Have a plan.
Regardless of whether you are approaching an agent for the first time (or trying to pitch your manuscript to a publisher for that matter) you have to have one.
Let’s be absolutely clear from the outset, finding an agent isn’t like any other part of your writing experience. When you’re writing a book or a story, you don’t need to start out with a plan. Sure, you might have a vague idea of how you want it to start and finish, but you don’t necessarily have an in-depth idea of every moment that is going to happen before you start putting pen to paper. And yes, you might be one of those writers who schedules the writing of each chapter to a particular day so that you can get it all done to a deadline (something I really should start doing).
But – for the most part – any plan you may have in the beginning will be vague and lacking in detail. Some writers don’t even plan at all…
But approaching an agent is different. Of all the writery (yes I am claiming that word) things you will be doing in your day-to-day life, writing to an agent will be the least so. And it requires a different tactic.
It requires organisation.
It requires a plan.
So here is part one of my top tips for sifting through the agent pile and making sure they get hold of the best possible form of your manuscript.
1. Prepare your materials early
Most agencies are pretty standard in terms of their requirements from you as a writer. Yes, some of the details differ here and there and some agents have very specific requirements about what they want from unknown writers, but generally speaking they are all after the same thing: the first few sample chapters of your manuscript, a synopsis or outline of some kind and a covering letter.
Prepare these early – they take far longer than you might expect and, as a writer, you should be treating your covering letter and synopsis with the same care and attention that you would give your manuscript. When I recently started submitting The Bluebell Informant to agents, I spent over a year honing my covering letter and synopsis – and I am so glad I did. My first attempts were truly awful to what I have now.
So get started today – right now. There really is no better time.
2. Recognise the role and value of the covering letter
This is where many writers fall down. They devote all their attention to honing their manuscript until it is practically perfect and then do a haphazard job of the other parts.
Out of the synopsis and your covering letter, the latter is arguably the most important – it is the only time when the agent gets to see what kind of person you are and learn a bit about you. Occasionally an agent might request a biography, but most don’t want to have to wade through your life story. Bottom line – they want to know why you wrote the story, what you think it is about (or why it is worth the agent’s time to read it) and if you’re intending to be a career writer or a one-timer.
Don’t be cocky – you’re not the greatest writer to ever walk the world and your story isn’t the best thing since sliced bread – so don’t say it. And crucially, remember that your covering letter is there to get the agent reading the first page of your manuscript – so make it personal and make it brief.
This is your first impression so make it count.
3. Recognise the role and value of the synopsis
Ironically enough, most writers are more perturbed by the synopsis. Writers tear their hair out over it – they don’t know how to make it sound awesome and, as a result, they give up fairly quickly (I know, I’ve been there too).
But the truth of it is that the synopsis exists to let the agent know what they can expect from the rest of the manuscript. It doesn’t need to be flash or like the jacket blurb of a book – it certainly doesn’t need to leave the agent on tenterhooks to want to find out what happens at the end. It is basically just a description of the rest of the plot of the story – no flashy language, just pure fact.
If you are worried that it doesn’t sound interesting enough – and you really shouldn’t – maybe consider writing an elevator pitch at the start – a simple one line sentence that shows the agent your hook. For example for The Devil’s Detective by Simon Kurt Unsworth, it might be:
A dark, mystery thriller centred around a murder in Hell
Short, to the point. Perfect.
Agents know the synopsis will be boring, so don’t bother trying to make it exciting – you won’t do yourself any favours. Just make it succinct, well written and factual – if you do that, you can’t really go wrong.
That was just the ground work. In my next post, I will go on to talk about Part 2 – the research and organisation bit. This is where most writers either rise or fall so remember to have a look when it comes out tomorrow.
In the meantime, I want to hear from you. Have you ever submitted to an agent? How much time did you take to prepare yourself? Did you find the process easy or difficult? And if you could give one piece of advice to other writers about submitting to agents, what would it be?
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