Authors have been seeking my advice on how they can land a literary agent. At this point, many are desperate for a yes from an agent. I feel their pain. More than five years ago, I was in that oblivion too. It’s easy to get distracted and/or feel disoriented by all the noise out there on what to do, what not to do, query letter tips, #hownottoquery tips and so on. But, here are five positively worst bits of advice authors have been getting on how to ink that deal.
Worst Tip 1: A perfect query letter leads to a big yes
The ‘query letter’ phenomenon is overrated. A query letter is really no more than a form of collateral, which flows from two key factors: Story and Voice.
A masterful story rests on the strength of its plot purpose and its characters. As literary icon Albert Zuckerman notes in his book, Writing the Blockbuster Novel (and I strongly recommend reading it), the forbidden desires, inner conflicts and motivations of a story’s characters must be embedded into the novel’s outline. Some may balk at the prospect of an outline and/or prefer to flow along with the story, and this may be fine to an extent, but drafting and finalizing an outline at some point or the other, can make all the difference between a breakout novel and a mediocre one.
Voice refers to a writer’s personal representational style of portraying characters, dialogic techniques and scenes of fateful events, actions and/or emotional voltage to tell a story.
One of the worst pieces of advice that I have heard is, ‘Your pitch note mustn’t include any sentence that exists in the form of a question.’ For instance, ‘Will she be able to save herself before it’s too late?’ is supposedly a no-no; a better way of conveying the same message is believed to be something along the lines of, ‘She must find a way to save herself before it’s too late.’ That’s not true. When you’re deciding whether to have a question as part of your pitch note or not, it’s best to consider whether said question will work in the context of your novel, and how the rest of the narrative in your query letter flows.
Think about the backside blurbs of novels you sift through on Amazon or pick up in bookstores. Your pitch note is like that. Writing your letter from the heart is more likely, than perfecting a marketing pitch, to get the right literary agent to request for your full manuscript.
Worst Tip 2: The numbers game holds true
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Many authors have developed or been fed the idea that they need to query at least a hundred agents, if not more, before standing a chance of interactions that culminate into an offer of representation. One author told herself she would hang up her boots if she did not get an offer of representation by her hundredth query. Despite a few close calls, she didn’t get an offer by her hundredth query. She queried more than 140 times before landing an agent.
Let us look at the key takeaways here. Believing that authors need to query hundreds of agents and/or wait for years before landing one is quite dangerous. That’s because it creates psychological blocks that can hold you back. Psychological blocks are driven by a scarcity mindset – a subconscious focus on ‘lack’ and ‘wanting’ – which may attract more situations that reinforce your belief in and/or focus on that ‘lack.’
Larger numbers of query letters do not necessarily translate into an offer of representation. The converse is also true. For example, I had queried roughly ten or eleven literary agents before an offer of representation came along, and my relationship with that agent has been a rewarding one, which culminated into a publishing contract with HarperCollins.
It is ultimately about whether your voice resonates as strongly enough with an agent to make him/her feel the music in your prose. So, it doesn’t matter if you’ve queried four agents or four hundred. Everyone’s journey is different.
Worst Tip 3: Authors must state their genre and word count while querying
Not every novel falls exactly into one specific genre and/or one sub-genre. For instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘Never Let Me Go’ is sometimes pegged as literary fiction. Sometimes, it is categorized as a dystopian love story. Sometimes, it is classified as sci-fi and/or magic realism. Quite a few novels meander through different genres.
I had never described my novel, Victims For Sale as a crime or suspense thriller when I first queried; it evolved into one. I did keep in mind that the book would carry a strong psychological component and elements of thrill, but I wasn’t too fixated on its genre at the get-go. What matters is how best the story can be told, how high the stakes are for your characters and which genre(s) will do that story most justice in the way that you choose to tell it.
