It’s easy to write a book and then fall in love with it, in the same way you might find yourself looking at a first draft and questioning your abilities as a writer. When I sent out my first query, my manuscript was not even complete. You read that right, but please continue reading. I promise I learned my lesson. Anyway, I got a full request based on my first chapters and then had to reply stating, “Sorry, this piece will be ready in December.” It was embarassing, but not so much as it is now that I understand what agents are looking for, and how that probably didn’t make me look extremely professional. I actually received two full requests. This only means I had the querying part down, not the writing.
Fast foward to the following summer: I began the querying process again. This time I deviated from my formula (which I got from the help of my cousin who’s also in publishing), because I wanted agents to understand what sparked the idea for my book, how great of a client I would be, and that I am super determined. I urge you to not do this. Agents are not looking for any of the aforementioned information. They want your work to speak for itself and for you to have a completed, polished manuscript they can reference if your pitch is something that grabs their attention. Again, I still didn’t have a finished manuscript. I know, I know…
Even though I was still getting good feedback on my writing, the rejections poured in at the most unexpected times. I had an Excel sheet I was using to track everything, after sending out in batches, and it became so devestating I stopped querying altogether. Normally, I wouldnt’ advise this if you have a full manuscript that’s ready for agents, but I didn’t. It was good I took a pause, because while I waited for the rest of my rejections to pour in, I joined Twitter and found a community of writers. I picked up books to help me with my craft, and I attended conferences and webinars to network with others. I also watched many YouTube videos and read interviews involving some of my favorite agents.
What were they looking for? I kept asking myself this question and when I was able to answer it with confidence, I stopped feeling down on myself. Staring at the rejection emails, I began to take them apart and learn from agents’ messages to me. The more they told me what they didn’t want, the closer I got to what they did want.
Interestingly enough, I found out that agents don’t usually want to take the time to give feedback, so anything I received praising my work should be in the positive column of my experience. Everything else, I learned by hanging out on Twitter, following agents, authors, editors and literacy agencies and not being afraid to have conversations when the opportunity presented itself. Yes, it’s a cutthroat industry, but if you want it badly enough, you can get through.
Focus on the following steps to ensure your manuscript is ready for an agent’s eyes. Spare yourself the humiliation of all my mistakes.
Finish your draft.
You may have a great idea and think this is enough to land you an agent. Only established authors with agents can present ideas without the full manuscript. Work your way up to that point, but until then, write the project in your heart. Finish it, and then take the next step forward.
Edit your draft (at least five times).
After you’re done writing, take a break from your work then return with fresh eyes to begin the editing process. You may have grammar issues, spots where you still have to do more research, or just dialogue that doesn’t flow. Whatever the case may be, fix it yourself before an agent sees it. Presenting an unfinished version of your work will only decrease your chances of getting that “yes.”
Get beta readers.
Beta readers are there for you if you want feedback from a reader’s perspective. Did they enjoy your manuscript? Why or why not? Where did they feel the chapters slowed down? Were they able to connect with your characters? Did they find the plot enjoyable, or was it missing something? These are all valuable questions to ask of your beta readers. Any feedback they provide gets you closer to an agent, because they give you ideas for how to make your work better. Ensure to locate more than two or three beta readers though. One or two may love your manuscript and have no feedback, but the third and fifth may have helpful suggestions on how you can improve a reader’s experience.
Get critique partners.
Critique partners are different than beta readers, because they are usually writers themselves, too. This means they’re familiar with the mechanics and style of writing and will be able to pinpoint areas of improvement AND provide detailed feedback on what they think you could have done better. For instance, while a beta reader may tell you a chapter was boring or didn’t work for them, a critique partner should be able to tell you WHY it’s not working (i.e. there’s too much info dump, the characters are flat and need more description, or it was too much “telling” versus “showing.”) Critique partners are there for you to provide expertise in a different way.
Hire an editor if you’re able.
After you’ve made changes based on the feedback your readers and critique partners have provided, hire an editor. Most are rather affordable, charging only a penny per word, or less. The editors I hired read through my pages and fixed things for me, highlighted sentences, and asked questions about plot which directed me to an even stronger project. While some of the feedback was a bit ambiguous, I was able to learn about the different types of editors out there and take recommendations from other writers who had great experiences with their particular editors.
