Selling Your Cookies: Querying Agents and Other Ways to Kill Time Until You're A Famous Author

Earlier this year, a 9-year-old Girl Scout in San Diego made headlines by selling Thin Mints outside a weed dispensary. Stoners everywhere [on the internet] praised this future President of Marketing for her savage hustle game. "What a genius idea! Take the cookies directly to consumers that have disposable income and a hella case of the munchies," they said as they plowed through a box of coconut-chocolate cookies that finally had to be renamed because it took decades for some genius to realize the original name was racist as fuck.*

Which is more offensive: the name "samoas" or the fact that they only capitalized the "L" in "caramel deLites"?
(The correct answer is "samoas" because they are an actual group of human beings and not a food product, GIRL SCOUTS, holy hell, who came up with that name?!)

Buuuuut, since this is the internet, no heartwarming tale of success is ever actually true. As it turns out, the owner of the dispensary approached our Cookie Queenpin with the idea in the first place. (As any person who consumes marijuana knows, getting high is actually the best way to come up with business ideas. Like that one time I a friend wanted to copywright the name "Pope-py" and become ordained as an official minister of marrying celebrities' dogs to each other, only to discover that someone else already came up with that idea and it's very popular in Los Angeles.)

Nevertheless, the spirit of this business approach holds true: know your market.

* After some deep-web sleuthing in the form of a Google search, I'm not actually sure if they still sell Samoas in other parts of the country. The idea they've been discontinued because of the racist name floats around, but it might just be because GSA sources from two separate bakers who name their cookies differently. If you're looking to procrastinate any productive writing efforts, investigating this mystery is a great way to spend your next five hours.


Hello, loyal blog readers.

I know I've left all four of you adrift in a sea of suspense after my last blog post in ten months ago. I could issue excuses, like, "I thought it was a good idea to plan an entire wedding by myself, without any help, for I am but an all-powerful force of self-destruction!", but I didn't, because a good writer leaves her readers wanting more.

Wondering... what happens next? Is she dead? If she's dead, who's posting all these cat photos?

According to "On Writing Romance" by Leigh Michaels (my favorite of all my writing reference books), I can relate the events of the last ten months to you in five narrative styles.

Five Ways to Do Exposition

  1. Narrative:  listing events like a first grader in order of occurrence "First, I planned the wedding. Then, we had a small ceremony on a beach in Olympic National Park. After that, we had a huge reception at the Space Museum..."
  2. Exposition & Summary: telling you what happened
    "In the space of ten months, I planned a wedding, went to RWA nationals in Denver, got married, went on my honeymoon, finished revisions on my draft, edited my draft, did more revisions, re-wrote the first chapter, then revised that..."
  3. Flashback**: re-creating the scene as if it was happening in present time
    "She was standing on a chair at the back of the RITA awards, tipsy from two glasses of free wine and the adrenaline of meeting new people, hollering her support for Suzanne Brockmann's Lifetime Aachievement acceptance speech, when she got the alert on her phone that it was time to head out for the airport -- if she missed her flight back to Portland, she'd be late for her own wedding..."
  4. Introspection: a character's thoughts explain past events
    "She thought about what an absolute nightmare the eight months leading up to her wedding were and decided it wasn't worth going into detail. After all, the stuff that came after -- editing and revising her manuscript for finally submitting to agents -- was much more relevant to a blog about writing."
  5. Dialogue: two or more characters have a totally normal conversation where they recount details about events they're both already familiar with
    Leo looked at his owner, his tail curled in a questioning manner. Kitt stopped typing her blog post and sighed. "Will you stop pestering me about what I've been doing the last ten months? As you know, I was planning my wedding, going on my honeymoon, and revising my book."
**(*) But seriously, go easy on the flashback/dream sequence mechanic. It's hard to do well, wastes precious word count, and slows down your story's pace. 
*** UNLESS you're me, and you love dream sequences so much that editors can rip them from your cold dead hands, so you built an entire magic system where your heroine can control dreams, which allows you to cheat this rule, because having a dream sequence is a great way to introduce her powers and conveniently fill in backstory. HA! I WIN AGAIN, UNSPOKEN RULES! (If and when my book gets published and an editor insists I cut out all my dream sequences because -- let's be real -- 125k is a BIT long for a romance novel, I'll be sure to update this post with a sheepish retraction).

It's good no one has explored the concept of being able to control dreams before. My idea is truly original. 


Hey, what's this blog post actually about? 

The purpose of this blog post is to introduce you to (what I first considered) the most mysterious and challenging step of the writing process: My Book is Done, Now How Do I Get My Money?

Disclaimer: I have not gotten my money yet.

Fifteen months after I started writing "The Mercenary's Kiss," I finally finished. Finished finished. Not the same "finished" I was last October, when I went to the Emerald City Writers' Conference and pitched my book to an agent and an editor. 

