My first novel is due out this fall. And as a published author, the question I get asked the most is, “How did you get an agent?” The second question would be, “How did you get a book deal?”
There is no concise, one-size-fits-all answer. In my experience, the road to realizing your dream of becoming published is windy, and not everyone gets there by the same twisting path.
Many would say they queried 100 agents and only one or two ever responded to their letters. Others get signed by the first agent who reads their work. A number of people I’ve met are too scared to begin the process at all, thus ensuring their writing will never be seen.
I can only speak from personal experience. For me, three things made the difference when it came to reaching my goal: my talent, my steadfast drive, and my networking skills.
Read on for how I was signed by an agent and landed not one—but two—book deals.
Step 1: Write the Book
I know this seems like common sense, but apparently, it’s not. If I had a silver dollar for every time someone said to me, “I’ve always wanted to write a book,” but then revealed he or she’d never written a page, I wouldn’t need to sell a single copy of my own work. I could just give them away for free.
In my case, I didn’t actually begin with a book. I started by writing a screenplay. I woke up one morning and said to myself, “I think I can write a screenplay.” My very next thought was, “I wonder how you write a screenplay.” Naturally, I Googled it. Then, I began to write. It took me nine months, but I completed it and the sense of accomplishment was tremendous.
If you were to meet someone tomorrow who loved your idea and wanted to make your dream come true, you’d need to have something tangible to show her. It would be a lot more likely she’d stay in touch if you could send her something to review, than if you said, “OK, great, I’ll send what I have in six months to a year.”
Step 2: Find (or Start) a Group Committed to Your Same Goals
I’ve been a member of three writing groups and each of them has been vital to my literary journey. Not only has their feedback been valuable (though, I’ll admit, often hard to hear), the encouragement I’ve received from each member has been crucial to my perseverance.
If you don’t know where to find a writing group, begin your search on Meetup.com. In most areas, you can find not only critique groups, but writers who simply meet at coffee shops to write in silence next to one another, keeping each other accountable to their goals of working on their manuscripts.
If you can’t find a writing group, you can start your own. Yes, the first thing you’ll need to do is reach out to other people who share your career ambitions. From there, here’s how it works: Each member submits 10 pages of their book (or 25 of a screenplay) approximately three days before the meeting. The others members print out the work and write their suggestions and edits all over it. It’ll make you feel like you’re back in high school English class, but knowing there were others who were expecting me to turn in new work every couple of weeks was an incredible motivator. During your meetings, spend about 20 minutes on each person’s submission, discussing what you enjoyed or felt needed to be improved. Some of my most valuable story suggestions have come from fellow group members.
Step 3: Network—With Everyone
My motto in life is: “Never lose touch with anyone.” Under that heading, my first bullet point would be: “Talk to everyone.”
My friends say I “collect people.” (It’s meant as a compliment.) I’ve never met a stranger with whom I don’t feel the need to strike up a conversation. I’ve met some of my most valuable career contacts on airplanes, boats, trains, at the deli counter in the grocery store, and in line for movie tickets. I’ve often friended them on Facebook and then, time and again, they’ve introduced me to people who have similar interests to mine (read: writing). Social media is an incredible tool for maintaining relationships and getting to know people you may have never met in person.
In my case, I was able to reconnect with an old college friend on Facebook. When I was going to be in DC one spring, I asked him to meet me for lunch. I learned, during that meal, he had a book deal. (His book later became a New York Times best seller.) He offered to ask some agents he knew to read my work.
The opportunity landed in my lap, but it never would have fallen there had I not done my best to maintain and nurture the relationship I already had. So, if you’re famous for hating all things networking, you may want to rethink staying in touch.
Step 4: Be Prepared
Remember when I said your first step was to write the book? When my friend said he knew some agents, I was ready with the screenplay I’d written.
You may have heard the expression “Luck is preparation meeting opportunity.” When that first agent agreed to read my work, I had something to send her! It wasn’t easy to motivate myself to write an entire screenplay with merely the hope that someday, maybe someone, would read it. Nonetheless, I wrote day after day after day. I believed in my dream, and I believed someone else would eventually believe in it, too.
I am one of those fortunate people who was signed by the first agent who read my work. Within six months of sending her my script, I had representation, advice on how to turn it into a novel, and most important, I’d found that person who believed in me as much as I did in myself. A year later, I had a book deal with Simon and Schuster. Two years later, I had another one.
You might think the worst thing for a writer is to write a book and never sell it, but you’d be wrong. The worst thing would be to have an opportunity present itself to you, but then have to admit you weren’t prepared for that moment when it arrived. As a writer, you may want to lock yourself away in your office with nothing but your laptop and an idea. But the real secret to success is finding the strength to tear yourself away from your story—at least every so often—and network with real people (not just the characters who live in your head!).
So get writing—and networking!