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Updated: Oct 26, 2022

Writing isn’t easy. It’s a daily grind for us writers who put in the hours every day, and that’s only if we’re the lucky ones. The majority of us have to have jobs/careers that take most of our time and force us to write “in our spare time,” which isn’t always ideal. We have kids, dogs, cats, home projects, family responsibilities, and other activities that take up the time we could be using to write. Because of these responsibilities, a lot of us sacrifice sleep in order to put down the words. Others of us sneak in our writing wherever we can—while cooking, doing the laundry, going for a walk, typing on our telephone apps in between meetings, and even at work, when it’s a slow day. And that’s just to get a few words in to feel like we did something.

So, what happens once we’ve written our novel, revised and rewritten it, workshopped it with other writers, rewritten it again and again, had a professional editor edit it, and it’s finally ready to go out into the world? That’s right! We start querying literary agents at agencies, and we hope one or more of those agents asks to see the full manuscript. And then, if we’re lucky, and we’re patient (did I mention lucky?), they ask to represent us and our masterpiece. Or that’s what we’ve been told is the process we should follow if we want to snag an agent who will take us to the promise land of publication.

But it’s not that easy, is it? And if you’ve been doing this for a while and haven’t received an offer from an agent to represent you, the doubt starts creeping in. I don’t have a good enough book, you think. My first sentence sucks. My first chapter isn’t a hook—it’s a combination of words I thought were compelling but, in reality, are nothing more than an amalgamation of nouns and adjectives and verbs that may as well have been written by someone who’s never even looked at a book, much less read one.

There are, however, other ways to get an agent’s attention. Some of the most common ways to get an agent interested in your work are:

1. Through literary journals

Literary journals are often read by agents because it shows that a writer is serious about his or her craft. Being published in journals is often a first step toward putting your writing out there for the world to see, and if you publish more than a few stories, it shows not only that you’ve been vetted by the editors at the journals, but that you’re doing all the right things consistently. You’re coming up with original ideas; you’re writing compelling first lines (the hook); you have an understanding of what a story is and how to write one; you’re taking the time to research the journals you’re submitting to to ensure that your piece fits with what that journal publishes; and then you’re beating out the competition for the limited amount of space that that journal has for each of its issues. In short, literary agents use journals to find talent, and if you’re in one of the major literary journals out there like Granta or Ploughshares or Tin House or maybe even gotten into the near-impossible New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, there’s a good chance you’ll be noticed. You may not get the call right away, but rest assured, the agents will remember your name.

2. Through querying agents directly

As mentioned above, querying is the most common way for writers to approach literary agents. There are books out there like Jeff Herman's “Guide to Book Publishers, Editors & Literary Agents: Who They Are, What They Want, How to Win Them Over,” as well as websites like Poets & Writers Literary Agents Database, that provide a comprehensive list of literary agents, the agencies they work for, the types of works their interested in representing (with a list of authors they represent), as well as comprehensive agent contact information. But like all of the ways an author can secure representation, querying takes a lot of work. For one, you have to keep track of all of your submissions somewhere. Before I had an agent, I used to use an Excel spreadsheet, similar to this example on Jane Friedman’s website. The spreadsheet helps remind you what you submitted and to whom, and when, as well as what their response was, how long it took them to respond to you, whether or not they’ve asked for a partial or full submission, and so on. However you keep track of your queries, make sure you are very thorough in what you capture. Nothing says amateur more than when an author queries someone who doesn’t represent the type of work they’ve authored, or, perhaps, sends the same agent the same query more than once.

Querying is a must for anyone seeking representation, and many writers have been successful doing so. But it’s a long and tedious process. Besides all of the above, you also have to ensure you’re personalizing each and every query to the specific agent you’re querying. You’ll need to have a synopsis for your novel. You’ll have to have your sample chapters ready (usually an agent will ask for the first three chapters or something between 25-50 pages). Be ready beforehand. Doing the research and preparing your materials takes time. It takes diligence. And most of all, it means you better have a great book ready to go before you start blasting your queries into the interwebs (yes, that’s a joke). The last thing you want to do is have an agent request your full manuscript only to learn that you haven’t finished it yet. So, make sure you’re 100% ready to go before you start querying. It’s what a professional writer would do, and that’s what you are. You’re a pro. And being ready on all fronts is what you’re going to need to do to be successful as a pro in order to land your agent.

