I ended my last post by saying you need to change the way an agent reads your manuscript. Take it from me--the man of many rejections--if the agent is looking for a reason to reject, she is going to find it. The question is: How do you change the agent's mindset? (Don't try mailing a box of homemade chocolate chip cookies; it doesn't work!)
Writing is and always will be primarily about the writing. The first and best way to change an agent's mindset is to create perfect prose. And then you have to sustain it for the entire manuscript, not just the first 50 pages you have gone over and over and over. The great majority of writers fall short in this regard. (After all, how many Hemingway's are there?) But don't despair; all of my favorite writers are in this less than perfect category.
So, if you don't have perfect prose, can you still snag an agent? The answer is yes, of course, as long as your writing is strong. A strong manuscript is an absolute prerequisite; you will get nowhere without one. But a strong manuscript is still very likely to be rejected, because the agent is still reading it with intent to reject. The situation is similar to the dilemma faced by an admissions officer at a highly selective college, staring at 20 strong applications for every one spot--only in this case the numbers are far worse. You need something else, and that something else is NOT floral stationary or a picture of your dog--unless your dog is cuter than mine, which is unthinkable.
Getting back to business, the best way to change an agent's mindset is to get to know her, and get her to know you. (In other words, build a relationship of some sorts with them.) Plain and simply, it is much easier to turn down someone you don't know. The easiest way to do this is to attend a conference. If you haven't gone to at least one or two, start the search for one as soon as you have finished this blog. I met several agents at the first conference I attended back in November of 2007, and I still e-mail several of them on an occasional basis. And while none of these agents offered to represent me, the information I got from them was invaluable.
Why is a relationship so important? If the agent reading your manuscript likes you, she will be seeking to find merit in your work. Remember that an agent works closely with a writer over an extended period of time, and finding someone easy to work with is a must. So, go to a conference, and leave your inner wallflower at home. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet these folks who have, after all, come there to find writers. And you don't have to be a charge to the front of the line person, either. In a three day conference, your opening will happen, perhaps at a cocktail hour after a day's sessions, or during a break in between discussions. (No bathroom stalking please!) And don't start by spitting out the 20 second pitch you have been practicing. The time for that will come--don't force it. That's why I like the cocktail hour approach. The relaxed, informal atmosphere lends itself to you being you--but be careful of too much alcohol. You might think drinking three gin and tonics makes you funnier than Rick Reilly, but nobody else will.
But there are other--less expensive and time-consuming--ways to change an agent's mindset, and I will discuss them next post. By the way, I can be found on twitter at @phogenkampVT, and on Facebook as Peter Hogenkamp. Thanks for your view!