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How to Get a Literary Agent

In July, I achieved one of my writing life goals by signing with Paul Stevens at Donald Maass Literary Agency. Since then I’ve had a lot of questions from friends and aspiring writers about how to get a literary agent. When you don’t have an agent, getting one seems like the holy grail of writing, something unobtainable and mysterious. 

Funnily enough, in sorting some recent boxes in my office, I found my very first agent rejection letter ten years ago for a book called The Memory of Blood. If you take one thing away from this post, it’s to never give up!

You might gather then that getting a literary agent is not an easy thing, nor is it quick. I had been querying agents for my novel Victorianoir for around a year before signing with Paul. However, part of this long process was me talking myself out of querying, me doing a re-edit of the novel over summer and me procrastinating out of fear. So probably 12 months on paper, three months IRL.

Writing the pitch and synopsis

The first step for me was writing a pitch and synopsis. Luckily enough I’d had to write one for my entry to the Debut Dagger awards. I’ve worked for several years on getting better at pitching my novels including taking a course at Writers Victoria and reading A Decent Proposal by Rhonda Whitton and Sheila Hollingworth, both things I’d recommend for those starting to sell their work.

The Pitch

While I was pitching to agents, I constantly refined the pitch. Here’s a copy of my successful pitch for Victorianoir. Don’t just copy this one and use it, different books will have different pitches.

London 1856. Tabloid editor Richard Garrett loves women and needs cash. So, when a beautiful broad begs him to investigate the murder of Sir John Constance, how can he say no? But there’s only one man who can help him: washed up detective William George, relegated to the Thames River Police by Richard’s own scandal journalism. In an uneasy alliance, they uncover the secrets of a seedy city that threaten to burn London in a fire of sex and sin. The news cycle just got hot.

Victorianoir combines the language of hardboiled and noir with the salaciousness of the Victorian Era. The fast-paced story is set at the origins of tabloid journalism, and uses history as a lens to reflect contemporary issues such as the representation of women in the media. High-speed cemetery chases and opium laced explosions speed towards the heartbreaking finale. The book would appeal to fans of Sherlock Holmes and Dashiell Hammett.

The most important thing is to keep it active, short and punchy. If your pitch is boring, no one is going to want to read your manuscript. If you start getting requests for the full manuscript, you know your pitch is good. If you’re constantly getting form rejections or no reply at all, it’s time to re-look at your pitch, synopsis and first chapter.

You should be able to pitch your novel in two paragraphs, one at a pinch. I usually break it down into:

  • Paragraph 1: Quick intro sentence which tells the agent at a glance what this book is e.g. x book (x words) which is x genre. Add why you’re interested in the agent and any awards the manuscript has been shortlisted for or won.
  • Paragraph 2: What the story is about in a couple of sentences.
  • Paragraph 3: Themes of the book and market appeal
  • Paragraph 4: Short bio including any awards, publications or writing courses that are relevant.

Pitch it to your friends who know nothing about the book. Would they read it? Did they stand up and shout “Take my money?”

The synopsis

The synopsis is a much harder beast to write. You have to add everything that happens in the novel. And I mean everything. You can’t leave it hanging like you would a sassy sales pitch. And to do that, you need to leave out lots of your novel. Most synopses are only 1-2 pages max. And no, that’s not at 7 point font either.

I focused on the single main character arc and the principal conflict to get this down. One way to do this is to write down the key events on cards and cut out any unnecessary scenes. I also found my chapter plot summary very useful as I could write up the events very quickly without having to re-read the manuscript (another reason to become a plotter!). For me I chose to leave out most of a key character’s storyline. Although she’s vital to the plot, the real story is about Richard Garrett, editor. Synopses are more to show the agent or editor that you can plot a story, that the stakes continue to raise and that the ending won’t be solved by a deus ex machina.