3. By Attending Writing Conferences

Writing conferences are held throughout the world, at varying times of the year, and they’re a great way to not only workshop your work in progress (WIP), but also to network and meet aspiring writers, published novelists (and writers), editors, literary magazine professionals, and, yes, literary agents. The AWP, or Association of Writers & Writing Programs, has a fantastic list of many of the writing conferences not only nationally but internationally, which is called the “Directory of Conferences & Centers.” The Directory of Conferences & Centers is a tool that allows you to search and filter by country, by state, whether you’re seeking a residency, a conference, a festival, or a retreat or writing center. You can filter down by a number of different options, including genre, whether the conference (or center, festival, retreat or residency) provides financial assistance, and so on. It’s a great resource, and I highly recommend it.

At these writing events, you should not only work on your project—you should network with everyone you possibly can. It’s not only expected, it’s welcomed. Networking leads to many things, including opportunities to join literary magazines as readers, to connect with other writers so as to join writing communities for constructive criticism, and to nurture relationships with people who, down the road, may be able to help you get published in some form or fashion. Some of these conferences and events can be quite expensive, but not always, especially if you apply for scholarships or enter whatever contests they may have available for you to enter. But go to one of these events if you can. If you get nothing out of it other than being around people who love the things you love, I think you’ll find the event was a success, and you’ll want to return, if not to the same conference than to another one.

4. By Getting Your Masters of Fine Arts (MFA)

If you don’t already have an MFA in fiction (assuming you’re a fiction writer, although this works for non-fiction writers as well), getting an MFA is actually a great way to infiltrate the literary community, all while getting a terminal degree (no, it won’t kill you, it just means you don’t need a higher degree for professional/career purposes). MFA programs allow you to work, usually over two to three years, on the craft of writing. To get in you submit a writing sample and the program application, pay a fee, and, in time, learn if you’ve been accepted into the program. Low-Residency (Low-res) programs also exist for applicants who can’t take time off from their jobs or lives to commit fulltime to a degree program, and there are many to choose from. Low-res programs normally require two weeks on campus (two one-week residencies a year for two years), with the rest of the time working with your professors online. The residencies are great because you get to meet some bigwigs in the publishing industry, including editors, agents, and my favorite, some big-time novelists who come in for each residency to give a lecture of some sort. When I got my MFA I met and hung out with authors like Michael Connelly, Denis Johnson, Robert Olen Butler, Nick Flynn, Tom Franklin, Miranda July, Francine Prose, Karen Russell, George Saunders, and more. It was fun, and I was ecstatic. Plus I worked on my novel with fantastic authors and teachers who provided invaluable criticism and recommendations that I still use today.

5. And Now to How I Got TWO Literary Agents Offering to Represent Me for TWO Different Novels ON THE VERY SAME DAY!

Yes, I was as shocked as anyone to have that happen to me, but it’s true. For years, I had gone down the path of following the first three ways of getting a literary agent to notice me—by publishing in literary journals, querying literary agents, and attending writing conferences and related events, including book festivals. I had a few publications in journals that I liked and read, and had a few honorable mentions in some of the top literary journals out there. I’d won the Writer’s Digest “Dear Lucky Agent” contest, another contest in Creative Loafing that had my story published and available all over Tampa, Florida, and had a bunch of agents requesting full manuscripts, only to be told “thanks but no thanks,” we’re going to pass because of this or that. I was heartbroken, every single time. I didn’t know what I was doing wrong, so I kept going back to my manuscripts, and editing and revising them, and sending them out again. One of my novels (one of the ones that I was offered representation for) had been on its 100th revision. YES, you read that correctly. One hundred FULL revisions and rewrites, over 20 years. My writer friends just shook their heads, and told me to stop it. You can’t keep revising.

So, how did I do it? How did I get two offers by literary agents for two different novels on the same day? Well, I’ve already told you up above. By networking! But to be fair, I had done a LOT of networking for the magic to finally happen. I got in touch with both agents via referral. One of my referrals was someone that I became friends with while getting my MFA. She was (and is) someone who not only works for a literary journal, but who knows a lot of people in the publishing world, including agents. Because she was familiar with my work, I assume she felt I was up to snuff, and that I wouldn’t embarrass her. (If you’ve ever had a friend or known someone who had an agent, you know what a touchy subject it can be, getting them to recommend you to their agent). I didn’t understand that before I had an agent, but I understand it now. It’s a tricky thing, even when you have a great relationship with your agent, because you don’t want them to think you have bad judgement. At any rate, one day, out of the blue, I mentioned to her that I was getting nowhere with my queries, and she kindly offered to refer me to her friend, who happened to be an agent. I said great, not thinking anything of it, and she gave me her name and email address. When I looked up the agent, I was in awe. This was an agent who represented some very, very big names in the literary world. When I sent her my query and mentioned who’d recommended me, she read my excerpt right away and then asked for the full manuscript. And then I waited.

