Choosing a Literary Agent

So you’ve finished your first draft, you’ve edited your manuscript (1, 2, 3), and you’re ready to get it out into the world.

You can go the self-publishing route if you want, but if you want to get picked up by a traditional publisher you’re probably going to need an agent. Once you’ve identified the best agent for you there are somethings you should definitely never say, and there are certainly ways to ensure that your query is the very best it can be.

Before you can get to this point, however, you need to identify an agent that suits you.

 

Identifying a legitimate literary agent;

First things first; ensure the agent in question is legitimate! There are many new authors so eager to land an agent that they will not only query agents who are a poor fit for them, but also agents who are not even genuine!

How ca you tell if an agent is legitimate? Well, first and foremost they will not charge a reading fee, they will not take fees upfront (if they do they will usually include a clause that states they cannot take any further upfront fees without your written consent, though, so check that out), and they will not refer you to fee charging editorial services. Legitimate literary agents make their money through commissions earned when they sell your product to publishing houses. The usual fee ranges between 10% and 20%.

Be wary of any agent that contacts you out of the blue; if you have not solicited them and

do not have a large social media following or platform its likely they are scammers.

 

Finding the right agent for you;

When you’re thinking about querying an agent you need to consider how they fit with your genre, your style, and your goals. Most agents will specialise in either fiction or non-fiction, commercial or literary, informative or narrative, and of course many specialise by genre as well.

You should be looking for agents that have represented works similar to your own. Start by compiling a list of agents that state they are open to books in your genres and field, and then do your homework. Yes, this means more research.

No, you can’t get out of it. Here’s how it can benefit you; just because an agent is open to your kind of work does’t mean they are the very best fit for you. Try to find out some of the following information before you query (or rule anyone out);

  • How many deals have they made?
  • How many within the last two years?
  • Do they sell to a variety of publishers?
  • Which authors have they worked with?
  • What kind of advances have they negotiated?

You may not be able to find out all of this information, but you will surely find out some, and this will not only give you an idea as to whether this is the correct agent for you, but you’ll have an idea of how to personalise your approach when you do query them.

 

Once you have your agent single out, you’ve written a kick-ass query (and of course your manuscript is ready), all you have to do is write up a one page synopsis and you can start querying!

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Self-Editing For Success, Part Three

So, you made it to the hand editing stage.

Welcome to hell, children, I’ll be your guide!

 

Print off that pretty manuscript of yours and get ready for a trip into the depths of your own work that will leave you with nothing but weariness. You’re going to hate your story when you’re done, but that’s ok; other people will love it for you. Get your red editing pen out and get ready to dive in deep. This is the stage when you really start to polish the style of your story; when you weed out the micro imperfections that make your manuscript good rather than great. Once you’ve done this you move on to the oral edit which mainly helps with flow, dialogue, and style. Together these make the final editing stage.

The following checklist will help you to finalise your manuscript, but also get your document in the right shape to be seen by agents and publishers;

Final Edits Checklist;

  • Identify and cut your crutch words. Scrivener has a frequency function which can help you to do this.
  • Weed out excessive punctuation. As a wise man once said; “an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke.”
  •  Check for trouble words like: a lot/alot, affect/effect, can/may, further/farther, good/well, lay/lie, less/fewer, that/who, their/they’re/there, then/than, who/whom, your/you’re. Use the right word in the right context.
  • Omit needless words and sentences.
  • Check speech tags; said should be your main, though other forms, like adverbs, can be effective in small doses.
  • Correct any stilted dialogue.
  • Remove unnecessary dialogue and info dumps.
  • Ensure your document is typed in 12 point Times New Roman.
  • Remove double spaces after periods.
  • Use double spacing.
  • Make sure that your indenting is consistent.
  • Ensure that your numbers are consistent (both page numbers and in text. If you write numbers out keep doing so, if you use numbers keep doing so. Its generally better to write figures than use numbers in fiction).
  • Use page breaks between chapters
  • Once more check for consistency in style, tense, and POV.

 

Once you’ve done this and made the appropriate changes to your word document, you’re ready to begin querying! Congratulations; you’re officially the proud author of a finished book!

 

Part one, Part Two

Self-Editing For Success, Part Two

So, you’ve rested your novel and you’re ready to begin the close editing stage, right? If you’re jumping into this series late check out Part One.

 

Well,  here we go guys; say goodbye to the carefree fun (pain) of #amwriting, and say hello to the agonised screaming of #amediting. The close edit really is the fun part, though, so don’t worry too much. Save your tears, tissues, and tequila for the hand editing stage.

 

The basics and the bigger picture

When you first start editing you should look at the bigger picture first and foremost and then slowly narrow your focus. There’s no point in correcting the spelling of a manuscript that may well change entirely before you are done, after all!

