Here it is, the traditional, ginormous, over-the-top, all-the dish, “How I got my agent” post!
I’ve included my successful query letter at the end. I’ll also break out individual pieces into future blog posts as well, going into more depth with the strategies that worked for me. Please note that no one path to publishing is going to be right for everyone. I have a great deal of privilege going into this process, along with some big disadvantages, and that affected my approach and results. The goal is always to build a big toolbox, then use the most effective tools for the job in front of you.
I always had plans to be a writer, from the short story I wrote in kindergarten about a ghost who was really bad at scaring people, to the truly tragically, hilariously awful fanfiction I wrote in my teens about Star Trek (big crushes on Chekov and Worf) and Batman Forever (Hellooo Chris O’Donnell!) I still have those fanfiction notebooks, by the way, and do solemnly swear that if I ever make it to NYT Bestseller lists, I will release pages of it every April Fools Day to show that writing skill can be acquired through practice, and doesn’t have to exist as an innate trait. So if you’re curious, then buy my books and recommend me to others.
After my meandering path of career changes into my 40s, my partner earned his doctorate in mathematics and got a job offer that we could both live on. With his support, I had a rare opportunity to take my filing cabinets full of bits and pieces of half-formed ideas and unfinished scenes, and set out full-time on a self-directed study of how to be a writer.
BOOK ONE: PUNCH DRUNK MAGIC
I wrote my first full book, Punch Drunk Magic, in the summer of 2018, after searching endlessly for a certain kind of book I wasn’t able to find. It was a not-so-cozy suburban mystery about witches, romance, and identity within a generational community. In the meantime, I started brushing off old social media accounts and joining online writing groups for advice, reading voraciously, and searching for resources on the business end of writing. I learned about the query trenches, synopses, beta readers, and comps. I devoured every piece of advice I could find, sifting through it for patterns so that I could figure out which to follow. I believed so hard in this book. It was everything I wanted to read – sexy, angsty, magical, and subversive. When I sent it off to beta readers, they loved it (except for one who said there was too much kissing for a mystery, but I forgave them).
Then it was time to enter the dreaded query trenches.
THE QUERY LETTER
It turns out that writing a book and writing about a book are two completely different skill sets. So if you’re struggling with your query letter, you are not alone, or a bad writer. You are trying a new writing form for the first time, and it takes practice.
Luckily, I found The Query Shark at https://queryshark.blogspot.com/. Agent Janet Reid runs the blog were she takes queries submitted for critique, and shows us the editing process, often through multiple iterations. To this day, the number one advice I offer any querying author is to go to the Query Shark blog, navigate to the archive, and read ALL 300+ query critiques. After every 20-30 critiques, stop and revise your query letter with what you’ve learned, so the new tips don’t get lost in the shuffle.
That sounds like a slog, right? But again, you’re developing an entirely new skill set, and this blog is a master class in crafting a tight, dynamic, voice-driven query letter. There’s no shortcuts to learning a new skill. Put in the time. Do the work. You can start as soon as you have a rough draft or outline of your book and pick away at 20-30 critiques and one revision a week. Once you have a finished book, you have a polished query letter ready to go.
Note that some agents have specific requirements for query letters that don’t match Query Shark’s (e.g. loglines, housekeeping info at the top). Always defer to the individual agent’s requirements, and poke around to see if that agent has posted sample queries you can use as a guide.
I’ve included my successful query letter at the end of the post.
Again, writing a book and writing about a book are two very different skill sets! The synopsis is the most hated step of the querying process for a lot of authors. And no, that’s not a typo in the section title. You need two. One is a 1000 word version for agents who either don’t specify, or ask for a 2+ page version. The second is a 500 word version for agents who request a one-page synopsis.
Start with a “however long it takes” synopsis. Stick to ONLY your main character’s story and the central conflict. For each chapter or major scene, write out one sentence saying what happens, one sentence describing how the character’s choices or actions led to that event, and one sentence describing the effect of the event on the character or central conflict. Once you have an outline, you can smooth it down to just the major turning points of the story instead of every scene, eliminate any side characters who crept in there, and eventually, make sure it reflects your narrative voice. Then chop it down to just the absolute critical events (inciting incident, midpoint, all-is-lost, ending) for the 500 page version.
If you’re struggling to identify the major plot points that go into a synopsis, I recommend starting with the beats described in the books Save the Cat, and Save the Cat Writes a Novel. For Romance genre, I recommend Romancing the Beat.
