Once you have your manuscript in the best possible shape, it is time to find a literary agent. I don’t think I can properly relate how important it is to have an agent. First, many publishing houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts – these are manuscripts sent to publishers directly from authors. Second, an agent will look out for your best interest as an author, from choosing the best publishing house/editor to making sure your book is getting the proper attention from your publisher.
There are many wonderful resources online to help you find an agent: writersdigest.com and literarymarketplace.com are good places to start. One of my favorite authors, Jennifer Weiner, has an amazing section on her website for writers that I also highly recommend. One of the best pieces of advice she gives, which I borrowed from her, is to look at the acknowledgements in books that are similar to yours for the agent’s name. If you are writing a non-fiction World War II book, agents that generally represent fiction writers might not be the best fit. Once you have a list of agents, you can research the agent online and what type of submission process he/she requires.
Admittedly so, I had an easy time finding an agent (yes, you are allowed to hate me for that). I was very fortunate to know several agents from my job as a publicist. In fact, author Dav Pilkey (of the hilarious Captain Underpants series) is responsible for my agent. Dav was one of the first people I told I was writing (since he was the one to encourage me to do it in the first place). He let the cat out of the bag that I was writing a book to one of the agents, the fabulous Jodi Reamer, at his literary agency. At first I was embarrassed because the fact that I was writing was my dirty little secret. However, Jodi was interested in whatever craziness I was up to and asked to see my manuscript when I was ready, which was a huge honor and relief. Still, Jodi needed to read my manuscript and decide whether to represent me, so I did have to earn my agent.
Jodi and I worked on a few edits of The Lonely Hearts Club together before I was officially signed as her author. A really great agent will be able to help you get your manuscript in top form and this can take a lot of work. For instance, at one point Jodi suggested that a secret that I revealed on page 100 should come out in the first chapter. After nearly having a heart attack with that suggestion (I will admit there were tears), I tried it and realized how much better it made the story. This also meant that I would have to rewrite the majority of the book, which I did. Even though the suggestion scared the daylights out of me, it was really the turning point in getting the manuscript to a stage where it would be acceptable to publishers.
Because I have a very demanding job as a publicist, there would be months and months that would go by before I could work on editing. It took nearly two years with Jodi to get The Lonely Hearts Club into a good enough place to send to publishers. One of my favorite stories from this time has to do with a ritual I started while writing LHC. I listened to nothing but the Beatles while writing. And after I finished each draft, I would blast the electric version of “Revolution” and dance around my apartment like a lunatic. One late night, I was having trouble finishing up the draft and I was stuck and frustrated. I remember lying on my bed near tears (again with the crying!), and I thought, “I’m done. I can’t do it.” I finally snapped myself out of it and finished the draft. I was too exhausted to celebrate and sent the manuscript to Jodi, thinking “Whatever.” No excitement, no fanfare, nothing. At that point, I didn’t think I had anything left in me. I didn’t even know if I could do another draft. A few days later, I got the call that basically said, “You did it! It’s ready! We can send it out!” OF COURSE. This just proves that the agent is always right and the author knows nothing (I can only imagine the number of brownie points I’m going to get for that statement!).
But we still have a long ways to go – next up: the submission process in Behind the Book, Part 3 – coming soon!