Finding an Agent: The One-Two Punch

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

If I were to give you one piece of advice about your agent search, it would be this: Employ a two-part strategy.

Stand Out. The writing field is crowded. Your biggest challenge is to stand out. Think of it as if you were trying to make it in Hollywood. The odds are not so different. The trick is to be distinctive. To be memorable.

How does one do this when every agent and writing blog is giving you advice to craft the same kind of query, to follow to a T the very same guidelines—in other words to conform. How does a writer stand out?

You can become memorable in a number of ways:

  • Becoming part of the agent’s blog community. We met many of our newer clients for the first time right in the comment section of this blog. As we interact together, we get to know each other.
  • Having a friend refer you to his own agent. This is not something you can come right out and ask your friend, but you can hint. No one knows us like our clients. When one of my clients say, “I think you ought to take a look at so-and-so,” it goes to the top of the pile.
  • Choosing an agent with whom you have a connection. Right now in my stack of possibilities, I have two writers I’ve known through my denomination and one who lives in a nearby town and connected with me when I spoke at her church. These stood out.
  • Meet the agent at a writer’s conference. When we meet someone in person, it is much harder to say no than when we get a faceless query.
  • Build a stunning social network. Many times we seek out someone who has built an important platform. We’ve found that writers who can command a vigorous online following translate to authors who amass a vigorous readership.

Deliver. Once you’ve caught our attention, you need to deliver. It does you no good to come to the attention of every agent and editor in the business and when they all start requesting your work, you send a ho-hum book. You’ve squandered that first punch.

Your book has to be spot-on market-wise and beautifully written. It’s not an easy task but it’s what’s required these days. The competition is daunting.

As you build toward a publishing career, be strategic. Build in tandem—your distinctiveness and your craft.

Trust me, if you stand and deliver, you will be successful.

What’s your strategy? Did I miss any punches? How have you been able to stand out? How about your craft? How do you know when your idea is unique but not too odd? How do you know if your writing is ready-for-prime-time?

68 Responses

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  1. Sarah Thomas says:

    Judicious use of props. During a meeting with an editor I used a leaf and a glass of water to demonstrate the Lotus Leaf Effect–a metaphor I use in one of my books. She didn’t offer for the book, but I’ve seen her since and she does remember me. And we had a great conversation only peripherally related to publishing. Made me realize it’s important to connect with agents and editors as PEOPLE not just as a means to an end.

    • Mary Curry says:

      I’d love to hear more about that lotus leaf demo, Sarah. I’d probably be trembling and drop the glass of water on her lap or something.

      Anyway, you’ve intrigued me.

    • “superhydrophobic”
      I was so curious about the Lotus Leaf Effect, I Googled it. COOL!!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I must say, Sarah, I’ve never had anyone use props in a pitch session. Props to you for being innovative. . . I think.

    • Sarah Thomas says:

      Jennifer–exactly!

      Mary–the Lotus Leaf Effect is a natural aversion to water typical of many leaves, particularly the lotus leaf. Next time it rains (or you use the sprinkler) notice how water beads up and runs off leaves instead of puddling and spreading. I stole a leaf from the indoor planters around the hotel elevator and dipped it in a cup of water to demonstrate.

    • Sarah, props! Our associate pastor uses them all the time in his sermons. We see this demonstrated at meetings, speeches, etc. through PowerPoint and various other means. And at pitch sessions? Wow! You’ve definitely given us food for thought. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I know I stand out, it’s whether or not I stand out like a punk rocker at an Amish quilting bee. And in case ANYONE cares, I sang back-up in a punkband. Yes, 100% true.

    I should have a sign over my head that says “doesn’t fit in”. I finally accepted that I’m somewhat off kilter when I realized I was allergic to nylons and went to a Baptist Bible college.
    If I had a strategy, per se, it would be to accept my voice and say what needs to be said, albeit with kindness and grace. I’ve become a part of several blogging communities and give what words I can and learn from the words of others. I have made “off-blog” friends with quite a few of the people on several blog sites.
    I KNOW my idea is unique and have only heard of a few other books remotely close to mine. There is not one single Amish werewolf from space in anything I have written. I write in a genre that is thriving, but my characters are unique. There are NO CBA books with Native American/Boston Brahmin/British cavalry/Arizona pioneers that deal with forced cultural transitions or characters with PTSD in the Amazon lists right now. Zip. Nada.

