Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Briefing with an Agent

(Image:  Diana Rigg as Mrs. Peel in The Avengers)

For the past nine months I've been taking Popular Fiction I, taught by Pam Binder, president of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association (PNWA).  Last week, our session involved a briefing from an agent.  No, not the secret agent kind of agent, but a literary agent, which writers often find more "a-Peel-ing."

Our guest speaker's not-so-secret identity was Vickie Motter, one of four associates working for Andrea Hurst, president of her own literary agency.  Pam invited Vickie to discuss the best ways for writers to introduce themselves to agents and to submit work that will get their attention--preferably in a good way.

After a personal introduction, Vickie talked about query letters, which is often a writer's first contact with an agent.  To make a good first impression, query letters should--

--Be one page and 2-3 paragraphs long.
--Get right to who the main character is, the setting, the conflict and what's at stake.
--However, don't dump in too much information.  This is not a plot synopsis, so stick to the main character, the love interest and the antagonist.
--Include the genre, book title, word count and maybe something about yourself.
--Do a Google-search of your proposed book title to see what comes up.
--Use the back covers of books as a stylistic example when describing your story.

Some folks though, like to deviate from this script.  In doing so, a writer often gains notoriety, rather than notice.  To avoid such negative attention, follow the Agent's List O' Don'ts: 

--Don't use cliches.
--Don't say "this is the next best seller," or any other such derivative.
--Don't say you "just completed a novel."  This gives the impression that you haven't done any editing or revising.
--Don't insult anyone in the literary/publishing biz.  They all know each other.  Word will get around--fast.
--Don't use out-of-the-ordinary fonts, colored paper, nor add any pictures, or scents.  Just submit your writing.
--Don't reply to a rejection letter, unless you already have a relationship with them, or met them at a conference.  If you do reply, keep it professional (see the above don'ts).

Multiple submissions to numerous agents are okay.  It's actually considered the norm nowadays.  However, be sure to personalize each submission.  No "Dear Agent" letters.  And be sure to spell the agent's name correctly.  In fact, one should thoroughly research an agent's website prior to submitting a query letter. 

Vickie suggested researching an agent by visiting their website prior to attending a conference, when pitching a story idea to them, or meeting them in other venues--say, for instance--when they're a guest speaker.  She asked if anyone logged on to her site prior to class and a couple people raised their hands.  (I wanted to raise my hand, but my--um--tendinitis was acting up that night--yeah, that's it).

If your query letter generates enough interest, then you may be invited to submit the first 50 pages of your manuscript.  Why 50?  This is the initial "gateway" into your novel.  By the 50th page, an agent, who's an avid reader, can determine whether or not, your story has merit.  However, an agent often tosses the manuscript aside after reading the first page.  To ensure your manuscript avoids this fate, make your first page as interesting and exciting as possible.  However, don't get bogged down with back-story, or do a data dump.  The reader should care about the main character right away.

The discussion moved from corresponding with agents to personal contact with them.  Conferences are a great way to meet agents in person.  (After the conference, mention that you've met them in your query letter).  However, don't limit yourself to schmoozing agents and editors.  Use your time at the conference as an opportunity to get to know your fellow writers. These people will be your support network during the lonely hours you'll spend toiling away at your manuscript. And speaking of time, if you're' attending a pitch session and finish early, ask for feedback on aspects beyond your writing, such as your presentation, poise, etc.

Since time at a conference is of the essence, you may be limited to the 'Elevator Pitch,' named after chance encounters in--well--elevators.  You'll only have a few moments to state:  Your name, the book title, the genre and audience, along with the word count and a two-sentence 'plot grabber' and maybe a one-line bio.  You'll only get one shot, so make it a good one.

Despite the excitement of being in a large group of creative people, it is important to maintain you professionalism.  While at the conference, don't stalk the agents, (or anyone else, for that matter), ambush them in the bathroom, or slip your manuscript under their hotel room door/bathroom stall.  In other words, try to act like you're a somewhat sane and relatively stable person.

Another way for writers to gain the attention of agents is to maintain an on-line presence via a website or blog.  Social media has altered personal interaction in a revolutionary way.  Writers with an online presence stand a better chance at generating buzz for their work. 

Before you start querying agents, it's best to know what genres they specialize in.  For information on the genres that Vickie finds interesting, check out her website:

She also captains the blog, Navigating the Slush Pile, where she posts a weekly book review, based on an agent's perspective:

If your work doesn't fit any genre Vickie represents, then take a look at her fellow agents at Andrea Hurst & Associates:

Agents are bombarded with queries and manuscripts on a daily basis.  To illustrate the best and the worst of querying agents, Vickie recommended two websites, writers can turn to for advice--or if they need a laugh.  (Often these sites provide both).

Query Shark eviscerates..I mean...provides feedback on submitted query letters:

Meanwhile, Slushpile Hell, unearths select gems from submitted query letters for public ridicule...I mean...constructive criticism:


Piper Bayard said...

Hi Ted. Good info here. Thanks for putting it together. All the best.

Ted Henkle said...

Thank you Piper! I came across your blog via Kristen Lamb. I really enjoy your posts.