How to Find a Literary Agent

As requested by @fm. I'm happy to answer any other publishing-related questions if people have them (and I have an answer!). Finding an agent is a daunting process, but here are the general steps to take.
  1. 1.
    Finish your manuscript. Yes, the whole thing.
    This is a pretty common question: how much of the book do I have to write before I start looking for an agent. The answer - for everyone writing fiction and memoir - is THE ENTIRE THING. Why? For many reasons but the big one being that it is much easier to start a book than to complete it. Complete it. Non-negotiable.
  2. 2.
    After you have finished it, revise it, revise it, revise it.
    I think the single biggest mistake that aspiring writers make is sending their world out into the world before it's ready. You need OBJECTIVE feedback; you need time away from it; you need to rewrite it so many times that you pretty much hate the book. Then...maybe...it's ready.
  3. 3.
    Revise it one more time.
    (I'm really saying this from a place of love.)
  4. 4.
    Please don't forget that, as cliche as it sounds, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Especially with agents and all the competition you're facing.
  5. 5.
    Ok. So you've revised until you're basically at that bridge, ready to jump. Now it's time to start consider which agents you'd like to submit to.
  6. 6.
    Start compiling a BIIIIIIIIIIIIG list.
    (That's BIG, in case all the extra "i"s threw you.)
  7. 7.
    Consider books you admire or books that are comps to your own, then head to AgentQuery.com or Publishers Marketplace.
    Publishers Marketplace requires, I think, a $20 monthly fee, but it is extremely helpful at this juncture. It's the site where many agents post their sales/deals, and you can see who might be making a similar deal that you're looking for.
  8. 8.
    Also, check the acknowledgments of the books you like: agents are inevitably thanked there too.
  9. 9.
    Now: I know you're thinking: WHAT THE FUCK? I'm just expected to blindly email these people???
  10. 10.
    Really???
  11. 11.
    That will never work!!!
  12. 12.
    Guess what? It does. The majority of authors I know - including yours truly - found their agents through email queries.
    (More on that in one second - I have a slightly tangential point to make.)
  13. 13.
    Yes, there are referrals and yes, they might find someone via a conference or whatnot, but honestly, even when I introduce an author to my agent, it's up to her (my agent) to assess if she likes the work and wants to represent it.
  14. 14.
    My point is that it might get her to take a closer look or a faster look, but it's not going to get her to rep it.
  15. 15.
    YOUR WORK HAS TO SPEAK FOR ITSELF.
  16. 16.
    That starts with the query letter.
  17. 17.
    Your query letter needs to contain VOICE; it needs to be concise but engaging; it needs to grab the agent (or her assistant) and have her think: IF I DON'T READ THIS BOOK NOW, SOMEONE ELSE IS GONNA GET IT, AND THAT CAN NEVER HAPPEN!
    Please do NOT water down your voice in your query letter: I used to critique these for readers on my now-defunct blog, and I really think the single biggest problem was that they were just...blah. Who wants to request a book on blah? Much less read 300 pages of blah?
  18. 18.
    Okay, I dug around my archives and found my initial query letter, in case this is helpful for some of you guys. It's longer than the List App allows, so I will break it up in five sections below.
  19. 19.
    Query Letter Part 1
    Natalie Miller had a plan. She had a goddamn plan. Top of her class at Dartmouth. Even better at Yale Law. Youngest aide ever to the powerful Senator Claire Dupris. Higher, faster, stronger. This? Was all part of the plan. True, she was so busy ascending the political ladder that she rarely had time to sniff around her mediocre relationship with Ned, who fit the three Bs to the max: basic, blond and boring, and she definitely didn't have time to mourn her mangled relationship with Jake...
  20. 20.
    Query Letter Part 2
    ...her budding rock star ex-boyfriend. The lump in her right breast that Ned discovers during brain-numbingly bland morning sex? That? Was most definitely not part of the plan. And Stage IIIA breast cancer? Never once had Natalie jotted this down on her to-do list for conquering the world. When her (tiny-penised) boyfriend has the audacity to dump her on the day after her diagnosis, Natalie's entire world dissolves into a tornado of upheaval, and she's left with nothing but her diary...
  21. 21.
