Before we knew each other, I shaped you into a complex character because that’s how we writers deal with agent querying. Even memoirists create a kind of life to live in when faced with the business side of writing. Dream sequences. Reliable narrators. End on an up note.
I imagined your office was in a pre-war, West Village brownstone off Hudson, even though most of the publishing world speed walks in the 20s crosstown between 5th and 6th Avenue. Manuscript pages whirled in the air as you released each loose leaf from your hands after reading them. Authors stopped by after midnight for advice and fell asleep on your Perla tufted sofa, intoxicated from the scent of cherry red markups and pink eraser dust. You dragged a landline phone cord over stacks of books that measured up to your waist while talking me out from underneath five thousand line notes crowding my brain. You waved your pen like a conductor and my book was submission ready. I was enchanted by the notion of you as a romantic bibliophile, a protective lion or lioness, a guardian angel.
How did I find you? Like most writers, my search began in between pages of the Literary Market Place and Poets & Writers, through writer referrals and reading the acknowledgement pages from my favorite books. I highlighted the ones that said, “I couldn’t have done it without you” or “Thank you for my writing life.” I tracked your deals and position in my genre on Publisher’s Marketplace. It was quite addictive, a bit stalkerish, and completely necessary. The closer I got to understanding what kind of agent you were, the greater my chances were at us being a match.
I kept the number of potential yous to eight, just enough to get a cross-section of feedback, potential opportunities, and to know if I had taken my book as far as I could on my own. I didn’t believe that a dream agent was necessarily someone who represented a writer I idolized, but that they represented books in my genre and had a stellar track record in finding good homes for them.
Q&A’s were the most revealing. I learned what you love to read, why you became an agent, how you’ve dealt with difficult situations. Reputation was almost everything, for once we agreed that the manuscript was ready for submission, I would be handing over 300 pages of myself, my hands still bleeding from paper cuts. I only had one chance to write this story. I needed you to be my mouth, my eyes, my hands. I didn’t need you to know my favorite color or even remember my birthday, but I needed you to know why I write.
I queried smart, visiting each agent’s website and submitted exactly the way they’d asked to be contacted. This was not the time to be cute or clever. Some wanted the first thirty pages as inline text following my letter. Others indicated how the email subject heading should read. Most said absolutely no attachments. I did that. All of that. I aimed for perfection. I made sure that they were accepting submissions via QueryTracker posts and notices on their web site. I took a risk and queried one agent who was not accepting new writers, but I let her know that I knew this, and made what I hoped to be a compelling case. A lot of what we writers do is imagining and believing and then doing. I think that we should always try, even when the door appears to be closed. It may not be the right door, but we’ll learn something from taking a risk.
I queried neatly. If I wasn’t a Virgo, I’d enlist one, or at least another Earth sign whose written love letters to excel spreadsheets and Google Docs to help me organize my agent contact information and track my querying. The log contained the following fields: agent name, agency, website, email, twitter, date queried, follow up date, request partial/full (Y/N) and date sent, response. Creating columns and color coding kept me sort of sane. Friends, my local literary community, and groups like The Binders held me together and reminded me to celebrate each victory. I ate so many Red Vines that the company emailed me a thank you letter on Instagram.
There were red velvet cupcake dinners and peanut butter cup lunches. I received a masters in the caffeinated beverage industry.
The only solace I had in writing a decent query letter was that I (hopefully) would never have to do it again. What you ask for is very straightforward: an intro, a one paragraph pitch, a standard closing. I thanked you warmly, and I meant it. Please know that for most writers, explaining our book in third person is awkward at best, terrifying at worst. Straightforward is code for boring. We want to hypnotize you with language; craft the most exquisite opening line. Instead I had to be confident in my speaking voice, for that’s really what a query letter is. I said the words aloud as if you were sitting across the table from me before committing them to the page. They were not magical, but assured, warm, honest, personal. Query letters are not experimental or hybrid, but if you had a Twitter feed, I looked for a personal note to weave into the page. Trust in the process, follow directions, present the best writing version of yourself, I reminded myself. I am not a character or the narrator, I am a writer. When I could see my pitch on the backside of a
hardcover book, I stopped stress editing and hit send.
I wasn’t timid about following up. I remembered that you were looking for me just as I was looking for you. That the worst that you could say was no. I was fortunate that more than one agent may be have been you. If there was a time to dig into my bank account, it was now. I booked a flight to New York. You were not the character I created; I was going to learn from you. After our meeting, I knew exactly what I really needed in an agent. Someone who loved my book the very most. Who could pitch it back to me. Who had the heart and the stomach to rep memoir. I felt as calm as a weirdo writer could possibly feel.
Writers imagine that there is a code to crack. A secret decoder ring passed between best-selling authors in a hollowed-out book. I learned that in looking for you, I wasn’t inventing something new or different in the querying process. I was doing my homework, using every available resource, being resilient, asking for advice, knowing my work and worth, trusting that my story would be enough. It’s about faith, magic, timing, and being able to describe yourself and your project in a few lines, and with confidence. For most of us, there are no tricks or shortcuts. But remembering that I had something to offer, something that you may want, shaped my querying experience and because of that I found you.
Marnie Goodfriend is a former go-go dancer, speed dating host, and 2016 PEN Center USA Emerging Voices Fellow. She received a BFA in Photography from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts before canyon dwelling underneath the Hollywood sign. Her words have appeared in Jezebel, Variety, Marie Claire, The Daily Beast, Entropy, and Cosmopolitan UK. She is the creative nonfiction editor at Angels Flight・literary west and a co-founder of the women’s writing group, The Dimes. She recently completed a memoir, Birth Marks, about her experience as an adoptee illegally sold to a family by a baby broker, and is at work on her second memoir and a book of fiction.