If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.
— Henry Ford
If you think you can do a thing or think you can’t do a thing, you’re right.
— Henry Ford
I confess: I’m not the world’s foremost expert on literary agents. On the other hand, I’ve had a ton of experience in researching them, reading their blogs, articles, and interviews, and especially, getting rejected by them. So, most knowledgeable or not, I’ve learned many things.
The big, colossal, gigantic, overpowering thing about agents is that you really need one if you’re a writer of books. That is, if you’re not an already-established powerhouse of book-selling or, at the other extreme, if you don’t care much whether you publish or sell books at all. The thing about the world of publishing is that almost all reputable publishing houses will totally ignore you unless your manuscript is sent to them by an agent. This you must know above all else to sell books, except that you must first be able to produce a well-written product. That part’s kinda…duh.
Some writers can make self-publishing work out quite well for them, but there are so many facets to master that it’s extremely intimidating. Just editing and formatting are beyond a lot of us, but throw in cover design, advertising, obtaining reviews, mastering social media, building a platform, and all the big brick walls the marketing effort presents you with, and most of us are so much better off having an agent and publishing company handling all that stuff. Or at least guiding us with their years of amassed wisdom, which most of us do not possess.
So you really want an agent, if at all possible. That’s a pretty huge effort in itself and calls for a whole lot of research and education in just how to go about it, and that’s a bit beyond the scope of this little discussion. But a significant thing to point out here is that you have to give the agent what she wants when you submit your masterpiece, or she will frequently ignore it just like the publishing companies will ignore it if it doesn’t come from an agent. See how this works? It’s not sucking up or kowtowing to the people in power, or however you want to think of it; it’s greasing the rails.
You can make it a lot easier and save yourself a lot of frustration and anguish if you find out what the rules are and mold your product to match, whether it’s your entire manuscript or your query letter or synopsis, instead of believing your product is perfect and trying to crowbar it into the system because you know you’re the exception to the rules. The odds say you’re not.
All that being said, now you have to realize that not all agents want the same thing. Some have great flexibility, but most do not and you need to come to terms with that right away. So do your research, find out what works for which agent, and tailor your submissions to meet that requirement, or you’re wasting your time.
Luckily for us, some folks get together and have conferences and such, and do some of the research for us, and give us good hints at this kind of thing. Here are a few of those hints, nicely sorted into areas where agents agree and where they disagree, compiled by Robert Lee Brewer of Writer’s Digest. It can at least give you some ballpark targets to aim for or avoid. While you’re checking them out, wander around their website a little and see what else they have to offer. You can never have too many helping hands.
There are some things all agents want to see from writers, but one thing was abundantly clear at the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference: They don’t agree on everything. In this post, I’ve collected how literary agents agree and differ on what they want from writers.
Let’s get this out of the way first: Literary agents (like acquisitions editors) are human beings. They’re not magical creatures that emerge from and disappear into the void to sell manuscripts. They do love to read great writing and work tirelessly to advocate for their clients. And if they’re ethical, they don’t get paid until they sell their client’s work. So in that sense, I guess they are a little magical, right?
That said, they are still human. And human beings have different personalities, different methods for getting their work done, different strengths and weaknesses, and different preferences for their clients and potential clients. That’s the one thing that was abundantly clear to me during the 2019 Writer’s Digest Annual Conference.
In this post, I’ve attempted to share a few of the things that agents seem to agree upon and where they can sometimes differ.
Good intentions, like good eggs, soon spoil unless hatched.
— Evan Esar
The first is to ignore anybody who says there’s a hard and fast rule that you should always follow. As soon as you try to say that, up pops something to prove you’re an idiot. I should know because I’ve tried to get away with blurting out a hard and fast rule over and over and over. It never worked. So the title to this post is a Bronx cheer to everyone who tells me I should never end a sentence with a preposition. There. I said it. You’re welcome.
