Archive for March, 2013

Eleven Steps to Finding an Agent

March 18, 2013


I teach a class on finding and working with agents. A lot of prospective authors who attend the class are a little intimidated by the process and need to know the basics of agent research. So here are the steps you need to follow to find the right agent for your book.

1). Decide if you really want to work with an agent in the first place. I recommend you read my blog post on writers’ misconceptions of literary agents. Agents are going to charge a 15% commission on your income. Smaller publishers don’t require agented submissions. Some even refuse to work with agents. Large publishers will almost never accept unagented submissions. And even when an editor is interested in your project, she might insist that you find an agent before proceeding with her.

2) Make sure your project is ready to submit before seeking an agent. If your book is non-fiction, have a complete and polished book proposal and sample chapter. If fiction, the manuscript must be in final form. (Frequently publishers will insist on a finished manuscript for memoir as well.) If you are preparing a book proposal, do your homework on how to write a good one. Read some books about it, attend some classes, or get a freelance editor to work with you. Books are sold based on the proposal, and it has to answer the questions that the agents and publishers will be asking. Having a compelling idea isn’t good enough. Agents have to know that the idea works as a book, not just as a magazine article or a blog. Publishers need to know that they will make money on this book, not to make to fine point. To get a better idea of what agents are looking for, check out my blog post, Think Like an Editor.

3) Be careful about bad agents and scammers. Before preparing a prospective agent list, do a little research on things to watch out for. Check out the Writer Beware website. They have some very good advice on avoiding unscrupulous agents.

4) The next step is to start doing research on agents who are most likely to be appropriate for your specific genre and project. Remember that you can and must send multiple submissions. Almost all authors, from Joe Schmo to J. K. Rowling, have gotten lots of rejections from agents before finding the right one. I recommend that you make a list of 25 agents who would seem to be a good fit and proceed from there.

5) Begin by mining the data bases. I have a blog post about the resources you can use for finding agents. You might want to start with the list of members of the Association of Author Representatives. The AAR is the trade association of literary agents and has some strict requirements for membership including a code of ethics. For a larger list, I recommend In all of these lists you can limit your search only to agents who are working in your genre. Most of the agents will have brief statements that give you a more subjective feel for their sensibilities. You can also get links to the agents’ websites for further research. I went into some detail on a previous blog post about resources for writers.

6) After you have developed a tentative list of agents, it’s time to move on to the agents’ websites. Almost all agents have websites and almost all agent websites have a similar structure. You are likely to find:

• a page describing the agent’s orientation including a fuller description of the types of books she is looking for. Sometimes this will give you a better feel for the agent than simply a list of genres she works with.
• background information about the agent. This might include her education, previous occupations, honors and awards, and personal interests. Sometimes you want to go with your feelings on this. Your relationship with your agent will be very personal.
• A list of books that the agent represents and/or recent book deals. It’s important for you to see if these books seem compatible with your project. An agent whose list is primarily cookbooks might not be the best agent to represent your political journalism. But you need to find out if that agent in moving into other areas that would be more appropriate for you.
• Submission guidelines. This is crucial. Every agent website will have a page on submission guidelines that will tell you: how much and what information they want in query letters, whether submissions should be electronic or paper, some specific requirements about book proposals, and how long you can expect to wait before hearing back.

If you want to delve deeper into the dark recesses of an agent’s mind and soul, some agents will have blogs that could be revealing and always provide useful tips for prospective authors. Check out my blog post on agent blogs.

7) Next compose your query letter. The number of articles, books, and podcasts on this subject is legion. Some of this stuff though is mystification and hype. Don’t let a query letter guru tell you that a good query letter will result in publication. It won’t. But it is important to present your query in a format that is familiar to an agent, that provides the specific information an agent is looking for, and in a style that is clear and intelligible. Always sound professional. Never indicate that you suffer delusions of omnipotence. (Avoid mentioning: Oprah; Eat, Pray, Love; or movie deals.) Don’t be dumb. (Don’t say you are offering a “literary fiction novel”. That’s redundant. And for God sake, don’t say you have written a “narrative non-fiction novel.”)

8)Most writers want to know how long they should expect to wait before hearing back from an agent and how they should go about nudging those agents who haven’t responded. Response times are all over the map. I generally read queries every day and respond within 4 or 5 days. Other agents may take weeks or even months. Usually agents will give an indication on their website how long they take to respond. And….a lot of agents aren’t going to respond at all. It’s rude, but that’s life. Don’t expect agents to give you incisive advice on how to rewrite your book. And don’t ask them to refer you to other agents. You need to do your own research. Agents get 10-100 queries a day. Rejections tend to be pro forma. I recommend that after a few weeks, start sending out more query letters. It’s ok to send a follow-up after a month or two though.

9)If an agent is interested in your project, be responsive. If your project is non-fiction, she will usually ask for a complete book proposal. If it’s fiction, an agent will usually ask for the first 10 pages. And those 10 pages had better be good. Most agents and editors can tell good writing by the end of the first paragraph. If the agent gets excited, she will ask for the complete manuscript.

