Four Ways Not to Get An Agent

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.

Brag

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.

Plead

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.

Stalk

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.

Thanks for a great post, Kim! Readers, you can learn more about Kim and her new book, Your Path to Publication, by visiting her website and following her on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. says

    Excellent tips, Kim. The cautionary tale about the girl who fired off the frantic email (and how that’s not quite as bad as passing a manuscript under a stall, but still not good) is a great example. And I think you summed ALL of this up really well in one sentence:

    “Agents often see these stunts as proof that you don’t believe your basic idea is strong enough to stand on its own.”

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  2. says

    Great tips, I’m almost at that stage, so will keep these in mind. Also, just to let you know, I tried to use your share buttons (specifically Twitter) and nothing happens… I’m on the latest IE browser.

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  3. says

    I love how you divide writing and business. Being professional is an important craft for writers to develop, and not just in their dealings with agents or publishers. I have read several blog posts about rude behavior some writers have with each other while using social media, as well. And who can forget about the woman who got into the comments fight with a book reviewer last year. Being rude and unprofessional in your dealing with anyone, whether you work at Walmart, in business or in the arts, is one way to halt, if not end, a growing career.

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  4. says

    Great advice, Kim. Unfortunately, most of us with experience in the publishing world know of instances where each of those rules was not just broken but produced a compound fracture that couldn’t be repaired. Lara, in her comment, points out a great example.
    Thanks for reminding us again of these “rules.”

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  5. says

    Thanks for the awesome post. It absolutely helps, because even even people who are generally sane and patient can get desperate when waiting for feedback from an agent and, without thinking, pull one of these. Though the toilet thing is ludicrous! Hard to believe!

    I also agree with Lara that it’s best to maintain a professional stance even with informal social media and the like.

    I know I’ll remember this when I get to querying. Thanks again for the great reminder.

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  6. says

    I’ll try and remember this. I’ve heard the manuscript under the toilet door thing several times, and it never ceases to amaze me. Mind you, that’s probably what I’d do. But I shall not. I shall remember this! I shall try to be, um, normal? Considering not even my parents think I’m sane, though, and people at school seriously wonder… oh, well.

    Hey, do you think my tshirt that reads, “We’re all mad here” would be a bad choice? After all, it’s an Alice in Wonderland quote. That’s like wide-read-ness, isn’t it?

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  7. says

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! When I was first researching Your Path to Publication I sent out a call to my writer buddies over all sorts of social media, asking what was the strangest thing either they or a friend had done in their quest for an agent.
    I was immediately deluged with stories. And these are smart, normally professional people, mind you. In fact the woman who wrote the frantic email about the 25 pages is a college professor!
    I think it’s just as Raquel says, that the time you spend waiting and hoping can be so stressful that you begin doing wackadoo things out of sheer anxiety. But I also spoke to more than a dozen agents while researching Your Path to Publication and they were unanimous is their verdict: It’s nearly impossible for a writer to recover from a bad first impression.

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  8. says

    I guess sometimes people do crazy things when they want something bad enough, like…slipping a manuscript under the stall of the ladies room. That has bad idea written all over it. LOL.

    I enjoyed this post.

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  9. says

    Hahaha…that was an excellent post. I will definitely refrain from stalking agents into bathroom and writing bizarrely desperate emails. Still grinning here… God, we writers are a wacky lot!

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  10. says

    What a great list of “don’ts”. I will post it beside my computer as I gear up for my first race for an agent. Be nice. Be sane. Be normal. Got it.

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  11. says

    I was just at SCBWI-MN this weekend and an agent from Red Sofa Literary mentioned getting an email with subject line: “Do you eat your boogers?” She opened the email and it said. “Ha! Me neither but I got your attention, didn’t I?” Then it went on with a query…

    She said it got her attention all right. But in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons.

    Cute is not so cute.

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  12. says

    Thanks, Kim, for the excellent advice. I’m searching for an agent now, and I totally get how people can get frustrated. What they want seems to be an ever-moving target. Don’t suppose you have any hints about how to get inside an agent’s head…?

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  13. says

    Don’t be weird. I love this one. At a recent writer’s conference, a poor woman wore a very strange hat (think Carmen Miranda at the Kentucky Derby). At one point an agent on a panel actually mentioned that at a conference you should be remembered for your pitch, not your hat.

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  14. says

    Thanks, everyone. Rae, I wish I did know how to get inside an agent’s head. It’s sort of like when a teenage girl asks how she can get a boy to like her. You can’t force a connection with an agent any more than you can force a romance….you just have to create good work and then keep showing that work to the market in a businesslike, professional, optomistic manner. I realize this is a hard “just” to pull off! But the point of the piece is that if your goal is to ultimately have not just an agent but a good relationship with that agent, you need to start building the mutual respect and honest commincation from your very first point of contact.

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  15. yaniv says

    The thing is today becuse so many writers want to get some publicity they have to be proactive but in the reasonable way graet tips , thanks for sharing .

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  16. says

    I can’t believe someone would slip a manuscript under a bathroom stall! Geez! But I can totally see myself panicking over the 25/23 page thing. Not sure if I would send an email though…

    Thanks for the article – very very helpful!

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