How to get a literary agent — without the dreaded cold query

I participated in three Twitter pitching contests and sent out dozens of queries before I found my agent. It took me nearly a year to get an offer. And while I know that isn’t long compared to some faithful writers who have been sending out novel after novel for years, I did gain some great experience along the way, and I hope it can help you if you’re still looking for an agent or publishing house that’s right for you.

Note: I am not being sponsored to write about any of these contests or websites. They are simply new, ‘modern’ ways I know of that authors can get their work out there, maybe even get some feedback and — ideally — find representation.

Also, there is still something to be said for cold querying, as much as many of us hate it. I know authors who printed up their manuscript, sent it off to a publishing house or an agent, and got published. Agents and publishers still read the slush pile. Traditional methods still work. And I would highly recommend that if you do decide to try one of these contests or sites, that you are also cold querying at the same time. Diversifying is usually the way to get the best results.

NOW.

For the list.

1. #Pitmad Back in March, frustrated that all of my queries were coming back as rejections (even though everyone had told me that would happen at first), I decided to try some Twitter pitch contests.

#Pitmad is a quarterly event. Writers with polished, completed manuscripts (which yours should be if you’re querying agents) tweet their pitches for a 12-hour period, and if an agent or editor wants to see more, they favorite your tweet.

Let’s be real. It is crazy hard to sum up an entire book in one sentence, let alone a 140-character sentence. It took a lot of work, trimming, tugging of hair, growls of frustration, and coffee to get several sharp tweets that I felt described my book.

Diana Urban had some great advice for planning out all the tweets, including a spreadsheet and tips for making  those 140 characters shine in the mass of tweets clogging up the feed. I had a whole spreadsheet ready with tweets I agonized over for hours and I scheduled them all in Tweetdeck because I would be sleeping or working most of the contest period.

Here is the tweet that my now-agent, Sharon Pelletier, favorited:

I think I actually woke up to most of my favorites, since living in Australia = always being asleep when Americans are awake and doing productive things (hence why I’m usually up at 6 a.m. so I can talk to people). I quickly sent off the requested 50 pages of my manuscript, and couldn’t believe it when she replied just a few days later, asking for the full thing. I sent her that too, and then waited.

Every good story has obstacles, you know. The biggest one in this story was the first rejection of my full manuscript. Sharon had a lot of encouraging things to say about my writing and the story in general, but there were some real problems with it. She told me that if I made changes to the manuscript, she would be interested in seeing a revision in the future. So, after shaking off the desire to throw every draft of the novel away and become a rock musician because that’s a way more stable career, I dove back in.

How to Get a Literary Agent
Flickr / Bernard Goldbach / 2011

I got a wonderful friend who knows things about good words to read the novel and offer honest criticism. I printed the thing out and re-read, tightening sentences, circling things that didn’t make sense.

Once I got his feedback, I applied it and fixed everything I could. Suddenly, three months after the rejection (I got a few others during that time, as well as a few more requests for more pages), I had a much more solid novel. It was about 8,000 words longer, which it had desperately needed. I don’t mind telling you that I had completely neglected to resolve about four storylines without even realizing it.

So, with a gulp of anxiety, and a few deep breaths, I emailed Sharon and asked if she wanted to see the revised version. She got back to me almost right away: yes. So I sent it off again, and went back to waiting. But I can never just wait. I also had to do. Here are some things I did.

2. Pitch Madness This is a great exercise in honing your pitch (the limit is 35 words) and making sure the first page of your manuscript is stellar. You submit those two things to the contest, and a team of readers decides which pitches get passed on to agents. Agents then request more pages from those ones they want to see. I didn’t get through to the agent round, but every little thing helps you get better, in my opinion.

3. Manuscript Wishlist This is a fabulous, easily searchable website created by agent Jessica Sinsheimer. Hundreds of agents and editors have taken the time to say the unique types of manuscripts they’re looking for, beyond just the straight-up categories listed on their agency websites. I found some great agents there that I queried, and many of them responded much faster to those queries than other agents that I just found through random searches, etc. Agents also tweet under the hashtag #MSWL if they think of something they’re looking for but don’t want to update their profile on the site. Note: do not pitch on the site or hashtag, or much egg-on-face will ensue.

4. Pitch Wars I was taking part in this for the last few weeks of August. This contest runs in several rounds, the first one being the mentor round where agented/published authors volunteer to read, critique, and develop one full manuscript of an aspiring author — all with the mind to get it ready for the agent round. I was experiencing a lot of self-doubt after sending the new manuscript to Sharon (as writers are wont to do), and I thought, hey maybe getting a mentor is just the thing to do. So I entered.

While I got a lot of really kind feedback from the five mentors I submitted to, each of them had received well over 100 submissions, and alas I was not picked. But you know what? Two days after, Sharon sent me an email saying she enjoyed the revised manuscript, I had fixed the issues she was concerned about, and she wanted to talk to me on the phone. After working out a Skype call (so international), we had a chat, got along famously, and she told me she wanted to represent my novel.

I won’t go into details about my happiness explosion or the bottle of prosecco that appeared and disappeared from our house that night, but let me just say this:

Writers, general humans: you never know what yes is hiding around the corner from all those nos. Whatever your goal is, keep chasing it, even if you have to try different paths to get there.


I wrote a blog several months ago called 12 Twitter Accounts and Hashtags for Writers (it’s now updated to 16) that includes a few of these contests, but also a lot of other helpful Twitter people to say hello to, so check that out if you’d like more information. Happy querying, and if I can be of any help at all, let me know!

Feature image credit: Flickr / Jeff Turner / 2009

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