You’ve finally typed “The End” on the
fifth, seventh, tenth draft of your manuscript. It’s as good as you can make it. Now what? As most writers know, finding a literary agent is the necessary first step to getting a novel published traditionally. But finding an agent is as difficult, if not more so, than finding a publisher — as any literary agent will tell you. This week, Mandi Bean, an author I met at the Algonkian Author-Mentor workshop earlier this year, contributes this guest post describing in superb detail exactly how she found four literary agents to ask for and read her full manuscript — and what she learned from the torturous process:
“My first novel, Her Beautiful Monster, was published in October 2012 by Martin Sisters Publishing. It’s a publishing company so small it can be considered obscure, and so small it was unable to publish my second novel Moody Blue. So with a completed manuscript and without a publisher, I decided to turn all my efforts toward finding a literary agent. This notion had been validated by an agent at the Algonkian Conference who warned me the saddest tale was that of a writer trapped by a small publishing company, in a kind of limbo where work is being published but not sent out for awards or reviews, and as a result, never gets the kind of exposure that leads to word of mouth, which leads to breakout success (an idea literary agent Donald Maass also explores in his how-to, Writing the Breakout Novel.)
Get A Literary Agent
So armed with a completed manuscript and a well-written query letter, I started my search for literary agents via QueryTracker.net, using a master list from the Poets & Writers magazine, and through Writer’s Market. I looked for agents that accepted unsolicited material (meaning that it was okay that I didn’t have a reference and wasn’t recommended by anyone), were located in the US (because so am I), and that listed commercial genre fiction as their interests (specifically women’s fiction and thrillers). To find a specific agent for my query, and for the agency’s specific submission guidelines, I accessed agency websites, too. It was useful to complete this extra research so I could give my query letter an edge, to let the agent know I was serious, somewhat familiar with the business, and marketable.
Query Letter Gets Results
Here’s the query letter I’ve been using and will continue to use because it gets results:
Name of Literary Agent
Name of Literary Agency
City, State, Zip Code
Hello (include the name of the specific agent if possible; if not, a generic greeting is fine):
My 70,700-word novel,MOODY BLUE, is a devastating study of relationships affected by mental instability in the tradition of Gillian Flynn and Paula Hawkins (comparables are important!).
Novels that offer a refreshingly realistic glance into the turbulent human heart and study the inexplicable elements of human nature have garnered high interest among readers lately, particularly with authors such as those mentioned above and Ruth Ware. MOODY BLUE is arguably cut from the same cloth, but with more of an edge that would welcome a more inclusive readership.
The novel follows the lives of Adam Petersen, a troubled man trying to reclaim his sanity after suddenly losing his fiancée, and Melanie Taylor, a young woman who embarrassingly admits to being normal. When the two meet at a writers’ workshop for survivors of traumatic events, Adam reveals that he discovered his fiancée dead in their bedroom. The police categorized the death as a suicide, but Adam is convinced it was homicide, and is desperate for empathy and support. Melanie, young and dumb and afflicted with a flair for the dramatic, readily accepts the role. She soon discovers that she is woefully unprepared.
As their relationship evolves and more is revealed about who they truly are, one moves closer to sanity while the other spirals into an unsettling state of delusion. The aftermath is devastating and both are left broken, bruised and unsure of what comes next. This work examines the riotous excursions of the human heart in different ways. I believe my talent (if I may be so bold) and tenacity will be a perfect fit with your agency.
My first novel, Her Beautiful Monster, was published by Martin Sisters Publishing in October of 2012, and has received positive reviews on Amazon and Goodreads alike. My short story, “Cover Me,” was published online via the Cynic Online Magazine. I was also recently selected to and then attended the Algonkian Writers’ Conference.
I’m hoping you’ll take a chance on a young writer.
Thank you for your valuable time, and for considering MOODY BLUE.
My Street Address
City, State, Zip Code
My E-mail Address
Four literary agents requested full manuscripts, and two requested more material (the first one to three chapters.) I was ecstatic! Over the moon! I really felt that my big break was at my fingertips. This second novel is especially important to me; I feel like the writing is more mature and engaging, and that I’m developing important and universal themes. The fact that agents were asking for the full manuscript made perfect sense to me, because I was so proud of what I had written. I had used experiences from my own life as inspiration. A recent heartbreak had knocked me flat on my ass, and it’s been said the best way to get over something like that is to write your way through it. This may also explain why I did no editing; I was too close to the manuscript and made the bold and stupid move of sending it out as is.
I don’t know why I thought this was the best course of action. Even though my first novel gained a publishing contract, it was only after I had done serious editing and revisions. I suspect I had a false sense of confidence from the conference and the requests, and thought I knew better than the experienced professionals who had been so kind as to give me advice.
My manuscript was soundly rejected by all the agents. I was devastated and self-medicated with nicotine and alcohol and greasy food for a week or so. Then I went back and re-read the rejection e-mails. Most were form letters that use vague language like “…the manuscript didn’t grab me the way I had hoped.” One agency, the Charlotte Gusay Agency, charged a $35 fee. Normally that’s a red flag, but the letter (and enclosed critique) was detailed and helpful. Here’s part of the rejection letter:
“[A] major concern was the piece had a lack of tension. However, we enjoyed the strong female characters of Melanie and Melissa, and your raw, relatable depiction of them […] please remember that this is a highly subjective business. I encourage you to query widely, and wish you all the best in finding a good home for Moody Blue. You have been such a wonderful and pleasant person.”
Killing Your Darlings
Another, Jessica Faust, President of BookEnds Literary Agency, wrote: “While I was intrigued by your idea, I’m afraid I just didn’t warm to the writing like I might have hoped. ” All this revealed to me that I had a great idea that I was not effectively executing.The requests for more material were enough to give me confidence that the idea was intriguing. However, the rejections were enough to let me know the manuscript was lacking; that it was not “grabbing” and “holding” the interests of readers.
Editing and revisions are a must. I have to get comfortable with “killing my darlings.” For example, some of the structural choices I’ve made in the narrative eliminate tension. Using flashbacks at multiple points allowed me to adopt different character voices, and explore different themes. However, it interfered with the fluency of the narrative.
Raising The Stakes
The manuscript will benefit from renewed passion and interest. I’m asking more people — those who are capable of brutal honesty — to read my manuscript. I don’t think aspiring writers looking for an agent should pay for their submissions. The detailed response from the agency that charged a fee did contain valid points, but my beta reader (a copywriting friend from college) was more thorough.
I’m also garnering ideas from Donald Maass’ how-to (mentioned above.) He devotes an entire chapter to “Raising the Stakes.” He explains that readers keep reading because they care about the characters. To develop that kind of relationship between reader and character, the characters must be likable, and have much to lose. Readers will root and worry and keep turning pages. I know I need to raise the personal stakes for my characters, and that I cannot shy away from putting them in danger. “
Photos Courtesy of Mandi Bean