What to Do While Waiting to Secure a Literary Agent

Wouldn’t it be awesome if I could straight up just tell you how to land an agent in this post? And wouldn’t you think I had a ton more credibility if I’d already secured one?

I’m heading to a writing conference this weekend to learn more about craft and marketing, and I’m hopeful. (See my post on PPWC and questions I’ll try to get answered). I’ve only recently begun querying, having waited a long time for my 10,000 plus hours of “mastery” to ennoble me. I’ve also done a copious amount of revision on both my series and and standalones. My first recent rejections have reminded me that I chose to be in this for the long haul and cannot let myself be stuck in the swamps of despair.

It’s okay. I’m new at this, but determined. As a writer, you’re probably like me– you’d rather do your taxes, clean the sink traps, gutters, and even your friends’ sink traps and gutters, and then do your back taxes (not based on a real incident), than begin querying.

Man sleeping on the table with laptop at home
Man sleeping on the table with laptop at home

I’ll tell you that querying will be daunting, time consuming, and ultimately, a learning process that will improve your manuscript and your skills. I know it has mine. Also, I like to put things in the positive. Yes, I realize there’s a finite number of agents, book deals, and Harry Potters. Meanwhile, we’re competing with a possibly infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters. But since I’ve begun writing my novels, the creative process has been kind to me in that the more I write, the happier I am. I can only believe that honoring our creativity means we’re on the right path for our lives.

I teach creative writing at a college and have an endless (and perhaps annoying) amount of optimism for the craft. So here are a few pick me ups as we wander that path together…

Not finding an agent right away means you have more time to work on that next novel. That’s right–you can’t stop writing just because you’ve finished that first book. You have too much to learn by writing your second! The process will give you clarity on your previous work and teach you about your strengths, weaknesses, patterns, and process. While waiting for those slow-to-arrive responses, if you’ve been working away, you’re already even better at writing than when you sent the query!

Rejections of your query letter itself tell you that you need a better query, and this is useful info. Really. The query is not the book. It’s an animal unto itself, and if agents are not responding, then you need to reconsider how you’re approaching them. Luckily, there are many resources for writing good queries, and I’ve linked a few at the bottom of this post.

If you are getting asked for pages based on your query, you can take heart that the main features of your query (genre, concept, word count, pitch, character arc, comps, and overall author demeanor) must hold some appeal. But if agents are not getting past those first ten pages, that also indicates that you need to write better first pages. Why is this good? Well… okay. I’ll stall and admit something here: that back taxes thing was based on a real incident, which I suspect you knew.

Seriously, though… the opening pages of any book are the hardest to write, and very likely, you can improve them! So take heart. If your novel concept appeals to agents but you’re having trouble leading in to the book, it’s easily fixable. Often authors hit their stride a few chapters in. Your work on other projects as you wait for query responses will again help give you the perspective to improve the start. However, since you might not see this rewriting endeavor with quite as much optimism as I do at this moment, I’ll move on.

Most importantly, you’ll have time to work on that author platform! You don’t want to miss out because an agent liked your query and pages but checked out your public persona and found you had none. No, not all agents care about platforms, but some do, and you should have some awareness of this by researching each agents’ own platforms. You’ll also learn more about their personalities, wishlists, and if you two would work well together.

Pitfalls to avoid (I need a better verb here. Who swerves toward a pitfall?)

Ahem: Pitfalls

Don’t give up. You don’t suck. Probably. And even if so, that’s a subjective judgment you have no time for. Once you keep going, and keep writing, and keep learning, you will no longer suck, anyway. So tell that critical voice in your head to take a vacation or jump off a cliff, depending on your mood. The creative process loves you and wants only the best for you. Publishing is beyond its ethereal control, but writing regularly and with passion is within yours.

Don’t tear the book apart with massive reconstruction until you’ve written at least one more book and have a better sense of how novels are constructed. Most authors’ first books are not published, or at least, not published as their breakthrough novel. Frustrating as that is, keep going. That’s what a writer does. So write. Write. Write. Drink water occasionally. Then write more.

Don’t turn to self-publishing as a knee-jerk reaction. It may well be the best option, and I’m all for fighting the power and resisting the massive profit portions that publishing houses take. But if you do turn to self publishing, again, wait until you’ve had time to thoughtfully edit and revise the manuscript. You don’t want to immortalize something you might later realize wasn’t ready to be published! You also need to thoroughly research self publishing. You might not be able to ever market that book to an agent afterward. We’re better than random monkeys, but we’re not all Andy Weir, either.

Okay, enough with the pep talk! Here’s a great blog by a compatriot on the trials and tribulations of beginning the search for an agent.

Searching for an Agent

And below, some good resources on queries:

How to Write a Darn Good Query Letter

Agent Kristen Nelson’s Pub Rants and Sample Queries

Writer’s Digest Dos and Don’ts

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