I’ll go more into query letters and synopses in future blog posts.
THE AGENT LIST
I do use Query Tracker, but the interface wasn’t intuitive enough for me for tracking and hid some information I wanted to see at a glance. I created a separate spreadsheet using Google Sheets to create a master list of agents. To start, have one sheet in the workbook that serves as a master list of all agents you’re interested in. You’ll do a separate sheet to track querying for each project.
I’ll do a separate post to go into more detail, but you’ll want to start with Query Tracker and search for anyone who reps your genre. For each agent, use their agency wishlist, the Manuscript Wishlist site, and social media (especially Twitter) to determine whether your book would be a good fit. Take notes as you go, as it will help you personalize your query letter later and make good choices. Save links to interviews or blog posts they’ve made. I then scored each agent 1-10 based on how well my book fits their wishlist.
Once you have a complete list, my next step was to subscribe to Publishers Marketplace for one month. I went through each agent and agency and took extensive notes on what they’ve sold in my genre (or if they’re a new agent, what the lead agents that might be mentoring them have sold), who they sold it to, and when. If you start with a complete list, you can cram this work into a month and then cancel the subscription if you can’t afford to maintain it. You’ll want to resubscribe if you get an offer, though, so that you can get recent information and dig more deeply into the offering agent(s). Then, of course, you’ll want to re-subscribe long-term once you’re published, to maintain an author account and your book listings.
You can do some of this work for free through Query Tracker, the agency website, and individual authors’ acknowledgment pages, but it is a lot more time and effort. If you can afford the month of PM at this stage, it’s a good investment.
Now you should be ready to sort your agents into A, B, and C tiers based on how much you want to work with them, as well as flagging (not deleting—always keep your research) anyone you absolutely do not want to work with. An A10 agent is a dream match. A C1 agent might not be worth querying, at least not until much later.
When I set out to be an author, I found a lot of advice and resources through social media, including several of my most trusted beta readers, free workshops and courses, and advice. While the primary focus should always be on writing the best possible book and refining your craft, all three offering agents mentioned my social media following as a positive factor in their decision.
I currently keep a Twitter account that’s primarily a professional writing account, and a Facebook account where I participate in a lot of writing groups and workshops. I’ve switched a lot of my Facebook activity to an author page to build interaction, and linked it to my Instagram, which I’m still building and figuring out how to use effectively. (Right now I just post writing quotes and dad jokes).
Before 2018 I barely used my Twitter account for anything and only had a couple of followers. I set out to deliberately build a writing community around me before I queried my first book. It took almost four years to pass 14K, so it’s worth starting early so you don’t have to have a crash course in social media in the short time between signing an agent and going on sub. Trust me, you’ll have enough to do then!
I sent out my first batch of query letters to a mix of A and B tier agents in January 2019, and mixed it up with Twitter pitch parties. I got a few requests from DVpit and SFFpit in 2019. Overall, I sent 38 queries for Punch Drunk Magic between January and May 2019, with 8 requests for partial or full. Then I declared it dead.
This was a brutal process, and I have absolute sympathy for anyone who quits, goes indie, goes straight to publishers, etc. Those are valid paths, but didn’t fit my own long-term career goals. But the querying trenches are harrowing, without a doubt. I was even playing on easy mode, not having to wonder if my race or ethnicity was a factor in the rejections. I knew it came down to my story and the market, and I didn’t make the cut.
BOOK 2: A WITCH IN WINE COUNTRY
What kept me going, aside from sheer stubbornness, was that I had already started a new book. Once Punch Drunk Magic was out there and I only had to occasionally send an email or update a spreadsheet, I took some excellent advice and turned to a completely unrelated story. By the time Punch Drunk was ready to be shelved, A Witch in Wine Country was ready for beta readers, and I started the whole process again.
The thing is, once I had finished writing and revising the new book, I picked up Punch Drunk just to read for fun. With the benefit of more experience, I could see the problems in that first book that I could not see when I was querying it. The characters were underdeveloped. There were some plot holes. The line-level writing was choppy. I used cliches, like starting with the character waking up and describing herself in a mirror. If I had thrown it out there on Amazon as a self-pub, I’d be a little embarrassed of it now. It’s still a good story, and I hope to dust it off and revise it in a few years, but it wasn’t ready.
