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The good ol’ how I got my agent story.

When I was in the query trenches (actually, long before I was ready to query at all), I used to google “How I got my agent” a lot. A whole lot. This was part hopeful curiosity and part obsessive desire to unlock the secret key to cracking open the door to publishing.

No one  everyone says a secret key like that totally doesn’t exist. But I’m hear to let you in on a very big truth: there’s totally a key. A few, actually.  Keys that exist in the form of words and phrases.

 

1. Do your homework.  I spent six months researching agents. I used Query tracker– plus a brand spanking new notebook and colorful pens– to list my top agents– and made notes as to why.  Some were there because I loved authors they repped. Others had a web presence I admired. Some had similar reading tastes, or insightful interviews, or liked tapioca pudding. Seriously. I have that on my list.  My number one dream agent (who IS my agent) knocked my socks off with this blog post.  And everything else she says, does. etc., but I digress…

 

2. Do NOT query before you are ready.  Writing is fun. Revising a thousand times is a little less fun, especially when you are antsy to get the process of finding an agent started.  But remember:doing the work, at any stage, is part of the process. When you feel most anxious, go ahead and take five minutes or five hours or five days, and just Google agents. Go back to step one. It’s fun to dream and learn and picture what agency you’ll land with, and it satisfies the need enough to keep focused on what matters most– making your manuscript  shine.

 

3. Treat your query with the same scrutiny and care you do your finished, polished, as-perfect-as-possible manuscript. In other words, have patience. I know what it’s like to slave over words and have those words grow into pages and those pages into a story that’s been discussed and deconstructed by betas and critique partners, put back together with the upmost care, trimmed, read out loud a bunch of times, and trimmed again. Getting to that “ready” point feels like a a case of spontaneous combustion. Because the manuscript! It’s ready! Agents don’t even realize they are waiting for it, but surely, they are! And if it doesn’t get into their hands right now right now right NOW, it will end up in a bottom drawer forever because someone else will write something too similar/another author will be the last writer any agent takes on, ever/the timing is only perfect if the send button is hit within the next ten minutes.  I know. But trust me, this key is really, really important. If you want don’t want to end up with a slush pile dunce cap on, you can’t shortcut this step.  Agents have to skim read so many(!!!) queries. Make it easy on them. Make them lose their breath a bit, or at the very least, let their eyes wander down to your first few pages.  Take the time and the energy and when you think your query is perfect, pass it around, read it out loud, go to sleep, wake up, and read it one more time. And then, yes, hit send!

 

4. Stay positive. Keep writing. Stop refreshing. Eat chocolate. There will be rejections. I read this. I knew this. But it didn’t stop the sting from coming when the first few “not for me” notes rolled into my inbox.  I didn’t have to stay in the query trenches for long (more on that below), but I did go quickly down the rabbit hole of waiting. I panicked whenever I hit refresh. Which was so often I almost broke the Internet. I decided I would never write anything again, because it took time away from refreshing. And then some friends and a particularly patient guy who happens to be my husband talked some sense into me. Or rather, they lured me away from the computer with good books, good wine, and plenty of chocolate.  As soon as I was able to get a tiny bit of distance from the process, I started dreaming up other stories to tell. And as soon as I did that? I got the email. Requesting the call.

 

 

AND THEN I WOKE MY WHOLE SLEEPY LITTLE NEIGHBORHOOD SCREAMING LIKE A BUNNY BEING CHASED BY A COYOTE. (If you live in the country, you know that sound).

 

But let me back up a second. The reason I know all those secret keys is because I tried to pick the publishing lock a year earlier, with a different, and forever trunked, manuscript. I wrote it on a weird whim, thought it was probably going to put me on the Forbes Richest People in the Universe list, and queried it before I was ready (though to be fair, I did do step one, even back then).  In any case, I sent a handful of queries out, got a couple of requests that turned into mostly personal, very nice rejections. Even though I knew pretty fast that manuscript wasn’t the right one, I did manage to develop a friendly relationship with a wonderful agent. We corresponded via twitter, I checked in when I started writing again (because she’d asked me to do so). As I got close to ready to query this new project, our correspondence increased.  I sent 22 queries in all, and knew right away this was going to be a whole different ball game.

 

 

I had six rejections in the first few days, but with those came five full requests (including the agent I’d been chatting with on and off for almost a year). When she let me know she’d started reading, I think I bit every nail clear off my fingers waiting for more. And waiting. And waiting. Finally, four lifetimes days later, I received a wonderful, lovely, downright perfect email at the crazy hour of 11 p.m., requesting a phone call the next day.

