I used to believe that, when I desperately needed guidance from the universe, I could pick any book of my bookshelf, open it to a random page, and find the answer I needed.

My surprising success rate probably hinged on the fact that, as humans, we have a knack for turning the tiniest glimmer of an omen into a Northern Star, which will guide us through stormy waters. I laugh when I think back at some of the “omens” I latched onto during my teenage epoch.

Still, my adult life has been punctuated with moments when I did feel like the universe was trying to communicate with me–not because I was searching for a message but because I was deaf to a message that I needed to hear.

I had one of those moments recently. I was on the brink of tossing my first novel, Eleanor, into the swampland of Amazon’s self-published titles. (To be clear, I do believe that self-publishing is a fantastic opportunity for some people: people who have a platform to promote their work or people who are heroically detached from the need to see their book in the spotlight).

I lumped myself into that second category, slapped together a so-so cover for my brainchild, and was about 24 hours away from clicking the “publish” button when I received a letter from a dear friend and mentor. It’s miraculous that this letter even reached me. I had lived in four different places in the last six months, the last being a new address in Brazil (for which I didn’t even have a mailbox). This letter was passed from friend to friend until it finally ended up, as a series of photo copies, in my email inbox. And so I got my mentor’s message: you should try traditional publishing. 

I am a person who spends a terrific amount of time thinking about why. Yet, there have been moments in my life when the universe overruled my whys with a much more profound question: why not?

I had already accomplished my main goals with Eleanor. I had written a story I was proud of, and I had worked with a fantastic professional editor. By my own terms, my work was already a success. Why not give it a chance at being “successful” in the eyes of the rest of the world?

So I began the Quest of 100 Agents, in which I will query 100 agents (or fewer, if luck is with me) to see if anyone takes an interest in Eleanor. I’ve been at it for about a month and a half now. As of today, I’ve queried 17 agents.

Thought I would share some of the lessons I’ve picked up along the way…

#1 Agents are really super busy.

Most of the agents I’ve queried have response times of 4-8 weeks; minimum response time is 3 weeks, maximum is 12 weeks. This might seem outrageous at first. It seriously takes 12 weeks to respond to an email?

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Be patient! Don’t get antsy!

But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll learn that agents are fielding hundreds of queries each month, and the best agents aren’t just responding to your email. They’re reading 10-50 pages of your manuscript, analyzing its commercial potential, and then responding to your email…4-8 weeks later.

What can you do?

  • First and foremost, be patient.
  • If you are the kind of person who loves deadlines, make a list of the agents you’ve queried, the date you queried them, and their response time. Then, you will know when you can expect to hear from them.
  • Keep your query concise and conform to all formatting guidelines. Don’t gunk the wheels with a detailed autobiography, when the agent only asked about your publishing history. Don’t send email attachments if the agent asked you to paste an excerpt of your story into the body of the email.

#2 Stalk before you query.

One of the most time-consuming parts of the quest for an agent is finding an agent who might be interested in your work. You don’t want to dump your work in any old agent’s lap; that’s a recipe for rejection. Instead, be selective about agents. Look for people who have called for a story element that your manuscript contains or who mention liking a book that is similar to yours.

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Always look before you leap!

Another important reason to stalk before you query? You want to know if the agent is a nice person. I’ve been excited about a few agents, only to find that they are quite rude in blog comments or Twitter feeds. Do I want to go into a close, professional relationship with a person like that? No thank you!

What can you do?

  • Start by reading the agent’s profile on the agency website. Here, the agent should specify the genre she is interested in and some story elements that she loves, like strong female relationships or references to mythology or a pastoral setting. You can mention these things in your pitch. Let the agent know that your manuscript checks off some of the boxes on her wishlist!
  • Then delve into social media. Many agents have blogs or, at the very least, a Twitter account. Don’t neglect these opportunities to get to know more about your potential agent.  Make sure the agent seems friendly, intelligent, and active in the publishing sphere. 

#3 Your pitch gets better with time.

It’s amazing how many writers draw a blank when they’re asked to write about their story. in a cover letter and synopsis. The truth is that writers and marketers are very different species; many of us writers feel lost when we are asked to turn our novels into a sales pitch.

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Don’t despair! You will get there!

Don’t give up. Your flair for writing will eventually worm its way into your sales pitch. My own pitch has changed radically since I first sent it off, and it is getting more detailed, more positive responses from agents now.

What can you do?

  • Remember your creative writing lessons. Your sales pitch is like a 100-word cliffhanger story, the key word here being cliffhanger. Focus on the elements that make your plot move. What does your hero have to battle? Don’t forget to use action verbs and rich adjectives to give your pitch a sense of urgency.
  • Don’t just copy and paste your pitch from one query to the next. Re-read your pitch every time you send it. Make edits. If you’ve been using the same pitch for a while without getting any interest, scrap it and start from scratch.
  • Save the best agents for last. Knowing that your pitch will get better with time, you might want to set aside the agents who really excite you if you’re new to writing queries. Then, when you feel comfortable with your pitch, you can approach these agents.

#4 You can pick up on hot trends by reading agent wishlists.

As you shuffle through agent wishlists, looking for someone whose interests line up with your work, you’re bound to notice a few recurrent “wishes.” Even if your manuscript doesn’t use any of these trendy wishes, the information is still valuable for your *trumpet heraldry* next novel!

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Being a black sheep is fun, but being in tune with the white sheep is profitable.

So far, I’ve noticed lots of calls for stories with disabled protagonists, LGBTQ relationships, multicultural characters, nature writing, and elements of magical realism. Of course, there are plenty of other “in demand” themes, but these are the ones that come to my mind because I can imagine using them in a future project.

What can you do?

  • Get started on your next novel! Having a new novel in the works makes the Quest of 100 Agents much less emotionally draining. For one thing, you have a productive way to use the downtime in which you’re waiting for responses from agents. For another thing, you don’t have the feeling that this novel, the one which is probably going to be rejected by dozens of agents, is your magnum opus and your only shot at literary success. You have another novel to nurture and daydream about!
  • Check out #MSWL  to mine the wishlists of hundreds of agents at a time!

Have you ever queried an agent? What’s the best way to cope with rejection? When’s the last time you replaced “why” with “why not?”

Wishing you all luck in your endeavors!

6 thoughts on “Lessons from Querying Agents

  1. Awesome advice and really helpful. I enjoyed reading it even if I’m never going to be looking for an agent. This same advice can be applied to other things like job hunting and cover letter writing.


  2. Thanks very much, Laura!

    You’re 100% right. Querying agents is reminiscent of job hunting, and a lot of the same rules apply. I’m glad you pointed out the connection!


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