Signing With A Dream Agent + His Tips for Success

by Diana Urban, author and Jim McCarthy, agent

Diana:

A couple of months ago, I finished edits on a YA thriller called The Last Hour. It’s a cross between to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None and Abigail Haas’s Dangerous Girls — nine teens get locked in a room and must choose someone to kill within an hour, or else they’ll all die.

It was the most challenging book I’ve written — it’s dual timeline, with alternating flashback chapters dropping clues about whodunit and who the victim will be, and there are twists and turns aplenty. So I was really proud of it, and my CPs thought it was very marketable! However, I’d been planning to indie-publish — my traditional publishing journey had been fraught with dead-ends, and I was eager to get my books into readers’ hands. But after some cajoling from friends and CPs, I did some soul-searching, and decided to try for agent #3. Traditional publishing had been my dream forever, and if this book was my best shot, I wanted to take it.

This time around, my top priority was to sign with an agent who was truly excited about my project. After all, excitement is contagious, and I hoped that a stoked agent could get editors fired up to read. That meant I had a lot of research ahead of me — I wanted to find agents whose interests closely aligned with The Last Hour. Ideally they’d also have a some great sales under their belt. I already knew Jim McCarthy was one of my dreams agents based on his stellar sales record, and also because his clients are super happy working with him, including one of my good friends.

The first stop on my researching mission was MSWL — it consistently has more information on agents’ interests than the bio/about pages on their websites. I had two main goals here:

  • Personalize each query. Agents get dozens of query letters each day, so I wanted to make mine stand out by showing why I thought they’d be interested in reading my book.
  • Find more agents. I already had a shortlist of “dream agents” (including Jim) based on sales and reputation, but also wanted to find more agents with relevant interests whom I hadn’t thought of yet.

 

I started with the agents on my shortlist, and scoured each of their MSWL pages to (1) ensure their interests matched my project and (2) take notes for the query letter. For example, on Jim’s MSWL page, I noted that he was looking for “a super fun mystery” and that one of his favorite movies is Clue, which is much funnier than The Last Hour, but is another fantastic locked-room murder mystery (and is also one of my favorite movies, so, you know, fate and stuff).

Next it was time to find some more agents! I searched Twitter for #MSWL + terms relevant to my book. Here are some of the ways I refined my search, with examples of what I searched for:

  • Comp titles And Then There Were None, Dangerous Girls, We Were Liars
  • Comp authors – Abigail Haas, E. Lockhart
  • Plot elements – locked-room mystery, murder mystery
  • Themes – bullying, death, PTSD
  • Tone – dark, creepy, mysterious, scary
  • Genre/subgenre – YA, YA thriller, YA suspense

 

When I searched for “#MSWL And Then There Were None” my jaw literally dropped (and I do mean literally), because this popped up:

 

Each ManuscriptWishList.com profile has this great button! Click to see that agent or editor’s #MSWL tweets.

Not only was this an exact match, but look how enthusiastic he was here! I mentioned this MSWL match in the subject line of my query to Jim, as well as in a personalized paragraph at the top of the query. He asked to read the full manuscript right away. Yay!

(Sidenote: After finding this tweet, I realized I should also search for shortlist agents’ Twitter handle + #MSWL, because they might tweet off-the-cuff wishlist items not included on their MSWL bio page.)

A few weeks later, I got my first offer of representation from a different agent (who was another #MSWL match, by the way… this site really does work). But the following week, my jaw was back on the floor when I received a voicemail from a mysterious 212 number, and it was Jim asking me to call him back…

Jim:

I have a pretty thorough MSWL page, but I also tend to throw out tweets every so often when I see something I think could be a novel or something pops into my head. When I receive queries that cite my link on the website, I tend to remember what I said I was looking for. But there’s this wonderful charm about receiving manuscripts based on tweets. Sometimes I just think, “I said that? That DOES sound like something I want!” That’s pretty much what happened here!

In retrospect, I remember someone telling me at the time I tweeted it that because of Gretchen McNeil’s novel TEN, which was a contemporary adaptation of AND THEN THERE WERE NONE, I would have a hard time finding and selling something else that also comped to it. It had been “done.” The wonderful thing about Diana’s manuscript (or, rather, one of the wonderful things about it) is that it’s comparable to the Christie in tone and scope, but it’s not an adaptation or a retelling. She was able to see the underlying similarities her novel shared—why it would appeal to a Christie fan despite its extreme differences in terms of plot and (pardon the pun) execution.

Diana’s query was flawless. She personalized it so I knew that she specifically wanted ME to consider the novel for very good and very distinct reasons. That’s priceless—not because it flatters the agent but because it speaks to a level of seriousness on the part of the author. They have done their research. They know not only that they might be a fit on my list, but why. We use these sites and hashtags because we really do love certain genres or tropes or themes, and when someone takes the time to get to know what we’re looking for and can express why they think we might be a match, that query is already so, so far ahead of the majority of the pack. Sure, sometimes our #MSWL mentions come back to haunt us, and we receive 700 queries referring to the same single request, and we’ve already found a book that fulfilled that need, but more often than not, a match there is very likely to be a pretty close match to our interests.

Let me get back to Diana’s query, though. Yes, it was targeted and specific. It was also well-written, clear, and concise. But also? Can we look at this line again? “Nine teens get locked in a room and must choose someone to kill within an hour, or else they’ll all die.” I saw that and was ALL IN. What an idea! What stakes! What a fresh and exciting take! Immediately my head was spinning—how does a group react to these stakes psychologically? What would I do? Was what I think I would do what I would actually do?! Who are the people?! What’s going to happen?! Immediately, my brain was off and running. When people talk about high concept novels, this is what they mean. It is a straightforward idea that lends itself to all sorts of different considerations before you even know the details. I was hooked, and I hadn’t even been introduced to a character yet.

Does every high-concept book work? Of course not. The query made the book an insta-request, but then it had to live up to the expectations of such an exciting premise. We all know what happened: Diana DELIVERED. She not only pulled off an intricate and surprising take on the concept that she presented, but she offered up sharp writing, a group of characters that each seemed fully developed and deeply considered, and she made the whole concept feel real. She plumbed the depths of her characters psychologically to figure out how they would each react to the various twists and turns, and she delivered an ending that (and this is key) felt not only fully rational AND surprising, but which made complete contextual sense and didn’t feel like a cheat. The characters don’t get miraculously saved at the last minute. There’s no deus-ex-machina. She told me someone would die in this book, and she delivered. She didn’t cheat. And that mattered a surprising amount to me.

So what else is there to say? I’m thrilled to be representing her on this deliciously exciting thriller. I’m grateful for #MSWL and that it allowed her to find me. And I can’t wait to get this out into the world and start sharing it more widely. I have lots of ideas for this book. Now I have the chance to act on them. What’s better than that?

Diana:

When I returned Jim’s call and he offered me representation, I was pretty quiet during the first half of the conversation, mainly because I was too busy grinning ear-to-ear! He expressed a lot of what he wrote above over the phone, and it was so apparent to me that he really got my book. He referenced specific things he loved about it, and was so clearly excited, which is exactly what I was looking for in an agent.

I’m incredibly thrilled to have signed with Jim, and excited to see what the future will bring. For many of us, publishing is a long road that requires a ton of determination, persistence, and patience. So it’s wonderful that tools like #MSWL exist to make that journey just a bit easier, and I’m so thankful that it helped me connect with my dream agent.

_______

Diana Urban is a marketer and fiction author. You can find her @DianaUrban and http://dianaurban.com

Jim McCarthy is an agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. You can see his MSWL page here.

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