I have a complicated relationship with the word “slush.” In the seventh grade, my stepbrother ratted me out for “borrowing” 71 pennies from my parents’ penny jar to buy a slushie at the 7-11. I got a stern talking to, which included several mentions of the word “disappointed.” After multiple episodes of trying to break my parents’ rules and never getting away with it, I finally decided to follow the rules instead. Still, every time I see a slushie, I’m reminded of how close I came to a life of petty crime.
Fast forward to January 2012. During my Novel Incubator class, my classmates and I were asked to submit our picks from a list of literary agents participating in GrubStreet’s Muse and the Marketplace Manuscript Mart. Up until that point, I hadn’t put much thought into publishing anything I wrote. That’s what novelists did. I was not a novelist. I was a person with a history of bad poetry, abandoned screenplays, and creative writing class receipts.
I learned that the next step in the process was to “get published.” The rules as I understood them broke down like this:
- Complete your novel
- Get an agent
- Get published
Boom! Rules! No problem!
Stage 1: Go Shake Some Hands
“The best way to get an agent is to meet agents. Try to make a personal connection with agents so you can rise above everyone else in the slush pile.<fn>noun, informal, a stack of unsolicited manuscripts that have been sent to an agent or publishing company for consideration</fn>” — Advice from various people
This is pretty much the worst news for someone who dreads social situations and lacks functional conversation skills unless there’s alcohol involved. And the slush pile has a bad reputation. I didn’t want to be lumped in the slush, so I set my mind to meeting folks even though the anticipation of it made me break out in a sweat.
To alleviate my dread, I treated the process like a scavenger hunt to find and collect business cards:
- At the end of the Novel Incubator year, local literary agents visited our class to talk about the next steps of the publishing process and to take questions. We also had to (surprise!) pitch the agents. Jennie Wood and I had gotten into the habit of drinking before every class to kill time. I had asked her if she thought we might need to pitch to the agents. She said, “Nahhhhhh.” Ahem. We did. Lesson: Always be prepared to pitch.
- I met three agents over the span of three years at the Manuscript Mart. The Manuscript Mart is “not only about making a potential long-term match [with an agent], but about using feedback to strengthen your work.” Lesson: The first 20 pages are critical. Revise and revise and revise.
- I met two more agents during the Shop Talk lunch. I have a strict rule against talking business while eating because I get mad when business interrupts my food, but I’m a rule follower. So I signed up, and I’m glad I did. Lesson: Agents are people, too! They get nervous about eating and biz-ing and are really nice.
- I was accepted to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, where I met a nice agent who told me she hates agent pitch sessions (me, too! — but awkward, because we were in the middle of one), so we talked about Jeanette Winterson books and tattoos instead. Lesson: You don’t have to assault-pitch every agent you meet. Have other interests. Be yourself.
- The first page of my short story was selected as the “winner” of the Boston Book Festival Writer Idol contest by three literary agents. Lesson: Take a risk. Put your work up for scrutiny. Like me, you might get to meet some great agents. Plus, cards!
Every business card I acquired through this process (except the Boston Book Festival) cost me money one way or another, be it through tuition, fees, travel expenses, etc. I recommend all of these options if you can afford it. There’s definitely a barrier to entry, and at the time I had a job that allowed me to pay for the privilege of getting feedback from professionals.
After I completed another novel revision, I pulled out all the business cards for all the agents that I had met and agonized 5,000 more times about my query<fn>”A query letter is part business letter, part creative writing exercise, part introduction, part death defying leap through a flaming hoop.” — Source: http://blog.nathanbransford.com/2010/08/how-to-write-query-letter.html</fn> and the first 20 pages. Remembering the adage about getting ahead of the line and on top of the slush pile, all my query subject lines were some variation of: Query, [book title]: We met at [insert location here].
I got responses in a timely manner (one had left her agency). I got a partial request<fn>”After reading your query, an agent or editor has asked to see more of the book.” Source: http://www.alythiabrown.com/literary-agent-requests-manuscript-partial/</fn> and a full request<fn>Send ALL of your pages to the agent. Confetti storm! Source: Me</fn>, and some rejections. All of the agents at this stage, whom I had personally met, were incredibly kind, and all eventually passed for various reasons (full lists, taking on very little, not quite right for their list). The full request turned into a rejection, but then I learned that the rejection was an accident and the full request was actually still a thing… but it’s still hanging out there somewhere in the ones and zeroes of the interwebs. Like some intricate football maneuver, it was all a little confusing.
Stage 2: Throw a Dart at Some Agents in My Kinda Sorta Genre
After the mental and emotional exhaustion of meeting people and putting my novel “out there” for the first time, I got a little despondent about the whole process and wanted an easy way to find agents without expending too much effort because I was working a full-time, highly stressful job that left me cranky at the end of every day. I completed another revision based on beta reader feedback and my own niggling feeling that I could make the opening pages tighter, and then did a half-assed job of agent research and sent some queries out with a shrug.
Shocking no one, the responses came back slow when they did and were form rejections.
I don’t recommend this stage.
Stage 3: Randomly Query an Agent Who Sounds Like Fun
At this stage, I rediscovered Twitter after being hot and heavy with Tumblr for a while. I began to follow more and more writers and became aware of agents on Twitter and this thing called #MSWL (manuscript wishlist). Given the flameout of my last query foray, I wanted to do a better job with research. And I wanted to complete one more revision based on additional beta reader feedback, but one agent’s wishlist item sounded like a good fit for my book. I sent a query, and it eventually became a partial request several months later.