[Flashback Exposition]
When I pitched my book last October, my first pitch was to a very nice agent whom I won't mention by name because I still want to query her. I was so nervous beforehand that I learned about new parts of my skin that could produce cold sweat. 

An appropriate time to insert one of my favorite GIFs.

As I sat there in the makeshift waiting room outside one of those generic ballroom/hotel conference spaces, I was having vivid flashbacks to the Worst Interview of My Life, where I interviewed for a FOH manager position at Hillstone Restaurant Group -- a company known for doing "stress" interviews where they test your ability to keep a cool head under pressure (I was a senior in college with only a few years' hosting/serving experience under my belt. Needless to say, I did not have the kind of real-world, emotionally scarring, skin-hardening experiences that I've had since then which have allowed me to stay cool under pressure. After graduating, I moved to New York City; it took about three years and one trip to the Union Square Trader Joes to develop the jaded apathy that would be required to excel in an interview like that). 

[Dialogue Exposition]
When I finally went in to my pitch, it was nothing like the Worst Interview of My Life. In fact, it was really encouraging. When I faltered, or didn't provide enough information, she prompted me with leading questions. "Okay, so what's the conflict? What's keeping your characters apart?" Things really got rolling.

Then she asked me the most important question of all: "Is it done?" 

I nodded, proud as hell. "Yes! I just finished it right before this conference."

She kindly -- but firmly -- set me straight. "You need beta readers. It needs to be edited. When it's ready -- send it to me."

As it turns out, writing an entire book is the easy part. 

[Narrative Exposition]
Then, you get beta-readers. Ideally, people who have read extensively in the genre you're writing and who you trust to give you detailed, honest criticism. When you find these actual angels in human skin, you owe them big-time. Your eternal soul and your firstborn are now their property. The only way you can repay this debt is by beta-reading for their books or giving them essential internal organs when the need arises. 

WARNING: Do not sign a beta-reader blood oath unless you're prepared to avenge their honor forty years down the line.

Then you get their revisions, see how much work your book needs, and spend the next month trying to balance the self-loathing you feel with the seething hatred you now have for your own book, because deep down, you knew how much work it needed, but you secretly wanted your beta-readers to tell you it was perfect because you're sick of reading these same chapters over and over and over again. 

Next, when you've finally emerged from the bathtub of self-pity, your skin all nasty and wrinkled from being immersed in tears of failure, you sit back down and fix all those loose plot threads. You mercilessly cut out shit that doesn't make sense but you just kept in because you'd invested so much time in that scene. 

Then you do it again.

And again.

Wow, that red pen is really leaking ink! But it's okay because she's probably getting rid of a lot of really unnecessary scenes, so...

When you can finally read through your novel without cringing, then it's time to edit. This is harder for some people than others. If you're like me and you obsessively self-edit as you go, which is why it takes you two fucking hours to write an email, then it's not actually so bad. You really just need to get your first three chapters to sparkle like a kitten's nose in the sun, because those will be the chapters that get submitted to agents/editors, and easy-to-fix typos will make you look like a total noob. If your book actually gets picked up by a traditional publisher, you'll be assigned an editor who will Fuck Your Shit Up for you (in a good way). 

Finally, you are finished finished. 


... Now what?

For romance writers in 2018, there are two big 'ol paths you can take: traditional publishing or self-publishing. (Okay, that's oversimplification -- but isn't this post already long enough?)

"Is this Conference Room B, or...?"

Personally, I want to be traditionally published.

I want the glory of seeing my name in print. I want to impress my family and friends by being a traditionally published author. I want a publishing company to handle the brunt of the administrative and legal stuff. I understand that this path is challenging and fraught with frustration, and I recognize that this is probably a poor financial decision unless I'm very, very lucky.

I also understand that if I fail to become traditionally published, I can always be self-published. Some people do this process in reverse; they self-publish, make that sweet cash money up front, and leverage their success into six-figure book deals with fancy NYC publishers. There is no right or wrong way to be a famous, millionaire author (well, that's not true -- one wrong way is to just give up and stop trying). 

Everyone's path is their own. Also, I'm young* and stupid. I can do things however I want and regret them later. 

* According to the General Theory of Relativity, which should not be confused with the Special Theory of Relativity, it's 5pm somewhere in the universe and I'm not a day over 30. Don't Google that. 


So you want to be traditionally published: you probably need an agent. 

Having an agent helps -- a lot. It's like the difference between already being on the guest list at an event and just showing up and trying to persuade the bouncer to let you in.

Unless your book is the literary incarnation of Blade.

There are many reasons you wouldn't want an agent, but that's something you should Google search if you're not sure. 

This blog post is about how I'm going about this process of getting an agent. (I know -- it's hard to believe, because I have just written almost 2,000 words that weren't about getting an agent. For the two of my four blog readers who have made it this far: I commend your dedication to procrastinating whatever you're supposed to be doing right now.)

