How to get a literary agent
April 12th 2016
There are probably loads of places on the internet to go to for advice on this – but someone came to me and said “Simon, you’re old and have been doing this writing thing for a while now. How do I go about getting an agent?”
And lo, it was true. I am old. I have been doing this writing thing for a while now. So I replied, then thought. “Actually, I could post this on t’website.”
So, without further ado, here is my non-definitive and possibly inaccurate guide to getting a literary agent. Any suggestions and amendments via the comments welcome.
Firstly, well done. Actually finishing a novel-length work makes you a writer, as opposed to an aspiring writer. It’s not an easy thing to see it out to the end, so kudos for getting this far.
Secondly, and importantly, realise that this probably won’t sell. Mine didn’t. Neither did the one I was writing while I was hawking the first one around, but that one did get me an agent. The one I was writing while he was hawking the second one around did get picked up. So, after a pause, start writing the next one. All the things you’ve learnt writing the first one will be applicable to the second one, and if by chance, you do get some interest in the existing ms, you can say (and agents and publishers really want to hear this) that you’re half way through another. They don’t want an author who’s only got one book in them: they – and you – need to play the long game.
Now, to attract an agent is a rare and difficult thing. So you have to give this your best shot, because each time you send it out, it will be your only shot with that particular agent, with that particular work.
Make sure your ms is polished. Whatever structural flaws it might contain, it ought not have any spelling, punctuation or grammar errors. Because nothing says n00b like a spelling error. In practice, this means that at least one other competent adult will have gone through the whole ms, marking corrections and making suggestions. Which you’ll then apply.
Most agents don’t want the whole ms in paper form – I only see actual paper at the page proof stage, which is the last bit before publication, and even then, not always, so don’t worry about printing stuff out. What they’ll probably want is a covering letter, a synopsis, and the first 3 chapters/10k words.
The covering letter is one side of A4, with your contact details, title, genre, and length of the story (for a novel, at least 80k, preferably between 80-110k, though with fantasy, there’s a bit of elastic at the top end, even for a first novel), whether it’s a stand-alone or part of a series/trilogy, and anything that might indicate relevant experience – journalist, copywriter, medieval re-enactor – or celebrity status. That’s it. They don’t need to know your life story.
The synopsis is your sales pitch, so treat it as such. Sweat blood over this, because if it sucks, they’re not going to read the sample. The less sucky it is, the more chance there is that they’ll read the sample. I’m genuinely bad at synopses, and my agent despairs of me, so we’ve done quite a lot of work over the years on making them, if not good, at least workmanlike.
A synopsis shouldn’t be your story. It should be a story about your story, about how exciting things happen to interesting people, and how the protagonists react to those difficult events in different ways. I write mine in the form of:
- Intro – thematic feel and overall arc
- Set-up – the world as it is in the beginning
- Trigger – how the protagonists get involved in the story
- Ascent – what happens when the protagonists get involved in the story
- Bios – short paragraphs about the protagonists, their hopes and fears (and not what they look like) as they progress in the story.
- Climax – what happens in the build up to the denouement
- Pitch line – your story is awesome because it’s like X with added Y for the Z generation, for fans of A, B and C.
A synopsis is a work of art in its own. It needs to be as exciting as your actual story is. Seriously, spend time on it. And get it in on two pages of A4.
Then the first three chapters. Make sure these are utterly error free. And make sure they are the first three chapters, not chapters 8, 12 and 18, because they’re the most explosiony ones. It doesn’t have to be all fireworks, but if it doesn’t grab from the start, then it’s not happening.
So that’s your package. All you need to do now is find the right agents to approach. This is another difficult, and separate job. Sorry about that.
You need to identify: agents who accept adult fantasy (not all do), who are also open to submissions (not all are). Agents are looking for reasons to reject a submission. Don’t give them one – that means tailoring your submission to exactly how they want it formatted and sent.
The ones that are most likely to accept a new author are: those who have just started and are building up their client base, or have just hired someone new to expand their client base. Older, established single-person agents are less likely to be looking to take on new clients, because they already have sufficient authors to keep them busy and paid.