Stage 4: Get Your Shit Together
After another novel revision based on my own hesitation about various elements of my novel (do you see a pattern?), I decided it was time to dig down and analyze my genre. The trouble, I reasoned, was that I didn’t know what my novel’s genre was, so I kept hitting walls and sending my query to the wrong agents. Because I was confused, others might have been confused as well (?). I wasn’t sure. I asked all of my classmates and my instructors what genre they thought my novel was, like it was some sort of “What am I?” riddle. Once I got a handle on my genre, I put more time and focus into finding genre-appropriate agents and finding good comps. In other words, work.
Also, I committed to sending out more queries than I had before and to keep submitting and resubmitting after passes instead of stopping altogether. I sent 12 queries — a record for me. Also a record: I received a pass three minutes after I hit Send. Ouch.
Most were agents I had found through the following sources: #MSWL, Querytracker, AgentQuery, and good old boolean searches. Publisher’s Marketplace is often mentioned as a good resource because you can see how many sales an agent has within the past few years. This is good information, but it can discourage people from considering newer agents, who might be hungry for work. Plus, it’s an expensive resource at $25/month. I got it for one month only to research, but I can’t say it helped me as much as my own Google search.
Stage 5: Read Between All the Lines
In January, I got a first: a Revise and Resubmit (R&R)<fn>”It means that an agent has read the author’s full manuscript, and while they are not ready to commit to offering representation, they see potential in the author or the story and they are willing to provide notes and an opportunity to, well . . . Revise and Resubmit.” Source: http://literaticat.blogspot.com/2014/06/the-revise-and-resubmit-shuffle.html</fn> (a.k.a. the slow no). I wasn’t sure that it was a revise and resubmit because that exact phrase was not used in the email. That sent me to the internet to research “WHAT DOES IT MEAN?!?”-type questions for hours, followed by 5,000 re-reads of the email to find hidden meanings and subtext and anything that would preclude me from revising and submitting again instead of just asking, “So, you’re saying if I agree with your feedback and make some changes, you will reconsider and I can send that to you and you will read all of these pages, again, for real?” (paraphrased), which is what I did when I finally took my head out of my ass. (The answer was yes.)
I spent another four months on revision — after Googling “how long should I take on a revise and resubmit” — and was one week away from emailing the R&R agent to let her know that I had completed a revision and to confirm that she would like to read it again — because that felt incomprehensible to me — but she emailed me first to say that she had been thinking about the novel. WHAT?!? I pulled myself together and let her know that I’d send it a week hence and that her timing was both wonderful and eerie (in the best way). Because apparently, I have to be weird about shit. I heard from the R&R agent a week after I had sent off my final revisions, and she requested a phone call to chat about the book.
We scheduled a date and time, and then I Googled “agent phone call” for hours until my girlfriend got off work so we could go get drunk on wine and pizza and cupcakes.
Stage 6: “The Call”
I had a document prepared with all of my questions. Even with all that information, I didn’t know what to expect, and I spent the first five or ten minutes of the call relaying my professional experience as if the call was about a job. The agent was gracious enough to let me rattle on nervously until she finally had a chance to speak and tell me that she loved my book and wanted to work with me.
All the work is worth it when you hear those words.
We spent about an hour talking revision thoughts, my career goals (for my writing, duh), other works in progress, V.C. Andrews books, etc. The conversation was fun and easy and wonderful. I knew pretty quickly that I wanted to work with her because her feedback for the revise and resubmit had been spot-on. And she was smart, supportive of my future plans, enthusiastic, had a great plan of action, and [insert lots of gushy adjectives here].
I gave the other agents with fulls and partials a chance to respond after I had received the offer of representation. But like The Highlander, there can only be one. I signed with the agent who had requested the revise and resubmit, Patricia Nelson of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.
She’s the best.
Stage 7: Share Lessons Learned
When I began to query in 2012, I didn’t know much about the publishing business or the processes involved. Sometimes, it can feel like throwing your query at a wall to see who it sticks to. In this one arena, we may, in fact, all be special snowflakes because everyone I’ve talked to has a different story about how they found their agent.
If I were to compile a list of “rules,” they might include:
- Complete your draft.
- Be willing to revise at the macro and micro level multiple times and at every stage.
- Know your genre and comp titles because that will make things much easier come pitch and query time.
- Make a list of agents who closely match your genre.
- Write a solid query letter.
- Follow submission guidelines.
- Be nice.
- Be patient.
- Never give up.
Most of all:
10. Slush ≠ bad.
In the end, I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m thrilled to have Patricia as an agent and can’t imagine working with anyone else. Added bonus: her other authors are talented and funny, and we’re all dreaming about a writing retreat together.
I no longer carry around doubts about my novel. Each stage and interaction with an agent — either in person or via email — made me smarter and more confident, and their feedback helped me, even the three-minute rejection. This is a subjective business. And it really, truly only takes one person who will say yes.
One final thought:
If you don’t track your submissions, you can feel like you’re doing a ton of work but getting nowhere, much like weight loss. No matter how little you eat or how hard you work out, there’s no progress. That’s why they say that the scale is your enemy. It’s better to see how your clothes feel or to take measurements. The same logic applies to the querying process.
In the process of writing this post, I went back to my tracking sheet and realized that I had only submitted to 23 agents. It sure felt like a lot more than that. I probably would have eaten less during this process had I paid more attention to numbers than my feelings.
Stats give you perspective.
Perspective is good.