Kath here. Please welcome Kim Wright again to WU. We loved Kim’s July post about switching genres, so we invited her back again to talk about the agent hunt. Her newest book, Your Path to Publication, is available on her website. Take it away, Kim…
Agents want to know two things about you before they take you on as a client.
First, they want to know that you can write.
Second, they want to know you’re not crazy. Just as some fledgling writers tend to think of agents as mean, some agents assume that writers are nuts, and let’s face it, there’s plenty of evidence to support that theory.
Moving from writer to author requires a certain interior shift. You’re turning from the world of art, which cheerfully accommodates wacky individuality, to the world of business, which does not. Agents need to see that you’re capable of meeting deadlines, handling criticism and rejection, and working with a wide variety of people. An amazing number of would-be writers fail to realize this. When approaching an agent, they rant, rave, flirt, threaten, and do everything short of donning a t-shirt that reads “I intend to be a mondo pain in the ass.”
So, task one is to have an excellent book that’s polished and ready to show. Task two is to present yourself as someone with whom it would be a joy to work. Which means you shouldn’t do any of the four following things.
List any accomplishments such as publications, awards, in your query, but list them simply, as if on a resume. Don’t include praise from your classmates, your friends, or your mother. If someone whose name the agent might recognize, like a writer or teacher, is a fan of your work, it’s better to ask this person to write a note on your behalf rather than to quote him or her in your query letter.
And while it’s perfectly fine to reference other writers in your query, it’s presumptuous and rude to imply that you’re equal to or, heaven forbid, superior to them. You might say something like, “I loved Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and have tried to bring some of that same suburban angst to my work,” but avoid comparisons such as, “It’s like The Help, only way better,” or “I’m the next Jonathan Franzen.” When you knock established writers, not only does it come off like sour grapes, but for all you know, the agent in question is friends with the person you’re knocking. It’s never smart to criticize members of a club you hope to join.
Don’t tell the agent that this is your last hope or that you’re almost ready to give up writing altogether. Never, but never, whine about editors and agents who did you wrong. If your subject matter is autobiographical or sensitive — you’re writing about the years you were homeless or being the daughter of an alcoholic — you should certainly allude to this, but briefly and calmly. Some letters from writers sound more like suicide notes than queries. Vent these dark feelings to your friends, but keep your professional correspondence just that professional.
Some writers think it’s clever to approach agents in unconventional ways. They try to create something memorable, sort of like a “meet cute” in the movies, but to the agent, this almost always comes off as bizarre or even scary. One agent told me she was sitting on the toilet in the ladies room of a writer’s conference when someone slid an entire manuscript under the stall.
If unchecked, persistence can also come across as stalking. Almost all agents have met writers who refused to take “no” for an answer and kept barraging them with emails and texts long after they had returned their manuscripts. Agents fear triggering an unstable writer, which is one reason they rarely provide feedback on manuscripts they reject.
You’re probably thinking that you’d never shove a manuscript under the stall of a bathroom, but there are more subtle ways to cross the line. One MFA grad queried an agent who requested 25 pages of her manuscript. Her first chapter was 23 pages long so she quite rightly sent that. But as the days turned to weeks of waiting, she began to get a little crazed. The agent had requested 25 pages — was she wrong to have sent 23? Should she have sent the first two pages of the next chapter or run the first chapter off in a slightly larger font? Without consulting anyone on this and thus giving friends the chance to talk her off the ledge, she fired off a long and frantic email, asking if she should send additional pages, apologizing for being such a bad girl, and just basically rambling about how she was a beginner and didn’t know what she was doing. It’s easy to turn someone off by asking too many questions, sending and then re-sending slightly altered texts, or demanding constant reassurance. It gives the agent an unattractive preview of what it would be like to have you as a client.
Be Unique to the Point of Weird
Being weird is not the same thing as being creative. In an effort to set themselves apart from the other thousand queries that came in that week, writers sometimes print their letters on lavender paper, use strange fonts, include drawings from their kids, write their queries in iambic pentameter, or create YouTube “auditions.” Agents often see these stunts as proof that you don’t believe your basic idea is strong enough to stand on its own.
Bottom line: Agents are looking for interesting, innovative writing and they realize that the people who produce it often have more than their fair share of insecurities and quirks. But before they agree to work with us, they need to know that we can also be practical and charming… and sane.