My 'staying calm, totally no pent-up panic here' face
So at the moment I am out on submission. My agent has sent my manuscript to various editors, and all I can hope is that when New York thaws out, one of them will love it enough to want to take it on! One day, I’ll write a blog post about this time, but for now, I’m trying to work on the next project. But it’s tough to concentrate on it with my mind over in NYC. So instead, it’s time to write a silly blog post!
How I imagine New York looks at the moment
One thing people have been asking me lately was for tips on how to query an agent. Well, I’m by no means an authority, but I can at least help with what to avoid. There are some things – not necessarily intuitive – that are definitely bad ideas when approaching agents. Thus, here are what I would consider the cardinal sins of querying agents: -
- Immediately submitting to absolutely all the agents you can think of
Chances are, your submissions process will also be a learning process. After a couple of months and a few rejections, you might go back through what you’ve been sending and realise that there’s room for improvement. I know I did. You might make big changes to your opening chapters, or realize your synopsis could be tighter. If you’ve submitted to every agent in the known universe already, where is there to go? Batches of 5-10 submissions are usually recommended.
- Not doing any research on agencies or particular agents
Sometimes a particular agent can be pretty inscrutable. Sometimes you’ll be submitting to a department rather than an individual. Sometimes you’ll address your manuscript to one agent and get a reply from another at the same agency. But as far as it’s possible, seek out someone you think would like your work, and that you would be thrilled to work with. Many are on Twitter. Others have done interviews online you can look up. If you know who they are, you’re more likely to connect with them. Which brings us to another sin...
- Never personalizing your cover letter
To an extent, it can be hard to include a personal touch with some agencies. And that’s okay. But it’s certainly worth looking if there’s an author who you love and who influenced you on the agency’s list. Perhaps that’s how you found out about the agency in the first place. If you’ve met the agent, that’s probably worth mentioning. Definitely don’t just write one email and BCC dozens of agents into it. They will almost certainly know. Equally, if you prefer postal submissions, don’t print out numerous cover letters with a blank space for the name that you can fill in with a pen later. A bit of personalization can go a long way!
- Not being careful with copy & paste
If you have
personalized your cover letter, for the love of all that is good in this world make sure you don’t leave that in and send it to the wrong person
. Don’t talk about the writer on their list you admire if they’re actually represented by the last person you queried. Don’t talk about sitting next to someone on a plane that you’ve never met on the way to a writing conference. And please, please make sure you don’t address someone with the name of the last person you wrote to, either.
Do this and Grandma will give you her look of disapproval
- Submitting before you are ready
If you’ve played the submissions game a few times with different books, you will probably start to think you can optimise the process a smidgen. After you get those first three chapters perfect, why not send them right away, then while you’re waiting months for some replies, work the rest of the book? Ah, but what if an agent loves your proposal, reads your sample in a day and asks for the full manuscript immediately? It certainly happens. And if you’re not ready, you could be put on the spot.
- Ignoring the guidelines
If they don’t represent sci-fi or fantasy, don’t think they’ll make an exception for you. If they ask you to send just two chapters, don’t send three because that’s what you’ve got ready. Don’t send a section from the middle of the book because you think it’s more exciting than your first three chapters. Don’t use scented pink paper for a postal submission or substitute a clip of your dramatic recital instead of a Word document. If they ask you to submit using a form, don’t ignore it and use email. Your agent has to know you can be professional and do what a publisher asks of you.
- Going overboard with the cover letter
Your letter is meant to do two things: sell your books as a product – and show that you are a person the agent would like to work with. And you should do this as snappily as possible. If your cover letter would need to be published in multiple volumes, you’re probably doing yourself no favours. Relevant things to include would be things like previous publications, whether you have an online platform for marketing and whether your life experience makes you an authority on your subject. The names of every pet you’ve ever owned can probably be excluded.
- Mistaking a synopsis for a Hollywood movie trailer
The synopsis is meant to relate what happens in your book. Don’t give it a cliffhanger or fill it with mystery. Don’t try to show off your highly allusive narrative style, even if you’ve honed it to perfection over many long years like a gemcutter fashioning the most exquisite cabochon. Don’t try to turn the underappreciated genre of synopsis-writing on its head with a daring innovation. Keep it simple – but of course as gripping and intriguing as possible.
- Taking rejections personally
Rejections happen. If you’re looking into getting an agent, I’m sure you’ve seen a list of how many hugely successful novels were rejected. Even if everything you’ve read about an agent makes you think you would be a perfect match for their tastes, you may still get rejected. The agent may have a similar book already, or feel they aren’t knowledgeable enough about your particular setting, or think they will have difficulty placing it with an editor. If you are knocked back, don’t take it too hard: keep trying until you find someone who falls in love with what you wrote!
They misspelt 'rong'
- Giving up
The only time to give up on your manuscript is when you’ve finished another one and you’re certain that it’s far better than what you’ve been sending out. Even then, it’ll always be there waiting for you to revisit sometime in the future, so you’re not really
giving up on it! There are many, many agents out there and sad to say, it may be the very last one you contact who falls in love and asks to see more. Of course, it might be the first, or indeed, there might be a bunch of them who all love it! So do your research, polish until you’re happy with how much everything shines and stay positive. That will maximize your chances, which is all you can do!
So there we have it. Ten deadly sins. But that’s not the end of the post – not yet! Because I promised something else in my title. I promised to say why you shouldn’t panic if you are a sinner. So why not? Well, because I have made every one of these mistakes, at one point or another. I’ve sent cover letters with the wrong name, and had full requests when I only had five chapters written, given up for months on end...and worse besides. But even after making these mistakes, I still found the right agent for me. So I urge you not to give up – and hopefully you’ll be able to find the right agent without having to search for quite as many years as I did!