Tag Archives: finding a literary agent

Pitch and Yaw

Over the past few days, I’ve been writing. No great surprise there, I hear you say. However, I haven’t been writing words to knit into my new WiP, which has really been left swinging in the wind, or a new story, or something towards one of the many competitions I’d like to enter. Instead, I’m preparing for an upcoming event at which I’ll have the chance to talk to some very important people about my wee book, and why it’s marvellous. So, I’ve been writing about my beloved ‘Emmeline’ – elevator pitches, synopses, this-is-why-the-book-is-great documents – without, it has to be said, a lot of success.

So, okay. It’s not all bad. I think I have my elevator pitch, for instance; writing that was no picnic. You basically need: your protagonist/s, what they want, and what’s in their way; your antagonist/s, what they want, and what’s in their way; how these two struggles intersect – and all in two sentences. It’s harder than I would have imagined to condense an entire book like this and, scarily, it really gets you to focus on the core of your story. The risk there, of course, is: what if you find out that the core of your story isn’t all that good?

Whoa. Image: maltimpostor.com

Whoa.
Image: maltimpostor.com

Quite, Ted. Quite.

It’s amazing to think you could write an entire book – eighty thousand words, almost three hundred pages, and only really discover what it’s about when you write a two-sentence ‘potted plot’, isn’t it? But that, of course, is why it’s important to do it. If the core of your plot isn’t strong, or worth telling, then all you’ve done is create three hundred pages of window-dressing around an inadequate idea.

And nobody wants that.

Anyway, I’ve discovered that ‘Emmeline’ is essentially about searching for an idea of home, which was a surprise. I think this is one of the oldest, most basic and most comforting plot arcs in human culture, and it turns up everywhere. It was also something that interested me when I worked as an academic researcher – I remember writing a paper about a character who tried to create a ‘home’ wherever he went, only to have it destroyed over and over, forcing him to keep moving – and so it’s almost fitting that it’s turned up again. Until I wrote this elevator pitch, though, I would have thought ‘Emmeline’ was a quest story – save the world! Outsmart the baddies! – but it seems that, at its heart, it’s about family. I quite like that knowledge, to be honest.

Then, I had to write about the story.

Image: brickcitylaw.com

Image: brickcitylaw.com

I tried to do this five or six times, starting and deleting and starting again, until I eventually had to admit defeat. I walked away from the computer. I did other stuff. I went outside and breathed the sweet air. I tried to calm my spinning thoughts. Through all of this, though, I knew that I had to go back and try again, and so it never fully left my mind.

So, what’s it like to write about a story you’ve written? Well.

You know when you meet someone for the first time and you get nervous and start babbling, and you hear yourself talking and you say ‘holy heck, will you just shut up?’ inside your head but you don’t shut up, you just keep talking and with every passing syllable you look more and more insane? That’s kind of how it felt, except I was alone (which made it even weirder.) I started flinging random sentences at the page, including my feelings as I started the book and how I loved the characters and how I felt it was the kind of book I’d have liked to read at the age the characters are, and it turned into a giant mess. There was no direction, no structure, no meaning – and it made zero sense. I suppose it was a tie between having too much to say and not really knowing what was the right thing to say – the thing which will catch an agent’s attention, and which will set my work in its best light.

And then I remembered something vital.

I wasn’t writing a document that was going to be read – I was writing a document that was designed to help me to speak. This is going to turn into a presentation, of sorts; I’m not going to be handing over my written description of the book and sitting, in silence, while the other person reads it. That, naturally, changes the dynamic of the text completely. I pulled on my copywriter hat, looked critically at the mess I’d created, and started again.

I began by asking myself a series of questions. What is your book about? Who is your protagonist? What does she want? Who tries to get in her way? What obstacles does she face? These, and many more, became my new framework. I made my answers brief – a few sentences, at most – and ruthlessly edited if they went over. I imagined myself being interviewed, and how I’d respond (well, how I’d respond if I were being my most erudite, self-possessed and collected self, which is unlikely to happen in reality), and it really helped.

Image: rebeccasbook.blogpot.com

Image: rebeccasbook.blogpot.com

I’m not quite finished the document yet, but at least now I know that I can do it. I hate feeling out of control and overwhelmed, and things tend to get on top of me when I start to lose my grip on what I’m doing. It’s a dark spiral; things pile up, and you can’t keep up, and it gets worse and worse until eventually you have to start again from scratch. I lose my sense of direction and balance, and end up going all over the place looking for something that usually ends up being under my nose the whole time.

The mad thing is, if I’d been doing this for someone else the first thing I’d have suggested is making a list of questions. When it comes to doing it for myself, though, I have to go through all the panic first like it’s a rite of passage, or something.

What a funny little person I am.

 

 

 

Take Cover!

One of the most important hurdles any hopeful writer needs to cross is that of the cover letter, which is sent along with their query when they are making contact with a literary agent, or publisher, or even when entering some writing competitions. They have a reputation for being terrifying, and disgustingly difficult, and deliberately tricksy, and not at all nice, and I am here today to dispel all those myths.