My Process for Querying Agents

1) Research Agents

Obviously, I'd be thrilled if ANY agent wanted to work with me. But ideally, I want to find an agent that I really click with. Someone who "gets" my voice and appreciates the same kind of books I like.
I think this is important, because sometimes agents will ask you to make changes to your book so it's easier to sell -- after all, they're like those personal injury lawyers who advertise on radio: "We only get paid when you do! If you've been a victim of your toaster gaining sentience and leading your household appliances in a bloody revolt against humankind, call us today!" 

The market is pretty fickle, but a good agent should be able to sell the actual book you wrote -- not some alternate-universe facsimile. For example, I would prefer if I didn't get picked up by an agent who specializes in inspirational romance: "Hi, we really like your voice and we'd love to represent you. Can you just remove all the sex scenes? Yes, we know your book would then be the length of a novella -- you said it takes place somewhere cold so we're actually pitching it for a Christmas-themed anthology!"

I started by trying to figure out who all my favorite authors were repped by. I figured if I wanted someone who liked my work, I'd find an agent who has actually worked with authors who inspired me to write in the first place!

There's only one problem with this approach: my favorite authors are all already Big Deals, which means if they still work with the same agent (many don't), those agents are also Big Deals. I looked up who my all-time-favorite-author Kresley Cole's agent was (or still is) and discovered that she's some hotshot who isn't even accepting new clients.

Plus, even if some Hotshot Agent was accepting new clients, what are the odds they're going to invest as much time in a little tadpole like me when they've got bigass blufins raking in the cash? 

Related PSA: bluefin tuna are endangered, and if we continue consuming them for sushi at our current rate, they will be extinct in the next twenty years. Bigeye tuna is a sustainable alternative.

Unfortunately, I had to start my process from scratch. I went to the RWA member website, where they have a helpful listing of all agencies and which agents are currently accepting romance novel submissions. 

Then I sat there and clicked on every single link. I went to the profile pages for all their agents, and I read them all. If I liked someone's bio, I clicked on their Twitter so I could see what their personalities were like. I read articles and blog posts they'd written. I Googled them to find out what kind of experiences other authors might have had with them (there's not actually a lot of public info out there -- the romance industry is actually very close-lipped, for good or bad).

This process took me days. 

2) Narrow it down to agents who accept submissions in your genre. 

From that research, I made a list of all the agents I felt would be interested in my genre of work. You'll be surprised how many agents are looking for romance, but not paranormal or fantasy romance. I read a lot of "Southern voices" and "women's fiction that spans literary and commercial markets" and, on one particularly discerning agent's bio, "NO VAMPIRES." 

This is where we do that thing that good books and movies do and tie our story back to the opening scene. It's called "mirroring," among other things. It's a clever plot device that people never grow tired of because humans loooooove patterns. 

Uh oh. We didn't address what to do with multiple mirrors. Abort, abort! 

Because when you pitch your book to an agent, YOU are the Girl Scout. Not every agent wants to buy your Girl Scout cookies. Gluten-Free Support Group? Not a primo market. Outside a funeral home? Probably not. Apia, the capital city of the Independent State of Samoa? Get that shit out of here and don't come back until you have a not-racist cookie name with incorrect spelling and capitalization. 

Sometimes agents will have wish lists of things they want to see in their bios or pinned to the top of their Twitter feeds that say things like, "I want to read Braveheart but with queer characters" or "I want to see 'All The Boys I've Loved Before' but in a historical Western setting, and with robots instead of humans -- yes, it's just Westworld for teens!" These guidelines are both helpful and slightly discouraging, because what's trendy right now isn't what was trendy when you started writing that book a year and a half ago. And by the time you write your YA Westworld romance with definitely no vampires in it, you're going to go back to that agent's bio page and it's going to say, "NO WESTERNS."

"Alright, Carmen Sandiego, we've finally caught you. Now you have to choose which one of us you want to take to the PG-13 rated Lover's Rodeo -- me, the Bad Boy with emotional scars and a dark secret, or him, the Wholesome Guy that no one 'ships but whom you'll inevitably end up with."

Agents with such specific parameters or biases against a particular topic give me pause. I understand that they're looking for what they can sell, and the hard fact about the traditional publishing industry is that it's getting more and more selective as self-publishing grows. But, if an agent has a narrow view of what they want to see, they might not be interested in my book. 

You see, I can't claim that no one's ever written a fantasy paranormal romance about dragon sorcerers and fae before. In fact, let's be real -- everyone fuckin' loves dragons. You read fantasy books, you probably like dragons. It's called "Dungeons & Dragons," not "Dungeons & Unique Fantasy Animals You've Never Heard of Before." No agent is going to be stunned by the creativity of those fundamental fantasy elements I based my story on. That said -- I still feel my story is unique and there's a place for it in the market. Though I could spend an entire blog post explaining why I feel that way, let's move on for now. 