At the same time, another friend of mine who I knew from a workshop that I attended (and still attend), told me she’d gotten an agent. I was elated for her. She mentioned that she’d met her new agent at a conference; the agent approached her after my friend had read an excerpt from one of her works-in-progress. Soon afterwards, my friend sent her the full manuscript, and she, to her delight, was offered representation. Fast forward to a couple of years later, I wrote a novel in, I think, in three months, did my revising and rewriting, and was getting ready to start sending it out at about the same time I was sending out my 100th-time edited novel. I told my friend where I was in my hunt for an agent, and that I had just completed my new novel. She asked to see it, and within a few days she offered to ask her agent if she could recommend some agents who might represent the genre I was writing in (I had written a crime novel). To our surprise, her agent replied in an email, “What am I, chopped liver? Tell him to send his manuscript to me.” And so, I did. And, like with the other novel, I waited. And waited.

By this time, I was elated that I had two novels out there with two different agents, but it was still crickets. But being a writer, I kept writing. I started my next novel, and tried not to think about the novels I had out there with the two agents. And then one day I received two emails, one from each of the agents, asking if I had time to speak with them. That. Day. Well, you can imagine how I was feeling. TWO agents asking to speak to me about TWO different novels, and ON THE SAME DAY. I was hopeful, figuring that the agents would have just told me the bad news over email. Up to that point I had not spoken to either one of them on the phone—we’d only communicated via email. So, I replied back with some times that I was available, and, without further ado, jumped on the calls. I tried to be calm, cool, and collected, but I’m sure the agents knew I was smiling on my end—they know what it means for an author to “get the call.” Sure enough, after some talk about me and about my novels, both agents offered to represent me. I told the first agent (I think to her surprise) that I would love to think about it, and she said she understood. She sent me a contract to review, just in case, and I told her I’d call her the next day. When I spoke to the next agent, the call just seemed to go more smoothly. She told me that she didn’t do contracts, that she always had great relationships with her clients, and that if either of us ever wanted to walk away, for whatever reason, we had the ability to do so. I thanked her for the call, and told her the same thing I had told the previous agent—that I would call her tomorrow after I thought about it. She also said she understood. I thanked her, and then jumped for joy at my luck. TWO agents on the same day offering to represent me for TWO different novels.

So, what did I do? Well, it wasn’t an easy decision. I had to weigh the pros and cons of each of the agents. I spoke to my literary mentors. I spoke to fellow writers and friends. And then, by that night, I knew what I was going to do. I was going to tell the agent who I felt more comfortable with that I was going with her, and that it meant the world to me to be represented by her agency. And that was it. I HAD A LITERARY AGENT and I no longer had to send out all those queries like I had been doing, nor did I have to network as hard as I had been whenever I was at conferences or the literary events I attended. It was like a weight was lifted off of my shoulders; I could now just write away and send my work to my agent and let her do the heavy lifting. And let me tell you, trying to get an agent (if you haven’t already tried) is one of the biggest pains in the butt to do. But it’s a must for anyone trying to get published traditionally. Agents are the gatekeepers to the editors and publishing houses. They have earned their reputations over years and decades, and editors trust their judgement. When an agent contacts the editors they’ve worked with in the past, those editors are more likely to read your book. And there’s nothing quite like getting an update from your agent on the status of your book, whether or not if it’s a yes or a no. Writing is subjective, as you know, and sometimes you win some and sometimes you lose some, just like your characters. But we persist. We continue on. Because we’re pros. And you, my friend, are a pro.

So, get to it. Participate in a few, or all, of the above ways of getting yourself out there so that agents know your name. Network like crazy, because you never know who’s going to be the one contact that gets your work in front of the right agent. Be assertive, but not forceful. Make friends. Be nice. Follow up, and keep in contact with everyone you meet, no matter who they are or what connections you think they may have. You never know—you just might get two agents asking to represent you on the same day too. Or maybe more than that.

Happy Writing!

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