Connect with Mary Elizabeth . . .
What advice would you give to querying writers?
I’d have to say that the best piece of advice I can give querying writers is to work smarter, not harder. A lot of authors make the newbie mistake that more queries are better. Not so, grasshopper. Targeted queries are better. Find the agents that you know for sure are looking for your type of manuscript. Then Internet-stalk them to get the insider scoop on their turn-ons and pet peeves. Use that info to your advantage in your query. Also, think outside the box. Sometimes querying directly is not the most efficient method. Participate in online pitch contests, pitch agents at conferences, take advantage of direct-to-editor submission opportunities. There are many ways into the castle. You don’t have to force your way in through the often heavily barred front gates.
What are some important things for querying writers to consider when researching agents?
Twitter is your best friend. No really. Get a Twitter account if you don’t have one already. Then get HootSuite or TweetDeck if you don’t have it already. Start making use of the “lists” function. Make a Twitter-feed list of just agents and check it obsessively. Make another one of fellow aspiring authors and check it obsessively. Make another one of pitch/query contest hosters (like @cupidslc, @brendadrake, etc.) and check it—you guessed it—obsessively. Reading agents’ submission guidelines will only get you so far. To get the most info you can on what agents really want, listen to what they say on Twitter. Especially when they do an #AskAgent session.
What was your method for querying? Small batches? Query widely? Wait for feedback?
My story is a prime example of what I mean by querying smarter instead of harder. I didn’t query at all. Let me repeat that. I did not. Query. At all. I got my agent through a query contest hosted by Cupid’s Literary Connection (@CupidsLC on Twitter). I literally finished my first draft, entered a query contest, and got an agent within a few weeks. These results are not necessarily typical, BUT it is definitely possible, and besides, query contests offer a whole host of other benefits besides getting an agent—platform building, query-letter/pitch honing, networking, group therapy, prizes, and fun.
Are there any specific questions you’d suggest writers ask an offering agent during “The Call”?
There are agent blog posts with lists of questions you should ask your prospective agent. Find them and make a written list of questions to ask BEFORE the call, so you don’t forget anything in all your squee. One question that I, in particular, had to ask of every agent that offered me rep was “how do you feel about gay characters in books,” because I fully intend to write gay characters into my books. And not just cardboard cutout side characters—I’m talking gay protagonists where being gay is not the main focus of the book. So if you have issues like that which are deal-breakers for your author-agent relationship, ASK THEM NOW. Even if it might feel uncomfortable bringing up a hot-button topic for you with someone you barely know.
What was the week surrounding your offer(s) of representation like for you?
Gleeful hell. I was a hot mess and no mistake. First of all, I’d entered the query contest just to test my premise. I had no expectations that I’d get interest from an agent. None. And I got interest from seven or eight agents. So, of course, I panicked. It was only my first draft, and at the time I thought I had to send my ms to the agents within a week of their request. (It is a best practice to send it in as soon after the contest as possible, but I could have taken a little more time.) Tip: Do not enter a query contest with your first draft. Anyway, my agent read my ms within a week of me sending it to her, which, again, I was NOT expecting. And so I had to tell the other agents who had my ms that I had an offer on the table. A few agents bowed out of the running, but a few more threw their hats in the ring. And THAT was brutal. You’d think it would be an awesome thing, right? Such professional validation! But the truth is, you agonize over the conversations with each agent, trying to choose a life partner from a group of people you barely know. And if you’re anything like me, you agonize over hurting the other agents’ feelings when you turn them down. I had an especially rough time, because two of the offering agents were the top agent picks I’d been literarily lusting after for a year. If only one had offered, it would have been easy. But since both did, I had to really soul search before picking.
How did you know your agent was the right one for you?
In the end, I chose Laura Bradford because she was strongest in all the areas I was weakest. I’m not really good at writing romance, but she reps romance almost exclusively, so I knew I’d get great advice from her. Also, she’s a highly organized, assertive person. I have moments of organization, but I am faaaaaaar from assertive. I knew she would challenge me to be a better, more professional author, and I knew I needed that push. And I have not regretted my decision for a single second.
Do you see the feedback from editors?
You can choose to see feedback from editors or to have your agent keep it safely hidden from you in a file somewhere. I chose to see all the feedback as it came in, and though it was excruciatingly painful at times, I am SO glad I did. I was able to see a pattern in the rejections—that they all revolved around the last third of the novel (even though the complaints were not consistent, the area the complaints stemmed from was universally the end of the book). So I talked with my agent and revised the last third of the novel in a way I felt comfortable with but that took into account some of the feedback I was getting. Then my agent swapped out the newly edited ms for the original ms with the editors who hadn’t yet read and responded to it. As soon as I did that, I got my first (of several) book-deal offers.
What is the next step if an editor shows interest?
It’s similar to getting an offer of rep from an agent. Your agent notifies the other editors who still have your ms that there is an offer on the table and they have a week to read and either withdraw or throw an offer on the table as well. My agent cautioned me that the rejections would fly in pretty fast once she’d communicated that to the other editors. Funny enough, we heard nothing from the other editors until a week later when other offers started rolling in. Just goes to show that agents can’t predict everything. :)
What do you suggest a writer does while out on submission?
Write. Seriously. Write something else completely unrelated. It is the only way to stay sane. Also find a support group of other writers in submission hell. But mostly write. Writing another story was the only time I felt peaceful relief from the anxiety of being on submission. I wrote a whole other novel in the time I was waiting for my first book to sell.
Thank you, Mary Elizabeth!
Posted April 2014