Every querying writer knows (or should know) that once a literary agent rejects a query or a manuscript, that agent’s door closes. Often, the door to the entire agency slams shut. Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes agents will reconsider heavily revised work, but as a general rule, if an agent passes on a query or pages, the final answer for that particular manuscript is No.
So how can you find out if your work is ready to submit without sending the pages out too early and blowing it with that perfect agent? You need to know if it’s query ready before you query.
You could pay for a manuscript or query critique, but in most cases, the feedback won’t be from an agent or publishing house editor. You could ask your friends, your mother, or a critique partner for input.
Or you could seek out agent or editor feedback through some side channels. I’ve compiled a list of several options that can get your work in front of agents and editors without posing a risk of rejection. Some of the methods are free, others require modest entry fees, and some are crazy expensive.
A quick google search will turn up numerous regional, national, international, and genre-specific writing contests. Competitions can be a great way to get feedback.
The pros: Many contests are free, affordable, or offer scholarships. Winners and short-listers often get agent/editor feedback, phone consultations, revision notes, or in-person meetings with agents/editors.
The cons: Some contests are expensive. In most cases, only the winners get feedback. Some contests make you pay extra if you want feedback.
Tips: Don’t enter contests with the expectation that you will always win or make a shortlist. Do your homework. Consider how much it costs to enter. Will they waive fees for low-income writers? Is there prize money? Who is judging it? Do they provide feedback? Who writes the comments? Is it sponsored by a reputable organization? Do you retain all rights if you win? Check out Writer Beware which does a great job keeping track of scams targeting writers.
The Manuscript Academy
This website launched by literary agent Jessica Sinsheimer (founder of # MSWL, Manuscript Wish List) allows writers to book ten-minute query or page critiques with agents and editors. You can purchase a phone or Skype consult for $49 or a ten-page manuscript consult for $99. This sounds like a lot of money, but remember where the feedback is coming from: agents and editors who represent and buy books like yours. You are guaranteed a conversation with a publishing professional of your choice who has reviewed your work.
The Pros: You get to talk to the agent or editor on the phone or via Skype. You can ask them anything. You can practice your pitch and receive immediate feedback without fear of rejection.
The Cons: It’s expensive.
Tips: Research the agent or editor before booking to make sure they are a good match for your work. Practice your pitch out loud before the call so you can make the best use of your time.
Agents and editors often donate critiques to help raise money for charities. In some cases, you can speak to the editor or agent on the phone. In other auctions, you receive written feedback on your work.
The Pros: The money goes to charity, not to the agents or editors, who are donating their time.
The Cons: They can be expensive.
Tips: Research the agent to make sure they are a good match for your writing. If the bidding goes higher than your price limit, be prepared to walk away. There will be other auctions. Google “literary agent auction” every month or so to see what pops up.
Literary Idol Events
Many writers conferences and book festivals host Literary Idol events where an actor reads the first pages of submitted manuscripts aloud. A panel of agents listen and raise their hands when they lose interest. The panel discusses what they liked and didn’t like about each page.
Pros: They are free. Pages are submitted anonymously, so no one knows who wrote which page.
Cons: The agent feedback can be brutal. These events are not for the thin-skinned.
Tip: Listen carefully to all the feedback, not just the comments on your own work. Be open-minded. Don’t take the criticism personally. Think of it as a learning opportunity.
Online Workshops Taught By Agents or Editors
These courses range from a single recorded episode you can watch at your convenience, to live, multi-week classes with real-time Q&As. Check out LitReactor.
Writer’s Digest University, and regional writers organizations for course offerings.
Pros: You can participate remotely from your computer. Participants receive written feedback from agents/editors and have the opportunity to ask questions.
Cons: They can be expensive.
Tips: Some online classes offer virtual office hours where you can chat with the instructor and your classmates. Take advantage of the opportunity to ask an industry expert questions about your work or the querying process. Don’t register for a workshop with the expectation that an agent/editor will love everything you write. Being open to tough love will help you improve as a writer.
There are tons of free Twitter contests, such as PitchWars, RevPit, Pitch To Publication, and Sun Vs. Snow. Winners work with a mentor for weeks (or months) to revise their manuscripts. Most of these contests host a showcase where agents peruse the revised winning manuscripts and make requests.
Pros: They are free. If you win, you get to skip querying and get your work in front of numerous agents all at one time.
Cons: These contests can be intense, so be prepared to work hard if you are selected.
Tips: Enter. Participate. Twitter contests are a great way to connect with other writers, even if you don’t win.
My Year of Aggressively Seeking Feedback
The year before I queried my first novel, I sought out agent/editor feedback whenever I could find it. I wanted someone to tell me I was on the right track before I sent my queries out. I also wanted to hear the hard, ugly truths. Below are a few low points and highlights of my journey.
- I crashed and burned spectacularly in a live Literary Idol event hosted by agents from the Rees Literary Agency.
What I learned: My opening was cliché, I didn’t give my reader enough reason to care about my MC in the opening scene.
- I won a charity auction for an agent critique of my query and first chapter. The agent unexpectedly called me at home at 8:30 pm on a weeknight to tell me he loved my query. Yay! But, that first chapter? He hated it. Ouch.
What I learned: I was starting in the wrong place.
- Literary agent Don Maass gave me generous and detailed feedback in a two-week-long online workshop offered through an industry group I belonged to.
What I learned: I have a tendency to overwrite. I needed to consider secondary and tertiary emotions.
- I won the RevPit contest. As my prize, editor Victoria Griffin, helped me revise my entire manuscript twice.
What I learned: Relying on coincidences is a cheap plot tool. Characters must earn their emotional arcs.
- After I won a bid in a charity auction, literary agent Patricia Nelson critiqued my query and first twenty pages.
What I learned: I was telling, not showing in my opening scene. She offered specific suggestions that transformed my opening chapters.
- Via The Manuscript Academy, book editor Alicia Clancy (with St Martin’s Press at the time, now with Lake Union) reviewed my query and first page.
Cost: $40 (the price has since gone up.)
What I learned: She helped me tighten up my query, and she suggested I query the agent I eventually signed with, saving me tons of time researching agents.
- I entered and won the Writers’ League of Texas manuscript contest. The prize was feedback from literary agent and judge, Michelle Brower, who took the time to call me and advise me on my query and first few chapters.
What I learned: I was on the right track. All the hard work was starting to show. She helped me frame the way I should discuss my book with agents and hone my pitch.
- I was shortlisted for the Caledonia Novel Award. Literary agent and judge Madeleine Milburn gave me encouraging and specific feedback.
What I learned: I was ready!
Holiday Gift Ideas For Your Soon-To-Be-Querying Friend
- Pay the entry fee for one (or two!) literary contests.
- Pay for an online or in-person writing workshop taught by an agent or editor.
- Pay for a pitch session at an upcoming literary conference.
- Buy them a 10 Minutes With An Expert consult from The Manuscript Academy.
- For the big spenders out there, offer to buy a manuscript consult with an editor or agent, such as those available at The Manuscript Mart at the Muse & the Marketplace conference
- Pay to cover a contest entry fee for a low-income writer in honor of your friend.
Have you tried any of the avenues for getting agent or editor feedback? Do you have suggestions for other ways to get industry insider input before querying? If so, please share them in the comments.