It’s a painful balancing act. The skills required to come up with nuanced characters and intricate plots are quite different to those needed to sell yourself as an investment. To date I have never met a writer who didn’t desperately want to be able to hire someone else to file their taxes and apply for grants and all the other awful real-world stuff that we just don’t want to do.
This is of course why an agent is so useful. They perform the balancing act so we don’t have to. Contacting one, however, can be a daunting process – cover letters and synopses, pitfalls of formatting and etiquette.
I had more trouble writing a 300 word synopsis for my YA novel than I did writing the thing. Trying to decide between Yours Sincerely and Yours Faithfully in the cover letter gave me a stress twitch.
However, there are some simple guidelines that worked for me in my path to get an agent. These can be applied to your own journey as well.
Writing a novel is one thing. Sending it out into the world another. It’s impossible to judge trends or guess what’ll be the next big thing – remember, the world hopped from teenage vampire fiction to BDSM erotica in the space of about a week – but there are a few simple tasks to complete that are universal, whether you writing crime, fantasy or literary fiction.
Spellcheck & Standard Manuscript Format
These might sound obvious but I’m saying them anyway. First, proof-read your book. Get other people to proof-read it too. Hire a professional proof-reader if you’re willing to drop the money on it, but I’ve never used one so I don’t think they’re essential. Make sure the manuscript is as close to perfect as you can make it.
I don’t know if an agent would decide to put aside your manuscript because of a spelling mistake or whether they’d be too engrossed in the prose to care, but there’s no reason to take the chance.
While you’re doing that, put your manuscript into Standard Manuscript Format as outlined here. It’ll be a lot of work but at the same time will allow you to do one last thorough examination of the novel. I was amazed – even when I and my agent were examining the draft – how easily a spelling mistake or missing word slipped through.
Cover Letter & Synopsis
Before getting an agent I found myself wondering whether an agent actually reads them. If I were an agent I’d just read the first page of the book. That’d tell me if I wanted to read the second, the third, or the fourth.
When I had the chance to ask a couple of agents what their preference was I got very different answers. Some read the book first, some read the letter and some read the synopsis. Bottom line – you can’t afford to ignore them. The agent wouldn’t be asking for them without a reason.
I had a basic template letter that looked like the following –
Dear (Agent Name)
– P1 – Elevator Pitch. This was my three/four line description of the novel’s plot. It’s a blackly humorous YA novel so I took a (very slightly) informal tone. I made the first line something snappy and sharp that would immediately grab their attention.
– P2 – Overview of the Novel. I told them the genre of the novel, that it was the start of a series and the main questions the novel would ask and then attempt to answer.
– P3 – Comparisons. This was a calculated risk on my part as exactly half the research I did said not to do this and half of it did. I compared the novel to other writers with qualifiers – it has elements of this style while differing in this way and so on. As mine was a genre novel, I felt this was important.
– P4 – Bio. A Six lines about myself – my career as a performer, my degree and my publications.
This all ended up being about an A4 page single-spaced. I edited it quite a bit as you don’t want to overload them with information, keeping sentences short and tight.
Some agencies will specify a certain length of synopsis – 300 words, or a page, or 3 pages. For simplicity’s sake I prepared one 300 word one and one 1000 word one as templates ready to go.
Remember a synopsis is a blow-by-blow account of the story. You don’t leave out the ending or keep things mysterious but nor do you include every single moment.
Set the scene, introduce the characters, walk through the main conflicts and how they’re resolved.
Give each character a one-line outline when you introduce them. ‘Charlotte is beautiful, driven and fully convinced that she knows what’s best for everyone in a hundred mile radius.’
Ask questions that are answered later. ‘What could Charlotte’s mother have meant when she said that the angels are in the phone box?’
Keep the synopsis in the present tense. Don’t worry about making it beautiful – focus on clear and active storytelling, they’ll see your style from page 1.
It’s a difficult process – there will be stand-out lines you want to put in, you’ll feel you’re not doing the book justice – but it’s more important to keep within their guidelines. Look for synopses of books familiar to you and see what they’ve kept in/left out.
Organisation is everything. Now that you’ve prepared your manuscript, your cover letter, and your synopses you can choose your agent.
And it is a choice you’re making – remember, agents want good writers as much as you want an agent, that’s how they make their money. They’re not faceless avatars of murderous rejection, just professionals with a lot of manuscripts to look at and a limited amount of time in which to do it.
The resource I used was a website called literaryrejections.com. Don’t freak out at the title – they’re actually a brilliant and friendly site for writers, providing a list of maybe a hundred UK, US, German, Australian and Canadian agencies. You’ll find contact details, their requirements and whether they take postal or e-mail submissions.
THESE DETAILS ARE ESSENTIAL.
I follow a lot of agents on Twitter. You would be astonished – as they are – how many people blithely ignore what an agent wants to see. Give them what they asked for – no more, no less.
Read through the list of agencies. Follow the links to their sites and do your research. Most agency websites will have a list of agent profiles from which you can see who deals with that. Usually you’ll see their client list as well.
Take the time to choose an agent based on what they have said about themselves. This could be the difference between someone actually reading your submission or not. If you send a crime novel submission to an agent who only deals with YA they might do your work for them and forward it to the relevant colleague… but there’s no reason to take that chance.
Be methodical. Take your time. Agencies have their format – right down to the type of word.doc and document title they want. Follow this. Check and double-check everything.
Keep copies of all your submissions and if you’re a pedant like me make an Excel doc. keeping track of the date that you submitted.
Some agencies will not accept simultaneous submissions. Some agencies will encourage you to follow up on them if they don’t contact you. Others will not. Pay attention to this. Chances are any question you might have has been answered somewhere on their site.
If you’re interested in a particular agency or agent I’d recommend following them on Twitter – you’ll gain useful insight. Juliet Mushens @mushenska and Julia Churchill @JuliaChurchill even run regular Q & A sessions from their Twitter accounts. There is nothing like being able to directly ask an agent a question.
Never use social media to submit or follow up on submissions, however – it’s a huge breach of etiquette and will do you no favours.
Then – I’m sorry to say – you wait.
I contacted eighteen agents on my first day and then took a break to see what responses came in. That’s a few too many for a first round, looking back. I’d recommend five or six. Be honest with the agent if they ask you are other people looking at it. It might make them put their skates on while reading it.
Over the next twelve weeks I received six prompt rejections, radio silence from a handful more and two agencies asking to read the entire manuscript. I signed with the (absolutely wonderful) team at Darley Anderson six weeks or so after my submission and then e-mailed the remaining agencies withdrawing my manuscript.
The precautions above won’t guarantee you an agent by themselves. Agents judge the work above all else. But from what I can see good submission etiquette is like good grammar – you never notice it if it’s been done right. You don’t want the agent focusing on a lack of cover letter or eighty thousand words in single-space Comic Sans. You want them lost in your book.
Dave Rudden is represented by The Darley Anderson Literary Agency. The World English rights to his trilogy have just been acquired by Puffin, the German rights by Fischer and the French translation by Pocket Jeunesse. Follow him on Twitter at @dreadfulnotion