The Path to Publication, Part Five: Picking the Right Literary Agent

(Photo Courtesy of Toby Hudson)

When I queried my first novel THE MERMAID GENE, I suffered from a common misconception. I believed almost all literary agents were created equal.

I say 'almost,' because I knew some literary agents were con artists. They asked for fees for their services, and they never really did anything except steal your money--and probably smoke cheap cigars in a dirty office somewhere.

But here's where I went wrong. I figured I could weed out all the unsavory literary agents with a simple search on Preditors & Editors or the AbsoluteWrite Forum. If those searches came back clean, the agent MUST be a reasonable human being, right? Even better, the agent MUST be a powerhouse superhero ready to take on the world and make us both filthy rich in the process, right?

Wrong. Obviously. I shake my head at my naiveté now, but I was so giddy at the thought that a real-life literary agent may someday want to TALK to me that it didn't even occur to me that I needed to interview her, too.

Here's what happened...

After more than eight months of querying THE MERMAID GENE, I finally got an offer of representation from not one, but two (!!) literary agents. My elation was unparalleled, and I immediately sat down and tried to figure out which offer I should accept.

The problem is, I only looked at things that were quantifiable. I didn't pay enough attention to intangible things like the agents' personalities, how well we clicked or how well they 'got' what I was trying to say. I also didn't monitor their enthusiasm for my work or their long-term investment in my career, because I figured EVERY agent wants his or her client to be a lifelong client, right?

Wrong. Obviously.

Before we get into that, let's take a look at both agents, stacked side-by-side:

(Photo Courtesy of Marco Bellucci)

AGENT A

  • Established agent with lots of clients and sales
  • Came with a "co-agent," which seemed pretty much unprecedented
  • Very established house with lots of sales and a "highly recommended" Preditors & Editors status
  • Smooth talker, with plans of taking THE MERMAID GENE to the Frankfurt Book Fair in just a few short weeks
  • Very well-connected to the literary and film worlds. Spoke of a particular contact at a particular (VERY well-known) film production company who was already interested in considering THE MERMAID GENE for a feature film
  • Didn't see the need to do extensive edits and thought we could get the manuscript out on submission within a couple of weeks

AGENT B

  • Brand-new agent with only one other client and no existing sales
  • Very established house with lots of sales, but no "highly recommended" Preditors & Editors status
  • Wonderful rapport and the feeling that she really "got" me, but no specific plans for editors she would contact quite yet
  • Felt THE MERMAID GENE would require fairly extensive edits, including changing the entire manuscript's tense and shortening/tightening the first 50 pages
  • Didn't want to rush submissions, because she wanted us to take our time with edits and make sure we got them right

Can you guess which agent I picked? And can you speculate which agent I should have picked?

I will spare you the long story, as there is no sense in dwelling on the past. Let's just leave it at this: if something sounds too good to be true, it most likely is too good to be true. 

Fast forward to today. Agent A is no longer agenting, and Agent B has several six-figure deals under her belt (including one for that first client, who would have been in line just in front of me). THE MERMAID GENE has been shelved--partially due to being blasted out before it was ready--and I found myself dropped as Agent A's client within four and a half months.

And you know what? It was my fault, because I listened with my wallet, not with my heart. I heard, "Let's make a ton of money with no work at all," and I chose that over, "Let's do this right. It may take some time, but I really believe in this book." 

Moral of the story: don't take the easy way out. Ever. And listen to your damn gut. If it's screaming for you to not believe everything you hear, please don't turn a blind eye to that.

Also, remember that agents are just people. Some will care about you more than others, and it's up to YOU to determine which one deserves to be trusted with your career. Don't leave a decision that monumental to websites like Preditors & Editors or the AbsoluteWrite Forum. Those websites are important places to start, but ultimately, the decision is in your hands. No matter how starstruck you feel, you need to keep your head on straight. 

Remember that manuscript... the one you just spent the past few months or YEARS of your life writing? Its future--and your future--depend on it.

So... Where did my story leave me? That answer is simple: agentless and broke, with a dead manuscript and no idea what to do next. 

Please tune in next time to see what happened next!