Now that I’ve unencumbered myself of that weight, I’ve found a nice little treasure trove of quotes from people who know what they’re talking about. They know this because, like me, they’ve tried something over and over and over again until they finally figured it out and became successful. Having only been successful with figuring out one rule, I figured I’d let all these other people do the rest of the tips for me.
This is a nice little collection by Cody Delistraty on Thought Catalog, and it’s been a few years since it was compiled but the truths within are timeless. They aren’t all really tips, exactly, but they’re nuggets of wisdom to help you build a framework for your concept of what your writing is all about. And they’re not hard and fast, either. But you can sure use some pondering on each of them.
By Cody Delistraty, September 24th 2013
A lot of people think they can write or paint or draw or sing or make movies or what-have-you, but having an artistic temperament doth not make one an artist.
Even the great writers of our time have tried and failed and failed some more. Vladimir Nabokov received a harsh rejection letter from Knopf upon submitting Lolita, which would later go on to sell fifty million copies. Sylvia Plath’s first rejection letter for The Bell Jar read, “There certainly isn’t enough genuine talent for us to take notice.” Gertrude Stein received a cruel rejection letter that mocked her style. Marcel Proust’s Swann’s Way earned him a sprawling rejection letter regarding the reasons he should simply give up writing all together. Tim Burton’s first illustrated book, The Giant Zlig, got the thumbs down from Walt Disney Productions, and even Jack Kerouac’s perennial On the Road received a particularly blunt rejection letter that simply read, “I don’t dig this one at all.”
So even if you’re an utterly fantastic writer who will be remembered for decades forthcoming, you’ll still most likely receive a large dollop of criticism, rejection, and perhaps even mockery before you get there. Having been through it all these great writers offer some writing tips without pulling punches. After all, if a publishing house is going to tear into your manuscript you might as well be prepared.
The fact that jellyfish have survived for 650 million years despite not having brains gives hope to many people.
Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.
— E. L. Doctorow
It’s not like I haven’t seen a little stress before. I’ve driven an 18-wheeler worth 50 million dollars on the LA freeway during rush hour, squinting through dense clouds of smoke from raging forest fires right next to the road. I was deployed to Kuwait on 9/11, within mortar range of Iraq when we didn’t know who was behind the attack yet, and carried a chemical warfare defense ensemble around with me for months. I even gave graduation speeches (mankind’s greatest fear — public speaking!) for professional military education courses in front of colonels and generals and suchlike.
A little stress here and there. Sure.
But those things were just things. They were part of the job, and they had to be done, and I did ‘em, ‘cause that’s what you do. But to write something, right out of my own self, and just put it out in front of the whole world? Whoa, dude. What am I thinking??
Writing my novel was like stabbing myself in the heart with that pen and bleeding my soul out all over those pages. That’s me, right there. You know that, if you’re a writer, ‘cause that’s what you do. And when your naked soul is sitting there waiting for you to offer it to the world, whether it’s in a novel or a poem or a song or a screenplay, you’re afraid of what the world is going to do to it. And you.
What if it sounds stupid? What if nobody likes it? What if they laugh at me? What if I can’t find an agent? What if no publisher wants anything to do with it? What if it never sells a copy? What if nobody else thinks it’s nearly the marvelous thing that I want it to be?
So I finally figured out what happens if any of those things come to pass: Nothing. Absolutely nothing. If any of those things happen, or if all of them happen, you’re going to be exactly where you were before you tried. Your family won’t disown you, your dog won’t bite you, and the utility companies will still send your bills just like always.
But it might also mean you didn’t achieve your dream. Guess what? If you didn’t try, you also didn’t achieve your dream. But you, yourself, took away the chance you had to achieve that dream.
And guess what else? There are thousands upon thousands of other people who are afraid of the same things. And thousands of them will talk themselves out of trying because they’re afraid. So who wins? The ones who realized they really had nothing to lose, especially those utility bills, and gave it a shot.
I gave it a shot and found out I’m not quite a Hemingway, or even a Patterson…yet. But you know what’s the cool thing about it? You get an unlimited number of shots.
It’s your turn.