The Truth About Literary Agents


As the gatekeepers of the literary community, lit agents represent a major hurdle for writers; they are among the first people we need to impress if we wish to enter through those pearly gates into the world of published authors. So it is only natural if we at first view them through rosy-colored glasses.

But literary agents are not the lofty demi-gods they seem at first sight. There are titillating tidbits we should chew on before submitting our work to these gatekeepers.

Literary agents have no formal training. There exists no degree specifically tailored for lit agents to attain. Their schooling is unofficial, comprised of internships and other non-paying time offered as underlings in the literary world, comprised almost entirely of scut work. Their opinions are as biased as anyone else’s, albeit buttressed with a foundation in extreme reading and guided by the opinions of more experienced literary agents. They do not belong to any official group (even the AAR is more a code-of-ethics community and less an official organization) and are not required by law to sign any contracts, purchase any permits, or achieve anything to call themselves Literary Agents.

The point is that these people are merely well-read book-lovers, not the end-all know-all of your manuscript. Just because a few of them reject it, doesn’t mean your MS is no good. So remember, when it comes to books, these literary agents are just as chock full of opinions and preferences as anyone else. They don’t know everything, and they don’t have a framed BL (Bachelors of Literary Critique) to prove otherwise.

My experiences with lit agents have run the gamut: from frustration at their silent neglect, to fury at their form rejections, to elation at receiving requests from them. What have your experiences with them entailed?


1 Step to Mastering the Query Letter

Forget all those multiple-step guides to writing the perfect query letter. There is no such thing as the perfect query. It’s subjective. One agent could love it, while another will fail to note a single redeeming feature in that same letter. So how do you write a quality query? Same way you write quality fiction: write, edit, set it aside for a week or two, then return to revise some more. It’s all about looking at your work with fresh eyes. Whether it’s a novel, short story, or a bloody annoying query letter, the same rules apply. If this doesn’t quite blow your hair back, Writer’s Digest has some solid ‘alternative’ advice.

Cut it Out: Cut the bejeebers out of that mother. Get to the point and don’t bother naming more than two or three characters. Agents are busy people; they have no patience for a rundown of every detail. That defeats the purpose of a query letter in the first place! Think Jon Lovitz in League of Their Own: ‘Field, try-outs, play.’ Get to the point. Forget the throat-clearing waffle of telling the agent you know all about her. I’ve found I get better responses when I skip that and serve up the ‘hook’ right off the line. Then you give ‘em the meat and potatoes of the tale. Follow all that up with dessert: the twist. WHAT MAKES YOUR BOOK STAND OUT?

There it is; your masterpiece in 250 words or less. When you think you’ve finally polished that bugger to a prosey shine, put it away and sleep on it for a week. If it’s not your 18th version, it ain’t ready yet. Godspeed, Query Master.

Own Those Rejection Letters–And Start Getting Requests

If you write and submit your writing, you will get rejected. Repeatedly. Harshly. Or you’ll be ignored. It’s like in Lost when Rousseau warned Sayid about Benjamin Linus: ‘He will lie. For a long time, he will lie.’ You will be rejected—for a long time. But the good news is that one magical day it’ll all turn around. You’ll open your e-mail. The name of an agent will be there, waiting for you to click on it. In your heart you know it’s another rejection. You don’t want to read it. But you open it, as you knew you would. OMG! It’s not a rejection, it’s a request; Jennifer Jackson wants to read my entire Iconocop manuscript (for example)! Believe me if you are persistent, if you build your knowledge repertoire and name, it will happen.

IT’LL TAKE YEARS: I know, you’re thinking you’ll be the exception. Your first MS is phenomenal, the next Look Homeward, Angel. Let’s be real: your first manuscript is borderline trash. Put it in a drawer, write for another year, and then dig that 250,000 word behemoth out and give it the once-over. You’ll be eating crow, sure as sugar. Same goes for your second beast. My first two works of naiveté are safely tucked in a drawer where they can’t hurt anyone with their offensive prose and meandering plot-holes. Submit your third. By that time you’ll have done what many wish and fail to do: you’ll have written that novel you always wanted to write. You wrote it, finished it, and then repeated. Congratulations, you’re a writer on your way. You’re clinging to that Writing Ladder like a champ. Don’t keep revising that first epic fantasy. Move on to the next project. Challenge yourself; write in a different genre, use a different POV. Submit shorts to e-zines and contests. Continue reading “Own Those Rejection Letters–And Start Getting Requests”