“‘The Promise of Water’ is as graceful as it is powerful —
a bracing and heart-breaking plunge into the mystery of identity, the boundlessness of love.”
Richard Adams Carey, author of IN THE EVIL DAY, THE PHILOSOPHER FISH, and AGAINST THE TIDE

How I landed a literary agent – Part One

Blogging has not been a “thing” for me lately. Leaving my job at the university – that was a thing in the last year or so. Going out on my own and starting a marketing and communications agency with five of my most respected and talented colleagues – that was another thing — an amazing, entrepreneurial dream come true. Carving out time for novel #2, yet another. But time for blogging? I’ve had none.

All the same, I’ve been meaning to write the kind of post that I had consulted many times in the months I spent shopping my book: How I landed an agent. When I began sending queries in 2014, I searched the web for success stories of authors that had ventured out on this strange, exciting and frustrating endeavor before I had. I found their posts helpful, their stories encouraging, their tips enlightening. I am delighted that I now have the opportunity to share the story of how I secured representation and hopefully aid those of you who are currently about to embark on (or are in the middle of) your own search.

“How I landed an agent” is two-part series — which is pretty much symbolic of the time it took me to be successful in reaching my goal of landing not just any agent, but a great agent. Part One explains how I prepared my manuscript (and myself) for querying. Part Two will describe how I entered into a contract with the amazing Elizabeth Copps and worked with her to get the manuscript ready for submission to editors.

Part One: Getting the Manuscript Ready, Entering Contests and Other Steps to Take

You can’t talk about the querying process without acknowledging, to some extent, the product you have to sell and what it took to get it query-ready. An overview of that story follows.

JUNE 2011: I earned my MFA in fiction in 2011. I had entered the program in 2009, assuming, as many do, that my manuscript would be ready to query right after graduation. I knew in my gut, however, that it needed more work. I had learned a great deal during my 4 semesters, but I needed fresh eyes and I wanted to give the novel the best possible chance. So I took the advice of author Jessica Anthony and stuck it in a drawer. She suggested 12 months; I went for 18. Time passes pretty quickly when you are raising small children and working a lot.

SUMMER 2013: After dusting off the MS, I was able to read it with clear vision. I spent about 6 months revising, and by “revising” I mean sometimes writing and sometimes taking pages of notes or simply meditating on how I can make the book better. Once I started to feel good about the MS, I began searching for contests that would hopefully give me a little extra cred in my query letters (REASON #1 TO ENTER CONTESTS). I came across the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts’ Whidbey Emerging Writers Contest. This was the perfect impetus to ramp up my editing (REASON #2 TO ENTER CONTESTS) and seek my first beta reader since my MFA — a great friend who I envisioned would be a typical reader of my kind of book. The two of us frantically sent pages back and forth so that I could submit the best version of my MS before the deadline. Much to my surprise and delight, I was runner-up in that contest — just missing a weeklong getaway in a writer’s cabin in the Smoky Mountains! But I did win a $200 2nd place check, my first earnings for my creative writing.

AUGUST 2013: Another great thing about my Whidbey venture was that I received outstanding feedback in the form of a critique (REASON #3 TO ENTER CONTESTS) by agent Andrea Hurst. Some writers do well to snag representation following a contest win (REASON #4 TO ENTER CONTESTS). In this case, my manuscript was too literary-leaning for the Hurst Agency, which represents more commercial novels. (This became a trend as I moved forward, causing my husband to tease more than once, And why is it that you didn’t write a more “commercial” book? But that’s an entirely different blog post for a different day.)

FALL 2013: Using feedback from the Whidbey experience, I revised the manuscript once again and also sought new beta readers, making sure that at least one was male. My protagonist is a man, and I felt I needed a male reader to give me honest feedback about Nate Bishop. Several beta readers later, I felt ready to query agents with one exception: It was late fall, and I didn’t want to query during a lull in the publishing world, so I waited to send my first wave of submissions. To help me bide my time (REASON #5 TO ENTER CONTESTS), I entered The Great Novel Contest by the Columbus Creative Cooperative, and earned a finalist ranking. I also applied for a seminar with Folio Literary, which gave me the opportunity for a one-on-one Skype session in which Jeff Kleinman, Erin Harris and Michael Sterling gave me great feedback on my query letter and first ten pages.

MARCH 2014: Finally, it was time to query agents. I had done quite a bit of research, keeping a list of potential agents. My plan was to send out letters in waves of about ten. No one was too accomplished or high brow. No one’s list was too intimidating. If they represented the kind of fiction I loved and to which I aspired, I considered them fair game, for better or for worse. Meanwhile, I entered a few more contests, ultimately placing as a semi-finalist in the William Faulkner Wisdom Competition.

SPRING/SUMMER/FALL 2014: For the next many months, I sent my queries in batches — some that met with partial and full requests, some that asked for exclusives (which I felt unable to grant), and some that ignored me completely. During the summer and fall, I got pretty far down the road with the Bent Agency, Browne & Miller, and a really wonderful agency that I now call home (more on that later). Anyone who asked to read the book replied with helpful feedback about the manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, so I continued to revise here and there throughout the entire process as well as send the MS out to more beta readers.

If you’re a data person, here’s a list of highlights from my agent search (minus the agents’ names): 

Fastest rejection — 39 minutes (at 10:00 at night)

Top two fastest requests for material — 24 hours and 48 hours

Fastest back-to-back rejections — Two in ten minutes followed by a rejection on a short story contest. On another day, I received three rejections in five hours.

Most concise rejection form letter — Four words: “Not for us, thanks.” I will admit that when I heard Barbara Braun rejected queries this way, I couldn’t resist the temptation to give her a try.

Longest period of time from query to response — Six months.

Overall stats — In about 14 months, I sent approximately 70 queries, had 11 requests for partials and fulls, and secured one great offer from the wonderful Elizabeth Copps of the Maria Carvainis Agency in New York. Tune in next time to hear about my 11-month engagement with MCA before signing with the agency in May 2015.

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10 Comments

  1. So helpful to read what you’ve done in the process!

  2. You even made this interesting and entertaining!

  3. I’m in suspense!!!! Glad to sort of know the outcome though 😉 I’ll be sharing this with my college junior daughter who is majoring in English!

  4. You’re a very organized person to have all of this data on your process! Thank you for sharing your story.

    • Thank you for reading, Karen! The process fascinates me, so from the start I tracked information to see if I could detect any trends in case those trends had anything to tell me about how to improve my manuscript or query letter. I enjoyed reading about you and your work on your website, and I wish us both success!

  5. So happy for you, Andrea! This is great news!

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A Crossley SpencerA. Crossley Spencer

A. Crossley Spencer is the author of The Promise of Water, a freelance writer and a teacher.

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