January is a great month to submit to literary agents. But how do you put together a submission package that will catch their eye and make them want to read your work? Here are some tips on how to do it – and, by the way, most of them also apply to putting together an application package for one of our selective London writing courses or online writing courses…
- Format your work properly: The right way to present your work is to use an unfussy font – not too big, not too small (Times New Roman 12 point will do just fine), 1.5 or double spacing, and make sure you set the work out correctly, the way you’d see it on the page of a published book – ie, paragraphs indented (rather then with spaces between them), dialogue properly formatted etc. This may sound petty, but if you’ve got a truckload of reading to do (which, believe me, is the case for all literary agents), it makes a massive difference when the work looks clean, professional and readable. Nobody wants to have to fight their way into a densely packed page of tiny font with no discernible formatting. Also, number your pages and put your name on them. Don’t put a copyright notice on the material – it doesn’t actually serve a real function and just looks silly.
- Put a title on the material: A great title can immediately make an agent sit up in his or her seat. You might not feel you’ve found the right title for your novel at the time of sending it to agents, but it’s much better to put a working title on it than none at all. A title-less novel lacks an identity and it makes it harder for the agent to discuss it with colleagues.
- Polish up your first page: Curtis Brown and C&W, like all good agencies, consider every submission that arrives. But the volume of submissions is huge and we need to keep on top of it, so the agents may not read very much unless there’s something which really draws them in. This means you need a great first page. Make sure it introduces a character, tells us where and when your story is happening, and shows us straight away what genre we’re in. It’s a mistake to think you need to wax lyrical with lots of showy language and super-long sentences. You also don’t need to have a man exploding into a room with a gun, but do give the reader something intriguing which gets your story going. Oh, and I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: definitely don’t do a person waking up in the morning or staggering about with a hangover on that first page …
- Tighten up your early chapters: Most agencies ask you to start out by sending in the first 3 chapters or about 3000 words, but do check the agent’s website to find out their specific requirements. Then spend some time editing your opening to make it as strong as possible. You need to make sure your first chapter really sets out your store and asks the key question which drives your story. Most scenes/sequences shouldn’t be longer than about 1000-1500 words – so if your opening scene has two characters talking to each other for the full 3000 words, chances are it should be trimmed. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to set up all of your main characters one by one, telling us all about their personalities and giving us ther back-stories before you actually start the story. Move your plot forward from the off and show us your characters as they enter the action. It’s a good idea to read your work aloud to yourself to make sure it’s flowing well, and do check spelling and grammar before you send it off – if your work’s riddled with typos it looks as though you don’t care enough to bother getting it into good shape.
- Write a one page synopsis: The synopsis is a tricky beast. There are differences of opinion on how long it should be – some agents don’t read them, while others feel they’re crucial. At Curtis Brown, C&W – and indeed Curtis Brown Creative, we like to see a one-pager. It should have the title at the top and then the crucial one or two lines which function as a pitch or which ask the key question around which your story is constructed – this entices the agent to read on. You should then set out your whole story in brief and in a readable way. Don’t get bogged down with too much detail and don’t mention lots of character names – what we need are the key points of your plot. If you have a big reveal at the end, it’s debatable as to whether you should include it – agents don’t all agree on this either so do what feels right to you. Writing a one-page synopsis is a very good exercise in any case, as it forces you to look hard at the bones of your novel to see if it works.
- Your pitch letter: Above all, keep it short. Just three paragraphs or so, and certainly it should be well within a page in length. Address a particular agent and take the trouble to find out enough about them so that you can say why you’ve chosen to send your novel to them specifically. Say just enough about your novel to make them want to read it – this should include a one or two-line pitch, a mention of the genre (if you know it) and a very brief introduction to the story and protagonist. Avoid repeating your synopsis in your letter – you don’t need to summarise the whole plot here – again, keep it short. If there are obvious books to compare it to (particularly if they’re current and successful), go ahead – but avoid comparing yourself to literary greats. Then say a little about yourself: include just a few relevant points – we don’t need to know your entire educational history, the kind of coffee you drink and that you hate cats, but do give the agent a sense of who you are, and also include mention of significant writing competitions you may have won, creative writing courses you’ve taken – that kind of thing. If you’re writing a medical crime novel and happen to be a doctor, that might be useful for us to know … Oh, and did I say keep it short?
Really I could say so much more about all of this than can be fitted in a blog – but, hey – actually we do say much more than this to the students of our courses…
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our three- and six-month 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.