It takes a village to land a literary agent

People like to tell you that writing is a solitary business. You, alone. Butt in chair. Hours spent with your imaginary friends (called characters) in your made-up world. And all that’s true. To a certain extent.

I did the butt in chair, I put in the hours (and hours and hours and hours). But I also had a hell of a lot of help.

Because, let’s face it, has any epic quest (and landing an agent can certainly feel like an epic quest) been accomplished alone? Doesn’t Frodo need the Fellowship? Don’t the Avengers “assemble”? Heck, isn’t the Suicide Squad, a “squad”?

So, to think that I, writer, got even this far without help would be silly. It took a whole freaking village of generous writers and agents to get me here. From my IRL writing group (shoutout to Write Club!) to my workshop cohorts (VONA for life!) to the writing community on Twitter, I had help all along the way. And all that help made the difference.

So how can you get this kind of help, you ask? Let me tell you the ways:

  1. Finish your manuscript, together. This sounds obvious and you’ve heard it a million times, but if you don’t finish it, it’s not a novel. So finish it. But don’t think you have to do it alone. Find a writing group, IRL or online, to motivate you when you’d rather binge-watch “Star vs. The Forces of Evil” (What?). A writing group can not only motivate you, but can be great to bounce ideas off of, commiserate with when things aren’t going well, and keep you focused on the prize: finishing the manuscript. Find one and hold them close, precious. They are invaluable.
  2. Find semi-professional workshops and beta readers, and then revise, revise, revise. My first draft was complete in April of 2015. I didn’t query my first agent until April of 2016. What was I doing for a year? Revising. I workshopped the first 20 pp at the incredible VONA/Voices summer workshop with some amazing up-and-coming writers of color and our fearless leader Marjorie Liu. I found wonderful generous beta readers to give me insight into what was working and what wasn’t and what had simply fallen off a cliff into a plothole so deep there was no saving it. It made the story ridiculously better.
  3. Ask for financial help. Remember that VONA/Voices workshop from Step 2? It wasn’t free. But generous friends and strangers donated to a Go Fund Me account for me to go. Setting up that account was acute torture. I am a very independent person. I do not ask for money. I’ve worked since I was 16, 3 jobs in college. But there was no way I was going to swing a week in Miami with airfare and tuition. So I swallowed my pride and asked for help. And people helped. Wonderful generous friends, complete strangers. It was amazing.
  4. Embrace social media because it’s made of people. I think Twitter is the best place for writers, not to build a platform or an audience, but to create community. Writer (and my personal hero) DJ Older has a great video on how to embrace social media as writer. TL;DR: Be a human being.
  5. Come up with a pitch.  Okay, coming up with a pitch may not take a village, but you need to do it anyway. For me, it was a Twitter pitch contest that forced me to do it, and, as you can imagine, summarizing my whole novel in 140 characters, less related hashtags, wasn’t easy. But there are resources for doing it and often there’s even a pre-contest “try-out” where other Twitter peeps can help you make it better. So, yeah, maybe it does take help. And even if you aren’t entering Twitter pitch contest, coming up with a pitch is a good idea. After all, how many times have people asked you what you novel is about and you mumble something about warring families and star-crossed lovers and magic? (I did this recently for another manuscript. Goes to show you I should always follow my own advice. If I’d said “It’s about an assassin who falls for her mark, an empath who can devour souls with his touch, and she is forced to chose between loyalty to her mafia-style magical family and sparing the man she not only loves, but she believes may save the world”, it would have gone much better. Instead I said, *mumble mumble magic*. Ah, well.)
  6. Enter Twitter contests. You probably won’t win, but that’s not the point. I entered Beth Phelan’s #DVPit, and while I got a lot of excitement from agents and friends over my pitch, ultimately the contest didn’t really pan out for me. But what it did get me was a free query + 10pp critique from two of Beth’s generous clients as a contest beenie. That was invaluable.  It led to a much better query and solved a longstanding problem with the first page that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. So if someone is offering to critique your query, jump on it! I think it made the difference for me, and I can never thank the authors who volunteered enough. (This goes double for your synopsis, because sweet revising baby Jesus, your first draft  of a synopsis sucks. Trust me.)
  7. Pin it! for the world to find. Remember that nifty Twitter pitch I mentioned in Step 5? Pin it to your Twitter profile so people can find it. I had an agent find me through Twitter, read my pitch and email me to request a query. Said agent was awesome and eventually offered me representation. I ended up declining and going with Perfect Agent, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t 1) had a pitch and 2) pinned it to my profile.
  8. Query (many but not all) agents. I received 20+ query “requests” from DVPit, but the majority of those were not a good fit for me or my manuscript. How did I know? I read their agent profiles, looked at who they rep’d and in what genres, and knew that querying them would probably make neither of us happy. So, I only queried 7 of those 20. In total, I queried 9 agents (7 from the contest, 2 from other sources). I got 1 form rejection based on query alone. 3 rejections after requests for full (1 coming after I’d already withdrawn my submission because I’d signed with Perfect Agent, but whatever). The first 2 rejections were useful because the agents were nice enough to tell me when/why they stopped reading and, guess what, I made more revisions based on that. I ultimately ended up with 2.5 offers of representation. (I say .5 because I had already signed with Perfect Agent when .5 agent said she would have offered, but I was already committed to someone else.) So, even in rejection, people were helping me be better. Don’t overlook that. It’s important.
  9. Reach out to potential mentors. Publishing, especially for writers of color/indigenous writers, can seem like a massively intimidating place. Don’t be afraid to reach out to other writers for advice. I’m not saying pester Stephen King, but if you’ve been lucky enough to meet writers you admire (or, say, they rejected your short story once and you stayed friendly with them via email*) reach out and ask for their help. You might be surprised how kind and generous they are.   *This is also a lesson in how to behave when rejected. Don’t flounce, don’t get righteous. And don’t burn bridges over a difference of opinion. Build relationship instead.
  10. Trust your gut, and say, “Thank you”! First, don’t forget to thank all those people who helped you get to this awesome moment. But now, you’re in the one place only you can go. Your gut. Ok, that sounds weird, but you know what I mean. No one can make that final call for you and tell you if the offering agent is the Perfect Agent for you. That up to you. But hopefully, you’ve already had a whole lot of help building up good instincts. So thank the village that got you there, and go forth! I can’t wait to see where you end up.


Rebecca Roanhorse is rep’d by Perfect Agent Sara Megibow at KT Literary

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