Agentless Again, and Happy
Success. Whenever writers hear this word, we all have a similar vision pop into our heads.
The most popular one is our book printed and bound inside a bright, shiny cover. A close second is signing a publishing contract or getting an agent call. There are others we all conjure, like the first book signing, or typing the elusive “THE END” on the last page of a manuscript.
At the beginning of last year, I considered myself successful.
Well, I was on my way to success. I had two completed manuscripts, one fantastic WIP, and was signed with an agent who loved my book as much as I did. Things looked good.
This year, I have one manuscript I consider “finished”, two WIPs, and I’m agentless.
And guys, I’m happy about it. It may look like I’m further behind in my writing career this year, but only on paper. Hopefully, by sharing my story, other writers can learn how to find the right agent fit.
When my agent first approached me, I was overwhelmed. I had agents requesting full revisions, a few who showed genuine interest, and two small press publishing offers. I didn’t know what to do. When my agent, let’s call him Mike, gave me a call, he didn’t ask for revisions. He said we’d work through things together, and he’d teach me everything he could. That sold me.
We dove into the synopsis and cover letter. He guided me, taught me how to pitch and tighten. We sent off an exclusive submission, and though I was anxious to send book packages to every house that might be a good fit, I felt good about my career’s direction.
2017 was rough. I think every writer has a ‘make or break’ moment that tests how much they really want to be an author, and 2017 was my test. My husband and I both lost parents. We sold our first home and moved into a fixer-upper, and my youngest son was diagnosed with autism. In between all of this, I realized my second novel wasn’t ready to shop, so I had to have a tough conversation with Mike. I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to make the changes I wanted to novel #2. I dove into a new WIP instead, which left me with only one novel to send out to the world.
But there was another reason I wasn’t ready to send Mike my second book baby.
We’d been working together for a while, and he wasn’t submitting as often as other agents in the YA industry. I was holding back because I was beginning to suspect Mike my not be the right agent for my genre. His other clients all wrote adult fiction. I needed someone who specialized in fantasy, with the right connections and past sales in YA.
At the end of 2017, he got a job offer that was going to take up a lot of his time. I was already concerned by the lack of submissions sent out, a total of only three, so as soon as I heard his news I knew it was time to have a conversation. We were both on the same page, parted on great terms, and I still consider him a friend. I know he feels the same. We had a happy ending. I was lucky.
How to write a Synopsis, Query, and Cover Letter
THIS IS EVERYTHING. Mike helped me fix, and boy do I mean fix, my synopsis and pitch. These two must-have documents are a challenge for many writers. I was horrible at both.
How do you boil down a 90,000-word novel into three pages? Ask an agent, they know how.
I’m still no expert, but I’m much better at this skill than I was before Mike and I worked together. Notice I said skill. Synopses and queries are an art. They’re required by almost everyone in the industry. Become a pro at them as soon as you can.
It’s okay to slow down
As soon as new writers finish their first book, they want to start submitting. But there’s a reason most novelists don’t sell their first book, or second, or even third. The average is the fourth.
Don’t be so anxious to send off everything. Experience is a great teacher, and practice perfects craft.
Be sure your first novel is what you want as a debut, authors only get one, and it can define a career. I’m happy I didn’t sell my first novel as it was. I’m happy only three imprints read it. I’ve gone back and revamped it, cut characters, deleted scenes, and it’s so much stronger. I am learning to see my own mistakes, and I give Mike credit in helping me hone that ability.
A good agent may not be the right agent
There are so many warnings to do research on agents. I thought I’d done my due diligence. My agent had worked in publishing for over 30 years. He wasn’t a full time agent, he was an editor first, but he had sold a successful TV show and bestsellers. He loved my work and was passionate about it in a way the other agents who were asking for fulls, phone calls and revisions hadn’t been.
I still consider him a good agent. But he wasn’t right for me.
He’d been successful, but not in my genre. He’d never worked with fantasy or young adult, which is what I write. His contacts weren’t with YA imprints , and though his editing skills were top notch, they didn’t always fit with a YA voice. In his defense, he never hid that shortcoming. He was honest about it but assured me he wanted to give it a try. I don’t regret letting him try, but in the future, I will only sign with an agent who specializes in the same type of novels I produce.
Onward and Upward
This was my agent’s mantra. He taught me to believe in myself. He also taught me to self-edit and cut.
Talent only gets you so far. Everyone needs to work to be better.
If this lesson was all I got from my experience, it still would’ve been worth it.
The final takeaway
My time with an agent taught me so much. Mike made me a better writer and carried me through a rough year. I understand the business so much more than I did.
I’m almost ready to start again. This time, I have a plan. I’m making a list of agents who requested my novel in the past, and focusing on finishing my other two books. After they are complete, I’ll hit the query trenches again, better armed, with three novels ready to go. When I make it, I want to be ready. I’m willing to take my time. Practice is important, it builds experience, which includes failures.
Remember this book?
Stephanie Garber and her debut novel, Caraval, is one of the big success stories of #Pitchwars. Every YA writer wants what she has, but it’s so easy to overlook how she got there. Caraval was her fifth book. She worked hard, she learned, and she finally succeeded.
There are so many others. The Hate You Give wasn’t Angie Thomas‘ first novel. Tahereh Mafi wrote five novels before her big breakout, Shatter Me. FIVE. What if she had stopped at four? Pick an author, and you’ll find rejection at some point in their journey. This industry is hard. There’s no other way to put it. You’ve got be tough, and that’s not going to change. Keep writing through the failures. Embrace them, each one will teach you something. Write until you make it!
Until I make it, you can find me in front of my computer, typing away.
Jessica Grace Kelley is an accountant by day and writer by night. She greatly prefers her night job. She’s an author and poet, and her young adult novels have received over a dozen awards and contest wins, including the Daphne du Maurier, the YA Authors.Me contest, and the Emma Merritt. Jessica holds a BA in Finance and Accounting. When she isn’t buried in books she spends her time writing music and co-teaching a teen writing class. Sometimes she tries to be a painter, but the product of her efforts proves it’s all in her head.