Last month, I was beyond thrilled to receive representation from literary agent Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon. Not only did it feel great to find someone who believes in my work, Kathleen is a rockstar of an agent who was recently named one of Publisher’s Marketplaces Top 20 Agents for Children’s Literature.
But the book that landed me an agent was my second novel. I started my first YA novel, THE WHITE LEHUA, after an almost ten year break from writing. Not only was I out of practice, but I also didn’t know very much about what it really took to get the attention of agents and editors. Considering that, with my first manuscript, I did almost every dumb thing there is to do when drafting, revising and querying, I figure there’s nobody better than me to compile a list of what NOT to do while trying to get an agent.
DON’T query a 144K manuscript or…
Don’t query until your manuscript is ready
I typed THE END and enrolled in a class called “How to Query Your Manuscript” at my local library. The instructor helped attendees create a rough draft of a query letter and pointed us in the direction of https://querytracker.net, a website that helps writers find agents to query.
That was okay, but before I did any of that, I really should have asked myself, “Is this manuscript ready? Is it polished to perfection?” The answer was no. Hell no. The draft was 144,000 words. No, that’s not a typo. In a category where 65K-80K is the standard, I had a book that was almost double the size. Even worse, I was the only one who’d really read it. Maybe if someone else had read it, they might have told me that my draft was stuffed with boring and irrelevant backstory.
DO find someone willing to tell you that your draft is stuffed with boring and irrelevant backstory…
Or do get all the help you can in polishing your manuscript
When querying my 144K edition of THE WHITE LEHUA wasn’t working, I began to realize I needed help. All the help I could get, in fact. In my case, I decided to go back to school and get my creative writing degree. I also joined a local writer’s group, found several amazing critique partners and went to any conferences I could afford. With my second book, the one that attracted the attention of my agent, I also hired an editor I admire to do a read through and give me developmental notes. Financially, this was a big splurge, but I feel it paid off.
DON’T read Divergent and Harry Potter and think you’re done…
Or don’t forget to read widely…both in your genre and in others
Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
When I began drafting, my first manuscript, I had read the biggest books in YA but I hadn’t read nearly widely enough. I noticed a huge improvement in my writing when I increased my reading. I gave myself the goal of reading at least two young adult books per week and two to three books outside this category per month.
DO read everything you can get your hands on…
Or do know the conventions and clichés of your category and genre
If you’re not aware of what’s out there, it can be easy to think that elements of your manuscript are very original. This is one of the things that happened to me. My first manuscript featured a girl with red hair and a missing mother who was following a series of clues from an old journal. When I began interning for an independent publisher, and generally reading more, I couldn’t help but notice that existing books and the publisher’s slush was full of dead parents, old books and letters being used for plot advancement and feisty, red-haired protagonists. While I think a good book can contain these elements, I do think that it becomes harder for a manuscript to seem really special when making use of common components.
DON’T say your book is the next Twilight…
Or don’t make big mistakes in your query letter
Remember that class I took at the library? Here’s a cringe-worth excerpt of what we came up with:
“My young adult novel, THE WHITE LEHUA, complete at 140,000 words, is Stephanie Meyers’s Twilight meets Raiders of the Lost Ark, and will appeal to readers of teen romance and detective novels with a paranormal flourish.”
So there’s so many problems here. The fact that I don’t appear to know what genre my own book belongs in is a massive one. The giant word count. But the comp titles I’ve chosen are biggest issue. In retrospect, it’s a comparison that smacks of hubris but at the time I really didn’t mean it that way. I just thought that, surely, I should compare my book to things that were popular and that people liked. But it turns out that using comps like these is an instant turn-off for many agents and editors. Books like these represent the exception to the rule, a wild (often unpredictable) level of success enjoyed by very few. Using them as comps makes agents think you haven’t done your homework and that your expectations are out of sync with reality.
On the subject of comp titles, I’ll also add that my experience suggests agents don’t agree on whether using comp titles is necessary or important. Some like the effective use of comp titles while others say that this is a big danger area for writers. We generally don’t have access to book sales data and can’t know in advance how an agent feels about a particular title. I think the bottom line is, if you can come up with a couple of titles published within the last few years with moderate sales where the comparison really helps explain the concept of your book, then go for it. Otherwise, feel free to leave them out.
DO say what’s special about your book…
And do remember that research is important
Hopefully, you’re not out querying your unedited 144K opus. Your query letter is your chance to tell the world about how special your story is. Luckily, tons of help is available. My friend, Amy Trueblood, maintains a great blog called Chasing the Crazies where she has two series for querying writers. One is called “Query 101” where she has the essentials of writing an effective query. The “Quite the Query” series showcases successful queries that have led to agent and publication offers.
I also think that researching individual agents is an extremely important aspect of succeeding in the querying process. With my first book, I queried long lists of agents, many of whom would probably not been a good fit for my project. With my second book, I queried around twenty agents, some of whom I’d met at conferences, some from the New Agent contest I entered and some I had been following for a while on social media. I focused my list on agent and agencies with clients whose work I loved.
DON’T go it alone
For the first year or so after I returned to writing, I was pretty much on my own.
But along the way, I learned that, while writing may be a solitary process, you don’t have to be alone.
I am so thankful for all the friends I have made along with way, both in real life and via social media. I strongly encourage everyone to build a network to help them through what can be an emotionally difficult process.
DO enter contests and seek out mentoring
One great way to connect with other writers is through writing contests like Brenda Drake’s Pitch Wars or Michelle Hauck’s Nightmare on Query Street. If your entry makes it into the agent round, great. If not, you can use the contest feeds on social media to connect with other writers. Many of these contests also have a mentor round, providing the opportunity to get free, expert assistance with your query, your first few pages, or in the case of Pitch Wars, your entire draft.
I connected with my agent via the New Agent contest over the summer. Patricia Nelson requested my manuscript from the contest. She e-mailed me to tell me she liked my manuscript but felt that it was a better fit for her colleague, Kathleen. Fast forward a few months, and I am honored to be a part of #TeamKrush!
DON’T stop improving your writing and your process
I spent around three years writing, rewriting, revising and querying one manuscript. While I always plan to put my all into revisions, I don’t think I will ever do that again. I think it’s important to both refine your current project and work on new ideas.
Given trends in publishing, your current manuscript may not be the one that lands you an agent or a book and I think it’s important to be planning your next steps.
DO be thinking about your next project or projects while working on your current draft
Definitely jot down any ideas you have for new projects! If you get stuck in difficult revisions with your current WIP, why not spend a little while outlining or drafting your next big idea?
DO keep going and keep writing!