Thursday, 25 August 2011

The perilous path to publication – getting an agent

by Sheila Bugler

I have an agent. Yep. A proper literary agent who believes in me enough to spend her precious time giving me feedback, inflating my flagging ego, and, most importantly, finding someone willing to publish me.

When I started writing, I learned early on that getting an agent was key. So, I did my research. I attended synopsis-writing workshops, I scoured online writer forums where I learned who the best, and worst, agents were. I read endless advice on how to produce the perfect submission pack.

Then I got confused. So much of the advice was conflicting. Besides, what was the point? Everything I read implied I’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting an agent. What’s more, these agents sounded like a ruthless bunch - as likely to send my work back without even reading it while, at the same time, advising me to never, ever give up the day job. And that’s if they bothered to get back to me. Chances were, most of them wouldn’t even do that.

When I finally got around to submitting my novel to agents, I expected the worst. In fact, the process wasn’t nearly as painful as I’d anticipated. Yes, I got my fair share of rejections. I also got some great feedback and encouragement as well.

Here are some of the things I learned along the way.

1. All agents are different

I know this is obvious but it’s worth saying, anyway. Writers tend to speak about agents in generic terms; we forget they’re people, just like us, with their good and bad points, strengths and weaknesses, personal likes and dislikes.

They’re not all looking for the same thing. You may find one agent who loves your work, another who hates it.

Yes, you’ll encounter agents who are too busy/disinterested/stressed/lazy to bother reading your work. You’ll also find others who will read it, and take time to give you feedback even if they decide not to represent you.

2. Make it personal

Everything about your submission pack should be tailored for the specific agent you’re writing to.

· Check the agent’s submission requirements. If they have a website, you’ll find the submission guidelines there. If not, call and ask them. Whatever the guidelines are, follow them. If they want a query letter first, then that’s what you do. They don’t want children’s literature? Don’t send a children’s book. They only want the first chapter? That’s what you send.

· Tailor your query letter. Research the agent’s list of authors and demonstrate how you would be a positive addition to this list. Give your reasons for wanting this agent to represent you. I recently attended a workshop where you spoke about current trends in the crime fiction market is probably better than because I’m desperate and can’t believe anyone else would be mad enough .

3. Don’t sweat the synopsis

Please. Be calm. Be sensible. You’ve just written a novel, probably upwards of 60,000 words. This means you can write a synopsis of between 300 and 1000 words. Seriously.

I was terrified when I started mine. Convinced I couldn’t do it, I decided to avoid it altogether. Instead, I concentrated on important, synopsis-writing research. The more researched, I reasoned, the easier it would be. Wouldn’t it?

Here are some of the tips I picked up:

· It should never be longer than a single page

· It must be at least two pages long

· It has to cover every plot twist and turn

· You should give a flavour of your work but there’s no need to go into too much detail. If you do, the agent won’t read it

· Try to make it similar to the blurb on the back of a book

· It should bear no resemblance to the blurb on the back of a book

· You must include the ending

· Don’t include the ending

Confused? I was. I think I still am. However, I was luckier than most. While writing my first novel, I was accepted onto a one-year mentoring programme. My mentor gave me much-needed guidance on cutting through the crap and getting something that an agent might actually want to read.

I spent weeks working on what I thought was a pretty good synopsis. It was one-page long, included the main plot elements, and revealed the ending (something I apparently had to do or no agent would ever read my work and I might as well give up writing there and then). When I was happy with it, I sent it to my mentor.

His feedback? Too long, overly complex and boring as hell (he put it more kindly, of course, but that was the general gist).

His advice was:

· Think of the blurb on the back of the book – use that as your starting point

· Sit down with a glass of wine and a blank sheet of paper

· Write whatever comes into your head, focussing on the ‘flavour’ of the novel, rather than specific plot twists and turns

· Do this for no more than twenty minutes

· At the end, you should have the bare bones of your synopsis

Now, I’m not saying this advice works for everyone but I followed it. I ended up with a one-page synopsis that was short and snappy and didn’t reveal the ending. And I got an agent.

Remember, if your synopsis is well-written and engaging, most agents will want to read the book, regardless of whether or not you’ve followed all the ‘rules’.

4. Don’t believe everything you hear

Two agents I contacted never replied, despite follow-on correspondence. They were the exception. Every other agent got back to me with an answer. They weren’t always quick to reply – one took five months to respond. Several asked to read the complete novel. Of these, most were generous with their feedback, even if they didn’t want to represent me. One even took the time to meet me and discuss the novel, and my writing, in detail.

I know other writers who’ve received support, encouragement and advice from agents they’ll probably never work with. All this for nothing.

5. Don’t take it personally

The whole submissions process can be disheartening. You may be lucky –the very first agent you submit to might love your work and want to sign you up on the spot. Just in case that doesn’t happen, though, you should prepare yourself for rejection.

Agents receive a lot of submissions – up to 300 a week in some cases. Only a tiny percentage of these will spark the agent’s interest. Your writing may be good, brilliant even, but if it’s not what that agent is looking for at that particular time, then they won’t be interested.

6. Don’t give up

Writing is a tough business. Getting an agent is probably harder than it’s ever been. Even when you’ve achieved that, you still have to find a publisher. But if writing is what you want to do, then keep with it. You’ll get there eventually. We all will.

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