I did it. I finally made the big leap into the turbulent publishing waters - I sent out the first of my query letters. And in honor of that, I thought I would talk about how it was I came to decide which agents to query.
Step 1. This may seem obvious, but finish your manuscript. And don't just finish it, revise it. Polish it up as best you can. Have people look over it. Step away from it for a while, then come back. You'll be surprised at the things you've missed. No agent wants to see a manuscript riddled with typos and plot holes. Because I had a deadline, I didn't have the luxury of stepping away from TANGO. I just plowed ahead, relying on Mika and Marie (two friends who graciously offered to edit my novel) to catch any mistakes I made. As it turns out, I have a pension for repetition. Names, words, phrases, I am guilty of them all. Luckily, my manuscript is now much more diverse, and I believe there is only one instance of 'snapping twigs.' (Inside joke, forgive me.) But that is why you need to edit, edit, edit. I still find mistakes in published books every now and again, but that doesn't mean you're allowed to turn in a sloppy manuscript full of them. If you were an agent, would you want to read something that was just a messy first draft? I doubt it.
Step 2. Read. This can be done before or alongside step one, but I still think it's a necessity. Pay attention to the way other writers handle dialogue or setting. Take note of what works and what doesn't. If you have a problem writing really emotional scenes, look at how others exicute them. It's like homework, only much more fun.
Step 3. This goes hand-in-hand with step two: Hang out at your local bookstore. Pay attention to what is selling. Are those tables at the front of the store full of vampires and werewolves? Great, if you wrote a YA covering just that topic! Not so great if you wrote a self-help book on how to make floral arrangements. Check out other books in your genre, and check how similar yours might be. Agents don't want to see the same thing over and over again, so if your novel is basically a copy of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, complete with a chapter whose sole sentence is "My mother is a fish," then you might have some problems finding someone who would want to represent your book.
It's always good to know your competition, and know it well.
Step 4. Do your research. Once you select a genre for your novel, head to somewhere like agentquery.com. It can help you find agents who will represent your genre of writing. Don't rely on that site, though. Once you've found a few agents, check out their websites. AgentQuery is not always up to date on submission requirements, and you don't want your query to be rejected because you forgot to send the first five pages, or because you attached something when you shouldn't have. Or worse yet, that your #1 choice for an agent is no longer accepting unsolicited submissions. Simple googling will also get you some results. Try and be specific, though, if you're going the Google route. "Literary agent + science fiction," for example. See what happens.
Also, it's a good idea to read the agent bios, besides just the submission guidelines. Many of them have worked at other agencies, and you can then check those out as well for potential agents. Those bios are also your bible. A lot of times, they'll tell you exactly what that person is looking for. If what you wrote doesn't qualify, move on. Maybe that other agency they worked at will represent your kind of story. Or maybe even someone else within the agency.
Another good trick is to look up the agents of authors you enjoy. If you enjoy reading science fiction, and that's what your book is about, chances are some of those agents might be interested. If you read YA, but your story is meant for adults, maybe don't try this method, but I've found a few potential agents based on books I enjoy reading.
Step 5. Read agent/agency blogs. These are bibles for budding young authors. Nathan Bransford's blog has been my savior many a time over the past few months. He tells you exactly how to write your query letter, how to format it, along with your manuscript and synopsis. He also gives a lot of really great insight into the publishing industry, which is always helpful for those of us trying to get our start. If an agent you're interested in has a blog, make sure you look it over. Blogs tell a lot about a person, and agents often will tell you what they are and are not looking for. Also, it's good to personalize your query letters, so the more you know about a person, the better.
Those are what I would consider the basic steps of hunting down the perfect agent. Once you've got a decent list (Mine is currently hovering between 50 and 60), you can start sending out those query letters.
Which is what I'll talk about next time!
Blogs I've found really helpful when it comes to finding an agent:
Dystel & Goderich