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18 March 2013

Writers not bakers: what a literary agent really wants

by Rufus Purdy From the Agents, Writing Tips

Curtis Brown Children’s and YA agent Stephanie Thwaites (or Lady Thwaites as she’s been addressed by one particularly obsequious aspiring writer) on what to avoid when submitting your work to the agency. Cakes and dead rats are definitely frowned on:

It’s about time I wrote something about submissions and since I have read more than 80 this week, and thousands over the last 10 years, it’s a subject about which I know a little and can talk a lot (for evidence of this see my earlier post on searching for new writers).
In September last year, Curtis Brown launched a brand spanking new online submissions site, finally replacing the postal submissions system which was old-fashioned, inefficient and, at times, pretty creepy. We used to meet in the boardroom once a week and wade through piles and piles of submissions – negotiating our way through all sorts of strange folders, perfumed paper, ‘gifts’ (bribes) in the form of mugs, teddy bears, sweets, photographs, dollar bills (a personal favourite), and even a visit from the police (don’t ask!). Before my time, Vivienne Schuster was even sent a dead rat by a disgruntled (and undoubtedly disturbed), aspiring author. So now we have moved to online submissions, we’re paper- and rodent-free but I’ve noticed that new writers are still making some of the same mistakes. Here are some examples:

  1. Covering letters not addressed to a specific agent
    Our new site makes it easy to identify the right agent to approach. It even gives you the option to select from a drop-down menu so there’s no excuse for sending letters without addressing them to an actual person or marking them for the attention of Mr Curtis Brown. While part of me likes the sound of ‘Lady Thwaites’, I’m not convinced that this belongs in a covering letter.
  2. Silliness
    There’s a time and place for this and I suggest that it is within text itself. Forget gimmicks, letters stand out if they are professional, well-researched and well-presented. Ideally the letter should briefly explain why you are approaching that agent, include a short description of the book and the intended age range (marks deducted for saying ‘adults and children alike’, don’t be lazy!). Mention any relevant writing experience (but this isn’t crucial), and a line or two of biographical information. Simple! If you can liken your book to relevant similar titles then do, but avoid comparing it to Twilight/Harry Potter/The Hunger Games– it suggests you have only read one book for young people in the last decade. Aim high, of course; but comparisons like this feel meaningless.
  3. Pages and pages of material before the sample text starts
    Keep your synopsis brief, delete long lists of chapters and think very carefully before including a prologue. Make it easy for the reader to find the beginning of the text quickly – after all, that’s the most important part of the submission.
  4. The endless synopsis
    Again, keep your synopsis brief. Often agents won’t read a synopsis unless they like the sample material and want a sense of where it’s going. It’s just a tool providing more information and should be a short summary, not a detailed chapter breakdown. My preference is for just one or two paragraphs. Did I mention I like a short synopsis?
  5. Lack of research
    TEXT please! I ask for text only, not illustrations, not embroidery manuals nor dancing spiders (actually, I kind of like that idea). Nowhere do I say anything about embroidery manuals on my client list, my profile page with its ‘what I’m looking for’ section (which you’d think would be the obvious place to start), on Twitter, blogs or in interviews. There’s a reason for that. It sounds obvious, but I’m still astounded by the number of people who don’t put the research in. To give yourself the best chance of hitting the right agent with the right project you have to start by finding the right person. If you’re not sick of me banging on about this you can read my answers to questions on submitting on Lou Treleaven’s site.
  6. Nutters and lunatics
    If you’re a little unconventional that’s fine, many authors are, but it’s probably best to tone it down in the covering letter. Quirky in person is OK, but full-blown fruitcakes can be tricky to work with – it’s best to disguise that initially. Talking of cake, hand-delivered baked goods may be a lovely gesture for friends, neighbours and people you know, but together with a submission, before a professional relationship has even started, it feels a bit like presenting an engagement ring on a first date. Besides it won’t have an affect on our decision about a manuscript and of course it shouldn’t – we’re looking for writers, not bakers.
  7. Unrealistic expectations
    We read and respond to all submissions and do so within a reasonable time frame. Not all agencies accept ‘unsolicited material’ and some don’t respond unless they are interested. We welcome new submissions and reply to everything we receive, but we draw the line at feedback. We just couldn’t possibly offer this to the thousands of people who submit their work to us every year. There are companies who provide detailed reports and critiques and charge a tidy sum for it, but they are not literary agencies. While we are enthusiastic about new submissions we do make it clear that reading and responding is as far as we will take it for many of them. Irate phone messages or pleas for feedback just reinforce our view that we’ve made the right decision to decline. While it’s understandable to feel disappointed (and disagree), aggressive and demanding reactions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding about what agents actually do. We would be neglecting our responsibility to our existing clients, plus it would be deeply misleading, if we spent time giving personal responses to writers we don’t intend to work with. For some sensible words on why agents can’t give feedback and why new writers don’t really want it, seeRachelle Gardner’s blog.

So mistakes, directions and complaints aside, I am working with at least half a dozen authors whose work has caught my eye via the online submissions site since we launched five months ago and we’re constantly monitoring the site and looking for new authors writing books for children and teenagers. I would love to find something in the vein of Game of Thrones, a contemporary romance for teens, an emotional middle grade story, irresistible characters and ideas that are instantly intriguing. For a superb elevator pitch read Jamie Mason’s 140-Character Story Pitch in her interview on Chuck Wendig’s blog.

Happy pitching! I look forward to receiving your perfect, polished, submission. No pressure though.

This piece originally appeared on Stephanie Thwaites’ personal blog

As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.

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