The Path to Publication, Part Four: Perfecting Your Query Letter

(Photo Courtesy of Sean MacEntee)

Last week, I recounted writing my first query letter. I also recounted receiving my first rejection letter--which occurred a scant 24 hours later. What I didn't recount was the content of that original query letter. Looking back on it now, I can absolutely understand why I received that first rejection letter, because my first query wasn't ready. It had some good bones, but the meat was fatty, and it was difficult to sort the important bits from the unimportant ones. The essence of it got lost in the seasoning, and...

Okay, enough dinner analogies. You get what I'm trying to say here.

More than eight months of querying passed before I received my first offer of representation for my novel THE MERMAID GENE. During that time, my query letter underwent several transformations. Here's my "Before" and "After" so you can see the evolution:

THE MERMAID GENE

Original Query Letter (January 9, 2011)

Dear Agent:

When seventeen year-old Kai Murphy joins a beluga whale identification team in Alaska, the last thing she expects to find in Cook Inlet is a mermaid. She’s an aspiring researcher, after all, the daughter of a prominent dolphin scientist and the type of girl who “alphabetizes her DVDs and orders the same thing for lunch every single day.”

Anchorage’s mermaid folklore is legendary, but Kai remains a skeptic until she spots a trailing, translucent tail after work one evening. Finally forced to ponder the possibility, she teams up with her roommate Sophie Kensington and flirtatious twin deckhands Noah and Aidan Fischer to investigate.

Turns out mermaids aren’t the research team’s only mysteries. There’s also that warehouse closet crammed with hunting rifles, the blood-filled plastic bins and those shadowy figures that seem to be haunting the Port of Anchorage.

As Kai searches for answers and begins falling for Noah, she realizes even he isn’t above suspicion. The fate of Cook Inlet’s struggling beluga whale population just may be resting in her hands.

THE MERMAID GENE is complete at 98,000 words. It is the first in a series of young adult, urban fantasy novels I am developing surrounding Kai Murphy and her experiences in the wild and unforgiving seas of Alaska. The book’s premise draws upon the expertise and first-hand knowledge I have gained working as a zookeeper and educator at facilities like the Alaska Zoo of Anchorage, Gulf World Marine Park of Florida and the Marine Mammal Center of California.

I graduated with honors from the University of Central Florida with a minor in magazine journalism, and I have received many awards for my writing. These include first place for a short story in the Tertiary Art Contest awarded by Griffith University of Queensland, Australia, and a $1,000 academic scholarship for a personal essay I submitted in UCF’s Honors College Provost Essay Contest. The Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks & Aquariums published my article “The Dangers of Human Interactions With Marine Mammals” in its 2007 Ocean Literacy and Marine Mammals: An Easy Reference Guide, and my promotional blurbs and articles have appeared many times in my facilities’ brochures, calendars, websites and advertisements.

Thank you so much for taking the time to read this query. With your interest in urban fantasies, unique paranormals and young adult novels, I hope THE MERMAID GENE will be a perfect fit for you. My full manuscript is available upon request, and I look forward to hearing from you.

Sincerely, 

Lisa Ann

I mean... WOW, THAT'S A LONG QUERY LETTER! Am I right?? I don't hate the content, but... seriously? 412 words? Did that DVD thing really deserve inclusion into the first paragraph? And how many characters could I name in one query letter? How about that bit at the end where I tried to sound like I was more qualified as a writer than I actually was? Who in the world would actually care that I won a short story contest during the semester I studied abroad in Australia?

These are all common rookie mistakes, unfortunately. We feel like we have SO MUCH GOOD STUFF TO SAY that we can't sort out what's important and what's not. We also feel like we need to compensate for our noviceness by including every relevant and not-relevant thing we have ever experienced in our lives. 

But guess what? Literary agents are pros at spotting this. And in the case of query letters, less is often (much) more. Here's my final query letter:

THE MERMAID GENE

Final Query Letter (September 19, 2011)

Dear Agent:

When seventeen year-old aspiring marine researcher Kai Murphy is invited to join a beluga whale study in Alaska, she expects freezing salt spray, cramped Zodiac vessels and elusive white whales to be the extent of her first real research project.

