"How I Got My Agent" is a recurring feature on the GLA blog. Some tales are of long roads and many setbacks, while others are of good luck and quick signings. To see the previous installments of this column, click here. If you have a literary agent and would be interested in writing a short guest column for this GLA blog, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll talk specifics.
Matthew is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before. (Update: Teresa won.)
Matthew Gallaway is the author of
The Metropolis Case (Dec. 2010), a literary
novel praised by Entertainment Weekly and
called an "enchanting, often funny first novel"
by The New York Times. He lives in New York
City. See his website here.
A QUICK REQUEST FOR THE MANUSCRIPT
Sometimes finding an agent requires more work than simply sending a query letter and waiting for a sale of your manuscript. There’s often a getting-to-know-each-other phase, during which both parties get a sense of how the other one works, which can be very valuable not only in terms of shaping a manuscript, but also in developing your expectations for a longer-term relationship.
In my case, about three weeks after I sent my query letter (a blind e-mail) and was asked by the agent’s assistant to send in the full manuscript, I received a short note from the agent, who said that he was working his way through the book and was basically enjoying it and impressed by my writing skills.
At this point, I stopped querying other agents, which I mention because there’s often a debate about how long agents should take to respond after they have your manuscript; I think a good rule of thumb is four to six weeks, after which you should assume the answer is “no” and you can feel free renew the search; also, don’t send more than one e-mail reminding the agent that you’re waiting for a decision. If they don’t respond, they’re clearly not in love with you, which is a clear sign that this is not going to be a good match.
PASSING "THE DIVA TEST"
A few weeks later, I received a second note from him, saying that he admired the work but was unwilling to represent it in its current form; on the plus side, he did offer to look at it again if I’d be willing to cut the manuscript from its present length (almost 1,000 double-spaced pages) to something in the 500-600 range. This can be called the “Diva Test,” i.e., he wanted to find out if I was someone who could stomach or even embrace serious revisions as well as follow direction, which (as I subsequently learned) is a big part of the process.
In March (a month or so later), I sent him a new version, and settled in to wait. In April, he wrote back to say that he enjoyed the rewrite. He offered some additional comments, all very specific and intelligent, about how to streamline the story, and he asked for another revision. This version I submitted in early June, which was followed two or three weeks later by another note suggesting that we meet and go through the manuscript page-by-page, which happened in early July. This meeting, which lasted perhaps 90 minutes, is one I’ll always refer to as my “Boot Camp MFA,” because it was all about how to make the novel work better as a novel or story (i.e., he pointed to places in the manuscript where he “lost touch” with the characters, and identified specific passages that he liked—or didn’t like—stylistically, because as he pointed out, I needed to cut back on the “coloratura”).
Not once did he say anything about changing anything because he thought it would or wouldn’t “sell”—in fact, he dismissed the whole idea as beyond anyone’s control—but focused entirely on the integrity of the novel as a work of art. It was an intense but invaluable meeting that left me both exhilarated and wanting to throw up at the idea of doing yet another revision, which of course I did anyway, because I knew the agent was right about making the novel a better, more compelling piece of fiction.
THE PAYOFF AND THE SALE
This last revision I turned in to him in early September, and a few weeks later he called me to announce that he “had a plan.” By the end of the month, after I interviewed with several editors, the book was sold by my agent: Bill Clegg at William Morris Endeavor.
A final note to those embarking on the search for a literary agent: throughout this not-exactly-short process, there was never a formal (or even informal) agreement that the agent was “taking me on.” You have to trust that he or she is acting in your best interest, while keeping in mind the more obvious fact that any agent eventually intends to make money from the book. It’s not like he or she is reading as a favor; that’s not how it works, despite what I said a few seconds ago about focusing on the quality of the work versus the commercial potential.
Good, inspired writing (however you want to define it) can still be sold by the right agent, and sometimes all the pieces fall into place. So if you’ve finished your manuscript and are looking for an agent, don’t give up: even if you don’t know anyone, there’s always hope that you’ll get a break and find your match. And if it doesn’t happen this time, there’s always the next one.
Matthew is excited to give away a free book to one random commenter. Comment within one week; winners must live in Canada/US48 to receive the print book by mail. You can win a blog contest even if you've won before.(Update: Teresa won.)