Friday, 16 March 2012

Submitting Your Novel To Agents

Going down, down, dragging her own
I can't tell you what I found
The Sex Pistols

Calm down, now. This is a book writing post, not a music one.

Submitting to literary agents is all part and parcel of the wonderful world of writing books. Having received something like 250 rejections, I think I've got quite good at it over the years. The process is obviously of interest to a great many people in the UAE, certainly judging by Luigi Bonomi's two sell-out sessions on getting an agent at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, as well as the audience questions during our 'First Fictions' panel session.

In fact, I'm still getting questions from people, so here's a potted guide. The usual caveats - I'm just giving my own views here and I'm not necessarily the best person in the world to give advice to anyone about anything, but here it is anyway.

What agents ask for
  • The first 50 pages of your book printed single sided in Times 12 point, double spaced with a 0.5cm paragraph indent, not hardbound (ie slide bound or even held together with an elastic band). Each page should include the page number and the title of the novel and name of the author.
  • A synopsis, no more than two pages
  • A covering letter
  • An SAE
What Internet savvy agents ask for
  • An email with a query, synopsis and first ten pages in the body of the email, no attachments.
  • An email with the first three chapters and synopsis as attachments.
I would generally approach any agent via email first and had actively started avoiding 'postal submisions only' agents by the time I signed with my agent.

What you need
A novel
A synopsis
A blurb
A query letter
An international postal coupon
An Internet connection
A thick skin and a good dollop of self belief

A novel
Ideally, you should have a whole novel. Some people tell me Luigi suggested you might like to write just the first three chaps and submit to see how it goes, but I can't see that working. If an agent comes back in response to your 'partial' and asks for a 'full' you're just going to muff it by trying to write a book in a couple of weeks. Getting those 'first three' chapters into top condition requires, IMHO, the experience and editing knowledge you'll gain from writing a book.

You need around about the first fifty pages of your novel, ideally ending somewhere sensible, so if that takes 46 or 52 pages, never mind. Check them for stupid mistakes, read them out loud as if you're giving a reading to a book club and correct the text. Print it out and go through it with a red pen. Ideally, upload it to a Kindle and edit it again. Then leave it for a few days and edit it on screen.

A synopsis
Distil your novel down to a few pages, then print it out. Tell that story from scratch, doing your best to make it compelling, colourful and yet true to the movement of the plot. Do not lace it with 'in character' dialogue or phrases, keep it a straightforward piece of storytelling that clearly shows the KEY elements of your plot and story as a readable, flowing document. Now cut it. You should end up with it cut down to two pages.

A blurb
Imagine you're writing the dust jacket of your book. Write it up just like that, to focus on the key 'hooks' your book has to offer. Make the language compelling. Again, read it out. Imagine it as tweets - cut out any word you don't need in there. Make it elegant. Make me, the reader, want it.

A query letter
Agents like you to play it straight and don't award marks for individuality, humour or in-character stunts. There are lots of examples of query letters on the interwebs, but the best approach is to get straight in there with a two-paragraph (max)description of your book, (Olives is a stranger abroad story set in Jordan, where journalist Paul Stokes falls love as he finds himself caught up in a series of explosions that seem linked to him) followed by a short description the target market for the book, a bit about who you are (which ideally is in some way relevant to the topic/content of your book) and a signoff. You're looking at a page, max a page and a half.

Increasingly, agents are taking email submissions which saves a load of wasted time, paper and money. It'll cost you about dhs60 to send a wodge of 50 pages of novel and an international reply paid coupon (together with an envelope addressed to yourself which will eventually contain the photocopied rejection slip) so it's no small beer once you get above ten agents. So I would definitely query agents that take email submissions first.

Which agents to approach?
You can go through the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook for agents - try and do it intelligently and find people who represent books similar in theme, genre or essence to yours. Here's a useful free listing, but it's a wee bit out of date now and I'd buy into the W&A thing, honestly.

Look at their websites
Agents will ALWAYS have submission guidelines on their websites and you should follow these. Don't waste time and energy putting together a package that doesn't meet the guidelines of each agent, because they'll just bin submissions that don't comply. Don't forget, agents get anything up to fifty brown envelopes full of hope every single day.

Use white envelopes.

If an agent's guidelines seem unusually onerous or ridiculous move on. Don't kill yourself jumping through hoops, there are plenty other agents in the sea.

Many agents will respond to a well-written query by email (use your blurb as the core of this) and many will accept an online submission from the UAE based on that query - do try this before posting off packages, each 'yes' you win will save you the price of a copy of Olives to gift a member of your grateful family.

Don't follow up
It can take three months for an agent to respond to a submission package. Do NOT phone them to chase your submission. They don't know who the hell you are, you're just another parcel on the great big pile in reception. Your rejection will come in time, don't worry.

When you get rejected
If you get a rejection with any feedback in it, count your lucky stars. This marks you as unusual and you should take it as a huge positive sign. Take the feedback on board and resubmit - including to the agent who gave you the feedback. Don't be in a hurry to do this, take your time - and make sure you've really taken that feedback to heart.

When you get a 'full' request
A full read means an agent has enough interest in your work to spend time and/or money on your work - they'll likely have 'readers' who charge a fee to read work and give an editorial report on it. This report will not be shared with you, although you might get a couple of lines of final feedback with the 'no'.

However, you might also get a 'yes'. This is, believe me, a very good moment. Savour it, roll it around in your mouth, then swallow gratefully. It's not the end of the process, your agent's got to find a publisher and that's a whole new ballgame. But you're pretty much through the gate and standing, blinking, in the inner keep...

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