According to an ancient arctic legend, a mysterious creature also inhabits Cook Inlet’s icy waters. Kai remains a skeptic—until her late-night sighting of a silvery, speckled tail. Teamed up with flirtatious twin deckhands Noah and Aidan Fischer, she decides to investigate.

My YA paranormal mystery, THE MERMAID GENE, combines the romance and fantasy of Aimee Friedman’s SEA CHANGE with the science, suspense and descriptive settings of Nevada Barr’s “Anna Pigeon” mysteries. I was inspired to write THE MERMAID GENE by the time I spent working as a zookeeper and environmental educator at facilities like Gulf World Marine Park of Florida and the Alaska Zoo of Anchorage.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and I hope you have a wonderful day.

Sincerely,

Lisa Ann

This new version still isn't perfect, but it's much closer than my first attempt. It's also 162 words, which means I managed to shave 250 words off my original query letter. (250 words?? That's like an entire extra query letter!)

If anything, I feel like this second version is a little *too* short, but you still get my drift. Amazing how the meat of a story can be so condensed while leaving the bones pretty much untouched. You have a pretty good idea about what THE MERMAID GENE is about after reading both versions; it's just the little things that have changed.

I also keyed in on the mystery in the second query letter, and I left many of the details to the agents' imaginations. My hope was to pique their interest... and it worked! The last agent who received this letter offered me a contract three days later. (!!!)

Of course, this wouldn't be a good story if it was a simple one, so please turn in next Monday to learn exactly how my offer(s) of representation played out. Things got a little weird for awhile there--and they would only get weirder when I signed my contract!

The Path to Publication, Part Three: Putting Yourself Out There

(Photo Courtesy of Pedro Simoes)

Writing a query letter is one of the hardest feats you will ever undertake as an aspiring writer. You have just spent the last several months or years of your life writing a complex, complicated and beautiful masterpiece, and now you are expected to distill it down into 250 words? And you are supposed to send it out to perfect strangers to let them JUDGE you?? What sort of sadomasochist came up with THIS idea??

Unfortunately, this is the reality of the game. If you ever want to become a published author, you must be willing to pour your soul and your guts into a query letter. And you must be willing to send this query letter out into the world. This means you must be willing to be ignored, forgotten and rejected by people who don't even know you. How scary is this??

I don't think I fully appreciated the gravity of this until I sent out my first query letter. I had been working on an urban fantasy called THE MERMAID GENE for about a year and a half, and I had been calling myself a writer for most of my life. I had built my entire identity around the fact that "someday, I was going to get a book published," and I had based so many of my personality traits on this promise that I didn't even know what would be left if you took it away from me.

So... I distilled my book into a query letter, and I sent this query letter out to an agent who happened to live in my hometown. Her name was Sara Megibow, and her agency, Nelson Literary Agency, was randomly based in Denver, not New York City. Despite its geographic abnormality, Nelson had amazing reviews, and Sara was known for being a young upstart with a penchant for moving mountains and making huge deals. She sounded awesome.

I polished up my pitch and hit send, and then I sat back and daydreamed about how fun it would be to someday meet her at coffee shops and bookstores downtown. We could talk shop and sip lattes, read the paper and discuss how well my book was selling internationally.

It sounded perfect.

Of course, things didn't work out that way. Instead of receiving a glowing offer of representation--or even a request for pages--from Sara, I received a generic "Dear Author" rejection letter. To make matters worse, Sara is a super quick responder, so I received this rejection within 24 hours.

Whoa. Talk about a mind-blow.

I expected to be disappointed by this rejection, but I wasn't. I was DEVASTATED, because I allowed myself to take it personally. I wondered if I had been pipe-dreaming my talent all these years, and I felt stupid for even thinking I was capable of something so monumental as getting a book picked up by a publisher. I cursed myself for wasting a year and a half of my life on this stupid piece of garbage I had been calling THE MERMAID GENE, and I felt so embarrassed about all the parties and gatherings and get-togethers I'd missed in favor of "working on this book" that I had to bite my tongue to keep from apologizing to everyone who had hosted them. I told my husband I was sorry for prioritizing the book over 'normal' pursuits like hiking or cooking or camping with him, and I retreated to my couch, where I'm almost positive I must have cried at least two or three times.

I also realized this is the point where most people give up.