Writing cover letters is an art. It therefore follows that, like any art, the writing of the humble cover letter can be honed and improved upon until it’s as near to perfect as possible. It’s not something which is only do-able by the chosen few; it’s not something which is beyond you because you’re a certain age, or from a particular place, or are writing in a particular style, or the moon is in Aquarius, or whatever.

Writing cover letters is an opportunity. It’s a showcase. It’s a perfect first meeting – made perfect, perhaps, by the fact that you’re not physically there. Your letter is your envoy, so to speak. It represents the best of you – or, at least, it should.

It lets you avoid situations like this. Image: sarahcruz423.blogspot.com

It lets you avoid situations like this.
Image: sarahcruz423.blogspot.com

None of this means that writing cover letters is easy. It’s not. But it is something that can be worked on, and it’s something which has a few generally agreed-upon rules, all of which are worth knowing.

First: I’ve seen it written in several places that the best way to make your initial contact with an agent is to place a ‘phone call to their office, and inquire politely whether they’d like to receive your query. I think I can safely say that this is bunkum. Not the ‘polite inquiry’ bit – that’s very important – but the ‘placing a call’ bit. In general, agents don’t like to be ‘phoned. They are busy. They need to concentrate, all the time. Ringing telephones are not their friend. So, don’t ring them.

Image: steveweins.com

Image: steveweins.com

Plus, who likes to be asked whether they’d like to be asked something? It wastes time.

The most important thing you can do when preparing a query is: do your research. Know who you’re submitting your work to, the sort of book they normally represent, their established authors, and – if you’re very lucky – the ‘wishlist’ of manuscripts which they’d like to see. Some agents will have their wishlist on their websites, and some will have written it in a blog post, and some will have mentioned it on Twitter, and some won’t have said a peep about it anywhere. Even if you can’t find a wishlist, most agencies have a comprehensive website where you can learn all about your chosen agent, including what they like to represent and whether they’re open for queries at any particular time – because, of course, it’s important to query only when the agent or agency is open to inquiries. It’s no good to waste time and energy on a fruitless task, after all.

Second; Prepare your query, which – as well as your cover letter, of which more below – includes your synopsis and/or pitch, and your sample chapters. Always follow the guidelines as set out on the agency’s webpage, or in their listing in the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, or wherever you first came upon their name. If they want 500 words, send 500 words. If they want five chapters, then send that. If they want the first, fifth, tenth and twentieth chapters, then send those. Do not assume you know better than the agency and decide to cherry-pick your favourite chapters, or send more (or less) material than requested because it ‘looks better’. Just, for Pete’s sake, do what you’re told.

Spend time over this query. Tailor it specifically for each agency. Do not adopt a ‘one-size-fits-all’ policy. Make every query unique.

Third: Prepare the cover letter.

The first thing to think about is: what is a cover letter for?

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

It’s designed to give an agent an insight into a few things, namely: your ability to write (yes, even your cover letter is a showcase for your talent), your ability to sell yourself and your product, your personality and how it might fit with theirs, or the ethos of the agency, and your level of confidence in what you’re doing. So, your humble cover letter has to wear a lot of hats.

Tip 1: Never address a cover letter to ‘Dear Agent’. You can guarantee it will become a target for dart practice if you do this. ‘Dear Ms. Whomever’ or ‘Dear Mr. Whomever’ is good; perhaps you prefer to address people by their first name. Either way, know the person to whom you are writing. Do not write them a cover letter which sounds like it came out of a spambot.

Tip 2: Avoid writing things like: ‘Your lucky day has come!’ or ‘Boy, is this going to make your career!’ But, of course, you know that anyway. Right?

Tip 3: Be brief, but comprehensive. Show that you have a cool, confident mastery of language. Do not apologise for taking up their time, or for having the temerity to bother them with your query. Do not belittle yourself, but – of course – do not brag, either. If you’ve won some prizes, simply mention the fact. If you’ve placed in competitions, say so but don’t dwell on it. Don’t wax lyrical.

Tip 4: Follow a simple structure. Introductory paragraph, followed by a paragraph about your book – or, in other words, a pitch – and finally, a short paragraph about yourself.

Something like this, maybe:

‘Dear Ms. Molloy,

I attach the first five pages of my novel, ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, for your consideration. I felt you, in particular, might like to take a look at my work because of your interest in crime fiction, and the fact that you have placed work for clients such as Mr. So-and-so. At 85,000 words, the book is complete.

When Scarlett Stuart, an heiress with more sense than money, disappears the night before her wedding, all eyes turn to Detective Simon Catalan. Scarlett’s daybook shows that she had an appointment with Catalan in his offices at Whateley Place on the afternoon of her disappearance, so why does the great detective deny all knowledge of her existence? What is the connection between Scarlett’s fiancé and Catalan – and why is Catalan determined to make sure Scarlett is never found? ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ is a detective potboiler in the tradition of Conan Doyle and E.M. James, and should appeal to lovers of period fiction and mystery writing in equal measure.