Start with what I call the foundation features, or four C’s; these are the things on which your whole novel/story hangs. The big stuff. These are;

  1. Conflict
  2. Characters
  3. Consistency
  4. Contributing Style

 

Conflict

Any novel or story needs conflict if it is to draw attention and interest from the reader. It should begin with conflict, and progress because of conflict. Consider even the most mundane opening scenes from a successful book and you will find conflict, no matter how subtle or visceral.

Filth (Irvine Welsh, 1998) starts with a protagonist at war with his society, his world, and his colleagues;

“Woke up this morning. Woke up into the job.

    The job. It holds you. It’s all around you; a constant, enclosing absorbing gel. And when you’re in the job, you look out at life through that distorted lens. Sometimes, aye, you get your wee zones of relative freedom to retreat into, those light, delicate spaces where new things, different, better things can be perceived of as possible,

Then it stops.”  Pg 3*

 

Survivor (Chuck Palahniuk, 1999) begins with a more direct conflict; a protagonist who has hijacked a plane, and is telling his story to the black box;

“Testing, testing. One, two, three.

Testing, testing. One, two, three.

Maybe this is working. I don’t know. If you can hear me, I don’t know. 

But if you can hear me, listen. And if you’re listening, then what you’ve found is the history of everything that went wrong.” pg 289

Palahniuk adds to the sense of conflict and intrigue, as you will have noticed, by having his page numbers reversed; they count down to the end.

When editing look for the conflict in your story, and cultivate it; ask yourself if it does enough, does it provide motivation and tension, is it believable?

 

Characters

Your character is the focal point of your story, whether you have only one main character or a group you need to put real time into making sure they are strong. By this I mean rounded, unique, and living. They need to breath.

A strong, recognisable voice and consistent mannerisms, as well as a realistic understanding of what your characters can reasonably do (don’t make them flawlessly successful!) are key. Example of instantly recognisable character voices can be found in first and third person, but three examples which truly blew me away are;

Lovey Quinn, The Book of the Night Women (Marlon James, 2009),

“People think blood red, but blood don’t got no colour. Not when blood wash the floor she lying on as she scream for that son of a bitch to come, the lone baby of 1785.” Pg 3.

Logen Ninefingers, protagonist of The Blade Itself (Joe Abercrombie, 2006),

“Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers, say he’s happy. They were leaving, at last. Beyond some vague talk of the Old Empire, and the Edge of the World, he had no idea where they were going and he didn’t care. Anywhere but this cursed place would do for him, and the sooner the better.” Pg 570

Lina Vilkas/Arvydas, Between Shades of Grey, (Ruta Sepetys, 2011),

“The train churned forward. The rhythm of the rails tormented me, screeching and banging. They pulled me away from Andrius, further into an unknown. The metal lamp swayed above like a pendulum, illuminating hollow faces, throwing shadows throughout the carriage. Janina whispered to the ghost of her dead doll, giggling.” Pg 255

Whether you write in first person or third it is essential that you ensure that the characters personality and mannerisms are maintained when editing; you should check for speech patterns, tone, attitude, and reactions. In third person this is less prominent, but, in cases like Logen Ninefingers (Abercrombie, 2006) you can build a sense of the characters outlook through sayings, mottos, and their outwardly reactions to stress and conflict.

 

Consistency

Consistency in tone, structure, point of view, plot, and tense are essential when editing. Look for plot holes, sudden changes from past to present tense, slips in point of view from one character to another, or from omniscient to one particular character, and of course in the structure of your story.

Following the “Hero’s Journey” plot structure only to switch to a more stream of consciousness literary structure will be baffling at best, and at worst could cost you readers and opportunities.

 

Contributing Style

All this means is; does your plot lead your prose, or vice versa.

If a sentence or section becomes so beautifully wordy that it swamps the meat of the scene and jars the reader out of the action it should be cut. I have no doubt you can write beautifully, but the majority of genre fiction readers want a story before they want fluffy clouds of literary prose.

While you will, over time, develop a style all your own you should still endeavour to write in a way which complements your story. Consider Cormac McCarthy; he writes in a style which is undeniably his. His writing is instantly recognisable, and yet subtle changes in style can be recognised between each book, though they are all, arguably, literary fiction. Consider

No Country for Old Men (McCarthy, 2005)

“I sent one boy to the gas chamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. I went up there and visited him two or three times. Three times. The last time was the day of his execution. I didn’t have to go, but I did.” 

The Road (McCarthy, 2006)

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more grey each one that what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world.”

Blood Meridan (McCarthy, 1990)

“See the child. He is pale and thin, he wears a thin and ragged linen shirt. He stokes the scullery fire. Outside lie dark, turned fields with rags of snow and darker woods beyond that harbor yet a few last wolves. His folk are known for hewers of wood and drawers of water, but in truth his father has been a schoolmaster.” 

