I’ve published nine traditional novels with imprints of Random House, Simon & Schuster, and a couple of other NY pubs. Based on a recent re-read of the manuscript that landed me my first agent at a prestigious agency, it never should have happened.
The writing was awful. I read it now and shake my head and then share it online for others to mock.
It was bad.
Wait . . . so then how’d I land this agent?
There are any number of factors that can get your ms picked up by a reputable agent (remembering that anyone asking for money up front is not reputable). These three should be at the top of your list.
You’re english teacher was rite
I hope to God that subhead makes your eyeballs spin. If it doesn’t, man, you better hire a great line editor. (How many errors do you see in that subhead?)
We’ve all grown accustomed to emojis and truncated words and phrases, but they do not belong anywhere in your ms. You, personally, don’t have to be a walking Strunk & White, and a few errors may be forgiven . . . but not on the first page. Not in the first ten. Like, halfway through? Sure, then. But not in the sample you are emailing to your Top Shelf Agent.
Do absolutely everything in your power to make sure you’ve got all your spelling, punctuation, and capitalization right in that sample. There’s a little more room when it comes to grammar, but — we’ll talk about that in a minute.
Leave the sparkles and beer
To my knowledge, there is no quirky gimmick that has landed an author an agent. If anything, there are probably stories of authors who landed an agent despite these gimmicks. Long ago, when authors still sent snail mail packages, once in a while some smarty-pants would fill their children’s fantasy novel envelope with glitter, or deliver a bottle of wine to the agent.
Don’t do that, and don’t do anything similar in the digital world.
That means follow them on Twitter, sure. DM them? No, not unless they’ve asked you to or it’s some kind of open submission period and they’ve specified that’s how to contact them. Snail-mail chocolates and whiskey? Nice of you, but no. It still won’t land you a look at the book. Find their submission guidelines, and follow them. That’s it.
The single and only thing you need to get an agent is a great story. It’s really that hard and that easy. Just make sure you’ve done your homework and the agent you are querying actually represents your genre.
You know your genre, right? I don’t mean long-tailed “categories” like you find on on Amazon, I mean the one word (or maybe two word phrase) closely matching the signs in B&N where your book’s going to be shelved. For your purposes in querying, that’s a genre. Don’t be cute — call your book by something the industry will recognize and know if it appeals to the individual agent.
Voice gets you requests for fulls
My first manuscript got my agent’s attention not because of its flawless spelling, exquisite grammar, great punctuation, or even the writing itself. She requested a full because of the Voice of the piece, though my spelling and punctuation were spot-on.
What about my grammar? It was good. Not perfect, but good. Standard American English at worst. So why is that okay? Because it was a standard American story populated by young people who had a specific way of speaking and narrating. It was a young adult contemporary novel, and the authenticity of how my characters spoke interacted was the thing that caught my agent’s eye — grammar be damned.
It felt real. No matter your genre, that’s what you’re after: not factually accurate writing (this is fiction after all) but characters, dialogue, and narration that feels authentic to the genre.
All authors have a Voice. Some of it is based in the genre — cozies read differently than international spy thrillers. Some genres have “more Voice” than others, and I’d argue YA is a perfect example of that. But we all have it, and we should all nurture it.
Lean into and trust your Voice. It’s the sum of your life experience up to this point. It’s what makes your vampire academy different from everyone else’s. It’s the filter through which you see your story-world.
Voice can be manipulated. In revision, play around with your word choice, sentence length, paragraph structure, and use of white space. Small changes to these aspects can and do utterly change how your story reads.
Isn’t there an element of luck in all this querying nonsense? Yes. Luck can be a factor. But honestly, it’s really not about luck as much a we might wish to think. It really is about story, and how you present it. I know a lot of authors, and I can’t think of any who said their landing an agent had to do with luck.
Develop your Voice. Trust it, and let it fly on page one. That will get you furthest when querying agents.
Tom Leveen is an award-winning novelist and Bram Stoker Award finalist who has also written for the comic book series Spawn. Read his first novel, Party, for free when you sign up for his weekly newsletter.