    I freely admit, with deep chagrin, that I queried WAAAAY too soon. Way. Too. Soon.
    But I know that my WIP is now just shy of being ready to query, the only thing I must get are Navajo translations.
    But Google Translate is ever so slightly useless with traditional Navajo grammar. So you can find me in Window Rock, AZ in 2 weeks, with a notebook, a pen and a few elederly Navajo ladies patiently spelling out words for me.
    My beta readers have told me that they were upset when they read “The End”. One phoned me and told me she thought about them all for 5 days before they left her mind, one by one. That same frend also told me that of her two favourite characters, one was the bad guy, because she felt so bad for him, being such a bad, bad, BAD guy.

    I’m ready to stand, deliver and send a roundhouse to finish things off.

    • yes, I just spelled friend “frend”. And this is AFTER my tea. Forehead. Table.

    • Chrisitne Dorman says:

      When readers are upset that the book is over, you know it’s time to stop revising and start querying. I am SO happy for you, Jennifer, and I will be praying for you as you query again.

      In regards to uniqueness, not only is your book unique, you have a unique voice. That’s a part of what makes you memorable. I feel certain that you will “stand and deliver.”

      And by the way, don’t you at least have an Amish vampire who’s heartbroken over a wizard that’s trying to go straight and live a non-magical life? No? Aw, c’mon! Do you have to be THAT original?

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      One thing about deep chagrin for submitting too soon– don’t beat yourself up about it. The agents I know– the good agents– understand this writing life. Besides, if the truth be known, most of us see far too many proposals to be able to put writer with previously seen proposal.

      Each proposal starts with a clean slate.

      • Thank you Wendy. Phewff! That’s a relief.

        Of course, whenever I hear “clean slate” I think of Anne Shirley smashing her slate over Gilbert Blythe’s head.

        😉

      • Lisa says:

        Thank you so much for that encouragement. I am guilty, but I really think that experience has refined my work beyond what I could have imagined. I am so excited to try again soon!

    • Amanda Dykes says:

      Jennifer, I love reading your posts. You have such voice, and in my years as an English teacher that was the HARDEST of the 6 writing traits for me to teach. I wish I could go back and show all my former students your blog comments. 🙂 You always bring a smile to my face.

      And, like Wendy said, be encouraged about the premature querying. I was guilty of that as well, but I learned from it, changed things up, went to a conference, and now have an agent I’m thankful beyond words for 🙂 There is grace even in the publishing biz.

    • Ann Bracken says:

      Hey, I played bass guitar in college! We should get together. When you’re done in AZ drive north for about twelve hours. We can do lunch, LOL! (I do hope those Navajo ladies are the result of a friend of mine.)

  3. Mary Curry says:

    Thanks for this post, Wendy.

    I usually find myself terrified after reading these types of posts, but once I allow time for the panic to subside, I find myself reflecting on them and trying to find ways to integrate the suggestions into my writing life.

    More to reflect on thanks to today’s post.

  4. Thanks for this post, Wendy. I think the most difficult part is obviously figuring out HOW to stand out. It can become so completely overwhelming to think about just how many writers are out there. I start thinking, “There’s no reason I will stand out. None.” But we just have to move past that and confidently–but humbly–do what we can to make people come back to our blogs and read our stuff.

    I think a significant thing that LEADS to the one-two punch you’ve described here is prayer…prayer and trusting that God has a plan for your life as a writer. If we’re practicing these disciplines, the actual punches we throw will have a far greater likelihood of success.

  5. Chrisitne Dorman says:

    Like Lindsay and Mary, I sometimes get terrified. When I think about how much the odds are against my getting an agent, let alone getting my books published, I feel that I’m just building myself up for failure. It seems like a romantic dream and I am, by nature, a realist, not a romantic. Still, I feel the need to write and I really believe in my two novels, especially the one that I’m almost ready to move into the query stage. It is a psychological mystery and I feel it is unique because of the focus of the story and the way in which I am telling it. I’ve been doing research on books in the psychological fiction and mystery genres and I haven’t found any that are that similar to mine. I have been hesitant even to call it a mystery because the label brings with it the expectation of a story with a detective–professional or amateur. Also these books tend to be about solving a murder. There is no murder in my novel. There is a police detective, but she only appears in a couple of scenes. The book’s focus is on the two main characters and their relationship. The mystery is about what is going on inside one of the main characters and how that leads to a traumatic event between the two characters and the shattering of their relationship. In terms of plotting, I am doing neither straight chronological narrative nor traditional flashback. I’m putting the plot together in a time mosaic. One character experiences time as discrete moments rather than as a continuity and I am trying to imitate this with the plot structure.

