published in The Writing Disorder, Pennsylvania English, Cabildo Quarterly, and NOO Journal, among others. In 2016 my short horror story “No Protections, Only Powers” was a Top 20 Finalist in the NeoVerse short story competition and was anthologized in the book Threads: A NeoVerse Anthology.
The book is complete and available for review upon request. This is a simultaneous agent submission. Per your submission guidelines, I have pasted the first ten (10) pages of the manuscript below.
I appreciate your time and consideration, and all best,
[My Contact Info]
So, like, while it’s not rocket science, I found it super hard to write and hone. I think most people do. But I felt better about my chances than ever before because I felt I really knew my book and its market.
5 - What else gets sent with the query letter?
It depends. Everyone wants something a little different, so prepare yourself for that. Read the agent guidelines very carefully. Follow their rules as closely as humanly possible. Agents are busy people inundated with hundreds of queries a year. Make it easy on them by following their rules. You’re less likely to be written off at first glance if you do.
In my experience, some agents wanted just the letter. Some agents wanted the letter and the first ten pages of the book. Some wanted the letter and the first three chapters. Some wanted the letter, the first three chapters, and a two-page synopsis of the book. Others wanted the letter and the whole book. It just really depends. So pay attention and give what they ask for.
6 - The waiting game.
I sent out 36 queries over four months, June to November 2018. I prepared myself to go 6 weeks from the time of submission for each before hearing back one way or another. Sometimes you never hear back, and the websites of the agencies will even warn you of this possibility: if you haven’t heard back in six+ weeks, assume it’s a no. And you just have to move on.
Sometimes I heard back in one day! One!
Sometimes I heard back in a week. Sometimes in two weeks. Sometimes it was longer than that. But if any query passed the six-week mark, I wrote it off as a rejection. This seems to have been a good operating theory, because I never suddenly got a positive reply after six weeks.
Out of the 36 I sent out, I got what I call “nibbles” on about ten. For me, a nibble is when an agent writes back and is like, “Hey! I’m intrigued and interested! Send me more/the whole manuscript!” This was my highest-ever rate of nibbles, which was exciting. Many of them didn’t ultimately pan out, but they gave me hope that I was on the right path.
My thoughts on simultaneous submission: def do it. There’s just no other way. It would take years to do it one at a time. It would be madness. Most places are chill with this as long as you politely withdraw if something else comes through for you while they’re still active with your manuscript.
7 - Stay organized!
Keeping track of who you’ve queried and when requires some forethought. I highly recommend keeping a log of all of this somehow, some way. It’s helpful in so many ways. When you have two or more nibbles happening at the same time, you can know who is currently active with your MS. It’s helpful if and when you actually sign with someone -- because it’s polite to withdraw your submissions from any folks you haven’t yet heard back from (particularly within that six-week window). It’s also good to know who responded well to your packet this time even if they didn’t sign you. If nothing had come through for me on this book, I would have known who to try again when I had a new book ready.
I used Google sheets to track everything -- date of submission, agent name, agency name, packet requirements, on what date I would assume a No, and a notes column for any helpful feedback.
Below, an excerpt from my actual records:
8 - The One.
I sent my query packet to Sarah Bedingfield at Levine Greenberg Rostan on November 2, 2018. I signed a contract with her less than two weeks later on November 14, 2018. Between the 2nd and the 14th, a few things happened:
Shortly after Nov 2, Sarah wrote to me to say that she’s not quite through the book yet, but that she’s very interested and is loving what she’s read so far. She wanted to let me know that her hat was perhaps in the ring.
At the same time, another agent had already made contact previous to Nov 2, and was now asking for exclusive time to read the full MS -- which would preclude Sarah.
I let Sarah know this out of fairness, and asked her advice about it. She said very kindly and tactfully that she felt the other agent’s request was a bit of an overreach. She also said that if I was interested, she would love to have a call with me in the next few days to talk about having her represent me.
Feeling confident in Sarah and her intentions, I withdrew my book from submission with the other agent.
A day or two later, Sarah called me from New York. She had finished my book and was, well, wildly excited about it. She spoke about the story and the characters with nuance, thoroughness, and enthusiasm. She walked me through where she felt my book belonged in the market -- she considered it an “upmarket thriller” -- and that she felt it was pitchable to all the major houses and then some. We got to know each other a little over the course of the call, and at the end, she formally offered me representation. I enthusiastically accepted. She was so excited and kind about it that she made me feel like I was doing her a real favor! Meanwhile I’d been a moody, panicked, losing-faith wreck for a few weeks -- worried no one would ever want to represent me, despite the nibbles. So to say it was refreshing to have someone drooling over my book is an understatement -- it was wild and affirming and amazing.
That day she sent over a contract via email which I read carefully and signed. I then scanned it back to them, where it was signed by the head of the agency, and like that, I finally and officially had a literary agent! Huzzah!
So what happened next, now that I was a signed author?
I’ll talk about that in next month’s post. (Spoiler alert: it involves a lot of revision.) What I can tell you now is that signing with Sarah was a great decision -- she is an intelligent, incisive, kind, responsive, dedicated partner with whom I feel so lucky to work.
Anyway, until next time, happy reading!