The short answer is (as it almost always is) hard work.
The hardest part about being a writer without an agent is the daunting prospect of writing an entire novel without knowing whether it’ll be universally rejected by every agency you send it to or good enough to catch the eye of someone on the ‘inside’.
I wrote two full length manuscripts before completing the book which got me and agent and I can tell you that the feeling of every single person on your carefully researched list of agents rejecting you one by one is a heartbreaking and demoralising experience.
The lowest point for me was seven minutes after I’d sent out my second novel to an agent who I won’t name here. I sent the email with my painstakingly crafted cover letter and first three chapters off and left for work. Seven minutes later my phone pinged in my pocket. It was the agent I’d just sent my book to. He claimed to have read those three chapters of the book I’d spent five months working on and decided it wasn’t for him. Those three chapters added up to over 11,000 words, words I had written, words I loved. What this agent had sent back was a ‘form letter’ or, more specifically a ‘form email’ a pre-written rejection that can be sent at the click of a button. seven minutes was barely enough time for him to read my email, let alone the sample chapters. This left me disheartened and perplexed. How the hell was I supposed to get anywhere when the people I needed to get the attention of weren’t even giving my work a glance.
The painful truth is: the bad times will outweigh the good massively during this period (unless you’re the second coming of Hemingway or incredibly lucky). You will receive a plethora of rejections, a sea of them! Most of them will be form letters and all of them will hurt.
Every now and then there will be something to keep you going. A personalised note confirming that you have talent (you WILL doubt that you have any talent after 25 rejections), or a request to read the next three chapters, or a request to read the full damn manuscript! These are the moments, the ports in the storm of rejection that will keep you going – and that’s the secret: just keep going, to quote Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own “It’s supposed to be hard. If it were easy everyone would do it.” you have to be the writer willing to carry on even though every ‘this isn’t for me’ cuts you like a knife. And the best part of it is: if you’re meant to be a writer, if that’s the thing you HAVE to do, you’ll carry on regardless.
So carry on. Keep writing, keep getting better, keep sending off your work to people who will keep saying ‘no’ until one day someone will say ‘yes’ and then it will all have been worth it.