I finally did it! After nine years of writing, three manuscripts, and five years of sending queries to literary agents, I finally got the contract for which I have been waiting. (And, yes, it was just as sweet as I had hoped.) But that's not why I am writing this. I am writing because I think I learned a few things along the way that might help someone else navigate through the treacherous waters of the agent-finding process.
When I say treacherous, I mean emotionally treacherous; to my knowledge, no would-be author has ever lost an eye in the process--although I wouldn't rule it out entirely. I have met a good few agents, and to a person they were all genuine, nice people. But they are nice, BUSY people, and therein lies the problem. Despite the fact that many agents still utilize the slush pile to help fill their lists, it is a mixed blessing at best. On average, an agent slogs through hundreds (thousands?) of queries to sign just one client. If you follow a few agents on Twitter--and you should--you will see how they feel about their in-box.
I say this because you need to understand the disparate perspectives held by either side of the process. A query that represents two or three years of effort--and sometimes many more--may be deleted after less than 30 seconds of consideration. (I once received an e-reject in less than 2 minutes after hitting send.) But you have to expect this; everybody gets lots of rejections, especially at the query level. The truly difficult part of the process is at the submission level. The reason behind this is the increase in expectation that naturally follows a request for some or all of the manuscript. Who wouldn't get pumped up to get a request--it is, after all, a validation of your work.
The problem is, the odds are still stacked against you, and you have already gotten your hopes up. Have you ever wondered why an agent only requests a partial manuscript--the first fifty pages or so--when a full manuscript can be sent (by e-mail) just as easily? The answer is expectation management; a request for a partial shows restrained interest, whereas a full request could keep the writer waiting by the phone. (Guilty!) Agents don't want to be dream-killers; they are just trying to make a living, and they do this by selling books to publishers. To do this, they have to read hundreds of manuscripts, which means they are reading your manuscript looking for a reason to REJECT.
The key to getting an agent is to change the way an agent reads your manuscript, from reading with intent to REJECT to reading with intent to ACCEPT. I did it, and you can too. I will explain in the next post.