I’ve been reading mysteries since I was a teenager—actually even longer. I started with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden as a kid, and have been devouring every series I can get my hands on ever since. As a fan of the genre, I’ve read some great and some not-so-great series over the years and without even being conscious of where it would lead me, I started making a dream list of my favorite authors. The list is lengthy today, and includes notes about why a particular series or author resonated with me. It rests in the top drawer of my nightstand where I can quickly jot down thoughts as they occur (which is usually at 2:00 in the morning, but that’s another story).
My path to actually writing a mystery is nearly as lengthy as my reading list. If I look back, it also began at an early age. I recently found a copy of the first mystery I wrote in the third grade, circa 1982, Lincoln Elementary School. The story involved a haunted house, a bike with a flat tire, and very little plot or structure. I went on from there to dabble in creative writing throughout high-school, college, and my early career, but mostly I enjoyed reading fiction with little thought of writing it. I focused my writing efforts on non-fiction, submitting and being published in number of national and international magazines.
When I decided to take the plunge and write my own mystery, my reading list suddenly became my dream agent list. I wrote down my top ten favorite authors and researched who represented them. At the same time, I attended a writer’s conference here in the Pacific Northwest and pitched a select group of agents and editors of small presses who were interested in acquiring new mysteries. I figured it would be good to test my pitch in person and see what sort of response I received. That way I could tweak my pitch before sending queries to my dream list.
Prepared for the worst (I’m totally neurotic about my own work), I presented my pitch at the conference and surprisingly received great feedback. Everyone wanted to read the manuscript, which was thrilling, but also meant that I needed to send out queries to my dream team—fast.
I sent my manuscript to the agents and editors I met at the conference and sent queries to my top five agents. Again, because I’m my own worst critic, I figured I’d save the other five for later in case everyone else rejected it.
If there’s any advice that I’ve learned and can pass on it’s this:
Be professional. In all my correspondence I made it clear that there were other agents and editors reviewing my submission.
Do your research. I sent personalized queries to each agent, with specific examples of how my work was similar to other clients on their list.
Be patient. Yeah, right. I’m still working on this one.
The Waiting Game
Waiting is the worst! I spent gobs of time here reading through other writers’ paths to publication. I tried distracting myself with a number of activities with little success. My phone came everywhere with me, and I would get an equal sense of excitement and dread anytime it dinged with a new email.
Fortunately everyone on my dream list responded quickly (within the first hour in one case, to a week). By mid-September, I had a total of twelve agents and two small presses reading my work.
At the time it seemed to take forever, but in hindsight my process ended up being really fast. By early November I had an offer from a small press and an agent. As soon as I received the first offer, I reached out to all the agents reading my manuscript. It was amazing how quickly everyone responded.
I found myself in the surreal position of having multiple offers to choose from. Speaking with agents who were excited about my book and pitching me, still makes me pause today.
The Dream Agent
Ultimately, I ended up signing with my “dream” agent, John Talbot of the Talbot Fortune Agency. John had been number one on my list based on the fact that I was a huge fan of a number of his clients. After we spoke on the phone, I knew immediately that he had the vision and contacts to not only sell my manuscript, but to help build my career. He sent the book out on submission in early January and we had an offer a few weeks later.
Build your dream list—your dream agent is out there waiting for you!