I recently attended a very helpful seminar my university set up about the process of getting an agent. Agents have become more and more important to writers these days, especially as the model of the publishing-house editor has faded in presence. Publishing houses used to develop strong relationships between their writers and editors, having editors work closely with writers on their manuscripts; to a large extent, that responsibility has fallen to the agent. Now, publishing houses want more polished works, and it’s up to the agent to work with the writer and polish that piece. It also means that a little more responsibility is with the writer; more polished works are expected. Here are a few lessons I learned about how to go forth on your agent quest.
Put your best foot forward.
That was lesson number one: show your absolute best work. If you’re showing one story you like and one story that needs work and one story that you know is weak but you need a third story, you’re not ready to submit. Agents see hundreds of pieces a week, and they need to know that you have more than one good story behind you. So edit, polish, and edit again. Show your absolute best work; don’t hold anything in abeyance, because if you do, you’ll never get the chance to show that piece that you’ve been saving that you think is your best.
Be creative! Be exciting!
Agents need to feel excited about the work they are representing. That means they will choose work that has something original in it, something they’ve never seen before, and that has a lot of life and vigor in it. A few pretty sentences aren’t enough; they want to feel engaged and moved by the characters you create and the ideas and words on the page. When you’ve polished a few stories to death, spend some time thinking about whether these stories are just good copies of what you’ve read, or have something new to bring to the literary world.
There’s no accounting for taste.
As the agents said many times in the course of the panel discussion, they will only represent work they feel personally engaged by. That may mean that your work just isn’t their taste. The good news is that agents are experts, and even if your work isn’t for them, if they recognize the quality in it, they will often refer you to someone else who might like it, or even send it on themselves with a recommendation. That means that you shouldn’t take rejections personally; but choose who you send to carefully. That leads me to the final point:
Do your research.
Don’t just pick names randomly out of an agent’s guide. The agents recommend finding people who you know represent writers who are like you. The way to do this is to look at the acknowledgements page of a writer you admire. Writers always thank their agents. Rather than going for old, established writers, look on the acknowledgments page of a young, up-and-coming writer, who is likely to have an agent more open to unsolicited queries and young writers.