Monday, March 22, 2010

Becoming a Slush Pile Hero- Part Two: Know Your Ally

Author's note: I'll say again for the record that I do not claim to be an expert on finding an agent. I currently do not have representation. However, I hope that you'll find my comments helpful nonetheless.

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I know that I said last time we'd move on to query letters, but I realized that I was jumping the gun a bit. I'd love to say that it was intentional, that I did that because it is the very mistake many of the "aspiring published" do. However, it would be an utter and complete lie.

The truth is I realized I was missing a couple very vital parts to the process, parts that are key to being heros rather than dying before the first commercial break and known in the credits as only "aspiring author #6."

The first step is actually one I can't provide much guidance on: write a brilliant novel. Got that part done? Of course you do. I have a bunch of them piled up in my closet, and burn the extra sheets when firewood is running low. For those of you who don't warm yourselves in the evenings using the remnants of the next great American novel, perhaps I will post on the writing part of things in a future post. At the moment, we're talking about the slush pile, so let's move on to the next stage in the process, which is picking the right slush pile to conquer.

Ok, hold on and back up. Conquer is so the wrong word. Notice how I phrased it in the title. This isn't "know your enemy." This is "know your ally."

There is a big difference there. When I start talking about researching agents, I could extend the "hero" metaphor and get all of our adrenaline flowing with some exciting language about heroics and bravery and slaying the dragon, but it's not right. That's no way to go about doing research.

You should definitely research the agent to whom you're submitting. If you've done any searching at all about the querying process, you've probably heard that. However, you are NOT looking for information to exploit. This is not a game and this agent is not someone you are trying to "beat" or trick or manipulate. Quoting a sentence from the agent's website back at them isn't cute or clever. It's silly and ultimately an attempt to "beat" the agent at the "submission game."

Trust me, they've seen it before. They won't be fooled.

It all goes back to what I said last time. The agent you are submitting to is someone you are recruiting to come work for you. You are trying to find out information to see if they are a good match for you. You are also trying to find out what type of clients they want. This lets you know a) if they would even be interested and if you should waste everyone's time, and b) how you should shape what you are submitting. You want to show them why you are the type of client they want (assuming you are). They might not see that just from reading a plain, boring query. Ok, I'm getting ahead of myself here. Next time, I promise!

So that's why you should research. But where do you research?

Well, first, you need to find a particular agent to research. If you are luckily enough to do children's literature, then Casey McCormick's Literary Rambles is a great place to start. She's done a lot of the legwork for you. I also highly recommend finding an author of works similar in genre to your own and finding out who is their agent. A simple Google search along the lines of "J.K. Rowling agent" often does the trick (oh, and by the way, don't bother with that particular example. They aren't taking on clients). You can also find many agents on AgentQuery or using one of the many books available at Barnes and Noble.

Once you find an agent, begin your research. Visit their website if they have one (many more do these days than in the past). See if they have a blog (again, there are a lot more than you'd expect). See if you can find interviews and read them. You don't have to spend days on each query, but put enough time into it that you get a feel for the agent.

Here are some things to look for (other than the obvious likes/dislikes):
  • How do they treat the "aspiring published"? Are they helpful and cautionary, or do they treat them like riffraff? Does their submission page have a long list of rules written with enough annoyance that you can pick up the teeth-grinding in their prose? This doesn't necessarily mean that they aren't good with their clients. In fact, often times the agent in question is simply so good and in such a high demand that the incessant querying is getting to them. However, you should definitely make note of it.
  • What do their own clients say about them? Are their raving reviews? Is there a suspicious lack of raving reviews? Again, it is hard to know what to make of this information, but it is good to know.*
  • What do they say a good query letter should be? Everyone has a different opinion. If they like it really professional, then keep it short and to the point. Do they like the query to grab them? If so, make the query exciting. You get the idea.
Obviously, there are a lot more things you can and should look for. These are just a few. However, I hope you get the idea here. You're not looking for weaknesses to exploit facts you can "use." You're looking for proof that you are the client for them and that they are the agent for you. If you can do that, then you're on your way to becoming a slush-pile hero.

*Note that I didn't say what do rejected authors say. Take comments from rejected authors with, perhaps not a grain of salt, but rather a giant salt lick. If they're good with rejections, then great. If you see a lot of bad rejections, then they're an agent. People don't like being rejected.

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