3) Of those agents accepting submissions in your genre, narrow it down to people you think you'd actually like to work with. 

Remember all that talk about how I can handle work pressure with a cool head thanks to life experience? That skillset does not carry over into my personal life, where my social anxiety reigns supreme. As an awkward kid who didn't khow she had ADHD until well into her 20's, I felt most comfortable in groups of nerds, misfits, and other people who were just kinda "weird" -- people like me. Don't we all feel most comfortable with people like us?

Fortunately, there are a lot of people in the romance industry who felt like that growing up. We're the readers, the optimists, the daydreamers, the nerds -- and we grew up to be fucking awesome. 

I'm not looking for a new best friend, but I do want to feel comfortable talking about my book with an agent, and for most of us who have gotten this far in the process, this first book is a Pretty Big Deal to us. We're vulnerable and scared, and many of us have taken big risks or made sacrifices in our personal lives to give this writing thing a shot. If I can't relate to my agent, my social anxiety will kick in like a bad action movie, and then no one's going to be having fun. 

So with that in mind, I took my list of agents accepting paranormal romance, and then put stars next to the ones who I thought would actually be a good fit for me. 

I imagine the process is the same on the agent's end as they sort through queries...


Four is how many agents I thought would be a perfect fit for me. Which is great, because I just don't know what I'd do if I had more than four agents begging to take me on as a client. Love triangle? More like a love quadrahedron, am I right?! 

Okay, so maybe I was being a little too picky.

4) Customize your query for each agent. Actually read their submission guidelines. I repeat: ACTUALLY READ THE SUBMISSION GUIDELINES.

How do I know that agents are regularly inundated with submissions from people who claim to be professional authors but clearly cannot read? 

Because... Every. Single. Agency. Website. says something to the effect of, "Please read the submission guidelines before querying!"

Just do it. Every single agent has different submission rules. Some want emails. Some use QueryManager, which is this online form with an automated tracking system. No one seems to want paper submissions anymore, which is awesome, and I would honestly be wary of an agency that ONLY accepts queries via snail mail, because they're obviously time-traveling vampires. (NO VAMPIRES).

Not the cold harsh reality of technological progress! Anything but that!
The same goes for the content of your submission. Some want your query only, some want the first three pages, others want the first 10 pages... it's really not consistent. 

I like to pride myself on being very diligent about these sorts of things, and I still found myself triple-checking my notes, and then the website, and then my notes again, because I was so paranoid that I was going to look like an idiot because I wrote an email subject line in the wrong order. 

5) Sit back and wait!  Don't sit back and wait.

I submitted my first ten queries... and then I stopped. Because the turnaround time is, at best, 2-3 weeks, and in some cases, 6-8 weeks. So now what? 

You can't just sit there and play Divinity: Original Sin II for hours and hours instead of actually being productive. Well, you can, because you've done something very brave by submitting your work to agents and you deserve a reward! But also -- there are other things you can and should do to improve your chances of getting published. 

How to Improve Your Chances of Getting Published While You Wait for Query Responses

  1.  Make sure you still have an online social presence.
    Keep up with Twitter and your writing Facebook groups and what's going on in the industry. If you haven't written a blog post in ten months, maybe write that blog post. If an agent you submitted to is actually interested, there's a good chance they'll do a little Nancy Drew on your ass. Show them that you know how to do Internet Things, unlike time-traveling vampires. Demonstrate to potential agents that you're going to be taking an active role in your own career development and don't need them to hold your hand the entire way like you're some completely unqualified person elected to an extremely important position of power, like, say, President of the United States.
  2.  Use this time to become a better writer. Read books about writing. Sign up to judge contests or beta-read others' work so you can get better at self-critique when the time comes. Do research on what's selling right now -- not so you can ride trends, but so that if your work is rejected, you can have a better idea of why. You're probably going to get a form rejection email, if anything at all. They're not going to say, "You have a great voice and this book sounds awesome, but right now people just really aren't buying books about Nancy Drew infiltrating the President's cabinet and exposing his treasonous agenda that he happened to hide in a rusty haunted clock." (You're not going to get that email because duh, that's exactly what people are buying).
  3. Write another book.
    This is a no-brainer, because unless you plan to give up (and you won't -- it's too late for that now, you wrote an ENTIRE book!), you're going to either
     a) get rejected and write another book that is better than this one and then submit that book to agents, or...
    b) get published, in which case you're going to have to write another book.

There you have it, folks. A concise, 4,000 word blog post about querying agents. 

Thanks for reading, and tune in next blog post for a 5,000 word essay about all the other cool business ideas I a friend came up with the other day after going to town on some caramel deLites!


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