How to Get an Agent—a New Musing

I’ve just put up a new musing responding to that much asked question:

How to Get an Agent

The short answer is that there is no one way to get an agent. Luck and hard work both play their part. But first you have to figure out whether you’re ready for representation. Don’t even think about pursuing agents until you have a finished novel. And make sure that novel is as good as you can possibly make it. Then make it a whole lot better. Rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and then rewrite some more before you send it to anyone. And, yes, this does apply to you. And yes it applies to non-fiction proposals too. Even though you don’t need a completed book you do need the best proposal you can possibly write.

Continue reading How to Get an Agent.


  1. Jenny D on #

    Your experience is uncannily like mine! Not in all its details, of course, but REMARKABLY similar in its broad outlines. This is all very good advice. (I was practically ready to KILL myself on my thirtieth birthday when I still didn’t have an agent or a book contract for my first novel! It was so set in my mind that 30 was my deadline for having published one novel and one academic book, and 35 for having published one more of each, and there I was without either my novel or my first academic book all sorted out.) But though it didn’t look good at 30, I think I’m now in line for at least having 2 out and 2 forthcoming at 35 (or at least with a finished manuscript and a book contract, which is not exactly the same thing as forthcoming). Sold the first novel without an agent, now have a fantastic agent & am waiting to hear whether she thinks the new novel’s ready to send out. Patience is the great lesson, also plunging back to work on the manuscript after getting very discouraging feedback…

  2. Jenny D on #

    Oh and BTW I am SO envious that you guys got to meet Robin McKinley! She is one of my very, very favorite writers–I had a nice e-mail exchange with her last year, but have never met her in person…

  3. Justine on #

    Jenny D: Absolutely, deadlines are only useful if they motivate you, not if they turn you into a gibbering, I’m-nothing-I-have-achieved-nothing wreck. Does it matter how old a writer was when they wrote a book? Nope. I have no idea how old Jean Rhys was when she wrote Wide Sargossa Sea or Isak Dinesen when she wrote Seven Gothic Tales or Winters Tales. Don’t care either. The books are works of genius no matter whether their authors were 12 or 200.

    You can let go of your envy: You’ve had more contact with Robin McKinley than I have. I didn’t meet her and I don’t think Scott talked to her accept on that panel. All I can tell you is that she gives great panel and is a wonderful reader. You already know she’s a fabby writer.

  4. shana on #

    dear justine:
    did i mention that i adore you and am everlastingly grateful?

  5. marrije on #

    i was afraid you were going to say that about the writing writing and rewriting. you and that guy scott with his ‘finish everything’. bugger. sigh.

  6. margo on #

    well mused, justine. i haven’t been through all the links yet, but i will.

    (no, there isn’t a nark in this comment. nothing to strikethrough here…)

  7. trish on #

    Justine, thank you for this post, which I wish I’d have read before I started out in this field over ten years ago. It is so tempting, when you are as-yet unpublished, to leap at the first opportunity that presents itself. And there is a tendency to think that, once you are published, everything will somehow fall into place by magic, and that really ain’t so. Looking at this post and at some of your others here, I can only conclude that you are a lot smarter than I ever was. I’ve been a pro in this field for over ten years, I’ve published lots of books, I’ve even won a major award, and I still feel like I’m trying to break in. I wish I would have taken more time earlier in my career to build my craft, network, and write/write/rewrite. There truly is no hurry in that sense, as I’ve come to learn the hard way.

    I like reading your posts because you are a sane person in a sometimes insane field, and your lucid approach to these matters is truly heartening. I wish you every success; you’re doing everything right and I bet your career goes like a rocket.7

  8. Justine on #

    Thanks everyone for the kind comments. I’m all glowy, I am.

    Trish: I wasn’t smart about any of this. I was more focussed on getting published than honing my craft. Hence sending out my first novel too soon. What you’re getting is hindsight wisdom about an accidental career. I too feel like a raw beginner at being a published writer. I’m looking forward to the journeyperson stage!

    I also neglected to mention that that first agent—garnered so serrendipitously?—didn’t work out. And I’m now onto my second agent.

  9. scott on #

    trish wrote: there is a tendency to think that, once you are published, everything will somehow fall into place by magic, and that really ain’t so

    This reminds me of my least favorite Hollywood convention about artists: Everything’s a struggle (humiliation, calamity, bad relationships) until you get that one big break. And then you’re on stage, the audience loves you, the record company president is scribbling a lucrative contract on a cocktail napkin, and soon the credits will roll. Done and done. (Until the sequel about your fame—all drugs and jealousy—kicks in.)

    And somewhere in our media-soaked brains we all think that’s how it’s going to happen. One book in print, one song on the radio, one glimpse of us in some indie film, and we’re golden. So when that first novel comes out and disappears into the ether . . . [insert Homer Simpson shuddering noise].

    And yet the slog has hardly begun, which is why having some perspective and an agent who’s in it with you for the long term are so important.

  10. trish on #

    Well, I don’t know what happened in the past, Justine, but the way you are approaching things now is pretty savvy. The whole way you went about getting an agent was highly professional. People like me–who say, ‘ah, what the hell, let’s try X’–can be in for a rude awakening. Personally, I’ve been extremely lucky in the agents I’ve landed with; but I haven’t been so lucky with everything else. And your approach, it seems to me, is a case of ‘make your own luck.’ You’ve gone about it systematically, thoughtfully, thoroughly. If this is characteristic of the way you do things in general, you’re going to have a leg up.

    In my experience, one of the things that can be hard to come to terms with in writing is reconciling the artistic side of things with the business side. Since both of these aspects have to coexist in the same person–you–it can be difficult getting the balance right. I think that could be part of the phenomenon you’re talking about, Scott. Like acting, writing on the one hand has to be intensely personal to be good. But it can’t end there, and the best agent in the world can’t totally shelter you from the realities of the business side. When I read your ghostwriting bio, in some ways I envied you this unusual background. What an amazing way to get paid to learn–not that I can’t see your point about never being able to take credit being painful. Anyway, I’ve got ahold of Midnighters and it’s terrific so far.

    Justine, I want to read M or M, too, btw. And I know Jill Grinberg a little from some years back when she worked with Russ Galen. She was a rising star then and presumably still is.

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