Monday, 11 March 2013

Hunting For A Literary Agent - Part 1

   So, you've finished your book. Well done! It's a wonderful feeling. Now you need to go back and reread and redraft it a hundred times, but assuming you've already done that (which I can't help you with), you move onto the next step: contacting agents.

   Now, the first thing I recommend doing is buying a copy of the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook. This comes out every year and has LOADS of important things in it. It has pages and pages of literary agencies for poetry, screenplays, and, mostly, books. For the most part, they are all based in the UK, but that's just because that's where I got my copy from, and, of course, that's convenient for me. But it's also got a lot of pages of advice from popular writers. One writer from each genre gives their advice on writing and handling their genre - I believe it was Sir Terry Pratchett who covered fantasy in 2012. I don't know who did what else because I wasn't interested. He outlined a few things to keep in mind - such as world technology, the 'why's and 'how's - basically shorthand for the things I've already been talking about.
   But there are also a lot of pages about getting your foot in the publishing door: how to first contact an agent; how to go directly to publishers; how to write synopsis and so on. There's a few pages written by an agent, as well, outlining what is usually expected, though each agent is different.
   I highly recomment buying it. But for now, I'll talk you through the first part: finding an agent.

Finding and Contacting an Agent

   When I say 'finding an agent' I don't mean convincing one. No, I mean literally finding one to send your work to. There are a large number of literary agencies in most countries. Some consist of ten or so agents, while others are run by a sole charcter. But don't just mail your work out to every agency and cross your fingers. That wastes your time, their time, and your money. Instead, you should research agencies and find out what they accept. The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook usually states beneath every agency listing just what it is they accept. Usually it's just fiction and/or non-fiction. But you must pay attention. Fantasy is fiction, but not the fiction they're after. "Fiction" in this case just relates to general fiction. Made up stories. If you're working in fantasy, like me, you want to find an agency that specifically says "fantasy".
   A lot of agencies, however, were never too specific, so I went rhrough the book, crossing out agencies that only accepted non-fiction, or general fiction, and focused on agencies that accepted fantasy, science fiction, or hadn't specified. Just about all of them had a website, so I started there. Any that still didn't specify, I added to a "maybe" list - a list of agencies that MIGHT accept it, but not to get my hopes up over. In total, it boiled down to five agencies in the UK, for me and fantasy. Not very promising but I'm carrying on regardless.
   Once you've found your agencies, you need to take a look at what it is they want. Most agencies want the same thing: cover letter, synopsis, 3 chapters and perhaps a CV. But I URGE you to read their websites. Some agencies only want one chapter, or perhaps don't even want chapters, they want  a certain number of pages, also said as "pp". So make sure you know what they want, and only give them what they want. If they ask for one chapter, but you want to send three, only send one. They are used to judging books by a single chapter, so have confidence in yourself. If they only ask for 50pp, but you can give two complete chapters in 55, only give them 50.
   However, some agencies don't even want that right away. Some want a preliminary letter, first. This preliminary letter is similar to the cover letter, but asks for permission to send them your work. In these situations, you will have to wait to hear back whether or not they want your work. They may decline simply because they're not taking anyone on at that moment, or because they didn't like the way you used your 2 sentence space to outline the story. But if they do respond, as above, only give them what they ask for. They know best. 

