There are only three steps to this:
- Write a great novel
- Research literary agents
- Write a great query letter
Make your novel the best you can make it. Make it original, with an exciting plot, great writing style, and interesting characters and settings. Don’t send it up if “it just needs a little work,” or “if it’s rough,” or if “it’s not quite finished yet.” Edit, edit, edit. With less than a 1% chance of getting an agent (based on the volume of query letters agents typically receive) sending up a book that isn’t your best work is foolish and lazy. (It goes without saying that your novel should have page numbers, correct punctuation, a lack of spelling errors, etc.)
Even though you may think you write better than the “brand-name” authors you read (and you may be better for all I know), remember that you’re not competing with them. They bring a built-in audience to the table and have sales that are guaranteed. And since publishing is a business — oh, that again! — your only hope is to offer the finest work you possibly can, when compared with other new writers, who also think their work is pretty good. (And again, their work just might be pretty good, too).
Next, spend some time in the Writing/Publishing section of the bookstore. The more time, the better. The book I used and frequently recommend is Jeff Herman’s, The Insiders Guide to Book Editors, Publishers and Literary Agents. There are also “Writer’s Guides” and “Writer’s Market” type books which are equally popular. They list agents, offer addresses, explain how best to contact them and the steps needed to be taken. Follow the directions each agent lays out. To ignore their preferred method of handling queries is taking a risk.
This is the final step in getting an agent, since most agents won’t take unsolicited manuscripts. They want a query letter, and if they like the letter and the novel you describe, they’ll ask to see part or all of your manuscript. That’s all there is to it.
Above all, a query letter is a sales pitch and it is the single most important page an unpublished writer will ever write. It’s the first impression and will either open the door or close it. It’s that important, so don’t mess it up. Mine took 17 drafts and two weeks to write.
A good query letter has a few rules. First, it should be no longer than one page. Your name, address and phone number should be on it. It should be typed and addressed to a particular agent, not an agency. And it should have all the information the agent needs to make a decision on whether or not to read the manuscript. That information can include:
- A description of previous writing experience.
- A quick summation of the story.
- Other books that are similar to yours, and why yours is better.
- The possible market for the book.
- A reason why you want to work with this particular agent.
- A sentence explaining that the book is complete, with a request to have it read.
The query letter I wrote was enticing enough to have 12 of out 25 agents ask to read part or all of the manuscript. With less than 1% odds, it was a very successful query letter, especially considering The Notebook was my first novel. To see a copy of my query letter, see Sample Query Letter. (Please be aware that, though most of the information in the query letter was true, the truth was stretched at times. This caution regards the fourth paragraph only, and was done for the sake of brevity.)
Dear Mr. or Ms. Agent,
I would like to introduce you to my second book and first novel entitled, The Notebook.
My first book, Wokini, in which I collaborated with Billy Mills, was published by Orion Books, a division of Random House in 1994. An inspirational work, it was characterized by Al Neuharth, a founder and former chairman of USA TODAY, as a “powerful picture of the meaning of life,” while Peter Ueberroth called it “overwhelming and insightful.” A moderate commercial success, by May, 1995, it had sold over 56,000 copies.
This novel, The Notebook, is a love story inspired by two special people that recently passed away after sixty years of marriage. They were no one you would know, but there was a grand romance between them, an underlying passion and understanding that had taken a lifetime to develop. In this day and age, the unconditional love they felt for one another makes for a wonderful story, one that is all too rare and much too beautiful to let die without being told.
Like Romeo and Juliet or The Bridges of Madison County, however, all great love stories need tragedy and separation, as well as love, to fully touch the reader, and their story was no exception. Alzheimer’s became part of their lives during their final years together and my most vivid memories are those of my grandfather sitting by a bedside and reading to his wife of sixty years, a woman who no longer remembered him. Seeing them this way nearly broke my heart, but never once did he bemoan his plight. “In my mind,” he used to tell me, “she’s the young woman I married long ago and nothing will ever change that.” This story is their story, a story of love, the most faithful love I’ve ever seen.
The Notebook is a tender novel set in the Deep South, a love story written in lyric prose. Like most Southern novels, The Notebook envelopes all that is special about the region and its people; tradition, loyalty, kindness, love and remembrance. Yet this novel stands alone in two important ways. First, it is one of the few passionate stories written about the elderly and it reveals a rare but dignified portrait of a couple struggling with the ultimate reality that their lives will be ending soon. Even more importantly however, The Notebook is the first novel that describes the heart-wrenching effects of Alzheimer’s disease on two people who had loved each other all their lives. The result is a moving eulogy to old age itself — a story of love and grief that pretty much sums up the notable context of most people’s lives.
As a young writer in the South, I am looking for an agent based in New York City. Your experience as a lawyer is very impressive, and it would be an honor to work with you on this novel.
I have included a brief synopsis and biography for your review. The novel is 52,000 words and fully complete. May I send you a copy of the completed manuscript?
P.S. Because 22% of the people in this country (40+ million) are over 52 years old and 4.5 million people suffer from Alzheimer’s, this book is unique and marketable to a wide audience. In addition, at 52,000 words, it is short enough not to be cost-prohibitive to most publishing houses.