 

And that takes us back to the bunny howl.

 

The next week is still a blur, almost a year later. “The Call” was amazing. The first time a writer gets to hear a stranger (friendly cyberstalking of agents doesn’t constitute actually knowing them) rave about their manuscript is a combination of I-must-be-dreaming and holy-s#$%-this-is-the-most-amazing-thing-ever. I’ll never forget that moment, standing barefoot my back deck, dodging the wasps that like hanging out around my potted plants, listening to someone else talk about my characters and ideas in such a positive way.  What a gift.

 

Since I did my homework, I knew the next step in the process was to let other agents know I had been offered representation. I sent a flurry of emails with the OFFER OF REPRESENTATION subject line, and within minutes I received an equal flurry of full requests. The first person to do so was Sarah Davies of Greenhouse Literary.  I remember having to read her email three times before believing it– the Sarah Davies, number one on my wish list of dream agents? Requesting a full from little ol’ me?  She warned the timing may be off– she was heading out of the country and would be on vacation after attending to some business in London– so I tried not to get my hopes up.  But the truth is, when an agent/author fit is right, timing suddenly stops being an issue, I think.  Sarah sent me a follow up email that night saying she was halfway through the manuscript, and to please, please not make any decisions without checking in with her first. So naturally, I woke my entire 1,000 person town with my now-I’m-sorta-hopeful yelp.  The very next morning, just hours before she was boarding a plane to London, Sarah emailed again, wondering if we could “have a chat.”  I was standing in an alley downtown, twirling in circles and trying not to hurl up my lunch because I was so nervous and excited, when she offered representation.  Everything Sarah said made me know in my gut that she was the perfect agent for me.  The ability to speak clearly, and honestly, about my manuscript, the insights she provided and ideas she brought to our call– I hung up knowing I’d found the person I wanted to guide my career, who would help me grow, who would have my back in this tough but marvelous business of making books. She is wise, a true “peach of an agent” (another must read blot post).

 

Interestingly enough, choosing Sarah didn’t send sparks and butterflies into my world. It sent a sea of calm.  A deep and instant sense of trust. So that’s perhaps the last secret key of finding an agent– going with your gut, and finding a fit you believe will work for the long haul.

I’m including the text of my orginal query to Sarah here (because I stalked every query on YA Highway when I was writing mine, reading them out loud for cadence, paying attention to details used and left out, looking at length, sentence structure, every bit query craft I could learn). This one isn’t a query for the record books, and it isn’t an accurate description of what the manuscript evolved into before we went on submission, but it is what made the lock click in the right direction.

*excuse the lack of space between paragraphs. I’m a techno peon and can’t fix this.

Dear Sarah,

I follow your “greenhouse tips” on Twitter and have read your blog post about Adele no less than five times. Your keen insights and publishing straight-talk put Greenhouse Literary at the top of my list for WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS, a Contemporary YA complete at 60,000 words.
In the dying auto-factory town of Saginaw, Michigan, 17-year old Anna O’Mally is a girl used to standing out for all the right reasons. But that stopped a year ago, when she went from national award-winning writer and human chameleon to accidental killer and carbon copy of Patti Smith, circa 1973. Now she’s known for other things: coffin yoga, fake tattoos, and secrets. No one even bothers trying to find the real Anna anymore.
No one except Mateo Gomez, a rising star student chef who chain-smokes Kools and has a knack for using all the right words. Anna can’t stop falling for his fairytale. Even though she’s sworn off boys. Even though he’s from the wrong side of the river. Even though her Broadway-bound best friend keeps belting out musical numbers related to the dangers of very bad ideas.
Bad ideas are also perfect distractions. They bury the ghosts of the past and horrors of the present– her dad’s knocked-up mistress, her gramps on life-support. But when relationships are built on two people’s lies, the capital T truth always catches up. When it does, to salvage what’s left of her family– and life– Anna will need to step inside the most unsettling story of all: her own.
As a Michigan Press Association award-winning editor of my small town’s paper, Harbor Light News, and contributing writer for Traverse Magazine, I’ve covered Mount Everest climbers, New York Times best-selling authors, and pet pig obituaries with the same philosophy for 11 years: voice matters.
Per your submission requests, I’ve included my first chapter in this email. I’d love to send you part or all of WORDS AND THEIR MEANINGS, a novel of grief, self-discovery, and the power of telling our stories. Thank you for your time, Sarah, and I look forward to hearing from you.
All best,
Kate Bassett

 

*want more of my agent’s wise words on the world of querying? Check out this post, and this post, and this post!.

 

 

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