And then, we have the professed ‘word count reference in the query letter’ “rule”, which stirs up a groundswell of anxiety. We know that a novel’s word count keeps changing through the editing process with your agent as well as your publisher, when you land one. Secondly, the word count of a novel is highly subjective. Preti Taneja’s debut novel, ‘We That Are Young,’ which won the Desmond Elliot Prize in 2018, went to press at more than 130,000 words.
Of course, this does not mean you can show up with a 500,000-word novel while querying. But, keeping your story tight, crystal-clear and cutting out the flab, as much as you possibly can, whether it’s at 120,000 words at the outset or 70,000, is not the same as being fixated on whittling your draft down to 80,000 words before you start querying. And it’s not necessary to mention the word count in your query letters, unless explicitly specified as part of an agent’s submission guidelines.
Worst Tip 4: Third-party editing services will boost your chances of representation
No. They don’t. Unless you are a truly terrible writer and/or extremely bad with the English language, the only thing that can come out of paying a third-party agency to edit your manuscript is a gaping hole in your wallet.
|Image Credit: Griffin Paul Jackson|
Third-party services charge a bomb for what they call ‘manuscript editing’ and ‘manuscript analysis.’ One such service charges authors $750 for every 25,000 words of the manuscript. This means a 130,000-word manuscript (and quite a few first, or even second, drafts are usually at least that long!) would cost you roughly $4,000, if not more. Many such services do not even provide agent yearbooks, referrals, databases and/or other forms of assistance that match authors with agents. Don’t fall for this trap if you strongly believe in your work.
Self-editing is critical when you are querying literary agents. A third-party editing service cannot possibly know your story better than you. They cannot know what inspired your narrative. They cannot know all the feelings that went into it.
More editing is usually done with your agent when you get representation. And this process continues with your publisher. It’s true that you can’t be the only one editing your own work with no external help until you get an agent. Therefore, between your own self-editing and the editing that happens with a literary agent you may sign with, it is helpful to seek feedback, for free, from trusted writer-friends and/or beta readers who often go through your novel in exchange for you reading theirs. This mutually symbiotic relationship will also help you build your audience as a writer, upping your chances with an agent or publisher.
Worst Tip 5: Authors who are social media stars find it easier to get an agent.
In the realm of fiction, that’s a fallacy. What a truly good agent cares about are your story, your literary prose and your voice as a writer.
You could fail to elicit agent interest even if you have close to 10,000 followers on Twitter or 20,000 on Instagram. Many such followers could be men who admire your beauty, or women who think you are handsome. Wouldn’t you want an audience of people who will buy your next book? Building your social media presence is a long, slow and organic process that hinges largely on the uniqueness and quality of your content. Re-tweets, shout-outs and support from social media influencers do help, assuming these come from goodwill and/or happen organically. Paying for social media promotional services along these lines makes little, if any, difference.
You can reach out to me through www.nishamarnath.com if you would like personalized guidance, free of charge. I also recommend that you follow @themillennialchick, a brand new page for writers.
Note: Statements and/or references made in the context of individuals, organizations and/or institutions whose names have been mentioned in this article are either publicly available or have been disclosed with consent. Certain individuals and/or organizations have chosen to be anonymous, and their identities remain undisclosed with a view to protecting their privacy.
Nish Amarnath’s novel, Victims For Sale, published by HarperCollins and represented by Red Ink Literary Agency, was nominated for the Bombay Film Festival Awards. She is now working under the guidance of New York-based Writers House founder Albert Zuckerman, who has groomed various bestselling authors, including Ken Follett, Michael Lewis and Nora Roberts. Nish has spoken at various forums including Algonkian NYC’s New York Pitch Conference and those of U.S. State Department affiliates, British Council outposts and the United Nations. Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, International Business Times (Newsweek), TheStreet.com, Yahoo Finance, MSN Money and India Today, among others. She holds post-graduate degrees in media communications and journalism from the London School of Economics and Columbia University, where she was a James W. Robins Reporting Fellow. She lives and writes in the New York area.