Ask The Agent: What State Of Completion Does Your Manuscript Have To Be In When You Start Querying, Query Letter Word Count and More!
I received SO many wonderful questions this past week. It was really hard to choose only a few to answer. Keep an eye out for future columns; I may eventually get to your question.
Question from Lisa
Is it better to approach an agent with a complete, polished work or a work in progress with the hopes that an agent can more easily tailor the work to a particular market? My current project is a novel that is very ambitious and wide that either needs to be tightened up or broken down into several smaller books. I'm interested in making it marketable, but could use the guidance. What are the chances an agent search will end up in success with the work in progress over a finished product?
You should never approach an agent until your manuscript is complete and as polished as you can possibly make it. It’s a very rare occasion when an agent signs an unfinished manuscript.
The most common occurrence of this is if your manuscript is nonfiction. Then you are able to pitch on proposal and sample chapters.
However, I get the feeling your manuscript is fiction so we’ll work on that assumption. You should never start a manuscript with the thought that you want it to fit in a certain market. You’ll end up writing something that’s not truly you. You always want to write what you know, write where your passion and skill lies and then find the agent who shares that passion and sees a market for your project. You can’t force success.
If you are really having trouble and do not know how to proceed with your manuscript, I suggest first and foremost, get a critique partner AND join a critique group. They will help you immeasurably. If you feel like that isn’t cutting it, you can always hire a freelance editor or literary coach. They’ll work with you to perfect your manuscript and then you’ll pitch it to agents.
If you are interested in writing but would rather have agents and editors tell you what to write, you should think about write-for-hire work.
Pro tip: Take advantage of the writing community around you. Writing is such a solitary career, we often forget to reach out for help. Never be afraid to join writing groups, go to conferences, do workshops, or have critique partners. Often times, your peers will be your best guidance.
Question from Paul
I’ve heard a number of agents recommend that a query letter “fit into one email page”. As much as I want to follow that request, it’s very subjective given the differences in email programs, screen size, individual monitor arrangements, etc. Could you give some idea of what sort of length “one email page” means to an agent?
Great question. It’s a simple answer but we agents can be super confusing sometimes, can’t we? I mean, email “pages” don’t even exist!
A solid query can range anywhere from 400 to 600 words, roughly.
You should always personalize it, introduce yourself, and give a concise, informative, and intriguing synopsis of your manuscript. If you have a compelling reason why you feel this particular agent is the right one for you and your work—tell them! You’ll also want to give a small bio—perhaps if you’ve won any writing awards, or teach creative writing at Harvard… anything that would be impressive in the publishing industry.
You can check out this query critique I did a few years ago for more information.
Pro tip: Include where you can be found on the Web: blogs, Web sites, Twitter, Amazon, etc.
Question from Michael
The biggest mystery to me regarding how to find an agent that deals in the kind of work I deal in is... well, the whole thing. How do you know when something is a good fit? We can't possibly read every book published in a given genre, subgenre, or around whatever general theme, and just because an agent has worked with people who may have written books like yours, it doesn't strike me as much of a guarantee that the fit will be a good one without knowing a vast amount of detail about that previously published work.
This is a simple answer. Make sure the agents you are querying represent your genre and then send out hundreds of queries. You can’t know exactly what we want to represent or what is going to grab our attention just by reading books we have previously worked on. And we don’t expect you to read every book we have worked on in order to query us.
Cast your net wide!!!
Learn enough about the agent to know that they represent your genre. Learning his or her specific tastes and quirks is extra work that you are free to delve into, but if you cast your net wide enough, you’ll eventually find someone who loves your project.
Pro tip: Never send out exclusive queries. Querying agents one by one is a sad waste of your time and talent.
Thank your for all the wonderful questions this week. "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch" -Garrison Keillor
Have a question about the publishing industry? I would love to discuss the specifics of researching and querying agents, finding the right agent, proper publishing etiquette, how to go from idea to completed manuscript, marketing yourself, social media for writers, and anything else you can think of! I am now taking questions for Issue 3 of Ask the Agent. Issue 3 answers will be posted Monday, August 6th.
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