No, scratch that. I realized most people give up before they ever get to this point, because it's a lot easier to squirrel your book away in a desk somewhere and hide it from the prying eyes of others. It's also easier to never finish your book, because you fear the reality will never live up to your expectations. Finally, it's easiest of all to never start your book, because it's a lot more fun to judge others and talk about what you WOULD do than it is to actually do something yourself.

So... I thought about these things, and I realized I had two choices. I could retreat back to my corner and admire my beautiful, untested manuscript in a closet somewhere, or I could dust myself off and try again.

I tried again.

Only this time, I spent another whole month working on my query letter, and I distilled it down even further before I sent it out to anyone. I followed all the rules I'd heard about writing a strong hook, leading into the body, and ending with an author bio, and I read that baby out loud so many times I'm surprised I didn't start reciting it in my sleep.

Most importantly, I decided I wasn't going to take my next rejection so personally. I was going to wear it like a badge of honor--the way Stephen King always did--and I was going to save every letter to remind myself I DID SOMETHING. I risked something, and I put myself out there despite the potential setbacks. I was strong and brave and courageous, and I was already lapping all those armchair writers who never actually did anything at all except judge everyone around them.

I was a writer. And I wasn't going to let a stupid rejection letter tell me otherwise.

Please tune in next week to learn more about the evolution of my query letter, and please share your query horror stories here. How did you feel when you got your first rejection letter? Did you take it as personally as I did? How did you overcome it?

The Path to Publication, Part Two: Finding Publishing Resources

(Photo Courtesy of CollegeDegrees360)

As I mentioned in "Writing That First Book," I thought the hardest part about getting published would be writing a book. I mean, it's RARE to write an entire book from start to finish, right? It only makes sense there are an arsenal of literary agents just chomping at the bit in anticipation of representing you.

This logic made perfect sense to me in January 2011 when I finally finished editing what I was sure was going to be the literary world's Next Big Thing. It was an urban fantasy called THE MERMAID GENE, and it had taken me a year to write and an additional six months to edit. 

(In the meantime, I had also quit my zookeeping job in Alaska, and I had gotten into a devastating car accident in northern British Columbia while driving back to the Lower 48. I had almost lost one of my dogs in that accident, I had couch surfed at my parents-in-law's house for a few months, and I had moved to Colorado with my husband to see if we could finally put down some roots and find a permanent home base for ourselves.)

I had also done my research. I knew I should never do business with a literary agent who charged a fee for his/her services, and I knew I should pop every agent I researched into Preditors & Editors to make sure they weren't creeps or highway robbers. I knew I should visit forums like AbsoluteWrite to see what others were saying about agencies and agents, and I knew I should spend time pouring through each agency's website to make sure I selected the appropriate agent for my query letter. 

I also discovered a GOLD MINE: QueryTracker. (Have you ever heard of it? If I could be a paid spokesman for QueryTracker, I would do it in an instant!)

QueryTracker is the single most helpful resource I found during my search for a literary agent. It was started by an aspiring author named Patrick McDonald who wanted to create a resource for other writers seeking representation for their books. Here are his thoughts on it:

"As a struggling author, I knew there would be plenty of obstacles to overcome before I could achieve the dream of publication. But I quickly discovered the hardest part was not writing a book. The hardest part is to find a literary agent to represent your book.

"Sure, there are websites that try to help. There are those which offer lists of literary agents, but finding the agent's name was just the beginning. Of course I had to write the query letter, but a major problem turned out to be how to keep track of all those query letters. Who did I already query? Which literary agents looked promising, and which were just not suited for my work.

"I was faced with the same problems every time I sent out a new batch of query letters. Sure I kept a list of which agents I already queried, but, as that list grew, it became harder and harder to keep track. I found myself reading profiles for literary agents I had already determined were not suitable, or spending time on an agent just to realize that I had already queried her once before.

"I thought how nice it would be if I could just check a box beside the agent's name and forever mark her as queried. I could even go back after receiving that all-too-common rejection and, by checking another box, record that, too.

"And then the real power of this website hit me. With all this information, and with enough users on the site and contributing, we could take a lot of the guess work out of querying. Could the information gathered reveal patterns, or help identify more likely agents for different genres? I was sure of it. Now, I felt I was on to something. I hadn’t been this excited since the first time I wrote, 'The End.'

