How do you know you are getting close to signing an agent?
Let's assume you have queried widely, gotten the usual hodgepodge of responses including some Rs, some No-Responses, (more and more of these lately) some requests for Partials and Fulls, and a few letters saying that so-and-so "has left agenting to become a dental floss tycoon." (Ok, so I had a hankering to make a Frank Zappa reference; but I have received several letters indicating that so-and-so left agenting, and, in one case, that an entire agency closed its doors.) So far, so good, but you are still not close, unless one of the agents who requested a full calls you and offers. This can and does happen, but very few writers have this easy of a road. For the bulk of us, we will get a few "not right for me" notes, a few NRs, and, hopefully, a few personalized notes which document what is wrong with your ms.
As agents have gotten busier and busier, there are fewer of these "helpful Rs," and more of the form Rs and N-Rs. (Even after a ms has been submitted.) I can certainly understand the N-R at the query stage--after all, the agent didn't ask you to query--but I have a hard time with the N-R at the ms stage. (They asked you to send the ms!) But, no one asked me, and I am hear to tell you that approximately 1/3 of all my requested submissions resulted in not so much as a form R. That, my friends, is life in the writing industry. But I digress! I was trying to stress the great value in a helpful R. Cherish them! Pay attention to them. And for heaven's sake create a folder of them so you can remember who sent them.) You know you are getting closer to signing an agent when more and more of the rs are helpful, and fewer and fewer are N-R or Form Rs.
As I mentioned before, I have written three mms. The first I never submitted--even I knew it was bad--and the second I spent over a year with in the query/submission/revision process. I thought I was close, but indeed I was not. I was fooled by the number of requests I had for the ms; in all, close to 30 P/F requests. How could I not be close with that many you ask? Answer: that kind of response rate from your query and sample pages indicates very clearly my Q and sample pages were good enough. But it does not speak to the publishability (I made that word up) of a ms. This is where you have to learn to read between the lines. Example:
Dear Peter: Although I enjoyed (your ms title) and thought the writing was strong, the thriller market is tight right now and I am afraid I am going to pass.
translation: Have you considered taking up pottery?
Dear Peter: I have now had the opportunity to look over (ms title), which I read with interest. Although I think the project has a lot of promise, I am not enthusiastic enough about it to offer representation.
translation: My dog could write something better than this!
I say this because agents are nice people, so I have to say it for them. However, anything original or personalized is a good sign, even if it may not seem so:
Dear Peter: your ms intrigued me and I like your voice, but I couldn't get past ....(insert one of many flaws).
translation: You can write. Revise the living hell out of your ms and send it back to me.
I realize the agent didn't specifically ask for a revision, but that does not mean you can't send one. One of the agents that ultimately offered me representation sent me something like the above after she first reviewed the ms. I revised and resent, got more feedback, and revised and sent again. Then I got a phone call (very exciting, always indicates a high level of interest) and another e-mail looking for more changes, which was the first time she had actually invited me to revise. Another R + R (revise and resubmit) and then finally an offer. Of course, by this time I was having similar exchanges with several agents and I knew I was close. Agents are busy. Agents only make money when they sell a ms. If she doesn't believe there is a good chance your ms can be sold, she isn't going to waste her time. When agents are investing their time in your work, you are close. And note there is a difference between reading your Q and sample pages and really poring over your ms on multiple occasions.
Ok, I have taken up enough of your time. Thanks again, and please share the link with your Canasta group. Please request me on FB and follow me on Twitter (@phogenkampVT) I appreciate the comments and your attention.