    Query Letter Part 3
    ...to her ex-boyfriends, her mornings lingering over the Price is Right, her burnt out stubs of pot which carry her past the chemo pain, and finally, the weight of her life choices - the ones in which she might drown if she doesn't find a buoy. The Department of Lost and Found is a story of hope, of resolve, of digging deeper than you thought possible until you find the strength not to crumble, and ultimately, of making your own luck, even when you've been dealt an unsteady hand.
  22. 22.
    Query Letter Part 4
    I'm a freelance writer and have contributed to, among others, American Baby, American Way, Arthritis Today, Bride's, Cooking Light, Fitness, Glamour, InStyle Weddings, Lifetime Television, Men's Edge, Men's Fitness, Men's Health, Parenting, Parents, Prevention, Redbook, Self, Shape, Sly, Stuff, USA Weekend, Weight Watchers, Woman's Day, Women's Health, and ivillage.com, msn.com, and women.com. I also ghostwrote The Knot Book of Wedding Flowers....
  23. 23.
    Query Letter Part 5
    ...If you are interested, I'd love to send you the completed manuscript. Thanks so much! Looking forward to speaking with you soon. Allison
  24. 24.
    OK!
  25. 25.
    If an agent is interested, he or she will request a partial - usually your first few chapters. If he or she is REALLY interested, there's a chance he might request the complete ms, but it's neither here nor there if he doesn't.
  26. 26.
    You might not hear anything back. Death by silence and all of that. You might get polite rejections.
  27. 27.
    No, scratch that: you WILL get polite rejections. Dozens of them.
  28. 28.
    Please do NOT write the agent back and ask why he is passing.
    It's just bad form, and there are a million reasons why, including the personal (he hates your writing) to the impersonal (he already reps something just like it). Just leave it be and be gracious.
  29. 29.
    When I was querying, I always made it a point to have ten queries out at any time.
  30. 30.
    When I got a rejection in, I just fired off the next name on my list.
  31. 31.
    So I always had a bunch of balls in the air, and one rejection was really just another door opening.
  32. 32.
    Psychologically, this made it a lot easier.
  33. 33.
    I know authors who literally query well over a hundred agents before getting a yes.
    And yes, some writers never do. If you've really exhausted every turn, that's ok. Really. I wrote an entire novel that got me representation (we parted ways after, so I've actually done this agent thing twice!) but never sold. It was one of the most valuable learning experiences, and I don't regret writing it for a second.
  34. 34.
    Keep an excel spreadsheet of everyone you've queried, who it is currently out to, and the feedback coming in.
  35. 35.
    I'm not a big believer in listening to one subjective opinion, but if you are hearing the same thing over and over again, consider pausing the query process and giving the ms another crack.
  36. 36.
    If you're getting partial requests and absolutely no one is biting, I'd say ditto.
  37. 37.
    Also, be sure that your manuscript lines up with the parameters of your genre: very few agents are going to be interested in a 175,000 novel. For example, most novels in my genre (bookclub/commercial fiction) are about 80000-100000k. If someone said theirs was 150,000, I think this might be a red flag.
    (I'm not an agent, so don't hold me to that specific example, but there are general guidelines that most manuscripts follow, and it's wise to be up to date on them.)
  38. 38.
    That query letter -for what became my debut novel - got me, hmmm, this was ten years ago - maybe ten partial requests? I got two offers of representation.
  39. 39.
    I probably queried about 30-40ish agents.
  40. 40.
    All it takes is one.
  41. 41.
    My agent from back then is still my agent now; six books and ten years later.
  42. 42.
    Though: full confession: when I was querying the first time around (for that ms that didn't sell and for that agent I later fired), I skipped over my current, beloved agent because I thought her then-firm's name was too hard to pronounce.
  43. 43.
    So we all do dumb things on the way to getting representation.
  44. 44.
    That's it! Go forth and prosper!
  45. 45.
    I think I addressed most of the steps along the way, but if anyone has any questions, feel free to ask.
  46. 46.
    Oh. One last thing before I go. And this is REALLY important.
  47. 47.
    Please DO NOT settle for an agent you are not happy with, who will not work his ass off for you or who seems untrustworthy. Having a shitty agent is WORSE than having no agent.
  48. 48.
    Why?
  49. 49.
    Because they represent your work to the world. And if they do a poor job of it, then your work will not get another crack with those editors. You can't fire that agent and have another one resubmit. BE SURE that your agent is YOUR ADVOCATE. PLEASE do NOT get desperate and settle.
  50. 50.
    If you don't land an agent on this book, you might on the next! Life is long. So too is your writing career.