The Submission Process – How To Contact An Agent

DATEWITHANAGENT (1)It is difficult enough being a writer without having to be a business person as well.

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.

PREPARATION

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.

Cover Letter

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.

Synopsis

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.

CONTACTING AGENTS

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.

Ahem.

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 WHAT?

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

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Date with an Agent: Do’s & Don’ts to get Ahead

DATEWITHANAGENT (1)This year the Dublin Writers’ Festival is offering a chance for you to pitch your novel to a number of agents through Date with an Agent. The event also includes a panel discussion which will cover the status of publishing and what is currently selling.

Only 75 people will be selected to participate so stop dilly-dallying and enter immediately.

A couple of years ago I had a similar opportunity (as a result of winning the Irish Writers’ Centre Novel Fair) and it was a real education. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may find helpful:

DO:

Be prepared.
And also, don’t forget, be prepared. But the most important thing is… BE PREPARED.

This may be a once in a lifetime opportunity, and you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t deliver your absolute best.

You’ll have ten minutes with each agent (in a speed-dating sort of format) so put together a succinct presentation and own it.

Write out your summary and polish it till it shines. You should include the basics: Title, length, genre, point of view and a brief introduction to your protagonist, what he or she wants, and what obstacles stand in the way. Try to answer the six questions, who, what, where, when, how and why:
Who is your hero? What does he want? Why does he want it? Where and when does the story take place? How will he triumph? Yes, it is possible to answer all those questions in just a couple of sentences.

Once you’ve written something that ticks all your boxes, memorize it. Practice saying it to other people. Get feedback.

It sounds obvious, but make sure you can answer any questions that the agent may ask you:

• What’s the status of the novel – i.e., who is your target readership? For instance, are you presenting a crime story that would appeal to people who like hard-edged work like Michael Connelly, or ‘cosy’ mysteries a la Agatha Christie?
• Is it complete or are you still writing?
• Over what period does the story take place – a couple of hours or several generations?

I’d be inclined not to pitch a novel that isn’t complete, but if you decide to go ahead, make sure you know two important things:

How long is the story likely to run? And how will it end?

One question that tripped me up during my Novel Fair (and it was asked a lot) was: what’s your next book going to be about? In hindsight, it’s a fairly obvious question. Agents want to back a career and they want to know you aren’t a one-trick pony. Even if you’ve only a vague idea, at least have something in mind, preferably in the same genre. Remember, you’re not committing to writing this book, but you are at least demonstrating an ability to look ahead.

Do your research.

Know as much about the agents you’re meeting as possible before the event. Look them up on the internet. Read their blogs, tweets, books and know who else they represent.

It isn’t a ‘date’ but

Although this isn’t a date as you know it, some of the same rules apply. Arrive on time. Be clean and well groomed. Use deodorant. Keep perfume to a minimum. Have a good supply of breath mints in your pocket.

Be polite and interested in what the other person has to say. While you don’t have much time, a little social exchange before you get started isn’t a bad idea. Stand up, shake hands, introduce yourself, be cheerful.

Where this isn’t like a date, though, is it’s OK to talk about yourself or, more accurately, your work. (Oh, and you probably won’t get a snog at the end of it.)

DON’T:

Arrive drunk or high. You wouldn’t, would you?

Humm and haw. Try to eliminate the ‘sort ofs’ and ‘kinda’s from your vocabulary as much as you can. Naturally you’ll be nervous, but you should still try to be as confident and as professional as possible. At a minimum, you should sound knowledgeable about your own work. I know that sounds obvious, but trust me, when you’re on the spot it’s amazingly easy to forget the basics. Like your protagonist’s name. Have the basics on an index card to refresh your memory if you are worried you’ll go blank.

Argue or be rude. You only have ten minutes with each individual and you want to be remembered as intelligent, talented and pleasant. Winning flies with honey, and all that.

Forget to ask questions. Again, you have limited time so be sensible. Asking what sort of an advance you’re likely to get is waaay too premature. You could ask what sort of work they’re looking for, though and how long it’ll take them to get back to you.

Fail to keep notes. At the Novel Fair, I kept my notebook at my desk and frantically jotted down comments made by each agent I met. It was helpful, but unnecessarily stressful. If I were to do it again, I’d have a sheet of paper with the agents’ names listed and a series of columns that I could either check or put in a 1 to 5 response. The items would include:
• Likes my title
• Likes my story idea
• Likes my plot
• Wants to see the full manuscript (yes or no)

You may think of other items to include. Once the event is over, it’s likely that much of what was said will blur. If you have some sort of notes you’ll have a more realistic idea of what to expect.

Once you have time to read over your notes or your sheet, try to see if there’s a thread. All the agents I met with said they loved my title. That’s a 5 on a 1 to 5 scale. If they weren’t sure about the plot or the saleability of the novel, that might only score a 1 or a 2. Come up with a system that works for you.

Be intimidated. After all, agents get colds, spill coffee and worry about their children just like you do. From personal experience I can tell you the Dublin-based agents are all pleasant, intelligent professionals. They’re hoping you’ll be their next star just as much as you are, so try not to get too stressed about meeting them.

And I’ll leave you with one last DO: HAVE FUN!

(G.J. Schear)