by Siel Ju
This article was first published at sielju.com on June 14, 2016. It is reposted with permission from the author.
It’s gotten a bit better now, but I used to be a really terrible procrastinator. I did everything I didn’t need to do while procrastinating on the one thing I purportedly really, really wanted to do: write. Then I complained about how I had no time to write.
Best way to procrastinate on writing while clinging to your identity as a writer: Do things vaguely related to writing that don’t actually require you to write. (Remember that Ze Frank video? Take on tasks that give you “the illusion that you’re getting closer to the thing you’re trying to avoid.”)
Which is to say — Long before I’d even written a publishable manuscript, I’d read everything I could on publishing. This included a whole bunch of personal stories and how to articles on finding an agent. The experience left me more confused than empowered, because the advice varied so much. Many writers had found writers through connections in the literary community: a friend or mentor’s agent had taken them on, or a story publication got the attention of an agent who reached out. But I had neither a robust literary network nor list of publications to brag about at that point.
Other writers had basically picked names out of agent directories, some starting with the As, others just choosing at random. This scattershot method didn’t appeal to me, largely because these kinds of directories seemed gigantic and overwhelming. I didn’t like the idea of mass emailing dozens — even hundreds — of agents I knew little about, on the hopes that one might like my work. It all sounded spammy and messy and impersonal and stressful.
Plus, I wanted an agent I felt I could trust, someone whose work I already admired.
In the end, years later when I actually managed to put together a manuscript, I cobbled together a mishmash of advice I got from writers I met along the way, and found an agent I’m really excited to still have. If I were to go back in time to advise my younger self, these are the steps I’d tell her to take:
1. Read a lot.
More specifically, read a lot of books like the book you’re writing. I was writing a short story collection, so I read a bunch of short story collections — focusing especially on those written by women with similar themes. My reading list included Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior and Victoria Patterson’s Drown and many many more.
Beyond just being a pleasurable way to spend time, reading these other authors’ books helped me think much more deeply about how my own writing fit in with the literary conversation already out there. It was also a great education on the art and mechanics of putting together a short story collection. And it also helped me with the next step —
2. Make a list of the agents.
When I ran across a short story collection I admired — particularly one that had some affinity to what I happened to be writing — I read the acknowledgements page. Almost always, the author thanks his or her agent on this page. I started a little notebook, jotting down the author, agent, the book, and details about what I admired about the book.
3. Research the agents.
Once I had a decent list, I started researching the agents one by one. The agents’ web presences ran the gamut. Some pretty much hid from the web and seemed unreachable. Others had their own robust websites and invited query letters. Some even did interviews with the media, discussing everything from how they collaborated with the writers they represented to what they looked for in a manuscript.
The research gave me a small sense of what the agents were like. Based on that, I ranked my list. At the top was Peter Steinberg, who represented Alicia Erian’s The Brutal Language of Love. I’d loved this short story collection, and I loved what Peter said about his excitement when he first ran across Alicia’s manuscript —
4. Write personalized query letters.
When it came time to send my Cake Time manuscript out, I decided to write one query letter to one agent a day. This way, I’d make sure each letter was really personalized — something I didn’t think I’d have the patience to do if I were trying to, say, send dozens of query letters in a single day.
There are hundreds of good articles out there about writing query letters, so I’ll stick to just repeating two tips: Follow the directions given on the agent’s website to a T, and personalize, personalize, personalize. The notes from step 1 came in handy here. Somewhere near the beginning of the letters, I mentioned the book I’d read that the agent represented, why I liked it, and why I thought they might also like my book.
5. Be patient.
A few people have told me over the years that it’s best to send out query letters in waves. The idea is that should you get rejected in the first round, you’ll hopefully at least receive some comments to help you revise for the second round. These same people often also advised that you shouldn’t send your query letters to your top choices on the first round; that way you can revise using the feedback from the rejections before sending your new manuscript to the agents you really wanted.
I didn’t really like this advice. What if one of your non top-choice agents ended up wanting to represent you?
I queried my top choice agent first. I actually started on my birthday, November 1 (my Amazon wish list is here!), and sent to one agent a day for ten days. Then I decided to give those ten agents a couple months to get back to me, and do more querying in the new year, if necessary. It was a quiet time, those months; I got a couple passes and a few requests for the full manuscript, but that was it. I started writing something new.
Then on January 2, my now-agent Peter called and offered to take me on. Because I knew he was my top choice, I didn’t have to wait to see if the other agents would come through. I said I was in.
It was a really great start to the new year.
6. Have questions ready.
Other articles have covered what questions to ask your new would-be agent, so I won’t go into details here, except to say I do think it’s a good idea to know what to ask your agent when he or she calls offering to represent you. Make a little list of questions and keep them in an easily accessible place, and run the questions through your head so you’re prepared. On top of just helping me feel organized, visualizing agents calling me excited to sell my manuscript gave me little boosts of happiness.
I used to be of the mindset that celebrating too early would jinx things — that I should hold my celebrations until I actually held my published book in my hands. But I’ve totally changed my mind about that. The writing life is full of rejections and failures and setbacks. Thus, every success, no matter how small should be celebrated.
If I hadn’t let myself celebrate until the publication of Cake Time, I still would not have celebrated anything! Despite my awesome agent, it took two years for Cake Time to find a home, and one more for the publication process.
Yes, there’ll be a big celebration when I finally hold a copy of Cake Time in my hands March 2017, but I’ve been celebrating every happiness along the journey —
So — That’s my story of how I found my agent. There are certainly other ways — and maybe even better ways — of finding an agent. Simply participating fully in a larger literary community, for example, could be a different path. Since I started going to more readings and building my writers’ network, I have had other writers offer to introduce me to their agents, I’ve offered to introduce writers I’ve met to my agent, and I’ve even had an agent who heard me at a reading contact me out of the blue, asking if I was seeking representation.
So that’s probably a good way to go about things too, though it wasn’t the path I took. I’d be curious to hear from other writers about how they found their own agents and what they learned through the experience too. Comment, or email me if you’re shy.
I rarely procrastinate on my writing anymore. Actually, I do. But these days I just call it reading.
Siel is a writer. Her novel-in-stories, Cake Time, is the winner of the 2015 Red Hen Press Fiction Manuscript Award and will be published in Spring 2017. Siel is also the author of two poetry chapbooks: Feelings Are Chemicals in Transit from Dancing Girl Press, and Might Club from Horse Less Press. Her stories and poems appear in ZYZZYVA, The Missouri Review (Poem of the Week), The Los Angeles Review, Denver Quarterly, and other places.