Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Submission protocol, query etiquette, and strategies that work
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Kim Wright
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Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by Kim Wright » July 8th, 2011, 10:54 am

FOUR WAYS NOT TO GET AN AGENT

Agents want to know two things about you before they take you on as a client.

First, they want to know that you can write.

Second, they want to know you’re not crazy. Just as some fledgling writers tend to think of agents as mean, some agents assume that writers are nuts, and let’s face it, there’s plenty of evidence to support that theory.

Just think back to your last conference or MFA workshop. Both the creative process and the giving and receiving of critique can be very emotional experiences, and writers tend to cut each other a lot of slack. When people are walking around wailing or cursing, we politely turn our heads. Not to mention that there’s a tradition, duly noted in biographies and memoirs, of great writers whose personal lives were in shambles. Eccentricity is not only tolerated in this profession, but is sometimes viewed as evidence of talent.

Agents know this and are often fairly tolerant as well — or at least they are once you’re one of their clients. But when they’re first meeting you and are debating whether or not to take you on, your approach to them should be calm and poised, as if you’re applying for a job. Because, in a way, that’s exactly what you’re doing, applying for the job of author.

Moving from writer to author requires a certain interior shift. You’re turning from the world of art, which cheerfully accommodates wacky individuality, to the world of business, which does not. Agents need to see that you’re capable of meeting deadlines, handling criticism and rejection, and working with a wide variety of people. An amazing number of would-be writers fail to realize this. When approaching an agent, they rant, rave, flirt, threaten, and do everything short of donning a t-shirt that reads “I intend to be a mondo pain in the ass.”

So, task one is to have an excellent book that’s polished and ready to show. Task two is to present yourself as someone with whom it would be a joy to work. Which means you shouldn’t do any of the four following things.

BRAG

List any accomplishments such as publications, awards, and degrees in the fourth paragraph of your query, but list them simply, as if on a resume. Don’t include praise from your classmates, your friends, or your mother. If someone whose name the agent might recognize, like a writer or teacher, is a fan of your work, it’s better to ask this person to write a note on your behalf rather than to quote him or her in your query letter.

And while it’s perfectly fine to reference other writers in your query, it’s presumptuous and rude to imply that you’re equal to or, heaven forbid, superior to them. You might say something like, “I loved Tom Perrotta’s Little Children and have tried to bring some of that same suburban angst to my work,” but avoid comparisons such as, “It’s like The Help, only way better,” or “I’m the next Jonathan Franzen.” When you knock established writers, not only does it come off like sour grapes, but for all you know, the agent in question is friends with the person you’re knocking. It’s never smart to criticize members of a club you hope to join.

PLEAD

Don’t tell the agent that this is your last hope or that you’re almost ready to give up writing altogether. Never, but never, whine about editors and agents who did you wrong. If your subject matter is autobiographical or sensitive — you’re writing about the years you were homeless or being the daughter of an alcoholic — you should certainly allude to this, but briefly and calmly. Some letters from writers sound more like suicide notes than queries. Vent these dark feelings to your friends, but keep your professional correspondence just that - professional.

STALK

Some writers think it’s clever to approach agents in unconventional ways. They try to create something memorable, sort of like a “meet cute” in the movies, but to the agent, this almost always comes off as bizarre or even scary. One agent told me she was sitting on the toilet in the ladies room of a writer’s conference when someone slid an entire manuscript under the stall.

If unchecked, persistence can also come across as stalking. Almost all agents have met writers who refused to take “no” for an answer and kept barraging them with emails and texts long after they had returned their manuscripts. Agents fear triggering an unstable writer, which is one reason they rarely provide feedback on manuscripts they reject.

Another agent describes a tale of doom that began with a huge bouquet of roses sent to her agency on a Monday morning with a note that read, “The query is coming.” Flowers arrived every day that week, each bunch bigger and presumably more expensive than the last, and each note a little creepier, such as, “You’ll have to wait,” or “It’s almost time.” By the time the manuscript was delivered by messenger on Friday, she was convinced she was dealing with a certifiable lunatic and refused to accept it.

You’re probably thinking that you’d never shove a manuscript under the stall of a bathroom or flood an agent with roses, but there are more subtle ways to cross the line. One MFA grad queried an agent who requested 25 pages of her manuscript. Her first chapter was 23 pages long so she quite rightly sent that. But as the days turned to weeks of waiting, she began to get a little crazed. The agent had requested 25 pages — was she wrong to have sent 23? Should she have sent the first two pages of the next chapter or run the first chapter off in a slightly larger font? Without consulting anyone on this and thus giving friends the chance to talk her off the ledge, she fired off a long and frantic email, asking if she should send additional pages, apologizing for being such a bad girl, and just basically rambling about how she was a beginner and didn’t know what she was doing. It’s easy to turn someone off by asking too many questions, sending and then re-sending slightly altered texts, or demanding constant reassurance. It gives the agent an unattractive preview of what it would be like to have you as a client.

