Tips on Finding an Agent

I’ve had a lot of people ask me how they can find a literary agent. I had no offers of representation until I read New York super-agent Donald Maas’s two great books on writing a bestseller: The Fire in Fiction, and Writing the Breakout Novel (available through abebooks.com). You don’t need to accept everything he has to say, but his advice on how to make characters larger than life was inspired. 

I’m sure I would never have been shortlisted for the Debut Dagger if I hadn’t followed those suggestions. And by the time I was, I already had an offer of representation from a top Canadian agent that was quickly followed up with several agents expressing interest. I am now represented by Peter Robinson of the UK (who also represents Ian Rankin) and Anne McDermid in Canada, and couldn’t be happier.

Here are some other tips:

First, make sure that your ms is absolutely polished. By that I mean that you’ve re-written it thirty or forty times, removing redundancies, passive narration, and typos. I found it really helpful to have trusted outside readers take a look at various drafts. I had a local Book Club review one of the final drafts: these were people who didn’t know me, but love books, so I knew they’d be honest about what they liked and didn’t like. Their feedback was incredibly helpful. 

Second, check out Agentquery for reputable agents who are looking for new clients in your genre. There is no point in wasting your time, or that of a busy agent, by contacting someone who simply isn’t interested in what you’ve written. And trust me, until you get your first 100 or so rejections, being rejected is personal, and it hurts. Minimize the pain by targeting the agents most likely to respond.

Third, write a topnotch query letter. Ignore the Internet advice to start it off with a rhetorical question. (The agents I’ve met will not read beyond the first sentence if you do.) Think of the back cover of the paperbacks you pick up at the bookstore that instantly grab your attention. Your one paragraph ‘hook’ about the story needs to be short (250 words, max.). As an actress friend of mine who read my query said, “It’s got to be showbiz.”

Fourth, send off your queries electronically to 5-10 agents at a time. I made the mistake of sending out more than that.  Then, when I got feedback from the ones who responded and changed the manuscript, I didn’t feel comfortable sending it out again to agents who had already rejected it once.

Fifth, when you do hear back from agents as to what they liked or didn’t like, pay attention.  Be willing to revise. Agents know what editors and publishers are looking for. If they can suggest changes that might make your book more commercial, consider making them.

Finally, expect to be disappointed. It takes persistence and courage to keep going, but if you’ve spent all that time writing a good novel, you owe it to yourself (and your characters) to plug away. When it feels like you’ve given it everything and you’re ready to give up, send out a few more queries.  It only takes one ‘yes’ to undo all those ‘no thanks.’

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 Check out Penguin Canada’s book trailer for The Beggar’s Opera  here! It’s pretty cool!

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