    In regards to delivering, that has been my big worry. I’ve been honing my writing skills for decades. This is the fifth draft of the novel and I am trying to make sure that every scene and every word has a reason for being there. And this weekend I recieved affirmation that I am succeeding. I sent pages of the novel to Writer’s Digest’s critique service. The critique editor to whom my pages were assigned has written both fiction and non-fiction books and has been pubished numerous times. Saturday morning I received her feedback. She wrote: “I hope you won’t be disappointed if I don’t send a lot of ‘criticims’ your way, but to recommend changes to this beautiful writing would be to do it a disservice.” I was blown away! Obviously, I had hoped that the feedback would be mostly positive, but I had never expected that response. In addition, she generously wrote to me yesterday with the name and contact information of her agent, saying that of course she couldn’t guarantee anything, but recommending that, when I felt ready to query, to be sure to contact her agent and to keep in touch with her (the editor) to let her know what happens. This has made me feel that, against all odds, maybe this is not a frivolous hope. Maybe I do stand a chance of realizing this dream of being a traditionally-published author.

    If I succeed, it will be thanks to you, Wendy, and all the writers, such as Jennifer Major, who teach and encourage me. And of course, it will be thanks to God, who has given me the gift of writing and the grace to persevere in trying to share it.

    Blessings!

  6. Steve says:

    Wendy: I’ve executed each of the bullet points that are remotely possible on my end trying to attract a specific agent at your agency. I wish you’d go ahead and have her give me a call today. My query’s in the stack. 🙂 ~ steve

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Dear Steve-in-the-Stack, if you knew what a crazy week/month this is. We’re all preparing for ICRS (book trade show for the CBA Market), printing individual presentation, planning for meetings.

      At last count we had 21 meetings scheduled with editors or the publisher.

      Oy, oy, oy. 🙂 All that to say, chances are you’ll be hanging out in the stack with many other anxious writers for quite a little while yet.

  7. I’ve always hesitated to approach agents I consider personal friends (like some of you) to represent me professionally because it might confuse the relationship. How do you deal with situations like that?

  8. Sarah Grimm says:

    Great post. This business is so hard to stand out in. But if I could get my kindergarten teacher to remember me all these years later, I might stand a chance. I just wish I knew what I did back then to make such an impression (other than volunteering to hold that boa constrictor around my neck when the portable zoo visited).

    They aren’t as slimy as you think (not zoos, boa constrictors).

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I wouldn’t employ the boa technique with agents. BTW, I’ve said this before but your name is the perfect name for a storyteller. That alone makes you stand out.

  9. Wendy,

    You ARE the dorm mother! You really, really are! I love reading your pep talks. They’re full of encouraging realism – “It’s tough out there, kids, but I know you’ve got it in you! Now here’s how you go about doing it….”

    Thanks for the boost and the pointers – and I loved that movie. Stand and Deliver, yes.

    As one famous, and remarkably symmetrical, aquatic cartoon says, “I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.”

  10. Wendy, this post gives me acres and acres of things to think about. Enjoyed the replies also. Helps to demystify the agent in knowing what they expect.

  11. Voni Harris says:

    Put me in the column of wanting to overwork my WIP.

    AND put in the column of wanting to submit too early.

    What a balancing act. I’m learning as I go. I don’t guess there’s anyone out there with a list of tips to tell when you’re doing which one, or how to hit that balance. Trial and error it is! Developing and trusting your instincts and your critique partners.

    Blessings!
    Voni

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Voni, I’m not sure that you can do that balancing act without outside input. You need to put your manuscript in the hands of tough, knowledgeable readers/ critiques and get an unbiased opinion.

  12. Great post, Wendy, as always. This gives me a lot to think about as I prepare for ACFW. How to stand out? I’m thinking lotus leaves & boa constrictors…

  13. I definitely understand becoming a part of the blog community, and I try hard to come up with any little morsel that can contribute to the conversation without being brown-nosey. But so many times I just feel like an elementary school kid who raises her hand and shouts, “Pick me! Pick me!” Do these comments ever come across to you like that? Any suggestions? Thanks for your time. (And I’m sure you notice politeness, too. Or is that being brown-nosey? Oy!)