BE UNIQUE TO THE POINT OF WEIRD

Being weird is not the same thing as being creative. In an effort to set themselves apart from the other thousand queries that came in that week, writers sometimes print their letters on lavender paper, use strange fonts, include drawings from their kids, write their queries in iambic pentameter, or create YouTube “auditions.” Agents often see these stunts as proof that you don’t believe your basic idea is strong enough to stand on its own.

I remember years ago, when my grandmother and I went to a wedding where the bride, in what I can only assume was an attempt to be whimsical, requested that the mashed potatoes in the buffet line be dyed the same bright teal color of the bridesmaid dresses. A big steaming bowl of blue mashed potatoes did not strike the celebrants as appetizing, and person after person passed them up. As we were driving home, my grandmother, who was a real stickler for tradition, kept going back to how the bride must have lost her mind to serve those mashed potatoes, and I finally said, “Well, she was just trying to be different, Boogie. Nobody’s ever done anything like that before. ” My grandmother looked me right in the eye and said, “Kim, if nobody’s ever done something before, there’s a good reason for that.”

Boogie has a point. Trying too hard to stand out with a gimmick usually results in the literary equivalent of blue mashed potatoes. Yeah, you’re different. But not in a good way.

Bottom line: Agents are looking for strong writing and they realize that the people who produce it often have more than their fair share of insecurities and quirks. But before they agree to work with us, they need to know that we can also be practical and charming and sane. Make sure your query letters and early conversations with an agent show the businesslike side of your personality and are aimed at building a mutually-respectful long-term partnership.

POSTED BY KIM WRIGHT, AUTHOR OF lOVE IN MID AIR (GRAND CENTRAL) AND THE PATH TO PUBLICATION (PRESS 53, SCHEDULED FOR SEPTEMBER)
Last edited by Kim Wright on July 8th, 2011, 8:25 pm, edited 2 times in total.

KristiBelcamino
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Re: Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by KristiBelcamino » July 8th, 2011, 11:21 am

Great article by someone who knows what she is talking about. I've read Kim's blog for awhile now and glad to see her on here. She always has spot on advice. And what's not to love about the tidbit about her grandmother and her wise advice! Thanks.
Kristi Belcamino
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Midge
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Re: Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by Midge » July 8th, 2011, 12:18 pm

This is an excellent article -- and as an editor, I'll add that these guidelines are applicable to editors as well as agents. We absolutely love a professional, confident proposal/query -- and, interestingly, these usually turn out to be the best submissions as well, probably because they are from writers who have been working hard not only at their craft but also at learning how best to submit their work.

Thanks, Kim, for a great article!

Carol Roan
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Re: Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by Carol Roan » July 8th, 2011, 1:37 pm

Fun article. May I describe a 5th way not to get an agent? Wrinkles and gray hair don't fall into the eccentric category. I once had one of those 5-minutes-with-an-agent at a writers' conference, and I swear she sat there, absolutely silent, the entire time. Another white-haired writer at the same conference, whose previous book had sold 40,000, had a similar experience with another agent.

valnieman
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Re: Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by valnieman » July 8th, 2011, 4:36 pm

Nice! Seems like many writers forget that, beyond the moment of creation, the making of a book is a business. Good post.
Valerie Nieman

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Quill
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Re: Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by Quill » July 8th, 2011, 5:45 pm

Kim, Kristi, Midge, Carol, and Val,

Welcome to the board!

And yeah, being on one's best behavior when meeting agents is a good idea!

Don Zolidis
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Re: Four Ways NOT to Get an Agent

Post by Don Zolidis » July 8th, 2011, 6:47 pm

Although I agree with the vast majority of this, I think that if you have specific and impressive credentials that will force someone to take you more seriously, you put them up front. Let's say you were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in another field, or had some other singular, major award that made you stand out. (You're a former navy seal with two purple hearts) I might put that earlier.

I received this advice from a best-selling author friend of mine when I was looking to query. (I've had 42 plays published and had them produced more than 2,000 times worldwide) - I put that in my second paragraph because I felt that potential agents would read my query differently if they had that information before they saw the rest of my query. And yes, I think I got responses just because of that.

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