What I’ve learned about hooking an agent Part Two: How to avoid ending up in the slush pile – advice on submitting your work to agents.
This is the second part of a three part series on hooking an agent, based on the excellent advice given during the Writers & Artists event I attended last weekend. Last week, I wrote about the role of an agent and why you need one.
This week, we are looking at how to avoid the slush pile and what makes a good submission. The submission package usually consists of your first three chapters, a synopsis and a cover letter.
First question to ask yourself: is my novel actually ready for submission?
The main reasons the agents said they rejected novels were structural issues (it would work better using a different structure) or issues with character motivation (characters behave in a way not in keeping with their usual behaviour). The rather fabulous agent Juliet Mushens (she represents Jessie Burton who wrote The Miniaturist) suggested many first novels neglect the minor characters. To use her words ‘they act merely as window dressing for the main character.’
They suggested that your novel should be in at least the third draft before you even consider sending it for submission. And make sure it is finished (this sounded odd to me but apparently they regularly have people sending them sample chapters when the book isn’t even complete!!)
The cover letter
The cover letter introduces your book and you.
The most important thing (and what you should introduce it with) is the one sentence pitch e.g. The Fault In Our Stars as a one sentence pitch would be ‘a love story between two teenage cancer patients.’
You should also include the genre of your book, the word count, and a longer pitch (a paragraph) explaining a bit about your book, perhaps comparing it to other similar books on the market. You only need a small bit about you, including writing credits if relevant. The aim of the cover letter is to enthuse the agent reading it!
In terms of presentation, it should address the agent by name, have been proofread for errors and be professional in tone.
If you are sending it by email, all the above still applies in the body of your email.
The dreaded synopsis
The synopsis should be a page of A4 in length and outline the main ‘beats’ of your plot, including all plot twists and the ending of the book. The agents stressed it is a technical document, purely outlining what happens and therefore shouldn’t be written in the same tone of your actual writing.
The agent will be thinking the following as they read it:
Does it sound interesting? Does the plot make sense? Does this sound like they have actually finished the book?
Your sample chapters
The first three chapters is the usual request, however, send whatever the agent asks for no more! Don’t pick and choose which three chapters – they want to see if the opening has enough there to hook the reader.
In terms of format, the usual approach is to use Arial or Times New Roman, size 12, double spaced with page numbers. Don’t go for crazy gimmicks like coloured fonts. Let your writing speak for itself.
Remember to view your submission like you would any other job application.
All agents were keen to stress that the whilst all aspects of the submission process are important, the writing is THE most important part of all of it. If they don’t like your opening chapters then they won’t ask for the rest of the book. However, if your cover letter isn’t perfect it won’t put them off reading your work.
I hope you have found this useful. Next week, I’ll explain what happened when I got to pitch my novel to an agent.