  14. There are some great tips in this post and in the comments. I used to worry that I wasn’t unique enough to stand out because I’m relatively shy by nature, but I am realizing more and more it’s also about being professional, present, and willing to take that next step to show how dedicated we are to our writing. Thanks!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      And Cindy, in this over-promotional world we live in, sometimes shy listeners are the ones who are truly unique.

  15. Very nice tips, Wendy. Thank you.

  16. Currently, my main strategy of “standing out” is perseverance and determination. Though, critique group members and other bloggers have mentioned I generously share encouragement and resources. I suppose that trait helps.

    I never feel like my writing is fully ready for “prime-time.” But I’m, as most of us are to ourselves, very hard on my myself. (Ahem, I’ve edited this comment three times before pressing “post.”)

    Thanks for these insights, Wendy. I so appreciate this blog!

  17. Christina says:

    I have to say I tend to shy away from leaving comments on agent blogs. By the time I’m able to read them there are tons of comments already and I know how little time most people have in a day, I can’t imagine how little time agents have. I guess I just thought of it as wasting an agent’s time when they have better things to do than read my comments. Guess I misthought that one a little. 🙂

  18. Carole Avila says:

    Thank you, Wendy, for this great blog on finding an agent from an agent’s perspective. I find this very valuable information and appreciate it very much!

  19. Thanks for this advice. Even though it’s summer, I’ve put my Wonderbread bags over my feet, and I’m about to jump into my boots and run with it!

  20. Ann Bracken says:

    “Think of it as a gathering where everyone is happy to see you walk in the door.” That’s a lovely thought, as long as they don’t call me Norm.

    My strategy is to find as many people willing to bleed on my manuscript as possible. I’m entering writing contests to see what the judges say, taking classes, and hoping to eventually have a couple novels worth shopping out. Like Jennifer, I queried the first one WAY too soon.

    I should probably be writing on the second one instead of blogging, but I’m going to use your excuse of getting to know agents on their blogs. I hope you don’t mind, Wendy!

  21. Tianna Clore says:

    Wendy- thank you so much for this post! It has inspired me to actually leave a comment or two! I have lingered on this blog for months but only left one comment because I did not want to seem annoying to the agents. Thank you for the inspiration to put myself out there a bit 🙂

  22. Sundi Jo says:

    What upcoming writing conferences would you recommend?

  23. Thank you so much for this article!! I love getting all your posts in my mailbox and those I don’t read right away I save for later. I’ve subscribed to several blogs over the years and always end up deleting my subscription for lack of time to read. Every topic you post, however, has been helpful so far and I have no intention of canceling ever! I just wanted to say THANK YOU! 🙂

  24. Kirk says:

    Great post, Wendy, and it gave me a bit to think about. As far as a strategy, I’ve been focusing on interacting online with agents (blogs, Twitter, etc) and meeting them at conferences.

    The hard part is really knowing if I stand out. I’ve made friends with other writers, a couple of editors and a few agents, and have enjoyed some great conversations.

    I think I’ve come a long way in my craft but I will admit it’s difficult to sometimes judge whether or not it’s unique, or just enough odd to attract attention. I have a lot of people reading/critiquing my writing and I’ve identified areas I can improve, so I spend my time focusing on those as well as continuing to explore my strengths to become the best writer possible.

  25. Jeanne T says:

    Thanks so much for this encouraging post, Wendy. I’ve been thinking a lot about this as I prepare to attend my first ACFW. Trying not to bite my nails at the thought of meeting with an agent. You brought up a number of great points and given me better things to bite on than my nails. Thanks for your encouragement.

  26. Great post, Wendy! Thanks for caring that we do our best! I hope to start querying in a few months and right now I am working diligently to polish my first manuscript. I want to know that I’ve done everything I can for it to be at its best when it’s submitted. These informative posts are helping me toward this goal. Thanks.

  27. Dear Wendy,

    Your name came to my attention yesterday through the friend of someone you represent. Everything I’ve read so far interests (and scares) me.

    I am one of those who went the self-published way and it’s been a very expensive mistake I don’t regret, but cannot afford to make again.

    Everything you’ve said tells me I have a great deal of work to do and am intending to get started. The one thing I wanted to be sure to say, However, is “thank you.” You give me hope.