“What do you look for in a manuscript?”
It’s a question every literary agent hears hundreds of times throughout their careers. And it’s the golden question writers want an answer to.
But answers vary from agent to agent. Most answers tend to be generic. Or they fail to provide practical advice writers can apply to their writing. (How many times have you been told an agent wants a “good first chapter”?)
To help aspiring authors improve their manuscripts, literary agent Soumeya Roberts encourages writers to review three things in their manuscript.
The first thing literary agents look for in a manuscript is a distinctive voice. They want a manuscript that is well-controlled. A manuscript where the writer chose the best stylistic option available—voice.
What is voice?
Voice is an abstract idea; a stylistic mixture of tone, vocabulary, syntax, and point of view. A writer’s voice is distinctive through their tone, pacing, word choice, and structure of paragraphs and chapters.
Think about Jane Austen in comparison to Ernest Hemingway. Austen’s voice is witty and sharp, while Hemingway’s voice is terse and not overly descriptive. You would never confuse Austen’s writing with that of Hemingway’s.
A writer’s voice is only half the equation, Roberts explains. Agents want to read a manuscript with a strong, distinctive character’s voice.
A character’s voice is the tone they use throughout the story. It’s a combination of how they speak, how they think, how they react to the situation unfolding around them.
Like humans, each character has a unique voice! And they will have different reactions to a situation.
Agents are on the hunt for a manuscript with controlled writing. Each character’s point of view (POV)—whether you’re writing in single POV or multiple POVs—must have a purpose. Why is this character the narrator? What makes their POV interesting? What insights do they provide to the plot, and how do they react to the problems unfolding?
A word of advice: When writing in multiple POVs, each character must have a distinct voice. The first line of each chapter should clearly depict who is the POV character. And it should be clear throughout the rest of the section that they are the narrator.
Character voice aside, you might be wondering, “How do I develop my voice?”
Voice can only be developed through continuous writing. You discover it over time. Roberts encourages fiction writers to write short fiction. MFA programs, for example, prefer short fiction as it requires an author to think about how to tell a story, and in what voice. Shorter pieces allow you to develop your voice in new ways.
Ultimately, developing your voice requires self-investigation. Practice writing short stories. Capture memories from your day at the park. Or an outing with friends. The longer you write, the easier it will be to discover your...
What is a query letter? And what should you include in a query letter?
A query letter convinces a literary agent to read your work. Think of it as a sales piece. It’s your first (and sometimes your only opportunity) to present your book in a simple, concise manner so that an agent can easily understand your book’s premise and quickly decide if they want to read more.
It goes without saying, a query letter should be clean. There should be no grammatical mistakes nor spelling errors. It should also be short. A strong query will be no more than three short paragraphs. (The recommended is two!)
What else should you consider?
To get the insider scoop, we recently interviewed New York literary agent Miriam Altshuler, agent to Anne Tyler, Joseph Campbell, and Nadine Gordimer. After more than 30 years in the publishing world, Altshuler recommends that you include in a query letter these three things.
An eye-catching query letter needs a strong elevator pitch. An elevator pitch is a marketing tool that summarizes your book. It’s short, concise, and makes the agent want to read more. Its purpose is to immediately hook an agent into your book. (Or a reader into buying your book.)
How do you create a pitch? Altshuler recommends you visit a local bookstore and read the flap copy of books in your genre. Flap copy is a book’s summary and typically found on the inside of a hardcover copy. As you read through different flap copy, determine which pitches grab your attention best. And then model your pitch based on these.
An important part of the pitch—a part new writers overlook—is explaining what your book is about. Agents want authors to recognize that a book “has to have a heart—it has to explore something. It’s not just a story of two characters. It’s not just an idea.” Your pitch must explain what the ‘heart’ of your book is.
The best way to do this is to break your pitch into simple terms: “Character A meets Character B and explores X.” Then you can spend 1-2 sentences explaining what ‘X’ is.
In non-fiction writing, briefly explain the idea of your book and why your take on it matters.
If you can concisely explain what theme your book explores, then an agent will be more interested in your query.
Agents receive hundreds of queries a week. And the queries that stand out are personalized, thoughtful letters.
As you write your query letter, think about the ways you can ooze thoughtfulness. For starters, send out individual emails to agents. Do not clump agents into one email! That shows that you don’t see the value of individual agents—and what they offer the writers they represent.
You also want to maintain a respectful tone. Agents often read through query letters on the weekends or at night. They’re taking time out of their day to consider representing you. The least you can do is be respectful.
