After years of writing and painstaking revision, you’re finished with your novel or memoir. Now what?

For many students, finding a literary agent is their next step toward publishing success. But it’s no secret that the process can be extremely competitive. (Just walk into the Starbucks in Westwood Village and you’re guaranteed to find a handful of people on their laptops typing away, finishing up their own Great American Novels.)

Getting your work noticed takes work. So what are some tips to getting your query letter out of the slushpile and onto an agent’s desk?

DO WHAT THE PROFESSIONALS DO

Betsy Amster, Writers’ Program instructor and owner of Betsy Amster Literary Enterprises is a seasoned agent who receives upwards of 200 book queries each week. Her best piece of advice?

“Write a professional query letter,” Betsy says. “Study the flap copy of published books to get a sense of how to describe your book in an alluring way (making sure to confine yourself to a single paragraph of plot description, though). If you’ve studied with published writers, mention them. If you’ve placed short stories, be sure to mention that as well.”

Agent and Writers’ Program instructor Lisa Cron agrees. Lisa receives upwards of 5,000 submissions each year. She says that one way to get noticed is to write well.

“Seriously, that’s it. One thing to keep in mind is that your submission won’t be read alone. Chances are it will be part of a large stack that a tired agent is plowing through. That means that your letter has to leap off the page. And that the first couple of pages of your manuscript need to instantly instill that sense of urgency that makes the agent (or editor or bookstore customer) want to know more.”

DO YOUR RESEARCH

Writers’ Program Master Class students have the opportunity to submit their work to an agent as part of their class. For students who may not have any personal or professional connections to agents, many often use books such as the Guide to Literary Agents or websites such as publishersmarketplace.com or agentquery.com for information. Such resources compile lists of agencies and agents so that all of their contact information—and submission needs—are at your fingertips. However, before plunging into a blanket query campaign, it’s important to do your research.

“The biggest mistake that people tend to make in querying agents is not researching what the agent actually handles,” Betsy advises. “There’s no point in sending me children’s books, romances, westerns, science fiction, fanstasy, techno-thrillers, spy capers, or apocalyptic scenarios, for example. I say as much on various websites. And yet I get submissions in these categories all the time.”

ATTEND WORKSHOPS

Another great way to meet agents and get the insider scoop is through workshops and conferences where agents may be speaking. For example, this spring the Writers’ Program is offering an upcoming one-Saturday seminar on April 12 called Finding and Working with a Literary Agent, taught by writer and seasoned Writers’ Program instructor, Aimee Liu. The course features guest agent speakers including Jenoyne Adams of BLISS Literary Agency International, Inc., Betsy Amster, Angela Rinaldi of the Angela Rinaldi Literary Agency, and Taryn Fagerness of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.

It’s rare to have a handful of agents together in one room, eager to take your questions. Seize on these kinds of opportunities, which allow aspiring writers to establish connections. Aimee gives this advice for making the most out of a workshop or conference that features agents:

“If you have a proposal or manuscript and are actively seeking representation, bring a 1-page pitch for your book, with your contact information. Listen carefully to the agents who are speaking to see which ones would be the best fit for you and your work, then make a point of speaking with that agent at the end of the class. Introduce yourself, give the agent your 1-pager, and get the agent’s card and submission requirements. Don’t be shy!”

But what if you take a workshop and your work isn’t quite ready for an agent yet?

Aimee has this advice:

“If your book is not ready yet for representation, listen carefully and ask questions in class to find out what you need to do to get your book ready and to identify the agents most likely to represent work like yours. At the end of the class introduce yourself, tell the agents about your project, and get their cards. In either case, when you follow up with your official queries, remind them that you met them at a UCLA Extension agent panel.”

POLISH YOUR WORK

With some smart writing, a professional-looking query letter and perhaps a bit of luck, you are on your way. Although, luck will only get you so far. Once your work reaches an agent’s desk, the writing has to be strong and it has to provide a fresh voice before an agent will pick up the phone and tell you the magic words: I’d like to see a full manuscript.

Before sending your work out, make sure it’s your strongest writing. Of course, the Writers’ Program is a great place to pick up the tools needed to polish your query letter or turn your book’s draft into a final piece.

Lisa says, “The biggest mistake writers make is to send out work that is not ready. If your first few pages don’t instantly grab the reader, you’re toast. Ditto your letter. People will often ask, how much of each submission does the agent read? The answer is, they read until they have lost interest. That can be a paragraph. Sometimes, a sentence.”

Aimee agrees: “Make sure that the work you send is REALLY ready to sell. An agent should never be your first reader. Before you send work to an agent, find a fellow writer, mentor, or free-lance editor who will ruthlessly help you revise, shape, and polish your work until it screams, ‘Read me!’ Only then should you start contacting agents.”

Sound easy? Sure it does! Just look at the many Writers’ Program students over the years who have found agents and gotten their work published including former students Hannah Dennison and Harley Jane Kozak, and even former students-turned-instructors Tod Goldberg, Mary Yukari Waters, and Linda Palmer–to name just a few.

Your next step is to go for it.

Mae Respicio is the Program Representative in Creative Writing Onsite and Online.

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