 

I used the first page of each book for comparison, and though I have no doubt you’ll have noticed the differences yourselves, I’ll run down the basics. You most likely picked up on the lack of immediate conflict in Blood Meridan which is found in the other two; this is an older work which I would say hangs on the cusp between a shift in overall style. Blood Meridan was antiquated in style even when it was published, but now you’d struggle to get this opening scene by an editor worth their salt. Keep that in mind when reading to hone your own skills.

The view point, macro, micro, first person, changes in each excerpt, as does the sentence structure and tone of voice. Even the amount of punctuation fluctuated in McCarthys writing; his works are as much visual as they are literate. He changes their presentation as well as his own voice for best effect. The Road is shockingly devoid of any punctuation other than the period. Commas, semi-colons; these are things left behind. His work is as visually sparse as the world he writes. No Country for Old Men employs less punctuation than the average novel, but is written in clipped, hard sentences where the Sheriff takes up his first-person narrative.

In short, McCarthy’s style contributes to the story rather than taking away from it.

You don’t need to employ such extreme measures yourself, but ensuring that plot, not prose, leads your story is a key element of self-editing.

 

Once you have thoroughly checked your manuscript for these key features, and corrected the document of course, you can count your close edit done, put the manuscript in a figurative or literal drawer, and crack open that wine so you and your work in progress can rest together. Once you’ve done that check out part three for final push!

 

Things You Should Never Say to an Agent

With the rise of e-publishing there are some people who will tell you that agents are obsolete, and that you don’t need them to get a book out there. This is technically true, but in reality it’s much easier to navigate the world of publishing with help. An experienced agent is invaluable for many reasons, but above and beyond all of them they have two things you probably will not; connections with established publishers and editors, and lots of experience in marketing books.

 

Do I need an Agent?

Literally? No. But it’s a good idea.

You can self-publish either online or in hard copy, and if you’re an expert marketer you could very well do a great job of it. However, this will take time and effort that pulls you away from what you love; writing.

An agent is, just like an author, or and editor, a specialist that brings a huge amount of value to the venture. Furthermore, most of the really big publishing houses do not take unsolicited submissions or submissions from those who have no representation.

There are many things you can do to attract an agent, but here are some things you definitely should not say;

 

Things you shouldn’t say to a potential agent

 

“I’m the next Stephen King, George R. Martin, J.K rowling [insert Big Name Here]”

You may be right, but agents hear this from over-confident authors day in, day out. Even if they believe you, you’re setting high expectations for yourself and your work. Not just once either; these are big names that sell consistently; if you have your agent and publisher believing you can replicate these numbers it doesn’t matter how well you do; it may not be enough.

Of course, it’s also very likely you’ll get this reaction;

judge judy

 

“I know you don’t usually deal with X, but…”

No.

No – get out.

Agents specialise in certain subjects and genres for many reasons, the biggest being that they knew who to sell these types of books to, and how to market them. They specify genres so that they can do their job well after you’ve done your job well.

Unless you follow that sentence with “but I’d like your advice on how to add elements of Y [which they do deal with] to it to make it stronger!” just shut up and research an agent that deal with your genre. Even then, it’s not their job to fix your writing. Its yours.

 

“There’s nothing like this out there!”

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I can guarantee you there is; there’s nothing new under the sun, as that old saying goes, so this sounds like you a) have no idea what you’ve written and which genre it falls into mostly, or b) you have no idea what’s out there because you rarely read. One makes it hard for an agent to really sell it, the other is a worry because you’re probably re-using well-worn tropes that you would know to avoid if you have read widely in your genre.

 

“I’ve self-published [X amount] books!”

Unless one or some of your novels/stories have topped 3,000 to 5,000 sales (the average self-published book sells less than 100 – 150 copies) this won’t help your case.

 

“My book will appeal to everyone.” 

That right there is a promise you cannot keep!

If you don’t approach an agent with a target audience in mind you’re making their job harder than it needs to be. If you write a novel with the aim of including universal themes, that’s fine, but the story and genre will appeal to one kind of audience in particular. YA lit might very well appeal to the masses, like Harry Potter or the Hunger Games, but by and large it appeals to young adults.

 

“It’s not finished yet, but…”

No! When you approach an agent your novel should be as ready for publication as you can make it. Get a professional critique if you can afford it, have another person (with good grammar) who reads your genre to test it and make suggestions. Edit, edit, edit! 

Your agent may make suggestions, the in-house editor at a publisher may make suggestions, but its your job to write the book so don’t rely on getting huge amounts of help from agents and publishers. They have their job, you have yours.

 

Finally, please do not send out generic query emails to hundreds of agents; tailor your approach and pick people you think will have a genuine interest in your work. And, of course, if you have any advice about querying an agent let us know in the comments section!