10) If you are in the enviable position of having interest from multiple agents, you can and should do your due diligence. Ask for references from other authors the agents have represented. If an agent tells you she can get you a 6 figure deal, she’s probably lying. She doesn’t know. That’s a bad sign. Having a New York agent is no longer important. Having an agent from a big agency is less important than having a good agent who believes in you.

11). You will get rejected. You will probably get rejected by dozens of agents. Get used to it. Authors get rejected by agents; agents get rejected by publishers; publishers get rejected by book sellers; and booksellers get their books rejected by consumers. That’s show business.

Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules For Writing

March 4, 2013

elmore 2As an agent, I get a lot of fiction submissions. Usually I can tell if I don’t like them by the end of the first page. Sometimes by the end of the first paragraph. I’m a little embarrassed to make this admission. Some people might think that my method makes me a literary philistine. And sure, there are lots of examples of masterpieces that I probably would mistakenly throw out because I was bored on page one or even page 10. Most of the great novels of the nineteenth century might not pass muster. As an example, just look at Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. We all know the story, don’t we? Well, in the likely event that you loved the play or movie, as I did, you probably tried to read the book but gave up. The hero, Jean Valjean, doesn’t even show up until about page 50. And the stuff before his entrance is deadeningly, crushingly boring.

When I talk to inexperienced writers, I usually tell them to read Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing. And if you don’t treat the rules inflexibly, they are all very sensible. We’ll let Victor Hugo get by with a few peccadilloes. Well, actually Les Mis has about 800 pages of peccadilloes. So here is Leonard’s list with my modest annotations:

1. Never Open a book with a weather report. We all remember the most celebrated bad first line in literature: “It was a dark and stormy night.” from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford. The novel was considered a masterpiece when written. Now it has become a subject of ridicule and condescension by high culture snoots. There isn’t anything wrong with writing about the weather if you are building a scene. But for me this kind of beginning smacks of the equivalent of novelistic throat clearing, a sign that the author lacks the self-confidence to jump into the story.

2. Avoid prologues. Screenwriters love prologues. But then screenplays are usually about 20% as long as even the shortest novel. Movies have to get backstory information out quickly and concisely, and the prologue is an obvious vehicle for this. But novels are different. Again, prologues were ok in the nineteenth century. Probably the most influential artist of that time was Richard Wagner. His masterpiece, The Ring of the Niebelung, runs for 4 nights and is over 14 hours long. The entire 2 1/2 hour first opera, Das Rheingold, is a classic prologue written entirely to bring out the backstory of the epic myth. Wagner gets to break the rules; but you, gentle writer, do not. Editors in New York are pretty demanding about how authors should handle backstory. They expect it to be dribbled out on a “need to know basis”. Editors condescendingly refer to backstory prologues as “info dumps”. Another sign of an inexperienced author.

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. Ok. This is a little extreme. I’m sure Elmore wouldn’t have a problem with “asked” or “thought”. But it’s probably a good idea to avoid most other tags. Plain vanilla tags like “said” are transparent to the reader and keep the reader’s attention on the dialogue and the story. More complex and descriptive tags like “he wondered” or “he mused” or “he regurgitated” [unless, of course, the subject is actually tossing his cookie] are distracting. An exercise in “telling” rather than “showing.”

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely. Same as rule #3 above. Adverbs tend to be clumsy and lazy. That said, I just finished rereading The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald loved adverbs. And who am I to criticize Fitzgerald? So, like Wagner, we’ll give him a literary “get out of jail free” card.

5. Keep your exclamation points under control. You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. YOU HEAR THAT RULE, BUB?! You try using those exclamation points with me, and you’re outta here!!!

6. Never use the words “suddenly” or “all hell broke loose.” What Elmore is really saying here is that you should avoid clichés like the plague (ha, ha. joke). Another sign of lazy writing. And you might also take the advice of Strunk and White and not use “weak” adjectives like “nice”, “beautiful”, or even “weak”.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly. Dad gummit! I agree with Elmore on this. It’s another example of how good style should be invisible. A novel should draw the reader into a kind of trance-like state. When the style distracts the reader from the story, she falls out of the story. I see a lot of stuff by inexperienced writers who are smitten by the need to flaunt their style. Excessive alliteration and misplaced similes, for example. There are lots of examples of great writing where style trumps substance, but in general this is a good rule.

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters. I’m not sure I would agree with this as a general rule. But what I think Elmore means is that characters are best described by their actions and their words in dialogue. Another admonition of “show, don’t tell.” But go ahead, you can break this rule if it works.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things. I’d really like to make a snarky remark about Henry James right now, but I will forgo that temptation. As above, sometimes this rule is more honored in the breach than in the observance. Sure, if you are writing like Hemingway, Raymond Carver, or even Elmore Leonard, rule #9 is sound advice. But there is room for other styles in good writing. Certainly you should avoid unnecessary detail. Actually you should avoid unnecessary anything.

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. This rule speaks for itself –uh– Henry James? Are you listening?