Recently I've been getting asked advice by friends about writing and grad school and getting published and such, inquiring for others as well as themselves. So I figured I'd add to the bevy of information posted online about getting published, finding an agent or graduate school or critique partner and so on. This isn't on how to write or keep writing but this is on that other aspect that some fail to grasp which is the effort outside of writing but in how to have your work seen. And the sole answer to that is: Research.
At AWP in Boston this month I was at an agent panel, one of several that was packed by emerging writers seeking advice and guidance. The Q&A got a bit repetitive depending on which panel(s) you went to but the same message could not be relayed enough it seems, which is: do your research.
One writer actually told the panel that it seemed too arduous to research agents. One of the agents on the panel was actually quite nice, but also very serious when he said, "If you're expecting me to spend what could be up to 20 hours to read and consider your manuscript, the least you can do is make sure it's worth my time which means taking the time to do research on what I'm looking for."
It's amazing how many times I've heard, seen, and also experienced rejected based on the fact that one did not do their research.
I know, it seems like after writing and editing, critiquing and reviewing that your job should be done. You would like to think that any agent who is a fan of books would like ALL writing. But, as any reader knows it's all subjective, it's just hard to consider this when it comes to our own work. When others say they enjoy your work it's hard to take when you expose it to others and hope they'll enjoy it too. But there are ways to save yourself from this. One of them is to, yup, as repetitive as it sounds: do your research.
Researching literary agents is a MUST. There are so many agents these days and the list is growing. With publishers downsizing editors may transition to agent roles. Each agent has specific requirements when it comes to their growing list and if you write literary fiction and Agent A wants commercial it is a waste of both yours and the agent's time to send them your coming-of-age novel.
What can be harder is if you write literary fiction and an agent takes that, but how do you know yours is right for him/her? Publishers Marketplace, the agency website, Writers Digest even does spotlights on agents, and there are regularly listings of books sold (editor, author, and agent attached), as well as the acknowledgment pages of books you enjoy. If your book is on international characters and you see that an agent seems to like historical book based in North America only perhaps he/she may not be right. If the agent likes nonfiction and you're writing a memoir make sure the agent includes memoir in their growing list. Some agents have blogs, many are on Twitter. An agent I follow, Pam van Hylckama of Foreword Literary may do #tenqueries. In #tenqueries Pam notes why she will or won't accept a query and many times it's because she's been queried for projects she does not represent and of course bad query letters but that's a whole other blog post. This is super helpful for aspiring writers to know what agents they may want to query are looking for and who they represent.
In regards to literary magazines I cannot praise Duotrope enough as a resource. I've been using it for years and it's now a paid service ($50/year) but if you're actively searching for lit mags and trying to send out pieces, track them, and get a sense of what genres lit mags take as well as their submission periods Duotrope is invaluable. From there you can check out archived issues if a magazine may have it online to see if their work is a fit and potentially submit or keep them in mind for something in the future.
The same research you'd put into residencies, graduate school, undergrad, conferences, and so forth. You research costs, what people may have thought about them, what you can get out of the program and who is teaching. All of these things are important to ensure you get the most out of any experience and most importantly do not waste your time or others. Somethings are a shot in the dark and it may or may not work out in your favor. But at least if you did a bit of preparation beforehand you can avoid many blows.