Overall, I sent out 45 queries for Wine Country and participated in Twitter pitch parties between February and July 2020. I immediately noticed a pattern compared to the previous book. My rejections took longer and were more personalized, so I was hitting more “maybe” piles. I received 6 requests for more material, but more full requests than partials. Then, in September 2020, I hit the next marker in what I considered progress in my writing craft—a revise and resubmit from an agent I really wanted to work with. The feedback was sparse, but I took the bit in my teeth and ran with it, doing a full re-write, adding depth to characters and re-shaping the plot. Unfortunately, I revised it too far away from the agent’s wishlist, and they passed. While I think it ended up a much stronger book, it also ended up a much different book, so I don’t blame them for deciding it was no longer a good fit for them.
In 2021, while struggling with a new project along the same lines, I sent Wine Country back out to beta readers, including, this time, a published author I met through a Facebook group who was able to give me higher-level professional advice. In short, the feedback was that I was trying to do too much in one book. It had a central romance plot, but also a women’s fiction plot, a murder mystery, and paranormal elements, all competing for equal billing. The blend of genres was similar to gothics, but it didn’t have enough of the gothic tropes and vibe to market it as such. I needed to pick a central plot and let the others take supporting roles if I wanted the book to be marketable. I had the same issue with my current WIP, which was stuck at the midpoint.
BOOK 3: TIMBER (THE ONE)
So to focus myself and recover from the disappointment of querying, I set out to write a pure, single-genre contemporary romance. My goal was to really nail down the romance plot with all the genre beats, and narrow in on the character development around that plot. I needed to make writing fun again, so I picked something completely out of my wheelhouse and as different from the previous books as I could get—a lumberjack romcom. It was such a cliché that it begged for a revival. So I put my lumberjacks on the set of a reality TV show and cast it all through a queer, gender-subversive lens. I also put some craft books to work (Save the Cat, Save the Cat writes a Novel, and Romancing the Beat) sketching out each chapter and matching it up with genre beats before beginning the first draft. Hats off to my poor partner, who watched three seasons of Axe-men with me for research, and then listened to me info-dump everything the TV show got wrong according to the behind-the-scenes articles and forum threads from real loggers.
I started querying Timber in October 2021, picking up whoever was still open over the holiday season. Then in 2022, I took a few weeks and just blasted queries, hitting an agent at every agency on my list by the end of February. From 71 queries sent, I received 13 requests for more materials, and, in June 2022, an offer of representation.
I had, at this point, given up on Timber and was ready to shelve it and move on. It hit hard, the rejections on this third round. My partner was talking me out of quitting writing and looking for a job every month or so. I was researching self-publication marketing in earnest, even though it didn’t fit my career goals. When the email asking for a phone call came in, right after a rejection on a full, I had to read it three times to understand that it wasn’t another rejection.
The phone call was like a miracle. Not only did she love my book, she GOT my book. She understood what I was going for (a m/f romance through a queer lens, kicking off an eventual series of various queer pairings) in a way that made me feel seen. She loved my characters for the same reasons I did, and her editorial goals was to make my book more of what we both loved about it, not turn it into something else. She supported my interest in writing in multiple genres in the future, and had ideas for how to map that kind of career. Most importantly to me, she’s an editorial agent, and writing the best book I can is as important to me as selling it.
I immediately contacted everyone who had a Timber query and hadn’t responded yet, even those that were six months old that technically would be considered timed out. This resulted in two additional offers and an outpouring of personalized, supportive rejections congratulating me on my offer (in case anyone though agents didn’t care, the good ones really do want to see authors succeed).
My next step was to weigh the different offers. I reviewed the agency sample contracts with my partner, who is one of those people who reads court briefs for fun. Yeah. I don’t get it either, but it sure comes in handy when reviewing legal documents.
In the end, the deciding factors will be different for everyone. For me, it came down to:
- The editorial approach and this agent’s background in editing that would make this book shine in a very crowded market
- The contract that seemed the most fair and balanced with an assumption of good faith
- A boutique agency where agents had a strong cooperative working style, experienced mentors, and a mission of inclusion/diversity in publishing that I feel strongly about
- The connection this agent had with my book and her enthusiasm for working with it!