   Now, I mentioned "synopsis" and "cover letter" up there. These are important, and I'll talk you through what they entail.
   I'll start with the cover letter. The cover letter is split into several paragraphs, each with its own purpose. In the first paragraph, you want to tell them what the book you're submitting to them is called, what its genre is, and give a 1-2 sentence description of the storyline. For example "This book tells the tale of Character X as he tries to stop the evil Character Y from destroying the world, and has him meet all manner of people on his journey, including dwarves and fish people, to find the Hammer of Truth. The Hammer of Truth is an old artifact of an ancient god, long since dead, but whose dark energy still resides inside, swaying the resolve and the heart of Character X and his companions." This is admittedly a long 2 sentences, with a fairly poor plot for the most part, but it is only meant to serve as an example.
   Once you've outlined that, move onto the next paragraph to mention your publishing achievements. These are serious. Mentioning the letter you had printed in a magazine when you were 6, or how you published your own e-book that has sold at a snail's pace won't do too much for you, but I wouldn't think it'd hinder you. What they want to know from this is how long you've been actively writing, if there are any examples of your work already on shelves somewhere, and if you have achieved anything of note with your work.
   Go on then to introduce yourself, perhaps mention what you want to get out of it - but be realistic here. This is important. If you say "I'm going to be more famous than J.K.Rowling" then they won't take you too seriously, even if it eventually does turn out to be true. Personally, all I truly want is to be able to write for a living. For neither myself 'nor Seeg to need to get a job, and we live in a standard house with the standard luxuries. I don't need awards, millions of pounds and ridiculously expensive items. I just want to be what I deem to be successful. And that's exactly what I told them. Hopefully they realise that I am down to earth, and not reaching for the heavens, and so I might come across more serious.
   Also make sure not to big yourself up too much, or explain yourself. Let your work speak for itself. If your story is slow to start, don't mention that. It'll be evident when they read it. And don't tell them that you think your writing is better than another, already published author, even if you do. It'll make you come across as cocky. Confidence is one thing, arrogance is another. I also recommend reading SlushPile Hell - it's a Tumblr kept by an agent, who points out all of the bad parts of cover letters they receive, such as arrogance, poorly written sentences, and, most importantly, the use of big words. I must stress this point: when you're writing your cover letter, DON'T fill it with loads of big words that you're not 100% confident with using. If you're work is written for the average person, while your cover letter is written for Shakespeare, it won't give you any plus points, it makes you look pretentious and stupid, because as I've said, they're probably used wrong. SlushPile Hell is a pretty good place to get an idea of what is not wanted from your cover letter. (This only looks at cover letters, though, not anyone's work.)
   Finally, make sure to let the agent know that you're submitting your work to other agencies. It would be like going to a job interview and just assuming that you're the only one going after the job because the company failed to mention that they'd interviewed other people. It's just polite, and was advised by an agent to do so.

   In the Writer and Artists' Yearbook, 2012, there was a piece written by an agent. She said what drew her most to one of the people she signed, besides the work itself, and it was that she had made it clear in her cover letter or preliminary letter that she would continue to write whether she was published or not, because she enjoyed it so much. She didn't say this necessarily, but it's how she apparently came across to the agent. It was clear she had a great passion for writing. This is a piece I took to heart, and it seems that being honest - but not day-dream-honest - is very important. Sure, I'd love to be a millionaire. I'd love to surpass Rowling. But I know that that won't happen because my works are nothing like hers, and I can really appreciate how she got to where she is now. But I know that won't happen with me, and that is fine. I know what I want from this dream, and I intend to get it.

   *ahem.* Onto the synopsis.
   A lot of people struggle with synopses, and I did too. You have to compress the entire story onto about 2 pages. Some agencies will state that they only want a 1 page synopsis, or a 5 page synopsis, or, god forbid, 50 words. You have to be able to compress your story.
   The reason they want a synopsis is because if you're only sending 3 chapters then they won't get any idea of your story without it. The chapters serve as a real sample of your writing style, skill, and the way the book will unfold. A few important characters will have been introduced, and because it's quite incomplete, the agent will know if they want to read more or not.
   Now, the synopsis is not something you would give a friend. It's not something that's supposed to build suspense like a snippet or a blurb. It's a compressed version of your story, that details all the important events, including character deaths, plot twists and secrets. It is NOT a place for cliff hangers or suspense. The agent wants to be able to read that and know exactly what the story is about. This, like the cover letter, needs to be well-written. If your synopsis and cover letter have poor grammar and typing mistakes, they won't have high hopes for your manuscript.

   The Manuscript.
   If you are a "new" writer - this means unpublished and unknown, regardless of how long you've been writing or how much you've written - then agents are only interested in polished and perfect manuscripts. They want something that could go to print right away. Don't send them the first three chapters to a half written book. Don't send them the first three chapters to a book that is finished but is unchecked. Don't just send them a plan of what you intend to write. They don't want this. They want the beginning of an already completed piece.
   If you send them an intricate or even half-arsed plan of what you intend to write, they will only ask you to contact them again when the piece is finished. This doesn't mean they're interested, it simply means they can't form an opinion on something they've not seen the result of, which is exactly what a plan is. It doesn't matter how eager you are to get yourself signed up, a plan alone is no use.
   Again, only send them what they want, be it three chapters, one chapter or fifty pages. They know what they want.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to post this I have shared it with my sister as she is trying to get a book published :)

    1. Happy to help - there are 2 more parts coming out over the course of the next four weeks, including what to do once you've sent your work out. It's probably the hardest part of writing a book - trying to get someone to pay attention. I hope your sister has some success!


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