Querying an agent can be exhausting and terrifying. There are a multitude of ways to query an agent, ranging from writers’ conferences to emailing a submission. But there is another way to query that is not as well-known: Twitter pitch events.
Twitter pitch events are a virtual opportunity for unpublished authors to pitch their manuscripts to literary agents and/or editors. If an agent or editor likes your work, they will request more material from you. And, hopefully, this will lead to a deal.
In this blog post, we share the benefits and drawbacks to querying through Twitter pitch events, as well as include three of the most popular pitch events that take place annually.
Participation in a Twitter pitch event can help you test interest for your story. You can search through other Tweets, learn about books within your genre, and determine if there is a market for your story.
Pitch events are a great means to make connections in the writing world (and as we frequently reiterate, connections are the best way to land a book deal!) A pitch event allows you to get opinions on your work from other writers. And if you’re searching for a beta reader or critique partner, you might find someone within your genre.
A Twitter pitch event will also help you improve your pitching skills. Twitter allows only 280 characters per a Tweet. So, you will have to play around with a single sentence or two short sentences that accurately represent your story—and make you stand out from the crowd.
If you’re unable to share the premise of your story in a single sentence, or two sentences, then you might need to reconsider your work. A pitch should be short and to the point. And your story should be easily explained in a short amount of time. Agents are short on time, and are looking for strong opening hooks that will inform them of the most important information in your story.
The most obvious benefit to a Twitter pitch event is the potential to land an agent or editor. If an agent or editor is interested in your work, they will like or favorite your Tweet and then request more material.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of people participate in Twitter pitch events. Throughout these events, thousands of Tweets will be published. And if you’re not active on Twitter prior to the event, then the algorithm will work against you. It is difficult to get seen if you’re not active on Twitter.
A low success rate is another drawback to pitch events. Because thousands of Tweets are published, and because only a few agents and editors participate, it’s challenging to land a deal. You might have a wonderful manuscript that gets buried beneath other Tweets.
Even if you do land an agent or editor, they might not be the right fit for you. This can be frustrating since you spent time and energy constructing your query. But there is no guarantee that you will land a deal, much less land an agent or editor who are the best...
Where do you find an agent? How do you query them? What if they reject your work?
Querying an agent can be downright daunting. You first wonder, Where do I find an agent? And once you find a handful, your inside screams, “She’ll probably laugh at my writing!”
We sat down with literary agent Adria Goetz who shared her tips on querying an agent, what to include in your query letter, and why you should be querying agents, even if you’re rejected the first time.
How to Query an Agent
There are a couple different ways to query agents.
Dig into the guide books available at Barnes and Noble or on Amazon, which provide information about various agents. Check out Guide to Literary Agents 2020—the most popular guide book out there.
Conferences are another great place to connect with agents. Throughout the conference, you have opportunities to meet face-to-face and pitch them your project.
But don’t expect a contract. While some authors successfully connect with agents, the reality is agents rarely pick up authors from conferences. Adria, in fact, has only signed one or two agents from a conference.
Traditional Querying: Still the Best Route
The best way to connect with literary agents, come to find out, is the traditional way.
Adria says she connects with most of her clients through the email slush pile of manuscript submissions she receives. Traditional querying is a great means to reach out to individual agents you have researched. You are solely querying those you’re interested in—and who (if you’ve done your research) might be interested in your writing.
The downside to this method is the overwhelming volume of manuscript submissions agents receive on the daily. You’re not the only person querying an agent. You have 20 seconds to make an impression, or it will likely be rejected.
Tweet, Tweet, Tweet: Connecting with Agents via Twitter
Another option for querying is through Twitter, where agents lurk. Once you follow a couple of agents, you will follow the breadcrumbs to more agents. Follow them. Comment on their posts. Become a familiar name to a handful of agents who cover writers of your genre.
But Adria says, do not (do not!) DM these agents with your pitches. Instead, participate in Twitter pitch event days.
Throughout the year, Twitter designates a few days for pitch events. During these events, agents are actively looking for fresh projects.
You can tweet a pitch of your project using a specific hashtag. For example, #PitMad is used to tweet a pitch for unpublished novels. This is the only hashtag for nonfiction projects. Another hashtag to check out is #PassOrPages. It’s used for agent feedback on queries.
Editors and agents scroll through these hashtags and request to see your project if your work piques their interest. If you’re nervous about querying, this is a great opportunity. Agents request to see your work rather than you submitting a manuscript and...