Getting leverage

I knew from freelancing that leverage is helpful for getting a foot in the door with agents and editors. I entered Victorianoir into the CWA Debut Daggers and got in the top ten entries, something I included on all my cover letters. I recommend entering your unpublished manuscripts into competitions as I had a few publishers and agents request my work as a result of the competition. Just make sure you check the terms and conditions – you don’t want to give away your copyright with a competition – and enter reputable competitions. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a manuscript competition either, it could be a short story competition or awards shortlist. Whatever you do, continue to work at getting leverage.

Polishing the book, again

After submitting to a round of UK agents late last year, and getting some nice rejections, I did one final pass of the manuscript over summer before starting again on my submissions. One of the biggest reasons people don’t get agents is that their manuscript isn’t ready yet. You can always do more edits – even re-reading Victorianoir now I see things I can change about it.

Before entering the Debut Dagger, I’d workshopped the first chapter with several friends and had two beta readers give feedback on the whole manuscript. I wanted it to make a strong impression straight out of the gate. Their feedback was invaluable, especially in pointing out the confusing or misleading parts. Better to get feedback from friends first than rejections from agents.

Where to find agents

But where do you actually find these agents praytell? There’s a few great online resources like QueryTracker which helped me make lists of people to approach. I subscribe to the Publishing and Other Forms of Insanity newsletter which often has lists of agents actively looking for clients. I did a google search for my favourite authors’ agents. I also participated in #PitMad and got a few leads from that. Twitter is also a great place to search for genre fiction agents using the search function.  Just don’t use it as a way to query them unless they request it. Always contact an agent through their preferred methods, whether that’s an agency website, email or online form.

Let your writing friends know you’re looking for an agent, and some of them might even put you in contact with their agents. But don’t go asking authors you don’t really know well for introductions – it’s a surefire way to put you in their bad books.

Also, don’t just approach any old agents in a scattergun approach. They need to be reputable, such as being a member of a national agents’ association with a solid sales record. I got an awesome tip from Sam Hawke to sign up for Publisher’s Marketplace to research agents and check their sales. The SFWA also have excellent advice on what to watch out for with agents on their site.

Apart from sales, I was looking for a few other qualities in an agent. I wanted to work with someone editorially as I want my manuscripts to be as good as they can possibly be. This might not suit everyone, but it’s worth considering how you work best. Transparency is another key attribute that was really important to me.

Keeping track of submissions

While I was using QueryTracker to log my agent submissions, I also started keeping a spreadsheet. Not every agent is on QueryTracker and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t querying people twice. I found this to be a much better method: research a huge list of agents relevant to your book, sort them by alphabetical order, and start querying in batches of five to ten.

This process helped to take out the personal stress of querying, which can be intensely emotional getting so many rejections. For this reason, I’d put off querying agents at Donald Maass Literary Agency for a while, as I really wanted to work with them. And I didn’t want to get that rejection. But I gave myself an ultimatum and sent it through. Luckily it worked out!

Getting an offer

If an agent is interested in representing you, they’ll want to have a chat to you on Skype or over the phone. This was a crazy time for me given the time difference with the US. I had to take calls at around 10pm at night to discuss my work. It’s important to ask as many questions as you need to during this process. I wrote a list of questions in my notebook that I wanted answered.

It’s equally as important not to make a decision when you’re tired or stressed. You might be fist pumping inside, but let agents know you’ll think about the offer. A good agent will answer all your questions and be clear about their process. When I decided to work with Paul, I signed a contract with the agency, but I took my time to process this decision and make sure it was the right one.

Have a support crew

Throughout this whole process, I was super grateful for my support crew, made up of my husband and my writing friends. I am especially grateful to my friend Aidan Doyle who wouldn’t let me give up my queries. I tend to give up really quickly if I get a couple of rejections. Remember that one rejection I got for The Memory of Blood? It was the only rejection I got for that manuscript because I was too scared to send it back out. Bad Kat. This time, I wasn’t allowed to stop until I’d queried 40 agents, and ended up getting my agent on the 20th query.

So that’s how I got my literary agent. Feel free to ask any questions in the comments section below and I’ll do my best to answer them. I wish you all the best with your agent search and I’d love to hear if this information has helped you in any way. 


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