"So, I took this wishlist and I created QueryTracker.net, and now, although publication still eludes me, at least the query process has become much more organized, better targeted, and therefore faster and easier."

Are you obsessed with Patrick?? Because I know I am. As I have mentioned before, I have analytical, left-brained tendencies that sometimes border on OCD, so stumbling upon QueryTracker was a lot like finding the Golden Ticket to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory. (Yes, I just compared QueryTracker to a chocolate factory. No, I don't regret it.)

(Photo Courtesy of  Paddington Waterside Partnership)

As a matter of fact, I am getting so excited about the thought of QueryTracker that I think we need to take a quick break so you can go visit it yourself. (It's okay, I'll wait.) Click HERE to visit the Querying Chocolate Factory!

Did you get a good look? For those of you who were too lazy (or too interested in MY post! ;)) to actually follow that link, let me tell you a little bit about this beautiful resource. You can search for legit literary agents and publishers, and you can keep track of all your queries in a brilliant, Excel spreadsheet-like format. You can also easily click off who has rejected you, who has requested pages, etc.

This alone would make QueryTracker my favorite querying website, but PATRICK HAS TAKEN THINGS SOOO MUCH FURTHER. You see, he has also added a social element, so you can connect with other writers who are querying the same agents as you. You can chat with them to see how successful their queries were, and you can also get an idea of how quickly each agent typically responds to his or her queries. This allows you to figure out where you are in the "queue," which helps you decide whether or not you should start freaking out yet.

But wait, there's more. Patrick digs data and trends, and he has figured out this whole system of analyzing which agents are drawn to which particular types of novels. That means if one agent requests pages from you, he can look at other users' request rates and determine which other agents would probably dig your pages, too.

DID I JUST BLOW YOUR MIND???

Best of all, Patrick has taken socializing to the next level by creating a a blog and an entire online forum where QueryTracker users can mingle, ask questions, get feedback and share good news with each other. (I have made many lifelong writer friends through this forum, and I am still a regular contributor, even though I found my agent years ago.) Here's the link, and I HIGHLY recommend joining: QueryTracker Forum.

Oh yeah, and did I mention membership to QueryTracker is FREE??? (There is an option to pay a small amount to become a Premium Member if you like. I highly recommend this, because it gives you access to lots of this awesome data sorting. However, you can totally remain a free member and still get a TON out of your membership.)

*Whew.* That felt good. I get just as worked up talking about QueryTracker now as I did when I first discovered it in January 2011. I honestly don't know what I would have done without it during my search for literary representation.

Of course, before I could find a literary agent, I had to do one of the most challenging things I had ever done: I had to write a query letter.

Dun-Dun-DUUUNNN!!!

Ugh. In some ways, I felt like writing my book was WAY easier than writing my query letter. Did you? And what other publishing resources did you discover when you first start researching them? Did you like any more than others?

Please tune back in soon to learn more about my querying process. I also can't wait to hear your stories!

The CriTiki Lounge: Now Open for Business!!

Photo Courtesy of Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez
Two super talented writers, Rhiann Wynn-Nolet and Kristina Perez, have come up with an awesome idea called the "CriTiki Lounge," and they have generously invited me to become one of their Lounge Lizards. Check out their concept:

"Two of the things we like best about writing contests are helping other writers and making new writer-friends. After all, we met each other during contests in 2012.

"There aren’t very many opportunities for pre-agented writers to get constructive feedback from agented writers, pub’d writers, and even the occasional agent. THIS is the kind of input that can be worth its weight in gold, or coconut shrimp (hey, it’s the CriTiki Lounge).

"To make things even more fun, we’ll have a new submission theme each week AND a Lounge Lizard who knows it better than he/she knows the bartender.

"In keeping with the relaxed and sociable atmosphere, other writers will also be able to offer their thoughts on the writer’s 'performance.' Don’t worry about hecklers––our bouncer will take care of them. His name is Kohala, yeah, like the volcano."


The CriTiki Lounge just launched in November, and I am so excited to meet new writer friends and offer query feedback. Click here to visit the CriTiki Lounge,  and get ready for some fun!