Agents! Oh No!

“You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of inevitability.”

-Agent Smith

So, I’m watching The Matrix with our boys a while back and realized the near-omniscient “agents” of the virtual world are maybe not all that different from agents in the literary world. They have super strength, deadly aim, can assume the forms of other people, and generally make life hell on anyone who knows too much.

What? They DON’T have all those things?

How about the near-omniscience part? The ability to manipulate their world? Okay, maybe now we’re getting closer to reality.

Anyone who’s managed to write anything beyond the first couple of chapters has probably begun to wonder how they’ll eventually get said work published. Which means at some point, they’ll have discovered the concept of “agents”. The keepers of the keys to the kingdom. The aspiring writer may have even looked into the mysterious process of “querying” said kingdom-key-keeper-ers.

But it’s not until you send your first meticulously crafted query letters to a few selected agents, and experienced the sting of swift rejection, do you get a peek into the misery of a new writer’s life.

If you’re one of those lucky few who struck paydirt on your first query, signed with an agency, and secured a publishing deal…read no further. Congratulations. You suck. And I mean that in the most respectful, affectionate way. But you still suck.

On the other hand, if you’re one of those strong souls who can compartmentalize your emotions and keep the writer-business relationship in coolly detached perspective…you may also read no further. You suck, too.

For the rest of us who invest countless hours of intellectual effort, plumbing our emotional depths, to brazenly serve up the fruits of our labor to the intelligentsia only to have our hopes beaten back with a form rejection (or several dozen of them)…keep reading.

Literary agents fill the role of slush-pile readers that the big publishers used to employ and so are spring-loaded to say “no thanks”. From what I gather, their lives are a lot like “American Idol” judges: wading through a lot of dreck to find the real talent. But they’re your ticket into the world of traditional publishing. If you sign with an agency, they’ll rep your work and hopefully land a deal. It’s in their interest to land you a good deal, because that’s how they make money (generally 15% of your take).

Now, the e-publishing revolution is changing that equation quite a bit. That’ll have to wait for another post. In the meantime, never, ever, pay an agent out of your own pocket. If they charge “reading fees”, they’re not legit.

Myself, I waited until the first draft of Perigee was nearly finished until I started looking into publishing. By reputation, I knew it’d be a tough nut to crack but had no idea how tough.

Timing didn’t help either, coming around the time of the financial meltdown. Publishing houses, already selective enough, were apparently getting a whole lot more selective. Their gate-keepers, the agents, knew this and likewise became more selective. And the spike in joblessness apparently also meant that a lot more budding writers were cranking out manuscripts while collecting their unemployment checks.

It would be easy to blame my lack of success on all of those factors, and it undoubtedly made for a steeper hill to climb. But I finally came to realize that my first query letter was terrible; stank like a flatulent skunk tanked up on PBR and microwave burritos. But it probably made for a few laughs at the unsuspecting agencies it was sent to; if that’s true, you’re welcome. Glad I could brighten your day.

While figuring out what to do about Query 2.0, I started reaching out to some published authors. One is actually a friend from high school who’s been quite successful in the Christian fiction market. The other had published a couple of aviation techno-thrillers, a niche close to my own. Another is a big name in the techno-thriller genre and was kind enough to critique my first three chapters.

I can’t tell you how motivating it was to connect with successful authors who were willing to give their time and advice to an unknown quantity. One of them went so far as to call me at home (not the high school friend, BTW) and share his experiences, which was a huge encouragement.

As with everything else, do your research. You’ll find writers in your own genre who are willing to help out newbies; just drop ’em an e-mail. If you have the resources to go a writer’s conference like Thrillerfest, by all means do it. And let me know what it’s like!

I learned that a successful query has to be punchy, like the inside dust-jacket copy that makes you realize I must buy this book RIGHT NOW. Find a way to describe your novel in five sentences or less (preferably less). After writing nearly 100,000 words, it’s amazing how hard it can be to whittle that down to one paragraph.

Isolate the high points: what makes it cool? Here’s the current pitch:

A revolutionary globe-spanning airliner is stranded in orbit, with no way home before the air runs out.

At hypersonic speed, Polaris AeroSpace has become the premium choice for rapid travel across the world. When a veteran crew is marooned by a series of baffling malfunctions, the upstart spaceline must race against time to mount a rescue.  Amidst a spreading web of industrial espionage, one man realizes their deliverance may require a terrible sacrifice.

There are a lot of great resources on the web. If you want to see other people’s rookie mistakes, check out Janet Reid, the Query Shark. Submit your own, if you dare.

And I highly recommend Noah Lukeman’s book, “The First Five Pages”. He also offers a great e-book on query letters, FOR FREE. Did I mention IT’S FREE?

After finally being satisfied with Q2.0, I discovered another great web resource, Query Tracker. This site enables you to research agents in your genre (but always cross-check their agency websites) and track the status of your queries. It beat the snot out of the Excel spreadsheet I’d set up.

I felt really confident about Q2.0, and that confidence was not misplaced. The rejections still came (as they always will), but so did something else: requests for more! Real, live literary agents were asking to see my manuscript. Woo-hoo!

Unfortunately, that’s how I ultimately figured out that Perigee wasn’t quite ready for prime time. But hey, at least my wife loved it…

NEXT: Editorial Critiques

2 Replies to “Agents! Oh No!”

  1. Lots of very good advice. I agree that asking others to read your material is a good idea; if that person is really busy/successful, you might offer to pay for their time and skill.

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