"How do I find a literary book agent?" is one of the most common questions of aspiring writers.
Literary agent Don Gates, founder of The Gates Group, has a few ideas. He says that he, like most agents, looks for books that publishers would be interested in. These books have this in common: the 3 C's.
You might have one or two of the three C's covered. But do you have all three? And what can you do if you're lacking in a particular area so you're more appealing to an agent?
1. Concept. Every book is governed by an idea--or a thesis. And while there isn't really such a thing as a "new" idea, literary agents are looking for ideas that can be packaged in a fresh way.
What are the stories and illustrations (your unique perspective!) that make the idea seem new? How you package the concept will grab the attention of a literary agent.
You need your hook to be clear and engaging from the get-go--even in your titling.
If you land a literary agent, Don says they'll often work with you further to polish the idea for the publisher.
2. Crowd. We all are a little tired of the word "platform." But it's true: literary agents take a close look at it. That's because publishers look for it. Publishers are looking for writers to help them sell books.
Do you have a significant social media following? A regular speaking circuit? Or are you a leader of a large group? All of these (sometimes a combo of these) will make you look more appealing on paper. The groundwork is there to start selling the book.
3. Content. Some people can put together a compelling proposal but are terrible writers. That's why literary agents want to see a chapter or two of your writing.
Agents are looking for writing that will make someone say, "I want to read more." The first chapter is everything. This is how you sell your book.
Think about it. You can read one chapter on Amazon. Or, if you're at a bookstore, a person could feasibly read one chapter to get a feel for the book. After reading that chapter, the reader has to make a decision: Is it good enough to spend $15 or $20 on it?
If the writing is great, the chances are greater they'll fork over the cash and continue to read. And if they continue to be pulled into your story, they'll likely refer it.
And that's how a book becomes a bestseller month after month: when it transforms someone and they want others to be transformed by it too.
For more insights by Don, listen to the full episode now.
By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz
The popularity of A&E's "Mad Men" is in part reflective of our cultural obsession with the world of advertising. Just think of the Super Bowl! Millions of Americans tune into it for the commercial breaks as much as for the game (maybe more, for some!).
No-one knows the world of advertising better than Jim Morris, known as Tagline Jim for his legendary work in the field. In his latest book, Badvertising: An Expose of Insipid, Insufferable and Ineffective Advertising, Jim Pulls back the curtain on the industry, revealing its posturing, narcissism and how little advertisers really know.
When he set out to write the expose, Jim wrote it for consumers tantalized by the sexy world of advertising. But were they really interested in its foibles?
Literary agents didn't think so. Jim sent query letters to gobs of literary agents, and only three responded. To those three he sent his book proposal. The response was surprising. All three said, "Interesting idea! But your book is really more for your peers."
Jim had to narrow his book audience from general to specific.
The agent who finally took on Jim's book continued to provide feedback to help Jim narrow his audience. She was a taskmaster, demanding Jim rework his proposal multiple times before she pitched it to publishers.
"I spent six to eight months rewriting that proposal," Jim says.
Once the proposal was accepted by his publisher, Jim began writing. Some of the chapters were built on columns he had previously published in a regular monthly column for Screen. Other writing came from notes he had scribbled and talks he had delivered.
As he pieced it all together, he came up with a hook: Agents of Stupidity, the mistakes advertisers make. Listen to this episode to hear more about Jim's advice on narrowing your book audience and book agents.
By Melissa Parks and Dave Goetz
"Brittany Spears' mom is looking for a co-writer."
The call came out of the blue.
Lorilee Craker's book agent knew the business manager of Lynne Spears, the mother of the pop star. A few hours together in Nashville sealed the deal, and Lorilee became the co-author of what became a New York Times bestseller.
Writing success, like any kind of accomplishment, is never random. As a free-lance writer, Lorilee had worked an entertainment beat for a local newspaper for 17 years. Her reputation preceded her.
Book Agents and Oprah
In this episode, Melissa and Dave interview Lorilee, who has authored 13 books, about some of the most misunderstood aspects of publishing, such as finding a good book agent and BISAC codes. By the way, here's what a BISAC Code is: "a standard used by many companies throughout the supply chain to categorize books based on topical content."
Listen to discover more about BISAC codes, what to look for in a book agent, and how Lorilee met Oprah when she moved to Chicago for college.
For more information about Lorilee, visit the Lorilee Craker Web Site.