AFTER THE OFFER
A few things to keep in mind that I haven’t seen passed around as advice for a newly offered author, and should be:
1. You can request changes to the contract. Probably not something extreme like fee percentages, but if you see a clause in one agency’s contract that you wish existed in another, don’t hesitate to ask for it. Do they specify caps on multi-agent fees for subrights? Do they have a clause that ensures you can be paid directly from the publisher in case of agency bankruptcy or dissolution? They might say no to your request, or ask for a different wording, but they’re not going to rescind your offer for something like that. If they do rescind, you dodged a bullet. You wouldn’t want to suddenly find out your agent has a touchy ego once you’re already in a business relationship and you rely on them to get your checks.
2. If you get an offer, ask around your whisper network. Post in private writing groups on social media asking if anyone has heard good or bad things of the agents, and if someone wants to DM you about it, let them. People in the industry get to know the bad actors, but won’t say anything where it will come up in a search and risk retaliation. Check WriterBeware. Get 2-3 references from the agent, preferably at least one writer that has sold a book and one that hasn’t. Email them to ask how it is to work with the agent.
3. Plan for a crash. You’ve spent a lot of time, either months or years, enduring heartache, rejection, exhaustion, and burnout. You’ve had an adrenaline soaked couple of weeks of fielding life-changing phone calls and decisions. Give yourself time to fall back to earth after you’ve signed the contract. If you can take time off work, do so. Don’t throw yourself into a new project. Play video games. Go for walks. Breathe. Feel your feelings. Process the trauma of this journey. This moment, between your acceptance and either an editorial letter or a submission plan, is the last and best moment to breathe in your career.
4. If an agent refuses to give you references, pressures you to make an immediate decision without giving you at least two weeks to consider other offers, or won’t provide a sample contract from the agency to look over, I would consider those red flags. This is supposed to be a mutually beneficial business relationship. If it isn’t starting out with mutual respect, transparency, and good faith, it can only go downhill from there. You are in a vulnerable position and maybe a little desperate, so you’re perfect for predators to pick off and take advantage of. As much as we want an agent, it is absolutely true that a bad agent is worse than none. This is why your whisper network may be your most valuable tool.
The most helpful lesson I’ve learned through the process of querying three books in three years was that I have more than one book in me. I’m able to let go of scarcity thinking going into revisions with my agent because I know this isn’t “THE BOOK,” It’s one book. It’s my first of many books. If I need to cut a character, plot, or theme, I can re-use it somewhere else. If it fails on sub, then I’ve already started outlining the next book, and it will be even better than this one.
Related to this, the best skill I’ve picked up in this process is the ability to receive critique of my work. As much as I love my characters and story, the fact that this isn’t “THE BOOK” means I can take a step back and consider them objectively. That isn’t to say all criticism is useful, since it’s often highly subjective and sometimes delivered so rudely that it overshadows any useful message buried beneath the jerkiness. But I’ve learned that my real goal isn’t to preserve this story–it’s to make it better. Even if that means tearing it down to the studs for a complete re-build. That doesn’t mean critique is easy to hear, but accepting it is a skill worth cultivating if your goal is to become a better writer.
Thanks for sticking with me to the end of this, and good luck in the query trenches! If you have questions or need specific advice, feel free to reach out to me in the comments, or on Twitter @JoGeekly.
MY QUERY LETTER for TIMBER
This was my base query letter, which was personalized and modified according to each agent’s guidelines and interests.
Dear (agent full name):
Aspiring producer and secret idealist Anna MacKenzie needs this reality docudrama on Oregon logging to launch her career. She expected the studio executives and her ambitious ex to fight her dream of making sympathetic, positive television. She wasn’t expecting the biggest fight to come from a giant, grumpy, backwoods lumberjerk determined to sabotage her show.
Henry West is not about to let some Hollywood slimeball come in with pretty promises and throw the private lives of everyone he cares about into the national spotlight for public ridicule. Not even for the cash infusion his family’s logging business desperately needs. Not even when said slimeball comes with eyes like the shifting shadows on mossy stone, and reminds him of the poems he stopped writing so many years ago.
In their war of contract loopholes and Disney princess theme songs, the line between fighting and flirting quickly blurs. But a cease fire proves even more dangerous. Giving in to the pull of attraction would risk her career, his family’s reputation, and both their hearts.
TIMBER is a contemporary, dual-POV, enemies to lovers romance of 83,000 words with strong series potential. It was inspired in part by the History Channel’s docudrama Ax Men and the Lifetime series UnREAL, and should appeal to readers of Tessa Bailey’s It Happened One Summer, Lucy Score’s Mister Fixer Upper, and readers of Sally Thorne.
Thank you for your time,