Sit on your book for a bit and wait until it feels final.
Now that I understand it takes a lot to land an agent, I am working on multiple books with my agent to prepare for submission to editors. What I’ve learned from this process is that while your draft may seem final, because it works as-is, you could get new ideas in the shower or during dinner which sparks your imagination and leads you to add something more to your book which may intensify suspense or make readers root for your characters more. For this reason, my agent has advised that I sit on my books and when netiher of us thinks anything else can be done to improve it, that’s when we will send it out for publishing. If you’re still waking up in the middle of the night with ideas for your draft, even though the 78K words you wrote have been edited numerous times, and you’re sure it will interest agents, you aren’t done. Your manuscript is final when it feels like there’s nothing else you can do.
But keep in mind, once you land an agent, they may still give recommendations and continue editing–same with editors at publishing houses.
Research agents and customize your query to their preferences.
If you’re not researching agents before you send out your manuscript, how will you know what they want? What genres do they represent? How long it takes them to reply to submissions? Their submission requirements? What formats they prefer?
You need to be able to customize all your queries and attachments to what they have asked for if you’re going to have any chance of impressing them. Making a bad impression with one agent tends to get around to other agents, too. So don’t think that only the “top names” deserve your careful attention to detail.
Format your manuscript in the way an agent has requested (or Google traditional formats for a manuscript).
If your book is not formatted correctly, you will not come off as a professional writer. Look up appropriate fonts, sizes, page numbering, and what should be included in your title page. Don’t name your file something ridiculous either. If it’s titled “MY FINAL DRAFT_Henry’s brother’s edit”, you may make an agent squirm. If nothing else, you’ll have them going crazy looking for the file on their computer when they can’t find it by your manuscript’s title. An agency’s website typically has instructions for how to format. Pay attention and customize to their preferences!
All of the above were things that helped me strengthen my writing and not only navigate the querying trenches more smoothly, but also garner more helpful feedback in rejections. Agents who requested my first chapters gave me instructions for how to improve, or notes about what they didn’t find compelling or couldn’t connect with. This was something I used to my advantage to make my pages stronger for the next round of querying instead of crying about another failed attempt to find an agent. I also celebrated that agents now thought I was worth their time if they took the time to give me personalized rejections instead of leaving me in the slush pile. Editors I worked with started to see improvements in my writing after I took the time to pay special attention to my craft and incorporating their comments. The experience was getting better, but some days I still felt deflated. I was close, but not close enough.
I made the mistake of sending out my first finished manuscript to some of my favorite agents before learning that the first five to fifteen pages are crucial. It just felt like this manuscript was much stronger than the first one I had been querying, and I didn’t give enough weight to the fact that the more you edit, the better your writing becomes. It broke my heart when someone said, “You’re very talented, and I love your writing, but I just couldn’t put my finger on what wasn’t working for me here.” What was I missing?
There was lots for me to learn still but after sitting down with my manuscript for another two months before querying my next set of agents, I made huge changes and revisions. I was able to feel even prouder than I did sending out my second draft. Sure, this required patience, but it paid off. Of the twenty agents who expressed interest in my novel after a Twitter pitch contest, nine of them requested fulls, and I attended a writing workshop where a distinct seven more agents request full copies of my manuscript.
The work I had done was paying off in great ways, and it was because I respected the process. I did the work and learned to compete. Maybe there are other writers there whose talent comes more naturally than mine. Their first draft could be as good as my seventh, but it didn’t matter. All that matters is what I send to agents.
Multiple agents have said the worst mistake writers making is submitting their work to agents too early. That means they can see the potential in someone’s writing but are not ready to offer a contract if there is still work to be done, or the writer has not demonstrated that they have mastered the craft. You can master the craft, too. Even if it takes you ten years or twenty-five drafts to complete a project, it’s better to put in the sweat equity instead of being stuck in the slush pile or receiving a rejection that doesn’t necessarily call out what you’ve done wrong or badly–only that you’re not ready.
Take the time to become ready by following the steps above, and you’ll feel much better knowing you’re that much closer to agent representation, because your manuscript is ready to shine its face to the world!