Finding an Agent: What No One Wants to Talk About by Arna Bontemps Hemenway

Posted by July 11th, 2014

As a writer and professor of Creative Writing, what I get asked about most is finding an agent. I struggle to answer for a couple of reasons: namely, that there are only two things of worth I have to say on the matter of finding an agent, and because both of them are pretty awkward to say out loud.

Arna Hemenway 2

Arna Bontemps Hemenway poses with his book ELEGY ON KINDERKLAVIER, which comes out from Sarabande Books on Tuesday, July 15th.

Before I get to those two pieces of wisdom, let me start by reiterating what you’ve probably already heard about finding an agent: You should take the time and effort to make your query effective and professional. You shouldn’t sign with an agent you’re afraid of (as the novelist Ethan Canin once memorably put it to me, “you shouldn’t need an agent to call your agent”) or one you can’t talk to or one who seems like they won’t answer your calls if you’re not successful. You want somebody who’s smart and effective enough to make good business decisions for you, but also somebody who seems like a basically good person. Pay attention to your gut. Be ready to get rejected over and over and over and over and over again.

Now we’ve got that good advice out of the way, here’s the first thing no one particularly wants to say or hear about finding an agent: agents are not important. Let me repeat that: the literary agent is not important. No offense.

This is a thought almost universally disagreed with (probably elsewhere on this very blog, I’m sure) but I think it’s nonetheless true.

The real reason why agents don’t matter: they’re not writers. They’re not going to write your manuscript, or revise it, or, after this one has been submitted and rejected over and over, write the next one. The person who’s going to do that, the person whose gumption and character really matter? That’s you.

I’m not an idiot. You’re not going to get your book published by a big publishing house without an agent. Some of the most important decisions about your book’s fate (which editor to give it to, which house it will feature at instead of languishing in the midlist, how/when to pitch it, what contract structures will screw you, etcetera) are going to be made by an agent with an expertise only a literary agent really has. That’s what they do. I know that.

But, in my experience, there’s something else so much more important than the agent that it dwarfs the agent to almost nothing. And that’s my second piece of advice: TAKE YOUR TIME (this is actually the exact typescript in which I got this advice, in an email from an agent) AND WAIT UNTIL YOUR MANUSCRIPT IS READY.

But how do I know when it’s ready? is the second most asked question I get. Of course I can’t answer that. But here are some thoughts to guide you:

  • Forget the concept of good enough. It’s never good enough. Books are years-long slogs through the wilderness and, in the middle, you want to believe the end is in sight.You want to believe there is an end at all. Slowly, slowly, this thought will insinuate its way into your perception of your manuscript: hey, I think this might not be the greatest ever, but maybe it’s good enough. This thought is lethal. Your manuscript is not good enough. Every agent you query is going to get a thousand queries just like yours this month. Many are going to be from people who’ve been writing longer than you, who have better ideas than you, who went to a better school, who are already published, who are more important than you, or who simply find your prospective agent at a better time / mood than you will. Your manuscript can’t be in the best ten percent, or five. Your manuscript needs to be the best one they see that month, or that year.
  • Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about the weaknesses of your manuscript, work on it by yourself until you can’t see any weaknesses, and then find as many readers for it as you can and ask them to be as harsh as possible in finding its weaknesses. Listen to their criticism and always, always be working to make your project better. The best way to get good readers for your work is to be a good reader for others’ work.
  • Once you’ve gone through these steps and you think you might be ready, put your manuscript in a drawer for a significant amount of time while you work on something else. When it’s been long enough for the story and writing to seem strange and a bit foreign to you, pick it up and start over with step one.

My final thought about finding an agent and writing is a simple one. Be careful about what you want, because you just might get it. If your goal when you write becomes “to get an agent,” beware: plenty of books (some of them written by my friends, or established authors) are sent out by enthusiastic high-powered agents to every relevant editor in New York and get rejected by every single one. If your goal is just “to get a book published,” well, lots and lots of books get published every year by presses big and small. As a debut novelist who made an early splash told me, at some point you realize your book being published isn’t going to find you a boyfriend, or (usually) pay your credit cards off, or give you a reason over the years to be deeply and meaningfully happy.

Your sole goal should be to write a really great book, one that only you could’ve written, and one that will truly matter if it ever finds its way out in the world. It is then, and only then, when you’ve exhausted yourself to madness, that you should begin to think about finding an agent.

I hope some of this has been helpful. Now, back to work.

About Arna Bontemps Hemenway

Arna Bontemps Hemenway‘s debut novel, ELEGY ON KINDERKLAVIER, comes out on Tuesday, July 15th, from Sarabande Books. ELEGY ON KINDERKLAVIER is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers Series pick for the summer. Connect with Arna on Twitter and on his website. Read things thoughts about finding a writing community here.

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3 thoughts on “Finding an Agent: What No One Wants to Talk About by Arna Bontemps Hemenway

  1. Erica Krilov

    I feel like this is the kind of advice that, while you hear it over and over, you can’t hear it often enough. So many writers (Yes, I’m guilty of this too) get hung up on the end goals – getting an agent, getting published – and forget about the most important part of the whole shebang. . .their writing.

    For me, getting others to critically critique things is especially challenging. I’m prone to getting caught in a never-ending cycle of self-editing/flagellation. I’m lucky to have a great coworker now who is unabashedly persistent about sharing writing and asking for mine in return. He’s a great motivator with good, constructive feedback to boot.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. Anna

    This is such a great blog post. What a good reminder… Only the work matters. Only producing something good matters. If you can’t take joy in the work and be proud of what you’ve done, your work’s wider dissemination won’t make you happy.

  3. Maria Padian

    Yup, he’s right. And one of the most surprising … and liberating … things I learned from published authors who have agents is that the rejection never stops! You might have three big-house-published books out there, but your fourth and fifth manuscript/query might get rejected from the very editor who loved your other work. It’s all about the daily challenge of the blank page/screen and the desire to tell the best story you can.
    That said: in this market, you want to send your best possible product out into the world, and an agent who has a background as an editor (and is willing to work with you through drafts) is gold. Particularly if you’re not currently in an MFA program or part of a very active critique group, that feedback is so crucial. My agent refuses to send my books out until they’re pretty polished, so while she doesn’t do line edits, she does keep me drafting and pointing me in the right direction until they’re ready. It’s one additional layer of discipline, and it helps. A lot. A friend of mine found herself a well-known, successful agent who gave her very little feedback and sent her manuscripts hither and yon … to be rejected, for years, hither and yon. She’s now switched to a different agent who helps her spend more time on a book before sending it to a more select list, and she feels this is a much better fit for her.


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