I am a graduate of PoshSnobbery University, where I took an MA degree in Creative Writing. I have had several short stories published in national and international journals, and my non-fiction writing appears in a regular column with my local paper, the Brobdignag Gazette. I have placed in several writing competitions including last year’s Fish Prize for Flash Fiction and the Bridport Prize in 2008. Since completing ‘Murder at Whateley Place’, I have begun a new project, which is a supernatural-tinged thriller set in medieval Bristol.

I would be happy to supply the full MS of ‘Murder at Whateley Place’ should you require it, and I would like to thank you most sincerely for your time.

Best wishes/Kind regards/Yours sincerely,

Your name.’

Some things to consider: Mention your interests/qualifications/life experiences only if they have a direct bearing on your writing. Being a champion knitter is wonderful, but unless you’ve written a book about yarn it shouldn’t be in your cover letter. If you have no degrees, experience, or published work, that’s absolutely fine – you can talk instead about your professional life and other interests, so long as it’s brief. It’s always good to mention that you’ve moved on to a new project, and what it’s about – agents like a long view of a potential client’s career. Always specify that the book is complete (because, of course, you shouldn’t be querying it otherwise), and be clear about genre, title and wordcount. It’s usually best to adopt a cool, professional tone throughout, even if writing the letter makes you look like this:

Image: machohombresports.com

Image: machohombresports.com

And – finally – as I said in my post about synopses, this is all based on my own experience, and may not suit everyone. If you’ve queried (particularly if you’ve been successful!) and you’d like to weigh in on whether these tips are any good, or not, I’d love to hear from you.

The essential message is this: keep writing, keep querying, keep believing, and never give up hope. And let me know how you get on!

 

 

 

The Beginning, and the End

I have written the first paragraph, and the last chapter, of ‘Tider’ about fifteen times. There were no fewer than five attempts to get these vital parts of the book right during the course of yesterday alone. Soon my back garden is going to look a bit like this:

Image: sangbleu.com

Image: sangbleu.com

I’m starting to wish I lived in an era of candlelight and scritchy quill-pens, because back then you had to make every single word work for its place in what you were creating. There were no conveniences born of technology, no handy ‘I’ll just print out these millions of sheets and then recycle them’; if a word went down, it stayed down.

Then again, if I had lived at a time like that, chances are I wouldn’t even be literate, let alone be allowed to create something like a book. So, scratch that. But you know what I mean, I hope.

Beginnings and endings are hard.

The beginning of a book, of course, has to be snappy and engaging and attention-grabbing and interesting, as well as hinting at what’s to come and flinging the reader, in medias res, straight into the fictive world you’ve created. It has to do a lot, and be a lot, and carry a lot of responsibility. Then again, so does the conclusion. If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you may already be aware that I have trouble with endings; ‘Tider’ is no exception. I find it difficult to tie up short stories well, and I often agonise about the conclusion to my blog posts, too, which – now that I think about it – may be the reason why I usually sign off with a salutation.

Oh, yeah! Image: atlaschiropractic.com

Oh, yeah!
Image: atlaschiropractic.com

Why, then, would concluding a novel be any less difficult?

I think, however, after a long and hard struggle yesterday, that I’ve finally managed to carve out a beginning and an ending for ‘Tider’ that I’m happy with – or, at least, it’s the best I’ve yet come up with, and that will have to do. I think, as the book stands at the moment, I might have erred a little on the side of schmaltz, but at least it’s genuine, and meaningful.

To illustrate how bad I am at wrapping things up, here’s an example of a pair of concluding sentences so cheesy that you could chop ’em up and put ’em in your sandwich. They’re based on the original finishing flourishes of ‘Tider’, and even though they’re not exactly accurate, they’re close enough to give you a flavour:

Without warning, the police – huffing and puffing with exertion and doing a lot more yelling than was strictly necessary – burst through the door. As they surveyed the scene, probably wondering what on earth had happened, Jenny, Buck and Vincent could only gape at one another in amazement, before exploding into laughter.

This is a pathetic ending. I knew it was pathetic when I wrote it, and I wanted to put my fist through the computer screen yesterday morning when I re-read it. It was such a poor, lacklustre, wrong conclusion; just before this, there’s been a scene of high emotion, and so laughter – even relieved, slightly hysterical laughter – is not a true or authentic emotional response. Truth and authenticity are important in fiction writing – characters have to act logically, and in accordance with reason, and it irritates me when a character is brokenhearted in one scene and five sentences later has carried on as if nothing has happened, or something similar. Of course there are occasions when these rules can be broken for narrative effect, but overall I think characters have to act like people, with ‘real’ responses to what’s going on in their lives. Otherwise, how can a reader relate, or respond, to what they’re reading? How can a book make sense, or seem believable?

Anyway.

So, I’ve taken away that tooth-grindingly bad ending and I’ve replaced it. I’ve rejigged my opening paragraph so much that the words are getting travel-sick. I’ve done my absolute best to make ‘Tider’ as good a book as I can write, and so I’m sending it off to an agent, and that horrifyingly scary event is going to happen today. I have no expectations and I have no hope of success, which might be for the best.

Despite all this, maybe you’d like to send me some good vibes, anyway, and perhaps even a prayer or two if you’re so inclined…

Image: fancy.com

Image: fancy.com